The Jovial Ghosts
The Misadventures of Topper
Through the Easter Egg
MR TOPPER was entering the peep-hole of his sugar Easter egg. Once inside he felt that he was in a different world, different yet strangely familiar. A soft, still radiance, more vital and sympathetic than that of the real world, lay over a vast hollow plain which ran in a great green dip to a distant fringe of trees.
What was he looking for? he wondered. Was it for the shepherdess of his youth? He knew that it had something to do with romance. Was he looking for Marion Kerby? That must be it. But where was she? The hollow plain was empty. No living thing moved across it. And Mr. Topper was tired. Never before had he been so tired. He could hardly lift his legs, they dragged so heavily. But he had to find Marion Kerby. She was necessary to him. Already she had been too long away.
With slow, weary steps he set out across the sunken plain to the far-away trees on the other side. The tops were dipped in a glowing light as the roof of the Easter egg turned on its downward curve, but all was dark at the base of the trees, dark, hushed and mysterious. He wanted to sit down and rest, but his eagerness to find Marion urged him onward. Several times he called her name, but was unable to hear his own voice. There seemed to be no sound in this Easter egg world of his. Why was there no sound? Topper became confused. He had a faint suspicion that he was suffering from an acute hangover.
He leaned against a small tree, and most amazingly the tree became Marion Kerby. This convinced Topper that he was suffering from a hangover of an exceedingly virulent nature. He took a step back and eyed her reproachfully.
"Where have you been?" he complained. "I've been looking all over for you. Looking and calling and wandering about. I'm going to cut it out, Marion. Too much drink. What a head I have!"
"You do look a bit like the Spirit of '76 after a hard night," she said. "Sit down before you swoon."
Topper promptly sat down and nursed his head in his hands.
"Where am I?" he demanded. "How did I find this place? You're always getting me into scrapes."
"Don't blame me," she replied. "Blame my charming husband. He has a decided flair for trees."
"Oh, yes," said Topper. "There was a tree. I remember now."
"That's why you're here," she explained. You became altogether too familiar with that tree, but the effect will soon wear off and then you'll have to go back."
"But why do I have to go back?" he asked. "There is no other place. And I'm tired, Marion, dog tired."
"You don't belong to our club yet," she told him, "although you came close to joining. There's still a spark of life left in you. Furthermore, it would make things extremely uncomfortable for me with you hanging around. George, as you know, has some rather archaic ideas."
"Marion," Topper pleaded, "don't send me away. You know how I feel. I can't go back to the world now. There's nothing left for me there."
"How about Scollops?" she suggested. "How about Mrs. Topper?"
"I'm done for," he admitted, after a heavy pause. "I see I've got to go on. But won't I ever see you again? Won't you ever come back to me?"
Marion shook her head.
"I'm moving on," she told him. "Some day we'll meet again, perhaps, but things will be different then."
"Worse, if possible," grumbled Topper, painfully getting to his feet and gazing ruefully at Marion.
She grinned at his woeful expression and lifted her face to his.
"I do believe you want to kiss me," she remarked.
"Damned if I will," he replied.
"Ah, come on," she urged. "It's the last."
Topper groaned and kissed her.
"You always were a jade," he said.
"How gracious!" she retorted. "You're almost like your old self."
"I'll never be that again."
"Don't," she replied. "Don't. Remember this, old thing: Too much virtue will sour the sweetest character. I've taken a sort of pride in you, seeing you change and grow gay. Don't spoil it all and disappoint me. Life will squeeze you if you let it, squeeze you back into a nice little mould with whipped cream and fixings."
"I know," said Topper drearily. "Squeeze me back into the 7.32."
"But never into white duck trousers," she replied. "Promise me that, Topper."
"I swear it," he answered.
"Good man!" she exclaimed, patting his arm. "It's almost like leaving a son—my own creation."
For a moment she regarded him thoughtfully, then moved away.
"So long," she called over her shoulder. "Good-bye, old dear."
Topper's eyes grew round with desperation.
"But, Marion! " he cried. "Marion! When shall we meet again? Won't you tell me when?"
"When fate sends you up against a larger and tougher tree," she replied. "You're a hard man to kill."
Without looking back again she drifted away among the trees and Topper stood alone on the sunken plain.
"A pretty trick," he muttered. "Leaving me flat like this. Well rid of her, say I. Always getting me into scrapes."
But as he continued across the fields his heart grew heavy for Marion Kerby. Several times he stopped and gazed back, looking for all the world like a small boy reluctant to set out for school.
"The jade," he continued to himself, "the heartless little jade. I don't care a damn. Scollops has better sense. What's happening to the light? I'll never get out of this place. Marion, where are you? You got me into this fix."
Gradually the plain grew dark and faded away as Mr. Topper, panting heavily, struggled through the peephole of his Easter egg world. It was a tight squeeze. He seemed to be hanging in space.
"Still too fat," he growled. "My stomach sticks, damn it! "
When Mr. Topper returned to consciousness he found himself in a small white bed in a small white room. The hospital was close to his home, but Mr. Topper knew nothing of this. During the course of his vacation he had awakened in so many unfamiliar places that he instinctively began to figure out what had happened at last night's party. Where had he been? What had he done? In what place was he lying now?
Then his eyes fell on Mrs. Topper and everything became clear. There were no adventures ahead. He looked at her through half-closed eyes and wondered about the woman. She was crumpled in her chair and her eyes were fixed on some green boughs tapping against the window. Somehow she looked quite pitiful. Strange that was, she had never looked pitiful before. And her face was not so unpleasant, thought Topper; in fact it was almost attractive now that the petulant, self-centred lines had been replaced by those of genuine anxiety. Her hand was resting lightly on the bed and Topper fumbled it into his.
"Hello," he said, "how's the girl?"
With a little gasp she turned in her chair and looked at his sunken face. It was odd to see the tears in her eyes and the uncertain smile on her lips.
"You can kiss me," said Topper magnificently. "I'm too tired to move."
Mrs. Topper was very much afraid. She kissed him, but did not linger over it.
"I might hurt you," she faltered.
"Am I as broken up as all that?"
"You're pretty well cracked," she admitted. "It's lucky you're still alive. The automobile burned up."
Topper heard this with relief. Much damaging evidence had been destroyed.
"It was the same tree," he remarked.
"They're talking of cutting it down," she replied.
A nurse looked in at the door and, seeing the two conversing, hurried for the doctor. Topper was examined and Mrs. Topper dismissed. When she returned to say good-bye she found him white from pain.
"Go home," he said, "and take a rest. I've given you a tough time of it. How's the indigestion?"
"You know," she replied. "I've been so worried I think I've lost it."
"You'll get it back," he answered consolingly.
"I don't want it," she snapped. "I've got you back and you're trouble enough. No sarcasm, please."
"How's my cat?"
"As useless as ever."
Under her calm exterior Mrs. Topper was radiant. She gathered up her possessions and kissed her husband again.
"Those knickers," she whispered. "I'm sorry about them. They were lovely. I bought a lot more."
A smile flickered momentarily across Mr. Topper's lips. His eyes moved to the window. The fields and the woodlands stretched out to the dropping sun. Somewhere out there in space was Marion Kerby. But was she there? Had he ever seen her? A remarkable dream? Hardly. Across the fields the old song came back on the wings of memory:
He raised his hand to his forehead. Yes, that was George Kerby's scar. It was still there. And where were the Colonel and the jocund Mrs. Hart and that prince of dogs, Oscar? Gone, all gone. Would he ever see them again? The sun had touched the treetops now, filling their limbs with fire. Topper sat watching the glowing sky until the colours faded. A nurse entered and handed him a glass. Topper obediently drank it.
"Very poor," he remarked. "Very poor. Who bootlegs for this hospital?"
She laughed automatically and departed with the tray. Topper cautiously eased his position in the bed. In a little while he would be leaving the hospital, going home, going back to the distractions and obligations of life, going back to desks, schedules, daily travellings, legs of lamb and familiar eyes. But things would never be the same. Topper was sure about that. Life would never get him. He would use it differently now. He himself was a different man. Perhaps he would sell his house and go away somewhere. He could get her to agree to that. In a little while he would be going back. Yes, going back home, starting the game all over. It would be good to see Scollops again. And the old girl was not so bad, not so bad, not at all so bad. But somewhere out there between the wind and stars, Marion Kerby was drifting, drifting farther and farther away. Thus meditating, Topper fell into a quiet sleep and dreamed that he was introducing Scollops to Oscar and that Oscar, now thoroughly in control of his members, amused the cat for hours by making his head and tail alternately disappear. Oscar was snappy about it.