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The Nightlife Of The Gods
A FURIOUS RECEPTION
'DOESN'T sound so good without wine, does it?' observed Mr Hawk at length, stopping to replenish his exhausted lungs.
'No,' admitted the little man gloomily, 'nor feel so good, either. Let's go to your house and get some more.'
'Don't you live anywhere?' Hawk demanded. 'No home?'
'Oh, yes,' replied the little man. 'I have a home of sorts.'
'Then why don't you go there and take me with you?'
'We might do that,' was the sceptical reply. 'Only applejack there, and not so much of that.'
'Let Providence take a turn,' said Mr Hawk. 'After what you've got is all gone we'll think of something else.'
'And I know just what we'll think of,' returned the other. 'We'll think of me struggling through the dark in search of more drink.'
'Your daughter, perhaps?'
'She might—if she's in a good humour, which she seldom is. Still, she might. Anyway, we'll try that. Sure you won't go to your house?'
'Not now. Later, perhaps.'
'Then I guess we'll have to go to mine. Rightly speaking, it isn't a house at all, but you'll see for yourself. I hope you'll not be sorry.'
'Sorry? Why should I be sorry?'
'Oh, I don't know,' said the little man evasively. 'There might be many reasons.'
There were, but no one will ever know if Hunter Hawk at any time seriously regretted his visit to the abode of his casual little friend of the cornfield. Certain it is that many a more intrepid soul, foreseeing the remarkable results of that visit, would have bade the little man good night on the spot and returned to the safe, sane, and familiar surroundings of his own home. And, of course, it will never be ascertained now whether or not Mr Hawk would have turned back or even hesitated, had he been able to read the meaning of the little man's prophetic words. Perhaps that appointment had already been made for him by some unseen, unknown secretary who, without consulting our preferences, makes all our important appointments, including the final one. Perhaps Hunter Hawk, even had he tried, would have been unable to avoid this one. The answer to these minor questions will never be known. Their answers do not matter. What is known and what does matter is the simple fact that on a certain night in August Hunter Hawk, three sheets in the wind, accompanied an exceedingly small and queerly garbed creature to his home, and that there he met one Meg or Megaera, and that for ever after he was never quite a free man. At times he even kissed the chains that shackled him. And rumour has it, he went a great deal farther than that.
The way was mostly moonlight and lurches. There were trees and a world of bushes, dense, aggressive bushes. There were patches of moon glow and tunnels of utter darkness. There was the sound of much sincere cursing and always the thrashing of leaves being crunched underfoot. Both sounds were made by Mr Hawk. The little man did his lurching with surprising silence and deftness. And he knew every twist in the mystifying way. Hawk was never able to return to the spot alone. Finally and most amazingly he found himself in a murmurous grotto—a secret pocket in the earth, remote from the world of men.
From the roof of this grotto a tiny stream splashed to the floor, and running through the centre of the chamber, disappeared with a whisper through a small, bush-concealed opening. Straddling this strand of water was a rough table, and only those who were adepts could sit at the table without getting their feet wet. But few ever sat at that table now, although many had in the past. On either side of the table were two long benches, and somewhere in the remote shadows there was the suggestion of bunks made from the boughs of trees. And in the chamber there were the smell of moist earth and drenched bushes and the everlasting splash and murmur of falling water. And in this chamber there was a small girl—or woman—one of the smallest and most furious-looking creatures Hunter Hawk remembered ever having seen.
Great eyes were hers, great black, fuming eyes, astir with sullen lights, eyes ready to blaze and flame, but seldom to caress. A dark skin. Short, straight, blue-black hair. A beautiful mouth and the appealing features of a delicate child. It was a face of confusing contradictions. And when this girl arose from the table at their entrance, Mr Hawk needed only one glance at her slim but delightfully developed figure to appreciate the fact that here was a woman to deal with, not a child, not even a slip of a girl. This small thing with the hostile eyes, the child's face, and the provocative breasts of a well-formed woman, could, he more than half suspected, be a highly diverting companion on certain auspicious occasions. It was only too immediately apparent that this was not going to be one of those occasions, for at the mere sight of the two strangely matched gentlemen she sprang from the table and words entirely unpleasant sizzled off her tongue.
'So,' she said, and again, 'so. We're back are we?' A pause to permit the gentlemen to receive the full benefit of her furious eyes. 'And what do you think I am—dirt? Dirt to sit here in this filthy hole and wait?' Although neither gentleman attempted to answer these questions, Mr Hawk felt strongly inclined to make the observation that that was usually what dirt seemed to enjoy most—sitting in holes and waiting. 'Where the hell have you been?' she continued. 'You look like the devil. Worse. And what's wrong with that person? Tell him to go away. Get out of here, both of you,' the deadly voice continued. 'Disappear!'
'A true explosive,' Mr Hawk remarked to his companion, at whom he was looking with increased respect and admiration. 'Tell me, have you had that with you for nine hundred years?'
'That and more,' said Mr Turner. 'Much. That's nothing. She's only playing now.'
Bang! A heavy mug whizzed past the left ear of the small man and shattered itself against a rock in the wall of the grotto.
This act of swift and efficient violence sobered Hunter Hawk considerably. He realized that at any moment his turn might come. It was a matter of dodge or die. Nevertheless, he regarded the enraged, but in every other respect most desirable young lady with critical admiration. Instinctively he felt that he figured her out just a little, no more than that.
'You deliberately missed him,' he informed her, his eyes no less dark and glittering than hers.
Startled and annoyed, she looked back at him. In that swift moment contact was established. It was never to be quite broken thereafter. She looked into his eyes and liked them. Not for a hundred years had she liked the eyes of a mortal. Those eyes, those black, quiet, sardonic eyes of Hunter Hawk both troubled and fascinated her. All of which made her more angry.
'A lot you know about it,' she said sullenly and sat down. Hawk made no attempt to answer. He stood there quietly looking at her. She knew it. She hated it. 'I could have hit him,' she said defiantly. 'I have hit him, and if you get fresh with me, I'll damn well hit you—you long-legged booby.'
Hawk had a peculiar temper of his own. Certain words—not necessarily desperately insulting ones at that—had the power to throw him off poise, to stir up the usually placid springs of his nature. Booby was one of those words. The word always evoked for him the mental image of a fat, bubble-lipped boy.
'Booby, am I?' he retorted. 'Well, what are you but an ill-natured little snip, a mere thing, a pea?'
'What!' cried the girl incredulously. 'Me, a snip? A thing? A pea?'
The crash of the second mug completely sobered Mr Hawk. This conduct was unreasonable. It would have to stop. One of those mugs might find its mark. With the unfailing good fortune of a man who attracts women and never knows quite why, he played his trump card in spite of the muttered urgings of Mr Turner to have nothing to say to her 'just yet.'
'Listen,' he said. 'I'm nervous as a cat. Got an awful hangover. Been drinking for a week. Have you got a little pick-me-up anywhere round?'
A light of morbid interest came into the mad, black eyes. The girl considered him darkly but not venomously.
'Nervous, eh?' she said. 'Headache? How are your eyes?'
'Bad. Awful.' Mr. Hawk blinked rapidly several times.
'What you need is a good physic.'
'I know, I'll take one, but I'll crack unless I get a pick-up right now.'
'Got anybody at home to look after you when you get there?'
'Yes. Lots of 'em—too many.'
'Well, I hope to God you don't go blabbing to them that you met some woman in the woods who got you drunk. Not that I give a damn,' she added inconsistently.
She rose from the table and moved swiftly to the end of the chamber. There was the sound of secretive rummaging—things being swiftly moved. Soon she returned with a quart bottle two-thirds filled with applejack.
'Here,' she said, handing him a glass. 'Pour your own. I don't know how much you take, but watch yourself.'
'I'd prefer to watch you.'
Ludwig Turner stood dumbly by, his eyes fixed wistfully on the bottle.
'How about—?' Hawk nodded significantly in the direction of his host.
'What—that one?' replied the girl scornfully. 'What he needs is a good thrashing. Wouldn't you think that after twenty-four centuries he'd have sense enough, self-respect enough, to give up this knocking about the country, staying out late at night and bringing home with him the first tramp he picks up? Present company not excepted.'
'I refuse to answer that,' said Mr Hawk.
For a full minute packed with suspense for Mr Turner she looked appraisingly at him while she drummed irritatingly on the table with the tips of her fingers. To relieve the strain of this protracted scrutiny, her father made an attempt at an ingratiating smile.
'Don't smile at me, you old dog,' she said. 'Come over here and get your drink. No pride, no shame, just a plain sot. I'm through with you. Here, swallow it down, bottle and all.'
This invitation, in spite of the rough verbiage in which it was couched, led to one of the most pleasant nights Hunter Hawk had so far spent in the course of his rather confined if casual existence. One drink led to another, and by the time the story of the assaulted scarecrow had been thrice repeated at the special request of Miss Turner, who was able to extract from it at each telling fresh sources of enjoyment, the applejack had long dissociated itself from the bottle.
'Miss Turner,' asked Hawk with elaborate politeness, 'could you manage to rummage up another one?'
'If you'll call me Meg I might. Otherwise, no,' she replied.
'I am fond of the name of Meg,' said Hawk. 'It sounds so old and hard. You are well named, Meg, my wench.'
'I don't like that. Wench isn't nice,' replied Meg. 'And I'll have you to know that my name is a damn sight older than yours.'
'It is,' put in Mr Turner mollifyingly. 'It is, Meg. Yours is the oldest name of all. It dates way back to the days of pagan Greece, when life was worth living. You are a direct descendant of Megaera, one of the Three Furies.'
'I was always under the impression,' observed Mr Hawk, 'that those ladies were so ill-favoured and disagreeable that propagation and that sort of thing was way out of their line.'
'In that you are correct,' replied the little man academically. 'And that is what made them so furious. But Megaera seems to have been a little more fortunate than her sisters.'
'Might have happened at a masked ball,' Mr Hawk observed speculatively.
'Possibly,' replied Mr Turner. 'It's an interesting point. There are several possibilities.'
'Never have I listened to such drivel in all my life,' Meg broke in wrathfully, having established what was for her a record in temper holding. 'Without saying a word I've sat here and listened to you insult my first and most famous ancestress. I've stood for that, I say. But when it comes to having to sit here and listen to such stupid, drunken drip, then I'm through. Get your own damn applejack. I'm going to bed.'
'Be reasonable, Meg,' pleaded her father, holding out a detaining hand as the girl rose to leave the table. 'You're altogether different. You're not like the original Megaera, the one we were talking about. Nothing in common. You've different tastes and different inclinations. And much better luck.'
'What do you mean, much better luck?' demanded Megaera menacingly.
Mr Hawk, unfortunately, was unable to restrain his mirth at this rather delicate point. She turned on him furiously, and for some reason the flames in her eyes had spread to her cheeks and neck.
'Shut up!' she said in a low voice. 'You low-minded sot!'
Mr Hawk's laugh died to an appreciative chuckle as the girl turned back to her father.
'I said you'd be sorry you came,' was the lament of that unhappy individual.
'I'm not, and you didn't.' replied Mr Hawk. 'You said, you hoped I wouldn't be.'
'What do you mean by much better luck?' Meg's voice cut in like a chilled knife.
'What I meant to say, my dear,' propitiated Mr Turner, 'was that you had better luck many centuries ago.'
'It never was a matter of luck,' said Meg. 'It was looks and ability.'
'Hear! Hear!' cried Mr Hawk. 'I agree entirely. How about that applejack, Meg? Good old Meg. A dear girl.'
'Be quiet, you blotter,' she replied, but there was the suggestion of a smile lurking round the corner of her mouth as she tossed a black cloak over her shoulders and slipped through the small opening. For several minutes thereafter Hunter Hawk had the uncomfortable impression that two large black and strangely compelling eyes were intently fixed on him from the night that curtained the entrance.
A sigh of weary relief escaped Mr Turner's lips. He spread out his hands in a gesture of resignation.
'You see how it is,' he said. 'Such is my life.'
'Not every man has a daughter who will go out at this hour of the night and steal applejack for him,' was Mr Hawk's answer.
'No,' admitted Mr Turner. 'Nor is it every father who will allow his daughter to go out and steal applejack for him at this or any other hour of the night.'
'When you put it like that,' said Mr Hawk, 'there's something in what you say. You pride yourself on your liberal attitude, I take it?'
'Live and let live, say I.'
'That's all very well for you who have had twenty-four centuries of it, but with us, our span is so short it's almost die and let die. What you meant to say is, drink and let drink, isn't it?'
'Well, it comes to the same thing. There're altogether too many crimes attributed to drink which rightly belong to natures that would be a lot more vicious without it. Drink doesn't create crime. It modifies it.'
'Makes it more democratic,' suggested Hunter Hawk. 'Spreads it over a wider area and reduces its velocity.'
'Absolutely,' agreed Ludwig with enthusiasm. 'If the world kept itself staggering drunk for a couple of centuries there wouldn't be any wars. Armies would fall down and go to sleep before they could reach each other.'
'And when they woke up,' Mr Hawk amplified, 'the soldiers' hands would be so unsteady they wouldn't be able to do much damage.'
'You've got it,' said the little man. 'You've gotten my point exactly. Instead of going over the top the soldiers would barely be able to crawl along on their bottoms.'
'An inspiring picture.'
'War has no inspiring pictures that cannot find their counterparts in peace.' Mr Turner looked exceedingly solemn when he brought forth this one.
'Then, as I understand it,' summed up Hawk, 'you hate war and love drink.'
'Exactly, sir. Exactly.'
'Well, I'm agreeable,' the other continued. 'Let's form a League for the Promotion of Peace through the Medium of Strong Drink.'
'Light wines and beer, also,' added Ludwig Turner.
Just as they were about to shake hands on this, a disturbing noise held their outstretched arms suspended. The deep-throated baying of a dog strained itself devilishly through the branches of wildly thrashing bushes. Both men sprang to their feet. The little man's face was pale.
'I think that's your friend Brightly's pet watchdog,' he said, his lips grim and drawn. 'God, if he gets at Meg.'
This was too much for Hawk. He knew Brightly's watchdog. A big brute, a blood-letting brute, a creature of jaws and teeth and evil appetites.
'What a dog to be chased by,' thought Hunter Hawk as he out-lurched Ludwig to the opening.
'Here I am,' Meg cried out in the darkness. 'And here he is too. He's following me.'
Hawk, his long legs flashing with energy, waded through the bushes in the direction of Meg's voice. He ended by falling both over and upon her. A dog was baying in one ear, and Meg was screaming in the other.
'Look out!' she cried. 'You'll break the bottle.'
'Bottle hell,' he replied. 'This animal's trying to swallow my head.'
'Wouldn't be much loss,' came the muffled reply. 'Why don't you file your knees?'
Brightly's dog was in a state of demoralization. He was not accustomed to so much thrashing and casual conversation. He wondered if these people realized this was an actual attack, that he was going to bite them, mangle them, perhaps.
'This is the second time to-day I've fallen on a woman,' Mr Hawk complained as he deftly placed a foot in the dog's ribs.
Then suddenly he remembered.
'My God, what a fool I've been,' he said, and raising his right arm he put an end to the dog's offensive by speedily petrifying the beast.
'He can get at you but not at me,' Megaera gloated from beneath Mr Hawk.
'He can't get at either of us now,' said Hunter Hawk complacently.
'What have you done, killed him? You almost have me.'
'No, I haven't killed him. I've turned the beast to stone.'
'Turned the dog to stone, I said.'
'How did you manage that?'
'Easily. Want to see?'
Now that the danger was past, Mr Hawk removed himself from the crumpled object and permitted it to uncrumple. Meg was gamely clinging to the bottle.
'Very good,' she said when she had carefully felt the stony body of the dog in the darkness. 'Some of your own magic?'
'My latest,' replied Hawk proudly. 'I can turn people and animals to statues and back again.'
'Very good,' repeated the girl with professional appreciation. 'Unusual for a mortal.'
'I'm a very unusual mortal.'
'So I've decided,' said Megaera. 'I've got a trick that goes yours one better. I can turn statues to people and back again. Come inside, and I'll show you. And,' she added impressively, 'because you saved me from that dog I'll show you how to do it. Then you'll have two tricks, both knockouts.'
On their way back to the grotto a small voice arrested their progress.
'Would you mind tugging me out of this unfortunately placed hole?' asked Mr Turner. 'What with wine and applejack and dogs and darkness and daughters I'm completely undone. The night has been too much for me.'
Mr Hawk collected the little man, and together they proceeded to the grotto, leaving the forest richer by the addition of one rather absurd stone dog caught in an attitude of pained surprise.
The events of the night had not dealt kindly with Mr Wetmore Brightly. He had sustained a double loss. His scarecrow had been outraged and his watchdog turned to stone. On the other hand, the squirrels in the forest had a new mystery to solve and Mr Ludwig Turner a new suit of clothes to wear—after radical alteration. Meg made them with both plain and fancy stitching.
All of which goes to support the almost universal impression that a wind has to be ill indeed not to turn over a new leaf.
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