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Toppleton's Client; Or, A Spirit in Exile By John Kendrick Bangs Characters: 15817

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

It was well along in October when Hopkins returned to London, and he got back to his office in the Temple none too soon. The agent had fully made up his mind that he was gone for good, and was about taking steps to remove his effects from Number 17, and gain an honest penny by sub-letting that light and airy apartment for his own benefit, a vision of profit which Toppleton redivivus effectually dispelled.

The return, for this reason, was of course a grave disappointment to Mr. Stubbs, but he rose to the occasion when the long lost lessee appeared on the scene, and welcomed him cordially.

"Good morning, sir," he said. "Glad to see you back. Didn't know what had become of you or should have forwarded your mail. Have a pleasant trip?"

"Very," said Toppleton, shortly.

"It seems to have agreed with you,-you've a finer colour than you had."

"Yes," replied Hopkins, drily. "That's natural. I've been to Norway. The sun's been working day and night, and I'm tanned."

"I hope everything is-er-everything was all right with the room, sir?" the agent then said somewhat anxiously.

"I found nothing wrong with it," said Hopkins; "did you suspect that anything was wrong there?"

"Oh, no!-indeed not. Of course not," returned the agent with some confusion. "I only asked-er-so that in case there was anything you wanted, you know, it might be attended to at once. There's nothing wrong with the room at all, sir. Nothing. Absolutely nothing."

"Well, that's good," said Toppleton, turning to his table. "I'm glad there's nothing the matter. It will take a very small percentage of the rental to remedy that. Good morning, Mr. Stubbs."

"Good morning, sir," said Mr. Stubbs, and then he departed.

"Now for the mail," said Hopkins, grasping his letter-opener, and running it deftly through the flap of a communication from Mr. Morley, written two months previously.

"Dear Hoppy," he read. "We have just been informed of your singular act on the Saturday previous to your departure for London."

"Hm! what the deuce did I do then?" said Hopkins, stroking his moustache thoughtfully. "Let me see. 'Singular act.' I've done quite a number of singular things on Saturdays, but what-Oh, yes! Ha, ha! That Coney Island dinner. Oh, bosh!-what nonsense! as if my giving the boys a feast were going to hurt the prospects of a firm like ours. By George, it'll work just the other way. It'll fill the force with an enthusiasm for work which-"

Here Hopkins stopped for a moment to say, "Come in!" Somebody had knocked, he thought. But the door remained closed.

"Come in!" he cried again.

Still there was no answer, and on walking to the door and opening it, Toppleton discovered that his ears had deceived him. There was no one there, nor was there any sign of life whatever in the hallway.

"I'm glad," he said, returning to his chair and taking up Mr. Morley's letter once more. "It might have been a client, and to a man at the head of a big firm who has never been admitted to practice in any court or country, that would be an embarrassment to say the least. It's queer though, about that knock. I certainly heard one. Maybe there is some telepathic influence between Morley and me. He usually punctuates his complaints with a whack on a table or back of a chair. That's what it must have been; but let's see what else he has to say."

"Of course," he read, "if you desire to associate with those who are socially and professionally your inferiors, we have nothing to say. That is a matter entirely beyond our jurisdiction, but when you commit the firm to outrageous expenditures simply to gratify your own love of generosity, it is time to call a halt."

"What the devil is he talking about?" said Hopkins, putting the letter down. "I paid for that dinner out of my own pocket, and never charged the firm a cent, even though it does indirectly reap all the benefits. I'll have to write Morley and call his attention to that fact. How vulgar these disputes-"

At this point he was again interrupted by a sound which, in describing it afterwards, he likened to a ton of aspirates sliding down a coal chute.

"This room appears to be an asylum for strange noises," said he, looking about him to discover, if possible, whence this second interruption came. "I don't believe Morley feels badly enough about my behaviour for one of his sighs to cross the ocean and greet my ears, but I'm hanged if I know how else to account for it, unless there's a speaking tube with a whistle in it somewhere hereabouts. I wonder if that's what Stubbs meant!" he added, reflecting.

"Bah!" he said in answer to his own question, picking up Mr. Morley's letter for a third time. "This is the nineteenth century. Weird sounds are mortal-made these days, and I'm not afraid of them. If there were anything supernatural about them, why didn't the air get blue, and where's my cold chill and my hair standing erect? I fancy I'll retain my composure until the symptoms are a little more strongly developed."

Here he returned to his reading.

"We desire to have you explain to us, at your earliest convenience," the letter went on to say, "why you have so extravagantly raised the salary of every man, woman and child in our employ, utterly regardless of merit, and without consultation with those with whom you have been associated, to such a figure that the firm has been compelled to reduce its autumn dividend to meet the requirements of the pay roll. Your probable answer will be, I presume,-knowing your extraordinary resources in the matter of explanations-that you cannot consent to be a mere figure-head, and that you considered it your duty to impress upon our clerks the fact that you are not what they might suspect under the circumstances, but a vital, moving force in the concern; but you may as well spare yourself the trouble of making any such explanation, since it will not be satisfactory either to myself or to the other members of the firm, with the possible exception of our friend Mawson, who, with his customary about-town manners, is disposed to make light of the matter. We desire to have you distinctly understand that your duties are to be confined entirely to the London office, and to add that were it not for your esteemed father's sake we should at once cancel our agreement with you. The name you bear, honoured as it is in our profession, is of great value to us: but it is, after all, a luxury rather than a necessity, and in these hard times we are strongly inclined to dispense with luxuries whenever we find them too expensive for our pockets."

Hopkins paused in his reading and pursed his lips to give a long, low whistle, a sound which was frozen in transitu, for the lips were no sooner pursed than there came from a far corner the very sound that he had intended to utter.

For the first time in his life Toppleton knew what fear was; for the first time since he was a boy, when he wore it that way, did he become conscious that his hair stood upon end. His blood seemed to congeal in his veins, and his heart for a moment ceased to beat, and then, as if desirous of making up for lost time, began to thump against his ribs at lightning pace and with such force that Hopkins feared it might break the crystal of the watch which he carried in the upper left-hand pocket of his vest.

Mr. Morley's letter fluttered from his nerveless hand to the floor, and, despite its severity, was forgotten before it touched the handsome rug beneath Hopkins' table. The new sensation-the sensation of fear-had taken possession of his whole being, and, for an instant, he was as one paralyzed. Then, recovering his powers of motion, he whirled about in his revolving chair and started to his feet as if he had been shot.

"This is unbearable!" he cried, glancing nervously about the room. "It's bad enough to have an office-boy who whistles, but wh

en you get the whistle in the abstract without the advantage of the office-boy, it is too much."

Then Hopkins rang the bell and summoned the janitor.

"Tell the agent I want to see him," he said when that worthy appeared, and then, returning to his desk, he sat down and mechanically opened a copy of the Daily Register and tried to read it.

"It's no use," he cried in a moment, crumpling the paper into a ball and throwing it across the room. "That vile whistle has regularly knocked me out."

The paper ball reached the door just as the agent entered, and struck him athwart the watch chain.

"Beg pardon," said Hopkins, "I didn't mean that for you. Everything here seems to be bewitched this morning, that dull compilation of legal woe included."

"It's of no consequence, sir, I assure you," returned the agent uneasily.

"No, I don't think it amounts to a row of beans to a man who hates trouble," said Hopkins, referring more to the journal than to the untoward act of the paper ball. "But I say, Mr. Stubbs, I've been having a devil of a time in this room this morning, and when I say devil I mean devil."

Stubbs paled visibly. The moment he had feared had come.

"Wh-wh-what sus-seems to b-be the m-mum-matter, sir?" he stammered.

"Nothing seems, something is the matter," returned Hopkins. "I don't wonder you stammer. You'd stammer worse if you had been here with me three minutes ago. Stubbs, I believe this room is haunted!"

Mr. Stubbs's efforts at surprise at this point were painful to witness.

"Haunted, sir?" he said.

"Yes, haunted!" retorted Hopkins; "and by a confoundedly impertinent something or other that not only sighs and knocks on the door but whistles, Stubbs-actually whistles. Has this room a history?"

"Well, a sort of a one," returned Stubbs; "but I never heard any one complain about it on the score of whistling, sir."

"Stubbs, I believe you are lying. Hasn't somebody killed an office-boy in this apartment, for whistling?" queried Hopkins, gazing sternly at the shuffling agent.

"I'll take an affidavit that nothing of the kind ever happened," returned the agent, gaining confidence.

"That won't be necessary," said Toppleton. "I am satisfied with your assurance. But, Stubbs, to what do you attribute these beastly disturbances? Ghosts?"

"Of course not, Mr. Toppleton," replied Mr. Stubbs. "I fancy you must have heard some boy whistling in the hall."

"How about the knock and the sigh?" demanded the American.

"The knock is easily accounted for," returned the agent. "Somebody in the room above you must have dropped something on the floor, while the sigh was probably the wind blowing through the key-hole."

"Or a bit of fog coming down the chimney, eh, Stubbs?" put in Hopkins, satirically.

"No, sir," replied poor Stubbs, growing red where he had been white; "there is no fog to-day, sir."

"True, Stubbs; and you will likewise observe there is no wind to sough through key-holes," retorted Hopkins, severely, rising and walking to the window.

Stubbs stood motionless, without an answer. Toppleton had cornered him in a flimsy pretext, and then came the climax to his horrible experience.

From behind him in the corner whence had come the sigh and the whistle, there now proceeded a smothered laugh-a sound which curdled his blood and left him so limp that he staggered to the mantel and grasped it to keep himself from falling to the floor.

Hopkins turned upon him, his face livid with anger, and the two men gazed at each other in silence for a moment, the one endeavouring to master his fear, the other to smother his wrath.

"Do you mean to insult me, Mr. Stubbs, by laughing in my face when I send for you to request explanations as to the conduct-as to the-er-the conduct of your room? It sounds ridiculous to say that, but there is no other way to put it, for it is the conduct of the room of which I complain. What do you mean by your ill-timed levity?"

"I pass you my word, Mr. Toppleton, I will swear to you, sir, that nothing was further from my thoughts than mirth. I agree with you that it is no laughing matter for-"

"But I heard you laugh," said Toppleton, eyeing the agent, his anger now not unmixed with awe. "You laughed as plainly as it is possible for any one to laugh, except that you endeavoured to smother the sound."

"I did nothing of the sort, Mr. Toppleton," pleaded Stubbs, his hand shaking and his eyes wandering fearsomely over toward the mysterious corner where all was still and innocent-looking. "That laugh came from other lips than mine-if, indeed, it came from lips at all, which I doubt."

"You mean," cried Toppleton, grasping Stubbs by the arm with a grip that made the agent wince, "you mean that this room is-"

"Khee-hee-hee-hee-hee!" came the derisive laugh from the corner, followed by the mysterious whistle and heartrending sigh which Hopkins had already so unpleasantly heard.

Toppleton was transfixed with terror, and the agent, with an ejaculation of fear, ran from the room, and scurried down the stairs out into the court as fast as his legs could carry him, where he fell prostrate in a paroxysm of terror.

Deserted by the agent and shut up in the room with his unwelcome visitor-for the agent had slammed the door behind him with such force that the catch had slipped and loosened the bolt, so that Toppleton was to all intents and purposes a prisoner-Hopkins exerted what little nerve force he had left, and pulled himself together again as best he could. He staggered to his table, and taking a small bottle of whiskey from the cupboard at its side, poured at least one half of its fiery contents down into his throat.

"Similia similibus," said he softly to himself. "If I have to fight spirits, I shall use spirits." Then facing about, he gazed into the corner unflinchingly for a moment, following up his glance with one of the hand fire grenades that hung in a wire basket on the wall, which he hurled with all his force into the offending void. To this ebullition of heroic indignation, the only reply was a repetition of the sounds whose origin was so mysterious, but this time they proceeded directly from Toppleton's chair which stood at his side.

Another grenade, smashed into the maroon leather seat of the chair, was Hopkins' rejoinder, whereupon he was infuriated to hear the smothered laugh emanate from the depths of a treasured bit of cloisonné standing upon the mantel, within which it had been Hopkins' custom, in his apartments at home, to keep the faded leaves of the roses given to him by his friends of the fairer sex-a custom which, despite the volumes of tobacco smoke poured into the room by Hopkins and his companions night and day, kept the atmosphere thereof as sweet as a garden.

"You are a bright spirit," said Hopkins with a forced laugh. "You know mighty well that you are safe from violence there; but if you'll get out of that and give me one fair shot at you over on the washstand, you'll never haunt again."

"At last!" came the smothered voice, this time from the top of the jar. "At last, after years of weary waiting and watching, I may speak without breaking my vow."

"Then for heaven's sake," cried Hopkins, sinking back into his chair and staring blankly at the jar, "for heaven's sake speak and explain yourself, if you do not wish to drive me to the insane asylum. Who in the name of my honoured partners are you?"

There was a moment's pause, and then the answer came,-

"I am a weary spirit-a spirit in exile-harmless and unhappy, whose unhappiness you may be able to relieve."

"I?" cried Hopkins, wildly.

"Yes, you. I am come to intrust my affairs to your hands."

"You are-"

"A client," returned the spirit.

Hopkins gasped twice, closed his eyes, clutched wildly at his heart, and slid down to the floor an inert mass.

He had fainted.

* * *

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