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Born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1892, educated at Dartmouth, THORNE SMITH was an early cohort of Dorothy Parker's. He achieved literary success in 1926 with the publication of Topper and went on to publish nine novels in the next eight years. He earned a passionate following among both critics and readers before his death, at the age of forty-two, in 1934.
CAROLYN SEE is the author of nine books. Her latest novel is The Handyman. She lives in Pacific Palisades, California.
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 pajamas. 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 judgment 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 favorite 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--très gentil. And a gentleman from Italy clad only in a neat but shrunken black shirt--what a sight! Mahatma Ghandi 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, Señorita 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 forever. 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 color 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 onto 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 every-day 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 near-by training station three airplanes 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 defense of honor. 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.
Posted August 22, 2012