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Pale complexion, flushed cheeks, downcast eyes told him nothing, except that the girl was inwardly excited by his presence.
 
     
 
Her nose and chin looked too waxy, and when she smiled her lips went crooked.
 
 
The Beautiful People
by Robert Bloch

When Jimmie Hartnett came back to Highland Springs he was twenty-five years old, and there was some argument as to just how he looked.

According to the matronly friends of his late mother, he resembled a Greek god. Their daughters, on the other hand, were more apt to describe him as a "living doll." But everyone agreed that he was an extremely handsome young man.

Since Jimmie Hartnett was a lieutenant (j.g.) on terminal leave, it was quite proper for him to wear his dress uniform on formal occasions—and there were formal occasions aplenty, once the matrons and their daughters got a glimpse of him. The uniform did things for his curly brown crewcut, his deep tan, his blue eyes. In a month or so he'd probably have to content himself with the gray flannel suit which is the normal attire of young men in even so prosperous a suburb as Highland Springs, but meanwhile he cut an impressive figure at the country club.

And it was there, during the third set of a Saturday night dance, that he met Millicent Tavish.

Somebody—it doesn't really matter who, and Jimmie never remembered—led him over and introduced him to the tall, slim blonde wearing the diamond earrings. Jimmie acknowledged the introduction with his standard boyish grin and offered the standard invitation for the next dance, with his standard warning that he was not a very good dancer. This was nonsense, of course, for Jimmie was an excellent performer both on and off the dance floor, and nobody was more aware of it than himself.

But genuine blondes wearing genuine diamond earrings are a rarity indeed, and Jimmie was quite determined to make an impression. He was all set to lead off with a few opening remarks—perhaps something about how unusual it was to discover a wild orchid in suburbia—when Millicent Tavish took the play away from him.

"You don't remember me, do you?" she asked.

Jimmie stared down at the upturned face. Pale complexion, flushed cheeks, downcast eyes told him nothing, except that the girl was inwardly excited by his presence. A good thing, but no clue. Nose slightly snub, firm chin, even teeth, high cheekbones, straight hair—Jimmie catalogued her features, thinking what a pity it was he seldom retained a memory of faces. He was much better on bodies. When it came to a matter of breasts and thighs (as it so frequently did), his memory was encyclopedic. But this was neither the time nor the place, unfortunately, and besides he was quite certain he had never been closer to this particular female than he was at present. All he could do was grin and stall for time.

"Think hard, now," she was saying. "It's over six years since you went away to college and the navy, and you'll have to go further back than that. I used to live on Williams Street. Millie Tavish. Does that help any?"

Jimmie blinked at her and came to a standstill over in a corner of the dance floor.

"Millie," he said. "Now I remember. Millie the—" He stopped quickly, conscious that his ears were reddening, but she gave a little laugh and pressed his hand with a moist palm.

"Go ahead and say it," she told him. "Millie the Mule. After all, you're the one who christened me, aren't you? You must have called me that a thousand times."

"No," said Jimmie.

"But you did. And you used to pull my hair—"

"That isn't what I meant. I meant, 'No, it can't be.' Come out here and let me get a good look at you."

"On the terrace? There isn't much light there." But she came willingly enough, and when he tilted her face she bore his scrutiny with a soft smile.

"I can't believe it," he muttered. "Millie Tavish. You were just a scrawny little kid with freckles and buck teeth." He flushed. "Sounds like the dialogue in one of those corny movies, doesn't it?"

Her smile broadened. "Yes. And then I remind you that I was seventeen when you left town, and a girl grows up in six years."

"Yes, but—"

"I know what you're thinking," she murmured. "I didn't just grow up, did I? You want to know what became of the teeth that stuck out, and the big nose, and the long chin. You want to know what happened to Millie the Mule."

"Please."

"Don't worry, I want to tell you. You, more than anyone else. Because you did it."

Her palm was very wet now, but she gripped his hand tightly. "This isn't a movie, Jimmie. This isn't the scene where the hero comes back and finds the ugly duckling transformed into a lovely swan. I was an ugly duckling, but there was no chance I'd ever just outgrow it. I could have been Millie the Mule all my life, the way you thought of me."

"Kids are kind of cruel, I guess," Jimmie said.

"'Kind of cruel'? They're monsters." Her voice faltered, then went on. "You'll never know how bad it was, Jimmie. But I might have stood it, if it hadn't been for you. Even then I was sure you'd be coming back some day. So that's why I had myself changed."

"Had yourself—?"

"Three years ago, after Dad and Mommy died, in the crash on the turnpike. But you didn't hear about that, did you?"

"I'm sorry."

"I'm not. Maybe it's a dreadful thing to say, but I'm almost glad. Dad never paid any attention to me; he'd always wanted a boy. And Mom was ashamed of the way I looked. She used to nag me and worry out loud about what would happen after she was gone and I'd be all alone in the world. I think she hated me, really."

"Millie, you mustn't talk about it."

"But I must. It's important. I want to tell you what happened. When the folks died, and I came into the estate, I didn't go back to college. I went into the hospital instead. Dr. Madison worked on me. Everybody says he's the best plastic surgeon in this part of the country. Do you think he did a good job?"

"You're beautiful."

"Do you really mean that?"

"You're a beautiful woman, Millie."

"It took a long time, Jimmie. And it hurt, quite a lot. But it was worth it, to hear you say that."

Jimmie smiled down at her. She was beautiful; the doctor had done his work so well that you couldn't even see the scars. And he could see the way her eyes were shining, and he could see the diamond earrings sparkling too, and this made him remember that old man Tavish had been loaded. He must have left his only daughter a fortune. All at once Jimmie wasn't worried about exchanging his uniform for a gray flannel suit. Why not a yachting outfit, for example? Besides, there comes a time when a man ought to think about settling down.

He put his hands on Millie's bare shoulders, conscious that she was trembling.

"Would you like me to tell you more, darling?" he murmured …


· · · · · 


It was a big wedding in the big church, with the biggest crowd, the biggest reception, and just about the biggest spread on the society page. And the honeymoon was big, too.

They went to Bermuda, and they were very happy together. Jimmie was accustomed to being happy, of course, but it seemed an almost overwhelming experience for Millie. He couldn't quite understand it when, after making love, she would whisper to him, "Darling, that was like the tolling of great bells."

But Millie often talked that way. Apparently she'd been a great one for reading during her lonely adolescence, and even now she spent a lot of time with her nose buried in a book.

Jimmie didn't go for that; he'd read his share of books in college, but even then it had come hard. He'd been grateful for the help of chicks like whatever her name was; some little redhead he'd shacked up with all during his senior year.

The point was, no sense wasting time on reading now. He'd cracked his last exam, and he wouldn't be boning up for any job, either. Not with all the loot Millie had. Be enough of a nuisance just keeping track of the income from the estate and running the big house back in Highland Springs.

He wasn't anxious to go back, and even talked to Millie about buying a yacht, but she didn't go for the idea. Then he suggested they hop a plane to Jamaica and hook up with a luxury cruise through the Caribbean. They'd met another young couple in Nassau, the Wilsons, and they could travel together.

Millie rejected that notion, too. Maybe she had some sneaking idea about Mrs. Wilson. A lush little number, no doubt about it, and she did wave her eyelashes and other things when Jimmie was around, but Millie should have known better. A guy doesn't step out of line when he's on his honeymoon. Anyway, he had his hands full the way it was.

But Millie wanted to go home, so they returned to Highland Springs and opened the big house. There was a lot of excitement about redecorating and refurnishing, and Jimmie let her handle everything.

What got him excited was the new four-car garage and its contents: the big Lincoln, the Caddy station wagon, Millie's convertible and the loaded Jag she bought him on their first month's anniversary. When he got the Jag he insisted on putting in a fancy selection of tools and equipment; there was plenty of room in the garage, and he liked to putter around with engines.

Not that he had much time for it, because the minute the house was ready, Millie began to throw parties. She'd hire a caterer and a big staff and invite a gang over, and she really had herself a ball playing hostess and introducing Jimmie to all the big wheels and their wives. You could see she got a large charge out of showing him off.

Jimmie didn't get such a big bang out of it. Oh, it was nice at first, but the novelty wore off. And the people were cubes. Every once in a while some fluff turned up, only there was no chance to do anything about it. Jimmie watched his step, and he was almost glad when Millie decided she'd had enough of parties for a while.

Then it was just sitting around, mostly; Millie liked to read, and he'd go out and putter with the Jag. They didn't talk very much about plans. Once or twice she brought up the subject of kids, but Jimmie thought it would be better if they waited a while and enjoyed life while they were still young. He tried to interest her in another trip, and she said not now, next year perhaps, and didn't he like it here?

Of course there was only one answer to that. Only one answer she seemed to want. And since they were alone together so much, he had no choice. Millie just couldn't seem to realize that there comes a time when the honeymoon is over.

That's why she wouldn't hire any permanent servants. This was ridiculous, with all their dough, but she said she liked to cook for him and take care of him all by herself. At first it seemed kind of flattering, the way she fussed over him, even picking out the clothes he wore, but when he realized she was often in the habit of just sitting there and watching his face as he slept, Jimmie began to feel like a damned fool.

Finally, along about the fourth month, he faced up to the truth like a man. Millie was beginning to give him a distinct pain. Might as well be honest about it—there were a lot of things about the woman which disappointed him.

For instance, that doctor's job hadn't been one hundred percent perfect. True, he'd left no scars, but when Millie was out in the harsh sunlight or felt particularly dragged, you could see her face wasn't quite natural. Her nose and chin looked too waxy, and when she smiled her lips went crooked. Maybe he was just being self-conscious, because he could remember Millie the Mule. But whatever it was, it bothered him. Especially when he had to kiss her, which was frequently. That was the real reason for his gripe; she just couldn't let him alone. At first he'd been surprised at the way she responded, but in a way it had been sort of a tribute to his personality and good looks. Jimmie was used to that. But now there was more than response—there was demand.

Jimmie knew that any virile male like himself wants to be the aggressor; that was the man's job, to get his kicks from the challenge, the chase, the conquest. But here there was no challenge, no chase, and he was beginning to suspect that the real conquest was Millie's.

Of course, there was nothing he could do about it. He was a married man, and a married man just doesn't walk off and leave his wife just because she loves him. That would be a sneaky thing to do. And as for walking away from a million bucks—that would be downright crazy.

A smart guy plays the game. He may stall a little, encourage his wife to get interested in bridge parties and trips with "the girls," and try to spend more time himself out in the garage or with the car.

At first this didn't seem to work, because Millie wanted to come along when he took the Jag out for a spin. But she had a sort of a thing about high speeds, and when he found that out it was easy to discourage her. Then, when he told her about joining the Sports Car Club, she wasn't interested at all. By this time she was up to her neck in suburban social life; she got her satisfaction out of visiting with all the old school friends around town—girls who had probably snubbed her but good back in the days when she was Millie the Mule.

Jimmie wondered if she lorded it over them now, particularly the ones who'd married potbellied little junior execs or guys with horn-rims who had to lug their briefcases onto the 8:10 every morning. If so, he could understand that; under similar circumstances, he'd give them a hard time.

But it didn't matter, as long as she was interested and kept out of his way. Because he was finding his satisfaction, too.

Her name was Peggy. Peggy Allen.

He'd met her through the club, and she had a Porsche, but she preferred a Jag. She was only a kid, nineteen or so, and she had some dumb ape of a boyfriend who was crazy about drag races; it was very convenient when he went off to school in September.

To be perfectly frank about it, maybe she really wasn't any goddess, but she knew how to keep a guy interested. Half the club was after her, and she played the field, but she was no pushover. When it came to wrestling, she knew all the holds. But the more she stalled him, the more Jimmie wanted her. And she couldn't fool him: he knew damned good and well it was mutual. All he needed was the time and place. Meanwhile, Jimmie was beginning to feel more like himself again. He was having a few laughs, a little excitement. At the same time, there was the big thing of knowing it wasn't really serious. Just a little fun on the side. Hell, at twenty-five, a man is just hitting his stride. He doesn't want to curl up in a corner and die. And since there was no question about ever leaving Millie, he had nothing to worry about. No reason why he couldn't enjoy himself. All he needed now was opportunity.

When the opportunity came, it happened so fast he almost muffed it.

Millie wanted to take a run into Cleveland with a couple of "the girls" to see some damned ballet troupe or other. They'd stay over a day and do some shopping; would he like to come along?

Well, there was no trouble getting out of that one. Besides, he had a golf date the following afternoon. So he gave her a pat on the fanny and told her to run along and enjoy herself. No trouble at all.

The thing was, he didn't check with Peggy Allen right away, and when he did get hold of her she said she was dated. Fed him the old hard-to-get line, and it wasn't until he spelled it out for her and told her it was either-or that she stopped teasing.

So he picked her up the first night in his Jag and took her back to the house.

Even when it was over, Jimmie was surprised to find out that he was still coming on strong for the kid, and he wished they had a few more days before Millie was due back.

Then he got another break. Lucille Sims, one of Millie's snooty friends, called him up the next afternoon. Millie had come down with a cold and she'd decided to stay over in Cleveland at the hotel for another day, then come back on the train.

Jimmie phoned the hotel right away and talked to Millie. She didn't sound too bad, and he asked if she wanted him to drive up and get her. But she said no, she'd prefer the train, and he promised to pick her up at the station the following afternoon.

After that he was set. He called Peggy, and this time there was no stalling. He brought her over to the house at seven, and it must have been after midnight when he took her home again.

Driving back after dropping her off, Jimmie felt a lot better. He had everything under control now. Peggy was a softie underneath, like all the rest—she really went for him in a big way, and he'd be seeing her again. No promises, no strings, no problems. Handling Millie would be a cinch.

He put the car in the garage, the automatic doors closing softly and silently behind him. He turned on the light and grinned as he inspected the shining fleet, the immaculate workshop in the corner, the big breezeway enclosure leading to the house.

Yep, he really had it made. What more could a guy ask for? Plenty of moola, a dumb wife, and a hep chick on the side. Plus everything it takes to get anything he wanted. The character who made that crack about your face being your fortune sure knew what he was handing out.

Jimmie stared at his face in the shiny reflection of the Jag's hood. You're not bad, kid, he told himself. Not bad at all. He was still staring when the lights went out.


· · · · · 


And then the lights came on again, hurting his eyes and clear through the top of his head, and he said to himself you must have passed out. He tried to move, and he realized his hands were tied behind his back. So you didn't pass out, he thought. You were sapped. What goes on here?

That's when he looked up and saw Millie standing there.

"Hey!" he said.

"Is that all?" Millie asked. "No questions? Don't you want to know about the first time I got suspicious, when I happened to pick up the extension phone and heard you talking to that little tramp of yours? It was over a month ago, and I've been wondering ever since. Wondering so much that I finally decided to go to Cleveland and arrange to get sick. I kept hoping I was wrong, of course, even when I slipped out and rented a car tonight to drive back and surprise you."

"When—when did you get here?"

"Soon enough." Millie stared down at him, and he could see she was still holding the small wrench she'd used as a sap in her gloved hands. "Soon enough to know that I could stop wondering, and stop hoping, and stop worrying about surprises. You and the girl took care of that."

"That girl," Jimmie said. "She's just a—"

"I know what she is," Millie told him. "She doesn't really mean a thing to you, does she?"

"Of course not, darling. You understand, don't you?"

"I understand."

"Then why the melodrama? Come on, untie me. A gag's a gag."

"I won't need a gag. There's nobody around and this place is practically soundproof."

"Millie, for God's sake, you aren't going to do anything foolish—"

"No. What I'm going to do is very sensible. I've been sitting here in the dark, ever since I saw you leave to take that girl home, and I've been thinking things over. There's no need for me to use this."

She put down the wrench and opened her purse, pulling out the gun.

"Millie!"

"Don't worry. I told you I wouldn't use it." She slipped the gun back into her bag. "I said I'd be sensible."

Jimmie squirmed and tried to sit up. He couldn't quite make it, but he did manage a wry grin.

"I suppose that means a divorce," he said.

She shook her head. "That wouldn't work. I thought about it for a while, but you can see what would happen. No matter what kind of charges we trumped up, the story's bound to come out. I don't think I'd care to know about all the gossip going on."

"Then—" Jimmie hesitated, pitching his voice to just the right note of penitence. "I know I haven't even got the right to ask, but does this mean that you're going to—forgive me?"

Millie didn't answer, so he went on.

"I don't have to tell you I'm sorry. I know I made a mistake. All I can do is try to make it up to you."

"Yes." It was Millie's turn to pause. "You are sorry, aren't you? Sorry because you weren't smart enough, because you got caught."

"No, that's not it. I told you I'd make it up to you, I'd try."

"Of course you'd try, darling. And you'd fail. Because that's the kind of a person you are, Jimmie dear, the kind of a person you always have been and always will be. It's my fault for not realizing it from the very beginning. You're a pretty boy, and you can't stand anything around you that might mar your own perfection. You've always got to have new clothes, new cars, new women. You're one of the beautiful people, Jimmie, and you hate ugliness. The way you hated me when you were a kid. The way you hate me now."

"But I don't hate you; you're not ugly—"

"Oh yes I am, Jimmie." She smiled at him. "Only an ugly woman could do the sensible thing I'm going to do."

She walked over to the workbench and picked something up in her gloved right hand. Then she came back and stood over him again. He saw what she was holding and his throat went dry, so that the words were only a whisper.

"You'd better put that down. You can't get away with it!"

"I'm not going to get away with anything, darling. It's the thieves."

"What thieves?"

"The ones the police will think broke in here tonight while you were sleeping, and while I was still away in Cleveland. I'll be back there in my hotel room before anyone notices my absence, and tomorrow I'll check out and come home. I'll be very surprised when you aren't on hand to meet me at the station, and I'll be very shocked when I come home and find out what the thieves have done. Don't worry, you'll be mourned. And I'm going to be proud of you for doing such a foolish, proud thing—trying to keep the combination of the house safe from the thieves, even under torture—"

"Millie, you're crazy!"

"Not crazy. Just ugly, remember?" She walked away to the bench again, picked up a rag from its surface, returned and knelt beside him. "On second thought, it will look more natural if I do gag you, after all. Besides, I won't have to listen to your silly interruptions any longer. And maybe you'll scream more loudly than I thought. I'm almost certain you will."

"M—"

"There. That's better." She stood up. Jimmie kept watching her hands. She was holding the thing, pointing it.

"You don't understand what I mean by ugliness yet, do you?" she murmured. "Beautiful people never do. I suppose that's why you hate it so, because you don't understand. And you don't care. Life is so very easy for you, because we live in an age that worships beauty above all else; worships it the way I worshipped you. Even when you wrecked my life.

"No, I'm not talking about tonight. You wrecked my life years ago, Jimmie. When we were children together, when you gave me my new name. Millie the Mule. I told you once you'd never know what that did to me, and I was right. I didn't realize the whole truth until tonight.

"I thought having an ugly face and an ugly nickname was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. When my friends made fun of me, and even my parents were ashamed, that seemed the most terrible fate. And it went on for years, Jimmie. Even after you went away, the name stuck by me. The name, and the face. I thought nothing more dreadful could possibly happen, but I was wrong.

"The dreadful thing was to try and change. To forget the old saying that beauty is only skin-deep. Well, I found out that it's true, Jimmie. You taught me that, tonight. Because you're one of the beautiful people I've always envied, one of the favored few who walk through life getting everything they want without effort, without worries or problems or unpleasantness. And yet you're not beautiful, inside. You're ugly as sin. And it is a sin to get everything you want without doing anything to deserve it.

"That's the thought which used to console me, Jimmie. I guess it helps console all of us ugly ones. I kept believing that I was better than I looked, underneath. That my heart was full of understanding, that my love was pure, all sorts of maudlin nonsense. And I had faith that if I kept striving, I'd get what I wanted.

"So I had my face altered, and I got what I wanted. You. I didn't look like Millie the Mule any more, and I thought it was enough to make us both happy. That was my mistake, darling. Because it didn't make you happy, did it? You could still see Millie the Mule underneath the mask, and that's why you strayed.

"The only person I fooled was myself. And it wasn't until tonight that I realized the truth.

"I am Millie the Mule. Inside, I'm as ugly as you are. Only an ugly person could dream of doing what I'm going to do to you."

Jimmie stared at her hands, knowing that in a moment she'd move. Then he stared at her face, and in the half-light it seemed oddly altered. For a moment he could almost see her as she had once been, years ago—Millie the Mule, ugly as sin.

"But I'm not crazy," she whispered. "Please understand that, because it's important. You did your best to drive me mad, torturing me for years with your name-calling, your nastiness, your sniggering, your loathing. Still, it wasn't enough to drive me mad; just enough to make a monster out of me. That's right, Jimmie. I'm a monster now. That's why I've got to do this thing. Because you deserve it for making me ugly inside. So ugly that when I saw you and that girl together tonight, I gave up any thought of just shooting you. That's when I knew just how much of a monster you'd made of me—when I realized what I was planning, and how much I'm going to enjoy it.

"It's going to take a long time, Jimmie. I want it to take quite a long time. It will help me to get rid of your ugliness and mine, together."

Jimmie was thinking that she had never looked more like Millie the Mule than she did at this moment, as she knelt beside him and went to work …


· · · · · 


It was quite the most horrible tragedy Highland Springs had ever known. When poor Millie came back from Cleveland and found her husband in the garage that way, everybody thought she'd collapse. But she managed to hold up quite bravely, even through the investigation and inquest, and when the ordeal of the funeral was over, she seemed like a different person.

In fact everyone remarked on it. While plastic surgery had done wonders for her, it wasn't until after her husband's death that Millie became a truly beautiful woman. She seemed to glow with an inner serenity, as if all the ugliness had been burned out of her.

All the more surprising, considering the shock she must have had when she discovered her husband's corpse. It was bad enough that the unknown thieves had tortured him, burning the soles of his feet to get the combination of the safe. But then, probably by accident, they'd set the gasoline torch down right next to his head. Even with a low flame, his face had been burned completely off …

The End
 
 
 

© 1960 by Robert Bloch. Reprinted with permission of the agent for the author's estate, Ralph Vicinanza, Ltd. Originally published as "Skin-Deep" in Best-Seller Mystery Magazine, July 1960.