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The Jovial Ghosts

The Misadventures of Topper


Thorne Smith


The Return to the Tree

WITH an expression of congealed solicitude George Kerby was holding a glass of Scotch to Mr. Topper's lips when next the stricken man opened his eyes on a world he had elaborately resigned himself to leave forever. The Colonel was making bandages with professional detachment and Marion Kerby was sitting on one side of the cot. Mrs. Hart, in an attitude of florid grief, was untidily draped over the foot of it. As he took in the serious group Topper was reminded of wax figures.

"Are you trying to poison me,"he asked, "now that you've got me down?"

"Oh, dear me, no," Mrs. Hart pleaded moistly. "Please take a little drink. It will do you a world of good. It's already helped me tremendously."

Mr. Topper looked with surprise at her tear-moist face.

"What's this?" he asked. "Tears? Don't cry, my child, he'll get me the next time."

"Yes," she answered dramatically, "they're tears if you want to know. Ask them all. Tell him, Marion. Ever since that clam shell knocked you out I've been crying as if my heart would break. And I do believe it will unless some considerate person gives me a little something to tuck up my nerves."

Kerby bent over Topper and looked contritely into his eyes.

"Listen, old man," he said. "Tell me that I'm forgiven. I'm terribly ashamed of myself for getting you all messed up. The honours are even now."

But not the injuries," Mr. Topper replied with a tired smile. "You put the gory in glory, George, but I don't mind. Give me that drink and let's call it a duel. There's one thing, though, I'll never forgive, not to the end of my days."

"What's that?" asked George Kerby.

"You've eternally ruined clams for me," said Topper. "You don't know what that means. Clams were my only vice once upon a time—a secret craving I kept to myself. Even my wife didn't know I loved them. That's all over now. Hereafter whenever I see a clam I'm going to duck and run like hell."

"How droll he is!" murmured Mrs. Hart. "Let's all have a drink."

They all did, all save Marion Kerby, who held a moist cloth to Mr. Topper's head.

"Do you want me to send these ruffians away?" she asked him. "Perhaps you had better rest."

"Let the ruffians stay," he answered. "The situation pleases my vanity. Never before have I been such a centre of attraction."

The Colonel turned to Kerby with one of his most disarming smiles.

"Now that the storm is over," he said, "I want to tell everyone that it's been a real pleasure to have met George Kerby. We have thought so much about him."

"Thanks," acknowledged Kerby, "but if it hadn't been for Marion's playfulness in that church you might never have had the pleasure. You can't imagine what a great to-do her misplaced sense of humour has created. By this time, I'll bet, the papers are full of it and the sparks are fairly flying from scientific and religious circles."

"She was too funny for words," said Mrs. Hart.

"Perhaps," replied Kerby, "but as soon as I heard of it I knew what had happened. I recognised that particular brand of madness, having suffered from it for years. After that it was easy to find you."

"How fortunate!" said the Colonel, with highly polished hypocrisy. "If we had known you were back we would have scoured the countryside. Your return was our constant topic of conversation. Topper and your wife were forever talking about it."

"Were they?" cried Kerby, pitifully pleased. "What a beast I've been!"

"They were," continued the Colonel, "but don't worry. It's been a good summer all round. You've outraged Europe and we've despoiled the New England States. At last we meet. A little misunderstanding, a most natural misunderstanding, is happily if painfully settled. Therefore I propose a final celebration. I feel that my ectoplasm is running low and I fancy we're all about in the same boat. We can't fade away without one last fling, but this time the party will be on us. Mrs. Hart and your servant will give it."

"Where?" asked Mrs. Hart, sleepily opening her eyes. "May I come?"

The Colonel gave her a glance of commiseration.

"The events of the day have been too much for the poor woman," he remarked. "She is sodden with excitement."

"It's not that at all," she protested. "Tell him, Marion. It's just because I'm so frantically sympathetic. No one suffers as I do. No one has such nerves. You wouldn't believe how much . . ."

"The Colonel," George Kerby interrupted impatiently, "has extended to us a very handsome invitation which I, for one, accept on the spot. But where can we stage this celebration? From what I've been able to gather, you people have about exhausted all the hospitality on this side of the Rockies."

"How about right here?" suggested the Colonel. "This is a good, safe place."

"No," put in Topper, "let's go back to the old inn—you know, George, where we pulled our first party. Mrs. Hart and the Colonel would love it there."

Marion Kerby was gazing at Topper with a reminiscent light in her eyes.

"I second the motion," she said. "The old inn would be a lovely place for a farewell party."

At this Mrs. Hart's shoulders began to shake convulsively.

"Don't say farewell," she sobbed. "I can't bear to think of the parting. Quick, Colonel, my glass."

Marion motioned to the Colonel, who immediately lifted the grief-stricken woman to her feet, and, whispering words of comfort in her ear, assisted her from the tent.

Two days later the Colonel and Mrs. Hart left for the inn, there to complete arrangements for the celebration. The others, including Oscar, who had stubbornly refused to dematerialise, were to follow by motor within a few days.

On the morning of departure Topper, still bearing the honourable scar of battle, wandered dejectedly about the place. He was looking forward with but small eagerness to the farewell celebration and would have preferred to linger on forever in this quiet spot where he had spent so many happy and care-free days. Everything spoke to him of Marion, the water, the beach and the trees. Everything breathed farewell, the parting of the ways. If he could only have remained near her, even with her husband present, it would have been better than a final separation. For the first time in many days he thought of Mrs. Topper, thought of her miserably, protestingly and with a little pang of shame. He had treated the poor creature terribly—he realised that—and the realisation made it no easier for him to face the inevitable reunion.

To escape his thoughts he put on his bathing suit and went for a parting swim. He swam far out to the mouth of the cove and looked across the water to the distant horizon where tumbled clouds, touched with sunlight, were banked against the sky. He wished that he could swim out there with Marion Kerby and hide with her behind that fleecy curtain, to be protected by it forever from the urgency of life, to prolong there in a curtained land the romance and freedom he had enjoyed for only a few short months. His dream of escape was shattered by a voice floating to him across the water. Looking behind, he saw Marion, clad in her bathing suit, gliding towards him in the canoe.

"What are you doing so far from shore?" she demanded. "It's time we were getting started."

"Are you so eager to leave?" he asked her.

"My heart is no lighter than yours," she answered, "but I'm not wasting time weighing it. Look out, I'm coming in."

She poised herself and dived lightly overboard, emerging close to Topper. Together they swam back to the canoe, and Topper, with all his strength, pushed it out of the cove.

"Let it drift away," he said, "as a symbol of my departing happiness."

"I'm in on that, old thing," she replied, "but just the same, cheer up. We'd better be getting back to shore or George will be collecting another nice little pile of clam shells."

"But, Marion," Topper protested, "is it really to be the end of things? Can't we go on for a while?"

"I'm afraid not," she replied. "You and George are not proper playmates, and anyway my ectoplasm is growing a trifle frayed. You'll be seeing through me soon."

"You've deprived me of all my old ideas," Mr. Topper answered, "and all I have in their place is an empty, aching feeling, a feeling of loss and discontent, the makings of a rebellion."

"Memories! "she cried. "Memories, Topper. Do they mean nothing to you? Cling to them. The past is made of memories, the future is made of dreams. Hot stuff!"

"Not mine," answered Topper. "Desk tops and legs of lamb."

"Well, then, here's a memory for you," she said, swimming close to him and giving him a little salt-edged kiss. "Now, quit your mooning and get back to shore."

Topper buried his face in the water and swam to the beach, Marion following easily in his wake. George Kerby was waiting for them with a glass in either hand, and as Topper swiftly studied his face, he fancied he detected in Kerby's eyes a hint of pain, something lonely and hidden, yet reassuringly sympathetic.

"I thought you might like these after your long swim," said Kerby, a shade apologetically.

Something about the situation made it difficult for Topper to speak for a moment. He accepted the extended glass and pretended to be getting his breath.

"You're thoughtful, George," he said at last. "Here are my best regards to you."

"Good luck," replied Kerby with a faint smile. "This place is almost too lovely to leave."

But they left it just the same, left it as it was, the canoe drifting out with the tide and the tents rippling in the light breeze beneath a high, glad sun. Topper, with Oscar on his lap, slouched in the automobile and refused to look back at the little beach as Kerby drove across the field and on to the narrow road. No one spoke, no one seemed inclined to look at the other. They were occupied with their thoughts, which apparently were not happy. Presently Marion found a bottle and handed it to Topper.

"What's wrong with this outfit?" she demanded. "You'd think we were going to a funeral instead of a celebration. The pair of you depress me."

Topper and Kerby drank, solemnly at first, but gradually their solemnity faded until at last the three of them felt moved to lift their voices inwrithing harmony, so painful to the ears that Oscar howled in protest.

Dusk was drifting over the fields by the time they reached their destination, and already the old inn was partly obscured by trees and shadows. They parked the car behind a clump of bushes and entered the inn by a rear door, old memories rising up to greet them as they stood in the dim light of the silent room. No one was there to receive them, but signs of preparation were every-where in evidence. A long table had been arranged at one end of the room and the great sideboard was burdened with provisions, glasses and bottles. In one corner Marion discovered a battered but businesslike phonograph. Cigars and cigarettes had been placed by thoughtful hands at all convenient points. Oscar was behaving strangely. The hair stood up on his back as he sniffed the air excitedly and gave utterance to eager whines. Observing the behaviour of the dog, Topper began to feel uncomfortable.

Suddenly three loud raps shattered the silence of the room and a voice called out, "Attention!" Topper, on his dash to the door, stopped long enough to see the Colonel, in full uniform, emerge from the gloom. The sight reassured him, as did the appearance of Mrs. Hart a moment later. Oscar was barking madly and scrambling at the Colonel's feet. Mrs. Hart was approaching Topper with a tray full of glasses. This decided him to stay. He took a glass and drained its contents.

"Take another," said Mrs. Hart.

"Thanks," replied Topper. "How are your nerves? Mine are terrible."

"Couldn't be worse," she assured him. "The arrangements have been such a strain. I think I'd better join you before I continue with the tray."

"Do," urged Topper. "It would be awful if you fainted."

They drank together quickly and Mrs. Hart hurried away. Topper looked about the room and was appalled by the sight he beheld. Bodies in various stages of formation were appearing in every corner. Heads were floating in the air and bodyless legs were walking across the floor. Strangely detached-looking arms were already snatching food and glasses from the sideboard. And as Topper stood there gazing, the room gradually became peopled with men and women in evening clothes. They stood about in groups and conversed with animation. In the most natural way in the world they consumed sandwiches and cocktails, and lifted their voices in laughter. Marion Kerby came over to Topper and took him by the hand.

"Stop gaping like that," she whispered. "It's only a few of the Colonel's friends he's invited in honour of the celebration, and if you'll take it from me, it's a pretty hard-looking crowd. Don't get giddy with any of the women or I'll have to start something. I want you for myself to-night."

"Never in my life have I witnessed such a wholesale display of horrifying sights," said Mr. Topper. "You are welcome to have me all to yourself to-night. I'm cowed."

"But first we must appear in public," she replied. "Come with me and I'll steer you safely through."

She led him to a table at which George and the Colonel were already seated. Topper was greeted with shouts of joy, and the Colonel, thrusting his hand into a bucket, produced a bottle of champagne.

"Topper," he said, "nothing is too good for you. I've been waiting for this moment."

At the sound of the popping cork Mrs. Hart innocently sidled up to the table and sank to a chair with a weary sigh.

"I'm exhausted," she breathed. "Simply exhausted. What's that? Champagne?"

"Yes," said the Colonel. "Do you drink it?"

"I will try to-night," she answered in a resigned voice. "They say it's good for exhaustion."

When the Colonel had filled the glasses he rose and bowed to Topper.

"Topper," he said, "I toast you as a man in a million. On this, our last public appearance, so to speak, I am frank to say that of all the happy things we leave behind you will be the most missed."

Amid enthusiastic shouts of approval the Colonel resumed his chair and Topper in turn got up.

"I toast you all," he said, "as a revelation to me of a larger life and a lighter death. And I thank you all for the changes you have wrought in me. Once I was a law-abiding, home-loving and highly respected member of my community. Within a few short months you have changed all that. Now I am a jail-bird, a hard drinker, a wife deserter and an undesirable, dissolute outcast. And I am glad of it. Only a few short miles now separate me from my home, but let me assure you that they will be the hardest miles I have ever travelled in my life."

Topper sat down to be thumped on the back by Kerby and the Colonel. Marion's eyes were like stars and Mrs. Hart's like pale moons, big but dim. More champagne appeared and guests kept visiting the table, gossiping for a moment, then drifting away. Topper was elaborately introduced and frequently reintroduced. This continued for some time. Many flushed faces confronted Topper, many bright eyes challenged his. Thrilling laughter floated through the air, the quick responses to well-turned lines. Arousing perfumes, subtle yet intimate, quickened the expectant blood. A soft light, shed by the lanterns hanging from the rafters, flooded the room, and through this light the dancers revolved to the impersonal music of the phonograph. The Colonel was at his most beaming best, gracious, immaculate and highly charged with champagne. Like a prince he sat at the table and greeted his subjects with jovial words. It was an expansive, heady and fluid evening, a dizzy moment stolen from the lap of time. Mr. Topper, at the urgency of Marion, danced with many fair women, listening to their leading remarks and capping them with his short but pertinent rejoinders. At last he returned to the table and claimed Marion for a dance. They circled the floor once, then ducked through the rear door and wandered off into the woods. Other couples were there before them. Laughter and whispers drifted among the trees.

"Well, Topper," said Marion, "how are you holding your drink?"

"With all my might and main," he answered. "You seem to be quite untouched."

"It's not my fault," she replied, sitting down with her back against a tree. "It just won't work to-night, although I've consumed enough for ten. My heart is not in my glass. Only my reflection, which will soon fade away."

Topper was painfully inarticulate and Marion slipped her hand in his, letting her head rest on his shoulder while she gazed up at the sky through the branches of the trees.

"Did you ever look at the stars so long," she continued, "that you almost became a part of them, so that when a lightning bug flew past your vision it got all mixed up with the Milky Way? Did you ever sit alone for hours chewing the cud of your own futility, hating yourself for being yourself and blaming life for making you so? Well, that's the way I feel to-night. It's time for me to be moving on. I've enjoyed this sort of stuff too long. There are other things to do. I don't mean better things, merely more interesting ones. Our capacity to enjoy life should be measured by our ability to create life, or beauty or some form of happiness. So far I've created nothing, only a constant confusion, a restless, discontented stirring in the ether."

"You've created happiness in me," said Mr. Topper. "You've awakened dreams and left memories. You've made me humble and you've made me human. You've taught me to understand how a man with a hangover feels. You've lifted me forever out of the rut of my smug existence. I'll go back to it I know, but I won't be the same man.'

"You never were," she answered logically. "You were never intended to be. Nobody is, but life gets you, life and the economic urge—success, esteem, safety. How many of our triumphs in life spring from negative impulses, the fear of losing rather than the wish to win. It's a lot of talk, Topper, the whole damn show. And no one alive to-day is to blame. We must thank the ages past and how to their false gods. We dress them up in new garments, but in their essence they're just the same—power, property and pride. You can't get away from them, the subsidised steps to salvation. I talk like this, but I've contributed nothing. We must just keep on and on until the mountains themselves crumble from nausea or we learn to scale them and cool our hands in the sky. Wild talk, Topper. Let's go back and cage a drink."

She would have risen, but he held her back.

"Rest here with me a moment," he said, "and let the world go to hell."

"If you feel like that," she answered, "we'll have to cage a flock of drinks."

They rose and walked back to the inn from which issued the tumult of many voices raised in song and uncontrolled abuse. The room presented a scene of great disorder. Couples not amorously inclined were either gambling or accusing each other of murder, arson and rape. George Kerby was among the gamblers, but the Colonel still sat at his table with a far-away look in his eyes. With the methodical precision of a wax figure he raised his glass to his lips at regular intervals. Mrs. Hart was sitting in a corner devouring a leg of chicken, while Oscar with moist eyes was trying to hypnotise it out of her hand. The hour was late, but no one seemed to care about that. There were still some uncorked bottles. Broken glass lay on the floor and cigarette ends smouldered beneath the dancers' feet.

Topper and Marion made their way to the Colonel's table and sat down. He regarded them with polite inquiry, then automatically passed them a bottle.

"Good evening," he said. "Are you well?"

"We are very well," replied Marion, quite seriously. "And you?"

"I am well," said the Colonel. "I am well."

He then lapsed into silence as if the last shred of conversation had been exhausted. Topper and Marion sat quietly drinking and listening to the din which was constantly increasing in volume. It had arrived at that stage of the evening when the women were doing their specialty dances and the men were imitating animals or encouraging the dancers to more abandoned efforts. Suddenly in the midst of this debauch a new and sinister note was introduced. The doors of the inn flew open and in each door stood a man with a revolver in his hand.

"This place is copped," announced the leader. "Men and women line up in two separate rows. No funny stuff now. Get a move on."

As if they had long rehearsed the figure the guests arranged themselves in two rows and stood swaying and giggling at one another, all except Mr. Topper. He neither swayed nor giggled, but trembled in every limb. The Colonel stood on one side of him and George Kerby on the other. Marion was directly opposite. The raiding party moved from the doors and walked between the rows, and as they progressed the rows gradually faded from view until only Topper remained unhappily present. Each man in turn inspected Topper, then turned back to the guests, but there were no guests to be seen, nothing but Topper and an empty room filled with chuckling voices and glasses moving through the air. The raiders huddled together and raised their revolvers,and as they did so the weapons were quietly removed from their hands.

"Out with the lights!" cried the Colonel's voice, and the room was plunged in darkness.

Cries of mortal fear now broke from the raiding party and a scuffling noise was heard. Topper was seized by either arm and carried from the room. He felt himself thrust into the automobile and heard the grating of the gears. There was a furious barking and Oscar sprang into the car just as it wheeled down the path.

"Another pursuit," said Topper. "What a remarkable country this is! Someone is always chasing someone else, and I'm forever it."

"Killjoys," replied Kerby from the wheel. "I was fifty dollars ahead."

"I still have my chicken," Mrs. Hart gloated from the back seat.

"And I have a couple of bottles," announced the Colonel. "Oscar seems to have the seat of someone's trousers."

"And we all still have Topper," said Marion Kerby. "Let's escort him home."

When the party had materialised Topper found himself seated between Marion and George Kerby. George was driving with one hand and reaching for the bottle with the other. Thus they sped along increasingly familiar roads at an increasingly reckless speed. Marion admonished her husband, but he merely took another drink and broke into a ribald song. Marion was clinging to Topper's hand and pressing it from time to time. The Colonel and Mrs. Hart had apparently gone to sleep.

"Here we are," said Marion at last. "We're approaching the old tree. It's our parting point, Topper. Can you take the car from here?

"It was a fine party," muttered Topper; then the words refused to come. He felt that his world was dropping away from him, and as if to hold it back, he clung with all his might to Marion's hand. The automobile gave a sharp, uneasy bounce, then side jumped from the road. As the great tree rushed out of the night to meet them, Marion Kerby threw herself on Mr. Topper and held him in her arms. Then Topper's world in reality did drop away. He had a sensation of clinging arms and a warm breath on his cheek. There was a terrifying crash and he caught a strange picture of Oscar describing an arc in the air and vanishing as he turned. The earth sprang up and struck Topper a smashing blow all over. Aching darkness settled down on him.

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