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Topper Takes A Trip


Thorne Smith



IT is difficult to say what the pedestrians on rue Gounod thought of Mr Topper's leaf-like descent to the pavement after he had sailed from the English Bar. Fortunately there were few to observe, and they did not remain long. After one startled look at Topper they hastened to other and less disconcerting rues. Probably those who were privileged to witness his landing decided that he was either an acrobat casually practising a back flip or a slightly stout and unsober god arriving in haste from some well-tailored Olympus.

What the pedestrians thought or did not think no longer concerned Mr Topper. He was too deeply occupied thinking about himself, considering the state of his being and trying to adjust his body to his aerial mode of progress. At any moment he expected to be whisked from his feet and carried like a snapping flag down the main thoroughfare of the town. He might even find himself deposited on the dome of the cathedral of Notre Dame de la Victoire. Now that his companions had learned a new game he felt sure they would not abandon it until they had experimented with all its ramifications. For the moment he was vouchsafed a breathing space. He even entertained the extravagant hope that these same companions had departed in quest of other diversions and left him in peace. Methodically he felt his pockets for his possessions. His watch, passport, wallet, and cigar case had not been lost in his flight. Sheer centrifugal force had held them securely intact.

Then Topper saw something. It was not much, but it was sufficient to convince him he was not alone. Nor was he alone in what he saw. An elderly man holding a broom and sporting a green baize apron was standing in a doorway, also looking. There was a small pool of water lying in a hollow in the pavement. This pool at the most contained no more than a couple of cupfuls of water, but it was quite enough to be seen. As Topper and the man with the broom stood with their gaze fastened on the pool it gradually disappeared before their eyes. Those of the French-man were filled with consternation. Mr Topper's were merely disgusted. The diminishing of the water was accompanied by a peculiar lapping sound such as is made by the tongue of an extremely thirsty and not over-nice dog.

The man with the broom looked at Topper, who attempted to avoid his eyes.

'M'sieu,' announced the man in an awed voice, 'the little pool, he pants.'

'I neither speak nor understand French,' Topper almost truthfully informed the man.

'But, m'sieu, you can at least regard,' insisted the man with the broom. 'That little pool there is a pool no more. He is as dry as the palm of my hand.'

Mr Topper did not know how dry the palm of the man's hand was. The palms of his own hands were quite moist. He had to admit, however, that the man with the broom had spoken nothing less than the truth. The little pool was indeed quite dry. Oscar had polished it off, and following the polishing process came a satisfied grunt, the bestial emanation of a dog lying down heavily after a good drink. Topper could almost hear Oscar's unseen bones clumping against the pavement.

'M'sieu,' said the Frenchman timidly, 'it is unbelievable. The little pool, now he pushes grunts.'

'Can I help it if your damn French pools insist on pushing grunts?' Topper demanded irritably.

The man did not understand, but he gathered from Topper's manner that he was being held responsible for the eccentric conduct of the little pool, or what had once been a little pool before Oscar had mopped it up. He leaned far out of the doorway and intently considered the spot where the pool had been.

'It is of a truth,' he said, as if to himself. 'The place of the little pool is now breathing in gusts. It is necessary that I part all at once.' Which he did, much to Mr Topper's relief.

Subdued but animated voices attracted his attention. He listened with growing unease.

'It's ridiculous,' he heard Marion protesting. 'He is not at all suitably clad for the Riviera. In the first place, he needs sun glasses. He'll ruin his silly eyes. Then take a look at those feet. Altogether too formal. He must put beach shoes on them — espadrilles, they're called.'

'Why don't you let the man alone?' George demanded. 'You're not his wife.'

'And you're not my husband.'

'Don't let's go into that any more.'

'Why do you think you're my husband? Tell me that.'

'Because we both got smeared at the same time. Death did not us part.'

'It didn't need to. Life had done that beforehand — life and your disgusting ways.'

'Come, come,' objected the voice of the Colonel. 'This is a profitless wrangle.'

'I'll make it a discordant brawl,' declared Marion heatedly.

'But listen, Colonel,' said George Kerby. 'Just because a tree got in the way of our earthly activities it doesn't follow that the holy bonds of matrimony were severed, does it?'

'That is a highly technical question,' replied the Colonel. 'You see, in our present state there is no provision made for divorce nor any suggestion of marriage. Our relations, thank God, are informal.'

'One can go visiting over week-ends,' came the voice of Mrs Hart, 'without a Woolworth ring.'

'Let's ask Topper,' George Kerby suggested. 'He might be one of us at any minute.'

'Don't ask me,' said Mr Topper, speaking earnestly into space. 'Don't draw me in. I've been drawn in and dragged out enough as it is already.'

'Amusingly put,' commented George Kerby. 'Let's take the old boy shopping.'

'That's what I said all the time,' declared Marion. 'Sun glasses first. His vision should be dulled.'

'But I don't want sun glasses,' Mr Topper protested. 'The lot of you make me look appalling enough as it is without decorating me with headlights.'

'Oh, you must have glasses,' Marion assured him. 'We can't let you ruin your eyes for the sake of appearances. Grab his arms, my braves.'

The braves grabbed Topper's arms with a will, and once more he was hustled off down the street.

'If I promise to get these damn glasses without making any trouble, will you let me walk like a human being instead of some anthropoid ape?' Mr Topper asked breathlessly.

'How about it, Colonel?' said George.

'It's all right with me,' replied the Colonel, 'if he doesn't try any other sort of monkey business.'

Whereupon Topper was released and allowed to walk in the manner to which he had been accustomed. Furthermore, his hat remained undisturbed upon his head. His friends had either forgotten about it or grown tired of the sport. Topper carefully refrained from reminding them.

'Turn in here,' whispered Marion Kerby as they were passing a souvenir and jewellery shop. 'It claims that one speaks English. Let's see if one does.'

'One will be prattling baby talk by the time we're through,' George muttered darkly.

'Can't we buy these glasses nicely?' asked Mr Topper. 'Why spread terror and confusion throughout France? This storekeeper may be a good sort, for all we know.'

'Certainly, Mr Topper,' came the deep voice of the Colonel. 'We're nice people. We know how to act.'

Topper made no comment on this misconception of the Colonel. Fearing the worst, he obediently entered the shop.

The owner of the place was in no wise remarkable. He smelled pleasantly, smiled pleasantly, and spoke pleasantly. If anything, he was a little too pleasant. Topper felt that if the man even faintly suspected the true state of affairs, much of his pleasantness would evaporate. He said it was a good morning to Mr Topper in English, then stood regarding him with an expectant eye.

'Have you any sun glasses?' asked Mr Topper.

The man intimated promptly that he had one of the most exhaustive collections of sun glasses in all of France, if not the world. He proceeded to prove his point by heaping a counter with a varied assortment of these articles.

Mr Topper selected a pair at random and diffidently placed them upon his nose. Immediately they were snatched off, but not by Topper. The Frenchman endeavoured to conceal his surprise.

'Did they pinch, m'sieu, perhaps?' he asked.

'They almost bit me,' muttered Mr Topper, selecting another pair as unlike the first as he could find.

These, too, he placed on his nose and endeavoured to hold them there. In the irritable struggle that followed the glasses snapped in two.

'No, no, no!' a woman's voice protested. 'Most unbecoming.'

'I'll pay for those,' stammered Topper. 'Must have slipped.'

The owner of the store felt better, but still far from well. Mr Topper looked at the man helplessly. He was afraid to select another pair of glasses. This, however, was unnecessary. The glasses were selected for him. A yellow-tinted pair deftly detached themselves from the group on the counter and moved upon Mr Topper. In a desperate endeavour to make the best of a bad situation he thrust out his hands, met the glasses halfway, and helped to affix them to his nose. In spite of the fact that the owner keenly desired to make a sale, he had no desire at all to make it in this staccato manner. He turned from Mr Topper and looked steadfastly through the window, his fingers drumming nervously on the counter. When his gaze returned to his customer it was immediately changed to a fixed stare. A pair of wearerless glasses were looking at him eye to eye. Mr Topper was in another part of the shop apparently having a fight with a necklace which was jumping frantically in the air.

'You can't do such things,' Topper was explaining to the necklace. 'That's plain ordinary stealing.'

The owner thought this was funny, but he had no time to think much about it. What was facing him was funnier still. He looked at the glasses that were intently peering at him, then moved cautiously behind his counter. Had a tidal wave deposited itself upon the lap of the town the store owner would have been dismayed, but not greatly surprised. Had wild beasts and reptiles suddenly invaded his shop he would have experienced a pang of regret, but by some stretch of logic would have been able to reconcile that occurrence with the less conventional hazards of life. These glasses came under a different category. It is difficult to maintain one's urbanity when being scrutinized quietly but fixedly by an uninhabited pair of glasses. One is prone to imagine things. One imagines unseen eyes looking consideringly through tinted glass — God knows what sort of eyes. The Frenchman tore his gaze away only to be met by another pair of glasses thoughtfully inspecting his neck. This inspection served to add embarrassment to alarm. For a moment the man did not know just where to look. He could hardly look at Mr Topper, for what he was doing with that animated necklace, scolding it as he was, brought no comfort to the shopkeeper. Under the circumstances he did the only thing he could do. He closed his eyes and clung to the counter. The glasses were blotted out. When he felt himself rapped smartly upon the shoulder he started to crouch like a dog, but his legs were too paralysed to obey this impulse. Mr Topper was standing before him.

'M'sieu,' asked the man in a voice that shook, 'did you see the glasses unattended?'

'Are you mad?' replied Mr Topper.

'Perhaps,' admitted the man. 'But they looked at me, m'sieu, those glasses. One pair even went so far as to inspect my neck. It was most suggestive.'

'And most unnecessary, I hope,' added Topper.

'But yes,' replied the Frenchman proudly. 'Were you not yourself undergoing a little difficulty with a necklace?'

'It got tangled up in my fingers,' lied Mr Topper, 'and I became so unreasonably enraged that I began to talk to myself.'

This seemed scarcely probable, although the Frenchman tried hard to believe it. A woman's laughter was heard without the woman.

'Things of a true incredibleness have taken place here,' the shopkeeper observed with stubborn suspicion. 'And they continue. There are now, for example, unseen voices.'

'That is not of an incredibleness,' retorted Mr Topper.

'But yes, m'sieu,' protested the Frenchman. 'Where there are voices there should be bodies, or at the very least, some throats.'

'I made those voices myself,' again lied Mr Topper.

'Then please make no more voices,' said the owner. 'Such admirable ability belongs to the stage. It is too much for personal relations. Conditions are sufficiently difficult. Do you really desire glasses, or are you merely amusing yourself?'

'I'll buy these glasses,' Mr Topper declared, seizing a pair that was even as he spoke wriggling impatiently on the counter. 'And I'll pay for the broken pair as well as these two necklaces.'

Feeling a little comforted, the jeweller expedited the transaction and accompanied Mr Topper to the door. As he did so he experienced the final shock of seeing the necklaces emerge from the pocket of his disturbing customer.

'Here, take these,' said a woman's voice, and two empty necklace boxes were thrust into the storekeeper's hand.

The necklaces themselves, one on either side of Mr Topper, accompanied him down the street. Every time he tried to recapture them they jumped out of reach.

'I haven't had such a lovely present in a long time,' murmured Marion Kerby. 'Let's see yours, Clara.'

'Mr Topper knows how a lady likes to be treated,' said Mrs Hart as the necklaces changed places.

'I know how you should be treated,' Mr Topper replied in a low voice. 'Those necklaces were bought to keep them from being stolen. That's all there is to it. And now you are making me conspicuous with them.'

'Don't keep trying to snatch mine back,' said Marion Kerby childishly. 'I like to feel it in my hand. Did it cost much?'

'In mental anguish more than can be estimated,' was Mr Topper's answer.

That day the jewellery shop was closed. Souvenirs and sun glasses were probably bought, but not in that store. The moment Mr Topper's back was flush with the jamb the door was closed upon it. Then the door was securely locked, and the owner, as if in fear of arousing his souvenirs to further outbreaks of ferocity, quietly tiptoed from the shop. He was at an end.

Some minutes later Mr Topper, strongly if invisibly guarded on both sides, was making his wishes known to a suave gentleman who gave the appearance of one who devoted his life to bringing peace and happiness to the feet of others.

'I want a pair of beach shoes,' said Mr Topper brusquely.

'Les espadrilles!' exclaimed the gentleman, much gratified. 'But yes, m'sieu. They are here.'

He turned, and there they were — several boxes of them. Other boxes of shoes were being literally torn from their places by unseen hands. The clerk looked at the agitated boxes uncomprehendingly, then turned to regard Mr Topper. That gentleman was frantically engaged in trying to help some panting unseen to drag a pair of beach shoes on his feet.

'Wasn't in the army for nothing,' proclaimed a deep voice when the shoes were on. 'I can tell the size of a foot at a glance.'

'M'sieu,' declared the vendor of shoes, 'it is a thing disturbing, is it not? Those shoes, they have taken affairs into their hands.'

'Yes, yes,' agreed Topper distractedly. 'I'll take these on my feet.'

Without stopping to look at its denomination he crumpled a note into the man's hand, then walked from the store. And as he walked there followed in his tracks at regular intervals four pairs of white canvas beach shoes proceeding according to size, the largest pair being first. As if stimulated by this singular demonstration Oscar succeeded in revivifying his tail and proudly brought up the rear. Down the crowded street of the town this quaint little procession made its way. Topper himself was happily unaware of his loyal following, until the amazed glances of pedestrians forced him to look back. When he did so he received the shock of his life. He felt like a man being followed by a large white cat and her three kittens with the isolated tail of a dog stalking the lot of them. When Topper stopped, the shoes stopped. Also the tail. In fact, Oscar seemed actually to lie down, for his tail drooped neglectedly to the pavement. Topper thought of his own white shoes. With them the line of march was composed of five units, not counting Oscar's ragged contribution. And to add to the situation the shoes seemed to bear themselves with a certain air of pride. Occasionally one would be raised from the pavement as if for a closer inspection. Now, even in a town as accustomed to beach shoes as this one was, a display of five new pairs, four of which gave every appearance of being unoccupied, walking Indian file down the street was easily enough to create a small sensation. These shoes did.

'Maybe he has them on a string,' suggested an observer, 'and is dragging them after him.'

'But why should a full grown man behave in such a silly manner?' demanded the observer's wife. 'Why couldn't he carry them home like a normal human being?'

'Perhaps it amuses him more this way,' replied the husband. 'A man who has to buy five pairs of shoes at once deserves some amusement. Keeping you in shoes is more than I can bear. Why not ask the man himself?'

'I wouldn't go near that man.'

The fact that two rather flamboyant costume necklaces were accompanying two pairs of shoes did not greatly impress the populace. The human mind can only absorb a certain number of shocks in a given time. However, it was difficult for many witnesses to explain away the presence of that languid tail.

Mr Topper was in a quandary. He did not know whether it was worse to stand still and regard those shoes together with the entire population of France, or to turn his back on them and to proceed on his way with the mortifying knowledge that they were methodically stalking his tracks. It was a delicate situation. He could not afford to stand there and collect another curious French crowd. His nerves would never bear up under the strain. He thanked God for the sun glasses. Perhaps he was not recognized. If he were, his reputation would begin to spread. He would be a marked man.

The largest pair of beach shoes began to shuffle impatiently. This decided Topper. He turned and hurried away. A soft, rhythmical pattering behind him made him horribly alive to the fact that the feet were following after. Topper knew of a square not so far off where taxicabs lived in happy discord. He hastened towards this square. Here he found an empty cab and sprang in, only to be followed by three pairs of shoes. The fourth pair occupied the driver's seat, the driver at the moment being a picturesque part of a war memorial as he diligently perused his journal. The man did not even notice the abrupt departure of his property.

What the citizens of the town were privileged to see was an apparently driverless cab — an open cab with a single occupant, Mr Topper, in solitary splendour, with a dog's tail dangling untidily from his lap. They could not see the shoes in the car, nor could they hear the excited panting of the dog.

'Had no idea we were going for a ride,' the Colonel commented complacently. 'Topper is full of tricks.'

'I dearly love these open cabs,' said Mrs Hart.

Topper felt an arm snuggle its way through his. He sensed the intimate nearness of Marion Kerby. He was filled with a desire to see her impudent face again. In spite of the situation, he found himself pleasantly alive.

'Topper, my brave,' Marion whispered in his ear, 'I could ride like this forever.'

'I fear,' her brave replied, 'that this drive is going to be sadly curtailed. Do you realize we have stolen a cab?'

'Now, if Oscar would only stir his lazy ectoplasm and materialize,' the Colonel interrupted, 'Topper would look quite smart. Oscar is a dressy sort of dog.'

'He's small comfort to me as he is,' remarked Mr Topper.

A few minutes later the cab turned into the lovely palm-lined boulevard that ran beside the sea. Here the sidewalk cafés were doing capacity business. Also, here stood a gendarme. Not a nice gendarme, but one of those gendarmes one can live quite happily all one's days without ever meeting. He had an acute eye, this one. As the taxicab curved gracefully round him he was electrified to discover that it had no driver. Never in his experience had such an offence been brought to his notice. The very magnitude of the thing momentarily stunned him. That moment was all George Kerby needed. By the time the gendarme had decided to take steps, the taxicab was well down the boulevard. A gentleman at one of the café tables paused with his glass at his lips.

'Am I a little bit that way,' he inquired of the lady at his side, 'or do I actually see a driverless taxicab?'

'You do,' replied the lady, arresting her own glass, 'and what is more you hear it. That taxicab is singing.'

The cab was indeed singing. 'I got shoes. You got shoes. All God's chillun got shoes,' came shatteringly from it. At the same time three pairs of white shoes were proudly waved in the air. George Kerby even succeeded in placing one of his on the wheel.

'He must look awful,' Topper thought with a shudder. 'Thank God one can't see the rest of him.'

The singing taxicab made a grand loop and returned down the boulevard. People were now standing up at their tables to get a better view of the driverless cab. They could distinctly hear the voices of men and women singing lustily about shoes, yet all they saw was a dignified gentleman of middle age sitting in the taxicab with his mouth grimly shut. Several observers, not knowing what else to do, cheered the speeding car.

'I got shoes. You got shoes. All God's chillun got shoes,' chanted the Colonel in a deep bass voice.

Whistles were blowing along the boulevard. Gendarmes were appearing. Lots of them. There was an excited honking of horns. Yet above it all boomed the voice of the indomitable Colonel loudly informing France that all God's children were shod.

'We'll sing for you, Topper,' cried George Kerby, 'until you go down to defeat. You know how we are that way.'

'Too well,' replied Mr Topper.

'I'm afraid Mr Topper will have to be pulled in for the lot of us,' the Colonel interrupted his singing to observe.

'It's a rotten shame,' said Marion Kerby. 'I'll go along with you, my old.'

'Oh, don't do that,' Topper hastily pleaded.

When a human wall composed of gendarmes and spectators made further progress inexpedient, Topper's companions, including Oscar, quietly melted away. God's chillun took their shoes elsewhere. Mr Topper was asked to descend. Witnesses readily declared that they had carefully observed Mr Topper and he had neither driven nor sung. How, then, had it all come to pass? the gendarmes insisted on knowing. Mr Topper was cast down at not being able to be of help. He had stepped into the automobile in all good faith and innocence, then the machine had immediately started to march. Why the car insisted on singing he had no idea. He was not familiar with the habits of French taxi cabs. Perhaps the car was happy. Did automobiles sing in France? The gendarme was baffled in several directions. Suddenly his face cleared.

Obviously the automobile was the offender. Mr Topper had been more sinned against than sinning. In the name of France the gendarme apologized. The automobile would be well arrested. Also its owner. That one would indubitably remain in jail all the years of his life. As for the automobile, that would be taken apart piece by piece and inspected with the utmost rigour. Mr Topper was allowed to depart. The crowd regarded his back with admiring eyes.

For the first time it seemed in years Topper had the sensation of being alone. He hardly knew whether he liked it or not. He decided that for the time being he rather liked it. The other world had been too much with him.

Slowly he began to smile. By the time he reached his own house he was laughing unwillingly but well. It was a thing he seldom did. He was thinking of the sightless sun glasses scrutinizing the neck of the affronted jeweller.

Mrs Topper, watching him approach and overhearing his laughter, decided he had been drinking. Topper was only too willing to let it go at that. His unexpected appearance in sun glasses and beach shoes confirmed her in this opinion. She had been given to understand that men who drank usually made some strange and ill-advised purchases.

The glasses, she decided, lent to her husband's customarily placid features a sinister appearance. They were violet in shade. There was about Mr Topper the suggestion of a wild horse — one that laughed dangerously at its own evil thoughts.

Mrs Topper was not at all satisfied in her own mind about the sanity of her husband. She suspected him of secret depths of depravity far too abysmal to be penetrated by ordinary mortals.

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