Topper Takes a Trip - Thorne Smith - ebook
Kategoria: Obyczajowe i romanse Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1932

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About
Chapter 1 - MORNING THOUGHTS ON A GERMAN MODEL
Chapter 2 - MR TOPPER SHAKES HANDS
Chapter 3 - MONSIEUR GRANDON'S VESUVIUS

About Smith:

Jason Thorne Smith (March 27, 1892–June 21, 1934), was an American writer of humorous fantasy fiction. Best known today for his creation of Topper, Smith's comic fantasy fiction (most of it involving sex, lots of drinking, and supernatural transformations, and aided by racy illustrations) sold millions of copies in the early 1930s. Smith drank as steadily as his characters; his appearance in James Thurber's The Years With Ross involves an unexplained week-long disappearance. Smith was born in Annapolis, Maryland the son of a Navy commodore, attended Dartmouth College, and after hungry years in Greenwich Village working part-time as an advertising agent, Smith achieved meteoric success with the publication of Topper in 1926. He died of a heart attack while vacationing in Florida. Source: Wikipedia

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Chapter 1 MORNING THOUGHTS ON A GERMAN MODEL

There was Topper, and there was the Mediterranean. A magnificent spectacle, that—Topper and the Mediterranean. Kindred spirits well met, contemplating each other across an alluring girdle of sand.

Not a large man, Topper—Cosmo Topper. Nor yet a small man. Certainly not a small. A comfortable man, rather. Slightly plump, if anything, and clad in a pair of blue silk pyjamas. And there was the Mediterranean just as it had been there for a considerable length of time—much longer than Mr Topper, for one thing. A vast expanse of cool ocean as blue and virginal seeming as the garments adorning the figure then inspecting it from the balcon of a discouragingly pale stucco villa set in a garden fairly bristling with grass of a repellent toughness—grass so hostilely tough that only a rhinoceros could sit on it with any showing of dignity and aplomb. Unfortunately, as rhinoceroses are rarely if ever encountered in these drab days sitting on Riviera grass in Riviera gardens, this observation must of necessity remain merely one of those vast mental pictures upon which to dwell during the interminable reaches of a family reunion.

On this early morning, one which appeared about as willing to give as to receive of the good things of life, Mr Topper had the Mediterranean very much to himself. In fact, he was quite alone with all that great quantity of water.

There was the man. And there was the ocean. Unique and distinct. One might even choose between them, if suddenly faced with such a disagreeable necessity. However, so splendidly did they go together, so well matched or mated were the two, that most persons of discrimination would have hesitated to separate them. They would have preferred to sidestep the issue and to retain both Topper and the Mediterranean intact. But, of course, there are some who might have wanted the ocean more than the man, or vice versa. Who can say?

We are fortunate in being able to have them both at their best, Topper on his balcon, and the Mediterranean in its bed.

Across the Mediterranean Mr Topper cast an early morning look, and the Mediterranean graciously offered its full-bosomed amplitude to his inspection. And although it has been previously observed that both were of a virginal blueness, it should not be forgotten that either one of them was capable of pulling some powerfully rough stuff when the opportunity offered.

Topper, it is to be learned with some relief, was virginal more through circumstance than choice. This does not imply that his was a low and lecherous nature. Nor does it necessarily follow that he was epicurean in such matters. But he did like things nice that way. Most men do, when and if possible.

Topper had been a banker by profession. He still was a husband—an original error of judgement unrectified by time. Habit is a dreadful thing. Once he had commuted without realizing the error of his ways. Most men commute through necessity. Topper had done so ritualistically. In Glendale, U.S.A., the Toppers had been socially solid. All that had changed, but not through Mrs Topper.

The fact is that rather late in the day Cosmo Topper had been subjected to the ultra-violent rays of a series of amorous and disreputable adventures as incredible as they had been entertaining. These adventures had left his pulse still beating in perfect harmony with the more enjoyable if less laudable preoccupations of life. They had not so much changed his character as ventilated it, given it a chance to breathe good, honest, vulgar, air vitalized by the fumes of grog. As a result, he had succeeded in washing his hands of work, but figuratively women still clung to them. There were times when those hands of Topper's fairly itched after women, which is the natural state of all healthy and enterprising masculine hands.

Even now, in the innocent face of this clean Riviera morning, the man was actually speculating as to the exact degree of nudity the German model would achieve on the beach a few hours hence. Yesterday, to his almost visible agitation, this lady of wolfish lines had reached what he had every reason to believe to be the absolute limit of anatomical candour. In spite of this awe-inspiring display, something told Topper that this German model, in her relentless quest of a coat of tan, still held a few more cubic inches in reserve which she would willingly sacrifice to the sun. Until she did this there was no peace of mind for any inquiring spirit on the beach. And when this greatly to be desired end had been attained, Topper both hoped and proposed to be stationed critically in the front ranks of a vast, admiring, and cosmopolitan multitude. He owed himself that much. Not that he lusted after the woman, but too long and too patiently had he attended in clinical expectancy to be, at the end, deprived of this point of vantage.

Once she had definitely and conclusively arrived at the climax of her revelations, Topper felt that he would be quite willing to call it a game. He had no desire to pursue his investigations further. All suspense would be at an end. The German model could go her way, while he would go his as if the incident had never occurred. Her crisply burned body would remain in his memory merely as a remarkable phenomenon, something to wonder about, like a landslide, subway rush, or Democratic Convention.

However, until that time Mr Topper's interests were very much involved. True enough, so gradually had the German model progressed on her way to nudity that much of the shock had evaporated before fresh territory was opened up for inspection, but by the same token, the very deliberateness of the method employed lent to the business an atmosphere of terrific suspense. What the morrow would bring forth, or, rather, off, was the anxious speculation in scores of masculine minds. Women also wondered. Topper suspected several depraved frequenters of the Casino actually of betting on the results of the model's daily progress. For example, the fifth rib against the diaphragm, heavy odds against a complete torso.

Being bored abroad is one of America's favourite customs. And not without reason.

Mr Topper held stoutly to the belief that within the short space of several weeks this German model had done more to establish friendly relations—to create a sort of entente intime, in fact—between her country and the Allied Powers than had been achieved by all the diplomatic gestures and disarmament conferences that had supplied the public with dull reading since the Armistice.

'And not a bad idea,' he mused, yawning. 'In fact, a splendid idea. Instead of holding a series of silly disarmament conferences at which everyone gets all hot and bothered and cables home to hurry up with more guns—instead of this, why not institute a set of disrobing conferences? Why not make a clean breast of it internationally? Let us strip ourselves of our all and face each other man to woman instead of man to man. No more beating about the bush or dangerous secret diplomacy. No more old men telling lies to other old men. At innumerable private conferences the idea has worked out not only successfully but entertainingly. Why not try it out on a large international scale?'

He considered his Mediterranean now as if in a trance. Topper was seeing in his mind's eye the American ambassador to England clad only in a pipe, looking at the German delegate trying to face the world in glasses. He saw a famous old French bargain hunter smilingly surveying the scene protected only by a blue béret—tres gentil. And a gentleman from Italy clad only in a neat but shrunken black shirt—what a sight! Mahatma Gandhi taking everything quite naturally, together with a few grains of rice. Then there would be the ladies, supplied probably by an international theatrical committee: Miss America, Mlle France, Senorita Madrid, et al. Altogether a jolly party. A conference that would accomplish some results, at least, no matter what those results might be. Agreeable events would be sure to occur.

The Mediterranean invites the idle mind to do some very curious thinking, and Mr Topper, it seems, had accepted the invitation. And all the while these and other equally unbecoming thoughts were corroding the mind of this erstwhile banker, within the pale villa his wife was sleeping most unpicturesquely yet most thoroughly. In spite of the many sterling qualities of this really admirable lady, one could forgive without too great a struggle her husband for preferring to think of the German model.

There was so much of her worth thinking about and so many choice bits of that so much. And strange to relate, Topper had not the faintest conception of what she looked like—no idea at all of her face. Men are like that. Careless. Just grown-up boys with a few extra tricks tacked on.

He well remembered the day when she had first made her appearance on the beach. Like many successful men and women before her, she had made rather modest and cautious beginnings. Only a scant couple of yards of her were exposed to the avid caress of the sun that day. From that first casual view of her one never would have suspected that there was so very much more of the German model still left unseen. Yet as time went on and vaster expanses became exposed, one came to believe that perhaps this German model would never cease, but like the brook continue on for ever. Now, most fortunately for everyone concerned, there was little left of the lady that remained unexposed. With characteristic Teutonic system and thoroughness she had succeeded in revolutionizing the colour of her skin and at the same time hanging up a record for plain and fancy nudity on a beach where such a record was exceedingly hard to make.

She was a good influence, Mr Topper decided, as he stood on his balcon, getting himself together for the day. She was the living symbol of one of the few interests that nations held in common. She drew men together, took their mind off grimmer if higher things. Furthermore, she didn't give a damn. Topper admired that. All his life he had given damns. Too many of them. For what she was, she deserved all the admiration and encouragement she received, although sweethearts and wives from Bronx Park to Brompton Road publicly denounced her while privately envying her proportions. So much for the German model, thought Topper as he turned to receive Scollops.

Scollops was Mr Topper's personal cat. She wove herself out on to the balcon and, as her master had done before her, looked the Mediterranean up and down. Then she yawned at it. There was a tongue inside. It was curled like a red-hot spring. Topper, considering his cat's too knowing eyes, decided that she would go well with the German model. Both should lie in the sand together. They had much in common—everything male.

Mr Topper gathered the cat in his arms and together they considered the day. He had brought this creature, this unregenerate cat, along with him at no little trouble and expense. At first Scollops had not been pleased. Travel had proved too confining, although there had been a moment or two on the ship—the captain's Tom. Why bring up the past? Why not, thought Scollops? Life was better now—ampler, lazier, sunnier. She found it to her liking, although she had noticed with a sense of alarm that there appeared to be a great many more French dogs than cats, and that these dogs seemed curiously volatile and distrait. It hardly mattered though. One enterprising gentleman cat for everyday company and another just in case were all that Scollops demanded. She had speedily acquired both. Not bad, either. Scollops frankly liked her gentlemen cats ungentlemanly. It would be amusing to present Mr Topper with a litter of Franco-American kittens, amusing but quite a bother.

Had the man holding this godless animal so carefully in his arms even suspected vaguely the nature of her thoughts he would have dropped her like a hot shot, little realizing that his own thoughts were, if anything, less edifying.

Some distance out on the blue a French destroyer went scuttling along to Nice. Probably out of Toulon. She knifed the waters spitefully, as if to remind them that men could hate and kill as well as love and live amiable lives. A subtle, deadly little craft. Neat. From the nearby training station three aeroplanes zoomed in formation through an inoffensive sky, then broke into a stuttering of dizzy spins and loops. Playful little devils buoyantly practising murder.

Topper raised his eyes to these man-created wasps, then lowered them to the sleek sides of his cat. Far, far better to consider the German model. No foolish ideas there about national prestige, the rights of invasion, or defence of honour. Catch as catch can was her way of looking at life. Live and let live, but preferably with some nice rich man.

Extending a brown hand, Topper gently touched a small pink rose that had crept up on the vine from the veranda below to take a look round. It was jolly up here. Better than looking all day long at that damn tough grass. The air brought to mind pine forests and hidden flowers, also, occasionally, fish. From the little cork factory down the street a fine red powder dusted the light breeze. Scollops sniffed delicately. An inspiriting figure of a French girl, mostly legs of the better sort, as was only right and proper, sped smoothly along a white road. With effortless grace she sent the bicycle ahead. She was singing 'Ramona'. All French girls were singing 'Ramona'. And almost all French men. Not singing it any too well, but singing it often and emotionally. Topper had hoped he had left that song far behind in America. Now, right here in France, the populace was breaking its collective heart over it all day long and late into the night. Idly he wondered if the French senate sang it. He grinned indulgently. Probably, if he were French, he too would be vocally breaking his heart over this Ramona trollop and her confounded Mission bells. Thoughtfully his eyes followed the provocative figure of the girl as she sped over the inlet bridge and lost herself in a little crooked street mostly made up at the moment of a donkey and his eternal cart. Whether the girl made it or not Topper never knew. He rather suspected she didn't, although the donkey remained unmoved.

'Ma chatte,' he remarked, thinking to himself what a silly word it was, 'my little cabbage, let us promenade ourselves.' For a moment he looked back at the blue ocean. 'Small wonder,' he continued to his little cabbage, 'that that strapping wench Venus, all set for seduction, sprang full blown from the foam of such a sea.'

Leaving the Mediterranean to consider this at its leisure, Topper, bearing Scollops, quietly withdrew into his villa.

The fact was, the man was lonely, excessively lonely, but he refused to admit it even to himself.


Chapter 2 MR TOPPER SHAKES HANDS

Topper, still doing his best in spite of his blue-silk pyjamas, emerged gloriously into his garden. Scollops also emerged under her own power. There did not appear to be much of it because she moved slowly on reluctant feet.

On his way downstairs Topper paused to look at his wife, then hastily followed this uninspiring inspection with a stiff bracer of cognac. As Mr Topper understood it, this clever French distillation was to be considered more in the nature of a tonic than a tipple—when taken properly. Owing to the blessed fact that his wife was a late sleeper, Mr Topper found himself at liberty to take it properly several times in the course of a morning. By rising early himself he could thus extend the length of his morning and accordingly increase the number of cognacs, all of which were taken properly. Husbands have their ways, God help them.

Topper, after looking at his wife, felt that the world owed him at least one drink of cognac properly taken. And he took it. Even in her sleep there had been about Mary Topper a certain grim rectitude which is especially depressing to those whose moral stature is only microscopically visible. Topper needed his cognac. He took his cognac. And although, as a result, his moral stature suffered a severe setback, he felt within himself much closer to God and man. His two favourites, Scollops and the Mediterranean, became even greater favourites.

Mention has been made of a series of adventures in connexion with Mr Topper. More should be said. Back in his suburban home Topper had met some exceedingly peculiar characters and enjoyed some equally peculiar adventures. From these adventures he emerged improved in every department. He was, perhaps, the only man of his day and generation who had actually and knowingly had familiar dealings with a spirit, or rather, with a person who, judged by all conventional standards, was entirely non-existent. Topper knew better. However, because of this technical loophole perhaps no black marks can be recorded against him, in spite of the fact that he left behind him, in the course of his adventures, a clearly defined trail of chips from the Commandments he had shattered.

This morning, as Topper strolled along by his garden wall, he was thinking of his brief but lurid past. His thoughts made him restless, filled him with a poignant desire to live a little more amply and to associate again with those extraordinary companions of a vanished summer, especially with one of them, Marion Kerby. If he had her back again he felt that he could indefinitely dispense with the others. As a matter of fact, he would much prefer it. Colonel Scott and Mrs Hart, those suave though disreputable affinities, would be far too expansive and uncontrollable along a coast offering as many opportunities for their failings as the Riviera. Even in the so-called dry States, they had seldom drawn a totally unalcoholic breath. And George Kerby— Topper felt that he could do very nicely without a great deal of George, Marion's quick-tempered, high-living husband, who was for ever insisting that death did not them part, not by any manner of means. An engaging chap, George, and a delightful companion, if he would only give up claiming such dictatorial sway over the time and actions of Marion.

In his heart Topper knew that Marion was lost to him for ever. She had told him herself that she was passing on to a higher plane, freeing herself at last from the carnal drag of the earth. The jovial Colonel, the languishing yet ever hungry Mrs Hart, and George Kerby would never pass out of the more pleasant influences of the earth. They had no ambitions to refine themselves. Topper felt sure of that. Those three liked themselves as they were, and Topper, thinking back, could hardly blame them. He, himself, had he been given the choice, would have preferred to remain a low-plane spirit, that is, assuming he was officially removed from this world. Then Topper's thoughts dallied with memories of Oscar, the Colonel's somewhat eccentric dog, that had only after the greatest patience on the part of his master learned to materialize in whole or in part, according to his mood and fancy. Oscar would have been an unusual companion for Scollops. He would have diverted the cat's thoughts from certain channels.

A bald head, fringed with a nicely starched ruff of grey, popping up alarmingly from the other side of the wall, brought Mr Topper's own thoughts back into the present with a snap.

'Bonjour, mon vieux!' cried Monsieur Louis. 'The times make fair, is it not?'

Mr Topper's hand was suddenly snatched from him and twirled about in the most bewildering manner. In this operation the element of surprise meant all. Topper had no choice. He merely stood by watchfully to see that nothing that could not be mended happened to his hand.

'You carry yourself well to-day?' continued Monsieur Louis, suddenly forgetting all about Mr Topper's hand and dropping it. 'You promenade yourself a little? Comment?'

Mr Topper hastened to assure Monsieur Louis that he, Topper, was exceedingly well pleased with everything in France, but especially with Monsieur Louis himself; that he, Topper, carried himself tremendously, and that he hoped Monsieur Louis was doing splendidly in the line of self-carrying; that the times had never made any fairer so far as he knew, and that owing to his blue-silk pyjamas he was desolated that he could not please Monsieur Louis by projecting himself farther than a very little. And all the while Mr Topper was saying these things he was wondering if Monsieur Louis had actually called him common to his face. It sounded very much like it, that last word. These French could get away with murder if one failed to know their language.

'Me, also, I am well pleased,' Monsieur Louis continued like God. 'Now, behold, I work much. To-night I play. Tout a l'heure, mon ami, Tout a l'heure.'

And with this piece of gratuitous information of a rather personal nature Monsieur Louis ducked down behind the wall, leaving Mr Topper on the other side vainly trying to get the meaning of his parting words.

'Tout a l'heure,' considered Mr Topper. 'What the deuce did he mean by that? Sounds silly to me—all at the hour. What hour? Can't help feeling a little embarrassed for these Frenchmen when they begin to talk. Seem to lose all control of themselves. He works much now, but to-night he plays, does he? Getting along in years for that sort of thing. And he brags about it, the immoral old devil. Wonder what his wife thinks of that?'

Topper decided that most likely Madame Louis did not mind at all. French husbands and wives were always so busy rushing in and out of the house on the way to and from assignations that they never had any spare time to check up on each other's movements.

This train of thought naturally brought him back to Marion Kerby. He recalled the day when he had purchased the Kerbys' car as a result of his exasperation at his wife's habitual attempts to thrust a leg of lamb down his jaded throat. George and Marion had been killed in that self-same car. A tree had objected to it. He remembered the day, the moment of awe and incredulity when they had first spoken to him out of vast spaces. How upset he had been. And he remembered, too, not without a slight shudder, how shockingly George Kerby had first materialized. What a dreadful sight that had been—a pair of golf knickers gradually taking form, and an inverted head dangling between their legs. At that moment Topper had wondered if George materialized were always going to be like that. Then Marion had made her presence seen as well as felt. He had first caught sight of her draped over a rafter in an old, abandoned inn. She had been about as abandoned as the inn itself. That night she had looked like an angel. There the resemblance had come to an abrupt end.

Once more Monsieur Louis' popping head shattered Mr Topper's memories.

'In full truth,' he warned Mr Topper, seizing his hand as if to prevent it from striking. 'To-night I have of pleasure, but now, my friend, I cut. It is that I trim the garden. He is in disarray. Me, I shall introduce order and make all things fair. Regard! I clip, is it not?'

Inasmuch as Monsieur Louis extended in the air a pair of shears fairly dripping with vegetation, Mr Topper saw no reason to start an argument.

'With them I work,' continued the little Frenchman, philosophically regarding the shears, 'but to-night it is a thing entirely different. Au'voir, m'sieur. I part.'

With this Monsieur Louis flung back Mr Topper's hand and collapsed behind the wall, from over which came the voice of a pair of agitated clippers.

'I wish he would stop doing that,' Mr Topper complained to himself. 'It's more than disturbing. It's downright alarming, especially when done with clippers. Furthermore, I don't give a damn how much he plays, but if he doesn't stop popping up and down like that he won't be able to drag himself out of the house. Wonder where he goes to do all this playing?'

The whole thing had started from that night at the abandoned inn. What an excellent night that had been, dancing in the fire-light with Marion and drinking Scotch with George.

Topper was not aware of the fact that an embryonic sigh escaped his lips.

And all the things that had happened after George had gone abroad. That interlude by the lake alone with Marion, that is, alone with her until Colonel Scott and Mrs Hart, a pair of low-plane spirits with an equally low-plane dog, had appeared, casually drifting along in search of whatever pleasure the moment had to offer. They had made a party of it, the four of them, and he, Topper, had been the only one unable to disappear at will. It had been extremely inconvenient at times, and never more so than when George Kerby had unexpectedly returned to find Marion and himself together under highly compromising circumstances. They could hardly have been higher, those circumstances, nor more compromising. Then the weird duel which followed in which George insisted on his rights to remain invisible while Topper, unable to reduce his stature by one cubic inch, was forced to remain an exceedingly mortal target. Finally, the return to the inn, the farewell party, and the tree again. It had been a terrific smash-up. Topper had come back to consciousness in the hospital. Marion was gone, and so were the others. Even Oscar had withdrawn himself into a dimension unattainable to Mr Topper. It was all over. Adventures end. Only Mrs Topper remained, Mrs Topper and his cat, Scollops.

Once out of the hospital, Topper had tried to make a go of it with his wife. An abortive attempt. As soon as she had got her husband back she speedily set about retrieving her dyspepsia and superior manner. In spite of her efforts to be human, she had gradually relapsed into her familiar role of conventional, self-satisfied, censorious matron with a social position to nurse. She had been grimly determined to make Topper comply. Now this is an impossible thing to do with a man who has once consorted on grounds of perfect equality with a set of low-plane spirits. To her intense chagrin, Mrs Topper had found it so. She soon discovered that the once orthodox Topper had been utterly ruined for everyday suburban life. He missed trains, offended the neighbours, and cursed at things with a new and overpowering vigour. He refused to go to bed at the customary time, and was frequently seen in the company of low characters. Then, too, he suffered from occasional fits of abstraction in which the community of Glendale ceased to exist for him, and he would go wandering away by himself as if in search of something, the exact nature of which he had forgotten himself.

Once the man had attempted to tell his wife a little something about the less unedifying side of his adventures. He had felt the need to share, to recapture in the telling a little of the past. He did not get far. His wife, he could tell, was under the impression that his mind had been affected by his accident. It was all very discouraging.

In the end, Topper had made an attempt to furbish up his relations with his wife by taking her to Europe. No luck. In France Mrs Topper was even more Glendale than before. Defensively and aloofly critical. Superior. Non-participating.

It was not Mary Topper's fault. No woman could be the way she was of her own free will. God had given her the type of mind she had, and her family had taught her to use it the way she did. She thought herself quite right. And that was just the trouble. She was quite right—a damn sight too quite for Topper. In this world people should probably live according to her standards, that is, those who wished to get along with the minimum amount of friction and the maximum of dull, numbing comfort. Her rightness had become such an obsession with her that she was never happy unless she was showing Mr Topper how terribly, terribly wrong he was. Topper sometimes wondered how a man who was so consistently wrong as his wife made him out to be had ever escaped being hanged and had become, instead, a responsible officer in one of the world's largest banking institutions. As wrong as he was, however, he never made the mistake of asking his wife this question. It would have done terrible things to her dyspepsia, and God alone knew she needed little encouragement in that direction. Yet, somewhere deep down in his rather secretive heart, Topper nourished a genuine affection for this woman who had made such a sameness of his life. It was his fault, after all. Had he not permitted her to do it? Arid he had been much like her until a quartet of carousing characters who had left this world safer for domesticity by leaving it themselves, had taken him through some remarkably broadening paces.

Yes, Topper was fond of his wife, but being fond of one's wife and getting along with her were two and entirely different matters, as many a husband had found out before him. Perhaps it was not to be expected. Topper did not know. The problem had been too long with him. It was barnacle-encrusted.

Monsieur Louis, or rather the head of that brave, saved him from attempting to solve it. Once more it popped up, and once more Topper's hand was captured and subjected to a friendly flinging.

'My friend,' the little man announced, his wicked eyes sparkling with some hidden irony as only a Frenchman's eyes can sparkle, 'this garden here is greatly encouraged. But why? There is nothing in it to grow. Alas, I reproach myself. In spite of which to-night I find my pleasure. Alors!'

Monsieur Louis was gone. Topper stood gazing vacantly at the spot where Monsieur Louis had been. So far as Topper knew Monsieur Louis had neither legs nor body. He had never seen these parts, though he imagined they were somewhere about. But on the witness stand he could not have taken an oath that there was any more to Monsieur Louis than one popping head, a quick little twisting neck, and a pair of agile arms. And the funny thing is that Topper never did know. That was all he ever saw of Monsieur Louis. Of course, had he taken the trouble he could have found out. Topper never took the trouble. What he knew of Monsieur Louis was quite enough. More of Monsieur Louis would have been too much.

'That little Frenchman certainly must be going to have a good time,' he mused almost enviously. 'He's so damned excited about it. Doesn't seem to be able to think of anything else. The French are funny that way. He and his pleasure. Wish he'd stop popping about it.'

To protect his nerves from further incursions by Monsieur Louis and Monsieur Louis' head and arms, Topper moved away from the wall and walked down to the little gate that gave on to the white road separating the white villa from the beach. Here he was almost immediately joined by Monsieur Sylvestre, patron of the excellent Café Plage.

Monsieur Sylvestre, as if suddenly spying an especially desirable fish, pounced upon Mr Topper's hand and did friendly things to it. Then he demanded of Mr Topper how he ported himself this morning. Mr Topper was once more gentil and admitted that he ported himself fairly bien and added that the times made fair. Monsieur Sylvestre, overwhelmed with both statements, again shook Mr Topper's hand and asked him if it was that he would have to boire un petit. Mr Topper thereupon shook Monsieur Sylvestre's hand and allowed that he would have of cognac to boire. Accordingly both shook hands for the fourth time and crossed the road, blue pyjamas and all, to the little café squatting unpicturesquely on the sand. Here on the veranda they looked politely at several fishing boats and one tramp steamer from Denmark. They had to boire at the hands of Madame Sylvestre, who had first shaken one of Topper's. This sort of thing went on for about a quarter of an hour, until Mr Topper felt his supply of amiability running low, upon which he withdrew, after cordially shaking hands with his hosts, who were desolated by his departure.

On his way across the road Mr Topper was nearly knocked down by his blanchisseuse, who, compactly mounted on her bicyclette, had been on the point of delivering at the villa the beautiful results of her blanchisseuse-ing. This slight contretemps brought down on Mr Topper's head a deluge of polite lamentations. Things would have gone smoothly enough had they gone no farther. The stricken lady insisted on tenderly shaking Mr Topper's hand. There was still more. His blue-silk pyjamas were, brushed and examined with a thoroughness that would have given Mrs Topper grounds for a separation back in Glendale. Mr Topper himself became somewhat light-headed during these impassioned operations and clung to his pyjamas like a little gentleman in order to keep from giving the diligent blanchisseuse fresh cause for apologies or congratulations. He then helped her to collect the scattered laundry, and clinging to his pyjamas with one hand, falteringly carried the laundry back to the villa with the other.

Here he encountered the maid, Félice, whom he had certain reasons for suspecting of being much more than she pretended not to be. He deposited the laundry in a chair, took a hitch in his pyjamas, and made a grab for the French girl's hand, thus making the morning a clean sweep of hand-shaking.

Félice evinced no surprise, although privately she was cast down that he stopped at her hand. She made no attempt to withdraw it and gazed back at the pyjamaed gentleman with infinite understanding.

Sensing the reprehensible nature of the thoughts passing behind those melting eyes, he promptly dropped the hand and hurried upward to his bathroom. Here he stood looking thoughtfully at the tub. Had it suddenly remarked upon the weather and attempted to shake his hand he in turn would not have been in the least surprised.

'Funny people, these French,' he soliloquized as he let his pyjama trousers follow their natural inclination. 'Polite to the point of danger. Can't make up my mind whether I like them or not. Some days, yes, and some days, no. That girl Félice, for example. A body isn't safe with her around.'

Then he turned and regarded Vesuvius with profound scepticism. He could not quite make up his mind about this strange device, either.


Chapter 3 MONSIEUR GRANDON'S VESUVIUS

Vesuvius had given Topper some mighty bad moments in the course of their relations. Even now he was not sure just where he stood as regards Vesuvius, and what was even worse, just where Vesuvius stood as regards him.

Vesuvius existed in a metal box that did things about making cold water different. But Vesuvius had, Mr Topper feared, potentialities of achieving other and more ambitious flights than that. It could, for instance, take its name seriously and emulate the volcano, exploding most horrifically. This might result in depositing Topper, still soapy but otherwise unadorned, in the bosom of a vociferous French family picnicking on the beach. This would not be gentil, neither would it be diverting, that is, not for Topper. He had no desire to compete with the German model.

Topper's first introduction to Vesuvius had been made through the medium of an extremely emotional Monsieur Grandon, one who claimed the distinction of being Mr Topper's propriétaire.

'Voila' Monsieur Grandon had exploded dramatically through his beard. 'One has it!'

'What, Monsieur Grandon?' demanded Topper, slightly confused. 'One has what, exactly?'

'In truth,' explained Monsieur le propriétaire, running frantic hands over numerous pipes, taps, and levers darting dangerously from all sides of the box. 'It is there—l'appareil de chauffage.'

Topper, none the wiser, read the name of the box and became restive.

'One pulls this one here and that one there,' continued Monsieur Grandon, recklessly laying hands on various protruding bits of Vesuvius. 'Alors! One pushes here, makes to turn there, then ignites this one here—but first,' and here the Frenchman paused and darkly considered the blank face of Topper, 'but first,' he repeated with seeming reluctance, 'one makes the water to run in the basin.'

'What!' ejaculated Topper incredulously. 'Is that quite necessary?'

'The one who would bathe,' Monsieur Grandon explained with patience. 'You, m'sieu, for example.'

Mr Topper was more astounded than shocked.

'I was merely thinking of my wife,' he said coldly.

'Madame is your wife?' exclaimed Monsieur in a mixture of surprise and disappointment.

'But yes,' replied Mr Topper. 'Is it that you believed her my mistress?'

Monsieur Grandon shrugged temporizingly.

'It is of an occurrence unique,' he observed. 'One expects more of an American when he visits our Riviera.'

Topper turned on the tap as a gesture of possession.

'Hein!' cried Monsieur Grandon. 'Now shall I cause him to march?'

'Cause,' replied Mr Topper after a moment's hesitation. 'But cause him to march with the utmost tranquillity. Cause him almost to amble.'

'There is not of danger, m'sieu.'

'But yes, my old,' replied Topper. 'Something tells me in a loud, clear voice that there is of danger—that there is even of stark peril. Upon the body of Vesuvius there are certain telltale marks that give me to believe he once went "poof"!'

'Of a verity,' admitted Monsieur Grandon. 'It is a long time since that one there went "poof"!'

'That, Monsieur Grandon, is most unfortunate,' commented Mr Topper, 'because after his so great and profound tranquillity he may imagine it about the right time to go "poof!" encore.'

'It is a thing not to think of,' assured Monsieur Grandon.

'It is a thing I hate to think of,' agreed Topper, 'yet it is a thing from which I cannot tear my thoughts.'

'Have of courage, m'sieu,' urged the intrepid Frenchman. 'His first "poof!" was his last.'

From what Monsieur Grandon allowed to remain unsaid he let it be delicately inferred that what had passed between himself and Vesuvius on the occasion of the first 'poof!' had definitely settled matters for all time.

'But,' observed Monsieur Grandon with an alarming reversal of form, 'should it eventuate that he does go "poof!" then it is that one makes water to run on a scale very grand.'

'Have little fear on that point, m'sieu,' Topper hastened to assure him. 'If he ever takes it into his head to go "poof!" in earnest, water will be made on a scale of the utmost grandeur and with startling promptitude.'

'Is it not so?' murmured Monsieur Grandon abstractedly, as he did things to Vesuvius that made Mr Topper shudder.

Thus it came about that Mr Topper and Vesuvius, l'appareil de chauffage, met each other on terms of mutual suspicion which never quite wore off in spite of their daily contact. Those scars of a previous 'poof!' were a constant reminder of an unreliable past. Familiarity had never bred contempt, although Topper was now able to pass through the ritual of ignition with his mind on other matters.