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The Nightlife Of The Gods
MEG REMOVES HER PULL-OFFS
THAT Sunday established Hunter Hawk's undisputed sway over his home and household. A council of war had come to nothing. That is, it had ended in unconditional capitulation. Mr Hawk was given to understand that he was at liberty to have as many mistresses and explosions as his heart desired and physique could stand. It was the secret hope of the three opposing Lamberts that the general wear and tear involved in the over-indulgence of these two luxuries would soon make a wreck of the man. So long as he refrained from practising his black arts on them the Lamberts would tolerate if not welcome the establishment of a harem.
Hunter Hawk, after listening to the magnanimous sentiments of his sister, expressed his gratification and gave her to understand that in view of the circumstances her concessions were rather pointless. The Lamberts could hardly do otherwise. He himself offered nothing in return. To quote him verbatim he said, 'You'll do as I damn well please, and so will I.'
Alice Lambert did not like this attitude at all. She felt that her brother should have shown more gratitude for being allowed to do as he pleased in his own home. However, she very wisely refrained from giving expression to her feelings. She withdrew with a gracious smile while he watched her departure with a cynical one.
Megaera became more or less a member of the household, although her vagrant ways made it impossible to count on her presence. Twice she had taken Mr Hawk to the grotto in the woods, and on the latter occasion Daffy had been brought along to admire the stone dog. Mr Turner profited by the cementing of the unconventional relation between the two houses. He was provided with wine, food, and raiment and a supply of ready money with which he made various little purchases through the agency of a mysterious friend who later turned out to be the proprietor of a still. He throve and prospered and quarrelled a little less frequently with his daughter. So, considering everything impartially, it would seem that when Megaera swung a slim leg over Mr Hawk's window-ledge she was acting in the best interests of everyone concerned. The conventional demands of the community were more or less satisfied by the shallow deception of foisting Megaera upon it as a visiting school friend of Daphne's. Often with murder in her heart, Mrs Lambert found herself conversing with neighbours about her daughter's sweet young friend and how delighted she was they could be together for the remainder of the season, if not longer, a possibility she very much feared.
This evening Megaera and Mr Hawk were returning from the village after the consumption by that young lady of several ice-cream sodas. Where the pavements yield to grass they encountered the charming and voluble Mrs Wetmore Brightly, looking more possible and cosmetic than ever. After she had finished congratulating herself on her good fortune, she announced the fact that she had been simply dying to meet Megaera ever since she had seen her in church.
'You're such a beautiful creature, my dear,' she said. 'I'm sure you must be such company for Mr Hawk's delightful niece—or shall I call you Hunter?'
The eyes came in very effectively here. Meg hated the woman from that moment, and knowing herself as she did, she naturally suspected the purity of the other's motives. Her intuition was amply justified in this, for Mrs Brightly's motives were notoriously low. On her part, Mrs Brightly regarded the official report concerning the visit of Meg to Daffy as being nothing more than an entirely justifiable lie concocted on the spur of the moment to conceal a much more interesting situation.
'And now,' announced the lovely woman, 'I'm going to ask you a special favour, one that I ask only extra special people.' Here her voice dropped to a note of confidence. 'We are opening up Greenwood next week,' she continued. 'I do wish you would come. You and my husband were once awfully thick.'
'Your husband is still awfully thick,' Mr Hawk replied, 'or is that why you're opening up Greenwood? I didn't know he was even sick.'
'Hunter, you're such a cynical person,' Mrs Brightly pouted, 'and such a wicked one. Of course my husband isn't sick. Our camp was named long before the cemetery. It's been in the family for years.'
'Well, you've got nothing on the other Greenwood,' said Hawk. 'Many a family's been in it for years.'
'What a ghastly sense of humour you have,' exclaimed Mrs Brightly. 'But I'll forgive even that if you'll only say you'll come—you and Miss Turner and your niece and an extra pair of pants.'
'Trousers,' corrected Mr Hawk. 'Women wear pants.'
'Panties,' replied Mrs Brightly. 'What do you know about it, anyway, you old bachelor? And you didn't say I could call you Hunter. I have been—'
'I know you have,' said Mr Hawk. 'Now that it's become a habit, why not keep it up?'
'You're so gracious,' observed Mrs Brightly. 'You may call me Tom.'
'Why that?' asked Mr Hawk.
'A hangover from the days of my youth. I was once a great tomboy. The name stuck. I think it's rather cute.'
'So do I,' agreed Meg, with a much too sweet smile.
'I don't know a thing about it,' said Mr Hawk, 'but I do know this: if anyone called me Flo or Gracie or Glad I'd knock his damn block off. Don't see why the same reasoning doesn't apply both ways.'
'You've an exceptionally agreeable companion,' Mrs Tom Brightly said, addressing her remark to Meg.
'Isn't it?' replied the girl.
'Will you come?' asked the elder woman. 'Say yes.'
'No,' said Mr Hawk promptly. 'I'm afraid it can't be done. I don't go to riots. A good old-fashioned stag party is bad enough for me. The performers there get paid for their folly.'
Something sharp and painful was making its way into Hunter Hawk's ribs.
'Accept,' gritted a low voice in his ear, or rather a low, gritty voice drifted up to his ear. 'Accept, damn you, or I'll drive this knife clear through your bladder.'
Mrs Brightly, who had unexpectedly moved a pace to one side, suddenly turned pale.
'For God's sake!' she cried out. 'What are you doing, child? Don't murder the man.'
Mr Hawk smiled falsely. 'She's merely scratching my back,' he explained. 'Can't reach it myself. And, by the way, I accept your jolly old invitation. My second thoughts are always best.'
'I'm glad,' said Mrs Tom Brightly. 'Does she always scratch your back with that desperate-looking blade?'
'She carries it for that express purpose,' said Mr Hawk.
'My family have always carried knives,' said Meg, slipping the knife in a sheath attached to a startlingly well-turned leg. 'Good in cases of assaults and such. Lots of times a girl doesn't feel like being assaulted.'
'I didn't know,' murmured Mrs Brightly. 'The women of your family must have led such interesting lives.'
'I'm afraid they were a pretty hard lot,' Meg answered with a small smile. 'I'm quite different. I'm really a very nice girl. You'd be surprised.'
'I'm sure I would,' Mrs Tom replied with a world of meaning in her voice. 'Then it's all settled?'
'We'll be there,' replied Mr Hawk, 'even though it kills me. So long, Tom.'
Mrs Tom flashed them both a smile and turned down the street, her shapely body swaying to advantage. Mr Hawk's gaze followed her.
'Take your eyes off that,' amended Meg.
'Off what?' asked Mr Hawk.
'You know very well what I mean. Take your eyes off it and keep your eyes off it, or there'll be a whole lot of trouble. Just remember that.'
'I'll do my best,' Hawk replied, his thoughts centred on the knife. 'The only thing wrong with that leg of yours is that murderous weapon you carry on it. I never knew you toted a dagger.'
'You'll find out lots of things about me before I'm through with you,' Meg commented darkly.
Mr Hawk found scant comfort in this remark.
Greenwood was situated on a wooded hill. There was a tracery of pine boughs around the house, and a constant whispering could be heard from a breeze that moved among them. From a long wide veranda one looked down on a silver lake lying like a coin tossed among the trees. And from the veranda one could trace the graceful course of a smooth gravel road twisting leisurely down to the pavilion and boat-house rising like a fairy palace from the waters of the lake. The wind seemed cooler on this hill than elsewhere, and the sun warmer and more friendly—the air sweeter and more stimulating to the lungs. The house was an ancient and immense structure. It dominated the landscape, thrust itself up through the trees, and scrutinized the countryside with a baronial eye. It was a mansion of many chambers—large, fragrant rooms, intimately associated with boughs and birds. Their windows framed the sky and were for ever capturing for a while little wind-blown clouds. Wild woods and terraced gardens lay below these windows. Huge wide-treaded stairs walked up through this house, their turnings watched by empty niches that had once held statues of unrivalled ugliness. The first step of this ample staircase, or the last, as the case may be, rested on the smooth, solid surface of an immense assembly-room used for dancing, mass drinking, and associated revelry. It was a vast room with intimate corners, a place of windows, convenient tables, and divans that defied fatigue. In this huge hall one could enjoy life. The floor made a splendid place for crap games. Almost always, from midnight until dawn, dancing couples were forced to circle round groups of vociferating gamblers.
To-day Mrs Tom Brightly, surrounded by a number of guests, was levelling a cocktail glass and gazing through its amber-coloured contents at the Emperor as it made its way majestically up the drive. The Emperor was Mr Hawk's carry-all. He could never discover why he had bought this barge on wheels save for the fact that barring a van it was the largest motor-propelled vehicle he had ever seen. It was utterly out of proportion to his needs. There is something satisfying in being able to afford a thing for which one has no earthly use. It lends that meretricious touch to a purchase without which few pleasures can be fully savoured.
The Emperor was now transporting its owner, slumped behind the wheel, Meg curled up quite a little too close beside him, and Daffy trying to recline in the back in the arms of a young gentleman who looked upon her advances with disapproval and mistrust.
'He's always protecting me from myself,' the young lady had complained of Cyril Sparks throughout the course of the trip. 'Has a quaint idea that my neck was made only to swallow with.'
'You deserve to be hung by yours,' Mr Sparks had growled. 'Can't you leave a fellow alone?'
'No,' had been the emphatic rejoinder, 'I can't. What is a fellow for if you've got to leave him alone? Might just as well have a mummy for a boy friend.'
Cyril Sparks was a large lad, horselike and rangy. A seemingly endless supply of arms and legs was attached to his body. He had a long, honest face, prominent cheek bones, and startlingly blue eyes, always a little troubled. Situations got the better of him. He seemed to jerk along through life on the minimum amount of words. Few persons suspected that behind those blue, perplexed eyes lay a world of acute and devastating observations. Little if anything escaped those eyes or failed to register a definite impression on the brain that directed them. He was interested in two things—Daffy and bugs. He knew no tricks and could play no games. Many miles a week he tramped and wandered. When Mack Sennett stopped producing his slapstick comedies a source of genuine enjoyment was removed from his life. He was one of Blotto's warmest admirers, contending that a dog, to be so completely dumb, must necessarily possess some human attributes. His hair was red, and his father was rich. He himself seldom had more than a couple of dollars in his pocket at one time, but he had the happy faculty of being able to dig up money from the various women who dwelt in his house. His three brothers, all of whom were competent but essentially decent sorts, gave him large cheques which he usually kept in his pockets until they became so soiled and dog-eared the teller at the bank handled them with shrinking fingers. When he had money he spent it on presents, candy, nuts, books, and an especially vile brand of rum of which he was inordinately fond. He was always so distrait and inarticulate his family could tell he had been drinking and was pleased about it only when he was heard to croon wistfully to himself about some laddie who kept going away somewhere and never coming back. On such occasions his mother and his various aunts would smile sympathetically and hold their peace. His father never grew tired of quietly observing Cyril and trying to follow the workings of his mind. He realized that the boy, though very much a part of the household and more dependent on it than any other member of the family, nevertheless lived in a world entirely apart from the others. Recently Mr Sparks had come to regard this son of his as a rather gifted animal that eluded classification. Hunter Hawk was fond of young Sparks, and, strange to say, Sparks lost much of his restraint in the presence of Mr Hawk. The boy would converse with him long and laboriously, preferably over a bottle of something. Next to his rum, Cyril Sparks loved the ethyl alcohol he found in Mr Hawk's laboratory. Whenever he entered the place he would rove about with deceptive inconsequence until he had located a bottle labelled with the familiar C2H5OH. This satisfactorily accomplished, he was able to answer questions and exchange ideas with a surprising degree of intelligence. It was his hope that in time Daffy would take up the subject of marriage and perhaps make arrangements. Also he hoped that these arrangements would not include Mr and Mrs Lambert and the boy Junior. It was a puzzle to him how three people could be so thoroughly undesirable on all counts. Mrs Lambert both despised and venerated him on account of the Sparks fortune.
'Don't forget,' he now said anxiously to Mr Hawk. 'You said you'd get this Brightly woman to give us some bottles for our own use. Don't like this punch bowl business. Always step on some woman. It's better to go up to one's room and take off one's coat and talk and drink—'
'And spit and swear and tell bad stories,' supplied Daffy. 'Wouldn't you enjoy yourself even more if we hit you over the head with an axe at the start and put you to bed? The results would be about the same, only quicker.'
'An axe is hard, and it would hurt,' he answered reflectively. 'It might do for once, but you couldn't keep it up. No head could stand much of that sort of thing. No, I'm serious about those bottles. A lot of people fatigue me. Bottles in the room will be much the best.'
'In other words,' said Daphne, 'you prefer to drink furiously with a few rather than foolishly with the flock.'
'Frantically,' amended Cyril. 'Your alliteration remains intact.'
'Don't worry about your private supply, my boy,' said Mr Hawk in a large manner that Cyril greatly admired. 'I'll attend to that.'
'Do,' put in Meg sweetly. 'And only that. Observe that leg.'
She gave her skirt a flip and displayed the business-like dagger snugly sheathed against a sheer silk stocking.
'Ah, there!' cried Mrs Tom from the verandah. 'Crawl out of that hearse and join a live party.'
Hawk led his three charges up the gracious steps and accepted a cocktail, which he courteously passed to Megaera.
'Yum,' she mouthed avidly. 'This is so much nicer than school, isn't it, Daffy?'
Daffy, over the rim of her glass, agreed that it was.
'Well,' said Sparks, eyeing her drink critically and wishing it was composed entirely of alcohol, 'here's gobble, gobble.'
Down went the cocktails with admirable precision and dispatch.
'You four appear to be snappy drinkers,' Mrs Tom observed. 'I can tell by the way they went down that you'll make fast friends here.'
'The faster the better,' said Mr Hawk.
Meg was completely hidden from view by a circle of knickers and white flannels.
'I'm already meeting a few,' she said. 'Call off your pack, Tommy. Haven't these gentlemen ever seen a small woman before?'
She broke through the circle and joined her hostess just in time to hear her say, 'You're my neighbour, Hunter Hawk. Your room is next to mine. If you get frightened in the night by all these bad people just knock three times on the wall and I'll send my husband in to keep you company.'
'That's the most appalling anticlimax I've ever heard,' he replied. 'Why not come yourself?'
'Why not be yourself?' Mrs Tom replied. 'But if you really do need me, just scrape on the wall very, very gently.'
Wetmore Brightly approached none too pleasantly. 'It had better be damn gently,' he rumbled. 'I sleep with one ear open, Hunter.'
'Hello, there,' said Mr Hawk. 'Has your hand fully recovered the use of its pocket?' Brightly's face darkened.
'That's far from funny,' he answered, 'unless one has a sophomoric sense of humour.'
'Did you get much in the scramble?' asked Meg. 'I made out fine, but dear Mr Hawk, noble Mr Hawk, made me return it later. It's not often one gets such a chance.'
'Oh,' said Mr Brightly, 'I remember now. You're the cute little thing with the busy hands. You snatched a coin right out from under mine.'
'It was fifty cents,' replied Meg quite seriously. 'A nice bright new one. That's a worth-while piece of change, fifty cents. Two of them make a dollar.'
Hunter Hawk took the avaricious young lady by the arm and forcibly led her down the verandah.
'Don't,' he pleaded, 'don't go on in that horrid way about money. It sounds terrible coming from your sweet young lips, even if centuries of lies have slipped through them.'
'I'm sorry,' replied Meg, this time with sincere humility. 'You can't understand what money has meant to us. You see, it's the hardest thing to get. We can't work for it, and still at times we must have it. Once we had no need of money, but now, with our magic running low, it seems to stand for everything. The Little People have gotten a tough break in your so-called Christian Era. We are neither fish, flesh, nor fowl. You see how it is? You belong to me, but I don't belong to you. I just keep on going, and some time you'll stop ... come to an end ... and I'll go on raising hell, no doubt loving but yet not wanting to love ... living yet fed up with life.'
She flung herself down in a large leather chair and looked with unseeing eyes at the panorama stretched out before her. Through a French window into the great hall drifted a haunting and rather pathetic little air. Mimi was dying gracefully somewhere in a Vocalion, her tiny hands being quite frozen. The small, broken voice, poignantly sad because reminiscent of happier times, carried in its note of suffering a yearning still to live and to share the warmth of life. The sad voice was appealing directly to Megaera and the tall man looking down at her. Mimi, dying, her love story ended, was saying farewell to them. Meg's large eyes, touched with a new depth and just a little frightened, were gazing into Hawk's.
'I want to belong to you,' she said in a low voice that crept close to the man's heart. 'I want to end with you or before you. I don't want to go on and on ... hell raising and all that.'
'There's a few breaths left in me yet,' Hawk forced himself to reply.
'I know, but what is that to me, my tall? ... a moment snatched from time. What is the name of that damned tune, anyway? It's made me feel awfully low. You never saw me cry, did you?'
'Don't,' said Hawk hastily. 'Think of your lovely new pull-offs and cheer up.'
'Oh, be quiet and bring me another cocktail or I'll have an emotional breakdown all over the place.'
Her modifying grin was rather forced and fragile. Hunter Hawk, who suspected her every move and mood, studied her intently. She seemed so thoroughly downcast at the moment, yet could he trust her? If he made the slightest display of his own emotions she might toss them brazenly in his face and do some terrible thing—kiss him, or climb a tree, or start in picking pockets. Feeling a bit upset himself, he silently departed in search of cocktails. And all the time he had the uncomfortable sensation of being intently watched by a pair of dark, brooding eyes.
When he returned with the cocktails—four of them on a silver tray—Meg's mood had altered but not improved.
'Put them down,' she said impatiently as he held the tray before her. 'Put them down on that table and listen well to me—if you so much as touch a finger-nail to your wall to-night the blade of this knife will be red with blood. Understand that now. I won't put up with any monkey business.'
'Don't be silly. As if I'd do such a thing.'
'Silly nothing,' she snapped. 'And you would do such a thing. Look at me. Before you bought me body and soul I was a decent girl. My father sold me into shameful bondage, and you persuaded him to do it ... you and your tainted money.'
'For goodness' sake, don't go on like that. Here, have a drink. If I gave you clothes and money it was only to keep you from stealing them. I had—'
'So that's how you feel about it. I suppose if I hadn't asserted myself with the last shred of my pride you'd have let me go naked and hungry.'
'Naked, perhaps, my dear, but never hungry.'
She cast him a quick look, then her face darkened again.
'Don't try to get around me,' she answered, 'and don't be lewd. Talk to the Brightly woman that way if you want, but if you do I'll cut your tongue out. You've gotten me into an awful fix. I'm going to be a mother ... and my child will have no name. I'll make you pay for this through the nose, just see if I don't.'
'If you succeed,' Mr Hawk replied, 'you'll have discovered a new source of revenue. Anyway, about that having a baby business, it's all a lie.'
'What if it is?' she answered hotly. 'I might have a baby—I might have a flock of babies, great seething litters of them for all you care. You don't have babies. I have babies.'
'I understand, dear,' Mr Hawk's voice was placatory. 'I didn't claim I had babies. You have babies.'
'I don't have babies,' Meg replied furiously. 'Never had a baby in my life, but I wish to God you'd have some—wish you'd have a cartload.'
'I'd do anything to be agreeable, but having a cartload of babies, or even a small carriage full, is out of my line altogether.'
'That's it!' she exclaimed. 'That's it! just like a big hulking brute of a man. You go round giving people lots of babies and then wash your hands of them. What are we going to do with all these babies? I ask you that—what are we going to do?'
The small creature looked tragically about her, as if literally surrounded by babies. Wherever Mr Hawk's eyes rested he could see a small bald head. He was lost on a sea of babies, the immensity of which dazed him.
'How,' he asked rather wearily, 'how did so many babies get into the conversation?'
'I don't know even that.'
'Well, you brought it up, and now you're trying to lie out of it. It's all because you insist on scratching on that wall.'
'No such thing. I told you I wouldn't even breathe on that wall.'
Meg laughed nastily.
That's not because you wouldn't like to. It's because you don't want to have your throat slit.' She paused and fixed him with her suspicious eyes, then continued: 'And see that your bed's pulled out into the centre of the room. Those long tentacles on the end of your feet might start in scratching the wall in your sleep, then in she'd pop. And that's another thing—your toes are too damn long. They make three of my fingers.'
'It's too late to do anything about that now, isn't it?' Mr Hawk asked mildly.
'Well, keep them tucked under to-night or off they come, too.'
'Don't get started on toes,' Hunter Hawk pleaded. 'Let's keep to the point.'
'I will talk about toes,' Meg replied passionately. 'Don't try to stop me talking about toes. I suppose splendid Mr Hawk's toes are too fine to be talked about—long, knobby stalks like the twisted limbs of trees.'
This revolting picture of his toes got under Mr Hawk's skin. Nevertheless, he still endeavoured to keep his temper.
'I never claimed my toes were works of art,' he said with some show of dignity. 'I know very well they're not lilies, but still they're not so awful as toes go.'
'They are! They are!' she cried frantically. 'They're the most terrible toes in the world. Don't tell me. I know.'
'I'd like to place five of them where they'd do you the most good,' was Hawk's heartfelt reply to this.
'So that's how you feel, is it?' she answered and snapped down the second cocktail. 'Like to kick me, would you? I knew all the time you were a bully and a brute. Well, place those five horrible toes where you want to and see what happens.'
She had risen and now stood confronting the man, her eyes mad with rage. Hunter Hawk was outfaced. He ignominiously wilted. Taking her soothingly by the arms, he smiled down upon her as if she were a child.
'Now, now,' he said. 'This is no time to get yourself all worked up and angry. Think of all the lovely things you have to wear and all the fun we're going to have. Think of those snappy pull-offs you got from Daffy. I'm just—'
'If you're going to keep throwing those pull-offs in my face,' she cried, 'I'll damn well throw them in yours.'
She wrenched herself free, and before he could stop her she had ripped off the flimsy garment and flung it in his face.
Take that,' she said, rushing down the veranda, 'and if you make another wisecrack I'll rip off all my clothes and tear 'em to shreds.'
'What goes on here?' came the unperturbed voice of Mrs Tom.
'You mean, what comes off here,' said Hawk, emerging with a grin from the step-ins. 'Are all girls like that?'
'All that count,' his hostess replied.
'Then do me a favour,' he told her very earnestly. 'Send up to my room about three quarts of the strongest grog you have in the house. I'm going to take off my coat and talk and drink with men.'
'Certainly,' said Mrs Tommy. 'I understand. I might even join you later. Being on parade becomes such an awful bore. I'll see about it right away. Any one of the servants will direct you to your room. Your things are already there.'
She moved gracefully away. Hawk looked about for Cy and Daffy. They were just entering the hall. He started to follow them.
'And I'm not coming back,' said a small, positive voice. It came from the shrubbery at the edge of the veranda. 'You've seen the last of me.'
'Well, if you change your mind,' replied Hawk, addressing the shrubbery at random, 'you'll find me in my room with three quarts of grog.'
Silence a moment, then from the shrubs, 'Where's that?'
'One of the servants will tell you.'
'I'll find it, never fear, but you don't get me back.' A pause. 'I said, you don't get me back.' Another pause. 'Just for that I will come back, damn you,' the voice continued. 'Be careful what you do with those pull-offs.'
Hawk smiled, thrust the step-ins into his pocket, and walked down the verandah.
'I think I'll give them to Tommy,' he tossed over his shoulder.
Behind him the shrubbery seemed suddenly to have gone mad.
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