|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|
Topper Takes A Trip
A LADY'S LEG BETRAYS
TOPPER drained his glass and deposited his burdens in the chair. After life's fitful fever they slept well, their former antagonism forgotten in their mutual defence of the man. Scollops opened her eyes drowsily and contemplated the neatly arranged but nevertheless dogless rump. Then she closed them, and a slight shiver ran through her graceful body. This was an entirely new make of dog to Scollops. She would probably grow hardened to it. A cat had to get used to many disagreeable facts in life. Previously she had always been able to consider the faces of her sleeping companions. No matter. A friendly rump in the chill hours of the night was better than no rump at all. What there was of Oscar was warm and shaggy. Scollops appreciated this. She would make the most of the little the gods had granted. The sound of a dog yawning immoderately completely filled her left ear. Once more the cat opened her eyes. This time she looked with fastidious disapproval at the spot whence the yawn had issued. If this rump intended to yawn like that occasionally throughout the night the situation would indeed be most trying. Scollops could get used to the rump, but not to its yawns. The sharp, gasping yelps with which they terminated were especially difficult on the ears. The cat glanced up at Mr Topper inquiringly, as if to ascertain what he thought about it, then returned her gaze to the rump. With a philosophical shrug of her sleek shoulders she closed her eyes once more and attempted to make the best of an unparalleled juxtaposition.
Topper moved restlessly about the room, glancing from time to time at the bottle of cognac standing on the buffet. Let it stand. No sense in waking up in the morning with a dull head. The cognac could wait. He walked out on the veranda and scanned the face of the moon. Automatically the woman in the villa at his right planted herself at her window.
'The evil-minded old hag,' he muttered, looking belligerently up at the shadowy form. 'Some day you'll get that rock if you don't mind your own damn business.'
The watching woman had put a curse on the night for Mr Topper. He turned his back on her and sought the privacy of his villa. Closing the long shutters on the sea he stood by them, listening to the foaming of waves on the beach, then slowly mounted the stairs with a backward look at the peculiar group in the chair. Mary should be in bed by now. He heartily hoped she was. To indulge in any further conversation with that lady to-night would be far from expedient.
In the course of a single evening Topper had touched romance and roundly defeated his enemies. Also, he had indulged in more cognac than was his wont. He was willing to call it a day, and not such a bad day at that.
Quietly he passed through his wife's room and on into his own, leaving the door ajar in accordance with well-established tradition, the reason for which he could not understand unless it was to encourage a fair and friendly exchange of Riviera insects. Mrs Topper and her dyspepsia were sleeping confidingly together. They were self-sufficient. Not so Mr Topper. Moonlight lying on water was not good for his peace of mind. It disquieted him. Had he been a dog he would have bayed soulfully at the moon. Deprived of this emotional outlet he undressed slowly without troubling to turn on the light, donned a regal pair of pyjamas, and manoeuvred himself into his bed of an élasticité suprême.
'How nice!' breathed a soft voice in his ear. 'I love silk things.'
Topper gasped as his pyjama trousers were tugged violently and inquisitively felt by some unseen companion who loved silk things.
'Don't!' he whispered in the moon-filtered darkness. 'You'll yank the damn things off me.'
This impassioned plea was met by an unholy giggle.
'Nothing ventured nothing gained,' said the voice at his side.
He turned his head and found himself looking into Marion Kerby's moon-touched eyes. In the half-light of the room her face looked small and pale and impish. Her defiant nose was hardly six inches from his. Her lips were dangerously near.
'Go on back to your bath house,' said Mr Topper, 'and keep your hands off my pyjamas.'
'I won't,' she snapped back at him. 'I'm quite comfortable where I am, and I do like your pyjamas. I'll tear 'em to shreds if I feel like it.'
'Don't feel like it,' said Mr Topper. 'Stop feeling altogether.'
'You should never deck your body out in silk when I'm about,' whispered Marion. 'I can't keep my hands off it.'
Topper considered her closely.
'What have you decked yours in?' he asked suspiciously.
'Merely the top of a pair of yours. I can hardly find myself in them. Want to try?'
'Don't talk like that. It's not right.'
'What should we both do — say our prayers and then go to sleep?'
'It would be far, far wiser. You've backslid terribly.'
'And I'm going to drag you with me.'
'Do you realize that you've got yourself uninvited into bed with a married man, and that you have a husband of your own somewhere close at hand — too close at hand?'
'Yes,' quietly. 'I realize that.'
'Has it ever occurred to you that it is a wrong thing to climb into bed with men?'
'With how many men?'
'With any number of men.'
'I don't know about its being wrong,' came the voice. 'I know it would be unwise.'
Mr Topper was stumped.
'Have you no moral values at all?' he asked at length.
'I haven't a thing for sale, if that's what you mean.'
'That's what I don't mean.'
'Then you'd better stick to simple sentences. A slight misunderstanding might make a whale of a difference.'
Topper found himself unable to continue looking into Marion's glowing eyes. He turned his own way.
'Why don't you go back to your hotel?' he asked.
'Nobody there. The gang's out. George has gone away in a motor boat with a dame calling herself Mrs Blake Willard.'
'I know her,' replied Topper. 'A charming woman.'
'Did you ever go away with her?'
'No,' said Mr Topper. 'Myself and Mr Blake Willard are the only two men on the Riviera who have not availed themselves of that pleasure.'
'Then she's that sort of woman?'
'Very much so.'
'What a joke on George!'
'He is merely following the conventional precedent, that's all.'
'Of course, he was greatly boiled,' Marion observed with a scrap of loyalty. 'Usually he's a choosy sort of person.'
'Mrs Blake Willard is not a matter of choice. She's a matter of routine.'
Silence, then a small voice, softly:
'Do you like me, Topper?'
'What has that got to do with your crawling in bed with me?'
'I didn't crawl, to begin with, and isn't it right for people who like one another to see as much of each other as possible?'
'Certainly not,' Mr Topper objected. 'Such inquisitiveness would lead to all sorts of complications.'
'I don't understand,' said Marion.
'Listen,' Mr Topper explained patiently, 'if every couple that like each other crawled—'
'I wish you wouldn't say crawl,' the low voice interrupted.
'All right,' said Mr Topper. 'If every couple that took a fancy to each other got themselves into a bed there wouldn't be enough to go round.'
'Enough what — beds or couples?'
'Beds, of course.'
'Then why beds? Let 'em think up places. I could.'
Once more Topper was stumped. It was like talking to a savage.
'Do you realize this,' he asked presently, 'that my wife is asleep on one side of me and that on the other your space-devouring husband, fed up with Mrs Blake Willard, may most horribly appear at any moment?'
'It would be amusing if they appeared at the same time.'
'It would be just too bad,' said Mr Topper. 'He would literally tear me up and toss me away, and she would tell the pieces exactly what she thought of them.'
'I wish you'd think more about me and a great deal less about George and your wife. If you're not more entertaining, I'll crawl into bed with her, as you so graphically put it.'
'That would be friendly, especially in the top part of my pyjamas.'
'Then choose between us.'
'I'd rather take a walk,' hedged Mr Topper. 'Let's.'
'If you try to leave this bed I'll have her in here in no time.'
'If I don't leave this bed I'm afraid she'll be in here anyway. Can't I even close the door?'
'It would be advisable,' replied Marion. 'Things are looking up.'
'Don't be bold.'
'One has to be a damn sight more than bold with you. A body has to be downright overbearing.'
When he returned to the bed Marion was snuggled down in his place. One slim bare leg was tucked outside the coverings. Grumbling about the nerve of some women, Topper lay down where she had been.
'I can't sleep on this side,' he complained.
Marion laughed unpleasantly.
'What makes you think you're going to sleep?' she asked. 'Where are your manners?'
Topper looked at her with startled eyes.
'Aren't we going to sleep?' he demanded.
'No, we're not going to sleep,' she mimicked, sticking out the tip of her tongue at him. 'You great big cow.'
'For God's sake,' said Topper. 'I've had a tough day. What are you planning on doing at this time of night?'
'Well,' replied Marion consideringly, 'we can't play polo, and we can't run races, and it would bring in a flock of mosquitoes if we lit the light and broke out a deck of cards. We might play twenty questions, though.'
'I need only one,' said Mr Topper. 'Are you going to get out of this bed and go home?'
'All right,' answered Marion, 'but you'll be sorry.'
She slipped from the bed and walked over to the window, where she stood in the drifting moonlight, an odd-looking little figure.
'I say!' whispered Mr Topper. 'You can't go like that.'
'I can go like that,' she whispered back furiously. 'I can go in less than that. Here! Take your damn circus tent.'
With this remark she tore off his pyjama jacket and flung it to the floor. Then, quite unexpectedly, she hid her face in her hands and began to cry softly but effectively. Topper could not stand this. He looked at the gleaming figure, then blinked stupidly at the world in general.
'Marion,' he whispered uneasily, 'don't go on like that.'
'Naked I came into this world,' she said brokenly, 'and mother naked I'll leave the damn thing. You don't care.'
Topper heaved himself out of bed and went over to the window.
'Don't touch me,' said Marion, leaning heavily against him. 'Don't come a step nearer.'
'It wouldn't be physically possible,' observed Topper.
Was she laughing now or crying? Topper was unable to tell. He felt two smooth arms creeping up to his neck and a small wet face pressed against his. He knew when he was licked, and he liked it.
'My old and rare,' she murmured, holding on to his ears and dragging his head down to her lips.
There was nothing for Topper to do but to carry her back to the bed.
'I knew you understood all the time how a gentleman should treat a lady,' she murmured. 'Now, if you'll be so kind —' Topper dropped her suddenly, and her sentence ended in a gasp.
'Now, for God's sake, be ready to dematerialize at a moment's notice,' said Mr Topper a few hours later. 'Don't fall asleep and forget yourself.'
'I won't,' murmured Marion drowsily. 'There's been enough of that already. I'll fade at the crack o' danger, Mr Topper.'
The room became quiet save for the sound of deep and regular breathing and the dream-spun cadence of the surf.
Mary Topper awoke early the next morning. This was due to the fact that she had arrived at a definite decision. She would leave that morning for Paris with the Sutton-Trevors in their motor. The conduct of her husband on the previous evening had been inexcusable. Furthermore, unnatural and sinister things were going on in the house — dogs' tails and all that. She did not care to think about them. Her husband could take care of himself. She experienced a passing qualm when she thought of the fair Félice. Then she shrugged her shoulders. If a man intended to be a man there was no way of stopping him.
She got out of bed and slipped on her dressing-gown. She must inform her husband at once of her decision. It was odd that he still remained in his room. Then, for the first time, she noticed that the door between the two rooms was closed. This was even odder. Worse than that. It was actually insulting. She faced the door grimly, then flung it open.
The first object that greeted Mrs Topper's gaze was altogether delightful, although, it must be confessed, the good lady did not look on it with any apparent appreciation. What she saw was a slim bare and brown leg — an exquisite example of feminine decoration — lying innocently exposed on the covering of the bed. Where the continuation of the leg was Mrs Topper was not sure, but she naturally imagined it to be farther up, huddled in the bed-clothing. Of one thing she was sure, that leg did not belong to her husband. It was far too slim and shapely. She hated to admit this galling fact. Himself, the perfidious male, was lying comfortably in bed with the possessor of that leg — had been so lying all night long. And he was not in his accustomed place. He had even broken a habit of years — a thing he had never done for her — and slept on the left side.
Mrs Topper's blood boiled. For the first time in her life she became an elemental, militant woman. Yes, she would leave the house, but she would leave it in ruins first — the house and everyone in it, especially these two.
With a stealth gathered from her primitive ancestors, still lurking in spirit in the shadow of the cave, she crept up to the bed and seized the leg by the foot. Mr Topper was rudely awakened by a smothered ejaculation almost in his ear.
'Damn!' said Marion Kerby. 'My right leg's asleep, and I can't do a thing with it.'
'Why do anything with it at all?' Mr Topper asked lazily, endeavouring to open his eyes.
'Simply because your wife's got a-hold of it,' said Marion with convincing earnestness.
'What!' exclaimed Mr Topper, his eyes wide and staring.
He took one look at his wife's set face, then covered his own with the bedclothes. Mary and the leg could fight their own battles. This was one of those situations in which a man should keep himself to himself. There was no occasion for him to barge in and make matters worse.
'Coward!' panted Marion Kerby. 'Do something about all this. Rub my leg and make it wake up.'
To rub his companion's leg at that moment was the farthest thought from Mr Topper's mind. Far be it from him to add fuel to the fire.
'Some other time,' he muttered. 'I'm busy.'
'There won't be any other time, if you don't pry this woman loose.'
Exactly what Mrs Topper intended to do with the leg once she had succeeded in getting it is difficult to conjecture. It is doubtful if Mrs Topper knew herself. Probably she had some vague idea of dragging it, together with the body, through the streets of the village, after which she would return for Topper. It is certain she had no intention of dragging the leg from its body. Not that such a feat would not have given her a great deal of well-merited satisfaction. She merely doubted her ability to perform the act.
With one despairing grunt the leg yielded to Mrs Topper's tugging and parted company with the bed. So sudden had been the capitulation that Mary Topper sat down heavily with the leg resting lightly across her lap, its small pink toes wiggling pro-testingly.
'My God, what a wife you have,' came Marion's voice feebly. 'I'm mere putty in her hands.'
Topper could not restrain his curiosity. One of his eyes morbidly took in the novel scene.
'Isn't that thing awake yet?' he asked in a depressed voice.
'It seems to be in the grip of a terrible awakening,' replied Marion. 'I don't know what's wrong with it. Either it has ideas of its own, or she's paralysed the poor thing. Scared it stiff, so to speak.'
While this strange conversation between her husband and the leg was in progress Mary Topper had been gathering her forces. At first she had looked down slightly dazed at the prize she had so ruthlessly drawn, being particularly repelled by its gesticulating toes. Then the loquacity of the leg was not exactly calculated to soothe her nerves. With increasing irritation she listened to the leg address her husband as if it had some claim on him. It had even asked to be rubbed. The thought of this highly improper request stung Mrs Topper to action. She sprang to her feet and began to wave the leg wildly about the room. Topper, peering over the edge of the sheet, took one look and shivered. Then he hid the scene from view.
'For the love of Pete,' called Marion, 'will you tell your wife to quit flinging my leg about like an old piece of rope? What the hell does she think she is anyway — a cowboy? Say there, Mrs Will Rogers, will you lay off that leg? I'm getting dizzy, honest to God, lady.'
'I don't know who you are nor where you are, and I don't care what you are,' cried Mary Topper, in a wild, unladylike tone of voice. 'I've got this leg and I'm going to keep it. I'm going to bite it with my own bare teeth.'
'It would be hard to bite that leg with somebody else's teeth,' said the rapidly revolving object, 'but I must admit you can think up some pretty mean little tricks. That settles it, Topper, old boy. You simply must get up and take my leg away from your wife. I don't want the sweet young thing to be bitten by a woman.'
'Oh!' cried Mrs Topper, increasing the speed of her twirling. 'Your words are driving me mad.'
Topper sprang from the bed and was immediately floored by coming into violent contact with the leg. Mrs Topper laughed harrowingly.
'Take that, you dog!' she cried.
'Ouch!' exclaimed the leg. 'That hurt like hell.'
'It didn't improve me any,' said Topper from the floor.
'Shouldn't mind a lady's leg,' replied Marion. 'Why doesn't she throw me away and pick on you instead? Look out! Here I come.'
Topper ducked in the nick of time, and the leg swished harmlessly over his head.
'I'll batter his brains out,' panted Mrs Topper.
'He doesn't seem to have any,' observed the leg.
'What business of yours is that?' Mrs Topper demanded.
'None at all,' hastily disclaimed the leg. 'I was merely twirling and thinking — that's all, I assure you.'
'I feel like chucking you through the window,' said Mrs Topper.
'Good! Why don't you?' replied the leg. 'Any change would be better than this. Better still, why not set me down in a corner until you've got your breath?'
At this moment Mr Topper made a desperate lunge at the leg, only to fall ingloriously upon his stomach. The leg had disappeared.
'Sorry, old boy,' came the voice of Marion Kerby, 'but I am not at all responsible for the caprices of this leg of mine. It snapped out of its dope of its own free will. Just in time, too. I'm all twirled out.'
Mary Topper, deprived of the leg, looked thoughtfully down at her prostrate husband. There was only one thing left worth doing to him, and she could not bring herself to do that. She refused to soil her hands with the murder of a creature so low and depraved. Impotent with anger unappeased, she looked about the room. Then she conceived one of those distractedly ridiculous ideas that occur to persons only at moments of consummate rage. On Mr Topper's bureau was a bottle containing a particularly obnoxious fluid used for the whitening of shoes. Seizing this, she emptied its contents on the back of Mr Topper's head and neck.
'There!' she muttered. 'Take that.'
'I've taken it,' said Mr Topper from the floor. 'All.'
Without indulging in another hostile demonstration she turned from the strange-looking object at her feet and left the room, slamming the door behind her. From her own room came the sounds of furious packing.
Mr Topper, still dazed by the terrific activity of the last few moments, rose and did futile things to his head and neck with a towel. With his voluminous and colourful silk pyjamas and his face oddly smeared with whitening where the liquid had spread, Mr Topper made a tragically festive appearance. In make-up, at least, he was fitted for the role of Pagliacci. He made no attempt to sing, however, satisfying his vocal inclinations with deep-seated oaths.
'I say, old dear,' came the cautiously pitched voice of Marion, 'do you think after all we've been through you could arrange for a little cognac?'
From the veranda below came the sounds of industrious sweeping. Mr Topper stepped out on his balcon and made queer motions at Félice. The motions were entirely unnecessary. His face alone was sufficient to attract her closest attention. Félice gave it one astounded look, then dropped her broom. She was afraid to run into the house because Monsieur might run down to meet her. To rush out into the public highway would not be seemly. She temporized by staying where she was. She would humour this mad Monsieur.
'Félice,' he called in a low voice. 'It is that I have need of a bottle of cognac. Voilà!'
Topper tossed down to the maid a rope which Monsieur Grandon, in his anxiety to provide his tenants with some means of escape from Vesuvius, had seen fit to attach to the railing of his balcon.
'The bottle, Félice,' continued Mr Topper, 'attach it thus.'
Here the man wrung his hands so gruesomely in an attempt to make his meaning clear that much of the colour departed from the cheeks of Félice.
'But yes, m'sieu,' she faltered, nodding her head rapidly. 'Tout de suite.'
Perhaps if she complied with Monsieur's strange request he would remain drunk all day in his room, which was an occurrence highly to be desired by all concerned.
When Topper returned to the room Marion Kerby, clad in a silk pyjama jacket, was sitting on the edge of the bed. She looked oddly frail and subdued.
'Do we get it?' she asked in a small voice.
'The affair is in motion,' he told her.
Both of them were suddenly electrified by the sound of an infuriated voice fiercely denouncing Félice, whose own voice was raised in protest.
'She's up there!' cried the voice. 'I know she's up there. First I'll slit his throat, and then I'll beat her.'
'I get more than you do,' observed Mr Topper with the resignation of a man ruined beyond all hope of recovery.
'It's George!' exclaimed Marion.
'In the flesh,' replied Topper.
He looked through another window and beheld an unnerving scene. George Kerby was confronting Félice on the veranda. In one hand he held a carving-knife which had been snatched up from the buffet. As Topper watched he saw the enraged husband place the knife between his teeth and seize the rope with both hands. Then he paused, removed the knife from his mouth, and, taking the bottle of cognac from Félice, placed it to his lips.
'Thanks,' Mr Topper heard him say as he passed the bottle back to the maid, returned the knife to his mouth, and sprang at the rope. 'I'll go up this damn thing like greased lightning.'
Topper turned to Marion.
'Your husband is climbing up that rope like greased lightning,' he informed her, 'and he is holding most horribly between his teeth a carving-knife with a blade sufficiently long to slit the throats of the entire community.'
'I go,' replied Marion, 'with speed the most terrific.'
There was a twinkling of bare brown legs as Marion flappingly dashed into Mrs Topper's room. That lady, her packing completed, was standing before her mirror clad only in a dressing-gown. This garment Marion neatly slipped from the other woman's shoulders.
'I'll take this,' said Marion, and disappeared on a dead run through the door on her way downstairs.
Mrs Topper looked nakedly after her, vaguely wondering how many women her husband had managed to secrete in his room overnight. In the meantime, Topper, from the depths of a clothes closet, had the single pleasure of seeing George Kerby's head appear piratically over the railing of the balcon. To Topper the man seemed to be composed entirely of knife. Springing into the room, he looked wildly about him.
'Where are they?' he shouted. 'Topper, your time is up — I mean, come.'
In the clothes closet Mr Topper's face became even whiter than its whitening. He saw himself in ribbons. For a moment George Kerby prowled about the room like a tiger on the hunt, then, suddenly spying the door to Mrs Topper's room, he dashed through it, brandishing the knife and awesomely shouting, 'Show me a throat and I'll slit it.'
It just so happened that Mrs Topper, because of the absence of her dressing robe, was in a position to show George Kerby much more than her throat. It was an encounter not easily to be forgotten. The infuriated man's anger was dissipated through sheer shock. Mrs Topper, in seeking protection behind a wardrobe trunk, forgot everything herself in the exigencies of the moment.
'Madam, I beg your pardon,' said Mr Kerby. 'Had I only known —'
'Well, now that you not only know but also see,' Mary Topper interrupted coldly, 'will you take both yourself and your knife out of my room?'
'But, madam —' began George Kerby, feeling that he had not half sufficiently apologized for the enormity of his offence.
'Write me a letter about it,' cut in Mrs Topper. 'That door leads to the lower floor. Go out of it and keep going.'
Kerby hastened to obey the lady's instructions.
While this brief encounter was taking place, Topper had just enough time to gratify the watching woman in the villa next door by sliding down the rope George had so swiftly mounted. Topper, too, was like greased lightning. If anything, he was even greasier, because, unlike George, he was descending to earth. Arrived there he rushed into the dining-room and collapsed in a chair.
'My God,' he thought wearily, 'no motion-picture camera could have followed the activities of this morning!'
'M'sieu,' whispered Félice, gazing at Mr Topper with admiringly sympathetic eyes, 'the little Mademoiselle, she is on the beach. Ah, m'sieu, très chic.'
Because of the stultifying fact that the lady's husband was looking at him from the door, Mr Topper did not trouble to tell Félice that the little Mademoiselle was in full truth a Madam of no little experience. On George's face were the marks of his recent encounter — lines of shock and bafflement.
'God Almighty,' he muttered, 'is everything abnormal in this house? What's the matter with your face?'
'Hello, George,' said Topper briefly. 'Sunburn. Have you had breakfast?'
'Have you seen my wife?' asked George.
'Why, no,' replied Topper innocently, 'but Oscar's knocking about somewhere. That is, part of him is knocking about.'
'Well, I've seen yours,' said Kerby in a low voice.
'Oh, did you, now?' answered Topper in an interested voice. 'What did you think of the lady?'
'She was a sight for sore eyes,' replied Kerby with unnecessary frankness. 'I'm sorry, Topper, but your wife was unclad.'
Topper was prompted to reply that George had nothing on him, but he tactfully restrained the impulse.
'That was too bad of you, George,' he said mildly, 'but it's a good thing I'm not an unreasonably jealous man. I trust you — er — let matters rest at that.'
'Oh, quite,' put in George hastily. 'I assure you you need have no fear for the honour of Mrs Topper.'
'You seem to be well satisfied on that score,' said Mr Topper, with a slight smile. 'However, I feel that way about her honour myself. Will you cognac yourself with me?'
Topper rose and walked over to the buffet. George followed him suspiciously.
'Are you sure you haven't seen my wife?' he demanded.
'I think you're hardly in a position to ask me such a question,' Topper replied, looking steadily at George. 'And I do wish, old chap, you'd put that decidedly ugly-looking knife down. It gives me the creeps.'
'Well, what was that rope doing hanging down from your balcony?' George continued, abandoning the knife, much to Mr Topper's relief.
'Ah, that,' said Mr Topper with a depreciative laugh. 'We are not all blessed with sympathetic and convivial wives, George. That rope is the means to cognac when other sources of supply are cut off.'
George Kerby's face cleared. The idea amused him. Old Topper and his rope. How could he ever have suspected the man? He drank deeply with his host, and drank again. Then he sat down and ate a hearty breakfast. Neither gentleman was aware of the happy fact that Mrs Topper, bag and baggage, had made her exit from the scene by way of the back door.
'Will you help me find Marion?' George asked when he had consumed the last morsel of food. 'I want to beat her.'
'Certainly,' replied Topper quite unmoved. 'I'll even help you beat her. By the way, what's the name of your hotel? I'll meet you there after I've washed up a bit and dressed.'
'The Splendide,' replied George Kerby.
'Aren't they all?' said Mr Topper.
|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|