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Toppleton's Client; Or, A Spirit in Exile By John Kendrick Bangs Characters: 14377

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

It did not take Hopkins many days to discover that a life of elegant leisure in London approximates labour of the hardest sort. Nor was it entirely easy for him to spend his one thousand pounds a month, with lodgings for his headquarters. This fact annoyed him considerably, for he valued money only for what it could bring him, and yet how else to live than in lodgings he could not decide. Hotel life he abhorred, not only because he considered its excellence purely superficial, but also because it brought him in contact with what he called his "flash-light fellow countrymen, with Wagnerian voices and frontier manners"-by which I presume he meant the diamond studded individuals who travel on Cook's Tickets, and whose so-called Americanism is based on the notion that Britons are still weeping over the events of '76, and who love to send patriotic allusions to the star-spangled banner echoing down through the corridors of the hotels, out and along the Thames Embankment, to the very doors of parliament itself.

"Why don't you buy a house-boat?" asked one of his cronies, to whom he had confided his belief that luxurious ease was hard on the constitution. "Then you can run off up the Thames, and loaf away the tedious hours of your leisure."

"That's an idea worth considering," he replied, "and perhaps I'll try it on next summer. I do not feel this year, however, that I ought to desert London, considering the responsibilities of my position."

"What are you talking about?" said the other with a laugh. "Responsibilities! Why, man, you haven't been to your office since you arrived."

"No," returned Hoppy, "I haven't. In fact I haven't got an office to 'be to.' That's what bothers me so like thunder. I've looked at plenty of offices advertised as for rent for legal firms, but I'll be hanged if I can find anything suitable. Your barristers over here have not as good accommodations as we give obsolete papers at home. Our pigeon-holes are palatial in comparison with your office suites, and accustomed as I am to breathing fresh air, I really can't stand the atmosphere I have been compelled to take into my lungs in the rooms I have looked at."

"But, my dear fellow, what more than a pigeon-hole do you need?" asked his friend. "You are not called upon to attend to any business here. A post-office box would suffice for the receipt of communications from America."

"That's all true enough," returned Hopkins, "but where am I to keep my law library? And what am I to do in case I should have a client?"

"Keep your books in your lodgings, and don't count your clients before they get into litigation," replied the other.

"My dear Tutterson," Hopkins said in answer to this, "you are the queerest mixture of common sense and idiotcy I have ever encountered. My library at home, indeed! Haven't you any better sense than to suggest my carrying my profession into my home life? Do you suppose I want to be reminded at every step I take that I am a lawyer? Must my business be rammed down my throat at all hours? Am I never to have relaxation from office cares? Indeed, I'll not have a suggestion of law within a mile of my lodgings! I must have an office; but now that I think of it, not having to go to the office from one year's end to another, it makes no difference whether it consists of the ground floor of Buckingham Palace or a rear cell three flights up, in Newgate Prison."

"Except," returned Tutterson, "that if you had the office at Newgate you might do more business than if you shared Buckingham Palace with the Royal family."

"Yes; and on the other hand, the society at the palace is probably more desirable than that of Newgate; so each having equal advantages, I think I'd better compromise and take an office out near the Tower," said Hopkins. "The location is quite desirable from my point of view. It would be so inaccessible that I should have a decent excuse for not going there, and besides, I reduce my chances of being embarrassed by a client to a minimum."

"That is where you are very much mistaken," said Tutterson. "If you hang your shingle out by the Tower, you will be one lawyer among a hundred Beef-Eaters, and therefore distinguished, and likely to be sought out by clients. On the other hand, if you behave like a sensible man, and take chambers in the Temple, you'll be an unknown attorney among a thousand Q.C's. And as for the decent excuse for not attending to business, you simply forget that you are no longer in America but in England. Here a man needs an excuse for going to work. Trade is looked down upon. It is the butterfly we esteem, not the grub. A man who will work when he doesn't need to work, is looked upon with distrust. Society doesn't cultivate him, and the million regard him with suspicion,-and the position of both is distinctly logical. He who serves is a servant, and society looks upon him as such, and when he insists upon serving without the necessity to serve, he diminishes by just so much the opportunities of some poor devil to whom opportunity is bread and butter, which sets the poor devil against him. You do not need an excuse for neglecting business, Toppleton, and, by Jove, if it wasn't for your beastly American ideas, you'd apologize to yourself for even thinking of such a thing."

"Well, I fancy you are right," replied Toppleton. "To tell you the truth, I never thought of it in that light before. There is value in a leisure class, after all. It keeps the peach-blow humanity from competing with the earthenware, to the disadvantage of the latter. I see now why the lower and middle classes so dearly love the lords and dukes and other noble born creatures Nature has set above them. It is the generous self-denial of the aristocracy in the matter of work, and the consequent diminution of competition, that is the basis of that love. I'll do as you say, and see what I can do in the Temple. Even if a client should happen to stray in at one of those rare moments when I am on duty, I can assume a weary demeanour and tell him that I have already more work on my hands than I can accomplish with proper deference to my health, and request him to take his quarrel elsewhere."

So the question was settled. An office was taken in the Temple. Hopkins bought himself a wig and a gown, purchased a dozen tin boxes, each labelled with the hypothetical name of some supposititious client, had the room luxuriously fitted up, arranged his law library, consisting of the "Comic Blackstone," "Bench and Bar," by Sergeant Ballantyne, the "Newgate Calendar," and an absolute first of "Parsons on Contracts," on the mahogany shelves he had had constructed there; hung out a shingle announcing himself and firm as having headquarters within, and, placing beneath it a printed placard to the effect that he had gone out to lunch, he turned the key in the door and departed with Tutterson for a trip to the land of the Midnight Sun.

Now it so happened, that the agent having in charge the particular section of the Temple in which Hopkins' new office was located, had concealed from the young American the fact that for some twenty-five or thirty years, the room which T

oppleton had leased had remained unoccupied-that is, it had never been occupied for any consecutive period of time during that number of years. Tenants had come but had as quickly gone. There was something about the room that no one seemed able to cope with. Luxuriously furnished or bare, it made no difference in the fortunes of Number 17, from the doors of which now projected the sign of Toppleton, Morley, Harkins, Perkins, Mawson, Bronson, Smithers, and Hicks. Just what the trouble was, the agent had not been able to determine in a manner satisfactory to himself until about a year before Hopkins happened in to negotiate with him for a four years' lease. Departing tenants, when they had spoken to him at all on the subject, had confined themselves to demands for a rebate on rents paid in advance, on the rather untenable ground that the room was uncanny and depressing.

"We can't stand it," they had said, earnestly. "There must be some awful mystery connected with the room. There has been a murder, or a suicide, or some equally dreadful crime committed within its walls at some time or another."

This, of course, the agent always strenuously denied, and his books substantiated his denial. The only possible crime divulged by the books, was thirty-three years back when an occupant departed without paying his rent, but that surely did not constitute the sort of crime that would warrant the insinuation that the room was haunted.

"And as for your statement that the room makes you feel weird and depressed," the agent had added with the suggestion of a sneer, "I am sure there is nothing in the terms of the lease which binds me to keep tenants in a natural and cheerful frame of mind. I can't help it, you know, if you get the blues or eat yourselves into a state that makes that room seem to you to be haunted."

"But," one expostulating tenant had observed, "but, my dear sir, I am given to understand that the five tenants preceding my occupancy left for precisely the same reason, that the office at times is suffocatingly weird; and that undefined whispers are to be heard playing at puss in the corner with heart-rending sighs at almost any hour of the day or night throughout the year, cannot be denied."

"Well, all I've got to say about that," was the agent's invariable reply, "is that I never saw a sigh or heard a whisper of a supernatural order in that room, and if you want to go to law with a case based on a Welsh rarebit diet, just do it. If the courts decide that I owe you money, and must forfeit my lease rights because you have dyspepsia, I'll turn over the whole business to you and join the army."

Of course this independent attitude of the agent always settled the question at once. His tenants, however insane they might appear to the agent's eyes, were invariably sane enough not to carry the matter to the courts, where it was hardly possible that a plaintiff could be relieved of the conditions of his contract, because his office gave him a megrim, super-induced by the visit of a disembodied sigh.

Judges are hard-headed, practical persons, who take no stock in spirits not purely liquid, realizing which the tenants of Number 17, without exception, wisely resolved to suffer in silence, invariably leaving the room, however, in a state of disuse encouraging to cobwebs, which would have delighted the soul of a connoisseur in wines.

"If I can't make the rent of the room, I can at least raise cobwebs for innkeepers to use in connection with their wine cellars," said the agent to himself with a sad chuckle, which showed that he was possessed of a certain humorous philosophy which must have been extremely consoling to him.

At the end of three years of abortive effort to keep the room rented, impelled partly by curiosity to know if anything really was the matter with the office, partly by a desire to relieve the building of the odium under which the continued emptiness of one of its apartments had placed it, the agent moved into Number 17 himself.

His tenancy lasted precisely one week, at the end of which time he moved out again. He, too, had heard the undefined whispers and disembodied sighs; he, too, had trembled with awe when the uncanny quality of the atmosphere clogged up his lungs and set his heart beating at a galloping pace; he, too, decided that so far as he was concerned life in that office was intolerable, and he acted accordingly. He departed, and from that moment No. 17 was entered on his books no longer as for rent as an office, but was transferred to the list of rooms mentioned as desirable for storage purposes.

To the agent's credit be it said that when Hopkins Toppleton came along and desired to rent the apartment for office use his first impulse was to make a clean breast of the matter, and to say to him that in his own opinion and that of others the room was haunted and had been so for many years; but when he reflected that his conscience, such as it was, along with the rest of his being, was in the employ of the proprietors of the building, he felt that it was his duty to hold his peace. Toppleton had been informed that the room was useful chiefly for storage purposes, and if he chose to use it as an office, it was his own affair. In addition to this, the agent had a vague hope that Hopkins, being an American and used to all sorts of horrible things in his native land-such as boa-constrictors on the streets, buffaloes in the back yard, and Indians swarming in the suburbs of the cities,-would be able to cope with the invisible visitant, and ultimately either subdue or drive the disembodied sigh into the spirit vale. In view of these facts, therefore, it was not surprising that when Hopkins had finally signed a four years' lease and had taken possession, the agent should give a sigh of relief, and, on his return home, inform his wife that she might treat herself to a new silk dress.

During the few weeks which elapsed between the signing of the lease and Hopkins' ostensible departure on a three months' lunching tour, he was watched with considerable interest by the agent, but, until the "Gone to Lunch" placard was put up, the latter saw no sign that Hopkins had discovered anything wrong with the office, and even then the agent thought nothing about it until the placard began to accumulate dust. Then he shook his head and silently congratulated himself that the rent had been paid a year in advance; "for," he said, "if he hasn't gone to New York to lunch, the chances are that that sigh has got to work again and frightened him into an unceremonious departure." Neither of which hypotheses was correct, for as we have already heard, Hopkins had departed for Norway.

As for the sigh, the young lawyer had heard it but once. That was when he was about leaving the room for his three months' tour, and he had attributed it to the soughing of the wind in the trees outside of his window, which was indeed an error, as he might have discovered at the time had he taken the trouble to investigate, for there were no trees outside of his window through whose branches a wind could have soughed even if it had been disposed to do so.

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