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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


On a Backyard Bench

"IN life," observed Lorna Bland, after several reflective pulls on the bottle," you must have been a very gallant gentleman."

"What do you mean—in life?" the bogus Toledo demanded, removing the bottle from his wife's hand.

"When you were," explained Lorna.

"But I still am," Mr. Bland assured her.

"You still are what?" asked Lorna, innocently.

"In life," replied Quintus Bland.

Lorna laughed tolerantly, then reached for the bottle.

"You're dead," she told him, simply. "Part and parcel of the grave. Don't tell me. I know."

"But I do tell you," Mr. Bland insisted. "I'm very much alive."

"Oh, you're active enough," his wife admitted, "but they get that way, you know. They always do."

"What are you talking about?" her husband roughly demanded.

"Psychic phenomena," she retorted, calmly. "You're a psychic phenomenon, you know—a manifestation—a—a—a phantasmagoria." She paused to tilt the bottle, then smacked her pretty lips. "They're always active," she added.

"Madam," said Bland, coldly, "I am none of those things. Let me once more assure you I'm just as alive as you are."

"Married?" asked Lorna, briefly.

Mr. Bland nodded.

"And is she a skeleton, too?" she asked, then continued without waiting for an answer: "Naturally she must be. The children must be cute—a lot of little baby skeletons crawling about the floor. Think of it. You all must be no end careful not to chip and crack each other. And all your chairs must be padded—heavily padded. I—"

"Please don't go on," Mr. Bland broke in on his wife's musings. "That bottle is getting the better of you. We have no children."

"Perhaps it is just as well," sighed Lorna Bland.

"Why?" demanded Quintus. "I've always wanted a child."

"But," Lorna reasonably pointed out, "think of introducing a perfectly normal doctor into a household of skeletons. Why, the poor man would be a mental case before he could open his bag."

"You're either drunk or mad," said Quintus Bland, disgustedly.

"Perhaps a little of both," his wife admitted. "Were it not for this bottle I might find you a trifle difficult—macabre, I think, is the word. Some people call it horrid."

From the window of the kitchen the chef's eloquent eyes peered at the pair on the bench.

"Mon Dieu," he observed in wonderment, "the chic madam still sits en tête-à-tête with the fleshless Señor Toledo. Me, I could not do it."

"No," observed a waiter, sarcastically. "You would push plenty cries."

"I am a man of courage," declared the chef. "A lion in the fight, but I do not converse with bones. Far better to sit en tête-à-tête with a soiled camel."

"Well," said the waiter, "I'd just as soon not sit en tête-à-tête with either, although a soiled camel wouldn't upset me much. Far better to push cries and run like hell, say I."

"In that there is wisdom," agreed the chef. "The mere knowledge that out there on that bench sits an object so incredibly horrifying makes it difficult for me to turn my back on the door. We must drink of wine."

"No," declared the waiter. "We must drink of whisky. Wine is far too weak to get me used to that bony party out there."

"In that also there is wisdom," said the chef, turning from the window. "Let it be of whisky."

Meantime Mr. Bland and Lorna were doing their best with the bottle, and their best was not so bad.

"You know," said Lorna, confidingly, "if you had about ten pounds of flesh distributed about those bones of yours I fancy you wouldn't look unlike my husband."

"Ha!" said Mr. Bland. "Your husband."

"Yes," went on Lorna. "You even sound like him, only more hollow, of course."

"Naturally," agreed Mr. Bland. "Your husband must be thin, I take it."

"No, it's my turn to take it," protested Lorna, reaching for the bottle. "You've just had it." After a delicate gurgle she once more smacked her lips and resumed. "Is my husband thin?" she asked, rhetorically. "Señor, you're the only man that's got him licked. Why, he's so thin people pity him in the streets."

"They do, eh?" said Quintus Bland. "I almost pity him myself, but I dare say he's a nice man."

"He's a dirty man," said Lorna.

"What!" exclaimed the skeleton. "A dirty man?"

"Yes," said Lorna, simply. "My husband is a dirty man."

Quintus Bland was thoroughly outraged.

"How dirty?" he asked in a low voice.

"Oh, very dirty," replied Lorna, warming to the subject. "And he has a dirty dog. In fact, they're both dirty dogs. I tried to pull his tail out."

"Any luck?" asked Mr. Bland.

"No luck," said Lorna, moodily. "No luck at all. Did you ever try to pull a dog's tail out—or off?"

"No," admitted her husband. "Why?"

"It's impossible," said Lorna, bitterly. "Can't pull a dog's tail out. They're like that with their tails." Here she held up two fingers closely pressed together.

"I didn't know," murmured Mr. Bland. "But I'm sorry your husband's so dirty."

"Oh, yes," replied Lorna, eagerly reverting to the subject. "He's a very dirty man. Just like his dog. My husband's a dirty dog."

"And thin," added Quintus.

"And thin," agreed Lorna. "He's a thin dirty man or a dirty thin man, whichever way it goes."

She lapsed into silence, as if brooding over the lamentable dirtiness of the emaciated Mr. Bland. Her husband, morbidly moved by an impulse to learn the worst, broke in upon her thoughts.

"Would you say he was a filthy man?" he asked with an attempt at diffidence.

"Sure, I'd say he was a filthy man," she replied without a moment's hesitation. "My husband is a filthy man." Something caused her to glance up at the object beside her. "What's the matter with you, Señor Toledo?" she inquired. "Got a chill?"

Señor Toledo's actions fully justified the question. He looked as if he had been seized by a violent ague. He had stood more than flesh, and much more than bone, could bear. To be called a filthy man in the third person by one's own wife was truly a devastating experience. With an effort he pulled his bones together.

"I'm all right," he said, huskily. "Guess I need a drink."

"That's better," commented Lorna, passing him the bottle. "You were rattling something awful."

"I'll try to do better," he promised. "It's a shame about your husband."

"No, it isn't," she answered, surprisingly. "I like him as filthy and as thin as he is. He's such an awful fool. I can twist him about my finger and get him angry whenever I like."

"Do you think that's so nice?" asked Mr. Bland.

"Oh, no," she answered, promptly. "I'm a dirty dog, too, only I'm a small dirty dog and not at all thin. At that, neither of us is as dirty as Phil Harkens."

"The chap I scared from the scene?"

"The same," replied Lorna, nodding. "He's dirty in the worst sense of the word. Only went out with him to get my husband mad." She laughed a little ruefully. "I guess we're both a little mad," she continued. "I pretended I was going to put on my black underwear with the lace on it. You should have seen the poor man's face. It was nearly as bad as yours. What a face!"

"Hey, in there!" shouted Mr. Bland with sudden violence. "Bring me another bottle."

"Name of God!" exclaimed the chef. "One thousand thunders. Did you attend? Not only does he demand a bottle but also he wants it brought to him."

"I'm pushing cries right now," said the waiter, hurrying with his tray from the kitchen.

"My brave," pleaded the chef, turning to another waiter, "Señor Toledo calls for a bottle. He is a man of distinction of the utmost. He is also an amiable man. To him you will carry the bottle, is it not so?"

"It certainly is not so," said my brave with the calm of a mind in which lurked no indecision. "The distinguished and amiable Señor Toledo is wasting his breath on me. Did you hear that whoop he let out?"

"It came as if pushed from the grave," breathed the chef.

"If you ask me," asserted the waiter, "that voice was shoved clear up from hell."

At this moment Señor Toledo himself bounded into the kitchen. With no less agility everyone else bounded out. The chef alone was unable to make the grade, being spiritually as well as professionally linked to his cauldrons. To that extent he was a man of courage, as he had claimed.

"Do I get that bottle or don't I?" clattered Mr. Bland.

"Remain tranquil," pleaded the chef. "You do, Señor, you do. That bottle is virtually in your hands. May you enjoy it to the full."

"Snap to it," said Mr. Bland.

The chef snapped. Like a magician he produced a bottle, which he placed on a table within easy reach of the terrible figure in the doorway.

"Señor," said the chef, "it is I who present the bottle."

"Thanks," replied the Señor, tartly. "Shall I bite the cork out?"

"Would you like to?" asked the chef, endeavouring to be agreeable. "I should consider it an honour to watch the magnificent feat. I shall form myself into an audience of one."

"Bah!" exclaimed the skeleton, explosively. "Pull out that cork."

In his anxiety to comply, the chef almost wrung the neck off the bottle. Quintus Bland snatched the brandy and retired to the bench.

"Got it," he said to the small figure sitting in the semi-darkness.

"Good," returned Lorna in a subdued voice. "It's hard to wait for liquor."

"One of the hardest things I know," replied Bland, "but see here, you've been drinking too much to-night."

"It's remorse," said the woman.

"What are you sorry about?"

"I'm sorry I left him home, sitting in the shadows."

"You mean the dirty dog?"

"Yes, the dirty dog. I called him an old crow or something."

"Why didn't you call him a buzzard?"

"Didn't think of it," she replied, truthfully.

"Make a note of it for further reference,"

Mr. Bland suggested, sardonically. "Maybe he stepped out himself."

"He would never do a thing like that. He's the straightest man I know—straight but thin."

Quintus Bland reflected that she little realised how appallingly thin her husband was.

"You can never tell," he remarked. "Even the dirtiest dog will have his day."

"Perhaps you're right," said Lorna. "He deserves some sort of a day." For a moment she fell silent over the new bottle. Then: "Tell me, Señor Toledo, are passion and romance one and the same thing?"

Mr. Bland pondered, not because he did not know the answer, but more because of the established inhibitions existing between him and his wife. At last he spoke.

"The only honest reply would be, Yes," he said. "By that I mean you couldn't have one without the other."

"Then," declared Lorna, "there should be some device to stimulate passion in the home."

"I think," replied Mr. Bland a little pointedly, "that there should be one to confine it to the home."

"But the American woman does not like to confine her charms to a mere husband," Lorna asserted. "I know because I'm an American woman. We all crave to be desired by other men. Especially if there are other women around. Bad, isn't it? And so small. When I was engaged to Quintus—that's my husband's depressing name—I thought only of him. I dressed for him, did my hair for him, and perfumed myself for him. Other men were not in it—they had no place. That kept up even after we were married—for a while. I wanted to look intriguing for him at all times. Lovely under-things and all that. Then gradually I found myself tucking my most abandoned garments away and not caring so much how desirable I appeared in his eyes. Of course, he always looked like hell, but funny. I liked him."

She paused and gazed into the shadows, then continued: "Romance or passion were already packing up, and for no apparent reason. Now for whom do you suppose I was saving all of my pretty things? I had no definite man in mind. Just men. Women always have the consciousness of men in their minds. If you have a decent husband you know he's safe. Then some devilish impulse prompts you to play with a man who is not quite so safe, and that almost nearly always leads to trouble, unless you're both lucky and clever. A woman constantly needs reassurance that she is desirable. She is willing to risk and pay a lot for that. You see, Señor," she broke off, "it's not only a matter of passion. It's some inner need or craving a woman requires to hold her to her youth, to keep her from slipping over the borderline of romance into the placid, unexciting backwaters of domesticity. Some women are built for that. I envy them in a way."

"Children help," suggested Mr. Bland in a rather strained voice.

"Not today they don't," asserted Lorna, with a scoffing little laugh. "You should see some of the mothers I know. Why, the very knowledge that they are mothers seems to drive them to more frantic and disgusting endeavours. They'd mix it up with almost any man who shows them a little attention, especially after a couple of snifters."

"Pretty tough on their husbands," observed Mr. Bland.

"Sure," agreed Lorna. "They can't be fist-fighting all the time, and a gun is a trifle too drastic."

"Then why don't they beat their wives?"

"Half the time they can't get anything concrete on them. They know but they can't prove. It's quite a mess, this modern mix-up."

"You don't seem to hold your sex in high regard," remarked Quintus Bland.

"I don't hold this member of it in any regard at all," replied Lorna. "just a creature of impulse, of low impulse, at that."

"There is such a thing as tenderness," said Mr. Bland.

"I've shown the dirty dog very little of that," replied Lorna. "Wouldn't know how to begin now. He'd become suspicious."

"Well, let's not worry too much about all these things," her husband said in a heartier voice. "As I see it, the woman is not wholly to blame. Believe me, when a woman gets out of hand some of the fault can be traced to the husband. Then, again, it might be the weather."

He laughed a little falsely and elevated the bottle.

"Is Mrs. Toledo very fond of you?" Lorna asked, somewhat haltingly. "Do you have a happy love life?"

"You'd have to ask my wife about that," answered Mr. Bland. "A man only knows how his wife is acting, never how she is thinking. God has spared him that final humiliation."

"I'd love to have a long talk with Mrs. Toledo," declared Lorna, musingly. "I suppose she's much like you, only smaller?"

"She's smaller," admitted Quintus.

"Well, if I can stand you," she observed, "I should be able to stand her, but I doubt it I'd be quite comfortable with both of you together—on either side of me, so to speak."

"Not to mention a lot of little skeletons squirming about the floor," offered Mr. Bland.

"That would be bad," admitted Lorna. "Pass me the bottle, Toledo. I've been too long depressed."

"Do you intend to drive home to-night?" asked the skeleton.

"Sure," she said, then stopped. "How did you know I had a car?" she asked him.

"Señor Toledo knows many things," quoth Mr. Bland, enigmatically.

"For some reason you keep on reminding me of my husband," his wife said in a puzzled voice. "We had such a devil of a row. He must be feeling rotten about it."

"He is," remarked Bland without thinking. "How do you know?" she asked him.

"I have ways of knowing things," fenced Mr. Bland. "But suppose you don't find him home?"

"Oh, he'll be there," she answered, confidently. "He never steps out unless I'm along."

"But still," persisted her husband, "he might not be. You drove him pretty far, you know."

"Then I'll go to bed alone," declared his wife.

"That would be a pity," he observed.

"Señor Toledo," said Lorna, "not only are you a skeleton, but you're a dirty skeleton, at that. No wonder you remind me of my husband. I'm going now."

She rose and handed Mr. Bland the bottle, while she stood a little unsteadily, testing her appearance in various quarters, as women have a right to do.

"Will you be good to the dirty dog if you ever get him back?" Mr. Bland asked in a hesitant voice.

"How do you know I've lost him?" she demanded.

"Somehow I've a feeling you have," said Bland, slowly, "but I don't know for how long."

"Do you mean to say that dirty dog has left me?" Lorna asked, furiously.

"Not of his own accord, perhaps," Bland replied in a mollifying voice. "Wherever he is, he is probably wishing he were home with you."

"Señor Toledo, you're getting me frightened," breathed Lorna. "I like that dirty dog, but if he's done a bunk I'll claw him to shreds when he gets back home."

"He might find even that diverting," said the skeleton of Bland. "I wish I had some shreds to be clawed. It's not much fun being like this, you know."

"I'm sorry," replied Lorna. "It hadn't occurred to me. You seemed to be such a natural-born skeleton, so self-possessed and competent. It must have its difficult moments."

She swayed a little and clutched his hand and bony arm for support.

"Bur-r-r," she gasped, hastily withdrawing her hand. "Wow! Oh, dear me. What an excruciating sensation. I'm almost shocked sober." She regarded Mr. Bland with new interest. "You know, I've been sitting here in an alcoholic haze not caring much whether you were a skeleton or not. At any moment I expected my brain would clear and I'd wake up to find you a real person. But that arm! It's real and it's all bone. No flesh at all."

"Would you like me to go away?" asked Mr. Bland, humbly.

"Where would you go?" asked Lorna.

"I—I scarcely know, myself," admitted Mr. Bland. "I'd forgotten about that. There doesn't seem to be any place for me to go, does there?"

"Yes," replied Lorna, decisively. "You've been decent to me, decenter than a flesh-and-blood man. Now I'm going to bring you home to my husband. You can stay there for the night, then we'll think of something."

"Oh, no," Bland protested. "I could never do a thing like that. I might frighten your husband to death if he's so thin."

"Nonsense," snapped Lorna, now all efficiency and determination. "He'll merely think he's found a long-lost brother who needs a bit of feeding. Where are those things you were wearing?"

"Distributed about the dining-room, I dare say," replied Mr. Bland.

"Wait here and take a drink," she commanded. "I'll be right back."

And strangely enough she was right back with all of Mr. Bland's clothes, which in her haste she failed to recognise.

"There's a cap in the car and glasses," she said when Bland had covered himself as well as possible, considering the circumstances. "If you slump down in the seat you'll be able to get away with it easily. The car is at the end of this passage. We won't have to go back through the speak."

"But the bill and all that?" protested Mr. Bland.

"Charles assured me everything would be okay with him," said Lorna, "so long as you refrained from mingling with his patrons."

"A generous and resourceful man," remarked Mr. Bland.

"Bring the bottle along," commanded Lorna. "We'll need it on the way, although there's lots more at home, thank God."

From behind his window the chef was witnessing these preparations with no small show of interest. As he saw the couple head for the alley, he breathed a sigh of relief.

"Señor Toledo parts," he observed, "in company with that chic madam." He paused, thought deeply, then eloquently shrugged his shoulders. "Señor Toledo is a man of many parts, but still I don't quite see... no, I should have thought... eh bien, why puzzle oneself about such baffling amours?"

Señor Toledo had parted. That was good. That was to be desired. Nevertheless, as the chef busied himself over his various recondite rituals he found himself still perplexed by the apparently pointless choice of the chic, petite madam. The most distinguished of skeletons could hardly be a satisfactory lover. Again the Gallic shrug.

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