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The Nightlife Of The Gods


Thorne Smith



MEG took New York in one diminutive but buoyant stride. Nor was that all she took. There were things. All manner of things. Such things, for example, as handbags, stockings, brassières, lipsticks, perfume, underwear even, and many other small articles her quick hands encountered as she demurely followed the tall figure of the impeccable Mr Hawk along the aisles of the various department stores they visited.

Had the scientist but known of the petty pilfering in progress behind him he would have lost all poise and made a dash for the nearest exit.

There were articles Meg appropriated to herself for which she had no earthly need. Penknives, soup spoons, mousetraps, fish hooks, banjo strings, baby rattles—anything, in short, that appealed to her roving eye. Doubtless she was working on the theory that one never can tell what the future held in store.

With her, stealing was a point of honour, a racial instinct and family tradition. It seemed almost as if she were disinterestedly striving to get an even break for her benefactor by reducing the excess profits the stores made on his uninquiring purchases.

On one memorable occasion she nearly caused the poor man to swoon by staggering out of a shop with her great-grandfather of all portable phonographs tenderly strained to her breast. For one panic-stricken moment he debated whether to petrify himself or the entire neighbourhood. Rather than risk a scene, he compromised by pushing both Meg and her plunder into the nearest taxi and offering the driver a five-dollar bonus to take them away from the scene of the crime with the least possible delay. Not until they were five miles removed from the spot did he breathe with any degree of freedom.

'This sort of thing,' he said at last, 'will come to no good end. You'll be taking up murdering next.'

'That,' she replied, looking at him darkly, 'would be nothing new to me.'

Mr Hawk felt a little like screaming.

After this unsavoury episode Mr Betts became Megaera's shopping companion. Soon he developed a sincere admiration for her sleight-of-hand ability. 'Well, what will we get to-day?' became his attitude. And they got plenty.

Always, after these cheerful little raiding parties, both would return with their arms laden with untidy packages, the legitimate ones having been opened to make room for certain articles which from the nature of things could not be wrapped in the store. Betts became redolent with new cravats and socks. From these Mr Hawk turned a sorrowing eye.

The man of science lived in constant dread of being summoned to his telephone by a police officer and told that a couple of shoplifters had given Mr Hawk's apartment as their address, and that he, the policeman, did not believe one damn word of it. For the sake of the records would Mr Hawk kindly verify the fact that these two crooks were a couple of low liars? What! Mr Hawk could not oblige? Then something must be all wrong with everything. Perhaps they weren't shoplifters after all, but just a team of kleptomaniacs. Would Mr Hawk hurry round and talk things over? Thanks. The young lady was corrupting the force and swearing something terrible.

After one of these imaginary conversations Mr Hawk would mentally put down the receiver and turn a blanched face to an empty room. Not until his two responsibilities were safely home did he have a happy moment. Meg had spoken rightly. A man who could imagine ghastly details as vividly as Hunter Hawk must die a million deaths before he called life a day and took the final plunge.

The very sight of a package made him shudder. Vaguely remembering something unpleasant about accessory after the fact, he refused to have articles legitimately come by or otherwise displayed in his presence. He was taking no chances.

'You've succeeded in making a thief out of your accomplice, Betts,' he grimly informed Meg, 'but I'm damned if you'll make a jailbird out of me. You seem to forget, young lady, that both of us are probably being looked for in another state for practically every crime except arson and rape.'

'I could get you run in for the latter,' she replied; and Mr Hawk choked.

To vary the routine of shopping, night clubs, roof gardens, and talkies, Mr Hawk began taking his charge to those eminently respectable places optimistically referred to in guide books as Points of Interest. He solemnly pointed out to her various fishes of the better class with the air of one who had brought them into the world. He made her gaze down upon his city from many unnecessarily lofty points of vantage. He tried to tell her intimate things about the past of the Statue of Liberty, only to discover that he was a liar by the clock. He showed her a large building in which a great quantity of books were knocking about and vaguely speculated in so doing upon the parentage of the silly-looking lions that graced its portals. Once he went so far as to take her for a long, dull ride on a ferry boat and expatiated with profound inaccuracy upon the Narrows and Butter Milk Channel.

With surprising docility Meg accepted these little excursions. She intuitively knew that her guide did not know himself just what they were all about and that he cared even less.

The finishing touch was a visit to several museums specializing in this and that. Thus it came about that close to closing time one afternoon they found themselves wandering bleakly through a forest of marble limbs, busts, and recklessly applied leaves in the sacred precincts of the Metropolitan. By this time Mr Hawk was almost morally certain that to walk six yards in such a place was equivalent to walking six miles in less edifying surroundings. Meg knew that it was. Her companion's face was lined and drawn, his eyes hollow and aching.

'Damned if I can understand it,' he said at last, painfully easing himself to a bench, a hard, inhospitable bench. 'I don't doubt for a moment that all these legs and torsos and busts and backsides are works of sheer inspiration, exquisite things, and all that, but some low element in my nature keeps me from responding. I find myself insufferably bored and, oh, so weary.'

Meg looked with a considering eye at the offending thighs and torsos.

'You know,' she said, 'I think the trouble between you and these statues lies in the fact that you can't use them. You can't put the women to bed, and you can't put the men to work. They've reached a sort of inanimate perfection, can't go any farther in either direction—neither forward nor back. They've no potentialities. They're just beautiful uselesses.'

'Don't care much for the motive you ascribe to me regarding these lady statues,' replied Mr Hawk. 'And as for their potentialities, I'm not so sure. Not at all so sure.'

There was a brooding light in his eyes. 'It could be done,' he was thinking. He'd like to know more about these chilly-looking people of the past.

'An exquisite thing,' continued Meg, 'deserves the dignity of isolation. It should have at least a room and a bath of its own. A lifetime would not be too long to devote to its contemplation. These gods and goddesses here, as well housed as they are, suggest to me a lot of men and women who have lost most of their clothes in a subway rush.'

'More like a large but loosely conducted Turkish bath,' observed Mr Hawk. 'I get a jumbled-up impression of a lot of perfect anatomical parts and wholes that must have been no end of fun to do, but to look at them all at once, to appreciate them as they deserve to be—that's beyond my capacity. I can see all of these things any night on Broadway, and there would be life in them—life, grace, and all sorts of agreeable suggestions.'

'Dearie,' said Meg, 'you don't have to go as far from home as that.'

She demurely fringed her eyes with their long lashes, then raised them with startling suddenness and flooded the dismayed Hawk with an unnecessarily passionate glow.

'My own,' she breathed.

'Come, come,' Mr Hawk rebuked. 'None of that now. Not here at any rate. Refrain from being an utter trollop.'

'All right, my boy,' she replied briskly. 'Let's be arty and instructive. I'll go on about these statues, get to the bottom of the trouble. And this is it: They bore us because they're complete and detailed reproductions of men and women. Our imagination don't have to supply a thing. Even the fig leaves fail to suggest. We know. That's why it's easy. All one has to do is to gape, admire, and look seriously cultured. If someone should slip in among these statues a grotesquely comical figure, people wouldn't have the spontaneous appreciation to laugh at it. They'd stand and stare and murmur, "Exquisite! How gripping! Only the Greeks could do it. And some others." The last they'd add just to be on the safe side.'

She paused and looked as if she were about to spit on the floor. Mr Hawk, watching her, grew a trifle nervous.

'Don't,' he muttered. 'Please.'

'Don't what?' she asked.

'Don't spit,' he faltered. 'On the floor. There are people.'

She looked at him uncomprehendingly for some moments, then burst out into a loud, unladylike laugh.

'I wasn't going to,' she explained. 'That's the way I look when I'm being arty and instructive. As a matter of fact, I was thinking about that old boy you call Rodin. A clever devil. He never bores one. Why? Because he didn't give everything. Always held a little back—suggested something beyond the mere medium in which he worked. He leads us along and points out the rest of the way, but he doesn't take us there and plop us down as if to say, "Here you are, damn you. This is good. Like it or be for ever lost." No. Rodin holds out and gives our brains a chance to shift gears for themselves. There should be a bar in a place like this. The streets are lined with speak-easies. Let's go and find the speakiest of the easies or the easiest of the speakies.'

'Let's,' sighed Mr Hawk. 'I'm greatly cast down about myself and art. We don't seem to click.'

'Don't worry, old dear. It's your business to make statues, not to admire them.'

Through the vast wing of the museum they made their defeated way. The place was now nearly deserted. Even the usually alert guards seemed to have overlooked the two weary loiterers. Paying scant heed to their progress, Meg and Hunter Hawk followed their feet down a flight of stone stairs. Once more fate was guiding the footsteps of Mr Hawk, guiding him towards his last and most astonishing undertaking.

'What the hell!' he suddenly exclaimed. 'No speak-easies here. This isn't the street.'

They were in a long corridor, a section apparently not intended to be used by the public. There were many doors. One stood open. It was at that moment that Hunter Hawk set eyes on that open door that the idea which had been sprouting in his mind sprang to full flower. The step of a guard sounded from somewhere at the far end of the corridor. Hawk was moved to action.

'In there,' he said, 'and strip.'

'What's the grand idea?' asked Meg, for once a trifle startled.

He pushed her through the door and quickly looked about him. An overhead light flooded the room. There were several benches and a low stand. A few feet from the door and at the right of it stood a long table.

'Strip,' repeated Hawk. 'And make it snappy.'

'What, here?' protested Meg. 'Well, of all things. Why now? And in such a place.'

'Strip,' he said in a fierce whisper. 'Hide your clothes in that box. Crouch, use your hands, do anything a ladylike statue might do, but for God's sake don't be indecent or funny.'

Meg's wits were quick, and her clothes were few. She made no further protest save to observe that of all unsuitable places a public museum struck her about the most unsuited. However, anything to please the king. Her stripping was a small matter. She sprang to the stand, crouched like a frightened virgin, and did helpless things with her hands. A perfect pose.

'Hold it,' whispered Mr Hawk, and froze the figure in that position.

He ran to the box and snatched out one of Meg's garters. It was yellow. Good. When the guard entered he found Mr Hawk industriously measuring the left calf of what even that blasé protector of priceless property had to admit was an exceptionally charming figure. As the guard entered the scientist turned and holding up a hand for silence strode to the table and jotted down a few figures on the back of an envelope. For a moment he stood frowning down at the figures, his head cocked on one side. Suddenly he looked up and squinted at the man standing in the doorway.

'Yes?' said Mr Hawk, slipping Meg's garter into his pocket. 'Yes, my good man, you were saying?'

'I wasn't saying a thing,' replied the guard.

'Then why begin now?'

'Begin what, sir?'

Hawk eloquently elevated his shoulders. 'You're perplexing me,' he said. 'Is it deliberate?'

'I'm kinda slipping myself,' said the guard.

'Then slip on,' beamed Mr Hawk.

'But it's closing time, sir. I got to lock up.'

'What! Closing time already? Dear me, I fear I'll have to be staying on. Not half through here. So far my examination has been merely superficial.'

'But I don't rightly recognize your face, sir,' said the guard with some show of deference. 'Nor that statue—she's a new 'un to me.'

Apparently Mr Hawk had not been listening. He was reverentially regarding the statue.

'What a bust!' he murmured. 'What a thigh! But the face—an evil image.' He paused and considered the puzzled man. 'Pardon me,' Hawk continued. 'What is it you're having such difficulty in getting out of your obviously over-ripe system?'

'Your face is new to me, sir,' the guard faltered, feeling sure now he was in the presence of some important maniac.

'And yours is to me,' replied Mr Hawk, 'although,' and here he scanned the man's face as if seeing it for the first time, 'it is not a new face. The face itself is far, far from new. Not even secondhand. But you did not come here, I hope, to chat about faces, did you? If you did I'm afraid you're doomed to disappointment. Busts and thighs and torsos are more in my line.'

'Would you mind telling me, sir, if you are officially connected with the museum?' asked the dispirited guard.

'Let these speak for themselves,' replied Mr Hawk.

He opened his wallet and selected five or six cards. It was an overwhelming array. Several were from members of the Board of Trustees, two gave Hawk's own important scientific connexions and one, hand-signed by one of the Metropolitan's most important officials, gave Hunter Hawk the freedom of the museum. These tributes, long unheeded, had come to the scientist as a result of many a boring banquet and lecture. They belonged to the natural order of things.

The guard was visibly impressed.

'Want any more?' asked Mr Hawk pleasantly.

'Beg your pardon, Mr Hawk,' the man replied. 'Line of duty, you know, sir.'

'Perfectly right. Perfectly right. You should have told me at once what you were after. How was I to know? I must go into the texture of this new statue now and find out whether the young lady is genuine or spurious. To-day, in such investigations, art recognizes the feeble existence of science, you know.'

'She looks genuine to me, sir,' the guard observed with a lewd smile. 'Small, perhaps, but all there, I should say, if you'll pardon me.'

'You shock me,' said Mr Hawk. 'I can hardly pardon you. The face is bad. It's the face of a wanton of ancient times. A dangerous destructive face.'

'Never pay much attention to their faces,' said the guard as if to himself.

'You continue to shock me,' replied Hawk. 'But I must get on with this texture business.'

'Yes, sir,' murmured the guard. 'Think I'll go out and examine a little texture myself. Something not quite so tough. You know, sir, associating so much with these here nude statues keeps giving a man young ideas.'

'Don't let them get the best of you,' said Hawk. 'You seem to be a bit of a bad egg. The air is tainted.'

The guard grinned and departed. Hawk promptly released his prisoner, and his prisoner as promptly started in to abuse him for the aspersions he had cast on her face. As Hawk was about to take her in his arms the guard reappeared at the door. Hunter Hawk never used his ray with greater swiftness. He froze the girl as she was and seized her in his arms. At the same time he turned a strained face over his shoulder and looked with bulging eyes at his tormentor.

'Lifting her down,' he grunted. 'Ah, that's better. The little lady is quite a weight.'

'You fairly shocked me that time, sir,' said the guard. 'Looked as if she'd come back to life. Just wanted to say, Mr Hawk, that you seem to be known at the office. Everything's okay.'

As the guard left a second time he subjected the statue to a long and speculative look.

'That's about the most lifelike bit of marble I ever saw, Mr Hawk,' he observed, 'and I've seen plenty. The guy who turned her out didn't miss a trick. He knew his women.'

'And so do you, it seems. Once more, good night.'

'Thank you kindly, sir,' said the guard, accepting the proffered five-dollar bill with the air of a man who did not need to be told too much. 'There's a private entrance—a small one—at the extreme end of the corridor. Hope you make out with the texture.'

'Oh, that,' said Mr Hawk, a little startled. 'Thanks. Same to you.'

This time he watched the man's retreating figure until it had mounted the stairs; then, feeling dimly disturbed by his somewhat significant parting remark, he returned to the statue. The guard seemed an unscrupulous sort of a chap. Might be wise to cultivate him. Unscrupulous people were always the most useful. With this thought in mind he turned the beautiful statue into an even more beautiful woman.

'You had your arms around me, I think,' she said. 'I liked that.'

'On with that dress,' snapped Hawk, 'and be ready to yank it off at a moment's notice. The Board of Trustees might drop in to view the most dangerous statue the Metropolitan has ever acquired.'

'A lovely invitation and an even lovelier compliment,' Meg murmured as she wriggled her supple body into a scrap of silk and sat hunched up on the edge of the stand idly observing the tips of her toes. Hawk switched off the light.

'Well, mister,' she said at last, 'what do we do next?'

'We wait,' replied Mr Hawk, 'and after that we wait some more.'

'For what?'

'For the most desperate of all adventures—the return of the gods.' His voice sounded unnaturally solemn in the room now gradually filling with dusk. 'And,' he added on a less solemn note, 'perhaps a couple of goddesses.' Meg's eyes gleamed.

'I thought as much,' she said. 'You'd have to work in a couple of those ample-breasted hussies. Nevertheless, it's an adventure worth waiting for. They should never have left us, those gods.'

'And goddesses,' added Mr Hawk.

'One grows weary of your Christian Era day after day, year after year,' observed Meg. 'Too much of a strain for an effect.'

'It doesn't seem to place any restraint on you,' commented Mr Hawk.

'But it does on my associates—you, for example. All inhibited.'

Hawk grinned in the shadows.

'Yes,' he admitted, 'I can't bring myself to murder, and I'm still delicate about theft. Aside from those two undeniable forms of pleasure I'm fairly well broken in, thanks to you.'

He crossed the room and seated himself beside her on the stand. Presently the small creature edged closer to him, until at last she manoeuvred herself into his arms.

'By the way,' she whispered, 'what did you find out about my texture?'

'My examination so far has been merely superficial,' said Mr Hawk academically.

'I'm glad,' she replied, nestling closer.

For a long time they sat thus in silence, then, with her dark eyes taunting his, 'Lo there, long legs, whose lover are you?'

'Lo yourself, you runt. Let us merely say instead of lover that we have many things in common.'

'Very common,' she murmured.

Once more silence.

Above them the vast storehouse of the ages gathered the deepening dusk into its sprawling corridors. The dead eyes of Egypt, Greece, and Rome peered sightlessly into their respective pasts. Jewels, fabrics, and pottery fashioned by hands long turned to formless dust gave their beauty to the night that lay upon them. Death and oblivion were defied by the living works of the dead. The unbroken stream of life fed by the currents of genius showed the toughness of the spirit of man in his eternal quest of something to make, something to leave behind. In this dim place century followed century and era merged with era on a rising tide of beauty. Surging onward, surging onward, checked, yet always flowing, it advanced to add itself to the unborn beauty of centuries yet to come. There was a sort of hopeless sublimity about it all. The mighty works that man could fashion, and yet he was so small. Through the smoke at the mouth of his cave the hand of the original potter reached across the ages to salute his fellow craftsman of to-day. Time in the great museum became merely a family affair—not a matter of age or distance. Here beauty was neither old nor new, but a part of the creative whole, as ageless as genius itself.

Something of this feeling must have communicated itself to the two very much alive figures in the lower reaches of the building. For them there was neither time nor distance. For ever and always a man and a woman would be the same. From the rise of the first sun they had sought blindly for beauty and ecstasy, striven to burst through the confines of their bodies, at last to find what they sought only in themselves. Meg in the darkness gloated. No matter where his mind might lead him, she knew that his feet would return to her.

Presently they rose. Meg sighed and sought for garments.

'Snap to it,' said Mr Hawk. 'The gods await our coming.'

'Is my hat on straight?' asked Meg.

'It is,' said Hawk, without looking.

She thrust a firm little hand in his, and together they left the room.

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