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Toppleton's Client; Or, A Spirit in Exile By John Kendrick Bangs Characters: 19725

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

So overcome was the occupant of the Aunt Sallie at this point of his story, that he requested Hopkins' permission to leave his quarters that he might sit on the floor near the slivers of the shattered whiskey bottle. He needed stimulant. Hopkins readily granted the request, for he felt as if he would not mind having a little stimulant for himself, but as the last drop available for his purposes had been put to the use for which it was intended, he had to deny himself the comfort he would have derived from it. The fact that this horrid event, the harrowing details of which he had just listened to, had occurred right there in his own apartments served to make him doubly depressed, for it certainly indicated that the room, despite its cheerful situation, had been the dwelling-place of a supernatural being, and the present lessee was fearful lest that being should appear on the scene once more to practise some of his infernal tricks upon him.

"You mean to say that when you recovered your senses, you had been deprived of your body?" said Hopkins at last, breaking the silence more for the sake of calming his agitated mind than because he had anything to say.

"Yes," replied the spirit. "I lay there on the sofa an intellectual abstract whose concrete had been amputated and invested by a being who had already lived four-score of years in one body, and who, having worn that out, was now on the look-out for a second. The sensation was dreadful, and when I attempted to do what theretofore I had always done in moments of extreme agitation-to pull fiercely at my moustache-I was simply appalled to realize that the power to raise my hand to do this had passed, along with the moustache itself, into the control of that other being. Then an access of rage surged over me, and I attempted to stamp my foot and shriek. The shriek was a success, but my foot like my arm was beyond my control.

"As the shriek died away I observed my head slowly turning from the paper before it on the table, my right hand relaxed its grasp on the pen, and my own eyes were turned upon me, and I was simply maddened to see the left eye wink mischievously at me, while my mouth broadened into a smile at my own misfortunes.

"'Hello,' I said to myself-that is you know the other being in myself said this to me outside of myself. 'You've come to, at last, eh? I thought you were going to remain in a comatose state for ever.'

"'See here, my friend,' I said, trying to be calm. 'This is a very clever trick you've put upon me, but from my point of view it is most uncomfortable, and I'd just as lief have you evacuate the premises, and permit me once more to assume my normal condition.'

"'Not until I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish,' was the answer that fell from my own lips, which again indulged in an impertinent smile at my expense. 'You don't suppose that I have put in three weeks of time and energy to make you famous with the intention of withdrawing on the eve of success, do you?'

"'I don't know what you mean,' I replied, 'I don't understand the allusion, nor can I see why you permit me to be insulted by my own lips.'

"Here," said the spirit, "my face became clouded and my smile vanished.

"'Ungrateful wretch that you are!' said he who had rifled me of myself. 'Are you not aware that three weeks have elapsed since you and your body parted company? Are you not aware that in that time I have forced the fight between the brothers Baskins to a point that has made that case the talk of London, and you, the hero of the hour in legal circles? Do you not understand that to-morrow you are to appear in court to sum up for your side, and that the London Times itself is to have five stenographers in court to take down every word that is uttered by him they call a second Burke, because of his eloquence, by him they call a second Sheridan, because of his wit, by him they call the newly discovered leader of the English bar, because of the aggressive and powerful manner in which this now celebrated will case has been conducted? And finally, are you not aware that it is you who gain the credit due to me, since it is I who have merged my personality into yours, while you have only to remain quiescent and accord to me the undisturbed occupation of your physical self for a few days more?'

"'I know none of these things,' I answered. 'I know that possibly an hour ago you robbed me of my senses by your infernal machinations, and that when they are restored to me I find myself disembodied, nameless, invisible.'

"'Do you know the date upon which I visited you first?' asked my tormentor.

"'Yes, it was November eighth. You returned on the night of November ninth-that is you returned early this evening.'

"'Perhaps this will convince you of the lapse of time, then,' retorted the occupant of my chair, tossing me a copy of the Times, 'and these will prove the rest,' he added, throwing several other newspapers at the place where my feet would have been had he not deprived me of them.

"I looked the papers over. The Times was dated November twenty-ninth and contained, as did also the others, a long account of the trial of the case of Baskins v. Baskins, in which I seemed to have figured prominently, concluding with a biographical sketch of myself coupled with the announcement that my former neighbours at Buxton were thinking of calling upon me to stand for Parliament. The tenour of everything in the papers was complimentary in the highest degree. It seemed that I had fairly routed my client's adversaries by nothing else than the aggressive manner of my fighting; that the case was practically won, though it still remained for me to sum up on the morrow, and that all London was expected to swarm into the court room to listen to my marvellous eloquence. I read and was stunned. My position was more unhappy than ever, for here was a greatness builded up for me, that was utterly beyond my ability once returned to my corse of clay to sustain, and before me was placed the horrible alternative of perpetual exile or stultification."

"Lovely prospect," murmured Hopkins.

"As I read on," continued the spirit, "I felt the burning gaze of my visitor upon me, though he could not see me. In my body or out of it, he still possessed that fearful power of mental concentration which when exerted upon another through the medium of the eye was withering to the soul. So nervous did I become, that noiseless as a sun-mote I moved across to the other side of the room, and yet his gaze followed me as if instinctively aware of my slightest move. For a time not a word was spoken by either of us. I was so overcome at the sudden revelation of my fame, that I knew not what to say. The words of blame that entered into my consciousness-for that was all that was left of me-to say, I could not utter, because however badly I had been treated by this fearful creature in the beginning, it could not be denied that he had exerted his powers entirely for my benefit. On the other hand, I found it impossible to thank him for what he had done, since I was unable to dismiss the sense of indignation I felt at the summary and tricky manner in which he had robbed me of my individuality. As for the other, he seemed to be thinking deeply, which contributed to my alarm, for I knew not what it was he was revolving in his mind, and I feared some additional exercise of his supernatural power to my further discomfiture. Finally he spoke.

"'I am very deeply disappointed in you,' he said. 'I at least supposed you to be a person of gratitude. I deemed your nature to be sufficiently refined and sensible to favours to evince some little appreciation of what has been done for you, but I must say that the veriest clod of a peasant would be hardly less stolid in the face of generous effort in his behalf than you have been toward me. A more unresponsive soul than yours can hardly have lived.'

"'Can you blame me for not being effusively grateful to you for having cut me out of three weeks of existence?' I asked.

"'I can and I do,' he replied. 'You have not been incommoded. Upon your own confession you have not even been conscious during the period that you lacked anatomy. On the other hand, consider what I have gone through! I have suffered more in the past fortnight than I did in my whole previous life. In making the substitution of my inner self for yours in your body, I failed to remember how much greater than the mortal mind is the mind which has put on omniscience, and I have found the head in which your intellect lived at ease, so contracted, so narrow for the accommodation of mine, that the work I have undertaken in your interest has been one prolonged bit of unremitting agony. If you have ever tried to wear a shoe fifteen sizes too small for you, you will have a faint glimmering of the pain I have suffered in trying to encase a number thirty mind in a seven and a quarter head. It has been almost impossible for me to get some of my great thoughts into this thick cranium of yours in their entirety,-indeed if thoughts were visible, your client might have seen them sticking out of these ears, or hovering above this lovely halo of auburn hair you wear, waiting for admission to an already overcrowded skull.'

"As he spoke these words," said the spirit, with a chuckle, "I would have given ten pounds to have had something to smile with. I never thought one could miss his lips so much as when I tried to grin and found I had not the wherewithal. Despite the insulting comment of my visitor upon the quality of my own mind, it really filled what there was left of me with pleasure to hear that, even though I had departed from it, my body through its limitations had been able to resent the intrusion of this alien spirit so effectually.

"'In addition to the bad

fit mentally,' continued the usurper of my anatomy, 'I have had to cope with your dyspepsia, which I did not know you had, and various other physical troubles such as rheumatism and toothache. It appears to me that even if I had not made you famous, the mere fact that I have relieved you of your toothache and rheumatism for three weeks should entitle me to your gratitude. However, I am willing to withdraw in your favour immediately if you insist. Of course you will have to sum up that case to-morrow, and I sincerely hope that you will do it in a manner creditable to your new self, that is to yourself as I have made you.'

"Of course you see, Hopkins," said the spirit, pausing in his story for a moment, "what a dreadful position that left me in. I was absolutely in the dark as to what had been done in the case. I did not know what line of argument had been pursued-I was even unacquainted with the name of the presiding justice at the trial, and as for the testimony elicited during the three weeks of my own personal desuetude, I had not read one word of it. To attempt to sum up the case under the circumstances meant ruin-it meant the final sacrifice of all my hopes; disgrace was imminent.

"'I cannot sum up the case,' I answered in a moment. 'I have not mastered the details, nor is there time for me to do so before the court opens.'

"'I am aware of that fact,' retorted the other. 'But that is nothing to me. I am not at all interested in upholding the undeserved fame of an ingrate. It's nothing to me if disgrace stares you in the face. My name is safe; graven upon a white marble stone in a country cemetery, it is beyond the reach of dishonour, and is endorsed in deep-cut letters with an epitaph extolling the virtues of him who bore it. This is your affair entirely; I wash my hands of it. Come, prepare for your return.'

"Now I submit to you, Hopkins, that, considering the situation, I was justified in changing my tone toward him. Put yourself in my place for a moment," said the spirit.

"I'd rather not," returned Hopkins with a shudder.

"Oh, I don't mean for you to exchange places with me. I just want you to try to imagine what you would have done under the circumstances. You would have besought him even as I did to crown his work with final success, and not leave matters in so unsatisfactory a condition; to spare you the dishonour of a public failure, wouldn't you?"

"Yes, either that or suicide would have been my course," returned Hopkins. "I think I'd have fled to some apothecary's and concealed myself in a chloroform bottle until my consciousness evaporated if I'd been you. You must have known that this thing could not keep up for ever, unless you would consent to remain disembodied all your days."

"That was just the most horrible thing about it," said the spirit. "When I realized what it all meant, I was nearly distracted; but believing suicide to be a crime, and knowing, as I have already told you, that the mind is indestructible, I could not do as you suggested. I might have lulled myself into a state of perpetual unconsciousness, but I did not care to do that, for the reason that, despite the harrowing features of my situation, I was morbidly interested to see how it would all come out. At any rate, I succumbed to my fears, and begged him not to think of departing from my mortal habitation and leaving me in the lurch.

"'Now,' he replied, his face, or rather my face, wreathing with smiles, 'now you are talking sense. I thought you would come to it. It would be the height of folly for you to ruin yourself simply to gratify your love of retaining your form. I promise you that to-morrow night, after the great speech has been made in court-a speech which will ring out through the whole country, that will echo from the hills of Scotland across the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, to re-echo thence to the Himalayas, and so on until your fame has encircled the earth-I promise you that then I will depart hence and trouble you no more, except it be your desire that I return.'"

"That was a fair proposition-he wasn't such a mean fiend after all," said Hopkins.

"At that moment I thought he was rather a square fiend," returned the spirit sadly; "but he developed as time went on."

"And the speech next day? How was that? Did he keep his word?" Hopkins asked.

"Indeed he did," said the spirit with enthusiasm, "and it was simply marvellous. That night, after we had had the conversation I have just told you of, that fellow worked like a slave getting up his points, consulting the records, classifying the testimony and making notes for his great oratorical effort. Hardly a poet in the history of literature was there who did not contribute some little line or two to make the speech more interesting, or to emphasize some point in a manner certain to appeal to a polished mind or overawe an uncultivated one. Greek and Latin authors were levied upon for tribute. Parallels in ancient and modern history utterly unknown to me were instituted for the elucidation of the arguments advanced-in short, a more polished bit of oratory than that prepared for my tongue to utter never fell from mortal lips before, and as for the peroration-well, it would require the consummate art of the fiend himself adequately to describe it. It was simply dazzling.

"'There is only one drawback, one thing I fear for to-morrow,' said the fiend, as he finished his preparations, 'and that is that these miserable mortal lungs of yours will not be able to do justice to that speech, and some of these quotations rasp on your unpractised tongue, so that I fear their effect may be weakened. However, I'll do the best I can with poor tools; but one thing is certain, you must make a sacrifice to me who have sacrificed time and comfort to you.'

"'What is that?' I asked.

"'I cannot properly accent my words with your teeth in their present condition. For instance these words here: And, gentlemen of the jury, what have we to say of the plaintiff in this action, the brother of the defendant and the firstborn son of the decedent whose desires he now seeks to have over-ridden by the laws of this land, what have we to say of him? What palliation can he offer for his unfraternal conduct in thus dragging his own brother into the courts of this land in a mad effort to recover the paltry sum of thirty thousand pounds? History affords no parallel, gentlemen of the jury, to this cause of son living arrayed against his parent gone before, of brother fighting brother for a miserable pittance, and so on. Don't you see that to be spoken impressively these words demand a certain venomous hiss? I want to electrify the jury by that hiss, but I can't do it unless I have out two of your back teeth and this front one.'

"Here he tapped the left of my two front teeth-pearls they were, Hopkins, pearls beyond price. Of course I objected.

"'I can't let you do that,' I said, 'it'll ruin my personal appearance.'

"'Bah, man!' he said. 'What is personal appearance to pre-eminent success? What are looks compared to immortality? I must again take advantage of your helplessness and rescue you from the effects of your own indecision. I have arranged to have a dentist here to-morrow morning at eight. In five minutes he will have the teeth out, and by noon your seething voice will have turned twelve good men and true into a mass of goose flesh that will be utterly unable to resist you.'"

Hopkins was heartless enough to laugh at this unexpected development.

"I wish I could appreciate the joke, Hopkins," said the spirit indignantly. "What is fun for you was tragedy for me. I had always prided myself on the vigour of my voice. There was nothing weak or affected about it, nor would I, had I been in control of my being, have permitted such vandalism as was perpetrated by that dentist the next morning, just for the sake of making a coup with the jury. I can't deny, however, that when the speech was delivered the general effect was heightened by the sibilant tone in which the words were spoken. To me the dreadful spirit within my body was apparent from introduction to peroration. The deadly greenness of the fiend shone out through every vein in my body. My eyes, once a beautiful blue, became like the eyes of an adder, and my cheeks took on a pallor that was horrible to look upon, and yet which so fascinated all beholders that they could not take their eyes away from it. The jurors sat petrified, terror depicted on every line of their faces; the judge himself, a florid, phlegmatic person ordinarily, was pale as a sheet and uneasy as an exposed nerve, and when my poor innocent finger, once so prettily pink of hue, was pointed, absolutely livid with the scorn that that creature alone could throw into it, at the terror-stricken plaintiff, he actually fell backward into convulsions, and was carried shrieking profanely from the court-room.

"As for me, I sat cowering directly behind the jury-box fearful for the future, fearful for the effect upon my poor body of the terrible strain that was put upon it, and wondering what I could possibly do upon resuming my normal condition to maintain the reputation which that morning's achievement had brought to me. So absorbed was I in these reflections that the judge's faltering charge at the conclusion of the proceedings fell upon my consciousness unheard, save as the monotonous roar of the vehicles in the street outside was heard; but the verdict of the jury, rendered without leaving the box, in favour of my client did reach my ears, and almost simultaneously came the announcement that there would be no appeal, since the plaintiff in the cause had been frightened into imbecility by the fearful indictment of his character in the summing-up of the counsel for the defendant."

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