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The Nightlife Of The Gods


Thorne Smith



'FINISHED?' asked Daffy.

'Finished,' replied Hawk. 'Finished in spite of the fact that for the past three-quarters of an hour you have been breathing with monotonous regularity on the back of my neck.'

'I was so interested,' the girl explained.

'And well you should be, my girl,' said her uncle. 'You have been privileged to witness the most unusual scientific discovery of all times, compared to which the Egyptians with their jolly old mummies were slapdash morticians. I do not claim that it is a useful discovery, but even you will have to admit it's a most diverting one.'

'Yes,' agreed Daffy. 'It offers no end of pleasing possibilities.'

'Practically inexhaustible,' said Hawk. 'I am contemplating one right now.'

He turned to his work-bench and picked up the two rings on which he had been working. In each ring was deeply imbedded one of the small silver balls most potently charged with its remarkable properties.

'I have merely to direct the rays emanating from this ring,' he continued, 'at any living object and that object, whether man or beast, will immediately be turned to stone. A slight pressure of the finger on the back of the ring is all that is required to release the ray. With this ring I can achieve either partial or complete petrification. For example, I could turn your left leg to stone if I felt so inclined.'

'Think of something else,' said Daffy.

'Now with this one,' resumed her uncle, 'I can restore the subject or subjects to their former state of cellular elasticity, which in this world is none too happy. I daresay there are many persons who would consider it a favour just to be allowed to remain things of stone for ever.' He paused and considered the rings with a dreamy expression in his eyes, then shifted his gaze to the girl.

'You,' he said, 'would make a lovely statue. I could keep you in the garden. Might even make a fountain out of you.'

'You mean, let me stay out there winter and summer in the rain and snow and all?'

'Certainly. Why not? Are you particularly pleased with your present state?'

'No,' admitted Daffy. 'My present dull mode of existence is not an enviable one, but your alternative is even less attractive.'

'For the present, then,' said Hunter Hawk, 'we shall keep the idea under consideration. There are other things to do.'

'Yes,' replied Daffy. 'Let's do them all before we take up the matter of the fountain.'

'Good,' said her uncle. 'On second thoughts you might make a better sundial or rustic bench.'

'Sure,' put in Daffy hastily. 'There are ever so many things. If I wasn't so large you could make an ash tray or a book end out of me.'

'Out of part of you,' corrected Mr Hawk. 'Such utilitarian articles can be easily devised with a little chiselling and hacking here and there. Take Blotto's tail, for instance. I could easily have cracked it off and made a paper-weight out of it, a most attractive paper-weight. The same could be done—'

'I do wish you'd lay off this constant association of that hound's tail with my own personal anatomy,' Daphne protested.

'As I remember it,' replied her uncle, 'you were the first to suggest the comparison.'

'Well, I'm sick of the subject now,' said Daffy. 'Let's leave out tails altogether.'

'It might be just as well,' observed Mr Hawk. 'Would you like me to explain to you the fundamental principle on which this monumental discovery is based? There is a complicated part and a simple part, but they are so inextricably mixed that the whole thing becomes amazingly confusing. Some of it I've forgotten myself. To be quite frank I'm not altogether clear in my mind yet as to just what has happened. The explosion has left me a trifle dazed.'

'I think we might profitably omit any attempt to understand the fundamental principles of this, as you say, diverting discovery of yours,' said Daffy, 'and put them to a practical demonstration, instead.'

'As you like,' replied Mr, Hawk. 'Go now and tell your mother, father, brother, and grandfather that I would like to have a word with them in the library. I have stood quite enough.'

As the girl departed on her mission the scientist slipped one of the rings on the index finger of his right hand and the other on his left. Had he realized at the moment the ultimate outcome of what he was doing it is barely possible that he might have hesitated, or at least thought twice about it, but in the end it would have made no difference. Destiny had made arrangements for a radical change in the even tenor of Hunter Hawk's days at this time. If it had not come to him in one way, it would have come to him in another. Nothing that he could do now could retain for him the cloistered, unworldly order of things. Mr Hawk, had he but known it, was already well launched on his last and greatest discovery—woman and all of the complications she trails in her wake.

At thirty-seven Hunter Hawk was still rather a decent, unspoiled character. Although there was not one handsome feature in the composition of his face—save perhaps his eyes—the general effect was not displeasing. He was tall, lean, untidily crumpled, and permanently stained about the fingers. His disposition was evenly sombre, and he had an infinite capacity for quietly but thoroughly disliking a great many persons and things. His laboratory was his life. It also served as a means of shutting out life. In it he moped, pottered, dreamed, and experimented most of his days away. He belonged to several scientific societies, and occasionally contributed to scientific quarterlies and reviews. By his fellow scientists he was considered a brilliant but erratic worker. This was perhaps due to the fact that he approached his researches with a certain element of humour.

'Wouldn't it be amusing if I could do this?' he would say to himself, and then devote much time and money endeavouring to find out how funny it would be. Quite frequently he would discover that it was not funny at all, whereupon he would abandon his experiments and be greatly upset for several days. He was fully satisfied that his latest discovery was the funniest thing he had done so far and, also, the most important. It was much funnier than the dissolving safety razor blade he had invented as a result of a wager with a certain derisive column conductor.

Until the arrival of his sister, Mrs Alice Pollard Lambert, and her family, he had lived contentedly alone under the proprietorial management of Mr and Mrs Betts, two nice old creatures who knew a great deal more about Mr Hawk's infantile explosions than the scientist did himself. Daphne had compensated him in part for the punishment involved in being forced to associate with his sister, his brother-in-law and nephew. Old man Lambert he could understand and appreciate.

Hunter Hawk's chief relaxation was tramping about the countryside and not acknowledging the salutations of his neighbours. He felt much more at home with strangers, and made many chance acquaintances by the roadside. Although he had little to do with women, he had an alert and observant eye and was able to distinguish with unerring accuracy between a possible and a probable. He would have made an eminently successful rake. Occasionally he would mix himself strange potions in the privacy of his laboratory and become slightly inebriated. At these times he could be heard to sing, yet no one, not even Betts, had ever been able to tell the name of the song. He was a strange, wrong-headed, acidulous man with a sardonic sense of humour which he kept for the most part to himself. He was fond of Blotto and Daffy in almost the same way. Both amused him. Because of his wealth and scientific prestige he was much sought after in the community in which he lived, but seldom gotten. His money alone lent warmth to his anti-social nature. He was not essentially a selfish man, but so far he had lived an entirely self-centred existence.

He now rose, and going to a wash basin, effaced the marks of the explosion. After sketchily combing his hair he donned a more presentable jacket and left the laboratory. As he made his way to the library he was more elated over his discovery than he cared to admit even to himself. It was stupendous, and he knew it.

'There is no need to apologise,' his sister began when he had slouched into the room. 'That explosion must have upset you.'

'I know there's no need,' he answered, his white teeth glittering wolfishly against the dark background of his face. 'Nor any occasion.'

'Of course, if you feel that way,' she began.

'I do,' he interrupted. 'Very much that way. Let's drop the subject. I have no desire to add to the almost general disappointment arising from my inconsiderate escape from death.'

'You told Daphne you had something to say to us,' Alfred Lambert suggested.

'I have. Better still, I have something to do to you—the successful results of more than seven years of research and experimentation. Inasmuch as you all have suffered somewhat from these experiments, I have decided that you are at least entitled to be the first to witness the conclusive demonstration of my discovery. I may even allow you to take an important part in it.'

'Very nice of you, I'm sure,' Mrs Lambert murmured.

'Mother, may I borrow Uncle Hunter's roadster?' demanded Junior in his high whine of a voice.

'No,' replied Uncle Hunter, 'you may not. I want you here—you especially.'

He looked grimly at his nephew, whose gaze speedily sought the carpet in an effort to avoid the pent-up hostility blazing in his uncle's eyes.

'Now listen,' continued Hawk. 'I have at last achieved complete cellular petrification through atomic combustion or disintegration. How I have achieved this incredible thing would overtax my capacity to explain and yours to understand. The important part is that I have done it. From now on there will be no more explosions. As a matter of fact, this house is going to be a quieter and happier place.'

He paused to consider his small audience with a disconcertingly enigmatic smile.

'Much quieter than it ever was before,' he went on. 'Much, much quieter. It will be like a museum at midnight, if that means anything to you.'

'I knew you'd be reasonable once we had spoken to you,' said Mrs Lambert uneasily. 'But, Hunter dear, you don't have to go to extremes. We can stand a certain amount of noise, and after all, Junior is still a boy. We can't expect him to—'

'He's going to be the quietest one of all,' Hunter interrupted grimly.

Junior's scared eyes instinctively sought his mother's. Mrs Lambert smiled reassuringly.

'It's one of your uncle's jokes, darling,' she said. 'You know how he is.'

Junior was afraid that he knew only too well how his uncle was.

'Well, I'm delighted to hear that you've got hold of something at last,' said Alfred Lambert heartily. 'Has your discovery any commercial value? If so, my experience in promoting products and organizing companies is freely at your disposal.'

'Thanks,' replied Mr Hawk dryly. 'Wait and see.' The voice of old man Lambert came querulously from the corner.

'No nonsense, now, young man,' it said. 'I don't like all this. I don't like that look in your eye. It's a mean look. I've seen it there, before.'

'You have nothing to fear,' replied the scientist. 'You're practically petrified now as it is.'

'Too much so,' complained the old man. 'I don't want to be any more than I am.'

Hunter Hawk advanced into the centre of the room.

'I am now going to turn myself into a human statue,' he announced.'This is the first time it has ever been done. To all intents and purposes I shall be a thing of stone although retaining my mental faculties. Only my left hand will escape petrification. I shall need that to restore myself to the bosom of my devoted family.'

'Half a moment,' interrupted Daffy. 'Suppose that left hand doesn't work? What do you want me to do then?'

'Chip me up into small pieces and fling my remains at the neighbours,' Hawk replied. 'Be sure you hit them.'

'Not a bad idea, that,' said the girl.

'Horrible,' breathed Mrs Lambert.

A tremulous chuckle came from the corner. Grandfather Lambert was amused.

Hunter Hawk, arranging his features in a malevolent grin, folded his arms and, pressing the ring on his right hand, allowed the invisible rays to pass through his body. It was a delicate piece of work. He had to be extremely careful not to overdo it. Later, when he became more familiar with the action of the rays, he would know exactly how much his body could stand. At present he had no data from which to judge.

The effect of the ray was almost instantaneous. The terrible grin became fixed and solidified on Mr Hawk's face. His body stiffened and turned to the colour of marble. Even his clothing became white and ridged under the influence of the powerful ray.

Mrs Lambert gave a gasp of horror as she looked at her brother's face.

'Now he will kill us all,' she said. 'His face is the face of a murderer. Look at it.'

'I can't keep from looking at it,' replied Alfred Lambert, 'but God knows I don't want to. The only comforting thought is that if he's right in what he was saying he's more helpless now than ever before.'

'Then why don't you knock his head off and say it was an accident?' suggested the old man.

A small but ominous rumble seemed to drop from the distorted lips of the statue.

'Oh, my God!' The words came from Alice Lambert, and they were nothing if not sincere. 'Did anyone hear that?'

'I heard a very disagreeable something.' replied her husband.

'You heard him,' she declared, dramatically pointing at the hard-shelled Mr Hawk. 'It's just the sound he would make if he turned into a statue—a disturbing, sinister sound.'

'Perhaps the beggar can hear you,' suggested the ancient Lambert.

Alice Lambert shivered slightly.

'If he can,' she replied, 'I think it's downright indecent of him.'

'Why does he have to look that way?' whined Junior. 'Do you think he's gone mad?'

'I suspect he has always been mad,' said Alice Lambert.

Once more the diminutive rumble rolled from the statue's lips. In it there was a note of warning.

At this moment Blotto, with the air of a strolling player, ambled into the room. He gave one look at his inanimate master, then showed the whites of his eyes and sat down heavily. A loud lament ascended to the ceiling from his elevated muzzle. The dog seemed to realize that the same misfortune had overtaken his best friend that had temporarily deprived him of the use of his own tail. Only in the case of his master it was much more so.

The howling of the dog did not add to the general merriment of the situation. Once more Mrs Lambert shivered. Even Daffy became a little worried.

'For the love of Pete, dog,' she exclaimed, 'take that to a graveyard somewhere, won't you?'

Evidently Blotto wouldn't. His place was beside his master. He strained his throat desperately in another display of grief. This dismal cadence was interrupted by the tense arrival of Stella with tea things. The sight of so much food made the dog thoughtful. When had he last eaten? When would he ever eat again? Perhaps Daffy might be prevailed upon to do something about it. He glanced significantly in her direction.

As for Stella, that comely maid was in great trouble. One look at Mr Hawk had been sufficient to convince her that something was radically unorthodox in his appearance. After receiving the full force of the hellish smile on his twisted lips she froze in her tracks and outwardly became as much of a statue as he was. It seems unfortunate that at this moment Mr Alfred Lambert nerved himself to investigate this miraculous phenomenon. Leaving the comfortable security of the sofa, he approached the statue with the alert trepidation of an explorer drawing near an unknown shore. With a reluctant forefinger he pushed Mr Hawk in the neighbourhood of his diaphragm. A ghostly grunt emerged from the depth of the statue. Mr Lambert hastily withdrew his finger. Stella, retaining her rigidity, began to breathe heavily.

'As hard as a rock,' announced Mr Lambert. 'He couldn't have felt it.'

'No, but he knew it,' his wife replied.

'If he ever hits you a clip with one of those stone fists of his there'll be one less Lambert left to trouble my days,' Alfred's father remarked. 'Here, why don't you use my stick?'

The unpleasant possibility embodied in the old man's words effected a watchful retreat on the part of his son. When he returned to his investigations of his petrified brother-in-law he was in possession of a stout stick heavily mounted with a silver knob. With this he briskly tapped the statue. The statue responded with a hollow sound. What Mr Hawk had accomplished only after seven years of dangerous and laborious experimenting Stella now accomplished through the simple medium of fear. She became perfectly white, her eyes became fixed in her head, and an expression of suffering congealed on her face. A stranger entering the room would have been tempted to applaud her warmly for her realistic impersonation of a statue. Once more Alfred Lambert tapped the man of stone, this time on his nose. The result of this was a cold click followed by a faint sneeze. Then the statue spoke and said in a far-off, eerie voice:

'Not on the nose, you fool,' it said. 'Tap hard enough for experimental purposes, but for God's sake don't chip me.'

'Saints preserve us!' came from the numbed lips of Stella. 'The thing will be moving next.'

She abandoned all further responsibility for the safety of the tray and its burden and allowed it to drop on Blotto. For the dog it was like manna descending from heaven or the gentle dropping of dew. He escaped the hot water and found himself virtually surrounded by sandwiches. Amid the confusion resulting from Stella's unconsidered action Blotto sat and did what he decided was the wisest thing under the circumstances. He expeditiously consumed sandwiches. When order had been restored the company was amazed to see Hunter Hawk comfortably seated on the floor beside his dog and greedily wolfing down a large piece of cake while deftly snatching a sandwich from under Blotto's disgruntled nose.

'That sort of thing makes one hungry,' he announced. 'You see, I gave myself only a surface treatment. My material processes continued to function. Well, what do you think of it?'

'All very well for a side show,' remarked his sister, 'but hardly the sort of thing one would expect at tea time.'

'A bit of devil work, it was,' murmured Stella.

'It was very good,' commended old man Lambert. 'Very good indeed. I only regret I wasn't able to take a whack at you myself.'

Hawk looked up with a grin.

'I heard your thoughtful suggestion,' he said.

The old fellow chuckled wickedly.

'I meant it, too,' he replied.

'It's all very interesting,' said Alfred, 'but I can't see any commercial possibilities for the thing—no practical application.'

'Oh, you can't,' exclaimed the scientist. 'How about putting an end to the activities of objectionable individuals? Think of what it could do for humanity. If I had made this discovery previous to the World War I could have turned a flock of statesmen to stone, and then there wouldn't have been any war. And the economic as well as artistic waste entailed by eventually making statues of those self-same wholesale butchers would have been eliminated. The majority of statesmen should be born statues, anyway.'

Alfred's face began to glow avariciously.

'Got it!' he cried. 'Got it! The United States Government would give you millions in cold cash for the use of your discovery. We could play up the bloodless side of the thing. That sort of drip is popular right now. Victory without death, you know. Do you want me to get in touch with the right parties and arrange for a demonstration?'

'We haven't quite finished with our own little demonstration here,' Mr Hawk replied darkly. 'But why don't you try to sell it to Mussolini first? He'd put his country in hock to see himself as a statue and to experience while still alive something approaching the adulation of posterity.'

'I'm serious,' protested Mr Lambert. 'Provide me with the formula, and I'll make a fortune for all of us.'

'Yes, Hunter,' spoke up Alice. 'You can trust Alfred. I can see his point now. Why, this discovery is a gold mine, but of course you could never do anything with it yourself. Executive ability is required to make it mean anything, and the man who has that and who can put your discovery over is entitled to share equally in the glory and financial reward. It's lucky Alfred is not doing anything at present.'

'You have no idea how lucky it is,' replied Hunter, rising.

'Are you going to do it, Uncle?' asked Junior, unable to restrain his eagerness.

'I'm going to do something,' Mr Hawk replied. I'm going to put an end to long years of insufferable boredom. You go first.'

He raised his right hand and crooked its index finger at the youth. Alfred Lambert sprang to his feet as he saw his son turned to stone.

'I say,' he began, but his voice failed as he followed his Junior's example. His mouth remained open as if still framing a protest. Mrs Lambert was next to go, and after her the old man solidified comfortably in his chair. Mr Hawk turned and considered his niece.

'Don't pick on me,' she told him. 'I'm going to make a heavy date for myself to-night if you keep them frozen long enough.'

'With whom?' asked her uncle.

'Cy Sparks,' she replied.

Mr Hawk considered.

'All right,' he said at last. 'Cy's not altogether impossible. Try to get back in the general direction of midnight.' He turned to Stella. 'You may go now, Stella,' he told her.

'If I can,' replied the maid. 'My knees are all wrong. They wobble.'

Cautiously she crept from the room. At the door she halted and cast one swift, awed glance at the petrified family.

'Saints preserve us,' she muttered and diligently crossed herself.

Hunter Hawk stood regarding the statues he had created. There was a gleam of triumph in his eyes.

'That,' he said at last to his niece, 'greatly simplifies matters. Your father is a particularly arresting study. I'm rather proud of him. Grandpa isn't half bad either. His venerable appearance gives him the dignity he ordinarily so lamentably lacks.'

'Can they hear us?' asked Daffy.

'I hope so,' Hawk replied. 'I gave them just a dash. My dear sister would love to make a few choice remarks, I'm sure of that. When I turn my laboratory into a breakfast room and lounge, as she suggested, I'm going to put her in an alcove just as she is. She can have the room all to herself.'

A blotchy pink colour crept for a moment into the cold pale cheeks of Mrs Lambert, then faded away. A dry croak came from the corner in which her father-in-law was sitting. Alfred Lambert looked on in stony silence.

Of all the statues Junior pleased Blotto the most. Blotto particularly disliked Junior. Junior had kicked him once, and Blotto still remembered that kick. Junior was a detestable young man. Something should be done about him. The dog hoped that the transformation was permanent. He could do without a lot of Junior. As he busily sniffed the feet and legs of the statue Blotto forgot his manners for the first time in years. Daffy uttered a scream of delight.

'Why, Blotto!' she exclaimed. 'What a thing to do!'

Blotto with head and tail erect marched proudly from the room. The kick had been avenged.

'Dogs do enjoy certain advantages over human beings,' observed his master as he followed Blotto. 'On occasions their lack of formality is greatly to be envied.'

'If not emulated,' added Daffy.

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