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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


A Dirty Man Digs His Grave

HAD Quintus Bland been a horse or even a rabbit, it would have been an easy matter to lure him from his coffin through the trifling inducement of carrots. And it would have been a better thing for Mr. Bland, because carrots are good for one's health, whereas, we are told, whisky is not. On the other hand, it has never been successfully established that carrots elevate the soul. Incontrovertibly whisky does, assuming the subject has a soul to elevate. One cannot eat a carrot, then almost immediately burst into loud song, or dance with rugged abandon. Yet if one but consumes an equal displacement of whisky one can achieve both of these feats even though one has never attempted them before.

The suggestion of carrots to Mr. Bland, reclining in 1007-A, and clad in the tightest of raiment, would have been revolting. It might have driven the man mad or broken his heart. The mere hope of a drink of whisky caused him to scramble out of what threatened to become his permanent habitation with even greater alacrity than he had shown on entering it. This came to pass only after he was convinced that he possessed within himself the last drop in his bottle.

It was not a pretty sight nor an edifying one to see Quintus Bland draping his long naked body over the side of the coffin, yet it did show perseverance.

"I'm not sure that you did him a favour, Mr. Brown, when you dragged on those drawers," observed a critical Lorna as she and the mortician sat watching Mr. Bland's heroic efforts. "No," she continued, "I'm sure you didn't. There might have been something primitively appealing had you left him entirely naked, but those drawers deprive the man of his last shred of dignity. Regard how they hang askew."

"Will you please go to hell?" Mr. Bland mildly asked his wife as soon as his feet touched the floor. "But before going be so good as to give me a drink."

"Not," she told him, "until you've removed that lovely little beard. It's dangling from your left ear. If you strapped it about your waist you'd look like a Scotch highlander."

"Must I go through all this for the sake of a mere drink?" inquired Mr. Bland.

"Men have gone through more," said Lorna and gave him a drink.

He drank the drink, returned the glass, and wanted to know if that was all. Deep in her eyes as Lorna looked up at her husband was a veiled glow of affection. She handed him a fresh bottle.

"Fanny," she said, "has telephoned for a carload."

Mr. Brown swayed over to the coffin and peered into its depth. Then he extracted an empty bottle therefrom and returned to his chair. He appeared to be in a thoughtful mood.

"What I'd like to settle," he said after a moment's reflection, "is just this: is that your coffin or is it my coffin?"

"An interesting point," said Mr. Bland. "Tell me, Brown, is the coffin greatly damaged?"

"Somewhat crushed," Mr. Brown admitted. "Sort of thumbed and fingered here and there, and then it is stained with whisky in spots, but fairly speaking, it is still a top-notch article."

"I loved it," said Mr. Bland, wistfully.

"Couldn't it be sold as a second-hand coffin?" asked Lorna.

"Who ever heard of a second-hand coffin?" Mr. Brown wanted to know.

"That's just the point," replied Lorna. "If nobody has ever heard of a second-hand coffin, that fact might make it easier to sell one."

"Even to me," declared Mr. Brown, "the idea is unpleasant. Imagine. A second-hand coffin. Gracious."

"Perhaps you're right," Lorna admitted. "It would be hard to find a second-hand body to fill it."

"All bodies are second-hand after they've once been used," observed Mr. Bland. "Just like automobiles."

"That's ridiculous," protested Lorna. "My body is better to-day than it ever was."

"Did you ever try to sell it?" asked Mr. Brown, crudely.

"I'd like to kick a hole in your damned old coffin," Lorna retorted, viciously.

"I defy you to kick a hole in that coffin," said Mr. Brown, quite blandly. "The thing is practically bullet-proof, and besides that, who said it was my coffin?"

"Well, it isn't our coffin," declared Lorna. "I wouldn't let Quintus get buried in it, as much as I'd like to see the last of him."

"Have you definitely decided not to die?" the mortician asked, turning to Mr. Bland.

"Sorry, old man," said Mr. Bland. "I think it would be better if I didn't."

"Then don't let's think about it for the present," Mr. Brown suggested, wearily. "The problem bewilders me."

"Right is right," put in Lorna, for no particular reason.

"I find that vague," said Brown. "Let's change the subject."

Fanny changed it for them. She entered the room on tiptoe, then uttered a little scream upon seeing Mr. Bland. Since the removal of his beard he had taken a fancy to a Paisley shawl which he was now wearing toga fashion like some lean and debauched Roman emperor.

"I thought he was in that," said Fanny, motioning to the coffin.

"He was," Mr. Brown replied, calmly, "but he's back again."

"Should he remove the shawl, Fanny?" Lorna asked, darkly. "Has he got too much on?"

"Goodness, no, Mrs. Bland," replied the passionate maid. "I've seen enough of him."

"I should say so," agreed Lorna. "You couldn't have seen any more of a man unless you encountered a freak with three legs, or a double stomach, or an extra toe here and there."

"I don't like that kind, Mrs. Bland," confessed Fanny with the utmost simplicity.

"I'm glad you're not greedy," observed Mrs. Bland. "Did you come in here to view the old familiar body, or what?"

"I might have taken a squint at it," the maid admitted, "but that's not why I came."

"Are we supposed to guess," asked Mr. Bland, "or would you like to tell us?"

Fanny regarded her master with a pair of smouldering eyes which fairly tore off the Paisley shawl and flung it in a corner, then she turned back to Lorna.

"The stuff has come, Mrs. Bland," she said. "I thought you might be needing it for your little celebration, but now I see you've no occasion to celebrate."

"All women are wenches," observed Mr. Bland, tossing his remark somewhere in the general direction of 1007-A.

"All this bickering is making me feel decidedly uncomfortable," Mr. Brown complained. "Why not send this lush young filly for another bottle? She's doing me no good as she is."

"Fanny," said Lorna, "bring the gentleman a bottle. We must handle our leading mortician with kid gloves. Personally, I wouldn't touch him with tongs."

Alarming chemical changes were taking place beneath the Paisley shawl. Fanny, glancing in that direction, unleashed a series of short, sharp shrieks. They ended abruptly in speech.

"He's back!" she cried. "The skeleton—Señor Toledo. Oh, look! How did he do it? I'll go for the bottles."

"Bring 'em all in," Mr. Brown shouted after the speeding maid, then turning to look at the horror lurking beneath the Paisley shawl, he said severely: "For God's sake, man, why don't you ring a bell or blow a horn before you do a thing like that?"

"It's positively indecent the way that man sneaks into a skeleton," complained Lorna. "If I were going to be a skeleton I'd writhe and gnash and make noises of a distinctly unpopular nature. Now I do need a drink."

"Oh, damn," said Mr. Bland. "Oh, damn, damn, damn. How I hate it all. And just as we were getting on so well together."

There was a note of real tragedy in his voice. Lorna glanced at him quickly and for no reason at all felt a catch at her throat.

"If we can stand you, old comrade," she said, "you should make an effort to stand yourself."

"But can't you see," he explained in a low voice. "I'm so damned different from you all, so cut off and useless."

"Oh, look," said Lorna, pointing. "Enter totteringly: the world's most passionate maid, bearing an armful of pretty bottles."

"Give me a pretty bottle," muttered the Paisley shawl.

When Mr. Bland rose to find the corkscrew the effect was immense. The shawl dropped from him, and he stood in all his bony structure, clad only in his drawers. Fanny hastily put down the bottles, so poignant were her emotions. Mr. Brown was fascinated beyond speech. He merely stared at Mr. Bland and gulped. The wife of the skeleton was prey to mingled emotions. On the whole she decided she would rather not look at him for a moment.

"If you have any pity in your ribs," she said at last, "you'll remove those drawers without further delay."

"They're coming off unassisted," Mr. Bland informed her. "They invariably do when I am in this condition."

"And I for one don't blame them," observed Mr. Brown with feeling.

"But suppose I should suddenly turn back?" asked Mr. Bland.

"Then we'll turn ours," said Lorna. "Any sight is preferable to a skeleton in drawers. Just be yourself for a while. We've all been through such a lot."

"Is eating an exploded theory in this house?" asked Mr. Brown. "If we keep drinking on empty stomachs we will soon be unable to drink at all, and that would be just too bad."

"Oh, yes," said Lorna, vaguely, "we occasionally glimpse food. That is to say, we used to before this binge started years and years ago. When did it start, anyway?"

"When you brought home a badly painted picture of a cow," Mr. Bland told his wife. "Before that cow we were fairly respectable, or seemed to be on the surface."

"And now you haven't any surface," said Mr. Brown, "and I'm no longer respectable. Let's eat."

"Oh, yes," said Lorna, returning suddenly from a fit of abstraction. "Fanny, please tell cook to prepare a few solids. It doesn't matter much what they are as long as they're composed of food."

"Is Fanny a servant in this house," asked Mr. Brown when the passionate maid had departed, "or is she a sort of unofficial observer? At one time you treat her like a servant, at another like a hated rival."

"She's a misplaced harlot, if you want my opinion," declared Lorna, "but I've a yen for the wench. She's so refreshingly depraved she keeps me from growing stale. A respectable servant in this house would soon give notice. Cook drinks and steals and tells dirty stories. Whenever I get lonely I go out to the kitchen and she tells me a new one. She gets them from the iceman, the milkman, and such like. When she has stolen so much of our silver we can't set the table she gradually gives it back, or rather lends it to us for a while. Name of Blunt. Our occasional gardener is a self-confessed hop-head. Sometimes his hands shake so violently he can dig and weed in half the time it would take a normal man. When he's full of snow he's no good at all. Spends his time leaping hedges and playing he's a butterfly. Want to know his name?"

"What shall I do with these drawers?" asked Mr. Bland, holding the unlovely article up before his wife.

"What's that?" said Lorna, snapping out of her lyrical outburst.

"Drawers," replied Mr. Bland.

"I didn't say they weren't," said Lorna. "Do you want me to put them on?"

"No. What shall I do with them?"

Lorna thought deeply.

"I've got it," she said at last. "Get the beard and wrap it up in the drawers, then take the little bundle and tuck it away somewhere where it will be handy. One can never tell when one will need a beard or a pair of drawers. Personally, I never wear either."

Mr. Bland looked at Mr. Brown. Both men nodded comprehendingly. The lady of the house was bottle dizzy. It was a good way to be. Both drank deeply, then silence settled over the room. Fanny came in with the solids, which were dispatched in a somewhat impromptu and casual manner.

"Does coffee make you sober?" Lorna wanted to know.

"Nothing makes you sober," said Mr. Brown, "after you've drunk as much as we have."

"Then I'll drink mine," she declared. "What hour is it?

"It's been late for a long time," said Mr. Brown.

"How late?

"Varying stages."

"Can't I pin you down?"

"It's eleven now," said Mr. Brown, struggling with his watch.

"Do you come with the coffin?" Lorna inquired. "I mean, if we decide to keep the coffin do we have to take you with it?"

"No," replied Mr. Brown. "But I'll come and visit it often."

Suddenly the skeleton of Bland rose with an air of tragic resolution.

"I've had enough of this," came hollowly from the skull. "I might as well be dead. I'm going out and bury myself in the backyard."

"Great!" cried Lorna. "A swell idea. Let's all go out to the backyard and dig a big grave."

"I know a lot about graves," said Mr. Brown.

"I'll be head digger."

"Then come along," commanded Mr. Bland. "The sooner I'm underground the better it will be for all concerned. Things can't go on like this. Snap out the lights and bring some bottles. There are picks, shovels, crowbars, spades, clippers, a lawn mower, and a very nice garden hose, not to mention various other useful and instructive implements, in the tool shed."

"Can't very well dig a grave with a garden hose," said the experienced Mr. Brown.

"I'm aware of that," Mr. Bland replied. "I was merely thinking of all the things I'm going to leave behind me."

"We can chuck a few in with you," Lorna suggested, happily.

"Why not on me?" asked Mr. Bland.

"Don't worry," Lorna assured him. "We'll dig you a swell grave. Funny thing, I never thought of digging a grave before. Think of all the graves I've left undug. Never be able to catch up now, but I'll do my best with this one. I'll dig and I'll dig and I'll—

"For the love of God," cried Mr. Bland, "don't go on about it. Isn't there any pity in you? Aren't you at all sorry I'm going underground?"

"Naturally, my little subway," said Lorna, taking a swig from the nearest bottle. "Terribly. But the thrill of digging a grave at night is almost adequate compensation for the loss of a husband who is two-thirds gone already."

The skeleton of Mr. Bland stalked with dignity from the room.

By the light of a lantern they opened operations. Mr. Brown stepped back and measured Mr. Bland with a sharp, appraising eye, humming softly the while.

"About six foot one and a half," he murmured. "Better make it about seven. Give him plenty of room."

"Oh, I must have plenty of room," said Mr. Bland. "If there's anything I detest it's a skimpy grave."

"Are we going to bury him head down or feet-first?" Lorna wanted to be told.

"What do you mean?" asked Mr. Bland, shrinking a little from her.

"Well," she explained. "I was thinking of digging a sort of hole so we wouldn't spoil so much garden."

"God! Did you hear that?" exclaimed Mr. Bland, turning to the mortician. "Even if I am a skeleton I deserve some consideration. Think of it! Head down."

"It was just an idea," said Lorna.

"A shocking idea," said her husband. "Horrible."

After half an hour's steady digging considerable work had been done and considerable liquor consumed. Lorna insisted the grave was quite deep enough.

"You wouldn't want Busy to be scratching me up every other day, would you?" Mr. Bland demanded.

"No," admitted Lorna.—"Although I wouldn't mind seeing you, or parts of you, from time to time, knocking about the lawn."

"Damn me if I'm going to talk to you any more," said Mr. Bland. "Every time you speak you say something more repulsive."

"I don't mean to," replied Lorna.

"That's just the trouble. That makes it worse."

"Well, we could put a lot of stones on top. How would that do?"

"Rotten. I want a regular grave or no grave at all."

"Okay," said Lorna. "One more drink, then we'll all set to work."

"I would like the subject to lie down in there, if he would be so good," came the highly professional voice of Mr. Brown. "It would be just as well to see that the dimensions are correct before we proceed further."

"A good idea," declared Lorna. "I'd like to try on that grave myself, I can throw in that old piece of canvas to keep my dress clean."

That was the first sight that smote Officer Kelley's eyes as he sneaked round a corner of the house and stood watching in the shadows. And it was almost the last sight, for Kelley, in spite of his stout heart, did not hold with graves and skeletons and burials by night.

"Mother of God," he murmured, piously crossing himself. "A skeleton, no less. Now, are they putting him in the ground or taking the poor soul out, I wonder?"

He momentarily turned away to see that a retreat was open. When he turned back again he received even a greater shock. A young and beautiful woman was lying in the grave, while the skeleton, bottle in hand, was standing in a nonchalant attitude, conversing with the town's leading mortician.

"I was never born to look on sights the likes of this," moaned Kelley under what little breath he had. "First the skeleton gets into the grave, then the photographer's wife—'twill be the undertaker's turn next. A bad black game it is they're playing this night."

"It's nice down here," said Lorna. "I love it."

"Golly," muttered Kelley. "She loves it, no less."

"When I go down," said Mr. Bland, "I'm going to take you with me."

Kelley began to sweat frankly and freely. He was facing a terrific problem. If the photographer's wife wanted to get herself buried alive with a long, lanky skeleton, did he, Kelley, have any right to stop her? On the other hand, if he let that black-hearted undertaker cover up the woman, he, Kelley, would be allowing murder to be done before his very eyes. Of one thing alone Officer Kelley was sure: the sooner that skeleton was buried the better he would feel.

Then things started to happen. The skeleton, still holding the bottle, climbed down into the grave. He gave the photographer's wife a drink, then took one himself.

"For the last time," Kelley heard the skeleton say, and every bead of sweat on Kelley's body paused on its way to listen. "One more drink, Brown," continued the skeleton, "then let the clods fly."

This was too much for Kelley. With a cry more of horror than command he lumbered towards the grave.

"No more funny business," he shouted. "In the name of the law."

In the tail end of one of those well-known split seconds the backyard became the scene of kaleidoscopic activity. The sudden appearance of Officer Kelley together with the great, unfriendly noises he made completely unnerved Mr. Bland. He sprang from the grave, and with him sprang his wife, no less impressed by Officer Kelley and the things he was going to do, for Kelley, when once in action, was a man of vocal as well as physical fury.

No sooner had the four feet of the two Blands touched the brink of the grave than they started in to show Officer Kelley what feet could do when thoroughly alarmed. Finding himself confronting either one of two disagreeable prospects—solitude or Officer Kelley—mortician Brown dropped his spade and made all possible speed to overtake, if not pass, the flying couple ahead. In the rear, but not far enough to satisfy Mr. Brown, plunged the bellowing Kelley himself.

"If he keeps up making that noise," thought the speeding Brown, "he'll soon drop in his tracks."

With faith rather than confidence the mortician followed the Blands. They rounded a corner on even terms and continued along the side of the house. In the heart of Mr. Bland beat a frantic prayer to the gods of all dead and active religions that he should not fall. Fear for the safety of his brittle structure caused him to exert caution, which enabled Mr. Brown to overtake him.

"He may have a gun," panted Mr. Bland.

"He damn' well has," wheezed Brown.

The three flying grave diggers rounded another corner and sped across the front lawn.

"This is no place to be," Mr. Bland explained.

"For neither of us," said Mr. Brown.

As they rounded the next turn, they almost ran into Lorna.

"Where have you been?" she said. "I've been waiting for you."

"Well, wait no longer," gasped her husband. "There's a man with a gun behind us."

"Bullets would pass clean through your ribs," said Mr. Brown, enviously.

"I wish I were sure of that," replied Mr. Bland. "If a bullet hits my pelvis I'll shatter like a flower pot."

On through the night zoomed the slow-footed Kelley.

"Think of me chasing a skeleton," he thought, proudly. "If the damn' fool only knew it I'd fall over backwards if he even so much as turned about."

In the meantime those he sought had returned to their original point of departure.

"Don't think I can make another lap," Mr. Brown informed them.

"Damned if I'm going to be circling my own house the whole night long," declared Mr. Bland.

"Let's all jump in the grave," suggested Lorna. "He might not think of looking there."

At that critical moment the slanting door to the cellar miraculously opened.

"In here," came the voice of Fanny. "Quickly!"

And in there they went so very, very quietly that they failed to close the door behind them.

When Kelley had completed the circuit, he looked about him in mystification; then, spying the open door, he, too, descended into utter darkness.

For a full minute the room was filled with the sound of heavy breathing, but no movement was made, owing to the fact that both pursuer and pursued were incapable of making any. Nor did it at all appeal to Officer Kelley to pass the remainder of the night in a dark cellar with an active if timid skeleton. The thing might suddenly show a change of front and start in searching for him with those long, bony arms. In spite of this gloomy outlook Kelley was reluctant to give up the pursuit. He had worked too hard in his circuit of the house to abandon the field now.

While the officer was having his bad time in the darkness, Fanny, with great presence of mind, guided Lorna and Mr. Brown to the stairs leading up to the kitchen.

"Hide in the living-room," she whispered. "He'll be afraid of the coffin."

"Like hell," mumbled Mr. Brown. "If a skeleton doesn't faze him he'll probably cut his initials in the sides of 1007-A."

When Fanny returned to fetch the skeleton, her groping hands encountered bare flesh. With a supreme effort Mr. Bland stifled a shocked scream. Not so Fanny. Hers fled through the cellar and did terrible things to Officer Kelley's spine.

"Oh, my," said Fanny. "Are you all naked?"

"What's that?" demanded Kelley, outraged in spite of his fear. "I was never naked."

"How do you do it?" called Fanny. "Are your clothes sewed on?"

"You brazen-mouthed baggage," Kelley retorted. "I'd like to run you in."

A third voice was heard.

"If you don't take your hands away," said Mr. Bland, "I'll give myself up to the officer."

"What's that?" demanded Kelley. "Who's talking now?"

"It is I, the skeleton, who speaks," said Mr. Bland.

"Then don't give yourself up to me," said Kelley. "I don't want any part of you."

"How did you get that way?" Fanny asked Mr. Bland.

"What way?" he parried.

"You know—the way you are."

"What way is he, lady?" Kelley wanted to know.

"Oh, you're fired!" came the explosive voice of Mr. Bland. "Don't do that again."

"I'm going to run in the lot of you," said Kelley suddenly, but without enthusiasm.

"You can begin with me," said Mr. Bland.

"Go back to your grave," urged Kelley. "That's where you belong."

For some minutes he had been fingering his flashlight, wondering whether or not it would be wise to use it. He was frankly afraid of what he might see. Now he decided to take a chance. Its beam revealed a naked man, struggling to escape from a strange woman.

"For shame," cried Officer Kelley. "Where did the both of you come from?"

"Does it matter?" cried Mr. Bland in desperation. "Can't you see I'm busy? Turn off that damned light."

Officer Kelley did so for the good of his own soul. The moment the light went out Mr. Bland made a dash for the kitchen stairs, Fanny crowding him for first place. He quickly achieved the top and ran through the kitchen, snatching up a dish towel on the way. It was dark in the living-room, and Bland was glad of that. He crept in quietly and concealed his new-found nakedness behind a large chair. Fanny tried to follow him, but he gave her a ruthless push. So Fanny crept somewhere else. Silence reigned in the room, yet there was a feeling of other hidden, breathless figures crouching in odd corners.

Presently in crept Kelley according to that stout officer's idea of creeping, which was, in reality, a ponderous shuffling of weary and heavy feet.

It was then an incident occurred that horrified not only Kelley but also everyone else in that silently crowded room. As he turned the beam of the torch upon the coffin, a pallid, inhuman head popped up over its side and two terrible eyes blazed in the darkness. The gasps and groans that filled the room served only to heighten the officer's demoralisation.

Dropping the torch with a cry of stark anguish, Kelley staggered stiffly from the room and slid through the front door with as much determination as Dolly Tucker had displayed several hours before him. No sooner had Kelley made his final exit then the thing in the coffin rose up still higher, then dropped with a thud to the floor.

"God! What is it?" cried Lorna. "I'm going into convulsions."

"Now I lay me down to sleep," came the pious voice of Fanny from a corner.

"All we can do is wait," mournfully said Mr. Brown. "Which one of us does it want, I wonder?"

"All," quoth Lorna, hopelessly.

Then came a sudden volley of short, sharp barks, followed by a series of playful bounds and pounces.

"Damn," said Mr. Bland. "The poor fish has got my towel." He rose and switched on the lights. "Will somebody kindly pass me my Paisley shawl? I've got my body back."

This announcement broke the tension. Lorna, Fanny, and Mr. Brown arose and stretched their cramped limbs. Lorna looked about her.

"If cook were only here," she said, "we'd have a full cast. Get us a drink, Fanny."

"What a hell of a place for a dog to sleep," Mr. Bland complained.

Busy was rushing from one to the other, giving each a frantic greeting.

"One dirty dog after another," Lorna told her husband. "They sleep in the same kennel."

"Now you'll have to buy that coffin," said Mr. Brown. "I might have overlooked his master, but I'll be damned if I will his dog, especially when the block-headed monster scares me nearly silly."

"We'll take that up later," replied Mr. Bland. "I've too much on my mind and too little on my body."

Lorna gave him the Paisley shawl. Fanny passed the drinks. Everyone felt much improved but too jaded to become convivial. Lorna was considering her husband through enigmatic eyes.

"You're the most volatile creature I've ever met," she said to Mr. Bland, "but now that you've got your body back we'd better hurry to bed." She paused to look at Fanny, then turned to Mr. Brown. "You," she went on, "can go to sleep on the sofa."

"Go to sleep on the sofa," Mr. Brown repeated, bitterly. "I'm going to die on the sofa. Nothing less will satisfy me."

"And you, Fanny," said Lorna. "Where are you going to sleep?"

"Alone," said the desolate Fanny. "Unless—"

Her mad eyes strayed appraisingly to Mr. Brown.

"Don't look at me that way," said that gentleman. "I tell you I'm going to die."

"Why don't you?" Fanny asked him. "You're long overdue."

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