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Title:      The Jovial Ghosts: The Misadventures of Topper
Author:     Thorne Smith
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Language:   English
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Date first posted:          March 2006
Date most recently updated: March 2006

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Title:      The Jovial Ghosts: The Misadventures of Topper
Author:     Thorne Smith




Dedication:

To Celia
--to say the least--




CONTENTS

1. NO CHANGE
2. SCOLLOPS LOOKS INSCRUTABLE
3. MR. TOPPER PURSUES THE SUN
4. MRS. TOPPER IS NOT DELIGHTED
5. THE NEBULOUS LAP
6. DISASTER AT THE CURB
7. TOPPER CALLS ON A TREE
8. WAYWARD GHOSTS
9. LOCAL HISTORIANS DISAGREE
10. THE HAUNTED COURTROOM
11. ANTICS OF A HAT STAND
12. A SMOKY LADY IN KNICKERS
13. ESCAPE
14. THE SINGING SHOWER-BATH
15. SUCH A RESTFUL PLACE!
16. ENTER THE COLONEL AND MRS. HART
17. THE COLONEL ORDERS DINNER
18. MR. TOPPER DOES NOT CELEBRATE
19. OSCAR IN TOTO
20. THE RETURN TO THE TREE
21. THROUGH THE EASTER EGG





CHAPTER I
No Change


For some minutes now Scollops had been gazing searchingly at Mr. Topper.
And Mr. Topper was troubled. Not definitely troubled, but vaguely so,
which to some persons is the most troublesome form of trouble. Mr.
Topper was one of such persons. In fact he was highly representative of
the type. So free from trouble had Topper's days been that gradually he
had come to regard with suspicion all creatures not likewise
unencumbered. An earthquake, an eruption or tidal wave would mildly move
Cosmo Topper, arouse him to the extent of a dollar donation which would
later be deducted from his income tax; whereas a newspaper story dealing
with bankruptcy, crimes of violence or moral looseness would cause him
speedily to avert his eyes to less disturbing topics. Mr. Topper could
excuse nature and the Republican Party, but not man. He was an
institutional sort of animal, but not morbid. Not apparently. So
completely and successfully had he inhibited himself that he veritably
believed he was the freest person in the world. But Mr. Topper could not
be troubled. His mental process ran safely, smoothly, and on the dot
along well signalled tracks; and his physical activities, such as they
were, obeyed without question an inelastic schedule of suburban
domesticity. He resented being troubled. At least he thought he did.
That was Mr. Topper's trouble, but at present he failed to realise it.

He experienced now something of the same resentment that came to him
upon being delayed in the tunnel on his way home from the city. Things
were going on round him in the tunnel, dreadful things, perhaps, but he
did not know what they were. He sat in a blaze of light in the midst of
clanking darkness. Surrounded by familiar things he felt stuffy and
uncomfortable. Even his newspaper lost its wonted stability. Yes, it was
a decidedly objectionable feeling that Mr. Topper had to-night as he
gave himself to the solicitous embrace of his arm chair and followed
with a dull gaze the rug's interminable border design-- a Doric motif,
clean-cut and geometrically accurate. Once this design had appealed to
his abiding sense of order. To-night he hardly saw it, although without
his knowledge it was wearying his eyes, and had been doing so for
several months.

In Scollops' eyes there was an expression difficult to fathom. Mr.
Topper held the opinion that the expression was uncomfortably
insinuating, making him in some sly way an accessory before the fact.
But hang it all, what was the meaning of Scollops' look? The cat had
been fed. He had seen to that himself as he had seen to it ever since he
had adventurously brought her home from Wilson's, the grocer's, one
evening four years ago. Four years. As long as that in this house; and
once it had seemed so new. Now it was an old house, an uninteresting
house. Perhaps he was old, too, and equally uninteresting. Mr. Topper
felt that he was, and for the first time in his life permitted himself
to wonder about such things.

His intellectual debauch was rudely shattered by Scollops. The cat
yawned and tentatively thrust her nails into her benefactor's thigh. It
was rather a plump thigh. Long years of sedentary work had served to
despoil it of its youthful charm. It was a tight thigh and a fleshy one,
yet it still reacted to pain. To such an extent, in fact, that Mr.
Topper's sensation of trouble instantly gave way to one of mild reproach
as he dropped Scollops softly thudding to the floor.

This faint discord in the domestic tranquillity caused Mrs. Cosmo Topper
to look up from her needlework. Mr. Topper, glancing across the table,
met his wife's eyes. It was just for a moment, then he looked quickly
away, but why, he did not know.

"She yawned," he remarked by way of explanation. "Yawned and scratched."

"I know it," apologised Mrs. Topper, mistaking his words for a direct
accusation. "I've been doing it all evening. It must have been the veal."

Topper watched his wife remove her sewing-glasses and place them in
their case. With an absorbed gaze he followed her movements as she
folded her sewing and wrapped it in a piece of linen, which she then
deposited in a basket. At this point his expression became almost
desperate, then, hopeless. No, there was going to be no change in the
nightly routine--glasses, case, linen, basket. If she would only reverse
the procedure, or for once forget her glasses, that would be something.
Meantime Mrs. Topper, unconscious of tragedy, rose from her chair, came
round to where her husband was sitting, and brushed his forehead with
her lips. Then, referring once more in a pained voice to the haunting
qualities of veal, she left the room.

Mr. Topper listened to her firm step upon the stairs. A certain
squeaking of boards apprised him of the fact that she had achieved the
landing. For a moment he thought idly about veal in relation to his
wife. Then he did an unusual thing. Instead of knocking out his pipe and
locking in the cat whose vagrant nature had caused him some rather
trying experiences in the past, he gently retrieved that animal from the
floor and fell to studying an old atlas which he had plucked from an
obscure shelf.

"It made me sleepless, too," murmured Mrs. Topper an hour later as her
husband settled down beside her.

And that night Mr. Topper dreamed of eating curried veal in Calcutta. He
was surrounded by many maidens, all of whom partook amply of veal, and
none of whom complained. It was delicious. He gorged himself.


CHAPTER II
Scollops Looks Inscrutable


Not until the following afternoon, which was Saturday and therefore
free, was Mr. Topper able to localise his trouble. The discovery came to
him as a shock which gathered intensity as the days passed. It marked an
epoch in his life. Even Mrs. Topper, who steadfastly refused to
recognise changes taking place around her, detected something new and
therefore annoying in her husband. But she reassured herself by
believing that all stomachs have their off seasons, and became almost
pallidly cheerful when she considered the fact that her stomach's off
season was always on--it prevailed the year around. To Mrs. Topper it
was an endless source of comfort to be able to trace all mystifying
cases of conduct, even her own, to such a tangible and well-established
institution as a stomach.

It was Scollops again. . . . Scollops draped on her master's knee with a
Saturday afternoon mist swimming in her eyes. . . . Scollops, the
inexplicable, narrowing infinity between two orange-coloured slits.

This it was that gave Mr. Topper the shock. For the first time in their
four years of companionable association Topper realised that the cat saw
nothing, that is, nothing immediate. Although her yellow, searching gaze
included him, it passed far beyond him down distant vistas from which he
was excluded. Caressing and condoning on their way, Scollops' eyes
seemed to be roving through the ages, dwelling on appalling mysteries
with the reminiscent indulgence of a satiated goddess.

Looking into Scollops' eyes, Mr. Topper discovered that there were
things he did not know, colours of life beyond his comprehension,
impulses alien to his reason. With his wife's eyes it was different. He
knew their every shade and meaning. Nothing in them lay unrevealed. He
was familiar with the direct gaze denoting finance, the confidential
gaze denoting scandal, the patient gaze denoting servants, the motherly
gaze denoting superiority and the martyred gaze denoting indigestion.

Suddenly Mr. Topper realised what was troubling him. It was eyes. Old
familiar eyes. He felt that he knew them all. He knew the eyes at the
office, from the president's to the elevator boy's. It was surprising,
he thought, how desperately well he knew eyes. Mr. Topper saw eyes. Mr.
Topper understood them. And be had an uncomfortable feeling that they
understood him.

Now, however, he was alive to the fact that Scollops' eyes escaped all
classification. This both pleased and shocked him. He realised that in
spite of four years of close companionship he had not the slightest idea
of Scollops' private opinion of him, or of anything else, for that
matter. To what was going on behind her eyes Topper had no clue.

Mr. Topper found himself thinking that it would be a relief to have
someone look at him in the manner of Scollops. Preferably a woman. Not
that Mr. Topper was loose, or romantic, or both. He had never loitered
to pluck forbidden flowers beside the marital path, but had mechanically
kept to his schedule with Mrs. Topper at one end and the office at the
other.

Once in his youth he had nerved himself to lurch in reckless pursuit of
a shop girl in a skating rink, but the meeting with her had been so
sudden and demolishing that when he arose from the dust of the floor he
departed with a far sharper pain in his spine than in his heart. After
that he confined his amorous pursuits to the nice girls of his own set.
He never called on them alone, but always with a jolly company of
youths, which gave him a sense of security. Later he had met Mrs.
Topper, who had already achieved individuality through smouldering
indigestion, and he had decorously followed her through a summer of neat
suburban Sundays, after which he had made the arrangement permanent in
the presence of an orderly gathering of neat suburban property owners.
And that ended that side of Mr. Topper.

Now, however, he was getting along. Nearly forty and acquiring flesh.
Ten years married. He neither had to stretch to reach the electric light
nor stoop to walk under the bulb. His face was unremarkable save for his
eyes, which were extremely blue and youthful, as if the fire in them had
been banked for the sake of conservation. His features would have been
delicate had his appetite not been so good or his habits less sedentary.
Had their union been blessed with issue, one of the children, probably
Cosmo, Junior, would have been a sandy blond like his father, for Mr.
Topper's hair was of an indifferent shade. But there were no little
Toppers. Scollops was undisturbed.

He rose, stretched and walked to the window. Scollops merely stretched
and resumed her repose, with the austere resignation characteristic of
cats when bent on slumber or theft.

"I think I'll go for a walk," said Topper. "I'm in need of a bit of a
change."

"There'll be a roast for dinner," replied Mrs. Topper. "Lamb," she added
as he left the room. "You like lamb."

Mr. Topper winced as he collected his hat and stick. Why should he be
thus openly reminded that he liked lamb? Couldn't a person creep up on a
roast and surprise it some time? As a matter of fact he was not
particularly lustful for lamb, or at least he would strive hereafter to
dissemble his emotions.

But all he said was "Good!" The exclamation point stuck in his throat.




CHAPTER III
Mr. Topper Pursues the Sun


The street down which Mr. Topper strolled was a nice street. No one
needed to feel ashamed of it. No one did. And the people who lived on
this street had nice homes; nice, neat homes with well-groomed lawns,
well-shingled roofs and well-stocked larders. The style of architecture
showed a sincere desire to impress the eye favourably. The effort had
been based more on hope than on inspiration. The houses could have
been--and frequently were--termed "homey," "quaint," and "comfortable,"
but after these terms had been exhausted little remained to be said
save, perhaps, "sweet."

Mr. Topper and his neighbours were quietly proud of this street, and had
borne their assessments as a tolerant father bears the extras of an
extravagant son at college. One could bring one's friends from the city
to this street and let it speak for itself, which one seldom did.
Sewerage, real estate and the cost of building were subjects far too
fascinating to be left to the imagination. So the visitors from the city
heard all about these things, and were not amused.

Being on a slightly higher elevation than the rest of the town, the
street was happily called "Glendale Road." It is rather terrifying to
think that the real estate promoter responsible for this name is perhaps
still unhung and busily engaged in giving equally stultifying names to
other nice little streets in other nice little towns situated in other
nice little localities throughout the United States.

"You know that swamp?" he is, perhaps, saying to his wife at this very
moment as he lights his cigar.

"Which one, my dear?" she asks. "You've bought so many swamps."

"And sold 'em, too," he replies with a boyish chuckle. "But the one we
drove by last week. I pointed it out to you. It was where they found the
body of--"

"Oh, yes," his wife exclaims, "the rag picker's wife! They had to vacate
their shack, didn't they?"

"Well, that doesn't matter," replies her husband rather quickly. "I've
decided to run a drive through it. What do you think would be a good
name?"

Deep silence for several minutes. Her husband watches her anxiously. She
reads a lot of books. Good things, books.

"Mayblossom Drive," she murmurs at last, with a dreamy look in her eyes.
"That would be charming. Let's call it that."

Business of writing name down on back of soiled envelope. Husband
departs for development in car and another street has come into being.

Nevertheless Glendale Road was really a nice street. It was wide and
well paved. There were trees on it at orderly intervals. And, now that
June was here, there were leaves on the branches of the trees and there
were birds among the leaves. For some reason Mr. Topper's mind was not
occupied to-day with thoughts of sewers, real estate or building costs.
Community pride was absent from his mood. He heard the birds chirping
and listened to them intently. How many of them there must be and what a
great to-do they were making. Little birds were always so excited. He
had held a sparrow in his hand once and felt its heart beat. Somehow it
had made him feel like crying. The little thing had been so excited, so
bent on living. Life to the little sparrow had seemed so necessary and
important. Topper had released it immediately. How busily it had flown
away. Well, these chaps up in the tree were having a good time just the
same. They never needed a change. They could come and go as they
pleased. A nest here and a nest there. A family hatched and a family
fledged. Fresh branches in new lands. Adventurous flights in pursuit of
the sun. Not a bad life, that. Be a bird and see the world.

Topper smiled and stopped in front of a public garage. He was now on a
side street of the town proper, but Mr. Topper was not altogether sure
as to how he had got there. He had been flying in pursuit of the sun,
and on the following day, after church, two ladies protested to Mrs.
Topper that he had looked right through them. What had they done to be
so dreadfully treated, and what had come over her husband, who was
always so polite to the ladies?

"Sparrows," said Mr. Topper at this point, and walked away, leaving his
wife to explain as best she could the meaning of his remark.

Seeing Mr. Topper smiling at him, the owner of the garage rested from
his labours and called out an enthusiastic greeting.

"Isn't it lovely?" he asked, pointing to the machine on which he had
been working.

Impressed by the man's earnestness, Mr. Topper approached the car and
surveyed it with the vague gaze of an amateur.

"Really lovely," he said, looking hopefully at the man. "A really lovely
car, Mark."

Mark beamed.

"It's the coyest little car in the town," he declared, "and it's carried
more than gasoline in its time, though it is only this year's model."

"Bootlegging?" asked Mr. Topper, deciding, now that he came to consider
it, the car did have rather vicious lines. Too much nickel and a trifle
too low to the ground.

"No, victims," said Mark. "There was a bottle in every flap when they
found it."

"Then did the car manage to get lost?" Mr. Topper asked with growing
interest.

"Wrecked," replied Mark briefly. "Head on to a tree. I've practically
rebuilt it, but the motor's good as new."

"It's had rather a sad life for such a young car," remarked Topper.
"Whose is it?"

"Mine," replied Mark with pride. "But it did belong to George and Marion
Kerby. You remember. Both killed three months back. The estate owed me
money so I took the car in settlement."

Mr. Topper now looked at the automobile with unfeigned interest. Surely
he remembered George and Marion Kerby, the fastest young couple in town.
At least, they had been. People had always predicted that they would
come to some such end. Kerby had never worked. No sedentary work for
him. Rich young devil. And he and his wife had been laid to rest to the
tune of "I told you so." Kerby's wife, a slim girl, good-looking, quick
in her actions, a mocking sort of a creature. Then, like brushing
against a cobweb on a dark woodland path, Mr. Topper's thoughts were
suddenly arrested by little dinging threads of memory. Marion Kerby's
eyes? Ah, yes, he remembered them. The Kerbys had not belonged to his
set, the solid, substantial, sedentary set, but had gathered round them,
from all parts of the country, a group of irresponsible spirits, who
would suddenly appear in a swarm of motors, riot around the town and
countryside for a few days, and then as suddenly disappear in a cloud of
dust and a chorus of brazen horns. No one had really known the Kerbys,
that is, no respectable, accredited member of the community. But Topper
had seen them often enough as they darted through the streets of the
town, and once he had met Marion Kerby at the dedication of the new
twenty-thousand-dollar-fire-house.

"Comic operas cost more and are less amusing," she had remarked, with a
smile, then asked in a serious voice: "Do all white duck trousers have
to look so self-conscious?"

Mr. Topper, being a charter member of the organisation, had loyally
donned his outfit and joined the ranks of his fellow fire-fighters. Now,
at the question, he looked down at his ducks and blushed. Marion Kerby
mingled with the crowd, but she left behind her the seeds of rebellion
in Mr. Topper's mind. He had never felt in sympathy with white duck
trousers, and now he actually hated them. They did look self-conscious,
but it showed poor community spirit on Marion Kerby's part to ridicule
the uniform. What would a fire company do without white duck trousers?
Evidently she was one of those modern young women who had no respect for
tradition. Furthermore, nice women did not talk about trousers on such a
slight acquaintance.

A few days after this he had encountered Marion Kerby on the morning
train. She had nodded to him and smiled, and somehow her smile had
seemed to convey the impression that they shared between them an unholy
secret of a most delicious nature. Marion Kerby's smile had caused Mr.
Topper to feel much less married. He had puzzled all the way in that
morning about her eyes. He had found himself unable to place them. They
were never quite the same. Thoughts danced behind them like fountains in
the sun, hiding their liquid depth in a burst of dazzling spray.

And now as Mr. Topper stood in the glittering presence of the car in
which Marion Kerby and her husband had met their death, he remembered
her eyes and felt dismayed that their light had been snuffed from the
world. A June heaviness settled down on Mr. Topper and he became
conscious of his stomach. It was too large. Indecent. Yes, he was
certainly in need of a change.

Mark's monologue swam in on his ears.

"They were a wild pair, Mr. Topper," the man was saying, "but nice
people at that. The nicest couple I ever knew. One minute they'd be
fighting with each other like a pair of wildcats and the next they'd be
getting along like two tramps. Why, the way they went on would make you
think of a couple of kids. They were always arguing about who was the
best driver and often they'd ask me to decide. There'd be tears in their
eyes, they were so in earnest. You'd have thought it was a matter of
life and death with them."

"That's about how it was, Mark," said Mr. Topper thoughtfully. "A matter
of life and death. A gay life and a quick death."

"What's the odds," replied Mark, with a shrug. "They liked it that way
and they got what they wanted."

"I've a feeling they got just a trifle more than they wanted," said Mr.
Topper. "They didn't look like a pair that were extremely anxious to
die. They were too crammed with life."

"But that's the way it goes," continued Mark, waxing philosophic. "There
are lots of people in town I'd rather have seen get in trouble with a
tree."

This remark made Mr. Topper feel a little uneasy. He realised that he
had never enriched Mark's coffers with the purchase of gasoline or
automobile parts. To Mark he was perfectly useless, a fit subject for a
tree.

"They had good stuff," Mark went on reminiscently, "and they were
generous with it, too. I always had a drink whenever they came in the
place. We used to have regular little parties in my office over there."

Mr. Topper walked deliberately to Mark's small office and peered through
the door. In his mind's eye he could see Marion Kerby seated at the
desk. He had a remarkably vivid picture of her. It was almost as if he
had been present at the parties himself. There she sat, her slim ankles
crossed, her mad eyes dancing beneath the brim of a smart little hat,
and her lips parted in a sarcastic smile. In one hand was a glass which
she was holding on high and in the other a cigarette. "Truly an
unedifying sight," thought Mr. Topper, and yet he was fascinated by it.
He dwelt on the delicate lines of her face, the small impertinent chin
and the fine lips curved in a roving, debonair smile. Then he returned
to her eyes and became lost in contemplation.

"They were mad," he mused to himself. "They could laugh the devil down."

Fearing that that was what they were probably doing at the very moment,
Mr. Topper turned away from the door and looked at Mark, who was in the
act of hanging a "For Sale" sign over the radiator cap of the
automobile. The deed done, Mark stepped back and surveyed his handiwork
ecstatically, head on one side and hands on his hips. "Here," thought
Mr. Topper, "is a master craftsman, one who loves his work for its own
sake."

"So you're going to sell it," he said, walking over to the bewitched
garage man.

"Certainly," replied Mark. "And cheap too. Couldn't get anyone to
believe she's sound. But she is, every nut and bolt in her. The Kerbys
themselves wouldn't know the difference except that she's quieter now.
They always kept the old car rattling."

"Well, they rattled their toy once too often," remarked Mr. Topper,
looking moodily out at the street. "I hope the next owner will have
better luck."

"Lightning never strikes . . ."

"Twice in the same place," interrupted Mr. Topper. "I know, Mark, but an
automobile can, and if it isn't the same place it's some place equally
unyielding."

With a nod to Mark and a lingering look at the automobile, Mr. Topper
left the garage and walked slowly down the street to the main
thoroughfare of the town, where he stopped and looked with unseeing eyes
into a butcher's window. Behind him a steady trail of automobiles passed
by. He was dimly aware of their swift, hissing tyres whirling evenly
over the smooth road. They were all going somewhere, he thought to
himself, without troubling to look around, all out for a good time--a
change. Some of them were going to new places, no doubt, places miles
and miles away, possibly as far off as the coast. People did such
things, camping at night by the roadside or putting up at inns.

Presently he became aware of the fact that he was looking a leg of lamb
full in the face. There the thing was, hardly a foot from his nose. Back
at home its mate was probably sputtering in the oven by this time. And
Mrs. Topper was twittering about preparing new fields for indigestion
while the cook struggled to swallow her spleen. It was appalling. Mr.
Topper considered the lamb with smouldering eyes, but the lamb held its
ground, and for a moment they confronted each other like two
antagonists. Then Mr. Topper, at last outfaced by his less sensitive
opponent, whirled about and walked back to the garage, this time with
purpose in his step. But as he approached the garage he became troubled
in his mind, and this trouble made him shuffle slightly in his gait. He
had no doubt as to the ultimate outcome of his visit, but how to get it
over with was what dismayed him, forcing him to drift about uneasily in
front of the garage like a criminal released from the gates of durance.
The sight of the "For Sale" sign on the glittering object of his quest
stimulated him to action. He lifted his head and walked casually up to
the car. Mark, emerging from the shadows like a proud but jealous god,
greeted Mr. Topper with a slight show of surprise.

"How does the thing start?" asked Topper, without any preliminaries.

"How?" repeated Mark dumbly.

"The automobile," said Topper. "How do you start the damn thing?"

"Oh!" exclaimed Mark, now sparklingly alive to the situation. "Why, it
starts like any other automobile. Put your foot on it and off she goes."

"Interesting if true," thought Mr. Topper. Nevertheless he regarded the
starter with a contemplative eye.

"Is it hard to learn how to work them?" he continued. "I mean for a
person like myself?"

"Why, Mr. Topper," Mark admonished, "there are bigger boobs than you
messing up the roads everywhere."

"You shock me," remarked Topper, "but don't let's dwell on it. Now what
is this thing for?"

"That's for the ventilator. It lets in the air."

"On what?"

"On your feet."

"An unpleasant inference," murmured Mr, Topper, "but I dare say the
thing has its advantages. And this?" he added aloud.

"That lights your cigars."

Mr. Topper produced a cigar. Mark spoke the truth.

"A nice thing," said Mr. Topper, a little more at ease now that his
lungs were refining smoke. "A handy thing, that. Very nice. Clever, too,
isn't it?

Mark, becoming more than serious, agreed that it was.

"Yes, yes," continued Topper, sliding into the front seat of the
automobile as if he were not thinking of what he was doing. "A
convenient little gadget. Adds to the pleasure of driving. Now come
here, Mark, and show me what you do to make the old car go, but first
take that invitation off the front of the car. Some woman might come
along and buy me. How about that, Mark?"

"Ha! Ha!" laughed Mark, whose false mirth was arrested by a sudden slap
on the back.

"Take the damn sign off, Mark," commanded Topper, a new light gleaming
in his eyes.




CHAPTER IV
Mrs. Topper Is Not Delighted


The first stage of Mr. Topper's secret life dated from the Saturday on
which he purchased the Kerby's ill-fated car from Mark, the ecstatic
garage owner. And this stage lasted only a week, coming to a grand
anti-climax on the following Saturday. But during that time Mr. Topper,
a novice in secret living, was hard pressed to maintain his customary
calm either at home or abroad. The fire was no longer banked in his
eyes, but seemed to be smouldering through, and occasionally he found
himself scrutinising his friends as if they were total strangers.

His introductory driving lesson was of an anatomical nature. The
automobile was discussed to its most intimate parts, from which only the
finest mechanism could have refrained from shrinking. The lesson
completed, Mr. Topper abjured Mark to silence and returned to his home,
where he settled his feud with the leg of lamb through the process of
absorption. In other words, it became one hundred per cent. Topper and
for that reason acquired merit while Topper acquired flesh.

"I knew you would like it," said Mrs. Topper as though she were
addressing a sceptical cannibal who had just made a meal of a
questionable victim. "I've always said you liked lamb."

Mr. Topper could not deny the truth of her words, but in spite of their
truth they made him wish that he could uneat the lamb. Not knowing how
to do this decently, he smiled at his wife and said, "I walked farther
than I thought. Worked up an appetite."

The false smile and the black lie quelled the rebellion in his stomach.
Without realising it, Topper was already far gone in sin.

On Monday morning, after exchanging pennies with a small Italian child
for a stillborn edition of a New York paper, he greeted his friends with
his habitual placidity. No, he had not heard the new one about Bill's
furnace. He was sorry that Mrs. Thompson was having servant trouble. Too
bad. Was that so? Jennings had made a killing again. Great stuff.
Surely, he'd bring the Missus over first thing. Wednesday evening? Good!
Good! His tulips? Doing splendidly! A whole bed of them--all blooming.
No, not brewing, just smousing about. Is that so! How about your own
cellar? None of that stuff, Jack! The whole town knows about you. The
farmer's daughter and the tramp? Sure he'd like to hear it. Wait till
they got aboard.

And off went Topper with his boon companions, all of whom he decided
were perfect strangers to him.

At the office Topper treated the president with a commendable show of
tolerance. Cosmo Topper really and sincerely pitied the man, pitied him
from his heart. He was a good old thing, but out of touch, pathetically
inadequate. However, his chauffeur looked like a keen enough young chap.
Funny foreign-looking moustache, but then a good driver was like any
other real artist. Better in fact. They had to have a little leeway.
Topper would have a word with him one day. Exchange views on cars.
Democratic. That was it. A man in his position could afford to be
democratic. It went. As for the president, it was too bad. Topper felt
sorry for him.

Now the strange thing about it was that on this particular morning the
president, sighting his world-weary eyes between the bronze eyes of his
Great Dane desk ornament, felt pleased to permit Topper to occupy his
gaze.

"A solid man," thought the president. "A good man and a worker. I can
count on him. The others"--and the president's eyes never
flickered--"brilliant, but they're waiting to cut my throat. To them
this bank isn't home, it's something they want to control through votes
and money and chicanery. Now Topper's different. He's a man, at least.
Loyal to a fault."

And the president, rousing his great body, towered like a devastating
sun over the gleaming surface of his desk, then slowly advanced on Topper.

"You're looking fit, Topper," he said. "This man from Texas has been in
again. Don't want to see him . . . Come upstairs. We'll talk it over."

Topper followed.

"Why this?" he thought. "Why have I been selected?

Topper little realised that there was a new light in his eyes that set
him apart from his fellow men. It was young and fresh. The president was
an old man, and, like Topper, he had grown weary from watching eyes. He
had peered into them for more than half a century . . . too deeply.

* * *

Topper is speeding through the shadows like a virgin to a forbidden
tryst. He is thrilled with secret alarm. In the close embrace of the
night there is something almost personal. It clings to Topper like a
wronged woman, filling him with a desire to be elsewhere.

For nearly a week now Topper had been lying steadily, mostly to his
wife. Once he had stooped so low as to lie to the garbage man. Topper
had come to that. It was excusable in this case, for the man collected
garbage of the better sort throughout the town, and in order to forget
his occupation, he continually busied his tongue with other people's
affairs.

The seal of sin is settling on Topper's brow. He looks healthier and
less uninteresting. He suspects everyone and, without being aware of it,
he has been having a tremendous change.

At the garage, Mark is waiting for him. Good old Mark! Topper loves the
man.

Topper arrives. There is a hurried conversation. Then each through his
appointed door slides into the seat and they are off like a pair of
conscience-stricken grave robbers. Mark is driving and Topper is doing
strange, futile things with the brim of his felt hat. Instead of
concealing his face, he succeeds in making himself look like a foppish
desperado. He is hoping that he appears both sinister and repulsive so
that people will avert their gaze without recognising him, whereas, in
truth, had any of Topper's friends seen him at this moment, they would
have been astonished beyond measure, their cherished belief in the
eternal sameness of things completely demolished.

The car proceeds down a side street to that section of the town near
which no nice people care to build. In this belittered and uncorseted
neighbourhood Topper feels more at ease. This place which he once
considered a reproach to the community, when he considered it at all,
has become pleasantly familiar to him, a part of his secret life. It is
the hidden door that leads to the open road. The dour houses and dim
shops no longer make him uneasy. He regards them with a friendly eye
which does not drop disapprovingly at the sight of a woman nursing her
child on the least populous step of a front stoop. And when a mulatto
maid swings down the street and stops to talk with the technically white
youth in the livery stable, the moral responsibility of the race
question does not weigh down Topper's heart. "Whose business is it?" he
thinks to himself. "People should mind their own affairs." Anyway, she
was an upstanding figure of a woman.

Soon the town is left behind and the car spins along an unfrequented road.

"What did you tell her to-night, Mr. Topper?" asks Mark.

"Meeting of the Town Guardians," replies Topper, emerging from his hat.

"Last night it was a Fire Council," continues Mark. "What's it going to
be to-morrow?"

"The Assessment Club," snaps Topper promptly.

Mark gives a low whistle of admiration and the conversation languishes.

"They were killed some way down the road," Mark announces presently.
"Want to see the tree? It's on the other end of the old bridge."

"Certainly not," says Topper. "To gaze upon the departing point of my
predecessors would hardly add to my skill. I want to shift the gears,
not chatter through them."

"All right," replies Mark, bringing the car to a stop. "You take the
wheel and turn her around. Drive down the line a bit and then come back.
Keep turning, and if anything comes along pull in close to the side and
stop. I'll keep an eye out."

Like a dog beneath the caress of an unfamiliar hand the gears shivered
nervously at Mr. Topper's touch. They did not exactly chatter, but from
time to time uttered cries of protest, like a child aroused from sleep
by a convulsive pain in its stomach. Mr. Topper drove wisely but not
well. He obeyed all the dictates of common sense, but still there was
something lacking. Through no discernible fault of his own he seemed to
bring out all the wayward traits of the car. It stopped without reason
and started without grace. It darted as if pursued, then loitered
alluringly. It displayed all the varied moods of a temperamental woman,
one moment purring soothingly, the next scolding petulantly, now running
ahead blind to caution, now holding back in virtuous alarm. It strayed
from the path and returned again, and it treated its ardent possessor
with the arrogant indifference of a beautiful thing. Mr. Topper was
charmed. Not so Mark. Nevertheless, after three-quarters of an hour of
conscientious objecting the car was turned over to Mark, and Mr. Topper,
moistly relinquishing the wheel, surveyed the June evening and found it
good.

"You'll get by," remarked Mark as he headed the car for home.

And Mr. Topper did get by, what with the influence of Mark and a handful
of cigars. Characteristically enough it was not until Mr. Topper held in
his hands the official card entitling him to drive that he felt sure of
his ability. The card dispelled all lingering doubt. He belonged to the
brotherhood of the road. He had been tested and received. He could now
speak on equal terms with the boy who delivered the ice. He had
something in common with practically all the world.

* * *

There were several surprises in store for Mrs. Cosmo Topper on the
Saturday following the purchase of the car. The first one came when Mr.
Topper, returning from the city, announced without previous warning that
he was starting a two weeks' vacation. Mrs. Topper successfully
punctured the glory of this surprise by feeling audibly sorry that she
was hardly up to going anywhere. Topper, not to be outdone, snatched her
fleeting triumph by saying that he was just as well pleased. Of course
he was sorry about her not feeling well, but then he was always sorry
about that--stoically so, thought his wife.

Her second surprise came when Topper informed her that immediately after
luncheon he proposed to attend a meeting of the Defence Society. Mrs.
Topper saw scant reason for this, but made no comment until the meal was
finished.

"What's this?" she said as he rose from the table. "What are all these
meetings about? First it's the Town Guardians, then the Fire Council . . ."

"The other way 'round," corrected Mr. Topper, artistically cherishing
his lies.

"Well, it doesn't very much matter, does it?" she replied. "What's got
into this town? All these meetings!"

"Sparrows," said Mr. Topper as he jauntily left the room.

Mrs. Topper followed her husband with wondering eyes. What a terse and
uninforming answer! How unlike the usually explicit Cosmo! Sparrows. Why
that?

A few hours later a third surprise caused Mrs. Topper to emerge with
unwonted haste from the house. Topper, abandoning his secret life, was
sounding his horn in the driveway. Mrs. Topper, from the front porch,
saw a rather flushed and foolish-looking man of middle age gazing
brightly at her from the driving seat of a glittering automobile.

"Well, what do you think of us now?" asked the man in a voice which
conveyed the impression that Mrs. Topper would never be able adequately
to express her admiration in words.

Mrs. Topper did not answer immediately. He had not expected her to. That
was partly the fun of it--the dawning of delight, the wonder and
unbelief and then the appreciation. Indigestion would be forgotten. A
new era would start for them.

"You gave me such a start," said Mrs. Topper. "What on earth are you
trying to do with that garish-looking car?"

"Trying?" replied Mr. Topper, making a brave effort to retain his smile.
"Trying? Why, I'm not trying, my dear. I'm actually driving it. I drove
it here all the way from the garage. It's ours. Yours and mine. We own it."

"You might own it," Mrs. Topper said, "but we don't. Keep me out of it.
I won't be involved. Everybody in town knows the Kerbys' car. Even I
recognise it. I've seen it thousands of times. A second-hand car. What a
thing to do!"

Topper's smile would not stay fixed. No matter how he strove, his lips
refused to respond. Everything was so different from what he had expected.

"I know," he explained, looking down at the wheel. "This is only our
practice car. New one next year. Nice though, isn't it?"

"I don't think it's a bit nice," said Mrs. Topper. "Nor do I think it
nice of you to sit there and enjoy yourself. Buying an automobile and
not letting me know, picking up the most vulgar car in town, coming home
at this hour and making noises on the lawn, upsetting my nerves and
spoiling the leg of lamb . . ."

Then Mrs. Topper received her last surprise.

"Damn the leg of lamb!" he shouted, embittered beyond endurance by his
wife's reception of his surprise. "I'm going for a drive."

An offensive honking or the horn overfilled Mrs. Topper's cup of woe.

"He seems to be able to drive it," she reluctantly admitted to herself
as the automobile wavered down Glendale Road.




CHAPTER V
The Nebulous Lap


It could not be said of Mr. Topper that he was in a brown study as he
drove away from his wife. He was keenly alive to the fact that he was
sitting alone in a moving automobile entirely dependent on him for pace
and direction. He alone was now responsible for the safety of the car as
well as for his own safety. This knowledge never for a moment left his
mind. In spite of it, Mr. Topper was preoccupied, or as reoccupied as a
person in his position could afford to be. Violence had been done to his
feelings, and a reaction had set in. After a week of tremendous lying,
during which time life had seemed to be disclosing new and splendid
vistas, Topper suddenly felt that after all life was no whit different.
It was as flat and stale as ever. Automobiles were no use, nor were
little attempts, nor anything.

"Oh, damn that leg of lamb," he muttered, slowing down with elaborate
caution at the sight of a car two blocks distant.

As the automobile passed Mr. Topper, the eyes of the man at the wheel
grew incredulous with wonder. He leaned over the side and looked back.
He came to a stop and continued to stare.

"That's Hart," said Topper to himself. "Well, damn him, too. He'll
spread the news around. Let him. See if I care."

And Topper stepped on the gas.

Through force of habit he took the same road he had learned to know so
well with Mark. This was not the drive he had intended taking--not if
she had been decent and friendly about things, but now it did not
matter. He drove along, occupied with his thoughts, keeping his eye on
the road and paying very little attention to the scenery. Presently he
became aware that he had passed his usual limits. Ahead of him was the
bridge on the other end of which the Kerbys had met their fate. Topper
had never driven over a bridge before and the rattling of planks
unnerved him. He stopped on the after-side to regain his composure.

The tree must be somewhere close at hand, for Mark had said it was just
at the end of the bridge. Topper got out of the automobile and looked
morbidly about him. At the edge of the road stood a stunted tree with a
gashed and splintered trunk. Undoubtedly it was the one, the very tree
that had caused George and Marion Kerby hastily to withdraw from their
questionable circle of friends. Topper surveyed the tree thoughtfully.
Two human lives, two warm and vigorous creatures, had been sped into
eternity against the age-old bark of that tree. He glanced up. Leaves
were out on the upper branches, and wings were flitting through them.
Life still went on with the tree. It drank in the moist earth and tossed
its palms to the sun. It was made of sterner stuff than mortals. It was
more firmly rooted to the earth. Topper had a funny thought. If he had
had a son this tree would still be green and filled with birds when the
boy was gray and gazing back on life. Topper wanted a son, he felt the
need of youth, an enthusiastic, unspoiled soul, to stimulate his ebbing
interest in the automobile, someone to admire his daring and to speak
favourably of his newly acquired art. Topper was on the point of
becoming a shade self-sympathetic.

An observer of character seeing him at that moment would have paused to
ponder over his unremarkable figure. He looked rather small beneath the
majestic reaches of the tree, and his stomach seemed pitifully brave,
thrusting itself out aggressively into a world that could trump with
mountains. The observer would have noted Topper's stomach and the
sturdily planted legs, and without exactly forgetting these features,
would have really remembered Topper's face. There dwelt the Prince of
Denmark, shadowed and filled with trouble, an inarticulate prince,
perhaps, run to flesh and bland of mien, but a prince withal, probing
the problem of life and the mystic charm of death, a man existing
reluctantly, unconsciously seeking release.

Mr. Topper turned from the tree and wormed himself into the automobile.
And the observer, had he been endowed with cattish curiosity, would have
noted by the labourings of Topper's body that he had not long been
familiar with the driving seat of an automobile. Once in he relaxed,
then, collecting his scattered members, arranged his feet and hands as
Mark had patiently instructed him.

"Just the same," thought Topper with an important feeling of ownership,
"these trees shouldn't grow so close to the road. There should be a law
about trees. A sort of a movement. Something done."

At this particular time Mr. Topper's conception of the ideal tour was
limited only by the skyline of the Sahara Desert, a wide, unobstructed
expanse affording adequate room for turning. Topper's social instincts
did not extend to motoring. He preferred an unfrequented road where only
nature could hear the neighing of the gears, and where there would be
naught of alarm to galvanise his nerves.

Mr. Topper made the customary movements, and with delightful regularity
the scenery began to slide by. He became aware of an oncoming line of
trees, flashing things filled with shadows, he felt a dip and a gentle
rise and gazed across a sunken plain soft with grass, scarred by fences
and heckled by an astonishingly undecided brook that turned and doubled
on its path. Mr. Topper found himself enjoying this hollow expanse of
green. It was longer than it was wide and it seemed to extend for miles.
Only the woods on the other side put a stop to its triumphant march.
There were dots of trees on the sunken plain, intimate groups of
clustering green, but they did not rob the plain of its vastness.
Instead they emphasised its majesty like a contentious family huddled
beneath the vaulting dome of a deserted railroad station.

"Take those fences down," thought Topper, "and what a space you'd have.
Cavalry could charge across those fields."

What a lovely place it was . . . the unexpectedly good road, the sunken
fields, the sky closing them in and the occasional farmhouse bereft of
life. The road puzzled Topper. It was as if the world had planned a
secret path to nowhere. He felt that he was riding on through an endless
dusky solitude. He no longer troubled about the car. It seemed to be
running itself. There were trees on one side, green curving space on the
other, and an unobstructed road ahead. Topper had become blended with
his surroundings. His body was blotting up the landscape and his mind,
no longer functioning, seemed to be absorbing the lights and shades and
smells along the road. The colour of the sky, now churning red with
sunset, dropped like a mantle on Mr. Topper and filled the world with
stillness.

And out of the stillness a voice spoke to Mr. Topper.

"Topper," it said, "Topper, perhaps you do not realise you are sitting
on my wife's lap--or do you?"

Topper's hands grew white on the wheel. He made an effort to stop the
car, but as the machine seemed disinclined to stop he abandoned the
effort and looked steadfastly in front of him, blindly refusing to admit
the fact that he had heard a voice without seeing its owner. The thing
just could not be. He, Topper, was at fault, or at least he heartily
hoped so. Driving had overtaxed his imagination. The strange solitude of
the place and the calm, mysterious beauty of the landscape had affected
him. It would have affected anybody.

So Mr. Topper drove on. The behaviour of the automobile disturbed him,
although he would not admit to himself that it was acting in any way
unusual. Nevertheless it was. It had become a self-propelled vehicle in
the fullest sense of the term. It no longer concerned itself with
Topper, but obeyed the dictates of its newly acquired independence. It
did not hitch and spurt along the road, but progressed smoothly at a
speed which the discreet Topper viewed with sincere alarm. Once when the
motor slowed down he made an attempt to shift the gears, only to be
paralysed by a voice exclaiming irritably:

"Don't do that!"

After this Mr. Topper withdrew completely from the management of the car
and dropped to the rather unimportant position usually allotted to a
pig-iron image arbitrarily spiked to the front seat of a toy fire
engine. And Mr. Topper looked the part. His face was a mask and his arms
had become angular and rigid. He was certain of this, however: the first
voice had been a man's, whereas the second had been unmistakably
feminine. After making a mental note of this Mr. Topper closed his mind.
It was better not to think--safer.

"Topper," began the first voice, sounding quite polite and reasonable,
"must I remind you again that you are sitting on my wife's lap? Why not
squeeze over now and . . ."

"Stop!" cried Mr. Topper, coming to a quick decision, and with an
extraordinary effort arresting the speed of the car. "Stop," he
repeated, "and for God's sake don't begin again. I can't stand it."

"Come, come now, Mr. Topper," admonished the voice.

"Don't," pleaded Topper. "Let me speak. Please listen. I've bought and
paid for this automobile. With great mental anguish I've learned how to
make it work, but I'll give it to you, give it gladly, if you'll let me
step quietly out, and you then drive on as fast and as far as you can."

Mr. Topper looked earnestly at the vacant seat beside him. He wanted a
reply and yet he waited for it with dread.

"Why so tragic?" the voice began. "Why shun our company? Three can sit
just as comfortably on this seat as two. We've done it often. Just
squeeze over a little."

" You don't seem to understand," said Mr. Topper, with the patience of
desperation. "If the seat were a thousand leagues wide I would still
feel cramped. Take the car. You're welcome to it. Take it to some far
place. Have a nice drive, a good time, but leave me behind. Let me get
out. I'm not enjoying myself."

"Still tragic," retorted the voice. "And all the time you are wallowing
on my wife's lap."

Topper had a strange and uncomfortable sensation. He felt, or imagined
he felt, a pair of arms passing through his body on their way to the
wheel. He was almost sure that for some minutes these arms had been
playfully hugging him around the waist, and once more he became
painfully aware of his stomach. It was indeed an objectionable feature.

"How about my wife's lap?" questioned the voice.

"Hang it all!" Topper exclaimed. "Why doesn't she move over? I didn't
sit on her lap, you know. She got it there."

"Topper," rebuked the voice. "You surprise us. I might say, you offend
us. I might, mind you, Topper, but I don't."

"Offend you!" cried Mr. Topper. "Great God! What next?"

"Now, taking up the matter of my wife's lap," continued the voice, "I
still maintain . . ."

Mr. Topper became mentally unfit to hear the remainder of the remark. He
had passed into one of those distracted calms that precede lunacy. Out
of this calm he heard himself saying, with tastefully garnished sarcasm:

"After all, the car really does belong to me. I bought the thing, but
not your wife's lap. I'm sorry, but I wash my hands of your wife's lap.
You can take the lap or leave it. I'm not responsible. If her lap
insists on sitting under me I'm not to blame. However, if you and your
wife and her everlasting lap would disappear as speedily as possible,
the countryside would not bear witness to my grief. Certainly not."

"We've already disappeared as much as possible," said the voice rather
gloomily.

"Not enough for me," replied Topper.

"All right, then," said the voice. "Move over, Marion. Topper wants to
hog the car."

"Hog the car!" retorted Mr. Topper. "Whose car is it? Answer me that.
Answer me fairly that. Whose car is it, I ask you? If your wife's lap
were at all ladylike . . ."

"What's this about my wife's lap?" interrupted the voice, a trifle
excitedly. "Make one unfavourable reference to my wife's lap. Just one.
Let me hear it."

"Now, for God's sake, boys, don't let's have any trouble," put in a
woman's voice pleadingly. "Come on, let's get together. That's how it
happened the last time. Be sensible, George. Topper seems to be a game
old bird."

"Old birds are inclined to be gamey," remarked Topper.

"Ah, there, Topper," said the woman's voice. "Getting common? And still
sitting on my lap?"

"just so," joined in the man's voice. "Don't go any further. Try to
remember that you're still sitting on my wife's lap. I don't want any
trouble."

Topper's whole mental system was undergoing a revolution. It did not
occur to him that he was having a row with space, or that he was being
calculatingly nasty to nothingness. So absorbed had he become in the
injustice done to himself that, for the moment, the unconventionality of
the situation had slipped his mind. Topper was thoroughly aroused.

"Prove to me that I am sitting on your wife's lap," he said.

"Do you understand the fourth dimension?" politely inquired the man's
voice.

"Why should I?" said Topper.

"Well, we do," continued the voice. "As a matter of fact you might
almost say that we are the fourth dimension. Not of the oldest families,
perhaps, but pretty well sponsored at that. It would be a waste of time
to attempt to explain it to you, so you'll have to take my word for it.
You, Topper, are sitting most heavily, most grossly, on my wife's lap.
No man has ever done it, with my knowledge, for the same length of time
that you have. I repeat--with my knowledge."

"Don't indulge your jealous nature," said the woman's voice. "Don't
irritate me."

"I'm going to leave this car," announced Topper. "I hate bickering."

Topper made an effort to rise, then sank back in his seat. He had an odd
feeling. Two arms were holding him round the waist. They were the most
material arms he had ever encountered, yet he could not see them. They
held him firmly, and made a noticeable depression in his stomach. This
impression without the arms was too much for Topper.

"She's holding me," he gasped, sweat beading his lips. "Tell her to take
her arms away."

"Not until you promise to be good," replied the woman's voice.

"Let me go," pleaded Topper, "and I'll promise anything. If you'll only
take your arms away from my--my--"

"Your stomach?" suggested the woman.

"All right," exclaimed Topper. "Have it your way. If you'll only remove
your arms I'll slide over gladly."

Topper drew a deep breath as he felt himself released. Casting a timid
glance on either side of him, he slid to the middle of the seat with a
movement which for him was voluptuously sinuous.

"At last you've succeeded in getting me between you," he said with
spiteful resignation. "Go on now and drive me mad. Finish the job. Smash
the car. I don't want it and my wife can't stand it."

"Why can't your wife stand it?" asked the woman's voice.

"Oh, I don't know," replied Topper. "All her reasons are rather obscure.
She says the thing belonged to the Kerbys and that's enough for her.
It's too notorious."

"Go on, Mr. Topper," said the woman's voice as the automobile gathered
pace. "What else did she say?"

Mr. Topper was neither the wisest nor the most observant of men. His
ears were attuned to only one danger signal, Mrs. Topper. The beautiful
simplicity of the man lay in the fact that at his age he still thought
of his wife as being quite an exceptional woman. His optimistic nature
led him to believe that she alone of all her tribe had been cursed with
an unfortunate disposition, that she alone was the victim of implacable
indigestion, that she alone was the only woman who considered herself a
martyr and who forced her husband so to consider her. There was only one
Mrs. Topper. It was inconceivable that there could be two. Topper clung
to this hope. It comforted him a little to imagine that all the other
women in the world were different, that they had no small animosities,
that they did not spend an hour in saying something that could have been
as easily stated in three minutes, that they did not take advantage of
the fact that they were women and as a consequence nervous wrecks, that
they did not spasmodically attempt to please their husbands while
consistently endeavouring to crush them, that they were not interested
in the puerile mystery surrounding the sudden departure of Mrs. Smith's
cook or the Robinsons' trip to Maine, or the fact that the Harts were
still in town. Mr. Topper honestly believed that his wife had been
especially set aside for him by a kind but casual god. In this belief he
accepted her, but not without some mental reservations.

"What else did Mrs. Topper say?" continued the woman's voice.

"I forget," he replied. "She's said so many things."

"For instance?"

"Well, that Marion Kerby was no better than she should be and that her
husband was a sot who consumed all his time and money in keeping himself
numb with drink."

"That will do," broke in the man's voice. "I've heard enough. Do you
happen to know who we are--or were?"

"I had hoped that our acquaintance would never become so intimate," said
Topper with the utmost earnestness.

"Well, it has," said the man's voice. "You are speaking to and driving
with both George and Marion Kerby. Now how does that make you feel?"

"I ceased to feel some time ago," replied Mr. Topper, "but if I hadn't,
your information would be like tossing a paralytic in a blanket."

"The old crow," came contemplatively from the driving seat. "So that
sombre old fogey said that I was no better than I should be. Did you
hear what he said, George? Hit him."

"He didn't say it," said George. "Be reasonable. He's not responsible
for his wife's remarks. No man is. The race would perish."

"But just the same she said it," the wheel replied broodingly.

At this point Mr. Topper felt forced to interpose an objection. Routine
loyalty compelled him to speak.

"In the first place you are a woman," he said, "and in the second you're
invisible, and for that reason you're taking a doubly unfair advantage
of your sex and lack of substance by calling my wife an old crow and a
fogey."

Mr. Topper made a mental note of the two expressions. He would never
apply them directly to his wife, but it would be quite a comfort to
think them at times.

"Look here," exclaimed the man's voice. "I'll knock your block off if
you begin to pull that first and second place stuff with us. Where do
you get . . ."

"Now for God's sake don't let's have any trouble, boys," the wheel
pleaded. "Remember, George, we were smashed up the last time."

"Then why did you start things now?"

"Start things? Me?"

"Yes, you, with all your personal injuries."

"I must say you're extremely unreasonable."

"Me unreasonable? Hell's bells! That's a good one."

"Don't be despicable."

Mr. Topper had been watching the casual conduct of the car with
increasing anxiety. He thought that it was now high time to enter into
the discussion.

"I hope," he said, carefully considering the advisability of each word,
"that you won't take it in ill part if I say that at present I have no
desire to join your nebulous state. The situation, bad as it is, would
be less desperate if I could only feel that someone, no matter how
invisible, was paying attention to the car."

Topper was silent for a moment, then his true feelings triumphed.

"I hate bickerings," he said.

He was astounded by hearing a hearty peal of laughter from the steering
wheel. Manifestations of mirth encompassed him.

"Stick to the road," he urged.

"'Stick-to-the-road-Topper!'" the woman's voice exulted. "That's a good
name. Let's call him that."

"Only for introductions," replied the other voice consideringly. "Too
long for ordinary use. 'Cosmo' is rather crisp. Why paint the lily?"

"What do you mean about introductions?" inquired Mr. Topper uneasily.
"Have you any friends? I don't want to meet them. Remember that.
Absolutely no."

"I hope you wouldn't embarrass us in case we met a group of our
friends," replied the man.

"Embarrass you? Oh, I don't know what I'd do. My God, a group! Not just
a friend, but a group!" Topper's voice was distracted.

"Well, how about meeting some of yours?" suggested George. "There are
quite a few over here. Not an honest piece of ectoplasm in the bunch."

"Look where you're driving," breathed Topper, reaching for something to
cling to, yet unwilling to thrust his arms through the invisible bodies
beside him. "I never wanted less to die in all my life."

"Tactful Topper," said Marion.

A slight difficulty with a rail fence momentarily retarded conversation.
When the car emerged from the dispute bearing a battered fender Topper
voiced his unhappiness by remarking that there was scant comfort to be
gained by sitting between two ethereal bodies while one's very soul was
being shot through space.

"I have nothing to cling to save hope," he said. "And even that grows dim."

A turn in the road disclosed in the distance the lights of a small town.
Mr. Topper gave a sigh of relief. During the course of the conversation
he had not actually believed in its reality. He had preferred to
accustom his mind to the fact that he had gone mad, mildly mad, and, as
he fervently hoped, temporarily so. The best way to combat this madness,
he concluded, was to give in to it, to make no effort to regain sanity,
but gradually to feel his way back to his normal state like a man
delicately shaking a leg that had fallen asleep. Topper felt that a
village street, stark and solid beneath the glare of the lights, and
thronged with the usual Saturday night collection of rustics, would do
much to restore his mental poise. He would leave the car and mingle with
these people. He would not actually kiss and hug them, but he would feel
like doing so. Spiritually he would shower them with embraces, and as he
absorbed the life of the town the imaginings of the road would fade away
and he, Topper, would once more be a full-fledged member of the human
race instead of a rebellious participant in an occult phenomenon.

"For the sake of appearance," he remarked to the wheel, "we had better
exchange positions as we drive into the town. People have grown
accustomed to seeing someone sitting at the steering gear of
automobiles. It may seem silly to you, but if we drove down the main
street of this town under the present arrangement I would probably be
burned for a witch or thrust into solitary confinement."

"You need never fear solitude, Topper, so long as we're around," replied
Marion.

"Don't misunderstand me," Topper hastened to explain. "I have no fear of
solitude. I yearn for it. . . absolute solitude unbroken by the sound of
a voice or the knowledge of a presence."

"All right," said Marion. "Let's change seats. Move over."

"How can I be sure that we are changing seats?" Mr. Topper inquired.

"I'll see that she does," replied George Kerby. "Stop at the nearest
garage. We need gas." A few minutes later Mr. Topper drew up at a
garage. He had never before bought gasoline. The situation perplexed him.

"How much shall I get?" he whispered over his shoulder.

"Ten gallons will be enough," Kerby announced. "Get some oil, too."

"Not so loud," Topper pleaded as he got out of the automobile and
approached the unenterprising deity of the place. The deity regarded
Topper with aversion and his car with disgust. He was almost hostile in
his disapproval. Topper could sense it by the angle of the man's hat and
the tilt of his cigar. Nevertheless, Topper addressed the deity,
tactfully suggesting his co-operation in procuring oil and gasoline.

"Bring your car under the pump," commanded the deity, filling Topper's
face with smoke. Topper objected to the smoke, but felt that at least it
was more tangible than phantoms.

"One moment," he replied, turning round, then he froze in his tracks,
his last hope banished. After all he was not mad, not even mildly so.
The automobile, apparently unassisted, was busily edging itself up to
the pump. He glanced guiltily at the deity as if to seek comfort in his
repellent countenance, but no comfort was there to be found. The deity
had momentarily become a mortal. You could tell that by the gold
fillings in his teeth twinkling through his widely separated lips.

"How did you do that?" asked the man. Topper laughed a trifle wildly, as
he waved a protesting hand at the car. "Quite a trick, eh? Well, I had
her all set, but I guess the brakes slipped."

The man's face cleared, his mouth closed and once more he became a
deity. But as he approached the tube to the tank his features again
altered. This time his eyes became prominent. As he gazed at the brass
cap of the gasoline tank they were much more eloquent with astonishment
than the gold fillings. The thing was slowly and mysteriously unscrewing
itself. Suddenly it moved through the air, then came to repose on the
mudguard of the car. Topper stood by fascinated.

"How did you do that?" demanded the man.

"What?" said Topper wearily, taking out his handkerchief and hiding his
face therein. "I wish you'd stop asking me how I do things. I just do
them, that's all. Automatic springs. New device. Haven't time to go into
all that."

As the man filled the tank with gasoline Topper hurried to the front of
the car and leaned in.

"For God's sake stop trying to be so helpful," he whispered. "I'll do
everything."

An ineffectually stifled giggle smote his ears. "Who's laughing?" called
the man from the rear of the car.

Topper had not the time to answer. Something was taking place in front
that demanded all his attention. A water bucket insecurely balanced on
thin air was emptying its contents into the radiator. Topper sprang
forward and seized the bucket.

"I'm just giving her water," he shouted. "You must have heard the
gurgle. This car always gurgles like that. It's a habit."

When the radiator was filled Mr. Topper became engaged in a violent
struggle with the bucket, for George Kerby, still bent on being helpful,
was trying to take the thing back to the garage. For a few moments the
bucket danced crazily in the air, then fell clattering to the ground,
from which it was seized by some unknown agent and carried swiftly in
the direction of the garage. Mr. Topper sped after the bucket, his
outstretched hand separated from the handle by several inches of space.

"I'm just returning the bucket," he called over his shoulder. "I'll be
right with you." Then under his breath, "Kerby, don't run so fast. Let
me at least catch up with the bucket. I merely want to pretend I'm
carrying it."

The deity, now transformed into one of the most disturbed creatures that
had ever watered gasoline, stood watching Topper's pursuit of the
bucket. He saw it describe an arc in the air, and Topper leaping after
it with great agility and determination. He saw the bucket rolling
rapidly across the floor and Topper, lost to dignity, rolling after it.
Finally he saw Topper rise triumphantly with the bucket in his hand and
place it under the water faucet, where for a short space it bounced
gaily up and down, then settled to rest beneath the weight of Mr.
Topper's body. The man did not stay to see any more, but faced about and
hurried down the street. As he did so the automobile began to honk
vociferously, a door flew open and a woman's voice called impatiently to
Mr. Topper. The man increased his pace, then broke into an earnest
dogtrot. Still honking madly, the automobile turned into the road and
sped away in the opposite direction. But the man did not stop to watch
its tail light disappear.

In the automobile Topper was sitting in silence and perspiration. George
and Marion Kerby were talking to him at the same time, but Topper
refused to answer. He was a crushed man, a hurt man. The scene still
lived in his eyes, that ghastly pursuit of the bucket. And it lingered
in his eyes until the automobile came to a stop beside the great tree
that had dispatched the Kerbys. Here Topper began to laugh softly to
himself. He was thinking of the amazement on the garage-man's face. Mr.
Topper's laugh gathered in volume. It was swelled by the laughter of
George and Marion Kerby. The night was filled with their mirth. The old
tree rustled its remonstrating branches above the automobile, but the
laughter mocked its rebuke. A farmer driving home from market warily
skirted the glare of the headlights and clicked to his mare. Down the
road and through the night the wild laughter followed the creaking cart.

"They were all sittin' in the front seat huggin' and kissin' and
carryin' on crazy," the farmer told his wife at the end of the drive. "I
could see 'em as plain as day. Women smokin' and goin' on scandlous."

"Them townspeople drink too much," replied the wife as she filled the
old man's glass with a generous allotment of good old Jersey cider.




CHAPTER VI
Disaster at the Curb


Thus began for Mr. Topper an unusual experience, to say the least. Not
knowing the circumstances, his friends chastely called it demoralising.
But not so Mr. Topper. For the first time in his life he consciously,
nay, deliberately, assumed a minority rôle. For the first time he
permitted himself to deal with abstract things without feeling that he
had sinned. For the first time Topper's established routine of living
gave place to a disorderly desire to live. And for the first time on an
evening in June, Topper wonderingly considered the stars, not in
relation to a smart New Jersey town, but in the relation of the town to
the stars.

This was the second phase of Topper's secret life. It was in this phase
that he came to regard the place in which he lived as a pool fed by the
withering souls of people who had passed up life. They were usual
people, the people who fed this pool. They had been accepted and asked
out to places. They commuted, propagated, and entertained with impartial
uniformity. In all the things of life they used the same time-table. Mr.
Topper could not call them vicious. That was the trouble. Topper bent
his brain over an abstract problem. His friends would have been
surprised had they seen the man actually screwing his face into childish
wrinkles over such a time-consuming thought.

And all was not well at home with Topper. He had cursed a leg of lamb.
He had actually damned the thing. Mrs. Topper could not forget that. Had
he cursed her she might have dimly understood, but to hurl imprecations
at a tender leg of lamb, a thoughtfully selected leg of lamb--oh, no,
that could not be forgotten. Men might rebel against their God, but a
leg of lamb, a household deity, a savory roast . . . sacrilege, its very
seat and circle!

In spite of her husband's offence Mrs. Topper maintained the brooding
sameness of things. It gave her a better opportunity than an open breach
to confound him with the seriousness of the situation, the utter
hopelessness of it, the black despair. They still occupied their
appointed chairs on opposite sides of the sitting-room table. Topper
still read his paper while Mrs. Topper did darting things with her
needle to a piece of linen. Each dart picked a little fibre out of
Topper's nerves. So terrible did it all seem that at times he could
hardly restrain himself from dodging as the needle sought its mark. On
these occasions Topper clung to Scollops for bodily comfort and moral
support. And Scollops with luxurious undulation yawned callously in the
face of tragedy. It was not of her making. She was gloatingly out of it.
What was important, however, was a good sound sleep. Topper's thigh was
a comfortable place for a good sound sleep, though of late, Scollops
daintily decided, this erstwhile unimpeachable mattress had been growing
a trifle too muscular.

In vain did Mr. Topper try to recapture romance in the eyes of Scollops.
Her eyes were closed in slumber. In vain did he seek distraction in
market quotations. Industrial bonds no longer inspired him with a
feeling of solid security. In vain did he let his eyes shirt round the
room in search of some object to hold his attention. The room was filled
with objects, but for Topper they were bereft of interest. Once, in a
fit of desperation, he faltered out an invitation to Mrs. Topper. It was
a beautiful afternoon, pervaded with dripping sunlight and carpeted with
leagues of green. It would be nice to go driving on such an afternoon.
The roads would be almost free from traffic and nobody much would be
around to observe them. It would be quite exciting. Mrs. Topper would
enjoy it. He imagined that there would be a nice, fresh breeze and that
the fields would look quite young and new. They could stop at a
roadhouse, a respectable one, the "Rose-Marie," and have tea. Well, what
did she say to that?

Topper looked hopefully at his wife, then looked away. He knew exactly
what she was going to say to that. He could have said it for her. But he
did not have to. She said it for herself. She was just a little too
tired today to risk the roads. They might upset her even more than she
was already if such an upheaval were possible. Last night had been a bad
one--sleepless. A dragging night. Anyway, she was not particularly
interested in automobiles, but he, Topper, was. Why didn't he go out and
take a nice drive? She, too, was sure there would be a lovely breeze and
that the fields would be lovely also. She would stay at home. A sigh.
She was better off at home. A look. Home was the place for her. A sigh
and a look.

"But," said Topper, his voice trembling slightly as he rose from his
chair and confronted his wife, "you haven't even so much as looked at
the automobile. You haven't touched one part of it with the tip of your
little finger. Aren't you interested at all? There's lots of nice things
about it. Come out and watch me light a cigar. You'd be surprised,
Mary." His voice grew low with excitement. "I'll teach you how to drive.
You could do it. Look at me! It would help you with your indigestion."

Mrs. Topper put down her sewing and looked up at her husband's earnest
face. What absurdly young eyes he had, she thought. Behind her
unsympathetic expression struggled a sincere desire to smile at Topper,
to go out and pat the automobile, to marvel over the cigar-lighter, to
sit in the front seat and to tell Topper how wonderful he was. Just a
little smile would have altered the situation, but the smile was not
forthcoming. Topper was making her resentful. He was committing a
terrible crime. He was destroying her good opinion of herself. Topper
was making her realise how calculatingly cruel and unsympathetic she
was, how stubborn as a wife and inadequate as a friend. No man could
make her feel like that and gain her forgiveness. No matter how the
reconciliation came about, she must be the generous spirit and Topper
the self-centred. She could not conceive of herself playing any other
rôle. Furthermore, Topper was showing himself up in altogether too
favourable a light. She was aware of that. She realised that Topper was
an exceptionally decent person. This added to her resentment. What right
had he to be like that? Was he deliberately trying to emphasise the
difference in their characters? Finally, Mrs. Topper had no desire to
lose her indigestion. It was the very last thing in the world she wanted
to lose. Mrs. Topper needed her indigestion. She lived in and for her
indigestion. It took the place of a child. She was tender about it. And
in her mistaken mind she hoped that, like a child, her indigestion would
help her to hold her husband. It gave her an extra claim on him. Mrs.
Topper, folding her hands in her lap, spoke to her husband in a dead,
level voice deliberately tuned to dash all hope.

"You bought the automobile," she said. "You bought it behind my back.
You selfishly robbed me of my pleasure. Selfishly. Yes, that's it.
You're so selfish and self-centred, so interested in your own affairs,
that you don't know I'm alive. And I'm not. I'm not even--"

"I know, dear," Topper broke in. "You're not even half alive. I realise
it. That indigestion! But really now I wasn't selfish. That is, I didn't
mean to be. I figured on surprising you and I worked so hard to--"

"Don't! " commanded Mrs. Topper. "You have told me to my face that I'm
not even half alive."

"But I thought that was what you were going to say," hastened Topper. "I
just wanted to agree."

"You had better go driving," said Mrs. Topper coldly. "Find somebody who
is a little less dead than I am."

Topper drooped his shoulders and turned away without answering. He was
thinking to himself that there was more excitement in the company of two
completely dead persons than he would ever find at home.

When he had gone Mrs. Topper buried her face in her hands and presently
tears trickled through her fingers. "Why am I this way?" she whispered.
"I don't want to be. I don't mean to be. But he shouldn't look so hurt.
I hate that look."

She started up and ran to the window. Topper was labouring in the
driveway. He looked like a man driving to his own execution. Mrs. Topper
hurried out on the porch and called to him.

"Let me get my things," she said. "I'll be right out."

Inside she dried her tears on the precious piece of linen.

Topper was radiant as his wife got into the car.

"Look here," he said, pulling at the electric lighter. "Too bad I
lighted my cigar, but here's how it works. See how red she's getting.
Put your finger near it. Feel that heat. Some heat, eh?"

Mrs. Topper obediently approached her finger to the lighter and agreed
that it was indeed some heat. However, she was not quite satisfied.
Topper should say something more. He had not admitted that he was
selfish and self-centred. Nor had he drawn favourable attention to Mrs.
Topper's generous conduct. She suffered an acute relapse and heartily
wished herself out of the car, but Topper was already turning down
Glendale Road.

"Now I'm shifting the gears," he explained. "Not so hard when you get
the knack. I'm not an expert yet, but you don't have to worry. Well,
Mary, it's great you're along," he added a little bashfully.

No, it was not quite adequate. It should have been longer and laden with
a deeper appreciation of her character. Mrs. Topper was not mollified.
However, she kept her peace. She would not spoil the drive--not yet.

Now it was unfortunate that as they crossed the main street of the town
Mrs. Topper decided she wanted to shop at the butcher's. It was doubly
unfortunate, because Topper was not accustomed to stopping on the main
streets of towns and had a perilous time wedging himself in between two
intimately parked automobiles. It was even more unfortunate that, after
Mrs. Topper's departure, Mr. Topper attempted to improve on his position
by ramming, with no little violence, the automobile directly in front of
him. People stopped and stared at Topper, then stared at the assaulted
car. Several examined the damaged fender from which Mr. Topper hastily
averted his woeful eyes. Where was the owner? Topper hoped that his wife
would hurry so that they could get away as speedily as possible. Topper
could never face the man. He felt like pinning a twenty-dollar bill to
the fender with a note asking forgiveness. He would sign it "An Unknown
Admirer," to make the man feel better about it.

But more unfortunate than anything else was the reappearance of Mrs.
Topper in company with Clara Stevens. Mr. Topper little realised how
really unfortunate this was. Clara was talking brilliantly and Mrs.
Topper was absorbing with gloomy interest.

"And so Harris told him to his face that he would as soon consider
buying a second-hand car as oil stock from a third cousin," she was
saying as the two women drew near Topper.

The remark did not sound reassuring to Topper. But then, Mary was a
sensible woman. Everyone knew how Clara went on.

"Clara was in town last week buying a new car," announced Mrs. Topper,
with meaning in her voice, after the customary hypocrisies had been
exchanged. "She spent a whole week going from place to place until she
was completely satisfied she had made a wise selection."

Topper thought that it was rather remiss of Clara to make no reference
to the fact that he was lounging picturesquely over the steering wheel
of an automobile, but perhaps he looked so natural that the unusualness
of the situation had not occurred to her.

"Clara picked out the car herself," continued Mrs. Topper, "and it's
registered in her name. She says Harris was a dear about it, so patient
with her and unselfish."

"And here it is!" exclaimed Clara, turning to the victim of Mr. Topper's
skill. "Why . . . what . . . has . . . happened . . . to . . my ... car
. . . my . . . nice . . . new . . . car?"

Topper thought she would never finish.

"Oh, God," he prayed to himself, "take me out of this. Translate me to
the heavens. Make me a fixed star or a shooting star. I don't much care
which, but deliver me now from these two women. Let me be somewhere else."

"Whatever will Harris say?" Clara tearfully asked the street.

Topper could see that the girl was moved, that her reputation as a
driver was seriously involved. He knew Harris, and he knew that he was
neither patient nor generous, nor was he a dear. Topper was also afraid
that some helpful bystander would point a denouncing finger at him
before he had time to explain.

"I guess Harris will have to talk with me," said Topper quietly. "You
see, I did it. I did it with my little car. Fix it as good as new. Stick
on another fender in a minute. Sorry. The man behind me just wouldn't
budge."

Mrs. Topper was being repaid for her momentary weakness. Before Clara
could speak she did, which showed that she had been toeing the mark.

"You should at least have thought of me," she said. "Come, Clara, take
me home, will you? I am not feeling well. I knew it would be this way.
Cosmo will see that everything is arranged."

"Just a minute," called Cosmo, as the two women entered the other
machine. "Aren't you coming driving with me?"

"With you?" said Mrs. Topper, her eye-brows slightly arched.




CHAPTER VII
Topper Calls on a Tree


Mr Topper viciously pressed his foot down on the self-starter. In his
imagination he was crushing the human race, especially the female branch
of it, and in particular Clara Stevens. He had one desire now and only
one. He wanted to cut himself off entirely from people and faces and
eyes, and from tongues, too. Idle, insincere tongues. He was an
embittered man and a confused one. Events had occurred too rapidly.
Mentally he had tried to catch up with them. There had been a little
unpleasantness at home. That had fortunately subsided. Then quite
amazingly he had found himself driving off in triumph with his wife. He
had talked to her engagingly about gears and electric devices. She had
appeared to be interested. After all, it was going to be a successful
afternoon. Everything was set for it. Then that fatal butcher shop and
the accident--a slight thing. Swift on this had come Clara Stevens and
exposure, followed by the contained but depressing departure of Mrs.
Topper. That was the sequence of events, but Mr. Topper searched in vain
for the logic. What was the good of scaling an emotional ladder if only
to have its topmost rung yield beneath one's feet? "No good," thought
Mr. Topper.

He was driving now with a purpose. He was going back to the tree beneath
which nearly a week ago he had taken light-hearted leave of George and
Marion Kerby. He was going back to the tree now and he was glad he was
going back. In spite of their rather peculiar ideas of a good time, Mr.
Topper felt that he understood the Kerbys far better than his more
obvious friends. And George and Marion Kerby were vastly more acceptable
to him than the people who constituted his social circle. He was
surprised at this, but not alarmed.

Since his first experience with the Kerbys, Mr. Topper had steadfastly
refrained from driving past the tree. Several times he had felt like
doing so, but discretion had forced him to master the temptation. He
considered communing with spirits much in the same light that he
regarded the smoking of opium. It was unnatural. For all he knew it
might even be habit-forming. God knows where it might end. If the Kerbys
had only been sensible spirits, orderly and law-abiding, and much less
active, the situation would have been different--better. Mr. Topper
could have created a little club around them. On Thursday nights, for
instance, they could have given interesting and uplifting talks to his
friends. He, Topper, having sponsored them, would have become famous in
a serious and conservative way.

"There goes Topper," people would have said. "Psychic devil. He controls
two spirits." He might even have corresponded with Sir Oliver Lodge. As
a matter of fact there were commercial possibilities in a pair of good
tame spirits. Mr. Topper could have incorporated them. But not the
Kerbys. They could hardly be trusted. Many of their actions would be too
difficult to explain. If they were not quite so willing, so callously
unabashed about being dead. A certain reluctance would seem more fitting.

Nevertheless, Mr. Topper was strangely attracted to the Kerbys. They
were different, refreshingly set apart from the usual run of people. On
his modest excursions during the past week George and Marion Kerby had
been much in his mind. He had come to accept them without reservation.
The ringing quality of Marion Kerby's voice still lingered in his ears.
He was able to recall without too great compunction that her arms had
quite unmistakably encircled his waist. Mr. Topper's vanity was secretly
gratified by the fact that the Kerbys had accepted him in all good
fellowship. He knew that they considered the rest of his friends as
alien beings endowed with singularly worm-like qualities. But with him
they were perfectly natural. Almost too natural.

So Mr. Topper was on his way to the tree--quite definitely on his way.
Like a dead eye in a grey face the sun above him gazed starkly through a
film of sickly clouds. There was going to be rain or something else
equally unpleasant.

Topper hoped that it would clear up, and no sooner had he hoped this
than it did clear up. The cloud slipped from the face of the sun and the
world grew bright again beneath its rays. Mr. Topper became suspicious.
There was something ominous in the alacrity of the weather to comply
with his wishes. Nothing ever happened the way he hoped. Why should the
weather be so obliging? Perhaps through his brief acquaintance with the
Kerbys he was becoming endowed with occult powers. To test this alarming
suspicion he tentatively hoped for rain. The sun plunged its face into a
scum of grey vapours, and Mr. Topper immediately stopped hoping. His
credulity was becoming stronger than his nerves. He feared that if he
indulged further in this dangerous business of hoping he might
innocently commit an entire community to a swift and painful death,
Clara Stevens and Mrs. Topper prominently included.

A sudden rattling of planks startled him from his thoughts. He was
crossing the dilapidated bridge. Directly ahead of him the old scarred
tree shook its vigorous branches. To Mr. Topper this ancient landmark
was not so much a tree as a place of residence. And he approached the
tree in that spirit. When he came abreast of it he stopped the
automobile and waited. Nothing unusual happened and Mr. Topper began to
feel a little self-conscious.

"Anyone want a ride?" he moved himself to call. His voice sounded lonely
in the branches of the tree. "I say there, Mr. Kerby, would you and your
wife like to take a spin?"

"Why, it's Topper! " a voice cried out excitedly. "Hey, Marion! Topper's
back. How about a ride!"

"Who's back?" came a woman's voice as if from a great distance.

"Topper is," shouted the first voice. "Wants to know if you'd like a
ride. He's waiting."

"If you don't mind," Topper suggested, "I wish you'd stop that shouting.
There's a waggon coming. Just run over to your wife and ask her quietly
if she wants to use the car. Hold a whispered conversation."

But George Kerby was far too excited at the prospect of a ride to follow
Mr. Topper's injunctions.

"Damn it, Marion," he shouted. "Make up your mind. Do you want to go or
don't you? Say yes or no."

"Come, George," admonished the woman's voice. "Pull yourself together.
Mr. Topper will think you never saw an automobile before. Of course I
want to go driving. It was lovely of Cosmo to call. I'd about decided
that he had deserted us."

The waggon had stopped beside the automobile and the driver was gazing
at Mr. Topper with obstinate curiosity. Ordinarily this driver was not
one easily aroused from his trance-like contemplation of his horses'
moving flanks, but these strange voices coming from God knew where gave
him an unpleasant sensation. Mr. Topper glanced at the man and winced.

"Come on out of the woods, you two," he commanded. "Where the devil have
you got to? Why I can't even see you."

"We're picking flowers," called Marion Kerby. "We'll be right with you."

The driver's face resumed its normal mould. "Nice day," he said to Topper.

"Splendid," Mr. Topper beamed.

The driver settled back in his seat and waited. Mr. Topper, closely
regarding the man, decided that from his expression he was prepared to
wait indefinitely. It was an unfortunate situation. Mr. Topper got out
of the automobile and surreptitiously pinched one of the horses. The
offended animal immediately put himself in motion. The driver, as if
desiring to conserve his energy, allowed his team to have its head. Mr.
Topper returned to the automobile and waited.

"We're so forgetful," said Marion Kerby remorsefully as soon as the
waggon was out of earshot. "But George is such a common creature with
his great throat."

"Then why are you always moping about?" demanded George Kerby angrily.
"If you had any mind at all--"

"I would never have married you," his wife triumphantly interrupted.
"And I certainly wouldn't have died with you. When I was alive I put a
great deal of faith in that optimistic line 'until death do us part,'
but it tricked me."

"May I put in a word?" began Mr. Topper, but Kerby's voice cut him short.

"I know," he recriminated bitterly. "You tried to poison me more than
once."

"When the bootleggers failed I tried my hand just for the sake of
experiment," his wife replied, "but your stomach defied all natural laws."

"It seems that you both are defying a few natural laws," put in Mr. Topper.

"Listen to this," said George Kerby hurriedly. "You can judge the sort
of woman she is, Topper--the terribleness of her. She claims that we're
not married any more and that anything goes just because we were bumped
off. How's that for depravity. Not that I care. The line said, 'until
death do us part.' Well, as a matter of fact death didn't us part. And
so there you are. Tell her how silly she is, Topper."

"It's a delicate point for an outsider to settle," Mr. Topper cautiously
replied. "Suppose we go for a ride. It's rather trying to be listening
to the pair of you squabbling all over the landscape."

"All right, let's forget it," Kerby agreed. "Come, Marion. Topper's right."

"Just the same it isn't legal any more," said Marion. "I want Topper to
understand that."

"Are you both in?" asked Mr. Topper. "All set," replied Kerby.

"No funny stuff now," warned Mr. Topper as he started the car. "I've had
a hard day, a terrible day. I'd like to have a good time."

"You would?" cried Kerby. "Then let me take the wheel. Marion drove last
time. I've got a great idea."

"Frankly, I mistrust your ideas," said Mr. Topper, but rather than be
sat on I'll let you take the wheel."

"He's all right," Marion said in a reassuring voice. "Especially when he
has an idea. For a fool he's funny that way. Slide over to me."

As Mr. Topper slid over the car gathered speed. Once more he let his
eyes wander over the sunken plain. It was smooth and green and peaceful,
and it was bathed in a subdued light which recalled to Mr. Topper's mind
a certain matchless Easter egg he had once possessed in the days of his
youth. It was made of sugar and tastefully decorated with pink
confection. The egg was hollow and there was a piece of glass set in a
peephole at one end. Mr. Topper had applied his eyes to this peephole
and he had never quite forgotten the beauty of the scene on which he had
gazed. Never on earth could he catch again such completely satisfying
beauty. Never would he meet such a shepherdess or see such lamb-like
lambs. The sunken plain had some of the romance of that Easter egg. He
felt like running across the dipping meadows in search of his lost
shepherdess. Perhaps she was waiting for him in the woods on the other
side. The woods looked cool and interesting. They ran away along the
skyline like the mysterious fringe of a new life. Mr. Topper keenly
appreciated this spot. It had something to do with him. For the moment
he forgot that he was sitting between all that remained of George and
Marion Kerby. As on the previous occasion, his mind now dropped into a
dim repose which was lined with green and tinted by the glowing rays of
the sun. Romance was close at hand, but before it could come any closer
Mr. Topper's repose was shattered by an alarming report from the
automobile and an oath from George Kerby.

"Damn it!" said Kerby. "A puncture." Mr. Topper looked helplessly about
as the car came to a sudden stop.

"What do we do now?" he asked. "I don't know the first thing about
changing a tyre."

"But I do," Kerby replied briskly. "Don't worry your head about it. You
and Marion get out and sit down somewhere. I'll be finished in ten
minutes. You've got a brand new spare all loaded and everything."

"Come on, Cosmo," said Marion. "Let's crouch in the grass and leer at
George. He's good with tyres and corks."

With a feeling of relief Mr. Topper abandoned his car. He felt really
grateful to George Kerby. In spite of his reputation there must be some
good in the young devil. He did not appear to be afraid of hard work. He
was as willing as the next to soil his hands in disagreeable toil. Mr.
Topper idly wondered if spirits ever washed their hands. What with, if
so? Just the same George Kerby was decidedly helpful in an emergency.

To Mr. Topper a punctured tyre was an emergency of the first order.

"You'd better follow me," said Mr. Topper, "because I can't follow you.
When I come to a place you like just let me know."

"This will do," she announced when they came to a smooth, grassy space
near the roadside. "Let's seethe here like a pair of indolent worms. Do
you like seething?"

Topper hardly knew. He had never tried it.

"Wallowing is more in my line," he remarked. "I'm afraid I'm not built
for seething, as you call it. Too fat."

"It's easy for me to seethe," she went on, and from the direction of her
voice she was lying at Mr. Topper's feet. "All I do is wriggle a hole in
space and curl up."

This sounded horrible to Mr. Topper, but he made no reply as he lowered
himself to the grass, his mind and body occupied with the grace and
agility of his descent.

"Do you find it pleasant the way you are?" he began in a conversational
voice after he had carefully arranged himself.

"How do you mean?" asked Marion. "Being a spirit," replied Topper.

"It's rather thin at times," she said, "but fortunately I'm not always
this way."

"No?" said Mr. Topper with a rising inflection. "Oh, no," she answered.
"Sometimes I'm quite different."

"How?" Topper bluntly demanded.

"I materialise," she said. "I get thick like you, only not quite so
thick, if you get what I mean."

"I'm afraid I do," Mr. Topper replied. "You mean that it would be
impossible to achieve my state of thickness. Go on."

"I didn't mean that at all," she said. "Don't be a zug."

"Don't be a what?" he demanded.

"A zug," she replied.

"What's that?" he asked.

"It's my name for a person who doesn't act the way he feels," answered
Marion.

"Oh, you mean a gentleman," said Topper. "Well, if I acted the way I
felt I probably wouldn't be here now."

"Why?"

"I'd probably be in jail for wife-beating or arson or poisoning wells,"
Mr. Topper said thoughtfully. "I've felt like doing all those things
to-day."

"I rather suspected you were down on your luck," Marion answered
emphatically. "Poor old Topper!"

"If you must be good to me," replied Mr. Topper, "try to be practical
about it. Don't get me into any more scrapes like the last time. Don't
giggle at people and don't fight with your husband. Emotional people are
bad enough, but emotional spirits are impossible. That's that. Now tell
me what you meant when you said that at times you were quite different."

"It's like this," she began. "We are what you might call low-planed
spirits, George and myself." Topper nodded appreciatively.

"I can well understand that," he said.

"We are authentic spirits," she continued. "Quite authentic, but still
low-planed."

"And no doubt you rejoice in it," put in Mr. Topper.

"We do," said Marion, "particularly after what we've seen of the high
ones."

"Death has changed you little," remarked Mr. Topper.

"That's exactly what I tell George," replied Marion. "If anything it's
made him worse. You wouldn't believe it if I told you, but that man is
actually mad. I wouldn't admit it while I was alive, but now with a lot
of space on my hands . . ."

"You were telling me about low-planed spirits," interrupted Mr. Topper.

"Oh, yes," she said. "Well, low-planed spirits to keep well must have a
certain amount of ectoplasm. High-planed spirits don't need it, wouldn't
know what to do with it, but low-planed spirits must have their ectoplasm."

"Do they serve it in glasses?" asked Mr. Topper.

"All things you cannot be told," Marion replied, "but it's like time
with you. We can squander it or use it wisely just as we please. It
doesn't matter. We get so much ectoplasm and no more. They're strict
about it. Just to show you. George went to the races last month. He'd
been saving up his allotment. He loves races. That's why, according to
vital statistics, we're officially deceased. Well, this track was down
south. George went there and no one recognised him at first. Even when
they did they acted as if they hadn't. People are funny that way. They
hate to be disillusioned. That's why so few of us ever come back. George
cleaned up on the horses. Whenever he wanted to place a bet he faded out
and listened to the wise ones. George knows where to listen. But the
money got the best of him. He started in drinking and didn't stop until
his ectoplasm had run out. About 2 week later he came back to me with a
terrible hangover and a sad story about a twenty-dollar bill he hadn't
been able to spend because no one had the nerve to pluck it from the
air. He said that he had wandered over several counties with that
twenty-dollar bill until he got so sick of it he threw it away. Since
then he's been saving his ectoplasm. I've got a lot of it, but I never
feel like using it. I'm afraid I'm becoming high-planed, but I might be
persuaded to materialise for you."

"Don't trouble yourself," said Mr. Topper hastily. "Some other time.
I've had a particularly hard day. Don't upset me."

Marion Kerby laughed. Topper liked her laugh.

"I wonder what sort of a little boy you were," she said, musingly.

"Not much of a sort," Mr. Topper admitted. "A pretty poor type of little
boy. I messed around a lot and didn't go right or wrong. I think I must
have been rather an unofficial little boy."

"And what did you plan to become?" she asked.

Mr. Topper looked uneasily around him. He had a strange feeling that a
pair of lovely eyes were floating in the air. It was like being lost in
a fog with a strange, but desirable, person.

"I never got so far as planning," he said in a low voice, "but I wanted
to be an actor."

"And no one encouraged you?" Marion Kerby's voice was equally low. There
was a deep, feminine quality in it which to Mr. Topper was more intimate
than a caress, more tender than a smile. The sound of her voice
fortified him against all the perils of life. Everything could go to
smash as long as that voice continued. He could sink to the sunless
depth of a lonely sea with the memory of such a voice still living in
his ears.

"One person encouraged me," he replied. "A drunken uncle. He gave me a
book."

"What kind of a book?" asked Marion.

"It was a very thorough book," replied Mr. Topper. "It's old now, of
course, and no doubt there are better books to-day, but this one had
recitations in it, and photographs that showed you how to do Hate and
Fear and Modesty and Surprise and practically all the emotions."

Unconsciously Mr. Topper pressed his hands to his cheeks and did
Surprise. The effect was startling, but he failed to realise how
startling it was until he found himself staring into the eyes of three
seemingly fascinated bystanders who had quietly gathered from nowhere.
It was an interesting grouping. Mr. Topper appeared to be leading a
class in dramatic elocution. His pupils were registering the most
eloquent surprise. Mr. Topper's expression congealed.

"I'm rehearsing for an act," he explained, with a hesitating smile.

The first young farmer looked at the second young farmer and the second
young farmer looked at the third, then all three looked at Mr. Topper
and Mr. Topper looked away.

"I'm rehearsing," he repeated in an obstinate voice. "Go away."

But the youthful group held its ground. Mr. Topper was on the point of
doing Fury with extras when he saw the spare tyre of the automobile
neatly detach itself from the rack and roll jauntily up to the denuded
wheel. Then he saw the flat tyre wobble over the ground and with a
delicate leap attach itself to the rack. Topper's eyes turned to glass.
He was no longer able to register his emotions, but the features of the
three young farmers were contorted with amazement. They could find no
comforting explanation for the purposefully acting tyres. And when they
saw a wrench performing masterful revolutions in the air they decided to
go somewhere else to think things over. With great speed and with
admirable solidarity they departed. Nothing could have separated them.
Mr. Topper breathed a sigh of relief as they disappeared in single file
formation. Like the three witches in Macbeth, they were destined to
appear later at an equally unpropitious moment in Mr. Topper's life.

"You're splendid!" exclaimed Marion Kerby before he could voice his woe.
"Prepare to be hugged."

For an instant Mr. Topper presented the appearance of a man with a stiff
neck, whereas in reality he was resting his troubled head on Marion
Kerby's surprisingly adequate breast. It was just for an instant, but
Mr. Topper never quite succeeded in ridding himself of the memory.




CHAPTER VIII
Wayward Ghosts


Kerby's destination was shadowed by the woods. It was an old abandoned
inn, lying far back from the roadway in the arms of its guardian trees.
Like a royal drunkard, spent by years of purple debauchery, the ancient
structure wearily settled down among the trees and listened to tales of
vanished splendour drifting through the branches overhead. Hard days had
fallen on the inn. It attracted no longer now the flower of the land.
Laughter warmed its heart no more and the silvery chiming of goblets
filled with honest liquor was forever stilled. And the great paunch-like
cellar of the inn was empty. Gone the bottles that flashed beneath the
lamplight. Gone the stout old soul who used to carry the lamp. Even the
smell of the place was different. The inspiriting fragrance of old wine
had been subtracted from the air, leaving it flat and dead. The spiders,
too, had lost caste. There was not a cork to cling to, only empty bins
that had once contained the mellow yield of distant vineyards stepping
up the hillside to the sun that had given them life.

The inn was built on sandy soil. The sea had once been there. If you
looked between the trees at moonlight you could see white patches of
sand lying in the woods. And if you stood quite still and listened to
the wind thrumming through the pines you could catch an echo of waves
falling on vanished beaches. The sea had once been there. The rhythm of
its surf still lingered in the air and the healing tang of its salt
blended with the smell of pine. All was silent in the woods. Nobody ever
came to them now. No couples flitted across the patches, no whispering
voices were heard among the trees.

Mr. Topper stood on the back veranda of the inn and gazed into the
woods. A breeze, fresh and soothing, filled with a lonesome fragrance,
brought peace and a strange excitement to his heart. He felt happy and
almost young. He had forgotten about his stomach. It was as if he had
withdrawn from the old life and was digging with his toes in new and
magic soil. How unreal and far away Mrs. Topper seemed. How delightfully
remote from him was everyone he knew. Only Scollops retained her
personality. Mr. Topper wanted his cat. Scollops would have loved this
place. She would have approved of the rambling old inn with its soft,
brown shingles and its long veranda broken by sun-filled angles, ideally
arranged for a quiet nap, a warm, sensuous, sun-bathed nap. And Scollops
would have found many interesting things in the woods. Mr. Topper
unconsciously possessed one of the rarest and most precious faculties of
the memory, a graphic and olfactory sense of childhood. He could
visualise Scollops stalking between the trees, enter into her little,
but intense, curiosities, and smell the things she smelled. There were
grasshoppers and ant-hills and exciting holes in the trees. What a place
for Scollops! Mr. Topper let his eyes travel along the weather-browned
side of the old inn. Far away in the distance the checker-board fields
cupped down to an indolent river. Mr. Topper did not know the name of
the river. He was equally ignorant of its beginning and its end. These
things were matters of small importance to Mr. Topper. He did know,
however, that the river added another touch of beauty to the landscape.
It garnished the general effect. Curving out in a great leisurely
horseshoe, it moved between smooth banks, and here and there a tree or
two had crept up to its brink to gaze at its pretty limbs in the flowing
mirror below. The sky swept down over the world and dropped behind the
stepping hills, on the highest of which rose the turrets of a castle
dating back as far as 1922. Under ordinary circumstances Mr. Topper
would have become involved in calculations regarding the probable cost
of building such a place, but to-day he was content to accept it as a
part of the scene that was filling his eyes with beauty.

"You like it here," said a quiet voice behind him. "What makes your eyes
so sad?"

"I didn't know they were sad," replied Mr. Topper, with an uneasy smile.
"Perhaps they've looked too long on desk tops and plumbing and legs of
lamb. Perhaps they've looked on loveliness too late."

"Perhaps they've looked on loveliness too late," Marion Kerby softly
repeated. "The world does wicked things to us with its success and
routine and morality. Topper, it either cheats us with wealth or numbs
us with want, steals away from us all the colour and wonder of being
alive, the necessary useless things. Only savages and children do proper
honour to the sun, and children soon grow up into perfectly rational--"

"Toppers," interrupted Mr. Topper rather bitterly. "I know what you're
thinking. Those white duck trousers. I never wore them again, not since
the day you said they looked self-conscious."

There was a flash of laughter in the air and Mr. Topper felt a small
hand brush lightly across the top of his.

"There was something wonderful about those trousers," she said.
"Something pitiful, too. Do you know what I mean?"

"Perfectly," replied Mr. Topper. "The pitiful part was me."

"No," she continued. "I mean that they expressed in a futile way the
desire to be dashing and picturesque, the need to slip a little beyond
life. They were the starched symbol of rebellion. I liked you the moment
I saw you in those white duck trousers. You were shifting from foot to
foot, rather guiltily, I thought."

"Don't go on about those trousers," Mr. Topper pleaded. "Try to forget
that I ever wore them."

"If it will make you feel any better," Marion said comfortingly, "I'll
try to forget that you ever wore any trousers at all."

"You don't have to go so far as that," he replied. "You and your husband
have taken my dignity, I have only my decency left."

"Look!" exclaimed Marion. "The sun is sinking behind the castle. How
fine it is!"

Topper took a deep breath. His very being seemed to merge with the
crazy-quilt of colours streaming across the low sky.

"It is fine," he said. "The way it fans out above the towers makes me
think of Ivanhoe. I don't know why. There was a girl in it named
Rebecca. She was always jumping out of windows."

"Well, the Rebecca living in that castle isn't jumping out of any
windows," said George Kerby jarringly, his voice coming from the doorway
of the inn. "You couldn't even push the old woman through. She's fat,
quarrelsome, and very rich. Always falling in love with her gardeners.
That's why she loses them all the time. She's too tough a bud even for a
gardener to pick."

"George, dear," Marion remarked in her sweetest voice, "you always sound
the right note at sunset. It's a part of your irresistible charm. You're
so deliciously low at all times."

"Oh, so that's it," replied Kerby. "I'm not too low to be collecting
wood for a fire. While you two have been idling out here detracting from
the natural beauty of the scene, I've been looking for stuff to keep you
warm outside and in. I've been useful and busy while you've been useless
and--and--"

"Indolent, supine or loutish," suggested Marion. "Take your choice."

"You're awfully funny," Kerby retorted.

"Please go away and continue being useful and busy," said his wife.

"All right," answered Kerby in a sulky voice, "but if Topper wants
anything to drink he'd better tear himself away from that meagre-looking
sunset and help me hunt. I've a good idea that the law didn't know all
the ropes of this cafeteria."

Topper obediently turned from the sunset. He would much rather have
remained with Marion to watch the evening die, but Kerby was a man
demanding a man's co-operation in an enterprise that smacked of
devilishness. Topper felt that he could not afford to be found wanting.
There was something rugged and masculine about leaving a sunset flat to
go in search of drink. He would show Marion Kerby that he was as game
for a good time as the next one.

"Are you coming, Marion?" asked Kerby. "Not now," she replied.

"Come on, Topper," said George Kerby briskly; then in a lower voice, "If
we find anything to drink we'll jolly well help ourselves before we let
her know."

He nudged Topper in the ribs and Topper sprang back, startled.

"Pardon me," he said. "I must have been crowding you."

Kerby laughed.

"No," he replied, "I'm merely over-eager. I'm a dead man parched for a
drink, an intangible body with a palpable thirst. Search diligently,
Topper. We must find a bottle."

Kerby's voice trailed away across the twilight of the inn. Topper heard
things moving about, felt clouds of dust descending upon his head, saw
empty boxes sliding mysteriously through the gloom, and in the midst of
this he stood unmoved. The room had taken possession of him. He looked
about like a tourist in a tomb.

The vague, slanting roof extending above his head was filled with
ancient dusk solidified by cross-beams, great reaching things,
rough-hewn and low. High up in a pointed section of the wall a small
window strained through its dirty panes the departing light of day. The
little shaft of yellow light sifting through the darkness fingered a
yawning fireplace, filled with bits of wood and dusted white with blown
ashes. From where Topper stood the room on either side of him ran on
forever into shadows. Cross-beams and shadows and ebbing
daylight--Topper absorbed these elements, but was unable to blend them
harmoniously in his mind. He was like a man in a dream, quite willing to
accept, but unable to explain.

And as he stood there, in the great dark room, the wood in the fireplace
suddenly sprang into flame. Waves of red sparkled over the stones and
warmth carved a pocket in the dampness of the place. The cross-beams,
caught in the glow of the firelight, twisted and swam in the quivering
parade of the flames. Shadows that had once been dead came back to life
and trembled rhythmically on the floor. The old inn seemed to sigh and
find itself, like a man waxing expansive after a long period of rigorous
domestic hypocrisy. Topper edged up to the fireplace and absorbed
reassurance from its warmth. He had a feeling that something was taking
place in the room, something very near him. An unseen person was
breathing heavily almost at Mr. Topper's feet.

"Topper!" exclaimed a strained voice as a square section of the flooring
flew open. "Topper, my heart's blood, the world is ours."

Firelight fell into the aperture disclosed by the lifted boards. Little
jets of flame danced redly on deep green glass. Golden fire-beams
trickled through jackets of spotted straw and girdled the liveried necks
of ancient bottles. A box emerged from the pocket and cut a path through
the dust. With a business-like snap the board settled back into place.
Mr. Topper gave a slight start, then smiled nervously in the general
direction of his invisible accomplice.

"You've found a lot, haven't you?" said Mr. Topper with false enthusiasm.

"I've a good mind to materialise just for to-night," muttered Kerby in a
preoccupied voice.

Mr. Topper drew a quick breath. From where he was standing he had an
excellent view of this much discussed phenomenon. It was, if anything, a
trifle too excellent a view to suit Mr. Topper. He would have preferred
to have witnessed it from the back row of a crowded hall.

"Why," he thought to himself, "should I of all people be privileged to
undergo such unpleasant experiences when thousands of spirit hunters
would gladly take my place? Why was not Sir Conan Doyle selected? I am
not the man."

Mr. Topper stopped asking himself questions. He became incapable of
self-interrogation. An appalling thing was taking place before his eyes.
George Kerby's legs were appearing, quietly and without undue haste, but
nevertheless his legs were quite unmistakably appearing. Mr. Topper
began to shiver as if caught in a chill wind. With perfect
self-possession and unconcern the legs arched up from the floor. With
dilated eyes Mr. Topper followed the ribs in the golf stockings and
dwelt reluctantly on the criss-cross pattern of the trousers. No detail
of those legs escaped him. Years after he could have modelled them in
clay. Then, quite suddenly, he realised that another section had been
added to the legs. It was the central and after part of George Kerby's
anatomy. In a thoroughly detached manner it was flaunting itself in the
air. Mr. Topper's feet began to shuffle wistfully. They wanted to go to
the door and be let out, but, before they had time to obey this impulse,
they clung to the floor like expiring flounders. Mr. Topper was gazing
into George Kerby's face, gazing into it, not as Mr. Topper would have
liked, but in a peculiarly upsetting way. Kerby's face was oddly
suspended between his legs, and it was upside down. Mr. Topper had no
precedent to follow. Not even in a side-show had he ever seen a face
placed in such a novel position, but this fact seemed to make no
difference to the face, for it smiled up at Topper as gaily as if it had
been in its conventional location. The wide-mouthed, inverted smile
nearly did for Mr. Topper. He found himself unable to return it.

"Oh, dear," he said, moving back, "oh, dear me, is that the way you're
going to be?"

"What way do you mean?" demanded the face, its mouth wagging snappily in
a manner most horrifying to Mr. Topper.

"The way you are," muttered Mr. Topper. "You know. Is it always going to
be like this?"

"Now what the devil's got into you?" asked Kerby, rising to his full
height and confronting the troubled Topper with a bottle in either hand.
"Can't a man bend over?"

"My mistake," replied Mr. Topper, licking his dry lips. "I thought that
probably you'd sprained your back in the accident and that..."

Kerby cut him short with a laugh and moved over to the fireplace.

"You still believe in ghost stories, I see," he said, good-humouredly.
"Well, I'm all here, every inch of me. Never felt better in my life.
Shake. I'm glad you see me."

"I'm overjoyed I do," replied Mr. Topper, gingerly accepting the
proffered hand. "Would you mind opening one or both of those bottles? A
drop of something would help a lot."

"Topper, I love you," whispered Kerby, hurrying away in the gloom.

Topper looked consideringly after the retreating figure. He found it
rather hard to accept Kerby in his materialised form after having with
great difficulty become reconciled to his voice. Topper felt that there
was a lamentable lack of stability in his relationship with George and
Marion Kerby. They should be either one thing or the other, but
certainly not both. It required too swift and radical an adjustment of
the mind to be talking with space at one moment and the next to be
shaking hands with a perfectly tangible body. After all, a person could
absorb only a certain limited number of shocks in a lifetime. Mr. Topper
felt that he had already absorbed his full quota.

With the firelight at his back, Topper, his eyes now grown adjusted to
the darkness, looked about the room. At one end he saw a gathering of
shadowy tables, one table carrying the other on its back as though
retreating from the field with a wounded comrade. The legs of the
wounded tables formed a forest in the darkness. At the other end of the
room a huge, many-caverned sideboard flattened its rugged back defiantly
against the wall and waited. It was a sideboard that would stand just so
much and no more. After the limit had been reached all the prohibition
agents in the world would be unable to make it budge. One more
indignity, another outrageously intimate searching of its secret
recesses might cause it to fly from the wall and fall on its tormentors.
Like the last of the barons it stood guard over the desecrated inn. Dust
covered its honourable veneer with a delicate pall, but the old
sideboard remained at its post and guarded the room it had so often seen
filled with the revellers of a freer generation.

George Kerby was standing in front of the side-board, diligently
rummaging through its drawers. As Topper watched the deftly searching
hands he decided that Kerby was bereft of fear and respect. Certainly,
no ordinary person could thus casually search through such an imposing
piece of furniture. With a low exclamation of satisfaction, Kerby left
the sideboard and returned to the fireplace with a corkscrew in one hand
and two glasses in the other.

"Hold these," he said, giving Topper the glasses, "but don't make any
noise. Marion's really childish about nature. If we don't disturb her
she'll blither around outside all night and let us peacefully fill our
skins."

With professional skill he extracted the cork from one of the bottles,
then filled the glasses and politely extended one of them to Mr. Topper,
who was extremely glad to receive it. He was honestly convinced that if
any man in the world deserved a drink, he, Topper, was that man. Kerby
emptied his glass at a gulp and pulled a couple of boxes within range of
the fire's warmth.

"Take it easy, Topper," he said. "This Scotch is worth a couple of yards
of ectoplasm. Do you get drunk?"

Topper, emerging with a brilliant colour from his glass, paused before
answering the question. A swift, rollicking revolution accompanied by a
pleasant tingling sensation was taking place within him. He felt himself
growing lighter and less material. Perhaps he was going to disappear
altogether. That would be splendid. Then he would be a spirit, too, like
George and Marion Kerby.

"Never had much chance," he replied, "but I did get drunk once. No one
noticed it, so I didn't have much fun. They were all so stuffy at the
party. The kind that know when they've had just enough. Then they become
heavily jolly and wink at each other with wise eyes. I went to sleep in
a hammock. Mrs. Topper doesn't like drinking. It makes her nervous. I
suppose you get drunk most of the time?"

Kerby replenished the glasses before he answered.

"Whenever I get the chance," he said. "Marion says I'm never sober. And
she sticks to it, but of course she exaggerates. The moment I take a
drink she begins to remind me about the last time and helps me along by
auto-suggestion."

"It's really too bad about women," Mr. Topper answered sympathetically.
"They don't seem to have any sense of proportion at all. If Mrs. Topper
should walk into the room right now I'd be forced to speak to her quite
pointedly to keep her from raising a row. But I've never beaten her," he
went on thoughtfully. "Not yet, I haven't. Thanks, Kerby. This Scotch is
delicious. Do you feel like dancing?"

Kerby quickly looked up from his drink. Mr. Topper appeared to be
perfectly normal. He was sitting solidly on his box and gazing into the
fireplace.

"Do I feel like what?" Kerby demanded.

"Dancing, George," replied Mr. Topper in a reasonable voice. "Dancing or
singing."

"Certainly not," said Kerby, shortly.

"That's odd," replied Mr. Topper. "I seem to."

"Well, don't do it," Kerby commanded. "You'll spoil everything."

"Then let's each have a bottle of our own," suggested Mr. Topper. "It
will seem more abandoned."

"Drink up this one first," said Kerby.

Mr. Topper promptly extended his empty glass.

"Listen, George," he asked humbly, "if I just sit quietly here by the
fire and feel like dancing it will be all right, won't it?"

"But don't let your feeling get the best of you," admonished Kerby.
"We're all set for a good party."

"I suppose you're a pretty swell dancer," Mr. Topper said rather moodily
after a short silence. "I dare say you know all about roadhouses and gay
parties and the latest steps and everything like that."

"What's got into Topper?" Kerby demanded. "Why are you so broken-hearted
about dancing?"

"Oh, I don't know," Mr. Topper replied, resting his chin on his hands
and staring into the flames. "I've passed up all the good things of
life, the dancing and the singing and the drinking. I haven't had any
good times at all. I've had a sad life, George. You can't imagine how
terribly sad my life has been. I've only one friend in the world and she
sleeps all the time. You ought to get to know Scollops, George. She's a
good cat."

A tear trickled down Mr. Topper's glowing cheek.

"Open another bottle," he said in a broken voice. "Open two."

George Kerby was a creature of quick sympathies. The sight of Mr. Topper
in tears moved him profoundly. In the presence of his companion's sorrow
his rude humour deserted him. He was plunged into grief. Getting up from
his box, he came over to Mr. Topper and placed an arm round his shoulder.

"Don't cry, Topper," he said. "I've had a sad life, too. At the age of
five I lost both my parents. Then I was struck down in the prime of
life. Look at me."

Mr. Topper tearfully looked at him.

"Then you're an orphan, too," said Mr. Topper.

Kerby bowed his head.

"By all means make it two bottles," continued Mr. Topper. "The occasion
calls for it." Kerby hurried over to the box.

"That's a funny thing," he remarked, returning with the bottles. "There
were twelve bottles of Scotch in that case when we found it and now
there are only eight. These two and the one we had make three. Where's
the other one got to?"

"Maybe you left it about some place," replied Mr. Topper as he wiped
away his tears and smiled upon the bottles. "We'll come across it later
on. Let's be thankful for what we have."

For several minutes they sipped their drinks in silence; then Mr. Topper
suggested timidly: "Perhaps you wouldn't mind if I danced quietly around
on tiptoe. You can give me some pointers, seeing we're both orphans."

Fearing that Mr. Topper might once more break into tears, Kerby
reluctantly consented.

"Do it nice and easy," he warned. "Don't fall down or knock anything over."

Topper finished his drink and arose with purpose.

"Now this is the way I waltz," he explained, spreading his arms and
gliding away in the darkness with surprising agility. "Are you watching
me, George?"

A humming noise floated through the air. Mr. Topper was supplying his
own music. As he revolved through the firelight on the first turn around
the room his body was swaying alluringly from the hips, and his arms,
rising and falling airily, gave him the appearance of a large bird in
fastidious flight. George Kerby watched Mr. Topper with growing
astonishment. Evidently the poor chap's soul had taken wings. It must
have been starved for dancing.

"How am I doing?" breathed Topper as he once more passed through the
firelight.

"It's beautiful!" whispered Kerby. "Didn't know it was in you."

"Do you like it?" said Topper in a pleased voice, as he circled into
outer darkness.

Kerby's spontaneous praise awoke in Mr. Topper a desire to be worthy of
it. Accordingly he redoubled his exertions. His feet flew over the floor
and his arms stirred up whirlpools of life in the shadows. A chair got
in his way, but he kicked it aside without losing a step. It fell
clattering in a corner and Kerby cried out:

"Stop, it, Topper. You've danced enough."

But Topper was deaf to Kerby's entreaties. His blood was up. He was both
surprised and delighted. It was like a dream in which one found oneself
riding a bicycle with the utmost ease and confidence.

"Will you stop ricocheting around the room like the Dancing Faun of
Praxiteles?" asked Kerby, threateningly.

Like a blooded horse Topper continued his maddened flight. His veins
were quick with Scotch and his imagination fired with a new realisation
of the rapture of motion. Nothing could stop him now save forcible
intervention. This was supplied by the revengeful chair. Mr. Topper
still contends that the thing sprang at his legs, deliberately tripped
him and hurled him to the floor. However this may be, the chair put an
end to Mr. Topper's dancing. Like a spent lizard he uncoiled himself
from the courageous piece of furniture and returned to the fireplace.

"That's how I waltz," he said, looking anxiously at Kerby. "How was it,
George?"

"The most convincing demonstration I'veever witnessed," replied Kerby.
"You deserve a drink."

"It's so good of you to like my dancing," said Mr. Topper with becoming
modesty as he swallowed what he deserved. "You know I think I could
learn how to live. I can drink all right and I can dance pretty well.
Now about singing--let's try a song."

"Let's," said a voice from the cross-beams. "Why not?"

Topper and Kerby regarded each other uneasily, then Kerby hastily took
another drink and Topper, with doglike fidelity, followed his example.

"I was an orphan at nine minutes past eight of a blue Monday in the
great blizzard of 1891," continued the voice. "And what's worse, after
all the weary years I'm still an orphan."

"It's Marion," groaned George, setting down his glass. "I wonder how
long she's been there."

Topper looked up at the cross-beams and became partially sober. On one
of the cross-beams an angel, or a woman who gave every indication of
being an angel, was reclining. The angel had Marion Kerby's eyes. Topper
was sure of this. The angel also had a bottle, the contents of which she
was transferring to a glass. As Mr. Topper watched this dangerous
operation he shivered for her safety. The angel dexterously sipped her
drink and began to speak in a voice that was far from angelic.

"So you thought I'd blither around outside all night," she said, "while
you acquired a skin-full, gentle George, deceitful George, drunken Topper!"

"She's heard every word we said," muttered Kerby under his breath.

Topper took a drink and looked defiantly at the angel. All his married
life he had been quietly insulted by his own wife, but in his present
mood he objected to being insulted by another man's wife.

"Chase her down, George," he said. "She's calling me names."

"Why don't you come up and get me, you drunken dervish?" challenged the
angel, sticking her tongue out at Mr. Topper.

Topper blinked his eyes and looked up as if he were going to bark at her.

"I refuse to be called a drunken dervish," he said with dignity.

"Well, that's what you are," replied the angel calmly. "And George is an
unsuccessful little snipe."

"Don't mind her, Topper," said Kerby, with resignation. "That's where
the other bottle went. I should have known it all the time. What are you
doing up there, Marion?"

"Loathing a couple of orphans," she replied.

"But why the funny disguise?" he asked. "You look awful in that outfit.
Why not your usual regalia?"

"I had planned to impress your twin orphan until I discovered how
depraved he was," she answered. "His name should be Toper instead of
Topper. But let's see. Topper rhymes with cropper." She began to laugh,
then stopped suddenly and recited in a tantalising voice: "Topper,
Topper, the big grasshopper, tried to dance and came a cropper. How's
that, Cosmo?"

Mr. Topper was stung to the quick. His recent triumph was being held up
to ridicule.

"I don't like it," he said, seating himself heavily on his box. "It's
very poor, very poor indeed.. Furthermore, you seem to be drinking
yourself, so how can you talk?"

"Less thickly than you, plump orphan," she replied.

"Kerby," said Mr. Topper in an offended voice, "I'm afraid I'll have to
ask you to request your wife not to talk to me any more. I can well
understand why you drove her into a tree. With such a wife heroic
methods are the only way out. Use your influence. If you haven't any,
beat her."

"All right, all right," replied Kerby, his resistance yielding to his
alcoholic contents. "Anything for peace. I'll talk to her."

"Topper wants to sing," he began mildly. "We'll all sing. Come on down,
Marion, and make friends."

Marion looked suspiciously at her husband. "You'll take my bottle," she
said.

"If you think I'm capable of such a trick you can roost up there all
night," Kerby replied haughtily as he returned to the fireplace.

"But how am I going to get down?" the angel asked in a more reasonable
voice.

"How did you get up there to begin with?" demanded Kerby.

"I materialised here for safety's sake," she said.

If you were any kind of a spirit," interposed Mr. Topper, "you'd let go
and float down like a zephyr."

"And if you were any kind of a man you'd let me float down on top of
you," she replied.

Mr. Topper accepted the challenge. Swaying slightly as he walked, he
maneuvered himself to a position directly under the cross-beam on which
the white figure was reclining. As he stood there with outstretched arms
he looked like the statue of a grieving father pleading with his young.
Marion Kerby laughed.

"I'm waiting," said Mr. Topper.

George Kerby poured out a drink and regarded the scene with happy
detachment. All the parties in his life returned to him. He remembered
impossible situations and dwelt lovingly on them. Things as silly as
this he had seen, had been a part of, had played, perhaps, the leading
r�le. He shrugged his shoulders and laughed without much merriment.
Pageants of past escapades passed before his eyes.

"Hurry up, Marion," he called out. "Topper's waiting."

Without a moment's hesitation, Marion Kerby slipped from the cross-beam
and descended on Mr. Topper's aggressively upturned face. After several
seconds of Homeric indecision, he decided to give up the struggle and to
accompany his charge to the floor. It was hardly a matter of choice with
Mr. Topper. Marion Kerby's weight bore him to the echoing planks,
whereon he lay concealed beneath a smother of celestial raiment.

"I'm dying," he groaned in a muffed voice. "Drag this woman off."

"A fat man has his uses," Marion Kerby remarked, carefully picking her
way across Mr. Topper's stomach.

"Had I known you were going to say that," he managed to get out of him,
"I'd have given you the shock of your life. Help me up, George, I'm
crippled."

When Mr. Topper had been restored to his seat he looked across at Marion
Kerby sitting opposite him on a box near the fireplace. She was clinging
to her bottle and looking watchfully about her. There was something in
her bearing that reminded Mr. Topper of a defiant child at a party at
which none of the other children wanted to play with her. She was
prepared for the slightest hostile move. Her little face was filled with
resolution and glowing colour, and her eyes were bright and darting like
those of an inquisitive young bird. The white robe floating about her
made her small head, appearing so bravely above it, seem a little lost
and pathetic. Mr. Topper decided that the robe was not a success. Marion
Kerby had never been intended for an angel. She was far too alert and
human, and a trifle too suspicious.

"Well, if I looked silly in white duck trousers," he announced, "you
certainly take the cake in that. It does my heart good to see you look
such a fright."

Marion Kerby gazed at him out of her large, serious eyes, then most
surprisingly her lips began to tremble and she buried her head in her
lap. Stifled sobs issued from the folds of her robe. Mr. Topper
experienced a strange sensation. It was one of triumph and alarm, but as
the sobs continued with unabated anguish he began to feel sorry for his
unkind remark.

"Give her another bottle, George," he suggested.

"Don't want another bottle," she replied without looking up.

"Then give it to me," said Mr. Topper. "I can't stand hearing her make
that noise. Do something about it, George."

Kerby tried to put his arm around his wife, but she flung it off angrily.

"You go 'way from me," she sobbed. "I never made fun of his trousers,
although God knows they were funny enough, and now he calls me a fright
simply because I tried to dress up like an angel for him."

"I'm sorry, Marion," said Mr. Topper. "I was only fighting back,
honestly I was. Let's take a drink and make up. We were good friends
this evening."

She raised her head and looked at Mr. Topper's troubled face. He smiled
at her and held out his arms. More than ever she appealed to him as a
small child recovering from some devastating disappointment. This
impression was heightened when he found her clinging to him and pressing
her wet cheeks to his face. Mr. Topper swayed beneath this outburst of
affection. For a moment he thought he had been attacked, but when he
felt two soft lips kissing the lobe of his ear he concluded that the
demonstration was of a peaceable nature.

"That's all right now," he said, thumping her back with the flat of his
hand. "I was only getting back at you for calling me a plump orphan.
It's true enough. I'll admit it."

George Kerby was regarding the scene with surprise.

"I say, Marion," he remarked, "don't you think that just shaking hands
would he sufficiently convincing? This is a party, not an orgy, you know."

Marion laughed and sprang away from Mr. Topper.

He was such a penitent old sot," she explained. "I just had to hug him.
Do you want one for yourself?"

Kerby submitted himself to her violence with the polished indifference
of a tolerant husband.

"Now that that's over," he remarked, "we can all have a drink."

His suggestion was received with enthusiasm and acted upon several
times. The crest of Mr. Topper's wave was on its downward curve. It had
been an eventful night for him. He bowed several times in the direction
of Marion Kerby, and at last in an excess of politeness he bowed himself
off the box on to the floor, where he rested motionless on his nose.
When he had been replaced by George and Marion Kerby, it was learned
that he had been trying to ask Marion for the honour of a dance, but
before she had time to accept his invitation he closed his eyes in
sleep. Presently, however, he had a confused impression that he was
flying through the colours of an evening sunset with an angel clasped in
his arms. Two bright stars were looking into his eyes and two red lips,
parted in a smile, were thrillingly close to his. An odour of Scotch
whiskey filled the sky and made it friendly and stimulating. Mr. Topper
breathed deeply. New vigour was returning to his body. The president of
the bank was peering at him over the glistening edge of a burning cloud.
The old man looked pained and puzzled. Mr. Topper gracefully blew the
president a kiss and the venerable financier ducked behind his fleecy
barrier. On another cloud, that resembled the platform of his station,
Mr. Topper saw a group of people. They were holding an indignation
meeting and pointing furiously at Mr. Topper, who, as he sailed by, made
a vulgar gesture in their direction and laughed down at the angel. The
members of the meeting fell screaming from the cloud and were lost in
the darkness below, their cries of anguish drifting pleasantly up to his
ears. Low down on the horizon Mr. Topper distinguished the pale eyes of
his wife. They sent a path of reproach across the interweaving colours.
He tried to look away, but the eyes clung to him. His anger mounted and
he shook his fist at the eyes.

"Damn that leg of lamb!" he shouted. "I'm in love with Kerby's wife! "

"One minute," whispered the angel. "I must take a tuck in my ectoplasm.
This dress is tripping me."

George Kerby, gazing over the rim of his glass into the dying embers of
the fire, was oblivious of his surroundings. So Mr. Topper danced with
the angel as the room grew dark. A visitor standing in the doorway of
the inn would have seen nothing, but would have heard a soft, humming
sound in the darkness and the scraping of flying feet. And had the
visitor listened very closely he might have heard George Kerby pouring
himself a drink and poking the cooling embers with the charred end of a
stick. Little breezes sighed round the old inn and tiptoed along its
rambling verandas. Like a cat closing a watchful eye the last red spark
winked out.




CHAPTER IX
Local Historians Disagree


Later that night, in a near-by village, Mr. Topper's automobile stopped
aggressively in front of a cheerfully lighted drug store. This much has
been established and freely admitted, but what follows has become
complicated by a multiplicity of facts, furnished by various local
historians, dealing at white heat with events still too vivid in their
minds to be impartially recorded. In spite of this it is to these local
historians that one must turn for further information, because,
unfortunately, Mr. Topper alone of all the participants is unable to
present his version. To be more accurate, it should be known that Mr.
Topper had no version to present, his mind having ceased consciously to
function some hours earlier in the evening.

The collected data are full of conflicting statements and unconsidered
conclusions. Vanity and prejudice have as usual played havoc with the
truth, and Mr. Topper's reputation has been tossed into a furnace of
frantically wagging tongues. The druggist and his soda clerk are still
in disagreement on many important points, and it is doubtful if anyone
will ever agree with the chief of police, although many may sympathise
with him. On one point, however, all are in complete accord, the point
being that Mr. Topper was to blame for everything, and that, had it not
been for him, the little village would have continued to lead its
tranquil existence to the end of recorded time.

It seems, then, that around eleven o'clock in the evening, Mr. Topper,
after driving with great speed down the main street of the town, stopped
abruptly in front of a drug store in which were gathered the flower and
youth of the neighbourhood. As witness to this fact we have three young
rustic glee-singers, who, having finished their evening's singing, were
comparing notes in the ruddy glow of the drug store window. It is to be
regretted that these three gentlemen were merely the washed and oiled
refinements of the farm hands who earlier in the day had been privileged
to come upon Mr. Topper by the roadside in the act of doing Surprise.
This incident had made a profound impression on their minds, and had
only been forgotten for the more serious business of convincing various
sceptical maidens that shadows and moonshine do not necessarily lead to
perdition. The first glee-singer supplies the prelude. He is speaking to
an attentive audience and he does not have to be cajoled to speak. He is
saying:

"As soon as he staggered outer the orter I knew his face and I says to
Joe, 'Damn if it ain't the same guy and he's still drunk.' Joe laughed
right out loud because the guy had fallen down on the pavement and was
sprawling there at our feet. Then the guy got up unsteady like and asked
in an ugly voice just who had been doing all the laughing, and Joe in
that comical way he has said that he had and that he was the mayor of
the town and a lot of other funny things. Well, the guy didn't say much
for a minute because he was brushing his trousers and looking at Joe,
and Joe was about to give him a push so he would fall down and we could
laugh some more, when the guy asks Joe in a dopy voice how he'd like to
get a punch on the nose. At that Joe just laughed in his face, it was so
comic, and Joe having such a good sense of humour, but before Joe had
laughed much he stopped sudden because that guy had hauled off and hit
him on the nose. Then Joe said, 'Come on, boys,' and we all pitched in
and showed the guy just where he got off."

From this naively significant account of the opening of the hostilities
it must be concluded that Mr. Topper's question concerning Joe's nose
was purely rhetorical, as Joe was given hardly sufficient time in which
to answer, and what little time he did have was wasted in ill-advised
laughter. In his lust for action, Mr. Topper was perhaps at fault, but a
plea for tolerance might be advanced on the ground that after all Joe
was such a "comical feller" and for this reason, if for none other,
deserved to have his nose punched whenever and wherever the opportunity
conveniently offered itself to any public-spirited person.

Thus far Mr. Topper's actions have been traced up to the moment when he
was borne down to the sidewalk beneath the combined weight of his
opponents. Just what he did there will never be clearly known, for Mr.
Topper was, of course, hidden, and the three young rustics refuse to
tell. But according to the throng gathered inside the drug store, the
cries issuing from the avengers of Joe's deflowered nose were so
eloquent with anguish that everyone rushed to the door. It may be
inferred then, not without reason, that Mr. Topper did as well, if not
better, than could be expected of him under the rather trying
circumstances.

The druggist, a person of authority and much unsavoury knowledge, adds
his contribution to the history of this tremendous fray.

"As I was crowding there in the doorway," he is explaining to an
absorbed group of loungers, "the strangest thing happened I ever saw in
my life, and you've got to admit that we druggists see some mighty queer
things."

This being admitted without the slightest opposition, the druggist
proceeds:

"I'd have sworn on the stand that the automobile was empty. From where I
was standing I could look right into it and see every inch of leather on
the seats. There wasn't nobody there--nobody. They couldn't even have
crouched. But as I was saying, I was crowding there in the doorway just
where that dog is now and I was watching this out-of-town drunk getting
what was coming to him when right out of the automobile swarm two
people, an angel and a man in plus fours."

"Not a real angel," objects one of the loungers.

"Can't say about that," the druggist earnestly replies, "but she looked
the part, flying robes and all. She didn't act like an angel though,
except maybe an avenging one, but at that there was something about her
different. Nobody but an angel could have been in so many places at
once. She was the busiest party I ever saw. She and her friend with the
plus fours on sort of took the boys by their legs and just naturally
threw them away. Joe went some way up the street, and Fred went down,
and Alf landed up against the hitching post, where he stayed looking
quite natural with a sort of gentle smile on his face. Then the angel
and her gentleman friend lifted up the drunk and pushed their way into
the store, the angel cussing like mad and the man with the plus fours
telling her not to mention names."

"When the three of them came in I was standing behind the counter,"
proclaims the soda clerk, rudely breaking in on his employer's story.

An imperceptible shifting of shoulders indicates that the centre of
interest has been transferred to the boy.

"Well, I was that surprised and excited," he continues. "The angel walks
up to the counter dragging the drunk with her and asks as cool and sweet
as you please for some spirits of peppermint."

"You keep calling this angel her," breaks in one of the loungers.
"Angels ain't neither one thing nor the other. That's why they're
angels. Was this here angel a woman?"

"Sure," says the boy. "She had black silk stockings, thin ones, and she
was a good looker to boot. 'Mix it up, Alonzo,' she says to me, 'and
don't stint,' but before I could do any mixing the crowd came surging in."

"Thin ones," remarks one of the listeners. "And black silk," says another.

"Some angel," puts in a third, rolling his eyes unpleasantly.

"And that's when the man with the plus fours on began to get gay with my
siphons," the chemist hastens to explain. "When he saw the crowd coming
at him, up he jumps on the counter with a bottle in each hand and lets
loose two streams on the nearest heads. Everybody stopped and some went
away, and the angel yelled after them, 'Come back here, you
boll-weevils, a bath will do you no harm.' While this was going on, the
drunk had got behind the counter and was playing with the soda taps.
You'd have thought he was at a party, he was that pleased and satisfied.
'Look, George,' he kept calling out. 'See the damn thing fizz.' The man
jumps down from the counter and says to the angel, 'Get him, kid, we've
got to organise.' Then the angel collected the drunk and told him that
they'd go somewhere else and have a lot of fun, and he suddenly came to
life and made for the door, his head down and his arms swinging. And all
the time he's yelling something about a leg of lamb he didn't seem to
like. The angel and her friend with the plus fours on closed in on each
side of him and the three of them charged through us to the street and
got into the automobile and then they were copped."

It is generally admitted that the three of them were, as the chemist put
it, copped. The method of copping is also a point of local harmony and
is acclaimed as being nothing short of a stroke of sheer genius. The
method, it must be admitted, was not without its more imposing features.

When Mr. Topper and his companions emerged from the drug store they
found that their only means of escape had been more or less surrounded
by several and various circles of civic activity. The Quoits Club was
staunchly occupying the car. As a club it was none too cheerful. Around
the automobile itself, in hushful alertness, marched the local fire
brigade. This depressed body of manhood was comfortingly reinforced by
an outer circle composed of the more active members of the Security
Association. A rotary movement, far on the outskirts, dimly illuminated
by a fiery signal, gave staunch assurance that the business element of
the town was heartily, if not helpfully, endorsing the procedure. This
latter organisation was making up in activity what it lacked in actual
contact.

In the face of this display of civic co-operation neither Mr. Topper nor
the Kerbys were convinced. They continued on. Like a splendid truth they
denied facts. It has not been refuted that, on his way to the
automobile, Mr. Topper assaulted and felled the chief of police and that
the Kerbys scrambled over the body of the stricken man, cursing him
vilely the while for being in their way. A submerged and vague-looking
person, over whom the chief of police was chief, is responsible for this
illuminating addition to the record of Mr. Topper's swift descent from
the dead crater of suburban virtue:

"I was practising away on my clarinet, practising away like a good one,
the Belvedere concert being only ten days off, when in rushes William,
little William, you know, he's always rushing in, and he tells me that a
riot has broke out in the town and that a couple of guys with an angel
were smashing up the drug store. Well, I wasn't much set back by the
riot, because I knew that if everybody in the town should get drunk or
go mad at the same time there would still be plenty of room on the
street for a quiet stroll, but the angel part of it did set me back. It
did certainly set me back, that angel part of it."

To make this record strictly unbiassed it should be mentioned that the
chief of police's staff was not the most popular young man in town. The
only thing he could do was play the clarinet, and he did not do that
badly enough to make him funny nor well enough to win him fame. When not
engaged in playing or practising on the instrument of his choice he had
an unfortunate way of making unconstructive observations about life in
general and the town in particular, and these observations, in spite of
their sincerity, did not add to the young man's popularity. His casual
lack of faith in the town's ability to work up a first-class riot
alienated from him even the sympathy of the most tolerant member of the
community, and according to the wiser heads of the town his story should
not be taken too seriously.

"So I put my music away," his story goes, "and I went out to take a look
at this angel. Up by the chemist's it looked like a rehearsal of the
'Covered Waggon.' Everybody was swarming around so and making such
important noises. So I edged in and stood there, waiting to look for the
angel, when, all of a sudden, I realised that I was the police force.
This thought started me edging out, but before I could get away they
came through the crowd and I saw them. They looked like nice people to
me, and a little drunk. The woman was just beautiful. She must have been
an angel because she did queer things to my eyes, sort of made me glad I
had them, and that's more than any of the girls round this place ever
done. I couldn't make head or tail out of the fight. It struck me as
being sort of unfair. I thought of monkeys and lions and dogs and I
decided that they wouldn't have acted like that under the circumstances,
and I sort of felt sorry about it all and a little ashamed. But I felt
better when I saw them walking on the chief, although I felt sorry for
him, too, realising all the time that a little walking on would do him
no harm. So when these people had passed completely over the chief I
helped him up and shoved him in the car. 'You come along too,' he said
in a shaky voice and took me along with him. He seemed to want me for
some reason or other. The car was already crowded, but I got in with the
chief and watched them all pile down on the angel and the two men. It
seemed kind of silly and over-done to me, and I tried to help the angel
a little, but the fire brigade, not having had any fires for a long
time, was wild for action and did fine, considering that there were only
twelve of them against three, not counting the chief and myself, and the
Quoits Club, and I didn't count for much of course. Then after a while
everybody stopped squirming and began to get up, and when they looked at
what they had, there was only the drunken man seeming less drunk, but
much more battered. 'Where my friends? ' he says, but nobody could give
him the right answer, so they told him to shut up and mind his own
business, and began looking about for the other two, who just weren't
there at all. And that's a strange thing. I could say something else,
but it wouldn't do any good. So they put the battered man in the lock-up
and stood outside chewing the rag."

What he could have said, but did not say, was withheld because the boy
had been endowed with an instinctive sense of delicacy, a shred of which
still survived in spite of its unfavourable environment. He was right.
It certainly would have served no useful purpose had he told his friends
that, as he was walking down the street in the direction of the lock-up,
he stopped beside a hedge to inhale its fragrance. Vaguely he was aware
of the fact that the hedge had no business to be smelling the way it did
at that time of the year, or at any other time, in fact. It was not
intended to be a fragrant hedge and had never previously laid any claims
to fragrance, but to-night an odour rose from it which stopped the boy
and held him wondering. It made him think of a forest swept by the notes
of violins. He saw a deep cathedral filled with nude, white figures
dancing madly in the radiance of stained-glass windows. Romance
descended on the village youth, and for the moment carried him away to
realms where only his dreams had dared to dwell. That was all there was
to it, but he knew there was more. He felt that he had stood very close
to someone who was both beautiful and real. The impression perhaps
remains with him to-day.

The "battered man" was borne in triumph to the lock-up. An uninformed
observer might have mistaken the event for a procession staged in the
honour of some honoured local deity, so well was it attended as the
automobile moved down the street and stopped before the jail. Here Mr.
Topper was produced without ovation and disappeared from view without
acknowledging the silent tribute of his followers. He was felt,
searched, written about in a book, re-felt with great interest and
thrust into a cell from which he did not emerge until the following
morning. When he asked to be allowed to telephone Mrs. Topper, the chief
of police refused this request, but agreed to convey his message.

"Tell her I'm well and happy, but that I won't be home to-night."

Nothing loath, the chief aroused Mrs. Topper from a sleepless bed.

"Your husband is well and happy, but he won't be home to-night," said
the faithful chief. "Yes, he's safe all right. We've got him safe
enough--too safe for him. He's in jail, locked up in jail. What for? Why
I wouldn't like to keep you up all night telling you what for. He's done
plenty. Yes. It will be held in the morning. You'll hear about it
then--all about it."

After a few more words the chief hung up the receiver and sat back,
looking pleased. The enemy was his. The village knew how to deal with
out-of-town drunks; and he, as chief of police, stood for the village,
guarding its dignity, defending its rights, incarcerating its victims.
Who could tell? Next year he might be post-master. He got up and
surveyed Mr. Topper, who was thoughtlessly sleeping on his cot. The
chief felt grateful to him, but just a little disappointed in him.




CHAPTER X
The Haunted Courtroom


Owing to the public nature of Mr. Topper's various offences, the trial
was held in the Town Hall in the presence of the town's entire
population, minors and morons rightfully included. Even dogs were not
successfully barred from the trial. Mr. Topper noticed several of them
and was favourably impressed by their non-partisan attitude, their utter
detachment of mind. On the morning of the trial very little business was
transacted in that village, the majority of its inhabitants being either
complainants or voluntary witnesses. Instead of opening his hardware and
furniture shop as was his accustomed wont, the Justice of the Peace
arose with unhabitual briskness from the breakfast table, and,
surrounded by the numerous members of his family, proceeded with
Jove-like mien to the place of the trial, where for some minutes the
more vociferous members of the community had been impatiently awaiting
his coming.

That much was expected of him the Justice clearly realised. And he
solemnly promised himself that not even the most sanguine expectant
would be left unsatisfied. There was a duty to perform. A public duty in
a public place. That was good. In a public place. That was very good. If
only the baby would forget to cry. He hoped that the baby would forget
to cry, but in his heart of hearts the Justice knew that the baby would
not forget to cry. It never did. In vain had he tried to prevail on his
wife to leave the baby at home, impressing on her the importance of the
business before him. "Who with?" his wife had asked quite reasonably,
and, rather than participate in a breakfast-table riot, the Justice had
refrained from nominating one of his numerous daughters. So the baby,
not at all appreciating the fact that it was to be present at one of the
most brilliant passages of its father's all too few moments in the sun,
was conveyed to the trial of Mr. Topper, in its mother's resolute arms.

The Town Hall was a barn-like structure, harsh without and unsympathetic
within. Two long rows of benches, now filled with eager spectators,
formed a narrow aisle down which the Justice walked a little in advance
of his family, as if anxious to leave it behind. It would scarcely have
surprised him had his wife and children followed him to the platform and
arranged themselves behind him in a proudly silent semi-circle. They
were forever basking in the lustre of his name.

No such misfortune occurred, however, and, after making much noise
himself, the Justice succeeded in reducing the village to silence.

This was the cue for the chief of police to become active. He responded
promptly. With the air of one producing a rabbit from a high hat he
pulled Mr. Topper through a side door and modestly displayed him to the
multitude. And Topper Iooked not widely unlike a rabbit, a rather
battered rabbit that had nibbled on something more potent than cabbage
leaves.

This tableau over, the chief of police pushed his pearl into the
presence of the Justice, while the chief's reluctant staff, like a
hostage maiden being led naked through an alien street, brought up an
unenthusiastic and highly sceptical rear.

"The prisoner, your Honour," announced the chief.

"So this is the prisoner," said the Justice, rubbing his hands juicily
and beaming down on. Mr. Topper.

Topper felt that had not so many spectators been present the Justice
would have kissed him out of sheer gratitude.

"So this is the prisoner," repeated the Justice, his grateful
countenance now shedding its rays over the entire room.

Mr. Topper made friendly movements with his features.

"I am," he said. "You're about the first person in this place, with the
exception of the chief, who seems really pleased to see me."

The beam was blotted from the Justice's face.

"Silence, prisoner!" he boomed.

Topper stepped back affrighted.

"Sorry," he muttered. "I knew there was a string to that smile."

"He's a tough bird," the chief hastened to explain. "I didn't close my
eyes all night. He kept singing. Your Honour, he sang in three different
voices, one of them quite girlish and off key."

"That lie alone should discredit him forever," Mr. Topper protested with
unexpected heat. "Anyway, his remark is unimportant."

The Justice swooped down over the table like a conventional eagle
trade-mark.

"Prisoner," he said, "it is all-important. In fact, it is exactly three
times more important than if you had sung in only one voice. I shall
make a note of it."

Mr. Topper looked up hopefully. Surely the Justice was exercising his
sense of the ridiculous. After all the man was human. But when he met
the direct gaze of the Justice, Mr. Topper looked wearily away. The
Justice was not human. He was in deadly earnest. He was even making
notes. No hope from that quarter.

After a portentous interlude, devoted to the scanning of official
documents, the Justice raised his head.

"Your name is Topper," he announced. "Cosmo Topper. Everything is known.
Now, prisoner, speak up in a clear voice and tell us where you live and
what you do for a living. I am asking you to verify rather than testify,
if you can make that distinction."

The Justice felt that he was doing very well. The principal of the
Grammar School had laughed out loud. That was a plume.

"But I thought that they didn't do things like that until after you'd
been convicted," Mr. Topper replied. "My pedigree comes later, doesn't it?"

"We are trying to save that time," said the Justice.

"But you don't have to hurry so far as I am concerned," replied Mr.
Topper earnestly. "My time is at your disposal. As a matter of fact, I'd
rather waste a few minutes here than spend several years elsewhere, if
you can make that distinction."

"Address the court as 'your Honour,'" put in the chief of police, using
an unfriendly elbow on Mr. Topper's ribs.

"You make me feel embarrassed for you," said Mr. Topper. "Try to
remember where you are. This is serious, now."

"Stop! " whispered the Justice, a pleading note in his voice. "Don't
quarrel. I'll get him sooner or later, chief. Let him hang himself."

"You don't have to let me hang myself," said Mr. Topper in a resolute
voice. "Let me say right off that you'll have to make me hang myself. If
I killed anyone last night I'm sincerely sorry, terribly, terribly
sorry, but for all that I deny everything. I'm innocent to the tips of
my fingers."

Once more the Justice beamed. The case was shaping up.

"Deny this, then," he challenged, his eyes greedily watching the faces
of the spectators. "Deny that you, Topper, struck, attacked and maimed
the body and person of one Joseph Williams, and that, not satisfied with
this unwarranted display of ferocity, you brutally assaulted Fred
Scafford and Alfred Slides, both of whom together with Joseph Williams
are in good standing in this community."

"All right, then, I deny it," said Mr. Topper. "I deny everything so
long as you're going to get stuffy about it."

After the night he had put in, Mr. Topper was feeling none too well.
Standing there, in the presence of the Justice and the hostile throng, a
nauseating dizziness swept down on him. He swayed slightly and for
support placed his hand on the edge of the platform. Little beads of
perspiration gathered round his lips and eyes. He mopped his face with a
crumpled handkerchief and tried to look defiantly at the Justice, who
was obviously enjoying Mr. Topper's discomfiture. With a swimming head
and a morbid sensation in his stomach, Mr. Topper braced himself and
waited. The situation was slowly dawning on him. He was beginning to
realise that he, Topper, a man who up to the past night had been a
respected member of his community, was now actually a prisoner before
the bar of justice, that for all he knew he was a murderer and that he
was being tried in the presence of a large gathering of hateful people,
in a little village very close to his home--too close to his home. This
realisation still further depressed his stomach and brought dismay to
his mind. He thought of the bank, he thought of his wife, he thought of
his reputation, and fearfully he thought of George and Marion Kerby.
And, as if in answer to his thought, Mr. Topper felt two hands fumbling
at his bare throat and was petrified to find that the collar which had
gone by the board in the course of the evening's activities was being
replaced by a fresh one. The Justice, who had never seen a collar attach
itself to a prisoner's neck, can be excused for the interest he
displayed in the phenomenon. He moistened his lips with the tip of his
tongue and looked fixedly at Mr. Topper.

"The collar," said the Justice. "There's something wrong about your
collar. It seems to be getting beyond control."

For a moment Mr. Topper was too busy to reply. His head was being
violently jerked from side to side as invisible hands attempted to
adjust the knot in a new tie, insisting on getting it just right.

"We're trying to spruce you up a bit," whispered the voice of George
Kerby. "How do you feel this morning? There, that's about right. Hold
your head on one side so I can see."

"This is no place for a talk," muttered Mr. Topper, pretending to
arrange the tie. "I feel like hell. Go away."

Then he glanced up at the Justice and smiled. "Had them in my pocket,"
he said. "Thought I'd make myself a bit presentable."

The Justice looked unconvinced. Then his eyes once more grew large with
interest. A comb was being passed through Mr. Topper's hair and a
washrag was spreading itself over Mr. Topper's face. Mr. Topper became
suddenly active. With one hand he attempted to control the comb and with
the other he snatched at the washrag.

"Don't produce a towel," he whispered. "It would be too hard to explain."

Again he smiled at the Justice.

"There," he said, thrusting the comb and washrag into his pocket. "I
feel better already. Where were we?"

"Frankly, I don't know," replied the Justice. "You'll have to stop all
this."

The hall was in an uproar. People were asking questions and standing on
the benches to get a better view of this strangely-acting prisoner. The
Justice banged on the table and the chief of police raised his voice in
admonition. His staff looked sympathetically at Mr. Topper, who, taking
advantage of the noisy interlude, was attempting to explain the
situation to his over-zealous friends.

"You've been lovely," he whispered. "Very thoughtful. I appreciate
everything, but don't go any further. You can see for yourself."

"We're with you, old boy," replied Kerby. "We're with you to the end."

"But don't be with me here," pleaded Mr. Topper. "Go outside and wait
for the end. It's a lovely day. Take a walk round the village. It's not
half bad. I'll join you later."

"Marion won't budge," Kerby whispered. "Says she wants to see that you
get a fair trial."

"They'll put me away for life if this keeps up," breathed Mr. Topper.
"Tell her to go away."

"Not a step do I budge," whispered a voice in his other ear. "I'm going
to stand right here and hold your hand. Get ready now, old Zobo is going
to ask you something. Brush him off, George. He's all mussed."

"Righto," said George.

"Please, please," Mr. Topper whispered. "Not so loud."

As the Justice fixed Mr. Topper with a distracted eye, Topper felt
himself being vigorously brushed and adjusted. His coat flew back and
Kerby's busy hands yanked his vest into position. The activity was then
transferred to Mr. Topper's trousers, which were spanked and patted with
surprising energy. Mr. Topper, attempting to follow the rapid movements
of Kerby's hands, looked like a man fighting hornets.

"Prisoner," said the Justice, "I wish you'd stop making such peculiar
movements with your hands and body. If you want this case to continue
you'll have to give up trying to bewilder me."

"A nervous eccentricity," explained Mr. Topper. "Sometimes it gets the
best of me."

"It's almost got the best of me," replied the Justice. "Let's get back
to business. As I remember it you were denying everything. Were you?"

"It seems to me that I was," said Mr. Topper.

"Very well then," continued the Justice. "Deny these charges if you have
the temerity. Deny that you, Topper, Cosmo Topper, forced entrance with
your companions into Frederick Schultz's drug store, that there you
attacked a body of peaceable citizens, using the most offensive language
against them, that you resisted arrest and made possible the escape of
your companions, and finally, that you were driving an automobile while
under the influence of strong drink. Deny these charges. Did or did you
not commit them?"

"I haven't the slightest idea," said Mr. Topper, truthfully, "but I'm
glad it's not any worse."

"We shall try to refresh your memory," replied the Justice. "Joe
Williams! Step up, Joe, and testify."

Joe Williams was not loath to appear. He hurried down the aisle and
stood before the Justice. "Now look well at the prisoner, Joe," said the
Justice, "and tell us if he is the person who assaulted you in front of
Schultz's drug store."

Joe looked so long and so well at the prisoner that Mr. Topper thought
the young man was Irving to hypnotise him.

"He is, your Honour," answered Joe emphatically. "As I was standing
there talking--you know, calm and peaceful-like--down the street comes
this . . ."

"Later, Joe, if ever," interrupted the Justice promptly.

Joe's face clouded with disappointment as he turned reluctantly away.

"Are you satisfied, Topper?" the Justice asked.

"I am if you are," replied Topper, "but Joe doesn't look so pleased."

"Perhaps then you will tell us the names of your two friends," continued
the Justice. "We might try to make things a little easier for you."

"George and Marion Kerby," said a voice unlike Mr. Topper, but
apparently issuing from him.

"And where do these two depraved people live?" the Justice asked.

"They're not depraved," snapped the voice. "And anyway they are safely
outside your jurisdiction."

"Try to speak in your natural voice," the Justice commanded. "Do you
refuse to answer my question?"

"Well, it's mighty hard to answer," said Mr. Topper. "You see they
travel about a lot--almost too much."

A note was passed by the chief of police to the Justice, who, after
reading it, looked severely at Mr. Topper.

"I have a note here from your wife," he said. "She states that you are
either drunk or crazy, because the people you refer to were killed in an
automobile accident several months ago. Such attempts to deceive will
not succeed with this court. Nor will they materially strengthen your
case."

Mr. Topper looked through the hall until he had located his wife. She
was sitting with several friends. He recognised Clara and Harris Stevens.

"Thanks," he called out with a terrible smile. "You are very helpful, my
dear. The Justice thanks you, too."

"Silence! prisoner," shouted the Justice. "I'll not have you abusing
spectators."

"Not even if she's my wife?" asked Mr. Topper.

"Not now," said the Justice. "Later."

"You don't know her," replied Topper.

"That's neither here nor there," the Justice complained irritably.
"You're always getting me off on something else. This is a trial, not a
conversation. Answer questions and stop asking them."

"All right, what shall I answer now?" asked Topper.

"Were you driving your automobile while drunk? Answer that," said the
Justice.

"You'll have to ask someone else that question," replied Mr. Topper. "I
can't answer it."

The Justice motioned to the chief's staff.

"Come here, Albert," he said. "Did you smell whiskey on the prisoner's
breath."

"Why, your Honour," answered Albert, in a voice of surprise, "I didn't
even try to."

"Answer the question," the Justice commanded. "Did you smell whiskey on
the prisoner's breath?"

"I'm not in the habit, your Honour, of smelling perfect strangers'
breaths," said Albert with quiet dignity.

"Albert," explained the Justice, "I'm not inquiring into your habits.
I'm trying to establish a fact. Please answer the question."

"Well, your Honour," said Albert, "at that time of night everybody's
breath smells of whiskey in this town."

A wave of protest from the outraged spectators fortunately drowned the
Justice's remarks to Albert. When order had been restored Mr. Topper
turned to the Justice.

"If you'll only stop making this public inquiry into the state and
nature of my breath," he said, "I'll admit everything."

A cloud of disappointment settled down on the Justice's brow. "Do you
mean to say you'll plead guilty to every charge?" he asked.

"Most elaborately," replied Mr. Topper.

At this moment the wailing of an infant filled the hall. The Justice
reared his head like a stricken war horse. This was indeed unfortunate.
He felt that he was going to have a violent attack of nerves. So far the
trial had been a complete failure and now without the slightest
consideration for his feelings the prisoner was pleading guilty. It was
too bad, the whole affair. And the baby was not making it any better.
With a sigh, the Justice decided to put an end to an intolerable
situation. He refused to compete with his own child to see whose voice
should dominate the hall.

"So, prisoner," he said in a loud voice, a false light of triumph in his
eyes, "so at last we have forced you to plead guilty."

"Driven me to it," said Mr. Topper.

"I am glad that you have at least decency enough to admit your guilt
after we have clearly established it," continued the Justice.

"I couldn't resist you," smiled Mr. Topper. "Haven't a leg to stand on."

"Don't I get a chance to tell about all the strange things that happened
in the lock-up last night?" asked the chief of police in a peevish
voice. "Ain't you going to hear about the disappearing clock, and how
cigarettes kept smoking in the dark, and matches striking without any
hands holding them, and all the funny noises, the hooting and insults
and everything."

"It seems that I am," replied the Justice curtly. "But I don't want to
and I don't think I shall. Now, Topper, I have it in my power to do
either one of two things. I can hold you for the county court or fine
you and let you go. I would like to do both. It would give me pleasure
to do both, but as I can do only one I am going to fine you and adjourn
the court."

"A thrifty decision," said Mr. Topper. "I'm unusually well supplied with
ready cash."

"You won't be long," replied the Justice. "Hand over one hundred and
fifty dollars."

The Justice thrust the bills in his coat pocket and rose to his feet.

"The court is adjourned! " he shouted. "Clear the hall, chief!"

As the Justice was about to descend the steps leading from the platform
he suddenly gave the appearance of a man who had been violently pushed
from behind. With an expression of incredulity on his face he flew
through the air and landed prostrate on the floor. As the chief bent
over to assist him to rise, he, too, as if not to be outdone by his
superior, gave a remarkable demonstration of levitation. Without any
apparent effort he projected himself through space, sailing lightly over
the Justice and stopping with a thud against the base of the platform.
The room was filled with wild laughter and the table at which the
Justice had been sitting danced crazily in the air. Luckily Mr. Topper
could not be held responsible for this disorder. He was standing outside
the hall talking with his wife and her friends.

"Why didn't you bring your lunch with you and make a real picnic of it?"
he asked with elaborate politeness.

"You're hardly in a position to be sarcastic," answered Mrs. Topper. "A
little common humility would be more becoming."

"I can hardly see that," said Mr. Topper. "I've afforded you more
enjoyment than you have me. There will be a tremendous demand for the
company of those who attended the trial. You'll be fed free for weeks."

"Come, Topper," put in Harris Stevens "We were only trying to help you."

"By writing nasty notes to the Justice," said Topper.

"Well, I merely dictated it," replied Stevens. "Your wife thought of it.
We didn't want you to get into any more trouble. You've been through a
lot. What a time you must have had. Was there a woman in the party?"

"The Follies Chorus," said Topper. "In tights. Pink, blue, red and green."

"Come, Clara," Mrs. Topper interrupted, "we'll be getting home."

"And some of them were in less than that!" Mr. Topper shouted furiously
as the party moved off. "Much less than that! Tell everybody I said so."

"May I get a few lines for the local paper?" asked a young man, stepping
up to the gesticulating Topper.

"Yes! " cried Mr. Topper, "a few lines in your face if you don't take
the silly thing away."

The youth withdrew and Mr. Topper was left comparatively alone. That is,
he was surrounded, but at a distance, by an absorbed circle of observers.

"Now where the hell's the car?" he muttered.

As he spoke he heard a loud honking of an automobile horn and the car,
like a playful puppy, came darting through the crowd. The Justice,
standing on the porch of the Town Hall, witnessed the scene and shut his
eyes tightly. The car was driverless. He could not stand that. As he
leaned against the wall he feared he was going to lose his mind. When he
opened his eyes again Mr. Topper had stepped into the automobile and was
driving off while the people stood about with panic in their midst.

"Here's the money," said George Kerby. "I snatched it out of the old
bird's pocket."

A roll of bills found its way into Mr. Topper's hand.

"Oh, my God," he groaned. "Are you two back again?"

"Sure," said the Kerbys in a breath. "Aren't you glad?"

Mr. Topper was unable to reply.




CHAPTER XI
Antics of a Hat Stand


The Topper's house was not one of mirth. Great quantities of gloom had
descended upon the place. Women had hastened to Mrs. Topper's side as if
in the hour of her bereavement. They sat in subdued rooms and conversed
in subdued voices. Mr. Topper came to regard himself as a corpse,
without, however, enjoying a corpse's immunity to its surroundings. At
any moment he expected Mrs. Topper to place candles round him. He had
been requested to withdraw from the Town Council and the honorary
residue of the now professionally organised fire brigade. Why a person
had to be moral in order to be useful at a fire was difficult for Mr.
Topper to understand. Nevertheless, he sent in his resignation and felt
better about it. He was now officially divorced from white duck
trousers. That was something to cling to in the ruins.

Twenty-four hours after his release from durance the craving for a smoke
had driven him into town. On that trip he had purchased enough cigars to
relieve himself of all further necessity of appearing again in public.
Topper had only a hazy idea about fallen women, but he imagined he felt
very much as they did when adversity had forced them to return to their
home towns. Topper had lost everything but his money, and because that
still remained he was not stoned. He was still a solid man, but terribly
soiled. He read about himself in the local newspaper and stopped reading
almost immediately. Mrs. Topper displayed no such delicacy. The paper
was seldom out of her hands. Topper, observing her absorbed expression,
wondered what pleasure she could be deriving from poring over such
morbid stuff. Mrs. Topper was deriving a lot of pleasure. Seeing her
husband's crimes in print gave her a feeling of security. There could
now be no doubt about it. The story was down in black and white. Mr.
Topper could not deny it. She was vexed with the reporters, however.
They had used altogether too much literary restraint. Now if she had
been writing the report--headlines flashed through her mind. It was well
for Topper that he could not read them.

Three days had elapsed since Mr. Topper's arrest. Three days passed by
him for the most part in the backyard. Whenever sympathetic callers
arrived Mr. Topper disappeared. He feared that the women might ask his
wife for the privilege of viewing the remains. For this reason he
quietly removed himself and his bruises to the backyard. To this retreat
Scollops followed him. She was waiting impatiently to resume the repose
that had been so rudely interrupted by his unwarranted absence from the
house. The man must sit down some time. This tragic stalking about was
all very well for a while, but on the other hand something was due to a
cat, especially such a cat as Scollops. There was little comfort in a
peripatetic couch. If Topper wanted to think and be gloomy let him do so
in a stationary position. But why think? Sleep was much more vital.
There were a few slight irregularities in her own life. Scollops
remembered, not without pride, a certain alienation affair in which she
had become involved, but she had no intention of letting the memory make
her haggard. Several times she had honestly tried to think about the
affair, to figure out if in any way she had justified various backyard
references, but the effort had made her drowsy. Why was not this man
affected in the same manner? Human beings placed too great importance on
the game of morals. That was why they were constantly breaking the
rules. They really did not want to play and yet they insisted on giving
the appearance of playing. So Scollops waited while Topper walked. Then
Topper sat and Scollops slept. And in the darkened house Mrs. Topper
delicately arched her eyebrows and was happy, quite, quite happy in a
sane and refined manner.

After three days of morbid seclusion Mr. Topper came to a decision. His
secret life was developing, growing more complex. When he came to the
decision he was sitting on the lawn roller because it had been
previously warmed by the sun. And what made him come to a decision arose
from a sudden and upsetting realisation that at heart he felt neither
grieved nor chastened by anything that had come to pass. He found
himself actually gloating over his night in the lock-up--what little he
could remember of it. He relished his memory of the old abandoned inn
tucked away among the trees. He felt with pleasure that he had done some
fairly splendid dancing and he was sure that for the first time in his
life he had sung without constraint and fought without fear. Sitting
there on the lawn roller, he was surprised to find that each little
memory brought him some satisfaction and no regret, and as the indirect
rays of the sun sent courage through his spinal column he deliberately
denounced the town and all its works in terms both round and rough. His
whole past life had been modelled on false standards which would have to
be adjusted at once. There was only one way to accomplish this. Mr.
Topper's fingers abstractly touched one of Scollops' ears and Scollops
with equal abstractness scratched one of Mr. Topper's fingers. But
Topper disregarded the sleepy rebuke of his cat. He was going away. He
was going quite far away. That was Mr. Topper's decision. He would drive
himself to some great distance from the town and his wife and her
friends. Before he officially proclaimed the new order of things he must
first be alone. He had to think a little. That was quite important. He
wondered now how he had ever got along so far with so little thought. He
became quite elated about his brain. It was like a new toy to him. He
had always believed that it had been providentially arranged for the
purpose of making money, acquiring possession and paying for legs of
lamb. He found that his brain was quite playful, that it broke rules and
was indifferent, that it entertained the most disreputable thoughts
without becoming panic-stricken. Mr. Topper felt like dancing, but he
restrained this inclination. He realised that if Mrs. Topper saw him
making movements of joy she would immediately call in another mourner
for a whispered conversation. And Topper felt so liberated that he
feared he might assault the next woman who heaved a sigh in his house.

So instead of dancing he buried his head in his hands and held on to
himself. It was silly about his eyes. He did not feel at all like
crying. Yet his face was growing wet.

The next day Mr. Topper went to the city. To show his indifference to
public opinion he took the usual morning train. His appearance at first
caused the respectful silence usually accorded to criminals in transit
to the place of incarceration. As he walked down the platform he felt
that life had not been lived in vain. He enjoyed the situation. Men who
had once greeted him with respect now slapped him on the back with hands
that were moist with condescension. Friends who had hitherto received
him warmly nodded thoughtfully in his direction and resumed their
conversation. Two representatives of civic virtue were honest enough to
ignore his presence. Harris Stevens, however, was not to be downed. On
seeing Topper he threw himself headlong into the rôle of official
protector. Stevens' mind was so tolerant that he could have attended a
lynching every day without becoming critical. He thrust his arm through
Mr. Topper's and led him up to a group of mutual friends.

"If I were handcuffed to him," thought Mr. Topper, "his happiness would
be complete."

Nevertheless Topper made no protest. He was still enjoying the situation.

"Look out, boys!" cried the jovial Stevens, "he's dangerous. Wild women
and everything. What do you think of our Cosmo now?"

Of course the assembled gentlemen hardly said exactly what they thought
of their Cosmo now, but to a man they all displayed a glittering
interest in the mysterious and therefore immoral woman in the case.
Several travellers of the more serious and orderly type even went so far
as to draw Mr. Topper aside and intimate roguishly that they would
appreciate his confiding absolutely in them. Mr. Topper understood all
too well and gave each inquirer a different name and address. He was
thanked by each, nudged playfully in the ribs, and assured that
everything would be done on the quiet.

"What vile devils they are!" thought Mr. Topper as he smiled knowingly
into their eyes, already touched with the fever of the hunt.

His trip to the city that morning provided him with much food for
thought, each morsel of which was more unpalatable than the last.

The atmosphere was clearer at the office. News of Mr. Topper's evil ways
had not entered there. Boys were answering bells, girls were serving the
files and customers were beginning to transact business.

"To what end all this?" speculated Mr. Topper, making his way to his
desk and hanging his hat and stick on a near-by stand. From his position
on the platform he could look down over the activity taking place on the
bank's vast floor. Like a lesser god he observed with preoccupied eyes
the ordered movement of those below him. What he saw neither pleased Mr.
Topper nor made him feel particularly proud of his elevated place in
this little world. Mr. Topper had already progressed too far for that,
but the quiet briskness of the bank, the crisp little people coming and
going on sure feet beneath the vast dome of the place, and the massive
splendour of the institution's architecture gave him a feeling of
permanence. Men and women were engaged in earning a living there. They
were paying strict attention to their own affairs. Round him on the
platform his brother officers were busy with callers and correspondence.
Here Mr. Topper felt safe from the oily eyes of his friends. He drew a
sigh of relief and touched a bell. Miss Johnson appeared with his
letters and he thanked her with elaborate politeness. His secretary was
a middle-aged woman who valiantly strove to draw attention from that
depressing fact by decorating various parts of her body with the tender
ribbons of infancy. Mr. Topper's attention was not so easily
misdirected, but nevertheless he was fond of Miss Johnson. He had seen
the ribbons increase with the years and had decided that when infirmity
at last forced the good woman to withdraw from the bank she would depart
under full colour like an aged but fluttering May-pole. In spite of her
little weaknesses Miss Johnson knew her business, or, better, Mr.
Topper's business. She knew how to save him both time and trouble, and
the more time and trouble she saved the more tolerant was Topper, the
more he forgave the ribbons. As far as he was concerned Miss Johnson
could have appeared in beads so long as she made up the difference with
efficiency.

Mr. Topper's first letter was from a wholesale grocer in Texas, an old
fellow on whom the bank had been making a decent profit for years. He
was now in trouble. Things were bad. He wanted an extension of credit.
As Mr. Topper read the letter he caught a mental picture of the old man
laboriously writing it from an old-fashioned roll-top desk in Texas.
Mental pictures are not good for banking. Mr. Topper was well aware of
this, but the knowledge did not succeed in closing his eyes on the man's
plight. Instead he opened them all the wider and dispatched a telegram
designed to bring back the courage to a cornered customer thousands
ofmiles away. It was not an outstanding stroke of business, but on this
particular morning Mr. Topper relished it the more for that very reason.

Up to eleven o'clock Mr. Topper occupied himself with routine details,
then he rose and informed the president that because of various
considerations due to certain hitherto unknown maladies of both mind and
body an extended vacation was highly essential. Should such an extension
be withheld, Mr. Topper's physician would not be responsible for the
consequences. Mr. Topper felt inclined to agree with the physician, a
thing he seldom did. The extension was not withheld, although its cause
was not fully believed. With an unnecessarily spiritless step Mr. Topper
returned to his desk as if reluctant to leave it. Now that his vacation
was assured he lingered over the parting. He had already set his affairs
in order, but he diligently began to reset them now. He dallied with
meaningless papers and dictated meaningless memoranda. There was a
certain satisfaction in wasting the precious minutes in useless drudgery
now that they were his to waste. In the back of his mind, however,
danced colourful thoughts of golf stockings, caps and outing shoes, and
other equipment necessary to his trip. Soon he would arise and purchase
these things, going out into the street like a free man with a new
consignment of golden days. For a moment he delayed, prolonging
anticipation. In the middle of his fifth meaningless memo he was
surprised by Miss Johnson's unusual behaviour.

Instead of gazing devoutly at her notes as was her invariable custom,
her eyes had become disconcertingly jerky. For a moment they would
remain fixed on the point of the pencil, then, as if drawn against their
will by invisible wires, they would painfully lift and stare with a
fascinated gaze directly over Mr. Topper's left shoulder. At the sound
of Mr. Topper's voice they would struggle for a moment before they were
able to descend once more to the pad. Mr. Topper was at first puzzled,
then hurt and at last exasperated. Finally he could stand it no longer.

"What the devil's the matter, Miss Johnson?" he exclaimed.

"Look!" was all Miss Johnson said, pointing over his shoulder.

There was something in the tone of her voice that made Mr. Topper
disinclined to look. In spite of himself he turned in his chair and
followed the direction of her finger. He would have been more relieved
had he seen a party of bank robbers quietly slaying the entire office
force and looting the safe deposit vault. It would have seemed less
personal, less fraught with complications. Yet what Mr. Topper saw would
not have arrested the attention of the casual passer-by unless he had
chanced to be especially interested in hat stands. This particular hat
stand was situated in a corner near Mr. Topper's desk. On it were Mr.
Topper's hat and cane, or rather, on it they should have been, but the
terrible part of it was that they were not where they should have been.
The canehad assumed an independent position and was standing unsupported
on its own tip. The hat was rakishly poised above it about three feet in
the air. As Mr. Topper turned, the hat and cane resumed their normal
position as if afraid of being discovered out of place.

At this Miss Johnson gasped and once more uttered, "Look!"

Mr. Topper swung quickly back to his desk. He would look no more.
Already he had seen too much.

"I wish, Miss Johnson," he said in a reproving voice, "I do wish you'd
stop telling me to look. I see nothing and my time is valuable. What was
I saying?"

Training came to Miss Johnson's aid. She dropped her eyes and studied
her notes.

"You were saying," she said, "that, owing to your enforced absence,
steps should be . . ."

"Ah, yes," interrupted Mr. Topper. "I was saying that."

His voice trailed away and he began to tap on the edge of his desk with
the tip of a pencil. Now why had he been saying that, he wondered. Was
it possible that the Kerbys had followed him to town? Marion had said
that George occasionally ranged abroad, but he could hardly believe that
Kerby would follow him to the bank. Miss Johnson's eyes were lifting
again. Topper cleared his throat and hastily began to dictate.

"Owing to my enforced absence," he repeated, "I feel that it is important
for certain steps to be..."

Unable to stand Miss Johnson's eyes he stopped dictating. What was
happening behind him? At any moment the hat might thrust itself down
over his eyes and make him appear ridiculous. The Kerbys were capable of
such an outrage.

"Look now!" exclaimed Miss Johnson.

Mr. Topper turned quickly, and just in time to see his cane and hat
retreating to the stand. He noticed with dread that this time they had
ventured farther away from their appointed place.

"Oh," murmured Miss Johnson in an expiring voice. "Oh! " she repeated.

"Miss Johnson," said Mr. Topper with fatherly severity, "you must be
ill, otherwise you would not be trying to upset me with your wild
exclamations."

"Didn't you see anything?" asked Miss Johnson, studying Mr. Topper's
face with troubled eyes. "Anything strange?"

"Nothing," lied Mr. Topper. "Nothing strange at all. Now let's try again."

"Then I must be very sick," replied Miss Johnson. "Sicker than I've ever
been before."

"It will pass off," Mr. Topper assured her. "Pick up where I left off."

"Certain steps should be taken," began Miss Johnson. "You keep saying
something about certain steps."

At this point Miss Johnson capitulated and seized Mr. Topper's hand. The
hat stand was swaying from side to side and the cane was rattling
against its post.

"I'm not as sick as that," she said with conviction. "If you don't see
what I see you're the one that's sick."

"All right, all right," Mr. Topper called out, this time directly
addressing the hat stand. "I'll finish up at once. Don't worry about
that last memo, Miss Johnson. Go home and take a rest. Your nerves are
upset. Stay home for a week or so. I won't be needing you for some time."

Mr. Topper got up briskly and swept some papers into a basket. The
animated hat stand came to rest. Miss Johnson, her hands full of
ribbons, was gazing at it with horror in her eyes.

"See, Miss Johnson," said Mr. Topper, walking over to the stand. "See,
it's nothing after all. Only your nerves."

But before he could reach for his hat and cane these articles eagerly
sprang from their pegs and presented themselves to his grasp. He
snatched them from the air and turned to Miss Johnson.

"Nothing at all," he said with a forced smile. "It was purely your
imagination."

For a moment they looked into each other's eyes. There was a prayer in
Mr. Topper's. No missionary ever struggled more fervently to implant
belief. Miss Johnson was regarding the hat and cane suspiciously, and
Mr. Topper realised he had failed.

"Nothing at all," he repeated in a dead voice as he felt himself being
gently pushed by some unseen force. "You can see for yourself, Miss
Johnson. Go home and take rest. And if I were in your place I wouldn't
speak with anyone. You might be misunderstood."

This last remark was tossed over his shoulder, for by this time Mr.
Topper was being propelled with increasing rapidity across the floor. As
he left the bank he looked like a man leaning against a strong wind.

"Not so fast," he muttered.

The doorman, thinking the remark intended for him, arrested the speed of
the revolving doors.

"That's a queer way for a body to walk," he thought, peering after the
slanting Topper. "Especially an officer at this time of day."




CHAPTER XII
A Smoky Lady in Knickers


Mr Topper was in an unspeakable frame of mind. He shook himself free
from the invisible grasp that had made a retreat of his departure, and
fumed up the street, escape his one desire. And every time he passed a
drug store a slight tugging at his sleeve informed him that he was not
alone, that for him escape was impossible.

"Stop doing things to my sleeve," he growled. "Stop pushing."

"But I want you to buy me a soda," came the whispered reply.

"After all you've done to me you ask me that?" exclaimed the outraged
man, for the moment forgetting his fear of being caught talking to
himself in the streets. "Fiddling with my hat and stick. Giving my
secretary a nervous fit. Why didn't you bawl and scream?"

"But you took such a long time in that horrid old place," the voice
pleaded. "And that ridiculous woman looked at you so familiarly. I
wanted to pull her ribbons off, but . . ."

"Let me understand this," interrupted Mr. Topper, seeking refuge in a
near-by doorway. "Am I no longer to dictate to my secretary? Do you
object? By what right? I've never compromised you, although God knows
you've ruined my reputation--you and your husband. Why don't you torture
him and leave me alone?"

"He's left me," the voice replied with just a hint of moisture. "He's
gone to sea for a change."

"He needs one," said Mr. Topper. "Haven't you any friends?"

"None that I like as well as you. Please don't go on any more. It would
be funny to see tears dropping from no place in particular."

The woman was actually hugging him in broad daylight. Mr. Topper swayed
forward, then with a supreme effort regained both his balance and his
composure.

"Don't do that again, ever," he commanded.

"Let's be glad," Marion pleaded. "I didn't mean any harm. George was
gone and I didn't have anything to do, so I just went down to the
station to see the trains come in and then I saw you and I wanted to go
along It's awfully lonely being a low-planed spirit. You don't know."

Now there had been very little wheedling practised on Mr. Topper in the
course of his married life. Mrs. Topper had arranged everything and
Topper had followed the arrangements. On those rare occasions when he
had balked Mrs. Topper had instantly assumed the rôle of a martyred
woman and in pallid silence cherished her indigestion. It was a strange,
fearful and fascinating sensation that Mr. Topper now experienced as
Marion Kerby clung to his neck and asked him to buy her a soda. He
forgot the humiliation of the office out of sheer sympathy for the poor,
parched spirit who had been the cause of it.

"But hang it, Marion," he said in a softer voice, "be reasonable. How
can I buy you a soda?"

"You can pretend to be drinking it," she relied eagerly, "and when you
hold your glass aside to look at your newspaper I can sip through the
straw. No one will notice it. Just hold your glass a little to one side
and I'll come close to you and sip through the straw--little, quiet
sips. But you must only pretend to be drinking it. Don't forget yourself."

"I'd rather risk the chance of a scandal and have you materialise," said
Mr. Topper thoughtfully.

"All right," replied Marion. "I'll do that in a jiffy."

"Not here! " Mr. Topper protested. "For once show some restraint. Can't
you go somewhere to materialise and then come back to me?"

"How about that shop?" suggested Marion.

The shop she referred to was a small notion shop which owed its
existence to the fact that women, regardless of their means, must be
clad in silk or near silk against the ever-present dangers of being run
over, unexpectedly married or caught in a sudden gale. The shop seemed
suitable to Topper for the business of materialisation. He said as much
and Marion Kerby departed, declaring that she would be right back in a
minute. Mr. Topper waited ten before he became impatient, then he walked
slowly past the shop and peered through the door. As he did so a hatless
woman came bounding forth with stark terror gleaming in her eyes. She
was speedily followed by a small boy, who in turn was closely pursued by
a man whose features were working frantically. Before Mr. Topper could
recover from his surprise three girls dashed from the shop and joined
their companions in flight, now huddled compactly at a safe distance
from the shop. Mr. Topper felt like running, too, but curiosity overcame
his fear. He approached the group and asked questions. One of the girls
looked at him and began to cry.

"Mamma!" she gulped. "Mamma!" He quickly transferred his gaze to the
man. "What's happened in there?" asked Mr. Topper.

"Don't go in, sir," pleaded the man, for the first time in his life
discouraging a prospective customer from entering his place of business.
"For God's sake, sir, stay here with us."

Topper looked at the boy.

"Little boy," he said, "tell me what frightened all these people."

"I'm not frightened," declared the boy, "but they all started to run and
I just got ahead."

"Yes, but why did they start to run?" continued Mr. Topper patiently.

"Because of her," said the boy, pointing to the shop.

"Of whom?" demanded Topper.

"The smoky lady who was trying on knickers and everything," answered the
boy.

At this point the woman who had been the first to seek comfort in flight
found her tongue. A crowd had begun to gather and she addressed herself
to the crowd.

"She was all smoky," the woman announced. "And you could see right
through her. How I first came to notice her was when I pulled back a
curtain to show one of these girls some knickers. There she was, as calm
as life, trying on a pair of knickers, a pair of our best knickers, and
she was all smoky and transparent so that only the knickers seemed real.
When she saw us she got scared and went bounding round the shop so that
it looked like a pair of knickers come to life and gone mad. I started
to run . . ."

"And I made a grab for the knickers," interrupted the man, "but the
smoky woman wouldn't let go, so I just decided that, before any trouble
started, I'd run out and see what had happened to Lil."

"It was awful," proclaimed one of the girls "I'll never forget those
knickers dancing round the shop."

"Our best knickers," said the woman. "A good pair," added the man.

"Perhaps they are not a total loss," Mr. Topper suggested. "Why not go
back and find out? I'll buy the knickers if this smoky woman hasn't
walked off with them."

As attractive as the offer was to the proprietor he seemed reluctant to
accept.

"Come on," said Mr. Topper. "I'll lead the way."

"But, sir, you don't understand," the man protested earnestly. "Have you
ever seen a transparent woman dancing about in a real pair of knickers?"

"That depends on what you mean by transparent," replied Mr. Topper
judiciously. "Anyway, it's much better than seeing a real woman dancing
about in a transparent pair of knickers."

At this remark the young lady who had been sobbing for mamma suddenly
giggled and looked archly at Mr. Topper. The proprietor seemed unconvinced.

"No, it isn't," he said, with a shake of his head. "Nowadays you can see
that at most any good show, but not the other, thank God. It isn't what
I call natural entertainment--not for me at any rate."

"And while you're standing here talking," Mr. Topper reminded him, "the
smoky lady is probably trying on every blessed thing in your shop."

Well, I'm not going back to watch her," the proprietor proclaimed to the
crowd. "If any of you gents want to see a smoky woman trying on
underwear you can step right in, but I don't budge without a cop--two
cops," he added as an afterthought.

Mr. Topper felt a soft, flimsy article being thrust stealthily into his
coat pocket. His hand flew to the spot and shoved the thing out of
sight. A gentle pressure on the arm indicated that it was time to
depart, and a policeman, pushing through the crowd, strengthened Mr.
Topper in his belief. He permitted himself to be led away by his
invisible guide. After several blocks of silent companionship he could
no longer restrain his annoyance.

"Now what the devil do you mean by trying on a pair of those things?" he
demanded.

"What a crude question!" Marion murmured. "Your conduct has given me the
privilege to ask it," replied Mr. Topper.

"Cosmo," she whispered, leaning heavily against him, "I just love nice
things."

"You should leave all that stuff behind you now that you're dead," he
answered.

"Even spirits have to be modest," said Marion. "And anyway they
frightened me. I was getting along fine until that woman pulled back the
curtain. I was pretty nearly completely materialised, but that made me
so startled I couldn't finish it."

"That was fortunate, to say the least," replied Mr. Topper, "considering
the condition you were in."

Topper heard a low laugh.

"You're vile all the way through," said Marion Kerby. "Here's a soda
shop. Come on in--chocolate with vanilla ice cream."

Mr. Topper felt himself being pulled in the direction of the soda shop.
He resisted feebly, feeling that he had gone through enough for one day.

"Must you have that soda?" he asked.

"Oh, no," Marion replied in a resigned voice. "I can do without it. I'm
used to being miserable. One more disappointment will make no
difference. Keep me hanging round your office all morning, then send me
in to a place to be scared to death, and after that refuse to buy me a
soda. Go on, I like harsh treatment. You remind me of my husband, the
low creature."

With the chattering courage of a man being placed in the electric chair,
Mr. Topper walked into the soda shop and seated himself at the counter.

"Vanilla soda with a chocolate ice," he muttered darkly in the direction
of a white-clad individual.

"No! No!" whispered Marion excitedly. "You've got it all wrong. Tell him
quick. It's chocolate soda with a vanilla ice."

Mr. Topper could feel her fluttering on his lap.

"Be still," he whispered, then smiling ingratiatingly at the clerk he
added, "I'm afraid, old man, I got that wrong. I want it the other way
'round."

The clerk looked long at Mr. Topper, then walked to the other end of the
counter and engaged a colleague in a whispered conversation. From time
to time they stopped talking to look back at Mr. Topper, whose anxiety
was mounting with each look.

Marion Kerby in her eagerness was pinching Topper's hand. He pulled his
newspaper from his pocket and hid behind it.

"You and your sodas," he growled. "Why can't you keep quiet?"

"But you had it all wrong," protested Marion. "Look out, here he comes
now."

When the attendant had placed the glass on the counter Mr. Topper idly
reached for it with the air of one too deeply engrossed in the news of
the day to be interested in a trivial beverage. Leisurely he placed the
glass to his lips, then held it aside.

"The straws," whispered Marion. "Must have straws."

"My God," murmured Mr. Topper. "Won't you ever be satisfied?"

He procured two straws, plunged them viciously into the soda, then held
the glass behind his paper. The liquid immediately began to descend in
the glass. From the rapidity of its descent Mr. Topper decided that
George Kerby had bought his wife very few sodas during her earthly
existence.

"Now dig out the ice cream with the spoon," she whispered. "Pretend to
be eating it. I'll nibble it off."

"This is going to be pretty," murmured Mr. Topper with as much sarcasm
as can be packed into a murmur. "You'll have to do better than nibble.
You'll fairly have to snap it off."

The nibbling or snapping operation required the use of both of Mr.
Topper's hands and forced him to abandon the protection of his paper.
With an earnest expression, which was perfectly sincere, he endeavoured
to give the impression of a man publicly lusting after ice cream. The
spoon flew to his avid mouth, but, just before his lips concealed their
prize, the ice cream mysteriously vanished. It must be said in favour of
Marion Kerby that she met the demands of the occasion. Not once did she
fail to claim her own. Not once was Mr. Topper allowed to sample that
which he most abhorred. When the ice cream had run its course Mr. Topper
resumed his paper and waited, with a knowledge bred of experience, for
the dregs of the soda to be drawn. He had little time to wait. Hollow,
expiring, gurgling sounds loudly proclaimed the welcome ending of the
soda. With a sigh of relief Mr. Topper was about to return the hateful
vessel to the counter when he met the eyes of the clerk peering at him
over the top margin of the newspaper. They were cold, worldly eyes, yet
curious, and they fixed themselves on Mr. Topper like two weary suns
regarding a new-born star. A nervous muscular reaction contorted Mr.
Topper's mouth into a smile.

"Do that again," the clerk said. "Do that trick again without me
guessing it and I'll give you this."

He dangled some crumpled bills alluringly in Mr. Topper's face.

"I can't," replied Mr. Topper. "It's hard enough to drink one of your
nauseating concoctions, much less two."

"You didn't drink the first one," said the attendant. "What's your game,
anyway? I was watching you all the time. Trying to be funny?"

"Not funny," Mr. Topper answered, delicately slipping from his seat.
"You're wrong there. That was one of the most serious sodas in my
life--one of the worst."

"You're one of those funny guys," said the attendant menacingly. "Come
back here and I'll tell you exactly what you are."

But Mr. Topper did not wait to be told. He hurried from the store and
mingled with the crowd.

"It's awful to be cut off from sodas," breathed Marion Kerby.

"I have no sympathy to waste on you," said Mr. Topper.

He was hungry, yet he dared not eat. If she had behaved so excitedly in
the presence of a soda, what would she do at the sight of food. Mr.
Topper shuddered. He was thinking of a plate of soup. No, it would never
do. He would have to forego luncheon. This was an overwhelming decision.
It left Mr. Topper shaken. Never had he missed a meal save when his
adenoids had been surreptitiously removed many years before. Mr. Topper
gazed up at the lean cascades of the Woolworth tower through the tragic
eyes of a deflated stomach. There was no fortitude in him. He was the
abject slave of a passion he longed but feared to indulge. All his
friends were eating luncheon now. He wondered what they were having.
Menus danced before his eyes. The "blue plate" of the day brought
savoury odours to his nose. Strangely enough it was in this dismal
crisis that Marion Kerby came to his aid.

"Isn't it time for your luncheon?" she suggested.

"Past time," said Mr. Topper, "but how can I eat with you with me?"

"Food means nothing to me," she replied. "I can take it or leave it as I
choose, but you're different. You must eat."

"I feel that way about it myself," admitted Mr. Topper. "For once I
think you're right, but, frankly, I'm afraid to enter a public place
with you. My nerves can't stand it. Too much has happened."

"Come," she said in a changed voice, taking him forcibly by the arm.
"I'm going to see that you get your luncheon. Don't bother at all about
me. I'm different now. The city went to my head at first. I'll admit it.
Those knickers and the ice cream soda got the best of me. I lost control
of myself, but now you don't have to worry. Just a cup of tea--nothing
more."

"That ends it," declared Mr. Topper. "That's enough. I don't eat. I dare
say you fully expect me to crouch under a table and hold a plate of tea
while you make strangling noises."

Marion Kerby laughed softly.

"I was only joking about the tea," she said. "Honestly, now, I don't
really want it. That's true. I should want it, but I don't. There was
only one person I ever knew, not counting myself, who couldn't stand
tea, and he was a fine but fanatical drunkard. Graze with the herd and
I'll keep quiet."

So Mr. Topper had his luncheon. It was a tense luncheon, a suspicious,
waiting sort of luncheon, one filled with false starts and empty alarms.
In spite of everything it was a good luncheon and Marion Kerby behaved
splendidly. Once, when Mr. Topper used the pepper too violently, a fit
of sneezing came from the opposite chair. The waiter was momentarily
startled, but immediately adjusted himself to the situation. He
realised, as does everyone who knows anything at all about sneezing,
that there are no two sneezes alike and that most anything can be
expected of a sneezer. He regarded Mr. Topper with the commiseration of
one whose sneezes were infrequent and well under control, and departed
in stately search of a pie a la mode. Nevertheless, he considered Mr.
Topper as being not quite the usual customer. He had noticed certain
little things. Nothing you could put your finger on, but still a trifle
different. For instance, why had the tray containing bread risen to meet
Mr. Topper's outstretched hand? And why had the salt stand behaved so
obligingly? How could one account for a menu tilted in space? And, if
that was perfectly natural, why had Mr. Topper made such strange
fluttering movements with his hands? Deep within himself the waiter
sensed that all was not well with his table, but the clatter of plates,
the demands of his occupation, and the deep-rooted instinct of all
people to deny the existence of the unusual successfully maintained him
in his poise of sharply chiselled indifference. The generous size of the
tip he washed up in his obsequious hands completely restored his faith
in the normal order of things. There had been nothing unusual. Mr.
Topper was a man who desired to dine. The waiter hoped he would do so
more frequently at his table. The waiter was one of those people whose
tolerance increases with the size of the tip. For a ten-dollar bill he
would have respectfully tidied up after a murder and made excuses for
the toughness of the corpse.

Later that afternoon Mr. Topper was trying on a cap. He was a diffident
man about such things, but on this occasion his heart was in his task.
The brownish thing that was making his head ridiculous had vague,
temporising lines in it of a nervous blue, but to Mr. Topper the cap was
lovely. To a man or to a woman he would have said harshly that the cap
"would do," but to himself he had to admit it was lovely. He admired it
hugely. It was a good cap. Mr. Topper had no difficulty in convincing
the salesman that it was a good cap. With suitable apologies the man
agreed that it was a very good cap and that it suited Mr. Topper well.
Mr. Topper found himself admiring the salesman. He knew his business,
this man--one of the few salesmen with unimpeachable taste. The cap was
practically Topper's. All the salesman had to do was to snatch it from
Mr. Topper's vain-glorious head and wrap it up. Mr. Topper was willing.
He had never purchased such a cap in his life. With the eager timidity
of a virgin he hoped to demolish the record of years. He was brazen
about it, yet he was shy almost to the point of tenderness. The cap was
in the salesman's hands. Mr. Topper was reaching for money. The
salesman's free hand was politely waiting for the object of Mr. Topper's
reaching. Then something happened. A new and different cap appeared in
the salesman's outstretched hand. With the instinct of his calling he
automatically began to sell the new cap. Then he stopped in confusion
and looked helplessly at Mr. Topper, who was convulsively clutching a
roll of bills. Mr. Topper refused to meet the salesman's gaze. Instead
he glared at the new cap. It was a terrible cap, an obscene, gloating,
desperate cap. Its red checks displayed the brazen indifference of deep
depravity. Mr. Topper was revolted.

"Take it away," he said. "I don't want it."

At this remark the new cap shook threateningly in the salesman's hand.
He tried to give it to Mr. Topper, but was unsuccessful. Mr. Topper
backed away.

"I don't want it," he repeated. "I don't like that cap. Please take it
away."

The salesman was deeply moved.

"I'm not trying to sell it to you, sir," he said in a low voice, "but
somehow I can't help it."

He stood before Mr. Topper with a cap in either hand. One cap he held
almost lovingly, the other he clung to in spite of himself, like a man
with a live coal in a nest of dynamite. His lips trembled slightly. He
tried to smile. He was mortally afraid that at any moment Mr. Topper
would depart with a bad opinion of the shop. He could never permit that
to happen. With an effort he turned away, but before he had gone many
yards he abruptly swung around and came back at a dog-trot. To Mr.
Topper he gave the appearance of a man who was being held by the scruff
of his neck and the seat of his trousers by someone intent on motivating
him from the rear. He stopped suddenly in front of Mr. Topper and, in an
attitude of supplication, offered him the red checked cap. Mr. Topper
again refused it.

"I must apologise," the man said rather breathlessly, "but I really
think you had better take this cap."

In spite of his irritation Mr. Topper regarded the salesman with quick
sympathy.

"Why have you changed your mind?" he asked. "I've already told you that
I hate that cap. It isn't a nice cap. I don't like it."

The salesman was almost chattering. He shook himself like a dog and
glanced quickly over his shoulder. Then he approached Mr. Topper.

"I haven't changed my mind," he whispered. "I've lost my mind. It isn't
the shop. It's me. I'm mad."

Mr. Topper was beginning to feel extremely sorry for the salesman. He
wanted to do what he could, but he refused to be bullied into buying a
cap he utterly loathed, a cap that went against all his instincts.

"It's too bad about your mind," said Mr. Topper, "but I don't want that
cap. I won't buy it. And if I do buy it I won't wear it. I'm honest
about that."

"Listen," whispered the salesman. "I'll give you the cap if you'll only
take it away."

"If you're as anxious as all that to get rid of the cap," Mr. Topper
replied, "I'll buy them both. How much are they?

"Practically nothing," said the salesman, his face clearing. "I'll wrap
them up myself." He hurried away.

"But I won't wear it," said Mr. Topper, addressing space. "You won't be
able to force the thing on my head."

"Here they are," announced the salesman, returning with the package.
"You've been very nice about it, I'm sure."

As the elevator bearing Mr. Topper to the ground floor began its descent
a low gasp was heard in the car.

"I can't stand these things," whispered Marion Kerby. "They always take
my breath."

At each floor the gasp was repeated, whereat Mr. Topper cringed under
the curious eye of the operator. Mr. Topper pretended to gasp in order
to protect himself. He smiled sickly at the operator and said:

"Did it affect you that way at first? It always does me."

The operator continued to look at him, but made no answer. He was glad
to sec the last of Mr. Topper. He was afraid that the man was going to
swoon in his car.

On the train that evening Mr. Topper tried to hide himself in his
newspaper, but was unsuccessful. Marion Kerby insisted on turning back
the pages and scanning the advertisements. At last Mr. Topper abandoned
the newspaper and looked out of the window. Presently he became
conscious of the fact that several passengers were regarding the vacant
seat beside him with undisguised interest. The newspaper was slanted
against the air as though it were being held by unseen hands. Mr. Topper
seized the paper and thrust it into his pocket.

"Rotter!" whispered Marion Kerby. "Fiend! " muttered Mr. Topper.

A heavy personage attempted to occupy the seat, but arose with a grunt
of surprise. For a moment he regarded Mr. Topper bitterly, but that
distraught gentleman was gazing at the landscape with the greedy eyes of
a tourist.

At the end of the trip he hurried home. His day had been crammed with
desperate events. There would be nothing for him at home save Scollops,
but at present Mr. Topper preferred a sleepy cat to an active spirit. He
yearned for repose.

"Good-bye," said Marion Kerby as he was turning into the driveway. "I've
had an awfully nice time and I want to thank you."

"Why did you make me buy that cap?" demanded Mr. Topper.

"Because I knew it would look well on you," she answered. "George had
one once and everybody liked it."

"Well, I don't, and I won't wear it," said Mr. Topper. "Good-bye."

Marion Kerby clung to his arm.

"Don't be angry," she pleaded. "I've got to go back now and it's going
to be lonely out there without even George to haggle with. Say good-bye
nicely and call me Marion."

Mr. Topper had a twinge of conscience. He was going away in the morning
without even telling her about it. He was running away from her.
Although he realised that he was in no way bound to Marion Kerby, he
nevertheless felt guilty in abandoning her, particularly in the absence
of her irresponsible husband. However, if he confided in her everything
would be ruined. She would be sure to come along. He knew he would never
be able to drive her off. After all, why should he not take her along?
Then he remembered the events of the day and decided that there was
every reason in the world for leaving her behind. He was going away for
a rest and not a riot. With Marion Kerby with him rest would be out of
the question.

"Well," he said in a mollified voice, "it's not going to be any too
crisp for me at home, but I'll look you up in a few days. We'll take a
ride together."

"Good-bye," she said, her voice sounding strangely thin and far away.
"Don't forget. I'll be waiting for you."

The house had lost none of its funereal atmosphere during Mr. Topper's
absence. Mrs. Topper was sitting in the shadows with her hands folded in
her lap. She was the picture of resignation.

"Are you feeling better, my dear?" asked Mr. Topper.

"I haven't been thinking about myself," she replied. "There are other
things on my mind."

Mr. Topper discreetly refrained from asking her what they were. He sat
down and read the paper until the maid announced dinner, then he
followed his wife into the dining-room, where the evening meal was
consumed in silence. He felt like a convict being entertained by a
member of a Christian Endeavour Society. Mrs. Topper made it a point to
see that he was properly served. She seemed to derive a sort of mournful
pleasure in watching him chew his food.

When they were once more in the sitting-room Mr. Topper announced the
fact that he was going away for a trip. It was a difficult announcement
to make and Mrs. Topper was not helpful. She listened in silence until
he was through, then she said without looking at him:

"I hope that for my sake you'll try to keep out of jail."

"It's not a habit," replied Mr. Topper. "It was an accident, an
unfortunate misunderstanding."

Mrs. Topper bent over her sewing and compressed her lips.

"I'll never forget it to my dying day," she said. "The shame and
humiliation of it."

"You could forget it if you wanted to," answered Mr. Topper. "If you
liked me instead of yourself you could forget a lot of things."

Mrs. Topper regarded her husband with melancholy eyes.

"You ask me to forget that?" she asked.

"Come, Mary," replied Mr. Topper in an earnest voice. "I don't know what
got into me. I was all wrong, but lust the same . . ."

He stopped and, pulling the knickers from his pocket, began to mop his
face with them. They were orchid-coloured knickers heightened in
attractiveness by crimson butterflies and lace insertion. They gave Mr.
Topper a foppish appearance. As he stood before his wife with his face
nonchalantly buried in the silken fabric Mr. Topper looked almost giddy.
A new light came into Mrs. Topper's eyes. It was the light of despair
masking behind outraged modesty. At the height of his mopping Mr. Topper
must have realised the situation, for he suddenly withdrew his face from
its tender concealment and peered at Mrs. Topper over the knickers. Mrs.
Topper had risen. As she confronted her husband she was trembling
slightly. He tried to speak, but she held up a restraining hand.

"I refuse to remain in the room and have you flaunt your infidelity in
my face," she said. "Don't speak o me. Don't try to explain. Everything
is perfectly clear."

"But I bought them for you," gasped Mr. Topper. "They were to be a
surprise."

"They were a surprise," replied Mrs. Topper, recoiling from the
offending garment. "They were a shock."

As she left the room Mr. Topper hurled the knickers to the table and
departed to the garage, where he remained the rest of the evening.
Scollops curled up on the evidence of guilt and tried to forget the late
unpleasantness in sleep. When Mr. Topper returned to the house the
knickers had disappeared from the table. Upstairs a tear-stained woman
was clutching them in her hand. Gradually her sobbing quieted and she
looked timidly at the knickers. Perhaps after all he had bought them for
her. But she never wore such things. Mr. Topper knew it. Why didn't she
wear such things? She was startled. Perhaps that was the reason. With a
feeling of guilt she slipped on the knickers and looked at herself in
the mirror. She thought they were vulgar and pointedly immoral, but in
her heart she gloated over them. After all they were quite nice if worn
in a proper manner and for an equally proper purpose. Beauty for
beauty's sake. She would have to consider knickers and other things.
Absorbed in these thoughts, her eyes travelled up the mirror and
encountered her face. After a moment's scrutiny she turned away, her
shoulders drooping. She felt foolish and defeated. Desolation filled her
heart. As she lay on the bed in her startling attire she looked like a
bedraggled doll which some worldly person had dressed in a moment of
caprice and then abandoned for other pursuits.

Her outbursts of grief expended, she sprang up and, tearing off the
offending garment, trampled it under her feet. Then quite reasonably she
picked up the knickers, carefully folded them and put them away for safe
keeping. After this she prepared herself for bed and switched off the
light. Later, when her husband wearily sank down beside her, she
pretended to be asleep.




CHAPTER XIII
Escape


Before the sun had set Mr. Topper had left a trail of dust across his
native state and carried warfare deep into the heart of Connecticut.
Like a floating mine in an ocean lane he endangered the safety and
ruined the happiness of all creatures who came his way. His intentions
were above reproach had he been able to execute them, but in this he
failed lamentably. He was a travelling display of frightfulness, a
menace to moving traffic. The curses of his fellow-creatures followed
him down the road. He had never before realised how vindictive, how
utterly given to fury, automobilists were. Sarcasm, insults and jeers,
all were flung at Mr. Topper, and all found their mark. He shrank within
himself and placed his destiny in the hands of God. But long hours of
sustained driving effected a gradual change in his spirits, and towards
sunset it was Topper who was shouting bitter oaths at passing
automobiles. Each oath increased his confidence and self-respect, until
at last he came to regard with malicious pleasure the approach of
another car, epithets fairly boiling on his tongue.

"They've tried to ruin my day for me," he thought. "I might as well get
back at them now."

When not engaged in roadside altercations, Mr. Topper's thoughts strayed
back to home. He was heavily depressed to find that he lacked the thrill
of escape.

In the early morning, under the stimulus of the previous evening's
scene, he had left his wife, his bed and the knickers to settle the
dispute among themselves, and stolen forth to the garage, where the
secretly prepared automobile was waiting to carry him to liberty. As he
passed through the sitting-room Scollops, abandoned to sleep, was lying
in his chair. Lying is hardly the word. Moulded would be more
descriptive of the cat's contact with the yielding upholstery. Given a
sufficient length of time, Scollops might have grown to the chair, so
much a part of her had she made it already.

It was not without pride that Topper regarded his cat. She had selected
his chair for her slumbers. Possibly she sensed he was near. Topper's
unconscious craving to be loved made him overlook the fact that his was
the most comfortable chair in the room, and being such naturally
recommended itself to Scollops' practical mind. His knowledge of cats
was hardly more extensive than his knowledge of women. In some respects
Topper was more fortunate than he realised.

He had stooped over the sleeping creature and run his hand along her
luxurious side. A short,surprised bubbling sound signified that although
she appreciated the attention, she could do nothing about it at present,
complete rest being her most urgent need. However, he could stand there
and continue to stroke her if it gave him any pleasure. She rather
enjoyed it.

Topper was now thinking of Scollops as he had last seen her. He was
wondering whether he should have brought her along. Perhaps she might be
forced to suffer vicarious atonement for his sins. That would be too
bad. After due consideration he decided that an automobile was as much
as if not more than he could well manage, and that Scollops would have
complicated things to the breaking point. Yet the fact remained that he
was lonely. He almost wished he had taken Marion Kerby along for at
least the first stage of the trip, but when he recalled the humiliation
of the previous day, he felt glad that he had not given in to this
weakness--nay, madness.

A slight misunderstanding with an inter-urban trolley car forced him to
concentrate on the business of keeping alive, and when next he had time
to glance at his surroundings he found with relief that he was in a town
which gave the appearance of being large enough to support life.

The hotel was even more than he had hoped for or expected. It was so
self-consciously modern that it wore an injured air. A negro bell boy
fairly snapped at his bags and bore them away in triumph down a
colonnaded hall. Mr. Topper, hardly less triumphant at having arrived
intact at some destination, no matter where, followed at a more
leisurely pace. Then it was that the hotel, or at least that part of it
assembled in the lobby, received a decided shock. As Mr. Topper
approached the desk two books pursued him down the hall. The negro bell
boy on seeing the phenomenon dropped the bags and began to look for
wires or for any other rational explanation of this unprecedented
occurrence. Unable to find a comforting solution, he held on to the desk
and shivered while looking pathetically at the clerk. Unfortunately for
the bell boy the clerk was too much preoccupied with his own feelings to
share his moral courage with others. By the strained attention of the
clerk's features Mr. Topper could tell that something was wrong. And
when the two books thrust themselves under Mr. Topper's arm he knew that
all was wrong. He snatched at the books and offered them to the clerk.

"They're not mine," announced Mr. Topper lyingly. "You'd better take
care of them."

"I won't touch them," replied the clerk, withdrawing from the books.

"Well, you take them," said Mr. Topper, turning to the bell boy.
"Someone here must own them."

The bell boy shivered himself out of reach.

"They followed you," he muttered. "They didn't follow me. I don't read,
boss. Please point those books the other way."

"Damn it, then, I'll throw them here,"exclaimed Topper, tossing the
books into a chair. "Give me a room and bath."

The clerk, still eyeing the books suspiciously, reached for a key and
handed it to the reluctant bell boy.

"Take him away," he said, briefly.

As Topper turned to follow his bags he cast it swift, pleading glance at
the abandoned books.

"Don't follow me," he muttered. "This is serious."

On his way to the elevator he could not resist the temptation to look
back. He felt sure that he saw the books fluttering entreatingly in the
chair. It was like leaving a dog behind, one that was not to be trusted.
Only when the elevator door had closed with a satisfying clang of
finality did Mr. Topper breathe a sigh of relief.

Once in his room he endeavoured to regain his composure. Looking coldly
at the bell boy, he said, "Bring me some ice water and the evening
paper, a New York paper if they have them here."

The sound of the closing door synchronised with a terrible scream. Mr.
Topper, completely unnerved, rushed to the door and looked out. Two
books were coming stealthily down the hall. The bell boy was flattened
against the wall, and every time he screamed the books stopped as if
undecided what course to pursue under the circumstances. And every time
the books stopped the bell boy put his hands over his eyes and
replenished his spent lungs with air for further efforts.

Mr. Topper was speechless. He wanted to tell the bell boy not to scream,
but he could only speak in a whisper.

"Don't scream, little bell boy," he heard himself saying. "Don't scream
and I'll give you a dollar."

But money made no impression on the bell boy. Avarice had been cleansed
from his soul. He was purified by fear. And as the books drew abreast of
him and made a vicious dart in his direction he sank to the floor. For a
moment the two volumes danced wickedly over the fallen negro, then with
surprising swiftness flashed into Mr. Topper's room, and with an
ill-tempered bang deposited themselves upon the table. Mr. Topper closed
the door, but not before he had had time to catch a glimpse of the bell
boy worming his way in the direction of the elevator.

Still unable adequately to express his feelings in words, Mr. Topper
sank into a chair and gazed down on the street. The worst had happened.
Nothing hereafter could ever be quite so bad. Had he remained at home
with Scollops he would have been far better off. Even Mrs. Topper with
her indigestion and her sighs would have been preferable to this. He
should have stopped at the local mad-house instead of the hotel. What
were they talking about downstairs? The long twilight was streaming out
and the room was growing dark. Fearfully he let his eyes rest on the
books. He cleared his throat suggestively.

Well," he said at last, "you might as well speak. I know you're here.
Why deny it?"

"But I haven't said a word," came a surprised voice from the direction
of the wastepaper-basket.

"Then don't," said Mr. Topper. "And try to pick out less disturbing
places to settle in."

There was no reply, but the window shade rolled down with a sudden snap
and the electric lights as suddenly flashed into being. Mr. Topper
started nervously.

"You're always trying to be so helpful," he remarked petulantly. "Where
the devil are you?"

Like a blind man endeavouring to locate a voice he looked round the
room, a baffled light in his eyes.

"For God's sake say something," he exclaimed. "What are you doing now?
What are you going to do?"

"For the moment I'm roosting on the chandelier," came Marion Kerby's
familiar voice, "but I'll be down presently."

"When are you going for good?"

"Why, I hadn't intended to go," she replied. "I'd decided we'd better
take a good long rest and make an early start in the morning."

"We," he said. "How do you mean 'we'? I won't ever go to bed unless you
clear out."

"What's the difference?" she asked. "What's so strange about 'we'?"

"You're too depraved to understand," replied Mr. Topper. "Merely because
you claim you're not legally bound to your husband don't get the idea
that you are to me."

"But there are twin beds here," she protested. "And it's been such a
long day."

"If they were triplets it wouldn't change my mind," said Mr. Topper.

"Prude," she jeered.

"Why?" asked Topper. "You seem to think that you should enjoy not only
all the privileges of a spirit but also the few comforts that are left
to mortal beings."

"Why not?" she answered. "You forget I am quite low-planed."

"Not for a moment," said Mr. Topper. "You never give me the chance."

Marion Kerby laughed.

"I choose the bed by the window," she said. "You can sleep on the
inside. You'll be out of the draught."

"That's very thoughtful of you," replied Mr. Topper, "but you don't
quite understand. I have a lot of things to do, none of which requires
an invisible audience. I must shave and exercise and take my bath, and
damn me if I'll have you floating about this room while I'm doing these
things."

"I'll hide my head in the pillow," she suggested.

"But it wouldn't be humanly possible for you to keep it there."

"Don't judge others by yourself."

"I can't in this case," said Mr. Topper. "It isn't fair. You're
invisible and I can't see you, but I'm quite solid and you can see me."

"Are you making advances?" asked Marion Kerby.

"Not at all! " exclaimed Mr. Topper.

"For if you are," she continued, "I can very easily alter the situation.
Just to show you what a good sport I am I'll materialise."

"Don't do that," said Mr. Topper. "Most emphatically not. Get the idea
out of your head. There are laws against such things, unpleasant,
illogical laws. Do you want me arrested again?"

As Marion Kerby began to laugh at Mr. Topper's consternation there was a
knock on the door and a bell boy entered, a new bell boy.

"Stop laughing," commanded Mr. Topper.

"But I'm not, sir," said the bell boy.

"Oh, I thought you were," replied Mr. Topper. "It must have been my
suit-case. It squeaks."

A smothered sound descended from the chandelier. Both Topper and the
bell boy glanced up.

"That pipe needs fixing," remarked Mr. Topper.

"Anything else, sir?" said the boy, hastily placing the water and the
newspaper on the table.

"I hope not," Topper replied earnestly. "I certainly hope not."

The bell boy withdrew without waiting for a tip. Mr. Topper locked the
door.

"That sounds interesting," said the chandelier. "I'm so excited."

"Don't be lewd," Mr. Topper snapped. "Do you realise I haven't dined?"

For an answer he felt two arms twining round his neck and two lips
touching his cheeks. In spite of himself he was thrilled.

"Stop all this," he said. "I dislike any show of emotion."

A low laugh sounded in his ears and his hair began to move strangely on
his head. Marion Kerby was playfully rumpling her victim.

"Please," protested Mr. Topper. "This is most uncanny."

"I'm just bidding you good night," she replied. "You lied to me about
going away, but I'll forgive you. Don't worry. I wouldn't sleep in here
if you begged me. You go down and have your dinner, get a good night's
sleep and I'll be waiting for you in the morning."

"Where?" he asked suspiciously.

"In the car," she replied. "Good night."

Topper suddenly felt himself alone. He could not tell why, but he knew
that Marion Kerby was no longer in the room. The place seemed empty. And
strangely enough he did not feel relieved. Nevertheless as he left the
room he took the precaution to remark aloud:

"I'm not going to read. Leave the books alone."

After a hearty dinner, taken outside the hotel, he returned to his room
and prepared himself for bed. For some reason he trusted Marion Kerby.
He felt sure that she would not take advantage of his solidity. Yet why
had he not taken advantage of her offer to materialise? Topper was not
accustomed to sleeping alone. It would have been jolly to have had a
companion. A real one. With a backward thought of Scollops and a forward
thought of the morrow he switched off the lights and settled into bed.
Mrs. Topper stalked his dreams. She was standing at a cross-roads
gloomily directing traffic, and every time he attempted to go her yellow
hand held back his car.

It was after one of these irritating dreams that he awoke to hear
regular breathing coming from the bed at his side. He was shocked beyond
words. What an outrageous thing to do after her promise. He thrust his
hand out in the darkness and shook the bed.

"Wake up," he whispered piercingly. "Wake up. You can't stay in here."

"Oh, let me alone," came the sleepy rejoinder. "Don't bother me. I've
had to stand your driving all day long."

"Don't argue," whispered Mr. Topper. "Get up at once and go away. Sleep
in the garage."

"Sleep there yourself."

"But, Marion," continued Topper, trying another tack. "This isn't right.
Your husband is a friend of mine."

"Well, I slept with him for years."

"How shameless."

Not at all. One would think I was trying to seduce you."

"I know you're not, but you're making a nervous wreck out of me. I value
your husband's friendship."

Marion Kerby laughed mirthlessly.

"It wouldn't be worth a cent if he saw us now," she said.

"When's he due back?" asked Mr. Topper, after a moment's thought.

"You can't tell," she replied. "He might drop in at any minute."

This information contributed little to Mr. Topper's happiness. He looked
morosely out into the darkness.

"I could never explain," he remarked as if to himself.

"You wouldn't have time," said Marion.

"Then why not be sensible and go away?"

"Because I'm very comfortable where I am, thank you."

"Oh, dear," he said to the darkness. "I'd rather sleep in the bathtub."

"Go on and sleep in the bathtub. Turn on the water and pull it up over
your ears."

Mr. Topper made no answer, but sat hunched up in his bed. Suddenly he
jumped. Marion Kerby was yawning in his ear.

"Oh, give me a kiss," she said, "and let's get some sleep."

"This is downright ghastly," he muttered. "Haven't you any morals at all?"

"Hardly any."

"Well, I have a few left. Try to remember that."

He sank back into the bed and gathered the coverings tightly about him.
Several minutes of silence passed as he listened to Marion Kerby's
regular breathing.

"Won't you please go away?" he said at last.

"If you don't stop waking me up," she replied irritably, "I'll start
screaming and let in the whole hotel."

Before this threat Mr. Topper wilted. He buried his head in the pillow
and remained silent. His desperate desire to be elsewhere drove him into
oblivion, but this time Mrs. Topper did not disturb his dreams. Instead,
he was in his pyjamas and Marion Kerby was chasing him through the
corridors of the hotel. All the doors were open and people were crowding
in them. As he sped down innumerable miles of carpet, grinning faces
greeted him on either side and ironical cheers of encouragement followed
his headlong flight. And the most terrible thing of all was that his
pyjamas were threatening to part.

"If I trip now," he thought to himself, "I'll be a marked man for life."




CHAPTER XV
The Singing Shower-Bath


Like a spent runner breasting the tape with his last stride Topper awoke
in the morning. By languid stages he rolled himself to the floor, where
his feet unconsciously fumbled the carpet for their slippers. As he
stood in the middle of the room tentatively fingering his disordered
hair, he allowed his eyes to dwell on the other bed. For some moments he
regarded this object with scant interest, then gradually his sluggish
faculties assimilated the fact that what he beheld gave every appearance
of having been occupied. The coverings of the bed presented a scene of
opulent disorder. Once Mr. Topper fully appreciated the significance of
this discovery it was but a matter of a moment for him to act on it.
With far greater speed and decision than he had displayed in quitting
his own bed the dismayed man now returned to it. There, huddled in the
coverings, he considered his desperate plight, his eyes bleakly
searching the room for some source of comfort.

"Marion," he called at last, his voice softly pleading with space.
"Marion, I must get up now. Do be a good girl and run along."

As if in answer to his words the shower began merrily to prattle in the
bathroom. To Mr. Topper's shrinking ears it sounded like a deluge. And
out of the rush of water a slight song came winging through the door.
The words and music belonged to Marion Kerby. Topper's fingers nervously
plucked at the sheets as he listened to the song:

"I once was a lady as you may divine,
Though the fact it is hard for to see,
Rare beauty and riches and romance were mine,
Before I ran into a tree.
My husband he did it. The devil would drive,
The high-flying, low-lying soak.
And that is the reason I'm no more alive,
For he ran me smack into an oak."

Mr. Topper shuddered at the word "smack" and sprang from the bed. It was
all too horrible. How could she sing about the accident? And such a
song! "Smack into an oak"--a ghastly picture. Casting his robe round
him, he walked with dignity to the door of the bathroom, upon which he
knocked vigorously.

"Come out of there," he commanded, transferring his attention to the
knob. "Stop that wailing noise. You're splashing water all over
everything."

"You just leave me alone now," came the reply with unexpected heat. "I'm
tired of your airs and graces. Only wait until you take a shower. I'll
raise hell with you then."

Topper regarded the door with a mixture of fear and reproach. What a
creature of fury she was. And he had only said a word. The possibilities
of her retaliations made him thoughtful. There was no telling what she
might do. Then once more the indignity of the situation over-topped his
better judgment. He returned to the combat.

"I'd very much like to know," he demanded, "why you persist in
considering this situation as normal when obviously there's nothing
normal about it. Answer me that. What right have you to become so
threatening and furious? You're haunting me. I'm not haunting you. This
is my vacation. Can't you get that through your head?"

"Nonsense," came from the shower. "Ladies must bathe."

"But, Marion, you're not a lady," Mr. Topper protested. "Not any longer.
Once you might have been, although I have good reason to doubt it.
You're only a spirit now and you're supposed to have taken your last
bath. If you overlooked your opportunities when you had them, why
monopolise mine now?"

"What low insinuations," the shower retorted. "Just wait till I get you
in here."

"You'll never get me in there," Mr. Topper answered. "Never! "

"But it's such a lovely shower."

"Then hurry up and come out of it. I've lots of things to do."

"You don't know what you're asking," came insinuatingly from the shower.
"You see I materialised just for the occasion, but if you insist . . ."

"I don't," Mr. Topper interrupted hastily. "Only please dematerialise
and go away."

"Then where are my knickers?"

"Good God, what a question to ask! I know nothing about your knickers."

"You do so. We stole them in New York."

"Oh," he replied, his face clearing. "I gave them to my wife."

The shower was seized with convulsions.

"She'd look like a staggering sunset in those knickers," it gasped moistly.

"Stop saying things about my wife," Mr. Topper replied, shaking the door
knob.

"Not unless you try to be more pleasant."

"How about yourself? Will you try to keep within reason?"

"Yes," she replied. "I'll try. I'll do my best."

"And you'll respect my privacy hereafter and get me into no more scrapes?"

"Absolutely, my little chastling."

Mr. Topper thought quickly. He realised the futility of continuing
hostilities. Marion Kerby had every advantage in her favour, and she
would use it without honour. Perhaps after all it would be wiser to call
a truce with this untamed spirit.

"All right," he said. "I'm game. From now on we'll try to enjoy
ourselves. This sort of thing is spoiling my trip. What do you say to a
truce?"

"I say yes," she heartily agreed.

The flood suddenly subsided and the door flew open. Topper stepped back,
but not in time to save himself from the embrace of two fresh though
invisible arms.

"Behold," said a voice in his ear, "your instruments of torture have
been laid out by loving hands. Come in and see what I've done."

"That's all very nice," replied Mr. Topper. "And I appreciate your
thought, but don't go too far. I know all about shower-baths. I will
join you later."

"Then hurry like everything," she urged as she released him. "Let's
prepare for fresh adventures now that we're friends again."

"No more fresh adventures," admonished Topper, thrusting his head
through the partly opened door. "Leave fresh adventures out of it. The
few I've had with you will never stale."

Topper was one who dwelt lovingly over his toilet. In his blood there
was something of the Roman emperor. He gloried in steam and tiles. He
was never happier than when allowed to occupy his bathroom unmolested,
an occasion which occurred only too rarely in his own household. He made
the most of his new-found freedom and soaked himself to his heart's
content. When at last he emerged glowing from the sweating walls he was
both surprised and delighted to find breakfast already awaiting him. It
was appetisingly arranged on a table, from which a fork was busily
engaged in conveying scrambled eggs to nowhere. To Mr. Topper it was a
painful sight. As the fork rose from the plate and daintily poised
itself for the thrust he watched with fascinated eyes the amazing
disappearance of its burden. Marion Kerby's voice interrupted his
contemplation.

"Sit down," she said briskly. "Everything is getting cold. I couldn't
wait."

The fork made a quick jab in his direction.

"Don't apologise," he replied, sliding into a chair. "I'll sit down, but
before I begin to eat answer me one question. How is it that you can put
something into nothing and make it disappear?"

"It's a gift," she explained. "I just gulp it down into the fourth
dimension and there it is changed into so much extra ectoplasm."

Mr. Topper tried to smile, but he felt that he was rapidly losing his
appetite.

"Its all clear," he said, "but the gulping. Do you have to gulp when you
eat?"

"Don't be insulting," she replied, with the fork poised in mid air.
"It's merely that I'm ravenous after the shower. Absolutely starved. I
don't get a chance to eat very often."

"Then don't let me stand in your way now," Mr. Topper urged gallantly.
"Go right ahead and gulp. I'm a trifle greedy myself."

For several minutes no sounds disturbed the tranquillity of the room
save those occasioned by eating. Presently, however, Mr. Topper, who had
been glancing at his companion with increasing alarm, was forced to speak.

"You'll pardon me," he said, "if I seem to turn away when you gulp your
coffee. I can't quite get used to the sight and it gives me the
strangest feeling. Every time you tilt your cup I expect to see the
coffee splash all over the table."

"Oh, you'll get used to that in time," she answered encouragingly.

"I'm no longer in rompers," he remarked. "But I never miss," she assured
him.

"That's just it," he replied. "It would seem more natural if you did."

In the middle of his next mouthful a new fear interrupted his activities.

"How," he demanded, swallowing quickly, "how did you manage to bring
this breakfast into being?"

"I telephoned for it," she answered.

Mr. Topper started from his chair.

"My God! " he cried. "They'll think I had a woman in my room all night."

"Sit down," she commanded, "and don't be so jumpy or I will spill my
coffee. I imitated your voice perfectly. In fact, I was quite ladylike."

As Mr. Topper resumed his chair Marion Kerby began to laugh.

"Why that?" he asked.

"Because I made one mistake," she answered. "I told the boy to set the
tray down outside the door, but when I went to get it he was still
there. Well, naturally you can picture to yourself how mystified he was
when he saw the tray slide in, as it were, by itself."

"Only too vividly," said Mr. Topper.

"He did look so upset," she added.

"Don't dwell on it," pleaded Mr. Topper. "I've seen too much tragedy as
it is. Was it the first boy?"

"It was."

"Then you have probably killed him."

He poured another cup of coffee and drank deeply.

"If not you have driven him mad," he concluded. "Completely unhinged his
mind."

He rose wearily from the table and prepared to depart. Marion Kerby made
herself helpful. Combs and brushes, shirts and shaving things moved
mysteriously across the room and arranged themselves in the suit-case.
Mr. Topper, observing this, felt surprised that he was no longer
alarmed. He was becoming accustomed to the situation. Placing the books
securely in one of the bags, he strapped his luggage and locked it.

"Remember," he said, "I trust you. No monkey business, no helpfulness.
If I'm not arrested I'll meet you in the car. Wait for me there."

"I won't do a thing," she promised. "Our first night was delightful."

"Such remarks are better left unsaid," he replied as he closed the door.

Marion Kerby was as good as her word. She allowed him to leave the hotel
without further complications. In spite of this Mr. Topper was hardly
regarded with warmth by the personnel of the establishment. The bell
boys seemed inclined to avoid him, and had he desired to take advantage
of his sinister reputation it is highly possible the management would
have accepted his absence in lieu of payment. The leave-taking was
characterised by a spirit of mutual relief. As no one offered to take
his bags he carried them himself and was well satisfied with the
arrangement. Marion Kerby was waiting for him in the car.

"You know," she said, "I'm afraid you'll have to take me shopping. If
I'm to go along with you I'll need a few things."

Mr. Topper protested strongly, and it was only after the threat of
strange and fearful embarrassments swiftly to follow his refusal that he
finally agreed to stop his car in front of the lavishly littered windows
of a department store. Here at the girl's dictation he wrote out a list
of purchases.

"Not that," he objected after the mention of a certain article.

"Absolutely," she insisted. "You gave my knickers to your wife. Now you
must buy me knickers. I revel in them."

"Well, you won't revel with me," he said as he mopped his face and made
for the store.

Marion Kerby kept close to his elbow and nudged him whenever she had
decided on a purchase. In a faint voice Mr. Topper asked for the various
articles and stood perspiring until his invisible companion had made her
selection. The saleswomen eyed him suspiciously, but he refused to meet
their eyes. Had it not been for a disturbing disposition on Marion
Kerby's part to possess herself unlawfully of certain small articles by
slipping them into his pockets, Mr. Topper would have found nothing
radically wrong with her conduct. Whenever he endeavoured to replace the
things, she pinched his arm so viciously that he was forced to abandon
his attempts to remain an honest man. After innumerable purchases he
consulted the list, then mutteringly addressed his arm.

"We've bought all the things," he said. "Let's get out."

"All right," she whispered. "I'll go first."

As she did so she succeeded in attaching herself to a red cape and sport
hat draped on a near-by model. The model swayed perilously as it was
being bereft of its attire. Mr. Topper stepped back and regarded the
scene with despairing eyes. Then he looked about for another exit, but
could find none. The model, looking rather summery, settled back to
rest, and the hat and cape proceeded jauntily down the aisle. At first
no one save Mr. Topper noticed the unusual spectacle, but as the hat and
cape continued on their triumphal progress the early morning shoppers
began to fall back until finally the passage was lined with mute,
inquiring faces.

Mr. Topper, vividly recalling his dream of the previous night, refused
to follow the retreating garments. He mingled with the crowd and
pretended to look surprised. The effect was that of a dangerously ill man.

"I would have bought the damn things," he kept thinking. "Why didn't she
give me the chance?"

Finally, a shopwalker caught sight of the animated hat and cape. Perhaps
he did not fully understand the situation, but he did seem to appreciate
the fact that high-class merchandise was rapidly departing from the
store in a new and altogether unauthorised manner. Whether he was an
intrepid man or an extremely dull one can never be established. Perhaps
he was both, as so often is the case. The fact remains that this
particular shopwalker uttered a cry of protest and darted in pursuit of
the hat and cape. At the sound of his voice these articles stopped and
the hat peered back inquiringly over the shoulder of the cape. It was a
bizarre effect. A woman screamed and fainted, her parcels rolling over
the floor. The hat and cape, as if startled, bounded down the aisle and,
with a final flourish of red, disappeared through the door. But the
shop-walker followed no further. He had completely changed his mind. All
resolution had departed from his body. The poised, almost near-sighted
expression of the hat as it had looked back over the shoulder of the
cape had overcome his sense of duty. He recalled the awful galloping
motion of the runaway articles and pressed his hands to his eyes. Before
he would involve himself any further in this strange business every
stitch of clothing in the establishment could march away in ghastly
single file.

For a few seconds after the disappearance of the hat and cape a solemn
silence settled over all beholders, then this was shattered by the
babble of many voices. Mr. Topper, suddenly realising that his pockets
were bulging with stolen goods, and that his arms were filled with
bundles, took advantage of the confusion and hurried to his automobile,
driving off at full speed. He thought he heard voices, but he refused to
look back.

"I would have bought those things," he muttered. "Why didn't you ask me?"

"But you had bought so many things already," Marion Kerby's voice
replied. "I didn't want to put you to so much expense . . . and they
were so attractive. I've always wanted something red."

"I'd rather be paupered than paralysed," he retorted, eyeing the road
ahead for some luckless automobilist to assault.

A promising candidate came in sight, but at the same moment a red cape
swam before his eyes and out of the mist he heard Marion Kerby saying:

"Look at it, old dear. Wasn't it worth the trouble?"

"Put that thing away," he shouted. "I can't see to drive. You'll have us
both arrested and killed."

The cape fluttered dejectedly to the floor of the car.

"From the way you fling it about," he grumbled, "you'd think I'd been
born in a bull ring." The cape quivered timidly.

"Stop doing that!" he exclaimed. "It makes me nervous."

Several miles of silence ensued, then Mr. Topper remarked moodily, "I
wish I had."

"What?" asked Marion Kerby, unable to restrain her curiosity.

"Been born in a bull ring," he flung back. "I might never have lived to
see this day."

At this the cape rose from the floor and sat down by Mr. Topper. Its
shoulders were shaking gleefully. He regarded the garment with a
jaundiced eye.

"Your sense of humour," he remarked, "would do justice to a hangman."

At this moment an automobile flashed by and Mr. Topper automatically
transferred his insults to its driver, but Marion Kerby paid no
attention to his mood. She was happily counting the bundles and
searching through his pockets with nimble fingers.




CHAPTER XV
Such a Restful Place!


Mid-afternoon on a back country road. Shadows from close-pressing trees
cast scrolls across the dust. An automobile snakes gracefully past a
farm waggon and disappears round a bend in the road. With a disturbed
expression in his eyes, the driver of the waggon gazes after the
vanished automobile. Presently he sighs deeply, and gathering up the
reins in a preoccupied manner urges his team onward. Little profit, he
decides, in idle speculation. What he has just seen he has not seen.
That was the only satisfactory way out of it. In spite of this
philosophic conclusion the man knew in his heart that the driving seat
of the automobile had been unoccupied, and that the machine had
performed a difficult passing apparently unaided by any human guidance.
He never spoke of the incident to any of his friends. The mere thought
of it gave him a helpless feeling. But the memory lay buried in his
heart, and to his dying day it remained a mystifying and inexplicable
fact, but nevertheless a fact.

A few miles down the road the automobile had halted in a clearing. From
the automobile emerged a red cape and hat accompanied by several
bundles. This singular group, after a moment's hesitation, disappeared
into the woods. Presently from the automobile drifted a blue cloud of
smoke. The smoke had in turn drifted from Mr. Topper. He was smoking one
of his favourite cigars and feeling quite set up about it. In spite of
her momentary weakness in the department store, Marion Kerby had
succeeded in restoring him to a high state of good humour. So much so,
in fact, that he had permitted her to drive the car. It had been a
secret relief to him. He had sat and rested his nerves.

"I know every road in the state," she had said. "Let's get off the
beaten track."

"By all means," he had answered. "As far off as possible."

Now Mr. Topper sat smoking and comfortably considering life. He was far
off the beaten track and soothed by a feeling of security. After all, he
mused, Marion Kerby was not so hopeless as at times he had considered
her to be. Unscrupulous she was, to be sure, and unreliable to a fault,
but just the same she was an amusing companion. What experiences he had
been through since he had first met her. What mad, unbelievable
adventures. And he, the staid Topper, had played a part in them. Almost
too prominent a part, he thought, as he leaned back with a smile and
fondly eyed his cigar. Then, as if from the sting of a wasp, he
straightened up. Hadn't she told him the previous night that her husband
might return at any moment? It was an alarming thought. Topper knew he
was blameless, but would George Kerby take a similar view of the
situation? Marion had deliberately wished herself on an upright man. Any
reasonable person would quickly understand that. However, George Kerby
was not a reasonable person. Anything but that. Charming and generous he
might be, but certainly not reasonable. Topper moved uneasily and
glanced at the woods.

"Marion," he called in a subdued voice.

"Presently," came the cheerful reply. "Just a minute now."

It was slightly more than a minute before the hat and cape came out of
the woods, but Mr. Topper felt well repaid for waiting. The looted
garments were now splendidly filled by a sprightly young woman whose
disturbing eyes impertinently mocked at Topper from beneath the brim of
an exceedingly smart red hat. Mr. Topper, observing her with approval,
had to admit that she had stolen with discrimination.

"You look great," he said with eloquent inadequacy.

"Do you think so?" she asked. "I'm just as pretty all over. Want to see?
Everything's so new."

"Don't," exclaimed Mr. Topper. "You're always trying to upset me."

"Very well," she replied, getting into the car, "but just the same I am.
I'm very pleased with me."

"Then don't be childish."

"I'd like to be," she sighed. "It was so lovely there in the woods."

"And you were the loveliest thing in them," Mr. Topper replied, in site
of himself.

For an answer she violently embraced him, smiting his cheek with a kiss.
Topper, highly indignant, managed to free himself.

"Every time I say a kind word to you," he complained, "you practically
assault me."

"But I receive so few kind words," she explained. "And I'm terribly
impulsive."

"Then try to appreciate my position," admonished Mr. Topper, "and try to
respect it. And while we are on the subject, when do you expect your
husband back? Last night you said . . ."

"Oh, that was just to frighten you," she interrupted. "George won't be
back for months, and even if he did return he'd never find us where
we're going."

"Where's that?" asked Topper with interest.

"I'll show you presently."

"Not presently, but instantly," he urged. "Let's go there without delay.
I long for peace and quiet."

Marion Kerby took the wheel and, after several hours of what seemed to
Mr. Topper to be exceedingly obscure driving, they paused on the crest
of a high hill before taking the dip into the valley below. Far across
the intervening space, many green leagues away, Topper saw the setting
sun sending its streams of colours across a field ofdeepening blue. The
clouds seemed like castles with ramparts edged with gold. There was
turmoil in the sky. Cohorts of silver and scarlet charged down the west
and assaulted the castle clouds. And in the vast confusion of the sunset
Mr. Topper saw, low to the horizon, dim lights drifting behind the
trees. Both Topper and his companion watched this kaleidoscopic
overthrow of nature with deep, thoughtful eyes, a little touched with
the melancholy appreciation of those who look too long upon the sun at
its setting. Topper moved a cramped leg and looked at the girl beside him.

"It's quite good," he remarked diffidently. "What do you think?"

"Don't ask me what I think," she replied. Then with a shrug of her
shoulders, "I find the damn thing garish."

"It struck me, too, as being a trifle overdone." She threw him a quick
smile and pressed his hand.

"Remember the last one we saw together?"

Topper made no reply, but looked unhappily at his shoes. He had a
feeling inside of being quite lost. He attributed it to hunger, but
strangely enough he was wishing that for once in his life he had fallen
desperately and forgetfully in love. It was like trying to trace a vague
perfume to its source. Once in the lobby of a hotel a woman had passed
Mr. Topper's chair. After she had gone there remained behind a subtle,
disturbing fragrance. Mr. Topper had failed to notice the woman, but he
had become keenly aware of the perfume lingering in the air. It was
floating round him now. Why had he not risen and followed the woman
instead of sitting troubled by the faint breath of romance? Why had he
always lost himself in the evening paper instead of looking over its
edge for possible adventures? Had Mrs. Topper anything to do with it?
Perhaps. He remembered that on this occasion he had been patiently
waiting for her. Romance? No go, there. She had arrived with voluble
indigestion and a secret craving for food. In propitiating the one and
appeasing the other, the desire for romance and adventure had collapsed
in Mr. Topper's heart. Instead of following a haunting fragrance he had
followed his wife through the tube, while listening to the trials of an
unsuccessful shopping day.

With a start he came back to his surroundings and glanced down at the
small brown hand resting lightly on his rather fleshy one. At his glance
the hand was quickly withdrawn and Topper was surprised to see two spots
of pink appear on Marion Kerby's cheeks. He had not believed it
possible. Even now he was suspicious. She was probably plotting some crime.

"Don't look at me like that," she said.

"Like what?" Topper asked.

"Like a thwarted pup," she answered. "A pup bereft of milk. I never
could stand hungry eyes."

"Are mine hungry?"

"Starved."

"Well, so am I. It's been a full day, but we've succeeded in remaining
rather empty. When and where do we eat?"

"Do you see that lake down there?" she asked, pointing to the valley.

"I do now," he replied, "but I hadn't noticed it before. It looks so
lost among the trees."

"That's just what it is," she answered. "Years ago that little lake
strayed away from its mother, and ever since then these hills have been
nursing it here in secret. And every year the mother lake sends the
streams and rivers in search of her lost lakelet, but these hills, which
are inclined to be barren, consider the foundling as theirs and
jealously keep it locked away in the valley."

"Well," remarked Mr. Topper, after a short pause, "now that you've about
rung the change on that theme, let's go down and take a look at this
lost lake of yours. Perhaps there's some food to be found."

"No doubt there is, you prosaic beast," the girl replied as she started
the machine. "There used to be a store at one end."

As the car descended the winding way the road grew deeper in shadows,
and when they reached the border of the lake a dim film of daylight
still lingered over its still surface as if reluctant to leave this
quiet spot.

To Mr. Topper the lake seemed truly lost. And everything about the place
partook of the same atmosphere. On its shores he could distinguish only
a few cottages, and even these had an abandoned look about them. He felt
that they must have crept away from some populous summer colony and
hidden themselves among the trees to rest. About half-way up the
opposite hill a large stone house cut a breach in the trees. A few
lights twinkled in the upper windows, these golden specks of life
serving only to intensify the solitude of the scene. For the first time
in his life Mr. Topper felt really secure from the world and all its
works. In such a place as this Marion Kerby could do her worst without
disturbing his peace of mind. It occurred to Mr. Topper that it would be
a delightful sensation to strip himself naked and go running through the
trees, to feel the night on his body and to meet the earth like a free,
unabashed creature of the earth. This was a radical thought for Mr.
Topper, and happily, some may feel, a passing one. It left him slightly
sobered.

"Have you ever been here before?" he asked, sensing the precarious
condition of his mind.

"Didn't I just tell you?" she answered. "I've been here lots of times. I
used to come here to hide from George when he got on my nerves."

"God grant that we may be as successful this time," Mr. Topper breathed
with unfeigned sincerity.

"Don't worry your head about him," she replied carelessly. "He's
probably sound asleep in some low café at this very minute. We'll drive
down to the other end in search of food and shelter."

"Is there some sort of an inn about?"

"No, but the cottages look deserted."

Mr. Topper did not entertain with enthusiasm the prospect of breaking
into a deserted cottage, but as the only other alternative lay in
sleeping in the automobile he held his peace.

At the end of the lake they found a small shop from which they purchased
provisions of a compressed nature. By the time they had completed their
transactions under the suspicious eye of the shopkeeper daylight had
faded from the face of the lake. A world of stars looked down on them
and showered the dark water with a spray of golden coins, which danced
and sparkled whenever a breeze moved from the shore.

"We'll have to park the car on this side," Marion Kerby said in a low
voice. "The road ends here. We can walk round to the cottages by the path."

They arranged the automobile for the night and Mr. Topper, taking a
suit-case in either hand, followed his guide along a root-filled path.
From time to time he tripped and cursed bitterly, but Marion Kerby urged
him on to greater efforts with derisive words of encouragement. After
passing two cottages steeped in shadows, she selected the third and more
imposing one. Leaving Topper perspiring on the veranda with his luggage,
she disappeared in the darkness. After what seemed to him an eternity of
time he was startled to hear the door opening stealthily behind him.

"It's all jake," Marion whispered. "I found a reasonable window. Bring
in the bags. This is a swish abode."

"It may be swish to you," he grumbled, stumbling in with the bags, "but
to me it's far from homelike. We don't even know the owners."

"Would you like to meet them?" she asked from the darkness.

"Not at this minute," he admitted, dropping the bags to the floor.
"Light up and let's see where we are."

With the lighting of a candle the house sprang into terrifying reality
to Mr. Topper. Every corner contained a shadow and every shadow
contained a possible danger. But Marion Kerby was delighted. The house,
after a swift investigation, proved to be in a fair state of order.
There were beds and they were ready to receive occupants. Other
equipment was present. Most gratifying of all there was an oil stove all
ready to fulfill its destiny. These discoveries which, to Marion Kerby,
were occasions for congratulation were, to Mr. Topper, sources of
dismay. As Marion flitted cheerfully round the place he edged towards
the door.

"Stop chirping like that! " he exclaimed at last. "It's all clear to me.
The owners have just gone out. They'll be back at any moment. Let's go."

"You'd make a dangerous detective," she answered. "Doesn't your nose
tell you that this place hasn't been open since last summer? Look at
this glass. It's dusty. And the table. I could write your name on it."

"Don't," said Mr. Topper. "Write yours. I require no publicity."

"Come back here then and sit down," she replied. "I'm going to air out
the beds in our room."

Mr. Topper looked at her in blank astonishment.

"Do you mean to tell me," he finally managed to get out, "that in spite
of all the beds in this house you're so depraved as to insist on
sleeping with me?"

"I just thought it would be more fun."

"Fun," he repeated. "What has that to do with it? It might be fun to
live in a harem, but right-thinking men don't do it. Fun fills the
divorce courts and digs untimely graves. Anyway, under the
circumstances, I don't feel funny."

"Why don't you get up on the table and preach down at me?" she jeered.
"Bring me back to the fold. Point the way to salvation."

"You should know more about the hereafter than I do," he remarked moodily.

She came over to him and placed her hands on his shoulders. He stepped
back and tried to avoid her eyes.

"Now don't begin to coax me," he said. "I won't hear a word of it. It
was bad enough before you materialised, but now it is utterly out of the
question. Absolutely."

"Oh, give me a kiss," was all she said, and she took it.

Topper, though remarkably pleased, remained adamant, and after a certain
amount of haggling they arrived at a compromise. They would occupy
connecting rooms. Topper thought that that was compromising enough.

"You know," she explained to him, "it's better that I should sleep close
by so that I can protect you in case somebody comes."

This last argument struck Mr. Topper with so much force that he was
tempted to ask her to disregard his previous objections. His
conventional training, however, overcame his natural timidity.

While Marion Kerby was preparing a supper of soup, beans and coffee he
watched her with a mixture of admiration and dread. And when at last she
placed the provender before him, dread faded away and only admiration
remained. Truly she was a remarkable woman for one so loose. He thought
of his wife and sighed. Then his thoughts reverted to Scollops. He
wondered how life was treating his cat, and whether or not she still
slept in his chair. While wondering he ate diligently with the appetite
of a famished man. Food had never meant so much to Mr. Topper. Presently
he halted and looked up from his plate.

"Do you like cats?" he asked.

Before his companion had time to answer Mr. Topper's jaw dropped, his
face changed colour, and with dilated eyes he gazed over her shoulder.
For a moment she was too startled to complete her chewing. Then she rose
from her chair and hurried to him.

"Are you choking?" she asked. "Can't you swallow?"

And with this she began to pound him on the back. Mr. Topper almost fell
from his chair.

"I'm not choking," he gasped, "but I can't swallow. Oh, look!"

Marion was too alarmed to heed his words. She stopped thumping and began
to tear at his shirt.

"I'll open your collar," she said, "and then you'll feel better."

At this Mr. Topper returned to speech.

"Hell, no! " he shouted. "Don't open my collar. Open a window instead.
He's standing in the doorway right behind you."

In an instant the situation was clear to Marion Kerby. Slowly and with
great dignity she turned and beheld a rough-looking individual standing
exactly where Mr. Topper had said, in the door-way. In one hand he held
a lantern, in the other an ugly-looking stick.

"Will you be good enough to tell me just what you are doing here?" she
asked in a calm voice.

The man hesitated and looked at her with a surprised expression.

"Protecting the master's property," he replied. "He don't allow
squatters here."

"Squatters," she replied in a puzzled voice.

"Squatters? Now what exactly are squatters? Sounds like some sort of a
pigeon, or perhaps a fish. Are squatters fish?"

"If yer don't understand what squatters is," said the man, "I'll change
it to housebreakers, trespassers, undesirable people, thieves, loafers
or--"

"It's quite clear," interrupted the girl. "Don't go on. Now tell me who
is the master you referred to?

He's Mr. Wilbur," the man replied.

"And where is he now?"

"He's in Europe, that's where he is."

"How odd!" she mused. "So is my husband."

"I'm her brother," put in Mr. Topper in consternation. "Her eldest
brother. We're nice people and--."

The man glared at Mr. Topper and raised his stick threateningly. Mr.
Topper sank back in his chair.

"Leave this to me," Marion whispered quickly, then advanced on the
unwelcome visitor.

"For some unfortunate reason," she said, "I haven't taken a fancy to
you. It might not be your fault. I hope it isn't, but the fact remains
that now you must go. Take your little lantern and swagger stick and hop
off. If not, God protect you."

"Quit yer bluffing," replied the man, "or I'll use this club on the both
of yer."

Then a strange and terrible thing took place. The woman, facing the
intruder, crumpled to the floor. Nothing remained of her save an inert
bundle of clothing. Even Mr. Topper, as accustomed as he was to
unexpected occurrences, sat horrified in his chair. The man looked down
at the clothing and strove to collect his wits.

"She's fainted," he suggested, looking hopefully at Topper.

Mr. Topper began to laugh hysterically.

"What's that?" asked the man suddenly as his hat snapped down over his
eyes. He raised his hands to his hat, then quickly transferred them to
his stomach. As the stick fell to the floor it was seized by an
invisible hand and brandished in the air. With great force and accuracy
it descended on the now prominent region of his reverse exposure,
causing him to snap erect. His face was a study in terror as he fell on
his hands and knees and began to crawl to the door.

"Here's your lantern! " a voice cried. "Clear out quick!"

The voice was too much for the man. He staggered to his feet and without
waiting for the lantern fled from the cottage; the lantern, following in
close pursuit, danced crazily in the darkness. Mr. Topper could trace
the retreat of the man by the crashing of the bushes and the cries that
disturbed the night. Gradually these sounds subsided and silence settled
down. Some minutes later the bundle of clothing began to stir. Mr.
Topper saw a confused mass of feminine apparel arrange itself in the air
and assume the outlines of a woman. He closed his eyes to blot out the
sight, and when he opened them again Marion Kerby was standing before him.

"What were you saying about cats?" she asked, seating herself on the table.

"I don't know," said Mr. Topper. "Was I saying anything about cats?"

"It doesn't matter," she replied. "That bird won't be back to-night. I
couldn't get him to take his lantern so I was forced to throw it at him."

She slid over to the dejected Topper and, curving an arm round his
shoulder, sat heavily on his lap. Too weak to protest, he allowed her to
sip his coffee.

"I doubt if he ever comes back," she added reflectively.

"What do you mean?" asked Mr. Topper uneasily. "I hope you didn't kill
him or maim him for life. Did you?"

"Not quite," she replied. "Almost, though. He called us squatters. I
don't mind about myself, but I can't bear to think of you as a squatter."

"I don't mind being called a squatter," said Mr. Topper thoughtfully,
"but I couldn't stand that club of his. Every time I looked at the thing
it gave me the shivers. There were knobs on it."

Marion Kerby jumped from his knees and squeezed his hand.

"Don't think of him any more," she said. "Let's go outside and
contemplate the stars."

"I hope that's all we'll contemplate," replied Mr. Topper.

They sat on the steps of the veranda and Marion rested her head on Mr.
Topper's knee. Once more he thought of Scollops. Then he looked down
into the girl's eyes and saw that in them, too, there was an expression
he could not fathom, but on this occasion he was thrilled instead of
being troubled.

"You know," she remarked, smiling up at him, "you're not my eldest
brother. You're my first and only child."

"Well, from the way you're bringing me up," he replied, "you must be one
of those Spartan mothers I read about in school."

"Certainly I am," she answered. "I'll make a man of you yet."

"Then keep the door open between us," said Mr. Topper. "I'm feeling far
from well. If I dream about clubs to-night I'm likely to die in my sleep."

He lit a cigar and looked down on the lake. "Nice night," he suggested.

"Great," she replied, snuggling closer to him. "I'll try a cigar, too."




CHAPTER XVI
Enter the Colonel and Mrs. Hart


A shaft of hazy sunlight sifting through moist green leaves found its
way into Mr. Topper's room. After fingering the bedspread delicately it
finally crept up to his strangely innocent-looking face, now lying
unprotected beneath a nocturnal gathering of whiskers. Topper stirred
fretfully and rolled over on his side. In his heart there was a fierce
desire to remain oblivious of life, but somewhere within his
subconscious lurked a painful suspicion that all was not well with the
world, or at least, that part of the world which he, Topper, personally
occupied. He half opened his eyes and squinted at the room. Had there
not been a man with an ugly club? Yes, there had been such a man. And
had not Marion Kerby done violence to this person? The fact was not to
be denied. Topper was clear about that.

"What a life! " he thought to himself. "What a series of calamities!
Every morning I wake up in a different place and under more depressing
circumstances. It's like a curse."

Nevertheless, when he arose and stretched, he felt within himself a
spirit of freedom and buoyancy that had never come to him during his
more orderly regime. He liked the smell of the room. The forest had
gathered close to the walls and drenched them with the fragrance of its
fresh green life. And he liked the way the sunlight sprayed upon the
matting. Matting was a pleasant sort of an arrangement. He enjoyed the
way it felt on his bare feet. It made him think of swimming. Why it did
he could not tell, but it did and that was enough. Topper could swim
quite well. He was satisfied about his swimming. It was his only
accomplishment. Marion Kerby would be surprised when she saw him in the
water. His new bathing things were in the suit-case in her room. Rather
bearishly he moved across the matting, examining unfamiliar objects and
thinking half thoughts. One of these thoughts was connected with Marion
Kerby's room. It occurred to him that it really was not her room, nor
was this one his. The rooms belonged to someone else. They were being
unlawfully occupied. Topper trod the matting no longer like an aimless
bear. His step was more like the stealthy tread of a criminal, a modest
unassuming criminal. He hurried to the open door between the two rooms
and thrust in a frightened face.

"Get up," he said. "We can't stay here for-ever. The whole neighbourhood
will be down on us at any minute."

No answer came from the bed, for the reason that the bed was empty. As
he regarded the tossed coverings an alarming suspicion chilled his heart.

"My God," he thought, "she's left me. At any other time I'd let her go
gladly, but not now. She got me into this fix and she ought to get me out."

With a heroic display of modesty, considering his overwrought condition,
he flung on his bath-robe and hurried outside. The object of his quest
was not in sight, but he found on the table a partially empty cup of
coffee. The pot on the stove was still warm.

"She's had coffee," he thought bitterly. "She would. Then she left me
without even a word--left me sleeping."

He went to the door and peered miserably out on the sparkling face of
the lake. The scene hurt his eyes. How could the world look so happy
when he felt so sad? And how could he ever hope to escape in the full
light of day with a suit-case in either hand? He was reluctant to face
the day, and was about to withdraw from it when something resembling a
song floated to his ears. He recognised the voice and was filled with
relief. The song drifted mournfully to him from somewhere close at hand.

"Oh, I was a daisy and highly adored,
The boys said as much to my face.
But now I'm a spirit and terribly bored
With oodles and oodles of space."

Topper did not care for the words, nor was he impressed by the
long-drawn-out plaintiveness of the voice, but he was overjoyed to know
that the singer was approaching the cottage.

There was a thrusting sound in the foliage, and, after a few muttered
imprecations concerning a certain blackberry bush, Marion Kerby, wild
and dishevelled, appeared at the foot of the steps. Topper regarded her
with thankfulness, but not with approval. That he could not do. In
either hand she held a bottle and under one arm there nestled another
one. Altogether, Topper decided, it was a convincing display of greed.
Her face was flushed and her eyes sparkled dangerously. She was
obviously pleased with herself and expected Topper to be.

"See," she said, wiggling the bottles. "Look what I brought back."

Topper looked and observed that one of the bottles, the one under her
arm, was not altogether full. It was nearly half empty. This sorrowful
fact did not add to Topper's spirit of tolerance.

"What do you mean by drinking at this time of day?" he demanded.

"No harm, old dear," she answered. "No harm."

"Have you no sense of decency?" he continued.

"None at all," she replied with unclouded cheerfulness. "Never had. You
cornered the market at birth."

"Well, I'll tell you now it's far from decent to be in your condition at
this time of day," said Topper.

"My eye," she replied, leaping up the steps. "That's simply a question
of time. Whether you drink it at dawn or at dusk, you get fuzzy just the
same. The earlier the better, say I. Now, if you'd take a good stiff
hooker of this Scotch, I'll lay you odds you'll jolly soon forget about
being decent. You'll be as happy as a lark--a decent bird, I'm told."

"But I haven't even had breakfast," Topper protested.

"Nonsense!" she replied with a magnificent sweep of her arm. "Look at
the sunlight playing on the wind-struck lake. Catch the breath of the
morning drifting through the trees. See the young earth sending forth
her, her--whatever they happen to be. Feel the world throbbing with new
life and impulse. Get wise . . ."

"But I can't eat sunlight and young earth," complained Mr. Topper,
rudely cutting in on her poetical outburst. "A cup of coffee and some
scrambled eggs also have their decent points."

She looked thoughtfully at his troubled face.

"Take a drink and I'll get you some breakfast," she said. "This is good
stuff. I stole it from Mr. Wilbur, our absent host. He has a cellar full."

She filled a glass and handed it to Topper. Feeling the need for
courage, he gulped it down and looked startled. The effect was almost
immediate. Like the young earth to which Marion Kerby had referred, his
blood began to throb with new life and impulse. With a regal sweep of
his bathrobe he threw himself down in a chair.

"Did you see our friend, the caretaker?" he asked.

"I did," she replied, splashing some eggs into a pan. "He's still on his
feet, but somewhat unsteady. There's a bandage round his head. He limps."

Topper took another drink and placed himself at the table. "On with the
eggs," he commanded. "Now that you've crippled him, I'll try to kill him."

Marion Kerby watched him with a kindling eye as he fell upon the eggs.

"That's right," she said. "Eat and acquire flesh. I'll drink and acquire
merit, after which we'll both go swimming."

"Great stuff!" exclaimed Topper. "I'll swim right across the lake and
back in my brand-new suit. It's in your room."

"Braggart," the girl replied. "I'm going in to dress."

"Just wait and see," said Topper, refilling the glasses. "Throw me out
my rompers."

"Hand me in a drink," she called back, flinging his suit through the
door. "I'm Eveish all over."

She thrust out a bare white arm and wiggled the fingers impatiently.
Topper placed the glass in her hand, then, seized by a sudden impulse,
bent over and kissed her smooth, cool arm. Marion gave a little gasp of
amazement.

"If I wasn't afraid of spilling my drink," she said, "I'd come out and
smash your face."

"You'd do nothing of the kind," announced Mr. Topper, straightening up
and looking proud. "Nothing at all of the kind. I'll kiss you as much as
I want."

He finished his drink and walked unevenly to his room. At the door he
uttered a triumphant laugh, which ended ingloriously in a hiccough.

"Merciful heavens! " came Marion Kerby's surprised voice. "What has come
over our Cosmo? He's actually getting aggressive."

"Make no mistake," he shouted back, desperately weaving his legs into
his shorts. "I'm the master in this house. From now on I rule."

Marion Kerby dashed into the room and Topper began to scream.

"This isn't fair," he protested. "Wait till I've got my shirt on."

Marion refused to wait. Like a white flash the slim figure darted around
Topper, raining blow after blow on his well upholstered body. Fighting
his way into his shirt, he attempted to defend him-self, but his efforts
were futile. She closed in on him and tickled his fat ribs. With a
series of girlish squeals he sank panting to the floor, whereupon she
danced on his stomach and uttered a cry of victory. Like a jovial
porpoise Topper rolled from side to side, sweating profusely from too
much Scotch and exertion.

"Who's the master of this house?" she demanded, digging a toe in his side.

"You are," he gasped. "Stop tickling me before you give me a stroke."

With a final kick she withdrew from combat and stood looking down at the
vanquished male.

"Get up, you tub," she said. "From now on I rule. Get up and swim across
the lake."

"You're a fiend in a one-piece bathing suit,"Topper muttered in a husky
voice. "Get that bottle. I'm all in."

"Keep a civil tongue in your head," she warned as she hurried from the
room.

When she returned with the bottle they sat down on the edge of the bed
and eyed each other suspiciously. Topper gratefully swallowed his drink
and sighed deeply. Then he reached over and clumsily patted his companion.

"You know," he announced rather thickly, "I haven't been so happy in
years. Take me out and show me the lake. Something seems funny about my
legs."

She threw an arm round his shoulder and together they left the room,
their voices raised in song.

My husband he did it. The devil would drive,
The high-flying, low-lying soak.
And that is the reason I'm no more alive,
For he ran me smack into an oak."

"I can't get used to that word 'smack,'" said Mr. Topper. "Otherwise the
song's good."

Throughout the uneven progress of the journey Topper was more helped
than helpful. He had a decided tendency to starboard list, which the
girl gravely endeavoured to offset. Once she failed and the great weight
of Topper bore down on her with full force. For a moment there was a
threshing of arms and legs emerging from a cluster of deep-seated
grunts. Eventually she succeeded in extricating herself and Topper was
helped to his feet.

"Don't trip me again," he panted. "It's not at all funny."

Marion felt her bruises and laughed sarcastically.

"Do you think it's my idea of a good time to be crushed to earth by a
hulk like you?" she asked.

"Then why didn't you dematerialise?"

"Because you'd have broken every bone in your gross body," she answered
with heat.

"Hadn't thought of that," Topper apologised. "Very much obliged."

"Don't mention it," she replied. "What's a little fall between friends?
Here we are at the landing. It's your first move."

Topper swayed dangerously on the edge of the landing, then with
surprising agility rose in the air and disappeared neatly into the
water. As soon as he reappeared he stroked out with a tremendous show of
purpose for the opposite shore, about a quarter of a mile away. As the
space grew wider between them, Marion Kerby watched him at first with
anxiety and then with admiration. His arms flayed the water rhythmically
and a trail of foam followed his churning feet. Topper was swimming as
if possessed. Everything was in his favour. He was unable to fall and
too fat to sink. When Marion had eased her mind as to his ability to
keep above water, she arched her back in a businesslike dive of her own.
Like a water sprite she played around the landing, not troubling so much
about swimming as creating a great confusion. By the time that the
aquatic Topper had achieved the other side she had exhausted the
possibilities of the lake. Like a fretful child she stood on the landing
and stamped for Topper to come home. The keen morning air was not the
warmest of blankets. She raised her voice in a long cry.

"Come on over," she shouted. "I'm going back."

Upon the reception of this message Topper placed an admonishing finger
to his lips and with his other hand swept the surrounding hills. He was
partially sober now and wholly fearful.

"Why does she have to arouse the neighbourhood?" he muttered as he
watched her dancing form.

Ceasing from this activity, she threw her head back and, thrusting her
thumb into her mouth, gave an eloquent but vulgar pantomime of drinking.
Then she turned and ran up the path, her white legs flashing in the
sunlight. The effect was registered on Topper. He plunged back in the
lake and put forth his best efforts.

"She has no conception of honour," he thought gloomily as he wallowed
along. "She'd cheerfully drink while I was drowning."

A little surprise in the form of a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman
was waiting for Topper when he reached the landing. Upon seeing this
stranger, Topper's first impulse was to sink forever beneath the
protecting surface of the lake, but there was still enough Scotch in his
veins to give him the semblance of courage.

"Good morning," said the distinguished-looking gentleman in a
suspiciously friendly voice. "You seem to be enjoying yourself."

"I am," replied Topper. "I deserve to."

"I'll not dispute that," said the man on the landing, "but I doubt if
you could prove it."

"My own enjoyment is proof enough," Topper answered.

"And how do you arrive at that conclusion?" asked the other.

"I've already arrived," said Topper.

"That I see. But how, I don't see," the distinguished-looking gentleman
pursued.

"By the simple process of reason," Mr. Topper explained as he
laboriously trod water. "Any creature, man or beast, who has the
capacity and desire to enjoy life deserves that enjoyment."

"You preach hedonism," replied the other briefly.

"Whatever that means I doubt it," said Mr. Topper, "but, whether it is
or isn't, I'm not going to drown myself to discuss the point further."

"And that's quite sensible," the gentleman answered. "Come out and I'll
give you a lift."

Stooping over, he firmly seized Mr. Topper's extended hand and helped
him out of the water, after which he continued holding the hand, shaking
it cordially the while. Topper feared he was captured.

"Delighted to meet you," said the distinguished-looking gentleman,
beaming down on Topper. "I greatly admired your skill in the water."

"Thanks," replied Topper weakly, "but before we go any further let's
settle one point. You are not by any chance remotely connected with the
law, are you?"

"I am afraid not," said the stranger.

"I'm glad not," declared Topper.

"As a matter of fact," the other continued, "I've devoted most of my
life to breaking the law. I have been a soldier, a legalised and
official killer, a person beyond the law."

Topper drew a sigh of relief and rose to his feet. For some reason he
had taken rather a fancy to the distinguished-looking gentleman. It
occurred to him that he had not spoken to a man for several days. He had
been too long in feminine company. He would cultivate this stranger.

"If you are beyond the law," said Topper, "you'd probably not balk at a
glass of Scotch."

"I'd do more than balk," the gentleman answered. "I'd actually lie down
to it."

"Then come along with me," Topper said, turning up the path.

"One moment," the man called, "I happen to have a wife about somewhere.
Would you balk at her?"

"By no means," answered Topper. "Although convention prevents me from
going to the same extremes as you, I should be delighted to meet her."

"The opportunity is at hand," replied the gentleman.

Topper looked up the path and saw a tall, fair-haired woman approaching.
There was something engagingly rakish in her bearing. He placed her age
as a good-humoured thirty-five. She was carrying some early flowers in
her hand and puffing a cigarette.

"My dear," called the man, "this gentleman has been so good as to ask us
to share his Scotch."

My dear dropped her flowers and flooded Mr. Topper with a delighted smile.

"He is heaven-sent," she exclaimed in a rich voice. "Let's hurry before
he drops dead or changes his mind. Watch the roots. He might trip and
lose his memory."

"Truly," thought Mr. Topper, as he led them up the path, "this is a
frankly thirsty pair."

The gentleman began to whistle and call the name of Oscar. Topper looked
back in surprise, but seeing no new arrival, ascribed the gentleman's
conduct to a spirit of fun caused by the prospect of a drink.

On arriving at the cottage Topper hurried up the steps and looked
inside. Marion, still in her bathing suit, was sitting at the table with
a glass in her hand. She was smoking one of Topper's best cigars.

"I'm bringing some friends," he announced under his breath. "Are you
sober enough to receive them?"

"Trot 'em in," she replied brightly. "But are you sure they're friends?"

"Positive," said Topper. "Good sports."

Marion went to the door and greeted the pair. "I am delighted," she said
sweetly, "to meet any friends of my husband. Come right in."

The gentleman thoughtfully removed the glass from her hand and, bending
low, ceremoniously kissed it, after which he waved to his wife.

"We are Colonel and Mrs. Scott," he said. "And I am sure we are all
happily met. Lie down, Oscar."

"That's a joke of his," whispered Topper. Marion laughed agreeably and
took Mrs. Scott's hand.

"Why, you're so beautiful, my dear," she said, "that I can't keep my
eyes off you. Come in and give me a cigarette. I'm tired of my husband's
cigars. Cosmo, do the honours."

She took the glass from the reluctant Colonel and led the way indoors.

"And you," said the Colonel, "look like a creature from another
world--the spirit of the lake, the priestess of the woods."

Marion threw him a narrow glance, then bowed gravely.

"Sit down, Arthur," said Mrs. Scott in a calm voice. "You'll get your
drink, any way."

"My darling," exclaimed the Colonel, "what a cynical remark I Down, Oscar."

Both Topper and Marion laughed politely, thinking that this was expected
of them. Then Topper distributed the drinks and the party sat down at
the table.

"This seems," announced the Colonel judiciously, after he had sampled
the Scotch several times, "this seems to be prime whiskey. Of the best."

Topper, who as a result of his long swim and liberal hospitality had
been showing a decided disposition to slumber, opened his eyes at this
remark and squinted at the Colonel.

"It seems to me," he said unpleasantly, "that you do a devil of a lot of
seeming."

"I do," agreed the Colonel with winning affability. "Because things are
not always as they seem."

For a few moments Topper concentrated on this reply. To him it was
fraught with meaning. It covered his whole life.

"You're right, Colonel," he said at last. "You're dead right there. To
you I seem to be a sleepy man in a bathing suit, whereas I'm a fat
banker running away from his wife."

The Colonel elevated one eyebrow just sufficiently to betray surprise.

"Then the present arrangement, I take it, is not permanent," he
suggested with a delicate inflection.

"Neither permanent nor tangible," Topper answered, solicitously filling
his own glass.

"I see," replied the Colonel thoughtfully, showing equal solicitude for
himself. "Then, indeed, we are happily met as I have already remarked.
Neither is our relationship of a lasting nature. Mrs. Hart and myself
are just visiting each other. Regards!"

Slightly scandalised in spite of the liberalising influence of the
Scotch, Topper mechanically raised his glass.

"Regards," he said absently. "Happily met."

"Isn't it too funny for words," exclaimed the newly discovered Mrs.
Hart, leaning over to Marion Kerby. "Give that man a few drinks and he
becomes as frank as a fool. I never do."

"I'm sure I don't know what's happened to Cosmo," Marion replied.
"Usually he's the world's worst hypocrite."

"Not at all, my love," he protested. "Usually I'm the world's best
hypocrite--and that in spite of you."

"Down, Oscar!" the Colonel irritably interrupted. "Damn it, go to sleep."

At this point Topper sprawled back in his chair and laughed
uproariously, while the Colonel watched him in dignified silence.

"Tell me," asked the Colonel, when Topper had subsided, "why do you
always laugh when I call my dog?"

Topper wiped his eyes and looked admiringly at the Colonel.

"You're a scream, Colonel," he said. "And you say the funniest things.
Why I thought you wanted me to laugh. You haven't any dog."

"But I have a little dog," declared the Colonel. "Want to see him?"

"Don't be silly, Arthur," interposed Mrs. Hart.

"Nonsense," said the Colonel. "I'll show him my little dog. Come here,
Oscar. Do your stuff."

Topper glanced down and saw a vague stirring in the atmosphere round the
Colonel's feet. Then gradually the rump of a small, shaggy dog appeared.
Its tail was wagging excitedly.

"That's the boy!" cried the Colonel. "Keep it up, Oscar. Make a whole
dog for the gentle-man."

A few more inches of dog appeared, but evidently Oscar had exhausted his
talents. The tail continued to wag as if asking to be excused from
further endeavours.

Topper rose unsteadily from his chair.

"Please, please, Colonel," he pleaded, "don't make him do any more. He's
done enough already. Ask him to go away."

"Very well," agreed the Colonel reluctantly, but he can do much better
than that. Sit down, Oscar, like a good chap."

Apparently forgetting the condition he was in, Oscar, or rather the rear
end of him, settled to rest. The tail gave a final wag, then came to
repose on the floor.

"I feel in need of a little fresh air," Topper remarked in a strained
voice. "This has been a very unusual occurrence."

He turned to the door, then took a step back. Three large men were
crowding in it, and in the background stood the caretaker.

"We're surrounded!" Topper exclaimed, turning back to the table.

But Topper found no comfort there. The table was empty.

"God," said one of the men, "they're all gone but him."

"He's enough," replied the caretaker. "Go in and drag him out."

The men advanced and Topper automatically retreated.

"And when you get him," continued the caretaker, "give him a few for me."

This sent Topper shivering to the wall. It was at this stage in the
proceedings that the command "Sic 'em, Oscar!" rang through the room.
Immediately a low growl was heard and Oscar's hind quarters became
involved with the legs of the bewildered attackers. Thus began the
Battle of the Lake, one of the few decisive engagements on record and
one which Mr. Topper did not linger to witness.

Out of the din and confusion that filled the room Topper heard Marion's
voice shouting, "Break for the car, old thing. We'll bring the luggage
along."

Topper did not wait for further bidding. Stepping on the face of a
prostrate man, he fought his way to the door.

"Don't forget my trousers," he called back. "They're on the chair in my
room."

"Hell, no," grunted the Colonel. "Run for it, man."

Topper dodged past the crippled caretaker with the agility of a fawn and
darted down the steps. As he raced along the lake path cries of anguish
followed his flying feet.

"I don't hold with this at all," he thought to himself as he sped over
the roots. "Is my life to be one mad pursuit, all summer long?"

As he rounded the bend two suit-cases flashed past him at a dizzy speed
and these in turn were followed by a carefully poised bottle and a
bundle of Marion's clothing.

"Speed, O lout," a voice panted, and Topper redoubled his efforts.

The rear was brought up by Topper's trousers, snapping in the wind and
Oscar following after, his rump low to the ground and his claws kicking
up dust.

Few persons have ever lived to witness such a remarkable sight--Topper
and half a dog chasing a pair of runaway trousers, not to mention a
flying bottle and a couple of bounding suit-cases. Even at the moment
Topper was impressed by the novelty of the situation.

Like a rallying standard in a headlong retreat, Topper's trousers danced
in the morning breeze. And Topper followed his trousers with his last
spark of energy. Far behind him he heard shouting voices, but he kept
his eyes to the front and a trifle raised. He could not bring himself to
look at the contortions of Oscar. The impatient honking of a horn urged
him onward, and with a final burst of speed he reached the car and flung
himself into the front seat. Oscar was sitting beside him, his invisible
section panting audibly. The automobile was already in motion, hurtling
down a branch road that led through the valley. Mr. Topper collected
himself and moved a little away from Oscar, whose hind leg was busily
engaged in dislodging an unseen flea.

"Well, Topper," came Marion Kerby's calm voice, "we got you out of that
fix."

"You got me into it, too," replied Topper. "Why didn't you tell me they
were all spooks?"

"Didn't know it myself," she answered, as the car lurched round a bend.

"I suspected something all the time," said the Colonel, "but I wasn't
sure of Topper."

"Yes," put in Mrs. Hart. "What's the matter with him? Isn't he a
low-plane?"

"No," replied Marion. "He's solid through and through."

"How very, very interesting," continued Mrs. Hart, poking an inquiring
finger into Topper's shoulder.

"Make her stop," said Topper to Marion.

"Stop tickling my boy friend," she called back. "He's so bashful."

"Here, Topper," said the Colonel, passing the bottle forward, "take a
drink, my buck. You need it."

Like a greedy baby Topper closed his fingers round the bottle and
brought it to his lips. It was difficult drinking, what with the speed
of the car and the condition of the road, but Topper refused to remove
the bottle until he was convinced that he felt better.

"Don't forget the driver," said Marion Kerby.

"And don't forget that we are still your guests," Mrs. Hart suggested
sweetly.

"That's the last bottle," said the Colonel. "We'll have to do something
about it."

"Well, you go ahead and do it," replied Topper. "I've done enough for
one day."

"Trust me," agreed the Colonel. "I never fail. Stop at the next town and
I'll visit a few of the best houses, guided by my unerring instinct."

"In the meantime, do you want your dog?" Topper asked. "I'm afraid he's
crowded up here."

"Not at all," the Colonel answered. "Don't worry about Oscar. He loves
the front seat."

Topper closed his eyes and let the rushing wind cool his face.

"There are three of them now," he thought, as he clung to the side of
the car. "Three spirits and half a dog. I'm as good as done for already."

"Colonel," he called, continuing aloud, "give me another drink. I'll
have to keep myself numb until I've got used to the situation."

"Eat, drink and be merry! " cried the Colonel, "for to-morrow . . ."

"Don't finish it," interrupted Mr. Topper, hastily reaching for the
Scotch. "I am intimate enough with death as it is."

"I won't," agreed the Colonel, "if you don't finish that Scotch."

Topper did his best.




CHAPTER XVII
The Colonel Orders Dinner


In the cool of the evening four flushed faces peered from Mr. Topper's
automobile at a rain-washed sign bearing the legend: "The Sleeping Fox."
After a whispered conversation within the machine, the four flushed
faces once more emerged. Topper now was completely clad and his
companions had neatly materialised. To all outward appearances they gave
the impression of being four quite normal persons bent on an evening's
pleasure.

"With our thirst and Topper's money we should do very nicely here,"
remarked the Colonel, casting an anticipatory eye at the road-house.

"Don't frighten him before we get him inside," Mrs. Hart said warningly.
"This looks to me like a lovely layout."

"Fear is my constant companion," replied Topper. "Don't consider me."

He was standing in need of a little judicious propping and the women
were furtively assisting him. They were endeavouring to give the
appearance of two ladies being escorted to dinner by a prosperous and
dignified gentleman. In carrying out the deception Topper was of little
value. With the most casual regard for dignity he ambled up the path.

"You women are so good to me," he murmured, and, as if overcome by his
effort, sank heavily back in the supporting arms.

"For the love of Pete, stand up," Marion tragically whispered.
"Remember, everything depends on you."

"I know it does," he gloated. "I know damn well it does. And you
remember this, from now on I rule. No more foot-racing, no more queer
dogs, no more disorderly parties. Remember all those things."

"Of course we will," the Colonel hastened to reply in a mollifying
voice. "Didn't we throw Oscar away half a mile down the road?"

"Half a mile is a short distance to throw that dog," observed Mr. Topper.

"I know," continued the Colonel, "but it showed that our spirits were in
the right place."

"Don't mention spirits to me," Topper retorted. "The very word is
revolting. And furthermore, you're not in the right place. If you were
you'd be far, far away."

"Ah, Topper, how cruel you are to us all," Mrs. Hart protested. "I'm
sure you don't mean that."

He looked scornfully at the women, then plunged free from their grasp.

"Stand back, the pair of you," he commanded, "and I'll show you how a
gentleman takes his ease at an inn. I am weary of your arms."

He squared his shoulders belligerently and with heavy dignity began to
mount the steps. As if he were performing an acrobatic sensation his
companions clustered watchfully around him, ready to spring to action at
the slightest show of weakness. An immaculately clad individual
appearing in the door of the road-house, stopped with surprise on seeing
Mr. Topper, then hastened forward with a smile of welcome.

"Why, Mr. Topper," he said. "This is an unexpected pleasure. How are
things at the club?"

At the mention of the word club, Mr. Topper swayed perceptibly on his feet.

"Club," he repeated thoughtfully. "Club. Why is it I don't like that
word? Ah, yes, I remember, Williams. I have just recently escaped from
the most terrifying of clubs."

"And Mrs. Topper?" asked Williams, tactfully changing the subject.

"And Mrs. Topper, too," replied Topper. "I've just escaped from her."

As if cheered by this reflection, he turned his back on the astonished
Williams and beckoned to his companions, who were hovering like hopeful
orphans at the head of the steps.

"It's all right," he assured them. "Williams is an old friend. Knew him
when I was a respectable member of the country club. He was our steward
then. First-class steward."

More for support than friendship he turned to Williams and extended his
hand.

"Don't mind my friends," he continued. "They're thoroughly low. And
remember this, Williams: silence is crisp and green. Here's a little
silence now."

Williams, who had hitherto considered Topper as being rather a painfully
proper man, was both surprised and delighted at this lighter side of his
character. He deftly pocketed the money and with a murmured expression
of gratitude ushered the party to a table where he spoke impressively to
the waiter.

"Hear what he said," gloated Topper. "He told the waiter to bring us
anything we wanted. That's because I'm here."

"Then tell him to bring us some cocktails and we'll be even more
impressed," Marion remarked. "I'll raise it one," put in Mrs. Hart.

"And I'll double it," said the Colonel promptly.

"Bring them double cocktails," Mr. Topper explained to the waiter. "And
bring me one, too."

"Any particular brand, sir?"

"Dry Martinis are more business-like," the Colonel suggested. "It would
be wiser to stick to them."

When the waiter had departed the Colonel set himself the task of
planning the dinner, and in this he displayed such a lack of
self-control that finally Mr. Topper felt called upon to interrupt.

"Don't look upon this as a barbecue, Colonel," he remarked. "Regard it
rather in the light of a quiet little dinner. Don't stint yourself, but
at the same time don't stuff. Perhaps you once saw service in a famine
district. There is no danger here."

Marion Kerby turned on Topper with venomously flashing eyes.

"Are you trying to humiliate me in front of my friends?" she demanded.

"Not at all," replied Mr. Topper. "I was merely trying to introduce a
little reason into this sordid discussion of food. It's not humanly
possible to consume at one sitting all of the things he's planning to
order."

"You forget that we're not human," Marion replied briefly. Then, turning
to the Colonel, she continued with a sweet smile, "Go ahead, Colonel.
Order the whole damned card. Don't mind him."

"Let's see," said the Colonel blandly, as if the interruption had never
occurred. "Where were we now? Oh, yes, here we are. We'd got down to the
fowl."

"The fowl," breathed Mrs. Hart, clasping her hands in delight. "I'm a
perfect demon with a duck."

"Well," remarked Mr. Topper, with weary resignation, "you're the most
material-minded spirits that ever returned to earth to drive a mortal mad."

"Why, the more irregularly I live the more regular I feel," said Mrs.
Hart, taking Topper's hand. "Aren't you that way?"

"I am not," he answered shortly, withdrawing his hand from the table.

"The cocktails are among us," Marion announced as the waiter arranged
the glasses. "Cheer up, everybody. I propose a toast to Topper, our
reluctant and respectable host."

She rose from the table and raised her glass.

"Here's to Topper," she said. "A good sport in spite of himself. I know
him by the back."

"That's about the only way anybody knows me now," observed Topper. "I'm
always running."

"You poor old dear," she said, and, bending over, quickly kissed him.
Topper grew red in the face and looked guiltily about him.

"The last shred is gone," he remarked. "Nothing remains but
blackmail--blackmail, divorce and disgrace."

He tossed off his cocktail at a gulp and gazed solemnly at his companions.

"From now on," he announced, "I cast decency to the winds. Let's strip
ourselves naked and run around screaming."

"Hear! Hear!" cried the Colonel. "That was spoken like a man. Waiter,
another flock."

And another flock was brought. Nor was it the last flock. Nor even the
next to the last. Great execution was done that night at the inn,
prodigious eating and lavish drinking, the Colonel leading the way by
example and encouragement. Topper danced with Marion until his collar
became a rag and his feet two nests of blisters. When finally, through a
combination of complications, he was forced to retain his seat at the
table, he lived happily in the memory of his dizzy flights through
space. Marion Kerby sat close to him, whispering surprisingly pleasant
words in his ear, and Topper, being in too expansive a mood to be
suspicious, sweated in his seventh heaven.

This state of things was suddenly demolished by an unexpected arrival.
The Colonel and Mrs. Hart were engaged in a highly enterprising type of
dance when the unexpected arrival occurred. And the unexpected arrival
was none less than Oscar, or at least that portion of Oscar which he had
chosen to show to the world. Topper was the first to see that portion,
and at its appearance his happiness vanished. Oscar dragged himself
wearily through the door of the inn, displayed an undecided rump to the
assembled guests, then set off patiently to follow his master's
exuberant heels.

Unaware of this singular attachment, the Colonel continued to dance with
the blissful Mrs. Hart. And even the other dancers appeared to take no
notice. It was at that stage of the evening when one would rather not
see such things. Without a shadow of a doubt there were many diners and
dancers who really did see Oscar in his unfinished condition, but those
who did see him refused to report the fact, fearing that it might be a
serious reflection on their own sobriety. So Oscar followed the Colonel
until the Colonel passed Topper's chair. Here his gyrations were
interrupted by Topper's hand on his sleeve.

"Oscar's back," whispered Topper. "For God's sake do something about it.
I knew you hadn't thrown him far enough away."

"But, my dear man," the Colonel expostulated, "there's a limit to my
strength. I can't chuck him back into the fourth dimension the way he
insists on going about."

"Then sit down," said Topper, "and get him under the table. Some of
these people might throw a fit. I'm sober myself already."

"If they don't like my dog," fumed the Colonel, "they can throw as many
fits as they want."

"It's not that they don't like your dog," explained Topper, "it's merely
that they don't understand your dog. Oscar to them is not quite clear.
Please get him out of sight."

"I'll agree with you there," replied the Colonel, seating himself at the
table. "Oscar is no ordinary brand of dog. There's more to him than
greets the eye."

Oscar crawled under the table and Mr. Topper drew in his feet.

"That's just what I'm worrying about," he remarked. "Does the invisible
part of him bite? If it does it is sure to bite me."

"Have no fear about Oscar," said the Colonel. "He never harbours a
grudge. He was kicked around too much in life for that."

"I'm sorry," declared Mr. Topper, sincerely. "Perhaps he's hungry now.
I'll give him this bone to gnaw on."

He held a bone under the table and it was instantly snapped from his hand.

"He is hungry," Topper continued, quickly, withdrawing his hand. "Very
hungry. Listen to that."

The bone was rattling on the floor and from beneath the table came the
busy sound of crunching. The waiter, who had just arrived with coffee
and ices, on hearing this small commotion, raised the tablecloth and
peered down at the massed feet, in the centre of which lay Oscar engaged
in appeasing his hunger. The waiter dropped the tablecloth and leaned
down to Mr. Topper.

"Don't tell the ladies," he whispered, "but the funniest thing is going
on under your table. Half of a dog is messingaround with the leg of a
duck, so help me God."

Topper glanced under the table, then looked stonily at the waiter.

"You might be right," he said, "but I don't see it. One of the ladies
has dropped her fur piece and I myself dropped that duck leg. Bring the
bill and say nothing more about it. No one will know you've been drinking."

"Sorry," apologised the waiter. "I hadn't realised it myself, but the
Colonel kept on insisting."

"Then don't abuse his liberality," advised Topper. "Hurry with the bill."

"Yes," put in Marion Kerby, "hurry with the bill. This place begins to
irk me. I'm dying to take a stroll."

The waiter hastened away and Topper leaned over to Marion.

"Collect that dog," he told her, "and keep him under your cape until we
get out of here."

"Only for you," she replied, "would I do such a thing."

She reached down and after a little scuffling succeeded in gathering up
Oscar. For a moment his tail waved frantically above the edge of the
table, then flashed from view beneath Marion's cape, which from time to
time thereafter became suddenly convulsed with life. The waiter arrived
with the bill and in his preoccupation handed it to the Colonel, who,
upon scanning the total, promptly disappeared. It was like the flashing
out of a light.

"There isn't that much money in the world," floated through the air.

Only the bill remained, still poised above the table. It was trembling
slightly as if the invisible holder were shaken by an attack of nerves.

"The shock was too much for him," whispered Mrs. Hart. "I've seen it
happen before."

"He's gone," said the waiter, looking inquiringly at Mr. Topper. "He's
not here any more."

"Of course not," laughed Mr. Topper. "He never was. Pass that bill to me."

Before the waiter could reach it the billmoved across the table to Mr.
Topper's out-stretched hand.

"You're welcome to it," a voice murmured.

The waiter moved away from the Colonel's empty chair and stood close to
Mr. Topper.

"Mr. Topper," he pleaded, "please don't say he wasn't here. I could
never bear that. Why his cup is still half full of coffee and there's
his smouldering cigarette."

In the face of this undeniable evidence of the Colonel's recent
presence, Mr. Topper was forced to alter his bantering tactics. He
opened his wallet and selected several colourful bills.

"Take this money away," he said, "and stop asking questions. Let us
admit that the Colonel was here. What of it I As you accurately pointed
out, he isn't here any more. He slipped away somewhere, as all of us
must do at times. If I were in your place I wouldn't press the
investigation any further."

"I certainly wouldn't," remarked Mrs. Hart. "It has gone far enough."

"I'm sorry," replied the waiter, "and I'm very much obliged. As you say,
Mr. Topper, he must have just slipped away in a hurry like."

Marion Kerby burst out laughing and patted the waiter on his back.

"That's it," she said. "That's exactly it. He slipped away in a hurry
like, or, to put it differently, with all possible speed."

The waiter smiled nervously and bowed, then emulated the Colonel's
example to the best of his ability. Mr. Topper, despite his eagerness,
was forced to be more leisurely in his retreat. With earnest but
wavering dignity, he followed the women from the room. Oscar lent
distinction to their departure. Every time he kicked his legs Marion
Kerby suddenly bulged out in the back in a most grotesque manner, an
occurrence which caused Mrs. Hart to burst forth into hysterical
laughter to the greater humiliation of Mr. Topper. Once safely outside
in the darkness he mopped his face and gave vent to his feelings.

"After eating and drinking his fill," he complained, "he plays us a
trick like that. And he calls himself a soldier."

"A Colonel, no less," said Marion Kerby, "and he allows me to protect
this unlettered hound."

She dropped Oscar to the road and readjusted her cape.

"He couldn't help it," Mrs. Hart defended. "The bill was too much for
him. I'm sure he didn't mean to do it. At the size of the figures he
lost control, and anyway, think how much he drank."

"I never saw a man do better," admitted Marion, "and for that reason I
forgive him. We all play tricks in our cups."

Without paying attention to their direction they wandered down the
wooded road until they came to an open field, a meadow slanting off in
the darkness. In the distance, above the trees, an old battered moon was
sailing low in the sky.

The night was quiet and peaceful round them, filled with secret
rustlings and a thousand fragrant smells. The Sleeping Fox seemed miles
away, its brilliance vanished and its orchestra stilled. Without knowing
it they were soothed and subdued by the quiet beauty of their
surroundings. And out of the quiet beauty of their surroundings a
singing voice, deep and undaunted, came storming towards them down the
road.

"It's the Colonel," exclaimed Mrs. Hart. "He has a splendid voice. Listen!"

Marion and Topper listened without enthusiasm to the following chanty:

"Oh, dark and stormy was the night
When last I left my Meg.
She'd a government band around each hand
And another one round each leg.

"Yo ho, my boys, yo ho,
And a-sailing we shall go.
We'll sail no more on England's shore--"

"A splendid voice," remarked Mr. Topper, sarcastically interrupting the
booming flow of the old sea song. "Caruso must be fairly spinning in his
grave."

"What's this about Caruso?" asked the Colonel, looming large in the
darkness. "Why, I taught him his do, re, mi's."

"So you are once more with us," said Marion Kerby. "What was your hurry
to go?"

"Couldn't help it," explained the Colonel. "The size of the bill
destroyed my resistance. There were no such figures in my days. But I've
brought along gifts as a show of atonement."

He slipped his hands into his pockets and produced two large bottles.

"In view of the size of the bill," he continued, "I took the liberty to
remove these from the pantry. I have still another."

The gifts of atonement proved more than acceptable and the Colonel was
reinstated with full honours and privileges. With a bottle circulating
freely between them they wandered off into the meadow until wandering no
longer suited their mood. Mr. Topper insisted on demonstrating the fact
that he was rapidly becoming a spirit himself. With the utmost
conviction he would throw himself into the air, but being a little
heavier than that element he invariably returned with great speed to the
earth, from which his companions would lift him and once more set him in
motion. It was a night of magnificent distances and headlong enterprise.
They sang and danced and made patriotic speeches and pursued each other
across the meadows to the intense delight of the gambolling flanks of
Oscar. To Topper, it was like a dream, one in which he was liberated and
given tremendous strength. His steps seemed as light as feathers and as
long as leagues. The field was filled with dancing forms that swirled in
wild abandon until they left the earth and went circling round the moon.
And through the darkness he heard shouting voices as the party searched
for one another. The Scotch with which the Colonel plied them became
transmuted in their brains into the glory of the night. Nature became
intensely beautiful and their bodies madly alive. It was such a night as
comes seldom to a man and which fortunately for his peace of mind is
seldom remembered after it has gone. Topper remembered but little when
he awoke the following morning on the bank of a slow-moving river.
Oscar's bushy tail was draped across his chest, and that was all that
remained of Oscar. He had lost ground during the exhausting activities
of the night. Topper slid cautiously from under the tail and looked down
into the clear water of the river. His body was feverish and his head an
aching weight which he balanced with the greatest difficulty. Several
yards away Marion Kerby was sleeping sweetly in Mrs. Hart's lap. The
Colonel, deep in slumber, was sitting erect as if he had forgotten to
lie down. Topper turned his eyes away from his companions and looked
longingly at the river. His body craved to feel the soothing flow of its
cool waters. Unable to stand the temptation any longer he crept away
into a clump of bushes and divested himself of his outer garments. With
a last timid look at his sleeping friends he slid down the bank and
insinuated himself into the water, his hot blood leaping with gratitude
as the river closed around him. But Topper was not alone. A flaunting
tail had followed him to his tryst. Round and round it circled,
splitting the water neatly like the periscope of a submarine. Topper was
hardly pleased with the presence of Oscar, but he was enjoying the river
too thoroughly to leave it undisturbed to the dog. His enjoyment was
interrupted by a greeting from the bank.

"Good morning," the Colonel called to him. "Will you join me in a drink?"

"That's all I ever seem to be doing," replied Topper, swimming over to
the Colonel. "But just for once I will. After this I'm going to swear
off for a while."

The Colonel passed down the bottle and Topper refreshed himself.

"My dog seems to have grown less," observed the Colonel, watching the
sportive tail. "I'll have to do some hard work on him to-day."

"If you make him disappear altogether you'd be doing me a favour," said
Mr. Topper, holding up the bottle.

"The creative spirit is too strong in me for that," replied the Colonel.
"I must make him a whole dog or bust."

His head was withdrawn from the bank and in a few minutes he reappeared
accompanied by Mrs. Hart and Marion Kerby, very sketchily attired in
improvised bathing suits. With little screams of delight they plunged
into the river and swam friskily round the dismayed Topper, who,
submerged up to his chin, was modestly treading water.

"An auspicious beginning to a new day," cried the Colonel. "This will
set us all up splendidly."

"This and a good breakfast," added Mrs. Hart.

"What a night it was, Cosmo," said Marion, swimming up to him and
resting her hand on his shoulder. "Did you ever have so much fun?"

"It was fun," admitted Topper, "but whether I should have enjoyed it or
not I am too vague to remember. What did we do with the automobile?"

"It's still at the road-house. We'll get it presently and move along."

"I don't move along an inch," replied Topper, "until all of you have
cleared out of here."

"I'll get them out," said Marion. Then, turning to the others, she said:
" The last one out forfeits a drink. Only three are left in the bottle."

This announcement was immediately followed by an undignified scramble up
the bank of the river, the Colonel doing his best to block Mrs. Hart's
progress. With great good humour Mr. Topper watched the three pairs of
legs speeding over the grass. Marion Kerby was leading the way, running
like a frightened deer, her flimsy draperies streaming in the wind.
After a final turn in the water, Topper emerged from the river, and,
casting a cautious glance about him, sought concealment in the bushes,
his eyes still filled with the grace and beauty of Marion Kerby's flying
form.




CHAPTER XVIII
Mr. Topper Does Not Celebrate


In this convivial manner began one of the most active and interesting
periods of Mr. Topper's incredible vacation. He had originally decided
that he needed a change. Now his needs were more than satisfied. No
man's life could have undergone more radical alterations. The Colonel
and Mrs. Hart garnished his trip with their misconduct, lending to an
automobile tour the atmosphere of a raiding party.

For three weeks the four of them cruised perilously about the
countryside, upsetting the entire New England States and leaving ruined
and shattered nerves in the wake of the hard-pressed automobile. At
night they slept wherever they chanced to find themselves, and
frequently they found themselves in strange and unaccountable places.
To-night it might be a road-house, on the following one a field. And
there were moments so fraught with danger that they retreated to the
woods until the hue and cry had subsided.

Despite the many discomforts of this open-air existence, Mr. Topper
accepted his lot for reasons of economy, Mrs. Hart and the Colonel being
rather fastidious in their tastes. Whenever the party put up at an inn
they loudly demanded the best of accommodations, for which they
graciously allowed Mr. Topper to pay. That neither of them had been
asked to become permanently attached to Mr. Topper never seemed to occur
to them. They were childlike in their faith that they were wanted.
Topper occasionally wondered about this, reflecting that his invitation
to the Colonel to share his Scotch had turned out to be one of the most
costly acts of hospitality he had ever performed.

Nevertheless, Mr. Topper appeared to have profited by his outing. His
body had grown lean and alert, ready to run at a moment's notice, and
his skin had been tanned by constant exposure to the elements. His
character had also toughened considerably and his drinking capacity
enlarged. True, he was hardly what one would call a desperate and
reckless man, yet he had learned to accept danger with fortitude and
delinquency with tolerance. Nor did his reputation weigh too heavily on
his mind. By day he flaunted it in the face of the world and at night it
dangled in jeopardy. And strangely enough Mr. Topper, in spite of his
disorderly life, or rather, because of it, had become a better member of
society; more self-reliant, more capable and far more interesting. He
discovered in his heart the first faint whispering of pure Christianity,
and in some way he continued to keep his virtue intact by keeping his
vices active.

After the swimming party in the river he had eschewed strong liquor, and
Marion Kerby had followed his example. Of course there had been a few
slight lapses, but these had been such trifling affairs that they no
longer counted with Topper. The Colonel and Mrs. Hart, however, were
implacable in their thirst, to the quenching of which they devoted most
of their energy and thought. For several days at a time they would
absent themselves from the company of Mr. Topper and Marion to revel in
more congenial surroundings. From these little side trips they
invariably returned in a state of moral collapse; Oscar, more or less
visible, close on his master's heels.

During the absence of this unedifying couple, Topper and Marion dwelt
together in comparatively quiet and peaceful companionship. On one of
her flights from his side she had acquired, without cost, a copy of the
"Odyssey," and this brave tale they read together throughout the long,
still, summer days.

For the first time in his life Topper came to realise that loose living
and large thinking could get along quite comfortably together, that they
were in fact boon companions. Under the influence of Marion Kerby he
developed along altogether new and improved lines. But whenever the
Colonel and Mrs. Hart returned from their excursions, Marion reverted to
her former ways and joined them in a conspiracy to destroy Mr. Topper's
tranquillity.

On this particular occasion there were good reasons for rejoicing. Oscar
at last, after a tremendous burst of concentration, had succeeded in
materialising up to the ears. This was the farthest north the dog had
ever achieved, and as a consequence the Colonel was bubbling over with
gratification and pride.

"Just mark my words," he went about saying, "I'll make a whole dog of
him yet."

Oscar, rather dizzy at his unexpected success, swaggered aggressively in
his gait and danced incompletely around. Up to this time he had shown
but little interest in his personal appearance, being satisfied to
remain at whatever length of dog he happened to find himself. On some
days he was only an animated tail, on others a leaping rump, and on
several occasions he appeared simply as a leg and let it go at that. Mr.
Topper had never grown thoroughly accustomed to Oscar because of his
continually changing appearance, but the man's natural love of animals
gradually overcame his first decided objections. Today he shared in the
joy of the others and complimented Oscar on his brilliant showing,
saying that he hoped some day to see his face.

"If ever there was an occasion that justified a celebration that
occasion is now at hand," declared the Colonel with conviction. "I know
of a first-rate hotel near by and I strongly suggest that we put up
there for the night."

"You're a particularly ingenious person in finding occasion to justify a
celebration," replied Mr. Topper, "but on this one, Colonel, I'm with
you. I'd do anything in my power to encourage that dog of yours to go
one way or the other, preferably the other. Let us descend on this hotel."

"Never have I seen such an improvement in a man in all my life,"
exclaimed Mrs. Hart in rapture. "Marion, you've done him a world of good."

Topper cast her a critical glance. "You look terrible," he remarked.
"You should cut it out for a while."

"But our visit is nearly over," she replied with a little sigh. "Let's
all raise hell while our ectoplasm lasts. You don't have to worry, Topper."

"What a tough baby she is," Mr. Topper mused to himself. Then he added
aloud, "Is your husband still alive?"

"Yes, thank God," she replied with fervour, "and I wish him good health
and a long life."

"Amen," said the Colonel piously.

"Beautiful characters," remarked Mr. Topper. "What about this celebration?"

To deprive the hotel of its legitimate profit it was decided that Mr.
Topper should engage a large room and that the others should, as the
Colonel tactfully phrased it, "join him there."

"The idea is good," agreed Mr. Topper, "but for one consideration. What
about Oscar?"

"We can cram him into the trunk on the back and cut an air hole in it,"
replied the Colonel, proceeding to act on his words.

"If Oscar can stand it I can," remarked Mr. Topper. "What's to prevent
him from de-materialising and joining us at some ill-chosen moment?"

"I hardly think he'll do that," said the Colonel. "He's so pleased with
himself as he is that he wouldn't lose an inch for the world."

"Let us devoutly hope so," said Mr. Topper, as he watched the Colonel
and Mrs. Hart unceremoniously cram Oscar into the trunk.

The hotel lay far back on a deep green, floor-like lawn which supported
the weight of many trees, large trees whose generous limbs showered the
benediction of shade upon the opulent persons who sat beneath them
discussing golf, bridge and gin and appraising the new arrivals. The
hotel itself was a rangy structure, having been added to in various
styles of architecture as its popularity spread abroad. However, through
sheer massiveness, it succeeded in presenting a harmonious whole, being
sufficiently antique and modern to appeal to the comfortably artistic.

Around dinner time the front of the hotel afforded a striking study in
modesty. Some of the ladies dressed directly in front of their windows,
some dressed a trifle removed, but no lady, it seemed, ever dressed
entirely out of sight. It was around dinner time when Mr. Topper
arrived, and so naturally he had no eyes for the blue sea that swept
away to the horizon nor for the tent-like sails that slanted against the
sky. As he followed the bell boy down a dark corridor along which trunks
were parked like so many automobiles, a tinkling sound of an
unmistakable nature issued from every door. Patriotic Americans were
paying their evening tribute to the sacred laws of the land.

"If it were not so confoundedly hot," thought Topper, "I'd think I was
on a sleigh ride. That tinkling makes me thirsty."

With the foresight bred of experience, he halted the bell boy at the
door and took the key from his hand.

"I can do very nicely now myself," he told the boy, giving him a
generous tip. "Don't bother to come in."

It was well that he took this precaution, for, when he entered the room,
he found his companions in varying stages of incompleteness. The Colonel
was practically present, but Mrs. Hart and Marion Kerby were still
sufficiently vague to have given the bell boy a decided shock.

"Sorry to have kept you waiting," he remarked, dropping the bags to the
floor. "This is a decidedly musical hotel, isn't it, Colonel?"

"It is," replied the Colonel. "And our room alone is silent. What do you
say to my taking steps?"

"Under ordinary circumstances I'd say no," said Mr. Topper, "but as this
is a celebration, and incidentally a hot evening, I quite agree with
you. Steps should be taken; but step, Colonel, with the utmost caution.
Don't, for God's sake, stumble."

"Leave everything to me," replied the Colonel, as he swiftly faded from
view.

"I don't have to," remarked Topper. "You'd take it yourself anyway."

In a few minutes a gleaming cocktail shaker was seen to float through
the open window. Without taking the time to reappear, the Colonel poured
out a small drink and tasted it.

"Terrible," the voice remarked. "I'll take it back and throw it in his
face."

The shaker floated away, and after a short wait another one, accompanied
by a bottle of gin, appeared at the window and, drifting across the room
to the table, settled there with a silvery tinkle. The Colonel emerged
from obscurity and sampled his plunder.

"Excellent!" he exclaimed. "Excellent! Now we can all have a drink."

From down the hall came the babble of excited voices mingled with the
sound of running feet and slamming doors.

"Somebody seems to be upset," remarked Marion Kerby.

"It sounds so," said Mr. Topper. "How did your victims behave, Colonel?"

"Very nicely," replied the Colonel. "As is usual in such cases, they
were too confused to realise what had happened until after it had
happened. The man was standing with the shaker held aloft, poised for
the downward shake. I snatched it from his hand, seized the bottle of
gin and fled, casting back a fleeting glance at the petrified company.
The man was still holding his hand in the air like Ajax defying the
lightning or Liberty bereft of her torch. One woman, I believe, had
fainted. That was about all."

He knocked the shaker against the table and made a slight dent in it.

"In case of a search being instigated," he explained, "we can identify
our property by this mark. All gin looks alike, but to make assurance
doubly sure we had better drink this up as speedily as possible."

"Justifiable inebriety," Mr. Topper suggested.

"Exactly," agreed the Colonel. "Telephone for some glasses, ice and a
few oranges."

When Mr. Topper went down to dinner half an hour later he was in a state
of high good humour. Marion, the Colonel and Mrs. Hart had elected to
remain behind, the Colonel judiciously pointing out that the dinner hour
was the ideal time for looting, so many guests being absent from their
rooms. Moreover, there was still some gin left to be turned into
cocktails. Mr. Topper, relieved to escape from his boisterous
companions, was delighted with this arrangement.

"Don't hurry back," said Marion as he was about to leave. "We can manage
everything. Stroll about and amuse yourself."

With a grateful look Mr. Topper innocently departed and made his way to
the dining-room. Here he was seated at an enviable table occupied at the
moment by a handsomely gowned woman. She was plump and pretty and
appeared to have been in this life long enough to have learned how to
enjoy it without too many qualms. Mr. Topper bowed and the woman smiled,
and before the end of the dinner he had gleaned the information that the
woman's name was Mrs. Brewster and that her husband had died some years
ago of Bright's disease as she had repeatedly warned him he would. On
leaving the table she favoured him with a particularly promising smile,
and intimated that there were many beautiful walks about the place if
one cared for that sort of thing. That sort of thing, Mr. Topper said
flatly, was exactly what he cared for most. She smiled again and
undulated away, Mr. Topper following her departure with glowing eyes.

When he had finished his dinner he repaired to the general assembly room
of the hotel and mingled complacently with the guests. A tall,
perspiring gentleman was raffling lace garments for the benefit of some
worthy cause, and round this gentleman the ladies were milling, their
ears eagerly attuned to catch the numbers he called out as he drew small
bits of paper from a hat.

As Mr. Topper was standing there enjoying this little flurry of
excitement, the woman directly in front of him gave a most undignified
start and rubbed herself tenderly. Then she turned and glared at Mr.
Topper, whispering a few words to the woman next to her as she did so.

"Why, what a thing to do!" exclaimed the woman, looking indignantly at
Mr. Topper.

This was too much for Topper. He shrank guiltily away to the other side
of the circle, where he stood wondering what it was all about. But here
the same thing happened, only more publicly. A woman, brushing past Mr.
Topper, suddenly stopped and, uttering a little cry of pain, looked at
him with a shocked expression.

"Sir," she said, "if you do that again I'll have you ordered from this
hotel."

"But what have I done?" asked the bewildered Topper.

"You know very well," she replied significantly. "If you were a
gentleman you wouldn't even ask."

Before the disapproving glances of a number of guests, Mr. Topper
abandoned all hope of clearing himself and fled to the smoking-room.
Here he sat down on a sofa beside an elderly gentleman who was snoring
with childlike candour, his half-smoked cigar still held in his hand.
Topper produced his handkerchief and mopped his flushed face. When he
looked up the eyes of the elderly gentleman were fixed reproachfully on
him.

"Why did you do that?" he demanded. 'You were snoring," replied Mr.
Topper for lack of a better answer.

"That was no way to stop me," said the gentle-man. "Don't do it again or
I'll call for help."

Topper, at his wit's end, thereupon decided that his room was the only
safe place for him. Taking the precaution to stay as far away as
possible from anyone, he made for the stairs, but here his retreat was
cut off by the charming Mrs. Brewster. He was on the point of hurrying
past her when she gave a sudden little cry of surprise and looked coyly
at him.

"Why, you naughty man," she said. "I don't know why I'm not angry. Just
for that you must take a walk with me."

Mr. Topper, too alarmed to inquire what "just for that" signified to
Mrs. Brewster, obediently followed her from the hotel. She led him to a
gathering of boulders overhanging the beach and gracefully arranged
herself thereon, using Mr. Topper's hand for support and forgetting to
give it back to him.

Mr. Topper's mind was in a state of siege, unhappy thoughts attacking it
from all sides, as he vainly strove to figure out what curse had
over-taken him. He was convinced that Marion Kerby was in some way
involved in his predicament, that she was, in fact, directly responsible
for it. Mrs. Brewster's cooing, voice interrupted his moody reflections.

"I was such a lonesome girl until you came," she said. "There's not a
single man in all this hotel that's half alive."

"But I'm not a single man," Mr. Topper replied cautiously.

"Oh, I don't mean that," she laughed. "And anyway, I hate single men.
They always propose marriage."

Not feeling quite sure as to what proposals were expected of him, Mr.
Topper made some pleasant reference to the character of the night.

"It's delicious," murmured Mrs. Brewster, moving closer to him and
extending one hand to the sea.

Then a strange thing occurred. A white arm suddenly darted from the
night, and the hand at the end of it, seizing Mrs. Brewster's, shook it
violently up and down. With a cry of terror she fell back into Mr.
Topper's arms, and when he had succeeded in propping her up, a headless
dog was sitting calmly before them on the rocks. Mr. Topper recognised
Oscar immediately, but Mrs. Brewster had never met the dog. Nor did she
stay now to be introduced. With little moaning noises she rose
unsteadily to her feet and scrambled over the boulders with goat-like
agility. The sound of maniacal laughter bursting in the air above her
hastened her departure. Mr. Topper turned back to the ocean with
thoughts of suicide, only to find that Oscar had vanished and that
Marion Kerby was standing in his place.

"So that," she began in a voice of cold fury, "so that is the way you
make use of your liberty. Picking a woman up at dinner and taking her
out on the rocks. You love walking, don't you? Yes, you do not. I know.
I know everything, heard every word you said, saw every look you gave
her. Sitting here holding hands and expecting me to go hunting for drink
for your fat paunch. Quite a ladies' man, aren't you? Having a grand
time and me hanging around like a dope. Well, let me tell you one thing,
I'm through. See? I'm through. I quit now, but if I ever catch you with
that moth-eaten old troll again I'll scare the living lights out of her.
Of all the nerve! Sitting here on the rocks. Disgusting. Don't talk to
me, you're too low for words. Come along, Oscar, and I'll shove you back
in your trunk. We've intruded too long already."

Oscar appeared from the shadows and followed Marion Kerby's swiftly
retreating form. Topper, awaking from his daze, sprang to his feet and
cried after Marion.

"Don't go away," he pleaded. "Give me a chance. I can explain
everything. Come back, Marion."

"If this damn dog only had a head," she furiously shouted back, "I'd
sick him on you. Don't dare to follow me, or I'll make the scene of your
life."

Through a side door of the hotel Topper sneaked up to his room only to
find it depressingly empty. Squeezed oranges and empty gin bottles bore
silent witness to the success of the Colonel's endeavours. Topper walked
wearily to the window and looked out over the lawn. Had Marion Kerby
permanently left him? That question was uppermost in his mind. He had
never before seen her so angry or unreasonable, yet with all his heart
he wanted her back. For a long time he walked restlessly up and down his
room. Several times he whispered her name, but received no answer.
Finally he undressed, switched off the light and, getting into bed, lay
there wondering what his vanished companions were doing.

"A lovely celebration," he muttered bitterly to himself, rolling over on
his side and seeking forgetfulness in sleep.




CHAPTER XIX
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.




CHAPTER XX
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.




CHAPTER XXI
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:

"My husband he did it. The devil would drive,
The high-flying, low-lying soak.
And that is the reason I'm no more alive,
For he ran me smack into an oak."

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.



THE END






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