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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


The Whittles are not Alarmed

NEARLY an hour later Mr. Bland awoke.

Sleep had neither improved his appearance nor refreshed his soul, if a skeleton can be said to possess a soul. From the adjoining room a shaft of light streamed in through the half-opened door. His companions, Mr. Bland decided, were in there enjoying themselves. A sleeping skeleton had probably cramped their style. Accordingly, they had shifted the scene of their unhallowed operations, leaving him quite alone and in comparative darkness.

Sitting on the edge of the couch, Quintus Bland began to feel no end sorry for himself. He was cut off from all human contacts. He was one man against the world. He was not even that. He was an unsightly structure of bones unfit for any strata of society this side of the grave. Also, he was far from sober. He tried to rest his elbows on his knees. The result was not satisfactory. His elbows kept sliding off the bony ridges. When he attempted to clutch his distracted head in his hands, the hollow sound his skull gave forth made him shiver in every bone.

"Firecrackers," he muttered. "My skull is full of firecrackers. I hate myself from head to foot."

Perhaps, he mused, if he put on some clothes he might appear more acceptable in the eyes of his fellow men. This might even apply to women, which was much more important. He desperately desired female companionship. He desperately desired his wife, Lorna, but she, the jade, was out somewhere disporting herself licentiously in her black underwear with the lace on it.

This disturbing reflection drove him up from the couch. Women were never able to keep a good thing to themselves. Buy them lovely underthings and they promptly tuck them away for an occasion more interesting than a mere husband. Engaged in these profitless reflections, he passed into the next room. This he found deserted save for a huddled bundle of bedclothing which looked as if it might be concealing an equally huddled body.

Mr. Bland refrained from investigating. In his present condition he felt a little delicate about arousing a slumbering person. The shock might prove too great for an alcoholic heart. Instead he set about searching for his hastily abandoned garments. How terribly things had turned out. Just as he had been about to find consolation in the arms of a beautiful woman this thing had happened. In the twinkling of an eye the beautiful woman had been equally in need of consolation herself. In spite of his unalluring appearance Bland could not help being slightly amused by the memory. What a trying situation. Lulu had accused him of wearing a wig. A wig indeed. For once a woman had been guilty of understatement. No doubt the recollection of her close shave would cure the wench for ever of interest in light alliance. But women were hard to discourage. He hoped so.

In the act of dragging his drawers from beneath a pile of clothes Mr. Bland was arrested by the sound of a voice. Considering the circumstances, it was a surprisingly mild voice. It addressed Mr. Bland with the casualness of a boon companion. Even as he listened, the thought flashed through his mind that the speaker must have lived for years in close association with skeletons.

"I beg your pardon," said the voice. "Would you mind telling me if I am having the disagreeable distinction of watching a skeleton holding a pair of drawers?"

Quintus Bland turned and gazed on the large pale face of a perfect stranger. Written on this innocent countenance was an expression of intense concentration from which all traces of fear were amazingly absent.

"Yes," replied Mr. Bland. "I'm afraid you are. Why do you ask?"

"Why do I ask?" repeated the man on the bed. "Wouldn't you ask? Isn't some small scrap of explanation due me? What, my dear sir, would you do if you were suddenly confronted by a skeleton holding a pair of drawers?"

"I don't know," faltered Mr. Bland, "but I don't think I'd stop long enough to ask many questions."

"Probably not," reflected the stranger, "but I'm locked in, and you're standing between me and that other door."

"Would you like to leave?" asked Mr. Bland.

"Not if you remain calm," replied the man. "Not if you act within reason. Of course," he continued, thoughtfully, "a man in my position doesn't often run into this sort of thing."

"Of course not," agreed Mr. Bland. "There are few positions in which a man does run into this sort of thing."

"I can't think of any," said the stranger. "Not that I haven't seen lots of bones in my time—a skull here and a thigh there. Once while visiting a museum I was far from pleased by the skeleton of a dinosaur, but he had been extinct for some time, and, I suspect, part of him had been filled in—like a broken fence."

"I don't follow you," remarked Mr. Bland.

"Neither do I," replied the man. "I rarely if ever do. But please remain reasonable. You are the first real skeleton I've ever had any dealings with."

"Do you mind?" asked Mr. Bland.

"Not at all," replied the man. "I'm relieved you're not a pink monkey or a blue dragon or a flock of loathsome reptiles. I've seen all of those things in my time, but I like the last least. They upset me terribly."

"They do me, too," Mr. Bland agreed. "I think they're even harder to bear than skeletons, don't you?"

"Far," said the stranger. "Much. But you're not any cinch. Are you a domesticated apparition or do you stalk by night?"

"Tell me," asked Mr. Bland, "aren't you more than a little drunk?"

"I am," admitted the man. "But I don't know how much more. I'd like to get lots."

"So would I," agreed Quintus Bland, and there was no mistaking his sincerity. "I haven't been a skeleton long, you know."

"You've been one long enough," declared the stranger. "A little of a skeleton goes a long way with me."

"You know," Mr. Bland suggested, "I might look more like myself if I put on some clothes. What do you think?"

"Not knowing what you looked like to begin with," said the stranger, "it would be hard for me to say."

"I wasn't so bad," Mr. Bland observed rather wistfully.

"You mean, so bad as you are now?" asked the man. "That would hardly be possible. However, if you wear clothes they'd have to be perfectly tailored. And then again you'd have to catch the tailor. Even if you succeeded in cornering him—getting him at bay, so to speak—his hands would be shaking so he'd be quite unable to measure your bones with any degree of accuracy."

"You do love to run on," remarked Quintus Bland. "Do you think my old clothes would bag on me?"

"They wouldn't look smart," the other replied. "And a man in your position can't afford to make a bad impression."

"No," agreed Mr. Bland. "I should try to look my best. Anything would look better than a skeleton though."

"Almost," admitted the stranger. "Except loathsome reptiles."

"I dare say my old clothes would fall off my body," Mr. Bland reflected aloud.

"Your bones," corrected the man, who was evidently a stickler for accuracy. "You might tie 'em on with bits of string, though. You wouldn't look exactly natty, but you might succeed through sheer charm. You might even become the vogue."

"You're too optimistic," declared Mr. Bland. "A man in my condition gets scant opportunity to exercise his charm. People don't wait long enough."

"I can well understand that," said the other. "I'm only standing you myself because I might easily be seeing much worse sights—loathsome reptiles, for instance. They always get the best of me."

"By the way," Mr. Bland inquired, "speaking of reptiles, have you seen anything of my friends?

"Have you any friends?" asked the stranger in a surprised voice. "It seems hardly possible."

"I guess I haven't," Bland said, bitterly. "When a man loses his flesh his friends disappear with it."

"When a man loses as much flesh as you have," observed the stranger, "more things disappear than friends."

For a few moments the skeleton and the man considered in silence the various losses sustained by the former. At last the stranger looked up.

"Skeleton," he said, "is there a drink in that next room? A little something might do us both a world of good."

"Don't call me skeleton," protested Quintus Bland. "It sounds so bald."

"But you are bald, skeleton," the stranger insisted. "You're about the baldest object I've ever seen. There's not a hair left anywhere. How did you come to die?"

"What!" exclaimed Quintus Bland. "Good God, man, I'm not dead."

"Oh, aren't you?" replied the stranger. "I wouldn't mind if you were, you know. Even that would be better than loathsome reptiles, the appalling creatures. But if you're not dead, this situation is even odder than I thought. You should be, you know."

"I almost wish I were," muttered Mr. Bland. The stranger on the bed pondered over this for a while.

"Skeleton," he said at last, "to return once more to that drink: is there any in that next room?"

"I'll look," Bland answered, impatiently, "but I do wish you'd stop calling me just simply skeleton like that. It makes me feel so—so removed."

"Then what shall I call you?" the stranger asked, equably.

"My correct name is Bland," Mr. Bland replied. "Quintus Bland. Possibly you may have heard of me."

"I have," declared the stranger. "You're the photographer chap. Your people took a picture of my wife once. It gave her young ideas."

"Did it do her justice?" asked Quintus Bland, his professional interest overcoming his low spirits for the moment.

"More than," said the stranger, briefly. "Much. That picture ruined her morals—not that she ever had any."

"Sorry," remarked Mr. Bland. "My wife has young ideas, too."

"They're not so good when they get that way," the man on the bed confided. "And they never seem to realise how silly they're making themselves as well as their husbands." He paused to scratch his thin, rather washed-out-looking hair. "Wives are awful, anyway," he resumed. "I suspect mine is having me incarcerated in here simply because I got too drunk to sit on my chair."

"It wasn't a bad idea," observed Mr. Bland.

"But poorly executed," replied the stranger. "She should have stood by to keep me company. How do I know what she's doing?"

"I hate to think of what mine's doing," said Mr. Bland, sombrely. "She left me flat for another man."

"Is that why you turned to a skeleton?" asked the stranger. "Or did she leave you flat because you had turned to one already?"

"A person can't turn to a skeleton," Bland retorted, "just because his wife leaves him flat."

"I can't," admitted the stranger, "but I thought maybe you could just to spite her, you know."

"That," declared Quintus Bland, "would be as bad as cutting off your nose to spite your face."

"It would be even worse," commented the stranger. "You've cut off lots more than your nose.

"I'll look for some drink," said Mr. Bland a little coldly.

"Do, skeleton, do," urged the stranger. "If you bring old Whittle a drink he'll never forget you—not that he ever could."

"Is that your name?" asked Mr. Bland, pausing in the door to the next room. "Is it Whittle?"

"It is," admitted the gentleman on the bed. "That's actually my name, and I think it's quite a funny one. The first part is Claude, but that's not so funny. In fact, it's very disgusting."

"They're both funny," observed Mr. Bland, switching on the light in the adjoining room. "Mine are funny, too. Quintus is a very poor name even for a skeleton." His voice trailed away as he glanced about the room. "Whittle," he called out in a happier voice than he had used for some time, "I've discovered a whole bottle. We seem to be in luck."

"We seem to be," said Mr. Whittle when Bland appeared with the bottle, "but I'm not at all sure. There seems to be someone at that door. Will you see to it?"

Mr. Bland cast a look of pitying contempt at the man on the bed.

"How would you like to open a door in the face of a grinning skull?" he coldly inquired.

"Are you grinning?" asked Mr. Whittle, greatly interested. "Your skull looks awful but expressionless to me."

"Does it matter?" demanded Bland. "Would you like to have this skull thrust in your face?"

"A thousand times no," declared Mr. Whittle. "Better that, however, than the skull of a loathsome reptile."

"To hell with your loathsome reptiles," clicked Mr. Bland.

"All right," retorted the man on the bed, childishly annoyed. "I hope yours burn to a crisp."

The sound of a key turning in the lock took the two gentlemen's minds off their respective loathsome reptiles. Mr. Bland turned and gazed into the eyes of a strikingly good-looking woman. She was tall and reasonably slim. Studying her somewhat avid lips, Mr. Bland received the impression that there were few experiences of the pleasanter nature that this fair creature had not tried at least once.

"Gracious goodness," murmured Mr. Whittle, observing the woman's bellicose expression. "This is much worse than a loathsome reptile, skeleton."

After glancing chillily for a moment at the two men, the woman advanced into the room, slamming the door behind her.

"Whittle," she said in a hard flat voice which seems to be automatically endowed upon all wives the moment the ring is on their finger, "Whittle," she repeated, "what are you doing with this repellent-looking object in your room?"

"Nothing at all, my dear," mildly replied Mr. Whittle. "Nothing at all. Simply chatting, you know. Don't you notice anything odd about him—different?"

"Everything's odd about him," said the woman. "It's disgraceful. Can't I leave you alone for a moment without your taking up with some abominable freak of nature?"

"But," pursued her husband, hopefully, "aren't you a little bit scared? He's a real skeleton, you know—fresh from the grave."

"Whittle," said the woman, "you should know me better. Why should I be scared by a measly collection of bones? How did he get in here to begin with?"

"Quite casually," replied Mr. Whittle. "Just dropped in, you know."

"You're incoherent," she said, briefly; then, turning on Mr. Bland, "Well, sir, what have you to say for yourself?"

"What would you like me to say?" he asked.

"As little as possible," replied the woman. "I don't care for the way your teeth click. Is it necessary?"

"Always with skeletons," said Mr. Bland.

"Then why don't you return to the morgue," she demanded, "and pick up some more suitable companions? I can't have my husband associating with a thing like you—not while he's still alive, at least, which I hope will not be long."

"But I'm not dead myself," objected Quintus Bland. "I'm quite as alive as he is."

"Which isn't saying a lot," she observed. "What have you got in that bottle?"

"Drink," said Mr. Bland.

"That's something, at any rate," the woman conceded. "It would be better if we drank. You've nullified the libations of an entire evening."

"By the way," interposed the man on the bed, "you two haven't been properly introduced yet. Mr. Bland, this is Pauline, my wife. Pauline, this is what is left of Mr. Bland, Mr. Quintus Bland. He's the swagger photographer chappie."

"He should have a picture of himself now," observed Pauline Whittle. "If he could induce anybody to take one."

"I don't want a picture of myself," retorted Mr. Bland. "I'd tear it up. However," he added, gallantly, "when I see such a beautiful woman as you I greatly regret so much of my former self is absent."

"What do you suppose he means by that?" Whittle inquired, uneasily.

"I'd hate to explain," his wife replied, "but I gather Mr. Bland is not quite as dead as he looks."

This time she turned with more favour on the skeleton and accepted a drink from the clawlike hand.

"Here's to the speedy return of my flesh," proclaimed Mr. Bland, raising his glass aloft.

"What for?" asked Whittle, suspiciously. "Are you by any chance making passes at my wife?"

"Whittle," said Pauline Whittle, "don't be jealous of a skeleton. I assure you it's quite impossible even if I were interested. Mr. Bland is as sexless as a retired madam."

"I don't understand how he even sees," Mr. Whittle replied. "He hasn't any eyes, yet he doesn't miss a trick."

"What do you use for eyes, Mr. Bland?" asked Pauline. "There isn't one in your head."

"Search me," replied Mr. Bland.

"That wouldn't be hard," put in Whittle, "but it would be damned unpleasant."

"I know," thoughtfully agreed Pauline, "if this skeleton has invisible eyes he may all be present though unseen."

"Are you interested?" asked her husband, coldly.

"Not greatly," retorted his wife. "I was merely wondering about it, that's all."

"I wouldn't if I were you," replied Whittle. "It's hardly a proper line of speculation for a married woman, or a single one, for that matter."

"Well, one would like to know where one has one's skeleton," remarked Pauline Whittle.

"You don't need to have him by anything," snapped her husband. "Leave him entirely alone."

"Let's have another drink," Quintus Bland suggested. "I object to this conversation."

"So do I," agreed Mr. Whittle. "Isn't it just like a woman? Never willing to let well enough alone."

"But I don't see what's so well enough about him," Pauline objected. "As far as I can see he's sheer waste of time."

"Your wife appears to possess a romantic disposition," Mr. Bland observed dryly.

"The correct word is 'bawdy,'" replied Mr. Whittle. "Romance to her is strictly horizontal."

"How would you have it?" asked Mr. Bland.

"Oh, don't ask me," snapped the man on the bed irritably. "You're both lewd persons. Don't go on about it."

"I'm not usually lewd," observed Mr. Bland, "but being a skeleton seems to bring out the worst that's in me."

"What's in you?" Pauline Whittle asked, quickly.

"Mr. Bland," interposed her husband, "she's lower than a loathsome reptile. Will you please pull some trousers over those fleshless legs of yours? They seem to be exerting some obscene influence over this bestial wife of mine. I'm so glad I'm sober."

Pauline Whittle laughed coarsely.

"None of us is sober," she cried, taking another drink. "Let's jump in bed with Blandie."

"You must be drunk," said her husband, "if you can even entertain the idea of jumping into bed with that."

"I mean you, too," Pauline explained. "En masse like—you know—loathsome reptiles together."

"Oh, you're very drunk," declared Mr. Whittle. "Very drunk indeed. What difference would that make?"

"That's up to you," said Pauline. "Couldn't we huddle up together and leave the world behind?"

"Hear me," declared Mr. Whittle in a decided tone of voice. "If I huddle up with that skeleton I'd leave more than the world behind."

At this the skeleton giggled. It was a peculiar sound.

"Then let's yank on his trousers," suggested Mrs. Whittle.

"They wouldn't stay on," said Mr. Bland.

"Then a necktie would," put in Pauline. "It would dangle from his spine."

"Wouldn't that spoil the effect?" asked her husband.

"Not as much as trousers," observed his wife. "If you yank trousers on that skeleton you'll be spoiling one of the most astonishing effects I've ever witnessed."

"But I fully intend to get dressed all over," Quintus Bland assured them. "From head to foot."

"What about your face?" asked Mr. Whittle. "No matter how smartly dressed you are, that face will cause a panic."

"Why not put a mask over it?" suggested his wife.

"A pillowcase would be better," said Mr. Whittle. "A pillowcase with slits for his funny eyes."

"It would cover his lower jaw," agreed Pauline, "and, God knows, that jaw needs covering."

"Sometimes when it wags at me," solemnly observed Mr. Whittle, "I feel too discouraged to answer."

"It's good we don't mind this skeleton," declared his wife. "I mean not much. I like him because he's so unattainable."

The whisky which Mr. Bland had been drinking so copiously now began to manifest itself in tears. He was deeply touched by the friendship of these two strangers. At the same time he was sorry for himself. Silently the tears streamed down his bony face. With intense interest his two companions concentrated their blunted faculties on the sobbing skeleton. Even in this fuddled condition this phenomenon was somewhat baffling.

"Where do they come from," Pauline asked In a hushed voice, "all those tears? I don't see any ducts."

"Ducks?" inquired her husband, stupidly. "What's all this about ducks?"

"There's nothing at all about ducks," said his wife. "There are no ducks."

"I didn't ask for any ducks in the first place," Mr. Whittle replied in a hurt voice. "A tearful skeleton is quite enough to bear."

"I said ducts, not ducks," Pauline Whittle retorted.

"Oh," exclaimed Mr. Whittle. "You mean tear ducts. They haven't any feathers." For a moment he considered Mr. Bland. "You know," he resumed, "this skeleton is more versatile than I thought. If he has hidden ducts—I mean, if tears can come out of his eyes—he might have other ducts and things concealed about his person. He might even—"

"Please," protested Mr. Bland. "For goodness' sake, don't go on."

Having thus rebuked Mr. Whittle's sordid curiosity, Quintus Bland arose and walked with a certain show of dignity from the room. The man on the bed looked significantly at his wife.

After an interval, Mr. Bland, swaying slightly in his gait, returned to the room.

"Well?" inquired Mr. Whittle.

The skeleton nodded briefly.

"I must have," was all he said, "or something."

"How intriguing," murmured Pauline Whittle.

"It shouldn't be to you," snapped Mr. Whittle. "Don't think about it."

"I can't help myself," said Pauline, simply.

"Please pass that bottle and stop discussing my probable parts," Mr. Bland cut in, reprovingly. "I find it most disconcerting."

"Then tell me," asked Mrs. Whittle, "do you like to dance?"

"In my present mood I'd like to do anything," he told her.

"Well, see that you stop at dancing," said Mr. Whittle.

"For the present, at least," agreed Pauline. "One must grow acclimatised to a skeleton; even to such a gifted one as Mr. Bland. Would one call him a skeleton of parts?"

"I wouldn't," replied Mr. Whittle, "but I dare say you would, and consider yourself amusing."

"Shall I get dressed now?" asked Mr. Bland.

"We'll help you," replied Pauline.

"He'll need it," said Mr. Whittle, rising from the bed.

They put shoes on Mr. Bland's feet and stuffed them to fit with old pieces of paper.

Mr. Whittle was busy strapping the trousers round Mr. Bland's thighbones.

"I think they call this the pelvis," observed Whittle. "It looks like a pelvis."

"Don't waste any more time naming me," protested Mr. Bland. "You're not giving a lecture on the bony structure of man."

Next came the shirt and collar. The coat was held sketchily in place by bits of string. Finally a pillowcase with slits in it was dropped over his head.

"There," exclaimed Pauline, stepping back to observe the results of their joint efforts. "You don't look much like a man, I'll confess, but no one would know you were a skeleton unless some woman gets too friendly."

Whittle dubiously shook his head.

"That hardly seems possible," he said.

"You can't be sure," replied his wife. "Some women are morbidly attracted by sheer horror."

"Thank you both so much," cut in Quintus Bland, acidly. "After all your kind words I won't even trouble about looking at myself in the glass. Is the bottle empty?"

"It is," replied Pauline.

"And you emptied it," said her husband. "Let's go."

Taking the weird figure by either arm, they proceeded unsteadily towards the door. Here Mr. Bland halted.

"I haven't any drawers on," he said.

"Neither have I," Pauline informed him, "and you don't hear me complaining."

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