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The Stray Lamb
MR. BILLINGS REMOVES HIS CLOTHES
THE next day Mr. Lamb put to sea. It was entirely unexpected. One of those unplanned excursions that turn out so excellently.
He had been hanging about the three-mile limit all day, idly sniffing empty bottles and recalling his vision of Sandra; when along toward three o'clock a big liner came stepping swiftly on her way to Europe.
Mr. Lamb had never crossed. It was one of those things one promises oneself and keeps on promising until the tomb puts an end to the hoary illusion. He was fond of ships. He felt that he could do well on a ship. The only thing wrong with Europe was that his wife had been there. He was not so fond of Europe for this. It should have been out when she called.
He tagged along with a motley throng of gulls in the wake of the ship. His companions were greedy for garbage. He most disliked their squawks of disappointment and satisfaction. One little gull who, in spite of her frantic efforts, was getting almost nothing, he helped out. She appreciated the half-filled banana peel hugely, but immediately began making improper advances, and Lamb had the time of his life convincing her of his chastity. It was all new to her. She returned to the garbage a much puzzled bird. She was more hurt than annoyed.
Then Lamb boarded the ship. He was going to see for himself. With a stealth that was now well developed he slipped into the scuppers of the main deck and made his way forward to the smoking-room. From his point of vantage there were many legs—forests of legs. He averaged them up on his way and decided they were far from bad. Good, satisfactory legs, well-hosed and frankly displayed for all the world to admire. He thought of slave markets where women were sold nude, and he wondered why the pictures always showed them cringing. Why, just show these women a slave market, and they would be racing to see who could strip first. Lamb was not a nice man. He did not think in nice ways. Mrs. Lamb had found that out.
His reception in the smoking-room was a great deal better than he had either hoped for or expected. The minute he thrust his serious, bespectacled head into the door a man in the corner began to laugh quietly to himself. From then on Lamb was a made gull so far as the smoking-room was concerned. He was accepted as one of the boys.
It all started from the man in the corner feeding him with bread soaked in wine. From then on things went from bad to worse. He was borrowed by various tables and urged to indulge. That is hardly correct. Lamb needed no urging. When a pretty woman held him in her arms and temptingly offered him a sip from her own cocktail he saw no reason to make a display of himself. He sipped and continued sipping. After dinner he did things with liqueurs. Exactly what he did with them he never quite remembered. However, a certain highball lingered long in his mind...that highball and a slanting deck, then an open door and a bed. Life became a comfortable hiatus.
When he next visited consciousness he was pecking irritably at a soft but firm object that was seriously disturbing his slumber. Several times beneath his pecking the object moved convulsively. Then suddenly the object was removed and the lights flashed on. When the coverings were pulled back, Lamb found himself frowning up into the face of a seriously perturbed young lady auspiciously attired. Now it so happened that this young lady had mastered only one cry of alarm that she considered suitable for ship board. This cry she made all haste to utter.
Rushing from the room, she shouted at the top of her extremely robust lungs a warning that is feared and heeded on all the seven seas.
"Man overboard!" she announced with an earnestness that lent conviction. "Man overboard!"
The cry was automatically caught up by the stewards and passed forward to the bridge.
"Where?" demanded an officer, seizing the distracted young lady by a well-bared arm.
"Don't know," she half sobbed, "but I think it's in my bed. It bit me."
Too late now. The ship lost headway, then went into reverse. Doors popped open, and half-clad figures rushed to the decks, all of them cheerfully shouting something about a man being overboard. The scene was as giddy as a college rush.
During this refreshing interlude Mr. Lamb found an opportunity to remove himself to another stateroom, and to make sure there would be no misunderstandingthis time he deliberately perched himself on the back of a chair.
"Well, that's doing pretty well for a mere seagull," he thought dreamily as he took up his sleep at the point where it had been disturbed.
Upon the bridge the skipper, when he learned the true state of affairs, was credited by his officers for inventing an entirely new language—something more concretely awful than they had ever heard before.
When the occupant of the stateroom Mr. Lamb had selected for the remainder of the night returned he glanced at the chair and averted his eyes. Then he rang for the steward.
"Steward," he asked when the man had arrived, "does there seem to be a bird on that chair in the corner?"
"There is, sir," replied the steward. " It's a seagull."
"Is the bird alive or dead?" continued the man.
The steward approached Mr. Lamb and scrutinised him closely. "He seems to be more asleep, sir," said the steward. "I'll chuck him right out."
"No," said the man. "No, steward. Let the damn fool sleep. I merely wanted to find out if we saw the same thing. I know exactly how he feels."
The steward withdrew, and the man, after a sympathetic survey of the gull, quietly prepared for sleep. He omitted dropping his shoes that night—a sleeping gull should not be aroused.
Mr. Lamb woke up a wreck. He had a confused memory of confusion. Impossible to put things together. He was sure, however, that the skipper did not want him on the ship. As a matter of fact, when the skipper had received a fuller report of various happenings aboard his ship he had said, "Find the ——, —— gull and wring its ——, —— neck." Instinctively Mr. Lamb knew that the skipper would be just snooty enough to issue an order like that. Lamb had heard about skippers.
Therefore, with a parting look of interest at his cabin-mate, he hopped to an open porthole and abandoned ship. As he wheeled high in the heavens he saw smoke on the sky-line. Soon he was able to make out the lines of a ship heading in the opposite direction—New York bound.
"I guess I'll have to hitch-hike it," he decided, stumbling over an air pocket and almost losing his balance. "In my condition I could never make port on wing."
Before he finally left, however, he flew back to his own ship and secretively introduced himself into the skipper's quarters, where he succeeded in arousing the weary man by patiently toying with his hair. Then at a safe distance, close to a porthole, the gull arranged himself and listened while the skipper made all the noise. Mr. Lamb wished he had a stenographer present to take down many of the wonderful words he heard. The skipper went into his parentage, dwelt on various irregularities of birth, and gave specific evidence showing that Lamb was a nameless, immoral scavenger of the sea, the scum of all feathered things. Then Mr. Lamb took up the burden of the conversation and cursed the skipper vilely, but impartially, as only a seagull can.
The air was filled with a wild clattering sound. The skipper listened for a while to the cursing gull with truly professional interest, then re-lost his temper. There were a great number of bells in his room. The skipper rang them all. When practically the entire crew had been assembled the skipper gave it explicit instructions just what to do with the gull. To have done all the things the skipper commanded would have required a lot of gulls—one gull could never have lasted. Mr. Lamb waited politely until the man had exhausted his supply of unpleasant suggestions, then poising himself in the porthole, rebuked him roundly for his lack of self-control. The crew had never heard the skipper so severely addressed. It was panic-stricken. It advanced on the cursing bird with extended hands. Lamb watched the determined men with an ironical eye, then dropped out of sight forever. After putting his crew on half-rations, the skipper cleared his cabin and returned to his bed, where he did not sleep.
When Lamb dropped down on the inbound vessel he dropped in a place where he would be free from intrusion, and there remained recuperating until the ship had passed the Battery. Then he sought the quiet waters of the Upper Hudson and drowsed peacefully round a battered old hulk until the lights began to appear in the windows of the apartment houses looming up high on the banks above him.
About five o'clock in the morning Mr. Lamb made up his mind that he was thoroughly sick of being a seagull. He had seen enough and done enough. If the little russet man insisted on his being things, Lamb wanted to be something else. He flew down Wall Street and turned into Broad Street. The financial district was deserted. Remarking that one of the windows of his office had been left open, he skimmed through it and sought his own private room. Everything was clean and in order. A large pile of slit envelopes was neatly stacked in the unfinished business basket. Perching himself on the edge of his desk, he closed his eyes to think and continued right through to sleep.
Time did not stay for Lamb's slumbers. It continued evenly about its business. The office staff made its appearance, and Billings, the treasurer, quietly entered Mr. Lamb's room. The old gentleman halted in the doorway and considered the sleeping gull long and thoughtfully. It was not his nature to be surprised. The moment he saw the gull his mind automatically leaped the events leading to its presence and occupied itself with devising schemes best fitted to relieve the office of its uninvited guest. Gulls did not buy bonds. Therefore gulls had no place in the scheme of things. It was all plain sailing to Billings.
He closed the door gently and returned to his desk the better to perfect his plans. This was a situation he had better handle himself. The ejection of a seagull from the chief's private office would be too much of a treat for the lamentably frivolous members of the staff. He selected a long basket designed to hold ticker tape and once more entered Mr. Lamb's office, closing the door behind him. He hoped the gull was still sleeping.
But the gull was not still sleeping. The gull was not there at all. In its place squatted Mr. Lamb on the extreme edge of his desk. Mr. Lamb was clad only in pyjamas, and to Mr. Billings this fact was more to be regretted than the existence of Russia and the popularity of Al Smith. Those phenomena were inexplicable, but the conduct of his chief would have to be explained, and Billings greatly doubted if a satisfactory explanation could be found. He fervently thanked his God that there was no smell of liquor in the air. Mr. Lamb must have left the bottle outside. He had the sense at least to do that.
Billings was about to close the door and lock it, feeling it wiser to let his chief finish his sleep, when Mr. Lamb woke up and began to flap his arms against his sides in a singularly birdlike manner. Billings, remembering the gull, gasped as a shocking suspicion entered his mind. The flapping was the cause of more trouble. Mr. Lamb lost his balance and fell with a crash to the floor. The fall and the sight of the familiar face of his treasurer were sufficient to give Mr. Lamb a comprehensive realisation of his predicament. He looked down at his pyjamas, then smiled cordially up at Billings.
"Morning, Billings," he said. "Would you mind taking off your clothes. I have an extremely important engagement."
For only a moment did Billings hesitate, then he slowly began to strip. It was up to him to see that Mr. Lamb kept that engagement. A cool million might hang in the balance. Who could tell?
At this intimate juncture Miss Helen Wilson, bearing the morning letters, came swiftly into the office and, to the relief of both gentlemen, went swiftly out again.
The expression on her face was enough to collect an interested group.
"The boss is in there in pyjamas," she quietly told the girls, "and Billings is undressing."
"My Gord!" breathed a snappy-looking stenographer. "What do we all have to do, go to bed?"
A few minutes later Mr. Lamb, clad in a suit several sizes too small for him, came smilingly from his office and greeted his demoralised staff as if nothing unusual had occurred. And a few minutes after his departure Mr. Billings summoned his assistant to him and shortly appeared wearing a suit several sizes too large for him. With an air of deep preoccupation he flopped across the main office, then flopped from view behind the protection of his own door.
What steps the assistant took to cover his nakedness are not known. It is to be assumed that Mr. Billings did not permit him to go home in Mr. Lamb's pyjamas.
When Lamb presented himself at his home his arrival created a small stir. Even Thomas was quietly edified. Mrs. Lamb was not amused.
"That's rather a dashing little ensemble you're wearing, major," Hebe observed, looking up from her plate. " Do you feel that we need to be diverted?"
"I sort of fancy it myself," said Lamb, taking his place at the head of the table. "It's Philadelphia's latest. Do you like it, Sapho?"
"Where have you been?" asked Sapho. "And what am I to understand by these mysterious disappearances?"
"Flying," said Mr. Lamb enigmatically; then as if it were an afterthought he asked: "Would it be quite convenient for me to retire to my room after luncheon? I want to save this suit for Sunday."
Mrs. Lamb refrained from asking further inconvenient questions. Her husband ate more than usual.
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