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The Stray Lamb


Thorne Smith



MR. LAMB returned home to find his wife in another man's arms. The scene would have annoyed, if not irritated, the majority of God-fearing husbands. Not so Mr. Lamb. It left him cold. To heighten the colour of the situation, Mrs. Lamb was clad in what is generally considered an intimate costume—arrangements usually associated with the bed, yet not necessarily with sleep. The costume in which the man rejoiced seemed a bit vague to Lamb. All he could think of was Mardi Gras, class reunion, and revelry in general. He was not particularly interested.

The couple lay à la Cupid and Psyche upon the floor. At Lamb's entrance Cupid released Psyche with such alacrity that there was the unromantic sound of a thud, Psyche being in the neighbourhood of ten stone.

"Ah!" cried Mr. Leonard Gray, with a wild wave of his hand and a smile of an uncertain nature. "Crœsus home from his mints. How stands the market to-day?"

Mr. Lamb saw no occasion to reply to this piece of flamboyancy.

"Well, old money-grubber," said Mrs. Lamb, heaving into a more graceful position, "I suppose your hands reek with greenbacks. You're late to-night."

Nor to this remark did Mr. Lamb consider it essential to reply. He merely contemplated the pair at leisure.

"There are lounges," he said at last. "It's merely a suggestion, of course."

"Oh no, the floor's the place," protested Mr. Gray.

'Not the way I was taught," said Mr. Lamb.

"Tilly, where'd you get those funny breeches?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Lawrence," Mrs. Lamb replied, with an attempt at dignity. "They're not breeches. They're—"

"Go on, tell me they're kilts," interrupted her husband. "I'm ignorant. I revel in it."

"You know perfectly well they're your own best silk pyjamas," retorted his wife. "I put them on to get a certain effect."

"You'll get a tremendous effect unless you've put them on backwards," Mr. Lamb observed. "I've always had to be careful with those pyjamas myself."

"Sapho," put in Mr. Gray hastily, "I don't think I can go on with it now. I can't recapture the mood."

"Try that strangle hold again, young man," suggested Mr. Lamb. "It might do you a world of good."

"Every man must play his part, Mr. Lamb," replied Leonard Gray protestingly.

"But you appear to be playing my part," said Lamb. "Playing it better than I could—far better."

Mr. Gray was the local amateur hero, the focal point of the Woodbine Players. He had once tried to sell bonds in Mr. Lamb's office. It had been a poor try. Even his manly good looks had failed to disturb the stenographers. So, accordingly, he had withdrawn, having failed in all departments. The flappers and married women who had nothing better to do welcomed him back to the fold of the idle, and found him quite a help. Of late he was much to be seen at the Lamb ménage where Sapho and he developed their art.

"Why persist in misunderstanding?" complained Mrs. Lamb. "Leonard and I are rehearsing for Sunday night."

"Then I suppose I should stay away or visit friends?" her husband suggested.

"Don't be vulgar," Mrs. Lamb replied. "You know very well about the Vacation Fund affair."

"When I was a boy," said Mr. Lamb, "such scenes used to be barred in public, especially on Sunday. Why do they close the movies?"

At this point Hebe blew into the room and eyed the weirdly clad couple.

"At it again, I see," she announced. " When will you two ever get tired?"

Mrs. Lamb sighed wearily and considering rising, then thought better of it.

"I'm sure I'll be glad when it's all over," she said. " I'm tired out, and the part bores me to tears."

"I wish I could take it for you." Hebe's voice was deep with unfelt sympathy.

"Child," said her mother, " you'd never understand. It takes—oh, I don't know what it takes."

"It takes a hell of a lot of nerve, I'd say," Mr. Lamb remarked. " Come on, Hebe, I want to desiphon a couple of drinks."

When they had left the room Mrs. Lamb looked questioningly at her partner.

"You shouldn't have dropped me like that," she complained. "I felt so off poise."

"Only thing to do under the circumstances," replied Mr. Gray.

"Perhaps it was," she answered as he helped her to her feet. Then in a lower voice: "I'm afraid we were rehearsing too well, Len. You'll have to be a better boy."

"More careful," he said, equally low.

She nodded.

In the dining-room Lamb was actively caging drinks, being carefully provided for by Thomas and Hebe. Thomas knew Lamb better than Lamb knew himself. He had been in the family longer, and was so old that he had grown used to it and was now apparently indifferent to the passage of time. Thomas seemed to feel that he had got so old he could hardly get any older. He had no more room for years. So he cheerfully kept on living and regarding Lamb and Hebe as his last responsibilities. He was far too old for Mrs. Lamb. She was eager to pension him off. Thomas knew this and failed to show the proper amount of gratitude.

Presently Brother Dug came in—Douglas Blumby, Lamb's brother-in-law and pet aversion. Dug always sang the "dead drunk" part in "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," and had never failed to find it amusing. He was about Lamb's own age, forty, and should have been chloroformed some months before his first candle. During the War he had been a camp song-leader and general rouser-up, and ever since that time his one idea in life had been to make people sing. On gala occasions he donned his non-combatant song-leader's uniform and recalled camp life in a loud voice. He did things about Boy Scouts, and they failed to see his point.

Now he entered the room with a "Whoopee, good people! Guzzle's the word. How's tricks, Larry?"

Larry choked so severely over his drink that both Thomas and Hebe sped to his assistance, the one taking the glass from his shaking hand, the other thumping him violently upon the back. When the afflicted man had somewhat recovered, he turned a pair of watery malevolent eyes on his brother-in-law.

"I'm not proud of Lawrence," he said in a hoarse voice, "but by God if I'll stand for Larry! Further-more, I don't know any tricks."

Hebe turned to brother Dug reproachfully.

"You've been cautioned enough not to call him Larry," she told him.

Brother Dug was not at all cast down.

"All right, Larry," he replied, with a humorous smirk as he patted Mr. Lamb's already flayed back. " I'll not call you Larry."

Thomas and Hebe seized Mr. Lamb's arms and clung to them. For a moment he stood there rigid and straining like a statue of Prometheus chained, then he allowed himself to be placed in a chair and supplied with a fresh high-ball.

Meanwhile Douglas Blumby had drifted away on some merry quest. His booming voice could be heard in the hallway discussing with Gray and Sapho the part that he would play in the Vacation Fund affair.

"Why do you let him live here, father?" asked Hebe.

"God knows, young one," he replied. "Perhaps it's fear of your mother or my final loyalty to her. Another thing, I have a certain duty to society. Bad as I am I could never inflict that ninny on the world. We must keep our troubles in the family."

It was hardly a propitious moment for the entrance of Mr. Melville Long, yet in that young gentleman came without a care in the world, assured of a warm, if not an enthusiastic, reception. Mr. Lamb, gazing at him with lowering brows, recognised the youth he had so disastrously attempted to imitate.

"This is Mel Long," said Hebe. "He wolfs with us to-night, major."

"I know your father," said Lamb, extending a limp hand. "He works."

"A father's privilege," replied Mr. Long blithely. "I often thank God he does. If he didn't I don't know how we'd ever get along."

"You rejoice in your non-productiveness, young man," observed Lamb.

"I'm not so unproductive," the youth replied. "This morning I helped a famous dipsomaniac to regain a part of his health by playing him eighteen holes of golf. This afternoon I made a sketch of mother that made the old dear feel fifteen years younger. I'll get a new car for that. And to-night—well, here I am."

"And I suppose you're going to stay," said Mr. Lamb rather cheerlessly.

"Until the crack o' dawn," Long replied, with a happy smile. "Golfing makes one hungry."

Mr. Lamb rose wearily from his chair, placed his half-empty glass on the buffet and walked to the door.

"Well," he said, " if you've settled that, I suppose nothing I can say would induce you to alter your plans. At your age I didn't drink—much." He turned to his daughter and continued: " Hebe, you do the strangest things. Don't drop the decanter when pouring. And don't wear it out."

With that he left the room. After dinner he retired to his study, where he sat doing nothing, absolutely nothing. Once he walked out on his little private veranda and considered the world at large, after which he returned to his chair, where he continued to do nothing.

The next day he broke an inflexible rule and journeyed to the city. It was Saturday. There was no sense to it, yet he went just the same.

As he made for a seat in the train, a slim figure almost tripped him up in its eagerness to crowd past him.

We shall sit together," breathed the figure. "You and I on a single seat—alone!"

"With the exception of five or six hundred human souls," observed Mr. Lamb, "we are quite alone."

"This is merely the beginning," replied Sandra.

"It is a short trip and I usually read right up to the end of it. That has been my rule for years," said Lamb.

"But now that you've come to know me so well," the young lady continued, "you will have to make a new set of rules."

Mr. Lamb regarded her with a pained expression.

"You get the queerest ideas in your head," he replied. "I hardly know you at all. Why don't you go up there and sit with Simonds? He has no one to talk with, and I doubt if he knows how to read."

"Mr. Simonds!" exclaimed Sandra. "He is a lovely man. He lends me his horse. I ride him tomorrow."

"Why don't you go and tell him about it?" said Lamb curtly. "If I couldn't be a better horse than that clown of his I'd give up trying. At that he's preferable to his master."

"You like him, I see," said Sandra.

"We all do," replied Lamb shortly ; then with a quick change of tone: "Tell me, do you really parade in underwear?"

"You mean, march down Fifth Avenue behind a band and Mr. Whalen?" she asked. "Never! I'm too exclusive."

"I didn't mean quite so openly as that," Mr. Lamb explained. "You know what I mean. Don't quibble."

"I have never quibbled," she said, with conviction, "and I don't think it nice of you to suggest such a thing. But I do parade in underwear, to say the least."

"I wouldn't put it that way," advised Mr. Lamb, in a fatherly voice. "It doesn't sound nice."

"Oh, I am still unseduced," she replied. "I'm tired of trying to be."

Mr. Lamb looked about him quickly, consternation in his. eyes.

"Lay off that," he said in a low, intense voice. "Don't shout the word above the roar and clatter of the train. Confine your unsolicited confessions to this end of the car."

"You misunderstand," she continued earnestly. " I don't mean that I desire to be seduced. What I tried to convey to you is, I'm tired of having people try to seduce me. You're an exception."

"Let's drop seduction for the moment," pleaded Mr. Lamb. "Do you like going to plays?"

"Only for the moment will I drop it," said Sandra. " I like going to plays. Take me."

"I will not," said Lamb.

"Dog," said Sandra, and turned to the window.

The conversation languished here. Mr. Lamb opened his paper and endeavoured to read. His eyes kept straying furtively to the girl's averted face. Had she caught his glance he would have felt like a thief. The reason was hard to define. Gradually it dawned on him that the girl was looking at the scenery. Actually looking at it. Seeing it. To such an extent, in fact, that he was entirely forgotten. She had dismissed him from her thoughts, if he ever had been in her thoughts. She was out there somewhere, out there in the woods and fields. She was no longer connected with underwear, that is, Lamb hastily amended, she was no longer parading in underwear with commercial intent. Lamb also amended that thought. He did not know quite how to put it, so he gave it up. Anyway, she was out there somewhere, and he was left quite behind. He felt injured yet interested.

Suddenly she squeezed his arm.

"Look!" she said. "See the two ponds—the upper one and the lower?"

The ponds flashed past, two brief little bits of metal. She looked at him with cloudy eyes.

"Well, the lower pond is all alone now," she continued. "There used to be swans on it. Such lovely, button-hook-looking swans. Now they're all gone. They're on the upper pond, those swans, and the children play there now. Do you think that the lower pond feels lonely?"

Mr. Lamb considered it a very difficult question. His common sense assured him that the lower pond did not mind in the least, yet somehow, within himself, he felt as did his companion, that the lower pond might feel a little lonely.

"Yes," he said at last, regarding her quite seriously. "I think the chances are that the lower pond feels just a bit out of things. Perhaps it is lying there wondering when the swans will return again . . . and the children."

"I think you're awfully damn nice," she said irrelevantly, and Lamb promptly returned to his paper.

Just before the train pulled in at the station, Lamb turned to her and asked: "Why do you sometimes speak in such a strange way . . . sort of inverted English?"

"You don't like it?" she asked, with a delightfully rising inflection.

"Leave me out of it," he replied. "Why do you do it?"

Then she laughed. She laughed softly, almost inwardly, without regard for either Lamb or his feelings.

"You're so dumb," she said finally when she had pulled herself together. "But just because you've given me such a good time, I'll let you into a secret. Where I work, where I wander around in underwear, the directing gods urge us to talk like that. They think it sounds distinguished, gives the scanty things we wear the stamp of authenticity. Some of the models are much worse than I am. Sometimes I fall into it from sheer habit, at others for the sake of practice. I love to practice on you, you're so—so—gullible, if you get what I mean. Now will you make me much?"

Lamb gave general directions as to just where she could go, and thus they parted, the one to the opulent salons of Fifth Avenue, the other to the thronging defiles of the financial district.

That night Lamb momentarily left his study and stood for a while on his private veranda. In a perverse fashion he was a little nosey about what was going to happen on the following evening and the preparations now under way. Merely because he was so completely out of it. Lamb was that way.

Mrs. Lamb—Sapho—with several turbans around her head, and what he decided must be a romper suit embellished with a scarf round the waist, was temperamentally directing several members of the Woodbine Players in the erecting of flood-lights and the construction of a stage. At times she would pause as if in a trance, one hand pressed to her cheek. And Lamb hated that. He had to look somewhere else whenever she did it. Sapho was also driving Thomas into a long awaiting grave by sending him for something, then not wanting it when the old man had pantingly arrived. Lamb called Thomas to him, and ordered him to bed.

"On your way through the dining-room don't forget to tilt the decanter," he told him.

"I wasn't going to, sir," Thomas assured him, and shambled off with a parting, "I hope we all sleep, sir, in spite of it."

Lamb hoped so. He intended to.

He returned to his study, and the charming fabrications of Kai Lung and was getting along quite nicely when he became aware that someone was speaking to him. What he heard was:

"As I was saying, it should be rectified."

Mr. Lamb looked up and saw sitting opposite him, as if he had always been accustomed to occupying that particular chair, the little russet man.

"Can you do anything about it?" asked Mr. Lamb.

"I did not say that I could, sir," the little man replied.

"Then why let's talk about it?" continued Lamb. "From the first, you say, I was destined to conflict. By that, I assume you meant spiritual conflict. Well, recently I've just realised it. Before that I always imagined I was a singularly contented and fortunate man. I'm not. I don't like things."

"What would you prefer to be?" asked the plump caller, carefully placing his umbrella on the floor beside his chair. "What would you like to do?"

Lamb rose in exasperation. He moved restlessly about the study, poured out a brace of drinks, produced a box of cigars, and finally reseated himself.

"I don't know," he said rather helplessly. "Haven't the vaguest idea when you put it to me straight. One thing I do know, I'm tired of being a human being. I think I'd like to be things if I could—animals, birds, beasts, fish, any old sort of a thing, just to get another point of view, to keep from thinking and acting always as a man, always as a civilised being, an economic unit with a barrel full of obligations constantly threatening to run up against something and smash."

The little russet man considered Lamb pensively for a short time over the ash rim of his cigar. Lamb steadily meeting his gaze read a world of understanding in the little fellow's eyes. To Lamb at that moment he did not seem little. He seemed large enough almost to be terrible. Yet the man was not quite terrible. It was his penetration that gave one a feeling of awe—of nakedness.

"That is all I wanted to know," said the little russet man emphatically, and put down his glass.

Lamb turned to reach for an extra ash-tray. When he turned back with the tray, offering it to his guest, all that remained of him was a lazily floating cloud of cigar smoke. The cigar itself was neatly balanced on the arm of the chair. Only the glass, cigar, and weaving smoke gave evidence that he had ever been there at all.

For several seconds Lamb remained in a condition of suspended animation, the ash-tray still extended. Then he deliberately returned the tray to its place, finished his drink, put his book on the desk, its pages spread at the place where he had been reading, got up from his chair and thoughtfully left the room.

It was Hebe's custom to call her father in the morning. Even in the summer-time when most young ladies lay late abed, especially on Sundays, Hebe was always hellishly up and prowling.

Mr. and Mrs. Lamb occupied adjoining rooms, though the advantage therein had for some time ceased to exist. It was through her mother's room that Hebe gained access to her father's.

This morning, as usual, she appeared in a flaming dressing-gown and softly opened her father's door. Sapho was still asleep, her temperament entirely abandoned. The girl looked into her father's room gloatingly. She was going to disturb someone. Then gradually her expression changed. She cocked her head on one side like a puzzled dog and continued to look, her eyes growing rounder and rounder. At last she turned quietly to her mother's bed.

"Sapho!" she whispered. "Sapho! Wake up. There appears to be a horse in father's bed."

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