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The Stray Lamb


Thorne Smith



MR. LAMB was not in the pink. He had returned from his office far from well, either mentally or physically. His life as a goldfish had not improved his health. He had absorbed too much stale water and overlooped a bit. Furthermore, the requirements of constantly readjusting himself were proving altogether too exacting.

Brother Douglas, fresh from a convention of the Directors of American Youth, handed him a letter. Without comment he received it and began to read. Hebe watched her father. When he had finished the letter he swore more from amazement than anger.

"Listen to this," he said. "It's good."

Then he began to read:

"I can no longer live under the same roof with a murderer. Therefore I fly. I have stood every humiliation, every form of abuse, but I do not feel called upon to sacrifice my life for a man who turns into various things at a moment's notice. My life is in danger, there-fore I fly. Do not attempt to find me. Do not attempt to follow. I fly. Pursuit is in vain. This is the end."

A dazzling silence followed the reading of this tragic epistle. It was broken by Mr. Lamb.

"Now, who in hell," he asked almost pleadingly, "does she expect to follow her?"

"I'm glad she remembered to send love and kisses to her unnatural daughter," said Hebe.

Douglas got up and began to whistle, "All alone on the Telephone."

Mr. Lamb looked at him and grinned.

"Douglas," he asked, "how do you manage to be such a damn fool without ever an intermission?"

Brother Dug looked back at Mr. Lamb and also grinned.

"I was merely trying to keep you from breaking down," he replied. "When face to face with tragedy, sing, whistle or do both. Hebe, play something on the piano, and we'll all have a bit of a song."

Without a word Hebe went to the piano and struck a resounding chord. Had Mrs. Lamb not been so busy flying she would have had the pleasure of hearing floating through the windows of her abandoned home the words and music of the old familiar hymn, "Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow." The voices of the three singers blended rather well, and the rendition of the hymn was marked by a certain sincerity of feeling not always to be found in church.

Well, Douglas," asked Mr. Lamb, when the hymn had been brought to a crashing climax, "are you going to desert us now?"

"No," said Douglas, displaying an unexpected streak of embarrassment. "That is, not unless you want me. I'm a little too fat for flying, and I'm sure no one really wants to murder me, although once I was pretty nearly scared to death."

When he made this reply he carefully avoided looking at Mr. Lamb.

When dinner was served, Mr. Lamb looked beamingly upon Thomas.

"Thomas," he said, "Mrs. Lamb may not be with us for some time to come. Her presence is indefinitely postponed."

For once Thomas was taken off his guard. With eager hands he hastened to the table and started to remove the absent lady's plate as if to make sure of his master's statement. His face was alight with pleasure. Mr. Lamb's voice interrupted his activities.

"Not so ruthless, Thomas," he admonished. "You needn't do it now. Just remember it in the future."

As Mr. Lamb sat at dinner his eyes kept constantly straying to the aquarium, where the three goldfish he had come to know so well were drifting drowsily about as if in languid expectation of a lost leader. It gave him a feeling of satisfaction to know that his old enemy, the turtle, was once again forced to peer out at the "long drink of water" he had spoken of so disparagingly. Impulsively Lamb rose from the table and with his knife budged the old fellow across the bottom of the tank.

"How indignant he must be," thought Mr. Lamb. "I only wish he could appreciate the full flavour of the situation."

Then he singled out the lady goldfish and considered her for a moment.

"I might have been the father of her children," he mused as he returned to the table. "That would have been a pretty state of affairs."

Throughout the remainder of the dinner he couldnot shake off the weird knowledge that only a short time ago he had been swimming about in that tank and looking out at his wife and daughter and the ubiquitous Mr. Gray. It would be difficult, he decided, for the little russet man to provide for him a more novel experience. Lamb heartily hoped it would be the last. He was more than willing now to remain a normal human being for the rest of his life. His desire to remain himself was greatly intensified now that his wife was absent—permanently absent, he hoped. This line of thought automatically brought him round to Sandra Rush, and a dark, brooding look came into his eyes. He recalled her far-away expression when she had watched the scenery that morning on the train, and the story she had told him about the two little ponds. She was not always depraved. Sometimes she could be quite decent. Very seldom, though. Mostly mad and wild and reckless.

"Too old," he said, unconsciously speaking aloud. Too damn old."

"Beg your pardon, sir," said Thomas. "Is the chicken too tough for you?"

"Chicken's fine," replied Mr. Lamb. "Why?"

"I thought I heard you say it was too old, sir," said Thomas. "I felt sure it was about the suitable age, sir."

"But I'm not, Thomas," Mr. Lamb replied. "I'm too damn old. Don't you think so?"

"That depends," answered Thomas consideringly. "Too old for what, if I may ask, sir?"

"Oh, go to the devil, you fossilised lump of sin," said Mr. Lamb. "I didn't mean six-day bicycle racing."

"Well, you might be a few years over for that," was the imperturbable decision of Thomas, "but you're still good for your share of—er—sport, if I make myself clear, sir."

"Most delicately so, Thomas," put in Hebe. "I quite agree with you. It pleases our major to believe that he is of ancient vintage. By cultivating that frame of mind he hopes to escape adventure."

"I've had adventures enough, God knows," said Mr. Lamb.

"But not of the nature I mean," responded his daughter. "Those still lie ahead."

"There's not much good in either of you," declared Mr. Lamb, putting down his coffee cup. "You'll excuse me now if I retire to my study. Douglas, I hope you'll remain uncorrupted now that your sister is no longer here to protect you."

"I have nothing to fear in that line," observed Douglas. "My adventures lie neither behind me nor before. That's one of the tragedies of a fat man."

"He throbs out his sex in song," said Hebe, as Mr. Lamb left the room.

Retrieving the much interrupted Kia Lung, Mr. Lamb elaborately arranged himself in his chair and prayed to God that he should be allowed to proceed at least a few pages in the book before he was transformed into another animal, bird, reptile, or fish. He had read exactly two paragraphs when the door flew open and Sandra burst into the room.

"I thought you'd be glad to see me," she cried, standing radiantly before him.

"What led you to form that totally erroneous impression?" asked Mr. Lamb, looking at the girl over the top of his book.

"Why, Sapho's decamped," she went on happily. "And now everything's going to be all right."

"All right for what?" Mr. Lamb demanded unbendingly.

"For us," said Sandy breathlessly. "The coast is clear."

"It isn't at all clear to me," Mr. Lamb replied. "What form of depravity are you now suggesting?"

"Any and all," said Sandra. " You're my man now."

In spite of himself Mr. Lamb could not repress a grin.

"Get to hell out of here," was all he said.

"Put me out," she challenged.

"Go on," warned Mr. Lamb. "Get to hell out."

"Get to hell me out if you can," she answered.

Mr. Lamb rose slowly and stood over the girl.

Quite deliberately, quite effortlessly, he picked her up in his arms and held her suspended.

"I don't know whether to spank or to kiss you," he remarked, looking unsmilingly down into her deep and disturbingly provocative eyes.

"I'm all set for a little of both," said Sandy.

Lamb did the latter. He did it extremely well, so well, in fact, that Thomas, entering with a decanter of whisky, remained unnoticed in the doorway. Quietly the old fellow closed the door and seated himself on one of the dining-room chairs, a liberty he had never taken. Then he raised the decanter to his lips and drank a silent toast. Things were indeed looking up in the house of Lamb.

Somewhat subdued, Sandra and Mr. Lamb were sitting a little later on the private veranda adjoining his study.

"I hope you don't turn into a bear," said Sandra. "I hope I've done my last turn," said Mr. Lamb.

"So do I," she answered. "I'd hate to lose you now."

Mr. Lamb turned in his chair and found her eyes in the darkness.

"You're sure you're not kidding me?" he asked. "You know, you're such an exaggerated person. I'm never sure whether you're making fun of me or not. You see, I'm not used to young girls. I've always been sort of out of it and faithful—not to her so much as to myself. This thing sort of puzzles me. I don't see where I get off with a fine-looking girl like you. Old enough to be your father."

There was something so utterly helpless and fumbling in this speech of Mr. Lamb's, something so amazingly innocent and sincere, that Sandra for no reason that she could fathom felt very much like crying. Dimly she sensed the repressed youth and longing behind the unappetising years through which this long, sardonic, quietly observant man by her side had lived. While his wife had been mouthing about beauty and living quite an unbeautiful life, he had just grinned his slow, irritating grin and silently kept on wanting. And being decent and rather commonplace. Yes, Sandra was more than sure that she was not kidding. But she did not reply to his question. She did not want to hear her own voice. She merely reached out, and taking his long, lean hand, held it against her breast.

Way down below them in the darkness the lights of the town lay against the other side of the valley. Even the blot contributed its share to the general illumination.

Mr. Lamb was not unhappy. Neither was the girl. Both were silent. It seemed better so.

Some hours later, when Thomas was pouring Mr. Lamb his invariable nightcap, the old servant paused with the decanter half raised and regarded this man whose toys he had once mended.

"You're fit as a fiddle, Mr. Lawrence," he offered. "Even for bicycle racing, or I am very much mistaken, sir."

"What leads you to believe that, Thomas?" Mr. Lamb asked suspiciously.

"General observation, sir," said Thomas. "General observation. Nothing more, sir. Good-night."

Leaving Mr. Lamb slightly puzzled, Thomas, with an annoyingly self-satisfied expression, quietly with-drew.

"Now, I'm in a devil of a mess," thought Mr. Lamb, as he pondered cheerfully over his glass.

Even Kai Lung lay forgotten upon his knee.

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