Previous ChapterContentsNext Chapter

The Bishop's Jaegers


Thorne Smith



PETER VAN DYCK awoke to find a naked figure standing by his bed. This hardly placed the figure in Peter's mind. To him almost any naked figure would have been a considerable shock. This one was. In the course of his thirty-four years Peter had scarcely associated at all with naked figures. From what he saw of this one, he had no desire to take up the practice at this late date. Therefore it was with a feeling of mingled constraint and alarm that he swiftly cast his eyes over this unclad body before resolutely looking at something else. The man was carrying a small black bag. This added to the shock, this bag. Its owner was standing in an attitude of negligent but well-bred repose which struck Peter as being rather incongruous in view of his appalling condition.

Could this stranger be, by any remote chance, the telephone man gone a little mad, Peter wondered, or a skilled artisan subject to one of those embarrassing mental aberrations popularized by Freud? Could he possibly have called to do things to a typewriter or a drain pipe or to perform some other highly specialized operation involving the removal of his clothes? Far simpler it was to assume that the man had been on his way to take a bath when he had suddenly been seized by a desire to look on another human face. But why the black bag? Peter decided to ask rather than to wonder.

'Hello,' he said. 'Who are you?'

The man smiled much more naturally than Peter had believed a naked man with a black bag could smile.

'I am the doctor,' he said in a well-dressed, cultured voice. 'The doctor of the house.'

Peter gagged a little at this.

'What,' he began rather fearfully, 'what sort of a house is it?'

'A delightful one, my dear sir,' said the doctor.

'In what sense?' asked Peter.

'In every sense,' the man assured him.

Suddenly Peter remembered. His arm. He must have grown worse during the night.

'Listen, Doctor,' he said anxiously, 'I must be sick as hell if you didn't stop to put on your clothes.'

'Nonsense,' replied the doctor shortly. 'Your arm is perfectly safe. I call on all my patients like this.' Peter shrank back among the pillows.

'Oh,' he said faintly. 'You do?'

'Why not?' snapped the doctor.

'Why not, indeed?' repeated Peter, with a sick smile. 'Being a doctor and being used to naked bodies and all, I suppose you don't mind . . . much.'

'Much!' exclaimed the doctor, laughing scornfully. 'Why, my dear chap, I don't mind at all. Like it, in fact.'

'And your patients?' inquired Peter.

'They like it, too,' said the doctor complacently. 'They do?' asked the incredulous Peter.

'Certainly,' replied the doctor. 'Why not?'

'I wish you would stop asking me why not,' Peter complained, once more running his eyes rapidly over the naked man. 'From where I am I can see any number of reasons why not.'

'What's wrong with me?' demanded the doctor. 'Tell me that.'

'What's wrong with me?' demanded the doctor.

'Merely that you're as naked as the palm of my hand," Peter observed. 'Apart from that small item, you look perfectly natural.'

'My patients don't seem to mind,' retorted the doctor.

'I can't understand that,' said Peter. 'I should think they'd all pass out from sheer panic.'

'My dear young man,' said the doctor, striding over to the window with his little black bag, 'don't be childish.'

'Come away from that window,' cried Peter. 'Don't make this a public scandal.'

'Why worry about that?' said the doctor carelessly.

'Somebody has to worry about it,' replied Peter. 'I have no desire to have you seen in my room. It's not at all nice, Doc. Wouldn't be quite so degrading if you happened to be a woman, although that would be bad enough.'

'Naked women,' answered the doctor, flexing his limbs by squatting suddenly. 'You'll have more than you want of those in here.'

Peter was too alarmed by the man's words to be revolted by his actions.

'What!' he exclaimed. 'Naked women in here?'

'Why not?' asked the doctor, turning from the window.

'Let's be reasonable,' said Peter. 'You know why not without asking me. You're a bit of a joker, aren't you, Doc?'

'Not at all,' the doctor answered coolly. 'Some of my favourite patients are women, if you'd like to know.'

'You mustn't get much work done,' Peter remarked thoughtfully.

'Just what do you mean by that, young man?' asked the doctor.

'Everything,' said Peter. 'All.'

'You're vulgar,' replied the doctor severely. 'Lots of my patients are ladies, and all of them are naked.'

'I know,' said Peter, 'but at least they have bed-clothes over them.'

'I pull those off,' snapped the doctor.

'Good God!' said Peter. 'What a doctor!'

'As a matter of fact,' the doctor went on meditatively, 'the ladies seem to take to it quicker than the men.'

'Take to what?' asked Peter fearfully.

'Being naked,' replied the doctor.

'Do you mean to your being naked or to their being naked?' Peter wanted to know.

'To our being naked together,' said the doctor, neatly dislodging with his left foot a spring fly from his right shin.

'Well, that seems natural, at least,' went on Peter, 'although I rather boggle at the term "ladies."'

'That's what they are,' said the doctor. 'Perfect ladies.'

'Perfect in what sense, may I ask?'

'In the right sense, of course.'

'You seem to have a rather distorted conception of just what is right,' observed Peter. 'For example, I don't think it's at all right for you to call naked on equally naked ladies.'

'Why not?' demanded the doctor. 'I cure them, don't I?'

'I know,' went on Peter reasonably, 'but curing them of one complaint might easily give rise to another.'

'There are never any such complications, I assure you,' said the doctor with great dignity.

'Then there must be something funny about the whole business,' muttered Peter, thinking of Josephine's legs. 'Or else you're a little more than human or 'way below par. I don't understand it at all.'

'No,' replied the doctor. You're too much a creature of the flesh.'

Peter laughed sarcastically.

'You're entirely a creature of the flesh,' he retorted. 'I, at least, am part bed.'

At that moment, his troubled gaze straying through the door carelessly left open by this mad or abandoned doctor, Peter witnessed a little incident not given to every man to behold. A naked man, blithely carrying a ladder under one arm and swinging a pail of paint in his free hand, was footing it silently along the hall from one direction. From the other came a woman, equally innocent of clothing. She was bearing a breakfast tray. Peter's natural assumption was that the woman upon seeing the man would drop her tray and run like hell while the man would do likewise. Instead, he was shocked to see them dexterously pass each other with an agreeable nod and continue calmly about their business. The man in the bed drew a deep breath, then his eyes sought the doctor's.

'Do all the servants in this place go about like that?' he asked. 'And for God's sake don't say "Why not?"'

'I feel like it,' said the doctor. 'How else would you have them go about?'

Peter momentarily thought of the Bishop, then a small grin relieved the tenseness of his lips.

'Couldn't you dig up a couple of towels for them?' he asked.

'And what, pray, would they do with the towels?'

'Hang them about themselves somewhere,' said Peter. 'Even you should see a little sense in that, Doc.'

''Fraid I'm a trifle dense,' remarked the doctor, now busy with Peter's arm. 'Can't see it at all. Exactly where you would want them to hang the towels is beyond my comprehension. However—'

'You are sadly lacking in imagination,' said Peter, a little bitterly.

He said no more for the reason that he had suddenly disappeared beneath the bedclothing. A naked woman, bearing bandages and a basin of warm water, had come briskly into the room.

'Here you are, Doctor,' he heard her say. 'Sorry I was a little late. There's a gentleman in Seventeen who refuses to give me his drawers.'

'Sit it down, sit it down,' replied the doctor testily, and Peter wondered under the blankets how a naked man was able to talk like that to a naked woman.

The doctor was struggling with the coverings. He was trying to pull them off.

'No, you don't,' grunted Peter. 'You didn't give me any pyjamas.'

'Have we any pyjamas on?' cried the doctor, panting a little from exertion.

'No,' replied Peter. 'You have not. You're both naked as hell and you're trying to make me like you.'

He heard the girl laugh horridly, then fresh hands were laid on the coverings. It was an unequal struggle. What with Peter's wounded arm there were four hands against one.

'How far are you going to pull those coverings down?' he gasped.

'All the way,' gritted the doctor. 'Clean off.' And he did.

Peter, wide-eyed, gazed helplessly up at the two bodies bending over his. The girl's eyes were merry while those of the doctor were mad.

'No more of this larking,' the man snapped, skilfully bathing Peter's arm.

'Larking,' said Peter, amazed. 'Did you think I was doing that?'

'Either that or making a lot of fuss over nothing.'

'Nothing!' cried Peter in a frenzied voice as he ran his eyes down over his body. 'Oh, God, he calls it nothing.'

'Stop trying to attract attention to yourself,' rasped the doctor. 'You're not so hot.'

Peter was almost speechless with indignation.

'Call attention to myself?' he repeated. 'I ask you —could I be any more conspicuous than I am?'

'Certainly,' replied the girl, her blue eyes dancing with unholy merriment. 'In evening clothes you might pique my curiosity. Even in a pair of drawers you might give me a little thrill.'

'Aren't you ashamed of yourself?' he asked her in a wounded and wondering 'voice.

'Not a bit,' she replied. 'It's all in the day's work.'

'Then God knows what you must do at night,' he answered. 'There's no use for me to try to look somewhere else, because wherever my eyes turn one of your naked bodies manages to get in the way.'

'Why not look at yourself?' suggested the doctor.

'That sight is even harder to bear,' said Peter.

'Funny,' remarked the girl. 'I don't seem to mind you at all.'

'Why don't you both crawl in bed with me and make it a clean sweep while you're at it?' Peter asked sarcastically. 'You don't seem to mind anything.'

'I'd hate to do that,' said the doctor fastidiously.

'Is that so?' said Peter. 'May I ask what is wrong with me?'

'I believe you're a thoroughly evil-minded man,' replied the doctor. 'You'll have to watch your p's and q's round here.'

'Strikes me I'll have to watch a damn sight more than that,' muttered Peter.

'Don't fret,' put in the girl soothingly. 'We'll keep an eye on you.'

'That's just what I'm worrying about,' said Peter. 'There'll be too many eyes on me.'

'You'll have quite a lot to do with your own eyes,' said the girl. 'Don't forget that.'

'Not for a minute,' Peter answered.

There was a scuffling sound at the door as Little Arthur, armed with a mop and pail, scrambled nakedly into the room.

'Boss!" he cried wildly, running up to the bed. 'They've taken away all my clothes and I'm as naked as a babe.'

'Naked as a what?' asked Peter.

'A babe,' replied Little Arthur, a strange and awful sight. 'A small child.'

'You impress me as being much nakeder than even the smallest child,' said Peter. 'You're simply epic.'

'Don't know what that is, but how about yourself?' asked Little Arthur. 'And look at that brazen hussy."

'At least I've a bandage on,' replied Peter. 'And don't ask me to look at anything. Never thought I'd see so much in all my life.'

'What the hell good is a pickpocket in a nudist colony, I ask you?' the little man tragically demanded.

'That is something to ponder on,' observed Peter. 'I should imagine you'd have to be far cleverer with your hands than you've ever been before.'

'Might just as well have no hands at all,' Little Arthur answered bleakly.

'So far as pockets are concerned,' added Peter. 'However, I should imagine that many men in a nudist colony would find one pair of hands hardly enough. By the way, are we in a nudist colony?'

'Either that or among the white-slavers,' breathed the little crook. 'It all comes to the same thing.'

'Which is?' inquired Peter.

Little Arthur blushed.

'Don't ask that,' he stammered, 'in front of this here woman.'

'Oh,' said Peter. 'Have you met these nudes already?'

'If not them, I've met a dozen just as bare,' Little Arthur lamented. 'Can't keep my eyes in one place long enough to tell one of 'em from the other. Don't know which way to turn.'

'Why not crawl into your pail?' asked Peter.

'Wish I could,' the naked felon replied. 'If it wasn't full of water I'd stick my head in it.'

'Do it anyway,' snapped the doctor, speaking for the first time since Arthur's arrival, 'and hold it there awhile.'

'Nice way for a doctor to talk,' said Little Arthur, offended. 'It's a murder house, that's what it is, and worse.'

'I was speaking personally rather than professionally,' the doctor told him. 'Speaking professionally, I'll have to ask you to get about your business, whatever it may be.'

'They want me to swab up the bathroom,' the under-nourished snatch-purse complained with a sob in his voice. 'Think of it. Me swabbing up a bathroom the way I am.'

'I should think the way you are would be ideal for bathroom swabbing,' allowed Peter.

'You're almost as bad as they are, boss,' the little man replied. 'Don't you feel sort of funny lying there naked and all?'

'Sure,' said Peter. 'I feel so funny I think I'm going to cry.'

'Hurry,' commanded the doctor. 'If you don't want to get into any trouble, do exactly as you're told. Otherwise, things will go hard with you, let me assure you of that. We stand for no nonsense.'

'If you ask me, that's all it is,' said Little Arthur, moving slowly towards the door. 'Too damn much nonsense. Running around naked and carrying on. I suppose you think that's sensible? Well, it isn't. It's just plain childish, I calls it. It's worse than that—it's nasty, that's what it is. It ain't even human.'

The doctor pointed a sharp instrument at the scolding crook.

'Want me to operate on you?' he asked.

Little Arthur instinctively glanced at himself.

'Oh, no,' he breathed. 'No, indeed.'

Peter chuckled in spite of his own unprotected state. He had never seen this mite of a man so utterly sincere.

'Then be gone!' thundered the doctor.

'See here,' protested Peter. 'You can't talk to my man like that.'

The doctor looked darkly at Peter, then suddenly snipped the gleaming blade at him.

'How would you like that?' he asked in a gloating voice. 'Or this?' Here the doctor made an even more excruciating snip at Peter as if visualizing the horrid deed.

Peter shrank visibly in every fibre of his body.

'There's no need to be so vivid about it,' he muttered. 'So garishly dramatic. I'd do exactly as he says, Little Arthur, if you want to remain intact. This man is sort of crazy.'

'Can't I stay here with him?' pleaded the little man. 'Naked as he is, I can at least recognize his voice.'

'Go,' said the doctor, and Little Arthur, mop and pail, disappeared from the room.

'Listen, Doctor,' began Peter when his valet had gone nakedly to whatever lay ahead. 'I've been hesitating over this question for some time. Tell me honestly—am I in a madhouse or a socially prominent brothel, or in the shrine of some fanatical cult, or just where am I?'

'I am not in a position to satisfy your puzzling curiosity,' replied the doctor, repacking his little black bag.

'Then it certainly must be terrible,' observed Peter, 'because you apparently stop at nothing.'

'Come,' said the doctor to the girl. 'We must be skipping.'

'Don't skip before me,' put in Peter. 'I don't think I could bear the sight and still retain my reason.'

'Your wound, which luckily is slight,' continued the doctor, ignoring Peter's remark, 'will be dressed again this evening.'

'Couldn't you leave me a little extra dressing?' Peter asked. 'Just a bandage or so? I've got an idea.'

'That would be cheating,' said the girl, following the doctor from the room. 'Besides, it would look extremely silly.'

'I feel extremely silly,' Peter called after her as she left the room without closing the door.

No sooner were his two visitors gone than Peter sprang from the bed and tiptoed to the window. Protected by a curtain he discreetly peered out upon a green, rolling lawn splashed with sunlight and early flowers nodding up encouragingly at him in a breeze blowing fresh from the sea. And there was the sea itself, the sea looking a little unfamiliar now that it was clear of fog. For ever and for ever it seemed to run, that flat, streaming surface, into a cool blue solitude untroubled by voice or wing. In his present naked predicament Peter very much wished he could enjoy a reasonable quantity of that solitude himself. Shifting his fascinating eyes from this ever-reaching expanse, he turned them on the dense, deep green of trees sweeping round the house in a half-moon of leafy protection. Branches waving in the wind, white clouds above, and white bodies on the dawn, white and gleamingly naked. An appalling sight, this, and yet not unpicturesque. Peter drew a deep breath. A little of his profound belief in the established order of things began to drop away from him. In the face of so much nudity he found himself doubting the reality of such terrifically reiterated facts as the Empire State Building, Tammany Hall, and crooning. Had the bodies been black instead of white, he would have felt a little better about it. Black bodies and brown ones had a way of getting naked. But, then, the black races were not essentially interested in things of the flesh like the white race. No. Black people took the flesh at a stride and passed on to the supernatural and other things of the spirit with only an occasional fleshly picnic—a good rough-and-tumble sort of orgy that cleared up a lot of nonsense and left their thoughts free for other and more important considerations.

A period was put to his confused mediations by a furtive sound in the room behind him. Turning, he beheld still another naked body. But this naked body was by all odds more disconcerting than those he had previously encountered, and this in spite of the fact that it was the most alluringly fashioned body it had ever been his good fortune to behold.

For a moment there was a tense, watchful silence in the room as wave upon wave of emotion dashed over Peter, but before he went down for the third time a bright little idea came to what he hoped would be his salvation. With nerveless limbs he staggered to the bed and disappeared beneath its coverings. However, the same bright idea seemed to have found an opening in Josephine's demoralized mind. Stopping only to close and lock the door, she rushed across the room to the bed, and, dragging the clothes off Peter, promptly emulated the example he had so brilliantly set.

'Give me those bedclothes,' grated the gentleman, laying frantic hands on the coverings, 'and get out of my room and bed.'

Josephine hung on grimly.

'I won't!' she gasped. 'I won't!'

'But you've left me naked as a coot,' cried Peter.

'That's your worry,' she said. 'Better you that way than me.'

'I don't know,' replied Peter distractedly. 'I can't say. Both ways are pretty awful. I do know, however, I'm not going to lie here like this and argue about it with you.'

So saying, he gave the coverings a brutal tug, and Josephine's naked body appeared as Peter's burrowed under. It was a scene of desperate activity and concentration. Chivalry and gentleness were sacrificed to meet the demands of modesty.

'A nice man,' Josephine panted. 'A lecherous little mole of a man. Snatch all the clothes from a naked woman, will you? Well, we'll see about that. I'll have you stripped in the shake of a lamb's tail.'

'Mine's shaking enough for a whole flock,' came Peter's muffled voice. 'Go away and stop all this talking.'

'I should worry how much it shakes.' Jo flung herself at the coverings and neatly twisted them from Peter, wrapping them round herself.

'This can keep up for ever,' muttered Peter, 'until we're so exhausted we won't be able to cover ourselves at all.'

'If you hope that's going to happen you're very much mistaken,' said Jo. 'I'm under these coverings for good.'

'Don't see why you're under them at all,' he protested,churning the air with his hands. 'An astonishing thing to do—crawling nakedly into bed with a man.'

'You crawled nakedly into a closet with me.'

'I know, but a closet's different.'

'Why, may I ask?'

'Obviously a closet is not arranged.'

'What in the world do you mean?'

'I mean that a bed is always associated with vice and carrying on,' he told her. 'You should know that yourself.'

'I sleep in my bed,' she replied.

'Well, you're not going to sleep in mine, and that's flat.'

'I'm not going to do anything else.'

'Who wants you to do anything else? Go on. Go back to your own bed and sleep.'

'I can't,' she protested. 'Perfect strangers keep coming in. I was looking for Aspirin Liz when I saw you. Then I said to myself, "Any port in a storm," and here I am.'

'Let me assure you, my girl,' said Peter, hoping to frighten her, 'you picked far from a safe anchorage for your body. I'm drifting into danger myself.'

'With you, Peter,' she replied in a voice he both feared and suspected, 'I can face any danger.'

'Sure,' said Peter, 'you might even think up a few. No fooling now. Give me back those bedclothes. It's your turn to be naked for a while.'

'Let's compromise,' suggested Jo.

'We are compromised,' he retorted. 'If this gets out we'll be ostracized for life.'

'If what gets out?' asked the girl, popping up her head interestedly.

'This situation,' chattered Peter, flipping over on his stomach like a netted fish without having the comfort of knowing whether he had improved himself any. 'Please throw some coverings on me.'

'He wants me to cover him, no less,' she said with nasty derision. 'Cover your own vast nudity. I'm too busy with mine.'

By a miracle of contortion Peter succeeded in worming his body beneath the bitterly contested bedclothes only to find himself face to face with his disconcerting bedfellow.

'Aren't we in a terrible fix?' he asked her in an awed voice.

'I don't know,' said Jo. 'Some persons might not think it so bad.'

'You're awful,' he breathed, looking at her almost with admiration. 'I can't stand things like this. Actually, I'm nearly exhausted from excitement. Might swoon at any moment.'

'You're far from complimentary,' she told him, her red head thrust out of the clothing within three inches of his. 'What did you think of my one-piece, Peter?'

'From the glance I got,' he said, 'you weren't wearing any.'

'I certainly was,' she declared. 'One piece of skin.' Peter shivered at this.

'How you put it!' he muttered. 'Would you ever have believed two days ago that we'd be like this in the same bed?'

'Yes,' she said without batting an eye.

'What!' exclaimed Peter.

'Certainly,' she replied quite calmly. 'Why not? Other people have.'

'Not nice people,' he argued.

'Very nice people,' she told him. 'Some of the best.'

'You mean married, of course.'

'Well, that would tidy up the situation a bit,' she replied thoughtfully, 'but in view of the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves through no fault of our own, I, for one, am willing to waive certain little formalities, or at least to delay them.'

'You talk too much,' he answered, 'altogether too much, and you don't mean one eighth you say—that is, I hope not.'

'I'm not so sure,' said Jo. 'Anyway, I know I love you.'

'Is this a nice place to tell me that?'

'If I didn't tell you that,' she retorted, 'the situation would be just plain wicked.'

'I've never been in a wickeder,' he confessed.

'Well, I've been a shade more remote myself,' she admitted. 'When one's in Rome, however, I suppose one might just as well make hay while the sun shines.'

'I'm under the impression these particular Romans don't,' said Peter. 'The doctor seemed very snooty.'

'Don't what?' she asked.

'You're always so damn blunt,' he complained. 'I mean they don't make hay.'

'Then they don't sound like Romans to me,' said the girl. 'Those old devils were always making hay.'

'You carry logic to the point of depravity,' he objected. 'I don't understand,' said Jo.

'Well,' he began with an effort, 'I don't quite understand myself, but it's like this: Logically speaking, this situation calls for a certain line of conduct, whereas—'

'Almost demands it,' said Jo.

'Don't interrupt. Whereas, morally speaking, if you were a lady you'd get the hell out of here and go back to your own bed.'

'But, morally speaking, suppose I wasn't a lady?' she asked.

'Then naturally we couldn't continue to speak morally,' he replied.

'I'm glad of that,' said Jo, running her fingers through her hair.

'Don't do that,' he told her. 'Don't make the slightest move.'

'Shouldn't I do this?' she asked, a white arm slipping snakelike round his neck.

'No,' he replied. 'Not that nor anything like it.'

'What will you give me if I don't?'

'I haven't a damn thing to give,' gloomed Peter. 'They didn't even lease me a cheque book. If they had I'd tear out the cheques and rig up a girdle for myself.'

'You'd look sweet,' said Jo.

'Might not look so well,' he told her, 'but I'd feel a lot less public.'

'You know those women?' Jo asked in a conversational voice.

'No,' Peter replied. 'I don't. What women?'

'Those women,' Jo went on, 'who claim that if their husbands came home unexpectedly and found them in bed with some man, the husbands would show how evil-minded they were if they thought anything wrong about it—do you know those women, Peter?'

'There may be longer and less ably stated hypothetical questions,' replied Peter, 'but I never answered one. No. I don't know those women, thank God.'

'Well, what I was trying to say,' she continued, her arm tightening round his neck, 'is that I'm not at all like those women.'

'And if I happened to be your husband,' said Peter, 'I wouldn't believe you if you were.'

'Then that clears away a lot of obstructions,' she observed.

'May I ask what all this is leading up to?' asked Peter.

"To this,' said Jo.

She kissed the man and forgot to stop.

Previous ChapterContentsNext Chapter