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Topper Takes A Trip


Thorne Smith



MONSIEUR LE COMMISSAIRE Devaux sat with weary elegance behind his desk in the small room at the police station. With an expression of polite disgust he regarded those within his sight, including his own officers of the law.

'Who are all these annoying-looking persons?' he asked of an officer standing near by. 'These offensive smelling citizens, even if bent on crime, should first wash. Are they all criminals, Henri?'

'That, Monsieur le commissaire, is for you to judge.'

'Why cannot the law take its course?' continued the commissaire. 'I grow weary of inferior sinning. Where is our American monsieur? He interests me.'

'He will arrive in but a moment,' assured Henri. 'Meantime these two women have a grievance against each other. Also, they have disturbed the peace by fighting and the excessive use of vile language.'

'I know those two women,' said Monsieur Devaux sadly, 'and it pains me to hear that they use vile language, that is, to excess. A little vile language is good for all — it clears one's spiritual alimentary tract.' Monsieur Devaux paused to appreciate this. He was alone in his appreciation. 'I am afraid they are very bad women,' he resumed, 'but why are they here at this hour of the night?'

'You were present, Monsieur le commissaire,' said Henri simply, 'so we brought them.'

'I see,' observed Devaux. 'Every time I am here you feel that you must bring me something. That is thoughtful but unnecessary. I prefer to be alone. Bring them to me.'

A small thin Frenchwoman and a large fat Frenchwoman were pushed before Monsieur le commissaire. Both began to talk volubly at once. Both attempted to resume hostilities. Both were forcibly separated and quieted.

'Marie,' asked Devaux, utterly untouched by the display of feminine ferocity he had witnessed, 'why do you call your smaller neighbour bad names and attack her?'

'M'sieu,' replied the larger woman, 'that one steals my husband.'

'Do you mean she steals him repeatedly?' inquired the commissaire. 'From day to day?'

'No, m'sieu,' replied Marie. 'From night to night. From day to day he remains at home — supine.'

'Naturally, from night to night,' murmured Devaux. 'My mistake. One should have known better. And you, Jeanne, what is your complaint? It seems you should be grateful instead of offensive.'

'That sow of ill repute will not allow her husband to remain stolen,' announced the small woman in an injured voice. 'I am small, and I need a man.'

'I don't quite see that,' said Devaux. 'Marie is large. Does she need two men?'

'She has the fishing front complete to a man,' retorted the small one. 'She is notorious, that one.'

'She deserves to be,' observed Commissaire Devaux. 'This all seems to be more of a problem for God to decide than man.'

Marie could no longer restrain herself.

'And, Monsieur le commissaire,' she exploded, 'when I confront her with her theft she does this to me for all the world to behold.'

By an inelegant gesture Marie showed the commissaire exactly what Jeanne did to her. The commissaire was visibly moved. He attempted to avert his eyes but was unable to do so. They were held fascinated by the titanic proportions of the primitive spectacle. Yet, even as he observed, he thought, in a detached manner, of the numerous objectionably human acts a public official was forced to look upon in the dispatch of his professional duties.

'And, m'sieu, if you do not know what that means —' began Marie.

'I'm very much afraid I do,' Devaux interrupted hastily, 'and it seems to be painting the lily a little.'

'It means —' continued Marie, desirous of making sure the full significance of her demonstration was understood.

'Marie,' broke in the commissaire, 'do not hold that unnerving posture any longer. I think I can read the writing on the wall, especially when so trenchantly expressed.'

'It means —' began Marie.

'Please take them away,' said the commissaire. 'She refuses to believe I know what it means, and I refuse to be told. You see, we are at an impasse.'

As the ladies were being led out, Mr Topper was briskly led in by a considerable number of gendarmes. He was brought into the presence of the commissaire himself.

'Ah!' exclaimed that one with obvious relief. 'So you have at last arrived?'

'You are confusing arrived with arrested, I fear, m'sieu,' Mr Topper amended.

Now Commissaire Devaux spoke perfect English, made so by dealing for years with far less perfect Americans and Englishmen. He was slightly offended by Mr Topper's correction.

'M'sieu, you see fit to jest at a serious moment in your life,' he observed easily. 'More serious than you realize. You are lionlike at present. Later you may more resemble his prey — one of his minor meals.' Monsieur le commissaire paused, and regarded in sudden horror the vast quantities of gendarmes cluttering up his quarters. 'Am I to be favoured with a review?' he inquired of one of the officers; then, noticing the battered condition of many of the men, he added in French, 'Lionlike is not the word. The man must be a menagerie in himself to have inflicted such punishment.'

'But there were at least forty others,' replied the officer. 'Forty wild ones, Monsieur le commissaire.'

'Splendid!' cried Devaux. 'Remove several hundred of these crippled-looking creatures that once were men and bring in the remaining forty prisoners.'

'M'sieu,' replied the officer haltingly, 'we were successful in apprehending but one — that one before you — the others vanished into thin air.'

The commissaire received this piece of information with admirable sangfroid.

'The air could not have been so remarkably thin,' he observed, 'to have consumed forty wild bodies.' He looked thoughtfully at the officer. 'Have you, perhaps, been drinking,' he asked, 'or were you struck heavily upon the head?'

'The latter, m'sieu,' replied the officer. 'Repeatedly. And not on the head alone.'

He pulled back his tunic.

'Stop!' cried the Commissaire. 'Is it your intention to strip yourself before us to show us the extent of your injuries?'

'One thought you might like to see, m'sieu.'

'Were they of an assuredly fatal nature, perhaps I would,' replied Devaux. 'With less than that I would not be satisfied.' He turned his eyes upon Mr Topper. 'Ah, well,' he continued at last, 'we will have to do as thoroughly as possible with the one prisoner we have at our immediate disposal. Monsieur Topper, I can see a long stretch of the most boring years spanning your slow progress to the grave.'

'But why?' demanded Topper. 'Must I be sentenced for forty prisoners whose very existence remains yet to be established?'

'For at least forty,' replied the Commissaire. 'The juge d'instruction whom you will later have the misfortune to meet may suggest more in his report. He is a strong believer in vicarious atonement. I shall content myself with a conservative forty. Is all clear, m'sieu?'

'Crystalline,' retorted Topper. 'M'sieu, is there no justice in France?'

'Obviously not,' the Commissaire informed him in the most astonished of tones. 'Your question confounds me, but why confine it to France? Is there justice in any country in the world, Monsieur Topper? There are laws — there are laws everywhere. We do the best that we can with them. Do you not realize that man is not ready to receive justice, much less to administer it? If Justice were done to humanity there wouldn't be any humanity left. It would be poisoned, and the last prisoner would in the end have to poison himself, a piece of Quixotic integrity which passes belief. So you see, m'sieu, justice is a mere word. There can be no such thing as justice so long as justice is needed. But pardon me. You touched on my favourite topic. One moment, if you please. Who is that woman there?' he called out sharply. 'She is making most disturbing sounds.'

A middle-aged American woman was brought forward. She was crimson with wrathful indignation. In atrocious French she attacked the commissaire and the nation he represented. He listened politely to her for a moment, then waved her to silence.

'Madame,' he said in a mildly rebuking voice, 'if you must say such horrid things, please say them in English. I don't want my subordinates contaminated with seditious utterances. I can understand English, and, quite unofficially, I agree with much you say. Has this lady done anything, or has anyone done anything to her? The latter contingency seems hardly possible from where I am sitting.'

It was explained to Commissaire Devaux that the lady was the wife of one of a group of visiting American politicians. These politicians had come to make speeches in France because their constituents at home would no longer listen to them. Also they desired to break a few speech-cramping French precedents and to set up several new ones. The lady had hurled a brick through the window of a restaurant in which the wife of another American politician was drinking champagne with some friends. Not content with this act of violence, she had thereupon delivered a speech in which her husband's name was frequently mentioned in connexion with his noble determination to uphold prohibition not only in America but also the wide world over. The lady resisted arrest and mentioned freedom and liberty and something about stars and stripes.

Throughout this recital Monsieur le commissaire became more and more dismayed. Plainly the affair bore an international aspect. He must proceed with the utmost diplomacy, although it went against the grain. Sardonically he smiled upon Mr Topper.

'How would you deal with such a case?' Devaux asked him with a touch of malice.

'If you will ask the lady to leave the room,' said Mr Topper, 'I'll be delighted to advise you.'

'That's the way I feel about it,' replied Commissaire Devaux.

At this moment an exceedingly young-looking policeman entered the room. He was carrying with a great lack of enjoyment a six-inch piece of pipe sealed at both ends.

'What's that?' demanded the Commissaire.

'Mon commissaire,' replied the youth, 'it is believed to be a bomb found in the home of an estate agent.'

'I could think of no better place for a bomb to be,' replied Devaux without turning a hair. 'But why bring it here? We desire to live, if you do not. That is all, save yourself, Monsieur Topper, who are facing a living death.'

'If that damn thing is a bomb,' said Topper with conviction, 'all of us are facing immediate death.'

The commissaire's face brightened up.

'I have it!' he exclaimed. 'Give the bomb to the dry lady and tell her she is at liberty to take it wherever she pleases so long as it is a long way off. Perhaps her husband might like it to present to the city of Chicago with a speech. You see, Monsieur Topper, I am not without knowledge of conditions in your home of the free and land of the brave.'

Suddenly the bomb was snatched by some unseen hand from those of the young policeman who looked momentarily relieved.

'Release the prisoner Topper,' cried the voice of the Colonel as the bomb leaped aloft, 'or I'll blow this place to atoms.'

'And Topper with it, you fool,' came the voice of Marion Kerby. 'Give me that bomb this minute.'

A struggle seemed to be in progress for possession of the bomb. The commissaire looked at Topper with an expression of resigned horror.

'M'sieu,' he said in a low voice, 'this is the tensest moment of my life beside which the horrors of war were as slumber. If we live through this remind me to take up the matter of voices and bodies and other manifestations.'

'If I still have control of my faculties,' replied Mr Topper.

The Colonel was laughing madly, while Marion stuck steadily to swearing. Suddenly the bomb began to fizz.

'Monsieur Topper,' remarked Devaux, 'it was a pleasure to have known you. Already I am trying to get used to the past tense. So that you won't be forced to accompany me to God as a suspect I hereby acquit you of all charges.'

No sooner were the words spoken than the bomb went flying through the door to the centre of a little square where stood the statue of a particularly stuffy-looking angel. There was a small explosion, and when the dust cleared away little of the angel remained.

'Good,' remarked the commissaire, peering through the door at the scene of small ruin. 'For some reason I never did like that angel. Some of you, mes braves, go out and effect a few tactfully selected arrests. I cannot hold the American Monsieur for this. I've already acquitted him.' With a smile he turned back to Topper. 'Well, m'sieu,' he observed, 'we have succeeded in eliminating the bomb and the angel, too.'

'Also, we are still alive,' replied Mr Topper.

'And for that reason you should be in jail,' the commissaire assured him, 'but I see you are determined to take advantage of a hasty remark made under the stress of an abnormal situation.'

'Regardez là, mon commissaire!' cried a gendarme, pointing excitedly to the square. 'A veritable miracle is in progress.'

On the splintered pedestal where the stuffy angel had once stood now appeared the figure of a flesh-and-blood woman, Marion Kerby, clad only in the briefest of scanties.

'A decided improvement,' murmured Monsieur Devaux, 'although a far greater distraction.'

It was only a momentary manifestation, but that slim, debonair figure poised so impudently in the footsteps abandoned by the joyless symbol of piety enforced — sweet religious melancholy — stood out clear and distinct, like the provocative forerunner of a pleasanter day and age. It was like a high wind blowing away the stale perfume of ancient sin, ripping the gloomy masks from the images of long-libelled saints, and leaving in their places a row of cheerfully ironical grins. To Topper and the commissaire, standing in the door of the police station, that gleaming figure of a woman brought many irrelevant thoughts to mind, some comforting and some a little edged with regret. The air was filled with catcalls and shouts of unholy jubilation, tipsy laughter and scraps of song sung just a little off the key. And above all the disorderly noises boomed the brazen voice of the Colonel.

'We are those good Americans,' he chanted, 'who go to Paris when they die.' This was followed by jeers and laughter, then: 'Compliments of the season, Mr Topper.'

And just before the figure melted from the pedestal it turned towards the men standing in the doorway and mockingly thumbed its nose, or rather, her nose, for no one gazing at that slim, vital figure could think of Marion Kerby in terms of the neuter gender.

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