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Topper Takes A Trip
FROM TREE TO TREE
'THE surveyor who laid out this bit of road must have been as cockeyed as hell,' the Colonel complained some minutes later.
'You're so crooked, Colonel,' Marion observed dispassionately, 'that all roads look cockeyed to you.'
Nor was the Colonel cast down by this remark. His mood was benign and expansive. A hard wench, but a clever one, he mused, smiling at Marion.
The road to which he had been referring was the Corniche d'Or, one of the most picturesquely petrifying highways in the world — France's gift to back-seat drivers, nervous wrecks, and individuals desirous of ending it all. As the car hurtled round a corner Mrs Hart, looking over its side, gazed down into the grinning jaws of a mouthful of fanglike rocks some hundred feet below. In spite of her indifference to natural laws, including that of gravity, the good lady shuddered.
'This isn't a road,' she gasped. 'It's a maze — that's what it is, and it has either driven Mr Topper mad or he is driving us mad. I don't care which, because it comes to the same thing.'
'The only way to travel comfortably on this web,' said Marion, 'is to get so blind drunk you either can't see it or else you see so crooked you begin to think it's straight.'
'In that remark, though involved, there is a world of wisdom,' quoth the Colonel. 'It's been a hard day and a dry one. In spite of the pressure of the moment, I feel as if all of us would work better with a drink or so inside.'
'You'll have to get dressed first,' said Mr Topper.
'We'll have to do more than that,' Marion replied. 'We'll have to finish up with our bodies. I feel like an unmade bed.'
'Well, I can't make a scrap more body than I have already,' Mrs Hart declared, 'unless we stop in some quiet spot and I'm allowed to concentrate on my various parts. This drive has shattered my nerves.'
'And the Colonel isn't any body at all,' observed Marion. 'Merely drawers and francs.'
'I like him better that way,' said Mrs Hart.
'I worked like the deuce for all this money,' replied the Colonel. 'You mean, we did, dearie,' put in Mrs Hart.
'We won't begin that discussion now,' said Mr Topper, foreseeing trouble of the worst sort. 'I want to be miles away when those francs are divided.'
'Suits me,' remarked the Colonel laconically.
'But not me,' announced Marion. 'We'll need an honest referee instead of a quick-change artist like his nibs there.'
Marion glanced knowingly at the Colonel, who tried to look terribly hurt.
'How well you know the man,' said Mrs Hart. 'But how can we be sure of Topper? Every man has his price, and he looks like a bargain to me.'
'Damaged goods,' agreed Marion sadly.
'Ruined,' went on Mrs Hart. 'The two of them are like this.' She held up two fingers. 'In cahoots.'
'I hate that word,' exclaimed Marion. 'It would break my heart if Topper were in cahoots. Of all the despicable characters a cahooter is the worst. They're so darned loud mouthed.'
'You seem to be under the impression that a cahooter is much like a hog caller,' remarked Mr Topper.
'Not at all,' retorted Marion. 'He's more like an Alpine horn blower, only worse. If I ever catch you cahooting, may heaven help your soul, because that will be all that's left. Let's get out here.'
Topper drove the car off the road near the edge of a pine forest. Its occupants, including Oscar, alighted, and the three most interested parties, bearing their attire, distributed themselves behind trees, there to dress and materialize at leisure. Oscar, like a perfect gentleman, sought the privacy of some bushes. Topper sat down on a matting of pine needles and wondered idly if it would not have been more comfortable had he continued on at home being a banker and chasing trains.
When presently he looked up from his musing, Mr Topper was panic stricken to discover that there was now not only a fourth, but also a fifth interested party, the two added parties being so exceedingly interested that they were quivering with suppressed excitement. But for the moment, Topper was relieved to discover, they were not so much interested in him as in what was going on in the forest in general, and in particular, what was occurring behind those three pine trees.
Following the direction of the gendarmes' absorbed gaze, Mr Topper saw an assortment of heads, arms, legs, and various other anatomical necessities busily popping back and forth from behind the pines. Viewing these unarboraceous actions through the eyes of the gendarmes, Topper realized that to them it must seem all very odd and irregular. Was it that something of a nature the most reprehensible was occurring behind those trees? And in a proximity so close to a public highway? The gendarmes could not conceive of any other explanation. But what daring! What ardour! What lack of restraint! With all the forest before them, why conduct themselves thus so close to the road? No. This must be brought to a finish. The gendarmes could condone much, but not this. It was a reflection on the fair name of France. These naked and impatient miscreants must be haled into the presence of Monsieur le commissaire himself.
Fascinated, Mr Topper watched the two officers of the law concentrate on one of the trees. Stealthily they advanced over the soft pine needles, poised themselves, then sprang round the trunk.
'Whoops!' came the startled voice of Mrs Hart. 'The gendarmes! They are with us.'
Promptly she faded out, dragging her clothing with her.
'There is nothing of all that was there,' said one of the gendarmes.
'A voice, perhaps?' suggested the other.
'One cannot clip the bracelets on a voice,' came the logical reply. 'Rush the second tree with speed terrific.'
And with speed that they hoped was terrific the gendarmes dashed for the pine behind which the Colonel had established his headquarters.
'Literally caught with my drawers down,' that imperturbable gentleman shouted as two wads of francs and a bundle of clothes went leaping through the trees.
'Didn't see a thing,' cried Marion as the thwarted gendarmes furiously attacked her tree. 'Is my life going to be just one goddam after another? I loathe the very sight of them.'
The gendarmes, thrice disappointed, now turned their attention to Topper. He, at least, seemed solid enough to arrest. But why was he, too, not naked? Perhaps he had been. Of a verity. They rushed upon the astounded Topper, and Topper lost his presence of mind. Instead of retreating to the automobile, as he should have, he scaled the side of a tree with an agility made possible only by fear of immediate seizure and long incarceration. Cries of encouragement rang through the woods. Topper had never before realized what a spirited tree climber he was. Neither had the gendarmes, apparently. They regarded his apelike progress with frankly astonished eyes. Perhaps he was not a man after all, but an overdressed monkey. One encountered almost everything along the Riviera.
'Arrest you there!' cried one of them. 'Comprehend you, m'sieu? One demands that you descend.'
Topper, having exhausted the resources of the tree, had little choice. He was forced to arrest himself. There was no place left to go. Descend, however, he refused to do. He doubted if he could descend even had he so desired. He would probably have to live in that tree all the days of his life. He remembered that Scollops had once got herself into a similar situation, and everyone had had an uncomfortable time of it, but none quite so uncomfortable as Scollops. He could readily understand that. The services of the Fire Company had been required to extricate the cat. Would he, too, be carried down ingloriously on the shoulder of a perfect stranger, some fire-fighting Frenchman, while the inevitable French mob ironically cheered and offered humiliating scraps of advice? How the hell had this all come about, anyway? The Colonel and Marion and Mrs Hart, they were responsible for this seemingly endless series of contretemps — this uninterrupted rushing about. High aloft in his tree Topper decided that a man could pay too dear a price for the friendship of such persons. He felt more convinced of this than ever when the gendarme next addressed him.
'If you do not descend all at once,' called the man, 'it is that I will fire.'
Even from his great height Topper decided that the revolver in the gendarme's hand looked vulgarly large and ostentatious.
'But, m'sieu, I cannot descend,' Mr Topper replied in a firm but reasonable voice.
The gendarme shrugged his shoulders with magnificent indifference.
'Perhaps, m'sieu, this will be of help,' he answered.
A bullet ripped and snorted through the branches of the pine. To Mr Topper it sounded like the scream of a wild stallion.
'Monsieur le gendarme,' he sang out promptly, 'I descend with a speed never before attempted.'
'Don't you do it,' warned a voice in his ear. 'Are you ready, ladies? Then pull.'
Topper, feeling strangely like a tattered rag doll, was snatched unceremoniously from his insecure perch, whisked through space, and deposited in another tree.
'God, Colonel,' he protested, 'give me a moment's warning the next time you do that. What do you think I am, a sort of flying squirrel? I feel so damn helpless I could gnash this tree to splinters. This is worse than dashing from pillar to post.'
'We're saving your life for future taking,' said Marion, invisible on a neighbouring limb; then, cupping her lips in her hand, she shouted, 'Hey, you little dressed up runt! I'll come down there and tweak your prying nose.'
'M'sieu,' called the gendarme, and even his distance from the treed Mr Topper could not blunt the strained incredulity of his voice, 'how did you achieve that impossible?'
'None of your business,' shouted Marion Kerby. 'Your mother was the keeper of a house of ill fame, and that other little pig's was an inmate. Shrug that off, you frog.'
Assured that they were not only being mocked by the effeminate voice of the man in the tree, but also grossly insulted, both gendarmes now discharged their revolvers in his direction. Topper was promptly and breathlessly transferred to another tree. Like a huge, overstuffed bat, the man floated helplessly through the forest.
'Listen,' gasped Mr Topper, clinging desperately to a swaying limb, 'you all toss me about from tree to tree altogether too carelessly. You seem to forget that I weigh in the neighbourhood of one hundred and seventy-five pounds — that is, I did before I climbed up that damned pine. Since I've taken up tree jumping I've lost considerable weight.'
'Nonsense,' replied Marion. 'It's good for you. Best thing in the world.'
'But not for my nerves,' retorted Topper. 'If you'll only put me down on solid earth I'll take a chance with those two gendarmes.'
'Let's all go down and beat them up,' suggested Marion. 'I'm getting sick of them and their damn guns.'
'I'm terribly tired of it all myself,' said Topper, with marked sincerity. 'I don't like all this monkey business. If anyone had told me this morning that before night I was going to be flying madly from tree to tree, I'd have laughed scoffingly in his face.'
The implacable gendarmes had now taken up their stand beneath Topper's third tree.
'M'sieu,' began the spokesman, 'it is not seemly for a man to conduct himself in public as you are now doing.'
'Well, if you'd only go away,' called Topper, 'I could continue to jump about these trees all by myself. Is there a law against tree jumping in France?'
The gendarmes discussed this question for several minutes between themselves.
'M'sieu,' said one of them at last, 'is it that you would be willing to descend and allow us to examine your person?'
'For what?' asked the startled Topper.
'For wings, perhaps,' suggested Marion.
'We wish only to observe you, m'sieu,' said the second gendarme. 'One is of a desire to see how you do it.'
'In the customary manner,' shouted Marion.
'What do you think?' asked Mr Topper of his unseen friends. 'Should I trust those damn godarmes?'
'We'll take you down,' replied the Colonel, 'then stand by for trouble.'
Accordingly, Mr Topper was taken down. That is, he was taken part of the way down. About fifteen feet from the ground the others seemed either to lose interest in what they were doing or to forget all about Mr Topper — whatever it was, the results came to the same thing. Topper felt himself suddenly released. With a wild cry he descended heavily upon the upturned faces of the two gendarmes. When the three of them arose from the pine needles, Mr Topper's arms were firmly held by each of the officers he had unwittingly assaulted.
'Monsieur,' announced one gendarme, 'it is that we must escort you to Monsieur le commissaire.'
'But no,' wheezed the half-stunned Topper. 'It is that you will play no such dirty trick on me. The words of your mouth herself were that it was you who would effect the inspection.'
'That same thing has been effected,' replied the gendarme, 'and we believe you to be mad without hope.'
'On what do you base such an opinion ridiculous?' asked Topper. 'I'm without hope, I admit, but I'm not mad — not yet.'
'No man, m'sieu, in his sanity complete would flit from tree to tree only to hurl himself through space regardless of the consequences either to himself or to the gendarmerie of France. M'sieu, if you are not mad, you are possessed of a thousand devils.'
As the gendarme delivered himself of this belief the voice of an infuriated dog made itself heard in the forest. Topper took heart.
'Here comes one of those devils now,' he said, as the foaming head of Oscar burst through the undergrowth and flung itself into action. Positions were speedily reversed. From the tree Mr Topper had so recently quitted, the two gendarmes looked down moodily on an animal that could be none other than the most pervertedly conceived of all the demons in hell.
'To the car!' commanded the Colonel in his best parade-ground voice. 'Those birds will remember their guns in a moment and start in plugging at Topper.'
'Easy on that name, Colonel,' cried Topper as he dashed through the woods in the direction of the car.
Bullets followed his retreat, but they had been fired without much hope. The gendarmes were disconcerted because Topper had escaped like an ordinary human being instead of flapping batlike through the trees. The name had been Toppaire. They would remember.
When the active little party was once more under way Mr Topper asked a question.
'Are things,' he asked, 'to be like this for ever? What I mean is, are our nights to be devoted to orgies and our days given over to flight?'
'Give me my nightly orgy,' said Marion Kerby calmly, 'and you can do what you want with your days.'
'I'd like to know how you spent your time when you were on a higher plane,' remarked Mr Topper.
'Oh, I just went about trying to drum up sex among a lot of people who didn't even know the meaning of the word,' Marion replied.
'Any luck?' asked Mrs Hart.
'Not a chance,' said Marion. 'I met one old duck who seemed to have some ideas. "Sex", he mused with a puzzled expression when I took up the matter with him. "Now, I wonder what's familiar about that word." He paused for a moment, then broke into horrid, derisive laughter. "Oh, yes," he chuckled, "I remember now. Weren't we the silliest things? Tell me, does that puerile practice still maintain?" Well, you know, I felt quite silly myself for a while, then I got peeved. I told him that sex was making rapid progress, that it was even being glorified, and that without it there would be hardly any books and no moving pictures. "Wouldn't that be nice," said he quite happily, the old dog. "Well," said I, just to show my independence, "a few chunks of sex round here would wake things up a bit. I'm going back where it comes from." The old guy was quite disturbed. "Don't try to go bootlegging any of it on this plane," he said, "because you won't find any customers unless you catch them when they first arrive. Don't know how you ever came up in the first place. You're a spiritual moron."'
'Disgusting old thing,' said Clara Hunt sympathetically. 'In life, I'll bet, he was a nasty man.'
'Hell,' remarked the Colonel. 'Without sex there wouldn't be any planes at all.'
'And I would be just as well pleased,' commented Topper. 'If I'm ever arrested now I'll spend the rest of my life in a dungeon.'
'We'll come and visit you,' said Marion.
'If you want that drink,' he told her, 'you'd better pull yourself and your friends together. I'm going to stop at the next place we come to, and I don't care a damn if I am arrested. There won't be any trees in jail.'
When Topper drove up before a roadside café his friends, stimulated by the prospect of a drink, had made decided improvements in their appearances. Here, restfully on a broad, pleasant veranda perilously poised above a chasm of rocks against which the waves tore themselves to tatters, they sat and sipped champagne, then settled down to drink in earnest. Gradually the nervous tension slipped from Mr Topper. He felt at peace with the world. Why not? He had everything he wanted — Marion, the Mediterranean, lots of champagne, and no Mrs Topper.
'Drink up,' urged the Colonel expansively. 'This wine is on me.'
'Don't worry,' Mrs Hart tossed in, as women will inevitably at the wrong time. 'The wine is on the three of us. Mr Topper is our guest, of course, but the Colonel, there, he'll take it out of our winnings. He's the original pro-rater — the guy who invented that discouraging custom known as Dutch treating.'
Once more the Colonel attempted to look grieved, which was almost impossible for him in the presence of champagne. 'Would you ladies like a salad?' Mr Topper inquired. 'I don't feel quite natural unless I'm paying for a little something.'
'I could nibble a bush of romaine,' replied Marion.
'Prefer that to endive?' he asked, thoughtfully studying the card.
'Too strong for me,' said Mrs Hart. 'I never could bear ducks' eggs.'
'Who asked you to bear ducks' eggs?' demanded the Colonel. 'Leave that to the ducks. It's their business.'
'How did we get on the subject of eggs and ducks?' asked Mr Topper, a trifle confused. 'Why not stick to salad? I wasn't inviting you all to breakfast or dinner, although I'm perfectly willing. I'll invite you to both if you feel like it.'
'I merely brought up ducks in connexion with romaine salad,' Mrs Hart explained.
'Romaine salad to a duck's egg is like a red flag to a bull,' observed the Colonel profoundly.
'Bulls?' asked Mr Topper. 'Now, how on earth did bulls creep in?'
'Bulls don't creep in,' said Marion. 'Bulls bash in. Didn't you ever hear of the well-known bulls of Bashan?'
'I've heard a little about those bulls,' replied Mr Topper, 'but not much. Did they happen to like salad? Because if they didn't I see no reason to take them up either.'
'Oh, hell,' said Mrs Hart. 'Let's order ices. That will solve the whole problem. Things are getting too involved.'
'All right,' agreed the Colonel affably. 'We'll make it champagne.'
'Just the same,' pursued Topper, 'I'd like to know more about those bulls of Bashan. Who did they ever pinch?'
'They didn't,' replied Marion. 'They just horned in.'
'That's different,' said Mr Topper in a pleased voice. 'It makes everything even farther from satisfactory.'
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