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Topper Takes A Trip
ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER
THE temps had started beau but had broken down on the way. An odd foot had thrown a monkey wrench into the workings of Mr Topper's day. He was disgusted with the temps. Also he was disgusted with baths and bathtubs. He faithfully promised himself never to bathe again. He would never be sure any more of what he might find in that tub. Anything, any human part, was possible. Gloomily he sought the privacy of his own room. In his present attire this privacy was greatly to be desired by all concerned.
More through accident than design his sleeping quarters adjoined those of his wife. 'The French would have it that way,' he reflected as he passed through the door. 'And a good idea, too, when given the right material.'
He recalled the eloquent insinuations of Monsieur Grandon upon the occasion of his introducing them to the villa. The Frenchman had stood in the doorway between the two rooms, a hand extended invitingly toward each bed.
'Regardez!' he had exclaimed, a playful smile cracking the austerity of his blue-black beard. 'Monsieur est là et Madame est là. What happiness!'
Mr Topper, regarding the Frenchman, could almost see himself and his wife lying exhaustedly in their respective beds, yawning into the face of an uneventful night.
'It is of a simplicity desirable, is it not?' Monsieur Grandon had demanded. 'One comes. One goes. At any given moment. It is accomplished.'
Mr Topper had refrained from pointing out to Monsieur Grandon that this constant dashing back and forth from bed to bed at any given moment might seriously overtax their failing strength.
'And the beds, m'sieu,' here the propriétaire had raised his eyes to heaven in unholy ecstasy. 'Of an elasticité supreme — la, la!'
This had been just a little too much for Mr Topper. For some reason the world of meaning Monsieur Grandon managed to pack into that 'la, la!' was unendurable.
'Let us not go further into the beds now,' Topper had suggested a little primly.
'But no,' the propriétaire had replied, somewhat shocked himself. 'Later you shall both introduce yourselves into the beds, et puis, who knows?'
Topper had looked at Monsieur Grandon aghast, astounded. 'My God,' he had thought, 'is this little Frenchman bereft of all sense of delicacy, or is he merely trying to taunt me?'
Mrs Topper had left the room.
While Topper was now radically rearranging his appearance, he was thoughtfully considering recent events, or as much of them as could be considered from the sketchy material at hand. This consisted of one detached and gesticulating foot, one pair of gnashing teeth, and one insufferably loquacious voice. Also one soul-splitting yell. All of these manifestations pointed to George Kerby. However, Mr Topper was thinking more of what had not been seen, and which might at any moment be seen, than he was of what he had seen already — awful as that had been. Around him the air fairly tingled with currents of panic and calamity. He found himself wondering if Marion had drifted back to a low plane and had followed her husband to the Riviera. The possibility excited Topper. Life began to quicken. It retarded itself immediately at the thought of George and the Colonel and Mrs Hart. What an open break that would be. Topper smiled in spite of himself. Almost any change would be agreeable to his present mode of existence.
His dressing completed, Topper, looking vastly more dignified, stepped into the presence of his wife.
'I hardly recognize you,' she observed caustically. 'You should go in for disguises and things.'
'What do you mean by things?' he asked.
'Conduct that cannot be described,' she answered quite comfortably. 'All this has not been good for my dyspepsia.'
She looked down and consulted the pages of a menu book. She became absorbed. This was one of Mary Topper's happier occupations. In its solemnity it was ritualistic. Each day before she arose it was her custom to take her dyspepsia out on a gastronomic hike along a path bristling with dangers. The very idea of what she might do to her dyspepsia if for a moment she relaxed her vigilance and yielded to some of the more alluring bypaths along the way or followed some of the seemingly innocent suggestions in her guide book, gave her much the same feeling as experienced by one cavorting dizzily through space on a hastily constructed but recklessly conceived scenic railway. She trembled pleasantly at the number of terrible things she could do to herself if she really let go her grip on the dietary rail; the effect of various spices, her reactions to a certain rich sauce, the hours of discomfort lurking in the depth of well seasoned gravy and the long, unrestful afternoons resulting from an overexposure of pâté de foie, pâtisserie, or fromage. And inevitably, after mentally passing through these hairbreadth escapes, Mrs Topper, with unimaginative consistency and much to the disgust of her husband and Félice, would arise with some nice, wholesome, but perfectly spiritless menu firmly fixed in her mind. She had one so fixed this morning, and as Mr Topper stood there looking at his wife, she glanced up and had the bad judgement to mention one of its principal items.
'How about a little gigot to-night?' she asked brightly.
Mr Topper started and looked closely at his wife. The man had received a severe jolt. He was all at sea.
'How about a little what?' he asked uneasily.
'A little gigot,' she answered almost coyly for her. 'Un petit gigot, you know.'
'I'm very much afraid I do know,' replied Mr Topper. 'And just because you say it in French doesn't make it any nicer. I must confess, I'm surprised. As a matter of fact, I'm shocked.'
'Oh, you never like anything,' his wife complained petulantly.
'It's not a question of my likes or dislikes,' he replied with dignity. 'It's a matter of fitness. One does not propose such a thing at this hour of the morning. Suppose the servants should overhear?'
'Nonsense. They know all about it already. I tell them about it myself.'
'You do!' exclaimed Mr Topper, now thoroughly upset. 'French servants don't need to be told. I had no idea you were so loose.'
'What harm is there in a little gigot?' asked Mary Topper, looking penetratingly at her husband.
'Mary,' he said, 'I hate to appear in the light of a prude, especially before you. I'm not saying there's any harm in a little gigot. Many persons find it amusing. But it's not a thing to dwell on — to plan in cold blood.'
'One can't very well make a secret of it,' Mrs Topper protested. 'Need one shout it from the housetops?'
'Nonsense!' snapped Mrs Topper again. 'Everybody knows about gigot.'
'Undoubtedly,' agreed Mr Topper. 'It is seldom out of people's minds, but nice people, especially ladies, don't make a practice of talking about it at the crack o' dawn, so to speak.'
'Why not?' demanded his wife.
'If you can't see that for yourself, it would do no good for me to tell you.' He paused a moment and scratched the back of his neck with a perplexed finger. Suddenly his expression cleared. 'Will you kindly tell me just what in the world you mean by gigot?' he asked.
'You seemed to know all about it,' said his wife.
'I thought I did,' answered Topper. 'I was afraid I did, but perhaps I was thinking of something else. Must have confused the word with gigolo. What does that queer sound you've been making mean, anyway?'
'Why, it simply means a leg of mutton,' replied his wife. 'One can't very well expect lamb in these peculiar French markets.'
Topper's face was a study. The thing was much worse than he had expected.
'Did I travel at no little trouble and expense,' he asked quietly, 'did I uproot my life and manage some four thousand miles to leave Glendale and all its horrid works behind only to have a leg of mutton flaunted in my face? This is most discouraging. I thought we'd settled the lamb question a long time ago.'
'I hoped all this travel might have made some difference,' was the plaintive reply.
'So had I,' said Topper. 'I hoped it would make a vast difference in our daily diet. I hoped that over here you wouldn't be able to discover the old familiar things with which you have gradually beaten down my appetite for years. You can't change the nature of a chunk of meat merely by changing its name.'
'But I only thought —' began Mrs Topper.
'I know,' he broke in on her. 'You only thought. That's just the trouble. You thought out loud. If you'd said nothing about your damned gigot, I'd very likely have eaten the beastly thing and been none the wiser. Suzanne and Félice, seasoning in relays, might have succeeded in disguising it. After all, Mary, as long as we have to eat, we might as well bow to the inevitable and endeavour to make meals pleasant occasions — refreshing little interludes — rather than repetitious ordeals. We want to eat flesh, not to mortify it. Don't tell me about my food. Don't warn me about it — threaten me with it. I'd like to be surprised for a change. I have other things to think about than gigots.'
'What?' asked Mary flatly. 'What on earth is there left for you to think about now that you've abandoned your banking? Surely not your past. I hope you're trying to forget that.'
'What I think about, past, present, or future, is nobody's business,' retorted Mr Topper. 'Because a man has stopped working it does not necessarily follow that he has stopped thinking. As a matter of fact, that's when he begins to think, when he begins to get a chance to think and look about him.'
'I know what you look about at,' said Mrs Topper surprisingly, 'that is, when you're on the beach.'
'You do?' replied Mr Topper, somewhat set down. 'And what do I look at there, if I may ask?'
'More meat,' replied Mrs Topper with unexpected coarseness, 'and it isn't a leg of lamb. I've seen that creature, too — almost all of her. You're getting senile. That's the trouble with you.'
'I don't know what you're talking about, I'm sure,' lied the good Topper.
'You know it so well you could draw it from memory,' Mrs Topper assured him.
'Draw what from memory?'
'It,' said Mrs Topper. 'That disgraceful woman. Your naked friend.'
'Mary,' her husband replied accusingly, 'I'm just beginning to learn that at heart you are an utterly coarse woman. I refuse to be drawn into any more of your vulgar discussions. Twice already this morning you have greatly shocked me.'
'That's nothing to what you did to Félice when you so jauntily turned your back on her this morning.'
'Fiddlesticks! Félice is used to it.'
'What? You astound me.'
'This is profitless,' Topper broke out in an attempt to gain back a shred of his lost prestige. 'If you ever mention a leg of lamb or mutton to me in any language I'll provide myself with a broad-sword and hew the legs off of every sheep in France, and that goes for the pups, too. Failing that, I buy up all the rams and incarcerate them in a monastery so that the race will become extinct.'
As her husband strode from the room Mary Topper did not appear at all impressed by the various things he was going to do. In fact, she was smiling slightly.
'And I believe I know what you thought gigot meant,' she called after him.
'I don't give a hang if you do,' he flung back. 'You and your confounded gigots. Why don't you speak a language that has some sense to it?'
'That would have to be the sign language for you,' his wife assured him.
'I don't hear you,' he said. 'What?'
'Oh, nothing. You wouldn't understand.'
Topper, halfway down the stairs, paused and tried to think of some crushing and final retort. Failing abysmally in this, he continued downward in a state of high bad humour. That woman up there had the greatest knack of putting him in the wrong. It was uncanny. The morning was getting worse and worse. There was no telling where it would end. He hurried over to the buffet and poured himself a tot of cognac. While doing so he became aware of the presence of the maid Félice. He could feel her gaze resting on him. Worse than that. He could feel her gaze resting on a particular part of him. This was just too bad. He turned to meet her large, wondering eyes.
'M'sieu carries himself better now?' she inquired solicitously. He very much feared he detected a smile lurking round the corners of her full red lips.
'I always carry myself well, Félice,' he told her loftily. 'It is not difficult.'
'Quel homme!' breathed Félice admiringly as if to herself. 'Quel sang-froid! Merveilleux.'
'What's so merveilleux?' he demanded as he turned reluctantly to replace his empty glass. 'What are you gaping at now?'
'Rien du tout,' she replied with a shrug of her pretty shoulders. 'Une bagatelle, m'sieu.'
'Is that so!' said Topper, departing to the veranda. Then to himself, 'These French trollops have more damned brass. It's their eyes. They're as eloquent as a couple of tongues.'
He turned his own eyes to the little village stepping up the Esterels from the sea. Small white houses, occasionally a splash of colour, red roofs and green, squatting cheerfully round the skirts of a great domed cathedral. On the shore the new Casino, its walls and its windows gleaming against the sun. Farther along the arc of the shore curved the more exclusive hotels — an expensive crescent studded with Americans and other rich. And far along the coastline lay the villas of the mighty dominated by the turrets of a château of much pleasure. Almost from Mr Topper's feet the squalid, picturesque, gossiping little streets of the town casually meandered upward, paused for a breath in some white, quiet square where advertising posters and green shutters lent the only touch of colour, then took up their way once more only to vanish entirely into farmlands and pine forests. Suddenly a burst of life. A high-powered motor-boat looped out from the shore, then sped arrogantly along parallel with the beach, leaving noise and foam behind it. A few miles out, a scatter of sailing yachts, like white tents tugging in the wind, streamed through sun-washed waves. It was a quiet day. From far off came voices drifting. Planes droned in the sky. Topper's thoughts grew hazy. He had a pleasant feeling of nothingness, of remoteness and severed contacts. Yet also present was a vague sense of unease, an awareness of something waiting.
'Déjeuner, m'sieu,' came a soft voice behind him.
Topper turned slowly and followed the voice. He was wondering if he had taken his cognac altogether properly this morning. A few minutes later he had occasion to feel convinced that he had taken it most improperly as well as too lavishly. He did not regret this, for he felt the need of considerable extra courage and fortitude, both of which were distilled deep in the heart of cognac — good cognac.
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