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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


The Body is Viewed Without Favour

IT was Brown who shot fire through the frozen tableau. As drunk as he was, his brain and body functioned with startling rapidity. Like a seasoned football player he flung himself upon the body of a shocked and protesting Bland and bore him down into the depths of 1007-A. Even then Mr. Bland did not abandon the battle or, better still, the bottle. For a brief moment it was flourished aloft like the sword of a fallen chieftain, then it was deftly snatched from view by an extremely busy mortician. The next moment an amazing change came over the man. His still flushed face grew calm and assumed an expression of sorrow controlled by resignation. He clasped his hands in front of him in an attitude of silent prayer. He bowed his head slightly in humility and sorrow. In this posture he stood by the coffin and gazed down at its shocking contents with spellbound reverence.

What he actually contemplated was the entirely naked figure of a long, lank Quintus Bland, stretched out at full length with his horrid beard far off centre and completely concealing his mouth. While the eyes of Mr. Bland glared up malevolently at Mr. Brown, the beard puffed and bellowed wickedly as the hot breath of its wearer surged indignantly through its strands.

Looking down on this weird yet formidable figure, Mr. Brown could not help thinking how much more colourful his life would be if the corpses he did business with had only one-tenth of the spunk and animation of the unlovely body now stretched out before him. Also, the distressing thought occurred to him that if that alarmingly active beard crept up a little higher Mr. Bland stood in imminent danger of becoming a corpse in reality through the simple process of suffocation.

While Mr. Brown was occupied with his varied reflections, Lorna was doing her bit in another direction. Flying to her sister, the stunned Mrs. Tucker, she fell so heavily on that lady's neck that both of them nearly collapsed to the floor. Lorna's breath alone would have floored a much stronger woman than the one now staggering under her sudden assault.

Meanwhile Mr. Tucker, a man of an observant eye and an inquiring disposition, having rallied from the first shock, was about to advance into the room to investigate the situation. Surely, he decided, if any situation deserved investigation, this one did.

Lorna was quick to sense his intentions. Immediately she took steps. She gave her sister a violent push backwards, thus further removing her from the coffin and its inmate, then hurled herself into the arms of her brother-in-law. The man had no other choice than to catch hold of her. Otherwise she would have crashed to his feet.

For a moment, at least, the advance of the Tuckers was checked. Lorna needed time to parley with them. In the back of her mind she wondered if the drunken mortician possessed sufficient sense to throw something over the naked reaches of her equally drunken husband. If not, she hoped he had flipped Mr. Bland over on his stomach. An unconventional posture for a corpse, perhaps, but one which would cover a multitude of sins, including that desperate beard. She could tell the Tuckers that it was being done in Hollywood, or that it had been her husband's last request.

"Lorna," he had said, "bury me on my stomach. I've always slept that way."

Such mad thoughts flashed through her distracted mind before she regained the ability to express herself in words. When she did they came in great quantities.

To her surprising expressions of sorrow Dolly, who had always been dumb, could find no adequate reply. Also, she was too deeply engrossed in adjusting the disarranged garments which her emotional sister had half dragged off her body. Not so Mr. Tucker. He was smelling rats in ever-increasing numbers.

"I say, old girl," he said, "this is a terrible shock. Is it—is it—?

"Yes, Frank," Lorna broke in, "it's Quintie. Little Quintie—the dirty old dog."

Frank considered this information while delicately sniffing a familiar odour on the air.

"Was it sudden, old girl?" he asked.

"Was it sudden?" repeated Lorna, enthusiastically, snapping her fingers. "Like that. Just like a snowball in hell. The mortician is adjusting him now. What a man!"

"Adjusting him?" said Frank. "Looked more to me as if he were wrestling with him when we came in."

"No, Frank, you're wrong," declared Lorna. "Quintie was a punk wrestler."

Deep in 1007-A, Quintie was chewing his beard in rage while Mr. Brown pressed two reverent hands heavily down on his chest.

"Are you burying him with a bottle?" asked Frank. "I could have sworn I saw him holding one in his hand."

"We were thinking of it, Frank dear," said Lorna. "He was such a lovable sot. Seldom did he have a bottle out of his hand or two inches from his mouth. And what a mouth! Just like a split watermelon."

At this, Mr. Bland's mouth did split just like a watermelon as he fairly devoured his beard. From the depth of the coffin issued low, gurgling sounds, horrible to hear.

"That's the mortician," said Lorna, quickly "He's intoning a prayer for the drunk, or the dead, it doesn't matter which. Both are helpless. If the mortician couldn't intone he couldn't mort. He doesn't do it so well, does he? I think he's a little mad."

Upon hearing this, Mr. Brown felt inclined to allow the demented occupant of 1007-A to escape with his beard and his nakedness. "After all," thought Brown, "this is none of my affair." However, he still pressed down for the simple reason that he was not so sure that he himself would not be the first object of Mr. Bland's attack.

"What's that fellow doing?" Frank Tucker suddenly asked. "Looks like he's kneading the body of good old Blandie."

Dolly Tucker gave a little scream at this. She was still too shocked to speak.

"Needing him?" asked Lorna, puzzled. "Oh, yes, he needs the body. He needs it for his business. Money in the pocket, you know."

"But, Lorna, dear," said Dolly, made vocal by weariness from having stood so long in the hall, "won't you even allow us to view the remains and then sit quietly down somewhere? You act and talk so strangely. I'm sure you need a little comfort and consolation."

"I'd rather have a drink," replied Lorna. "That's all I've lived on since the world's worst photographer passed out."

Part of the statement was true. Lorna was so deep in her cups and so angry with her husband that she had deliberately set out to torture him. She was succeeding far beyond her fondest expectations. Her only regret was that she could not peer down into 1007-A and enjoy his reactions. What right had he to bring a great, hulking coffin into her house and reveal himself naked in that beard? If he thought he was funny, well, she would be funny, too.

On his part Frank Tucker now knew that something was definitely wrong with the whole queer business. The one thing that gave him pause was the presence of that huge and obviously expensive coffin. The situation amused as well as puzzled him. And he knew that the wild ravings of his sister-in-law sprang more from a bottle than from a grief-stricken heart.

In the living-room Mr. Brown had developed a new and improved line of strategy. Instead of holding Mr. Bland down by brute force, he was now letting a bottle do it for him.

"Will you stay here quietly and take off that beard if I give you a bottle?" he had asked Mr. Bland.

"I'll lie here quietly," that gentleman had replied, "but I won't take off the beard."

"Why won't you take off the beard?" Mr. Brown had whispered.

"I don't know myself," Mr. Bland had whispered back. "I've an odd feeling the thing has taken root and become a part of my chin. Anyway, most of it is in my mouth, and I can't get it out."

"Very well, then," Mr. Brown had replied passionately. "Keep your damned beard, but for God's sake don't pop up."

Mr. Bland had kept his beard and had not popped up. Now he was incapable of popping, except of popping the bottle through the beard whenever he found the strength. All signs pointed to a speedy return to slumber.

With so much freedom on his tired hands Mr. Brown, having found the residence of the bottles, was doing a little popping on his own account. This he did by stealth in an obscure corner of the room.

Lorna had at last allowed Dolly and Frank to sit down. They were now in the dining-room, where they were having a little of something wet, wetness being Lorna's one and only idea of hospitality. Beyond this her mind could not penetrate. It made entertaining simpler and happier.

"When are you going to bury him?" Dolly was asking.

Lorna gulped.

"At the full of the moon," she said.

"My God!" exclaimed Frank. "The moon won't be full for two weeks."

"Well," replied Lorna, "you know how time flies. I was never one for rushing things myself."

Fanny, the passionate maid, appeared with Busy.

"Oh, Fanny," said Lorna, "did the dog howl just before?"

"Before what, madam?" asked the puzzled Fanny.

"Don't be dull, girl," said Lorna. "Before his master passed out?"

"Why, no, madam," replied the startled Fanny, who had been absent from the house during most of the afternoon.

"Then he's no sort of dog at all," said Lorna. "All decent dogs howl just before and frequently during. And Fanny, keep him away from the body. He might try to play with it. I wouldn't mind if the beast wasn't so rough. It's a bother to have to keep doing a body over and over again. Mr. Brown, the mortician, is a charming man, but they tell me he does get impatient with his bodies. He might give this body the gate."

Fanny looked completely dazed. For once her arrogant pride of sex seemed to desert her.

"When did the master die, Mrs. Bland?" she managed to get out.

"About an hour after he had chased you downstairs," Lorna maliciously informed the maid. "Remember, Fanny? He was all naked and howling. Perhaps that's why that square dog didn't howl. He probably thought there'd been enough howling in the house for one day. The doctor said the poor man died from thwarted passion, and you know what that means. But I don't hold it against you, Fanny. You had your housework to do and you very creditably thought of duty first. However, I hope it teaches you a lesson, my girl. I hope it does. Never keep a man waiting. He might die on your hands. And then where would you be? I ask you. You'd be without a man, and that is just no place. We must have our men, my girl, in spite of the fact that they're all scum, including Frank Tucker. Oh, my heart is breaking. That's all, Fanny. I'll be seeing you. Where are you going, Dolly?"

Dolly turned on her sister indignantly.

"I'm going in to poor Quintus," she said. "Someone should be with him for the sake of decency. And then I'm going home. Lorna, I hate to say it, but you're either out of your mind or you're a very, very wicked woman. Come, Frank. I won't permit her to call you names."

Frank rose and looked down at Lorna, who solemnly winked up at him. Frank grinned and followed his wife from the room, as husbands have been doing ever since doors were invented.

"You can have the last word," Lorna called after Dolly. "Mine would raise the roof. But mark me well, sister. If you're going to look at Quintus for the sake of decency, I shudder to think of what you'd look at for the sake of fun."

"Now, I wonder, Frank," said Dolly, "just what she meant by that?"

Dolly soon found out.

Mr. Brown had continued his popping until he could pop no longer. He now sat slumbering gently beside the glistening flank of his well-loved 1007-A. Within the coffin its temporary resident had popped himself into even deeper oblivion. Momentarily he was, to all intents and purposes, as nearly dead as a man can well afford to be. Fortunately, before his final collapse, Mr. Brown had exhibited the decency if not the good taste to find Mr. Bland's drawers and to help him to put them on.

Upon the entrance of Frank and Dolly Tucker, Mr. Brown awoke and made a feeble attempt to rise. This effort failing, he made the best of a bad situation and waved a welcoming hand to his visitors.

"May we view the body now?" asked Dolly in a hushed voice.

"Whose body?" asked Mr. Brown.

"Why, the deceased's, of course," replied Dolly.

"Well, I'm nearly dead myself," Mr. Brown affably informed her. "I didn't know. One body to me is about as bad as another."

In spite of himself Frank Tucker could not suppress a low laugh. Dolly was shocked. She was even a little frightened.

"Frank," she murmured. "I'm ashamed. You're as bad as Lorna."

"Sorry, dear," he said. "It's nerves. Death always makes me giddy."

Turning icily from her husband, Dolly made another try at Mr. Brown, who by this time had managed to get himself back to sleep.

"Mr. Brown," she began.

"What's that? What's that," he said in a startled voice. "Has the prisoner escaped?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Dolly replied, desperately.

"Doubt if I do myself," said Brown. "Please state your business, madam. Do you want a baby carriage?"

"No, Mr. Brown," said Dolly with sweet patience. "Have you finished with Mr. Bland?"

"My God, yes," Mr. Brown replied with more vigour than he had yet shown. "He's nearly ruined me. It's been the toughest job I've ever tackled."

"Then may we look at him?" continued Dolly, striving to hide her horror of the man.

"If you want a good laugh, yes," said Brown. "I can't stand the sight of him myself."

Once more Mr. Brown drifted off to sleep. With a shudder Dolly turned away and approached the coffin. Taking her husband's arm and assuming a sort of hushed, tense expression, she gazed down upon Mr. Bland. Then her expression stiffened and solidified. She looked as if she would never lose it. A small, fluttering cry escaped her lips.

"The beard makes up for a lot," murmured Frank. "Have you noticed it?"

"But, Frank," breathed Dolly, "it's growing all wrong. It's—it's—it's a frightful beard. That man should be a butcher instead of a mortician."

"Do you smell anything, Dolly?" asked Frank.

"Whisky," gasped Dolly.—"He reeks of it."

"And he still has some left," said Frank, pointing to a bottle clutched in the hand of the corpse.

"I just won't permit that," declared Dolly. "Even if it isn't any of my business."

"His beard still seems to have a spark of life left in it," observed her husband. "Notice how it sways gently as if fanned by a light breeze."

"Do you think—" said Dolly as she reached for the bottle. "Can it be—" she continued, taking a firm grip on the bottle itself.

While she was thus engaged, Frank Tucker placed his forefinger experimentally on the tip of Mr. Bland's nose. This action, together with the threatened loss of his property, produced a startling manifestation in the corpse. With a loud sneeze he blew his beard down to his chin. At the same moment he half rose in his coffin.

"What the hell!" said Mr. Bland.

It was the most awful moment in Dolly's life. With a shriek that frightened Mr. Bland still further out of the coffin, and Mr. Brown completely out of his chair, Dolly fled from the room and from the house. She was followed reluctantly by her husband, as husbands often, if not always, do.

"Would you mind telling me," said Mr. Bland, addressing himself to a startled Brown, "just what the hell all this is about?"

"I'm not sure," said Brown, "but I think you've just had callers."

"Thank God they're gone," Lorna remarked, coolly, strolling into the room with a glass in her hand.

"That's the only point upon which we agree, you little viper," retorted her husband.

"Go on, be a skeleton for us, Quintie," she amiably jeered back. "We need some fun."

Even Mr. Brown disapproved a little of some of Mr. Bland's subsequent remarks to his wife.

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