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The Nightlife Of The Gods
A NUDE DESCENDS THE STAIRS
MR HAWK was singing terrifically in his tub. He was quite a little drunker than that well-known lord one hears so much about. The three bottles of grog had been removed empty. Mr Cyril Sparks had been removed full. Across the hall in their spacious chamber, Daffy and Magaera were dressing, were probably dressed and dancing, for all Mr Hawk knew. He was far above time and circumstance. In his present mood he believed in doing one thing at a time and that thoroughly. From the great hall below came the sounds of music, dancing, and what not. Vaguely he wondered if people no longer ate, then he remembered he'd already eaten. Dinner had been served in the room. The remains of it were still outside. Tommy Brightly ran her place like a hotel.
Hawk's bath was concluded on a crashing climax of vocal ferocity. He emerged from the tub, rubbed himself down until he lost his balance, decided to abandon the effort, and knotting a bath towel around his waist made for the nearest door, his eyes still smarting from an over-generous application of soap.
Now unfortunately for Mr Hawk's evening it just so happened that the nearest door opened into the bedroom of the Brightlys. Even more unfortunately, it continued so to happen that Mrs Tom Brightly had chosen this moment to shift to another and lighter gown, the night being what it was. She had progressed very satisfactorily to this end and was looking her best in hardly anything at all, when the bathroom door, which she had forgotten to lock, was suddenly opened, and a man even a little more naked than she staggered briskly into the room. He was singing.
Mrs Brightly glanced quickly in the mirror to see if her wind-blown was okay—she was not a woman to overlook essential details—and turned smilingly to deal with the situation.
'I hope your knot is on tight,' she said easily. 'That towel doesn't make much difference, but it does make some difference.'
Mr Hawk brought his song to a close and eyed the fair revelation reproachfully.
'I didn't scratch on the wall,' he observed. 'This towel makes all the difference.'
'What do you mean, scratch on the wall? This isn't your room.'
'It's mine as long as I stay under your roof. An Englishman's home is his castle. Don't try to kid me just because I've been drinking a little—a very little.'
'My dear man, you must have been drinking a lot if you can't tell this room from your own.'
A heavy footstep sounded outside, and the knob of the door shook. Mr Hawk with great presence of mind leaped grotesquely to a corner, where he froze himself in the attitude of a Greek pugilist, his features distorted almost beyond recognition in a scowl.
Mr Brightly also had been drinking a lot. Always near-sighted, he was now more fog-eyed than ever. He lurched into the room and asked his wife why the hell she wasn't downstairs entertaining their guests. Then, unfortunately, his eyes fell upon the frozen but bellicose figure standing threateningly in the corner.
'Oh,' said Mr Brightly in a nasty drawn-out manner. 'So-o-o-o. Well, I've got the low-down on you at last.'
He lurched over to the statue and stood confronting it.
'Want to fight, eh?' said Mr Brightly also striking an attitude of hostile intent. 'Got anything to say for yourself before I give you the licking of your life?'
Mr Hawk's silence increased Mr Brightly's rage.
'Don't be an ass, Wetty,' said his wife. 'That thing's a statue. No human being could have a face like that.'
'He won't have any face at all when I've finished with him,' Wetty flung over his shoulder. 'Nothing to say, eh? Well, take that.'
Brightly's fist smashed against the stony chin of the statue.
'God Almighty!' cried Mr Brightly, holding his damaged fist in his left hand. 'Why didn't you tell me the damn thing was made of stone?'
He turned and glared at his wife.
'I did,' she replied sweetly. 'And if your head wasn't made of the same substance you'd have known it right off. No man could be made like that. Look at those funny legs and those long skinny arms. I had it made especially for to-night. We're going to have some fun with it.'
Mr Hawk's temper was rushing busily about in the hard shell of his body. Megaera had said unpleasant things about his toes. He had stood for that, but damned if he was going to have comparative strangers hold up his arms and legs to ridicule.
Brightly turned back to the statue and examined it closely. To Hawk's indignation, the man felt his face and slapped various parts of his body. Then he began to laugh drunkenly.
'You're right,' said Brightly at last. 'Should have known it right off, but my eyes are not so good. That's the silliest looking statue I ever saw. A physical wreck. He looks like Mutt in the funny strips.'
He turned beamingly upon his wife.
'You're a great kid, Tommy,' he told her. 'That thing will be the hit of the evening.'
This was just a little more than Hunter Hawk was willing to stand from Brightly. Taking advantage of the man's unprotected rear, he released his right leg and, still retaining his rock-like sledge hammer of a foot, delivered upon Mr Brightly's person one of the most devastating kicks ever received by man. The recipient lunged forward and descended on his face. Mrs Tom Brightly was as astounded as her husband. Up to this moment she had been too preoccupied with the situation itself to be impressed by the strange and sudden metamorphosis of Mr Hawk. Now, however, when she came to think of it, there was something decidedly odd about the man, something inexplicable.
On all fours Brightly regarded the statue; then after scratching his head in perplexity, he transferred his hand to his injured quarter.
'What the devil happened?' he asked.
'You tripped and fell,' lied Mrs Tom.
'I distinctly felt a kick,' replied Brightly. 'I'll bear its mark to the grave. If you don't believe me, look.'
'I believe you,' said Mrs Tom, hastily averting her eyes. 'Fix yourself up and go downstairs. I'll be with you in a jiffy.'
The situation was becoming too complicated—too Rabelaisian. One naked man was enough at a time. If her husband didn't stop his solicitous inspection, she'd have one naked man and at least a half on her hands. A derisive chuckle floated from the statue. Mr Hawk was feeling ever so much better.
'It's nothing to laugh at,' Brightly complained.
'I'm not laughing at it,' Mrs Brightly replied rather coldly. 'I agree it is nothing to laugh at. It shouldn't even be seen.'
While Brightly was rearranging his toilet, Mr Hawk took advantage of the intimate little interlude to make a spasmodic dash to the door. Brightly turned at the sound and looked over his shoulder. Hawk cleverly froze himself on the spot. But this time the man's suspicions were not to be lulled. He looked long and thoughtfully at the statue. There was something vaguely familiar about it. Mr Hawk in his haste had made a slight mistake. He was grinning now instead of scowling, and this reversal of expression made a decided difference in his appearance.
'The damn thing's moved,' said Brightly in an awed voice. 'Statues don't move by themselves.'
'Nonsense,' replied Mrs Tom. 'It hasn't moved an inch.'
'Don't tell me, my dear. I'm not as drunk as all that. Furthermore, the damn thing's laughing at me right this minute.'
Brightly stopped and felt the place of the kick. His face cleared, then darkened suddenly.
'I see it all now,' he said grimly. 'That statue isn't a statue at all. It's a plot. It's your lover, and by the living God he kicked me in the pants. I'll kill him for that.'
He rushed to a chest of drawers and snatched out an automatic, blue-black and mean looking. At the same time Mr Hawk made an earnest endeavour to reach the door and thus to put an end to a situation which, painful as it was, had in it the possibilities of becoming even more painful. He flung open the door and, in his overwhelming desire to keep on moving as rapidly as possible, forgot to close it behind him. This gave Megaera, who was just emerging from her room, a splendid opportunity to see what was what. Mrs Brightly in step-ins, Mr Hawk in less, and the husband mostly gun—that is what she saw. And being a young lady of no little experience she placed upon the situation the only interpretation that seemed reasonable. Fire leaped to her eyes, and her dark face was flooded with the crimson of her rage. Flashing out her dagger, she blocked Mr Hawk's passage to his room.
'So you couldn't even wait,' she taunted. 'I'd like to cut your liver out, and hers, too, for this.'
Hunter Hawk was keenly appreciative of the importance of speed. He realized perhaps better than anyone present that this was no time to dally. One look at that gun had convinced him of this.
'Can explain everything,' he gasped as he sprinted for the broad staircase leading down to the hall. As he sprang into one of the niches he prayed to God that the knot in the towel would remain steadfast to its purpose.
Bang! Zing! The scientist became morally as well as physically petrified as Wetmore Brightly, gun in hand, came bounding down the stairs. A sea of upturned faces seemed to be washing at Mr Hawk's feet. Dancing had ceased to interest its votaries. All eyes were fixed on Messrs Hawk and Brightly.
'I never remembered a statue being in that niche,' a primitive-looking blonde remarked.
'What is it supposed to be?' another girl demanded.
'Starving Apollo,' replied her companion.
'Oh,' said the young lady in a disappointed voice, 'I thought he wore a leaf.'
'You shouldn't think of such things,' she was told. 'That towel might be the Greek for a dinner jacket.'
'But what's the matter with Brightly?' another male inquired. 'What on earth does he want to go shooting at a statue for?'
'I'd shoot at that statue myself if I had a gun,' another voice stoutly declared.
'My God! Look!' a woman cried hysterically. 'Brightly has turned to a statue now.'
It was true. Mr Hawk in desperation had been forced to petrify his host. Brightly stood motionless before him, the gun levelled at his head.
'I can't be as drunk as I seem to be seeing,' one of the guests confided to anyone who cared to hear. 'Brightly actually turned white and became as rigid as a block of marble.'
'He damn well is a block of marble or something,' replied another observer.
At this moment Megaera appeared at the head of the stairs. Her large dark eyes were fixed on Mr Hawk. She was concentrating desperately, putting all her will power into her eyes, calling upon her reserve supply of magic to overcome the potency of Hunter Hawk's ray. She was determined to play an exceptionally dirty trick on this man who had betrayed her trust. Her heart glowed with triumph as she felt herself succeeding.
Hunter Hawk reluctantly came back to himself, sweating. A moment later Meg effected the restoration of Mr Brightly. And a moment later than that there was the report of another shot. Bang! Zing! Going at great speed something small but hard buried itself in the wall less than an inch from Mr Hawk's ear. Accustomed as he was to explosions, he was nevertheless unable to regard his present predicament with equanimity. He found himself in the position of a man who is forced to do several difficult things at once. One of these things was to maintain his towel in the important capacity it now filled. The knot, he feared, was working loose. Another thing was to continue rapidly down those stairs regardless of the throng awaiting him at their base. Finally, it would be helpful if he could repetrify Mr Brightly. That should be done without further delay.
At the sound of the shot Meg underwent a sudden change of heart.
'What the devil do you mean by shooting up my man?' she demanded.
'Watch,' said Brightly with an unpleasant laugh as he took careful aim at the diligently descending Hawk.
Before he could make the gun work, however, Meg had seized a huge vase which never should have been made and dashed it at Mr Brightly. From the floor of the hall Hawk turned and directed the ray on the stricken man. The result was a rather interesting statue remotely resembling the Dying Gladiator. At the sound of the crash Daffy appeared, supporting her friend Cyril Sparks. That gentleman selected the top of the stairs for a base and sat there cheering. Mr Hawk felt himself being closely examined by many pairs of bright and penetrating eyes. A less modest man would have passed through the crowd as quickly as possible and lost himself in the night. Hawk felt that he could go no farther. He had consumed a little more than his share of three quarts of strong liquor, and in spite of his activities he was far from being himself. Assuming the pose of wing-footed Mercury, one arm aloft and one foot delicately raised from the floor, he balanced himself skilfully on the ball of the other foot and, sending the ray through his body, remained in that position. Interested spectators crowded around him. Incredulous hands caressed him intimately. Fingers poked. One enterprising wag went even so far as to attempt to dislodge the towel. It clung with commendable loyalty to the middle section of the scientist. Meg was standing at his elbow, and in her hand she held a gun—the gun that Wetmore Brightly had relinquished upon the descent of the vase. There was a cynical smile on the young lady's face and a look of determination in her eyes. She would teach this man the lesson of his life. Once more Mr Hawk found the strength of the ray failing. And once more he appeared before the amazed guests as a creature of flesh and blood. At this point Meg discharged the revolver at his feet. Hawk leaped high in the air and cleared a space for himself on the great floor of the hall. From his place on the stairs Cyril Sparks redoubled his cheering. The sound fell ironically on Hunter Hawk's ears. For the security of the towel that wild leap had proved disastrous. The knot became merely two disconnected ends. With one hand Hawk seized these ends, with the other he wiped the sweat from his forehead. He looked about him for some means of escape, but wherever his anxious eyes searched they encountered the amused gaze of a group of guests. Cut off from escape in every direction Hawk lost hope and with it he lost all presence of mind. He became blindly and unreasonably enraged. Deliberately he removed the towel and flung it to the floor.
'So you won't stay on, won't you?' he shouted. 'Well, damn you, you will!'
Then to the surprise of everyone he executed a dance of wild abandon. Suddenly he changed his mind and snatched up the towel. A man with nothing but a towel, even though it is strategically arranged, is a figure to give pause to any party. It did.
His rage expended in his dance, a great calm settled down on Mr Hawk. He seemed to realize that everything was lost now and that he could lose no more. He felt much like a man who having been thoroughly drenched in a rainstorm can afford to loiter by the wayside. With unhurried dignity he walked to a table and, picking up a tray full of cocktails, made his way into the night through one of the french windows. Mrs Brightly, now fully clothed—for Mrs Brightly—arrived on the scene in time to witness Hawk's classical exit.
Ten minutes later a servant in striped drawers and the remains of a tattered undershirt rushed heedlessly into the hall, where an interested crowd immediately collected. The servant was white and trembling as he recounted his story to Mrs Brightly.
'I was walking up the drive,' he said, 'keeping an eye on the cars. It happened just at the turn. That's where I lost my pants.' 'And almost everything else,' added Mrs Tom. 'But go on. What happened at the turn?'
'It was a madman—a maniac,' continued the despoiled domestic, 'and if you'll believe me, madam, he was mother naked.
'Not even a towel?' asked Mrs Tom.
'Not even a towel, madam.'
'Better and better,' the primitive blonde remarked. 'He flung himself upon me, this madman did,' went on the servant, 'and began to undress me. I was so shocked and surprised I wasn't able to defend myself. Presently, after he had stripped off my coat, I thought I would try to reason with him like they say you can do sometimes with lunatics. "What do you want to undress me for?" I asked him, and I remember his exact words. "Your curiosity is justified," he said, "but have no fear. I don't want to undress you. It's most repugnant to me, but I must do it. It's your nakedness against mine, and I prefer yours. Turn about is fair play. Look out or I'll bite." Well, of course, nobody wants to be bitten by a madman, that being a very dangerous thing, so I kept still. When he had gotten me down to my drawers he looked at them considering like for a long time. "I leave you those," he said at last. "I can't imagine where you ever got such drawers. Consider yourself lucky," and believe me, madam. I did.'
The man paused and gulped.
'Go on,' said Mrs Brightly, her eyes dancing.
'Well, there's not much left,' replied the man. 'He took everything else except my undershirt, which had gotten torn in the first scrimmage. Then he insisted on having me help him to dress, which I did very nicely, tie and all. After that he gave me a cocktail, which I took just to please him.'
'I daresay you needed one by then,' observed Mrs Tom. 'You may withdraw now if you have nothing further to add. You're excused from duty for the rest of the evening. Try to keep those drawers. They're priceless.'
As the servant departed Mr Hawk nattily appeared. He had selected his victim with a discriminating eye. If anything the dress suit he was now wearing fitted him better and was more presentable than his own. Considering all it had been through, the stiff shirt-front made a brave showing. His white tie was much more dexterously arranged than ever he had been able to achieve himself. He was slightly drunk but perfectly collected. About him seemed to glow the aura of a conqueror. In his right hand he held a long glass vase whose rightful occupation was flowers. At present it contained about two dozen cocktails.
'I poured them all in,' he explained easily. 'It made things less difficult.'
'What a mind!' said the voice of Daffy. 'That man's my uncle.'
Mr Hawk turned to Megaera.
'I have danced once already this evening,' he said, 'but unfortunately that was alone. Would you care to join me and my cocktails now?'
Megaera handed him the revolver and smiled almost shyly.
'Yes,' she said. 'Especially the cocktails.'
'Before you go,' Mrs Tom asked, 'won't you please try to do something about my husband? He's in a terrible state up there, and he's blocking up the stairs. One gets so tired stepping over him.'
'Doesn't one just,' replied Mr Hawk. 'I'll try to do something about him if you guarantee he'll do nothing about me.'
'I fancy he's about through for the night,' Mrs Tom assured him.
Mr Brightly was indeed in a terrible state, and he was very much in the way. He was lying in a stiff, distorted attitude amid the ruins of the shattered vase. Mr Hawk restored him to the use of his body, but he could do nothing with the man's mind, which seemed to have been seriously affected by the events of the night.
When he had risen painfully to his natural position he looked wildly about him. His eyes finally rested on Mr Hawk. A look of fear and loathing came into them. Without attempting to utter a word he turned and staggered up the stairs to his room. There he tried to puzzle out some of the various things that had happened. Eventually he gave it up. However, he was sure of one thing. Hunter Hawk was at the bottom of it all.
In the meantime the mysterious subject of his thoughts had once more descended the stairs—this time in a less original manner—and after circling the hall with the diminutive Meg disappeared with her through one of the french windows.
'We have a lot to thank them for,' Mrs Tom observed as she followed the disappearing couple not without a trace of envy in her eyes. 'Already they have made the party a success.'
'Yes,' replied the primitive blonde in a tone of anticipation. 'After what we have seen tonight one can't blame any girl for standing for anything, can one?'
'Well, hardly, my dear,' said Mrs Tom, casting about for something fresh in the line of masculinity.
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