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The Stray Lamb


Thorne Smith



BEEN out for a bit of a walk," Mr. Lamb whispered, suddenly meeting Thomas face to face as he, Lamb, was tiptoeing through the hall. "A bright, fresh morning."

"It is, sir," replied Thomas blandly. "Just come back from a nice long swim myself."

Mr. Lamb appeared not to have caught this surprising announcement of the old servant. He was about to hurry to his room when he suddenly remembered something.

"By the way," he called back. "There's a taxi-man outside. Slip him a good tip. I got tired, and he brought me home.

Thomas, making some innocent observation about the convenience of finding taxi-cabs in the early morning on deserted country roads, departed on his mission, and Mr. Lamb sought the seclusion of his room. Here he bathed, shaved, and dressed, and once more faced the world as a respectable member of society. Then he sat down and thought.

His experiences as a dog had given him enough to think about. He had never realise before that so many melodramas were taking place about him—so many tragic, stupid, and sordid ones, so many touchingly human. During the time that had elapsed since he had been a terribly sick dog, Lamb had unconsciously grown. Always tolerant, his tolerance now was vouchsafed a deeper understanding.

Mr. Lamb looked at his calendar and found that he had been a dog for little more than a week. Where he had lain and strayed during that time, how long he had remained at the kennels under the care of the moon-faced man, he had not the remotest idea. He went to his desk and wrote a letter to this individual. This letter bore no signature, but contained a ten-dollar bill. When Thomas entered with a pot of coffee and some eggs and toast, Mr. Lamb gave him the letter and, indicating the overcoat and slippers, told him what to do with them. Thomas needed no instructions, having had a brief but illuminating conversation with the taxi-driver.

Although the thought of the office was distasteful to him, Lamb went in by a late train. He would have liked to have seen his daughter, but learned that she had spent the night with Miss Rush, the house being rather lonesome on account of the absence of her father.

He found that his office was still doing business, although much remained to be done. This he proceeded to do as well as he could during the hours at his disposal, then, after reassuring Billings as to the state of his health and mind, Mr. Lamb hurried home. The sanity of the office had helped somewhat to restore his mental balance and to dispel the morbid speculations that were disturbing him. Lamb could not fight down the growing impression that he was a man apart, that somehow the lines of communication between himself and the rest of the world had been severed, perhaps for all time. He was seriously worried now by the situation in which he found himself. If the little russet man set his mind on it, he could take him clean through the animal kingdom, not to mention birds, fish, and reptiles—insects even. Mr. Lamb was appalled by the thought. Any sort of arrangement with Sandra was entirely out of the question so long as he kept on changing. Even Hebe would eventually grow tired of a father who possessed within him the makings of a complete jungle.

It was in no cheerful frame of mind that Mr. Lamb sat down to dinner that night. Nor was his hilarity heightened by what Hebe had to report.

It seemed that during his absence Mrs. Lamb had returned to the house, packed most of her possessions and, with the aid of two taxi-cabs, departed mysteriously to parts unknown. She had been accompanied by her maid. This news was not in itself disagreeable to Mr. Lamb, but what went with it was not so reassuring. Hebe gave her father to understand that in the course of a little chat with her mother the good lady had shown she possessed some very accurate knowledge of the recent activities of her husband. It appeared that she was quietly collecting stray but alarming scraps of evidence as well as interviewing certain parties. Just how she intended to use this evidence and what her ultimate intentions were, Hebe was unable to say. However, it was agreed between father and daughter that Sapho's intentions so far as they were concerned could hardly be of a rosy hue.

"Would you object very much to being divorced?" asked Hebe.

"No," answered Mr. Lamb readily enough, " but I would object very much to being displayed. I have no desire to furnish material for the Sunday supplements and medical journals. Nor do I want to be interviewed by reporters on how it feels to be a goldfish, or for a kangaroo's opinion of New York's night clubs. Your mother, my child, is not only after her freedom, but also her revenge. You see, Hebe, we've really kidded her unmercifully even though she did try to cram me into a bottle. Have you no sympathy at all for her? My indifference is, of course, natural, but you're a sort of blood relation. I don't quite understand—"

"Mother never had much time for me," Hebe broke in upon her father. "That's one of the reasons I'm such a hard-boiled egg. When I was a kid I thought I was fond of her, tried to make myself believe I had a regular mother, but that hopeful phase didn't last long. Sapho didn't really ever care except in front of company. Then another thing, major: I'm in the way of being a woman creature, and I get some purely feminine slants on the workings of her mind. She's her own woman, major, first, last and all time. If she can't be the bell cow she's not going to trail along. That's all there is to it. When I think of that worm Leonard Gray, I can find no sympathy in my system for Sapho. She isn't breaking her heart about us and hasn't been for years. The thing that surprises me is that she ever let me be born. I know for a fact that since I've been a so-called young lady, she's resented my existence. Sapho brooks no competition. She wants no reminder of the advancing years. Hope you don't mind me speaking like this of my own mother, but I've known for some time past I should give tongue; One can't be loyal to two warring factions without getting shot full of emotional holes. When you happen to be with us I prefer to be loyal to you."

It was a tremendous speech for Hebe. Her father gazed at the girl in surprise. He had never before heard her speak so earnestly or at such length. She was indeed a young lady with a head as level as her tongue was light.

"Well," he said, rising from the table and stretching his long arms, "I do wish things would settle down a bit—myself especially. Ever since we gave that little old chap a lift, my life has been just one long atavistic orgy."

That evening he was given ample opportunity to peruse his book without interruption. As a matter of fact, he had a little more privacy than he needed.

For an hour or so he waited impatiently in his study for Sandra to put in an appearance, then abandoning hope he turned to his book and soon became absorbed.

About midnight Thomas came in to arrange a drink for his master and to see if he wanted anything. It was a ceremony with Thomas, one he loved to perform, and Mr. Lamb, realising this, permitted his old friend to go through with it.

"You're feeling quite yourself, sir?" inquired Thomas as he was about to withdraw.

"Yes," answered Mr. Lamb drily. "For a change."

"Glad to hear it, sir," said Thomas. "Good-night."

"Good-night," replied Mr. Lamb. " And, Thomas, don't forget to leave a window open in the library. This house needs a little downstairs ventilation."

Thomas understood. Ever since these strange disappearances of Mr. Lamb the old man had been taking this precaution. It had been Hebe who had first suggested the idea to him.

After Thomas had quietly closed the door Mr. Lamb returned to his book and his drink. Presently his head began to grow heavy, and at last he fell asleep.

Some hours later he awoke with the impression that all was not as it should be. His drowsy eyes focused themselves on a long tail conscientiously striped with grey and black bands.

"Either that tail belongs to me," he thought dreamily, "or else a cat is sitting on my lap."

After some minutes of gloomy speculation he worked up enough enterprise to settle the question. If the tail moved when he bade it move, then the tail belonged to him, or rather he belonged to the tail; and if he belonged to the tail, then it followed that he was a cat. He thought the tail into action, and it moved with graceful majesty. "It's mine," he said to himself regretfully. "I'm it again."

He remained as he was in the chair, all curled up and considering. If he were half as fearful a cat as he had been a dog, he decided he would remain in that chair without budging until the little russet man, in the fullness of time, saw fit to turn him into some-thing else. He held out one paw and studied it critically. It was a sizable, efficient-looking paw, and appeared to be well equipped with claws especially designed for back-yard combats. So far so good, he decided. Then he turned his attention to his tail. The tail, too, was not to be despised. It was a long, lashable tail, sleek and artistically groomed. Mr. Lamb took heart. Nevertheless, he was loath to take a full view of himself in the mirror. The last shock had been too great. He dared not run the risk of another. Then his eyes fell on the decanter.

Now, it is a strange example of perverseness that, as a man, Mr. Lamb drank consistently but, except on rare occasions, always with moderation, whereas, whenever he became an animal, his first desire was to get himself well potted and to go about in search of trouble. Only extreme nausea had prevented him from being a drunken, roistering dog, ill-favoured by Nature and disorderly through inclination. He now began to scheme and plan how he could best extract a drink from the decanter. It would require no little doing—that he fully realised—but the difficulty of the undertaking made him concentrate upon its accomplishment the more earnestly.

Finally, he rose and, taking his empty glass from the table with his two paws, he managed to place it on the arm of his chair, which was next to the table and a little below its level. Then he inserted a paw into the mouth of the decanter and dragged it to the desired position. Judging the distance to a nicety, Lamb slowly tilted the decanter until a satisfactory stream curved out and fell into the glass. It was a neat, clean-cut achievement, and Mr. Lamb could not refrain from admiring his own dexterity.

"Gad!" he exclaimed to himself. " Didn't even spill a drop. Not one. I really deserve this drink."

Whether he deserved the drink or not, he proceeded to take it with avidity, lapping up the fiery liquor with a long, red, ladle-shaped tongue.

"I would have saved you the trouble, major," came a level voice from the doorway.

Mr. Lamb interrupted his lapping just long enough to nod busily at his daughter, then continued to polish off his drink to the limit of his tongue's effectiveness, after which he sat down in his chair and turned two glittering eyes on Hebe. The girl came into the room and closed the door.

"I discovered you weren't in your bed," she remarked, "so I naturally suspected the worst. Well, you're not a bad-looking cat," she went on. "As a matter of fact, you're about the swellest thing in the line of a cat I've ever seen—and one of the largest."

This gave Mr. Lamb an idea. He had long entertained a grudge against the unmannerly backyard despot that had attempted to make the bowl of puffed rice his own, when Lamb had been a seagull. He would settle this grudge without further procrastination. It should be done.

Leaping from his chair he raced to the open window in the library and literally hurled himself into the darkness. The huge drink of whisky he had consumed was hot in his veins. He was ready and willing to do battle to any gang of cats in the town. Within a very few minutes Hebe's ears were pierced by the most blood-curdling assortment of feline imprecations and screams of anguish she had ever had the misfortune to hear. Shortly after this outbreak Mr. Lamb, redolent with whisky and with every hair in place, swaggered into the room and resumed his seat with a triumphant flourish of his long, sweeping tail.

The next morning he appeared at breakfast with a slight hang-over. Either forgetting he was a cat or not caring whether he was a cat or not, he took his place at the head of the table and looked with favour upon his daughter.

"You're not a very respectable cat," she observed, returning his look rebukingly, "even if you are my father."

For answer he opened his mouth to its fullest extent and protruded his long red tongue, curling the tip ever so slightly, then making it quiver like a leaf. It was a remarkable, but not picturesque spectacle, and Thomas, coming into the dining-room, bent almost double the better to view it.

After breakfast Mr. Lamb was seen dragging the morning paper across the floor to his study, where he remained all day alternately reading and sleeping.

At nightfall Mr. Lamb made his escape from the house and betook himself to town. The first person who attracted his attention was Simonds, walking peacefully down the street with his family. Once more the imp of malice ignited Mr. Lamb's imagination. Suppose he should startle Simonds. The idea was no sooner conceived than it was put into execution. Getting a flying start he raced after the unsuspecting Simonds and, leaving the ground with a wild shriek, landed heavily between the man's shoulders, clawing and nuzzling him harmlessly but frantically. The Simondses parted in disorder like pool balls on a table. The purveyor of choice lots pitched headlong to the pavement, where he remained in a half-swoon. By the time the crowd had collected Mr. Lamb was well out of it all and gliding snakishly along in the direction of Sandra's dwelling. On the way he encountered a large dog whose heart and soul were wrapped up in the business of regaining some much-needed sleep. Mr. Lamb approached the dog and deliberately cuffed him on the side of the head.

Now this was where Mr. Lamb made an error of judgment if not of good taste, for this dog, this slumbering brute of a beast, made a business of cats. He specialised in their destruction. In his dreams he slew cats. In his waking hours he lived his dreams. But Mr. Lamb was ignorant of all this. He desired to put to the test the theory of the nine lives. His curiosity was well rewarded. No sooner was the cuff received than the dog automatically lunged at Mr. Lamb. His movements were swift and sure, his technique flawless. Lamb was smothered beneath the weight of the mighty dog. The world seemed to have turned into a pair of flashing teeth and snapping jaws.

"This," thought Lamb to himself as he crawled between the dog's hind legs, "is decidedly no go. What a mad dog this one turned out to be."

To make matters worse the dog was not without his followers, and these followers now followed Lamb as he sped along the street.

"Nine lives would not be quite enough," he decided, glancing back over his shoulder at the baying rabble at his tail's end. "I'd be four lives short in the jaws of that mob."

It was no laughing matter now, Mr. Lamb was winded and rapidly losing ground. One of the dogs caught up with him and bowled him over. The pack came thundering down, but Lamb with a desperate wriggle managed to shake off the dog and make a little headway.

From her lawn Sandra was watching with indignation the uneven pursuit of the cat, not knowing it was Mr. Lamb whose life was in peril. She only realised that some poor cat was being unfairly attacked, and her eyes grew bright with anger.

The dogs were upon him now and Lamb, fighting gamely, was borne down beneath their numbers. Then he heard a voice calling, and he recognised the voice. Sandra had waded into the seething mass of dogs and was trying to extricate the cat. With his last ounce of energy Mr. Lamb eluded a large red mouth, jumped free from the pack and sprang into the girl's outstretched arms, where he lay panting and completely through. For a few minutes the dogs swirled dangerously round the girl, then gradually and cursingly withdrew before the commanding light in her eyes.

Holding Mr. Lamb close against her breast, she took him to her room and placed him gently on her bed. Later she brought him a bowl of milk, which he drank gratefully. After this she undressed and went to bed, the cat being already asleep.

When she awoke a man was lying in bed with her. The man was Mr. Lamb. This was better than a perfect stranger, but still it was not so good. She saw with relief that he was fully dressed, but quite rumpled. She also realised that as far as clothing was concerned, he had the decided advantage of her. Sandra's sleeping arrangements were always of a sketchily attractive nature. She smiled to herself as a thought tickled her mind.

"Well, here I am at last in bed with the man I love," she mused to herself.

Mr. Lamb opened his eyes and looked at her resentfully.

"Whom are you laughing at?" he demanded.

"Oh, nothing," said Sandra. "But the situation, even you must realise, is highly compromising."

Mr. Lamb was about to drift back to sleep without deigning to reply when she dug him in the ribs.

"Don't do that," she said. "You can't sleep here."

Mr. Lamb gave a startled grunt and again eyed her disapprovingly.

"Get out of this bed," said Sandy.

"Why don't you get out?" Mr. Lamb protested. "I don't have to go to work."

"I can't get out," replied Sandy.

"Don't be silly," said Lamb. " I've seen you in less than nothing before."

"That was in my professional capacity," she explained. "This is entirely different."

"Much better," said Mr. Lamb, "so far as I'm concerned."

"And all this time," the girl replied, "someone is probably listening at the door. Mrs. Cummings doesn't object to Hebe sleeping with me, but I doubt if she'd carry her tolerance to the point of granting you the same privilege. She saw me going to bed last night with a cat in my arms. If she saw me going to bed this morning with a man occupying the same relative position, things would be hard to explain. Her mind is not oriental enough to understand."

"Listen," said Mr. Lamb, as his mind reverted to the events of the previous night. "You damn well saved my life."

"And for thanks you crawl into bed with me and compromise practically all that remains of my rep.," she replied.

"You deliberately put me in your bed," he retorted.

"But I little realised you were a lamb in cat's clothing," the girl replied.

"Neat but not altogether new," said Lamb. "Slip me a little good-morning kiss and I'll try to get out of here."

"You're for ever getting somebody out of some-where," replied Sandy, throwing two lovely arms round his neck and kissing him in no undecided manner.

"Now get out," she murmured, pushing him from her. "Go and get yourself out of here."

"We'll call this a trial trip," said Mr. Lamb as he eased himself out of bed.

"Pig," said Sandy with glowing eyes.

"Don't call me that," replied Lamb pleadingly. "I might be one at any minute for all I know."

"You'll have to stop being things," said Sandra, "before we can come to terms."

"I know," replied Mr. Lamb, "and I'm praying to God I do."

He went to the window and peered cautiously through one side of the curtain. A long shed roof sloped down almost to the side of the adjoining yard. If he could cross this roof unobserved he might be able to jump into neutral territory. It seemed about the only thing to do.

"I'll have to try it," he said to Sandra. "Are there many people in the back of this house?"

"Only about six or seven possible pairs of eyes, but they should all be fixed on their plates at this hour," she answered easily.

If the truth must be told Sandra did not in the least object to being compromised officially. She was out to get her attenuated Lamb, and the sooner she got him divorced the happier she would be. She was abandoned enough to hope that he would be seen when he made his escape from the house.

Mr. Lamb raised the window to its limit and thrust out an inquiring head.

"Hasn't something slipped your memory?" asked the girl in bed.

Lamb came swiftly across the room and gathering Sandra's yielding body in his arms held her against him for a moment, then dropping her suddenly as if she had been an old sack, he slid his long form through the window. At the edge of the roof he gathered himself together and sprang into the air, landing neatly in the next yard right beside a lady engaged in cutting flowers. Luckily the lady's back had been turned when he had made his desperate leap, so that she did not have a chance to see his point of departure from the roof.

"Gur-r-r," said the woman, unable to think of anything else to say as she turned round abruptly. "O-o-o-oh, where did you come from?"

"I was just admiring your roses," replied Lamb with his most charming smile.

This remark did much to restore the lady to her usual state of assured rectitude.

"They're not roses?" she said. " They're sweet peas."

"My mistake, madam," apologised Mr. Lamb. " You see I'm rather near-sighted."

The lady regarded Mr. Lamb's eyes for a moment as if they were things of glass. Her expression was entirely unsympathetic.

"Well," she remarked at length, "the next time you want to admire my sweet peas, which you don't seem to be able to tell from roses, don't come creeping up behind me like a thief in the night. You'd get just as much fun staying at home admiring an onion, or a cabbage—it's larger."

Thereupon she walked jaggily off down her garden path, and Mr. Lamb, feeling remarkably well, in spite of his strenuous encounter with the dogs, returned to his home.

"I always suspected," he observed to himself, "that an investment banker and a second-storey man had a great deal in common."

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