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Topper Takes A Trip


Thorne Smith



'PHEW!' exclaimed the Colonel after several blocks had been covered in the manner described. 'This Topper party is no piece of fluff. What we need is a drink.'

'For once, Colonel, you're right,' agreed Mr Kerby. 'And I know the exact spot. Topper goes there often.'

'But of my own accord,' gasped Topper. 'That makes all the difference. Don't drag me in there like this.'

'Oh, we've got to hurry,' said Marion. 'Drag him along, George. Faster, if possible.'

As a result of this callous adjuration Mr Topper's body made an angle of forty-five degrees with the earth's surface. This, it must be admitted, is an arresting way for a body to perform. And it was in this manner and at this angle that a few minutes later Mr Topper scooted through the door of the English Bar and curved up with what one might call a swan-like swoop in front of the bar itself.

'Good morning, Peter,' wheezed Mr Topper, hoping to divert the bar-tender's mind from the singular manner of his entrance. 'What's all this I hear about the Prince of Wales?'

Peter seemed neither to know nor to care what Mr Topper had heard all about the Prince of Wales. He leaned far over the bar and looked for a long time intently at Mr Topper's feet, then slowly his gaze moved upward until at last all of Mr Topper had been carefully surveyed.

'People have staggered up to this bar in many queer and inexplicable contortions,' he observed heavily. 'Some have made it while others have fallen short. I had begun to believe that I knew every way a man could approach this bar under his own steam. I was mistaken, Mr Topper.' Here Peter shook his head sadly. 'Never in all the years of my service has a customer, or anyone else, for that matter, arrived before me as you did just now. Might I be so bold as to ask you to do it again? Just once more, if you will, Mr Topper?'

'Nonsense, Peter,' replied Mr Topper deprecatingly. 'Don't go on so about it. That was merely an old, old trick of mine. I rarely if ever do it any more.'

'Bravo, Topper!' cried several approving voices which Mr Topper recognized as belonging to habitués of the place. 'Do it again, old chap,' and 'Give us all a chance.'

'Yes, please go on,' implored another voice. 'Do what you did again, or else I'll believe to my dying day that drink has touched my mind.'

With a forced smile Mr Topper shook his head. Suddenly, however, his forced smile became fixed, glazed over, and unnatural. He felt himself being unceremoniously yanked back to the door.

'All ready, Colonel?' muttered the voice of Kerby.

'Right,' grunted the Colonel.

This time Topper was even better than before. He scooped through the room at an angle of thirty degrees. Like a fancy diver coming to the surface after describing a graceful arc beneath the water, he righted himself at the bar, his back slightly arched and his head well up. And like the diver he had so faithfully emulated, Mr Topper, too, was breathless.

There was a general scraping of chairs as the occupants of the English Bar sat back and bent perplexed gazes upon the body and person of Mr Topper.

'Damned if I see how he managed it,' one gentleman at last admitted.

'No more do I,' vouchsafed another. 'Looked as if he were attached to wires or something, like an almost human puppet.'

A tall, thin man who up to the sensational entrance of Mr Topper had been sitting quite alone, his head held carefully between his hands, rose unsteadily to his feet and, clinging for support to the backs of chairs, made his way weakly to the door. Here he paused and gazed back long and reproachfully at Mr Topper out of a pair of sombre, miserable eyes. Then he made his way to his hotel, packed hastily, and returned without delay to London. The Riviera had been too much for him. Never again did he fully believe in its reality. He preferred not to be reminded of the place. He never mentioned it himself and when his friends returned from the South of France he requested them not to tell him where they had been. After the peculiar, inexplicable episode of the English Bar he realized that the only way for him to retain his reason was to drive it from his thoughts entirely. He refused to admit even to himself that the incident had ever occurred, that a man created loosely in the image of God had so casually, so ridiculously set aside His laws as well as a few of Mr Newton's. In later years this man drank himself nearly to death and finally did die as a result of trying to repeat Mr Topper's performance in a low-class pub. Thus, even at a distance and after the lapse of years, did the insidious Côte d'Azur claim another victim.

After the first ejaculations of astonishment occasioned by the repetition and intensification of Mr Topper's odd entrance, the occupants of the English Bar once more sat back and considered the man as they would a god, their silent admiration not unmixed with a hint of alarm. Many were of the opinion that a man who had just done what he had done was capable of doing still more, was capable of doing practically anything, in fact — unheard of things. And he might not always be playful about it.

'Well,' said an elderly gentleman wishing to propitiate the luck-less Topper, 'I am sure we have all been most handsomely entertained.'

Mr Blynn Nelson sold expensive motor boats entertainingly to the wives of the rich. It was suspected that his activities did not stop there. He now turned to Millie Coit, his neighbour, at a large, well-filled table.

'In spite of which,' he said in a low voice, 'I thank my God people don't come in that way very often. The man must be double jointed.'

At the bar Mr Topper was not having a jolly time. No. He was not having anything nearly approaching a jolly time. Pressure had been brought to bear on him to the end that five champagne cock-tails now stood in a row in front of him. The lifting of one of the cool, long-stemmed glasses to his lips was the signal for the others to follow. Topper gulped down his own cocktail, but the remaining four, after tilting themselves delicately, emptied their contents into the void. Topper, desperately moving from glass to glass inan effort to give the impression he was drinking them all, looked much like a circus seal snatching unearned rewards. Four distinct sighs of satisfaction followed the emptying of the glasses. A small but heartfelt groan escaped Mr Topper's lips.

Peter had been privileged to witness all this. He now decided with his unerring sense of discrimination that it was high time to do a little line drawing.

'Mr Topper,' he suggested in a low voice, 'you've done very nicely this morning. Amazingly well, I should say, but if you keep it up you will probably deprive a few of my borderline customers of their remaining shreds of sanity.'

'I'll try to control myself, Peter,' said Mr Topper, humbly.

'Would you mind telling me, sir, how you managed that last bit — those four separate and distinct sighs? To me that was most uncanny. I almost dropped my shaker. Had a feeling I was surrounded.'

'I know how it is,' replied Topper, laughing falsely as he drifted away from the bar. 'Oh, I just did it somehow, Peter. Tossed them off, you know.'

Peter did not know, and he looked it thoroughly.

Mr Topper's friends made a place for him at their table and insisted on his sitting down. Everyone wanted to buy him a drink. A man who could do such things as Topper had already done should be received with a lavish hand.

As Topper was wearily seating himself, not at all sure whether or not the chair would be snatched from under him, Millie Coit turned to Hunt Davis.

'You were saying you lost your wrist watch?'

Hunt Davis was a writer of parts. Topper liked the man, but not so many others with the possible exception of Millie Coit. He now looked quite cast down about his wrist watch. Harold Gay inspected him with gloomy eyes.

'I know how you must feel, old boy,' he remarked sympathetically.

'Did you ever lose a wrist watch?' asked Davis a little jealously.

'No,' Harold Gay admitted. 'I never wore a wrist watch.'

'Then how can you possibly know how I feel?'

'Simply by putting myself in your place. It's not so difficult to put one's self in the place of a man who has had his wrist watch stolen.'

'It may not be so hard to put yourself in the place of a man who has had his wrist watch stolen only once,' admitted Davis, 'but, by God, it's impossible to put yourself in the place of a man who has had his wrist watch stolen three times.'

'It's harder,' agreed Mr Gay, 'but it's not impossible. Not for me it isn't. I merely put myself in the place of that man three times. I triple my emotions, as it were.'

'And how do you feel after you've put yourself in that man's place for the third time, may I ask?'

'Certainly,' replied Gay. 'I feel — I feel very much discouraged. I feel blue about it. Gloomy. I feel like giving up wearing wrist watches and asking other persons for the time.'

'But that wasn't at all the way I felt,' Hunt Davis objected. 'Would you mind telling me how in hell you did feel?'

'I don't recall feeling anything at all except no wrist watch. It was a most peculiar sensation.'

'You mean feeling nothing was a peculiar sensation?'

'Not for some,' said Hunt Davis. 'Some people never feel anything and don't care a rap, but with me it's awful. I mean the way I felt when I was feeling nothing.'

'But, my dear chap —'

'Oh, for God's own personal sake,' protested Clyde Jones. 'We don't care how you felt the first time you had a wrist watch stolen, much less the last. Frankly, I feel thirsty. One minute, Manley.'

'Just the same it would be nice to know,' pursued Harold Gay.

'I can't tell you,' said Davis. 'It was all too strange and awful.'

'Will somebody change the subject?' asked Millie Coit. 'All my words are too dirty.'

'Like your subjects,' observed Mrs Willard.

'And the company they keep,' said Millie brightly.

'Then tell us how it feels to lose one's virtue for the third time,' suggested Mr Nelson.

'Oh, I say,' protested Commander Becket.

'It can't be done,' was Millie's calm reply. 'Virtue is a much overrated commodity that can be lost only once. In most cases it's tossed away.'

'And that's my dish,' said Mr Topper surprisingly.

For this he received a sharp dig in the ribs.

'Hold your tongue,' Marion Kerby whispered furiously in his ear. 'Don't try to be smart and Riviera-ish. Here, I want that drink.'

Obediently Topper held his glass over his left shoulder. Its contents were speedily drained.

'I hear the sound of lapping as of a cat,' said Hunt Davis. Topper quickly lowered his glass and relapsed into brooding silence.

Mr Harold Gay, in spite of his comfortable size, was not a comfortable companion. He had a penchant for bringing up subjects which neither he himself nor anyone else knew anything about. And yet these subjects were of such a disturbing nature that they demanded some sort of definite settlement — even an erroneous one — before anyone could return to that comfortable state of mental torpor which is germane to man.

For some minutes now he had been fixedly watching a certain spot on the floor, and while he watched he had been doing his best to persuade his intelligence that his eyes were all wrong. And yet what he saw was not in itself remarkable. In fact, it was nothing more nor less than a dog's tail, only in this instance — and this might be a trifle odd — this dog's tail was sometimes more and sometimes less. It was this that disturbed Mr Harold Gay. And not without reason. A tail that can advance or retard itself according to the mood or necessity of the moment is enough to disturb the most hardened of characters. It is a tail to be reckoned with and not brushed aside. For Harold Gay it was a tail without precedent, a manifestation entirely outside the range of his experience.

This tail, this tail of a dog, was a hairy one — hairy to the point of artistic neglect. Bushy, it was. It was not an alluring tail. No. Not prepossessing. It was just a dog's sort of tail. It belonged to a dog of careless habits and indolent mind, to a dog either so high or so low in the social scale of dogs that further effort would avail nothing. It had either achieved all or had nothing left to lose. But here was the rub — the part that gave Mr Gay to pause. The dog proper, which according to the laws of God should have rightfully belonged to this tail, had either misplaced its body or callously abandoned its tail. Strange as this may seem, the tail, in the absence of the directing head, appeared to be quite competent to carry on for itself. It had been draped across the matting, thrust out from under a table for a distance of from six to eighteen inches, roughly estimated. Mr Gay later gave those measurements as being, in his considered opinion, the most nearly accurate. Manley was inclined to agree. On various occasions that morning in the course of his plying between tables, Manley had seen that tail. Quite naturally he had jumped to the conclusion that a dog was attached to it and that the dog was under the table, which, to Manley's way of thinking, was just like a dog. Harold Gay knew better. From where he was sitting he could see all. Not only could he see that there was no dog even loosely associated with this tail, but also that the tail itself possessed the remarkable virtuosity of being able to diminish and even to disappear entirely upon the approach of a threatening foot. Mr Gay did not feel sufficiently confident of his own mental faculties to keep this tremendous knowledge to himself. He decided that he had to establish contact with other human minds. Accordingly, he made tentative advances.

'Will someone please bear me out in this?' he asked with due deliberation. 'Is that thing, that hairy-looking object protruding from under that table, the tail of a dog?'

Everyone at the table concentrated his attention on the spot indicated. Mr Topper, with mixed emotions, recognized Oscar's terminus, and as if the recognition were mutual the terminus wagged feebly across a modest arc of matting.

'It gives every indication of being the tail of a dog,' Commander Becket declared after a thoughtful silence, 'the tail of a dog animated by only the friendliest of feelings.'

'So far so good,' continued Harold Gay. 'Now, am I right in presuming that that tail rates a body, or do tails no longer require bodies along the Riviera?'

'In my measured opinion,' observed Sam Brooks, 'there should be a body knocking about somewhere belonging to that tail — a dog-like body of sorts.'

'Perhaps,' suggested Blynn Nelson without much hope,'some woman was wearing a summer fur and dropped that tail.'

'So would I have done,' observed Mrs Willard critically. 'If my summer fur had a tail like that I couldn't drop it too soon.'

'Righto,' agreed Nelson. 'If that tail belongs to a summer fur, what must the fur look like? Shouldn't fancy the thing would be particularly nice to see.'

Upon the reception of these unfavourable comments the tail sadly diminished in length. Topper felt sorry for its owner. He realized how humiliating it was to have one's tail so dispassionately discussed.

'Don't mind what they say, old boy,' he called softly.

At the sound of Topper's voice the tail shot back to life. It wagged against the matting with frantic impetuosity. All at the table were startled, including Topper. The tail was regarded with respect if not with affection.

'Do you happen to be on speaking terms with that tail, Mr Topper?' Commander Becket inquired.

'It strikes a responsive chord,' said Mr Topper evasively.

'Then will you ask it for me to go somewhere else and collect a body?' asked Millie Coit. 'This sort of thing is getting on my nerves.'

'It's not improving my condition,' added an Englishman named Waddles.

'And what I am looking at,' contributed Hunt Davis, 'is actually doing me harm.'

'What are you seeing?' inquired Mr Gay.

'I am seeing — I'm afraid I'm seeing — a game of checkers playing itself very quietly, very orderly, but, nevertheless, playing itself without the assistance of human hands,' replied Hunt Davis in a strained voice.

'I do hope I don't become hysterical,' Mr Topper muttered. 'Let's all have another drink.'

'Do you think it's possible that those we have already taken had a little something extra in them?' Millie asked in a low voice. 'Something so subtle yet so powerful that our minds have all been affected alike?'

'Don't ask questions,' replied Mr Gay. 'My thoughts are elsewhere.'

'I'd swear there isn't a living soul sitting at that table,' Clyde Jones mused aloud, 'and yet it drinks champagne and plays checkers in the most accomplished manner. It passes human understanding.'

'And under that table,' said Millie Coit, 'is a dogless tail. How queer does a thing have to be before it becomes a miracle? If the populace knew what was going on here they'd turn this bar-room into a shrine.'

'That relic is far from sacred,' Commander Becket vouchsafed, pointing to the shaggy tail. 'I'd call it an obscene manifestation of black magic.'

During the course of this colloquy the disembodied game of checkers progressed with every indication of purpose and enjoyment. The red and black disks moved with dignity and deliberation. One of them would occasionally poise itself in the air as if in hesitation, then smoothly continue on its way. From time to time a glass filled with the finest champagne would elevate itself about lip high from the table, then return of its own accord daintily to its original point of departure.

'I've heard tell of fireless cookers,' Harold Gay said at last, 'but never of playerless checkers that drink wine in the presence of a tail bereft of dog.'

'When you put it all together like that,' remarked Millie Coit, 'it does sound almost too much to bear. And I was just getting interested in the game. There seems to be a little sly cheating going forward, but so far the dishonours are equal.'

'Look!' exclaimed Commander Becket. 'As I live and breathe. That's not at all sporting. The reds are being snatched off the board every time that glass goes up.'

The Commander, a stickler for fair play, rose and, walking determinedly over to the table, placed a restraining hand on one of the absconding reds. At the same moment he felt his wrist being sharply slapped. A growl issued from the tail, and the intrepid Commander received a stinging nip on the calf of his leg. This was more than confusing. It was both painful and dangerous. No game of checkers was worth it. Clinging to his dignity the Commander quickly returned to his chair and sat with his back to the checker-board.

I've been both invisibly slapped and bitten,' he announced in a trembling voice. 'Will someone, in God's name, tell me just what is going on?'

'I couldn't tell you in my own name, much less in God's,' said Harold Gay.

'Were the teeth the teeth of dog?' asked Millie Coit.

'What the devil difference does that make?' demanded the retired officer. 'I didn't stop to examine the teeth that bit me.'

'Neither would I,' replied Millie mollifyingly. 'But if the choice were left entirely with me, I'd rather be bitten by the teeth of dog without any visible means of support than by the teeth of lion, for example, with nothing else but.'

'I don't give a damn whose teeth they were,' the Commander rapped out. 'I jolly well object to being bitten by any set of teeth, whether fish, flesh, or fowl.'

'Few fowls have teeth,' said Harold Gay moodily.

'Name me one with a set of teeth,' challenged Millie Coit. 'One honest-to-God fowl.'

'For heaven's sake, don't let's take that up now,' Mrs Willard protested. 'Isn't there enough to talk about without dragging in birds?'

'I'm speechless,' remarked Hunt Davis.

'Let us drink,' suggested Topper.

'Well,' admitted the Commander, thoughtfully prodding his calf, 'the teeth might have been those of dog, as Millie insists on phrasing it, but the spirit behind those teeth was that of a snake in the grass. I'm not going to look at anything any more ever.'

'Neither am I,' said Mr Topper. 'That way madness lies. Let's none of us look at anything.'

For several minutes everyone at the table concentrated his gaze on his glass. Then Manley approached and presented Mr Topper with a bill.

'What's this?' asked Mr Topper.

'The gentlemen playing checkers, sir, said it would be all right to give it to you,' replied the impeccable Manley.

A strangled gasp escaped the Colonel.

'Did you see two men at that table?' he asked, his eyes growing wild.

'Only a moment ago,' replied Manley. 'There they are now, sir, just leaving.'

The table gazed, fascinated. The backs of two nattily clad gentlemen, swaying slightly, were disappearing through the wicker doors. At their heels in a leisurely manner moved a tail. There was nothing more to it. Just that.

As the swinging doors closed upon those two swaying backs, fear appeared for the first time in the eyes of the watchers at the table. Their eyes were searching each other's faces, mutely pleading for enlightenment or denial — for any explanation that would rationalize even a little the things that had come to pass since the swan-like arrival of Mr Topper at the bar.

'They must have been drinking a lot,' said Mr Topper at last, his eyes studying the slip of paper, the outward, visible sign of a couple of spiritual disgraces.

'Indeed they were, sir,' agreed Manley. 'Those two gentlemen knew how to drink.'

'And what to drink,' added Topper.

'And their dog knew how to bite,' put in the Commander. 'Do you mean to tell me that those two checker players were at that table all the time, Manley? Consider your words carefully, man.'

'No, sir,' answered Manley. 'Sometimes they were and sometimes they weren't.'

'Can you tell us where they were when they weren't?' asked Millie Coit. 'That is, Manley, if mentioning such places does not overtax your admirable English reserve.'

'Oh, they weren't there, madam, if that's where you mean,' Manley replied.

'That's exactly where I did mean, Manley,' continued Millie. 'And if they weren't there, can you tell us where they were, those checker-playing wine bibbers?'

'I merely meant, madam,' replied Manley with frigid dignity, 'that I did not follow them there.'

'Of course not, Manley,' said Miss Coit. 'Far be it from me to imply that you would ever do such a thing. However, the fact remains that you don't know whether they were there or not.'

'Madam, I would not like to say,' said Manley, looking almost noble.

'Of course. Of course,' murmured Millie. 'We don't want you to say anything that would hurt you. Well, I give up. We seem to be about where we started.'

'I will admit,' offered Manley, 'they acted rather oddly. Being there and not, so to speak. But you see, Miss Coit, I was quite busy myself, and I didn't rightly notice how they did.'

'Clearly and convincingly stated,' said Mr Gay. 'It strikes me that Mr Topper, himself, is acting somewhat oddly.'

This was indeed the truth. He looked for all the world like a man who was being briskly bounced up and down on his chair.

'Is your seat uncomfortable?' asked the inquiring Millie Coit. 'Hornets, perhaps?'

'It is nothing,' chattered Mr Topper, an expression of increasing embarrassment taking possession of his face as he desperately clung to the sides of his chair. 'It will pass.'

'My God, sir!' exclaimed the naval officer. 'What do you mean it will pass? Are you having a fit in our midst?'

'I'm going to have,' announced Mrs Willard.

'Looks more like a bite to me,' observed Millie Coit, thought-fully studying the bouncing man.

'Perhaps he's squiffed and is playing horse,' helpfully suggested Waddles.

'I should think it would be fatiguing keeping it up so long,' remarked Harold Gay.

'Don't mind me,' Mr Topper shook out. 'Go right ahead with your drinking.'

He essayed a neighbourly smile, but was forced to close his lips on his chattering teeth.

'You don't seem to get the idea, Mr Topper,' Commander Becket told him with some asperity. 'We've got to mind you if you insist on conducting yourself in what I can only say is an extremely childish manner.'

'I'm not doing it for fun,' muttered Topper, his hair vibrating strangely on his head.

'Then what are you doing it for?' asked Mr Gay. 'Surely you can't be doing it for exercise.'

'I'm not doing it at all,' snapped Topper.

'Then we're all mad,' said Commander Becket with dreadful conviction.

'Or perhaps Topper is possessed,' offered Blynn Nelson.

'Do you hear grunting going on?' asked the Commander. 'I distinctly heard two separate grunts detach themselves in the air.'

'Could it be Topper, possibly?' asked Waddles. 'I couldn't keep from grunting if I was doing all that bouncing.'

This was too much for Topper. With a despairing look about him he released his hold on the chair and yielded himself to the forces that had been so industriously endeavouring to drag him from his seat. Like a cork released from a bottle he rose to the ceiling, gracefully skirted that obstruction and sailed out of the bar-room through the open space above the doors. But even as he thus strangely departed Mr Topper still retained the instincts of a gentleman. Twisting a strained face over his shoulder, he called back hurriedly, 'Sorry I must tear myself away, everybody. Don't worry about that check, Manley. I'll be back.'

'He doesn't have to hurry so far as I am concerned,' said Commander Becket in a hoarse voice.

'This bar has seen me for the last time,' put in a gentleman from Hollywood. 'That man has more gags than a lotful of Harold Lloyds.'

Slowly and without looking at one another the men and women at that table arose and took their separate ways. Before they left, however, it was tacitly agreed that nothing should be said of all that had occurred. As Mrs Blake Willard expressed it, 'Others would never understand, and they might think things. One is so easily suspected of mental disorders along the Riviera. You know how people are — unpleasant that way.'

Mrs Willard knew, for she, herself, was one of such persons.

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