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The Stray Lamb


Thorne Smith



WHEN Mr. Lamb woke up next morning he was as sick as a dog. And he was a dog. Weakly he flopped himself out of bed and crawled across the room to his mirror. He had not the vaguest idea of what he was. He knew he was something. He knew he was not himself. He was some sort of four-footed animal with fur, and from the looks of his feet Mr. Lamb felt convinced that he could not be much of an animal.

"That looking-glass," he thought to himself, "has reflected many weird and startling images, but this time I think it's going to get the shock of its life. So, perhaps, am I."

Lamb was right. The most woe-begone, flop-eared, putty-footed, miscellaneous assortment of canine maladjustments leered out at him from the mirror.

On previous occasions the little russet man had always done well by Mr. Lamb. He had been the best of everything, no matter what it was. He had been an imposing stallion, a bang-up seagull, a two-fisted kangaroo, and a goldfish of note. Now, however, he was the worst dog he had ever seen, obviously the son of a mother who had possessed an unlimited capacity for experimentation, relieved by a certain jocular capriciousness.

Of this dog confronting him, Lamb recognised little of himself save perhaps a broodingly speculative cast of the eye. His ears were long, spiritless, and yellow, seemingly sewed on to his head as an afterthought. His hair grew over his black and tan body in unbecoming fits and starts, first here and then there. He was a tufted dog. His feet were large and woolly. They splayed out in front, giving him the appearance of wearing old turned-up carpet slippers. He was a long, low, ribby dog. One side of his face was black, the other side yellow. Along his body this colour scheme had been reversed. He would have made a striking model for a woman's bathing-costume, his haunches being black and yellow, and his chest yellow and black. Taking him all in all he was a dog to give one pause, a dog to walk around and speculate upon, one to examine in detail at close range and then to view from afar for a full effect.

Mr. Lamb did not regard himself in this light. Sick as he felt, his heart was filled with shame. He had a desire to crawl away to some quiet place, and there to make an end of it all. Life which last night had tasted so sweet now lay sour in his mouth. His long, thin, spineless tail drooped despondently on the floor.

"I can't possibly let myself be seen in this appalling condition," he decided, as he placed a mop of a paw against his swimming head.

When he had retired the previous evening he had known he was going to be ill, but he had not taken into consideration the fact that he was also going to be a dog—and such a dog as he had turned out to be.

Because of the absence of his wife he had allowed the door between the two rooms to remain open. With a loose, unco-ordinated motion he shuffled through, and by a little clever but exhausting manipulation got himself out into the hall. Downstairs he found an open window, through which he made a furtive and inglorious exit, landing with a thud on the grass. For a moment he lay there painfully recovering his breath and strength, then he shambled weakly off across the lawn, his body aching and tongue lolling out.

Hebe from her window witnessed the departure of this unfortunate-looking animal, little realising that it was her father she saw, fleeing to escape the eyes of those who knew him.

Mr. Lamb has only the haziest memory of what occurred to him after leaving his home. Certain episodes stand out in his mind like flashes caught from a fast-fading dream.

He recalled, for instance, slinking along the shadowy side of the road until he came to a rustic bridge where two men were holding a heated debate upon religion, the day being Sunday and their flasks potent with applejack. Here in an unneeded little patch of sunlight Mr. Lamb lay down to rest and to warm himself a bit.

"Believe in your miracles if you will," one of the religious fanatics was saying, "but as for me, I think they're a lot of apple-sauce invented by a gang of grafting old prophets who couldn't even predict the next day's weather."

"Sure they could," said the other. "Didn't they call the turn on many a blight and famine? You should read about all the things they figgered out—floods, pestilence, the destruction of towns, battles and alarms and—and—all sorts of calamities."

"They must have been a cheerful little bunch of predictors," observed the unbeliever ironically. " Didn't they ever say something pleasant?"

The other paused to consider this difficult question. It was a bit of a poser for him, yet he felt duty-bound to stand up for the prophets. Suddenly his face cleared. Light had been given him.

"Sure they did," he answered. "Judgment Day."

"A very pleasant day that'll be," said the other. "Especially for you. And if they did, it was guesswork, pure guesswork."

He took a swig at his flask and looked triumphantly at his friend, then let his gaze drift to the dog lying huddled up in the grass and leaves.

"Well, if all them things weren't miracles," the defender of the faith demanded, "just what would you call a miracle?"

"This is what I'd call a miracle," was the other man's ready reply. "If that there mut should get up right now and, putting his nose in the centre of the bridge, make a complete circle with his awful-looking body, that would be some miracle."

Sick as he was, Mr. Lamb could not resist the temptation. He got up and walked to the centre of the bridge. Then placing his nose down in the dust he held it firmly in position and described a complete circle with his body. With his nose still in place he rolled up his eyes to see if he had produced the desired effect or if he should continue on. The men were stunned. They returned the dog's inquiring gaze with eyes full of applejack, wonder and trepidation. The unbeliever was actually frightened. He took another pull at his flask and timidly fixed his eyes on the dog. Mr. Lamb once more deliberately described a circle and sat down in the middle of it, holding up one paw as if in benediction.

"God Almighty, it's a miracle," breathed the unbeliever. "Do you think we should kneel down and pray?"

"Let's get rid of these flasks," suggested his friend. "It doesn't look quite right."

The two men tossed their flasks in the bushes, then looked at Mr. Lamb for some sign of approval. Mr. Lamb nodded his head three times, rose and shambled weakly down the road. The men gazed after the retreating dog until a turn in the road hid him from view. For a moment they looked silently at each other, then, like the vast majority of converts, they backslid completely and, diving into the bushes, returned with their flasks, which they drained with great speed and dexterity. By nightfall they were telling their friends about a dog that sang hymns and preached sermons.

Mr. Lamb next remembers himself lying weak from exhaustion and nausea in the sunlight before a small cottage. Through the door he could see a man and his wife facing each other across the breakfast-table. A good-looking couple, but hostile. Their eyes met with studied indifference. No words were exchanged between them. When the man rose to get his hat a new expression came into the woman's eyes as she furtively followed his movements. There was in them something soft, a sort of silent cry. Without uttering a word of farewell, the man went to the door of the cottage, then stopped when he saw the sick dog. With a low murmur of friendship he bent over Mr. Lamb and lifted the weary head. Then the man brought the dog into the cottage.

With a bitter expression about her lips, the woman stood by the stove and watched her husband patting and fondling the dog. In one hand she held a pan of hot water. When the man asked her for some hot milk she shrugged her shoulders and turned away.

"Damn you," said the man in a low voice. "Get me some hot milk for the poor, sick creature."

Lamb hated hot milk, but appreciated the man's good intentions.

"Will you get that milk?" the man demanded, his voice still low and impersonal.

Suddenly the woman flared up and turned on her husband. Her face was white with something deeper than anger.

"No!" she cried, dashing the hot water over Mr. Lamb. "No! No! No!"

Mr. Lamb gave a low moan of pain, but made no move. His eyes were on the woman. She was trembling with little shudders of revulsion. He saw the man spring forward and slap the woman sharply across the face. The woman swayed slightly, then stood quite still looking straight ahead of her, the same bitter smile fixed on her lips.

Then Mr. Lamb saw the man slowly turn his back upon the woman. His head dropped, and two tears trickled down his cheeks. His hands were clenched by his sides. Gradually the bitter smile melted from the woman's lips, and in its place came a certain tenderness.

"Come here," she said at last, holding out her arms to the man. "Come here, come here to me."

And the man went to his wife's arms. She held him fiercely, and Lamb beheld her face with pleasure. A pretty woman she was, he thought, and well set up. Just a trifle too impulsive.

He stayed only long enough to show that there was no hard feeling, then quietly slipped away, leaving the man and his wife with their tongues at last unloosed. Once more he took to the road, feeling somewhat Boy Scoutish, having just performed his daily good deed.

Exactly when it was Lamb never rightly remembered. All he can recall is seeing a large, handsome hall with the open doors of a library at one end. He also recalls a wide stairway mounting up majestically to a balcony. A fine, lean, white-haired old gentleman was having a row with an equally fine and lean-looking son. Both were saying things they would regret the moment they were uttered.

"Your political ideas, like all your ideas, are fallacious right through," the old man said. "Those radical friends you are now cultivating should be taken out and shot. Yes, sir! Shoot 'em down. They're Reds ... the scum. And, furthermore, they are not welcome here. I forbid them the house."

"So I can't bring my friends into my own home," replied the young man, rising excitedly and facing his father. "Then it isn't a home of mine. I forbid myself the house where my friends are not welcome."

The old gentleman stiffened. There was a cold smile on his lips.

"Forbid and be damned," he said distinctly. "Go live with the friends of your choice."

Without another word the young man raced up the stairs. Mr. Lamb remembers watching from his place of concealment the old gentleman's eyes as his son rushed away. They were filled with anxiety and loneliness now that the mask of pride had been momentarily dropped. He paced up and down the heavy carpet, opening and closing his hands helplessly.

Now he looked old indeed to Mr. Lamb—old and somewhat smaller.

In a short time the boy returned with two suitcases, and once more the old gentleman stiffened, forcing the years and the loneliness back by an effort of his stubborn old will, his pride of race and breeding, his belief in lost traditions.

"You will not be inconvenienced any more," said the young man. "Good-bye, sir."

"Your consideration is appreciated," replied his father. "Good-bye."

The young man looked back once, hesitated, but seeing his father standing with his back to him, he turned away and disappeared through a door in the hall. The moment the door closed the old gentleman altered his rodlike attitude and stood as if listening. Presently he heard the hum of a motor, and something like a sigh escaped his lips. He fumbled in a cigar-box and automatically selected a breva, then he sank to a chair and looked dully at the unlighted cigar.

It was at this point that Mr. Lamb slipped out of his corner and lurched to the gravel driveway. He did not know what he was going to do, but he fully intended to do something. This silly impasse between the old fool and the young fool must be broken. He saw the glare of the headlights sweeping round the curve from behind the house, and he began to bark and howl the best he knew how. Dragging himself to the middle of the driveway, he pranced on his hind legs and waved his foolish looking paws commandingly.

Too late. The lights swerved sharply. Mr. Lamb felt himself smashed and hurtled through the night. Then he heard the crash of the automobile as it collided with one of the trees on the lawn. Still Mr. Lamb retained consciousness.

He saw the old gentleman, followed by several servants, hurrying down the driveway.

"My boy," the old gentleman called through the darkness. "Are you hurt?"

"It's all right, dad," came the relieving response. "I'm looking for a poor mut I hit. Bear a hand and help me find him."

"It's a wonder your damn fool neck isn't broken," said the old gentleman, coming into the flood of the lights.

He put his arm round his son's shoulder.

"Sure?" he asked.

"Sure, sir," said his son. " But the mut is, I'm afraid. Odd acting dog. He seemed to be deliberately trying to stop the car."

"A good sort," said the old gentleman. "Hope we can patch him up."

With the aid of a flashlight, Mr. Lamb was eventually plucked from a bush. The old gentleman himself carried him into the house. A man was dispatched in another car for a doctor. Just before Mr. Lamb lost control of the situation, he had the pleasure of seeing two suitcases being carried up the broad stairs. Then Lamb for the nonce let the world go hang. It was too full of trouble for him. He could not be expected to arrange and settle everything.

When he once more favoured the world with his presence, Mr. Lamb found himself on the clean, warm earth. He was in a sort of wired runway, at the end of which was something that appeared to be a dog-house de luxe. A soft pillow was beneath his head, anda broken bandage trailed from his left foot. But what was more disconcerting still was the large, red face of a man in proximity to his.

"What did you want to get in here for?" the face inquired reproachfully.

Mr. Lamb looked down at himself and realised with a start that he was no longer a dog. Once more he was Mr. T. Lawrence Lamb, a conservative investment banker in an extremely embarrassing position.

"I didn't want to get in here," was all he could think of replying. "Where in the deuce am I?"

"You're in one of the finest dog hospitals in the country," replied the face, with pardonable pride. "One of the smartest and the swellest."

"That," said Mr. Lamb, " might make a profound impression on a dog, but it leaves me quite unelated. I don't want to be in a dog hospital, no matter how swagger it may be."

"Then why did you get up out of bed and deliberately sneak over the wire in your pyjamas?" asked the face.

It was true. Mr. Lamb was clad only in his sleeping togs. He had to admit that undeniable fact. But he very much disliked to be lying down on the flat of his back and talking up to that red face suspended above him like the sun.

"Listen," said Mr. Lamb, after a moment of swift considering. "If you'll only remove that face of yours I'll try to get up and talk to you on my feet."

The face was slowly and reluctantly withdrawn, and Mr. Lamb felt less like a bug under microscopic examination.

"Well?" said the wearer of the face, when Mr. Lamb stood confronting him.

"Ah, yes," replied Mr. Lamb easily. "I was thrown in here."

The man looked more hurt than surprised.

"Come again," he remarked brutally.

"Very well," said Mr. Lamb. I'm a somnambulist."

"That kind of talk ain't going to get you anywhere," replied the man.

"I'm a sleep-walker," explained Mr. Lamb. "You're a damn poor liar," said the man.

"I'm doing the best I can," said Mr. Lamb. "Help me out, won't you?"

"What did you do with the dog?" the man demanded inflexibly.

"The dog must have gone out as I came in," said Mr. Lamb. "I never saw a dog. I was sound asleep."

"And snoring," supplied the man, with heavy sarcasm.

"Now you're kidding me," said Mr. Lamb. "I'm serious."

"I know," replied the man. "That's what makes it so funny."

He looked up and down the runway.

"Well, the mut's gone," he remarked, "and it's good riddance of bad rubbish. Never had such a clown in our kennels before. It mortified me to have to look after him, he was that low-blooded. Some rich gentleman sent him to us."

Mr. Lamb had heard quite enough about the dog. He looked at himself in perplexity, then turned once more to the man.

"Listen here," he said, "we're getting nowhere this way. Lend me an overcoat and get me a taxi, and I'll write you a letter all about it ... and the letter will have something in it much more interesting than news. Get me?"

The man got him. Also he got him an overcoat, something in the line of slippers, and a taxi-cab.

And, with the help of these, Mr. Lamb got home ... gratefully, wearily and with the utmost discretion.

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