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The Stray Lamb


Thorne Smith



WHEN Mr. Lamb caught sight of himself in a store window he jumped three feet in the air so great was the shock he received. Once more the strange, whistling sound came from between his beak as he hopped and shuffled along the street. More than ever now he felt cut off from humanity. Even the automobiles seemed to shrink from him. What would Sandra think of him? Would she, too, be revolted like Hebe? He was going to find out.

Sandra, having withdrawn from the swollen ranks of the employed, was sitting on her front veranda. No one else seemed to be in sight as Mr. Lamb hopped up the steps and squatted down beside her. He was breathing wheezily from exertion—wheezing and whistling distractedly. His lonely, frightened eyes peered questioningly into Sandra's, then he looked away as if ashamed to meet her gaze. Now that he was there he wished he had not come.

"Sit down and rest," said Sandra quietly. " Don't you think you're laying it on a little strong? I stood you as a lion and a kangaroo without turning a hair. When you were a seagull and a goldfish I did what little I could to protect your interests. When you were a cat I actually took you to bed with me. Not satisfied with your past achievements it now seems that you've begun to make up animals, combining them, trying to be three animals at once. It's a trifle more than a potential wife or mistress can stand. I think it's very silly to make up animals. Have you seen yourself yet? Look."

She took a small mirror from her vanity case and held it up before Mr. Lamb. With a strangled, gasping squawk he flopped down the steps and shuffled away as fast as his queer, ill-fashioned legs could carry him. A thin film seemed to have settled over his eyes. He could see only dimly. He was totally unfitted for the world in which he found himself. His heart was heavy, however, with human despair.

Sandra rose quickly from her chair and looked after the retreating animal. Once she called to him, but Mr. Lamb did not appear to have heard her. Filled with misgiving for the safety of this defenceless creature she hurried to Mr. Lamb's home, but he was not there. Hebe greeted her at the door and gave her an account of what had taken place at court, after which they sat down and wondered what had become of Mr. Lamb.

The subject of their speculations knew neither what to do nor where to go. News of a strange animal being at large spread rapidly through the countryside. Parties were organised to capture or to kill this animal. Big, quick-tempered, hard-biting dogs were pressed into service. The animal was different, therefore it did not belong. It was the invariable attitude of humanity—destroy what you cannot understand. Mr. Lamb became a hunted thing.

His trail was picked up on the outskirts of the town. Soon he heard the hue and cry behind him. Sheer panic weakened his efforts as he hopped laboriously along. He was about to enter a wood when he spied a small hut before which a man was sitting, a man with vague, troubled eyes and a head of matted hair. Mr. Lamb recognised the man. He was the local half-wit, almost as far removed from his fellow-men as was Mr. Lamb himself.

When the half-wit saw the winded and hard-pressed creature he showed neither surprise nor alarm. He rose from the ground, and approaching Mr. Lamb, looked sympathetically into his dim eyes. "Tired," he said as if to himself, "and thirsty. Scared near to death."

The sound of pursuit was growing steadily nearer. Three dogs, nose to the ground, were streaming across the field. Behind them came the rabble of the town. The half-wit frowned and looked at Mr. Lamb.

"They're after you," he said quietly. "They've been after me for years. Come along."

Mr. Lamb hopped after him to the hut and drank thirstily when the man gave him a cup of water. Then the man went out and stood before the door. In his hand was a heavy stick.

Within a few minutes Mr. Lamb heard the voices of his pursuers and the snarls of the dogs. The house was surrounded and shouts rang out.

"Leave the poor creature alone," he heard the half-wit saying. "He's not hurting anybody, and I won't let you at him."

The dogs were urged forward, and the crowd fell upon the struggling half-wit. In spite of his terror Mr. Lamb tried to come to his aid.

"There it is!" a voice shouted "Get him."

A large rock crashed against the side of Mr. Lamb's head and the strange animal sank down, a crumpled, uncouth mass. A dog worried his tail, and by his side the half-wit was feebly trying to rise. The crowd stood over the still animal with a feeling of great accomplishment, particularly the man who had thrown the rock.

When Mr. Lamb regained consciousness he was lying on a large marble slab. A group of near-sighted-looking gentlemen were examining him minutely. One of these gentlemen was clad in white. In his hand was a long, thin, and extremely business-like knife. Mr. Lamb sat up abruptly and looked about him. The room in which he found himself was rigged out as a laboratory. To Mr. Lamb it had the appearance of a torture chamber. The men seemingly were highly excited. They were staring at Mr. Lamb with deep interest.

"Oh, I say," said one of them in remonstrating tones, "that was really too bad of you."

"How too bad?" asked Mr. Lamb, a trifle giddily.

"Well," continued the man, " a moment ago you were a most remarkable type of animal. Now you're only rather a commonplace sort of person."

"You're not so exceptional yourself," replied Mr. Lamb, irritated by the man's manner.

He swung round on the table and addressed another member of the group.

"I wish you would remove the knife from that unreliable-looking individual's hand," he said. "What are all of you trying to do, anyway, murder me?"

"No," replied the other. "This a meeting of scientists. We were just going to find out what manner of animal you were. You seemed to he quite dead."

"Well, I don't seem quite dead now," said Mr. Lamb.

And I'm not an animal. You'll have to stick that knife into someone else, I'm afraid. I want to go home. My head hurts."

"But aren't you going to be that way any more?" one of them protested.

"Come, come," urged one. "Snap back for us, won't you."

"All I can say," remarked a third, "is that as you were, you were a great gain to science, and that as you are, you are not much of a contribution to the human race."

"Won't you even try?" pleaded a bearded individual. "Come now, make an honest effort. Try hard. Be an animal."

"Yes," urged still another member of the group. "Pull yourself together."

"And you'll pull me apart," replied Mr. Lamb.

"I'd like to cut him open, anyway," remarked the man with the knife. "There must be something strange inside him. No one would ever know."

Mr. Lamb slid hastily from the marble slab.

"Everyone would know," he announced. "If you come a step nearer with that horrid-looking knife, I'll let out a yell that will bring in the entire neighbourhood, you cold-blooded, long-faced murderer. You look like a horse yourself. Why don't you slit your own hide open?"

Mr. Lamb felt better after this little outburst. He walked to the door with a dignified step, then turned and faced the bewildered and disappointed scientists.

"The next time I turn into an animal," he announced, "I'm going to call in an osteopath."

It was quite late when Mr. Lamb reached home. The house seemed empty. He went directly to his study, and without troubling to switch on the light sat down in his usual chair. He wanted to rest his eyes to see if the pain would not leave his head. Through the doors to his little porch the starlight shone into the room. Presently Mr. Lamb became aware of the fact that a small red light was glowing steadily opposite him. He caught the aroma of cigar smoke.

"Are you satisfied?" came a voice through the darkness.

Mr. Lamb recognised the voice, and his heart began to beat a little more hopefully. He got up and switching on the light, stood looking down at the little russet man. That cheery individual was sitting exactly as Mr. Lamb had last seen him. In one hand he held a half-smoked cigar, in the other a half-consumed high-ball. His umbrella was neatly arranged on the floor at his side.

"I hope you are," replied Mr. Lamb. " I'm fed up. You've ruined everything for me, including the zoo." The little russet man smiled.

"Well, Mr. Lamb," he said, " you're all through now. It's done you a world of good. Respectability almost had you. You could never have stood the strain."

"I'm not respectable now, God knows," said Mr. Lamb. "I'm the most talked-about person in the nation. I'm divorced, disgraced, and forever marked as a freak of nature."

"Do you regret your experiences?" asked the little russet man.

Mr. Lamb thought over the past few months and grinned.

"No," he replied. "Not exactly."

"The world has a short memory," his visitor resumed. "And, anyway, you should travel for a while. See something new, Mr. Lamb. As an animal you seemed to have a faculty for getting yourself into trouble. As a man your life should not prove to be so devoid of interest. The best side of you is your bad side—bad, I mean, from the point of view of Mrs. Grundy and her friends. Develop that side. Drink, eat, love, and laugh to your heart's content. Don't worry about people who peer through windows. Don't hurt others, but don't let others hurt you. They'll do it every time if they can get you on the run. The world envies success-fully unmoral people. Also it hates them. What your generation refers to as a hangover is not necessarily a mark of shame. There's plenty of room in the world for a decent-spirited drunkard. Sobriety is good for certain persons only. You are not one of them. And, by the way, if I were in your place I'd look up that half-witted chap who tried to help you out. I find him one of the most likeable characters in the community."

Mr. Lamb walked over to a table and picked up the decanter. He was considering the words of his guest. A breeze passed through the room, and Mr. Lamb, turning, saw the doors to his porch were open. Evidently the little russet man had passed through them, because he was no longer present. Only his umbrella remained beside his empty chair, and as Mr. Lamb stood looking at it the umbrella rose from the floor and moved slowly across the room.

"Almost forgot it that time," from nowhere in particular came the voice of the mysterious little fellow.

Mr. Lamb walked out on his porch and sat down. A small hand slipped through the darkness and came to rest on his. Mr. Lamb sprang up with a smothered cry of fear.

"For God's sake," he complained, "why is everybody creeping up on me in the dark? I'm as nervous as a bug."

"We'll have to do something about that," said Sandra. " Sit down and keep your shirt on."

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