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Topper Takes A Trip


Thorne Smith



WHEN Mr Topper stepped into his villa he was on the verge. Exactly what he was on the verge of he could not have said with any degree of certainty. But he knew he was on the verge of something. He felt like it all over. It might have been the mumps, or, again, it might have been murder. So far he had never committed either. And when he entered his sitting-room to be confronted by a stack of four Sutton-Trevors and one Mary Topper he knew that the verge of whatever it was had been left far behind. He was over it and plunging headlong into all kinds of trouble — folly, indiscretions, and even better, Marion Kerby.

Accordingly, when Mrs Sutton-Trevor looked up at Mr Topper with more interest than approval and said, 'Bonsoir, Monsieur Topper. J'espère que vous portez bien. Comment?' Mr Topper looked back at her disgustedly and replied 'Must you make those alien noises?'

It was one of those insulting remarks that people pretend either not to have heard or not to have understood. Mrs Sutton-Trevor laughed unnaturally. Mr Topper thought of a lake of seamed, rubber-like ice suddenly splitting open, then closing up again. Topper looked closely at the lady in an attempt to discover if he had heard aright. Her face gave no indication of ever having departed from its set grimness. Nothing lingered there. Mr Topper blinked rapidly several times.

Mr Keith Sutton-Trevor then took up tennis with Topper. Keith Sutton-Trevor was still considered an only child, although he was easily Mr Topper's age. He was a man with teeth and the face of a hard-bitten ridge. Mr Topper leered at the ridge and declared he hated the game, which was a lie. Mr Topper loved tennis and played it atrociously. Keith's mother protested violently in English. She endeavoured to give the impression of having become so accustomed to speaking French that she found her native tongue tough going. She groped spasmodically for the right word and made herself look altogether horrid. Mr Topper informed her brutally that he still detested tennis, that he had come to France merely to drink and indulge a couple of other low whims of his, and that he approved of Soviet Russia.

'Liars, thieves, and murderers,' muttered the elder Mr Sutton-Trevor who up to this moment had been quite satisfied in listening to the sound he made by breathing heavily through his nose.

'But, my dear Mr Topper,' interposed the wife of Keith Sutton-Trevor, who in a past incarnation had been an ill-favoured horse and who had not been improved by the change, 'there's not a gentleman in the government.'

'How about your own?' asked Mr Topper.

'You mean our Labour element? Ah, Mr Topper, its members are rapidly becoming gentlemen. England always does that to its radical politicians; then they become statesmen and can't afford to be radical any longer.'

'Political eunuchs,' snapped Mr Topper.

'Why, Cosmo!' exclaimed his wife.

'Pretty strong — pretty strong,' objected the elder Mr Sutton-Trevor. 'I say, Topper, there are ladies present. Yes, by gad, there are.'

'You surprise me,' said Mr Topper. 'How does it feel?'

Mrs Topper's dyspepsia was increasing by leaps and bounds. 'My husband jests,' she gulped unhappily.

'While you indigest,' retorted Topper. 'How's that, Trevor-Suttons?' he demanded, deliberately reversing their names. 'Think it's worth a cognac? I do. It's very funny.'

'Sutton-Trevor, Mr Topper, if you please,' objected the wife of the breather with steadily mounting emphasis.

'Suttinly,' replied Mr Topper from the buffet, at which he was taking a double portion of cognac most improperly. 'That's very funny, too. And I'm not even half trying.'

'You don't need to try at all,' commented Mrs Topper, 'so far as we're concerned. Mr and Mrs Sutton-Trevor have asked me to motor to Paris with them, and I'm thinking of accepting.'

'It would be the last thing in the world I'd think of doing,' said Mr Topper quite inoffensively. 'It's your dish at a gulp, though. I can see that. Let nothing stop you. Keith and myself will stay at home and play tennis morning, noon, and night. How about it, Keith?'

'My husband is an exceptionally fine player,' put in Mrs Keith.

'You mean, for a man of his age,' Mr Topper replied with ready sympathy. 'I fancy he can pull some sneaky ones. Well, I'm a pretty stealthy player myself. It will be sneak meeting sneak. Don't trouble to acknowledge that one. It came too easy.'

Topper loudly smacked his lips, polished them on the sleeve of his coat, and sat down, reiterating that he dearly loved to drink. He was deliberately trying to start a row.

There was really very little left that Mrs Topper and the Sutton-Trevors could talk about in the uncouth presence of the drink-loving Topper. A brooding constraint fell upon them, and into this walked Scollops in a manner with which nobody present was even remotely familiar, including Scollops herself.

Casually and without haste Mr Topper's personal cat sauntered across the sitting-room with her back legs dangling thoughtlessly in the air. It was an effortless performance in which Scollops seemed to be taking no part. Topper realized full well that Scollops was not responsible for the ridiculous figure she cut. He suspected the Colonel and Oscar of experimenting with his pet. What did surprise him was the complete lack of interest Scollops displayed in what was being done to her. Few cats permitted such liberties to be taken with their persons. Dogs, yes. Dogs were natural born clowns. Not so cats. Those creatures of habit were conservative to a fault. Topper reflected that the Colonel had a way with animals. Inexhaustible patience. He took one look at his cat, then rose and returned to the cognac. The inverted Scollops followed him. Topper felt somewhat like a ring-master in a circus.

'Is this one of your stupid tricks?' his wife demanded.

'It appears to be Scollops's idea entirely,' remarked Mr Topper. 'I claim no credit at all. Give the little lady a big hand.'

'I mean, have you strung her up on a wire or something?' Mary Topper persisted.

'I'm not so anxious to amuse you as all that,' her husband retorted.

'You're not amusing me in the least,' interposed Mrs Sutton-Trevor. 'I refuse even to look at such an unnatural and undignified animal.'

'That cat is far from amusing,' wheezed old Mr Sutton-Trevor. 'The Lord God of hosts never created a cat to walk in that fashion.'

'I think I could bear it a little better if she would only reverse her position,' said the old gentleman's daughter-in-law, 'and walk on her back legs instead.'

At this remark the back legs referred to began to pump busily in the air as if the cat were riding a bicycle upside down. Mr Topper himself was a little upset by this uncalled for demonstration. Even Scollops contrived to look back and up at her speeding legs as if surprised by their sudden activity.

'Perhaps the cat has something in her foot and is trying to shake it out,' suggested Mr Keith Sutton-Trevor.

'Nonsense,' said his mother impatiently. 'That would be a silly way to go about getting it out.'

'No,' agreed Mrs Topper. 'If I had something in my foot I'm sure I wouldn't stand on my hands and shake my legs in the air.'

'Don't!' said Mr Topper hastily. 'Even the thought unmans me.'

'Well, she's your cat,' continued Mrs Topper, ignoring her husband's remark. 'I wish you'd make her stop whatever she thinks she's doing.'

At this moment Félice entered to collect the coffee cups and liqueur glasses. After one look at Scollops she forgot the object of her quest.

'The cat,' she murmured, 'she is foolish. She claws at the air in reverse.'

Snatching up several cups she hurried from the room. Topper had a bright idea. He hoped the Colonel, or whoever was manipulating Scollops, would play up to it.

'Bout face!' he ordered.

Immediately the cat described a neat flip, landed lightly on her hind legs and stood at attention with her forepaws elevated. Topper laughed inordinately.

'That's one of the funniest things I ever saw,' he said. 'Damn my eyes!'

'I wish you'd go somewhere else and look at that cat alone,' Mrs Topper told him feelingly. 'She's upsetting my guests.'

'Also herself,' added Topper. 'Carry on, Scollops.'

At this command Scollops did a strange and unladylike thing. She resumed the position of a normal cat, walked deliberately over to Mrs Sutton-Trevor and spat at that good lady. Mrs Sutton-Trevor started violently in her chair.

'My word!' exclaimed her son. 'Do you think the beast is mad? Will it attack us, perhaps?'

Scollops, as if understanding these questions, turned and looked long at the Englishman. Then, crouching close to the floor, she emitted a fearful scream and sprang, claws distended, into the horror-riven face of Mr Keith Sutton-Trevor. There must have been more weight behind Scollops than mere cat, because the assaulted man, with a scream rivalling hers in fearfulness, rolled out across the matting as the back of his chair hit the floor.

'I'm dreadfully sorry,' said Mrs Topper, bending solicitously over the sprawling gentleman. 'It will never occur again.'

'Once was too often,' the Englishman's mother replied for him 'An incident like that should never occur at all. Your husband's cat will have no opportunity to insult me and assault mine a second time.'

'Nonsense,' said Mr Topper, seizing the fallen man by the arnd and dragging him ruthlessly over the matting in an abortive effort to help him to his feet. 'What should a tennis shark like your son care about a little cat? He plays with their guts.'

'What!' ejaculated Mr Sutton-Trevor, growing purple in the face. 'This is too much — too low to be tolerated.'

'Your husband is less endurable than his cat,' the younger Mrs Sutton-Trevor told Mrs Topper. 'What a disgusting thing to say about poor Keith.'

'Not at all,' grunted Mr Topper, pulling the arm with all his might. 'If you had any sense at all you'd know that tennis rackets are strung with catgut.'

'I wish they were strung with yours,' grated the elder Mr Sutton-Trevor with a complete reversal of manners.

'Oh, what a horrid wish!' said Mr Topper, pausing for a moment in his pulling. 'Did you hear what he said, everybody? I merely stated a general fact. He's getting personal about my interior.'

'If you would kindly stop trying to pull my arm off,' interposed Mr Keith Sutton-Trevor bitterly, 'I might be able to get up off the floor for a while.'

'Sorry, old chap,' replied Mr Topper. 'Wasn't thinking of what I was doing. Hope it isn't spoiled for your tennis.'

'I couldn't even play ping-pong with it, the way it is now,' the man replied ruefully as he painfully endeavoured to wriggle the injured member back into position. 'May I ask what you wanted to do with my arm?'

'I don't want to do a thing with any part of your malformed body,' Mr Topper assured him. 'Between the bunch of you you've broken my cat's heart. Look at the poor creature.'

Scollops, when last seen, had been crawling under the chair of the elder Mr Sutton-Trevor. That gentleman, looking down, was distressed to see a long shaggy tail lying between his feet.

'That is a strange cat,' he observed, 'but she can't be so strange as to grow a tail like that all at once.'

Gingerly he moved his feet apart and leaned down closer to the tail in question.

'Is there a dog in the house?' he asked.

'No,' said Mr Topper. 'Do you want one?'

'There are enough low animals present as it is,' replied the old man significantly. 'Whatever that queer object belongs to, it can't stay where it is. I don't like the looks of the thing.'

With this old Mr Sutton-Trevor reached down and laid violent hands on the tail, giving it a rude tug as he did so. The tail snapped out from under the chair and was immediately followed by a deep growl.

'My God,' said the old gentleman, turning white, 'I've pulled the beast's tail off, and it merely growls. What manner of an animal is it?'

At this moment the tail began to wiggle excitedly in his hand. With a yell of fear Mr Sutton-Trevor dropped it and drew his feet up off the floor. Like a thing of life the tail sped round the room. Scollops suddenly appeared from under the table and lengthened out in hot pursuit of the tail. The tail left the floor and landed on Mrs Sutton-Trevor's lap. Scollops did likewise, and it was there that the battle was joined. While this admirable English gentle-woman made noises like an American Indian on the warpath, Oscar, unseen but vocal, and Scollops, a flash of screeching fur, fought to a draw without budging an inch from their original point of contact, i.e., Mrs Sutton-Trevor's agitated lap. As a result of this trying experience, the good lady, as soon as the cat and the tail had removed themselves from the field of battle, had to be assisted from the room.

'There's something decidedly peculiar about this villa,' she announced upon returning to the sitting-room. 'And I'm not referring altogether to Mr Topper either.'

'That's good of you,' put in Mr Topper with a malicious grin.

'It was unintentional, I assure you,' the lady resumed, 'but when undogged tails begin to bark and bite and dash about the house, and when cats start to walk like acrobats and fight like distracted demons in my lap, it's time to draw the line. I draw it now. Mrs Topper, I'm exceedingly sorry, but I can't let my family remain beneath your husband's roof. It's altogether too dangerous. At any moment my husband might have a stroke or my son might lose his mind.'

'Well, I draw the line at that,' Mr Topper retorted, 'although, for the life of me, I can't make out how either one of them would be greatly changed. The old chap's been the grave digger's darling for years, and as for your slightly faded son, he can hardly lose what he hasn't.'

'Oh!' gasped Mrs Sutton-Trevor. 'Strike him, Keith. We have never been so insulted.'

'England expects every man to duck his duty,' said Mr Topper nastily.

This was too much for Keith Sutton-Trevor. He stepped up to Mr Topper and raised his hand. It was immediately filled with cat. How Scollops managed it no one will ever know. Mr Topper suspected the Colonel of having dropped her there. At the same time not only the tail but also the complete rump of a dog came charging across the room at the trembling legs of the outraged Englishman. It was more than human flesh could bear. Even gods would have been disconcerted. Mr Keith Sutton-Trevor had in his composition no strain remotely godlike. He dropped the cat, side-stepped the rushing rump, and fled from the house.

'Where's he gone?' demanded his father.

'To look for the rest of that dog,' Mr Topper suggested cheerfully.

'And where is she going to?' continued the old man as Keith's wife dashed after him.

'To look for what's left of him,' replied Mr Topper. 'He's hardly worth the trouble.'

'If I were a day younger, sir, I'd thrash you within an inch of your life.'

'And if you were a day older there wouldn't be an inch of your life left to thrash.'

'Oh!' cried the old gentleman. 'This bounder is insufferable. Take me away.'

Topper was drinking cognac.

'Yes, Mrs Sutton-Trevor,' he said, 'hurry up and draw that line. Drag him out with it.'

This lady chose to ignore Mr Topper.

'My dear,' she said to his wife, 'I advise you to come with us to-morrow on that trip. This is no place for a woman of refinement.'

'I'd like to start right now,' was Mrs Topper's reply as she followed her guests to the veranda. 'I will let you know in the morning. Ever since his accident there has been something queer about him. Especially of late.'

When she returned to the sitting-room she glanced at her husband and decided she had stated the case with admirable fairness and restraint. There was most assuredly something queer about him. He was slouched down in a chair and he was holding a glass of cognac in his right hand. On one knee Scollops was sitting contentedly while on the other lay either the start or finish of a dog consisting principally of a shaggy tail. In the presence of that irreconcilable manifestation Mary Topper did not linger long. There was little to be gained and much might be lost. Averting her eyes from her peculiar husband and his even more peculiar pets she hurried upstairs, an uneasy sensation creeping the length of her spine.

Topper sipped his cognac and looked meditatively down at the tail. Those hyphenated snobs had got what was coming to them. Too long had they desecrated his Riviera for him, smearing entire chunks of starlit evenings. Had he come to Europe to meet Glendale with an English accent? No, he had not come to Europe to do that. Glendale was too much with him as it was. He was comforted to know that the Sutton-Trevors had been roundly insulted and injured.

'Now where the devil has the Colonel gone?' he wondered. 'This dog here is left on my hands. Can't turn a dog in his condition away from my door.'

It did not matter. If his debauched master had wandered off in search of other diversions, what little there was of Oscar could bunch itself up in a chair and sleep right here. He could entertain Scollops — keep her at home at night, for a change.

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