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The Nightlife Of The Gods


Thorne Smith



BY the time Megaera had initiated Mr Hawk so well into her magic for turning statues into people and back again that he would remember the simple ritual even when not quite sober, no one was quite sober, not even Megaera herself. As she had previously told him, it was really a bang-up trick and not so difficult to master if taken without applejack. With his own discovery and Meg's magic literally at the tips of his fingers, Hunter Hawk, with an emotion of exaltation not entirely unbeholden to applejack, felt himself well equipped to face a new and eventful life.

'An eminently satisfactory night,' said Mr Hawk, an hour or two later, extending his hand to his friend Ludwig, who with Meg had falteringly escorted him home. 'I would ask you in, but the hour forbids and the flesh fails, the spirit flags and the body swoons. Good night, my dear Ludwig, good night. And you, my charming Meg. Bring your father to see me soon. If he insists on hiding his face in that top hat, cut eyeholes in it for him.'

'You talk too much,' replied Megaera softly. 'Look at me, Mr Magician.'

She came close to him and placed a small, firm hand on either shoulder. Her dark, smoky eyes, half concealed by drooping lids, caught and held his.

'I won't,' exclaimed Mr Hawk. 'Not if you look at me that way. It isn't a good look. Bad things lurk behind it.'

'Look at me,' she repeated. 'Good things lurk behind it, O mortal pig.'

Mr Turner had wavered down the path and had now lost himself in shadows. Megaera came still closer. Her small, delightful body clung to the lanky scientist.

'Look at me,' she commanded.

'Listen,' replied Hawk. He was extremely uneasy. 'Do you have to come so close? I can hear you without effort at the customary conversational distance. First thing I know you'll be perching on my shoulder.'

He heard her low laugh and felt her arms slip round his neck. He backed away and dragged her with him. The toes of her small sandals scraped across the gravel. The sound caused him to stop.

'This is no way to act on a warm night,' he objected.

'You are a pig,' she murmured.

With a light, unexpected jump she bounded up into his arms. He was forced to hold her in spite of himself. Both of his arms were thus engaged. Thus, having him at her mercy, she calmly proceeded to give him anything but a calm kiss.

'Now say you didn't like it,' she said when at length he had placed her on her feet.

'If you don't get off my property,' he told her, 'I'll begin shouting and throwing rocks.'

'It's a brutal pig, at that,' she jeered. 'Listen,' she continued, her voice sounding suddenly serious, 'I've placed my seal on you, Hunter Hawk, you're my man, such as you are, and I don't pride myself any on my selection. But for some reason I can't explain even to myself we belong to each other. You'll fight against it and go through no end of unnecessary moralizing, but in the end you'll give in and know I was right. Good night, now dim mind. I'll see you soon—sooner perhaps than you expect. You can't lose me.'

'Good God!' groaned Mr Hawk.

Then, with amazing swiftness, she was gone into the shadows where the estimable Ludwig Turner still lurked beneath a top hat which rightfully belonged to the demolished scarecrow of Mr Brightly. Hawk was a little bit stunned and no end perturbed. Still he was thrilled. The blood in his veins raced waywardly. This almost goes without saying. After nine hundred years of varied experience a pretty woman should know a little something about kissing and the allied arts.

'Cripes,' he muttered, mopping his brow with his coat sleeve, to which some leaves were still clinging. 'Dear me. Wonder if she meant that stuff. That would be just too bad.'

Perhaps, after all, he had better go to sea for ever.

For a moment he stood looking after her in the darkness; then he turned and entered his house.

'No more of this sort of thing,' he assured himself as he switched on the light. 'Old enough to be my grandmother ten times over. Wonder if she is? Wonder if anything is? To-night, for instance. Did it really happen? Seems like a drunkard's dream. One of the pleasanter sort. Opium.'

The light from the hall partially illuminated the library, and as Mr Hawk passed the door he was brought to a sudden standstill by a glimpse of his congealed brother-in-law standing in an attitude of frozen indignation.

'My God!' breathed the long man of science. 'I'd forgotten about them.'

His distaste for the heavy reproaches of those four still figures when restored to their natural state tempted him to leave them permanently petrified. He stood and considered this possibility. No, it wouldn't be quite right. There was old man Lambert. He wasn't such a bad sort. And from the strange sounds that were issuing from his lips he must be the toughest of the lot. The old fellow was still battling against the effects of the powerful ray.

'No,' Mr Hawk decided. 'I'll give them a suspended sentence first.'

He approached Grandpa Lambert. Pressing the ring on his left hand, Hawk allowed the restorative or contra-active ray to play for a moment over the figure seated in the chair. In an instant the old gentleman was back again, his mouth filled to spluttering with insults and invectives.

'Now, listen,' said Hawk quietly. 'If you don't want to go back where you came from you'll cut all that out. Understand me, Grandpa?'

Apparently the old man did. A startled look came into his eyes, and the spluttering died away.

'Damn you,' he muttered. 'You and your devil's tricks.'

Hawk then turned to Alice, his superior sort of a sister. Although it pained him to do it he would give her another chance. As he was about to raise the left hand he was arrested by the voice of the old man.

'Wait!' he cried. 'Wait! Why don't you leave her as she is, she and the other two? Think of the life we could lead without them, Hunter—the peace and quiet and freedom—just you, Daffy and me.'

Hunter looked at the unregenerate old fellow sympathetically.

'I'd like to,' he told him, 'but they're in the way here.'

'Then take them down to the cellar and turn them back to stone,' the venerable gentleman pleaded, 'or lure them down to the lake, then petrify them and tip the lot of them in. We'd be rid of them for good.'

'I'll think it over,' said Mr Hawk and, raising his hand, released his sister.

Mrs Alice Pollard Lambert returned to herself in full cry. Her jaws were wagging before the rest of her body was completely restored.

'Of all the outrageous conduct,' she began. I'll sue you for this.'

Without a word Mr Hawk raised his right hand and Alice Lambert's voice died away as she once more turned to stone.

Alfred Lambert restored was a more tractable subject altogether. He stretched himself wearily and looked respectfully upon his brother-in-law. He even grinned a little weakly.

'The joke's on us, all right,' he said, 'but, for God's sake, don't do it again.'

'Then watch your step,' replied Hawk as he passed on to Junior.

'If you have any heart at all, you won't change that pest back,' exclaimed the boy's grandfather. 'Carry him up to bed and drop him on the way. Let him shatter to bits.'

Hunter Hawk hesitated. He realized that life would be a great deal pleasanter without Junior, and that the world would never miss him. After all, it wouldn't be such a crime to drop Junior on some hard surface. It would be an act of divine justice and a public benefaction. Yet Hunter Hawk, in spite of all that he had suffered at the hands of these people, could not bring himself to do away with any of them—with all of them later, perhaps, but not at present. He shook his head at the old man and gave Junior back to the world. The boy, whimpering like a kicked dog, ran to his unresponsive mother. This was too much for Hawk. He promptly restored Alice Lambert to her son. This time she had nothing to say as she clung to her offspring and looked fearfully about her.

'You may all get to bed now,' Hawk told them. 'I'm sorry I forgot you, but no harm's done. Remember this, however, from now on I hold the whip hand. If you don't want to take up a permanent existence as statues, walk lightly and pay strict attention to your own affairs. Now clear the decks, or I might change my mind.'

The company moved hastily towards the door. Alice paused and looked back.

'May I have a word with you in the morning?' she asked. 'Something happened last evening. Callers. Most humiliating it was.'

'Drop in to see me in the morning,' said Hawk. 'This morning, in fact. Lots happened last evening.'

Alone in his own room, Hunter Hawk undressed triumphantly and prepared himself for a much-needed rest. Never had his bed looked so inviting. In one corner of the room Blotto, undisturbed by the arrival of his master, was snoring volubly, a thing he did quite well.

'Wish he'd try to break himself of that habit,' Hawk idly mused, 'but he doesn't even try. Perhaps he doesn't know. Stupid dog. A great bother.'

Still pondering over the bad habits and abysmal stupidity of Blotto, Hunter Hawk threw open all the windows and, turning his back to the night, sought the safety and sanctity of his bed.

'He sleeps at night just like a gross human being,' his thoughts ran on as he manoeuvred his ungainly body alongside the bed preparatory to that most grotesque of all actions—the lifting of the leg that swings one on to the mattress. 'Doesn't care whether I live or die. Look at him.' At last he was completely ensconced. 'What the hell!' he said aloud, his face going blank. 'How in the name of all that's—'

He was unable to finish his sentence. Megaera, her great eyes astir with the night from which she had emerged, was sitting on the ledge of one of the windows.

'At its best getting into bed isn't pretty,' she observed, 'but you make it unnecessarily unpicturesque. People should have sunken beds like sunken tubs.'

'I'm not here to discuss the aesthetic side of bed-going with you,' replied Mr Hawk in a low voice.

'Oh, no?' she replied. 'You're not, eh?'

She stripped off her dress and stood before him in a ragged shift. Mr Hawk promptly closed his eyes and switched off the light.

'Leave this room by the way you entered,' his voice commanded through the darkness. 'I don't know what sort of magic you used, but if you flew up, you'd better damn well fly down again.'

In answer to this he received a violent jab in the ribs.

'Ugh!' grunted Mr Hawk. 'What the devil are you trying to do, stab me?'

'Don't get me mad,' a small voice gritted in his ear. 'Move over now and be quick about it. I'm getting into this bed.'

'Then I'm getting right out. This bed would be too small for the both of us if it were as wide as the Sahara Desert.'

'No bed could be too small for us,' she whispered. 'You and I could sleep on a straw.'

'There'll be no sleep for me to-night, my dear young lady.'

'You've said it!'

'What do you mean?' Hawk's voice was weak with alarm. 'Out I go.'

'I mean just that. Budge from this bed, and I'll scream so loud every damn neighbour within a radius of five miles will come pelting in here to see what we're doing.'

'We?' replied Mr Hawk. 'I'm not going to be doing a thing.'

'We'll see about that,' Megaera said grimly.

'Just like your ancestress,' Mr Hawk groaned.

Meg giggled, and one small hand stole playfully along his ribs. For such a large man Mr Hawk gave vent to a surprisingly small shriek.

'Don't do that,' he told her. 'No familiarities. If you insist on staying in this bed, stay just where you are.'

'I can't. You're so attractive. Don't turn your back on me. I'll kick it.'

She did.

'Oh, for the love of Pete,' exclaimed Hunter Hawk indignantly. 'You'll be having me black and blue. As if I hadn't been through enough bangs and explosions already.'

'Then turn over.'

'I will not—not on your life. Why, you're just a depraved woman crashing your way into my bed like this without even so much as an invitation.'

'You deliberately set out to make me. You know you did.'

'Horrid little liar. Just like a woman.'

'Exactly like a woman,' agreed Megaera gloatingly. 'Only a whole lot nicer than most. You should thank your lucky stars.'

'For what?'

'For me, of course.'

'I don't want you.'

'You do, but you don't know it.'

'Perhaps I do.'

'Oh, you dear.'

'Easy there with that hand. A kind word doesn't constitute an invitation to an orgy.'

'Nothing like a good old orgy occasionally.'

'Don't be common. And here's something else. You've been doing this sort of thing on and off for nine hundred years. For me, it's almost an entirely new experience.'

'It hasn't been even that yet,' replied the girl. 'And you said, almost. Who was she?'

'None of your damn business. Anyway, I've forgotten.'

'Well, this will be one you won't forget.'

'That's the truest words you've ever spoken. I'm going to lock my windows hereafter. Wish that dog would stop snoring. It keeps me awake.'

'Good for the dog,' said Megaera.

Mr Hawk had an inspiration. He flashed on the light just long enough to enable him to petrify Blotto's nose. The snores diminished to the mere whispers of their former selves. The dog opened one eye and squinted down his nose. Yes, it had happened again. From one extreme to another. Blotto closed his eye, allowing the lid to drop heavily and did the best he could.

'Now, let's try to get a little sleep,' said Hunter Hawk. 'I'm all in.'

Megaera was concentrating all of her magic on Blotto's nose. She wanted that dog to snore, and she meant to see to it that he did. Her magic proved successful in counteracting the potency of the petrifying ray. Before Mr Hawk had settled himself comfortably, Blotto was snoring with increased volume, so much so, in fact, that he woke up even himself.

'What? Is it working again?' he asked himself. 'Well, I wish it would stay one way or the other.'

Hunter Hawk was thoroughly aroused. He flashed on the light and redirected the ray at the dog's nose.

'I'll petrify that damned dog's nose so hard he'll wish to God he'd never even sniffed,' declared the scientist.

Megaera was sitting hunched up in bed, looking for all the world like a wicked child. She said nothing. She was calling on centuries of magic to bring back those snores. She was proudly pitting her pagan powers against those of modern science. For some minutes the contest continued, Blotto alternately sparking and stopping like a willing but broken-down motor. Finally the bedevilled animal, abandoning all attempts at sleep, raised his head and looked with moist, reproachful eyes at his master. The poor dog's nose was in a state of the utmost confusion. One minute it was a thing of life and vigour, the next a cold, unresponsive stone. Blotto felt that his nerves would prove hardly equal to the strain. The wail of protest he attempted to register was cut off in its prime only to burst out unexpectedly and frighten him out of his wits. As proud as he was of his scientific achievement, Mr Hawk was unable to resist the mute entreaty of his dog. After all, why should their differences be taken out on Blotto's nose?

'I give up,' he said at last as he switched out the light. 'Snore your damn head off. Go on. Shake the walls and rattle the windows. I give up.'

'Do you?' cried Megaera. 'Then so will I.'

Between Blotto and his uninvited bedfellow there was scarcely any sleep at all for Hunter Hawk that night.

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