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The Stray Lamb


Thorne Smith



MR. LEONARD GRAY was not habitually an early riser, but some extra special instinct urged him to be up and doing this morning. Perhaps, after all, the instinct was not so extra special. It may have been due merely to his sense of touch and Mr. Lamb's whiskers, which were extremely hardy and assertive. Tough, stubbly whiskers were the last things in the world that Mr. Gray expected to encounter. They had not been included in his plans. Consequently, when it was borne in on him that he was tenderly stroking a cheek abundantly provided with a week's growth of knifelike hair, he opened his eyes with no little interest to see wherein he had erred.

Nor had Mr. Lamb expected to have his whiskers stroked either tenderly or otherwise. In fact she had forgotten all about whiskers and imagined he was still a horse. He, too, opened his eyes and looked uncomprehendingly into those of Mr. Leonard Gray. Lamb drew back his lips and exposed his teeth in a most disagreeable expression, then suddenly realising he was no longer a stallion, he controlled his natural impulse and grinned pleasantly at his companion. It is difficult to say whether the snarl or the grin did the most to upset Mr. Gray's delicately organised nerves. It came to the same thin; in the end. With a stifled gasp the splendid fellow gave Mr. Lamb the entire bed and dartingly began to dress.

"Where's the fire?" asked Mr. Lamb easily. "No need to pop off like that. There's plenty of room in this bed. Lie down and get your beauty sleep."

"Only wish I could," the young man faltered, briskly slipping his arms through the legs of his trousers. "Must run along. Worked to all hours last night on the books of the Woodbine Players . . . got so fagged I couldn't go home. Crawled right into your bed and slept like a top."

"One of the most active gadgets I know," observed Mr. Lamb.

"That's so, too," agreed Mr. Gray, grittily getting into his shoes. "Tops are active, aren't they?"

"Very," said Mr. Lamb, "when on pleasure bent."

This point having been settled there seemed to be nothing left to talk about. Mr.Lamb lay quietly back in bed and watched Mr. Gray at his toilet, his eyes following every movement of the desperate youth. This was terribly trying to Mr. Gray. Dressing to him was a ritual which he preferred to perform in private.

"Don't you ever wash in the morning?" Lamb asked at last, unable to restrain his curiosity.

"Oh, yes," said Mr. Gray quickly. "Always wash in the morning, always."

"Well, you're not washing this morning." continued Mr. Lamb argumentatively.

"I will, though, I will," the young man explained hastily. "When I get home I'll tub it."

"That will do you no end of good," said Mr. Lamb. "I say, your collar's all rucked up in the back, and for God's sake do something about those trousers. You can't face the world in such a confiding condition."

Mr. Gray, with a convulsive movement, tried to attend to himself in two different places at once. Lamb continued to observe him with quietly brooding eyes. An old sabre was hanging on the wall near the bed. Lamb lazily reached up and took it down. Mr. Gray redoubled his efforts as he watched his languid host delicately test the blade, then thoughtfully transfer his gaze to him.

"Do you know something?" observed Mr. Lamb. "This old sabre is very sharp. It would snip that head off your shoulders as easily as slicing cheese."

Gray gave a hysterical little laugh and continued his dressing in a far corner. Suddenly, Lamb half rose in bed and darted the sabre at him. With a strangled cry Gray looked helplessly about him.

"Your vest," said Lamb. "Your vest. It's buttoned all wrong."

With dancing fingers the pride and joy of the Woodbine Players readjusted his vest, snatched up his coat, and moved warily, toward the door. If he could only make it life would be just a little bit more secure. The sabre flashed out and barred his path. Gray shrank back.

"Before you leave," said Lamb, "I'd like to ask you a question, just one question."

Gray feared that question. Why had his torturer reserved it to the end? Suppose Sapho, unaware of her husband's return, should enter the room at this minute with some shockingly revealing endearment? Gathering his histrionic abilities for one heroic effort, he half looked at Lamb and smiled. His face gave the impression of a wax figure that had partly melted in the sun. Lamb was studying his neck intently, and Mr. Gray was unhappily aware of his gaze. Also he was not forgetful of the presence of the sabre. Was this to be the end of what he had fondly believed to be a picturesque career?

"Throw back your head," said Lamb abruptly, poising the sabre in his hand.

Gray, as if hypnotised, elevated his chin and awaited the stroke of doom.

"If you think there's been anything—" he began, but Lamb cut in on his last-minute perjury.

"Tell me," said Lamb, his eyes still fixed hungrily on Mr. Gray's neck, "where do you buy your ties? I want you to get me some."

Gray almost collapsed. So that was the reason for Lamb's long scrutiny. He snatched at his neck and tore off the colourful decoration, tossing it to the man on the bed. "Here," he said hurriedly. "Take this one. Piles of them at home. I'll send some over."

"Bring 'em," suggested Lamb.

"I will," breathed Gray. "I will. First thing."

He left Lamb reclining on his bed happily inspecting the necktie. Sapho was sleeping the gloating sleep of a successfully unfaithful wife. Gray tiptoed past her door with face averted. No time to warn her now. Safety, assured bodily safety, was the first consideration. Never had life seemed so sweet. The fresh morning air fanned his face. He passed an unsteady hand across his forehead and found he had been perspiring profusely. Then the reaction came. He began to laugh softly—secretively. Lamb was such a fool, so ridiculously unaware of his horns. These husbands! They were all alike. And their wives. They were all alike, too, or almost all alike, if you pressed your campaign in a certain manner. By the time he had reached his home, Mr. Leonard Gray had thoroughly convinced himself that the joke was on Mr. Lamb. In the meantime that gentleman to whose head he had so adroitly affixed horns was falling blissfully asleep with the sabre held lightly in one hand and Mr. Gray's necktie in the other.

Hebe took a long chance that morning and quietly sought her father's room. She was surprised and delighted to find him there asleep, but a little puzzled by the playthings he had taken to bed with him. Mrs. Lamb had failed to announce to her daughter the presence of a visitor. If the truth must be known, she had entirely forgotten to tell anyone at all about it. The household had been unaware of the great honour Mr. Leonard Gray had conferred upon it. So far as Mrs. Lamb was concerned, it would continue to remain unaware. Hebe thought there was something not distantly familiar about the necktie.

"The major must be getting childish," she said to herself as she gently closed the door.

"Sapho!" she whispered, and Sapho woke up with a startled cry. "Father is sleeping in his own bed for a change."

In utter consternation Mrs. Lamb looked at her daughter. Her frame of mind was not to be envied.

"Hebe," she said after a long pause, "I told you distinctly never to come near this part of the house on Sundays. Since that Vacation Fund affair and the strange disappearance of your father my nerves have gone to pieces. I need rest. I must have repose. You know it."

"But the major's back," replied Hebe. "Come and look."

That was just what Mrs. Lamb most objected to doing at that inauspicious moment. As she gazed blankly at her daughter a keen realisation of the situation ominously grew within the lady.

"Have you seen him?" she asked, after a moment's hesitation.

"With these eyes," responded Hebe.

"Did he look—er—as usual?" Mrs. Lamb was growing confused.

There was something mysterious about that room. First her husband turned into a horse, then her lover turned into her husband. Peace and security seemed to have departed from the world.

"The picture of himself," answered Hebe, "only there was something sort of strange about him. He had a sabre in one hand and a necktie in the other."

Mrs. Lamb gave a start and smothered an exclamation.

"What sort of necktie was it?" she asked.

"That's the funny part about it," said Hebe in a puzzled voice. "It didn't look like the major's at all. I have it! It looked exactly like Leonard Gray's."

"O-o-o-oh!" The sound came fluttering from Mrs. Lamb's lips. The colour had left her face. So that was all that was left of Leonard Gray, only a necktie.

"Was the sword frightfully bloody?" she asked, fascinated by the horror of the situation.

I didn't notice," said Hebe, looking strangely at her mother, "but I seem to think it was."

once more the low cry issued from her mother's lips. She sank weakly back on her pillows and closed her eyes.

"Leave me," she said to her daughter.

Already she was picturing herself playing a most important rôle in a fashionable murder trial. Too bad about Leonard, though. Mrs. Lamb then considered her husband. She was more than a little suspicious of Lamb. A well-nigh unbelievable conviction was forming in her mind. For the past few days she had dismissed it, fearing it might unbalance her reason. There was no getting away from the fact, however, that it had been a strangely acting horse . . . so like het husband in many ways. The whole thing was mad, wild, impossible, but—but— if she was really married to a man who even occasionally turned into a horse, surely the courts could do something about it. Everything was altogether too much for Mrs. Lamb. It was not a successful Sunday morning. Her life should have been so different—so much larger and more magnificent. What sacrifices she had made in marrying that man! She was overwhelmingly sorry for herself and only a little bit sorry for Mr. Leonard Gray, indubitably deceased.

Later in the day Hebe was having a business meeting with Melville Long. The meeting was held on the veranda and presided over by a decanter of Scotch.

"There is only one of two things to be done," the young lady began briskly. "Either you'll have to ruin me or else start bootlegging."

"Why not do 'em both," suggested Long, "and thus make assurance doubly sure?"

"Might be something in that, too," admitted his fair companion, "but the way I see things at present one or the other must be done."

"Well, I draw the line at ruination," declared Long in a more serious voice. "I'm off that ruination idea entirely."

"There's something in it," Hebe went on. "We won't dismiss it altogether. If you ruin me and I actually find myself with child—"

"Enceinte is the way nice people say it," Mr. Long corrected.

"Don't interrupt," said Hebe impatiently. "It all comes to the same thing in time. As I was saying, if I were actually beyond doubt that way I know the major would do the handsome thing. He'd see us safely married and give us a chunk of cash. He's got no end of money. Sapho would be annoyed at my carelessness, but the major would fix her. You see, then we'd be all married and everything."

"Yes," agreed Mr. Long. "Particularly everything. With the head start we'd have you could easily be a grandmother before you were thirty-five. Then again, there's an element of amateurishness about ruination. People might get the idea I didn't know my way around. Wouldn't like that. Bootlegging is better. I'd feel more independent."

"All right," said Hebe impartially. "Why not try that? We could make enough money in a year to start out on our own. Ruination can easily wait."

"I know a guy down in the slum district," Long continued meditatively. "He's a nice guy, and I know he'd start me off right—get me the stuff and all that."

"And we could use one of our cars," put in Hebe. "The big one. That would be slick for deliveries."

"We've certainly got to do something if we want to get married," the young man went on broodingly. "Honest work takes too long. Painting won't net me a red, and the old man absolutely refuses to come across until, as he puts it, I've proved myself. He goes on about me as if I were a problem in geometry. Always asking me to prove myself."

It was here that Sandra put in an appearance, and the edifying alternatives were explained for her consideration.

"I think," said Hebe on concluding, "that ruination would be the best and safest, don't you?"

"It would be by far the most agreeable," Sandy decided. "Also the most effective. Bootlegging, though, is pretty exciting. I'd like to try it myself. And Mel has a lot of rich friends. He could poison them for a long time before they actually died or lost their sight."

"By the way," said Hebe, changing the subject for her friend's benefit, "the major's back."

Sandra brightened visibly, and Long looked startled. "That's so nice," said Sandra. "Is he tired of being a horse?"

"Don't know," replied Hebe. "Haven't spoken with him yet. He was pounding when I last saw him."

During Mr. Lamb's absence the three young people had discussed him earnestly, and had come to the conclusion that, as incredible as it seemed, he had been the horse. All had advanced their reasons, and they had seemed incontrovertible. Hebe had even related her father's experience with the russet man and his strange behaviour. This had clinched matters. Mr. Lamb had been, and probably still was, the horse. There was no getting around that amazing fact. Not being so far removed from fairy-tales themselves they accepted Mr. Lamb's metamorphosis without much difficulty.

At this moment the subject of their conversation blithely entered the room. He was resplendent in Mr. Gray's tie.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," he said amiably, then turning to his daughter. "Did you get my letter, Hebe?"

"Yes, indeed," replied Hebe, with undisguised sarcasm. "And all your telegrams and that lovely box of candy."

Mr. Lamb sat down and considered the three young people with an affable expression.

"I forgot to tell either you or your mother," he continued, the lie coming with surprising readiness, "that I have an important deal on in Philadelphia. I might have to pop off at any moment. Probably open an office there."

"Why not a livery stable?" suggested Hebe.

Mr. Lamb favoured his daughter with a false laugh.

"Why a livery stable?" he asked daringly.

"Honest to God," spoke up Sandra, "tell us something. Weren't you that horse? You're among friends."

"Suppose I should say yes?" parleyed Mr. Lamb. "Then I'd say that you were one of the worst and best horses I've ever ridden," replied Sandra.

Lamb considered the situation for a short time. He realised that these three young people not only thought he was the horse, but also knew he was the horse.

"What do you think?" he asked, turning to the tactfully mute Melville Long.

"Well," said Long, "no natural-born horse could have consumed cocktails the way that horse did. Never saw anything like it. And the sandwiches—it must have had human blood in its veins."

Lamb was regarding Sandra closely. What would she think if he came out and admitted that he had been the horse? She could never possibly afford to associate with a man who turned into things. At the moment he heartily regretted ever having had anything to do with the little russet man. He bowed his head and unhappily studied the extreme tips of his shoes.

"I guess I was that horse," he said at last in a low voice. "I don't know much more about it than you all do. It just happened. There I was—a horse. But I'm not a horse now," he added hopefully.

Hebe went over to her father and gave him one of her rare kisses. Sandra sat as close to him as possible without sitting on his lap.

"Do you remember," she said, "I kissed you?"

"I might be a horse again or something worse at any moment." Mr. Lamb looked at her warningly.

"How does it feel to be a horse, Mr. Lamb?" Melville Long's voice was replete with interest.

"Remarkable," began Mr. Lamb, and stopped.

A motor was fussing up the gravel in the driveway. Mrs. Lamb came in and sank down exhausted. Even the sight of her husband failed to revive her. Then she saw the tie. She sat up, an expression of horror marring her features. All day long she had been searching for traces of Leonard Gray, hoping against hope that he might have escaped with only a wound. Here was the person who had done her lover—perhaps her last—to death, callously conversing while his victim's necktie, like a trophy of war, hung flauntingly from his neck.

Mr. Lamb went through all about Philadelphia again. Mrs. Lamb scarcely heard him. Her eyes were fixed on the colourful tie. Hebe, noticing the direction of her mother's gaze, also looked on the necktie and became uncomfortably interested in it.

"That's a terrible tie, major," she remarked. "Where did you get it?"

"Ask your mother about that," replied Mr. Lamb easily. "She knows more about my neckties than I do."

"Murderer!" Mrs. Lamb had been unable to restrain the accusation.

Mr. Lamb sat up appalled.

"Have I killed someone?" he asked. "This is the first I've heard of it. Hebe made no mention of a murder."

Mrs. Lamb, now beyond control, came close to him and extended a tragic finger.

"What did you do with the body?" she demanded in a low vibrating voice. "And all the blood. What became of that?"

Mr. Lamb was no more startled than were Hebe and her friends. Their round eyes regarded the murderer wonderingly. Mr. Lamb pulled himself together and returned the accusing gaze of his wife.

"What did you do with the body first?" he inquired. "That would be more to the point."

Mrs. Lamb turned away and walked to the window. Her face was safe from scrutiny. At that moment Mr. Leonard Gray himself saw fit to arrive.

"Here they are!" he cried, placing a package on Mr. Lamb's lap. "All new. Went into the city and picked them out myself If you like the tie you're wearing, you'll go crazy about these."

"Meet my chum, everybody," said Mr. Lamb quietly. "We're room-mates now. Thanks for the ties, Len."

Mrs. Lamb, with a distracted look about her, fluttered her hands above her head and left the room. Leonard Gray followed. The murderer threw himself back in his chair and favoured Sandra, Hebe, and Mr. Long with a benign smile.

"And they all lived happily ever after," he said.

"Let's have a look," urged Hebe. "Mel could use a new tie."

Mr. Lamb obligingly opened the package.

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