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Toppleton's Client; Or, A Spirit in Exile By John Kendrick Bangs Characters: 19191

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"If ever a man had a right to swoon away, Hopkins," continued the spirit, his voice dropping to a whisper, "I was that man, and I presume I should have done so but for the everlasting spirit of compromise in my breast. The proper thing to do under the circumstances was manifestly to flop down on the carpet insensate, just as you did when I announced myself to you; and I assure you I had greater reason for so doing than you had, for my visitor had absolutely no limitations whatsoever in the line of the horrible. He was an affront to every sense, and not, like myself, trying only to the ear. To the sense of sight was he most horrible, and I would have given anything I possessed to be able to remove my eyes from his dreadful personality, with the long bony claws where you and I have fingers; with tight-drawn cheeks so transparent that through them could be seen his hideous jaws; with eyes which stared even when the lids closed over them; and, worst of all, his throbbing brain was visible as it worked inside his skull; and so bloodless of aspect was he withal, that the mind instinctively likened him to a fasting vampire."

"Excuse me!" groaned Hopkins, throwing himself down on the couch and burying his face in the pillow. "This is awful. I've crossed the ocean eight times, Sallie, and until now I have never known sea-sickness, but this-this vampire of yours is mightier than Neptune; just hand me the whiskey."

"I'm sorry it affects you that way, Hopkins," said the spirit, "and I'd gladly give you the whiskey if I could, but you know how circumscribed my abilities are. I haven't any hand to hand it with."

"Never mind," said Hopkins, the colour returning to his cheeks, "I feel better now. It was only a sudden turn I had; only, my friend, go slow on the horrible, will you?"

"I wish I could," replied the spirit sadly, "but the cause of truth requires that I tell you precisely what happened, omitting no single detail of the sickening totality. Perhaps, before I proceed, you had better take a dozen grains of quinine, and have the whiskey within reach."

"That is a good suggestion," said Hopkins, rising and gulping down the pills, and grasping the neck of the square-cut bottle containing the treasured fluid, with his trembling hand. "Go ahead," he said, as he resumed his recumbent position on the couch.

"To the olfactories," resumed the spirit, "the visitant was stifling. A gross of sulphur matches let off all at once would be a weak imitation of the atmospheric condition of this room after he had been here two minutes, and yet I did not dare to turn from him to open the window. My only weapon of defence was my eye, under the tense gaze of which he seemed uneasy, and I was fearful of what might happen were I to permit it to waver for one instant. His colour was simply deadly. I should describe it best, perhaps, as of a pallid green in which there was a suggestion of yellow that heightened the general effect to the point where it became ghastly."

Here Hopkins' eyelids fluttered, and the bottle was raised to his lips. When the draught had been taken the bottle dropped from his nerveless fingers to the floor, and shivered into countless slivers of brown crystal.

"Jove!" ejaculated the spirit. "That was very unfortunate, Hop-"

"No matter," interrupted Hopkins, "it was empty. Go on. Did this private view you and the Nile-green apparition were having of each other last for ever?"

"No," returned the spirit, "it did not. It probably lasted less than a minute, although it seemed a century. I tried half a dozen times to speak, but my words were frozen on my lips."

"Why didn't you break them off and throw them at him?" suggested Toppleton, hysterical to the point of flippancy.

"Because I did not possess the genius of the Yankee who is inventive where the Briton is only enduring," retorted the spirit, somewhat disgusted at Toppleton's airy treatment of his awful situation. "Finally my visitor spoke, and for an instant I wished he hadn't, his voice was so abominably harsh, so jangling to every nerve in my body, however callous."

"'You don't appear to be glad to see me,' he said.

"'Well, to tell you the truth,' I replied, 'I am not. I am not a collector of optical delusions, nor am I a lover of the horrible and mysterious.'

"'But I am your friend,' remonstrated my visitor.

"'I should dislike to be judged by my friends, if that is so,' I returned, throwing as much withering contempt into my glance as I possibly could. 'I think,' I resumed, 'if I were to be seen walking down Piccadilly with you, I should be cut by every self-respecting acquaintance I have.'

"'You are an ungrateful wretch,' said the intruder. 'Here I have travelled myriads of miles to help you, and the minute I put in an appearance you cast worse slurs upon me than you would if I were your worst enemy.'

"'I do not wish to be ungrateful,' I answered coolly, 'but you must admit that it is difficult for a purely mortal being like myself to receive a supernatural being like yourself with any degree of cordiality.'

"'Granted,' returned the spectre with a grin, which was more terrifying to me than anything I had yet seen, 'but when I tell you that I have come to befriend you-'

"'I don't call it friendly to scare a man to death; I don't call it friendly to steal invisibly into a man's office and choke him nearly to suffocation. It seems to me you might use some other style of cologne to advantage when you go calling on your friends, and if I had cheeks through which my whole molar system was visible to the outside world, I'd grow whiskers.'"

"My admiration for you has increased eighty-seven per cent.," put in Toppleton, "that is, it has if all you say you said to the spook is true."

"I'd swear to it," returned the spirit, the tone of his voice showing the gratification he felt at Toppleton's words. "I talked up to him all the time, though I was quaking inwardly from the start. He noticed it too, for he said practically what you have just remarked.

"'You command my highest admiration,' were his words. 'If you were as spunky as this all the time, you would not need my assistance, but you are not, and so I have come. You must not compromise that case.'

"Here the deadly green thing rose from the chair and approached me," continued the spirit, "and as he approached my terror increased, so it is no wonder that, when he got so near that I could feel his wretched soul-chilling breath upon my cheek, his luminous body towering above me as a giant towers over a dwarf, and repeated the words, 'you must not compromise that case,' I should shrink back into a heap at the side of my desk, and reply, 'Certainly not.'"

"'You have a splendid fighting chance,' he added, 'but it will be a bitter fight,-a fight, the winning of which will make you famous, but which you, by yourself, with all the law in Christendom on your side, could no more win than you could batter down the Tower of London with balls of putty.'

"'Then,' said I, 'I must compromise.'

"'No,' returned my visitor, 'for I am here to win the case for you.'

"'You will never be retained,' I retorted. 'You are a degree too foggy to be acceptable either to my client or to myself.'

"'I do not ask to be retained; but you must provide me with the means to appear in court. You must leave your body and let me put it on.'"

"That must have been a staggerer," said Hopkins. "Were you fool enough to give it to him without getting a receipt?"

"I was not fool enough to yield without persuasion," rejoined the spirit sadly, "but when he brought all the infernal power at his command into play to lure me on, I weakened, and when I weaken I am done for. Toppleton, that messenger of Satan promised me everything that was dear to my soul. The temptation of Faust was nowhere alongside of that which was placed before me as mine if I but chose to take it, and no price was asked save that one little privilege of being permitted to do the things which should make me rich, powerful and happy in the guise which I was to put off that the apparition might put it on. From my boyhood days I had wished to be rich and powerful, and from the hour in which I reached man's estate had I been in love, but hopelessly, since she I loved was ambitious, and would not consent to be mine until I had made my mark.

"'Alone,' said my visitor, 'you will never make your name illustrious. With my help you may-and consider what it means. Refuse my offer, and you will lead the dull, monotonous life of him who knows no success, to whose ears the plaudits of the world shall never come; you will live alone and uncared for, for she whom you love cannot become the wife of a failure. Accept my offer, and in a month you are famous, in a year you are rich, in an instant you are happy, for the heart you yearn toward will beat responsive to your own.'

"'But your motive!' I cried. 'Why should you do all this for me who know you not, and without a price?'

"'My reason,' returned that perjured instrument of malign fate, 'is my weakness. I love the world. I love the sensation of living. I love to hear the praises of man ringing in my ears. I am a lover of earth and earthly ways, with no hope of tasting the joys of earth save in your acquiescence. I am the soul of one departed. I have put off against my will the mortal habitation in which I dwelt for many happy years. I have solved the rebus of existence and have put on omniscience. All things I can accomplish once I have the means. I ask you for them, with little

hope that you will grant my request, however, because you are the embodiment of all that is uncertain. Had you lived among the Olympian gods, they would have made you the Deity of Indecision; but before refusing my offer remember this, you have now the grand opportunity of life, such an opportunity as has never been offered to any mortal being since the time of Shakespeare-'

"'Did Shakespeare have this opportunity?' I asked eagerly.

"'My son,' returned the apparition, with a meaning look, 'do not seek to know too much about the mystery of William Shakespeare. You know whence he sprang, how he lived and what he achieved; let my unguarded words of a moment since be the seed of suggestion which planted in the soil of your brain may sprout and blossom forth into the flowers of certain knowledge. It is not for me to let a mortal like you into the confidence of the Fates; suffice it that I offer you immortality and present happiness. Think it over: I will return to-morrow.'

"Before I could reply," continued the spirit, "he had vanished. The light of my lamp returned of its own volition, and but for the odour of sulphur which still clung to the hangings of the room I should have supposed that I had been dreaming.

"Utterly wearied by the excitement of my strange experience, I threw myself down upon my couch, and fell into a deep sleep from which I did not awake for sixteen hours, in consequence of which a whole day was practically gone out of my life.

"Darkness was closing in upon me as I opened my eyes, and as it grew more dense I could see taking shape in the chair by my table my visitor of the night before, more pallid and sulphurous than ever.

"'Well?' he said, as I opened my eyes.

"'No!' I answered shortly, 'I am not well. I might be much better if you'd confine yourself to the cemetery to which you belong.'

"'Reparteedious as ever!' he retorted.

"'I don't know the word,' I replied; 'it belongs to neither a dead nor a live language.'

"'But it's a good word, nevertheless,' observed the ghost quietly,' and I advise you to think of it whenever you are inclined to indulge in stupid repartee. It may help you in your career,-but I have come for an answer to my proposition.'"

"He was right about reparteedious," said Hopkins, interrupting the spirit's story; "that's a good word, and unless you have it copyrighted I think I'll open the doors of my vocabulary and admit it to the charmed circle of my verbiage."

"No, I have no copyright on it," replied the spirit, gazing at Hopkins with as sad an expression as could possibly be assumed, considering the imperturbability of Aunt Sallie's countenance. "You may have it for your vocabulary, Hopkins, but if you will take a little well-meant advice you had better be very careful about your word collection. Your frequent and flippant interruptions of my sad story lead me to fear that you are overworking your vocabulary, which is a very dangerous thing for a young man of your age and intelligence to do.

"But to resume my tale," continued the spirit, after waiting a moment for Hopkins to reply to his suggestion, which Hopkins seemed not to hear, so busy was he looking for his memorandum book on his table,-a table so littered up with papers and silver paraphernalia for writing that no portion of its polished surface was visible. "I told my unwelcome guest that I had no answer to give him; that, as I was not a believer in the supernatural, I did not intend to waste my time in parleying with a figment of my brain.

"'You are cautious enough to have been a policeman,' he said in response to this. 'But caution in this instance is a vice.'

"'Caution is not a vice when a spirit of your evil aspect enters one's office in the dead of night, and asks for the loan of one's body,' I answered. 'I should be more justified in lending my diamond-stud to a sneak thief to wear to a lawn-tennis party at the Duke of Devonshire's, than in acquiescing in your scheme.'

"'Then you do not care to become a great man, to assure yourself of a fortune beyond your wildest dreams, to put yourself in such a position that she whom you love will be unable to resist your proposal of marriage?'

"'I am not untruthful enough to make any such pretence as that,' I answered. 'I do want to be everything you say, to have everything that you promise, but if I know the young woman upon whom my affections are lavishing themselves, she would object strenuously to my making a bargain with a transparent offshoot of the infernal regions like yourself. How do I know that, after I am married and have settled down to a life of honourable ease, you will not come along and insist upon an invitation to dinner; or obtrude yourself into the home circle at times when it will be extremely inconvenient to receive you? What guarantee have I that, when I have suddenly developed from my present obscurity into the promised distinction, you will not appear to some of my rivals and let them into the secret of my success; and, more important still, how do I know that after Miss Hicksworthy-Johnstone has become my wife you will not go to her and destroy my happiness by revealing to her the true state of affairs?'

"'I can only give you my word that I will be faithful,' returned my visitor.

"'Well, if your word is no better than reparteedious, it is not the kind of word upon which I should place any reliance whatsoever,' I retorted; 'so you may as well take yourself off; I am not lending myself these days.'"

"That was very well said," observed Toppleton, "only I wish you had had witnesses. Your sudden development of back-bone under the circumstance was so extraordinarily extraordinary that it is almost beyond credence. Did the fiend depart as you spoke those words?"

"No," returned the exiled spirit, "he did not. He began operations, deceiving me grossly. He rose from the rocking-chair and said he fancied it was time for him to be off. When he got to the door he turned and kissed his right collection of claws to me, and asked if there was any place in the neighbourhood where he could get a drink. Well, of course, unpleasant as he was to look at, he had injured me in no respect, and save for my instinctive suspicions I had no real reason for believing that he was actuated by any but the best of motives. So I replied that the best place I knew of for him to get a drink was right here in this room, and that if he would wait a second I would join him in a glass. He hesitated an instant, and then said that seeing it was I who asked him, he thought he would; so I got out my little stone jug and poured out two rather stiff doses of brandy. Now it had been my habit to take my liquid refreshment undiluted, and taking my glass in hand I held it aloft and observed, 'Here's to you.'

"My visitor placed his claws on my arm.

"'You do not mean to say,' he said, 'that you take this fiery stuff without water?'

"'That is my custom,' I answered. 'I think it a positive wrong to spoil good brandy with the rather inferior brand of water we get here in London, nor do I deem it proper to take so pure a fluid as water and destroy its innocence by introducing this liquid into it.'

"'As you please,' was my visitor's response. 'I was foolish enough to do that myself when I was fortunate enough to have a physique. In fact it was just that thing that finally laid me by the heels. But let me have a little water with mine please.'

"I laid my glass down beside his on the table, and, taking the pitcher, left the room for an instant to fill it at the water-cooler."

"That was a fine thing to do," said Toppleton. "Your idiocy cropped out then in great shape. How did you know he wouldn't rob you?"

"I wish he had robbed me and gone about his business," returned the spirit. "If that was all he did, I'd have been all right to this day. I was gone about two minutes, and when I returned he was standing by the window, whistling the most obnoxious tune I ever heard. What it was I don't know, but it gave me a chill. As I entered the room he stopped whistling and turned to greet me, took the pitcher from my hand, filled his glass to the brim with water and quaffed its contents. I drank my dose raw. As the brandy coursed down my throat into my stomach I fairly groaned with pain, it burned me so.

"'What the devil have you been doing with that brandy?' I cried, turning upon my visitor.

"'Swallowing it; why?' he asked innocently. 'You meant that I should drink it, didn't you?'

"'You can't put me off that way,' I groaned in my agony; for if I had swallowed a hot coal I could not have suffered more, that infernal stuff scorched me so. 'You have drugged my brandy.'

"'Have I?' he asked, with a menacing gesture and a frown that wrinkled up his hideous forehead, until his brains, still visible through the transparent flesh and bone, were reduced to a spongy mass no bigger than a walnut-"

"He was concentrating his mind, I suppose?" suggested Hopkins.

"It looked that way," said the spirit, "and it was an awful sight.

"'Have I?' he repeated, and then he added, 'well, if I have, it is only to save you from yourself, for by this means alone can you ever fulfil your destiny.'

"As these words issued forth from his white lips, I became unconscious. How long I remained so, I do not know; but when I came to once more, I was as I am now-a spirit having no visible shape; while seated in my chair, writing with my pen and in perfect imitation of my chirography, I saw what had been my body now occupied by another."

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