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Topper Takes A Trip
UNSEEN AND UNINVITED GUESTS
DÉJEUNER, as cherished by the French, was a frightful misnomer for the orgy into which Cosmo Topper had plunged that customarily fragile and insipid repast. When he had first arrived in France he had for a while permitted this travesty of a breakfast to be placed before him. With growing but silent sedition he had observed inferior coffee being mixed on terms of equality with warm and dubious milk. With praiseworthy fortitude he had applied innumerable species of oversweetened confiture to toast that had died aborning. He had masticated with increasing gloom in the face of a smiling France, swallowed with obvious effort, then remained perfectly motionless as he wondered long and deeply. Then the little that had been before him being even less, if possible, he had arisen with a profound sensation of loss and bereavement. As he watched other people going through the same matutinal anticlimax with every visible evidence of enjoyment and animation he had the sensation of a man who alone out of a great multitude had missed the point of a joke, and who in an attempt to disguise this humiliating fact joins in the genuine laughter with false heartiness. To add verisimilitude to this craven deception, Topper would endeavour to leave his table with the air of a man replete with good things, of one saying to himself, 'Déjeuner is a splendid institution. So quaintly French. For the life of me I can't figure out how I ever got along without it for all these years.' But in his heart Mr Topper knew quite well how he had been able to get along without it for all those years, and at last there came a day when he resolved to prolong that sacrifice indefinitely. To hell with what others thought and others ate. He was going to consume his breakfast instead of looking for it. After all, the French, as superficially amiable as they were, might be entirely wrong about this déjeuner business. Anyway, it was their breakfast and not his.
Accordingly, while still loving France either because of or in spite of its failings, Topper introduced into it an essentially American breakfast. To achieve this he completely revolutionized his manner and method of living. He took unto himself a villa, rented one — an operation, by the way, which has done more to promote premature greyness in France among friendly visitors and to change them to cynical and embittered critics than any other form of extortion, insult, and humiliation the supremely logical Latin mind has as yet conceived.
Emerging from this transaction spiritually disgruntled and financially bilked, Mr Topper set about obtaining a supply of God-fearing coffee. This was eventually found after the exchange of innumerable francs. Eggs and bacon then entered into the scheme of things, anew methods were introduced painfully to Suzanne, and eventually there came a day when, in solitary grandeur, Mr Topper sat down to his own kind of breakfast beneath a roof that was temporarily his own. Both Félice, who served this sacrilege, and Suzanne, who had been forced to commit it, furtively watched Mr Topper until assured that God was not going to slay him on their hands.
Mr Topper had once laboured under the mistaken impression that he disliked change, that he was a creature of fixed and inflexible habits and solidly set opinions. Then one day he discovered that all his life he had been terribly wrong and that his conduct up to date had been unnatural inasmuch as it had been based on a false assumption. Quite unexpectedly he discovered that he enjoyed change and revelled in disorder, that hitherto his opinions had not been opinions at all but the figments of a manacled imagination. Marion Kerby had been instrumental in showing him the error of his ways. Topper changed, but in one thing he steadfastly refused to budge. Neither God nor man should for any considerable length of time interfere with either the composition or consumption of his breakfast. It had been ordained at the laying of the first egg conceived by hen and the first slice of bacon extracted from pig that the two should dwell in harmony together. And it was further ordained that their dwelling place should be a plate placed on a breakfast table for the nourishment and delight of man. Obviously this man could not have been of French extraction nor given a snap of his primeval phalanges for petit déjeuner or café au lait.
It was to such a breakfast that Mr Topper anticipated sitting down. Things went no farther than that for a time. The sitting section of the man was rudely arrested in its anticipatory and dignified descent and held grotesquely fixed in a position of suspended animation. Félice regarded the master of the villa with baffled eyes, then hurried from the room to tell Suzanne all about this, his latest prank. He was an original, that one, a veritable type.
'My dear chap,' protested a voice through the small of Mr Topper's back, 'isn't this rather high-handed? Don't remain poised like that. Think of how it must be for me.'
'Think of how it must be for me,' gasped Topper, 'to be rebuked by my own chair.'
Nevertheless, he immediately reversed the operation of his internal jack and elevated himself with more celerity than grace. Hoping that there was, perhaps, something a little curious about that individual chair and that the others were normal, Topper selected another one and was about to occupy it when this time his descent was interrupted even more peremptorily.
'Hold hard, Topper,' said a decided voice. 'Take it away from me. Here I sit and here I stay. Scram.'
As greatly as Mr Topper objected to the use of the expression 'scram', he felt that under the circumstances it eloquently conveyed an idea he very earnestly desired to put into practice. Accordingly he selected still a third chair into which he virtually plunged his body. A soft giggle greeted his arrival, his stomach was tenderly squeezed by two unseen arms — endearments which did more to speed his departure from that chair than had the other two harsher admonitions.
'Don't go,' pleaded a woman's voice which he recognized as belonging to Mrs Hart. 'I liked you so much as you were.'
'You wouldn't have liked me long,' Topper assured her.
'Come! Come!' came the unmistakable voice of Colonel Scott. 'None of that, Mrs Hart, if you please. It's only breakfast yet, or, at least, it's supposed to be breakfast. I wonder if that is as far as we'll get. I've been sitting here all morning watching him swill down cognac.'
'It's my cognac, isn't it?' Topper demanded.
'Rather let us say, it is our cognac,' replied the Colonel. 'One for all and all for one, Topper. How's that?'
'Not so good, Colonel,' Topper answered. 'You mean, all on one and one for all. That's the way it always was, wasn't it?'
'I will say, Topper, you were always a good provider. We expect no less now.'
While this little exchange was in progress Mr Topper was endeavouring to occupy the fourth and last chair at his own breakfast table. For his enterprise his ear was delicately nibbled and he received a slight pinch in an especially selected spot.
'Remove that, my old,' said the well remembered voice of Marion Kerby.
A pair of coarse, cynical laughs which Topper would have preferred not to hear, came from across the table as Topper once more wearily raised his body. He was now in the position of a man unable to sit down at his own breakfast table. Marion's voice had thrilled him, but the situation was working him up to a pitch. He was in no mood for tender thoughts. His breakfast was involved, seriously endangered. For a moment he stood looking undecidedly at the table; then, his rugged New England ancestry overcoming his natural inclination to abandon the unequal struggle, he dragged a chair from the wall, placed it at the table well away from the others, and deposited himself in it with a defiant plop.
'Well, that's very much better, I should say,' commented the Colonel. 'Should have thought of it in the first place.'
'Kindly step to hell,' said Mr Topper, wearily mopping his forehead. 'That's all, just step to hell.'
'Your language,' admonished the voice of the foot in the tub, which could be none other than George Kerby's. 'And your actions. What has come over you, man? First you invade my tub, then you sit on my lap. Great God, it's enough to drive a man crazy!'
'I wouldn't have minded either in the least,' said the voice of the languid Mrs Hart. 'Especially the tub. Mr Topper, I'll let you know the next time I'm making a tub of it.'
'Let me advise you to do no such thing,' came Marion Kerby's voice, cold, deliberate, and low with fury. 'Keep your ectoplasm out of his tub, or I'll tear it to shreds.'
'Here! Here!' put in George Kerby. 'What's that man to you? What do you care about his tub and who goes in it? He's none of your business whatsoever. Understand that? And as for yourself, if I ever catch you even near his tub, I'll drag him down through the pipes.'
Involuntarily Topper shuddered at the picture of himself being elongated through the pipes.
'I suppose it has not even occurred to you,' he observed evenly, 'that I might prefer to bathe entirely alone.'
'That doesn't matter,' said Marion Kerby. 'Not one little bit. If we feel like it, all of us will bathe all over you whether you like it or not. And that goes for Oscar, too.'
At this moment Félice entered bearing a tray laden with eggs, bacon, toast, and a large pot of coffee. Topper looked pleadingly from one to the other of the four apparently unoccupied chairs, but all to no avail. No sooner had the maid placed the tray on the table than its contents were literally whisked away from under Topper's slightly elevated nose. The coffee pot was snatched in one direction, while the bacon and eggs took another, but the latter changed direction several times, as if greedy hands were contending for possession, tugging the plate back and forth. Finally the eggs parted company together with the bacon and disappeared amazingly into the air, small portions of both dropping untidily to the tablecloth. The toast was, acting oddly for plain ordinary toast — for any kind of toast, in fact. Four crisp pieces facing the four empty chairs were being snapped into nothingness. Mr Topper, reaching for the fifth and last piece, experienced the unpleasant sensation of having it snatched from his fingers by an unseen hand.
All this was somewhat trying to observe, especially when the coffee pot became violently agitated in the air as if a determined dispute for its possession were silently in progress. Both Topper and Félice watched the antics of the coffee pot with fascinated eyes.
'There'll be quite enough coffee for all,' said Topper under his breath. 'Put the damn thing down. I'll get some cups.'
He hastened to the buffet and returned with four extra cups, which he placed before the vacant chairs.
'Let me pour,' he said beseechingly. 'Just for the sake of appearances. You'll drive my maid mad.'
'M'sieu,' babbled Félice, 'regardez-moi ça. The breakfast, it eats himself.'
Suzanne stood in the doorway with sheer horror deep in her eyes.
'Go away,' said Mr Topper wearily, 'and eat yourselves. I'm too busy to explain, but everything is quite tranquille. Have no peur. And bring back all the bacon and eggs in the house — and toast.'
'Plain bread will do,' cried a ravenous voice.
'Rashers of bacon,' shouted George Kerby, his voice choked with food.
'And make it snappy, my full-bodied wench,' called the Colonel in his army voice. 'Bien vite, or I'll haunt your sheets.'
This last remark retarded rather than hastened the French girl's flight. She knew her essential English thoroughly. She had decorated more than one American villa. Pausing at the kitchen door she looked archly back at Topper, whom she held directly responsible for all these odd affairs. Had he not been acting strangely all morning?
'Comme on est gentil, m'sieu,' she murmured demurely. 'Est-ce une promesse?'
'And while we're on the subject of keeping away from tubs and things,' Mrs Hart remarked lazily, 'you, my good Colonel, had better keep away from that French trollop's sheets. We don't want any trouble at all, if trouble can be avoided.'
Mr Topper, in attempting to discover just how much remained of his breakfast, found to his disgust that there were no remains. Apart from a slight untidiness — a few crumbs — it was as if his breakfast had never been. Topper cast the chairs a look of supreme distaste. He was a hungry man, and he strongly objected to having his breakfast devoured before his very eyes.
'Well, at any rate,' came the complacent voice of George Kerby, 'I didn't do so badly on that grab.' Here a few crumbs dropped to the table as if finger tips were being delicately brushed. 'Are there no finger bowls in this establishment, Topper? After all, we are your guests, you know.'
Topper laughed shortly.
'Even Einstein couldn't make that theory click,' he said. 'First you crowd yourself into my bathtub, then, not satisfied with that, you go shrieking through the house making nervous wrecks of everybody, including myself. After that gracious little display, you hurry downstairs and call in your gang. You take my breakfast table, and then you snatch my breakfast in the most revolting manner, and now, by God, you demand finger bowls. Listen, the sooner I see the last of you—'
'Pull in, my stout,' interrupted the voice of Marion Kerby. 'You haven't seen the first of us yet, nor the best. For instance, regardez là-bas.'
The table was suddenly adorned by a pair of stunning legs which Topper also felt sure he recognized. These legs, drifting up to nothingness, executed a few clever tap movements, then slowly faded from view.
'And that's just for instance,' continued the voice. 'Have you seen enough, my gross?'
'Quite,' her gross replied hypocritically because of George Kerby. 'Let us have no more obscenities.'
'Then you're easily satisfied,' observed the voice of the Colonel cynically. 'That's just where I begin.'
'Why, Colonel!' exclaimed Mrs Hart. 'You petrify me.'
'Marion,' said George Kerby, and his voice was far from pleasant, 'I would suggest that you lower your visibility considerably. You're not the mascot of the troupe, and your legs are not public property.'
'No, they're strictly my private business,' replied the voice of the legs.
'I'd like to twist them off,' said George Kerby.
Mr Topper closed his eyes on this picture. These spirits had evidently descended to even a lower plane. They were coarser than he had ever known them, and less restrained. Even the Colonel's invariable suavity had become somewhat roughened. Marion's next remark confirmed him in his opinion.
'Then why don't you materialize,' she suggested unemotionally, 'and cut your silly throat from ear to ear in the presence of us all? You deserve to die at least a couple of times, and we deserve to see you.'
'I'm just waiting for you to materialize,' her husband answered angrily, 'and then I'm going to beat the hide off you.'
'You'll get no hide off me,' was the prompt retort.
'Please. Please,' Mr Topper protested feebly. 'I hate to interfere, but, after all, this is my breakfast table. Don't make a brawl of it.'
'Then wouldn't it be expedient to have something placed on the table?' suggested the Colonel.
'I could toy with a clutch of eggs myself,' Mrs Hart remarked in her casual voice. 'My stomach, if you'll pardon me, is in a perfect frenzy.'
'Why don't you all go away?' demanded George Kerby petulantly. 'I found him first.'
'You can have what's left of him when we're through,' Marion remarked in a chilly voice. 'Had quite enough of my legs, had he? Very well, we'll see all about that. I'll teach him how a gentleman should treat a lady.'
Topper, with a feeling of keen apprehension, realized that Marion was in one of her mean, unreasonable moods than which there could be no meaner nor more unreasonable.
'Marion,' he said politely, 'I had no intention of suggesting that I had seen enough of your legs. I was merely trying to convey to you that the time was hardly propitious for their further contemplation.'
It was a dangerous speech, and it had unpleasant results.
'What's that?' demanded George Kerby, hoarse with rage. 'What do you mean by that? Are you trying to date my wife up on me right here before us all?'
'What did I tell you?' asked Topper hopelessly. 'One has but to talk to you, and off he goes merrily on his way to murder. He almost accomplished it once.'
'Now, listen here, Topper,' cried the man's voice passionately. 'Right here and now let's settle this situation. You want to keep well and healthy, don't you?'
'I hope you understand, George,' his wife's voice cut in, 'that if you do anything to Topper, anything serious, that is, anything definite and final, we will have him with us permanently. Would it not be wiser to let him live to an overripe and doddering old age beyond all possibility of competition? It seems to me that you should take very good care of Topper.'
Mr Topper listened to this conversation with a feeling of growing discomfort.
'I can make him suffer like hell in the meantime,' said George's voice musingly. 'I could cripple him.'
'Yes,' agreed Marion,' you might do that. You could tear off parts of him from time to time as a sort of warning.'
Topper was profoundly moved.
'I could do worse than that,' the man's voice replied with an unpleasant laugh. 'Much.'
'You mean worse for Topper?'
'Oh, very much worse for Topper,' the voice continued gloatingly. 'About the worst thing that could happen to a body to my way of thinking.'
'No doubt it would also be to Topper's,' said the woman's voice. 'Both of you have rotten ways of thinking.'
'You don't even know what I'm thinking about.'
'I hope not. But look at Topper. He knows. See how pale he is.' She spoke the truth. Topper was pale indeed. More than that, he was sweating pale drops of perspiration. Like wan, lacklustre jewels they crowned his forehead.
'Dear me,' he protested weakly. 'I wish you wouldn't discuss what you might do to me and mine as if I were not present. I find it most distressing.'
'That's a good idea,' spoke up the Colonel. 'Let's think of all the things we could do to Topper without quite killing him, and the one who hits on the worst wins a bottle of his best wine.'
'And I lose, whoever wins,' Topper commented bitterly.
'I win the wine,' declared George Kerby, 'because I've already thought up the worst thing that could happen to Topper.'
'Why don't you play another game?' Mr Topper suggested.
'Why don't you see who can keep quiet the longest or go away the farthest? I hope you all win.'
'Now, Cosmo,' came the mockingly pained voice of Marion Kerby. 'You don't seem at all pleased to have us with you again, and I had thought it was going to be so different. Why, we've hardly done a thing to you yet in comparison with what we might do, or probably will do. I, for one, feel a bit depressed by this reception — saddened, I might almost say. Not having a handkerchief, I'll have to use part of this tablecloth. Pardon me, everybody, but I'm not made of stone exactly. I'm not a great slab of granite. I can't chip sledge hammers. I'm extremely thin skinned. Nobody —'
'Oh, for God's own sake,' broke in Mr Topper unfeelingly, as he watched one end of the tablecloth making delicate little dabs in the air. 'Don't go on so. You're so thin skinned you're actually transparent. I can see clean through you.'
'Go on, George!' cried Marion's voice. 'Do what you said you were going to do. I don't care one little damn now. Tear the beggar asunder.'
Topper caught a momentary flash of himself flying in all directions, of his various members decorating the Riviera. He closed his eyes on this, too. He found it difficult to decide whether Marion was more to be feared in one of her shockingly playful moods or when she was blindly ferocious. She played both to perfection.
'Let's all quiet down now,' came the surprisingly amicable voice of George Kerby. 'Let's pull ourselves compactly together and pray for food. We don't want to have any trouble here in Topper's own home.'
'Speak for yourself,' snapped Marion. 'I want some trouble here. I want a lot of trouble.'
'Here comes something much better,' Mrs Hart's voice cried out excitedly. 'Clap eyes on that, Colonel. What a delicious-looking tray! My mouth fairly slavers.'
This time, upon the appearance of Félice bearing a fresh and more abundant supply of food, Mr Topper made a better showing. He had made up his mind not to be caught napping again. If he had to fight like an animal for his food, he was fully prepared to do his best. He would claw and snatch to the last crumb. And that was almost literally what he had to do to salvage the modest scrap of breakfast he did. His guests were prepared to go even farther than himself in their eagerness to provide their apparently famished but unseen bodies with nourishment.
Félice, who loved a good frolic of almost any nature as well if not better than the next, was startled in spite of herself. She could not understand how Mr Topper could be in so many places at once. The affrighted girl was rocked as if in the grip of a gale. Once or twice an indignant protest escaped her lips as if undue liberties were being taken with things other than Mr Topper's breakfast.
Even when he returned to his chair with the spoils of conquest, Mr Topper was not at all sure of his success. He distinctly heard someone breathing interestedly over his shoulder. It gave him an eerie sensation — the awareness of hidden eyes peering consideringly into the contents of his plate.
'That's a nice little bit,' said the absorbed voice of Marion Kerby. 'I think I'll take that one just to prove I've forgiven you.'
Whereupon one of Topper's choicest pieces of bacon slid from his plate and halved itself in the air. Its ultimate disappearance was followed by a distinct click, as of teeth.
'How unnecessary,' thought Mr Topper.
It is surprising he did not think more about this weird breakfast and the strange things that had come to pass at it. The truth of the matter was that Mr Topper had not been given much opportunity to do any thinking at all. He had been far too deeply involved himself. Astounding events occur with such a disarming air of naturalness that it makes one feel as if one had especially ordered them. One scarcely realizes their true nature until after they are over.
His friends had been changed but not improved. It was merely that the scope and effectiveness of their antisocial activities had been increased. One of these activities, although scarcely anti-social, was now in progress. An uninitiated observer would have gained the impression that Félice had been suddenly endowed with miraculous powers which she was using rather flightily. To the consternation of Mr Topper she had elevated her fine French body about three feet above and parallel with the floor. There she remained for a moment alluringly poised on the wings of the fair Riviera morning.
'Leave her alone, Colonel,' Mrs Hart admonished. 'If you don't put her down I'll walk out on you.'
But the Colonel, having gorged himself, was now playful. Slowly but gracefully Félice was lowered to the matting, and her skirt, her inviolate jupe, was snatched from her waist. Félice, beside herself, was now only in step-ins and stockings. She looked greatly improved that way. The jupe, unoccupied, fluttered mysteriously in the air, then flopped down by the figure of its erstwhile tenant. Bereft of her skirt Félice was also bereft of her reason. That fine fortitude that had stood her in such good stead on other similar occasions forsook her now. To be unable to put up even a formal resistance seriously upset her ethics. Then again, when capitulating to a visible assailant one had something to go on, whereas with this one God alone knew what he looked like or what he was trying to prove. Whoever he was he seemed to have no definitely conceived purpose other than general low behaviour. Félice tossed her fortitude into the discard along with her jupe. She began to scream in the most shockingly convincing manner. In the midst of this frightful noise she turned quite white and, so far as Mr Topper could tell, died. The distracted man sprang from his chair and knelt down beside the stricken maid.
He was in this compromising position when Mrs Topper appeared. The man glanced up at his wife, and finding no comfort there, glanced back at what seemed to him interminable leagues of step-ins and silk stockings. He was stunned by the amount of sheer leg that this woman had. The silence in the room was fraught with accusations. He was unable to let it continue.
'I just got here,' he observed rather inanely.
'So did I,' said Mrs Topper. 'It seems in the nick of time.'
'What do you mean?' Topper demanded indignantly.
'Need we go into that?' asked Mrs Topper, delicately arching her eyebrows.
'It's not that,' explained Topper in a hopeless voice.
'Then if it isn't that,' observed his wife, 'you must have taken up murder, which is, if anything, a trifle worse. What is her skirt doing where it is instead of where it should be?'
'It flopped there,' said Mr Topper.
'A pretty picture,' commented Mrs Topper, considering the skirt. 'It just happened to flop there. For all you cared, I fancy, it might just as well have been hanging from the chandelier. And, by the if you are interested in whether or not she is regaining consciousness, I would suggest that you shift your eyes to her face instead.'
This was a little too much for Topper, but there was still more to come. When he attempted to rise, Félice, opening her eyes suddenly, flung her strong arms round his neck, and with a Gallic twist to the half-Nelson, tossed him easily on to his back. For a few moments Mr Topper, stunned, lay down by his maid and stared up at the ceiling, upon which were many Riviera flies and a fine showing of mosquitoes recuperating from their night's revelry.
As if fearing another and more brutal attack, Mr Topper sacrificed his dignity and rolled rapidly across the room. Then slowly he rose to his feet. Somewhere in the room a woman's voice was giggling, and it was not Mrs Topper's. That good lady was watching the performance of her husband with detachment.
'Well, I must say,' she admitted, 'you move with surprising rapidity for a man of your age and bulk.'
'What do you mean, my age and bulk?' he flung at her. 'I'm as good a man as any along the Riviera, and I'll prove it quickly enough if you pull any more of those wisecracks.'
'You almost did,' was all Mrs Topper said, but it was quite enough.
Topper, whose wits were still numb from the various shocks of the morning, could think of no reply to this. However, he could think of something to do. He gave the jupe of Félice an unreasonable kick and marched from the room.
'I shall expect an explanation,' his wife called after him. He laughed sardonically and collected his hat and stick. 'It would drive you mad,' he said.
With a set face he departed in the direction of the village.
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