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The Nightlife Of The Gods
THE GODS STEP DOWN
SOON they were among the statues, the symmetrical relics of an age that had lived with the creative buoyancy of a conscience-free child, a precocious child, perhaps, but not pernicious. From Fifth Avenue the street lamps sent pale shafts of light against even paler bodies. Here a back was favoured, there a breast. It was a still place, this spacious hall, made even stiller by the motionless figures standing or sitting or crouching there in the eternal grip of bronze or stone.
Megaera and Hunter Hawk walked on lightly. Their steps felt like whispers.
Presently they found themselves standing before the statue of Mercury, faintly discernible in the dim light.
'Competent-looking chap,' observed Mr Hawk in a low voice. 'Looks as if he'd know his way about.'
'I like his funny hat,' said Meg. 'Wonder if he'd lend it to me?'
'You should hit it off well with Mercury,' Hawk continued. 'Next to you and the once unblemished Betts, he was one of the greatest thieves that ever went unhung. Also, he was the messenger of the gods, an office which demanded no end of finessing, not to say unobservance. I suspect he lived by blackmail. Altogether your sort. Shall we try him?'
'I think he might prove helpful,' Meg conceded.
Then Hawk performed the incredibly simple yet effective rites into which Meg had introduced him back in the grotto on the night when he had first met her—the night following his own great discovery. It was fortunate that Mercury was not aware of himself, else he would have been surprised, if not a trifle shocked.
For a brief moment the statue remained motionless, then, with disconcerting agility, it came to life. Jumping down from its pedestal it stood before its grateful liberators.
'My thanks,' said Mercury, looking at Meg with suave admiration. 'Standing poised on the ball of one's foot for Zeus knows how long is no Roman holiday. One is supposed to do that merely in passing, you know. If sculptors must continue to sculp they should favour the recumbent school. Of course, when they're doing mixed doubles they'd have to exercise a certain amount of decent self-restraint, but not much, if you get what I mean.'
'Without a struggle,' replied Mr Hawk, smiling pleasantly. 'How have you been all this time?'
'Inactive, sir,' said Mercury. 'Hibernating, I think is the word. I long for some errand to run or some pockets to pick.'
'I didn't know they used pockets in your day,' interposed Meg.
Mercury smiled deprecatingly. 'Figuratively speaking, my dear young lady,' he replied. 'In my day pockets were merely bare flanks, but I run on. What I wanted to ask,' and here he turned hopefully to Mr Hawk, 'can I be of any service to you, perhaps? Some slight message to convey, a purse to snatch, a lock to pick, or if you'll pardon me, sir, an assignation to arrange. I am not unskilful in such delicate matters. The gods found me good.'
'Mercury,' said Meg quite frankly, 'I've taken a fancy to your funny hat.'
'It will be a pleasure to let you wear it sometimes,' answered Mercury, 'but not now. By the look in your friend's eye it would seem there is work to be done. Your name, sir?'
'Hawk,' said the scientist. 'Hunter Hawk. This small thing is Meg. Your services will be exceedingly helpful.'
'What, may I ask, is the exact idea?' Mercury inquired, tentatively scratching the head of one of the snakes on his caduceus.
'The return of the gods,' said Mr Hawk. 'That is, the return of some of them. We would like a small, congenial group. Not too large to handle. Whom do you suggest, for instance?'
Mercury smiled smoothly.
'Few little groups are congenial without the presence of that debauched half-brother of mine, Bacchus,' he observed. 'You may have heard of Bacchus. He is one of the few gods who is wise in his cups though gross in his habits.'
'Certainly,' replied Mr Hawk. 'Bacchus was in my mind.'
The three of them found their way to the statue of the god of wine and social amenities. Mr Hawk performed his rites, simple almost to crudeness, but powerfully effective. Mercury was alertly interested.
'So that's the way it's done,' he observed. 'I see. I see.' He laughed softly. 'Well, Bacchus wouldn't mind. He's the sort that stands for anything. But take Jupiter, there.' Once more Mercury laughed, leaving his sentence unfinished.
'We'll take Jupiter next,' said Mr Hawk.
'Don't,' replied Mercury, shortly. 'Too stuffy.'
'Look!' breathed Meg. 'Look! A noble paunch he swings.'
As Bacchus stepped carefully but lightly down from his elevated seat he had the effect of making the vast hall seem less spacious and austere. A little feeling of intimacy had crept into the place. Vineyards seemed to be mounting sunward behind him. Low, provocative laughter floated in the air.
The huge god huskily cleared his throat and favoured his half-brother with an affectionately ironical grin.
'Up to some of your old tricks,' said Bacchus in a deep, wine-warmed voice. 'You always were a great hand at doing the inexplicable.'
'You have Mr Hawk to thank for your presence here,' replied Mercury.
'And my name's Meg,' put in the girl. 'Megaera.'
'How wonderfully you have improved, my dear,' said Bacchus with a gigantic smile. 'Couldn't bear the sight of you once.'
'Oh, I'm just a poor relation,' Meg hastily corrected the god 'A sort of long-distance hangover.'
'I've had them,' said Bacchus. 'I've had them.' He turreted his bulk on Mr Hawk. 'My dear sir,' he continued, 'my dear Mr Hawk, we are happily met, and I am deeply grateful. It hurts me, sir, it hurts me much to ask it, but have you anything to drink about you—a small flask or, even better, a large one? You can see how low I've fallen, I who have dispensed in the past veritable oceans of grog.'
'You are at a considerable disadvantage,' replied Mr Hawk, placing a friendly hand on the great man's arm. 'You are not, so to speak, in your own home town, and consequently you should not be expected to dispense hospitality. The pleasure is all mine.' Here Mr Hawk produced a long, flat silver flask from his hip pocket and extended it to the already reaching Bacchus.
'Knew it was there all the time,' said Mercury. 'I felt it.'
Strange things were happening to Bacchus. He had suddenly staggered back and was now clinging to his pedestal for support. In the pale light sweat could be seen beading his forehead like jewels.
'Zeus Almighty!' he exclaimed, looking with awe at the flask. 'What was that?'
Mercury, unable to restrain his curiosity, removed the flask from his half-brother's palsied hand and swallowed a generous drink. For a moment he stiffened, then quietly wilted to the pedestal beside Bacchus. From that position the two gods gazed inquiringly at Mr Hawk.
'Are we poisoned?' asked Mercury in a strangled voice, 'or merely disappointed?'
'Or both, perhaps?' added Bacchus.
'Neither,' Meg assured them. 'Just hold on for a minute or so and you'll feel yourself improved. You'll be begging for that flask, Bacchus. We won't be able to pry you away from the end of it.'
'Interesting, if true,' groaned Bacchus.
'Will the same thing happen to me?' asked Mercury rather wistfully. 'It doesn't seem possible I'll ever feel well again.'
'You will,' said the scientist, retrieving his flask. 'That whisky is gentle and kind in comparison with some of the stuff we habitually drink to-day.'
'Well,' replied Bacchus, his voice a trifle hoarse, 'I'm generally credited with being the great-great-grandfather of all good bartenders, but I'll have to admit that was an entirely unknown beverage to me. However, you are correct. I'm beginning to feel slightly improved already.'
The wings on Mercury's hat, which after the drink had suddenly flopped without even folding, began to show signs of life. Gradually they lifted until they had assumed their former position of poised alertness.
'I, too, have escaped the clutch of Pluto,' he announced, 'but only by the breadth of an exceedingly fine hair. Whether the game is worth the candle remains to be seen. That remark about the conformity of one's conduct when visiting Rome holds about as true to-day as it did when it was first made. We must learn to drink the stuff.'
The party of four that had started as two wandered quietly about the hall and off jutting corridors. Mercury was looking preoccupied. The business of selecting the most congenial group of gods and goddesses was not as easy as it seemed. Suddenly an exclamation from Megaera arrested them.
'Aren't they lovely?' she said, seizing Hawk by the arm. 'We must have those two.'
'Why?' asked Mr Hawk. 'They look thoroughly unreliable to me.'
They were looking at the figure of Cupid amorously bending over the recumbent figure of Psyche, no less amorous.
'That's why I like them,' replied Meg. 'They seem so wrapped up in what they're doing.'
'Yes,' agreed Mr Hawk. 'It's what they're doing that worries me.' He turned to Mercury. 'Doesn't that couple look a little—er—dangerous to you?'
Mercury shrugged his shoulders eloquently.
'It all depends on what you call dangerous,' he said. 'Some consider it a rather diverting pastime.'
'Oh, quite,' hastily agreed Mr Hawk. 'I understand perfectly. What I mean is, I can't rightly tell whether he's saying good-bye or hello. That makes a lot of difference, you know. Can we depend on Cupid's sense of the fitness of things? He's a determined-looking chap in spite of his pretty ways.'
'We can but try,' smiled Mercury.
'Go on, give the kids a break,' urged Bacchus.
'Here goes, then,' said Mr Hawk.
Deftly he performed the double rite and stepped back to regard his handiwork.
Meg uttered a sharp exclamation of dismay.
'Why, Cupid!' Psyche cried.
Bacchus and Mercury were laughing silently. The scientist was stung to action. He turned the couple back to stone.
'Whew!' he muttered, wiping his forehead. 'Just in the nick of time. What a bad actor that Cupid turned out to be.'
'Well, obviously he wasn't saying good-bye,' remarked Meg. 'That's dead sure.'
'He has a single-track mind,' Mercury explained. 'He can think of only one thing at a time. Always was that way.'
'I wouldn't give a penny for his thoughts at this moment,' Mr Hawk observed with a sympathetic grin. 'Poor fellow. Don't blame him a bit, but I hardly think that in his present frame of mind he'd work in very well with our plans.'
'Depends on your plans,' said Bacchus. 'Mine are usually extremely inclusive. How about Neptune, now? He's by way of being an uncle of ours and not at all a bad sort. Minds his own business, enjoys a good time in a quiet way, and is a handy man in a brawl.'
'Like him myself,' commented Mercury. 'He's no damn booster. Throw him a couple of fish and he's as happy as a lark.'
'He's tiresome about fish,' agreed Bacchus, 'but he knows how to carry his wine, though God only knows how this stuff will affect him. By the way, Mr Hawk—'
'Here it is,' said Hawk, once more producing the flask. 'Help yourselves.'
The two gods drank, smacked their lips, shivered slightly, and threw back their shoulders.
'If mere mortals can handle that brand of fire,' said Bacchus, 'it should prove child's play for an old-timer like me. I must try a whole lot of it, just to find out what it does.'
'I've a suspicion it will do plenty,' said Mercury. 'Much more than enough, in fact.'
Neptune, they discovered when he had been released from the imprisoning stone, was not at all interested in women. What he wanted was fish, lots of fish, lobsters and virtually anything that swam.
'Would you mind very much taking me to a good fish and chip house?' he asked Mr Hawk, after Mercury had managed the introductions. 'Both of my nephews here are just crazy about fish, aren't you, boys?'
'Guess we are,' said Bacchus, 'now that I come to think of it.'
'Good!' exclaimed Neptune, playfully prodding Mr Hawk with his trident in a spot where it would prove the least painful if the most demeaning. 'Then it's all arranged. Let's hurry up with the selection. I nominate young Hebe, the cup-bearer of the gods, and that handsome devil Apollo.'
Megaera looked upon Apollo with approval and Hebe with dark suspicion. She was altogether too pretty and too agreeable. So agreeable, in fact, that Meg feared she might agree to almost anything. At present, however, the amiable young goddess was a trifle distraite.
'Anybody got a cup?' she kept asking. 'I want to bear a cup.'
'If you limit your bearing to cups,' remarked Apollo in his musically insinuating voice, 'you'll be an exceptionally fortunate young girl.'
'You would make some such remark as that,' said Neptune. 'Don't pay any attention to this advertisement for the latest thing in fig leaves, my child. We'll get you a cup pretty soon—about the same time as I get my fish. How will that do?'
'That will be fine, Uncle,' replied Hebe with a grateful smile. 'Just give me a cup and watch me bear it. It's been ages since I bore a cup or watched a god get drunk.'
'You're due for a deluge to-night,' Mercury observed rather grimly. 'The stuff you used to bear in that cup of yours was flat and tepid water in comparison with the robust brew that goes into cups to-day.'
'Oh, I don't mind so much what goes into the cup,' Hebe replied quite cheerfully, 'just as long as there's something in the cup and everybody gets sort of that way.'
'We'll do our best to oblige,' said Mr Hawk. 'Now let's drop the cup for a moment and get down to business. Any further nominations?'
'I nominate Perseus and Diana,' announced Mercury. 'Perseus is not only good at killing women, but also on occasion he can save them with equal charm and dexterity. As for Diana, she can run like hell, and she's got a level head on her shoulders. Also, since Hebe insists on getting us all slopped when Zeus only knows what might or might not happen, Diana will lend a touch of respectability to an otherwise demoralized party.'
'I'm told she's chaste,' said Neptune in a puzzled voice. 'Now, I wonder why is that?'
'Don't worry too heavily about it, Uncle,' Apollo observed casually. 'There has to be a virgin goddess just the same as there has to be a virgin queen or a virgin martyr or a virgin priestess. In other words, there always has to be a virgin in the woodpile just to keep on reminding women of something they don't want. She and Venus tossed for the job and Venus cheated. Neither took the matter seriously, and I hardly see how they could, because by the time Diana assumed office I understand it was quite, quite too late.'
'Scandalmonger as well as home wrecker,' muttered Bacchus. 'I'll drink him under the table, damned if I don't.'
Neptune's face cleared.
'That's better,' he said.
It took considerable searching to locate Perseus, but eventually that god-like but gory young man was found. As usual he was clutching the unpleasant head of Medusa by its serpents' hair in one hand and displaying a mean-looking sword in the other. His pedestal was high, but he achieved the jump with surprising agility. Carefully placing the horrid relic of past heroism on the floor and laying the sword beside it, he straightened himself and rubbed his hands together. At his feet the serpents hissed and snapped spitefully. The gods stood back at a respectful distance and eyed the unattractively bobbed head with mild distaste. Perseus, noting their obvious disapproval, leaned over and slapped the snakes with the flat of his hand.
'That's the trouble with you snakes,' he told them. 'Always butting in and making a lot of noise. Don't give a man a chance to think. Coil up there and keep quiet.'
At this moment Mercury unfortunately approached his caduceus a little too close to the sinister object on the floor. A terrible battle ensued. The serpents on the severed head rose to a snake and viciously attacked the two representatives of their race straining at the end of the rod in Mercury's hand.
'Better take those feeble worms of yours away from my serpents,' said Perseus, 'or they'll get their foolish heads eaten off.'
Mercury laughed unpleasantly.
'These two feeble worms,' he replied, 'will make a meal of the whole damn lot of your fangless fish bait. They're a disgrace to the reptile kingdom.'
'Reptiles haven't any kingdom,' said Perseus. 'That shows how much you know.'
'Then what have they got?' shot back Mercury.
'What?' repeated Perseus, a trifle confused. 'Ah, just places to crawl back and forth in—holes in the ground, trees to climb, and such like.'
Then I'd call that a kingdom,' said Mercury.
'Go on and call it a kingdom,' retorted Perseus. 'Show the world how dumb you are.'
In the meantime the battle of the snakes was progressing with unabated fury. Mercury's two contestants were putting up a game fight in spite of the superiority of numbers they were facing. The gods had become interested in the little unpleasantness. They seemed to regard it in the light of a sporting event and were heatedly backing their favourites. The supporters of the Perseus group were forced to give heavy odds. Meg had become so enthusiastic she was betting on both sides.
'What shall we use for money?' Neptune asked her.
'Don't worry,' she replied. 'Daddy Long-legs has lots of money. He'll settle up for all.'
'You mean our liberator Mr Hawk!' asked Neptune.
Mr Hawk had the unpleasant sensation of feeling his legs being critically surveyed. He turned round just in time to catch the tail end of an appreciative grin vanishing from Neptune's face. The sea god bowed politely and looked away. So did Mr Hawk.
The battle between the snakes was not adding to the peace and calm of the museum. Mr Hawk viewed the situation with growing alarm. He feared that the gods themselves might become personally involved. Such a contingency must be avoided at all costs. Mr Hawk had no desire for any undue publicity. It was his responsibility to get these freshly awakened immortals quietly and successfully out of the museum. How was he going to do it if they kept betting recklessly on a snake fight and losing their poise at the first opportunity? He could no longer depend on Meg's co-operation. The whole affair had proved too much for her unstable nature. She was as childlike as the gods themselves.
'That's the girl, Minnie,' Mercury was saying with urgent encouragement. 'Snap off a couple of heads. Come on, Jove. Get into it! Don't let your little sister do all the fighting.'
'They're flirting,' observed Apollo. 'Dating each other up, those snakes.'
Mr Hawk decided it was high time to intervene. Hebe was growing nervous. Apparently she did not share her brother's passion for snake fights.
'I hate to spoil a good time for you gods,' said Hawk, 'but all bets are off. Watch those snakes.'
He raised his right hand and petrified the warring factions. Perseus leaned back against his pedestal and grinned at Mercury.
That saves you,' he said. 'In another moment you wouldn't have had an inch of snake left.'
'You always were a braggart,' retorted Mercury without rancour. 'You and your rescuings and your slayings and silly expeditions. Publicity stunts, all of them. Without the aid of an unscrupulous press agent you wouldn't be the half-god you are to-day.'
'You forget, my dear brother,' said Perseus, 'I had no prenatal control over our common father's amorous delinquencies. But that reminds me. Are there any women about in need of rescuing or slaying? It doesn't matter to me which. I do both with equal enjoyment and precision. I'd like to tackle a couple of sea monsters if it could be arranged.'
'What do you mean, arranged?' inquired Mercury. 'Do you want us to bribe a couple of sea monsters to lie down at your feet and throw the fight?'
'I never bribed—' began Perseus hotly, but Hebe cut him short.
'Listen, everybody,' she said, 'I want a cup to bear.'
'And I want a fish to eat,' added Neptune.
'And I crave some bathtub hooch,' put in Meg.
'I agree with the little lady,' said Bacchus. 'If we drink enough of this current grog we'll be able to see all the snake fights we want without even troubling to open our eyes.'
When Diana was released from her gracefully poised position she sprang noiselessly to the floor and looked coolly about her.
'I'd like to take a pot shot at a deer,' she announced, inspecting her bow, 'if any of you happen to know where one is knocking about. If I had my hounds along I'd rustle up a deer for myself.'
'There are enough hounds along as it is,' observed Apollo. 'We have fish hounds and meat hounds and cup hounds and grog hounds and all sorts of hounds in the party. We don't need any more hounds.'
'Speak for yourself,' said Megaera.
'I have,' replied Apollo. 'I'm the meat hound.'
'That's the truest word you've ever spoken,' said Mercury, then added as if it were an afterthought, 'and that isn't saying much.'
Meg inspected the beautiful Diana and felt herself growing small. She looked covertly at her lanky scientist to ascertain what his reactions were to this new and altogether delightful arrival. How could she hope to compete, she thought rather ruefully, when these well-formed women went striding cheerfully about with nearly nothing at all on? Of course, she could flirt with Perseus or Apollo, but, after all, she was not really interested in them. They were the sort that appealed to the ordinary run of women. They were great big beautiful boys with hearts of gold and all that. Her long-legged scientist was different. He was homely and nervous and refreshingly bitter about things in general. She knew more than he did. She was able to get around him. No, she decided, the gods were all right in their places. Mercury was perhaps the most interesting of them all. But she loved Hunter Hawk. She was sure of that now. And she was a little bit afraid of him. She realized he had kicked over the traces for good, and she knew that a mere mortal would never be able to get away with it.
'I nominate Venus,' came the deep voice of Bacchus. 'She was always a good sort at an orgy.'
'But she hasn't any arms,' said Hebe.
'Venus doesn't need any arms,' replied Bacchus with a low chuckle. 'She has everything else that's necessary.'
'Oodles of it,' agreed Apollo. 'Almost too much.'
The gods and goddesses with Meg and Mr Hawk gathered round the statue of the high priestess of love. A little selfconsciously the scientist performed the rites. Low murmurs of amusement from the gods. Diana endeavoured to look shocked, but was unable to restrain a cynical grin. The beautiful goddess stirred on her pedestal. Life sprang to her eyes, and she looked languorously down at Hunter Hawk. The sea from which she had sprung was caught in her gaze, the blue, warm, dreaming Mediterranean, plunged with unknown depths. With voluptuous grace she moved her hips, then uttered a little cry. The drapery was falling. Being without arms, the fair lady did the next-best thing and promptly turned her back on the audience. Then she glanced over her shoulder and giggled.
'For once it's not my fault,' she declared.
'An unavoidable exposure,' replied Mercury. 'Forgivable and at the same time diverting. I don't know how it is exactly, but you can manage to look nakeder than any naked woman I ever saw.'
'And you've seen enough,' supplied Perseus. 'What are we going to do about her?'
Venus looked sadly at the head of Medusa.
'She was a good old girl once,' she said, 'before she vied in beauty with Minerva. That one always did have a jealous disposition. And there were others not far behind.' Venus allowed her gaze to linger for a moment on Diana. That slim creature merely sniffed scornfully and looked away.
'You've got me on weight, my dear,' she said, 'but I've got you on speed.'
'I don't have to chase my men,' drawled Venus.
'You don't even have to know them,' said Diana.
'Oh, la, la,' laughed her sister. 'If I only had fingers I'd snap them. Now what are we going to do about the condition I'm in? Can't stand like this all night.'
'Someone will have to hold the thing up for you,' replied Mercury. 'How about Hebe?'
'No,' replied Venus promptly. 'I'd much prefer a man.'
'You would,' said Diana.
'It's not that at all,' Venus explained. 'Men are more reliable. I know what to expect from them.'
'And you generally get it,' the moon goddess retorted.
'I'll hold it up for you,' said Perseus, gallantly stepping forward. 'Allow me.'
'You always were a dear,' replied Venus cooingly. 'Especially with ladies in distress.'
Perseus gathered the garment round the hips of the goddess of beauty and assisted her down from her pedestal. She was delighted with Meg and Mr Hawk. She said nice things to them and complimented Mr Hawk on his good taste.
'Size really doesn't count,' she assured him. 'It's a matter of being interested. That's all there is to it.'
'What do you mean?' demanded Mr Hawk, feeling somewhat uncomfortable.
'Ask the lady,' replied Venus. 'I'll bet she understood me.'
'Miles ahead of you,' said Megaera. 'He's not quite so dumb as he acts. Nearly, but not quite.'
'If everyone is agreeable,' said Mr Hawk, 'I suggest we adjourn to surroundings that would give our various talents greater scope.'
'He's not so dumb at all,' commented Mercury.
'Oh, good,' said Neptune. 'Fish!'
'Cups!' put in Hebe.
'Women!' cried Apollo.
'Wine!' mouthed Bacchus, then added thoughtfully, 'or any potent substitute.'
'Don't peek,' murmured Venus in the ear of Perseus. 'That's not fair.'
'Stop putting ideas into the young man's head,' Diana told her, 'and for the love of Pluto, don't be girlish. You can't get away with it.'
'Bet you wish you didn't have any arms,' jeered Venus.
'Enjoy yourself,' was the sarcastic reply. 'I suppose you'll have to scratch next.'
'Thanks,' said Venus. The idea had not occurred to me. It's a good one.'
'Thought it would appeal to you,' smiled her sister.
'If you ladies will stop your little unpleasantries,' cut in Neptune, 'we'll all go somewhere.'
When Mr Hawk had shepherded the gods and goddesses into the lower corridor he addressed them.
'Now, you gods and you goddesses,' he told them, 'listen to me. You've got to get some clothes on. You can't go round as you are. I'm going to take you to a store, and I won't stand any skylarking. Grab anything you like and put it on, but put it on fast. If you don't we'll all get arrested. I'll help the men, and Meg here will help the women. You she-gods must understand that you can't linger over your toilettes at the start. You must cover your nakedness first. Later on, we'll see that you're rigged up swell.' He paused and looked at Megaera. 'Meg,' he continued, 'the Emperor is outside. The ten of us will have to squeeze in somehow.'
'Oh, I don't mind,' put in Venus.
Hawk regarded her with a sardonic grin.
'I didn't think you would,' he said. 'Meg, you lead the way, and I'll bring up the rear. Pile into that automobile and pull down the shades. What follows is going to be ticklish business. Nip and tuck with law and order. Now, snap to it, the lot of you.'
He opened the door, looked out, then stood aside. Behind the back of the diminutive Meg the large Olympians strode innocently into the night in quest of clothes.
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