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Toppleton's Client; Or, A Spirit in Exile By John Kendrick Bangs Characters: 18728

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

How long Hopkins would have remained in an unconscious state had not a cold perspiration sprung forth from his forehead, and, trickling over his temples, brought him to his senses, I cannot say. Suffice it to relate that his stupor lasted hardly more than a minute. When he opened his eyes and gazed over toward the haunted vase, he saw there the same depressing nothingness accompanied by the same soul-chilling sighs that had so discomfited him. To the ear there was something there, a something quite as perceptible to the auricular sense as if it were a living, tangible creature, but as imperceptible to the eye as that which has never existed. The presence, or whatever else it was that had entered into Toppleton's life so unceremoniously, was apparently much affected by the searching gaze which its victim directed toward it.

"Don't look at me that way, I beg of you, Mr. Toppleton," said the spirit after it had sighed a half dozen times and given an occasional nervous whistle. "I don't deserve all that your glance implies, and if you could only understand me, I think you would sympathize with me in my trials."

"I? I sympathize with you? Well, I like that," cried Toppleton, raising himself on his elbow and staring blankly at the vase. "It appears to me that I am the object of sympathy this time. What the deuce are you, anyhow? How am I to understand you, when you sit around like a maudlin void lost in a vacuum? Are you an apparition or what?"

"I am neither an apparition nor a what," returned the spirit. "I couldn't be an apparition without appearing. I suppose you might call me a limited perception; that is, I can be perceived but not seen, although I am human."

"You must be a sort of cross between a rumour and a small boy, I suppose; is that it?" queried Toppleton, with a touch of sarcasm in his tone.

"If you mean that I am half-way between things which should be seen and not heard, and other things which should be heard and not seen, I fancy your surmise approximates correctness. For my part, a love of conciseness leads me to set myself down as a Presence," was the spirit's answer.

"I'll give you a liberal reward," retorted Toppleton, eagerly, "if you'll place yourself in the category of an Absence as regards me and my office here; for, to tell you the truth, I am addicted more or less to heart disease, and I can't say I care to risk an association with a vocally inclined zero, such as you seem to be. What's your price?"

"You wrong me, Toppleton," returned the Presence, indignantly, floating from the edge of the vase over to the large rocking chair in the corner by the window, which began at once to sway to and fro, to the undisguised wonderment of its owner. "I am not a blackmailer, as you might see at once if you could look into my face."

"Where do you keep your face?" asked Hopkins, sitting up and embracing his knees. "If you have brought it along with you for heaven's sake trot it out. I can't ruin my eyes on you as you are now. Have you no office hours, say from ten to two, when you may be seen by those desirous of feasting their eyes upon your tangibility?"

"I am afraid you are joking, Hopkins," said the spirit, growing familiar. "If you are, I beg that you will stop. What is a good joke to some eyes is a very serious matter to others."

"That, my dear Presence," returned Toppleton, "is a very true observation, as is borne out by the large percentage of serious matter that appears in comic journals."

"Please do not be flippant," said the voice from the rocking-chair, sadly. "I have come to you as a suppliant for assistance. The fact that I have come without my body is against me, I know, but that is a circumstance over which I have absolutely no control. My body has been stolen from me, and I am at present a shapeless wanderer with nowhere to lay my head, and no head to lay there, if perchance the world held some corner that I might call my own."

"I can't see what you have to complain about on that score," said Toppleton, rising from the floor and seizing a large magnifying glass from his table and gazing searchingly through it into the chair which still rocked violently. "An individual like yourself, if you are an individual, ought to be able to find comfort anywhere. The avidity with which you have seized upon that chair, and the extraordinary vitality you seem to have imparted to its rockers, indicate to my mind that the world has about everything for you that any reasonable being can desire. If you can percolate into my apartment and make use of the luxuries I had fondly hoped were exclusively mine, I can't see what is to prevent your settling down at Windsor Castle if you will. Aren't there any comfortable chairs and beds there?"

"I don't know whether there are or not," replied the Presence. "I never went there, and being a loyal British Presence, I should hesitate very strongly before I would discommode the Royal family."

"It might be awkward, I suppose," returned Toppleton with a laugh, "if you should happen to fall asleep in the Prince of Wales' favourite arm-chair, and he should happen to come in and sit on you, for I presume you are no more visible to Royalty than you are to Republican simplicity as embodied in myself. Still, as a loyal British subject, I should think you'd rather be sat on by the Prince than by a common mortal."

As Hopkins spoke these words the chair stopped rocking, and if its attitude meant anything, its invisible occupant was leaning forward and staring with pained astonishment at the young lawyer, who was leaning gracefully against the mantelpiece. Then on a sudden the chair's attitude was relaxed and it rocked slowly backward again, resuming its former pace. A few minutes passed without a word being spoken, at the end of which time the spirit sighed deeply.

"Is there anything in this world," it asked, "is there anything too sacred for you Americans to joke about? Have you no ideals, no-"

"Plenty of ideals but no special idols," returned Hopkins, perceiving the spirit's drift. "But of course, if I hurt your feelings by joking about the Prince, I apologize. Though unasked, you are still my guest, and I should be very sorry to seem lacking in courtesy. But tell me about this body of yours. How did you come to lose it, and is it still living?"

"Yes, it is still living," replied the spirit. "Living a life of honoured ease."

"But how the deuce did you come to lose it? that's what I can't understand. I have heard of men losing pretty nearly everything but their bodies."

"As I have already told you," said the spirit, wearily, "it was stolen from me."

"And have you no clue to the thieves? Do you know where it is?"

"Yes, I know where it is. In fact I saw it only last week," replied the spirit with a sob, "and it's getting old, Toppleton, very old. When it was taken away from me it was erect of stature, broad-shouldered, muscular and full of health. To-day it is round-shouldered, flabby and generally consumptive-looking. When I occupied it, the face was clean-shaven and ruddy. The hair was of a rich auburn, the hands milk white. The carriage was graceful, and about my lips there played a smile that fascinated. The blue eyes sparkled, the teeth shone out between my lips when I smiled, like a strip of chased silver in the sunlight; I tell you, Toppleton, when I had that body it had some style about it; but now-it breaks my heart to think of it now!"

"It hasn't lost its good looks altogether, has it?" queried Hopkins, his voice slightly tremulous with the sympathy he was beginning to feel for this disembodied entity before him.

"It has," sobbed the spirit; "and I'm not surprised that it has, considering the life it has led since I lost it. The auburn hair that used to be my mother's pride, and my schoolmates' source of wit, has gradually dropped away and left a hairless scalp of an insignificant pinkish hue which would disgrace a shrimp. My once happy smile has subsided into something like a toothless sneer; for my dazzling teeth are no more. The blue eyes are expressionless, the elastic step is halting, and, what is worse, the present occupant of my physical self has grown a beard that makes me look like a pirate."

"I wonder you recognized yourself," said Hopkins.

"It was strange; but I did recognize myself by my ring which I still wear," returned the spirit. "But, Toppleton," it added, "you have no notion how terrible it is for a man to see himself growing old and breaking away from all the habits and principles of youth, powerless to interfere. For instance, my body was temperate when I was in it. I never drank more than one glass of whiskey in one day. Now it is brandy and water all day long, and it galls me, like the merry hereafter, with my temperance scruples, to see myself given over to intemperate drams. I never used profane language. Last Friday I heard my own lips condemn a poor unoffending fly to everlasting punishment. But I want to tell you how this outrageous thing came to pass. I want to tell you how it was that in the very bud of my existence I was robbed of a suitable case in which to go through life, and I want you, with your extraordinary knowledge of the law, as I understand it to be, to devise some scheme for my relief. If you don't, nobody will, and before many yea

rs it will be too late. The body is growing weaker every day. I can see that, and I want to get it back again before it becomes absolutely valueless. I believe that under my care, restored to its original owner, it can be fixed up and made quite respectable for its declining years. Of course the teeth and the hair are gone for ever, but I think I can furbish up the smile, the eye and the hands. I know that I can restore my former good habits."

"I'm hanged if I see how I can help you," rejoined Hopkins. "Do you mean to say that the present occupant of your personality is the creature who robbed you of it?"

"Precisely," said the spirit. "He's the very same person, and, stars above us, how he has abused the premises! He has made my name famous-"

"You don't mean to say that he took your name too?" put in Hopkins incredulously.

"I mean just that," retorted the spirit. "He stole my name, my body, my prospects, my clothing-every blessed thing I had except my consciousness, and he thrust that out into a cold, unsympathetic world, to float around in invisible nebulousness for thirty long years. Oh, it is an awful tale of villainy, Toppleton! Awful!"

"You say he has made your name famous," said Toppleton. "You give him credit for that, don't you?"

"I would if the very fame accorded my name did not tend to make me infamous in the eyes of those I hold most dear; and the beastly part of it is that I can't explain the situation to them."

"Why not?" asked Hopkins. "If you can lay all this misery bare to me, why can't you lay it before those for whose good will and admiration you are lamenting?"

"Because, Hopkins, they never address me, and it is my hard fate not to be able to open a conversation," returned the spirit. "If you will remember, it was not until you asked me who the devil I was, or some equally choice question of like import, that I began to hold converse with you; you are the only man with whom I have talked for thirty years, Hopkins, because you are the only person who has taken the initiative."

"Well, you goaded me into it," returned Hopkins. "So I can't see why you can't goad your friends of longer standing into it."

"The explanation is simple," replied the spirit. "My friends haven't had the courage to withstand the terrors of the situation. The minute I have whistled, sighed or laughed, they have made a bee line for the door, and raised such a hullabaloo about the 'supernatural visitation,' as they termed my efforts, that I couldn't do a thing with them. They've everyone of them, from my respected mother down, avoided me, even as that man Stubbs has avoided me. I believe you too would have fled if the door hadn't locked automatically, and so forced you to remain here."

"If I could have avoided this interview I should most certainly have done so," said Toppleton, candidly. "You can probably guess yourself how very unpleasant it is to be disturbed in your work by a whistle that emanates from some unseen lips, and to have your room taken possession of by an invisible being with a grievance."

"Yes, Hopkins. I've had almost the same experience myself," replied the spirit; "and to be as candid with you as you have been with me, I will say that it was just that experience, and nothing else, that is responsible for my present difficulties."

"That's encouraging for me," said Hopkins, nervously. "But tell me how have you become infamously famous?"

"The bandit who now occupies my being has violated every principle of religion and politics that he found in me when he took possession," returned the spirit, leaving the rocking-chair and settling down on the mantelpiece, in front of the clock. "Where I was a pronounced Tory he has made me vote with the Liberals. Notwithstanding the fact that I was brought up in the Church of England, he joined first the dissenters and is now a thorough agnostic, and signs my name to the most outrageous views on social and moral subjects you ever heard advanced. My family have cut loose from me as I am represented by him, and the dearest friend of my youth never mentions my name save in terms of severest reprehension. Would you like that, Hopkins Toppleton?"

"I'd be precious far from liking it," Hopkins answered. "It seems to me I'd commit suicide under such circumstances. Have you thought of that?"

"Often," replied the spirit; "but the question has always been, how?"

"Take poison! Shoot yourself! Drown yourself!"

"I can't take poison. That fiend who robbed me has my stomach, so what could I put the poison into?" retorted the spirit. "Shoot myself? How? I haven't a pistol. If I had a pistol I couldn't fire it, because I've nothing to pull the trigger with. If I had something to pull the trigger with, what should I fire at? I have no brains to blow out, no heart to shoot at. I'd simply fire into air."

"How about the third method?" queried Toppleton.

"Drowning?" asked the unhappy Presence. "That wouldn't work. I've nothing to drown. If I could get under water, I'd bubble right up again, so you see it's useless. Besides, it's only the body that dies, not the spirit. You see the shape I'm left in."

"No," returned Hopkins, "I perceive the lack of shape you are left in, and I must confess you are in the hardest luck of any person I ever knew; but really, my dear sir, I don't see how I can render you any assistance, so we might as well consider the interview at an end. Now that I am better acquainted with you I will say, however, that if it gives you any pleasure to loll around here or to sleep up there in my cloisonné jar with the rose leaves, you are welcome to do so."

"If you would only hear my story, Hopkins," said the spirit, beseechingly, "you would be so wrought up by its horrible details that you would devise some plan for my relief. You would be less than a man if you did not, and I am told that you Americans are great fighters. Take this case for me, won't you?"

Hopkins hesitated. He was strongly inclined to yield, the cause was so extraordinary, and yet he could not in a moment overcome his strongly-cultivated repugnance to burdening himself with a client. Then he was conscientious, too. He did not wish to identify the famous house of Toppleton, Morley, Harkins, Perkins, Mawson, Bronson, Smithers and Hicks with a case in which the possibilities of success seemed so remote. On the other hand he could not but reflect that, aside from the purely humane aspect of the matter, a successful issue would redound to the everlasting glory of himself and his partners over the sea-that is, it would if anybody could be made to believe in the existence of such a case. He realized that the emergency was one which must be met by himself alone, because he was thoroughly convinced that the hard-headed practical men of affairs whom he represented would scarcely credit his account of the occurrences of the last hour, and would set him down either as having been under the influence of drink or as having lost his senses. He would not have believed the story himself if some one else had told it to him, and he could not expect his partners in New York to be any more credulous than he would have been.

His hesitation was short-lived, however, for in a moment it was dispelled by a sigh from his unseen guest. It was the most heartrending sigh he had ever heard, and it overcame his scruples.

"By George!" he said, "I will listen to your story, and I'll help you if I can, only you will unstring my nerves unless you get yourself a shape of some kind or other. It makes my blood run cold to sit here and bandy words with an absolute nonentity."

"I don't know where I can get a shape," returned the spirit.

"What did the thief who took your shape do with his old one?" asked Hopkins.

"He'd buried it before I met him," returned the spirit.

"Buried it? Oh, Heavens!" cried Hopkins, seizing his hat. "Let's get out of this and take a little fresh air; if we don't, I'll go mad. Come," he added, addressing the spirit, "we'll run over to the Lowther Arcade and buy a form. If we can't find anything better we'll get a wooden Indian or a French doll, or anything having human semblance so that you can climb into it and lessen the infernal uncanniness of your disembodiment."

Hopkins rang the janitor's bell again, and when that worthy appeared he had him unfasten the door from the outside; then he and the spirit started out in search of an embodiment for the exiled soul.

"Hi thinks as 'ow 'e must be craizy," said the janitor, as Toppleton disappeared around the corner in animated conversation with his invisible client. "E's' talkin' away like hall possessed, hand nobody as hi can see within hearshot. These Hamericans is nothink much has far as 'ead goes."

As for Toppleton and the Presence, they found in the Lowther Arcade just what they wanted-an Aunt Sallie with a hollow head, into which the spirit was able to enter, and from which it told its tale of woe, sitting, bodily and visibly, in the rocking-chair, before the eyes of Hopkins Toppleton, the words falling fluently from the open lips of the dusky incubus the spirit had put on.

"It was odd, but not too infernally weird," said Hopkins afterwards, "and I was able to listen without losing my equanimity, to one of the meanest tales of robbery I ever heard."

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