The Nightlife Of The Gods
CRITICIZING AN EXPLOSION
THE small family group gathered in the library was only conventionally alarmed by the sound of a violent explosion—a singularly self-centred sort of explosion.
'Well, thank God, that's over,' said Mrs Alice Pollard Lambert, swathing her sentence in a sigh intended to convey an impression of hard-pressed fortitude.
With bleak eyes she surveyed the fragments of a shattered vase. Its disastrous dive from the piano as a result of the shock had had in it something of the mad deliberation of a suicide's plunge. Its hideous days were over now, and Mrs Lambert was dimly aware of another little familiar something having been withdrawn from her life.
'I hope to high heaven this last one satisfies him for this spring at least,' was the petulant comment of Alfred, the male annexe of Alice.
'I've been waiting and waiting and waiting,' came a thin disembodied voice from a dark corner. 'Night and day I've been waiting and expecting—'
'And hoping and praying, no doubt, Grandpa,' interrupted Daphne, idly considering a run in her stocking and wondering what she was going to do about it, if anything, and when would be the least boring time to do it if she did, which she doubted.
'Alice,' complained Grandpa Lambert from the security of his shadows, 'that baggage has no respect for her elders.'
Stella, femininely desirable but domestically a washout, made one of her typical off-balance entrances. It started with a sort of scrambled hovering at the door, developed this into a mad dash into the room, and terminated in a tragic example of suspended animation somewhere in the immaculate neighbourhood of Mrs Alice Pollard Lambert.
'Been an explosion, ma'am,' announced Stella in a deflated voice. 'Mr Betts says so.'
'Now all you need to do is to fall dead at our feet to make the picture complete,' remarked Daphne.
'Yes, Miss Daffy,' said Stella brightly.
'And if Mr Betts says there's been an explosion,' Daffy continued, 'then there must have been an explosion. Betts is never wrong. You go back, Stella dear, and thank him for letting us know so promptly.'
'But, Miss Daffy, what shall we do about it?' asked Stella, vainly looking for some light to guide amid the encircling gloom.
'About what, Stella?' asked Daffy.
'This explosion, miss,' and Stella extended her hands as if she were offering a young explosion for the inspection of Daphne.
'Stella,' that young lady explained with sweet but jaded patience, 'one doesn't do things about explosions. Explosions are quite competent to do things for themselves. All sorts of things. The most one can do for an explosion is to leave it entirely alone until it has decided to become a ruin. Also, you can blink at an explosion respectfully in the news reels and feel good about its ghastly results. You'll probably gasp at this one on your night off next Thursday.' She paused, then added, 'With that stout fellow Tim breathing heavily in your ear.'
This last realistic observation was enough to effect the untidy departure of Stella.
'Oh, Miss Daffy,' was all that maiden said.
'I do wish she would refrain from calling you by that vulgar sobriquet,' said Mrs Lambert.
'Why, Mother?' the daughter asked. 'I am. Very. That's why I like myself, and that's why I like him. He's daffy too.'
She pointed in the general direction of the explosion.
'In that you're right, for a change,' agreed her father. 'He belongs in some institution. What does he mean by getting us here in this house and then having explosions all over the place? I call it downright inconsiderate.'
If Mr Alfred Pollard Lambert had forgotten the small detail that after having lost his wife's fortune in various business misadventures he had sought sanctuary for himself and dependents in his brother-in-law's previously tranquil home, Daffy had not been so remiss. However, out of an innate sense of sportsmanship she rejected the opening her bumptious parent had offered her, merely contenting herself by observing:
'Well, if I had a home of my own I'd explode all over it as much as I jolly well liked. I'd explode from attic to cellar just as long as I felt the least bit explosive.'
'I know, my dear,' said her mother. 'No one is saying your uncle hasn't a perfect right to explode whenever and wherever he pleases, but you must admit there's a certain limitation, certain restrictions of decency. One explosion, even two, we could understand and condone, but a series, a constant fusillade—it isn't normal. Good taste alone would suggest a little less boisterous avocation and a little less dangerous one.'
'But, Mother,' protested the girl, 'he has never invited any of us to participate in one of his explosions. He's been very decent about it and kept them entirely to himself.'
'Most of these scientific johnnies are content with a couple of explosions,' said Alfred, 'but your uncle is never satisfied. He seems to think that life is just one long Fourth of July.'
'The day will come,' intoned the devitalized voice from the corner. 'Mark the words of an old man. The day will come when we'll find ourselves completely blown to bits.'
This dire prediction struck Daphne as funny. She allowed herself several contemplative giggles.
'I can see it all,' she said. 'A lot of bits rushing busily about in a mad scramble to find one another. Hands collecting feet, legs, livers, and such, and putting them aside in a neat pile until all the bits have been assembled. Well, I hope I don't find some of this,' she continued, spanking herself resoundingly. 'I'm getting altogether too self-assertive in that quarter.'
'Daphne!' Mrs Lambert exclaimed. 'You're positively obscene.'
For a moment the young lady stood in rapt contemplation of some inner glory.
'I have it,' she said at last. 'Listen:
Said a certain king to his queen:
"In spots you grow far from lean."
"I don't give a damn,
You've always loved ham,"
She replied, and he said, "How obscene!"
From the dark corner inhabited by Grandpa Lambert issued a strange and unexpected sound, a sound which partook of the nature of both a cough and a cackle, such a sound as might clatter from the lipless mouth of a skull well pleased by some macabre memory.
'Why, Father!' exclaimed Alfred Lambert. 'You're laughing, actually laughing.'
'And at such a thing,' added Mrs Lambert with deep disapproval.
'Can't help it,' wheezed the old gentleman. 'Always had a weakness for limericks. Got a few of my own if I could only remember them.'
He promptly fell to brooding not uncheerfully over those lost limericks of other years.
'You old darling,' said Daffy, going over to the thin, crouched figure. 'You've been holding out on me.'
'Disgraceful,' sniffed Alice Pollard Lambert. 'Demoralizing.'
Alfred made no further comment. He had a well defined suspicion that the old chap was holding out on him something far more desirable than limericks. If he could only lay his hands on his father's bank book. For some years now an inspection of that little book had been one of Alfred Lambert's chief aims in life. Just one little peek was all he asked. After that he could order his conduct according to the size of the figures in the book. As things stood now he was being in all likelihood dutifully and enduringly filial without any assurance of adequate compensation. Yet there was always that chance, that slight but not impossible chance. Hellishly tantalizing for an acquisitive nature. Alfred's was such a nature.
'There's one thing about the Persians,' the old man was saying to his granddaughter. 'Oh, a delightful thing, my dear child, an exquisite bit of vulgarity. Of course, I couldn't repeat it to you. Maybe after you're married. I'll tell your husband, and he'll tell you—if he's the right sort of a husband.'
'I'm sure Alfred never sullies my ears with such indecencies,' said Mrs Lambert, with a rising inflexion in her overcultured voice.
'He doesn't get out enough,' grated the old man. 'Do you both good.'
'Your suggestion, Grandpa, is the greatest inducement to matrimony I've ever had,' said Daphne, patting the old man's shoulder. 'I'll look for a victim immediately.'
'A full-legged girl like yourself shouldn't have far to look,' the old man said with an unedifying chuckle. 'In my day young men had to depend almost entirely on the sense of touch in such matters. Nowadays the sense of sight seems to play a more important part. It simplifies things, perhaps, but robs courtship of a lot of adventure.'
'Disgusting!' pronounced Mrs Lambert, then added with a view to changing the subject, 'Don't you think, Alfred, that Stella was right? Shouldn't we do something about this explosion?'
'Perhaps,' agreed Alfred. 'He usually comes out after he's had one.'
'Rather rapidly,' remarked Daffy. 'The last time he came out through the side of the house with a couple of bricks in his pants.'
'But he hates to be disturbed,' went on Mrs Lambert. 'You know how he is.'
'I know how he was,' replied Daffy. 'How he is now, God only knows.'
'Perhaps it got him this time,' suggested Grandpa Lambert, not without a touch of complacency.
'Think we should go, Alfred?' asked his wife.
'Well, if that explosion failed to disturb him,' Mr Lambert observed, 'I don't see how the intervention of mere mortals could make much of an impression. But why ask me? You're his sister. You should know best what to do about his explosive highness.'
At this stage in the deliberations Alfred, Junior, age seventeen, lolled into the room. He tossed his hat at a chair with which it failed to connect. He thrust his hands deep into his pockets and looked ugly. He confronted his mother and began to speak in one of those voices which had it been a face one could have instinctively slapped. 'How long am I going to be made a laughing-stock out of?' he demanded. 'How long, I ask you?'
'If you ask me,' put in his sister, 'I'd say as long as a suffering world allows you to live.'
'What is it now, darling?' Mrs Lambert asked with cloying solicitude.
The youth laughed unpleasantly.
'You ask me that?' he exclaimed. 'Does another explosion mean nothing to you? Am I to have my friends saying, "That loony uncle of yours has blown up his house again"? Am I to be made the butt of all the humour and wisecracks of the community? Do you know what all my friends are saying? Would you like to know?'
'No,' said Daffy. 'Emphatically not.'
'Shut up, you,' snapped her brother. 'They're saying that they wouldn't be caught dead in this house. That's what they're saying.'
'If they're caught in this house they will be dead,' remarked Daffy with great decision. 'I'll jolly well blow the whole kit and boodle of 'em to smithereens.'
'Children, children,' Mrs Lambert protested.
'We've got to put a stop to it, Mother,' announced Junior. 'We've got to have a talk with him. I can't afford to be saddled with the stigma of a mad uncle.'
'Yes, darling,' his mother agreed. 'I know-how you must feel.'
'Why don't you go yourself, dearie, and have a talk with him now?' asked his sister. 'Lace it into him good and proper. Give him what for. Also, a microscopic portion of your infinitesimal mind.'
'Think you're funny, don't you?' retorted the hope of the Lamberts.
'I do,' replied Daffy. 'I am.'
'What I want to know is, why does he have all these explosions?' Alfred Lambert inquired in an injured voice. 'Are they essential to his happiness? What is he trying to prove, anyway?'
'Cellular petrification through atomic combustion,' quoted Daphne weightily, 'and vice versa. It's highly electrical and can be, when it feels like it, no end smelly.'
'And noisy,' came from the corner.
'I'll tell you what let's do,' suggested Mr Lambert with the verve of one who has just conceived a bright and original idea. 'Let's all go see him.'
'Why not?' replied Daffy with a slight shrug.
'All but me,' amended Grandpa Lambert. 'I'll sit here and think up limericks. It's safer.'
'And naughtier,' said Daffy as she led the way from the room. 'Horrid old man.'
'Wanton,' he retorted.