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Toppleton's Client; Or, A Spirit in Exile By John Kendrick Bangs Characters: 21239

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"I do not know," said the weary spirit, as he entered the head of the Aunt Sallie and endeavoured to make himself comfortable therein, "I do not know whether I can do justice to my story in these limited headquarters or not, but I can try. It isn't a good fit, this body isn't, and I cannot help being conscious that to your eyes I must appear as a blackamoor, which, to an English spirit of cultivation and refinement such as I am, is more or less discomfiting."

"I shouldn't mind if I were you," returned Hopkins. "It's very becoming to you; much more so, indeed, than that airy nothingness you had on when I first perceived you, and while your tale may be more or less affected by your consciousness of the strange, ready-made physiognomy you have assumed, I, nevertheless, can grasp it better than I might if you persisted in sounding off your woes from an empty rocking-chair, or from the edge of my cloisonné rose jar."

"Oh, I don't blame you, Toppleton," returned the spirit. "I am, on the contrary, very grateful to you for what you have done for me. I shall always appreciate your generosity, for instance, in buying me this shape in order to give me at least a semblance of individuality, and I assure you that if I can ever get back into my real body, I will work it to the verge of nervous prostration to serve you, should you stand in need of assistance in any way."

Hopkins' scrutiny of the Aunt Sallie, as these words issued from the round aperture in the red lips made originally to hold the pipe stem, but now used as a tubal exit for the tale of woe, was so searching that anything less stolid than the wooden head would have flinched. The Aunt Sallie stood it, however, without showing a trace of emotion, gazing steadfastly with her bright blue eyes out of the window, her eyelids more fixed than the stars themselves, since no sign of a wink or a twinkle did they give.

"I wish," said Toppleton, experiencing a slight return of his awed chilliness as he observed the unyielding fixity of Sallie's expression, "in fact, I earnestly wish we could have secured a ventriloquist's marionette instead of that thing you've got on. It would really be a blessing to me if you could wink your eyes, or wag your ears, or change your expression in some way or other."

"I don't see how it can be done," returned the spirit from behind Toppleton's back. "I cannot exercise any control over these wooden features."

Hopkins jumped two or three feet across the room, the unexpected locality of the voice gave him such a shock, and the pulsation of his heart leaped madly from the normal to the triply abnormal.

"Wh-whuh-what the devil did you do tha-that for?" he cried, as soon as he was calm enough to speak. "Do y-you want to give me heart failure?"

"Not I!" replied the spirit, once more returning to the Sallie. "That would be a very unbusiness-like proceeding on my part at a time like this, when, after thirty years of misery, I find at last one who is willing to champion my cause. I only wanted to see how my second self looked in this chair. To my eyes I appear rather plain and dusky-looking, but what's the odds? The figure will serve its purpose, and after all that's what we want. I'm sorry to have frightened you, Toppleton, honestly sorry."

"Oh, never mind," rejoined Toppleton, graciously. "Only don't do it again. Let's have the tale now."

"Very well," said the spirit. "If you will kindly shove me further back into the chair, and arrange my overskirt for me, I'll begin-that's another uncomfortable thing about my situation at present. It's somewhat trying to a spirit of masculine habits to find himself arrayed in a shape wearing the habiliments of the other sex."

Hopkins did as he was requested, and, throwing himself down on his lounge, lit his pipe, and announced himself as ready to listen.

"I think I'd like a pipe myself," said the Sallie. "I've got a fine place for one, I see."

"How can you talk if you stop your mouth up with a pipe?" asked Hopkins.

"Through my nose," replied the spirit. "Or there are holes in the ears, I can talk through them quite as well."

"Well, I guess not," returned Hopkins. "I have had enough of your weird vocal exercises to-day without having you talk with your ears, but if you'll smoke with one or both of them, you're welcome to do it."

"Very well," replied the spirit. "I fancy you're right, and inasmuch as I haven't had a pipe for thirty years, I'll let you fill up two for me, and I'll try 'em both."

Accordingly Hopkins filled two of the clay pipes, three dozen of which had come with the Aunt Sallie, and lighting them for the spirit, placed them in the ears of his vis-à-vis as requested.

"Ah," said the spirit as he began to puff, "this is what I call comfort." And then he began his story.

"I was born," he said, breathing forth a cloud of smoke from his right ear, "sixty years ago in a small house within a stone's throw of what is now the band stand in the park at Buxton."

"You must have had human catapults in those days," interrupted Toppleton, for as he remembered the band stand at Buxton, it was situated at some considerable distance from anything which in any degree represented a habitation in which one could begin life comfortably.

"I don't know about that. I am not telling you a sporting tale. I am simply narrating the events of my career, such as they are," returned the spirit, "and my father has assured me that the house in which I first saw light was, as I have said, within a stone's throw of what is now the band stand in the Buxton Park. The band stand may have been nearer the house in the old days than it is now,-that is an insignificant sort of a detail anyhow, and if you'd prefer it I will put it in this way: I was born at Buxton sixty years ago in a small house, no longer standing, from whose windows the band stand in the park might have been seen if there had been one there. How is that?"

"Perfectly satisfactory," replied Hopkins. "A statement of that kind would be accepted in any court in the land as veracious on the face of it, whereas we might be called upon to prove that other tale, which between you and me had about it a distinctly Munchausenesque flavour."

The spirit was evidently much impressed with this reasoning, for he forgot himself for a moment, and inhaled some of the smoke, so that it came out between his lips instead of from his ears as before.

"I am glad to see you take such interest in the matter," he said after a moment's reflection. "We must indeed have an absolutely irrefragable story if we are to take it to court. I had not thought of that. But to resume. My parents were like most others of their class, poor but honest. My mother was a poetess with an annuity. My father was a non-resistant, a sort of forerunner of Tolsto?, with none of the latter's energy. He was content to live along on my mother's annuity, leaving her for her own needs an undivided interest in the earnings of her pen."

"He was a gentleman of leisure, then," returned Hopkins, "with pronounced leanings towards the sedentary school of philosophy."

"That's it," replied the spirit. "That was my father in a nut-shell. He took things as they came-indeed that was his chief fault. As mother used to say, he not only took things as they came, but took all there was to take, so that there was never anything left for the rest of us. His non-resistant tendencies were almost a curse to the family. Why, he'd even listen to mother's poetry and not complain. If there were weeds in the garden, he would submit tamely, rather than take a hoe and eradicate them. He used to sigh once in awhile and condemn my mother's parents for leaving her so little that she could not afford to hire a man to keep our place in order, but further than this he did not murmur. My mother, on the other hand, was energetic in her special line. I've known that woman to turn out fifteen poems in a morning, and, at one time, I think it was the day of Victoria's coronation, she wrote an elegy on William the Fourth of sixty-eight stanzas, and a coronation ode that reached from one end of the parlour to the other,-doing it all between luncheon and dinner. Dinner was four hours late to be sure, but even that does not affect the wonderful quality of the achievement."

"Didn't your father resist that?" queried Toppleton, sympathetically.

"No," replied the spirit, "never uttered a complaint."

"He must have been an extraordinary man," observed Toppleton, shaking his head in wonder.

"He was," assented the spirit. "Father was a genius in his way; but he was born tired, and he never seemed able to outgrow it."

Here the spirit requested Toppleton's permission to leave the Aunt Sallie for a moment. The head was getting too full of smoke for comfort.

"I'll just sit over here on the waste basket until the smoke has a chance to get out," he said. "If I don't, it will be the ruin of me."

"All right," returned Toppleton. "I suppose when a man is reduced to nothing but a voice, it is rather destructive to his health to get diluted with tobacco smoke. But, I say, that was a pretty tough condition of affairs in your house I should say. Poetic mother, do-nothing father, small income and a baby. How did you manage to live?"

"Oh, we lived well enough," replied the spirit. "The income was large enough to pay the rent and keep father from hunger and thirst-particularly the latter. Mother, being a poet, didn't eat anything to speak of, and I fed on cow's milk. We had a cow chiefly because her appetite kept the grass cut, and when I came along she served an additional useful purpose. In the matter of clothing we did first rate. Mother's trousseau lasted as long as she did, and father never needed anything more than the suit he was married in. Inheriting my mother's poetic traits, and my father's tendency to let things come as they might and go as they would, it is hardly strange that as I grew older I became addicted to habits of indecision; that I lacked courage when a slight display of that quality meant success; that I was invariably found wanting in the little crises which make up existence in this sphere; that I always let slip the opportunities which were mine, and that at those tides of my own affairs which taken at the flood would have led on to fortune, I was always high and dry somewhere out of reach, and that, in consequence, all the voyage of my life has been bound in shallows and in miseries, as my mother would have said."

"Your mother must have been a diligent student of Shakespeare,"

Toppleton retorted, resenting the spirit's appropriation to his mother of the great singer's words, and also taking offence at the implied reflection upon his own reading.

"Yes, she was," replied the spirit unabashed. "In fact, my mother was so saturated-she was more than imbued-with the spirit of Shakespeare, that she was frequently unable to distinguish her own poems from his, a condition of affairs which was the cause, at one time, of her being charged with plagiarism, when she was in reality guilty of nothing worse than unconscious cerebration."

"That is an unfortunate disease when it develops into verbatim appropriation," said Toppleton, drily.

"Precisely my father's words," returned the spirit. "But the effect of such parental causes, as I have already said," continued the exiled soul, "was a pusillanimous offspring, which for the offspring in question, myself, was extremely disastrous. The poet in me was just sufficiently well developed to give me a malarious idea of life. In spite of my sex I was a poetess rather than a poet. I could begin an epic or a triolet without any trouble; but I never knew when to stop, a failing not necessarily fatal to an epic, but death to a triolet. The true climaxes of my lucubrations were generally avoided, and miserably inadequate compromises adopted in their stead. My muse was a snivelling, weak-kneed sort of creature, who, had she been of this earth, would have belonged to the ranks of those who are addicted to smelling-salts, influenza and imaginary troubles, and not the strong, picturesque, helpful female, calculated to goad a man on to immortality. I generally knew what was the right thing to do, but never had the courage to do it. That was my peculiarity, and it has brought me to this-to the level of a soul with no habitation save the effigy of a negress, provided for me by a charitably disposed chance acquaintance."

"You do not appear to have had a single redeeming feature," said Toppleton, some disgust manifested on his countenance, for to tell the truth he was thoroughly disappointed to learn that the spirit's moral cowardice had brought his trouble upon him.

"Oh, yes, I had," replied the spirit hastily, as if anxious to rehabilitate himself in his host's eyes. "I was strong in one particular. In matters pertaining to religion I was unusually strong. My very meekness rendered me so."

"Your kind of meekness isn't the kind that inherits the earth, though," retorted Toppleton. "Meekness that means the abandonment of right for the sake of peace is a crime. Meekness that subverts self-respect is an offence against society. Meekness which is synonymous with pusillanimity is not the meekness which develops into true religious feeling."

"No; that is very true," said the spirit. "I do not deny one word of what you say; but I, nevertheless, was an extremely religious boy, nor did I change when I entered upon man's estate; and it is that strong religious fervour with which my spirit is still imbued that has made my cup so much the more bitter, since, as I have hinted, he who robbed me of my body has written pamphlets of the most shocking sort over my name, denouncing the Church and attempting to upset the whole fabric of Christianity."

"I am anxious to get to the details of the robbery," said Toppleton, with a smile of sympathy; "pass over your extreme youth and come to that."

"I will do so," replied the spirit, returning to the figure Toppleton had provided for him, the smoke having by this time evacuated his new habitation. "I will omit the details of my life up to the time when I became a lawyer and-"

"You don't mean to say you ever became a lawyer?" interrupted Hopkins, incredulously.

"Why, certainly," replied the spirit; "I became a lawyer, and at the time I lost my body I was getting to be considered a famous one."

"How on earth, with your meekness, did you ever have the courage to take up a profession that requires nerve and an aggressive nature if success is to be sought after?" asked the American.

"It was that same fatal inability to make up my mind to do what my conscience prompted. It was another one of my compromises," returned the spirit, sadly. "I couldn't make up my mind between the pulpit and literature, so I compromised on the law, mastered it to a sufficient extent to be admitted to practice, and opened an office-the same room, by the way, as that in which you and I are seated at this moment."

"Do you remember any of your law now?" Toppleton asked uneasily, for he was afraid the spirit might discover how ignorant he was on the subject.

"Not a line of it," returned the spirit. "It has gone from me as completely as my name, my body, my auburn hair and my teeth. But I was a lawyer, and by slow degrees I built up a fair practice. People seemed to recognize how strong I was in matters of compromise, and cases that were not considered strong enough to take into court were brought to me in order that I might suggest methods of adjustment satisfactory to both parties. For three years I did a thriving business here, and for one whose knowledge of the law was limited I got along very well. I was one of the few barristers in London who had become well-known to litigants without ever having appeared in court, and I was very well satisfied with my prospects.

"Everything went smoothly with me until a few weeks after I had passed my thirtieth birthday, when a man came into my office and retained me in an inheritance case, in which the amount involved was thirty thousand pounds. He had been made defendant in a suit brought against him by his own brother for the recovery of that sum. It was a very complicated case, but the brother really had no valid claim to the money. The father of the two men, ten minutes before his death, had told my client in confidence that it was his desire that he should inherit sixty thousand pounds more than the other brother, telling him, however, that he must get it for himself, since the written will of the dying man provided that the two sons should share and share alike. In spasmodic gasps the old man added that he would find the money concealed in a secret drawer in an old desk up in the attic, in sixty one-thousand pound notes. My client, realizing that his father could not last many minutes longer, and feeling that his dying wishes should not be thwarted, rushed from the room to the attic, and after rummaging about for nine minutes, found the drawer and touched the secret spring. Unfortunately the day was a very damp one, and the drawer stuck, so that it was fully eleven minutes before the money was really in my client's hands. He shoved it into his pocket and went downstairs again, where he learned that his father had expired one minute before, or just ten minutes after he had left him.

"The other son not long after discovered what had been done, and after listening to my client's story, decided to contest his title to his share of the sixty thousand pounds, alleging that the money not having passed into my client's hands until after the testator's death, belonged to the estate, and could only be diverted therefrom upon the production of an instrument in writing over the deceased man's signature, duly witnessed. You see," added the spirit, "that was a very fine point."

"Yes, indeed!" said Toppleton; "it's the kind of a point that I hope and pray may never puncture my professional epidermis, for I'll be hanged if I'd know what to advise. What did you do?"

"Ah!" sighed the spirit, "there's where the trouble came in. I studied that case diligently. I consulted every law book I could find. Every leading case on inheritance matters I read, marked, learned and inwardly digested, and I made up my mind that if we could prove that my client's watch was fast upon that occasion, and that the money was in his hands one minute before his father's death instead of one minute after it, the plaintiff would not have a leg to stand on. Then it occurred to me 'this means trouble.' It means a long and tedious litigation. It means defeat, appeal, victory, appeal, defeat, appeal, on, on through all the courts in Great Britain, and finally the House of Lords, the result being the loss to my client of every penny of the amount involved, even though he should ultimately win the suit, and the loss to me of sleep, the development of nerves and a career of unrelieved anxiety. Compromise was the proper course to be recommended."

"A proper conclusion, I should say," said Toppleton.

"I think so, too," replied the spirit, "and if I had only remained true to my instincts my client would have compromised, and I should have been spared all that followed. It would have been better for all concerned, for I should have been in possession of myself to-day, and my client by compromising would in the end have lost no more than he had to pay me for my services-fifteen thousand pounds."

"Phe-e-ew!" whistled Hopkins. "That was a swindle!"

"Yes, but I wasn't party to it, as you will shortly see. When I made up my mind that compromise was the best settlement of the case, all things considered, I sat down right here by this window to write to Mr. Baskins to that effect. It was a beastly night out. The wind shrieked through the court there, and it was cold enough to freeze the marrow in a grilled bone. I was just about to sign my communication to Mr. Baskins, when I heard a knock at the door.

"'Come in,' I said.

"And then, Mr. Toppleton, as sure as I am sitting here in this Aunt Sallie talking to you, the door opened and then slowly closed, a light step was perceptible to the ear, moving across the carpet, and in a moment a rocking-chair owned by me began to sway to and fro, just as this one sways when I or you are sitting in it, but to my eyes there was absolutely nothing visible that had not always been in the room."

Hopkins began to feel chilly again.

"You mean to say that to all intents and purposes, an invisible being like yourself called on you as you have called on me?" he said in a minute, his breath coming in short, quick gasps.

"Precisely," returned the incumbent of the Aunt Sallie. "I was visited, even as you have been visited, by an invisible being, only my visitor did not remain invisible, for as I sprang to my feet, my whole being palpitant with terror, the lamp on my table sputtered and went out; and then I saw, sitting luminous in the dark, gazing at me with large, gaping, unfathomably deep green eyes, a creature having the semblance of a man, but of a man no longer of this earth."

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