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Topper Takes A Trip


Thorne Smith



'AS for me,' weightily pronounced Monsieur Dalmas, the small French avocat, as he daintily replaced his empty glass among the domesticated flies on the evil-looking table top, 'as for me, Monsieur Toppaire, I admire America greatly. In fact, I might even say that I am my country's most passionate friend of your country.'

'M'sieu,' replied Mr Topper, regarding the little man with mild alarm, 'I did not know matters had gone as far as that.'

'They have,' said Monsieur Dalmas moodily. 'Matters have advanced to that stage — even beyond.'

'You are amiable, m'sieu,' Mr Topper assured him. 'Also your heart is huge. As for me, I am no less inarticulately enamoured of your fair country.'

The two gracious gentlemen were seated in a little combination café and épicerie situated on the fringe of a pine forest which overhung the sea. Here in this quiet country settlement Topper had at last found sanctuary. Already the owner of the grocery-store café loved him well. Likewise did the owner's wife, her two sons, her one daughter, and their tiny but voluble grandmother. It was Sunday — a day reverenced by the French because enjoyed with a light heart — and the bare, unpicturesque room of the café contained a small cross-section of France. There were country folk gathered from the neighbouring farms and vineyards, fishermen and fishermen's wives absent a moment from their nets, friends and relations drawn from the resort towns along the coast to visit for the day. And there was a sprinkling of soldiers and sailors, in constant demand by the French maidens, who danced, drank, laughed, and sweated, fought and made love, with impartial enthusiasm. There were children and dogs and a number of incredibly aged yet animated men and women. Some sinister-looking characters were present, many attractive ones, and an equal number of dull ones. Much excitement but little actual inebriety. There was too much concentrated thrift as well as poverty present in the room to permit of that indulgence.

Marion Kerby was dancing meaningless twirls with a confusingly nimble sailor. Her expression was surprised, amused, and a trifle strained. Mr Topper preferred not to look at them. He preferred, rather, to drink with Monsieur l'avocat, a delightful little gentleman who spent most of his sober hours in knitting intricate little nets for the retention of even littler fishes. Needless to say Monsieur l'avocat was not knitting now, nor had he been for some time past. For the moment the little fish were free from the peril of his nets.

'But, Monsieur Toppaire,' the old man resumed, 'I am much fonder of America than you can achieve for France. Is it not so?'

'No, it is not so,' said Topper promptly. 'And don't be silly, Monsieur Dalmas. You, sir, loathe America in comparison with the intensity of my emotion for France.'

'What then should we do about it?' demanded the lawyer a little hopelessly. 'Or should we do anything at all except order fresh drinks?'

'How about exchanging countries?' suggested Mr Topper, for lack of anything better to say.

'An excellent idea,' replied the little lawyer solemnly. 'But what would our respective countries have to say to such a high-handed procedure?'

'Our respective countries would remain agreeably silent,' Mr Topper continued. 'We will exchange them secretly, without their knowledge and only between ourselves.'

'You mean,' said the small Frenchman, 'we will do nothing to the countries — make no attempt to move them like —?' He ended his sentence by vaguely waving his hands across each other.

Mr Topper thought deeply.

'No,' he said at last, 'that would be too difficult. One can hardly move countries in secret.'

'Then is it that I can now consider myself entirely American?' asked Monsieur Dalmas eagerly.

'It is,' replied Mr Topper, wondering how he had ever got himself so deeply involved in this profitless subject. 'And as for me, I am French to my finger tips.'

'And is it that you feel changed, m'sieu — different, perhaps?' asked the lawyer.

'Thirstier,' reflected Topper briefly, as indeed he was.

'Then you are of a full truth French,' declared Monsieur Dalmas. 'And for the reason that I feel even thirstier than that, I must be typically American.'

Fresh glasses were ordered and speedily dispatched. It was a hot day, and the room was growing increasingly more crowded. The automatic piano jangled viciously through its four-piece repertoire.

'I shall sail for America within the week,' the little lawyer continued contentedly. 'It will be nice to return home, although I love your France.'

Mr Topper was truly alarmed by this turn of affairs. If Monsieur Dalmas started in to proclaim how much he loved Mr Topper's France, and Mr Topper were in turn forced to declare how deeply he admired Monsieur Dalmas's America, the conversation might continue on for ever. In spite of this possibility, Mr Topper answered almost sadly.

'I don't think I'll venture abroad this year,' he said. 'My place is right here in France.'

The lawyer nodded comprehendingly.

'Yes,' he replied. 'Your country needs you now.'

'But you will write?' Mr Topper inquired.

'Assuredly, m'sieu,' said the other. 'We shall both write constantly.'

'What about?' asked Mr Topper.

'About the ineffable beauties of our respective countries,' replied Monsieur Dalmas.

'And the one who succeeds in making the other homesick wins,' said Mr Topper.

'And I dare say you consider yourselves no end humorous,' broke in the voice of Marion Kerby. 'I've been listening to a lot of this — too much of it, in fact.'

'Does she go with the exchange?' inquired the little lawyer hopefully.

Marion looked at him pityingly.

'You, Monsieur Dalmas,' she observed, 'had better go back to your little fish and your tatting.'

Topper laughed at Marion's disgusted expression.

'You're a fine pair of olds,' she said. 'I am going to take this one out for a walk.'

'I would very much like to accompany you,' put in Monsieur Dalmas earnestly. 'Monsieur Toppaire can point out to me the unique charms of his country. It is so helpful to a foreigner.'

'You've both driven each other cuckoo, if you ask me,' replied Marion. 'But come along, and just to make you feel at home I'll play I'm a Siamese twin.'

After a few more rounds of drinks Marion led her two men from the café after having first shaken hands with the patron, who stood looking after them admiringly.

Taking a path through the pines, they wound downward towards the sea. They came upon it in a quiet place where rocks were, and the murmurous washing of waves — waves rising and receding and rustling among the rocks. A breeze dipped in spray moved about this place — this little pine-framed cove — and made it cool. It was pleasant here, and quiet. A good place to rest in and to recapture one's self after a little too much grog. The pocket edition of French jurisprudence lay down and promptly fell asleep. Topper, after a slight struggle, followed his example. Marion aired her slim legs and considered the Mediterranean. Then she looked at the two men and thought them little better than dogs — an old dog and a middle-aged dog, both pleased with their own conceits. Idly she wondered what other women thought of when they had both the chance and the inclination to think at all. Perhaps they were, like her, appalled by the scanty realization of the abundant promise of life. Even the fullest of lives was two-thirds of the time empty, alone, and discontented. The technique of living itself had been neglected.

In a world so rich that every human being in it could lie on his back half the day and watch the clouds roll by, why was it that only a handful enjoyed the leisure to travel and to sample a little of the diversity of life? Here were two sleeping sots who had spent nine-tenths of their lives at work, and yet only small chunks of happiness had been vouchsafed them. Not desperate characters, either of them, yet the necessity to work according to their lights had probably forced them to do more harm than good to their fellow men along the way. Not a pleasant thought, that — the evil unconsciously created through the operations of the economic system. Yet you could not laugh it off. The very facts of a man's success were some other man's skids to failure, discouragement, and warped thoughts. Marion decided that every man should have the right to fail in his own peculiar way. If failure were not penalized by economic and social oblivion, more men would attempt the impossible and attain it. Neither success, nor strength, nor power should be the standards by which life was measured, for in themselves they were meaningless units devoid of any inherent or lasting value. And all this business about vice and virtue took up altogether too much time. God kept silent, perhaps, merely because He was ashamed of the various things His side had said both for and about Him. A person who tried hard to be good and one who worked hard to be bad were wasting a lot of effort to arrive at the same end — disillusionment. There was not enough silence in the world, and not enough honest laughter, laughter straight from the belly. Sex should be taken out and aired and given a clean bill of health. It should be put on a self-supporting basis. There should be public sex parks as well as athletic parks. 'Fields for friendly frolics,' she said half aloud.

'What?' exclaimed Mr Topper, suddenly sitting up.

She looked near-sightedly at him and smiled.

'Nothing,' she said. 'You're too gross to understand. I was thinking of a lot of lonely, ingrown men and women made so through the absence of a little band of gold.'

'I can think of a lot who are made so through its presence,' replied Mr Topper.

'Are you speaking to me as a Frenchman or as an American?' demanded Marion.

'As one who has suffered,' answered Topper.

'Wonder what the Colonel and Mrs Hart are doing?' she mused, suddenly changing the subject.

'Something cheerfully sinful, no doubt,' he told her.

'They're nice people,' said Marion. 'The world at least gets a kick out of their wickedness as some call it.'

'I get a great deal more than a kick,' replied Mr Topper.

The Colonel and Mrs Hart had departed on one of their customary side tours. For a week they had remained with Marion and Mr Topper in this isolated place, then life had begun to pall, and they had gone with warm assurance of their speedy return. Topper had seen no reason to doubt their word. They always had returned — most calamitously. Two weeks had now elapsed, and the pair were still away. During their absence Topper had spent one of the happiest periods of his life.

From Monaco, their paradise, well lost, they had reached this place late the following night, after a day of riotous feasting along the way. Finally, taking a winding road that twisted among the hills, they had come upon a small hotel that seemed to have gone to sleep after waiting in vain for guests. The party of four heaven-sent customers, and the dog whose original point of departure was a little less well considered, were received with gracious good-nature even at that late hour, and provided with the best of rooms, wine, and service. From the first Topper felt that he had come home. There was an atmosphere of rest, comfort, and cleanliness about the place. Monsieur Poccard, his son, and the little maid of all work seemed sincere in their desire to please. Even the cook went out of his way to divert and edify the guests. He displayed before them rare but inexpensive dishes and occasionally wet them with a hose he seemed to enjoy squirting when not clattering about in his kitchen. The four of them had the place entirely to themselves, with the exception of Monsieur Dalmas, the little lawyer who spoke English, and an elderly French widow who appeared perfectly satisfied with a phonograph for her sole companion. Occasionally Monsieur Poccard would play to them on the piano, and on these occasions the son, to show his own goodwill, would sing. There were times when the two Poccards would sing all at once, and these times were quite awful. Stout operatic pieces sang the Poccards, with occasional surprising bursts into capricious Italian street songs. When it was over one felt thoroughly beaten yet strangely lighter of heart. One could not help feeling affectionately disposed towards two persons who must have done so much injury to their interior organs for the sake of giving pleasure to others.

The first night Mr Topper slept deeply in a room that breathed with pines. Far below was the sea, and he could feel its presence, while above, quite close to his head, were the stars and a kindly God who kept the human touch by walking at night through vineyards and forests of silent pines. There was a path that made a short cut to the sea and the rocks, and Topper came to know this path intimately every foot of the way. Not so Mrs Hart or the Colonel. They tried it once, then found excuses for staying at home. Once they had discovered the possibilities of the little grocery-Café, they found staying at home not difficult to bear. Topper and Marion could stand a lot of silence and both of them could gaze on leagues of sea. For those two reasons, if for none other, they could stand a lot of each other's company. They felt no need to be entertaining — no strain for words. They merely lived and allowed time to take a ride for itself. They existed like a couple of pleasantly domesticated beasts amid congenial surroundings. Topper sent for his mail to be forwarded and learned about Mrs Topper from herself, than whom there could be no better authority. Also, he learned about himself from the same source but failed to consider it reliable. He was a happy man, and to prove it he gave Colette, the trifle of a maid, sufficient money to purchase the liberty of her sweetheart, who was in unproductive durance for having mangled a sailor person who just previously had attempted to mangle Colette, but with a much more friendly intent.

Yes, Topper was happy, and Topper was free from care. Deprived of the example of her two associates, Marion settled down to a normal humdrum existence not entirely devoid of its romantic flavour. They walked long miles and looked thought-fully at the gloomy remains of the Roman occupation. Here, in the shadow cast by an abandoned stone quarry filled with a smooth, mysterious body of motionless water, they ate bread and cheese and drank wine from bottles cooled in the water of the quarry.

Occasionally they visited the open-air movies at night, at which Marion saw pictures that had been passé even before she and George had hit the fatal tree. The French translations of the American idiom were a source of endless wonder and delight, being the best part of the evening's entertainment.

They swam much, drank a little, and ate whatever they could, supplementing the meals served by the hotel with purchases of cheese and crackers from the little épicerie. Most of the time they were hungry, yet all of the time contented. Moments of unease would come to Topper, moments in which he looked into an empty future in which there was no Marion — no companionship in life. And there were times when he caught her looking at him with a peculiar glitter in her eyes that made him extremely uncomfortable. On one occasion he found her in bed with a long-bladed knife she had stolen from the kitchen, and on another he turned round just in time to prevent her from crashing a large rock down on his unprotected head. She laughed it off by saying that she had simply intended to startle him. Topper joined in her laughter, but his sounded a trifle strained. Frequently she tried to induce him to dive from high places into shallow, rock-speckled water, and several times she had playfully endeavoured to push him through his window or to lure him girlishly across the path of a speeding motor truck. Once, while lunching amid the Roman ruins, he had actually been forced to cling to a tree with one hand while furtively snapping at sandwiches held in the other, to prevent himself being hurled into the black waters of the quarry many feet below. When he inquired the exact nature of her intentions she told him bitterly that if he was only partially a gentleman he would jump into the damn place himself.

'Not while eating luncheon,' said Mr Topper. 'I'm not a gentleman when I'm hungry.'

Marion pelted him with her sandwiches and drank up all the wine out of sheer spite. These little incidents occurred so casually and were so deftly explained away that Topper had not the temerity to question Marion seriously about them. Nevertheless, like Agag, he walked lightly by her side, watched his step carefully, and never allowed her to get behind him in dangerous places. One would think that this sort of watchful existence might have ruined Mr Topper's nerves, not to mention marring his tranquillity. Such was not the case. Topper's nerves had already been ruined, and he derived a certain grim satisfaction in quietly observing Marion's vexation whenever he prevented her from murdering him. However, it must be admitted that the situation was somewhat unusual, although, when understood, rather piquant.

Women have killed men to keep other women from having them, but here was a woman attempting to murder her lover in order to keep him with her. It would have been hard to explain.

On the day following their arrival Mrs Hart discovered a travelling merry-go-round and brought her companions to see it. The hour was still early, yet the owner of the contraption, with an eye to business and effective publicity, induced the four of them to mount solemnly upon the most insecure-looking horses. No sooner were they astride than the mendacious owner set his machine to march at a furious pace; then, collecting a crowd of amazed men, women, and children, he pointed to his customers painfully revolving through space and proceeded to make a speech. He assured the gaping multitude that these so rich Americans had been so struck by the nobility of his horses, the luxury of his machine, and the fairness of his prices, that they had virtually fought their way into the saddle and threatened him with bodily hurt did he not promptly set his supreme equipage in motion. Topper's panting implorations to stop the damn thing from marching were lost in the applause of the crowd.

'They think we're American cowboys,' cried the Colonel above the din. 'This thing is a misery-go-round.'

'I'm an American tragedy,' called Mr Topper, clinging to his hateful mount and wondering about the damage that was being done him.

He caught a glimpse of Marion's wild eyes and flashing teeth peering back at him over her shoulder. The sight of her taut body jouncing busily on an apparently insane horse was nearly enough to make him lose his grip. He wondered if he too looked as utterly foolish as she did. Finally, Topper in desperation hurled the owner a handful of francs. This one pounced on the money and turned a radiant face to the crowd.

'Regard!' he cried. 'They enjoy it. They even demand more. Will they never stop? What people!'

And with this he sprang at a handle and gave it a vicious tug. So fast did the horses speed with this encouragement that Topper virtually lost consciousness. All knowledge of time and space grew vague. He felt sure he was foaming at the mouth. To make matters worse, he had the bitterness to see his companions fading one after the other from the backs of their cavorting mounts. He was alone with his sorrow, his so great misery. Had Topper been able to lay hand on the owner of the fiendish machine he would have pulled the man's tongue out by the roots, or whatever it is tongues have at the end of them.

'They have gone!' he heard the owner cry, some hours, it seemed, after the departure of his friends. 'This is strange. I must arrest its progress and search. Perhaps they are in the wheels. If so —' The man shrugged his sentence to its horribly unuttered conclusion.

The merry-go-round came to an end, but Topper, for some moments, was unable to part from his horse. When he did so it was weakly and with the step of an aged and crippled man. At the moment he was not strong enough to do anything to the owner. The tongue part would have to come later.

'Your friends,' demanded the man, 'what have you done with them? You alone have paid. Am I a dog?'

'Yes,' said Topper in a thick voice. 'You're a dog, a dirty dog, and your mother was one before you. Find my friends, or I'll call the gendarmes. Tear that infernal machine apart and look for their mangled bodies among the wheels.'

The rest of the morning had not been pleasant for the owner. Nor was his trade in that vicinity ever good.

Topper, as he sat there on the rocks, was thinking of this experience and enjoying it from a distance. Slowly he rose and helped Marion to rise. The little lawyer they left sleeping, not knowing what other disposition to make of his body. Slowly they mounted the grade that led back through the pines.

'Take a last look at it,' said Marion. 'We leave this place tomorrow.'

She laid an arm on his shoulder, and instinctively Topper braced himself.

'Why must we leave, Marion?' he asked in a low voice. 'I never want to go. Can't we just give the rest of the world a miss? We're well off here, you know.'

Marion silently shook her head and gazed into his eyes with a peculiar intentness. Then she made as if to slip her arms round his neck. Topper, troubled by her look, ducked slightly and stepped back. In spite of the seriousness of the moment, Marion laughed softly.

'Don't do that, you American pig,' she murmured. 'I'm not going to murder you — not now, at any rate.'

Mistrustfully Topper allowed her to put her arms up to his shoulders. He looked about for a tree to grab in case of any little trouble, any little slip or push. It was no trifle trying to be fondled by a woman who might just as likely as not choke you black in the face.

'Didn't it ever occur to you that Scollops might become enceinte,' she asked in a low voice, 'or worse still, that George might return from the wars? It takes more than a South American widow to hold that gay desperate in thrall.'

'Hell,' muttered Topper, holding Marion's eternally youthful body to him. 'Both of your suggested possibilities are most unpleasant. It would be just like Scollops to deflower my home while I am away. And as for George — he's just too awful to think about.'

'He always is,' said Marion.

'Had a good time?' asked Topper.

'Slick,' answered Marion.

'It's been all right,' went on the man. 'More than that for me.'

Marion nodded dumbly, and her eyes sought the sea.

'Like me?' asked Topper.

Once more Marion nodded.

'Say it,' said Topper.

'Look,' replied Marion, pointing to the small figure of the Frenchman sleeping on the rocks. 'It hasn't moved.'

Together they considered the body.

'That damn little French lawyer,' was all Topper said.

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