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The Nightlife Of The Gods


Thorne Smith



HUNTER HAWK sent the Emperor bounding across one of his most inaccessible fields. In the slanting light of dawn four stiff and dishevelled figures emerged from four separate doors. They stretched, yawned, and held their respective heads. Then they assembled in a compact little knot like battered football players after a tough scrimmage.

'This will never do,' declared Cyril Sparks. 'Have you any ethyl alcohol at home?'

'As a last resort, yes,' said Mr Hawk.

They decided without being invited temporarily to collapse upon the hospitality of Meg and her father. It would be unsafe to appear en masse at Hawk House until their status in the criminal class had been more definitely established. In the grotto they would entrench themselves and await developments. Cyril Sparks was all for setting fire to the Emperor and thus destroying one of the most damaging pieces of evidence against them. But Mr Hawk was sincerely attached to the Emperor. In its lumbering way the car had served him well. As ungainly as it was, it concealed a heart of gold, and even more important still, a reliable and responsive engine.

Meg greatly preferred a comfortable bed to the grotto, but when Hunter Hawk tactfully pointed out to her that his body might be seized and placed in a dungeon, the comfortable bed lost much of its attraction.

'Come along, then,' she said at last. 'We'll all crowd in somehow.'

They trailed away to the forest through a rising flood of sunlight. A fresh breeze soothingly stroked their foreheads and brought momentary relief, Meg, with an arm around Hawk's waist, was allowing him to drag her along.

'Did you have a good time?' she asked.

'One of those times that is good only after it is over,' he replied. 'Good in the retrospect.'

'I thought you were awfully clever, the way you manipulated that ray,' she went on, her eyes fixed admiringly on his unshaven face.

'It kept me pretty busy,' replied Hawk, 'but I'm getting better at it all the time.'

'Do you like knocking about with me?'

Hawk's face grew serious.

'Listen,' he said. 'Since you climbed into my room and took a mean advantage of my yielding nature and aversion to publicity, I have been living what I call dangerously—on the fringe of some startling dénouement. Already I'm beginning to feel just a wee bit déclassé. It's been amusing at times, I'll quite readily admit, but where, oh, where, is it going to lead?'

'If we knew the answer to that,' she said, 'none of us would carry on, perhaps. I hope it leads to bed.'

'Are you unable to entertain an abstract thought?' asked Hawk.

Meg laughed a little unchaste scrap of a laugh.

'And to sleep,' she added.

Ludwig was squatting disconsolately at the entrance of his grotto as they approached. When he saw them he brightened up a little, but when pressed for food and drink, especially drink, he shook his head sadly.

'There is nothing, my friends, nothing,' he announced, spreading out his small, clever-looking hands. 'I have neither drunk nor eaten in twenty-four hours.'

'Which is less than a second, as you reckon time,' said Mr Hawk.

'But not as my system reckons it,' he answered. 'My appetites are the same as yours.'

'On even a grander scale,' said Hawk admiringly.

'That would be difficult,' he retorted with a faint smile, 'if past performances count for anything—but what is my daughter doing? It looks unusually interesting.'

He hurried over to Megaera, who, seated on a fallen log, was leisurely counting a fat roll of bills, wetting her thumb from time to time on the red tip of her pointed little tongue.

'Ahem,' coughed Ludwig Turner. 'Your father has missed you, my child.'

'Two hundred and fifty-five,' said Meg.

'He has more than missed you,' hastily continued Ludwig, his realization of how much he had missed her growing keener with the size of the figure.

Two hundred and seventy,' said Meg. 'What?'

How his fingers itched. He thrust them into his pockets to keep them from making a diplomatic blunder.

'I was just saying it could be arranged,' he replied. 'All things can be arranged. Everything. And most agreeably. I have a friend. An invaluable fellow. Through him there is little that can't be done—for, of course, a purely nominal consideration-what would be a mere trifle to those who are—er—warm with money.'

After a certain amount of noisy and unpleasant haggling and the exchange of a few mutually demolishing recriminations, the financial side of the bargain was struck. Mr Turner disappeared into the bushes, and presently various baskets began to arrive. Eggs, bacon, bread, butter, coffee, and milk took up some but not too much room. The remainder of the space was given over to applejack, an arrangement to which no one made objection. While breakfast was in the course of preparation Cyril Sparks and Hawk took turns at holding their heads under the miniature waterfall in the grotto, Mr Hawk observing that he wished it were Niagara. Breakfast served and dispatched in a rough-and-ready manner, the party unceremoniously slept. Meg's head, pillowed in the pit of the scientist's stomach, kept rising and falling like a wax figure animated by clockwork, as the long man sought for air. Mr Ludwig Turner and his bottle sat companionably at the entrance of the grotto. In vain did the little man endeavour to perfect some plan whereby he would be able safely to transfer the roll of bills from his daughter's stocking to his own sock. At last he shook his head and gave it up. He had never been able to steal successfully from Meg. A most unsatisfying offspring.

After three days of this woodland existence Mr Hawk came to a decision. He had been home and learned to his horror from his sister that an officer of the law in plain, unbecoming clothes had called and made certain inquiries regarding the present whereabouts of Mr Hawk. Mention had been made of a small dark woman who was wanted on a charge of theft. He had left with every assurance that Hawk House had not seen the last of him.

'Of course, when he asked me to describe your car I had to tell him the truth,' said Mrs Lambert. 'Fortunately I was able to give him the number of your plates. Junior found it for me. Betts had told the man all wrong. He said your car was a small two-seater, sky blue, with pink trimmings. Of course, I couldn't let the man go away believing such a thing as that.'

'Of course not,' Mr Hawk had replied. 'Pity you didn't give him a photograph and a set of my finger-prints.'

'But we did,' she replied triumphantly. 'That is, we gave him a photograph. He said the finger-prints would come later.'

'Much later,' was Hawk's reply. 'Did Junior also find the photograph?'

It seemed that Junior had, but only after a great deal of diligent searching for which his mother gave him due credit. She had then mentioned, in passing, the talk that was going round about a man who had performed a nude dance at Mrs Brightly's house party. She understood it was generally known that the dancer, the nude dancer, was her own brother. Of course, he had lost standing in the community—the whole family suffered from it—and now, with this arrest hanging over his head, oh, well, wouldn't it be better if he took a trip somewhere and stayed away for a long time, until people had had a chance to forget? And while she was on the subject he really should do something about the poor Reverend Dr Archer. In spite of the fact that he had had a chair built to conform to his odd position, the dear man was still very uncomfortable. Then, of course, there was his appearance. It wasn't very reassuring, especially for a man of God. Some respect should be shown for the cloth, even if a man had fallen so low as willingly to drag his family through the mire. Of course, she would make no reference to the effect of all this on her husband and her son Junior. After all, the boy was only his nephew, his own sister's child. Her remarks, she hoped would be understood, were made merely in passing. Naturally she had nothing to say. It was none of her business.

It was only with this last observation that Mr Hawk was in entire agreement. He had then asked his sister if she in turn would like to take a long trip. But Mr Hawk had been much more specific. He had been even good enough to name the place. She had not liked this. Few persons do like to be told to go to such a place, even when they are intellectually convinced that the place does not exist. It must be the spirit of the thing. However that may be, the invitation resulted in Mrs Lambert's leaving the room, much to the satisfaction of her brother. Mr Hawk rang for Betts and made known to that worthy and subtle domestic the decision to which reference already has been made. And it was this decision, made on the spur of the moment, that launched Mr Hawk on the last and least credible stage of his not altogether commonplace experiences.

The quartet was disbanded. Cyril Sparks and Daffy returned to their respective homes. Mr Turner was given nearly, but not quite all, of Meg's ill-gotten bank roll. All of it, that young lady could not be induced to give. Some she must have for herself. The woods were filled with her protestations of the necessity for a girl to have a little something in her stocking. Would they drive her out into the streets—force her into a life of shame? Although her father almost tearfully assured the company that to achieve this end neither driving nor force would be required, Megaera was allowed to retain a light little anchor to windward. Still protesting against a life of sordid commercialism into which circumstances would undoubtably recipitate her, she was virtually hurled into the Emperor and a thick veil pulled down over her indignant face.

'A gag will follow if you don't shut up,' Mr Hawk calmly assured her.

'Damn you, anyway,' she mumbled. 'If you'd had enough money in your pocket I wouldn't have had to become a thief.'

Mr Hawk was too deeply involved with a large, flowing beard to which he was attached, to reply.

'I'm afraid we'll have to sacrifice several inches of this damn thing,' he told Betts. 'It's getting all tangled up in the steering gear.'

'Tie it behind your ears,' Meg suggested rudely.

'You might button it under your vest, sir,' Betts offered with admirable gravity.

'There are a number of things I might do with it,' Mr Hawk replied slowly and bitterly. 'I might take it off and hang it on the radiator. I might stuff it under the seat or build a bonfire with it. I might decide simply not to wear the beard. The possibilities of this beard are endless, and your suggestions are not helpful.' Over the rim of this startling disguise he peered passionately at them. His face seemed to be all eyes and beard, which, as a matter of fact, it was. It cannot be said that the beard had improved him, but it had made him a different man, so different as hardly to look human at all. 'All that I want to do with this beard,' he continued, 'is to sit quietly and unobtrusively behind it and to drive speedily out of this state into New York City. After that I don't very much give a damn what becomes of the beard. You can raffle off the beard. You can take the beard to an art dealer or have it framed. The beard can be used to stuff a pillow with a picture of Niagara Falls on it. Or if you can think of nothing better to do with the beard, you can thriftily roll it up in moth balls and tuck it away in a trunk in the attic.' He paused and looked searchingly at Betts and Meg. 'Now,' he added, 'I hope you no longer feel that I need any further damn fool suggestions regarding the use and ultimate disposition of this beard.' Another heavy pause. 'I trust it is clear to you that I don't want to wear this beard. It's not a thing I naturally run to. This beard is most offensive to me. I wish to God you were both wearing one exactly like it.' Mr Hawk appeared to have said all he was going to say about the beard.

The thoughtful silence that followed was broken by the hopeful voice of Mr Betts.

'Would you like me to carry the beard, sir,' he asked, 'so as you could snap it on when you needed it? That would give your chin a chance to air out a bit.'

Hawk shrank hatefully in his seat but still endeavoured to control his anger.

'Think, Betts,' he said in a cold, level voice, 'think of what you're asking. Try to picture the thing to yourself. You are carrying the beard, let us say. I am driving at fifty miles an hour. A motor-cycle policeman approaches—rapidly. I cry out, "The beard, Betts, the beard!" You pass it forward to me. I stop the car and hastily attempt to don the beard. People stop and look. A small boy jeers. Laughter is heard. I grow confused. In the meantime the policeman arrives. He looks at me in a strange way. "What is that?" he asks, pointing a soiled finger at the beard jumping in my hand as if impatient to be attached. "It's a beard," I answer, not because I want to, but because it's the only thing it could be. He looks at me more closely. A smile of satisfaction touches his cruel lips. I shrink back and wonder to myself, "What on earth am I going to do with this beard?" Then the policeman speaks. He says, "Well, you and your beard come along with me," and he adds, "and no monkey business." Now, Betts, do you understand how unintelligent your suggestion was? I hope we shall hear no more about this beard.'

'Yes, sir,' said Betts. He glanced respectfully at his master, then quickly hid his face in his handkerchief. As the scientist listened to the sounds issuing from the handkerchief, his eyes took on an injured expression. The man was actually laughing. Hawk had never before realized that Betts had a perverted sense of humour. Bearing his beard proudly, Hawk gazed directly ahead.

'A man with a mind like yours must die a million deaths,' Megaera observed.

'Since meeting you,' he replied, 'it's been one long, lingering death,' was Mr Hawk's reply. 'If there are no more questions or suggestions regarding this beard, I shall now endeavour to drive with the damn thing.'

Bracing himself grimly behind his streaming facial adornment, he viciously kicked the starter and drove the Emperor from the field. Once more he was on the road with a newly-risen sun dead ahead. An hour and a half later, a long matted object was picked up in the dead centre of Holland Tunnel. Mr Hawk had taken no chances, and so far as the scientist and his destiny were concerned, that was absolutely the last appearance save one of the beard, for which everyone devoutly thanked God, considering it the last that they could do. As the Emperor came to rest before the house on lower Fifth Avenue in which its owner maintained an apartment, a car which had been patiently following drove slowly past. A man at the wheel leaned out and, tossing the beard into Mr Hawk's lap, sang out cheerily, 'Here's your beard, mister. You look much funnier with it on.' At this unexpected reappearance of the beard, Mr Hawk shrieked as if bitten by a snake. Between them Betts and Megaera succeeded in dragging the temporarily demented man to his apartment. On entering the place Meg, who had been carrying the beard carelessly, tossed it to a chair. Most unfortunately, Mr Hawk selected this chair in which to collapse.

'Eh!' he exclaimed. 'What's this?' and reaching down he withdrew the beard from under him.

For a moment he stared at the thing with dilated eyes. Meg and Betts stood speechless, rooted to the spot.

'Oh!' cried Hawk suddenly. 'It's alive. It's pursuing me. Don't leave me alone. Yet don't come near. I'm crazy. I'm mad. Something has snapped in my brain. Bring me a drink, Betts, or I'll slit your gullet from ear to ear. Ha! ha, ha! I'm going to my room.'

As he staggered from the library he was singing about Mother Machree and the dear silver he intended to kiss in her hair. Betts picked up the beard from the floor and thoughtfully examined it.

'I don't see anything so wrong with this beard,' he said, turning to Meg. 'It's almost as good as new. A little combing, perhaps.'

'It's the colour,' she replied briefly. 'Should have been red.'

Undecided about this, Betts bore the beard from the room.

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