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Topper Takes A Trip
MR TOPPER SHAKES HANDS
TOPPER, still doing his best in spite of his blue-silk pyjamas, emerged gloriously into his garden. Scollops also emerged under her own power. There did not appear to be much of it because she moved slowly on reluctant feet.
On his way downstairs Topper paused to look at his wife, then hastily followed this uninspiring inspection with a stiff bracer of cognac. As Mr Topper understood it, this clever French distillation was to be considered more in the nature of a tonic than a tipple — when taken properly. Owing to the blessed fact that his wife was a late sleeper, Mr Topper found himself at liberty to take it properly several times in the course of a morning. By rising early himself he could thus extend the length of his morning and accordingly increase the number of cognacs, all of which were taken properly. Husbands have their ways, God help them.
Topper, after looking at his wife, felt that the world owed him at least one drink of cognac properly taken. And he took it. Even in her sleep there had been about Mary Topper a certain grim rectitude which is especially depressing to those whose moral stature is only microscopically visible. Topper needed his cognac. He took his cognac. And although, as a result, his moral stature suffered a severe setback, he felt within himself much closer to God and man. His two favourites, Scollops and the Mediterranean, became even greater favourites.
Mention has been made of a series of adventures in connexion with Mr Topper. More should be said. Back in his suburban home Topper had met some exceedingly peculiar characters and enjoyed some equally peculiar adventures. From these adventures he emerged improved in every department. He was, perhaps, the only man of his day and generation who had actually and knowingly had familiar dealings with a spirit, or rather, with a person who, judged by all conventional standards, was entirely non-existent. Topper knew better. However, because of this technical loophole perhaps no black marks can be recorded against him, in spite of the fact that he left behind him, in the course of his adventures, a clearly defined trail of chips from the Commandments he had shattered.
This morning, as Topper strolled along by his garden wall, he was thinking of his brief but lurid past. His thoughts made him restless, filled him with a poignant desire to live a little more amply and to associate again with those extraordinary companions of a vanished summer, especially with one of them, Marion Kerby. If he had her back again he felt that he could indefinitely dispense with the others. As a matter of fact, he would much prefer it. Colonel Scott and Mrs Hart, those suave though disreputable affinities, would be far too expansive and uncontrollable along a coast offering as many opportunities for their failings as the Riviera. Even in the so-called dry States, they had seldom drawn a totally unalcoholic breath. And George Kerby — Topper felt that he could do very nicely without a great deal of George, Marion's quick-tempered, high-living husband, who was for ever insisting that death did not them part, not by any manner of means. An engaging chap, George, and a delightful companion, if he would only give up claiming such dictatorial sway over the time and actions of Marion.
In his heart Topper knew that Marion was lost to him for ever. She had told him herself that she was passing on to a higher plane, freeing herself at last from the carnal drag of the earth. The jovial Colonel, the languishing yet ever hungry Mrs Hart, and George Kerby would never pass out of the more pleasant influences of the earth. They had no ambitions to refine themselves. Topper felt sure of that. Those three liked themselves as they were, and Topper, thinking back, could hardly blame them. He, himself, had he been given the choice, would have preferred to remain a low-plane spirit, that is, assuming he was officially removed from this world. Then Topper's thoughts dallied with memories of Oscar, the Colonel's somewhat eccentric dog, that had only after the greatest patience on the part of his master learned to materialize in whole or in part, according to his mood and fancy. Oscar would have been an unusual companion for Scollops. He would have diverted the cat's thoughts from certain channels.
A bald head, fringed with a nicely starched ruff of grey, popping up alarmingly from the other side of the wall, brought Mr Topper's own thoughts back into the present with a snap.
'Bonjour, mon vieux!' cried Monsieur Louis. 'The times make fair, is it not?'
Mr Topper's hand was suddenly snatched from him and twirled about in the most bewildering manner. In this operation the element of surprise meant all. Topper had no choice. He merely stood by watchfully to see that nothing that could not be mended happened to his hand.
'You carry yourself well to-day?' continued Monsieur Louis, suddenly forgetting all about Mr Topper's hand and dropping it. 'You promenade yourself a little? Comment?'
Mr Topper hastened to assure Monsieur Louis that he, Topper, was exceedingly well pleased with everything in France, but especially with Monsieur Louis himself; that he, Topper, carried himself tremendously, and that he hoped Monsieur Louis was doing splendidly in the line of self-carrying; that the times had never made any fairer so far as he knew, and that owing to his blue-silk pyjamas he was desolated that he could not please Monsieur Louis by projecting himself farther than a very little. And all the while Mr Topper was saying these things he was wondering if Monsieur Louis had actually called him common to his face. It sounded very much like it, that last word. These French could get away with murder if one failed to know their language.
'Me, also, I am well pleased,' Monsieur Louis continued like God. 'Now, behold, I work much. To-night I play. Tout à l'heure, mon ami, Tout à l'heure.'
And with this piece of gratuitous information of a rather personal nature Monsieur Louis ducked down behind the wall, leaving Mr Topper on the other side vainly trying to get the meaning of his parting words.
'Tout à l'heure,' considered Mr Topper. 'What the deuce did he mean by that? Sounds silly to me — all at the hour. What hour? Can't help feeling a little embarrassed for these Frenchmen when they begin to talk. Seem to lose all control of themselves. He works much now, but to-night he plays, does he? Getting along in years for that sort of thing. And he brags about it, the immoral old devil. Wonder what his wife thinks of that?'
Topper decided that most likely Madame Louis did not mind at all. French husbands and wives were always so busy rushing in and out of the house on the way to and from assignations that they never had any spare time to check up on each other's movements.
This train of thought naturally brought him back to Marion Kerby. He recalled the day when he had purchased the Kerbys' car as a result of his exasperation at his wife's habitual attempts to thrust a leg of lamb down his jaded throat. George and Marion had been killed in that self-same car. A tree had objected to it. He remembered the day, the moment of awe and incredulity when they had first spoken to him out of vast spaces. How upset he had been. And he remembered, too, not without a slight shudder, how shockingly George Kerby had first materialized. What a dreadful sight that had been — a pair of golf knickers gradually taking form, and an inverted head dangling between their legs. At that moment Topper had wondered if George materialized were always going to be like that. Then Marion had made her presence seen as well as felt. He had first caught sight of her draped over a rafter in an old, abandoned inn. She had been about as abandoned as the inn itself. That night she had looked like an angel. There the resemblance had come to an abrupt end.
Once more Monsieur Louis' popping head shattered Mr Topper's memories.
'In full truth,' he warned Mr Topper, seizing his hand as if to prevent it from striking. 'To-night I have of pleasure, but now, my friend, I cut. It is that I trim the garden. He is in disarray. Me, I shall introduce order and make all things fair. Regard! I clip, is it not?'
Inasmuch as Monsieur Louis extended in the air a pair of shears fairly dripping with vegetation, Mr Topper saw no reason to start an argument.
'With them I work,' continued the little Frenchman, philosophically regarding the shears, 'but to-night it is a thing entirely different. Au'voir, m'sieur. I part.'
With this Monsieur Louis flung back Mr Topper's hand and collapsed behind the wall, from over which came the voice of a pair of agitated clippers.
'I wish he would stop doing that,' Mr Topper complained to himself. 'It's more than disturbing. It's downright alarming, especially when done with clippers. Furthermore, I don't give a damn how much he plays, but if he doesn't stop popping up and down like that he won't be able to drag himself out of the house. Wonder where he goes to do all this playing?'
The whole thing had started from that night at the abandoned inn. What an excellent night that had been, dancing in the fire-light with Marion and drinking Scotch with George.
Topper was not aware of the fact that an embryonic sigh escaped his lips.
And all the things that had happened after George had gone abroad. That interlude by the lake alone with Marion, that is, alone with her until Colonel Scott and Mrs Hart, a pair of low-plane spirits with an equally low-plane dog, had appeared, casually drifting along in search of whatever pleasure the moment had to offer. They had made a party of it, the four of them, and he, Topper, had been the only one unable to disappear at will. It had been extremely inconvenient at times, and never more so than when George Kerby had unexpectedly returned to find Marion and himself together under highly compromising circumstances. They could hardly have been higher, those circumstances, nor more compromising. Then the weird duel which followed in which George insisted on his rights to remain invisible while Topper, unable to reduce his stature by one cubic inch, was forced to remain an exceedingly mortal target. Finally, the return to the inn, the farewell party, and the tree again. It had been a terrific smash-up. Topper had come back to consciousness in the hospital. Marion was gone, and so were the others. Even Oscar had withdrawn himself into a dimension unattainable to Mr Topper. It was all over. Adventures end. Only Mrs Topper remained, Mrs Topper and his cat, Scollops.
Once out of the hospital, Topper had tried to make a go of it with his wife. An abortive attempt. As soon as she had got her husband back she speedily set about retrieving her dyspepsia and superior manner. In spite of her efforts to be human, she had gradually relapsed into her familiar role of conventional, self-satisfied, censorious matron with a social position to nurse. She had been grimly determined to make Topper comply. Now this is an impossible thing to do with a man who has once consorted on grounds of perfect equality with a set of low-plane spirits. To her intense chagrin, Mrs Topper had found it so. She soon discovered that the once orthodox Topper had been utterly ruined for everyday suburban life. He missed trains, offended the neighbours, and cursed at things with a new and overpowering vigour. He refused to go to bed at the customary time, and was frequently seen in the company of low characters. Then, too, he suffered from occasional fits of abstraction in which the community of Glendale ceased to exist for him, and he would go wandering away by himself as if in search of something, the exact nature of which he had forgotten himself.
Once the man had attempted to tell his wife a little something about the less unedifying side of his adventures. He had felt the need to share, to recapture in the telling a little of the past. He did not get far. His wife, he could tell, was under the impression that his mind had been affected by his accident. It was all very discouraging.
In the end, Topper had made an attempt to furbish up his relations with his wife by taking her to Europe. No luck. In France Mrs Topper was even more Glendale than before. Defensively and aloofly critical. Superior. Non-participating.
It was not Mary Topper's fault. No woman could be the way she was of her own free will. God had given her the type of mind she had, and her family had taught her to use it the way she did. She thought herself quite right. And that was just the trouble. She was quite right — a damn sight too quite for Topper. In this world people should probably live according to her standards, that is, those who wished to get along with the minimum amount of friction and the maximum of dull, numbing comfort. Her rightness had become such an obsession with her that she was never happy unless she was showing Mr Topper how terribly, terribly wrong he was. Topper sometimes wondered how a man who was so consistently wrong as his wife made him out to be had ever escaped being hanged and had become, instead, a responsible officer in one of the world's largest banking institutions. As wrong as he was, however, he never made the mistake of asking his wife this question. It would have done terrible things to her dyspepsia, and God alone knew she needed little encouragement in that direction. Yet, somewhere deep down in his rather secretive heart, Topper nourished a genuine affection for this woman who had made such a sameness of his life. It was his fault, after all. Had he not permitted her to do it? And he had been much like her until a quartet of carousing characters who had left this world safer for domesticity by leaving it themselves, had taken him through some remarkably broadening paces.
Yes, Topper was fond of his wife, but being fond of one's wife and getting along with her were two and entirely different matters, as many a husband had found out before him. Perhaps it was not to be expected. Topper did not know. The problem had been too long with him. It was barnacle-encrusted.
Monsieur Louis, or rather the head of that brave, saved him from attempting to solve it. Once more it popped up, and once more Topper's hand was captured and subjected to a friendly flinging.
'My friend,' the little man announced, his wicked eyes sparkling with some hidden irony as only a Frenchman's eyes can sparkle, 'this garden here is greatly encouraged. But why? There is nothing in it to grow. Alas, I reproach myself. In spite of which to-night I find my pleasure. Alors!'
Monsieur Louis was gone. Topper stood gazing vacantly at the spot where Monsieur Louis had been. So far as Topper knew Monsieur Louis had neither legs nor body. He had never seen these parts, though he imagined they were somewhere about. But on the witness stand he could not have taken an oath that there was any more to Monsieur Louis than one popping head, a quick little twisting neck, and a pair of agile arms. And the funny thing is that Topper never did know. That was all he ever saw of Monsieur Louis. Of course, had he taken the trouble he could have found out. Topper never took the trouble. What he knew of Monsieur Louis was quite enough. More of Monsieur Louis would have been too much.
'That little Frenchman certainly must be going to have a good time,' he mused almost enviously. 'He's so damned excited about it. Doesn't seem to be able to think of anything else. The French are funny that way. He and his pleasure. Wish he'd stop popping about it.'
To protect his nerves from further incursions by Monsieur Louis and Monsieur Louis' head and arms, Topper moved away from the wall and walked down to the little gate that gave on to the white road separating the white villa from the beach. Here he was almost immediately joined by Monsieur Sylvestre, patron of the excellent Café Plage.
Monsieur Sylvestre, as if suddenly spying an especially desirable fish, pounced upon Mr Topper's hand and did friendly things to it. Then he demanded of Mr Topper how he ported himself this morning. Mr Topper was once more gentil and admitted that he ported himself fairly bien and added that the times made fair. Monsieur Sylvestre, overwhelmed with both statements, again shook Mr Topper's hand and asked him if it was that he would have to boire un petit. Mr Topper thereupon shook Monsieur Sylvestre's hand and allowed that he would have of cognac to boire. Accordingly both shook hands for the fourth time and crossed the road, blue pyjamas and all, to the little café squatting unpicturesquely on the sand. Here on the veranda they looked politely at several fishing boats and one tramp steamer from Denmark. They had to boire at the hands of Madame Sylvestre, who had first shaken one of Topper's. This sort of thing went on for about a quarter of an hour, until Mr Topper felt his supply of amiability running low, upon which he withdrew, after cordially shaking hands with his hosts, who were desolated by his departure.
On his way across the road Mr Topper was nearly knocked down by his blanchisseuse, who, compactly mounted on her bicyclette, had been on the point of delivering at the villa the beautiful results of her blanchisseuse-ing. This slight contretemps brought down on Mr Topper's head a deluge of polite lamentations. Things would have gone smoothly enough had they gone no farther. The stricken lady insisted on tenderly shaking Mr Topper's hand. There was still more. His blue-silk pyjamas were, brushed and examined with a thoroughness that would have given Mrs Topper grounds for a separation back in Glendale. Mr Topper himself became somewhat light-headed during these impassioned operations and clung to his pyjamas like a little gentleman in order to keep from giving the diligent blanchisseuse fresh cause for apologies or congratulations. He then helped her to collect the scattered laundry, and clinging to his pyjamas with one hand, falteringly carried the laundry back to the villa with the other.
Here he encountered the maid, Félice, whom he had certain reasons for suspecting of being much more than she pretended not to be. He deposited the laundry in a chair, took a hitch in his pyjamas, and made a grab for the French girl's hand, thus making the morning a clean sweep of hand-shaking.
Félice evinced no surprise, although privately she was cast down that he stopped at her hand. She made no attempt to withdraw it and gazed back at the pyjamaed gentleman with infinite understanding.
Sensing the reprehensible nature of the thoughts passing behind those melting eyes, he promptly dropped the hand and hurried upward to his bathroom. Here he stood looking thoughtfully at the tub. Had it suddenly remarked upon the weather and attempted to shake his hand he in turn would not have been in the least surprised.
'Funny people, these French,' he soliloquized as he let his pyjama trousers follow their natural inclination. 'Polite to the point of danger. Can't make up my mind whether I like them or not. Some days, yes, and some days, no. That girl Félice, for example. A body isn't safe with her around.'
Then he turned and regarded Vesuvius with profound scepticism. He could not quite make up his mind about this strange device, either.
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