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The Face and the Mask/Death Cometh Soon Or Late


XI. DEATH COMETH SOON OR LATE

It was Alick Robbins who named the invalid the Living Skeleton, and probably remorse for having thus given him a title so descriptively accurate, caused him to make friends with the Living Skeleton, a man who seemed to have no friends.

Robbins never forgot their first conversation. It happened in this way. It was the habit of the Living Skeleton to leave his hotel every morning promptly at ten o'clock, if the sun was shining, and to shuffle rather than walk down the gravel street to the avenue of palms. There, picking out a seat on which the sun shone, the Living Skeleton would sit down and seem to wait patiently for someone who never came. He wore a shawl around his neck and a soft cloth cap on his skull. Every bone in his face stood out against the skin, for there seemed to be no flesh, and his clothes hung as loosely upon him as they would have upon a skeleton. It required no second glance at the Living Skeleton to know that the remainder of his life was numbered by days or hours, and not by weeks or months. He didn't seem to have energy enough even to read, and so it was that Robbins sat down one day on the bench beside him, and said sympathetically:—

"I hope you are feeling better to-day."

The Skeleton turned towards him, laughed a low, noiseless, mirthless laugh for a moment, and then said, in a hollow, far-away voice that had no lungs behind it: "I am done with feeling either better or worse."

"Oh, I trust it is not so bad as that," said Robbins; "the climate is doing you good down here, is it not?"

Again the Skeleton laughed silently, and Robbins began to feel uneasy. The Skeleton's eyes were large and bright, and they fastened themselves upon Robbins in a way that increased that gentleman's uneasiness, and made him think that perhaps the Skeleton knew he had so named him.

"I have no more interest in climate," said the Skeleton. "I merely seem to live because I have been in the habit of living for some years; I presume that is it, because my lungs are entirely gone. Why I can talk or why I can breathe is a mystery to me. You are perfectly certain you can hear me?"

"Oh, I hear you quite distinctly," said Robbins.

"Well, if it wasn't that people tell me that they can hear me, I wouldn't believe I was really speaking, because, you see, I have nothing to speak with. Isn't it Shakespeare who says something about when the brains are out the man is dead? Well, I have seen some men who make me think Shakespeare was wrong in his diagnosis, but it is generally supposed that when the lungs are gone a man is dead. To tell the truth, I am dead, practically. You know the old American story about the man who walked around to save funeral expenses; well, it isn't quite that way with me, but I can appreciate how the man felt. Still I take a keen interest in life, although you might not think so. You see, I haven't much time left; I am going to die at eight o'clock on the 30th of April. Eight o'clock at night, not in the morning, just after table d'hôte."

"You are going to what!" cried Robbins in astonishment.

"I'm going to die that day. You see I have got things to such a fine point, that I can die any time I want to. I could die right here, now, if I wished. If you have any mortal interest in the matter I'll do it, and show you what I say is true. I don't mind much, you know, although I had fixed April the 30th as the limit. It wouldn't matter a bit for me to go off now, if it would be of any interest to you."

"I beg you," said Robbins, very much alarmed, "not to try any experiments on my account. I am quite willing to believe anything you say about the matter—of course you ought to know."

"Yes, I do know." answered the Living Skeleton sadly. "Of course I have had my struggle with hope and fear, but that is all past now, as you may well understand. The reason that I have fixed the date for April 30th is this: you see I have only a certain amount of money—I do not know why I should make any secret of it. I have exactly 240 francs today, over and above another 100 francs which I have set aside for another purpose. I am paying 8 francs a day at the Golden Dragon; that will keep me just thirty days, and then I intend to die."

The Skeleton laughed again, without sound, and Robbins moved uneasily on the seat.

"I don't see," he said finally, "what there is to laugh about in that condition of affairs."

"I don't suppose there is very much; but there is something else that I consider very laughable, and that I will tell you if you will keep it a secret. You see, the Golden Dragon himself—I always call our innkeeper the Golden Dragon, just as you call me the Living Skeleton."

"Oh, I—I—beg your pardon," stammered Robbins, "I——."

"It really doesn't matter at all. You are perfectly right, and I think it a very apt term. Well, the old Golden Dragon makes a great deal of his money by robbing the dead. You didn't know that, did you? You thought it was the living who supported him, and goodness knows he robs them when he has a chance. Well, you are very much mistaken. When a man dies in the Golden Dragon, he, or his friends rather, have to pay very sweetly for it. The Dragon charges them for re-furnishing the room. Every stick of furniture is charged for, all the wall-paper, and so on. I suppose it is perfectly right to charge something, but the Dragon is not content with what is right. He knows he has finally lost a customer, and so he makes all he can out of him. The furniture so paid for, is not re-placed, and the walls are not papered again, but the Dragon doesn't abate a penny of his bill on that account. Now, I have inquired of the furnishing man, on the street back of the hotel, and he has written on his card just the cost of mattress, sheets, pillows, and all that sort of thing, and the amount comes to about 50 francs. I have put in an envelope a 50-franc note, and with it the card of the furniture man. I have written a letter to the hotel-keeper, telling him just what the things will cost that he needs, and have referred the Dragon to the card of the furniture man who has given me the figures. This envelope I have addressed to the Dragon, and he will find it when I am dead. This is the joke that old man Death and myself have put up on our host, and my only regret is that I shall not be able to enjoy a look at the Dragon's countenance as he reads my last letter to him. Another sum of money I have put away, in good hands where he won't have a chance to get it, for my funeral expenses, and then you see I am through with the world. I have nobody to leave that I need worry about, or who would either take care of me or feel sorry for me if I needed care or sympathy, which I do not. So that is why I laugh, and that is why I come down and sit upon this bench, in the sunshine, and enjoy the posthumous joke."

Robbins did not appear to see the humor of the situation quite as strongly as the Living Skeleton did. At different times after, when they met he had offered the Skeleton more money if he wanted it, so that he might prolong his life a little, but the Skeleton always refused.

A sort of friendship sprang up between Robbins and the Living Skeleton, at least, as much of a friendship as can exist between the living and the dead, for Robbins was a muscular young fellow who did not need to live at the Riviera on account of his health, but merely because he detested an English winter. Besides this, it may be added, although it really is nobody's business, that a Nice Girl and her parents lived in this particular part of the South of France.

One day Robbins took a little excursion in a carriage to Toulon. He had invited the Nice Girl to go with him, but on that particular day she could not go. There was some big charity function on hand, and one necessary part of the affair was the wheedling of money out of people's pockets, so the Nice Girl had undertaken to do part of the wheedling.

She was very good at it, and she rather prided herself upon it, but then she was a very nice girl, pretty as well, and so people found it difficult to refuse her. On the evening of the day there was to be a ball at the principal hotel of the place, also in connection with this very desirable charity. Robbins had reluctantly gone to Toulon alone, but you may depend upon it he was back in time for the ball.

"Well," he said to the Nice Girl when he met her, "what luck collecting, to-day?"

"Oh, the greatest luck," she replied enthusiastically, "and whom do you think I got the most money from?"

"I am sure I haven't the slightest idea—that old English Duke, he certainly has money enough."

"No, not from him at all; the very last person you would expect it from—your friend, the Living Skeleton."

"What!" cried Robbins, in alarm.

"Oh, I found him on the bench where he usually sits, in the avenue of the palms. I told him all about the charity and how useful it was, and how necessary, and how we all ought to give as much as we could towards it, and he smiled and smiled at me in that curious way of his. 'Yes,' he said in a whisper, 'I believe the charity should be supported by everyone; I will give you eighty francs.' Now, wasn't that very generous of him? Eighty francs, that was ten times what the Duke gave, and as he handed me the money he looked up at me and said in that awful whisper of his: 'Count this over carefully when you get home and see if you can find out what else I have given you. There is more than eighty francs there.' Then, after I got home, I——"

But here the Nice Girl paused, when she looked at the face of Robbins, to whom she was talking. That face was ghastly pale and his eyes were staring at her but not seeing her.

"Eighty francs," he was whispering to himself, and he seemed to be making a mental calculation. Then noticing the Nice Girl's amazed look at him, he said:

"Did you take the money?"

"Of course I took it," she said, "why shouldn't I?"

"Great Heavens!" gasped Robbins, and without a word he turned and fled, leaving the Nice Girl transfixed with astonishment and staring after him with a frown on her pretty brow.

"What does he mean by such conduct?" she asked herself. But Robbins disappeared from the gathering throng in the large room of the hotel, dashed down the steps, and hurried along the narrow pavements toward the "Golden Dragon." The proprietor was standing in the hallway with his hands behind him, a usual attitude with the Dragon.

"Where," gasped Robbins, "is Mr.—Mr.——" and then he remembered he didn't know the name. "Where is the Living Skeleton?"

"He has gone to his room," answered the Dragon, "he went early to-night, he wasn't feeling well, I think."

"What is the number of his room?"

"No. 40," and the proprietor rang a loud, jangling bell, whereupon one of the chambermaids appeared. "Show this gentleman to No. 40."

The girl preceded Robbins up the stairs. Once she looked over her shoulder, and said in a whisper, "Is he worse?"

"I don't know," answered Robbins, "that's what I have come to see."

At No. 40 the girl paused, and rapped lightly on the door panel. There was no response. She rapped again, this time louder. There was still no response.

"Try the door," said Robbins.

"I am afraid to," said the girl.

"Why?"

"Because he said if he were asleep the door would be locked, and if he were dead the door would be open."

"When did he say that?"

"He said it several times, sir; about a week ago the last time."

Robbins turned the handle of the door; it was not locked. A dim light was in the room, but a screen before the door hid it from sight. When he passed round the screen he saw, upon the square marble-topped arrangement at the head of the bed, a candle burning, and its light shone on the dead face of the Skeleton, which had a grim smile on its thin lips, while in its clenched hand was a letter addressed to the proprietor of the hotel.

The Living Skeleton had given more than the eighty francs to that deserving charity.