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The Nightlife Of The Gods


Thorne Smith



DINNER that evening was one of the most enjoyable meals Mr Hawk had taken into his attenuated body for many a long day. It was attended only by himself and his niece. That was the reason. Blotto lurked in the background.

The scientist was in excellent fettle, and his mood seemed to have communicated itself to the equally excellent Betts, who moved about the table with unaccustomed briskness. A quarter of a century had dropped from the old servant's shoulders.

'It's like old times, Betts,' remarked Mr Hawk, 'with the exception of Miss Daffy here.'

'It is, Mr Hunter,' replied Betts beamingly. 'And a very pleasant exception it is, to be sure, if you'll pardon my saying it.'

'Go on and say it, Betts,' said Daffy. 'Say it loud and often. I'll pardon you as much as you like just as long as you keep on making such encouraging little speeches.'

'Thank you, Miss Daffy,' said Betts.

'And, Betts,' commanded Mr Hawk, 'descend into the bowels of this structure and return with a couple of bottles of something sort of especially that way. You know what I mean, Betts.'

'La vie mondaine,' gloated the girl. 'La vie joyeuse. Oh, my! Wine is good, and my uncle the salt of the earth.'

Betts's beam was almost audible as he hurried to carry out the most congenial instructions he had received in a long time. Stella, who assisted at dinner, entered with a bowl of soup. It was plain to see that she looked upon Hawk as a none too minor demon. Her reluctance to linger in his vicinity caused her to spill a plate of soup as she nervously snatched it from under the tureen. Hawk fixed her with a stern eye.

'What do you think of what happened in the library?' he asked her.

'I'm trying not to think of it,' she replied, dabbing at the carpet with a serving cloth. 'It's all right for Mr Betts. He didn't see what I saw.'

She rose from her crouching position and almost sprang across the room.

'Would you like to make a fifth?' Hawk demanded.

'Mary, Peter, and Joseph!' gasped Stella, putting in a three-alarm call for heavenly succour. 'I would not, Mr Hawk.'

'Then stop flinging soup about the place, or I'll damn well turn you to stone,' he assured her.

'She'd make a lovely Venus,' suggested Daffy. 'I've seen her that way.'

'Miss Daffy!' admonished Stella, her outraged modesty momentarily overcoming her fear. 'You shouldn't say such things.'

'Rubbish, Stella,' replied Daffy. 'You're as proud of your shape as a peacock. Wouldn't she make a bang-up Venus, Uncle Hunter?'

'Not having enjoyed the same opportunities as you,' Mr Hawk answered judicially, 'I am not in a position to say without considerable research and investigation. However, purely superficial observations would lead me to believe that perhaps you are right. She'd bang as a Venus.'

Under the penetrating scrutiny of Mr Hawk's glittering eyes Stella sought refuge in the kitchen.

'They're a couple of black-hearted devils, the pair of them,' she informed Mrs Betts.

'What are they up to now?' inquired that good woman.

'Miss Daffy said I'd make a lovely Venus,' Stella replied with a rush. 'A bang-up one.'

Apparently this meant little to Mrs Betts.

'And who might that party be?' she asked.

'Some naked heathen she-goddess,' explained Stella. 'I saw a statue of her once.'

'Oh, that one,' said Mrs Betts, peering into the oven. 'I remember her now. Well, a worse thing might have been said. She used to have a clock in her stomach.'

'But the way he looked at me,' continued Stella. 'You don't know. There was ruin in his eyes.'

Mrs Betts rested her hands on her hips and looked steadfastly at the large-eyed girl.

'Listen, my fine young wench,' she said. 'If Mr Hunter wants to ruin you, which I doubt, supposing such a thing was possible, which I also doubt, you can consider yourself ruined and a very lucky girl at that. It's not every woman he ruins. He's not ruined a maid since I've kept house for him, and that's been all of his life. He's been a great disappointment to me in that direction.'

'What do you know about it?' Stella demanded a little defiantly.

'All,' said Mrs Betts with admirable compactness. 'Everything.'

'I'd rather sleep with the devil,' declared Stella.

There'd be little sleep with that busybody,' replied Mrs Betts, 'if we're to believe the half of what we hear about him.'

Deriving scant comfort from the unedifying observations of the elder woman, Stella returned to the dining-room, where she made herself generally unhelpful and kept getting in the way of the exasperated Mr Betts. Occasionally she would dart speculative glances at the prospective source of her approaching ruin. If only he were not in league with the powers of darkness the future would not have been altogether unendurable.

Unconscious of the delicate office allotted to him Mr Hawk proceeded cheerfully through his dinner. This finished, he rose and, wishing his niece good hunting, sought the seclusion of the back veranda. As a result of the wine and the complete success of his discovery the scientist found himself in a slightly elevated mental condition. There was a tingling sensation in his veins. He felt as if something unusual were going to happen, that some remarkable adventure was already on its way to him. Ordinarily Mr Hawk, when thus assailed by this inexplicable exaltation of spirit, would have retired to his bed and endeavoured there to return to reason through the medium of some abstruse scientific treatise, but to-night he was in no mood to share his bed with a book.

Across the dark tops of the trees a brute of a moon was casting bolts of golden gauze. An August night filled with haze and the scent of moistly breathing vegetation lay around him. Clouds scuttled across the sky and cavorted weirdly in a far-away wind only the lingering breath of which moved among the trees.

In front of him stretched the country and the night. His eyes followed the familiar path that twisted up a grassy slope and dipped into a grove of trees only to appear again on the margin of a cornfield. That path had a fascination for Mr Hawk. He never grew tired of treading it—of thinking about it. To him it was like some huge serpent that never got anywhere but which in the fullness of time would move along to some dangerously enchanted place. Mr Hawk was one of those persons who retain a keen awareness of the impressions and sensations of early youth. He still remembered a patch of sun-baked mud that had exerted over him a spell of attraction far stronger than the gardens and orchards surrounding his home. He could still recall the cracks in its tawny surface and the smooth, hot feel of it against the soles of his bare feet. The acrid, febrile smell of the weeds that flourished round its margin frequently drifted back to him from the past. This path had something of the same influence on his imagination. A whisper seemed to be running down it now, summoning him out to the woods and fields where unknown but pleasant things were waiting.

In obedience to some inner prompting he went back into the house. Unhesitatingly he descended to the cellar and returned presently with two bottles of Burgundy. For more than half a century these tubes of magic had lain under old dusty dimness dreaming of vineyards gratefully ripening beneath the far, fair skies of France.

On the way out he looked in at the library to see how his petrified encumbrances were getting along. Silently he displayed the bottles to them, raised one bottle to his lips in a dumb show of drinking, then appreciatively patted his stomach. Mr Hawk was enjoying every moment of his revenge. As he left the room something like a groan followed him from the cold lips of old Grandpa Lambert.

Crossing the back lawn he passed through the fragrance of an old-fashioned garden and, opening a small white gate set in a hedge of box bushes, set out along the path. He had no definite destination in mind. He had hardly anything at all in mind save a floating, hazy sensation of well-being, an intimate relationship with the night and the world around him. All he knew was that he was going to some place and drink a lot of wine and, perhaps, sing a little to himself and the trees, if he felt so inclined.

On the summit of the hill he paused and looked back at his long rambling house sprawled peacefully out in sleep beneath the yellow flood of the moon. For a moment he stood silhouetted against the sky, a tall, lean figure of a man with two large bottles dangling at the ends of his arms—a rather enigmatic outline in the night. Then he dipped down into a grove of trees and became lost in the darkness piled up against their trunks. As he passed through the grove an expectant hush lay about him, a sort of breathless hesitation trembling on the verge of some strange revelation. But Mr Hawk did not linger in the grove. For some blind reason he continued along the path. It was as if a muted voice at the end of it were endeavouring to get his ear. Presently the trees were left behind and, coming out into the full flood of the moon, he followed the course of the path as it circled a vast cornfield, and then, as if suddenly changing its mind, took a short cut through it.

Dark, keen-leafed stalks rose and rustled on either side of Mr Hawk. He caught the pungent scent of corn silk and absently decided that he was inordinately fond of corn—preferably on the cob. He came upon a scarecrow, and on a mound beside the scarecrow a little tattered man was sitting. And the little tattered man was crying bitterly, his tear-stained face raised to the distinguished figure flapping against the stars.

Under ordinary circumstances the scientist would have been slightly mystified by this encounter. In his present all-embracing frame of mind it struck him as being the most natural thing in the world. Why shouldn't a little tattered man be sitting in a cornfield in the moonlight crying bitterly at a scarecrow? And why shouldn't he, Hunter Hawk, stop and ask this little tattered man what the devil he was crying about? Hunter Hawk did.

'Why all the lachrymose moisture?' he demanded. 'Speak, little tattered man.'

The little man gasped and looked startled. He promptly ceased crying and seemed on the point of flight. Some wayward strain in Mr Hawk's nature must have reached out to the other, however, for he remained alertly poised on the mound.

'Why all the what?' he faltered.

'The tears,' Mr Hawk explained.

'Oh, those,' said the little man. 'I shouldn't have taken on so, but sometimes I get so furious I can't help it.'

'What were you furious about just now, if it isn't too long a story?'

'I'm furious about that scarecrow. I want his clothes. I especially want his hat.'

Mr Hawk glanced up at the scarecrow. It was wearing a beaver hat in rather a fair state of preservation. As a matter of fact, the scarecrow was about the best-dressed specimen of his deceitful tribe Mr Hawk had ever seen. It was decked out in a morning coat, grey-striped trousers, and patent-leather shoes. There were spats. A withered gardenia decorated its lapel, and a grey Ascot tie adorned its neck. It was stoutly stuffed with straw.

'That's about the most up-stage scarecrow I ever met,' Mr Hawk observed.

'Isn't it!' exclaimed the tattered individual eagerly. 'And look at me—a living creature. Rags and patches. More of a scarecrow than it is.'

'Then why don't you assault this scarecrow?' asked Mr Hawk. 'Lay the beggar low and strip him to his straw? I know the person who owns him. Man named Brightly. It would give me no little satisfaction to see his scarecrow outraged. He's a rich, profiteering, shot-and-shell sort of a chap, and he belongs to the League for the Promotion of Class Distinction. Also, he has warts and an exceedingly dizzy wife. In short, he makes me sick. Why don't you despoil this scarecrow? It looks too damn smug.'

The little tattered man shook his head sadly.

'Can't do it,' he answered. 'I'm afraid. You see, I'm one of the last of the Little People, and it's against our magic to rob scarecrows. It would bring us some great misfortune. And God knows we've had enough already. Only a few of us are left now. We're the last family in the neighbourhood, although we're older than the oldest settler. We're even older than your family. I knew your father well by sight. He was much like you, only by this time of night he usually staggered more.'

'Thanks,' said Mr Hawk rather drily. 'I can tell you must have known him. Exactly what did you say you were—one of the Little People? I've heard of them or read of them or something.'

'Yes,' replied the little man. 'We emigrated from Ireland long before the great-great-grandfather of Christopher Columbus ever climbed through a bedroom window.'

'I never knew he did,' said Hunter Hawk.

'Neither do I,' replied the little man, 'but I imagine he must have done. 'Most every man does at one time or another, if it isn't too far to the ground. Haven't you?'

'You're getting a bit personal,' Hawk replied with a grin, 'but now you've asked me, I'll say that I never left that way.'

'Then you've missed one of life's most illegitimate thrills,' said the little man, sighing reminiscently. 'Also spills, perhaps. I'm disappointed in you, my dear sir. Once at least to every man, you know. But perhaps she wasn't married?'

'I make a practice of never asking,' Mr Hawk hastened to assure him. 'You get lied to less that way. But were you saying you came over from Ireland?'

'I was saying exactly that,' replied the little man, with a note of. sadness in his voice. 'The country virtually belonged to us then. We didn't have to listen to "Mother Machree," or "Come Back to Erin," or "The Rose of Sharon," or to any bum jokes about It Seems There Were Two Irishmen, Pat and Mike. Taking the good with the bad, we were quite happy and contented. In later years the uninterrupted wailing of those songs over on the other side was one of the reasons for our migrating. Of course, we had the Indians here to deal with, but they were an essentially simple-minded lot, and we were soon able to get around them. Everything went along well until the police force came over from Ireland. After that we began to wane. Our magic gradually weakened, until we have only a little left with which to eke out a bare existence. Most of our people have moved away to China or to South America for the revolutions. Many of them just crawled into caves and crevasses in rocks and went to sleep for ever. Is there wine in those bottles?'

'There is,' replied Mr Hawk, thinking the little man deserved at least a drink of wine after his long speech. 'Do you want some?'

'Yes,' answered the little man. 'I want some, and then some more.'

'So you're that kind of a little man,' observed Mr Hawk, eyeing him with approval. 'A regular winebibber.'

'In my time I have bibbed a little,' he modestly admitted.

The quiet of the cornfield was broken by the pop of a cork. A small patch of moonlight was splashed by the spray of the wine.

'It's a heartening sound,' said the little man.

'One of the sweetest sounds I know,' said Mr Hawk.

'How does the sound taste?' asked the little man.

'After you,' replied Mr Hawk with admirable self-control.

The little man accepted the bottle and, tilting back his head, drank long and deeply. Mr Hawk watched the proceedings with a mixture of admiration and concern. At last the bibber returned the bottle and drew a deep breath. Then he faced about and aggressively eyed the scarecrow.

'I feel like knocking your block off,' he muttered. 'You big toff.'

'Let's give him the bum's rush,' suggested Mr Hawk, wiping the tears from his eyes as he set the bottle down in the path. 'I can't bear the sight of that scarecrow.'

The little man shook his head.

'You're big enough to do it alone,' he said. 'Why don't you reach me down that hat?'

'I will,' replied Mr Hawk, taking another swig at the bottle. 'I'll strip the devil mother-naked, and you can have all his clothes. How do you go in spats?'

'Oh, thank you so much,' breathed the little man, his hand reaching out for the bottle. 'I don't know. I never went in spats. How do you think I'd go?'

'Dandy,' exclaimed Mr Hawk ecstatically, and coiling his long body he released some hidden spring suddenly and dived through the air at the scarecrow. For a moment the figure flapped frantically in the moonlight, then toppled among the cornstalks beneath the weight of its assailant's body.

'Got him!' cried Mr Hawk, thrashing about among the corn. 'Now we'll undress his nibs. Wonder if he wears drawers?'

'Don't wear them myself,' said the little man. 'I'm much more interested in that hat. Hope you didn't smash it.'

'Here it is,' announced the man of science, rising triumphantly from the corn with the scarecrow's coat and trousers. The hat was tilted rakishly over his left eye.

He flung the garments at the little man, passed him the hat, then dived back in the direction of the scarecrow.

'No. No drawers,' he called out. 'I'm afraid you'll have to do without drawers, but here's his shoes and spats and necktie.'

'You will insist on my wearing drawers,' the little man replied, 'when all the time I keep telling you that the Little People wear no drawers.'

'Not even the little ladies?' asked the cornfield.

'They least of all. Couldn't get a pair on 'em.'

'Then they're not such little ladies.'

'And they don't pretend to be. That's why they're superior to your brand of women.'

'I should say so,' Mr Hawk replied, emerging from the cornfield with the last shreds of the scarecrow's wearing apparel. 'He's as clean as a whistle now.'

'Half a minute,' replied the little man. 'Thanks a lot. I'll be ready before you know it.'

Rapidly he divested himself of his tattered clothing, and Mr Hawk discovered to his amusement that his companion of the cornfield had spoken no less than the truth. The little man wore no drawers. In almost less than half a minute he was fully attired in what had once been perhaps the most fashionable scarecrow that had ever given a crow a raucous, ribald laugh.

'How do I look?' asked the little man. 'Are the spats on right?'

'Splendid!' cried Mr Hawk. 'Perfectly right, only they're on backwards.'

'Necktie, too?'

'A neat knot.'

'I'm so pleased,' murmured the little man. 'My daughter will be quite surprised.'

'Have you a daughter?' asked Mr Hawk.

'A howling hell of a daughter,' replied the other. 'She was born in this country, so of course she's much larger than the native-born Little People. And she's taken up American ways. Dresses and talks like the modern young girl, but in spite of all that she can still turn a pretty trick of magic when she has a mind to.'

'How old is this daughter of yours, this howling hell of a daughter?' Mr Hawk inquired in a casual voice.

'Not more than nine hundred years, I should say. The exact date I don't rightly remember, but she's still just a girl.'

'Oh,' said Mr Hawk a little blankly. 'I see. A mere flapper. Shall we open the other bottle?'

'You practically took the words out of my mouth,' said the little man admiringly.

'I hope I won't have to do the same with the bottle,' Mr Hawk said without any attempt to disguise his meaning. 'You almost inhaled the bottom out of the last one.'

'I was afraid you might think I didn't like it.'

'You may dismiss all such qualms now,' said the scientist, most unscientifically fumbling with the cork of the second bottle. 'I'm convinced that the stuff doesn't revolt you.'

'Far from it,' said the little man. 'I am very fond of your wine. I shall probably steal your wine now that I know you have it. You must understand, sir, we live by stealing. It's our only recourse. Although I wouldn't touch that scarecrow, I'd steal the eyeteeth out of your head.'

'Thanks for your frankness,' said Hunter Hawk. 'Would you like my eyeteeth now?'

'I do not need eyeteeth,' replied the little man.

'Well, any time you'd like to have a couple of eyeteeth—or are there four of them?—I'll have them packed up and sent around to you. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." I'll do even better than that. I'll give you all my teeth—the whole damn set—and not ask for even an eye.'

'Any gold in them?' the other asked.

'Filled with gold,' replied Mr Hawk, and collapsed in such a surge of laughter that the night became alive with the cacophony of his mirth.

'That wasn't so funny,' said the little man when Mr Hawk had pulled himself together.

'No? Wasn't it?' he replied weakly. 'Well, I'll get much funnier later on. Wait and see.'

'And not laugh,' said the little man.

'Oh, all right,' replied Mr Hawk. 'Have it your way. Entirely your own way.'

Once more the pop of a vigorous cork ricocheted against the astonished cornstalks and once more the venerable bubbles renewed their youth, as for a brief moment they lent grace to the moonlight before falling in foam to the soil.

'The call to arms,' said Mr Hawk. 'By the way, just what is your name?'

'Name?' replied the little man. 'I used to have lots of names—Lim, Shawn, Angus, and Mehal. There's safety in having a change of names. Since the World War I've rather fancied Ludwig Turner.'

'Sounds extremely un-Irish to me.'

'It is. It does. Where were we? Oh, yes, the wine. Let's drink it. My name saves a lot of nationalistic, or should I say racial, singing. No one knows where I come from, what I am, or who I am. I once knew an English barmaid—'

'Not interested in low memoirs of a personal nature,' proclaimed Mr Hawk, 'Don't want to hear about your English barmaids. Have you ever gone through an explosion?'

'On and off for two dozen centuries as time is inaccurately reckoned by mortals, I've been a married man,' said Ludwig Turner. 'Most of them were explosive. All were explosive. One after the other exploded herself into premature ugliness. I have no wife now. Only one spawn. She is on the explosive side also, but it seems to do her good. It damn well agrees with her. More beautiful every day.'

'Well, I've just been through a most thorough explosion,' said Mr Hawk, not without pride. 'A real one. The seventh. I'm still a little bit dazed. Not sure of anything. Not sure of you or the night or this cornfield full of corn stalks—'

'What would a cornfield be full of?'

'Wouldn't surprise me if it was full of azaleas,' said Hunter Hawk. 'It might not be real at all. Nothing seems real. Nothing quite is.'

'If you don't pass me that bottle there'll be another explosion,' the other one remarked. 'That will be real enough.'

Mr Hawk absently passed the bottle to his small companion. The scientist had spoken truly. Nothing seemed real to him. And perhaps on that strange night nothing was quite real. Otherwise there seems to be no rational explanation for all the things that took place. Certainly this little man could not be real. Obviously. Wrapped opulently in the drapery of much wine Hunter Hawk no longer cared to question the reality of things. He had a strong impression that he was sitting in a cornfield drinking wine with a little man in a top hat who declared that he was twenty-four centuries old. It was a great age to Mr Hawk, but not an impossible one. He chose to believe the little old man. Had not he himself just achieved the impossible? Had not he accomplished a miracle of science? Perhaps the impossible came to those who did the impossible. Perhaps not. Or maybe it was the other way round. Anyway, the little man's spats were on backwards. That fact, assuming the reality of the wearer, was as plain as the nose on his face. Mr Hawk would establish reality on the backwardness of his friend's spats. That was something if not much. He reached out and seized the bottle from the avid Mr Turner. The wine tasted real enough, though perhaps that also was just a little too marvellous to be real. Anyhow, what did it matter? What did matter was that he wanted to sing. In fact, he would sing. But what song? Try as he would, Mr Hawk, what with the wine and the moonlight and the natural perverseness of a man's mind, could think of no song save 'Mother Machree'. It would have to be that song. He began to sing it not well but willingly.

'Oh, for God's sake, don't sing that!' exclaimed the little man, rising.

Mr Hawk stopped and looked impatiently at his friend.

'Then what shall I sing?' he demanded.

'Almost anything but that.'

'I've tried to, but I can't think of anything but that at the moment,' Mr Hawk explained. 'Won't you sit down?'

The little man sat and thought, and the scientist sat and thought, and presently the little man looked up brightly.

'I have it,' he announced. 'The very song. Heard it the other night when I was stealing vegetables from your garden. I remember it because it's the most non-partisan song I ever heard. The most impartial. It means nothing and it goes: Boop-Boop-a-Doop. I love it.'

'Sounds like a motor boat lulling its young to sleep,' said Mr Hawk, 'but I'll try it if only because you heard it on my radio while stealing my vegetables from my garden.'

'We'll both sing it,' said the other, and they did just that.

A late stroller suffering from insomnia heard the strange noise issuing from the heart of the cornfield. It had a salutary effect on him. He no longer was a late stroller, but became a man of actions, a man of single purpose. So briskly did he return to his home and jump into bed that the exhaustion caused by his exertion speedily brought the sleep that had eluded him.

Unaware of the favour they had done the man, Messrs Hawk and Turner back in the cornfield blissfully continued Boop-Boop-a-Dooping until the bottle of Burgundy was no longer able to lubricate their hard-working throats. It was drained to the last drop. The scientist lifted the empty bottle and held it between his eyes and the moonlight.

'All gone,' said the little man.

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