|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|
Topper Takes A Trip
A SELF-TIPPING HAT
'AND as for the rest of you,' Topper shouted furiously but inadequately across the length of his garden, 'I hope you choke.'
'On what?' a voice at his shoulder promptly asked. 'Man cannot choke on air alone.'
'I wish to God you could, Kerby,' Topper told the voice with the defiant inelegance of a baited man. He turned away.
Mrs Topper, not understanding the reason for her husband's fervent hope, and thinking he was flinging insults at the servants, decided that the man had lost what little was left of his wits. Not so Monsieur Louis, who was still hot at it, encouraging his garden. Once more the redoubtable head popped up. With the deadly accuracy of an eagle's claw, a nervous hand seized Topper.
'Arrest you!' cried the Frenchman.
'For what?' demanded Topper, who by this time was surprised by no turn of fate.
'I near the end, mon ami,' breathed Monsieur Louis.
At the moment Topper was not in the least sorry. The sooner Monsieur Louis came to a complete and definite end the better. However, he remained gentil.
'Not, I trust, before you have had your play,' he remarked.
At the mention of play Monsieur Louis brightened shamelessly.
'But yes, Monsieur Toppaire,' he replied. 'First I arrive at a finish, is it not? Then I begin to play.'
'You're just like some friends of mine,' commented Topper. 'They arrived at a finish and then they began to play. They've been doing it ever since, at the expense of others. Monsieur Louis, I do not like these friends, No.'
Monsieur Louis was at a loss concerning the true inwardness of Mr Topper's remarks. He never had an opportunity to find out, for at that moment Mr Topper appeared to spin round on his heels. From somewhere close at hand a woman's voice addressed him heatedly.
'You know that free-for-all Félice, don't you?' demanded the voice.
'I didn't know she was that,' Topper got out.
'Never mind,' the voice went on. 'If you even so much as look cross-eyed at that jade I'll chase you clean out into the middle of that damn Mediterranean and then sink you. So help me God!'
'You, M'sieu, and Félice?' inquired the little Frenchman in a low voice, quivering with emotion. 'She is good, that one — voluptueuse.'
'What do you know about it?' Topper demanded ill-temperedly, but did not stay to be told.
As he hastened down the road Monsieur Louis's bright eyes were darting from bush to bush in quest of one who could be none other than Madame Toppaire herself. So Félice was up to her old tricks, was she? It was of a convenience for the wealthy American visitor. He might prolong his stay to spend many good American dollars in their little French village. It was of a rightness. All the world would be well pleased save Madame Toppaire. She alone would not be elated. It was that Félice lacked discretion. That would come with the years. The little Frenchman thoughtfully shrugged his shoulders, then hurled himself at his garden, a complete picture of Félice at her best dwelling in his eyes.
In the meantime Topper was stepping diligently over yards and yards of drying fishing nets extending across his path. Innumerable dogs, attracted by memories of what the nets had once contained, did not speed his progress. To avoid a net and a dog at the same time required both quick decision and prompt action. Once he almost fell upon his fish-assailed nose. He had been pushed by an unseen companion whom he cursed passionately under his breath.
The fact was, Mr Topper was a very much haunted man. If anything, he was overhaunted. His steps were dogged by low-plane spirits. He realized this more and more as he took his way towards the centre of the village, skirting sidewalk cafés already performing their convivial functions, and crossing streets wherein motor cars hooted French maledictions at every moving object, and the deeper tones of a passing machine gave notice of the American invasion.
When he turned into the main thoroughfare of the town in which were situated the bureau de poste and some of the more important shops and cafés that would never have been in existence had Columbus remained at home, the fact that he was not unaccompanied was most unpleasantly borne in on him. He was being given aid in a rather singular manner. His hat was tipping itself of its own accord, but with marked courtesy, at various passers-by. Perfect strangers, desirous of taking no chances, were returning his involuntary salutations with puzzled, back-thinking expressions in their eyes.
Mr Topper began to feel exceedingly foolish, especially when he realized that people were turning and staring wonderingly after his dignified well-tailored back. This inclusive greeting meant little to the Frenchmen he met, for a Frenchman is by nature an enthusiast at the game and will flip a snappy béret upon the slightest provocation. A friendly smile will turn him temporarily into a hand-writing symbol of welcome. Not so with others. Many persons not unreasonably object to being saluted by an individual unknown to them. This is especially true of certain gentlemen when accompanied by certain ladies. And because they realize that their escorts will become angry enough for two, women have trained themselves rigidly not to be offended when pleasantly accosted by strangers of the opposite sex. So well have they succeeded that it is yet to be recorded that a woman has been anything other than secretly pleased upon the reception of such friendly overtures.
Accordingly, Mr Topper, in the course of his walk, was the recipient of numerous hostile as well as covertly appreciative glances.
One Southern gentleman had the bad taste to ask him who the hell he was taking his hat off to, and when Mr Topper in his irritation answered, 'I hope you don't suspect me of taking it off to what you have in tow,' this same Southern gentleman made a chivalrous Southern pass at Mr Topper's eye. But the blow never landed. Mr Topper's companions might have been ill-advisedly helpful, but they had no intention of permitting others to take any liberties with his person. That was sacred to them. Mr Topper had the satisfaction of seeing the Southern gentleman double up with a gasp of sharp anguish while his hands solicitously clutched at his Southern stomach. Synchronously with this involuntary but nevertheless grotesque action the assaulted gentleman's hat — a panama, especially purchased for the trip — was whisked from his head and tossed negligently to the street which had been traversed by horses as well as automobiles. This second misfortune, following so swiftly on the heels of the first, brought the Southern gentleman erect as if touched by a magic wand. That hat, that panama, meant much to him.
Now, it is an obvious conclusion that a man trying to decide whether to hit another man in the eye and then to rescue a new but slightly soiled panama from the street, or to rescue the panama first and then come back and hit the other man in the eye is thwarted in both ambitions. While Mr Topper slipped through his fingers, the Southern gentleman, standing in deep abstraction, watched with morbid eyes the completion of his hat's ruin as an automobile — an antiquated car at that — jounced blithely over it.
'Don't worry, Toppy, old scout,' said George Kerby's voice in his ear. 'We're not going to let anything happen to you.'
'Thanks a lot,' muttered Topper. 'Your hearts, wherever they are, I'm sure are in the right place, but don't call me Toppy, and for the love of God keep your hands from my hat. The situation is most embarrassing.'
Topper spoke through stiff lips. He feared that people would think he had taken up talking to himself in addition to his other eccentricities.
'Don't mind about your hat,' whispered Marion. 'We'll take care of that. We'll make it seem automatic. Only, of course, we don't know your friends from Adam. We'll just tip the damn thing at everyone, and that will make you popular.'
'It will make me notorious,' stiff-lipped Topper. 'Why do you always insist on being so all-fired helpful?'
'We like you, Topper,' came the Colonel's voice. 'You're a real pal. And we feel for you because you're alone in a foreign land. From now on we're going to see that you get the best of the breaks.'
'Even if we have to break your neck,' added George.
Topper groaned. There was no escape. He continued down the street. This time he altered his tactics. Whenever he felt his hat preparing to leave his head he would reach up quickly in an endeavour either to hold it on or, at least, to give the appearance of tipping it himself. But his companions were too quick for him. When Topper's right hand shot up the hat would dart to the left. When he attempted to clutch it with his left hand the agitated object would cleverly dodge to the right. As a result of this, Topper gave the appearance of a man who for no apparent reason was diligently juggling his hat. Realizing the futility of his efforts he abandoned them and allowed the hat to have its way. There was nothing else to do about it.
'Be ready,' he heard Marion whisper excitedly. 'Here comes an important-looking person. Make this tip a good one.'
As the important person passed by, Mr Topper's hat flew off with a particularly graceful swoop, and the important person, in his anxiety to be equally courteous, nearly stabbed himself in the groin with his stiffly starched French beard. Greatly unnerved by this encounter, Mr Topper paused in the cooling shade cast by the Byzantine mass of Notre Dame de la Victoire to catch a quiet breath and to consider ways and means. This sort of thing could not go on. He had lost his reputation already. He feared now that he might lose his liberty as well. But even here, in the shade of the great cathedral, his hat continued to bob up and down with industrious rapidity.
While this bobbing was in progress Mr Topper noticed a tall, gloomy-looking individual watching him intently. The man had actually stopped and was standing with his gaze riveted on Mr Topper's head. Every time the hat sprang to life the gentleman started visibly, then drew a little nearer, as if under a spell. Topper felt strongly inclined to take to his heels, but it was already too late. The gloomy man approached and addressed himself to Mr Topper.
'I trust you will pardon me,' he said, 'but for the life of me I can't figure out how you do it.'
'It's quite simple,' replied Topper for lack of anything better to say.
'I dare say,' responded the man. 'The best things usually are. Would you mind doing it again?'
'Greatly,' gasped the distracted Topper, but he had no choice in the matter.
Pleased by the attention their real pal was receiving, Mr Topper's unseen companions treated the appreciative gentleman to a special display. This time the hat twirled rapidly round on its brim on the crown of Mr Topper's head. Although the gloomy gentleman had been prepared for something he had not been prepared for as much of it as this. He stepped back a pace or two and regarded Mr Topper with alarmed eyes.
'It's astounding,' he said at last in a low voice. 'Will you do it just once more?'
'Certainly not,' replied Mr Topper.
But the hat did do it once more, only this time it rose high in the air, then descended jauntily on Mr Topper's head. This small-sized miracle was sufficient to cause several other persons to stop to observe. Soon Topper and the gloomy gentleman formed the centre of an interested little group. Mr Topper will never forget the embarrassment of standing there watching several dozen pairs of bewildered eyes moving slowly up and down as his hat rose and fell.
'Merveilleux!' a voice broke from the crowd.
'Un drôle de corps, ce type la,' observed another.
Mr Topper flinched. Someone had referred to him as an odd fish. He objected to this, especially when he had no control over the circumstances that made him appear so in the eyes of this Frenchman.
'Is it your ears?' asked the gloomy gentleman.
Mr Topper could not trust himself to speak. He merely shook his head.
'I could have sworn it was your ears,' the man continued, his disappointment written large on his face. 'Then you must have muscles in your scalp.'
Mr Topper was upset by this revolting suspicion.
'I am in no sense abnormal,' he muttered.
'But, my dear sir, you must be,' protested the gloomy gentle-man. 'You must be almost supernatural, or else you would not be able to accomplish such marvellous results.'
'I'm glad they strike you as such,' said Mr Topper bitterly. 'I think they are damned childish.'
'Not at all,' the man assured him. 'You are far too modest. Is it possible you can flip your spine, perhaps?'
'How do you mean flip?' Mr Topper got out as the hat crashed down on his head, completely covering his eyes. 'Adjust the damn thing,' he muttered aside. 'I'm in total darkness.'
'I don't know,' continued the man, looking even gloomier. 'It was merely a guess.'
'Neither do I,' said Mr Topper. 'Why do you ask so many ridiculous questions? Can't you see I'm busy? You should be satisfied just to watch.'
'It's fine,' admitted the man wistfully, 'but I'd like to know. Used to be pretty good at that sort of thing myself.'
'I wish you were doing it now instead of me,' said Topper earnestly.
'I'd enjoy it,' breathed the man.
'You would,' remarked Topper disgustedly as his hat took to flight. 'But I don't. It bores me.'
'But aren't you doing it of your own free will?'
Topper laughed crazily.
'Do you think I would make an ass of myself for fun?' he demanded. 'I'm not playful. This is being done very much against my will. If you'd like to know, I'm not doing it at all.'
'Then what's doing it?'
'That hat is.'
'What! The hat? How?'
'I don't know,' answered Topper, feeling his grip slipping. 'Can't you see I'm in trouble? Don't ask me any more questions. I can't answer and I won't answer. Let us say it's a disease — curvature of the hat, convulsions of the scalp, frenzy of the brain — anything!'
'I wish I could catch the hang of it,' murmured the man, once more wistful. 'It would make a great hit back home with the boys. Just think of walking down the street on Sundays with the kiddies and the little lady and surprising all the boys.'
'You think of it,' retorted Topper. 'I don't like to. I'm busy surprising perfect strangers — persons I never saw before and who I hope never to see again.'
For a moment Topper looked almost pityingly upon the gloomy gentleman. An over-rich person from South America stepped from the crowd and slipped a fifty-franc note into the haunted man's hand. This was a shade too thick for Topper. In an excess of rage he reached up and, snatching the hat just before it left his head, dashed it to the ground.
'Malheureux!' muttered a voice in the crowd.
'Quel dommage!' exclaimed a second.
'Ciel!' shouted another. 'Regardez, viie! Il vit, ce chapeau.'
The hat indeed was living, living to the utmost while it had the chance. No sooner had it struck the pavement that it bounded back and pounced upon Mr Topper's head.
'Don't do that,' said a rebuking voice in his ear. 'Don't be childish.'
Topper no longer gave a rap whether people thought he was talking to himself or not. He turned sharply and addressed space. 'Childish!' he exclaimed. 'My God, I like that! You've made an old man of me. Could anything conceivably be more puerile, more inane, more off balance than what you've been doing to me?'
'Topper,' said Marion Kerby, 'you are God's gift to France. Through us you are amusing her children.'
'I don't give a damn about that,' he retorted. 'I know you're making a blithering idiot of me. As it is I feel like falling down in the gutter and grovelling like a — a —'
'Like a fish,' suggested Marion.
'Fish don't grovel,' objected George. 'Worms do that.'
'And cowards,' added the Colonel.
'Listen,' said Mr Topper, 'I don't care to discuss the matter. I'll grovel like an eel if I want to.'
'How quaint,' put in Mrs Hart.
'Go right ahead,' said George Kerby unfeelingly. 'Do your grovelling. I'd like to see you.'
'No,' declared the Colonel, 'we must take steps. And promptly. Topper needs diversion. We all need diversion. All work and no play. Grab his other arm, George. Now, all together.'
Before Topper had time to realize what was being done to him, he felt himself seized by either hand and dragged through the admiringly respectful crowd.
'He parts,' said an awed voice, and Topper feared the man was literally correct.
'All is ended,' quoth another, and Topper felt that he, too, had spoken the truth.
With the upper half of his body greatly in advance of the rest of him, a position which gave his legs a peculiar dangling appearance, Mr Topper was dragged down the street. And if some people thought it an unusual way for a man to walk, Topper could not help it. It was not a matter of choice with him, although he did his best to lessen the oddness of his position by waving his legs frantically in an effort to get them as nearly as possible under his body. But he never succeeded in catching up with himself. The impression he gave was that of a racing bicycle rider, an impassioned bicycle rider, yet one who was deriving scant pleasure from his violent exertion.
'Listen,' he said beseechingly. 'Won't you please just throw me away anywhere — it doesn't matter where — and call it a day?'
'Topper,' replied George Kerby, a trifle winded himself, 'we're with you to the end.'
'And that,' panted Topper, 'won't be long now.'
|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|