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Topper

- Thorne Smith


Humor



The Topper's house was not one of mirth. Great quantities of gloom had descended upon the place. Women had hastened to Mrs. Topper's side as if in the hour of her bereavement. They sat in subdued rooms and conversed in subdued voices. Mr. Topper came to regard himself as a corpse, without, however, enjoying a corpse's immunity to its surroundings. At any moment he expected Mrs. Topper to place candles round him. He had been requested to withdraw from the Town Council and the honorary residue of the now professionally organised fire brigade. Why a person had to be moral in order to be useful at a fire was difficult for Mr. Topper to understand. Nevertheless, he sent in his resignation and felt better about it. He was now officially divorced from white duck trousers. That was something to cling to in the ruins.

Twenty-four hours after his release from durance the craving for a smoke had driven him into town. On that trip he had purchased enough cigars to relieve himself of all further necessity of appearing again in public. Topper had only a hazy idea about fallen women, but he imagined he felt very much as they did when adversity had forced them to return to their home towns. Topper had lost everything but his money, and because that still remained he was not stoned. He was still a solid man, but terribly soiled. He read about himself in the local newspaper and stopped reading almost immediately. Mrs. Topper displayed no such delicacy. The paper was seldom out of her hands. Topper, observing her absorbed expression, wondered what pleasure she could be deriving from poring over such morbid stuff. Mrs. Topper was deriving a lot of pleasure. Seeing her husband's crimes in print gave her a feeling of security. There could now be no doubt about it. The story was down in black and white. Mr. Topper could not deny it. She was vexed with the reporters, however. They had used altogether too much literary restraint. Now if she had been writing the report- headlines flashed through her mind. It was well for Topper that he could not read them.

Three days had elapsed since Mr. Topper's arrest. Three days passed by him for the most part in the backyard. Whenever sympathetic callers arrived Mr. Topper disappeared. He feared that the women might ask his wife for the privilege of viewing the remains. For this reason he quietly removed himself and his bruises to the backyard. To this retreat Scollops followed him. She was waiting impatiently to resume the repose that had been so rudely interrupted by his unwarranted absence from the house. The man must sit down some time. This tragic stalking about was all very well for a while, but on the other hand something was due to a cat, especially such a cat as Scollops. There was little comfort in a peripatetic couch. If Topper wanted to think and be gloomy let him do so in a stationary position. But why think? Sleep was much more vital. There were a few slight irregularities in her own life. Scollops remembered, not without pride, a certain alienation affair in which she had become involved, but she had no intention of letting the memory make her haggard. Several times she had honestly tried to think about the affair, to figure out if in any way she had justified various backyard references, but the effort had made her drowsy. Why was not this man affected in the same manner? Human beings placed too great importance on the game of morals. That was why they were constantly breaking the rules. They really did not want to play and yet they insisted on giving the appearance of playing. So Scollops waited while Topper walked. Then Topper sat and Scollops slept. And in the darkened house Mrs. Topper delicately arched her eyebrows and was happy, quite, quite happy in a sane and refined manner.

After three days of morbid seclusion Mr. Topper came to a decision. His secret life was developing, growing more complex. When he came to the decision he was sitting on the lawn roller because it had been previously warmed by the sun. And what made him come to a decision arose from a sudden and upsetting realisation that at heart he felt neither grieved nor chastened by anything that had come to pass. He found himself actually gloating over his night in the lock-up- what little he could remember of it. He relished his memory of the old abandoned inn tucked away among the trees. He felt with pleasure that he had done some fairly splendid dancing and he was sure that for the first time in his life he had sung without constraint and fought without fear. Sitting there on the lawn roller, he was surprised to find that each little memory brought him some satisfaction and no regret, and as the indirect rays of the sun sent courage through his spinal column he deliberately denounced the town and all its works in terms both round and rough. His whole past life had been modelled on false standards which would have to be adjusted at once. There was only one way to accomplish this. Mr. Topper's fingers abstractly touched one of Scollops' ears and Scollops with equal abstractness scratched one of Mr. Topper's fingers. But Topper disregarded the sleepy rebuke of his cat. He was going away. He was going quite far away. That was Mr. Topper's decision. He would drive himself to some great distance from the town and his wife and her friends. Before he officially proclaimed the new order of things he must first be alone. He had to think a little. That was quite important. He wondered now how he had ever got along so far with so little thought. He became quite elated about his brain. It was like a new toy to him. He had always believed that it had been providentially arranged for the purpose of making money, acquiring possession and paying for legs of lamb. He found that his brain was quite playful, that it broke rules and was indifferent, that it entertained the most disreputable thoughts without becoming panic-stricken. Mr. Topper felt like dancing, but he restrained this inclination. He realised that if Mrs. Topper saw him making movements of joy she would immediately call in another mourner for a whispered conversation. And Topper felt so liberated that he feared he might assault the next woman who heaved a sigh in his house.

So instead of dancing he buried his head in his hands and held on to himself. It was silly about his eyes. He did not feel at all like crying. Yet his face was growing wet.

The next day Mr. Topper went to the city. To show his indifference to public opinion he took the usual morning train. His appearance at first caused the respectful silence usually accorded to criminals in transit to the place of incarceration. As he walked down the platform he felt that life had not been lived in vain. He enjoyed the situation. Men who had once greeted him with respect now slapped him on the back with hands that were moist with condescension. Friends who had hitherto received him warmly nodded thoughtfully in his direction and resumed their conversation. Two representatives of civic virtue were honest enough to ignore his presence. Harris Stevens, however, was not to be downed. On seeing Topper he threw himself headlong into the rôle of official protector. Stevens' mind was so tolerant that he could have attended a lynching every day without becoming critical. He thrust his arm through Mr. Topper's and led him up to a group of mutual friends.

"If I were handcuffed to him," thought Mr. Topper, "his happiness would be complete."

Nevertheless Topper made no protest. He was still enjoying the situation.



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