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The Jovial Ghosts

The Misadventures of Topper


Thorne Smith


Oscar in Toto

FERVENTLY hoping that he would be less easily recognisable in a bathing suit, Mr. Topper on the following morning took a solitary breakfast in his room, then hurried down to the beach. Here for an hour or so he reclined torpidly on the warm sand, too dispirited even to attempt the water lapping invitingly at his feet. Under happier circumstances he would have been secretly thrilled by this broad expanse of ocean, but to-day the old spell was broken. Topper was a lonely man, longing for Marion Kerby.

With gloomy eyes he watched the early bathers and reviled them in his heart. Their care-free outbursts of enterprise depressed him. One young chap he particularly disliked. He was tall and blond and beautifully tanned, clean-cut, 'varsity manhood every inch of him. A slim girl and shapely was watching this cute giant with her soul in her eyes as he carried a canoe, as if it were a straw, down to the water's edge. And when Mr. Topper saw this happy couple go paddling off over the deep blue sea he earnestly hoped that a large wet wave would rise therefrom and mightily smite their budding romance.

"He smokes a pipe," thought Mr. Topper, jeeringly, "and that's just what he would smoke, a pipe, man-fashion." Nor did the children playing round him appeal to his better nature. He thought they all looked bold and unpleasant and wished they would go somewhere else. The beach was no place for them. Why couldn't they keep to their rooms? As a matter of fact, why couldn't all these people clear out and leave him alone? Take that man, for instance, romping with his little son. Could anything be more revolting?

Mr. Topper turned away from this disturbing scene and gazed idly down at two small bare feet, one of which was impatiently tapping the sand. Automatically his eyes travelled up an attractive length of slim limbs until they found themselves squinting into Marion Kerby's face—a set, unfriendly face.

"If I catch you in the company of that woman," said the face with suppressed conviction, "I'm going out to drown her."

"You won't catch me," he answered meekly. "Sit down."

Mrs. Hart and the Colonel joined them at this moment and allied themselves with Mr. Topper in urging Marion to be seated. Ungraciously she flopped to the sand and favoured Topper with a sneer.

"If it hadn't been for these two," she told him, "you'd never have seen me again. As it is, I doubt if I stay."

"But I hope you will," said Topper.

"Don't speak to me now," she snapped. "I can't stand your silly voice. It's 'yam, yam' this and 'yam, yam' that until I'm nearly mad. Keep quiet."

"All right," replied Mr. Topper with even greater meekness. "I won't say a word."

The Colonel's voice broke in on their happy reunion.

"You should have been with us last night, Topper," he said. "We had a splendid time."

"What did you do?" asked Topper, not greatly caring now that he had Marion back.

"Made friends with the proprietor," the Colonel replied, "and got him squiffed on his own drink. It was wonderful stuff."

"Wonderful stuff," Mrs. Hart echoed with deep feeling. "Wonderful!"

"He wants me to stay all summer," Marion remarked casually. "Room and board free. He says I look all run down as if somebody had been terribly, terribly unkind to me. I just laughed in his face, but I haven't told him whether I would or wouldn't. Not yet."

"You could do much worse, dearie," Mrs. Hart said, furtively eyeing Mr. Topper's face. "At least he doesn't seem to be the flighty kind."

Topper cast her a look of loathing, but discreetly held his peace.

"Well, Topper, shall we take a dip?" suggested the Colonel, rising from the sand.

Not knowing what else to do, Topper followed the Colonel's example.

"Sit down!" flared Marion Kerby. "Whatare you trying to do, make a show of me on this beach? Sit down before I knock you down."

In his eagerness to obey, Topper almost fell to the sand.

"All right," he said. "All right."

"Now get up," she commanded, "and we'll all take a dip."

"Don't let her get away with it," whispered the Colonel. "I wouldn't. They're always meanest when they know they're wrong. They want to break you down."

"What chance have I?" said Topper. "She has every advantage in her favour and no scruples at all. She's got me where she wants me."

But before the swim was over friendly relations were once more established between Mr. Topper and Marion Kerby. From the way she treated him it seemed as if the unpleasant incident had never occurred. Topper, exalted to the skies, frolicked like a dolphin and lost all memory of the harsh words she had hurled at him. Exhausted at last by their flounderings, the party returned to the beach where they wallowed in the sand and went over the events of the past night, Mr. Topper listening with such an envious expression, that Marion Kerby took his hand in hers and promised him a bigger and better celebration.

It was then that from down the beach came the terrified yelping of a dog. They looked in that direction and saw a large collie in the act of going mad. As he approached them his terror increased. He snapped at the air, spun round on his feet, arched himself in a desperate circle and rolled over in the sand. Nurses snatched up their charges, women screamed and the bathers fled to safety. During all this commotion the Colonel sat watching the actions of the collie with purely professional interest.

"Doesn't look mad to me," he observed. "Looks more as if he were fighting something."

"Oscar," breathed Mrs. Hart.

"Possibly," replied the Colonel. "I forgot to mention that when I brought him his chow this morning, Oscar was not in the trunk."

"Oh," said Mr. Topper slowly. "Oh, dear me."

At this moment the collie decided that enough was enough. He rolled over on his back, thrust his legs in the air, and let his tongue hang out. He was unmistakably through. Then above the vanquished dog appeared Oscar's bushy tail, which was quickly followed by his hind quarters. Gradually the dog progressed until he had reached his ears. Here there was a hesitation, a noticeable wavering, then, like the final shove at the goal line, Oscar's head swam into view.

"By God! He's done it," exclaimed the Colonel.

The collie took one horrified look at Oscar, then turned his head away and closed his eyes. This was indeed too much. Oscar, as if forgetting his victim, trotted over to the Colonel and looked him square in the eye with an expression which eloquently conveyed the meaning that from now on he would take no more nonsense from anyone. He was a whole dog now in his own rights, and his rights were to be respected. With a nasty look at Mr. Topper he sprawled out in the sand and began to police his newly acquired hide. Meanwhile the collie had dragged himself away.

For some moments the Colonel studied his dog with puzzled and considering eyes, then presently his face cleared.

"I know what it is," he said. "He must have forgotten his spot. He had a little spot in real life right on the side of his nose, the left side, but in the excitement and all I fancy he must have overlooked it."

"That's merely a detail, Colonel," put in Mr. Topper. "Don't send him back for his spot now. He can pick it up later."

The Colonel agreed to this and the party re-entered their bath-houses, Oscar's performance having attracted to them rather unpleasant publicity. Some time later, when they foregathered on the lawn of the hotel, the Colonel was the last to appear, and when he did appear he was exploding with excitement.

"Don't ask me where I got the news," he began, "and anyway it doesn't matter. George Kerby is back and is looking for you, Marion. He's heading this way and he seems to have heard something."

Topper looked for a chair, but finding none, braced himself on his legs.

"You're not joking?" Marion calmly asked the Colonel.

"Credit me with more tact," he replied in an injured voice. "This isn't a trifling matter."

"Did they say," Topper painfully inquired, "did they say that he seemed to be angry?"

The Colonel laughed sardonically and Topper winced.

"Not at all," replied the Colonel. "He's just crazy to see you, Topper."

"I wish I could say as much," said Mr. Topper. "What, oh, what shall we do now?"

"Clear out," answered the Colonel. "Vamoose plenty pronto."

"I know just the place," exclaimed Mrs. Hart, with a wild light in her eyes. "What a lark!"

"Try to take things seriously," said Mr. Topper. "If you mean the lake, I won't go back there. I'm a marked man in that vicinity."

"No," Mrs. Hart explained. "It's a deserted beach in Connecticut. No one ever goes there. It's been left vacant through a family quarrel ever since my father died. What a family! I'm glad I'm out of it."

"This is no time to be abusing your family," Mr. Topper reported. "Let's start for this beach at once.

"Not so fast," said Mrs. Hart. "We'll have to stop somewhere to buy some tents and provisions and things—"

"And I'll have to loot without delay the proprietor's private locker," interrupted the Colonel. "Oscar can sit with us and I'll fill the trunk." Marion turned to the impatient Topper and placed a soothing hand on his arm.

"Don't worry, old dear," she told him. "We'll take care of you. Hurry now and pack your things. We'll be waiting in the car."

"Won't you come with me?" Topper pleaded. "For some reason I hate to be alone."

Thus was the flight planned and right speedily was it executed. Twelve hours of high-pressure driving, relieved only by an interlude of hectic buying, jostled them to their night-shrouded destination.

"What a devil of a place this is! " said the Colonel, sloshing about in the weeds and darkness. "The entire world is deserted."

"You don't know the half of it," Mrs. Hart replied. "Wait till the morning comes."

"I won't even wait for that," said Mr. Topper, who had been diligently applying himself to the bottle throughout the entire course of the trip. "Here and now I sleep."

"In spite of my remarks I'm still desperately engaged with these damn prehensile weeds," the Colonel called. "This isn't a beach, it's a jungle."

"The beach is farther on," explained Mrs. Hart. "This field leads down to it."

"Then be kind enough to put a cushion under me and place a bottle in my hand," said the Colonel. "Then kiss me a chaste good-night. Like Topper, I sleep here and now."

Some hours later, when the nice, clean, freshly starched sun rose and favoured the field with its light it looked down on four untidy figures plus one rumpled dog stretched in various unpicturesque attitudes of slumber. Presently the figures stirred and sat up. They yawned, stretched and rubbed their eyes with frank disregard of each other's presence. The dog unwound himself and snapped wearily at a fly. Mr. Topper was the first to speak.

"Are we safe?" he asked.

"So far, it seems," replied Marion, fluffing out her hair, "but you never can tell about George."

"The bottle, Colonel," said Topper promptly. "Already I scent disaster."

The bottle went the rounds, then the figures shook themselves and rose to their feet. Mrs. Hart led the way to the beach, the others straggling through the weeds beneath the weight of the tents and provisions. And the sun, as if to register its disapproval of their morning salutation, caused them to perspire freely.

The beach was a narrow yellow band, about one hundred yards in length, pocketed away in a wooded cove filled with cool, green water. Far out against a wall of billowy clouds a single sail stole gracefully along. Gulls were in the air. The smell of clam shells, salt and shrubbery gave a distinctive fragrance to the place.

"This is more than a deserted beach," said Marion Kerby, appreciatively. "It's a little pocket in nowhere. No wonder your family fought for it. I could live here the rest of my life, if I had a life to live."

The smile she gave to Topper had lost a little of its old-time impertinence. Something about it troubled him. For a moment he tasted the savour of the end of things and caught a glimpse of an empty landscape. The very stillness of the place, its hushed, watchful solitude, the fanning out of the green, flat water and the clouds out there beyond conspired to make him feel that so much beauty could only end in pain. More than ever before he realised Marion Kerby's keenness of feature and the world of untouched wonder that lay behind her eyes. Some subtle influence emanating from her at that moment made him begin already to miss her. He wanted to go over and stand close to her side, but, in his self-consciousness, the few feet separating them were as difficult to achieve as the Sahara Desert on stilts. All that he could say was:

"You've lived enough for two already."

Apparently not hearing this remark, she walked away and sat down on a rock close to the water's edge. The Colonel and Mrs. Hart were wrestling with the tents, the Colonel booming directions and assuring Oscar that if he did not go somewhere else he would speedily kick him back into the fourth dimension. Topper followed Marion and sat down at her feet. They were happy as they were, with silence and space around them, the deep blue sky above and the green water murmuring along the beach. There was a remote expression in Marion's eyes as she gazed away from the shore. She seemed somehow to have withdrawn a little from Topper and her surroundings.

"Listen to me, Topper," she said at last. "Are you any happier now that you've lost your stomach and your smug voluntary ways?"

"I've lost more than that," he replied, his eyes riveted on her face.

"What a coy devil you are!" she answered. "Do you mean to imply delicately that you've lost your heart to me?"

"You know it," said Mr. Topper. "You know it with hateful complacency, but it's true and so here we are."

"Yes," she answered with a little shrug of her shoulders. "And so here we are, but we won't be here long—at least, I won't."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Something is happening to me," she replied. "I seem to be losing interest in things—all except you. Perhaps I'm getting high-planed."

"Don't do that," he pleaded. "You never could be so lovely as you are right now."

"Do you think so?" she said with a thoughtful smile. "For that you deserve a kiss. Come closer."

Topper took her in his arms and pressed her to him.

"Make it snappy," she exclaimed. "I didn't ask you to strangle me. Hurry and help the Colonel. He's swearing abominably at that poor woman."

Topper was unable to analyse his emotions. Sensations were confused within him, happiness and sorrow, triumph and defeat. To work off his feelings he joined the Colonel's staff and became desperately involved with a tent to the amusement of Mrs. Hart, who, upon Topper's appearance, immediately sat down and gave up the struggle. The Colonel regarded her with a brutal eye.

"Get up," he commanded, "and collect some wood and I'll show you how to cook breakfast in case you don't know."

"I don't know," admitted Mrs. Hart, "and I don't know that I care to know, but I will get some wood. The stomach of me is raging at the very thought of food. Teach Topper to cook. He looks enterprising."

Under the Colonel's skilful direction the camp was eventually arranged. During this interlude he showed himself to his best advantage, his military training coming to the fore. Topper became his chief assistant and Mrs. Hart the camp drone, her disinclination for work manifesting itself by her absence whenever there was any work to be done.

And now began one of the quietest and most peaceful phases of Mr. Topper's vacation. The nearest village was five miles off, and this they very seldom visited. Topper drove over once and came back with a canoe and some fresh provisions. The canoe was received with delight, the Colonel immediately going fishing in it, taking a bottle along. Some hours later he came back with nothing more useful than a tendency to stagger and to curse at the fish he had almost caught.

The days slipped by tranquilly, almost unnoticed, and gradually the fear of George Kerby's arrival faded from Mr. Topper's mind. Someone was always in swimming, and there was always ample Scotch or some other equally heady beverage, the Colonel being a splendid provider.

At night they gambled for Topper's money and cheated him when they could, Mrs. Hart being the most successful and persistent, making it a point never to play an honest hand unless driven to it. Topper took Marion paddling whenever she would let him, and he fell more deeply under her spell, although no further demonstration occurred. And the Colonel succeeded at last in making Oscar retrieve his spot. Sometimes it would be in the wrong place, but the Colonel was not particular. Topper became thoroughly attached to Oscar and told him about his cat, Scollops, the dog listening with his head on one side and an ear politely cocked.

It was Mrs. Hart's surprising suggestion one Sunday that they should all go to church. They did this, and Marion Kerby established a local miracle by slipping away in the middle of the sermon and materialising angelically directly above the preacher's head. Mrs. Hart laughed so hysterically that she had to be helped from the church, but from that time on the preacher began to believe a little in the truth of his own sermons. The news of this event spread throughout the county and brought much fame and many visitors to this little country church which hitherto had been content to remain in bucolic obscurity.

The following night, just before dawn, Topper awoke with a feeling of profound depression which was not relieved by what he saw as soon as his eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness. A figure was standing at the flap of the tent. That was all. It was motionless. It just stood there and seemed to be examining Topper with calculating interest. When Mr. Topper moved, the figure laughed unpleasantly. Most unpleasantly, Mr. Topper thought.

"Topper," said the figure, "Topper, I've got you now, and, God, how I'm going to make you sweat."

Mr. Topper was sweating already. His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth and his hands trembled on the coverings.

"Who's speaking?" came a sleepy voice from the other bed. "Are you awake, Cosmo?"

The figure at the flap of the tent raised its hands to its head and clutched its hair.

"By all that's holy!" it cried. "Living together in open shame."

"It's all a mistake," said Mr. Topper in a despairing voice. "I didn't even know she was here. She must have sneaked in after I went to bed. For heaven's sake, George, wait until I explain."

"And if I believed that," replied George Kerby more calmly, "you'd probably tell me another one, wouldn't you?"

"Why, if it isn't George himself!" exclaimed Marion, rising from the bed. "And he's in one of his most playful moods. Welcome home, honey."

"Shameless woman," he cried. "Put something over your shoulders. God, won't I make him sweat for this! Leave this room, Marion."

"It isn't a room, it's a tent," she replied. "Do try to be accurate, and while we're on the subject of accuracy, I might mention the fact that Topper was right. I did sneak in here after he fell asleep. My tent is some yards away, but the Colonel was snoring so violently I came in here."

"The Colonel?" said George and Topper at the same time.

"Yes," she explained patiently. "His tent is close to mine."

"It won't go with me," George Kerby replied. "Lies, lies, lies, a tissue of lies from beginning to end. Oh, but won't he sweat for this.'

"Don't keep telling me how much I'm going to sweat," put in Mr. Topper. "I've lost five pounds in the last five minutes. Let Marion explain."

"Yes, George," said Marion. "Don't be tragic. I can explain everything. Topper's as innocent as a lamb. He doesn't know any better. Don't jump at conclusions."

Once more George Kerby laughed unpleasantly.

"I'm hardly jumping," he retorted. "Conclusions are forced down my throat."

Topper shivered and pulled the bed clothing round him.

"You talk to him, Marion," he suggested. "Take him away somewhere and tell him everything. Maybe he wants a drink. It's such lovely Scotch. Will you have a drink, George?"

Topper's voice trailed away to a wistful nothingness.

"I'll go," said George, "but don't think you're going to escape. I'll keep my eye on this tent and in the morning you'll answer to me. Understand? In the morning you'll answer to me. You'll sweat then."

"Why must you repeat everything?" complained Mr. Topper. "Take a good drink and lie down. You're all upset."

"Not so upset as you are going to be," George Kerby replied. "Not nearly so upset. Now I'm going, but I'll be back at any moment."

"Good-night," said Mr. Topper in a cloyingly friendly voice. "Good-night, George. I hope you'll feel better in the morning after you've had a nice talk with your wife."

"Never felt better in my life," George answered. "I'm fit all over, and that's more than you're going to be."

Marlon threw on a bathrobe and led her belligerent husband away, but sleep was murdered for Topper. In the pale dawn he sat hunched in his bed and wondered what George was going to do to make him sweat so much. Not until it was well on to breakfast time did he have the courage to leave his tent. The whole camp was astir and George Kerby was sitting on a log in dignified aloofness.

"Here's where the sweating begins," thought Topper as he looked fearfully at George's grim face.

When the Colonel saw Topper he greeted him with unusual impressiveness and led him aside.

"Topper," he said, "I'm sorry, but Mr. Kerby demands satisfaction. There's no way out of it. If you don't fight him he'll kill you."

"He'll kill me if I do," replied Mr. Topper.

"Perhaps, but there's always a chance, "said the Colonel. "Now this is what I propose and Kerby seems to agree."

The Colonel's proposition was unique. It was nothing less than a duel with clam shells at twenty paces, each principal to have three throws apiece.

"Why I never threw a clam shell in my life," said Topper, "but I understand they're very dangerous. Isn't there some other way? Some more reasonable way.?"

"I can't answer for the other way," replied the Colonel. "He is waiting for your answer. If you refuse, may God be with you."

"May God be with me anyway," breathed Topper. "Make him agree to one throw apiece, won't you, Colonel?"

"I'll do whatever I can," said the Colonel, walking with great dignity to George Kerby.

Marion brought Topper a cup of coffee and looked at him sympathetically.

"He's a rotten shot," she whispered. "Don't worry. It could be much worse."

"Can you do anything with him?" Topper asked. "Get him drunk or something?"

"Not until after the duel," she answered. "He insists on satisfaction. I've pleaded with him for hours."

"I'm so thrilled! " exclaimed Mrs. Hart, joining them. "When is it going to be? Think of it, a duel, and we'll be here to see it. It's just too wonderful."

The Colonel left Kerby and approached the group.

"Be ready then at five o'clock," he said. "Kerby agrees to two shots apiece and intimates that he will need only one."

Kerby had left the log and was arranging a target on the beach. Then he collected some clam shells and began to hurl them at his imaginary foeman with all his might. At first the shells went wide of their mark, but gradually he began to get the range of the target. Patiently, deliberately and earnestly he practised all morning until he had developed murderous control. Everywhere Topper went he heard the clam shells striking the target with increasing frequency and force. The sound got on his nerves. With fascinated eyes he watched George Kerby at his grim occupation. After a brief rest for luncheon Kerby returned at once to the target and put on the finishing touches. Topper, unable to bear the sight, retired to his tent. Once he emerged and endeavoured to do a little practising on his own part, but when he saw George Kerby sardonically watching his futile attempts to hit a tree, he dropped the clam shells and stole back to his tent.

Slowly the hours dragged by until five o'clock, when the Colonel promptly appeared and solemnly conducted Topper to the beach.

"Gentlemen," he said, "take your places at the proper distance and when I drop this handkerchief start firing."

At this little announcement, Mrs. Hart, who had been drinking a trifle in anticipation of the event, clapped her hands enthusiastically. "Atta boy!" she cried.

Topper looked at her with disgust, then turned his eyes to Marion. She smiled back at him encouragingly, but remained silent. George Kerby beckoned to the Colonel and made a few hurried remarks, after which the Colonel approached Topper with a troubled expression on his face.

"Topper," he said, "Mr. Kerby insists on his privileges as a spirit. He demands to be allowed to dematerialise, as that is, he claims, his natural state."

"Tell him not to be childish," said Mr. Topper. "How can I see to throw at him?"

"I mentioned that fact and he replied that that was your worry, not his," answered the Colonel.

"Ask him if he would prefer to murder me in cold blood," Topper remarked bitterly. "There's a razor in my tent."

"Do you agree to Mr. Kerby's proposition?" continued the Colonel.

"What else can I do?" cried Topper. "If I don't agree he'll chase me all over this place with clam shells anyway. Let's get it over."

"Very well," replied the Colonel. "Here are your shells, and good luck."

Topper looked miserably at the clam shells the Colonel placed in his hand.

"Give him little ones," he whispered to the Colonel. "Don't forget, Colonel, pick out two small ones, small and light."

"When I drop the handkerchief," the Colonel once more announced, "you gentlemen can begin to fire."

"At what?" called Mr. Topper as George Kerby faded from the scene.

"I can't see as that makes much difference," replied the Colonel. "But if you want a mark, fire where you last saw him."

The Colonel raised his arm and the handkerchief fluttered in the air.

"One minute," called Mr. Topper. "Suppose he sneaks up behind me? Tell him he shouldn't do that."

"Don't interrupt me again," said the Colonel impatiently. "Of course he wouldn't do that."

"Oh, wouldn't he I " answered Topper. "That's just what he would do."

He looked at the spot where he had last seen George Kerby and saw a clam shell poised in the air. To Topper it looked neither little nor light. It was a brutal clam shell, the great-grandfather of all clams.

"Are you ready, gentlemen?" called the Colonel.

"I am," answered Mrs. Hart. "What a lark! Topper, you'll soon be with us, old boy."

The handkerchief dropped to the ground and Topper, aiming at the poised shell, missed it. Then the poised shell aimed at Topper and did not miss. It met Mr. Topper just above the eye and sent him speedily to earth. As if the shell had struck her, Marion gave a little cry and ran over to him, lifting his head to her lap. George Kerby reappeared and stood looking down at Topper rather guiltily. The Colonel was bathing the wound.

"If you've killed him," said Marion Kerby, "he'll be over on our side and then the triangle will be complete."

"I hadn't thought of that," replied Kerby, bending anxiously over Topper. "I didn't mean to throw so hard. Pull him through, Colonel."

Mrs. Hart was crying softly to herself and sipping a glass of Scotch.

"He was such a nice man," she sobbed. "Such a generous host."

The Colonel and Marion worked swiftly and silently as they skillfully bandaged Topper's head. Then the Colonel took him in his arms and carried him to his tent, Mrs. Hart following after them with tipsy lamentations.

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