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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


1007-A Pays a Social Call

WHEN the wide front door of the Bland residence moved ominously open, Lorna was rising from a solitary luncheon. Solitary, that is, save for the unresponsive presence of a collapsed and deflated Busy who, an hour or so earlier, like a singed bat out of hell, had come streaking up the drive in a high state of nerves.

For a while thereafter the square dog had conducted himself in a suspicious and alarming manner. With mounting anxiety his mistress had watched him alternately staggering and creeping about the house, carefully avoiding dark corners and glancing over his shoulder as if some unseen and unwanted presence were silently stalking his tracks.

Finally Lorna found herself becoming as nervous as the dog. She began to wonder why the animal had returned home unescorted by his drunken and lecherous master. Also, she began to wonder about that fine fellow himself.

She was not long in finding out.

Through the front door four dark-clad gentlemen entered with a certain air of subdued briskness, bearing with them good old model 1007-A.

Following close upon the heels of his cherished coffin appeared a flushed, dishevelled, yet happily beaming Mr. Brown. The business in hand was dispatched quickly and quietly, yet not without a somewhat decently festive air. Before Lorna had had time to appreciate fully the inwardness of the events taking place in her home, she found herself in possession of one large and imposing coffin and one obviously drunken Mr. Brown, neither of which she wanted with any great degree of yearning.

Nevertheless she was interested if not gratified.

Hovering curiously in the door of the living-room, Lorna looked first upon the mortician and then upon the coffin. The coffin, she decided, was in far better condition. After industriously mopping his brow with a deep-bordered mourning handkerchief, Mr. Brown turned suddenly upon the lady of the house and held up a protesting hand.

"Now don't be morbid," he told her. "You couldn't get a better coffin if you tried, and besides, I'm sweating like a bull."

"Just how does a bull sweat?" asked Lorna, coolly.

"How should I know?" replied Mr. Brown a little impatiently. "Like anyone else, I suppose. Only on a larger scale."

"I've never seen a bull sweat on any scale at all," observed the woman.

"Then you haven't missed much," said Mr. Brown. "Although it might be worth watching, but don't tax me with it. Maybe bulls are sweatless for all I know, or maybe they sweat like—like —"

"A drunken mortician," suggested Lorna, sweetly.

"Eh, what's that?" he exclaimed. "Who's a drunken mortician?"

"You are," Lorna told him.

"I didn't come here to quarrel," said Mr. Brown with dignity. "So don't go on about it."

"You know," continued Lorna, her voice unpleasantly calm, "no matter how much I may crave and admire that coffin, Mr. Brown, you can't come swooping into my house and forcing the thing on me without any previous warning. I might die from the shock, and that coffin is far too large for me. I'd rattle around in the thing like a pea in a pod."

"Do you always run on like that?" asked Mr. Brown, not insultingly, but from an honest desire to know.

"More or less," said Lorna.

"More," contributed the coffin in a decided but muffled voice. "Never, never less. She always goes on and on and on—endlessly and tiresomely—fiendishly!"

Sleepily the voice droned itself into silence.

"Who said that?" demanded Mr. Brown before Lorna had time to put the same question to him.

"I don't know," she replied, "but whoever it was I'd like to wring his lying neck."

She advanced into the room and held a clenched fist directly over the coffin.

"Why his lying neck, madam?" Brown asked quickly to distract her attention.

"Why not his lying neck?" she snapped. "What else should I wring?"

"Far be it from me to say," said Mr. Brown, "but I might suggest his teeth—people lie through their teeth, you know."

"But people don't always have teeth," she retorted, "and they always have necks."

"Why not wring his hand?" he asked her.

"I don't know who he is," she said.

"You don't know who who is?" inquired Mr. Brown.

"You're very drunk," she assured him.

"Perhaps you're right," he admitted. "Is there anything in the house?"

"It's over there on the table," she said. "Help yourself and pour me one, if you don't mind."

"I don't mind," said Mr. Brown, simply.

"In fact, I'd rather like it."

He poured two drinks, gave one to Lorna. Then both sat down and thoughtfully surveyed the coffin.

"It's a lovely thing," she said at last. "Lovely."

"Exquisite," agreed Brown. "Would you care for one just like it, only smaller?"

"It would make the room too crowded," she said. "And besides, I couldn't afford it unless on partial payments."

"That might be arranged," said Mr. Brown. "You could sell the sofa to begin with."

Lorna considered this, then suggested another drink.

"Tell me," she said when she was given one. "Who is really going to get this coffin?"

"Eh!" Brown exclaimed. "I don't quite understand."

"I mean," she said, "that you've made a mistake, Mr. Brown."

"Of course, I have," he admitted. "I shipped Mr. Jessup to the World's Fair. That was an amusing blunder."

"Who's Mr. Jessup?" Lorna asked.

"I don't quite know myself," said Brown, in some perplexity, "but I'm given to understand he was one of my transient corpses."

"Do any of them stay with you permanently?"

"No corpse stays with me permanently," Brown declared with emphasis. "Not if I know it."

"I guess you'd know it," said Lorna.

"'Most anybody would," said Mr. Brown.

"Is this one going to stay permanently with me?" she asked him.

"That's up to you," he told her.

"Then I say no," she declared. "There are enough queer things in this house already."

"There's nothing queer about a corpse," said Mr. Brown.

"Not when it stays in its proper place," she answered. "But the middle of my best room is no proper place for a corpse. People would begin to talk."

"Let 'em," said Mr. Brown, largely. "Let 'em talk their blasted tongues off. If you want a corpse in your home there's no reason in the world why you shouldn't have your corpse—or a baker's dozen of corpses, if you care for so many."

"But I don't want one corpse in my home," she protested, "let alone a baker's dozen of them. By the way," she added, "just how could you make up a baker's dozen of corpses, Mr. Brown?"

"Quite simply," said Mr. Brown. "Just toss in an extra arm, or leg, or, for full measure, a good torso."

"Gr-r-r," came from the coffin. "How can they do it?"

"Did you hear that?" asked Lorna.

"No," lied Mr. Brown. "Is there a dog in the house?"

"Yes," replied Lorna.

"Then that explains it," said Brown.

"A baker's dozen of dogs wouldn't explain it to me," she declared. "There's something funny about that coffin. Who really owns it?"

"Your husband bought that coffin," said Mr. Brown.

"Then where is my husband?"

"Why, he's in the coffin," Brown told her. "I thought you knew that."

"Why in the world does he want to be in a stuffy old coffin?" asked Lorna.

"Why does anyone want to be in a coffin?" countered Mr. Brown.

"Damned if I know," said Lorna, frankly. "Do you, Mr. Brown?"

"All of my clients want to be in coffins," he replied.

Lorna laughed scornfully.

"They can't help themselves," she answered. "They have to be in coffins."

"Well," said Mr. Brown, "your husband is one of my clients."

"You mean to say," asked Lorna, "that my husband actually wanted to be in that coffin?"

"Couldn't keep him out of it," Brown declared, proudly. "He's crazy about that coffin—admires it quite sincerely."

"It's one thing to admire a coffin," said Lorna, "and quite another to crawl into one. Take me, for example. I admire that coffin, but I'd go to the most extreme lengths to keep myself out of it."

"You could be in far worse places," observed Mr. Brown, defensively.

"Perhaps," she admitted, "but in comparison with that coffin the foulest gutter would be a bed of roses to me."

"Yes?" said Mr. Brown, now thoroughly aroused. "And if you lay long in a foul gutter you'd jolly well need a coffin. What do you think of that?"

"It doesn't make any sense," she answered. "It takes a strong constitution to lie in a foul gutter."

"I never lay in a foul gutter," said Mr. Brown. "What sort of gutters do you lie in?"

"I've never lain in any gutter at all," he answered.

"Then," said Lorna, crushingly, "you don't know life."

"Life is not my business," remarked Mr. Brown. "I deal exclusively with death."

"Not when it comes to drinking," she retorted.

"I have my lighter moments," replied Brown. "For example, madam, I'd like to sell you a crib or a baby carriage."

"With my husband lying dead in that coffin?"

"That coffin," said Mr. Brown, "contains only one husband. There are lots of others knocking about."

"Your calling has corrupted your morals," declared Lorna. "If I thought for one moment you were making improper advances I'd be very much pleased."

"No, you wouldn't," said Mr. Brown. "Not with your husband lurking in that coffin. The lid isn't screwed down."

"Do you mean," she demanded, "my husband isn't quite dead?"

"He's a little more than dead," Mr. Brown assured her. "Your husband is already a skeleton."

"Then it isn't my husband at all," said Lorna. "That's Señor Toledo."

"My God!" cried Mr. Brown. "Have I made another mistake?"

"Let's go and see," she suggested. "Perhaps it is my husband after all."

"I hope to heaven it is," Brown declared, earnestly.

"Thanks for your kind wishes," was Lorna's tart reply. "Just for that I do hope it's Señor Toledo and that he died without a cent to pay for your old coffin."

"If it is that Toledo person," retorted Mr. Brown, "I'll yank him out of that coffin a darned sight faster than he ever got in it, mark my words."

"And I'd have you run in for body-snatching," Lorna calmly stated.

"How can you snatch a body," Mr. Brown wanted to know, "when this one consists entirely of bones?"

"That," said Lorna, "strikes me as taking an even unfairer advantage of the dead. A skeleton must be about the easiest type of body to snatch. The judge would want to know why you didn't pick on a body your size."

"Will you two please stop bickering about snatching my body?" demanded the coffin, and this time the voice though thick was by no means muffled.

Both Lorna and Mr. Brown looked up from their glasses to encounter a rare and awesome resurrection. Quintus Bland, clad in a flowing beard, was sitting up in his coffin and peering at them dimly out of sleep-laden eyes.

"Want a drink," announced Quintus Bland.

"I thought you said you put a skeleton in that coffin," said Lorna, turning on the dazed Mr. Brown.

"I didn't say I put one in," protested that worthy mortician. "I said a skeleton crawled in unaided, and I stand by that statement."

"Was he wearing that astonishing beard at the time?" she demanded.

"Am I not a skeleton any more?" Bland mildly inquired.

"I should say not," replied Lorna. "You're as naked as a coot, aside from that offensive bush."

"That being the case," reflected Mr. Bland aloud, "the beard should be a couple of feet longer, estimating conservatively."

"Get out of that coffin at once," snapped Lorna, "and remove that silly beard."

"That," observed her husband, "is an indecent suggestion."

"Indecent suggestions are the only kind you like or understand."

"I like them when it is the other party who does the suggesting," he replied, "or when it's mutual. If you, my love, will remove your frock I will gladly yank off my beard. The only thing that will get me out of this exceedingly comfortable coffin is the refusal of a drink."

Gratified by this glowing testimonial to 1007-A, Mr. Brown arose and presented Mr. Bland with the entire bottle.

"You look even better in it the way you are," said Brown, "than when you were a skeleton."

"That's saying a lot," replied Bland, eagerly plucking the bottle from the mortician's hand. "I've had a most refreshing little nap in this fascinating crib. If my wife were not so snooty, I'd take up the matter of removing our antiquated nuptial couch and substituting twin coffins instead."

"There's an idea in that," observed Mr. Brown. "Only it might be bad for my furniture business."

"I fully appreciate the point," said Mr. Bland. "People can hardly be buried in their beds, whereas they can be in their coffins. I withdraw the suggestion, old boy. At this stage in our so-called national recovery we must stimulate sales rather than retard them."

"Exactly," agreed Mr. Brown. "More people should go to bed, and many more should die."

"I suggest that both of you die," said Lorna. "Your loss would be a gain to the nation."

"Silence, woman!" commanded Mr. Bland, peering fiercely at her over his terrible beard. "If economists practised what they preached, there would be damned few economists, and I, for one, would be just as well pleased."

"Listen," said Lorna. "You've got me licked. I can't talk to you if you're going to keep wearing that homicidal-looking beard."

"Madam," Bland told her calmly, "this beard and coffin are indispensable to my happiness."

"They are most detrimental to mine," said Lorna. "That, together with the knowledge that I have an occasional skeleton for a husband."

"Would you prefer a skeleton to a dirty dog?" asked Mr. Bland, significantly.

"Both are equally objectionable," said Lorna.

"Yes, but if Señor Toledo had not gallantly saved you from your folly," Bland retorted, "you'd have been in a pretty fix, my dear young wench."

"You did it for your own selfish interests," Lorna replied. "You saved me for yourself."

"At the risk of breaking every bone in my body," supplied Mr. Bland. "Which reminds me, has your dear Phil fully recovered from his fright?"

"Why wash your dirty linen in public?" Lorna asked, evasively.

"As you can see," said Mr. Bland, "I haven't a scrap of linen about me, either clean or dirty. An old dish-rag would do me a world of good."

"What did you do with your clothes?"

"My apprentice embalmer," said Mr. Brown, "was trying them on a client when we left. A conscientious young man."

"I did have a pair of drawers," Bland wistfully observed, "but they must have got jolted off during the drive."

"I don't know what we're going to do about all this," lamented Lorna. "Here I find myself conversing with a drunken mortician and a naked and falsely bearded husband seated in a huge coffin in the middle of my best room. You can see for yourself it's unnatural. Suppose somebody should call?"

And that was precisely what somebody did at that inauspicious moment. Somebody called— two, in fact. They called to give Lorna a pleasant little surprise and were all brimming over with well-being and merriment. The surprise they gave was returned in full measure, but it was far from pleasant.

Finding the front door off the lock, Mr. and Mrs. Tucker, Lorna's brother-in-law and sister, crept into the house and continued creeping until they arrived at the door of the living-room. Here they stopped creeping. Had they possessed the power they probably would have crept backwards and as silently left the house. But the scene that confronted them robbed them of all powers for the moment. However, it could not stop Mrs. Tucker's set greeting. Not knowing what she was saying, she cried out in a dead voice: "Hello, everybody!"

"Who's that?" shouted Quintus Bland.

"How do I know?" said Mr. Brown.

"Dear God," quavered Lorna.

Then the scene became one of frenzied action.

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