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The Nightlife Of The Gods
WHEN after several fluttering attempts Megaera succeeded in lifting the long lashes from her heavy eyes some hours later she found herself gazing up at no less a personage than the outraged Alice Pollard Lambert. This excellent lady, remembering her brother's invitation, and hoping to propitiate him before attempting to carry out her fell purpose, had quietly arrived at his bedside armed with a cup of coffee. This she now set down on a small table and devoted all her attention to the amazing joint occupant of Hunter Hawk's bed. It had been her dark design either to wheedle the formula for his disagreeable discovery from him or else to destroy it. She was not going to permit anyone to hold the whip hand over herself and her family. Even though a dependant, she intended to be the dominating factor in the household. Now, however, here was another situation to face.
'What are you doing in bed with that man?' she demanded in a voice of chilled reproof.
'What do you usually do under the circumstances?' Megaera asked lazily.
'I don't go to bed with men,' said Mrs Lambert, her chin elevated virtuously.
'For goodness' sake,' said Meg with innocent interest. 'What do you go to bed with?'
'Don't be low and ridiculous,' replied Mrs Lambert.
'Well, if you think it's ridiculous,' remarked the girl, 'you've got something on me. I think it's the most natural thing in the world.'
'Perhaps you do,' said Mrs Lambert. 'I repeat my question. What are you doing here?'
'I wouldn't like to say,' replied Megaera with one of her wickedest smiles.
'How did you manage to get yourself in?' Mrs Lambert continued inflexibly.
'If you must know,' said Megaera, indulging in a small but frank yawn, 'your son deliberately dragged me in here last night and threatened to strangle me if I screamed.'
Mr Hawk's disorderly head popped up from the pillow as if suddenly jerked by a wire.
'Oh, what a lie!' he exclaimed.
'Furthermore, he's not my son,' said Mrs Lambert, whose indignation at this reflexion cast on her age had for the moment made her forget the moral issue involved.
'Sorry,' said Megaera, 'but how was I to know? Perhaps he's your lover. If he is, I'm sorry for him.'
'He's neither my son nor my lover,' Mrs Lambert announced with great dignity.
'Then who is your lover?' asked Meg. 'All this puzzles me.'
'I want you to know I have no lover,' Alice Lambert hurled at the girl in bed.
'I'm very sorry about that,' replied Megaera. 'But why do you want me to know it? I can't help you out.'
'That besmirched creature on the bed beside you is my brother,' said Mrs Lambert.
'Well, madam, all I can say is, you've got some brother.'
'Oh!' breathed Mrs Lambert as Meg reached out a bare arm and took several appreciative sips from the cup of coffee her companion's sister had so considerately placed within her reach.
'So thoughtful of you,' she remarked with a sweet smile. 'How did you know I liked it?'
'Are you going to wallow there and allow this creature to insult your own sister?' Alice Lambert demanded of her supine yet interested brother.
'Yes,' he replied, 'I am. And when she's finished I'm going to try my hand.'
'Do you realize that the Ashleys called on us last night?' continued his sister. 'Stella forgot the terrible condition you left us in and brought them right into the library. There they sat for fully fifteen minutes, asking about this and that and trying to be pleasant. And do you realize we were unable to say a word back, not one word?'
'That must have been hell for you, dear sister.'
'It was,' agreed Mrs Lambert. 'It was. Suddenly Mrs Ashley—you know how nervous she is—uttered a piercing scream and cried out, "They're all dead! Stone dead!" With that she rushed from the room, the rest of the Ashleys right behind her. I could have fallen through the floor from mortification. By this time the news must be all over the countryside. Alfred and Junior and myself are ashamed to go to church, to be seen on the streets. And you are responsible for that, you and your silly discoveries. Now we have a fresh scandal on our hands, this creature you are openly flaunting in our faces.'
'Cheer up, Sis,' Mr Hawk grinned as he thought of the Ashleys' call. 'I'll go to church with you. Forgot it was Sunday.'
'We'll all go to church with you,' put in Meg. 'That is, if I can get some decent clothes to cover my nakedness.'
'Good!' cried Hunter Hawk. 'You, Daffy, and I will form ourselves into a hollow square and protect the respectable members of the family from the gaze of the curious public. And now, my dear sister, if you will be good enough to withdraw, I might try to get a little something done.'
'Open and shameless iniquity,' his sister replied, looking directly at Megaera, who met her gaze with a pleasant smile. 'I don't know what to make of it. I'm sure you must have taken leave of your senses. What will Alfred and Junior say?'
'I haven't the slightest idea,' replied Mr Hawk. 'Something dull and hypocritical, no doubt, but you can tell them both for me that they'd better be damn careful what they say or I'll petrify 'em beyond recall. And that goes for you. Now clear out.' He turned abruptly to the girl beside him. 'Say there, you wench,' he continued, 'quit hogging that Java. Give Daddy Long-legs a sip.'
'Oh,' breathed Mrs Lambert once more as she hurried from the room. 'Oh—Daddy Long-legs—this is too much.'
The moment the door was closed Megaera attempted to become violently demonstrative. Mr Hawk foiled her, however, through the simple expedient of kicking her out of bed.
'See that window,' he said, pointing dramatically.
'What about it, you big bully?' asked Meg from the floor.
'Well, out you go, my girl,' he replied. 'Fling yourself through it, and make it snappy.'
'Ah, Hunter darling, you said you were going to take me to church—you, Daffy, and myself.'
The girl's eyes were large, round, and reproachfully pleading. Mr Hawk considered her with something more than a parental interest. She was a bad one, no doubt, nine centuries sunk in depravity, but what a refreshing creature, what a relief from the undercover impulses of everyday life. Hastily he ran over the experiences of the past twenty-four hours. Events marched. First there had been the explosion and Blotto's bewitched tail. Then he had petrified the family and gone walking with two bottles of Burgundy. There had been a little man crying in a cornfield for the clothing of an overdressed scarecrow. The assault had followed, the visit to the grotto, Brightly's dog, new magic, more applejack, and the trip home. The latter was still a trifle vague to Mr Hawk. Then there had been the release of the family and the entrance of Meg through his window. Then the battle over Blotto's nose and—no sleep. Yes, he remembered it all, but somehow it still did not seem quite real. The whole thing was too incredible. Events were certainly marching. He grinned inwardly as he quickly made up his mind. Church it would be. Surely there could be no harm in taking a nine-hundred-year-old girl to church, even a small, pagan, and utterly unmoral one.
'We go,' he said at last. 'Slip on one of my dressing-gowns. In there—that's a closet.'
'And that?' she pointed to another door.
'Bathroom. Tub, shower, and everything.'
'Oh, good! What a grand life!'
Meg rose from the floor and became very active in exploring the room, its contents and possibilities. Presently she disappeared, and the voice of the shower was heard in the land. Hunter Hawk pushed a bell.
'Betts,' he said when that old gentleman appeared, 'bring me three things: lots of breakfast, two of Burgundy, and all of Miss Daffy. Bring also innumerable plates and cups and eating tackle. There will be three of us breakfasting here.'
Betts received this command with a decided elevation of spirit. He felt even more elated when, just as he was leaving, Meg, lost in a trailing dressing-gown with dangling arms, emerged flappingly from the bathroom.
'Good morning,' said Meg with a smile. 'I like you. You look nice, like me. I'm Meg.'
'Thank you, Miss Meg,' said Betts and hastily withdrew.
'A beauty,' he told the interested Mrs Betts when he reached the kitchen. 'Small, but a rare beauty. Makes one feel that life is still worth living.'
'Doesn't it just,' mused Mrs Betts. 'A girl and Burgundy before breakfast. I knew he was a chip off the old block, even if he did take a long time chipping. Stella, my child, you've lost your chance. The master's gone and done it.'
'Done what?' demanded Stella, who had just come into the kitchen.
'Started in ruining,' replied Mrs Betts complacently.
For a moment Stella's face fell, then she rallied.
'I should think you two old people would feel ashamed,' she said, 'talking like that to an honest, high-minded girl like me. What does the ruin look like?'
'She's small,' offered Betts with a reminiscent eye. 'Small she is, but, oh, how succulent.'
'Small,' repeated Stella with manifest satisfaction. 'Venus, I'm told, was a large, full-bodied woman.'
She threw out her breasts and walked majestically from the room.
'She's got those, too,' Mr Betts flung after her.
'Apples,' was Stella's cryptic retort. 'Grapes.'
Daphne, in a scarlet kimono, sped down the hall like a living flame. Betts's report had thrilled her. It seemed too good to be true. All her life she had been fed up with so many smug hypocrisies and so many arbitrary taboos that a little open shame appealed to her sense of proportion. She rejoiced in this heaven-sent opportunity to share in her uncle's depravity.
'Come in,' called Mr Hawk when she had tapped lightly on his door.
'Good morning, everybody,' said Daffy in the most offhand manner in the world as she entered the room. 'I hear that a little moral leprosy has broken out in here. Is this the lepress? She's sweet.'
'Hardly that,' her uncle replied. 'She's nine centuries deep in iniquity. She's a scheming, unscrupulous, and sometimes violent woman. At present she's hungry and without any decent clothes. The three of us are going to eat here in this room, then we're going to church with the family. Without any further explanations, however, let me introduce you to Meg or Megaera. Her last name doesn't seem to matter. Sometimes it's Turner. Related remotely to the Furies. Bar sinister, I suspect.'
Meg, who had been studying Daffy hopefully, now spoke.
'The man's a liar, to begin with,' she said quite calmly. 'In the second place, he suffers from delusions, and, finally, he's not fit person for decent girls like you and myself to associate with. Nevertheless, we'll associate. He has ordered Burgundy. That's why.'
'Can you fix her up?' asked Mr Hawk.
Daphne considered Meg with an appraising gaze in which she made no attempt to conceal her admiration.
'You're about one of the cutest little tricks I've ever seen turned out,' she said at last. 'No wonder you're not quite respectable.'
'Listen to her,' Meg complained. 'You've got her calling me names now.'
'Complimenting you, my dear,' said Daffy briefly. 'Let's see. I'm just about twice of you. That makes it easy because it means doing things by halves. I've always done that. You'll need everything.'
'Except drawers,' put in the scientist dispassionately. 'Her father says she wears no drawers—none of them does.'
'If they're pretty I might,' said Meg. 'I'll go that far.'
'A great concession,' Hawk replied.
By the time the girls had returned Hunter Hawk was dressed and shaved. The breakfast was growing cold, but the Burgundy was just right. Betts had been allowed to hover in anxious attendance. His master felt that he owed him that much, at least. As the girls entered, the old domestic was replenishing Mr Hawk's glass. Hawk was sitting by the open window breathing deep of the morning air. Sunday was resting gracefully on the countryside spread out before him. Down in the orchard a number of birds were making agreeable noises. The air was faintly tinged with the scent of blossoms. Life was not at all bad. Sunlight and sparkling Burgundy made a cool little hell in the depth of his glass. He was committed to a life of sin. And he was content. Few men, he felt, were better equipped.
'He could not wait,' remarked Daffy.
'I told you he was a pig,' said Meg.
'I'm a pig who couldn't wait,' Mr Hawk replied with a pleasant smile. 'Catch up. You've done a good job, Daffy. The girl looks fine.'
'Mrs Betts helped,' Daffy replied. 'She can sew and fix slick.'
'The loveliest pull-offs,' Megaera began.
'Step-ins,' Daffy corrected.
Betts was heard to make strange noises.
'Oh, yes. How silly of me,' the girl continued. 'Step-ins, of course. Must have been thinking of something else. Want to see them?'
'Come, come,' frowned Mr Hawk. 'We're going to church now. Snaffle down some food and try a glass of this wine. You know, the more I think of church, the more the idea appeals to me.'
'Yes,' responded Daffy. 'We should do well at church. Never drank wine before in the morning. It's a good idea.'
'An old, old custom,' observed Megaera. 'Much older than church.'
The small creature looked really presentable in a black and white georgette thing. A small hat, also of the black and white colour motif, had been slashed to fit her head. There was something a little amiss about her feet. They were loosely confined in a pair of pumps Daffy had retrieved from the attic. Small as they were, they were still too large for their present incumbent. The general effect, however, was not displeasing. In fact, quite the contrary.
Betts's report of the breakfast is all that is necessary.
'They sat there drinking wine and crunching toast and enjoying themselves for dear life,' he recounted to his wife and Stella. 'Never saw the master in such fine feather. He's a changed man since he met that little girl, Meg. Claims she's nine centuries old. Well, the way she went for her breakfast you'd think she'd never had a bite to eat in all that time. She's a queer one, she is, but you can't help liking her.'
'Then what did they do?' Stella interrupted.
'Nothing,' replied Betts anticlimatically. 'Miss Alice spoiled everything. She tapped on the door, and off they all trotted to church. Mrs and Mr and the boy walked on ahead. The other three followed jeering quietly and whispering and giggling. Mr Hunter tried to look dignified, but he couldn't keep it up. Looks like trouble to me.'
And trouble there was, but it did not start until it was time for the collection. Even then it began gently. It so happened that Mr Hawk and party sat in the two front pews near the centre aisle of the church and that Mr Brightly and his beautiful wife sat directly back of Mr Hawk, Megaera, and Daffy. Nothing could have been more unfortunate—for Mr Brightly, who was deep in the bad books of Hunter Hawk. It was one of those fashionable churches one occasionally finds in a semi-suburban community largely inhabited by snobs. It was smart to be seen there occasionally. Members were for ever returning to it from Palm Beach, Deauville, St Moritz, or Park Avenue. It was their way of officially registering the fact that after having spent oodles of money in fashionable travel they were once more honouring the neighbourhood with their presence from the upholstered seclusion of their country estates.
'Look well while you have the chance,' the set of their backs seemed to say. 'We will soon be expensively on our way again.'
Mr Hawk did not like this church, and he did not like its preacher, and he felt strongly inclined to do something about it. The impulse was especially strong because he realized his sister and brother-in-law and even their son looked upon being seen in church as one of the high lights of the week. Yet no one looking at his dark, thin, and serious face would have suspected him of contemplating retaliation for all the weary hours he had passed in that pew.
The first note of discord was struck when the plate was being passed. Meg, dutifully remembering the training of her father in matters of money, made a rather clever snatch. Mr Hawk, very much upset by this display of cupidity, promptly seized the small offending hand and squeezed it. A shower of coins fell back into the plate. At that moment Meg would have bitten Hunter Hawk's hand had not Daffy restrained her. However, the ancient young lady's attempt was not without some reward. She successfully retained in the palm of her hand a neatly folded five-dollar bill.
'Try and get that,' she muttered, giving Mr Hawk a glimpse of the bill, 'and I'll knock you into the aisle.'
'If you need money, why don't you ask for it?' Hawk demanded in a furious whisper. 'I'll give you as much as you want.'
'All right, give me some,' she retorted.
'After,' said Mr Hawk.
'Ha!' she laughed nastily and noisily. 'I knew it would be that way.'
By this time the usher was presenting the plate to Mr Wetmore Brightly. Hunter Hawk turned and petrified them both from the neck down. They formed an interesting group, Brightly and the usher. The supplicant stood with extended plate while the rich man slouched in his seat, one hand stubbornly thrust in his pocket as if to produce its contents. Both regarded each other with expressions of suspicion and growing animosity. Necks began to crane and eyes began to peer. What was the meaning of all this? Why was the rich Mr Brightly refusing to contribute to the collection? Something like a murmur began to stir through the church. Brightly grew red in the face. What the devil had happened to him? Hunter Hawk turned and looked severely at the man.
'Go on, be a sport,' said Mr Hawk in a voice intended to carry. 'Give the usher some money and let him go.'
'I can't get my hand out of my pocket,' gasped Mr Brightly.
'What's wrong with it—too full of money?'
Mr Brightly looked pleadingly at the usher.
'Please take that plate away somewhere,' he said. 'I'll see you later.'
'I can't,' replied the usher.
'Why can't you?' demanded Brightly. 'Trying to make a fool out of me? I'd like to break your damn neck.'
At this moment Mr Hawk released the usher so swiftly that the poor man lost his balance and toppled over into Brightly's lap. This was the right moment for the release of Brightly. Hawk restored his power to him. There was the sound of falling coins. Brightly and the usher became entangled in an effort to retrieve the money.
'By Jove,' said an old gentleman aloud. 'Looks as if the beggars are actually fighting over the money.'
'Disgraceful!' exclaimed a lady.
'Oh, good,' muttered Megaera, rapidly concealing coins about her person.
'Stop! Stop!' whispered Mr Hawk. 'I told you I'd give you some money.'
'One dollar in my stocking is worth two in your purse,' breathed Meg. 'I hope I don't jingle when I walk.'
Order was at last restored, and the usher, with a sadly diminished collection in his plate, proceeded on his way. Mr Hawk sat watching the minister closely. The moment he started to rise the scientist promptly froze him in a half-sitting position which of all positions is perhaps the most grotesque. It was in this unprepossessing pose that the man of God was so ill-advised as to announce.
'We will all rise now and sing—'
Exactly what it was expected to sing the congregation never found out. Mute with astonishment, the Reverend Dr Archer turned and took a quick, frightened look at his ecclesiastical rear, which for the first time in its life refused to do his bidding. Then he turned a white face to his congregation, a strained, white, bewildered face. Although not quite as strained and white as his, the collective face of the Reverend Archer's congregation was equally bewildered.
'Looks as if he was going to spring at us,' observed the old gentleman to his wife. 'What's going on in this church, anyway?'
The minister licked his dry lips and cleared his throat several times. Finally he gained command of his voice.
'Something extremely odd has happened to me,' he said. 'Don't know what it can be. Perhaps it is some divine manifestation. Whatever it is, I certainly won't be able to preach to you in this position. It would be too trying for all of us.'
At this point the nervous Mrs Ashley, remembering her previous experience with the Lamberts, uttered a little scream and fainted. She was carried from the church.
'In view of this mystifying occurrence,' continued the Reverend Archer, 'I think it would be best for you all to leave me now. In the meantime, I trust you will pray for my speedy recovery.'
When the church was empty, six members of the choir carried the Reverend Doctor to the vestry and deposited him tenderly on a sofa.
'I implore you not to drop me,' said the Reverend Archer as he was being lowered. 'I am sure it would smash to bits.'
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