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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


Bland in the Bone

QUINTUS BLAND became a skeleton at exactly eleven forty-five that same evening. After the consumption of much bad alcohol he was endeavouring with the aid of a female companion to pull himself together in a private room of a popular speakeasy situated just off Washington Square.

In an adjoining room two other couples belonging to his party were carrying on in a manner which, to put it mildly, was not quite becoming. Having been deprived of amusement by the poor quality of the play they had attended earlier in the evening, they were now endeavouring to find diversion in various other questionable directions.

It will never be known definitely what chemical combination wrought the amazing change in Mr. Bland's physical composition. Quite possibly the fumes of his strange concoction, together with an overdose of aspirin invigorated by the reaction of much raw liquor, were sufficient to create a fluoroscopic man instead of a fluoroscopic film. The explanation is really not important. Mr. Bland was far more concerned with the social aspects of his predicament than with the scientific ones. He regretted that like Mr. H. G. Wells's Invisible Man he had not made a good job of it and disappeared entirely. There is no place in the social scale for an animated structure composed wholly of bones. No matter how convivial and responsive strong drink makes individuals, they still remain unreconciled to skeletons who carry on quite as if nothing untoward had occurred. And Quintus Bland became the most disconcerting sort of skeleton a man could become. He became a recurring or sporadic skeleton. He became a skeleton in fits and starts. One could never be sure where one had him. At one moment he would find himself devastatingly deprived of his flesh only to discover a few minutes later that he was once more a complete man down to the last detail. This fluctuating condition of being made any continuous line of conduct almost impossible. Even when he was completely himself, his friends could not refrain from regarding him with fear and suspicion. And there were some who looked upon him with loathing not unmixed with awe.

Lulu Summers, a luscious hose-and-underwear model whom Mr. Bland had occasionally employed as a subject for his camera, was the first to discover that her present partner was not all or even a part of what a perfect gentleman should be.

It was regrettable in the extreme that Lulu, in order to further her partner's interests, had found it necessary to remove nearly all of a not over-burdening attire. Being a model and at the same time thrifty might possibly be advanced as an excuse for her conduct by charitably-minded persons, of whom there are too few.

She, together with a somewhat comatose Quintus, was reclining on a large divan when stark tragedy entered her young if not innocent life. In an attempt to ameliorate the discomfort of her occasional employer, she was stroking his long black hair when gradually it was borne in on her consciousness that, instead of ministering to a head with hair on it, her hand was caressing a smooth, round surface. Interested but not yet alarmed, she glanced at the head to discover the reason for the change. Luckily for the girl, Mr. Bland was lying with his face turned to the wall. At first glance Lulu's eyes encountered what they mistook for an extremely bald head. That alone would have been enough to revolt the average beholder, but Lulu was made of ruggeder stuff.

"Quinnie," she said in a reproachful voice, "why didn't you tell me you wore a wig? I've been rubbing your head for ages."

"Don't call me Quinnie," grumbled Mr. Bland, happily unaware of the change that had come over him. "I don't like it at all. What's that you said about a wig?"

"You're as bald as a bat," the lady replied. "I've never seen anything like it. Your wig has fallen off."

"What!" exclaimed Quintus Bland, placing a fleshless hand on his skull. "My God, you're right! No hair at all. What's happened to my head?"

Nervously his fingers drummed upon the bony surface, producing a hollow tapping sound most unpleasant to the ear.

"What's that?" he asked with increasing alarm. "Am I making that noise?"

The shriek that greeted this question made him turn suddenly round on the divan. In the middle of the room Lulu was trembling in all of her beautiful limbs. Upon looking at his face the shriek was automatically repeated. Resting a bony hand on what used to be a cheek, he gazed at the girl in astonishment.

"For heaven's sake, stop that screaming," he commanded. "People will think I'm murdering you."

"You are," declared the girl. "You're doing worse than that. You're scaring me to death. Please don't be like that. It's not at all funny."

"Like what?" asked Mr. Bland, his mystification increasing.

"The way you are," said the girl. "How can you bear to do it?"

Thoughtfully Quintus Bland stroked his face. The peculiar scraping sound accompanying this gesture was not reassuring. Once more Lulu gave a cry of distress. Mr. Bland glanced hastily at his long bony fingers, then looked at the rest of himself. He was unable to recognise anything familiar. As he snapped up in the divan, he, too, began to tremble, but his limbs were far from lovely.

"By God," he said, "I'm a skeleton."

"You certainly are," fervently agreed Miss Summers. "And I'm clearing out. I might have my moments of weakness, but I draw the line at fleshless men."

"Come on back," called Mr. Bland as the girl made for the door to the adjoining room.

"Like fun," said Lulu. "What for?"

"I might get my body back," he suggested.

"Yeah?" she replied, sceptically. "While I lose my mind watching those bones turn to flesh? Nothing doing."

Rising from the divan, Quintus Bland strode across the room. This was too much for Lulu. With a wild shriek she disappeared through the door. The man stopped in his tracks and glanced at himself in a long mirror; then, unleashing a shriek of his own, he, too, disappeared into the next room, where a chorus of shrieks greeted his arrival.

"Give me a drink," he cried, desperately. "Somebody give me a drink."

"What would you do with it?" Chunk Walling managed to get out. "What you need is a coffin."

"Or a closet," put in Sam Crawford. "Isn't that where skeletons belong?"

"Don't ask me," replied one of the young ladies, "but I wish to God he'd hide himself somewhere."

"If you ask me," faltered the other young lady, "a sight like that just doesn't belong anywhere."

"And to think that I was in bed with the thing," Lulu Summers murmured.

"O-o-o," breathed the first young lady, known in the trade as Elaine. "How disappointing!"

"If I wasn't in such a shocking condition," said the other girl, who operated under the name of Flora, "I'd be almost home by now. Look! It's actually drinking."

Mr. Quintus Bland removed the bottle from his lipless mouth.

"Don't call me It," he said, reprovingly. "I am still Quintus Bland even if my flesh is gone."

"If I were you I wouldn't admit it, old chap," Sam Crawford told him. "A performance like this isn't going to do you a bit of good."

"Do you imagine I'm doing it for fun?" asked the indignant Mr. Bland.

"Fun for who?" demanded the girl called Flora. "It's certainly no fun for us. Why didn't it splash all over your ribs?"

"Why didn't what splash?" asked Mr. Bland.

"That hooker of gin you just drank," said the girl.

"Oh, that," Mr. Bland replied. "I'm sure I don't know. As a matter of fact I know less about myself than you do."

"I know more than enough," said Flora.

"There's nothing like a skeleton to break down maidenly reserve," Mr. Walling remarked.

"I find this conversation most objectionable," declared Mr. Bland.

"I object to the whole damned business," expostulated Chunk Walling. "You're positively indecent."

Mr. Bland sat down and crossed his legs with a click.

"Gord," breathed Flora. "Did you hear that? My blood is just one curdle."

"Do you think I like it?" snapped Mr. Bland, making another click, this time with his teeth.

"I don't see how you can," replied Sam Crawford. "We actually hate it. Can't you go back?"

"How do you mean?" asked Quintus Bland. "Go back where?"

"Go back to your flesh," explained Sam. "Be yourself for a change."

Mr. Bland laughed suddenly and bitterly. It was not a nice sound. The two couples and Lulu moved to the other side of the room, where they huddled together for comfort.

"Don't do that," pleaded Lulu. "Make some other noise. I can't stand that one."

"Someone will have to send for a doctor," said the young lady called Elaine. "That's all there is to it. I must have either a hypodermic or a bottle of whisky or something."

"Think of me," commented Quintus Bland. "Imagine how I feel."

"You're asking too much of flesh and blood," replied Flora. "No one wants to imagine how you feel."

"Well, don't stand over there all huddled up," said what remained of Mr. Bland. "I'm not going to do anything to you."

"You've already done it," put in Lulu. "I'll never be the same woman. When I think of what might have happened my blood runs cold."

Mr. Bland rose from the chair and, lifting his arms above his head, stretched himself and yawned. Had he deliberately set out to torture his companions he could not have proceeded more effectively. A gasp of sheer horror came simultaneously from five pairs of lips.

"What is he going to do?" quavered Elaine. "Attack us?"

The framework of Bland moved shockingly across the room. One bony hand clutched the gin bottle, which emitted a clanking sound. Placing the bottle where his lips should have been, he polished off its contents, then unconsciously wiped his teeth with a fleshless arm. The grating noise this made caused even the skeleton to shudder.

"Horror upon horror," murmured Flora. "And he's drunk up all the gin."

"Why his backbone isn't even moist," observed Sam, "is still a mystery to me."

"I'm not at all interested to find out," Chunk Walling replied. "The details of that skeleton are overshadowed by the whole."

"And we were going to have such a jolly evening," Lulu regretfully observed.

"It's not too late," said Mr. Bland, reseating himself on the chair. "We can still have a jolly evening. Come over here, Lulu, and sit on my lap."

Lulu gave vent to a slight scream.

"Did you hear that?" she asked in a shocked voice. "Did you hear what he wants me to do?"

"I'd rather sit on a nest of hornets," said Elaine.

"Much," added Flora, with conviction.

Quintus Bland, in spite of the critical condition of his anatomy, found himself growing pleasantly drunk. He had consumed nearly a whole bottle of gin and felt a great deal better for it. He began to feel that his fleshless condition lent him a touch of distinction. After all, what was a skeleton among friends?

"Come on over," he said to Lulu. "I'm not going to do anything to you."

"What do you mean by anything?" asked Lulu. "You've already done enough."

"Go on, sit on his lap," urged Sam. "He might get mad if you don't. I'd hate that."

"Yeah?" retorted Lulu, sarcastically. "And I'd go mad if I did."

"But what can a skeleton do?" said Chunk Walling.

"He might try to kiss me," Lulu replied, "and twine me in those arms."

The other two women made noises of distress.

"All right. All right," said the skeleton of Mr. Bland in a disgusted voice. "Order a couple bottles and I'll stand the treat."

"That's far more reasonable," put in Flora. "I'm beginning to like that skeleton."

"You're even more depraved than I thought," said Elaine.

"Is that so?" snapped Flora. "Well, I'd rather have a skeleton for a boy friend than some of those fat swine you lug about."

"Okay, sister," replied Elaine. "There's your skeleton. He's all yours."

"Please stop discussing me as if I were not present," protested Mr. Bland.

"You're only partly present," said Chunk Walling.

"Yes," agreed Lulu. "And the least desirable part, at that. The man is virtually speaking from the grave."

"Don't you feel at all dead?" inquired Chunk Walling.

"Not at all," Quintus Bland replied. "I feel very much alive—raring to go."

"Why don't you go?" suggested Elaine. "I, for one, won't bar your way."

"Is that nice?" asked Mr. Bland.

"Perhaps not," the girl replied, "but you don't seem to realise that you're a total skeleton —a fleshless man—an animated boneyard."

"Some day," said Mr. Bland, maliciously, "you'll be just like me."

"Oh, no, I won't," Elaine assured him. "When I get in your terrible condition I'm going to cut out night clubs and all other social contacts.

"The grog will be right up," Sam Crawford announced, turning from the telephone.

"Those are the first agreeable words I've heard to-day," said Quintus Bland. "Now we can settle down and take life easy."

His five companions received this remark in sceptical silence. They were all wondering how life could be taken easily in the presence of a skeleton.

"I long to get drunk," observed Lulu, "but I'm almost afraid to do it. Wouldn't it be just awful to forget one's self with a skeleton?"

"I'd call it impossible," said Flora, running a critical eye over the uninviting frame of Quintus Bland.

"Is this discussion quite necessary?" he asked in a pained voice.

"If you were a lady you'd say it was," Elaine replied with a slight tilt of her fine eyebrows.

"The fact that you can envisage such a contingency," remarked Mr. Bland, "hardly qualifies you to consider yourself a lady."

"I'm more of a lady than you are a gentleman," Elaine replied. "You're merely a beastly old stack of bones."

"Admitted," said Mr. Bland, complacently. "I don't have to be a gentleman. I'm just a drunken skeleton with no moral obligations."

"I don't like the sound of that," declared Lulu. "If old Mr. Bones over there gets amorously binged and starts making passes at me you're going to have a dead model on your hands."

Mr. Brand's indignant rejoinder was interrupted by a knock on the door.

"Come in!" Sam Crawford thoughtlessly called out.

A chorus of squeals from the girls and a smothered exclamation from Bland greeted this invitation. Leaping across the room, he hurled himself clatteringly against the door.

"Oh, momma," breathed Flora, her eyes popping wildly, "modesty isn't worth it. Did you see that nightmare move?"

"Yes," murmured Lulu. "And I heard him dash. I'm not going to be able to stand much more of this sort of thing."

In the meantime Quintus Bland had partially opened the door and thrust out a bony hand and arm, hoping that in the half-light of the hall the waiter would not notice their fleshless condition.

"You can give me the bottles," he said. "We'll settle up later. I haven't any clothes on."

The statement concerning Bland's lack of attire was not at all a novel one to the waiter, but the appearance of that ghastly hand with its long clutching fingers was something altogether new and unexpected.

"What sort of a hand is that?" the waiter wanted to know. "I don't like the looks of it."

"It's a trick," replied Mr. Bland, not knowing what else to say. "A simple trick."

"It's a damned dirty trick," retorted the waiter. "I wouldn't play it on a dog."

"Well, I haven't played it on a dog," Bland declared. "Give me those bottles and go away."

"I'll go away fast enough," said the waiter, "but it will be a long time before you'll get me back. Nor will I hand you the bottles. Pick 'em up yourself."

Placing the bottles at a safe distance from the door, the waiter hurried away. He did not look back to see a long skeleton arm slide through the slit in the door and gather in the bottles. It was just as well for him he missed this petrifying experience.

Quintus Bland closed the door and confronted his five companions. There was a bottle in either hand.

"I'm not getting used to you," Lulu Summers told him. "No matter how hard I try, you remain just as awful."

"If you want any of this grog," he answered with a grim click of his teeth, "you'll have to make the best of it."

"What I want to know," said Chunk Walling, "is how did you get that way. It's incredible to me. I'd suspect my own eyesight were it not for the fact that four other persons are seeing the same thing."

"I'm not sure," replied Mr. Bland, removing a cork from one of the bottles. "I've been experimenting with some rare and exceptionally potent chemicals lately. Perhaps they turned the trick."

"Well," observed Elaine, "like that waiter said, it certainly is a dirty one."

"But where are all your organs?" Flora wanted to know. "You must have something or you'd be a dead skeleton."

"As he should be," put in Elaine. "Even in times of depression a girl shouldn't be expected to associate with skeletons with or without organs."

"I say don't let's talk about his organs," suggested Lulu. "What we can see of him is bad enough."

"I know," declared Flora, "but he must have a stomach or else he wouldn't be able to gulp down liquor the way he's doing."

"Maybe he has invisible organs," said Sam Crawford. "You know, they're there but we can't see them."

"Who wants to see them?" Elaine demanded.

"I would, for one," replied Mr. Bland. "Being a skeleton is damn' lonely business."

"You're not lonely enough to suit me," declared Elaine. "You should be dead and buried."

"I'd like to wring your neck," said Quintus Bland, dispassionately.

"I'm surprised he hasn't wrung all our necks," remarked Lulu, "and left us strewn about the room. He looks mean enough to do it."

"Do you realise that I'm paying for your night's enjoyment?" asked Mr. Bland, who had lost most of his gentlemanly instincts together with his flesh.

"Enjoyment!" cried Lulu with a wild laugh. "That's a hot number. Why, if you kept me to the end of my days you'd never be able to repay me for that moment on the divan."

"Sure," agreed Elaine. "He turned a skeleton on you. I'd sue him for mental anguish, and make him pay through the nose, or where it used to be," she added, glancing with a shudder at the skull of Mr. Bland.

"Look here," said Sam Crawford. "Stop panning our friend, even if he is a skeleton."

But Mr. Bland at that moment was beyond panning. Having consumed nearly all of one of the new bottles, he now found himself overcome with a desire to sleep. Accordingly he staggered over to the studio couch and collapsed clatteringly upon it.

"Is he dead or just asleep?" asked Flora.

"That's difficult to say," replied Chunk Walling. "You can't very well feel a skeleton's pulse."

"I don't want to feel any part of him," said Lulu.

"Let's get dressed and go downstairs," Elaine suggested. "Can't have any fun with a dead or drunken skeleton at one's elbow."

"The couch is all his," agreed Lulu. "I hope he never wakes up."

"All right," said Crawford. "We'll blow for the time being."

A few minutes later Mr. Bland's five companions slipped noiselessly from the room. Flora was thoughtful enough to place the remaining bottle within easy reach of the couch.

"Now," she said, "if he happens to wake up he won't come barging downstairs in search of a drink."

Then she switched off the light and quietly left the room.

"God protect us," she informed the others in a low voice. "I think he's snoring a little."

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