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The Nightlife Of The Gods
AN EPIDEMIC OF ESCAPES
FROM a distant roof garden in the heart of a glowing city a waltz was throbbing over the air—Victor Herbert's 'A Kiss in the Dark,' many of which were being exchanged at that moment between Mrs Brightly's guests, Mrs Brightly herself being by all odds the most indefatigable exchanger.
Neither Meg nor Hunter Hawk was in the mood for such mild pleasantness. On the low hanging limb of a tree the small creature was perched. Hawk was standing beside her. This arrangement made it possible for them to converse almost as equals so far as height was concerned.
Below them in the dying light of an old moon the little lake lay fitfully glimmering. The white pavilion rising gracefully from the silver-flecked water looked like an enchanted barge that had gently drifted to shore from another world. Silently it floated on the surface of the lake, like a little prayer or dream passing in the night. Then, as the man and girl watched, the white pavilion became very much a thing of this world. Suddenly there burst from its doors a rout of white bodies. Flashing for a moment in the wan light, they sped like naiads across the platform and plunged into the quiet water, the ivory of their supple forms momentarily silhouetted against the night. Faint sounds of shouts and laughter drifted up the slope.
'Pretty,' commented Meg, her eyes fixed on the lake.
Hawk considered. He was a trifle shocked.
'If I had the nerve I'd like to try it myself,' said Hawk.
'You've contributed about enough nudity for one night,' replied Megaera. 'That dance of yours was almost more than mortal eye could bear. I didn't mind it in the least.'
'You were responsible for it.'
'Perhaps,' she admitted, 'but you were really at fault—you and that shameless woman.'
'I keep on telling you it was all a mistake, Meg. I barged blindly through the wrong door. Soap in my eyes and all that. Wouldn't believe her when she told me it was her room.'
Meg laughed mirthlessly.
'And naturally you stayed to argue the point in a friendly way,' she observed sarcastically. 'And no doubt you'd have arrived at an agreement perfectly satisfactory to both sides if himself had not arrived first with his gun.'
'How many more times do I have to tell you—'
'No more times,' she interrupted brusquely. 'You could keep on telling me until that horse-like face of yours turned blue, and still I wouldn't believe you. When I see a man and a woman strutting about in nothing at all or nearly, with a bed in the background, it doesn't take much imagination to put one and one together.'
'Evidently not,' remarked Hawk bitterly. 'You just naturally fling them together.'
'I don't have to,' she replied, 'but I know what's what, never fear. However, my lanky lecher, you're forgiven this time. I can't help admiring your singleness of purpose. Just a real good time is all you're after—the playboy of the Christian Era of which you speak so highly.'
Hopelessly Hawk regarded his companion. A nature such as hers would never credit the truth of the unfortunate affair. Even if he did succeed in making her believe him, he would in all likelihood lose caste in her eyes. She would not be able to understand. He shook his head and gave it up.
'All right,' he said, 'you win. Have it your way. What I would like to arrange right now if we could, would be some sort of a working agreement between you and myself. You can see for yourself how silly it is for your magic and my discovery to be for ever clashing, working against each other. See what I mean? If I don't interfere when you want to turn a trick of magic I wish you'd give me a free hand with my science. When we work against each other the results are most unexpected—even dangerous. That chap Brightly nearly blew my head clean off of my shoulders when you brought him back to himself.'
'You'd gotten me properly aroused,' Meg explained. 'What girl wouldn't be, in the same circumstances? I wanted that madman to blow your head off. The ugly thing deserved to be blown off, but what did I do instead? I almost knocked his ugly head off with an overgrown vase.'
'And very neatly done it was, too,' commented Hawk, inwardly smiling at the memory. 'It must have been a scene of astonishing activity. I was rather busy myself.'
'As busy as a drunken jumping jack,' she said, laughing softly in the darkness. 'Yes, you certainly had your hands full. The old man would have enjoyed seeing you. His sense of humour runs to violence. He enjoys the uncouth, and you were about the most uncouth object I ever saw. And I was so ladylike and well poised myself—bashing my drunken host over the head with a couple of tons of clay. Hope he has no hard feelings.'
'Doubt if he knows who did it. Things were happening far too fast. I very much fear, though, he'll never be the same man, although God knows he can't be worse than he was.'
A man and a woman, closely linked, passed by. They were unaware of the presence of Megaera and Hawk.
'If the maid answers,' said the woman, 'tell her it's the dentist calling up to let me know that Thursday will be all right for an appointment.'
'But suppose himself should answer?'
'Then ask him to play golf.'
'Where is he now, by the way?'
'On the business end of a cocktail,' the woman replied. 'I encouraged his libations to-night. The dear man thinks I'm a good sport.'
'Think it will be safe to go swimming?'
'Have to take a chance on that,' she replied with a light little reckless laugh. 'If he finds out and tries to get stuffy I'll pull an attack of hysterics and scare him out of a year's growth.'
'That's the way I like to hear you talk,' her companion said triumphantly. 'If all wives were like you—'
'You'd have a much easier time.'
Both of them were laughing as they passed out of earshot. Meg looked after the couple. There was a scornful expression in her eyes. 'You know,' she said at last, 'there are lots of things about this party I don't like, and most of them are people. They don't strike me as being wicked because they can't help it, but because they feel that they should be. Seem to have an idea that they're missing something unless they follow the mob. You're not like them.'
'No. You're just naturally a wicked man.'
'The hell you say.'
'Yes. You can't help being wicked. You don't try to be—probably you don't want to be. It just comes to you spontaneously, and there you are—wicked. And that's why you're so much better than these so-called good men—the moral sort. People who are not naturally wicked don't find it so hard to be good. I can stand good people and bad ones, but these trollops up here with their dancing darlings, they bore me overmuch.'
'You mean the kind that pack their suitcases on Friday, have an interview with their bootleggers, and then start out to have one hell of a wild week-end. They're always throwing parties or being thrown at parties and having a nice vicious time generally.'
'I guess so,' said Meg, 'but I haven't had much experience with them, after all. I've a feeling that they never find themselves in bed with each other casually and clubbily. They make all sorts of elaborate arrangements, scheme, whisper, and telephone like those two that just passed. It must be an awful anticlimax. No zest. No element of surprise. They don't drift into depravity. They deliberately wade out to find it. Are the cocktails all gone?'
'Give me a gulp.'
Mr Hawk passed the vase but kept one hand on it, while the girl drank, after which he refreshed himself.
'That's much better,' she sighed, wiping her lips with her bare arm. 'Whee!' She blew out her breath and gave her thigh a smart slap. 'You know,' she continued, waxing philosophic, 'almost any man if he stays in bed long enough and enjoys sufficient privacy will find some woman alongside of him sooner or later.'
'Trouble is,' said Mr Hawk, 'the majority of men are not so optimistic as that—or so patient.'
'Then they don't know women,' Meg replied in a decided voice.
'Some of my best friends have been good people,' said Mr Hawk reflectively. 'You know what I mean—really good people.'
'Most good people have wicked friends,' put in Meg. 'They seem to attract them and to understand them. It sometimes takes a really good person to appreciate a wicked one. That's why I appreciate you.'
Mr Hawk laughed scornfully.
'You're the worst woman I ever met,' he declared with unchivalrous sincerity. 'I put nothing past you.'
'Nonsense!' exclaimed Meg. 'You don't know anything yet. Compared with this mob up here I'm a back number. Really good people like myself are all right, and really bad people like you are all right. It's the exploiters of either class that are all wrong. They're what you might call white-collar sinners. They lack distinction in their vice. They're just party people, if you know what I mean.'
'I get what you mean,' said Mr Hawk. 'They have to throw a party to get their courage up. A sort of I-will-if-you-will idea. Mass production of an inferior grade of sin.'
'It's mostly vanity and competition that get the best of the women,' went on Meg. 'That and bad booze. These girls to-day will give up almost everything if not all to keep from losing a man even when they're sick of him. They're so constituted that they just can't bear to let the world see some other woman trotting the poor deluded ass across the floor. It galls them.'
She reached for the vase, shook it, and turned it upside down.
'Empty,' she said, 'Damn. Just as I was getting moral, too. In the old days, before it was considered quite the proper thing for nice women to advertise their wares, men had to damn well fight for their folly. A lover of any consequence had to qualify first as a successful poisoner, knifer, or clubber. Women were really appreciated then.'
She sighed and sniffed the empty vase.
'Oh, well,' she went on, 'I daresay I'm getting old. I wouldn't have talked like this perhaps a couple of centuries ago. Something seems to have gotten the best of me to-night. I have a suspicion that you depress me. You're lots too long and much too sober. Let me down, and we'll refill that vase.'
She flung her arms round Mr Hawk's neck and, slipping from the limb, clung to him.
'See here,' he began, but she interrupted him, 'Aw, shut up,' she said. 'Do you know what's wrong with me? No. Well, I don't belong. These women are so much prettier and bigger than I am, and they seem to know just what to do and how to do it. I feel sort of out of things and a little bit envious. Even if they are a bunch of petty, sneaking adultresses they don't have to live in a hole in the ground like I do.'
'Drop off, won't you?' complained Mr Hawk. 'Your knees are jabbing me right in the stomach. They hurt like anything.'
'What do I care about your old stomach?' she cried, and silenced his further protests with her lips.
As they passed back through the trees towards the house they encountered numerous couples posed in attitudes of varying degrees of amorousness. The prediction of the primitive blonde had been a conservative one. With admirable fortitude every girl seemed to be standing for everything. The man who could calmly stand for any amount of explosions became more alarmed as he progressed. He did not know what he might run into next. His fears were not without some justification.
'The other day,' he told his unperturbed companion, 'they ran in seventeen girls for spooning along Riverside Drive.'
'Then, if the law ran true to form,' said Meg, 'these couples here would get the chair, or at least a life sentence.'
'No,' replied Mr Hawk. 'The difference between the conventional thing and dissolute conduct is the difference between Saturday night on a country estate and a park bench in the city. I beg your pardon, sir. I didn't know you were there.'
Mr Hawk hastily removed his foot from the dark figures beneath him and hurried on with averted eyes. A slow giggle followed after him on the wings of a muttered oath.
They passed through the great hall, now a place of wild disorder, and ascended the stairs. Cyril Sparks was seated on the top step. He was crooning dolefully about the laddie who kept on going away and never coming back. Daffy, who had been hearing about this non-returning Scotchman for some time, was looking a trifle fed-up. Already she had rejected the oily suggestions of numerous gentlemen who had approached her with a view to getting her to indulge in activities that offered a little wider latitude to her talents. To all of these disinterested individuals her answer had been the same.
'I am so sorry, sir,' she had replied, 'but I'm about to become a mother.'
This answer had proved most effective. The gentlemen, shocked by this revelation, had hastily withdrawn.
'Hasn't it moved from this step?' inquired Meg of Daffy.
'It goes occasionally to get drinks when I won't bring them to it,' she replied. 'It is sitting here because it hopes it will all happen again.'
'Wouldn't miss such a spectacle for the world,' said Cyril with a bland smile. 'First you appear with a towel, then you turn to a statue. I saw it with my own eyes. Don't tell me. Then Brightly arrives with a great big gun, takes a pot at the statue, and then plays statue, too. I've got it all down by heart. Can't think of anything else. Then, by gad, both of you come to life again and he starts in shooting. You sprint down the stairs, Meg wangs him over the head with a vase, and down he goes, once more a statue. You follow his example for a moment, then probably you feel like dancing, because you come back to life again. After that you pull off a real snappy dance and snaffle a tray full of cocktails. The surprising part is that you disappear into the night, naked, and presently return better dressed than I ever before saw you. Tell me, did everybody see all this? If not, I'm going to stick to good old C2H5OH, a comparatively mild stimulant.'
'It happened that way,' said Mr Hawk. 'You didn't miss a trick, but let's retire now to my room and discuss several bottles.'
When the jaded servant had brought the bottles and everyone was arranged according to his or her idea of comfort, that of the ladies being a flop on the bed, Mr Hawk advanced a proposal.
'Let us,' he said, 'shake the dust of this place from our feet. Let us go out into the night and seek adventure. Roadhouses are still reading, and the night is not too far advanced. I know where the Emperor is parked.'
'And I know where there is a secluded side entrance,' contributed Daffy.
'It shall serve as an exit in this case,' said Hawk. 'Shall we escape without further procrastination?'
'Shall,' agreed Cyril readily, 'avec bottles.'
'Escape!' cried Meg, her dark eyes dancing. 'That's my idea exactly. I'm ready now. When friend Brightly wakes up in the morning he will be in a none too agreeable mood.'
There followed several minutes of rather scrambled packing, several more of earnest drinking, and a few devoted to stealthy retreating before the four departing guests found themselves rolling smoothly down the drive in the capacious interior of the Emperor. As the huge car circled round the lake the party watched with interest the sportive antics of the bathers. One stout youth was busily engaged in the pursuit of a slim girl. Mr Hawk leaned out of the car and petrified the two figures in their tracks.
'They will never be missed,' he remarked, 'and they will add materially to the artistic value of Mrs Brightly's garden.'
'Adequate recognition of indifferent hospitality,' said Cyril as the car gained headway and moved towards the wide-flung gates of the estate.
The main highway practically flung them into the arms of a roadhouse, and from that time on the stages of their journey were measured by the last roadhouse and the next.
At about three o'clock in the morning they were enjoying the advantages of a ringside table at an especially swanky resort. Money was running low, but spirits were still mounting. They were hungry and consumed by thirst. Mr Hawk regarded the waiter not like the bird whose name he bore, but more like that predatory nocturnal one. He demanded the speedy satisfaction of both hunger and thirst, and without any due delay his demands were abundantly satisfied.
It was then that the petty misfortunes which were to dog them for the rest of the trip began to arrive. Mr Hawk was performing something hitherto unattempted in the line of dancing when a large lady planted her high heel heavily upon his instep. In addition to this the lady remarked to her partner that there seemed to be a number of drunken couples on the floor. Her partner gallantly assured her that there would be one less drunken couple if it bumped into them again. To put an end to what promised to be an unpleasant situation Mr Hawk firmly froze the lady to the dance floor. Her partner, in endeavouring to proceed with the dance, found his gyrations suddenly arrested. The lady refused to budge. Redoubling his efforts, he tugged at her manfully, but still she remained glued to her tracks.
'Come on,' he grunted. 'Get started. What's the big idea?'
Receiving no answer to what he justly considered a reasonable question, he summoned his strength, and, putting his weight behind his shoulder, grappled with the lady. The general effect was more that of an assault than a dance. Several couples, observing the man's energetic actions, preferred to watch instead of dancing. Thus an interested little group gathered round to witness the unequal contest.
'Refuse to budge, do you?' panted the man who had not spent the evening unrefreshed. 'Well, I'll damn well see that you budge.'
He lunged at the petrified woman. His shoulder coming into violent contact with her received damaging punishment.
'God!' breathed the man, standing off and observing the immovable figure. 'What's happened here?'
One of the watching ladies, who at that time of night would have found it difficult to stand under the most advantageous conditions, now yielded to the law of gravity and sank to the floor.
'Look!' she screamed hysterically. 'He's trying to dance with a statue. That isn't a real woman.'
'God,' repeated the man, thoughtlessly touching the petrified woman with a long finger. This action elicited general merriment on the part of the low-minded spectators.
'If she's a real live lady she'd never let you do that,' someone remarked.
'No,' agreed another voice. 'Not even if you were married to her.'
The man flushed.
'Wasn't thinking,' he said apologetically.
'I should say not,' said a lady indignantly.
The man's eyes sought and found Mr Hawk, whom he regarded as the author of his misfortune. The scientist's gaunt features were registering his amusement. This did not improve the temper of the man.
'What did you do to her?' he demanded, advancing on Mr Hawk.
'Who, me?' asked Mr Hawk in a surprised voice. 'My dear man, what do you think I am, a magician? If anyone is responsible for the unresponsive condition of your partner it obviously must be you, who were dancing with her at the time it happened.'
'Is that so?' replied the man, making a wide pass at Mr Hawk, who, ducking adroitly, allowed the fist to continue on over his shoulder and into the face of an interested spectator standing directly behind him. With a howl of indignation and surprise the assaulted man seized Mr Hawk and pushed him violently into his assailant. This gentleman, on plunging back, succeeded in inflicting painful injury upon another eye-witness. Thus several unpleasant contacts were established. The result was a brawl in which all present eventually became involved. It was one of those brother against brother conflicts in which every participant was for himself or herself for no good reason that they could discover. Mr Hawk, taking advantage of the confusion, released the innocent cause of hostilities from her petrified condition. Meg and Daffy seized her by either arm, and, whispering something in her ear, hurried her unnoticed to the Ladies' Room. Above the din of the battle rose the amazed voice of the woman's partner.
'My God!' he shouted. 'She's gone entirely. She's not here.'
Blows were arrested and oaths swallowed. Hostilities came to an abrupt end as the embattled participants, forgetting their meaningless fury, made a common cause of looking for the disappearing statue.
'Damn if I'm going to fight any more,' announced the partner at last in a thoroughly discouraged voice. 'There's something funny about this business.'
With that he returned to his table where, sitting down heavily, he tried to think the thing out. As no one could discover any reasonable pretext for the resumption of the fight, the various couples repaired to their seats, where they remained for some time earnestly discussing the strange occurrence. While this was at its height the large lady, flanked by Daffy and Meg, came unconcernedly across the floor. The three women seemed to be the best of friends and were laughing inanely together as women seem to find it helpful to do when getting acquainted. The partner of the large lady watched her approach with dazed eyes.
'Later,' he said as he hurried her to the door of the roadhouse. 'Not here. Explain outside.'
The poor man was mortally afraid that the lady might take it into her head to turn into a statue again. This would be most inconvenient. He would never be able to explain the affair satisfactorily to her husband.
As the couple departed the waiter appeared before Mr Hawk and presented him with the check. There was hardly enough room on it to edge in another figure. Mr Hawk glanced at the total and gulped. Then he smiled weakly at the waiter and became an inanimate thing of stone.
'Look,' whispered the waiter. 'It's happened again.'
Cyril removed the check from the nerveless fingers and looked at it to see what had so affected his friend. One look was enough.
'I want to join you, brother,' said Cyril, and Mr Hawk accommodated him.
There remained the two girls and the waiter. Within the hard shell of his head Mr Hawk was doing some quick thinking, but think as he would he was unable to think himself and his party out of that room without paying the check, and this he could not do. The girls looked into the two stony faces of their escorts, then looked at each other. The waiter was visibly upset. His knees were trembling under him. In petrifying himself Mr Hawk had still retained partial control of his lips. A sound now issued hollowly from them.
'Go away,' he said to the waiter. 'Be gone, you dog, or I'll petrify you for life.'
The waiter made an honest effort to be gone, but his limbs refused to function.
'It seems he's already petrified,' observed Daffy.
'Go away,' repeated the hollow voice. 'Make these legs work. Snap 'em into action.'
This time the waiter succeeded in getting himself started. He did not stop until he had collapsed in the manager's office. There, in garbled form, he gasped out what had happened.
'You say he turned to stone and then began to talk?' asked the manager.
'He did, sir,' replied the waiter.
'What's gotten into this place?' the manager went on. 'Are all you waiters drunk to-night? Just a few minutes ago one of the men was telling me a cock-and-bull story about some woman who turned to stone. The stuff we serve here is rotten, God knows, but I didn't know it was as bad as that.'
'It's God's own truth,' declared the waiter. 'I saw her do it myself.'
'Well, God's own truth is hard as hell to believe,' remarked the manager, rising from his chair. 'I'd better go out and see these petrified birds for myself. Take me to their table.'
'I wish you would, sir,' said the waiter. 'I'm worried about their check. It's a knock-out.'
After the manager had devoted several minutes to making minor improvements on his already immaculate self he turned from the mirror and, beckoning the waiter to precede him, quitted the room.
In the meantime events had not stood still at the table of the petrified birds. Meg had taken decisive steps. She had accepted the invitation of a fat gentleman sitting at a table on the opposite side of the dance floor. This invitation had been extended and rejected several times during the course of the night, or rather the morning. Now, however, Meg reversed her decision. She smiled sweetly at the fat gentleman and nodded. Unsuspectingly that individual approached, Meg rose to meet him, and in a moment she was circling the floor in his putty-like embrace. A low growl of suppressed rage broke from the lips of Mr Hawk. He was tempted to return furiously to himself, but thought better of it. The unpaid check lay on the table before him. So far he had been able to think of only one way out of the difficulty—flight. The odds were greatly against the success of such an enterprising move, Cyril Sparks being one of the odds—at this stage of the game his legs were unreliable.
'Damn bad jam,' said Hunter Hawk to himself. 'Wonder what she's up to?'
The music stopped, and the manager arrived at about the same time. Meg returned to the table. Her face was flushed, and her eyes sparkled, and strange to relate her left breast seemed to have outgrown its fellow. Daffy was the first to notice this rather disconcerting change.
'My dear,' she whispered. 'You're getting over-breasted on the left.'
'Yes,' agreed Megaera with a gin-induced giggle. I'm what you might call busting out.'
In her enjoyment of her little joke she slapped Mr Hawk on the back.
'Ouch!' she cried, blowing on her fingers. 'This man of mine is certainly hard boiled.' Then in a lower voice she added, 'It's these damn low-cut, tight-fitting dresses. A girl nowadays can't hide a thing.'
The manager, who had been an interested observer, now made his presence known. He picked up the check and rapidly ran his eyes down the column to the only place that mattered. At the sight of the total his face darkened. Still he retained his poise.
'I hope everything has been satisfactory,' he said, with one of his Ittest smiles, virily showing his white teeth.
'No, it hasn't,' snapped Daffy. 'This place is altogether too rough for a woman of any refinement. I've been greatly perturbed by the conduct of some of these lousy bums.' She waved her hand at the room and attempted to look indignant.
The manager opened his eyes wide, then blinked rapidly. The lady's miscellaneous selection of words made it difficult to place her exact position in the social scale. He tried again.
'Sorry,' he said, running a hand through his boyish bob, a gesture he had always found effective when dealing with women. 'Are the gentlemen quite well? If you'll excuse me for saying it, there seems to be something wrong with them.'
'Nonsense,' replied Daffy. 'They're as hard as a rock—as hard as a couple of rocks. We want some drinks here. What's happened to the waiter?'
'Stop scratching your head in public,' put in Meg, 'and get down to brass tacks.'
The manager nervously handled the check. Evidently these two women were not of the impressionable type. So many women nowadays considered themselves lucky to be singled out by managers of roadhouses, leaders of orchestras and other, for the most part, God-fearing and hard-working members of a restaurant's staff. He gave up all attempts to It the ladies and came to the point.
'It's about the check,' he said quite frankly. 'It's a whale of a check, and I wouldn't feel at all disappointed if a little something were done about it.'
A deep sigh came from the direction of Mr Hawk. The manager stepped back a pace and regarded the scientist suspiciously.
'Oh, the check,' said Meg indifferently. 'Let's have it.'
She reached out and took the check from the manager. Then she dived into the bosom of her low-cut dress and produced a fat wallet—pin seal trimmed with gold and bearing the irrelevant letters T.H.G.
'I have to keep it for him when he gets this way,' she explained. 'It's an awful bore. Makes one left breasted. See, I'm all right now, Daffy. Not a penny's worth of difference between 'em.'
As she rapidly examined the contents of the purse a delighted smile lit up her features.
'Why,' she continued in a pleased voice, 'he has ever so much money. We can drink gallons more. Here's one hundred and twenty dollars, and don't let me see any change. Take that check away and frame it. You're in luck. And, waiter, bring us a flock of drinks.'
At the sight of the strange wallet, Mr Hawk had returned to himself with a click. He had then resuscitated Cyril Sparks. Both of them now sat staring at the fat roll of bills in Meg's brown hand.
'For the love of all things sacred,' said Hawk when the manager and the waiter had withdrawn, 'get that wallet and money out of sight. Where did they come from?'
'Oh, so you're back, are you, you coward?' replied Meg. 'Well, don't worry about this money. It's an old game to me. If you want any more I'll get you lots.'
She crammed the bills into the wallet and carelessly returned it to her breast.
'I say,' put in Cyril Sparks to Daffy, 'your uncle just did the most surprising thing to me. He actually turned me to stone.'
'And you weren't any more useless than you ever are,' Daffy hastened to assure him. 'We didn't miss you at all.'
The waiter, also a changed man, returned with the drinks. These were dashed down with avidity and more ordered.
'Now you lugs are going to turn into a couple of gigolos,' announced Meg. 'I'm paying for this party, and I insist on being entertained.'
'About that money,' began Mr Hawk as she led him from the table.
Disaster had been delayed but not averted. It descended swiftly as Meg was whirling past the fat gentleman with whom she had just danced. It was not the final disaster, but rather the prelude to disaster. It began with a plop as the well-stuffed wallet slipped down through Meg's dress and landed on the floor. Quick as a flash the girl ducked and seized the lost article. Mr Hawk, taken by surprise, hurdled on over her and sat heavily on the floor. The fat man, recognizing his wallet, uttered a strangled cry and strove to retain Megaera's hand. She eluded his grasp and darted across the floor. In her own mind she was satisfied that she had a moral right to the wallet and all that it contained. On the other hand, the fat gentleman had certain definite ideas of his own concerning the rightful ownership of the wallet.
'Run!' cried Meg to the recumbent scientist. 'I've got it.'
'Then give it back,' called Hawk, rising hastily from the floor and sprinting after the girl.
'Thieves!' shouted the fat gentleman, as was only just and proper. 'Robbers! Stop those two!'
'They seem to be running,' observed Daffy to Cyril Sparks. 'Perhaps we'd better run after them.'
'I've already started,' said Cyril, who at that moment was in entire agreement with the law of self-preservation.
'Wait for me!' cried Daffy, dashing after him to the door. As she sped along in the rear of the retreat she encountered several waiters standing in attitudes of petrification. Apparently they had been so ill advised as to attempt to place themselves between Mr Hawk and liberty. Behind her she could hear the shouts and excited voices of the multitude. From in front came the sound of ground being scraped energetically by several pairs of flying feet. Her companions were toeing in. Redoubling her efforts, Daffy succeeded in overtaking the main body of the retreating party just as Mr Hawk was getting the Emperor under way. A long arm reached out and hauled her aboard as the car gathered speed and shot down the drive. Nothing was said until they were well clear of the roadhouse. Mr Hawk then became vocal.
'Well,' he announced nastily. 'You've succeeded in making thieves of three honest people. You never were honest yourself.'
'I know it,' said Meg, still panting a little. 'We're all in it now. If they catch us I'm going to swear you made me do it.'
At this information, Mr Hawk increased the speed of the already flying car.
'Damn these new-fangled dresses, anyway,' Meg continued. 'They might have certain advantages, but they're no good for plunder.'
'Hadn't you better get rid of that wallet, dearie?' casually inquired Daffy. 'And wouldn't it be a good thing to distribute some of that money among the rest of us?'
Although Meg was far from enthusiastic about the latter suggestion, she complied with both. The wallet was hurled through the window into the bordering woods, and the money was unequally divided among the four. Meg tucked the lion's share alongside the dagger and took the precaution to warn Mr Hawk about his hand.
'Not that I object,' she assured the indignant man, 'but it's a sin to fool with money.'
And all this time a motor-cycle policeman was burning up the road behind them while several brother officers were approaching from in front. Telephone communications had been established between the roadhouse and the various headquarters of law and order along the road. The hue and cry was out. As fear of apprehension grew farther from the minds of the Emperor's passengers, the actuality of such an occurrence was taking more definite shape.
Cyril Sparks was the first to voice his relief.
'I feel that we all deserve a drink,' he announced as he drew a bottle from some mysterious place of concealment. 'I'll bet no one knew I had hidden this.'
'You win,' said Daffy. 'Occasionally you have a brainwave. Pass it around.'
She elevated the bottle, then handed it forward to Meg. That young lady drank without reluctance and asked her companion what he was going to do about it. He stopped the car and proceeded to show her. This was an unwise move. It could not have been better timed for the convenience of the elements of restraint. Three of its members jumped into the glare of the headlights and a fourth sprang to the running-board of the car.
'Oh, Goddy,' breathed Mr Hawk as he dropped the bottle to the roadside.
Then he did about the most effective thing he could have thought of to annoy and baffle the officers. He petrified the entire personnel of the Emperor. When the investigating officer shouted out the customary no-monkey-business warning, he found himself looking into a face of stone. And when he glanced at the others in quest of some explanation of this incredible occurrence he was prodigiously shocked to find their faces equally stony. For a moment he thought he had gone mad or lost the sense of touch, then, being an officer of no little resource, he summoned his colleagues to a conference.
'This isn't the mob we're after,' he told them. 'This damn car is full of abandoned statues.'
'The hell you say,' exclaimed another officer. 'There's some funny business about this. These things can't be statues. They're all sitting.'
'Why can't statues sit?' asked a third officer, remembering his Bullfinch days. 'There's crouching Venuses and flying Mercuries and leaping fauns and a hell of a lot of other funny statues.'
'Then I suppose you'd call these Sitting Automobilists?' the second speaker put in sarcastically.
'Not necessarily, but they might have been removed from someone's garden,' was the nearly impossible reply.
'Well,' replied the other, 'from the looks of them they might have been removed from a graveyard suffering from an attack of acute cramps.'
This was too much for the fourth officer, who up to that moment had been content to remain in wondering silence.
'Whoever heard of a corpse having cramps?' he demanded.
'Whoever heard anything to the contrary?'
The fourth officer was not prepared for this essentially unfair question.
'Oh, of course,' he hedged, 'a corpse might have cramps, for all I know. I've heard that their teeth keep on growing.'
'Not teeth, you dunce, hair.' Mr Hawk had been unable to restrain himself. His voice fell like a ghostly whisper among the officers.
'Who said that?' one of them asked nervously.
Receiving no reply, he backed hastily out of the car, his interest in the problem completely evaporated. Let those who would carry on the investigation so far as he was concerned. He would be satisfied to remain at a modest distance and watch the car, the number of which he took as a pretext for his absence.
'There's something fishy about this,' said the senior officer of the group. 'Statues or no statues, I'm going to put the lot of 'em under arrest. We got to show something to the chief.'
'He'll be tickled pink to put that outfit behind the bars,' remarked the mythological expert.
'Yeah,' put in another. 'What are you going to charge 'em with, resisting arrest?'
'No,' replied the senior officer quite seriously, 'I'll charge 'em with obstructing traffic. Get in there, Delaney, and drive this bus to the lock-up.'
'One of you guys lend a hand and help me push this statue or corpse or whatever the devil it is over,' complained Delaney. 'Damned if I'll sit on its lap.'
With much puffing and panting the two officers succeeded in prying the unhelpful Mr Hawk clear of the steering wheel. He clattered dangerously against Megaera. Then Officer Delaney, feeling none too happy at the prospect of the drive that lay ahead of him, slid down in the seat by the petrified scientist and set the car in motion.
Everything went well for the first mile or so, then Officer Delaney began to have an uneasy feeling that eyes were fixed watchfully upon him. It was an unpleasant feeling to have, and it became even more so when it grew from a feeling to a conviction. He turned his head quickly and could have sworn he detected an ironical flicker in the sightless eyes of the figure beside him.
'Nerves,' muttered the officer, beginning to sweat profusely. 'Shouldn't have gone on that party last night.'
Then, to his profound discomfort, he distinctly felt himself being tapped on the shoulder. The first three taps he allowed to pass unchallenged, but at the fourth and most impatient of the series he spun round in the seat and looked behind him.
'Eyes on the road, Delaney!' a ghoulish voice commanded. Officer Delaney whirled back to the wheel and looked numbly at the road ahead.
'That's better,' said a feminine voice. 'Have you enough room, Delaney?'
'No,' said Delaney in a hoarse but positive voice. 'I haven't near enough room, but I'm going to get a lot more.'
He brought the car to an abrupt stop and signalled to his escort.
'Listen,' he told its leader, 'these damned statues are talking and asking me foolish questions, and one of them had the nerve to go tapping me on the back. Get somebody else to drive this car. I'm a sick man.'
'Nonsense,' said the senior officer. 'This won't look at all well on your record, Delaney.'
'I'll turn in my resignation before I'll touch that wheel again.' Delaney was firm about it.
'All right, Brownell,' snapped the officer. 'Get in there and relieve Delaney.'
Brownell reluctantly obeyed. With a shrinking feeling he climbed into the seat and squeezed over to the door as far as possible. With the starting of the car his ordeal was begun. He didn't think, he actually knew someone was breathing heavily on his neck. Also he was certain that the gaunt figure beside him was scrutinizing him disapprovingly out of the tail of its eyes. Then the officer had a bright idea. He raised his eyes quickly to the driving mirror and uttered a wild cry. Over his shoulder was peering a white, grinning face.
'Great God Almighty—whew!' rushed from the lips of the officer as he endeavoured to bring the car to a stop.
'What, again?' demanded a disgusted voice. 'Drive on, Brownie. Have we far to go?'
'None of your damn business,' Brownell shouted. 'But if you want to know, we don't go one inch farther. I don't know what you are or who you are, but whether you're human or devils you should feel damn well ashamed of yourselves, carrying on like this.'
'Come, come, Brownie,' said an admonitory voice from the back of the car. 'Don't you carry on like this. You're making yourself ridiculous. Hurry up and drive this car, or something decidedly unpleasant might happen.'
'Something unpleasant is happening,' vouchsafed Officer Brownell. 'If you were any sort of statues at all you'd shut up and act like statues. You're more talkative than a bunch of drunks.'
'What an unpleasant officer,' came a woman's voice from the back of the car.
'My God, is there another one of you?' demanded the officer.
'There is,' said another voice, this time a man's. 'Do you want any more?'
'No!' shouted the officer.
'Your voice, Brownie, your voice,' said a soft, reproving voice from the front seat. 'Do something about it. We don't want any trouble, you know. And you'd better lay off making these wisecracks about what sort of statues we are. We're about the finest body of statues yet uncaught. If you don't believe it, just take a look at that leg.'
Officer Brownell was so heavily married he even depressed his wife. This ribald invitation on the part of a female statue shocked him more than anything else so far. The colour mounted to his face; he elevated his chin haughtily and drove on in silence. The statues were singing a drinking song when he pulled up before the police station.
By the time the last statues had been lugged into the charge room and seated in a chair Chief of Police McGowan was almost crying with rage.
'I'll break the whole damn lot of you,' he shouted. 'What are you trying to do, anyway, turn my jail into a goddam museum?'
The motor-cycle policemen had filed into the room and now stood facing their chief. There was an expression of dismay on their faces. Suddenly from among them came a wild, insulting noise, sounding like the neighing of a demented stallion or a sail being ripped in a mighty wind. The chief's face went white.
'Who did that?' he thundered. 'Speak up, or I'll strip you clean of every damn button you own.'
A shriek of feminine laughter greeted this dire threat.
'That settles it,' said the chief. 'I break you all. Tear each other's buttons off. Start in.'
The officers were about to obey this drastic order when the sound of an engine starting outside the door of the station house attracted their attention.
'They're gone!' an officer suddenly shouted. 'Look! Their chairs are empty.'
'Go out and round up those statues,' commanded the head of the motor-cycle squad.
'Come back here, boys,' called the chief in a weak voice. 'Let's forget the whole damn thing ever happened. I'll stand for a certain amount of skylarking, but, for God's sake, don't bring me any more statues. We don't want to get this town laughed at in the newspapers.'
'Do we keep our buttons, chief?' sang out an officer.
'Sure you do,' grinned the chief. 'And be sure to keep 'em buttoned.'
'Say, you guys,' announced a bright young officer coming snappily into the room, 'every damn one of your motor cycles is punctured both fore and aft.'
Far down the road four limp and drunken occasional statues were speeding through the dawn and singing at the top of their lungs a song derogatory to the morals, antecedents, and personal appearance of Chief of Police McGowan.
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