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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


Dr. MacQuirk is Convinced

LIKE Busy, Dr. MacQuirk had had a bad night. He had lost a lot of sleep. Naturally, this offended his Scotch sense of thrift, which was offended by losing anything. Also, Dr. MacQuirk was, under the best conditions, a high-strung and nervous man. Loss of sleep increased these natural tendencies to such an extent that, had his patients known it, they would have avoided him to-day as they would have avoided a man on the border line of madness.

Nevertheless, Dr. MacQuirk was a profound believer in the power of mind over matter. Emotional exhibitions of any nature rubbed him the wrong way. His set of introductory injunctions at almost any consultation were designed, according to his own lights, to create an atmosphere of perfect calm.

"Come in, madam," he would say, "and pull yourself together. There is nothing to fear. Everything is going to be quite all right. Just be calm and relax. Don't let yourself go. Let's have no excitement, please."

Dr. MacQuirk was usually too upset himself to notice that this little speech frequently served only to enrage his patients, especially those of a placid, nerveless disposition who needed far less pulling together than did the good doctor himself.

This morning he arrived at his office late, a circumstance which did not increase his good nature. His waiting-room was crowded with patients, who by this time were far from cheerful themselves.

"Why can't they come in and leave their fees in a plate on the table?" MacQuirk irritably inquired of himself. "In turn they could select a handful of pills I would set out in a big bowl. I don't want to see them and they certainly shouldn't see me this morning. How I hate them all."

When Lorna, Busy, and Mr. Bland arrived, after an already trying experience, the waiting-room was not so crowded, but there were still enough members of both sexes present to make Lorna feel decidedly uncomfortable.

Sobered somewhat by his recent experience, Busy sat down on one side of her and Mr. Bland on the other. Busy considered his hairy body with every indication of relief and satisfaction. Mr. Bland self-consciously considered his boots. Lorna considered her husband and his dog with a prayer in her heart that they would remain in their present state of flesh.

"Here I sit," she thought a little wildly, "between man and beast, and for the life of me I don't know which one is going to turn to a skeleton first."

She was surprised to find herself feeling a little sorry for them both, especially for her husband. He looked so miserable and utterly out of place in a doctor's waiting-room. He was much too long and rangy to be sitting on that small chair like a morbid Abraham Lincoln. He probably felt lonely and shamed in his heart. She wanted to say something comforting to him, something slightly affectionate, but discovered with a sense of inadequacy that she did not know how to talk that way. She wondered how other wives gushed over their husbands. Most of the wives she knew were usually gushing over other women's husbands. She, Lorna, was unable to gush over anything. She was a hard-bitten little woman who thrived on battle and opposition. Yet she knew that somewhere within her was a capacity to love this long man, although she would never give him the satisfaction of knowing it. He was much too disagreeable himself.

A nurse appeared and suggested that Mr. Bland should follow her. Busy promptly decided that he should follow Mr. Bland. This was the first contretemps, and it created no little disturbance in the waiting-room. In the midst of the struggle a mental case called out excitedly: "Spinach! Spinach! Spinach!"

For a moment the struggle ceased. Even Busy looked at the mental case in some perplexity. Apparently having forgotten all about spinach, the mental case was now reading a hunters' and anglers' magazine with stony indifference to her surroundings.

"What does she want with spinach?" Mr. Bland asked the nurse.

"She doesn't want anything with spinach," said the nurse. "She was kept waiting so long for an order of spinach in a restaurant last year that she had a nervous breakdown. She's much better now."

"Thank God for that," returned Mr. Bland. "She's made me feel much worse."

With a backward look at Lorna, who was still struggling with Busy, Mr. Bland followed the nurse into the presence of Dr. MacQuirk. For a moment the two men regarded each other with all the hostility of ancient enemies.

"Sit down, Mr. Bland," said MacQuirk at last, "and for heaven's sake let's have no more nonsense. There's nothing to get excited about, absolutely nothing."

"Am I excited?" asked Mr. Bland, who had a disposition to place implicit trust in doctors.

"Don't you know whether or not you're excited?" demanded the doctor. "If not you're in a bad way, a very bad way indeed. Do you sleep well?"

"Always," said Mr. Bland.

"I don't," muttered MacQuirk, enviously regarding his lanky patient. "Why don't you sit down? I'm getting a pain in my neck trying to look up at you."

"Sorry," said Mr. Bland, looking about for a chair.

His selection was an unfortunate one, but perfectly logical, for it looked like the most comfortable chair in the room. As he folded himself into it he was startled by a piercing cry from Dr. MacQuirk.

"E-e-e-e-yah!" mouthed the doctor. "Not there, man, not there! You're not ready for that yet. I just bought that operating chair. It cost a lot of money."

"Sorry," said Mr. Bland again as he heaved himself out of the chair and found another one.

"You should be," pronounced the doctor. "What did you come here for, may I ask?"

"I wanted a thorough physical examination," said Mr. Bland. "Recently I've been turning to a skeleton every now and then."

"Losing weight, eh?" muttered the doctor, far from appreciating the full purport of Mr. Bland's information. "And you don't know when you're excited. No wonder you're losing weight. You're probably seething with excitement all the time and imagine you're resting. That's bad."

"You don't understand," Mr. Bland pursued, patiently.

"Don't tell me I don't understand," MacQuirk threw back, explosively. "It's my business to understand. That's why I'm a doctor. Are you setting up your judgment against mine?"

"No, Doctor," said Mr. Bland. "I merely meant that I actually turn to a skeleton. My flesh disappears and, to all intents and purposes, I'm composed entirely of bone."

For a moment or so there was silence in the room while the doctor considered his patient out of brooding, bloodshot eyes. At last he spoke.

"How would you like to go to a nice, quiet place for a while?" he asked. "You'll be very comfortable and everybody will be kind to you. And," added the doctor with the failure of a bright smile, "you can play skeletons there just as much as you like."

Quintus Bland swallowed hard. The consultation was proving even more difficult than he had expected. He hardly blamed the doctor. No one would believe without proof the incredible statement he had made. It was essential, However, that he should convince this irascible physician.

"Doctor," he said, "still you don't get me. I'm not suffering from a delusion. I'm just as sane as you are. My condition can be traced to a perfectly definite cause—a chemical formula which I have inadvertently assimilated into my system. Should the same thing occur to you, your reactions would be the same as mine. Why, even my dog has begun to change to a skeleton."

"The madder they are the more convincingly they talk," murmured Dr. MacQuirk as if to himself. "I don't think your dog could accompany you to this nice, quiet place, Mr. Bland, but he might come to see you, and then you could romp around on the lawn and play skeleton together. How would that be?"

"Doctor," pleaded Mr. Bland, "I realise it's difficult to believe, but I assure you most earnestly that what I have told you is the plain, unvarnished truth. Both myself and my dog actually change to skeletons. It has just occurred to my dog, but for several days past I have been subject to these seizures. My wife will confirm my statement. She is waiting outside with my dog."

"I suppose she becomes a skeleton, too, occasionally?" observed the doctor. "Tell me, Mr. Bland, am I a skeleton?"

"No," shouted Mr. Bland, suddenly losing his temper, "but I wish to God you were and buried in your grave. You're not a skeleton. You're a pig-headed torturer."

"Now, now, Mr. Bland," said the doctor, soothingly. "Mustn't go on like that. We're old friends. Don't you remember me? I'm the doctor, and you are in my consulting-room. Everything is going to be all right. There's nothing to get excited about."

White-lipped, Mr. Bland rose and faced the doctor. MacQuirk was already standing, watching his patient with a wary eye. One hand was in his desk drawer, in which there was a gun. He was thoroughly convinced he was dealing with a dangerous maniac, and he was taking no chances.

"Doctor," said Quintus Bland with the calm of desperation, "are you going to examine me or not? Are you going to take a blood test and endeavour to find out what can be done? If not I'll walk right out of this room and find a more enlightened physician."

MacQuirk was convinced that Mr. Bland should not be allowed at large. It was his professional duty to place the man under restraint. He was a danger to the community as well as to himself. A man who claimed to own a skeleton dog was very far gone indeed.

"Of course I'm going to examine you," he replied in as hearty a voice as he was able to assume. "There never has been any question of that. Now, if you'll just remove your clothes and get yourself on to that table we'll see what can be done about it."

The moment Mr. Bland was stretched on the table, MacQuirk threw himself upon him.

"Miss Malloy!" he shouted. "Come here and clamp him down. Quick! The man is dangerous."

Like a white flash the nurse joined forces with the doctor. Mr. Bland felt himself being strapped and clamped to the table. The attack had been so unexpected that the advantage lay all with the doctor. In spite of this Mr. Bland succeeded in giving him a vigorous kick in the stomach before his legs were expertly captured and strapped to the table. It was not until he was entirely helpless that he raised his voice in a loud cry for Lorna. The cry was immediately answered. Like a small blonde whirlwind Lorna entered the room with the square dog at her heels. Without waiting to ask questions she spun the nurse about and gave her a terrific punch on the nose. Although trained to handle rough patients, Miss Malloy was not equal to the speed displayed by the infuriated wife of the captive Mr. Bland. Before she could get into action Lorna had seized the nurse's skirt and pulled it over her head. Then she tripped the unfortunate woman and stepped on her prostrate body.

In the meantime Busy had permanently affixed himself to the lapel of the doctor's coat while the doctor was trying to jab the dog with a hypodermic needle originally intended for Mr. Bland.

Leaving the nurse to work out her own salvation, Lorna slapped the doctor's glasses into a thousand pieces, then hit him over the head with the nearest object at hand. It proved to be a bottle, and the doctor sank to the floor. So far it had been a wordless battle, but now Lorna became vocal. She had snatched the doctor's revolver from the desk drawer. With this weapon in her hand she felt that further effort on her part was unnecessary.

"Now," she said in a deadly cold voice, "get up from that floor, both of you, and tell me the big idea. If I don't like your explanation I'm going to telephone for the police and have you locked up. Snap to it, damn you! You'll be sorry you ever laid a hand on my husband."

Dazed, battered, and bloody, the doctor and his nurse eventually succeeded in rising from the floor. They found themselves confronted by a small woman with a large gun. At this moment the mental case thrust her head through the door.

"Spinach! Spinach! Spinach!" she shouted, and everybody jumped.

Busy took a quick run, then left the floor in the general direction of the doctor. He struck the man on the chest and knocked him flat again. Then he stood over the fallen physician while he selected a fresh spot to bite. From the dog's point of view the day had vastly improved.

"Will you please call your dog off?" the doctor pleaded in a feeble voice. "I didn't sleep well last night."

"For his sake, not yours," said Lorna, "you cowardly little quack."

The appellation of "quack" momentarily fired the battered physician with a faint spark of courage.

"Madam," he said from the floor, "you're going to pay dearly for this."

"Shut up, you," snapped Lorna, knocking a row of bottles from a shelf with the long, blue barrel of the revolver. "Come here, Busy, and let that would-be assassin get up. I haven't finished with him yet."

As the bottles crashed to the floor, screams came from the ante-room, the loudest of which issued from the mental case, who was still calling for spinach.

"Why doesn't somebody give her a plate of spinach?" came the calm voice of Mr. Bland.

Lorna turned to regard her husband, then whirled back just in time to swipe the nurse across the cheek with the heavy revolver. With a cry of horror the nurse staggered back and abandoned the battle. Nevertheless she was consumed with hatred for her small blonde victor, who was eyeing her coldly.

"Listen," she said to the nurse, "you look like the wrath of God already, but if you want to look even worse I'm perfectly willing to help you. Take a look at yourself in the mirror, then let me know."

"Godamighty!" came the startled voice of Mr. Bland. "I'm a skeleton again! That damn-fool doctor wouldn't believe me. Give him a chance to see for himself."

"Are you still strapped down?" asked Lorna. "I'm more tangled up now," he told her. "It's like being in a spider's web."

Lorna swung on the doctor, who was holding a handkerchief over his eyes.

"Take that handkerchief away," she commanded, "and release that skeleton."

"I can hardly see without my glasses," said the doctor, brokenly. "There's an extra pair in my desk. May I get them?"

Before Lorna could answer, the nurse uttered a piercing scream. She had turned away from the mirror and seen the writhing skeleton of Mr. Bland.

"Doctor!" she cried. "Doctor! There's a skeleton where the man used to be. And it's squirming all over the table. Please, Doctor, do something about it."

"There's more life in that skeleton than in me," said the doctor. "I can barely move. This has been a very discouraging morning. Madam, may I get my glasses?"

"If you're as bad as all that," replied Lorna, "I'll get them for you."

She found the glasses in the middle drawer and handed them to the doctor. With trembling hands he placed them on his damaged nose. Then he turned to look at the table.

"Good God!" he said. "Do you expect me to unstrap that?"

"Yes," replied Lorna. "And without further delay."

"Then you may as well shoot me," said the doctor, decisively. "I won't go near a living skeleton who has it in for me already."

"Very well," retorted Lorna. "I'll shoot you. The law is on my side."

She raised the revolver and levelled it at the doctor. He held up a restraining hand, too filled with horror to speak. This woman was more dangerous, more bitterly determined, than all the devils in hell. She would shoot him in his tracks without the slightest compunction. He would have to give in. With drooping shoulders he approached the writhing skeleton. Mr. Bland increased his writhing just to make the situation more difficult for the doctor. While the trembling physician was unstrapping him Mr. Bland amused himself by stroking the doctor's arm and cheek with his long, bony fingers. Once he gently tweaked the man's nose and chattered agreeably in his face. For a moment MacQuirk had to steady himself against the table, so great was his fear and revulsion.

"Don't do that," he pleaded. "If you only knew how awful you are. Take the word of a doctor."

"Like hell I will," said Mr. Bland. "How would you like to go to a nice, quiet place?"

"Nothing would please me more," replied the doctor. "I slept very poorly last night, and after this experience I fear I'll never sleep again."

When Mr. Bland was released he swung his legs from the table, then eased himself to the floor.

"Come on," said Lorna. "Let's go."

As she placed her hand on the knob of the door she was arrested by a cry of protest from Dr. MacQuirk.

"My God," he pleaded, "don't go out like that. You might kill some of my patients or drive them mad. Imagine what they'd think. They see a man come in and a skeleton go out. Naturally, they'll assume I stripped him clean of his flesh. The news would spread and my practice would be ruined."

"Very well, then," said Lorna. "I don't want to be too hard on you. What are we going to do about it? We've got to get home."

"We might do this," said MacQuirk after amoment's thought. "If Mr. Bland will agree to play the part of a dead skeleton I'll carry him out to a taxi and pay your way home. That is," he added, hastily, "if you don't live too far away."

"Scotch to the last," said the skeleton. "How do I know you won't drop me on the pavement?"

"I'll shoot him dead if he does," declared Lorna in an effortless voice that carried conviction.

When the taxi arrived, MacQuirk shudderingly lifted Mr. Bland in his arms.

"Now just relax quietly," he said. "Make no effort of your own. No, don't put your arms round my neck. That would look too silly, and besides I couldn't stand it. And try not to breathe so hard. I'm not going to drop you. Just strike an attitude and hold it. Ready?"

"Right, Doc. Shoot," said Mr. Bland.

Miss Malloy opened the door, and the doctor with his odd burden passed through, followed by Lorna, holding the gun under her jacket. Busy padded after her, ready for immediate action should teeth be needed. Although he had only a vague idea of what was going on, he was definitely certain that Dr. MacQuirk was a low-grade man who required close watching.

When the waiting patients saw the doctor with an oversized skeleton in his arms their expressions were a study in horror and incredulity.

"Hello! Hello!" said the doctor by way of a cheery greeting. "I'll be right with you. Just getting rid of some old junk."

"I don't blame you for wanting to get rid of it," declared a wan-looking lady, "but I question your good taste in selecting this particular moment."

"Frankly speaking," said a smartly dressed, middle-aged gentleman, "I believe the doctor's a murderer. If you remember, the gentleman who went in there was lean and lanky just like that skeleton."

"There was a terrible rumpus going on," put in a young prospective mother. "That I know. It sounded like a murder."

"Let me assure you," protested Dr. MacQuirk, "there has been no murder."

"Then produce your patient," challenged the middle-aged gentleman.

"He left by another door."

"There isn't any other door," said the wan lady. "I know because I've looked."

"I'll explain everything in half a minute," the doctor flung back over his shoulder as he staggered from the room.

"No monkey business, Doc," said Lorna. "I've got the gun levelled on your spine."

"Don't make my task any harder," MacQuirk panted, beads of sweat standing out on his fore-head. "If we all pull ourselves together everything will be all right."

Just for something to do, Mr. Bland leaned over and chattered into Dr. MacQuirk's left ear. The doctor almost dropped him, so profoundly was he moved.

"That," he declared, emphatically, "was about the worst sound I've ever heard. If you value your life and limb don't do it again."

Out into the sunlight emerged this quaint little procession. Several passers-by stopped to witness the spectacle. By the time they had reached the taxi a tidy crowd had gathered. Suddenly Mr. Bland's weight took a decided upward turn, and the doctor, to his infinite mortification, found himself holding a naked man in his arms. For a moment he swayed on the side-walk, struggling gamely to support his burden.

"Put me down, you damn' fool!" shouted Mr. Bland. "Don't hold me up to the crowd as if I were an offering."

"All right," muttered the doctor. "All right. There's nothing to get excited about."

"Oh, no," snarled Mr. Bland. "Nothing at all. Would you suggest I dance naked on the pavement for the edification of the crowd?"

Before Dr. MacQuirk could be any more encouraging he sank with a deep sigh and a naked Bland to the side-walk. The crowd was mute with stupefaction for a moment, then out of the silence a woman's voice was heard.

"Close your eyes this minute, Betty," cried the voice. "That man is all naked."

"You don't have to tell me, Mom," Betty replied. "I could tell that at a glance. He's not so hot."

"Well," quoth a lazy voice from the crowd, "considering he was a skeleton a moment ago I think he's done very well."

"He's scarcely more than a skeleton now," observed a feminine voice. "And I thought my husband was thin."

"Mind your own business," Mr. Bland shouted, furiously. "If you had any sense of decency you'd get to hell out of here."

Busy was barking passionately and making frantic lunges at whatever parts of the doctor he could find.

"Mr. Bland! Mr. Bland!" sobbed Mac-Quirk. "Your knee is in my stomach, and your dog's got hold of my leg."

"Are you crying?" asked Mr. Bland.

"A little," admitted the doctor. "I told you I had a bad night."

"Well, I slept like a top," said Mr. Bland, "but I could cry like a baby myself."

The crowd parted, and Officer Burke once more appeared on the scene. For a full minute he stood looking down at the tangled bodies on the side-walk, then, after scratching his head, he brought himself to ask a question.

"What's the meaning of all this?" Officer Burke demanded.

"Officer," said Mr. Bland, "it hasn't any meaning. The whole thing is perfectly ridiculous."

"This man is a patient," put in the doctor with great presence of mind. "A serious nervous case. I'm trying to get him back to my office."

"What's he doing naked out here?" asked Burke.

"I was giving him a physical examination," said the doctor.

"Right out in public?" exclaimed the officer. "You oughter know better than that. I've a good mind to back up the wagon."

"You and your old wagon," Mr. Bland grumbled. "I bet you haven't got a wagon."

Before the officer could think up an answer to this, Lorna inadvertently fired the revolver and Busy turned to a skeleton.

"It's all right, officer," said Lorna, quietly. "It's the doctor's gat. We were going to shoot my husband if he started to run away."

It is doubtful if Burke had ever been so hopelessly confused. There were too many situations with which he had to deal. There was the naked maniac on the pavement. There was the irresponsible lady with a revolver. And there was the animated skeleton of a dog barking furiously in the face of the laws of God and man. Finally there was the watching crowd. With this Officer Burke could deal. Abandoning the other problems to their own solution, he once more charged down on the spectators.

"Clear out of here," he shouted, "every mother's son of you, or I'll back up the wagon."

While this diversion was in progress Mr. Bland rose from the pavement. He picked up the winded physician and draped him over his shoulder for the sake of protection. MacQuirk did not cover much of Mr. Bland, but he did serve the purpose of making his wearer feel a little less naked.

"Let's go back and get my clothes," said Mr. Bland to Lorna. "That damn-fool dog has lost his flesh again."

"Don't I know!" replied Lorna. "Between you and that dog my life isn't worth living. There's always a skeleton."

"Put me down, Mr. Bland," pleaded the doctor. "This is most undignified. What will my patients think?"

"Sorry, old chap," said Mr. Bland, "but I simply must wear you. What little protection you afford is absolutely essential. Figure it out for yourself."

"Say, lady," said the taxicab driver, "is anybody going to use me?"

"What's the matter with you?" snapped Lorna. "Aren't you having a good time?"

"I am that, lady," conceded the driver, "but I ain't getting paid for it."

"Oh," said Lorna, "the doctor will settle up later."

"Don't listen to her," shouted MacQuirk as he was borne into the house.

If the doctor's first appearance had caused a sensation, his reappearance created a panic.

"First, the doctor goes out carrying a skeleton," summed up the well-dressed, middle-aged gentleman, "and then a naked man comes in carrying the doctor. An odd sort of business."

"And we're supposed to be here for our nerves," complained the wan lady. "I think I'm going to have an attack."

"Let me out!" another patient suddenly cried in a strangled voice. "Look! Look! The living skeleton of a little something."

Still barking under his breath like a thunder-storm on the ebb, the skeleton of Busy followed Lorna across the room and disappeared into the doctor's office.

"Hey, Doc," called Mr. Bland, pointing to what was left of his dog. "Are you convinced now?"

From his own operating table MacQuirk raised a weary head.

"Thoroughly," he said. "Miss Malloy, please go out and dismiss my patients. Tell them I've had a sudden attack of frenzy—tell them anything. It doesn't matter. I'll never get over this."

"They're all gone already," announced the nurse when she returned. "All except the mental case. She still wants some spinach."

"Well, what are we going to do?" MacQuirk asked, distractedly. "I haven't any spinach to give her. And if I did give her some spinach I would be establishing a dangerous precedent. First thing you know, mental cases would be dropping in, demanding a square meal."

"Have you," asked Bland, "by any chance a drink to give us?"

"Why didn't I think of it before?" replied the doctor. "Of course, of course, most certainly. A drink is the very thing. Miss Malloy, if you please. You know where the stuff is. Didn't sleep a wink last night."

By the time Lorna and Mr. Bland were ready to leave, the square dog had regained his body and the exhausted physician a sunnier outlook on life.

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