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Topper Takes A Trip
THE DISAPPEARING SUICIDE
WHEN Mr Topper awoke the next morning he found himself in bed with a headless woman. Feeling already as if death would be a welcome release, the sight of his decapitated companion made him feel even worse. The fact that there was a definite declivity in the centre of the neighbouring pillow served only to heighten a situation that was already sufficiently unpleasant. Regular breathing and an occasional low moan issuing from the rim of this declivity added mental to the physical anguish the miserable man was already experiencing. Even the bare arms and shoulders so close to him lost something of their fascination as he reached out and roughly shook the unfinished body.
'Marion!' he said. 'Wake up! And please do something about your head. Either add it to your body or add your body to it. My stomach is all upset.'
'I'll claw your stomach to ribbons if you don't quit that shaking,' were Marion's waking words.
'Wish you would,' muttered Topper. 'I could do without a lot of my stomach this morning. Don't know where we are or how we get here. Last thing I remember was sitting on the veranda of some damn café discussing ducks and bulls.'
'You were very dull about those bulls,' remarked the pillow. 'Guess you don't even know where Bashan is.'
'Don't even know where we are, I tell you,' said Mr Topper irritably, 'let alone where those bulls came from. Must be some queer place in New York like Goshen.'
'Both Bashan and Goshen are in Palestine,' Marion told him, 'and that's where the bulls came from.'
'Which, Bashan or Goshen?' asked Topper.
'Bashan,' replied Marion. 'The bulls came from Bashan, but it's quite possible that some of them settled in Goshen. They were wild, you know, those bulls that came from Bashan.'
'All bulls are wild to me,' said Mr Topper. 'Why did they ever come from Bashan in the first place? Didn't they make out well there?'
'No mention is made of cows,' observed Marion.
'But where there's a lot of bulls there should be a little cows,' concluded Topper.
'Perhaps that's what made 'em wild,' observed Marion.
'What?' inquired Topper.
'No cows,' replied Marion.
'Then there must have been some cows, or at least a cow, in Goshen if —'
'Will you shut up?' Marion interrupted. 'You're as drunk as a lord right now, or else you wouldn't be giving one damn whether there were bulls in Bashan and cows in Goshen or whether the twain shall meet. Let's go back to sleep.'
'Will you make a head, then?' asked Topper.
'No, I won't,' snapped Marion. 'I've got one hell of a headache from all that champagne.'
'Is that what you do when you have a hangover?' Topper inquired enviously.
'Yes,' answered Marion. 'I get rid of my head and that leaves the ache high and dry.'
'You mean there's nothing there to ache in?' asked Topper.
'God, how dull you are this morning! If you ask me another question I'll do something desperate.'
'It's desperate enough as it is, lying here looking at you,' replied Topper moodily.
'I've got everything else but a head,' retorted Marion with growing irritation. 'Look at some other part.'
'That's all right,' complained Topper, 'but how would you like to have me lying here without any head?'
'I wouldn't mind,' she answered. 'Do you imagine I'm deriving any pleasure in looking into that besotted face of yours? If your fortune had depended on that mask you'd have been a little match girl years ago.'
'So you won't make a head?' persisted Topper.
'No, I won't make a head, you nincompoop.'
'Then will you pull the covers up over that pillow, and I'll try to pretend it's there?'
'That settles it!' exclaimed Marion furiously. 'I told you to leave me alone. Now you'll wish you had.'
Springing from the bed, she materialized her head, and clad as she was in a towering rage, she rushed to a French window through which, to Topper's horror, she hurled herself, loudly shouting his name. Instead of hearing the thud of a falling body the man in bed heard the crash of an overturned chair just outside the window.
'Holy mackerel,' came the voice of Marion Kerby. 'We're on the ground floor.'
'Madam, you're on my chest,' a gentleman replied indignantly. 'I'm on the ground floor, or, rather, veranda.'
'A meticulous devil,' Mr Topper observed to himself, in spite of his consternation.
'Sorry, mister,' he heard Marion saying. 'Thought I was higher up. Wanted to commit suicide. My mistake.'
'Hope you succeed next time,' gasped the man.
Topper sneaked to the window and applied one timid eye to a slit in the curtain. What he saw was not reassuring. To all intents and purposes an overlarge, middle-aged gentleman was attacking an underclad, small young lady. It could have been the other way round, but the man in such affairs usually gets the blame. Numerous guests of the hotel were watching developments in an interested semicircle. Hotel factotums and officials were protesting in voluble French. Newcomers were arriving from all directions.
'Leave that brazen creature alone this instant!' cried a stout lady bursting through the crowd. 'So this is why you were so anxious to come to France, is it? You'll pay dear for your folly, believe me.'
Apparently the unfortunate gentleman did. Untangling himself from his fair obstruction, he left her flat on the veranda and got to his feet.
'My dear,' he began in a mollifying voice.
'Don't stand there looking at her,' his wife cut in. 'Why doesn't someone throw something over the shameless thing?'
This suggestion was reluctantly acted upon. A man stepped leisurely forward and tossed a light overcoat over Marion, who had curled herself up into a small white ball.
'Madame,' said the manager of the establishment in perfect English, 'will you be so kind as to withdraw now to your own room?'
No answer from the overcoat. The manager cleared his throat.
'Do you wish us to carry you there?' he assayed, at which question the overcoat appeared to shrink a trifle and shake a negative head.
Receiving no answer, the manager signalled to several servants, who stepped forward and laid eager hands on the garment. Their expectations were doomed to disappointment. The overcoat was empty. When they lifted it only the spot where the body had been was revealed. Gasps and ejaculations of amazement from the throng. The manager had turned quite pale. Nevertheless, he retained his presence of mind and command of English.
'Return the overcoat to the considerate gentleman,' he said. 'This affair demands further investigation. It shall be made.'
Topper quietly closed the window and crawled unhappily into bed. Within a very few minutes a firm knock sounded on the door.
'Entrez' called Mr Topper.
The manager stepped into the room, quietly closing the door behind him.
'Good morning, m'sieu,' said the manager. 'Were you, by any chance, forced to eject a naked woman through that window a few moments ago?'
'Certainly not,' replied Mr Topper indignantly. 'I wouldn't throw a naked woman out of my window. Waste not, want not, say I.'
The manager coughed delicately behind his hand.
'I can understand that,' he agreed, Mr Topper thought a shade too readily. 'Nevertheless, an unclad woman emerged but a moment ago with great speed through that window.'
The manager with a nod indicated the window through which Marion had hoped to commit suicide.
'For all I know, Earl Carroll's Vanities could have been bounding in and out of that window all morning,' Mr Topper calmly assured the manager. 'I've been sleeping. You're the first person I've seen to-day, and I'm not particularly glad to see you. Go away.'
'Yes,' came a woman's quiet voice. 'Why don't you get the deuce out of here and give my husband a chance to get some sleep?'
Marion Kerby, in the stunning costume she had worn at the races, appeared gloriously in the bathroom door and stood looking coldly upon the manager.
'Madame,' he replied apologetically, admiration sharpening his eyes. 'I ask a thousand pardons —'
'Well, I don't hand you one,' she cut in curtly. 'What's all this about windows and naked women?'
'One of them went through that window, madame,' the manager explained.
'Do you want a naked woman?' Marion demanded.
'But no, madame. That was not my intention,' protested the man.
'Then why do you come barging in here, putting ideas in my husband's mind? You could have seen at a glance it isn't any too strong. Anyway, you shouldn't be looking for naked women at this time of day.'
'A mere matter of routine,' declared the manager. 'You were not perhaps that woman, madame?'
'Do I look as if I'd been thrown through a window?' Marion asked haughtily.
'On the contrary, madame,' the manager answered gallantly. 'I only asked because she had such a glorious figure.'
Marion was looking seriously at Topper.
'Do you think we could have got ourselves into a bad house by mistake?' she asked him. 'The things this man says.'
'I assure you, madame, this is a most respectable hotel.'
'And yet you make a practice of asking your guests for naked women — practically begging them for naked women. Call that respectable? Aren't you able to get your own naked women? Must my husband turn procurer for your sake, may I ask? If there is going to be a naked woman in this room I'll be that woman. Understand? And if I catch any of yours in here I'll chuck them through that window, all right, but they'll go out in pieces. Get me?'
Marion had backed the manager against the door, which he was vainly trying to open. At that moment a door opening into an adjoining room flew back and nobody stood on its threshold. A voice husky with wine and sleep was the very utmost the Colonel could achieve for the present.
'Ask him where we are and the name of his hotel,' said the Colonel. 'Also what day it is and the time of day if any.'
It was then that the manager began to have grave doubts of his own sanity. Had constant association with so many tourists affected his mind? Several of his colleagues had gone that way. Was it now his turn? It seemed so. Had he not already seen this morning a naked woman who disappeared? And was he not now hearing voices?
'M'sieu,' he got out falteringly, 'where is the one who speaks? I hear but I do not see him.'
Topper laughed falsely from his bed.
'That's my friend,' he replied. 'His voice has the most remark-able carrying quality. He should be a radio announcer. He's in the next room, but one would swear he was right here, wouldn't one?'
Swearing that one would, the manager, not forgetting to bow to Marion, hastily withdrew. Topper seized the telephone as soon as the man was gone.
'I want two pitchers full of whisky sours,' he told the bored clerk, 'and a waiter who knows not only what place this is, but also the name of the hotel, the day and the time of day. All those things. Yes. And—'
Marion snatched the telephone from his hand.
'And ask Monsieur le propriétaire, when you see him,' she said, 'if he has found himself a naked woman yet. You understand? You would.'
She set the instrument down, then turned and considered Topper.
'My aged and fat,' she breathed. 'I almost killed myself for you.'
'It very much looks,' replied Topper hopelessly, 'as if one of those days have started again.'
'Isn't it just too glorious!' said Marion. 'And to-night the orgy, as usual.'
'Yes,' agreed Topper. 'It's just too damn rotten glorious for words. Can't we do something about it? I yearn for a nice dull normal day. Why not go to the Musée d'Oceanographie and take a look at some fish for a change — that is, if we really are at Monaco?'
'Good idea, Topper,' the Colonel invisibly joined in. 'Nothing like looking at fish to get one back to normal. They're so indefatigably prolific. Think I'll go now and do myself into a man.'
'And while you're doing it,' suggested Topper, 'I wish you'd do yourself into a less active man for a change. Can't you make yourself into a little man, Colonel — a little old tired man with a tremendous respect for the law?'
'My self-esteem would not permit me,' said the Colonel.
'What's Clara doing?' asked Marion.
'Last time I saw her,' replied the Colonel, 'the lady was endeavouring to materialize from both ends at once. A quaint fancy. In one direction she had advanced as far as her knees, and in the other she had covered some pretty delicate territory.'
'Hope she makes an accurate joining,' observed Marion.
"That is most devoutly to be desired,' agreed the Colonel. 'I shall hasten to apprise her of the unfortunate consequences resulting from any careless craftsmanship. We will join you upon the arrival of those pitchers of — er — sours.'
'You didn't have to shout out my name when you flung yourself through that window,' said Mr Topper to Marion as she lit a cigarette and curled herself up beside him on the bed.
'I know,' she answered, 'but you see, I was not myself at the moment.'
'Then why make me myself?' asked Topper.
'That was the point of the whole suicide. I wanted everyone to know I had died because of you. Then you'd have been a marked man along the Riviera. Wherever you went people would have said, "Why women kill themselves over that American pig I can't understand."'
'I'm a marked man already,' he replied. 'In fact, I'm damn well striped. Don't you think you all are behaving just a little bit like the Rollo Boys gone bad? This constant rollicking about is a trifle too varsity for me. If we must be depraved, why can't we be so like sophisticated adults?'
'There's too much sophistication in the world already,' Marion said quite seriously. 'Too much cheap sophistication. It burns me up. Every damn thing is sophisticated and patronizing. Even the shop windows are arrogantly sophisticated — magazines, books, plays, conversation, and even bathrooms, all trying to be sophisticated and falling short of the mark. First thing you know girl babies will be born pregnant and the males will be carrying lilies in their hands.'
'You're quite convincing,' admitted Topper, 'but don't you think your prejudices occasionally carry you a little too far in the opposite direction? For example, bouncing my hat up and down on my head, then bouncing me up and down on a chair, dragging me up to a bar, and whisking me from one tree to another — doesn't it ever occur to you that such conduct is a trifle childish?T
'We do what amuses us at the moment,' replied Marion, 'and not what we think may amuse others.'
'Especially me,' said Topper.
'Don't pretend,' she told him, piling herself on his chest. 'Secretly you're amused all the time.'
'I'm not now,' he answered as a waiter knocked and entered with the tray and information.
'But the waiter is,' said Marion. 'Those sours look swell.'
Promptly the Colonel appeared with Oscar, Mrs Hart, and a French newspaper which he had ordered from the desk.
'Oscar,' he announced, 'has already breakfasted from the trays of others momentarily and most carelessly left unguarded along the hall. He seems to have done quite nicely for himself.' Selecting a drink, the Colonel tossed it off with military precision. 'I have been spelling out this French paper,' he resumed, 'and as far as I can discover, everything seems to have been wrong with those races yesterday except the track itself. We could have torn up that, had we thought of it. Unfortunately, the paper gives quite an accurate description of your humble servant. "A man very distinguished and agreeable", it says, or words to that effect. It seems that I am wanted.'
'Is there a price on your head?' asked Marion eagerly.
'Not yet,' replied the Colonel, 'but if there were I would not take either of you ladies into my confidence. The point is, it will now be necessary for me to assume a disguise whenever I appear in public. I have always wondered how I would go in a beard.'
'I hope you'd go away,' said Mrs Hart. 'That dust mop on your lip is bad enough to have swishing about the house.'
The Colonel chose to disregard this remark as being unworthy of notice.
He put down the glass, reached for the telephone, and summoned the head barber to his presence. Presently this one fragrantly arrived.
'I wish to be arranged becomingly in a beard,' the Colonel stated.
'Arranged?' repeated the barber, momentarily puzzled by the word, then his face cleared. 'Do you mean, m'sieu, as if in death?'
'God, no, my man!' exploded the Colonel. 'As if in life. Gallantly arranged like an officer and a gentleman.'
'You're not looking for a disguise, Colonel,' observed Marion. 'What you need is a reincarnation — an entirely new layout. That man's merely a barber and not a magician.'
'Please be quiet,' said the Colonel.
After thoughtfully studying the Colonel's face from all sides, the barber nodded several times to some secret reflection of his own.
'It doesn't matter from what direction you look at it,' put in Mrs Hart, 'that face remains just as bad.'
'Clara, do be still,' protested the Colonel. 'You'll discourage the man.'
'He's more than that already,' replied Clara. 'That face has actually frightened him.'
Assuring the Colonel of the speedy fulfilment of his wishes, the barber hurried away and returned almost immediately. 'Didn't take him long to grow it,' remarked Marion.
'M'sieu,' cried the barber, extracting a blue-black object from somewhere beneath his white apron, 'it is here!'
'An odd place to wear it,' was Mrs Hart's comment.
'Ladies!' objected the Colonel. 'Must you?'
'Most emphatically yes,' said Mrs Hart. 'If you appear in public with that thing on the end of your face, I'm going to blacken mine and wear a curtain ring on the tip of my nose.'
When finally the Colonel was arranged in the beard it looked neither gallant nor becoming on him. However, it did make him look different.
'Well, I must say,' pronounced Mrs Hart, hastily reaching for another drink, 'you're an extraordinary-looking officer and a weird-looking gentleman. Why, you're not even human!'
'Look at Oscar,' put in Marion.
Topper had thought he had seen the dog at his maddest, but never had he seen him wear such a completely gone expression as the one now torturing his face. As accustomed as he had become to the Colonel's vagaries, Oscar was not prepared to meet his master's eyes peering questioningly at him over the rim of that blue-black beard. With a low gurgle intended to convey profound mental agitation, the dog faded from view, for which he was roundly cursed by the incensed Colonel. The barber had long since departed. One look at the dog had been quite enough to speed him on his way. Like Oscar and the manager of the hotel, he, too, was prey to the gravest suspicions concerning his own mental stability.
When it came to a division of the previous day's spoils, the Colonel insisted on wearing his newly acquired facial decoration, while both of the ladies, with equal vigour and many more words, insisted on the removal of this disconcerting object, Marion Kerby pointing out quite properly that the Colonel would be able to tuck God only knew how many francs behind such a bush. Pretending to be revolted by such a reflection not only on his integrity but also on his good taste, the Colonel was finally prevailed upon to permit Topper to distribute the money. When this had been done amid a breathless hush and in the presence of three pairs of burning eyes, Marion Kerby handed Topper her roll of bills.
'Keep 'em for me,' she said. 'I don't want any more bulges about my body than nature has already provided.'
'And you, my dear?' the Colonel inquired politely of Mrs Hart.
'I'll pad my legs twice their size,' she replied, 'before I let you get your hands on these francs.'
'That would hardly be the way to go about it,' said the Colonel as he watched with peculiar intentness Mr Topper's hand slipping Marion's share of francs into his right side trouser pocket.
Had Topper been able to intercept this glittering scrutiny of the Colonel's he would have been able to spare himself and another gentleman several moments of acute embarrassment.
The unpleasant affair arose over a misunderstanding which was intensified by the unladylike conduct of Marion Kerby. It happened after luncheon. Topper and Marion were seated comfortably on the veranda when the latter's after-eating placidity was disturbed by a slight twitching of his right side trouser pocket. In spite of the lulling influence of food and wine, Topper's faculties were still sufficiently acute to reason out that under normal conditions his pockets did not twitch for the mere pleasure of twitching. No. His pocket was being twitched by some outside influence. He turned quickly and regarded his neighbour on the right, then turned away. He hated to believe the truth. Such a nice old gentleman with such an honest face. And to think that this old gentleman was no better than a thief. In fact, he was a thief, or would be soon if he had his way about it. Had Topper not seen a furtive movement of the old man's clawlike left hand? Topper had, but what Topper did not know was that the old gentleman, in spite of the privileges accorded to age, still preferred to scratch himself as privately as conditions permitted. Had Topper known this, being a little precious about such things himself, his opinion of the old gentleman would have undergone a favourable change. No man who preferred to scratch himself in private would deliberately pick a pocket in public. As it was Mr Topper took no definite action until several repetitions of the twitching warned him that Marion Kerby's money was actually in peril. He then reached out and snatched at the old gentleman's frantically moving hand.
'Why did you want to do that?' Topper demanded reproachfully, in a low voice.
'I couldn't help it,' replied the old gentleman. 'Stood it as long as I could.'
'You mean you're a kleptomaniac?' asked Mr Topper.
'I had to scratch,' whispered the other.
'You had to scratch my pocket?' inquired Topper, pointing to the money that was nearly falling out.
'Sir!' cried the old gentleman. 'Are you trying to accuse me of stealing your money?'
'What!' shouted Marion. 'My money?'
Then she hurled herself into action. With hands no less frantic than those of the old gentleman, she now proceeded to scratch him far more thoroughly than he had been able to scratch himself.
'Give me my money,' she kept repeating, 'or I'll claw the gold from your teeth.'
'Your money is safe,' Topper tried to assure her. 'You'll kill the old fellow.'
'Of course I'll kill the old fellow,' replied Marion. 'I'd kill a thousand old fellows and half that amount of young ones for the sake of those francs.'
At this moment the francs, slipping from Mr Topper's pocket, caused him to look down; then everything became clear. About three inches from the floor of the veranda dangled a blue-black beard. So absorbed had the Colonel become in his nefarious operations that he had forgotten the fact that he could not dematerialize his disguise. He must have been lying flat on his nebulous stomach endeavouring with all the craft and patience of his perverse nature to tease with the end of a knitting needle Marion's francs from Topper's pocket. Even as Topper looked, the end of this needle was coaxing the roll of money closer and closer to the sinister black beard.
Marion, releasing her hold on the old gentleman, followed the direction of Mr Topper's gaze. Then with a wild cry she dived head foremost over the body of her late victim and landed on the veranda with the beard clutched firmly in her hand.
A gasp of dismay fell from the Colonel's unseen lips, after which the air became so shot with oaths, imprecations, and obscenities, it was impossible to decide whether Marion or the Colonel held the advantage. Fortunately Marion decided, but solely for tactical reasons, to dematerialize. Where a woman had once been, the numerous spectators now saw merely a beard and a heap of clothes busily engaged in calling each other the vilest of names. Presently the clothes arose, clutching a roll of francs, and followed the beard down the veranda.
'Get along there,' the clothes were heard to remark to the apparently cowed beard. 'I'11 tell Clara Hart exactly what you tried to do, and if she lets you into her bed again I'll never speak another word to her.'
It was difficult for the spectators to conceive of anybody letting that beard into bed even once, let alone again.
'But, Marion,' they heard the beard protesting, 'hang it all, I was merely having a bit of a joke with Topper.'
'Ha! Ha!' laughed the clothes, so viciously that several persons present turned quite faint, especially when they saw the roll of francs being shaken in the air. 'You'll know better next time than to play jokes with my money and my man.'
Her man turned, and after mumbling an apology to the old gentleman, hurried away. The old gentleman followed his example, vowing to himself that in future, if he ever needed to scratch, he would make no effort to conceal his intentions. He would go even further than that. He would publicly announce them, so that there would be no possibility of mistake.
When Mr Topper entered his room a few minutes later he was surprised and not especially delighted to be greeted by a burst of laughter. Marion, Mrs Hart, and the Colonel, in the best of spirits, were seated round a bucket from which protruded the neck of a huge bottle. No longer content with quarts, they were now ordering magnums.
'What the hell,' began Topper, 'was the meaning of that shameful brawl? Haven't you any better sense —'
But Topper never finished his sentence. Guiltily his three friends faded out. Only the occasional movement of a glass gave witness to the fact that they were there at all.
'Oh, all right,' he declared at last, getting no kick from scolding at space. 'We'll say no more about it. If you all are so downright low that you can forgive and condone deliberate theft and double-crossing, I see no reason why I should complain. It would be useless.'
Topper had spoken the truth, Marion Kerby's anger against the enterprising Colonel had quickly evaporated. He had offered her a bottle of wine, and when Mrs Hart's back was turned, slipped her a thousand francs. As the wine was charged to Topper and the francs had been detached in the scuffle from Marion's own roll the Colonel felt he could well afford this amicable gesture. Furthermore, Marion was so lost to honesty herself that she appreciated rather than deplored the Colonel's efforts to provide as handsomely for himself as possible. That he had failed so lamentably only added piquancy to the situation.
At Topper's hopeless words the three of them agreeably appeared once more, the Colonel, with his unfailing courtesy, providing Mr Topper with a glass of wine. Topper polished it off with an absent-minded flip, then sank wearily to the side of the bed.
'I feel as if I'd lived all of my life in Monaco,' he remarked, 'so many things have happened.'
'Well, nothing more is going to happen now,' Marion Kerby assured him comfortingly. 'We're going to have a nice normal time. First you're going to buy us a bottle of wine, and then we're all going out and peer at a lot of silly-looking fish.'
'Can't I go alone?' asked Topper wistfully. 'I really would, like to get a good look at all those fish and things.'
Cries of horror and incredulity escaped the lips of his companions.
'What!' exclaimed Marion. 'We could never hear of such a thing. Who can tell what terrible things might happen to you alone?'
'I'd like to know what hasn't happened to me already?' asked Mr Topper hopelessly.
'There's lots left unhappened,' was Marion Kerby's reply.
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