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The Nightlife Of The Gods


Thorne Smith



FROM the method of progress employed by the Lambert family, one would have gained the impression that the correct way to approach an explosion was on tiptoe. There was something reverential yet subduedly daring about the small procession as it silently moved down the long hallway leading to the laboratory. It was as if its members were preparing themselves to gaze upon the face of an important but erratic corpse.

Daphne alone of the expedition's personnel was sincerely concerned about the safety of her uncle. She had no desire to find him scattered all over the place. Daphne was fond of her uncle. He constituted the larger part of her world—the more inhabitable part. Without him she would be thrust back into the narrow confines of her immediate family. Under such circumstances, she felt, life would hardly be worth the effort. Hunter Hawk was for her an escape and a revelation. He appealed to her imagination and added a small dash of colour to her rather empty days. She entertained for him the healthily selfish devotion of her twenty-one years, the majority of which, she decided, had been shamefully wasted—the years before she had been brought to live in Hunter Hawk's home. Yet she was well aware of the fact that he was not much of an uncle. He was neither whimsical, dashing, nor debauched, one of which, at least, she had gained from her voracious reading, an uncle had to be, or else he was hardly any sort of an uncle at all. It was only on rare occasions that this uncle of hers realized she was alive. For the most part he went silently about his wondering way and did strange and mysterious things with impossible looking instruments in the privacy of his laboratory. Occasionally he indulged in an explosion. Daphne had come to believe that what a periodical binge meant to some men these explosions meant to her uncle. They served to relieve his feelings, and she was surprised at his moderation in confining them to only one section of the house. Quite frequently Daphne Lambert felt like blowing up the entire neighbourhood, especially that part of it which at the time chanced to be inhabited by her mother, father, and brother.

Sometimes she would catch her uncle looking at her with an expression of mild astonishment in his dark, biting, and invariably delving eyes. Whenever this occurred, the girl for some inexplicable reason experienced a sensation of inner elation. There was always something maliciously challenging in his gaze, some derogatory reservation. She more than a little suspected that since the ruthless incursion of her family he had dimly felt that his home had been more or less taken away from him and that this side of bloodshed he was unable to figure out just what to do about it. Also she suspected that Hunter Hawk almost constantly carried about with him great quantities of violent yet unexpressed exasperation engendered by his sister, her husband, and their son. The three of them were enough to do terrible things to the most loosely constructed system of nerves.

Between her grandfather and her uncle there seemed to exist a sort of acrimonious bond of sympathy. True enough, the old man would have gladly seen him dead and welcomed the occasion as a pleasant interlude in the monotonous march of time. However, this meant nothing. The old man would have welcomed virtually anyone's death with the exception of his own. His son, his daughter-in-law, and the horrid results of their combined efforts to create an heir in the semblance of man he heartily detested. He had been forced to listen to their conversation for too many years. For Daphne he entertained the envious regard of the unregenerate and senile male. This young lady now paused with her hand on the knob of the laboratory door.

'Perhaps we should have brought a basket,' she suggested as she grimly surveyed the expectant faces.

'How can you!' exclaimed her mother in a tremulous voice.

The girl threw open the door, and the four of them stood gazing in upon the wreck of the laboratory. It was a long, high-raftered apartment filled with more than enough instruments and paraphernalia to satiate the lust for descriptive detail of an avalanche of Sinclair Lewises.

There were several long tables supporting innumerable objects only remotely connected with life. Much of the equipment Hunter Hawk had been forced to devise himself. There were test tubes, Bunsen burners, pressure tanks, dynamos, mixing slabs, and all sorts of electrical appliances. In fact, almost everything seemed to be in that laboratory except a vacuum cleaner and Hunter Hawk himself. Most of the objects now lay smashed and twisted on the floor. It was like the disintegration of a bad dream. All of the windows were shattered, and innumerable jars and bottles carpeted the floor with their fragments. Heavy, evil-smelling clouds of gaseous vapour drifted casually about the room, while through these clouds from time to time appeared various bits of wreckage.

At the far end of the room a small but intense white light streaming from a huge wire-filled glass tube was splashing its rays against a silver ball about the size of an adult pea. From the other end of this tube a green light of equal intensity was treating another little silver ball in a like manner. These balls were poised about one foot from the floor at the ends of two thin rods. How they retained their positions during the violence of the explosion remains one of the many mysteries that Hunter Hawk never saw any occasion to elucidate.

'It must have blown the poor chap clean through one of the windows,' remarked Mr Lambert at last, in an awed but hopeful voice. 'No man could have lived through such a shock as that must have been.'

'Poor, poor Hunter,' murmured the exploded one's sister. 'We did everything we could to discourage him, but he would persist. I knew this would happen one day.'

She hesitated and looked apprisingly about the long room. An acquisitive light was growing in her eyes.

'This place could easily be made into a perfectly charming lounge and breakfast room,' she unconsciously mused aloud. 'Long yellow drapes and the right sort of furniture. We might even try this modern stuff for a change.'

'Make a bang-up billiard room,' commented Alfred Lambert, with a trace of wistfulness in his voice. 'I could entertain my friends here.'

'Say, Mom,' demanded Junior, his tongue growing thick with anticipation, 'does it all come to us—the house and the money and everything?'

'Everything,' replied Mrs Lambert with crisp finality. 'All. I am his next of kin.'

'You're his only next of kin, aren't you?' her husband demanded in sudden alarm.

'I am,' said Mrs Lambert complacently. 'The poor boy's only sister. Of course, there's Daphne and Junior.'

'Then that settles that,' said Mr Lambert with obvious relief. 'No legal complications. Lucky for us he never married, eh, my boy?'

Mr Lambert slapped his son jovially on the back.

'Lucky for some poor girl,' was Junior's bright reply.

A sound like a strangled sob, only more frustrated and inarticulate, drifted weirdly through the room.

'Did anyone hear that?' Alice Lambert demanded with a startled light in her eyes.

Apparently no one had.

'Must have been the wind,' replied her husband impatiently. 'Now what about the size of his estate, roughly speaking?'

Daphne had been peering through the various broken windows in the hope of finding her uncle or some part of her uncle.

'Of course,' she remarked, sensing the drift of the conversation as she approached the self-congratulatory little group, 'it will be necessary for you to produce the body before you can claim the estate. Anyone who knows his R. Austin Freeman even sketchily must realize that corpus delicti is one of the first essentials.'

'My God!' Alfred exclaimed. 'Daphne's right. We've forgotten all about the body.'

'And perhaps there still flickers within it a small glimmer of life,' said Daffy. 'What then?' At this uncongenial suggestion Alfred's cheerful face darkened perceptibly.

'He couldn't possibly have lived through this,' he replied, as if striving to reassure himself. 'It wouldn't be normal.'

'He never was normal,' Mrs Lambert observed gloomily.

A furious chattering sound suddenly broke out above in the smoke-draped rafters. It was almost animal in its inability to express the full burden of its emotions.

Daphne's heart skidded round several sharp corners and came up with a thump against her ribs. A triumphant smile lighted up her face as she gazed aloft. Her mother, father, and brother stood looking at one another in guilty desolation. Each was trying to recall exactly what had been said and exactly who had said it. A heavy reluctance now weighted their tongues which only a moment ago had wagged so glibly. With an effort they brought themselves to follow the direction of Daffy's delighted gaze. A gas cloud drifted away revealing the long, lean, angular body of Hunter Hawk precariously draped on a rafter. It was like the unveiling of a statue of impotent rage. The man's mouth was opening and shutting without any apparent reason. Every time he endeavoured to bring gesticulation to the aid of speech he lost his balance and nearly fell from his perch. The frantic clutching necessary to restore his equilibrium served only to increase the violence of his anger. Exhausted at last by the uselessness of his efforts he fell face forward on the rafter and lay panting.

His straight black hair fell in a dark shingle over his left eye. He made no effort to remove the obstruction but gazed balefully down at them with his free one. It was big, black, and smouldering. An expression of utter weariness lay across his tanned, deeply lined face. Sweat beaded his forehead. His hollow cheeks were unbecomingly dappled with dark smudges. There was a large rent in the right sleeve of his jacket. It hung down over his hand and interfered with his grip on the rafter. This had added to his irritation. He had now abandoned all effort to keep the sleeve up and was grasping the rafter through it. His large, ungainly nose showed evidence of having recently bled. In his present state of disrepair he looked many years over the thirty-seven that rightfully belonged to him.

'Oh, Hunter,' his sister began with a desperate rush. 'You've made us all so anxious. We were just—'

'Yellow drapes,' he gritted.

'Yes, my boy,' Alfred cut in throatily. 'Thank God you're alive and safe. I was beginning to fear—'

'Billiards! Billiards!' Hawk spluttered. 'Ha!'

He fixed Junior with his one clear eye and proceeded to bore into the very marrow of that uneasy youth.

'Go on!' he said in a dead voice. 'Go on, you little nit. Make your speech. It's your turn. Tell me some more about that lucky girl I didn't marry.'

Junior dropped his gaze and became absorbed in contemplating the extreme tips of his collegiate sport shoes.

'Don't know what you're driving at,' he mumbled.

'I'll drive at you if I ever get down from this rafter,' said his uncle.

Daffy grinned her appreciation. Her uncle darted a one-eyed glance at her, then disconcertingly closed that eye. It immediately snapped open again and came to rest on his sister.

'Now don't start in on Junior,' she began defensively. 'You've upset us enough as it is for one day—you and your silly explosions. The whole neighbourhood is talking about it. Isn't it about time you gave up this sort of thing?'

'Yes, Hunter,' spoke up Alfred, emboldened by his wife's words. 'You're subjecting us all to danger, you know. My boy here says his friends are laughing at him now—the nephew of a mad uncle.'

'Oh-o-o-o-o,' mouthed Mr Hawk, unable to form words. 'Oh-o-o-o—down—down I wanna—at him.'

His poorly expressed wish was almost granted. Mrs Lambert uttered a little cry as he swayed perilously on his rafter. Junior placed a hand on his father's arm and tried to strike an attitude of outraged youth. The room became quiet save for the gasping of its presiding deity on the rafter. He rallied gamely, however, and made an effort to pull himself together.

'Oh, shut up,' he said at last, somewhat inanely, inasmuch as no one was saying a thing at the moment. 'Shut up and go away somewhere. Go soak your heads. Get the hell out of here, or I'll blow the whole damn house up. Daffy, you stay with me.'

'Well, I must say this is hardly the treatment one would expect after all our trouble and anxiety,' Mrs Lambert announced huffily.

'Yellow drapes,' shouted her brother. 'Modern furniture. Bah! Nothing goes to you. Not a plugged nickel.'

His sister hastily swallowed a projected retort and, closely accompanied by her son and husband, sailed majestically from the room. They were altogether too wise in the ways of life to attempt to enrol the sympathies of Daphne or to coerce her to join the ranks of the insulted and injured. After all, Hunter Hawk was tremendously wealthy in his own name, and he did seem to be rather fond of his niece, the least lovable member of the family. It was just like him. Now, if only it had been Junior...

'Hello, aloft,' called Daffy as soon as the door was closed, 'do you want me to get you a ladder? I know where one lives. A long one. Betts could help.'

'A ladder,' repeated Mr Hawk, blinking down at her. 'I don't like ladders. I don't trust ladders. And if Betts gets a look at this room he'll make remarks. I can stand no more remarks. No. No ladder. Don't need one.'

'Would you care to have some dinner flung up at you and a couple of sheets for to-night?'

'I'm coming down directly.'

'How, down?'

'Listen,' said the scientist ingratiatingly. 'It's all very simple. There's no occasion for any excitement or rushing about. I hate excitement and rushing about.'

'I suppose being blown about is an entirely different matter?'

'It is. I don't choose to be blown about, you know. In spite of what the rest of your family says, I really have no fondness for explosions. They are merely the less agreeable results of scientific research.'

'Don't be an old hypocrite. You know perfectly well you couldn't get along without your explosions.'

'I'm afraid I won't be able to get along very much longer with them. But, listen. I've figured it all out. It's simplicity itself. All you have to do is to come over here and stand directly beneath this rafter. Then I'll drop my feet down to your shoulders...'

'And then?' inquired Daffy.

'And then?' here a rather vague, covering note crept into his voice. 'And then we'll manage to get down the rest of the way without the aid of the ladder.'

'What do you mean by "we"? You're the one on a rafter, not I.'

'I realise that,' said her uncle amicably. 'And I'm depending on you to do something constructive about it. Come on over here, Daffy. You're a great, strong, strapping young girl. You can get me down somehow. Come on over.'

Daffy, with the resignation of one accustomed to temporize with inebriates, children, and maniacs, placed herself beneath the rafter occupied by her uncle.

'I hope to God your divine confidence isn't misplaced,' she remarked.

'Everything will be all right,' Mr Hawk assured her as, with the reckless abandon of a man who has little left to live for, he heavily drooped his large feet upon Daphne's shrinking shoulders and released his hold on the rafter. The celerity with which this manoeuvre was performed took the girl entirely by surprise.

'What goes on? What goes on?' she managed to get out as she strove to keep her knees from buckling beneath her.

'Stop prancing about like that,' the man of science complained. 'This is no time for larking.'

'Larking,' came painfully from between the girl's clenched teeth. 'Lolling about, why don't you say?'

After this there was no more conversation for some moments, packed with intense anxiety for the fluctuating Mr Hawk. The silence of the room was broken only by the sound of unsteadily shuffling feet, a flight of staccato grunts, and several long, tremulous sighs.

'Well,' gasped Daffy bitterly. 'What are you going to do, live there?'

'Damn it all, what can I do? You've got a strangle-hold on both my ankles.' Hawk's voice was equally bitter. 'Can't you crouch down gradually?'

'Oh, God, what a man,' groaned his niece and collapsed unconditionally to the wreck-strewn floor of the laboratory beneath yard after yard of unupholstered uncle.

'Didn't hurt me at all,' he announced triumphantly as he uncoiled great lengths of himself from the small of Daffy's back. 'How did you make out?'

'Not at all well,' replied Daffy. 'Rather poorly, if you must know. But I'm glad it didn't hurt you. Would you like to try it again?'

'It saved all the bother of getting the ladder, anyway.'

'You certainly must loathe ladders to subject another human being to such brutal punishment,' replied the girl. 'Did you ever get into any trouble with a ladder?'

With another unladylike grunt she rolled over and struggled to a sitting position beside her uncle.

'Well,' she observed, surveying him critically, 'you must be a tough son of a gun to have come through that alive.'

'Do I look all mussed?' asked Mr Hawk.

'You're not quite at your best,' she replied.

'I'd like to see you after an explosion,' said Hawk.

'You see enough of me as it is,' answered Daffy. 'After a thing like that you'd see too much.'

Hunter Hawk gazed about the laboratory with professional interest.

'This is about the best yet,' he remarked philosophically.

'It is, Hunter. It is. You should feel greatly encouraged. This is about the biggest thing you've done so far in the way of explosions.'

'Thanks, Daffy. Wonder what became of Blotto? The poor beast was here when the thing happened.'

'If it blew you up to the rafters, Blotto must be well on his way to Mars.'

'Hate to have anything happen to Blotto,' said Hunter. 'Here, boy, where are you? Blotto you dumb clown!'

From a corner of the room came the sound of diligent scraping. Presently the head of an animal not totally unlike a dog, yet far from being the living image of one, cautiously appeared above the rim of a table. With deep suspicion two black beady eyes studied the pair on the floor. A moist nose quivered delicately as it sniffed the malodorous air. One tan ear pointed starchily aloft. The other, a soiled white, was not doing nearly so well. The farthest north it was able to achieve was a rakishly tilted flop. As the dog shifted his gaze and looked about the laboratory something like an expression of dismay came into its eyes.

'He doesn't like it at all,' commented Hunter. 'Come here, Blotto, for a minute.'

Blotto placed two putty-like paws on the edge of the table, let go of them, and allowed their weight to drag his rump into view. It was a most disreputable-looking rump, shaggy, unenterprising, and hurriedly patched here and there with odd scraps of black and tan. There was a large tail on the extreme end of it, a willowy object composed chiefly of hair and burrs. Originally it had been white.

When Blotto had finally surmounted the obstruction he undulated across the room and stood looking inquiringly into his master's face. Hunter took the dog in his arms and felt him carefully, while Blotto, with his tongue sprawling out, gazed from his inverted position at Daffy, the whites of his eyes unpleasantly displayed. Releasing the low-geared, supine creature, Hawk arose and stretched his long legs.

'No bones broken,' he announced.

'All bones broken,' said Daffy, 'and flesh bruised.'

She followed his example.

Blotto, as if trying to satisfy himself as to exactly what had happened, ranged busily about the room. His tour of inspection completed, he stood at the far end of the laboratory and wagged his tail in appreciation of the fact that he was still alive. Suddenly and most disconcertingly for everybody concerned, but much more so for Blotto, of course, the mop-like appendage refused to wag. For one brief moment it had dipped its extreme tip into the rays of white light on its blinding passage to the little silver ball.

'Look!' exclaimed Daffy, pointing at the dog. 'Something has happened to Blotto.'

Something had happened to Blotto. To be exact, something had happened to Blotto's tail, but just what it was the astounded dog was unable to figure out. Concentrating what little power he had on this recalcitrant member, he strove desperately to make it perform its proper functions. Not a wag. Not even a quiver. An expression of sharp anxiety sprang into Blotto's eyes. He cocked his head over his shoulder and thoughtfully scrutinized his tail. Yes. He could tell at a glance that there was something radically wrong with it. It neither looked the same nor felt the same. Instead of the white, fluffy brush in which he was wont to take so much pride, the tail was now a formidable, implacable-looking club. Not one hair that contributed its quota of glory to the tout ensemble even so much as stirred. It might as well have been a thing of stone, bereft of life and purpose. And the affair was heavy, decidedly heavier than could be conveniently managed. Obviously it was no sort of tail to go carrying about with one. Apart from the ill-conceived merriment it would evoke, there was the question of fatigue, Would he be forced to remain in one place because of an abnormal tail? Were his amorous excursions at an end? Competition, God knows, was close enough, but with such a tail—impossible!

Unwilling to entertain this tragic thought, the overwrought Blotto made a final effort. This time he completely reversed the familiar order of the operation. Instead of wagging his tail he violently wagged himself. Behind him the tail swung ponderously, so ponderously in fact that Blotto was thrown off his balance and was forced to do some pretty clever footwork to keep from falling over. This was just a little too much for the dog. He sat down heavily and washed his hands of the tail. But Blotto was to discover that no dog can completely wash its hands of its tail. His, for example, clattered noisily on the floor behind him. The dog looked seriously disturbed. He stealthily curved his head back over his shoulder and approached his shrinking nose to the tail. Then with a great effort he touched it with the extreme tip of his tongue. To his horror he discovered that it was as cold and unresponsive as a stone. He suspected it was a stone.

It speaks well for the dog's strength of character that in spite of his obvious disinclination to have anything further to do with that tail he pursued his investigations to the end. With a tentative paw he reached back and gently pushed the unnatural manifestation. The noise it made as it scraped across the floor caused him hurriedly to avert his eyes. Blotto was sweating. His gaze sought his master. If he wanted a dog with a stone tail it was up to him to do something about it—put it on wheels or something. Blotto could do no more.

'By all the gods,' said Hawk in a hushed voice, 'I believe I've done it at last, Daffy.'

'What have you done now?'

'Turned that dog's tail into a statue, or, at least, a part of a statue.'

'I never knew that turning the tails of dogs into statues was one of your aims in life.'

'You don't quite understand. I have succeeded in achieving complete cellular petrification through atomic disintegration.'

'You mean Blotto has.'

'Observe,' continued Hawk, seizing the outraged dog and holding him upside down. 'Isn't it a beauty? Regard that tail. As if carved by a sculptor's hand. The white ray turns it to stone. The green one changes it back to its normal state. I can now make both rays invisible and retain the same action.'

'I think Blotto would appreciate a slight dash of green,' said Daffy. 'I know I would, under the circumstances.'

'I'll fix him up in a minute,' said Hawk enthusiastically.

He turned and dipped the dog's tail into the green ray. Instantly, and to Blotto's intense relief, the tail returned to its former unlovely state. Hawk then set the dog on its legs. For a moment Blotto regarded his restored member reproachfully. What had the damn thing been doing with itself anyway—trying to make its owner look foolish? Then Blotto did a very silly thing. He viciously bit his tail. The sudden yelp of pain and indignation arising from this short-sighted attempt at retaliation eloquently testified to the complete success of the restoration. Then, with a sudden revulsion of spirit for which he was noted, Blotto bounded to his feet and performed hitherto unachieved altitudes in the line of wagging. It would be just as well, he decided, to register his satisfaction with his tail as it was, or else the same misfortune might overtake it again.

Thus did Blotto, a dog of low and irregular birth, contribute to one of the most spectacular discoveries of modern science.

'I hate to seem to fly so unceremoniously into your ointment,' remarked Daffy, 'but now that you've got it what are you going to do with it?'

For a moment Hunter Hawk's face went perfectly blank. 'What am I going to do with it?' he repeated slowly. 'Why, I hadn't thought about that.'

'Well, you'd better begin to think about it.'

'Right off, for one thing,' he said, his face clearing and a malicious light gleaming in his dark eyes, 'we can have a bit of fun with it.'

'Nice man,' remarked Daffy, for the first time permitting herself to smile. 'Lovely character. And just for a bit of fun you've been cheerfully blowing yourself to pieces for God knows how many years.'

Mr Hawk looked at her broodingly.

'You know what happened to Blotto's tail?' he asked her.

'I'll never quite forget,' replied Daffy. 'Neither will Blotto.'

'Well,' continued Hawk, looking warningly at what he was thinking about, 'if you don't want to chip when you sit down you'd better keep a respectful tongue in your head, or I'll splash yours with a dash of white.'

'Sweet scientist,' said Daffy. 'Lofty mind.'

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