Previous ChapterContentsNext Chapter

Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


Panic in a Night Club

"TO think," breathed Mr. Whittle in the hallway, his mild eyes growing round with realisation, "to think," he continued, "that we're actually going to sit at a table with a real live skeleton. It should be enough, my dear, to make us forget our differences. It should draw us together—sort of, what?"

"I don't know about that," vouchsafed Pauline, "but if Quinnie falls down that flight of stairs nothing will draw him together. He'll resemble a jigsaw puzzle."

Mr. Bland shuddered at this and pictured himself in fragments. It was not inspiriting. His clutch tightened on the banister.

"And all the king's horses and all the king's men," cheerfully quoted Mr. Whittle.

"Wouldn't dare approach him," announced Pauline. "Quinnie is the very antithesis of Humpty Dumpty. More awful."

"Yet equally fragile," commented Mr. Whittle.

"I can't understand how some persons can be so callous," observed Mr. Bland, "so utterly blind to the misery of others. In fact, they seem to enjoy it."

"We're not enjoying you," Pauline Whittle answered him. "We're doing our darnedest to tolerate you. And that takes some doing."

Suddenly Mr. Bland stopped and stood swaying perilously on the stairs as he held up for their inspection a pair of bony hands.

"My poor hands," he muttered brokenly. "My poor, poor hands. Look at them."

"They're awful," admitted Mr. Whittle. "Don't rattle them under my nose."

"And my trousers," continued Bland. "They feel as if they were going to drop off at every step. What if they did?"

"What if they do?" replied Pauline. "It would take an expert to establish your sex."

"It's his pelvis," explained Mr. Whittle. "In life he must have been able to whirl on a dime."

"In life!" exclaimed Quintus Bland. "Hang it all, man, I keep telling you I'm far from dead."

"Perhaps you're not as far as you think," Mrs. Whittle remarked, enigmatically. "You've merely anticipated the worm."

Once more Mr. Bland shuddered.

"And," he said, bitterly, turning on the woman, "as far as my sex is concerned, I wish you'd leave it entirely alone."

"I don't want any part of it," Pauline emphatically assured him.

"Oh, very well," replied Mr. Bland, a trifle tiffed by this unflattering announcement. "If that's the way you feel about it, we'll let my sex drop."

"Can't you two ever stop bickering about sex?" Mr. Whittle complained, wearily. "Let's get on with it. I'm parched for a drink."

"So am I," agreed his wife. "Perhaps if we feed this skeleton he might begin to grow some flesh."

"But what about my hands and trousers?" persisted Quintus Bland.

"I have it!" exclaimed Mr. Whittle. "If he put his hands in his pockets and sort of sauntered carelessly—you know, lounged along —he'd be able to hold up his pants and at the same time hide his hands. Two birds with one stone."

"Whittle," said his wife, an unfamiliar note of approval in her voice, "I never suspected I'd accept any suggestion coming from you, but that one is almost inspired. Try it, Mr. Bland."

The fleshless photographer balanced himself carefully against the banister and thrust his hands in the pockets of his trousers.

"How's that?" he asked, a little self-consciously.

"Terrible," replied Pauline Whittle. "Simply awful. It won't work at all. The absence of your stomach becomes much too apparent." She snapped open her handbag and produced a pair of white wash gloves. "Here," she continued. "Try these on. You look so unusual already, it really doesn't matter what you wear."

"Women's gloves," muttered Bland, unhappily, as he slipped them over his fleshless fingers. "To think I have come to this. How do the damned things look?"

Once more he held up his hands for their inspection.

"It's the final touch," said Mr. Whittle. "It makes the whole world mad. Let's proceed."

By careful if critical stages they descended the stairs and stood in the door of the dining-room. At one end was a long bar in full blast. In the middle of the room lay a small polished surface upon which a number of men and women were engaged in making a public demonstration of a strictly private operation. Shrill, meaningless laughter cut through a hanging pall of smoke. The ceiling was low and the voices were high. The results of the Noble Experiment were being consumed openly and in great gulps.

"You know," said Mr. Bland, in a low voice, "when I watch all those people swigging down that poison I understand why this country is called the land of the free and the home of the brave. It takes guts to do it."

"That's what puzzles me about you," replied Pauline. "I don't see where you put it. You haven't any—"

"Don't go on," Mr. Bland interrupted, with dignity. "We'll let them drop, too, together with my sex."

The entrance of the Whittles, flanking the extraordinary figure of Mr. Bland, did not pass unnoticed. In their vicinity conversation died down. The diners at the tables became all eyes. At a table in the far corner of the room Mr. Bland's previous companions sat up and considered the figure apprehensively.

"Gord," breathed Lulu, penetrating Mr. Bland's disguise. "It's his nibs. If he happens to catch sight of us he might try to pull some funny stuff."

"That guy," declared Flora, "couldn't pull anything funny if he tried, but he might pull something very, very nasty."

"That's what I mean," said Lulu. "It wouldn't take much from him to make me throw a fit. Wonder who his playmates are?"

"Don't know," replied Crawford, moodily, "but they've shown more courage than we did. After all, old Quintus is a friend of ours, with or without flesh. We should have stuck by him."

In the meantime, while the ethics of their treatment of Mr. Bland was under discussion, Bland himself was busy with his trousers, which were showing an alarming inclination to make startling revelations. Fortunately this difficulty so occupied his thoughts that he was momentarily unaware of his surroundings and the unpleasant impression he was making on all beholders. While Pauline was regarded with admiration, the glances directed at him were eloquent with astonishment and disgust. Mr. Whittle was scarcely observed at all. He was merely another male of indifferent aspect.

However, he appeared to have a way with head waiters, an irreproachable specimen of which immaculate clan imperturbably escorted them to a highly desirable table on the border of the gleaming dance floor. Mr. Bland tenderly lowered himself into a chair and peered unhappily at life through his pillowcase.

"Why didn't he put us out there right in the middle of the floor?" he asked, ungraciously. "Then everyone could have had a look."

"Don't mind him," Pauline explained smoothly to Charles, the head waiter. "He's paying off an election bet, and I, for one, think he's showing a very mean spirit about it."

"He could be showing much worse," observed her husband.

The head waiter smiled sympathetically.

"If you'll pardon me," he murmured, "I can hardly blame the gentleman. I have never seen anything quite equal to it before. His costume is most impressive."

"The man means revolting," snapped Quintus Bland. "I know how I look."

"I doubt if his mother would know him," said Mr. Whittle.

"I doubt if she'd care to," said his wife, Pauline.

"Not even his wife would know him," continued Mr. Whittle.

"In a place like this," remarked Charles, "there are certain advantages in that."

Pauline let her gaze drift round the tables circling the dance floor. Finally it rested on a couple occupying a table directly opposite them.

"Charles," she said to the head waiter, "who is that small good-looking blonde on the other side of the floor?"

But Charles was never given the opportunity to answer. Mr. Bland, having followed the direction of Pauline's casual gaze, had half risen from his chair. In his need for emotional expression his teeth were clicking together like a sewing machine in full cry. It was a terrible exhibition. Even Charles, as accustomed as he was to terrible exhibitions, felt himself deeply moved. Mr. Bland, apparently stifling for lack of breath, was clutching frantically at the pillowcase in a mad endeavour to bare his skull to the world. Equally determined that no such horrifying revelation should be made, Pauline Whittle and her husband were clinging grimly to the edges of the pillow-case, and so successful were their joint efforts that, by the sheer weight of their bodies, Quintus Bland was borne off centre and crumpled clatteringly back in his chair. There he sat puffing, panting, and chattering so vigorously that the pillowcase billowed and surged like a sail flapping in a stiff breeze.

"By God," he gibbered at last, "that woman's my wife, and she's wearing black underwear with lace on it."

"Look here," said Pauline, "in addition to your other quaint ways, have you also X-ray eyes? How do you know she's wearing black underwear with lace on it?"

"She told me so herself," muttered Mr. Bland.

"But couldn't she have changed her underwear?" Mr. Whittle inquired, mildly. "People do, you know."

"Don't quibble," snapped Mr. Bland. "I'm going to polish off that chap with her. His name is Phil Harkens."

"Remember your pelvis," warned Mr. Whittle. "You don't want to lose your pants."

"To hell with my pants and my pelvis," retorted Mr. Bland.

"Do you feel that way about them when you're a whole man?" asked Pauline Whittle.

"What's that to you?" was the discourteous reply.

"Is there anything I can do?" put in Charles in a polished but puzzled voice.

"Yes," said Mr. Whittle. "Six double brandies, Charles. My friend has a bit of a chill."

"Has he also a cold in his head?" asked Charles, looking thoughtfully at the pillowcase.

"Yes," replied Pauline, "and the poor thing is as bald as a bat. We have to keep him out of draughts."

"By rights," said Mr. Whittle, "he should be home and in bed."

"By rights," amended his wife in a low voice, "he should be mouldering in his grave."

"Enough of that," clicked Mr. Bland. "I'll murder the whole room—everybody!"

"What a man," said Whittle, feebly. "I fear for the success of our evening."

"As long as that sheik of the suburbs is with my wife," asserted Mr. Bland, "the evening is busted wide open."

With a clever, appraising scrutiny, Pauline Whittle considered the gentleman under discussion.

"Can't say that I blame you," she commented at last. "I know the type. He's one of those strong, confident men, the overpowering sort. If there's a springboard handy he'll swan-dive and jack-knife for you ad nauseam. I hate their guts, myself."

"Pauline," interposed her husband, "are you deliberately trying to egg our friend on?"

"No," replied Pauline, "but I wouldn't much mind."

"He owns an aeroplane," said Quintus, moodily. "I haven't any aeroplanes."

"Neither have we," Pauline told him, soothingly. "But, of course, he would have one—the rugged bum."

"Pauline," protested her husband, "your language—it's lousy."

"I'll endeavour to model it after yours," said Pauline, sweetly.

While this marital exchange was in progress, Quintus Bland relaxed a little in his chair, but his gaze still remained fixed on his wife and her hateful companion. She was the prettiest woman in the room, he decided. There was no doubt about that. Why did they always have to quarrel so? he wondered. And why did she have to bring home that objectionable daub of a cow in convulsions? That painting had started all the fireworks. Had it not been for that shocking example of bad taste they might still be at home together, enjoying a pleasant evening. For his part, he did not want any other woman. He was perfectly satisfied with her, provided that she revised both her habits and her temperament a little. Then he suddenly remembered his condition. A feeling of utter hopelessness overcame him. He would have to revise himself more than a little to be acceptable in the eyes of Lorna. Even his dog would object to him, not to mention that passionate maid, Fanny. As he watched his wife through the pillowcase, the conviction was gradually borne in on him that she was not having the jolliest of evenings. Even a stranger could tell that the couple were not hitting it off any too well together. Phil Harkens, a splendidly proportioned he-man with glossy dark brown hair, was talking to Lorna with the confidence and complacency begotten of his awareness of his strength and beauty. Lorna was doing her best to look as if she were listening while thinking of other things. From her politely bored expression it was not difficult to gather she was finding the deception irksome. Of course, had the lady been aware of the fact that her husband was observing her from across the way, she would have fawned upon her companion, hung on his slightest word; but believing, as she did, that she was no longer able to torment her long-legged mate, the situation was robbed of its spice. After an evening spent in the company of Phil Harkens she was beginning to realise that he was God's own gift to hard-pressed matrons who were themselves over-anxious to give. Lorna was growing up. She longed to return home and have even a better fight with her husband. In spite of his faults, there was something different about him, something that set him apart from other men. She suspected it was an inherited streak of madness. A reminiscent smile momentarily touched her lips. She was hearing her husband saying, "And not content with that, I disembowel the beast..." What a fool. The smile faded. She was sorry she had left him flat. In walking out on him she had taken an unfair advantage. It would have been more loyal to stay at home and fight it out to a finish. She would have won anyway. She always did. He was such a simple-minded dolt she could always confuse the issue without his realising the fact.

"Pardon me," she said sweetly to Harkens, "it's so noisy here. What were you saying?"

"I was saying," replied Harkens, "that a husband is a fool to expect a beautiful woman to confine herself entirely to him. It just isn't being done. Wives are waking up."

"How true. How true," murmured Lorna. "All over the world wives are waking up. Some of them are even getting up, don't you think?"

"And returning home to virtuous couches," said Harkens with a nasty grin.

Observing this grin, Mr. Bland grunted unpleasantly in his pillowcase.

"She's having tough sledding," he said to his companions. "The trouble with that woman is, she doesn't realise she adores me."

"That's the trouble with all wives after the first few months," Mr. Whittle heavily asserted. "Take Pauline here. She's mad about me, simply mad. If I died, I doubt if she'd ever marry again. It would be a terrible blow to her. As it is, though, the poor creature isn't intelligent enough to analyse her own emotions."

With pitying contempt in her eyes, Pauline regarded the speaker.

"Not excluding this ass of a skeleton," she said with great clarity, "I have the most repellent and all-around worthless husband yet unpoisoned. An error," she added, "I hope to rectify at the earliest possible moment."

"Don't trouble yourself, my dear," declared Whittle with a bland smile as he reached for a double brandy. "I'll poison myself for you—pleasantly. Here's to your weeds."

One gulp and the brandy was gone. Pauline followed his example. Before they were able to stop him, Mr. Bland had raised his pillowcase and tossed a drink through his fleshless lips. A girl at the next table emitted a low, gurgling gasp of horror, then slid from her chair to the floor.

Mr. Bland cocked his pillowcase in the direction of the crumpled body and peered at it through the slits.

"What did she want to pop off like that for?" he asked the Whittles. "Makes me nervous to have women popping off. Wonder what's the matter with the poor creature."

"You are," said Pauline, coldly.

"What do you mean?" Mr. Bland demanded.

"The next time you take a drink," the lady explained, rather wearily, "please be so good as to slip it up under the pillowcase instead of disclosing to the world that shocking object that serves for a head."

"Oh," muttered Quintus Bland, a trifle taken back, "was that what did it? I didn't realise."

This time, when he took his brandy, he followed Pauline's advice. His white-gloved hand, clutching the glass, disappeared under the pillowcase, which for a moment became a thing of life, then the hand and glass reappeared. From the pillowcase came the muffled sound of lips being smacked as if in satisfaction.

"That's good," grunted Quintus Bland. "Get some more."

"What I'd like to know," said Mr. Whittle, addressing himself to his wife, "is how he can smack his lips when he hasn't any lips to smack?"

"I'm afraid I can't help you there," Mrs. Whittle told her husband, "but I wish he wouldn't do it."

"Don't know how I did it myself," Mr. Bland informed them. "Just felt like smacking my lips and there you are. That's all there is to it. They smacked."

"We heard them," said Pauline Whittle, briefly.

The young lady who had been privileged to catch a glimpse of Mr. Bland's skull had by this time been restored to her chair. She was now reclining limply in it, her eyes studiously averted from the hooded figure at the next table. She told things to her escort in a low strained voice which, nevertheless, conveyed conviction. When this gentleman had heard the reason for her sudden collapse, he drank deeply, then drank again. With an expression of resolution, he turned to Mr. Whittle.

"Pardon me," said the gentleman, "but may I ask if that—er—synthetic-looking object under the pillowcase is real or just fun? What I mean to say, is it alive?"

"Unfortunately it is," replied Mr. Whittle, "and it's no fun. But why do you ask?"

"Well," continued the gentleman in a troubled voice, "this young lady says there's a skull under that pillowcase. That's why she fainted, she claims. It grinned at her—horribly."

The pillowcase suddenly became agitated, and a voice issued therefrom.

"It's a lie," said the voice. "A lie. I couldn't grin if I tried. I can't even smirk."

"How much has the lady been drinking?" asked Mr. Whittle, with an uncalled-for lack of tact.

Naturally this remark was not well received by the lady's companion. His troubled expression was replaced by one of intense hostility.

"Do you mean to imply that this young lady has been drinking too much?" he demanded.

"That would be the more charitable view to take of her astonishing allegation," replied Mr. Whittle with the courage of two double brandies. "Otherwise she must be insane—plain crazy."

The young lady's defender stiffened in his chair. His eyes began to boggle with anger. Chivalry was gripped tightly in his large fists. Mr. Whittle watched these warlike manifestations with a kindling eye.

"Come on. Come on," he challenged. "Hit me a crack. I'd love it."

At this stage in the controversy Quintus Bland deemed it necessary to intervene. Leaning over to the unreasonably enraged Whittle, he rapped him sharply on the shoulder.

"Ugh," came from Mr. Whittle as he shrank back. "Don't do that. Don't do it. Your fingers are like rivets."

"I'll handle this little matter," Bland told him with great composure. "That person will have to answer to me for his unwarranted conduct. Observe."

Both Pauline Whittle and her husband did observe. They were well rewarded for the restraint they placed on their own actions. Yet what Mr. Bland did was in no way spectacular. He merely removed his gloves and shook his fleshless fingers in the face of the gentleman at the next table. From beneath the pillowcase issued a succession of low, hollow groans mingling with the chattering of teeth. Even the imperturbable Pauline admitted later that she had never heard a more depressing sound.

On this occasion it was the young lady's escort who slid from his chair to the floor, but he didn't even want to gurgle. One shocked, petrified look at those crazily shaking hands had started him on his downward course. The groan had finished him off. As he slid from his chair his girl friend with a choking gasp tossed the tablecloth over her head and followed him to the floor, upon which both bodies lay inert. Having more than achieved his purpose, Mr. Bland delicately adjusted the gloves on his talon-like fingers, then dashed off another brandy.

"How's that for a mere skeleton?" he asked, unable to repress a note of pride.

"Pretty darned good, I'd say," replied Mr. Whittle. "I'm glad you're on our side, because if you'd done that to me I'd be on the floor too."

Naturally, this little diversion did not pass unnoticed. A score of guests were peering stupidly at the fallen couple. Charles, the head waiter, was doing his stuff in another corner of the room. Even from the back of his neck one could tell he was smiling ingratiatingly and suggesting champagne. However, when he faced about at the whispered summons of a waiter, perturbation had replaced the smile. Swiftly he moved to the centre of interest, where he stood looking down at the prostrate figures, a puzzled expression in his eyes. He had a dim suspicion that this unfortunate incident was in some way associated with that weird hooded figure at the next table. For a moment Charles was rattled. Seldom if ever had he seen a couple pass out simultaneously. Could it be a suicide pact? He glanced at the Whittles' table, to discover that Mr. Whittle was alone in his glory. His wife and the hooded figure were behaving queerly on the dance floor. Before Charles could think of anything useful to say, Mr. Whittle spoke impressively.

"Charles," he said, "isn't it about time you removed those objectionable persons? They have done their best to make our evening decidedly uncomfortable. Why don't you drag 'em out?"

"Sorry, Mr. Whittle," replied Charles, deferentially, "I had no idea they were getting that way. I'll have the bodies removed at once. Are they alive?"

The bodies themselves answered the question. The man sat up and looked fearfully about him, then, extending a shaking hand, violently shook the young lady.

"It's gone," he said in an unsteady voice. "Come on. Let's hurry."

The girl opened her eyes, uttered a piercing shriek, then flung herself on the man who, in his weakened and nervous condition, fell back on the floor with a gasp.

"What's gone?" asked the distracted Charles.

"Is this any time to ask questions?" the man managed to get out as he floundered on the floor. "Take this woman off me. She's trying to crawl into one of my pockets."

With the aid of several waiters the two struggling bodies were lifted from the floor and placed on the perpendicular, which they maintained with the utmost difficulty.

"Where is he?" asked the young lady. "Or whatever it was. Where is it?"

"Will you kindly explain, madam?" Charles almost pleaded.

"The man with the skeleton hands," said the girl. "He moaned and chattered his teeth."

At this moment a wild cry from the dance floor turned all eyes in that direction. Incredulously, they beheld the rear view of the hooded figure frantically endeavouring to pull a pair of trousers up over a bony structure which Mr. Whittle had dubbed a pelvis.

"It has more than skeleton hands," one onlooker remarked with a crude chuckle. "That object has a skeleton—"

The end of his observation was drowned in a babble of voices, which was just as well for those who objected to calling a spade a spade.

"What is it, Charles?" asked the lady. "What can it be?"

"Madam," he replied, wearily, "how should I know? I have never seen anything like it before."

"I hope never to see anything like it again," another voice declared, emphatically, "as God is my judge."

In the meantime Quintus Bland was having troubles of his own. So was Pauline Whittle. She was vainly struggling to drag her partner from the glaring publicity of the dance floor.

"Don't pull me like that," Mr. Bland was pleading. "If these trousers trip me up I'Il smash to powder."

"I wish to God you would," Pauline assured him. "I'd love to blow you into oblivion."

Even in his dire circumstances Mr. Bland felt a thrill of horror. The possibility was by no means remote. How could this woman think of such things at a time like this?

"It's the knot," he explained. "Can't you see? We can't yank the trousers up without untying the knot."

"How do you mean we?" Pauline demanded. "I wouldn't drag my husband's trousers up, let alone a relative stranger's, and a skeleton's, at that."

"You don't have to go into it so," protested Mr. Bland. "Just untie the knot. I'll drag them up."

With hands that trembled Pauline Whittle grimly attempted to loosen the knot which was located just below her partner's pelvis.

"I mustn't go mad," she muttered. "I must remember to keep calm. Do stop clicking your kneebones together."

"I can't," replied Mr. Bland. "Never have I been so nervous."

"Whee!" said Pauline Whittle as another thought struck her. "Wouldn't it be shocking if you got your body back now?"

Mr. Bland stepped backward and snatched at his trousers.

"Don't come near me," he pleaded. "Keep your hands to yourself. I won't have you fumbling about with such depraved ideas in your mind."

With a convulsive wriggle of his pelvis, which brought a gasp from the spectators, Mr. Bland succeeded in shifting his trousers back into place. Holding himself rather girlishly by the waist, he walked towards his table with as much dignity as he could muster under the circumstances. Mrs. Whittle trailed behind. No one attempted to interrupt Mr. Bland's progress. He seated himself in his chair, and Pauline followed his example.

"Rather a lively dance," commented her husband. "When he wriggled his pelvis into his pants I thought he was doing the rumba."

It was at this moment that heaven-sent inspiration descended upon Charles, the prince of head waiters. "Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "let me introduce to you Señor Toledo, the world's most baffling magician."

With a graceful sweep of his arm, he bowed to Quintus Bland, sitting dumbfounded in his chair.

There was general handclapping throughout the room, mingled with cries of approval.

"Don't let me down," Charles whispered. "Would you mind giving them a bow?"

"Clever of you, Charles," murmured Pauline; then, turning to her recent partner, she added, "That will explain everything. Go on, Quinnie, and make a nice bow."

Snapping down another brandy, Mr. Bland rose with reluctance and bowed to his admiring audience. Unfortunately the knot that Pauline had loosened took this opportunity to become untied entirely, with the result that Mr. Bland's pelvis was once more on public view. He sat down abruptly and busied himself with the string. The spectators, thinking it was all a part of the show, cheered enthusiastically.

"Why does Señor Toledo show only his middle section?" a voice called out.

"Oh," replied Charles, suavely, "the Señor thought it would be more convincing."

"You mean more indecent," another voice rang out.

"Señor Toledo should be ashamed of himself," announced a lady. "What a way for a magician."

"But what has the Señor to be ashamed of, madam?" Charles inquired, with a significant tilt to his shoulders.

"That's just the point," contributed the lady's escort. "This young lady means that Señor Toledo should be ashamed because—"

"I meant nothing of the kind," retorted the young lady, indignantly.

"Well," replied Charles, a trifle disconcerted as he observed Señor Toledo writhing in his chair, "it would be better not to go too deeply into all that. Later, perhaps, the good Señor will show us even more."

"I've seen quite enough already," a gentleman declared. "That's no way for a world-famous magician to act. He might get away with it in Spain but not in the U.S.A."

Charles turned gratefully to Mr. Bland, slapped him heartily upon the shoulder, then, uttering a low cry of pain, examined his tingling fingers. With a startled look at the hooded figure, he made a formal bow, hurried down the long room, and disappeared through the service doorway. There was certainly something radically wrong with the physical composition of Señor Toledo. He fervently hoped that his strange guest would not attempt any further and more elaborate exhibitions. In this Charles was doomed to disappointment, for even while he was breathing this hope to the patron saint of all well-deserving head waiters, trouble was brewing at the Whittles' table. To be strictly accurate, trouble had already brewed. This trouble was caused by a resounding slap administered by Lorna Bland upon the beautiful burnished face of Mr. Phil Harkens. She was about to deliver another one when Harkens, smiling tolerantly, caught Lorna's wrist, twisting it so deftly that she was rendered impotent with pain and anger. A sharp little cry escaped her lips as she helplessly looked about her.

Quintus Bland, who had been jumping spasmodically in his chair during the first part of this engagement, sprang to his feet at the sound of his wife's cry and instinctively tossed off his coat. Not content with ridding himself of this encumbrance, he violently discarded his pillowcase and trousers, thus disclosing himself to the world for what he was, a skeleton in ill-fitting shoes and gloves.

Quintus Bland was truly a heart-chilling object. His bones seemed to snap and crackle with the venom and potency of his fury. For the first time since the change had occurred he gloried in the fact that he was a horrible-looking skeleton. Even the Whittles, who up to that moment had thought they had seen him at his worst, pushed back their chairs from the table and regarded their friend in alarm. Here was a force more difficult to deal with than a tidal wave or an earth-quake. Once more the young lady and her escort at the next table slid unprotestingly to the floor. Cries of horror and astonishment rose from all parts of the room. Various inebriated gentlemen stamped on the floor vigorously and shouted words of drunken encouragement to Señor Toledo, the world's most famous magician.

Heedless of the panic he was creating, the Señor clumped recklessly across the dance floor. That he was far gone in double brandies in no way impeded his progress. If anything, the brandies had given him confidence. He no longer cared whether or not he dashed himself to fragments. His sole purpose in life was to destroy utterly and for ever the body and person of Phil Harkens. As he hurried across the floor, couples preparing to dance scattered before him, the orchestra found itself unable to draw an effective breath and stopped on a series of shuddering wails. Diners rose from their tables and huddled against the walls of the room. Several women fainted and lay forgotten on the floor. Their escorts had troubles of their own.

Quintus Bland, however, was blind to all this. The smug, tolerant smile on Phil Harkens's lips alone attracted his gaze. And even though the smile became glazed and fixed with horror as the skeleton neared the table, it was just as hateful to Quintus Bland. Luckily for Lorna's nerves as well as for her reason, she was far too angry with her escort to be bothered much by the sudden and infuriated appearance of a mere skeleton. She was interested but not alarmed. Having lived for years with a long, gangling structure of skin and bones, she saw little to choose between her husband and Señor Toledo. The difference was merely one of degree—a matter of a few pounds.

Mr. Bland now stood towering over the unhappy Mr. Harkens, who had half risen from his chair. He was still clinging to Lorna's wrist, but now he was clinging to it for comfort and protection. Stretching his bones to the limit of their expansion, Mr. Bland drew the glove from his left hand and slapped Phil Harkens with it across his mouth. As the man collapsed in his chair, a fleshless hand grasped him by the throat, and five relentless talons dug into his flesh.

"Take your hand from that woman's wrist," Bland commanded, grinding his teeth to add effectiveness to his words. "Down to the grave you come with me to moulder with the worms."

There had been wild cries before in the room that night, but none to equal in earnestness and volume the cry that tore itself from Mr. Harkens's tortured throat when he heard about mouldering with the worms. He could not conceive of a more unalluring prospect. In his anxiety to escape the talons clawing at his neck, his chair toppled over backwards with a crash and he found himself floundering on the floor with a gibbering skeleton on top of him. With a desperate effort he wriggled free from the clutches of the skeleton, scrambled sobbing to his feet, and staggered to the nearest door. This led to the kitchens of the establishment, in which pandemonium broke out immediately upon the devastating arrival of Mr. Bland.

"Mon Dieu!" shrilled Henri, the chef. "Señor Toledo outdoes himself. I part for my life."

And that was exactly what everyone else proceeded to do in various directions. Trays were dropped by waiters, and pots by underchefs. There was the sound of crashing dishes and the babble of foreign tongues.

In the midst of this confusion, Mr. Bland paused and looked about for Harkens. That worthy gentleman was nowhere in sight.

"Where is he?" cried Bland. "Somebody tell me where he is."

"He parted through the porte," came the voice of Henri from behind an overturned table, "also as if for his life."

Snatching up a carving knife, Quintus Bland ran jerkily to a door that gave to a backyard from which an alley ran out to the street. Down this alley Phil Harkens was speeding as if pursued by all the demons in hell. Mr. Bland halted his impassioned pursuit and stood watching the fleeing figure until it had disappeared from view, then he turned slowly back into the yard. Finding a rude bench he sat down and gazing up at the dark sky, rested after his labours. He felt coldly indifferent now about the fate of Phil Harkens. After all, it had not been the man's fault so much as Lorna's. Harkens had merely answered her summons. Any man would be a fool to overlook such an opportunity. Bland felt almost sorry he had been so rude to Harkens, but then again he should not have manhandled Lorna. Quintus Bland felt sick, tired and disgusted. His head was dizzy, the roof of his mouth parched. It had been the worst evening in his life. Had he not turned to a skeleton in the nick of time, he might be sitting there now, an unfaithful husband. He almost wished he were one. Lorna deserved to be taught a lesson. She was too damned headstrong. He very much wanted a drink, but he had no desire to return to the restaurant.

"Somebody bring me a bottle of brandy," he shouted.

Henri, who had emerged from behind his barricade, promptly produced a bottle and handed it to the nearest waiter.

"Convey this with my compliments to Señor Toledo," he said. "He is pushing screams for it in the yard."

"Oh, yeah," replied the waiter, who had been crudely born and bred in the Bronx. "And if I came face to face with that bone-naked bozo, I'd be doing more than pushing screams. I'd be fairly flinging them about."

"Is it that you lack in courage?" demanded Henri.

"It certainly is," admitted the waiter, almost proudly.

"But so do I," said Henri. "Me, I am a nervous collapse."

In the midst of this perplexity a small blonde woman, whose lovely figure immediately restored the nervous collapse to the pink of condition, took the bottle from the waiter's hand and disappeared through the back door.

"Señor Toledo," said a small voice in the darkness, "I have brought you a bottle of brandy."

Mr. Bland started and looked nervously up at his wife.

"Thanks," he said shortly, reaching out for the bottle. "Sit down, if you don't mind skeletons."

"I don't mind some," Lorna Bland answered demurely as she seated herself by her husband.

"Have a drink," he said, passing her the bottle.

Previous ChapterContentsNext Chapter