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Topper Takes A Trip


Thorne Smith



MR TOPPER never did get a good look at all those fish and things. However, he did manage to look at some fish, and that was more than enough.

On the way to look at these fish, the Colonel insisted on a momentary interlude at a pleasantly situated sidewalk café overlooking the harbour of Monaco. It was a stage setting valued at many millions of dollars, represented chiefly by yachts and the money expended on their upkeep. It was a heady sort of paradise in which the most expensive things seemed attainable in the smiling presence of the Goddess of Chance. Mr Topper had a feeling that beneath it all something was being held in check — concealed from the eyes of the spectators. At first he had suspected some-thing straining, desperate, and tragic, but as he sat there and looked about him he decided that the principal quality lying beneath the surface gaiety of Monaco was one of utter and abject boredom. He even went so far as to attribute the many suicides induced by the place simply and solely to that — insufferable ennui. People did not kill themselves because they had lost all their money, but merely because they were so tired of Monaco they did not have the strength to leave it any other way.

'I don't know why I ever yielded to your entreaties,' declared Marion, squinting thoughtfully at him through the ice in her glass. 'You're such an old frump, Aunt Cosmo. And I don't know why we ever came to this dump, either. If you took away those lovely mountains behind us and sank all those yachts out there, this town would be just a glorified Atlantic City, and the dear God knows, nothing could be worse than that.'

'Merely the difference between an old hooker in cotton tights and one in silk,' replied Mr Topper. 'And please, Marion, don't do those things to your face. The passers-by will think you're a half-wit or something. Furthermore, the only entreating I did was to entreat you to get out of my bed.'

'I must have missed my direction,' was Marion's calm retort, 'or got the signals mixed. It doesn't matter one way or the other. Here we are.'

'And Monaco always gives me a feeling of unrest,' said Colonel Scott. 'I was trying to explain it to Mrs Hart, but the poor thing can't understand. She likes it here because there are so many things to buy — so many useless, expensive things. As for myself, I'd feel more at home either in an old-time brothel or the cloister of a monastery, if you can get what I'm driving at.'

'I'm sure, Colonel, you'd do equally well in either setting,' Mr Topper replied politely.

'He'd be more at home not in the cloister,' Mrs Hart contributed in a bored voice.

'Monaco's glamour fails to glam,' continued Marion. 'It's like a reformed prostitute looking at a peepshow through smoked glasses. When the exploitation of vice becomes perfected — all smooth and polished and refined — I begin to lose interest in vice itself. Of course, that doesn't go where you are concerned, Topper, my stout fellow.'

'Well, you might as well lose interest in that, too,' said Mr Topper. 'I'm going to look at a lot of fish.'

More drinks followed, and more time was wasted, if such a thing is possible as wasting time at a sidewalk café. One by one Mr Topper's companions drifted away from the table. After that he either forgot all about them or they forgot all about him. It came to the same thing. Topper found himself alone. It was the psychological moment to look at a lot of fish. He did not give one snap of his fingers for his friends. To prove this he tried to snap his fingers. No sound came. That did not matter either. Probably very important persons were unable to snap their fingers. He called the waiter and endeavoured to show him how he, Topper, could not snap his fingers. As luck would have it, this time they snapped smartly. Nodding his head moodily, he left the place and hailed a cruising Victoria.

'Fish,' he muttered tersely but inclusively to the driver. 'Chez Poisson.'

'M'sieu,' inquired the driver, is it that you would buy of fish, or do you refer to some particular fish, perhaps?'

Mr Topper thought this over.

'I do not know any particular fish,' he replied, somewhat sadly, 'nor do I want to buy any fish. Just fish is all I ask. Let me see some of them.'

The driver shrugged, as French drivers will. He gazed patiently over the harbour, and prepared himself to wait until this inebriated American had settled in his own mind just what he wanted to do about fish. Mr Topper was seized with the fear that between them he and the driver might make a mess of this business and that in the end he would see no fish at all. In spite of his mental agitation all he could say when he stepped into the Victoria and next addressed the driver was merely, 'Fish.'

The driver shrugged again and drove Mr Topper off to the fish market. Here he turned in his seat and looked inquiringly at Topper's face to see his reactions to these fish. Utter hopelessness was registered on Mr Topper's face. He shook his head and wiggled his hands in a fashion which to him was eloquently fish-like.

'Not dead fish,' he told the driver reproachfully. 'I do not desire to look upon the remains of a lot of dead fish. Behold, man, I want fish that go vite.'

Mr Topper's hands darted out at the driver, who ducked just in time. It looked very much as if the man in the Victoria were attempting to hypnotize the man on the box. The driver alighted and held an animated conversation with a group of prospective fish eaters. Much argument and even more scrutinizing. Tolerantly amused glances were directed at Mr Topper. He hated all this exceedingly. Presently a gendarme approached and looked inside Topper's passport as if hoping to find some fish concealed between its pages. Then, after a few hurried words to the driver, he strolled away, leaving Topper wistfully gazing after him. Thereupon the driver returned to his place of duty and smiled reassuringly at Mr Topper.

'M'sieu,' he cried, 'we march! It is that I know now. You want to see some fish. We go.'

Topper smiled back feebly.

'I don't know whether I do or not,' he replied. 'I grow more than a little fatigued with fish.'

He sighed and leaned back in the carriage. This was like everything else in a foreign land. One had to work so hard to get any place that one was too tired and upset to enjoy it when one got there. Sightseeing was a demeaning occupation. He would abandon fish.

On his way back to the hotel he stopped at a sidewalk café to refresh himself and brace his nerves. Here he sat looking at the harbour and wondering what all those tourists debarking from an ocean liner were going to do with their time, money, and expectations. He hoped they would never see a fish wearing a blue-black beard. For a while they were going to have a pretty confused and anxious time of it, he decided. Preoccupations with details would make them forget they were in Europe at all. Luggage would vanish, husbands get drunk, children lost, hotels be misunderstood, food suspected, and the customs of the country severely criticized, before they would settle down to the fact that they were not having a particularly good time, but that, after all, they really were abroad, which was more than their neighbours at home could say. There was a kick in that, at any rate. Then there would always be the solace of picture postcards. Nothing like those things to get one back to good solid ground. After one had sent a flock of these garish missives home one felt as if one were really beginning to get to know the country a bit. They were the lowest common denominator of foreign travel. So thought Mr Topper over his several drinks. He began to feel sorry for fish and tourists alike. His sympathy even embraced his missing companions, including the rump of Oscar, or his head. They were so bad, the lot of them — such terrible companions. Marion probably needed a dress. He himself needed evening clothes. He would arise now and purchase things with a large hand. If he bought enough garments, some of them might fit somebody.

When Topper eventually returned to his hotel, several attendants followed his progress bearing packages in their arms. He had bought enough clothing to costume a small musical comedy. He bathed, shaved, drank a bottle of cool wine, then sent for a valet. When the man arrived Topper considered him in silence.

'Do you speak English?' he asked at last.

'But, yes, m'sieu,' answered the man. 'Of a perfection.'

'That would be too good for me,' replied Topper. 'I wouldn't understand you. Just get some of these clothes on my body, and we'll call it square. Hand me that glass first. I'm mentally and physically exhausted. Are you ever that way?'

'After arranging some of my gentlemen for their evenings,' replied the valet, 'I am frequently unable to enjoy those of my own.'

'I can well understand that,' said Mr Topper, 'after looking at some of the nervous wrecks littering up this coast-line.'

'I do not understand why they come here,' went on the valet, deftly flicking Topper's legs into a pair of trousers. 'Each year I see them older and wearier and their women younger and fresher. Money can make much of life, m'sieu, but there comes a time when even the youngest of mistresses cannot renew youth itself.'

'I dare say you're right,' said Topper somewhat sadly, catching sight of his own face in the mirror. 'There comes a time, doesn't there, my friend?'

"Like a thief in the night,' replied the valet.

'Well, thank God, we have a few more nights left,' was Mr Topper's answer to this.

In a none too festive frame of mind, Mr Topper dined alone that night. In spite of the simple dignity of the meal he had to confess he missed his friends. In their rooms were the various presents he had bought them. He wished they had been there to receive them. It would have been nice to see them open the packages. Topper's mind was essentially simple. Unexpectedly his thoughts were interrupted.

'Listen to me, you,' came a voice, pitched in a low, furious key. 'I'm not dining with you to-night. I doubt if I ever eat again. You've actually sickened me, you have. How much money did you spend for all those things upstairs? Don't lie, mind.'

'Not much, Marion. Only several thousand francs. Why?'

'Not much,' gasped the voice. 'Several thousand francs. Oh, God, do You hear this man? All of that money wasted when we could have stolen these things without the loss of a franc. It's a crime before Heaven.'

'But, my dear,' protested Topper, 'would not that have been stealing and isn't stealing a crime?'

'No, you ninny, that would not have been stealing and stealing isn't a crime when you steal from thieves.'

'There's something in that,' propitiated Topper.

'Bet your boots there is,' said Marion. 'And even if there wasn't, do you want to know what we're going to do?'

'I'd rather not,' replied Mr Topper. 'Your voice doesn't sound any too agreeable.'

'I've made a list of all those shops that robbed you,' Marion went on. 'The three of us are going right back and get ours, good and plenty.'

'Don't do that,' protested Topper. 'I don't want the money.'

'Then we'll keep it ourselves just as we had intended to do all the time.'

'I thought you might like the things,' he mumbled. 'Some of them, at any rate. Aren't any of them any good?'

Suddenly he felt two lips brush lightly across his wrist. Topper was so startled, his fork clattered against his plate.

'Thanks for that flame-coloured gown,' a voice murmured in his ear. 'I'll try to pour myself into it, but with you around I can't tell from one minute to the next how long I'll stay poured. See you later.'

Much to Mr Topper's embarrassment, his head was jerked back at an awkward angle and his mouth was resoundingly kissed.

'Oh! I could tear you to pieces,' a woman's voice exclaimed.

'You almost have,' he muttered.

When Marion had left, the man she could have torn to pieces kept his eyes fixed on his plate. He strongly suspected that the waiter, who was, in truth, looking at him with a puzzled expression, was thinking him slightly daft. Topper wondered how he could explain to the man in French that occasionally he talked to himself in English just to keep from forgetting his native tongue. Topper abandoned the idea. It was altogether too involved. As he made his way through his solitary repast he thought about Marion Kerby. He might just as well be married to her the way she went on about things. And he was seldom comfortable with her, yet never quite himself without her. Both ways, she was a lot of trouble. Affection was the thief of freedom. Love lowered a man's morale.

His dinner finished, Topper took a cab to the Casino, where he strolled from room to room, wondering how so, many people could lose so much money and still retain their reason. Perhaps they were mad already. That was why they were there.

Finding a vacant place at a table, he sat down. For the next fifteen minutes he made mildly inquiring bets, until his modest stack of chips had been unemotionally collected by an apparently self-refrigerating croupier.

It was at this moment that Mr Topper noticed for the first time that a gentleman on his right seemed to be consumed with a timid desire to make him a little present. A stack of chips from the man's pile was unobtrusively edging its way along the table. With increasing annoyance Mr Topper watched the chips furtively slide in his direction and take up a position in front of him.

'Thank you,' said Mr Topper, a trifle haughtily, 'but I'm not as desperate as you seem to imagine. I can still afford to pay for my own chips.'

With this he returned the chips to the gentleman and bought a new stack for himself. The gentleman considered the returned chips, a puzzled expression on his face, then looked long at Mr Topper.

'My dear sir,' he began, 'ill-fortune must have addled your brain. I have not attempted to give you any of my chips. Furthermore, I have no intention of giving you any of my chips.'

'Then why did you push them at me?' asked Mr Topper.

'Me push my chips at you?' laughed the gentleman unpleasantly. 'What sort of man do you think I am?'

'One moment,' replied Mr Topper.

He was too busy to continue the conversation, all his efforts being directed toward fighting off the chips of the lady at his left. Her whole pile was moving with determination in his direction. Extending his left hand, he tried to push the chips back. For this his hand was sharply rapped by the lady.

'Madame,' he muttered, 'don't do that. Your chips—do something about them.'

'No fear,' replied the woman. 'I've sat by your kind before.'

Between the hostile eyes of his two neighbours Mr Topper sat uncomfortably and blindly resumed his betting. A few minutes later a man's hand came within the vision of his eye. It seemed to be struggling with a stack of chips.

'I warn you,' came the gentleman's voice. 'Stop trying to sneak my chips. You should be ashamed of yourself.'

'Me sneak your chips?' gasped Topper, giving the man's chips a violent shove. 'Don't be ridiculous. I —'

A flank attack from the chips on his left forced him to turn sharply. The lady's chips were once more on the march. Topper gave them an impatient shove, but the chips stubbornly resisted his efforts.

'What's this?' demanded the woman in a tired, metallic voice. 'After my chips again. Is this some new racket? Trying to grab my chips, then pretending I gave them to you?'

Topper could not reply. A scraping of chips from the right attracted his attention. Both of his hands were now occupied in resisting the generous impulses of his neighbours. The onlookers gained the impression that Mr Topper was endeavouring violently to extract chips from two players at once.

'This is most embarrassing,' he managed to get out. 'Are you both deliberately trying to frame me? Please keep your chips to yourselves.'

'I don't know how you are doing this thing,' gritted the man, 'but doing it you are. Take your hand off my chips.'

'I'm afraid to,' replied Topper, breaking out in a gentle sweat. 'Suppose you hold on to them for a change.'

At this moment a stack of chips came swooping gracefully across the table from a sallow-faced individual seated directly opposite Topper. It looked as if the man had either lost all patience or else was endeavouring to outdo the others in generosity. Topper, releasing his hold on the stacks of chips to the left and right of him, endeavoured to repel this frontal attack. Too late. The three piles of chips ducked under his guard and clashed noisily together in front of the mortified man.

'I'm sure I thank you all,' began Mr Topper with a sick smile. 'How did you do that?' interrupted the individual from across the table. 'I'll give you those chips if you tell me how.'

'I didn't,' cried Mr Topper. 'You must have hurled them at me.'

'If he can gather money as easily as all that,' observed a gentle-man sitting next to Sallow Face, 'why does he trouble to come here?'

'He should be picked up,' said a woman, maliciously. 'And chucked in,' added a man.

'I assure you,' began Mr Topper, then his voice trailed away.

Piles of chips were now advancing upon him from several different directions. Topper felt not unlike Alice being attacked by the pack of cards. He was afraid that at any moment the chips would begin to fight their way into his pockets. With cool, penetrating eyes the croupier sat and regarded the scene. He earnestly desired to discover how all this was being done. Around the table various players were struggling with their chips, which were leaping at Mr Topper like frantic fish.

'For God's sake, cut it out,' muttered Topper passionately to the air about him. 'Don't you realize they'll pull me in?'

He rose from the table and looked about him at the bewildered faces of the players.

'Sorry,' he said in a strained voice. 'If you insist on giving your chips away, you'll have to give them to someone else.'

As if in answer to this, the wheel suddenly started in to spin rapidly of its own accord. And with this the frigidity of the croupier melted as if seared by the flames of hell.

'Mille tonnerre!' the man exclaimed, striving to restrain his eyes. 'The play is at an end.'

He endeavoured to arrest the speeding wheel. It hesitated momentarily, then hurried with renewed vigour on its way.

Topper turned from the table, leaving the chips of the players as well as their nerves in a sadly confused condition. The croupier removed his fascinated eyes from the wheel long enough to signal to an attendant. From that time on Mr Topper's movements were followed by the unobtrusive eyes of several professional observers. Fearing the chips might begin to follow him about the place, Topper collected his hat and stick and left the Casino. On the steps there was a brief and intense struggle. Unseen hands were trying to hold him back. Topper resisted furiously. Witnesses of the scene were both amused and alarmed to see a middle-aged gentleman, faultlessly dressed, dodging this way and that, as if endeavouring to elude his own shadow.

'I won't go back!' they heard him mutter. 'Damned if I will. You'll have to carry me in. I'll lie down right here in the street.'

But what surprised the witnesses even more than this seemingly fruitless quarrel with himself was the inexplicable presence of a beard — just that, a beard, an agitated blue-black beard that looked for all the world as if it were trying to whisper in the ear of the gentleman in evening clothes. With frantic hands Topper kept trying to push the beard away.

'Don't!' they heard him mutter several times. 'I can't stand that beard. If you've anything to say, speak out.'

'All right,' came the Colonel's voice from space. 'If he won't go back he won't go back. That's all there is to it. We can't carry him in and dump him on one of the tables.'

'Then drag him along,' said a woman's voice.

The witnesses then saw the middle-aged gentleman depart through the night in a peculiar slanting fashion. His feet were swinging behind him and were barely touching the ground.

'Mad as a hatter,' remarked a man to his momentary mistress. 'No doubt his losses have unhinged his reason.'

'Well, that's no reason why he should try to unhinge mine,' the woman complained fretfully as momentary or age-old mistresses will. 'Let's give this place a miss and confine ourselves to drinking. My feet hurt.'

'Put me down,' Mr Topper was crying aloud to darkness. 'Let me walk. It's these exasperating little things that get the best of me.'

He was allowed to walk back to his hotel, from which the manager for various reasons too painful to mention asked him to remove his party in the morning.

'We'll wreck the damn place before then,' a woman's voice was heard to remark as the manager turned away.

However, this never occurred. Half an hour later four beautifully uniformed gendarmes escorted Topper and his jeering companions over the border into France.

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