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The Stray Lamb


Thorne Smith



STRANGELY enough Hebe heeded her parent's plain-spoken admonition, which both of them knew without saying amounted to nothing less than an abject supplication. One glance at her father's face was sufficient to convince her that his long-repressed emotional arrangements were in a state of fermenting chaos which threatened at any moment to produce revolutionary results of an impredicable nature.

Thereafter she devoted her youth and energy to the business of driving, taking full advantage the while of that great liberality the law extends to the young and not unfavoured daughters of prominent citizens of all well-regulated communities. Lamb was too busily engaged in washing his hands of practically everything to notice his close and constant companionship with painful injury and sudden death.

Hebe drove. She drove in the direction of that place in which Mr. T. Lawrence Lamb sought refuge and repose after the contemplative quietude of a short yet most unprofitable day.

As if preordained by a class-conscious God with an eye to real estate values, this fair mansion was situated on the financially correct side of the tracks.

In most commuting towns of any recognised worth there are always two sides of which the tracks serve as the line of demarcation. There is the right side and the wrong side. Translated into terms of modern American idealism, this means, the rich side and the side that hopes to be rich.

On either side of the tracks there sometimes extends a quarter—a blot—that is not rich, will never be rich, and makes no visible effort to be rich. The blot thrives squalidly amid its fights, sufferings, and enjoyments. It is fundamentally superior to either side of the tracks, because it envies neither, regarding all members of the community as legitimate prey.

Properly speaking, however, those who dwell on one side of the tracks form a separate and distinct race from those who have their being on the other side. The rich side is naturally of finer clay, superior morally, physically, and intellectually. And it is the bounden duty of those who dwell on the rich side to defend its borders against the untimely incursions of the financially striving side. Between the two a silently genteel yet none the less bitter guerrilla warfare is in constant progress. No pickets are visible, no orders to halt are audibly voiced, no hostilities are openly exchanged. Nevertheless, there is a certain sense of vigilance. They shall not pass, is the order of the day.

By nature Mr. Lamb was too indolent and skeptical to care a rap about either side. By the accident of birth and inherited wealth he was well above the battle. One side of the tracks was as good to him as the other. He lived where he did, not from his own choice, but because the house had been left to him by those who had gone before after having lived in it themselves and had their fill of it. The modern plumbing and other embellishments were of Mrs. Lamb's contrivance. Like other members of her ilk, she believed, for some obscure reason, that the rich side of the tracks was also the aristocratic side. She was one of those aspiring wives who would have ruined her husband's health, hopes, and happiness in her efforts to drive him across the tracks to the right side, had Fate seen fit to have placed her on the wrong.

If Mr. Lamb was most entirely perfect in the eyes of his friends and associates, it was due solely to his profound disregard of the finer shades of class distinction, his complete indifference as to what was taking place about him in his sacrosanct community. He should have been a civil leader, the chairman of committees, the protector of the established order of things, whereas he devoted most of his time to making a fine art of comfortable if grotesque sitting. This state of affairs, to put it mildly, was most distasteful to Mrs. Lamb. Consequently Lamb enjoyed it the more. Silently, some might say meanly, he observed her irritation. He studied it analytically. He also enjoyed her dizzy attempts to make up in herself for the semi-recumbency of her husband.

Once when Lamb had elevated himself in an endeavour to rid the community of Home Defence lecturers, reformers, and other practitioners of a warped and questionable patriotism, his wife had been so outraged that she had withdrawn to Europe for the duration of three months, much to the peace and gaiety of the entire household. Lamb and Hebe often alluded half despondently to the unguarded naturalness of existence during that pleasant period.

Hebe drove. She drove a winding way along a picturesque, semi-rustic road leading to that desirable eminence from which the abode of Lamb looked down on both sides of the tracks through casements that had framed several generations of watchers, for the ancestral Lambs had always been estate-minded and land-possessed.

Mrs. Lamb objected to the antiquity of the house, but she had to admit the distinction of its location and the advantages of its ample grounds. She had endeavoured to make Lamb build. Lamb had studied her darkly for the full space of a minute, and there the endeavour had languished, never to be renewed. He had merely grinned, elevated his knees a trifle higher, and sighted at her over them. That had been quite enough. The subject was definitely closed.

As the car rounded a well-planned curve such as is to be found on the right side of the tracks, Hebe's eyes marked and dwelt on a figure she considered rather unusual. It was a little russet man, as she always afterwards remembered him. A small creature, this person was, apparelled in an ancient habit of russet hue. Even the umbrella which he carried with some show of elaboration was of the same colour. From the rear, his short, plump figure gave one the impression of good living and well-being. It was a jolly sort of figure, the embodiment of jocund autumn. Hebe thought of chestnuts and burning leaves, of trees turning and hearths aglow. He was a surprising little man, well poised and suggesting a certain dignity in spite of his odd appearance.

The little man was more surprising still as the car drew near him, for he suddenly stopped, turned deliberately in his tracks and brandished his russet umbrella in a most determined and imperative manner. There was no mistaking the meaning. He desired the car to stop. And Hebe obediently stopped. She noticed the little man's face was also of a russet hue. It was a jolly face, in which sparkled a pair of merry, unfathomable eyes.

"May I try it?" he asked abruptly.

His voice was as clear as a bell. It carried a quality of humorous briskness. Hebe was nonplussed. " You mean—" she began.

Exactly, my dear," supplied the little russet man as he fidgeted ineffectually with the handle of the rear door. "I mean just what I said: may I try it?"

"Let me help you," offered Mr. Lamb, slightly dazed, as he turned to open the door from the inside. In doing so his eyes encountered those of the little man, and an extraordinary sensation shot through him. He felt as if suddenly he had been discovered, and yet there was a haunting sense of having just failed to remember something he had forgotten so long ago that he doubted ever having known it. The spell was broken at the sound of the little man's clear voice.

"Your servant, sir," he said, and there seemed to be some hidden significance to his words. "Now I suppose one mounts?"

"Just so," replied Mr. Lamb. "One mounts."

After busily podging himself into the automobile, the little man sat down quite unhurriedly and arranged his umbrella in just a certain way. It was his way of arranging an umbrella.

"Now," he said, looking about him cheerfully, "what happens next? Make it do things, my dear." Feeling much younger and less assured, Hebe put the car in motion as the little man observed her, his eyes alight with great expectations.

"You must understand," he explained in a confidential voice, leaning over to Mr. Lamb, "in my other—er—I mean, in my younger days I had no experience at all with this method of locomotion. How could I?" he demanded severely. "How could I?"

The question required an answer.

"You just couldn't," agreed Mr. Lamb. "Impossible."

"Exactly!" cried the little russet man on a note of triumph. "The method didn't exist. Is it—er—er—quite as you would have it, my dear sir?"

"Not so good," offered Lamb, not knowing himself exactly how he would have it.

"No," reflected his small passenger judicially. "It is, as you so laconically put it, not so good."

"Some nerve," remarked Hebe in a smothered voice.

"The expression, my dear, is modern," said the little man good-humouredly, "yet its meaning is quite clear. I was merely agreeing with your father, for I presume he is your father, but perhaps I am in error on that slight point. It's possible you are his wife, or even better, his mistress. It is of no importance. As I was just now saying, I prefer to walk. I seem to taste things through the soles of my feet."

"You must run across some rare dishes," Hebe threw back jauntily.

The little man eyed the girl with approval.

"Your daughter, sir," he said, "for now I am sure she is your daughter, appears to possess an unusually healthy strain of vulgarity. I like it. I myself am vulgar beyond compare. In my other—er—I mean to say, in my younger days even strong men were forced to leave the room. I once remember Rabelais's fainting—the master vulgarian of them all. That was an achievement. My highest. Now I am somewhat refined. Not that I fail to appreciate things."

Mr. Lamb did some vague casting back in his memory, then became slightly shocked. This strange passenger must indeed be extremely old, almost too old to exist at all.

"Did I understand you to say Rabelais?" he asked in his most polished manner.

"A thousand pardons," the little russet man hastened to explain. "Rabelais! Certainly not. It must have been a more recent vulgarian. Old fellows like myself are prone to confuse both people and periods. Many years ago, though, I once met you, Mr. Lamb."

"Me!" ejaculated Lamb, now thoroughly aroused. "At what time? In what place may I ask?"

"Before you were, in a loose manner of speaking, born," came the quiet reply. "The place does not matter. You would not recall it."

Lamb and his daughter swiftly sought each other's eyes and found therein no helpful revelation. They seemed to be driving on in a dim, wandering silence, almost somnolent.

"From the outset you were destined to conflict," drifted a small, clear, yet distant voice from the rear seat. "It can be rectified. It should be. If I can be any service—"

Silence. Hebe was driving as those who drive in a dream—automatically, instinctively. Her father seemed to have fallen into some deep quagmire of meditation from which he would probably never be able to extricate himself. Silence still. Higher mounted the road. Had they been driving thus through eternity? Where was the station? Where was the house? And what, exactly, did they matter? Absently Hebe began to sing softly a melody from Tosca. Her low voice was surprisingly sweet, yet for some inexplicable reason an echo voice seemed to be following her to-day, a stronger voice filled with passion and bitterness, a knowledge and love of life. Lamb kept passing from one brown study to another, each growing browner until the last one threatened to become black. Yet even in his aloofness he listened to the singing and wondered. Something within him responded to it. As Hebe quite naturally slowed down and stopped at the gates to the house before taking the car to another entrance, a clear note rang out and lingered for a moment in the car around them—only them. They started and gazed at each other with bewildered eyes.

"Give over whooping," said Lamb. "What will our passenger think, not to mention the entire neighbourhood?"

Hebe glanced back at the rear seat.

"He doesn't seem to be there," she announced unsurely.

"Where the devil did we put the beggar off?" demanded her father.

"Don't know. He's off. That's just all there is to it," replied Hebe. "Perhaps the lunatic slipped out when we slowed down somewhere. I think he is an escaped one—honestly."

"Without the slightest possibility of a doubt," agreed Mr. Lamb. "But do you remember, the devil knew my name?"

"Yes—yes—so he did," said Hebe. "I remember now. Rum, ain't it?"

"No end," replied Lamb, with a grin. "This is our show, Hebe, understand ? "

"It is. It is," said the girl.

And just as he was leaving the car he asked her as diffidently as he could: "Listen, Hebe, does your friend—what's her name—Sand —"

"Sandra Rush," supplied Hebe helpfully.

"Name doesn't matter, anyway," went on her father hurriedly. "Does she always act like that?"

"That's for you to find out," said Hebe.

"Certainly not. No interest," declared Mr. Lamb. "And is it true that she parades in underwear?"

"That's a fact," the girl replied. "An absolute fact. I'll take you to see her sometime."

"God forbid," muttered Lamb, turning up the extensive driveway. "I wash my hands of it all."

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