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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


The Travelling Beard

THE express train was swarming with commuters. And Mr. Bland was one of them. Some were reading papers, others playing cards, and some were impatiently awaiting their opportunity to explain the N.R.A. to others who were explaining it to them.

Quintus Bland was far from happy. He had no confidence in himself. Although he had retained his flesh for nearly twenty-four hours he had no definite assurance it would not fade away at any moment.

He would hate to become a skeleton among so many well-dressed and well-fed gentlemen. They would never understand. They were too firmly rooted in convention—too all-fired orthodox. They might have their own failings, but they were the failings of the average man. They might sin and commit crimes, but they would do so according to well-established lines. And yet, thought Mr. Bland, here was a trainload of problems, each individual intent on solving his own. After all, there was something admirable in the way these men accepted their destiny, which seemed to be largely that of catching trains, taking other men's orders, keeping their automobiles in shape and their homes intact. And above all they had to maintain a certain prosperous front. In spite of failure and reverses they had to meet the commuting standard and keep their troubles to themselves. A smug lot, perhaps, but partly so because of the insecurity of their own economic futures. They had to keep up the pretence. At home their wives were doing the same thing, while in the privacy of their own houses they scanned newspaper advertisements of alluring wearing apparel with broodingly envious eyes that held but little hope.

The tragedy of this train, Mr. Bland continued to reflect, was that most of its inmates were in a position to glimpse without grasping the full possibilities of a good, fat, materialistic life, the only one their training and traditions had equipped them to understand. They lived on the fringe of security, desperately clinging to prospects, and often their wives grew old and bitter with those prospects unfulfilled. They themselves never grew old, for that is against the laws of commuting which say that a man must always be brisk and snappy until suddenly he dies and another commuter takes up his fallen cards or moves into his seat. Mr. Bland found himself wondering if it would not be a better thing to be so hopelessly poor that all this strain and pretence would become unnecessary and a man would be able to be his natural slovenly self, always about two-thirds binged.

These thoughts passed through his mind as the familiar landscape passed by his eyes. Seated by the window, he protected himself from observation with a newspaper which he did not read. The gentleman seated beside him he knew only slightly, but the gentleman had no intention of letting matters rest at that. He was one of those exceedingly trying persons who believed that the more people you knew the better off you were. He had a ruddy face, a thick body, and virtually no mind at all. He could talk for a long time in a loud voice in the face of polite indifference or hostile opposition. His success in the advertising world was assured. Already he sat at the speakers' table whenever the Advertising Club stepped out. He was one of those elbowing individuals whose faces stand out with shocking vividness whenever a flashlight picture is taken of groups. And he had a disconcerting habit of thrusting his head round Mr. Bland's newspaper to see what he was reading and then telling him about it with the addition of his own personal views on the subject.

This morning he was a little baffled, for Mr. Bland had not had the enterprise to turn past the women's page before he had abandoned reading entirely. The thick man, whose name was Blutter, was puzzled by his silent neighbour's preoccupation with matters exclusively pertaining to the home, the table, and the adornment of the feminine body.

"Interesting page, that," he said at a venture. "It has always been my claim that the average American husband is far more interested in his home than is the average American wife."

"He doesn't have to live in it so much," retorted Mr. Bland, his lips closely approaching a snarl.

"Perhaps there's a little something in that," Mr. Blutter strode confidently on in his speech, "but I still maintain—and I have an insight into things through years of advertising experience—that the average American husband is far more competent to deal with domestic problems than the average American wife. In fact, I know he is."

"Then that's all settled," said Bland with dangerous mildness. "You appear to be pretty well sold on the average American husband. You must be one yourself."

Mr. Blutter did not get within jumping distance of this remark.

"Yes and no," he stated. "I am essentially a creative man, being, as I am, in the advertising profession, but in every other respect I dare say I represent the point of view of the average American husband."

"You must be no end of a comfort to your wife," observed Mr. Bland. "After she's had a long day of petty frustration about the house, no doubt you come home and set things straight with one large, inclusive gesture."

This observation was too sharply barbed to escape the notice of Mr. Blutter, as dumb as that gentleman was.

"As an average American husband," he retorted with some heat, "I'm not ashamed to say that I enter directly into all matters pertaining to the home and its management. Mrs. Blutter, I am proud to say, finds my co-operation not unhelpful."

"I'm either too drunk to eat," announced Mr. Bland, "or the cook is too drunk to cook. We seldom eat at our house, and when we do, the meal, such as it is, almost always ends up in a row. As a matter of fact, my wife and myself only maintain a home in order to have a quiet place in which to fight. We're both fond of the lower diversions of life and spend most of our time either acquiring or getting rid of a hang-over."

Mr. Blutter's eyes bulged behind his glasses.

"You're a whole pack of cards, Mr. Bland," he said with an uncertain laugh. "I'll bet you run an A-1 plant, you and the missus. I knew a chap like you once. Name of Dobbs. Always comical. Never took life seriously, but at heart one of the finest fellows you'd want to meet. Mighty good company, but of course he couldn't last. Not in the advertising world, he couldn't. You have to have get up and go there and keep your eyes open."

"On what?" Mr. Bland asked, innocently.

"Your clients' interests," replied Mr. Blutter. "What about the buying public?" pursued Mr. Bland.

"The what?" said Mr. Blutter, as though the buying public were a new idea to him. "Oh, yes, the buying public. It's my business to educate it to purchase the right products."

The word Mr. Bland employed at this point has recently become quite the vogue in the best circles of society, although for years it has been unmelodiously shouted through the streets by the commoner run of man. It popped so explosively now from Mr. Bland's lips that the good Blutter was at first startled and then offended.

"To who?" he asked with faint truculence.

"To you," said Mr. Bland.

"Then right back at you," retorted the advertising ace, feeling he had held his own in a difficult exchange.

Quintus Bland grunted and retired behind his paper. A man like Blutter was bad for his soul. He hoped that for the good of the advertising profession there were not many Blutters in it. Not much good hoping a silly thing like that. All professions were overcrowded with Blutters. Blutters ran the world and retarded its progress. There were Blutter statesmen and Blutter generals and, doubtless, Blutter safe-crackers. Blutter was a frame of mind throughout all walks of life.

Idly, as he watched the flying billboards, Mr. Bland began to compose an aimless bit of doggerel in which the words "splutter," "clutter," and "gutter" were employed to rhyme insultingly with that of Blutter.

In the meantime that individual had closed his eyes, the better to concentrate on the problems of the day. They were not quite insuperable. A big client was coming to town, and it would be his, Blutter's, duty to entertain him. Speakeasies, a show, more speakeasies—perhaps girls. Mentally Mr. Blutter smacked his lips. It would be a relief to give Mrs. Blutter the gate for a change, especially when acting in the line of duty. The average American husband would lose his flair for business if he did not step out occasionally. And the less the average American wife knew about such steppings the better for domestic relations. It was not so much cheating as toning a fellow up.

In spite of the fascination of his anticipatory debauch, Mr. Blutter was not completely satisfied with himself. That word Mr. Bland had flung at him still rankled in his mind. He, Blutter, had failed to impress sufficiently this long, crude, scoffing creature at his side. He would retain his good nature and try again.

Accordingly Blutter reopened his eyes and thrust his head round the barrier of Mr. Bland's paper. Then with startling suddenness Blutter's head sprang back as if it had been rudely pushed. For a moment he sat in dazed silence, his eyes still blinking from what they had seen. Then he made another try, this time more circumspectly. He had been right the first time. The man sitting beside him had the face of a grinning skull. And even as he looked, the fleshless face turned slowly toward him and two vacant eyeholes peered inquiringly into his.

"Who are you looking at?" croaked the skull.

"I—I—I confess I don't know," stammered Mr. Blutter. "There was a gentleman sitting there named Bland, but he must have slipped out."

"Slipped out?" repeated the skull, disapprovingly. "Slipped out on what?"

"You know," Blutter faltered. "He just went away."

Suddenly the skull thrust itself into Blutter's horrified face.

"Rats!" snapped the skull with an ominous click of its teeth. "Rats, I repeat. No more loose talking. Who am I?"

By this time Blutter's eyes had discovered the hands of the skull. The sight of those fleshless fingers clawing the morning newspaper struck terror to his heart.

"I don't know who you are," he said in a strained voice, "but I think I'd better be going."

"You'll stay right where you are," replied the skull, once more approaching itself to Mr. Blutter's face.

"Don't!" gasped Mr. Blutter. "I think I'm going to die. Do you want to kill me?"

"Yes," said the skull, "I want to kill you, and I will, too, if you even so much as budge."

"Tickets!" came the voice of the conductor from a few seats down the aisle.

The skull promptly retired behind its newspaper, and when it next emerged it had amazingly grown a beard.

"What do you think of the beard, you rat?" demanded the skull. "How did I do it?"

Mr. Blutter had thrust a handkerchief into his mouth to keep himself from screaming. He now removed this self-inflicted gag and struggled to make his trembling lips form coherent words.

"I don't know how you did it," he managed to say at last, "but won't you take it off? I don't want to be seen talking to a person with such a beard."

"What's wrong with the beard, rat?" the skull rasped, dangerously. "Feel it! Stroke it!"

"Oh, no," babbled Mr. Blutter. "Oh, no, indeed. You don't know what you're asking."

"Feel it! Stroke it!" said the skull, inflexibly.

The arrival of the conductor saved Mr. Blutter from losing what little mind he had. Automatically the conductor accepted the two commutation tickets and punched them. It was not until he was returning them to their individual owners that he noticed anything wrong. It was the bearded skull's hand that first attracted his decidedly unfavourable attention. The beard was the next point of interest. Over this he lingered a moment with rapidly mounting astonishment, but it was not until he looked at the face itself that he received the full shock of the object he was scrutinising.

"Who are you?" demanded the conductor. "You're not Mr. Bland."

"No," mumbled a cracked voice through the beard. "I'm Mr. Bland's grandfather. He said you wouldn't mind."

"Never knew he had a grandfather," said the conductor.

"Why should you?" asked the beard. "My grandson has lots of things he never told you about."

"What happened to your hands?" the conductor wanted to know.

"My hands?" repeated the beard. "Oh, those. I started biting my fingernails when I was a baby, and I just kept on going."

"Mean to say you bit your hands off?" incredulously demanded the conductor.

"Nibbled," Mr. Bland corrected. "Nibbled. It took years and years to do it. Now there's nothing left to nibble, so I've broken myself of the habit. I'm a very old man, you know."

"Well, you'd better tell your grandson," said the conductor, "that he ought to buy you a pair of gloves. Your hands are a sight."

"He did," mumbled Mr. Bland. "He bought me a pair of gloves, but I ate holes in the fingers. There was fur inside. I boggled a bit at the fur, but finally I got used to it. Never got to like it much. Too old, I reckon. Did you ever try fur?"

The conductor gulped, then shook his head. This horrid old man was positively making him sick.

"Don't," said Mr. Bland, briefly. "It gets in the teeth."

The conductor gagged slightly and passed to the next seat, but his mind was not on his work. His thoughts kept reverting to Mr. Bland's grandfather and his unattractive ways. He was about the oldest old man the conductor had ever seen. He looked more dead than alive. However, if he could eat fur and get away with it he must have a strong constitution.

Being a natural-born gossiper, the conductor did not delay long in telling some of his more favoured passengers all about the strange old grandfather of Mr. Bland and of how he had nibbled off his hands and then started in on fur-lined gloves. Soon Mr. Bland was the centre of no little attention. Heads were turned in his direction, and low conversations ensued. Mr. Bland was not happy about this, but Mr. Blutter was still less happy. He was looking around for a means of escape when he felt five bony talons burn into the flesh of his thigh. Involuntarily he uttered an inarticulate cry. This attracted even more attention.

"No, you don't," grated Mr. Bland. "You're going to stay here and keep me company, and when the train reaches the station you're going to help me along the platform. See this?"

Under the cover of the seat ahead Mr. Bland pulled up the right sleeve of his coat and displayed the bare bone of his arm.

"Oh!" gasped Mr. Blutter, fairly cringing in his seat. "Oh! I can't last much longer. Please don't show me any more awful things."

"I'm like that all over," Mr. Bland informed him with a note of pride. "Would you like to see my ribs? You can look right through them."

"I don't want to look," said Mr. Blutter.

"Then how's this?" continued Mr. Bland, giving his beard a slight twist. "Do you like it better on the side or in the middle?"

"Off," said Mr. Blutter.

"Can't take it off," Mr. Bland observed, reflectively, "because then I wouldn't be my own grandfather, and if I'm not my own grandfather who the hell am I?"

"That's what I'd like to know."

"I'm an average American husband," announced Mr. Bland. "A part of the buying public, and you're my very old and very dear friend. How about stroking my beard?"

"Please pull it back," said Blutter. "Beards don't grow like that even on a face like yours."

"Very well," Mr. Bland agreed, amiably. "Back goes the beard. And just in time, too. Here we are."

Mr. Blutter's relief in putting that trip behind him was short-lived. This was due to the fact that Mr. Bland's trousers slipped over his pelvis about half-way down the platform, and he, the redoubtable Blutter, had to assist in securing them while all the world looked on. What Mr. Blutter saw of Mr. Bland during this feverish and complicated procedure improved his morale very little.

"I'll hold 'em up," Mr. Bland told him, "while you twist the belt."

"What will I twist around?" Mr. Blutter chattered.

"I've a bit of a spine back there. Twist it around that."

"If I wasn't so damned scared of you," said Blutter in a burst of frankness, "I'd like to twist your spine off."

"You can have a twist if you like," Mr. Bland replied, generously. "I can grow another one."

With his trousers securely in place, Mr. Bland took his unwilling companion's arm and continued on down the platform, shuffling noisily as he went.

"Can't you lift your feet a little?" complained the freely sweating Blutter. "We're conspicuous enough as it is without you making all that noise."

"No," said Mr. Bland. "My shoes would come off. If you think the rest of me is horrid you should take a look at my feet."

At the telephone booths Mr. Blutter was released from his terrific ordeal, but not before he had experienced the harrowing sensation of shaking hands with a skeleton.

"Good-bye, old chap," said Mr. Bland. "Be a good average American husband, and some bright day I'll drop round to call on you and the—er—missus. I think that's the acceptable term for the average American wife, or is it 'the little lady'?"

Without stopping to answer, Blutter sped like an arrow from the bow the instant his hand was released from the blood-chilling grasp of that fleshless hand.

Mr. Bland watched the retreating figure of Mr. Blutter, then mentally took stock of the situation.

"I'm in one hell of a fine fix," he said to himself. "Here I stand with an obviously false beard, no flesh at all, and a pair of treacherous trousers. What am I going to do? I'll get picked up sure as shooting if I try to barge along on my own. Wonder what Lorna's doing."

Feeling much more miserable than he was willing to let himself know, he turned toward a telephone booth, the queer, awkward figure of what recently was a man, now entirely cut off from the flesh-and-blood people milling busily round him.

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