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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


Things get no Better

TAKING an even firmer grip on the newspaper, Quintus Bland looked defiantly at the passionate maid.

"Fanny," he said, "I have long suspected there was little good in you. Now I know it. Clear out, you trull."

"Half a moment," said Fanny. "I want to take just one more look at those cute little scanties in that advertisement."

"Wish I had a pair on myself," muttered Mr. Bland.

Fanny laughed merrily.

"Wouldn't you look funny?" she said, bending over the newspaper.

"Are you near-sighted?" asked Mr. Bland, pressing back against the chair. "Don't come an inch nearer."

It was in this somewhat unconventional position that Lorna Bland found the two of them when she quietly entered the room on her return from her walk. To make matters even worse, she had also heard Fanny's merry laughter. Busy, the square dog, added to the complications. On seeing his naked master he emitted an excited yelp and, with one of his most springy pounces, landed heavily upon the newspaper. As the dog established contact Mr. Bland gave a grunt of dismay.

"Take him away," he called to his wife. "Yank him off me. Can't you see this fool dog is destroying my last shred of decency?"

"I don't care if he claws it to pieces," declared Lorna, sounding as if she meant every word she had said.

"But I do," protested her husband. "I'm in a hell of a fix."

"I suppose," observed Lorna, "there's no need to ask the meaning of this lovely little tableau I so thoughtlessly interrupted? Had I waited a bit longer it would have broken into frantic action, no doubt."

"Honest, Mrs. Bland," said the now no longer passionate maid, "it wasn't that. It wasn't what you mean."

"What minds you women have," said Bland in a despairing voice. "All the time evil."

"Shut up, you senile wreck," snapped Lorna, then added, turning on Fanny, "What was it, then, you trollop?"

"I was just taking a look at an advertisement," was the trollop's lame reply.

Lorna gave a little snort of disgust.

"It's a sweet and pungent way to be looking at an advertisement," she said. "And that's about one of the stupidest lies I've ever been told."

"I tell you," Mr. Bland put in, desperately, "we'll all be sorry if Busy digs a hole through this paper."

Lorna laughed mirthlessly.

"I should worry," she flung at her husband. "It doesn't matter to me if he claws all the skin off your bones." She stopped abruptly, then turned to Fanny with a glittering eye. "And that reminds me," she continued. "Where's that skeleton got himself to? What's become of Señor Toledo?"

"I don't know, ma'am," the maid replied. "After you left he fell asleep over his drink. Later, when I came to ask if he wanted a cup of coffee, there sat Mr. Bland as naked as a babe."

Lorna looked at Mr. Bland and shivered.

"So instead of withdrawing like a modest, self-respecting woman," she said, "you just ambled up to the naked babe and began to read advertisements off him, laughing merrily the while." She turned furiously on her squirming husband. "Speak up, you dirty dog," she snapped.

"Then call off this other dirty dog," Bland pleaded. "I can't use my hands."

Lorna collected Busy and stood looking down at her husband.

"Well?" she said. "Go on."

"When I got to the station," he began, "I suddenly came over sick, as they say, so I returned home and went directly to bed."

"Then what did you come down here for?" asked Lorna.

"To get my pipe," said Bland at random.

"You don't smoke a pipe," said Lorna.

"Eh!" exclaimed Mr. Bland. "What? I don't smoke a pipe? By jove, so I don't. Now isn't that odd?"

"Yes," answered Lorna. "It's impossible. Did you see a sleeping skeleton in this chair?

"Sure," lied Quintus Bland. "He was just leaving. He sent you his regards. And I saw him when I first got up. That's why I went away. I'm not so used to skeletons." Here he laughed falsely. "Funny things, skeletons. This one called himself Toledo."

"It's strange," observed Lorna, looking thoughtfully at her husband, "I can never get you two together. There's some funny business going on."

"You're right, there is," agreed Quintus Bland, taking the offensive. "The minute my back is turned, you pop a skeleton into my bed. What's the meaning of that? What does this Spanish atrocity mean to you? Where did you dig him up?"

"That's what I'd like to know," put in Fanny, following close on Mr. Bland's lead. "Whoever heard of a real live skeleton? It's against nature, say I."

"Fanny," said Lorna in a quiet voice, "the next time you want to seduce my husband I'll appreciate it if you don't pick out the most public room in the house."

"Didn't try to seduce your husband," retorted Fanny. "I've got all my clothes on."

"That isn't saying much," replied Lorna, "if you wear as little as I do."

"But it's your husband that's naked," protested the girl.

"He's more thorough about it than you are, Fanny," Lorna told her. "That's the only difference. I suppose he chased you downstairs?"

"That's just what he did," lied Fanny. "He ran after me making noises."

"What sort of noises?" asked Lorna.

"You know," said Fanny, significantly. "Those sort of noises."

"I'm afraid I don't," replied Lorna. "You'd better explain."

"Passionate whoops," said Fanny. "You know, passionate whoops."

Lorna looked mildly surprised.

"Mr. Bland has never whooped passionately at me," she said. "I should think it would be most disconcerting."

"She's lying," broke in Quintus Bland. "I was too sick to whoop passionately at anybody. Besides, I don't know how to whoop that way. It never occurred to me to try."

"I hope it never does," said Lorna. "I'd forget what it was all about."

"And along the hall he came bounding and pounding," Fanny continued, elaborating her story. "His great arms were thrashing about. Oh, Mrs. Bland, it was terrible."

"And when he had chased you downstairs," said Lorna, "he promptly forgot what he was chasing you for, so he sat down and began quietly to read the paper. Is that it?"

"Yes, ma'am," replied Fanny. "He came over sick like and collapsed in that chair."

"She's a liar," said Mr. Bland.

"Of course she is," said Lorna. "You're both liars."

"Am I to sit here all day naked?" her husband demanded, "or will you send that Jezebel away and let me get upstairs? She's feasted her eyes quite enough."

"I'd like to know what on," said Fanny, coolly surveying the naked man. "It would take some eye to pick a feast off you."

With this parting shot she flounced away to the door.

"Is that so?" Mr. Bland called after her. "Why don't you tell your mistress you wanted me to give you the newspaper?"

The maid did not deign to answer as she sailed out of the room.

"Well," said Lorna with a philosophical shrug, "what with lecherous husbands, disappearing skeletons, and nympholeptic maids it's a charming little household."

"You'd better include yourself in the picture," Mr. Bland retorted. "You and your black underwear with the lace."

Lorna studied him darkly.

"Get upstairs, you passionate whooper," she said. "I'm through with you for good." And she too sailed from the room.

"Nice women," Mr. Bland muttered moodily to space. "Charming creatures, the both of them."

For a few minutes he sat brooding over the respective exits of Fanny, the passionate maid, and Lorna, his incensed wife. Then he did the best thing a man could do under the circumstances. He took a drink. Feeling somewhat better, he relaxed in his chair and considered the situation. Here he was back in the flesh again. But how long would he stay that way? Mr. Bland had lost all confidence in his body. It seemed to be in a constant state of flux. This made any consistent line of conduct well-nigh impossible. He was either coming or going. At one moment he might be Señor Toledo, an animated skeleton, at the next Quintus Bland, a naked photographer. In either form he was equally embarrassing to himself and disconcerting to others. One ray of hope—perhaps these rapid changes in his physical composition were due to a gradual diminishing of the potency of the fumes he had inhaled. Mr. Bland heartily hoped so. He took another drink. He got up and surveyed his body to make sure it was still there. It was. He went upstairs and covered it with garments. Then he returned to the bottle. By the time he had finished with this he did not much care whether he was Quintus Bland in the flesh or Señor Toledo in the bone. He even found himself missing Toledo a little. A skeleton had its points, although Bland could not think of any good ones at the moment. Feeling more cheerfully disposed towards life than he had in the last twenty-four hours, he collected his hat and stick, then quietly left the house with Busy at his heels. Mr. Bland had decided to walk to the village for the purpose of getting a shave, his own hand being too unsteady to attempt that delicate operation. From an upper window Lorna watched the lank figure of her husband as he walked down the drive. What was he up to now? she wondered. Strange things were going on in the house. She strongly suspected Mr. Bland of being at the bottom of them. Stripped of flesh, he would look exactly like Señor Toledo, she decided, yet did not all skeletons look almost exactly alike? Lorna found herself sorely perplexed in mind as well as physically jaded. Accordingly she did the best thing a woman could do under the circumstances. She went downstairs, called for a fresh bottle, and took a drink. It did her a world of good.

In the meantime Quintus Bland had pursued his way to the village. He was now reclining in a barber's chair with a steaming towel covering his face. Busy, having growled defiantly at a glittering boiler containing more steaming towels, had curled himself up in a corner with an eye cocked on this object lest it should attack him unawares.

The shop was owned by a small, dark, emotional Italian known as Tony—perhaps the only Tony in existence outside of a speakeasy. Mr. Bland had known him a long time. He was fond of Tony. And Tony was fond of Mr. Bland. Mr. Bland was a very fine gentleman. Tony would shave him well, as if his skin were made of the most perishable fabric. Little did the Italian realise how perishable Mr. Bland's skin really was.

In the next chair the local mortician was having his cheerful face shaved. The local mortician's name was Brown. In the lives of the families thereabouts Mr. Brown played rather an intimate part. He was literally with them from the cradle to the grave. When they were alive he sold them beds, and when they were ready for more permanent repose he provided them with coffins. Consequently he had come to regard births and deaths in the light of dollars and cents. An old gentleman with a bad cough or a young matron in an interesting condition was equally dear to his heart. Both were prospective clients. As a matter of business expediency Mr. Brown had developed two totally different personalities. The Brown who sold a crib was not at all the Brown who sold a coffin. The Brown of cribs and furniture was a jovial, amusingly insinuating man of the world. The Brown of coffins was as lachrymose and gently morbid as the most bereaved widow could wish to encounter.

Although Mr. Bland had never purchased either a crib or a coffin from Mr. Brown, they had known each other for years, having gone to school together. For some time past Mr. Brown had been looking on Mr. Bland with growing disappointment. Quintus Bland would neither die nor propagate the race. It was Mr. Brown's belief that a good citizen should constantly be doing either one thing or the other. To his way of thinking, Quintus Bland was a sheer waste of time.

After having exchanged greetings with Tony and Mr. Brown, Mr. Bland, what with the liquor he had consumed already that morning plus the residue of the previous night, relaxed in the chair and promptly fell into a doze. A portly, florid-faced stranger arrived and seated himself in a chair. Later a second customer came in and seated himself in another chair. Tony beamed happily upon the towelled face of Mr. Bland. Business was picking up. Tony was pleased. He removed the towel from Bland's face and proceeded to cover it with lather. With deft, solicitous strokes he then shaved off Mr. Bland's current crop of whiskers. So far so good. A fresh towel and a gentle massage. Tony began to look puzzled. Gradually his fingers slowed down their action until they remained motionless on Mr. Bland's chin. Here they made a final convulsive effort and stopped. Tony looked down. His fingers, stiff with horror, leaped from the chin. He had the remarkable presence of mind to hide what he saw with a fresh towel. He covered Mr. Bland's face gently and with reverent fingers which trembled a little. Then he approached Mr. Brown as that gentleman was just heaving himself out of his chair. "Come," said Tony, mysteriously, taking the mortician by the arm, "I have a little business for you. Mr. Bland, our very good friend, he's dead in that chair. You must take him away and bury him. That fat-faced man is waiting."

Fully believing that Tony's fine Italian mind had suddenly gone bad, Mr. Brown moved over to the other chair and considered the motionless figure stretched out in it.

"Watch," commanded Tony with the air of a magician. "Gaze upon the face of our very old and very dead friend."

With a slight flourish he flipped the towel from Mr. Bland's face. The mortician found himself looking down upon a naked skull. In spite of his long association with all sorts and conditions of corpses, Mr. Brown was not prepared to meet a skeleton face to face. For a moment he stood blinking at the skull, then he transferred his blinking to Tony. The Italian, under the impression that blinking in the presence of a skeleton was an old American custom, followed the mortician's example. He blinked down at the skull of his erstwhile customer, then blinked upon Mr. Brown.

"There is no doubt, I suppose?" said Tony with a rising inflection. "This is a dead?"

"That is a dead," replied Mr. Brown. "By the looks of him a very old dead."

"But," protested Tony, "he was all alive when he sat down in that chair. You spoke to him yourself. 'Good-morning, Tony,' he said to me. 'How are all the little Wops?' he said."

"All I can say," said Mr. Brown, "is that he's thoroughly dead now—at least, I hope so. As a matter of fact, I never saw a man become so completely dead in such a short space of time. That's what baffles me. Sure you didn't smother him with all those towels?"

"So!" said Tony, explosively. "So! Then I took away his flesh, hey? Poof to you!"

"Don't say 'poof' to me, Tony," reproved Mr. Brown. "You might have hacked it off with your razor, you know."

Tony with eyes ablaze ran round the chair and seized one of Mr. Bland's talon-like hands.

"For why should I shave his hands?" he demanded.

Mr. Bland woke up and looked at Tony in mild surprise.

"Why are you holding my hand, Tony?" he asked.

Tony got rid of Mr. Bland's hand as speedily as if it had been one of Mr. Whittle's loathsome reptiles.

"The dead is back," he told Mr. Brown. "This is against God. Take him away and bury him. He is not good for business."

Mr. Brown was torn between incredulity and professional interest. The latter of the two emotions proved to be the stronger.

"Pardon me," said Mr. Brown, "but are you my old friend, Quintus Bland?"

"I am that," snapped Mr. Bland. "Who did you take me for—Napoleon?"

"You're a trifle long for Napoleon," said Mr. Brown, "but you might easily be any one of thousands of dead persons."

Mr. Bland struggled up in the chair and regarded himself in the mirror.

"I dare say you're right," he observed with surprising mildness for an object so repugnant. "Why not go over to your place and consider the situation? I think I should buy a coffin."

Mr. Brown's establishment was situated next to Tony's barber's shop. It was divided into two separate and distinct units, the funeral parlour lying in the rear of the shop.

"Very well," agreed Mr. Brown, sensing a possible sale. "Come on over." He turned to the dumbfounded Italian. "Tony," he said, "don't stand there boggling at Mr. Bland. Help him out of the chair."

With obvious reluctance Tony righted the chair, and Mr. Bland descended to the floor. The florid-faced gentleman, his robust colour momentarily hidden by a coating of lather, gave the skeleton an appalled look. Unlike Mr. Bland, he did not need to be assisted from his chair. He was out of it with surprising agility and making for the door.

"Your face!" cried Tony's assistant. "It is full of soap."

"It is full of horror," replied the man. "Take a look at that face behind you."

The assistant looked over his shoulder at Mr. Bland, then automatically followed his customer through the door. He was fully convinced that Mr. Brown had carried one of his dead bodies over to be shaved.

"Next," announced Tony mechanically to the remaining customer, patiently waiting behind the morning paper. The man lowered the paper and half rose in his chair, then his eyes fell on Mr. Bland, and he remained as if frozen in that difficult posture.

"What sort of a man is that?" he managed to mutter.

"He's all right," Tony assured the man. "He's one of my oldest customers."

"He may be one of your oldest customers," said the man, sinking weakly back in the chair, "but I'll be damned if he's all right. That man's been dead for years."

"Not at all," put in Mr. Bland. "I've merely had a close shave, that's all there is to it."

"If you don't mind," said the man, "I'd rather not speak to you. As soon as I get my strength back I'm going to get out of here."

"Suit yourself," replied Mr. Bland, slipping Tony a five-dollar bill to repay him for his loss of trade. "I'm leaving right now myself."

"Going back to your grave?" asked the man, interested in spite of himself. "Or do you happen to live in a vault?"

"Looking for trouble?" asked Mr. Bland in a nasty tone of voice. "Getting smart, perhaps?"

"Oh, no," hastily disavowed the gentleman. "I've got trouble enough already, and you're all of it."

"Come," said Quintus Bland to Mr. Brown. "Let's go over to your place. I must buy myself a coffin."

This casual remark was a little too much for the waiting customer. Apparently it gave him the strength he required, or at least a part of it.

"Wait," he pleaded, straightening himself unsteadily. "I'm going. Give me three minutes' start."

Mechanically he took his hat from a peg, then slowly left the store, walking like a man in a dream. The mortician turned to the skeleton.

"As much as I'd like to sell you a coffin," he said to Mr. Bland, "I'd hate to be seen on the street with you in your present condition. Isn't there something we can do? You'd be a panic in public, Mr. Bland."

"I have the thing," cried Tony, hurrying to a cabinet. "An artificial beard. It is a clever thing. You hook him over the ears."

"But, Tony," said Mr. Brown, examining the large, white, bushy mop the barber had placed in his hands, "Mr. Bland hasn't got any ears."

"Then hook him over the head," explained Tony. "It works both ways."

"Would you mind hooking this over your head?" asked Mr. Brown, passing the beard to Quintus Bland. "I'll be more used to you in a minute."

With shrinking fingers the skeleton accepted the beard and considered it distastefully.

"Why, Tony," he said, "this is a horrid beard. I've never seen a worse one. Where in the world did you get it?"

"A customer owed me a sum," replied Tony. "So he gave me his beard instead."

"Instead of what?" asked Mr. Brown.

"The sum," said Tony, proudly.

"You lost on the deal, Tony," observed Mr. Bland. "Your customer should have been indebted to you for life. He must have looked a sight behind this beard."

"But consider all the hair," Tony protested, weakly.

"I am," said Mr. Bland, turning to the mirror. "Oh, well, here goes. I can't look much worse than I do already."

He adjusted the beard round his head, then turned on the two men. Both Tony and Mr. Brown took a startled step backward.

"I didn't think anything could look like that," said Tony in a hushed voice.

"What did you think I was going to look like?" Mr. Bland asked, bitterly. "Apollo Belvedere?"

"I have seen that one," replied the Italian. "You are far from him. He has no beard."

"Your hat," suggested Mr. Brown. "Perhaps if you put it on and pulled the brim down—'way down—you might look a little less extraordinary."

"Bah!" muttered Mr. Bland, following this suggestion. "I'm sick of the whole damn' business. The sooner I'm in my coffin the better I'll be pleased."

"So will I," said Tony with feeling.

"Shut up," snapped Mr. Bland. "Tell me how I look."

"I can't," replied Tony, looking helplessly at the mortician. "Mr. Brown, you tell him for me, then tuck him in his coffin, beard and all. He's welcome to it."

"I won't be buried in this beard," said Mr. Bland.

"All right," Mr. Brown soothingly agreed, fearing he might lose a customer. "You don't have to be buried in that beard. Come along with me."

Tony heaved a sigh of relief when he saw the last of Mr. Bland, but not so Officer Donovan when he caught a glimpse of the bearded skeleton for the first time. Donovan, who was directing traffic at a busy corner, for a moment forgot his duty and devoted himself to a thorough scratching of his head.

"Look," he said, seizing a passing pedestrian by the arm and pointing to Mr. Bland. "What do you make of that?"

A little surprised, the pedestrian looked in the direction indicated and immediately became more than surprised. The man was visibly shocked.

"Hanged if I know," he said. "He doesn't look alive, yet he can't be dead. He's the queerest-looking customer I ever saw."

"If the thing wasn't walking so natural-like," declared Donovan, "I'd swear Mr. Brown was dragging a corpse in off the street."

"Maybe he's got one trained," the pedestrian suggested, feebly.

"Who ever heard of a trained corpse?" Donovan retorted, scornfully.

"I don't know," admitted the other, "but who ever heard of a corpse with a beard like that?"

"A corpse can have a beard," Officer Donovan said with confidence. "My uncle was a corpse, and he had a beard something like that."

"Didn't he ever shave?" asked the pedestrian.

"No," replied Donovan, simply. "He was a corpse."

"He wasn't a corpse all his life, was he?" the pedestrian demanded.

"Not all of it," said Donovan. "Just toward the end."

"It wouldn't matter to me," declared the other, "whether I was a corpse or not. If I had a beard like that I'd shave the damn' thing off."

"Maybe that's why this one came back," said Donovan. "He couldn't rest in his grave knowing he had that beard on."

"You mean he came back to get a shave?" asked the other.

"Sure," said Officer Donovan. "He was coming out of Tony's when I saw him first."

"Tony must have refused to shave him," said the pedestrian.

"Would you shave a corpse?" Donovan wanted to know.

"God, no!" exclaimed the pedestrian. "I wouldn't even comb his hair."

At this moment the front mudguard of a quickly arrested automobile struck Officer Donovan from the rear and sent him sprawling on his face.

"I'm so sorry, officer," said the frightened voice of a woman as the outraged policeman came thunderously up to the car. "I've just seen the most terrible sight. For a moment I lost control."

"Did it have a beard on?" asked Donovan.

"Did it have a beard on?" repeated the woman wildly. "Did it have a beard on?" She leaned over the side of the car, her eyes wide with suppressed emotion. "Why, officer, you wouldn't believe me if I told you. You never saw such a beard in all your life."

A persistent hooting of horns and a general confusion of traffic brought Donovan back to an awareness of his duty.

"I'm just after seeing that beard myself, lady," he said. "You'd better drive on."

"Then you're not going to give me a ticket?" asked the woman.

"No, lady," replied Donovan. "You deserve a medal for not having run over me entirely."

The woman started her engine, then once more leaned over the side of the car.

"What did you think of that for a beard?" she asked. "And the rest of it—wasn't it awful?"

"Now don't you begin, lady," Donovan replied wearily. "If I hear any more about that beard and its owner I'll go off my nut and tie this traffic up in knots."

"Somebody should do that to the beard," said the woman as she drove slowly away.

Donovan turned and encountered the wild gaze of the pedestrian.

"Are you still here?" asked the policeman.

"Sure," replied the pedestrian. "Where had we got to about that beard?"

Like a soul in anguish, Officer Donovan shrilled on his whistle, his arms waving wildly. From four directions traffic rolled at him.

"You and your everlasting beard," he flung at the pedestrian.

"It's not my beard," the other protested. "If you hadn't called my attention to it I might never have seen that beard."

"Well," retorted Donovan, "wasn't it something to see?"

"It was too much to see," said the pedestrian. "I don't owe you a thing. The next time you want to show me something pick out a good shaft."

"Do you mean a leg?" asked Donovan. "I do," replied the other.

"Then you ought to be ashamed."

The pedestrian laughed sarcastically.

"I'd a damned sight rather feel ashamed," he said, "than be upset for the rest of the day."

"So would I," agreed Donovan. "That's just the way I feel—all upset."

His subsequent handling of traffic fully proved the truth of his words. By the time he was relieved for his luncheon there had been four minor accidents and one major. In justice to Officer Donovan it should be mentioned that he gave no offender a ticket, ascribing everything that happened to the bearded corpse that had come back to get a shave.

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