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Topper Takes A Trip


Thorne Smith



HIS mind was on other matters now as he made Vesuvius to march. He was still thinking of his other-world friends. As he watched the water flow into the tub, these vanished companions were all mixed up in his mind. He wondered if they had ever been or if he had dreamed them all in the hospital after the accident. There were times when he had almost convinced himself that they had been merely the puppets of his repressions. Most certainly George and Marion Kerby had been real enough once. Before they had come a cropper against that tree they had been a part of the social life of Glendale. Not an admirable part, to be sure, but, nevertheless, a tangible one. They had not been able then to appear and disappear at random, but had conducted themselves like ordinary human beings, only much worse, according to Glendale standards. Was it possible, he asked himself as he stepped into the tub — never a charming gesture — for a dog to be part dog one minute and no dog at all the next — merely a bark from another world? Yet these things had been, and Topper knew they had been. The old abandoned inn actually existed, and so did all of the other places he had visited with his companions in the course of those mad adventures which now seemed so distant and unreal.

'Seems an unreasonable waste of time and labour, this tub business,' Topper reflected as he carefully lowered himself into the water. 'With the whole wide Mediterranean knocking at one's front door, it is nothing less than a supine knuckling under to convention to drag a small part of it into the house and then to wallow in it.' He groaned feebly and began to lather his body. The spirit of rebellion was in him, for customarily Topper and his tub were boon companions. 'A horrid thing, all this bathing. Mostly brought on by wives. They talk about you if you don't, and when you do they complain you're monopolizing the bath-room. No pleasing wives. People seldom keep up this morning tubbing or else one would hear of more old folks meeting their Maker in a bathtub. To bathe,' he continued as he searched for the soap, 'is to admit that one is not all that one should be. And that is not at all a fragrant admission. Yet in public a man will suddenly spring up and announce with an air of infinite virtue that it is his intention to bathe his body. The shame of the thing. A man should so live that a tub would be a novelty rather than a necessity. How much more dynamic it would be for a man to get up in public and announce that he had no intention of taking a bath for a long, long time; that he had taken a bath recently, and that he refused to make further concessions to public opinion, which was notoriously bovine and vacillating.' Topper had found the soap and was warming to his theme. 'Let him add,' he continued, 'that he really didn't need that bath, and that he was prevailed upon to take it only by the knowledge that his wife would go about saying to other wives, "My dear, it's simply terrible. I can't do a thing with my husband. He absolutely refuses to bathe." Some wives might try to hush it up, but the servants would be sure to talk. Somehow the thing would get out.' Once more he fumbled for the soap, then thoughtfully considered his partially lathered foot. 'Take that foot, for example,' he went on critically. 'It is neither better nor worse for its tub worse, if anything. Unpleasantly shrunken by the water. Its full bloom is no longer with it.'

Topper regarded the foot with sudden alarm. It seemed strangely changed. Somehow, it did not at all remind him of the foot he had associated with for so many years, shoe in and shoe out.

Then, even as he looked, out of the void shockingly came a voice, a disembodied voice, pitched in a note of warning. Topper jumped as if suddenly brought into contact with a furious electric eel.

'Listen,' said the voice quite casually. 'I'm perfectly willing to have you scrub my foot if you get any kick out of it — ha! ha! — but don't let it go any farther than that. I think that is fairly stated.'

Topper quickly averted his dilated eyes from the foot he had been so critically considering. With a dreadful feeling he realized that in truth the horrid thing did not belong to him. Somehow or other an odd foot had managed to get itself into the tub, and he, Topper, had been industriously scrubbing this self-same foot. He had been performing the most demeaning of all labours — scrubbing someone else's foot. But whose? There was the foot as plain as the nose on his face. It was sticking up out of the water at a jaunty, uncompromising angle. Topper glanced again, then once more looked elsewhere. He could not stand the expression of that foot. It shattered him.

'Well,' continued the voice rather impatiently, 'since you've got it so nicely soaped you might as well go on with it. Scrub that foot, Topper.'

'I have been scrubbing it,' gasped Topper, addressing his words to the foot, 'scrubbing it to my intense disgust. Damned if I'll scrub the crab-like object any longer.'

'Oh, I say, Topper,' said the voice, assuming an admonitory tone. 'You greatly wrong that foot, I assure you. That is a typical Castilian foot, my dear fellow, worthy of the purest Castile soap. I jest, Topper. Smile.'

'I am far from smiling, foot,' replied Mr Topper.

'Don't call me foot,' snapped the voice. 'Address me as sir or monsieur.'

'To me you are merely a foot,' remarked Topper, 'and not a very good foot, at that. But what I want to know is: what is an odd foot doing in my tub, and where the deuce is your brother?"

'Don't be deliberately disagreeable, Topper,' said the foot. 'Your humour is in ill taste.'

'Perhaps,' admitted Topper, 'but a foot, detached and talkative, is somewhat trying to the most rugged of bathers.'

'Come, come, now, Topper,' came the reproachful voice of the foot, 'that's not at all neighbourly.'

'Can't see how I could be any more neighbourly,' rejoined Topper, 'bathing as I am with your foot and God only knows what else.'

'It is rather chummy, isn't it?' admitted the voice. 'But if you must know, I really wasn't counting on your company. All I required of you was to draw my bath. You see, I don't understand that sinister-looking box up there. Vesuvius — a name hardly designed to inspire confidence.'

'You should have made your wishes known,' said Topper. 'Had I known of your foot all the gendarmes in France couldn't have crammed me in this tub.'

'This foot, Topper, seems to have got the better of you. What's wrong with the foot?'

'Practically everything,' explained Topper. 'But that's not the point. How would you like to take a bath with an odd foot?'

'I would take it without the slightest qualms,' declared the voice. 'In fact, I might use the odd foot to some advantage — scratch my back with it, for example. How's that for an idea?'

'Rotten,' answered Topper. 'Revolting. Almost unbearable. Would it upset you greatly if I called this bath off'?'

'You wouldn't upset me,' said the voice, 'but I might jolly well upset you.'

Topper sensed a hidden threat in the words. He remained silent and submerged. Pondering. The situation had passed far beyond him. He felt unable to deal with it. Experience had shown him that it was impossible to free oneself from the attentions of a low-plane spirit once it had set its mind on cultivating one's company. And although that same experience more or less familiarized him with the situation, he was far from being reconciled to it. One can very quickly get out of the habit of associating with partially materialized spirits. To be sitting in a bathtub conversing with five toes still struck him as being somewhat unusual. He wondered who could be the owner of those five toes. Topper more than a little suspected the hidden presence of George Kerby. There was something vaguely reminiscent in the quality of the voice — a certain ironical inflexion, a grim, almost ghastly playfulness. Now had it only been the foot of George's wife — Mr Topper's meditations were rudely interrupted.

'Of what are you thinking, Topper of the unsavoury mind?" 'inquired the voice. 'Something nice and dirty?'

Mr Topper started guiltily. He wondered if his disembodied companion had the power to peer into mortal minds. Topper fervently hoped not. If he had, his, Topper's, position would become most untenable. It would become appallingly dangerous. He attempted a disarming smile.

'My dear foot,' he replied easily, 'if such you insist on remaining, I was merely thinking how nice it would be if you would pop off and allow me to continue alone with my bath. No gentleman — no well-mannered gentleman, that is — relishes scrubbing his body while sitting on the lap of an unseen bath mate. It is neither gentil nor chic, no matter how you look at it.'

'I don't mind it in the least,' remarked the voice indifferently.

'Only too well do I realize that,' said Topper. 'But consider the difference of our positions, if you will. To me you are nothing more nor less than a foot, weird-looking toes protruding from the water. To you I am one complete body with all parts present and accounted for. In other words, all my cards are on the table.'

'And there isn't an ace among them,' commented the voice. 'Furthermore, there are some parts of you I can't account for at all. Under any scheme of things. No matter how far I stretch my imagination.'

'We won't go into that now,' put in Topper hastily. 'Anyway, I'd rather account for my own parts, if you don't mind. There is not one I would sacrifice with any degree of fortitude or comfort.'

'How about that vast paunch?'

Mr Topper leaned far over in an effort to conceal that object. This brought him face to face with the foot. From the water five long toes were wriggling up at him. Only a short time ago he had been soaping them with solicitude. The thought was decidedly disagreeable. Topper snapped back to his former position with alacrity. Why should he be ashamed of his stomach in the presence of such a foot?

'Merely a gentle declivity, my dear fellow,' he replied with dignity. 'A man must have some container in which to put his food.'

'I don't,' declared the voice proudly. 'If I felt inclined I could eat my head off the while I snapped my fingers at my stomach.'

'God grant you do not feel inclined,' Topper retorted earnestly. 'It's not a picture of charm. I think I should lose my reason if I had to watch you engaged in the doubly unpleasant operation of eating your head off while snapping your fingers at your stomach.'

'Then you see what you're up against?'

'I suspect rather than see it,' said Topper. 'For all I know I might be up against Marcus Aurelius in the lighter vein.'

'You don't know the half of it.'

'Much less than that. Merely the beginning. Just a foot.'

'If I made myself complete, one of us would have to leave this tub.'

'That one would be me,' said Mr Topper. 'I would go both gladly and promptly. Are you planning to be here long?'

'I'm ready to finish whenever you are,' the voice answered agreeably. 'We can let the rest of me go until some other time.'

'We!' exclaimed Mr Topper. 'I hope to let the rest of you go for ever.'

'You can hardly do that, Topper, my fine fellow.'

'This has been puzzling me,' observed Topper. 'If I let all the water out of this tub, what would become of the foot?'

'I could do one of two things,' replied the voice in a considering tone. 'I could shift it into a finger and let it slip down the drain or I could face you man to man.'

'Try not to do either,' urged Topper.' 'Can't you figure out something else?'

'Why, of course,' continued the voice. 'I could call the foot back into the fourth dimension, where the rest of me is at present.'

'Good!' exclaimed Topper. 'Why don't you do that? I can hardly leave an odd foot knocking about my bathroom, you know. It would upset the entire household. My cat might stray in and try to play with it — nibble its toes or something, although I'd hate to believe that Scollops would stoop so low.'

'You put things rather gruesomely yourself,' suggested the voice, 'but I don't mind cats. Like 'em, in fact. Your cat can play with my toes and welcome to them. But no nibbling. Not that. I'm thinking about Mrs Topper. What of her?'

'Yes,' replied Topper blankly. 'What of her. She would not appreciate an odd foot or any other odd part.'

'Thank God she's yours,' the voice declared. 'You're welcome to her. But may I ask you, Topper, are you always so careful yourself of other men's wives?'

'Certainly,' replied Mr Topper, with a marked sense of uneasiness. 'I always honour women.'

'I like that,' laughed the voice nastily, and Topper was sure now that he was in the presence of George Kerby's foot. 'And I dare say crawling into bed with them is your idea of honouring them — the order of the Double Cross.'

'I'm sure I don't know what you mean,' hedged Mr Topper.

'No?' continued the voice with increasing agitation. 'You don't, eh? Innocent Topper. Chaste Topper. Bah! You bed presser.' At this point the foot waved itself vindictively scarcely three inches from Mr Topper's delicately quivering nostrils. 'Well, mark me well, Topper,' the voice continued. 'If you don't keep your salacious old meat hooks away from my wife I'll drag you down into your grave before your time.'

Mr Topper was most unpleasantly impressed. He tried to bluff it out.

'Why, I didn't even know you had a wife,' he managed to get out. 'Mustn't be much company for her if you go around like that.'

'I've a wife, all right,' continued the voice, 'or I did have a wife. Don't know where she is at the moment, but wherever she is it's ten to one she's raising particular hell. If I ever catch you two together — look!'

Topper looked and found himself confronted by two rows of bared teeth. He had never seen teeth so shockingly displayed in all his life. Beside them the snarl of a tiger was amiability itself. It was by all odds Topper's most disconcerting moment. Those bared teeth grinning wickedly — a sight the most upsetting. Then suddenly they snapped with a click of horrid finality. Topper sprang from the tub. He could bear the situation no longer. Behind him the teeth clicked dangerously somewhere in the neighbourhood of the nape of his neck.

'Remember!' gritted the pursuing teeth. 'This is merely a friendly warning.'

'Friendly,' thought Topper frantically. 'Oh, my good gracious God! What would it be like if he were furious? And all this on an empty stomach. It's too bad.'

Throwing modesty to the winds, Topper dashed dripping from the bathroom, the blue-silk pyjamas forgotten in his anxiety to seek the protection of his wife.

'Why, my dear!' exclaimed that lady, sitting up in bed. 'I haven't seen you in such a state for years.'

'You haven't seen me in such a state ever,' replied Mr Topper, snatching up his wife's bathrobe and tying its arms round his waist, giving to the garment a curious apron-like appearance, effective only when approached from the front.

At this moment a blood-curdling yell of defiance rang through the house. Mr Topper spun round. His wife was unable to decide whether she was more shocked by what she saw than by what she heard. Both Topper and the yell were terrible. A moment later Félice, who had attempted to straighten up the bathroom, came tottering upon the scene.

'The towel,' she announced tragically. 'It agitates itself. It advances upon me and pushes out cries. Me, I am totally overthrown.'

'So am I,' agreed Mr Topper, in his agitation turning his back upon the maid. 'I tombe in ruins, myself.'

For the first time Félice seemed to be aware of the presence of Mr Topper. When she had thoroughly assimilated the rear view of the master of the villa she became even more vividly aware. For a moment it was difficult to tell whether she was going to fall in ruins or explode in mirth. Gradually an expression of pleased enlightenment overspread her face.

'A masque, perhaps?' she asked of Mrs Topper.

'Does it look like a mask?' snarled Topper.

'But yes, m'sieu,' said Félice.

Topper looked back and surveyed himself. Then he laughed bitterly.

'Perhaps you're right,' he observed thoughtfully. 'A tragic mask.'

What Félice had seen of Topper, as fantastic as it was, served to keep her from losing her reason, for after one last inquiring, puzzled look, she demurely lowered her eyes and left the room with a coy flit of her own trim torso.

'What is it all about?' asked Mrs Topper, trying not to look. 'What are you doing that for, and who is being murdered in the hall?'

'I don't know,' her husband replied distractedly. 'It must have been an escaped parrot or some other wild Riviera bird.'

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