WHEN Quintus Bland set out to enjoy the evening he had not the vaguest idea he was destined to become a skeleton. Yet that is exactly what he did become—an impressive structure composed entirely of bone as far as the eye could reach.
Had fate vouchsafed the man some small warning of the radical departure from his customary appearance, there is no doubt he would have stopped where he was and become a skeleton comfortably in the privacy of his own home, assuming for the moment one can comfortably become a skeleton while still alive and active.
There were many persons who wished he had pursued this course and remained at home. Life for them would have still retained a little of its zest.
Indubitably this would have been the more agreeable course not only for Mr. Bland and his friends, but also for a number of unfortunate individuals who through no fault of their own were forced to undergo the ordeal of gazing on Quintus Bland in far less than the nude—in, perhaps, the most disturbing form a man can present to his fellow men.
Although to become a skeleton is a noteworthy achievement it is not an admirable one. If a man must so disport himself he would show far more consideration by enjoying his horror in solitude instead of in the heart of a populous city. The metamorphosis from flesh to bone is not one especially designed to be regarded affectionately by the average observer.
In extenuation of Mr. Bland's slight lapse it must be recorded that he had neither the intention nor the inclination to become a skeleton. Such an ambitious undertaking never entered his mind. Bones, in appalling number, were thrust upon him, so to speak. Or, inversely, flesh was removed. In the long run it made little difference how the change occurred. Bland suddenly and confoundingly discovered he had turned to a skeleton. He discovered also that it is the rare individual indeed who regards a skeleton either as a social equal or a desirable companion.
By way of explanation it should be known that Quintus Bland literally sniffed himself into his skeletonhood. For long hours at a time he had been inhaling the potent fumes of a secret chemical fluid with which he had been experimenting for some months past. It was his somewhat revolting hope that some day by means of this fluid he would be able to produce a fluoroscopic camera film. Why any normal man should wish to create such an intimately revealing commodity is difficult to conceive. Possibly Quintus Bland was not quite normal.
But before we take the man in his bony structure it would perhaps be a gentler approach and show better taste to consider him first in the flesh.
Quintus Bland was the sole owner and active head of one of the largest and most successful photographic studios in the city of New York. Like a versatile undertaking establishment the Bland Studios, Inc., could handle any job no matter how unappetising. No face, not even the most murderous in character, ever took itself off the premises without feeling that it was quite a good face to look at.
As a small boy Quintus had made clicks with his camera while his companions were making pops with their guns. He was an essentially gentle little boy, and consequently was known as a queer duck, a mamma's boy, and a 'fraid cat. Eventually when he fell upon his tormentors and inflicted upon their quick healing bodies severe and humiliating punishment he gained the local reputation of being an embryonic homicidal maniac.
The truth of the matter was that these violent reprisals of the youthful Bland had not been undertaken in his own behalf, but rather in the best interests of a besieged turtle the other boys were attempting to open with the same ruthless enterprise they applied to clocks, watches, and other diverting bits of mechanism. Doubtless the boys considered the turtle as being nearly if not equally inanimate. Not only did young Quintus save the life of the turtle, but he also won the lasting admiration of a small female child with long golden hair who had witnessed the rescue. Later he married the girl.
At the moment when we take up Mr. Bland actively he had just turned thirty-seven years of age. There were days when he looked every bit of that, and others when in some surprising manner he appeared to have recaptured the breath and body of his youth. One could never be sure about Quintus Bland. He was never quite sure about himself. His age fluctuated most bewilderingly. If the conversation bored him he gradually became haggard and enfeebled, to the intense irritation of his wife. Should the talk turn to more diverting matters, he made a rapid recovery and attacked the subject with vigour and animation. His eyes had always been old, very old and wise. And there was a far-away quality in his smile that gave one the impression of mental reservations. It was a disturbing but not an uninteresting effect. He was a tall man and a dark man. Like the rest of him his hair was straight and dark. The word "lank" well covered the impression Mr. Bland created. And he made a lanky skeleton, which is, of course, one of the most demoralising types of skeletons to encounter. He had a surprisingly snappy pair of dark eyes. Occasionally they glittered wickedly. At other times they smouldered morbidly into vacancy. His wife found it difficult to decide whether her husband's eyes were more annoying when they saw nothing at all or when they saw everything. He had a way of regarding her darkly for an interminable moment, then grunting suddenly as if from sheer disgust. She found this most disturbing.
At present he was having his full share of wife trouble. On her part the little blonde girl of years ago had come to rue the day she had ever witnessed the dark youth rescue the turtle from the grubby talons of the village boys. She blamed that turtle with all the blind unreason of her sex. She wished she could find the slow-witted creature and give it a piece of her mind. She would have liked to point out to it in terms of passionate reproach that if he had only kept on turtling instead of parking provocatively in the exact middle of a dirt road she, Lorna Bland, sometimes called Blondie because of the inevitable alliteration, would not now be married to a long-legged, grunting maniac, capable of seeing life only through the lens of a camera. Yes, that turtle had plenty to answer for when presently he stood in the presence of his God. That would be a long time off, she speculated gloomily. Turtles, she had been given to understand, lived practically for ever, provided that they escaped the attentions of small boys.
Blondie Bland was about as pretty as any reasonable man should require a woman to be. Pretty of face and pretty of figure, with a quantity of unlived hell still flickering near the surface of her great blue eyes. She was all that a woman should be and much that one should not. But the worst that could be said of her was that she was tarrying a little overlong on that stage of her development in which the capture of men through partial surrender seemed a matter of prime importance. Quintus was a most satisfyingly jealous husband. Lorna did not endeavour to make things any easier for him. His long legs done into joints frequently made her unreasonably furious. There were times when she wished she could kick his shins, but remembering the fury of the dark youth in action she suppressed this dangerous impulse.
When they were first married, Lorna Bland had been seven years younger than her husband. Gradually the years separating them had increased until by now they had become ten. At the present rate of speed, Quintus Bland reflected sardonically, theirs would soon assume the aspect of an April-October union. This set him to wondering why Lorna loved youth instead of life, why she wallowed in repetitive experience instead of questing fresh adventure. In a sense she was older than he was, more settled in her ways, more reconciled with the set routine of her existence. The lovely but benighted creature still approached a tea, flirtation, or dinner party with the same eager anticipation of her first year out. He hated to believe that women were instruments of torture or pleasure according to the occasion. Yet Lorna did much to further this belief. He often wished he had the courage to shake her blonde head off her smooth, firm shoulders.
In much the same state of unsatisfied hostility couples drag themselves along to regret their golden anniversaries. Neighbours call with congratulatory words. A festive to-do is made. The venerable couple, cynically despising the whole affair, have their picture taken together, the nearest physical contact they have had in years. In the local paper a paragraph appears. Then the neighbours, after singing "Auld Lang Syne," depart, vowing they will presently return to celebrate with equal gusto the diamond anniversary. Sometimes the old battlers are actually fooled by public approval into believing they really care for one another, but this mood is speedily dissipated when presently they retire to bed to lie in the darkness, wondering why they had not given each other pulverised glass somewhere between the paper and the wooden, when they still had a chance to carry on with a mate who would have understood them.
In the majority of cases a golden anniversary is in reality a gathering of friends to celebrate the fact that a man and a woman have miraculously succeeded in living together for fifty years without committing murder. There are not many such occasions. There was little likelihood that Quintus and Lorna Bland would ever celebrate theirs. Long before that time one or the other of them would have succeeded in escorting his or her mate to the grave. Already much of the man's innate gentleness was being replaced by strong homicidal impulses. Frequently now he found himself contemplating his wife and thinking how pleasant it would be to drag her about the house by her hair. He even speculated whether it was long enough to afford a good grip. So far, however, physical conflict had been avoided.
The highly desirable Blondie consistently feigned a vast contempt for cameras, their works, and those who worked them. To irritate her husband still further she was frequently seen at art exhibits, where she bored herself insufferably by looking at paintings she neither understood nor appreciated. It must be said for her that she took her punishment with fortitude worthy of a better cause.
On the evening when Mr. Bland set forth in search of enjoyment his wife returned to their fashionable suburban home with a painting she had acquired at no small expense. As far as she could judge, it was a picture of a cow in convulsions. In her mind's eye she had already selected the exact spot on the library wall where this atrocity would do the most harm, that is, where her husband's eyes would be forced to fall on it most frequently. Having hung the daub to her infinite satisfaction, she fluffed out her golden hair, sighed happily, flexed her supple torso like a cat preparing to pounce, then curled herself up in a chair with a book which she did not read. Presently Quintus Bland arrived from the city with a bundle under his arm.
"Ah, there," said Mr. Bland, defensively flinging the words in the general direction of his wife. "I've brought home a new study—wheels, all wheels."
"Ah," welcomed Lorna Bland, "an X-ray of your negroid head, I take it."
"What?" asked Mr. Bland in a preoccupied voice as he busily unwrapped the bundle. "You were saying?"
"Never mind," his wife replied, feeling that under the circumstances minor insults were superfluous. "It really doesn't matter."
Humming under his breath in a peculiarly irritating manner, Quintus, with his new study of wheels, approached the exact spot on the library wall on which the cow was having her convulsions. Blondie, not missing a move, decided that this little affair was going to turn out even better than she had anticipated.
Bland raised his eyes to the wall and met the cow face to face. Both faces expressed acute agony. The man looked as if the cow had gored him in some vital spot. He, too, seemed seized with convulsions. Then, as if suddenly realising that the eyes of his wife were hatefully studying his reactions, Bland rallied gamely. Once more he endeavoured to hum as if his mind was quite serene, but this time there was a noticeable quaver in his voice.
As if he had grown up in daily association with the stricken cow, he removed her from the wall and carelessly scaled her across the room. By this action his humming was definitely improved. It swelled to a note of triumph.
From her coiled position in the chair Lorna shot like a maddened spring. She grabbed the cow from the floor, pressing it to her heart. In her eye flashed the light of battle.
"You beast," she said in a tragic voice. "You long-legged butcher."
"Why shouldn't a butcher have long legs?" her husband inquired mildly.
"I don't care whether a butcher has any legs at all," Mrs. Bland heatedly flung back.
"A butcher would hardly chop off his own legs," the man pursued thoughtfully. "That wouldn't make any sense."
"What do I care about butchers?" cried Mrs. Bland.
"I don't know," replied Mr. Bland. "What do you care about butchers?"
"Nothing!" snapped the lady. "I don't care a damn about butchers."
"I'm glad to learn," said Quintus Bland, "that there is one class of male that fails to attract you. Is it because they hide their trousers beneath their aprons?"
Mrs. Bland blinked.
"You're a vulgarian," she told him.
"Admittedly," agreed Quintus Bland. "But I'm not a butcher. Were I one, I would have hacked that obscene beast to bits."
"If you keep going on about butchers," Lorna Bland assured her husband, "I'll do something desperate."
"You'll be sorry when you're hungry," Mr. Bland warned her. "For my part I am very fond of butchers. I fully appreciate the dignity and importance of their calling."
With this observation he hung his study of wheels in the space recently occupied by the convulsive cow.
"And besides," said Mrs. Bland, hovering round the spot, "that isn't an obscene beast. It's a cow—a swell cow."
"I hope she swells until she bursts," remarked Mr. Bland. "If you hadn't told me I would have carried away the impression it was a composite picture of all the most objectionable features of the animal kingdom."
With his head cocked on one side he stepped back and stood admiring his weird study of wheels.
"Do you imagine that horror is going to remain there on the wall?" asked Lorna Bland in a low voice.
"Of course it is, my dear," replied her husband. "Can't you almost see those wheels turn, hear the purr of the dynamos, feel the reverberations of—"
His sentence was never finished. Already there had been too much of it for Blondie Bland. The man's complacency had completely unbalanced her mind. Snatching the picture from the wall, she sprang to a footstool and brought the framed photograph down on the cocked head of Quintus Bland. In less time than it takes to think of it, the head protruded through the wheels with the frame around its neck. Across the face there flickered momentarily an expression of surprise, then the features became impassive. In silence they confronted each other; then Mr. Bland, with a polite smile, helped his wife to step down from the footstool. With elaborate courtesy he removed the convulsive cow from her possession, raised it aloft, then brought it down with great force and deliberation upon the sleek blonde head. Being stretched on canvas, the convulsive cow bounced up with a snap, but not so Mrs. Bland. With a gasp of astonishment she found herself squatting on the floor, literally driven into that position in which she remained, all thought of dignity forgotten.
"Go on," she said at last in a dull voice. "Finish me with the frame. It's the only thing left to do."
"There was glass in yours," observed her husband. "You might have cut my throat."
"I wanted to cut your throat," Mrs. Bland retorted. "I still do. From ear to ear," she added.
"Indeed," sneered Mr. Bland. "Well, just observe this cutting."
Lorna Bland, still squatting, looked up with sudden interest. Her husband had taken a knife from the long library table. With this weapon in one hand and the convulsive cow in the other he placed himself before her so that she could enjoy a clear and unobstructed view of his actions. Even at that tense moment the squatting wife could not refrain from dwelling on what a fantastic picture her husband presented, standing ceremoniously before her, his framed head protruding through a mass of wheels, a knife poised dramatically above a picture of a cow. It would be a crisp moment for the entrance of a neighbour. The dramatic solemnity of the man suggested a priest of some ancient religion on the point of making vicarious sacrifice to his bloodthirsty gods.
"You wouldn't dare," breathed Mrs. Bland. "That cow cost one hundred dollars."
"I'd pay twice that amount to cut her to ribbons," Mr. Bland informed her. "Watch. See, I slit the creature's throat from ear to ear as you would have slit mine." This he proceeded to do with one deft stroke of the knife. "Next," he continued, "I swish off her hind legs, or quarters." The legs were neatly severed from the body. "And not content with that," he added grimly, "I disembowel the beast like this. Observe!" Mrs. Bland observed and saw exactly how it was done. "And now, my dear," resumed her husband politely, "here is your hundred-dollar cow. Have you any more funny pictures?"
"Thank you a lot," replied Lorna sweetly, rising from the floor and accepting the tattered ruin. "I think I'll hang it back where it was. When callers want to know what has happened to the picture I'll explain in full detail."
"Very well," said Mr. Bland, delicately removing his head from the frame. "If you are going to do that, I am going to do this, and when callers inquire about the jagged state of this photograph I'll simply tell them you tried to cut my throat with it—from ear to ear."
Thus speaking, he placed the shattered study of wheels in the centre of the mantelpiece.
"They'll be sorry I didn't succeed," said his wife, eyeing the picture critically. "It certainly looks like hell up there."
"Your cow scarcely adds to the attractiveness of the room," Mr. Bland reminded her.
"In trying to dash my brains out," said Lorna Bland, "you succeeded in giving me a terrible headache. I must take some aspirin."
"It's merely good luck I'm not standing in a pool of blood," observed Mr. Bland. "As it is, I, too, have a headache."
"I wish to God you were standing in two pools of blood," commented Mrs. Bland. "One foot in each."
Having voiced this pious wish, Lorna Bland rang for the maid, Fanny, a small, desperately passionate-looking girl, slightly oversized in the right places.
"Aspirins, Fanny," said Lorna. "It may interest you to know that your master has just beaten me over the head in an attempt to dash my brains out. Tell the cook."
"And it may further interest you to know, Fanny," put in Mr. Bland calmly, "that your mistress has just attempted to slit my throat. Tell that to the cook. It would have been from ear to ear," he added, drawing a long finger across his throat to make himself clearly understood.
There was no doubt that Fanny was deeply impressed. She looked first at Mrs. Bland's head, then transferred her dark gaze to Mr. Bland's throat. There was such a lot of Mr. Bland's throat. Fanny was just as well pleased it was not slit. Fanny took care of the rugs.
"I'm sorry, madam," she said respectfully. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Yes," replied Madam bitterly. "You might get a gun and shoot me and get it over with."
"Or," suggested her husband, "you might ask the cook to step in for a moment with the carving knife and cut my throat for the edification of Mrs. Bland. I'll endeavour to bleed in two separate pools, my dear, and place a failing foot in each."
Mentally confronted by this ghastly picture, Fanny hurried from the room.
"Have you no pride?" asked Quintus Bland when the passionate maid had gone.
"None whatsoever," his wife coolly replied. "In the presence of a stalking murderer there is no room for pride."
Fanny returned with aspirin and water. Lorna took one tablet and washed it down with a small gulp.
"Will you have one?" she asked the stalking murderer.
"Thanks," he replied. "Two."
"Your headache is no worse than mine," said his wife. "I'll take three."
"How petty," remarked Mr. Bland, enjoying Lorna's efforts to get the tablets down. "How, how petty."
"You started it," said his wife, passing him the box.
"Might as well finish them off," he said, glancing at the contents. "There are only four left."
Even for his long throat the swallowing of four aspirins presented some difficulty. Nevertheless he succeeded in flexing them down. With thwarted eyes his wife watched her husband's neck until the last spasmodic ripple had subsided.
"You should have been a sword swallower," she commented; then, turning to Fanny, "Are there any more aspirins in the house?"
"No, Mrs. Bland," said Fanny. "Shall I send for some?"
"Do," replied Mrs. Bland. "A large box."
"How petty," murmured Mr. Bland. "How very, very petty."
"I hope your heart stops beating," snapped his wife.
"Fanny," said Mr. Bland, disregarding this hope, "where is my dog? A man must have some companionship."
"If that dog shows his stupid face in here," Mrs. Bland announced in a voice of cool determination, "I'll pull his tail out by the roots."
"I think you mean off," corrected her husband.
"Off or out," cried Lorna Bland, "it doesn't matter which. If that dog comes in here he'll leave the room with his tail in my hands."
"So you would carry the warfare to dumb animals," said Mr. Bland with a sneer in his voice.
"I started it with one," Mrs. Bland replied with evident satisfaction.
At this moment the dog whose tail had been under discussion, and whose correct name was Busy, came on little bounces into the room. Busy was about a foot high, a trifle less than a foot wide, and a little more than a foot long. It was quite obvious the dog had made a brave attempt to make himself as nearly a cube as possible. He was all white and woolly. Two black eyes like washed grapes danced vividly in a large square head. Such was Busy. Both Quintus and Lorna Bland were always on the point of looking up in a book to find out just what sort of dog he was, but what with one thing and another they had never quite got round to it. Nominally Busy was the property of Mr. Bland, although his wife was equally fond of the dog. Now, however, it pleased her to consider the animal entirely his, realising that the best way to attack her husband was through this odd-looking beast.
Therefore, the moment the blonde woman's eyes fell upon the unsuspecting dog she swooped down upon him and began to tug lustily at his tail. Busy gave tongue to a sharp yelp of indignation. This was quite enough for Quintus Bland. He rushed across the room and seized his crouching wife by the hair.
"Let go of that dog's tail," he threatened, "or I'll drag you about by the hair."
"See," said Lorna Bland triumphantly, as she went over backwards, dragging the dog with her. "What did I tell you, Fanny? The man's a stalking murderer. This probably will be the end. Run for your life."
For a moment the situation remained static. Mr. Bland had his wife by the hair while she had his dog by the tail. Fanny could not recall ever having seen anything quite like it. Neither seemed willing to let go first, although Busy would have been only too happy to wash his hands of the whole affair. The ring of the doorbell broke the deadlock. Quintus Bland released his wife, who in turn released his dog. Struggling to her feet, she began to fluff out her hair. As Fanny with a backward glance hurried to the door, the master of the house assumed a dignified attitude while his consort fixed a smile of greeting on her lips.
"Will you help me to get through college," hopefully inquired a voice, "by subscribing to one of these popular magazines?"
"Certainly not!" shouted Mr. Bland to the unseen aspirant.
"No!" passionately elaborated his wife. "Not if you remain ignorant to the end of your days, which I hope are numbered."
Feeling definitely certain that this was a poor portal indeed through which to enter into the realms of higher education, the youth withdrew, and Fanny hurried back to the room, hoping to witness the resumption of hostilities. But for that day active hostilities were at an end. Mrs. Bland was busy with the telephone. Her husband was watching her with a pair of brooding eyes.
"Is that you, Phil?" said Lorna Bland after a short pause. "Yes, of course, it is. Certainly this is Blondie. I simply wanted to let you know that my husband has just attempted to dash my brains out, then drag me round by my hair. Pretty, isn't it?"
"She brutally assaulted my dog," thundered Quintus Bland over his wife's shoulder, "and tried to pull his tail off."
"That was the voice of the murderer," said Lorna into the telephone. "No, no, not mine. He was referring to the dog's. [Pause.] Listen, Phil, I want you to take me out to dinner. I'll pick you up in the car. [Pause.] How sweet of you. Yes, yes, yes. [Another pause.] And after? Oh, I don't care what happens after. Better that than death."
She replaced the instrument and glanced significantly at her husband.
"Better that by far," she said as if to herself.
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded.
"Don't tell me you were born yesterday," she retorted.
"So that's how the crow flies," said Mr. Bland nastily.
"I don't care whether the crow flies or crawls along on the flat of his belly," was his wife's indelicate rejoinder. "You look like a crow yourself. How do you fly?"
"If I fly into a rage," said Quintus Bland, "you'll be sorry you were ever born."
"I'm sorry you ever were," Mrs. Bland flung back at him as she rose to quit the room. "And if I could lay my hands on that turtle I'd wring his horrid neck off."
"Animal baiter," muttered Quintus.
"Fanny," called Mrs. Bland from the stair-way, "come up here and help me find my black underwear with the lace."
A look of consternation took possession of Mr. Bland's features. He gathered the assaulted dog in his arms and sat down with him on the sofa. In a surprisingly short time Lorna Bland was down again.
"Good-bye," she said, looking in at the door. "I have it on, the black underwear with—"
"I know," Mr. Bland interrupted. "With the lace."
For a moment the small blonde creature lingered undecidedly in the door. She was sorry she had said he looked like a crow. It was too close to home. And she had lied about the black underwear, what little there was of it. Phil Harkens was not worth black underwear, especially with lace. Sitting there in the shadows, her black long-legged husband did look for all the world like a dark bird of ill omen—an old crow huddled on a sofa with a square dog on his lap. Still, he might say something friendly. She wanted only a word or so to call the battle off. But no word was forthcoming. Feeling a little hollow inside, she closed the front door slowly behind her. Shortly after, the man on the sofa heard the expostulations of her motor. He listened until the spluttering had turned to an ingratiating purr which grew fainter and died away. So she really had taken herself off with her black underwear with the lace. Now he had the house to himself, and he did not want it. Damn her, anyway, and damn her black underwear. Damn the lace, too. He removed a strand of blonde hair from his vest. Yes, damn her blonde hair.
For a long time he sat there quite motionless with the square dog. The battle had left him deflated. Idly he examined the tail of Busy. It was an odd hook of a tail not unlike a jigsaw piece with hair on it. It seemed to have escaped injury. Its permanent hook was undamaged. Mr. Bland decided it would be difficult to pull off a tail as strongly affixed as Busy's.
Darkness drifted into the room and piled up in the corners. Bland was too listless to switch on the lights. The far-away drumming of a scooting express train throbbed across the gloom. The sound made him think of the city. Lorna in her black underwear was spending the evening with that rotter, Phil Harkens. Why should not he, Quintus Bland, make a night of it also? The city was congested with good-looking women. His acquaintance among models was extensive.
"Busy," said the man to the square dog, "I feel very much like hell. All washed out, you know. Should I or should I not go to the city?"
The dog was far above the battle. He slumbered heavily on his master's lap and made gross noises about it.
Fanny's dark eyes glittered in the doorway.
"I'm going out, Fanny," said Quintus Bland from the sofa. "Pass the word to the kitchen. There will be no dinner."
Fanny's expression revealed the fact that she was sorry her master was going out. She had certain ideas of her own in which he was rather intimately involved. She wished she had the courage to tell him there was no need for him to stir farther afield in search of amorous diversion.
"Will you be back late, Mr. Bland?" she asked.
"If at all," Mr. Bland replied.
He removed the dog from his knees and placed him gently on the sofa. The square animal snored peacefully through the transition. Accepting his hat and stick from a reluctant Fanny, he moved out into the dusk, quitting the comforts of his suburban home in favour of the city, where he later became a skeleton, which was even worse than wearing black underwear with lace on it.