|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|
Topper Takes A Trip
INTERLUDE ON THE ROCKS
UNSEEN wavelets slipping furtively over low-lying rocks. Night time now. Far out across the ocean the bald head of the moon is pushing up the darkness. Topper is on the rocks. Alone. He smells the night around him. Topper is almost dog-like about it. He has a yen for the fragrance of night. Mimosa blended with wet sea grass, and over all the heavy, sweet, compelling scent of tropical flowers swimming on the breeze from nearby estates. There are trees behind Topper. The sea lies in front. Under him and about are the rocks — dark, crouching, motionless. Somewhere close at hand lies a little sandy beach — a shallow scoop of sand about as large as a bathtub. This quiet secluded place Topper discovered for himself. He comes here when the mood is on him. He comes here and sits and looks and smells. Sometimes he thinks things. But what things he thinks would be difficult to say. Men like Topper, men whom life has given to believe that they are unoriginal, ordinary, humdrum creatures, have a habit of keeping their thoughts to themselves. Yet what thicker skinned poets glowingly put down on paper some of these stout and seemingly commonplace gentlemen have been nourishing in secret all their lives.
Topper is fascinated by this spot. Close to the surface of the water the rocks step far out from the shore. Occasionally a reef breaks through. When the sea is running strong and the wind blows flat across it he experiences a comforting sensation of isolation as the waves drive in around him. Even the sea-gulls in this place seem to be of a different tribe — solitary, lost, and a little eerie.
'Not much pickings for them here,' Topper had once thought. 'Look sort of foolish, though, bringing a package along. Sea gulls don't eat crumbs. Great chunks at a gobble.'
A little more than a week has passed since the episode of the beach, or, rather, the episodes on the beach. During all this time Topper has not been favoured by the company of his unseen friends. He has been left with a sense of injury. Some explanation was due to him, some slight form of apology. He himself had been forced to explain although he had failed lamentably. The story of the unveiling of the model had been told with extras to Mrs Topper by her snooty English friends.
'What perverted impulse prompted you to snatch the bathing suit off that lewd woman?' Mrs Topper had asked when the snooty friends had at last departed, their good works left behind them;
'I had nothing to do with her bathing suit,' Topper wearily denied.
'You must have,' went on his wife. 'The woman actually knocked you down. Fancy that, being knocked down on a public beach by a naked woman.'
'I don't like to fancy it,' said Mr Topper, closing his eyes on the horrid memory.
'I don't know what has come over you,' Mrs Topper hurried on. 'Are you going to make your life just one attempted assault after another? First Félice, then this German model.'
'No,' replied Topper darkly. 'I'm going to succeed the next time.'
'Well, I hope you do,' snapped his wife, 'and get such ideas out of your mind for good and all.'
'That German model was nearly naked, anyway,' Mr Topper observed.
'I know,' Mary Topper replied, 'but that nearly, as small as it was, meant everything.'
'Yes,' said Mr Topper. 'I readily admit that.'
'It didn't seem to faze her, though,' Mrs Topper observed, 'the way she went rushing about in that shocking condition.'
'I was a lot more injured than shocked,' said Mr Topper.
'I can well imagine that,' replied his wife, 'letting yourself be knocked down by a naked woman.'
'But, my dear, if I had knocked the naked woman down,' Topper protested, 'people might have mistaken my intentions entirely.'
'And they wouldn't have been far wrong,' declared Mrs Topper quite unreasonably. 'What's going to become of you, I'd like to know? You can't go dashing about France pulling skirts off servant girls and bathing suits off German models.'
Mr Topper did not know what was going to become of him. He told Mrs Topper that he did not care a damn. To proclaim his innocence any further would be, he knew, worse than useless. He collected his hat and stick and made for the door. His wife's voice followed after. It was her parting shot.
'And if you are seized with an impulse to claw the clothes off some woman you meet in the street,' she told him, 'I advise you to count up to twenty, no matter how much you feel like it.'
Topper laughed mirthlessly.
'Thanks,' he said. 'I'm going to leave a trail of stripped bodies behind me.'
'Well, don't drag them into the house,' was all his wife replied.
Topper had been afraid to attempt the beach since the day he had been thrice knocked down upon it. He did not know what had become of the German model, but reports had it that she was back at her old stand. He wondered how she could do it. She was made of ruggeder stuff than he was, that was certain. What would she do to him if he appeared in her presence? Would she arise and knock him down — cause another scandal? Topper rather suspected she would. That German model seemed to thrive on public scandals. She was a public scandal herself.
Instead of frequenting the beach Topper took to the Esterel Mountains. Here in deep quiet valleys he considered many things at leisure, hardly realizing he was thinking at all. There was always some hustling little stream to keep him company, and the fantastic colouring of the great rocks rising high above him pleasantly occupied his eyes. It was quiet back here in the mountains. All the world seemed to have moved to the beach. It was a rare occasion when he met another human being. Even the bird life was of a desultory nature. Solitude was deep but not oppressive. When he caught the dark shadow of a fish moving in the clear waters of a stream he felt a sense of mystery and surprise. He was not entirely alone.
As a result of these long walks Topper was losing weight and toughening his muscles. He felt better physically as well as mentally. He no longer cared a rap what other people thought. And strange to say it was here in these solitudes that he discovered he loved France. His casual conversations with the back-country people he met from time to time in the course of his walks did much to dispel the impression made upon him by the franc-frantic denizens of the resort towns. Topper had a desire to return to these quiet places some day before he died. He scarcely realized how deep that desire was rooted in him.
He felt the same way about these rocks and the little beach he had discovered. This spot would dwell in his memory. He would hark back to it. The moon was up now. A silvery path ran from it to the rocks. Topper saw in fancy a figure drifting towards him down the moon path. Then, very quietly, a small hand nuzzled its way into his. He knew without turning his head that Marion Kerby was back. She would do a thing like that, taking his welcome for granted like a stray pup.
'Yes?' he said, still gazing out to sea.
'I feel like the incidental music for Amos and Andy,' she murmured.
'It must be a terrible feeling,' replied Topper.
'No, it isn't. It's nice for a change. I feel all holy and sunset-like inside. Still, sort of, and very, very tender — like a good woman about to be bad.'
'Your hair is blowing in my mouth,' was Topper's reply to this. 'Do something about it.'
'Then bite it off,' continued the low voice. 'I'll grow some new hair.'
Topper thought this remark far from holy and tender, but he made no reply.
'Oscar can do his hind legs now,' offered the voice a little timidly. 'And much of his upper rump.'
'I don't care if he can do himself into a pack of blood-hounds,' replied Mr Topper. 'Where have you been all this time? Answer me that.'
'All right,' said Marion in an injured voice. 'Don't bite my head off. I don't mind about the hair. You can chew on that till the cows come home.'
'I don't care to chew on that until the cows start out even,' said Mr Topper. 'I'm not a hair chewer.'
'I know you're not,' Marion put in placatingly. 'But I do think you might show some interest in Oscar's rump, especially his upper rump.'
'Do you expect me to sit here on these rocks and go into ecstasies over the shaggy rump of a lunch-snatching dog?'
'Well, the Colonel is greatly encouraged, and we all feel sort of good about it. A fish did it.'
'What! How could a fish possibly influence Oscar's upper rump?'
'Can't quite say,' she replied. 'But he saw a fish in a tank the other day, and from that moment he began to materialize his hind legs and upper rump.' The voice trailed off for a moment, then resumed musingly, 'I guess Oscar had never seen a fish before — not a real live fish, that is. Strange, isn't it, never having seen a fish!'
'And he probably thought,' remarked Mr Topper sarcastically, 'that if a fish could get away with a funny tail like that, he himself had little of which to feel ashamed.'
'Perhaps,' Marion replied. 'You may be right, but deep emotion has always affected Oscar's rump proper and upper rump.'
'There's not a proper part in all of that dog's body,' declared Mr Topper.
'How about mine?' Marion asked demurely.
'Nor yours either,' said Topper. 'Are we to sit here all night discussing Oscar's rump? I've asked you where you have been for so long? And while we're on the subject of rumps, I'd like to take yours across my knee and give it a good sound drubbing.'
'I'd quickly do away with mine,' replied Marion. 'On second thoughts, though, go right ahead. I don't mind brutality. I lived with a brute all my life.'
'George treats you a damn sight too well. By the way, just where is he now?'
'I've given him the slip. He's drinking up all the francs he won by cheating at Monte Carlo. That's where we were — at Monte Carlo. We always go there when we feel the need of money. The Colonel thought it up.'
'And the delicious Mrs Hart put the idea in the Colonel's mind,' said Mr Topper.
'Wouldn't be a bit surprised,' Marion agreed. 'She's a rare trollop, that one, but a lovable old tear-sheet withal.'
'And you're no lily yourself,' replied Mr Topper.
'I am so,' said Marion. 'I'm a tiger lily. Feel my teeth.'
Topper's neck was sharply bitten in a spot where the marks of teeth would be sure to attract unfavourable attention.
'You're branded now,' continued Marion, laughing softly. 'From now on you are my mustang. Go on and act wild.'
'Marion,' said Topper reprovingly. He hesitated a moment, then turned, and for the first time met the irresistible invitation of her eyes. 'Oh, hell,' he muttered, taking her in his arms. 'You're the very soul of depravity, and yet, you're better than a sermon.'
'Let's deprave,' murmured Marion, snuggling her pliant body close to the man. 'I'm not exactly off you, either, my old and rare.'
Then Topper did act wild, wilder than he had ever acted in his life. Being thrice flattened against the sand was a small price to pay, he decided, for those moments of complete forgetfulness he spent with Marion by the little, hidden beach. The moon kept rising higher, and if it was at all disconcerted by what it saw, it did not bat an eye. The moon had been witnessing such meetings since the world was first made to shine on. At this late date it was shockproof.
'Saints preserve us,' breathed Marion Kerby, her voice drifting back from the far end of time. 'In the words of a lady you know, for a man of your age and girth —'
'None of that!' Topper broke in, blotting out her face with a large brown hand.
'Oh, all right,' the girl spluttered. 'But how will I ever get rearranged?'
'It doesn't matter,' said Topper. 'Do you like this place?'
'It's excellent for the purpose,' she answered. 'Every prospect pleases. Don't let the others know a thing about it. By the way, what were your relations with that German model from Yonkers?'
'Not even close enough to be platonic,' said Mr Topper.
'Is that a lie?' asked Marion.
'That is not a lie,' returned Topper. 'My interest in her was purely academic.'
'Academic, perhaps, but not purely.'
'I won't stickle,' said Topper.
'I wouldn't if I were you,' she answered. 'It sounds sort of bad. From now on I want you to keep your eyes off that wolf of a woman. If you value what little is left of your reputation, look somewhere else. Next time it will be your suit that gets snatched off.'
'One can hardly keep from looking at so much bare flesh.'
'I'll give you enough to look at,' Marion replied grimly.
'Marion,' said Topper rather primly, 'you have sunk to the lowest of planes.'
'I know it,' the girl at his side admitted. 'I've backslid terribly.'
'How did it happen, Marion? I'm glad you did.'
'You would be,' she answered, smiling oddly in the darkness. 'But it doesn't speak so well for me. I couldn't stand the upper strata. The atmosphere — too rarefied for me. Wasn't ready for it. I thought I was. I felt sure about it. Convinced. But this old earth exerts a powerful pull, my old. Especially with you on it — you all alone and puzzled about things.'
'You don't mean that, Marion?' Topper's voice was low.
'I don't know,' she answered slowly. 'I guess I must mean it, or why do I let myself go like this? God knows it's not for your looks. I could improve on those with my hands tucked into boxing gloves.'
'You like to make yourself clear, don't you?' Topper put in.
'I do,' continued Marion. 'And you're not admirable. In fact, there's nothing good about you — no redeeming feature, and yet, you're my sort of man.'
'You're hardly a mother superior yourself,' declared Topper.
'Oh, I just raise a lot of harmless hell. Take advantage of situations and all that. But I don't fall for any other guys. George has only you to worry about.'
'Yes,' allowed Mr Topper. 'He worries so much about me that I can't help worrying about him — a little.'
'And that young buck tries to make every good-looking dame he lays eyes on,' continued Marion. 'I don't mind in the least. He was always that way. His parents had to give him a woman for his sixteenth birthday. They were extremely indulgent, his parents. And he exacted the same indulgence from me. Had I cared any I'd have made him a corpse quick as a wink, same as I'll make you if you pull any fast ones.'
'I'm all right, lady,' said Mr Topper hastily. 'You don't have to trouble your head about me.'
'I won't,' Marion assured him. 'Your head will get all the trouble. I'll twist the dull thing off like this.'
She illustrated this threat by a suggestive grinding of her two small fists. Mr Topper could see his neck serving as the core for this painful operation. He looked away.
'Don't,' he asked her. 'Don't do that any more. I understand perfectly. Let's talk of something else.'
'Sure,' agreed Marion, 'but that's about the way I'd do it.'
'How did you get track of me over here?' asked Mr Topper.
Marion rested her head on his shoulder and took up one of his hands much as she would a book.
'Well,' she said, 'when I backslid, the first person I called on was you. You weren't there. You weren't anywhere that I could find. So I just hung about the place until the letter carrier came and collected your re-addressed mail from a servant. I snatched one of the letters out of his hand, read the address, then flung it back in his face.'
'That was unnecessary,' remarked Mr Topper.
'Quite,' agreed Marion. 'He was greatly upset about it. Almost afraid to pick the letter up. I have fun that way. Not much, but a little. I was feeling good about finding out where you were. After that it was all quite simple. I collected the rest of them and induced them to take the trip. George is always game for any kind of diversion.'
'Including torture and murder,' added Mr Topper. 'He found me first, did George, in a most embarrassing situation.'
'Oh, no, he didn't. I was there all the time.'
'Good God!' exclaimed Mr Topper. 'While I was taking a bath?'
'While both of you were taking a bath,' said Marion, nodding contentedly. 'Behind that wicker laundry basket of yours. I tried to get in it, but the damn thing was full.'
Mr Topper was profoundly shocked. He rose to his feet and helped Marion to hers.
'That was not at all nice of you,' he said.
'No,' replied Marion complacently, 'but it was highly amusing. If George hadn't been there I'd have bathed with you myself, perhaps. Who knows?'
'Come,' said Mr Topper. 'We had better take a walk.'
'Will you buy me a drink?' Marion asked him.
'I'll buy you a swarm of drinks,' Topper assured her.
'Not too many to-night,' said Marion. 'I must look up George to see if the coast is clear.'
'Just what are you planning on doing?'
'Oh, nothing much,' she replied evasively. 'Just scouting about. After we've had our drink I'll take you home.'
And that is what Marion did. Rather wistfully she left Topper at his gate.
'Where are you going to sleep to-night?' he asked her.
'We have unoccupied rooms at the best hotels,' Marion told him. 'The maids can't understand why the beds are mussed up every morning. I might sleep in one of those bath-houses, though, just to be nearer you.'
'Don't do that,' said Topper. 'Go to your hotel and get a good night's sleep. And think of me. I have to go in there now and listen to a lot of drip from my wife's unendurable friends — England's worst exhibits on the Riviera.'
'Tell 'em to go to hell,' murmured Marion, kissing him as she faded out. 'I'll see you soon, my old and rare.'
Topper stood at his gate. He was alone now. The night spoke of his solitude— intensified it.
'Marion,' he called softly. 'Marion, where are you?'
Silence. Waves against the beach.
Topper turned and walked thoughtfully towards his villa, pallid in the moonlight. In the next villa — not Monsieur Louis' — a woman's figure was outlined against a window. She was standing there watching — always watching. She seldom left her window, that old, mean-minded French hag.
'Like to shy a rock through the pane,' Topper mused darkly as he stepped on to his veranda. 'It would damn well serve her right. Hiding her own wickedness behind a curtain while looking for the worst in others.'
|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|