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The Stray Lamb


Thorne Smith



MR. T. LAWRENCE LAMB weaved his long, shad-bellied body down the aisle and, as one sorely stricken in affliction, crumpled into a seat. He hoped prayerfully that the other half of it would remain unoccupied. He hoped even more prayerfully that if it should be occupied it would not be by anyone he knew even remotely. Every evening he hoped this and almost every evening his hope was disregarded.

Mr. Lamb automatically elevated his knees. Out came his paper and off went the train. All set. Another day smeared.

He sighed profoundly. So far so good. No one had yet encroached upon his Jovian aloofness. Perhaps for a change he would get the best of the break. Adjusting his features in what he fondly believed to be a repellent expression he prepared to concentrate his attention on the financial section of his newspaper. His heart was not in it. Neither was his mind. Lamb was in a vagrant mood—misanthropic, critical, at odds with himself.

"Here we sit," he mused—his eyes darkly contemplating his fellow commuters—"Here we sit, the lot of us, a trainful of spines in transit... so many sets of vertebræ, each curved and twisted according to the inclination of its individual owner."

His eyes rested unenthusiastically on a man he heartily disliked, Simonds, a purveyor of choice lots.

"Take Simonds there," he continued to reflect. "That spawn of hell is just a lot of vertebræ all curled up, I myself am scarcely more than a column of vertebræ. And that old lady over there, she's a repository of vertebræ, old tortured vertebræ, no doubt extremely pieces."

He sighed morbidly over the great age and brittleness of the old lady's vertebræ, and rearranged his own, flexing them deftly between the seat and its back. His knees crept up higher in front of him. His head sank lower. He was gradually jack-knifing into his favourite commuting position.

For some inexplicable reason vertebræ this evening seemed unusually important to Lamb. They were almost getting the best of him. The more he thought of vertebræ the lower his spirits ebbed. There were too many commuters, all trying to contort themselves into the most comfortable, the most restful positions—all striving to do well for their backs after the strain of the day.

Tentatively Lamb peered into his newspaper. He fully intended to wash his hands of vertebræ and to study the details of a new bond issue.

There were newspapers everywhere—evening newspapers. Alluring pictures on impartially quartered front pages displayed one pair of robust legs, one good corpse, a sanguinary railway accident, and a dull looking pugilist. What more could a reasonable person crave?

Lamb studied the absorbed readers with detached animosity. Papers were being held at every conceivable angle, some negligently, untidily, others grasped tenaciously as if their owners lived in momentary dread of being deprived of comfort. Some readers scanned their papers from afar. Others approached them secretively, nose touching type.

"Newspapers and vertebræ," elaborated Lamb, eyeing suspended sheets bitterly. "That's all we are. That's all we're good for."

In the third seat in front of him sat a dignified old gentleman. He was having though cerebration assimilating the fact that ants greatly deplore the existence of essence of peppermint. For sixty-odd years he had managed to struggle through life without the benefit of this information. Now it had become urgent business with him. He must tell his wife about it the first thing. No more red ants for them. Then he tried to remember if they had ever suffered from red ants.

Farther down the aisle was a man whose expression grew bleaker and bleaker. He was following a comic strip. His concentration was almost pathetic. When he arrived at the grand climax he sat as one stunned, gazing hopelessly ahead of him. One would have been led to believe that he had suddenly received a piece of extremely depressing news.

In another seat, crouched like a dog over a bone, an ingrown-looking individual was enjoying a vicarious thrill from the sex irregularities of a music teacher and a casual man of God. Satisfyingly salacious stuff. Shocking. However, this commuter would not discuss the sordid affair with his wife. Such topics are better left outside the family circle.

Meanwhile the landscape.

Lamb turned to the window and considered a rapidly receding cow. Then his glance ran through the train. Nobody else was considering that cow. Nobody else was considering anything other than newspapers so far as he could discover. Yet the cow had not been without its points ... a pleasant, contemplative, square-cut cow. And that brook out there. Lamb wondered idly where it wandered, through whose backyard, through what meadows and woodlands. Lamb himself was wandering now far from the financial section.

No scenery in all God's world, he decided, was quite so unobserved, left quite so utterly flat and to its own devices as those sections traversed by these hurtling slave galleys of progress. For the commuter, familiarity with the landscape completely skipped mere contempt and passed into the realms of non-existence.

If that proud home-owner labouring out there on his lawn could only realise how unappreciated his efforts were he would not feel so infernally smug about things.

Especially this evening, Lamb's thoughts ran on, was the landscape neglected. Eyes looked upon it, but for the most part indifferently, unseeingly. Newspapers were to blame. Lamb worried his own paper. Commuting trains everywhere, he reflected, were more or less spiritually akin. That was the awfulness of it. His feeling of inferiority and sameness deepened. His mood grew more restless. It was gathering in revolt.

What was he himself but a poor doomed commuter, a catcher and quitter of trains? His destiny stood confronting him, smirking at him. Years from now he would be extending a withered feeble hand clutching a commutation ticket to be punched. He wondered if conductors ever died or grew old. They never seemed to, always stayed about the same—loquacious mummies.

A good Grade A, case-hardened commuter, decided Lamb, would experience but scant difficulty in meeting his soul's brother in any part of the world where commuting trains operated. With this creature he would be able to discuss his favourite topic in his own pet vernacular. Neither of them would give a tinker's damn about the scenery. They would consider it in no terms other than those of building and real-estate development— investment opportunity. With an inner ear, Lamb hearkened to a hypothetical conversation:

"That's a neat bit of wooded highland," observes commuter A covetously.

"Yep," says B. "It's just itching to be opened up."

"Wish I had the ready to go in for a proposition like that," replies his friend.

"Man alive," says the other, "if I had the backing, that property wouldn't stay undeveloped long. Give me just six months, and I'd have a couple of paved streets run through and a row of model homes—

He pauses and frowns masterfully at the hillside.

"And garages," adds commuter A, not to be outdone. "Bang-up sewerage and a garbage-disposal plant. That sort of stuff gets the right class of buyer."

The wooded hillside is doomed. Its trees shiver. Trees have a way of knowing about such things. Soon wayward lovers will be seeking elsewhere for stimulating concealment. A neat little garage will have usurped their bower.

"My God! muttered T. Lawrence Lamb, now thoroughly in revolt against the ordained measure of his days. "I'm a part of the system. I'm all tied up."

Then quite suddenly his attention became riveted on an object.

It was an ear.

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