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Topper Takes A Trip


Thorne Smith



TOPPER owned a little book that went intimately into the climate, topography, diversions, and accommodations of the Côte d'Azur. He had paid four and a half francs for this little book, and had always found it to be at least fifty per cent accurate. It had instincts of veracity. The less agreeable features of the Riviera not mentioned were probably omitted with the knowledge that visitors would soon find them out for themselves. And because Topper found that this little book tended in the general direction of the truth he prized it highly and thumbed it assiduously. He knew innumerable bits about the Riviera that those who had been born and bred there never suspected — bits that would bring him neither pleasure nor profit. This little book had referred glowingly to the beach that he frequented as la plage tranquille. And indeed he had always found it tranquil enough until the arrival of the German model. Even then it had not become noisy. Merely alert.

The French are not loud people in the sense that Americans are. They are much more nosy than noisy. This does not hold for disputes, when animals of all species are prone to forget their manners. But the French can pack themselves by battalions into relatively small spaces and maintain a truly amazing degree of decorum — a sort of vivacious family monotone. However, they will regard. Their interest is quick to arouse and difficult to lull when once aroused. They will peer, scrutinize, and listen. What is even more disturbing to those unacquainted with the fine nuances of their language, they will comment with innocent frankness and abandon.

Mr Topper was now on the beach. So was the German model. They were separated from each other by a scant six feet of sand. This afternoon the beach was crowded. There were large families present with baskets of lunch and bottles of wine. Some of these bottles had been thrust deep in the sand to cool. There were droves of children and a constant procession of couples that entertained nothing but the most agreeable ideas about one another. All was well. The plage was tranquille. Mr Topper drew a deep breath and basked in the sun. After the excitement of the morning he felt at peace with France.

As he watched a well formed French girl shift dexterously from her dress to her bathing suit he idly wondered how she did it without revealing ever so much more of herself. Long practice, he decided. It was truly remarkable the way these French girls could dress and undress on the beach without in the least disturbing either its or their own tranquillity. Then he shifted his gaze to the trunks adorning some of the men. These always intrigued Mr Topper. He wondered, in the first place, why they ever put them on, and in the second place, how they ever kept them on once they had been put. It was obvious that the average Frenchman gave little thought to his trunks. In his mind's eye he could see them emptying old chests of clothes in search of the drawers of their ancestors which thrifty hands could make suitable for the beach. A slash here and a tuck there, a casually affixed button and, lo, their loins were girded sportively for the sand.

Mr Topper was not aware of the fact that all was not well on the beach until two of his fellow countrymen, who had evidently abused the indulgence of the beach café, drew his attention to what was to them a strange and absorbing phenomenon.

'Tell me, T. D.,' said the longer of the two Americans, 'has that dog dug its damn fool self down into the sand and allowed only its tail to remain exposed?'

'If it has, Joe,' replied T. D., 'it's the first dog I ever beard of acting in such a manner. Peculiar, I'd call it.'

'I'd call it impossible,' said Joe, 'if it wasn't waving there before my very eyes. There's life in that tail.'

Mr Topper's eyes followed the direction of the Americans' gaze and saw no more nor less than he had expected. There was Oscar's tail waving negligently in the light breeze from the sea. However, Topper knew there was more to it than that — much more than met the eye. If Oscar's tail was present, then it followed that Oscar's companions were not far off. He cast a quick glance about him for unoccupied beach shoes. With a feeling of relief he was unable to discover any.

'Perhaps that dog's a sand hound,' Joe suggested.

'Never even heard of any such dog,' declared T. D.

'Might have any kind of dog in France, though,' said the other. 'Maybe he's looking for sand fleas.'

'A dog with a tail like that doesn't have to look for fleas,' wisely declared T. D. 'He might be trying to get rid of some sand fleas.'

'Well, I wish he would stop whatever he's doing,' complained Joe. 'I don't want to see his face, but I hate to think of him down there smothering himself to death. First thing you know that tail will collapse from lack of breath.'

'For God's sake,' breathed T. D., suddenly sitting up, 'will you look at what he's doing now!'

The tail was slowly creeping across the sand in the direction of a large open lunch basket. Topper could picture to himself the stealthy movements of the rest of the dog.

'It's burrowing,' said Joe, 'like an — an — like a mole.'

'But what speed,' observed T. D. admiringly. 'Do you think we drank too much and are seeing things?'

His question was never answered. Joe was too busy looking. The tail had achieved its objective. It was well under the lee of the basket now, and close to the sand. In another moment a sandwich emerged from the basket, quivered nervously in the air, then went out like a light. There was no more sandwich.

'Gord!' breathed Joe. 'Can you match that?'

'Look,' was all T. D. said.

This time the leg of a chicken made its mysterious appearance. Evidently the tail considered this piece of loot worthy of more serious consideration. Slowly the leg, followed by the tail, moved across the sand to the protection of a rotting row-boat. In the security of this object the leg was consumed at the leisure of the tail.

'La jambe!' exclaimed the mother of the brood attached to the basket. 'Elle n'est pas ici. Quel dommage!'

Apprehending the nearest child, she administered a routine chastisement upon the scrap of cloth it was wearing. Joe looked at T. D., and T. D. looked at Joe. No word was spoken. Both rose from the sand and made their way to the café. As they passed Mr Topper, Joe paused and asked him a question.

'Pardon me,' said Joe, 'but have you noticed anything peculiar going on — anything having to do with a tail?'

'No,' replied Topper coldly. 'I have seen nothing peculiar in that line, although I have seen some rather amusing as well as provocative examples.'

'Let's hurry,' said Joe to his companion. 'He's harder to understand than the French themselves.'

On this beach there was a huge push ball, the property of Monsieur Sylvestre. Mr Topper was watching this push ball. So were a number of other bathers. It appeared to be pushing itself. Exclamations of alarm and surprise issued from the crowd. These were speedily augmented and intensified when the ball, suddenly tossing appearances to the wind, pushed itself over a family group inoffensively eating lunch on the sand. For a moment the family was blotted out; then it reappeared in a crumpled condition, its luncheon sadly attenuated. The father of the family picked himself up and in an impassioned speech demanded to be immediately informed who had made the balle to march not only over his lunch but also over his blood relations. As if it were an afterthought, the balle returned and smote the voluble Frenchman heavily upon his unguarded back. This forcibly returned the man to his former place on the sand in the heart of his family. The ball passed on and made for the crowd. It seemed to have become infuriated about something. The crowd parted, and the ball sped down the beach, where it crashed against a tent, the two occupants of which would have preferred not to be seen. As if satisfied by this display of ferocity the ball came to rest.

By this time Monsieur Sylvestre was receiving a lot of complaints about his ball. He strode down the beach and confronted it with a severe eye. Immediately the ball set itself in motion. It began to march on Monsieur Sylvestre. This act of defiance enraged the good patron. He, in turn, defied the ball. He rushed to meet its advance. In this the Frenchman displayed more valour than discretion. There was no stopping that ball. It met Monsieur Sylvestre face to face, and it was the patron's face that yielded. When he dazedly arose he experienced the final humiliation of being chased back to the crowd by his own ball. The ball stopped short of the crowd and rested on its laurels. It was master of the field. None disputed its authority to go where it pleased. Monsieur Sylvestre had suffered a crushing defeat. He was stunned.

Throughout all this the German model alone had remained unmoved. She was gradually edging her bathing suit lower down on her body. A small towel served as supplementary protection. For once Topper was not interested. His eyes were on the springboard jutting out from the end of the bathing pier. Many eyes were centred on this spot.

Here he saw George Kerby, ludicrously clad in a flapping bathing suit which must once have been the property of a felon. George was poised on the extreme edge of the springboard. He was contorting his body in the most excruciating postures preparatory to diving. Suddenly he flung his striped form high in the air, scrambled himself there for a moment, then faded out. The bathing suit dropped to the water with a wistful splash. Before the astounded watchers had had time to recover from this shocking event, the tall form of the Colonel, clad like a patriarch in a flowing robe, appeared upon the lip of the springboard, The crowd was breathing heavily. One woman was actually praying, while several others were furtively crossing themselves. Even Mr Topper was moved by the sight of the Colonel. Dressed as he was, it seemed likely that the priestly Colonel would, at least, ascend to heaven, instead of which he treated his audience to several dizzy flips, then landed in the water, with a terrific flop. As far as the crowd could tell, the Colonel never came up, for his robe, too, drifted on the tide in company with the garment George Kerby had abandoned.

The bathers out on the float now began to experience difficulty in maintaining their footing. Topper watched them as one by one they appeared to hurl themselves into the sea. Only the ladies remained, and they looked as if remaining was the last thing in the world they wanted to do.

Mr Topper decided that George Kerby and the Colonel must be very busy about having a good time. They seemed to be everywhere at once, causing disturbance.

When the men climbed back on the float they naturally wanted to know who was the dirty dog that had been so mentally warped as to push them overboard. This question was asked in several different languages, but in none pleasantly. This led to complications, for the answers were in all tongues an approximation of 'go to hell'. So enraged did one small man become that he struck a large man in the stomach. The large man in his fury literally threw the small man away. Not quite mollified by this rather drastic step, he turned and punched an inquiring stranger heavily upon the nose. The stricken man, realizing the futility of meeting the large man on his own ground, satisfied his exasperation by tearing the bathing suit off an elderly gentleman in spectacles. Not knowing what else to do, yet feeling called upon to do something, the elderly gentleman held the nearest head he could find under water. One show of ill temper speedily led to another. It was not long before the crowd on the beach was stricken mute with amazement by the condition of the float. Its occupants seemed to have gone in for murder. Half clad and totally nude they attacked one another like so many Neolithic warriors.

Blind unreason ruled the day. Blows rained, and imprecations rose. Murderous ambitions were frustrated by a splash. Whether all the occupants of the float ever returned to the beach or some drowned on the way was never satisfactorily settled. Topper remembered seeing one man, evidently unhinged by terror, swimming industriously out to sea. He assumed the man eventually returned. He could not have sworn to it. Topper did not care a great deal if none of them got back.

Exhaustion and salt water eventually put an end to the activities on the float. The crowd drew a deep breath and wondered what the admirable Monsieur Sylvestre was going to do about it all. That gentleman was moodily considering taking either one of two steps — putting his café, bath houses, and diversions up for sale, or sending for the gendarmes. His plage tranquille had suddenly changed to la plage de la pandémonium. He sank heavily down on the sand by Mr Topper and asked him about it. Mr Topper admitted that it was a little too much for him to explain. That push ball, for instance, could it have been in the clutch of a strong but self-contained wind? Monsieur Sylvestre stoutly declared that the conduct of the push ball would have been inexcusable in a hurricane. And as for those diving bodies that disappeared even as they dived, that was a thing inexplicable. No, of a truth le bon Dieu had turned His face against his, Monsieur Sylvestre's, beach. At this moment the distracted man caught sight of Oscar's self-propelling tail snaking its way across the sand in the general direction of another lunch basket. Monsieur Sylvestre's eyes started from his head. Several times he opened his mouth as if to speak, but no articulate sounds issued therefrom. Finally they came in awed accents.

'M'sieu,' he said in a choked voice. 'Regardez! Even now dogs have begun to forsake their tails. Soon the entire beach may be doing likewise. Who can tell where these things will end?'

Not waiting to see what disposition this forsaken tail was going to make of itself, Monsieur Sylvestre rose unsteadily to his feet and lurched off in the direction of his café and level-headed wife. Mr Topper sighed deeply and turned to regard the bare reaches of the German model. To-day she was barer than ever, there was no doubt about it. Too bad so much was going on elsewhere. She was not receiving the attention she deserved.

As Topper sat there contemplating the deeply tanned figure of the German model he received the uncanny impression that eyes were contemplating him. For a moment he fought against the desire to look about him; then his resistance broke down. Had he known beforehand that he was going to encounter the reproving gaze of a python, still he could not have refrained from looking. The gaze that he did encounter was almost as dangerous. If anything, it was more so for his peace of mind.

What he actually did see was Marion Kerby fully and perfectly materialized. It was the first time he had seen her since she had returned, and his startled glance told him that hers was by all odds the loveliest figure on the beach. Everything else was forgotten — the trying events of the morning and the excitement that had so recently been occupying his attention. The beach faded away, and he saw her sitting there with the blue of the ocean at her back. Her slim body had been poured into a small, black, and well-worn bathing suit. Her skin was glowingly tanned. Curls clustered unreasonably round her back-tilted head. He remembered the delicate, almost childlike, features of her face, the small impertinent chin, and the arched lips with their roving smile. He recalled the mad, eloquent beauty of her eyes, and again he looked into them, then hastily looked away. They were regarding him with scornful malevolence. Those lips he knew so well were curved in a dangerous smile. Topper hated to think of it as a grin, but it was almost that — a nasty grin. Topper waited in dread. For a brief moment she let her baleful gaze rest on the unsuspecting German model, then she looked significantly at Mr Topper, who, although avoiding her eyes, knew exactly what was going on.

'Nice Topper,' she said in a low voice. 'Animal man, Topper. I'll cook your goose and hers, too, you leaky old bucket.'

Topper looked up at this odd appellation, but Marion Kerby was gone. A wild scream from the German model lifted him to his feet. She, also, was on hers, and now at last there was nothing left to prevent the sun from completing its task. The model was bereft of slightest pretence.

There were several things the lady could have done under the circumstances — several sensible, strategical moves she could have made. She could, for instance, have thrown herself to the beach and covered at least parts of her body with sand. Again, it would not have been unmannerly under the stress of the moment to snatch a towel from someone else and appropriate it for her own protection. She might even have used her hands and have run like hell for the bath houses, which were not far off. She could have done any one of these things or combined the best features of them all, but it just so happened that she chose to do none of them. Instead, she strode up to Mr Topper, whom she mistakenly assumed to be the author of her predicament, and felled him with a single Teutonic blow. As the confounded man measured his length on the sand, the German model turned to find her bathing suit and towel dangling tauntingly before her eyes. The sight was to the lady as a red flag is to a bull. As the garments sped down the beach in the grip of an invisible force the German model sped after them. There was grim, implacable determination in the pumping of her legs. Her brown body with its narrow band of white was entirely forgotten in her pursuit of her stolen drapery. One arm was extended strainingly to reach what was rightfully hers, but her fingers, ever hopeful, never quite established contact.

The towel and the bathing suit fluttered just beyond her grasp.

Thus passed the German model in impressive review. Spell-bound, the beach regarded the spectacle, the climax of many mystifying events. At the end of the beach the flying articles turned sharply, and the German model followed after. When her ravished raiment came abreast of Mr Topper, who had just risen, he received them full in the face. Once more he took the count.

'There!' came a voice in triumph. 'I hope you got an eyeful as well as a faceful.'

As the German model made for Topper he sprang to his feet and held out the bathing suit and towel. His eyes were modestly averted. This was not a wise move. The model snatched her property, then promptly knocked Topper down again. For the third time he measured his length on the sand of the tranquil beach. This time he remained measured. Until things quieted down he had no intention of getting up. It was a sheer waste of effort.

At this point Oscar intervened on behalf of his old friend, Topper. The tail suddenly got into action and pursued the model to her bath house. More than the tail must have been in action if the frightened cries of the fleeing woman meant even a little bit. Once in her bath house she screamed for Monsieur Sylvestre, who from one thing and another was almost at the end of his rope.

'There's a growl in my bath house,' she called in perfect English.

'A towel?' inquired the patron. 'Madame, but yes, I caused it to be placed there myself.'

'Not this one, you didn't,' cried the model, leaping unimproved from her bath house and frantically scratching at the door of another one.

The door flew open, and she stood confronting an elderly gentleman clad in spectacles only. This elderly gentleman had already received enough shocks on the float to scoot him through death's door. The formidable appearance of the model slammed the door behind him. He collapsed in a heap. The lady almost did the same. Also, Monsieur Sylvestre. The next bath house was empty. Into it the model plunged. Entering bath houses at random was, of course, child's play for Oscar. He was on the point of following the German model when he heard his master's voice. 'Oscar, you devil,' called the Colonel. 'Come here immediately and leave that lady alone.'

The tail swung round and trotted off in the direction of its invisible master. There was a jaunty flip in its carriage. It was a tail of considerable achievement.

Monsieur Sylvestre had abandoned the model to her noise and her nudity and was addressing Mr Topper.

'M'sieu,' he was saying reproachfully, 'at the proper time and in the proper place I am not saying that your conduct would have been other than quite correct, inevitable, in fact, but why did you undress the lady here on my once so tranquil beach?'

Mr Topper raised his head wearily.

'I tell you, Monsieur Sylvestre,' he said weakly, 'I was not within six feet of the woman when the event occurred. I am not in the habit of undressing ladies either in public or private.'

The patron elevated his eyebrows and gazed out to sea. He was thinking of how ungallant Mr Topper was. So unlike a Frenchman, who was always willing to lend a helping hand.

There was only one thing left to do about it. Monsieur Sylvestre did that thing.

He shrugged.

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