HE wore a bowler hat. There was a faded velvet collar on his dark blue overcoat. His gayly striped tie was worn and greasy with years of constant use. His teeth were decayed. One knew at first sight that he was married to a woman much bigger than himself. He was obviously a Londoner.
He had no part in the New York crowd. A townsman, yet racy of the soil, his place was in some pub of the London suburbs, where the landlord was a dog fancier and the local bookmaker had his sacred corner table and the best chair in the saloon bar. The odor that his memory most lovingly selected was a mixture of beer and iodine. So the pub had smelt whenever a new litter of prize terriers entered the world, and their little tails were being docked on the bar before a choice crowd of the landlord’s favorites. He had often held the pup; the dirty hands were very gentle. He had been a favorite of the bookmaker, too. Knew a bit about the gees, he did. His bandy legs suggested an early training as a stableboy, and indeed he had ridden a race or two, but lost his job before he was old enough to know when and how to drink.
He stood before one of the kangaroo enclosures in the Bronx Zoo. A female kangaroo lay on her side close to the wire, listening to him. She reclined in the curious manner of kangaroos: full length and leaning on one elbow, like a Roman lady at a banquet. Her gray underside was luxuriously displayed. With her spare paw she fanned the flies from her nose. She watched him with languorous interest, and waved her ears when he spoke to her.
The crowd, a cross section of central Europe, loud-mouthed, well fed, and feeding as they walked, passed by the kangaroos with little interest; they were bound for the capybara and the anteater, distorted creatures to which they had a certain affinity. When people joined him at the railing, he glanced sidelong at them like a fox. If they belonged to the usual run of visitors, he ducked his peaked head into his dirty butterfly collar and waited resignedly till they moved on. But if the intruder was a man, and alone, and likely to be sympathetic, he motioned to him to be still. He showed uncanny judgment in picking those whom he chose to trust. They seldom let him down, but watched, smiling, while he continued the interrupted conversation.
‘Ain’t yer a lil bleeder?’ he would say softly. ‘Like to be back in Austrylia, would n’t yer?’
His voice was a caress of curious vowel sounds. The kangaroo fanned herself, and listened with obvious delight.
His name was Breown — so he pronounced it, and his associates, to whom such immigrant names as Szczewc were easy because they never saw them written, took him at his own valuation of it. His wife was a roaring Irish-American, red-faced and bulging. She ran a small hand laundry of her own. He had the reputation of a good-for-nothing little Britisher, who would be in the bread line if not for her. It was true that she supported him; yet he would have willingly slaved for some colorless little woman of his own breed. Kate’s overpowering vitality sapped his self-respect. A dog would have been something to live for, even to work for, but he had n’t the heart to bring up a pup in a New York tenement. He hungered for the monotonous rows of small, sordid houses on the outskirts of London, each with its own back garden where a dog could run loose and there was room for a hutch of ferrets or Belgian hares.
Kate was not unkind, but she was no object for tenderness. She was a mother to men; a brazen, foul-mouthed mother who liked them rebellious and hard-fisted. Her husband was neither. She treated him with a good-humored contempt, and was unfaithful to him on the rare occasions when she aroused a passing desire. He was surrounded by contempt — even at Mike’s, where the salted, ethered beer kept up some semblance of a saloon, and he should have been in his element. But Mike’s customers knew little of dogs, and of horses less. Of heavy badinage they knew all there was to know, and he was their butt.
Until he discovered the Bronx Park, and the inner shrine which housed his slender and gentle kangaroo, he had no creature to appreciate the sensitiveness that was his birthright. Twice a week for more than a year he had visited her. On every occasion he risked the three-dollar fine and brought her a carrot. For nine months he threw it over the netting. Then on one triumphant day, and ever since, she had taken it from his hand. Only one carrot he gave her at each visit, for he respected the rights of the zoölogical society, and did not wish to interfere with her carefully balanced diet.
The kangaroo gave him an ambition. It was very long since he had had one. If you had asked him what he most wanted, he would have answered: ‘To get ’ome agyne.’ But that was a mere longing, like the hope of the pious to go to Heaven; the difficulties seemed so immense that he never even planned return to England. His ambition was more definite. It might be attained. It was a desire that sweetened the hour in bed before he slept, and took away the bitterness of awaking.
One day he overcame his fear of ridicule, and demanded boldly that his desire be granted. He swallowed before speaking, and his scraggy Adam’s apple bobbed up and down.
‘Lemme in the kyge with ’er,’ he begged the keeper.
‘Against the rules,’ answered the keeper shortly — he was not a little jealous of Mr. Breown’s conquest. ‘And don’t you kid yourself that you’ve made friends with her. Those kangaroos are the timidest animals in the gardens.’
‘Cripes! Timidest animals in the gordens! Yer don’t say!’ he muttered, deeply impressed.
He slunk away, hurt and disappointed, but his pride in his achievement increased. He did not know he was proud. It took the form of increased pity for the kangaroo.
‘She ain’t got no call to be timid,’ he murmured indignantly. ‘’Oo’s going to ’urt ’er? That’s what I’d like ter know! ’Oo’s going to ’urt ’er?’
He understood that he would never persuade the keeper to let him into the cage. The result of his disappointment was an orgy of poisonous whiskey that left him whiter and spottier than ever. But the orgy was not had for him spiritually. It was followed by an intense need to assert himself, which led him to use his brain. His cockney cunning, long unemployed for want of any worthy cause, came back to him.
The municipal elections were not far off. He sat in Mike’s, drinking cautiously, and dribbling a nasty stream of cockney irony against the Democrats. His tongue was a keen weapon, but he had ceased to use it in personalities, for the sallies which would have set a London pub rocking with laughter were lost in Mike’s. His comments on the public administration found listeners; the style passed unheeded, but the eloquence alone won attention. The district leader, white facing on his waistcoat, gold watch chain across his ample stomach, was forced to take notice of this attack. He asked Mr. Breown what the Democrats could do for him. Mr. Breown told him.
‘Aw, come on now! Talk plainly, can’t you?’
‘I tells yer that’s what I want,’ repeated the little man. ‘Get me into the kangaroo kyge, and I ’ll shut me ’ead! ’
Enough of his race remained in the Jew to enable him to recognize a spiritual need when he saw one. He agreed to do his best.
It was n’t easy; but the district leader, his interest stirred both by the oddness of Mr. Breown’s ambition and by the difficulty of realizing it, went far up in the hierarchy of Tammany Hall to get permission. Eventually he got it.
The Londoner dressed as if for his wedding. He was conscious of the same feeling of excitement. It was purer excitement, for he had been afraid of Kate. His marriage to her was a desperate effort to make the new country livable — as if by changing his manner of life he could change his tastes. He had no fear at all of this second wedding. He would have liked to buy himself a new suit for the occasion. But the kangaroo knew the smell of his old suit. She might be nervous of a new smell. Better not risk it.
In the subway he was very still and tense. He hated the subway — chiefly because it was n’t the London tube — and took a perverse pleasure in losing himself on it that he might add fuel to his grievance. He did not lose himself on this journey, though Alott Avenue offered him the only genuine chance in New York to do so.
He had stipulated that the interview was to take place after the public had left the gardens. He slipped through the gates a quarter of an hour before closing time. He walked unseeing past the yaks and the ostriches, but stopped to say a word to the emu. The bird came from Australia, the same country as his beloved.
Waiting for him by the kangaroo paddocks were the district leader, his little boy, and two of his friends. The district leader had a healthy human curiosity, sometimes offensive in its outward manifestations, but always kindly. Nevertheless, Mr. Breown resented his presence. It seemed an intrusion on his privacy that made him flush with unreasoning anger. He comforted himself deliberately with the thought that for once he was the centre of interest.
‘Timidest animal in the gordens! Er’r, I’ll show ’em!’
But even the fame which he knew he would win did not compensate him. It was like making capital out of the timidity of a bride.
His audience greeted him with the gibes of crude good-fellowship, slapping him on the back, telling him he’d forgotten his whip and uniform, begging him to put his head in the kangaroo’s mouth. He stepped jauntily to the cage, acting, acting, with an absurd feeling of disloyalty to his kangaroo.
‘ ’Ere y’ are, gen’l’men! Walk up and see Mr. ’Arry Breown do ’is fymous act! ’
The keeper unlocked the door.
‘She won’t let you touch her,’ he growled disgustedly. ‘I never saw a kangaroo yet that would let itself be handled.’
The little cockney entered the cage, and crept softly through the door in the partition that led to the paddock. The kangaroo shied away from him and sat on her hind legs, startled and ready for flight. She recognized him, but he was in the wrong place. It took her some time to reconcile the contradictory fact that a friend whose essence was outside-the-cage-ness was now inside it. He sat on the step and talked to her. After ten minutes of false starts, she hopped across the paddock and rested on her tail, looking at him. He stood up very slowly and made a step towards her. She trembled and her ears moved anxiously, but she did n’t stir. He talked to her until it was safe to take one more step. Once she was under the spell of his voice, he offered her the carrot. She hopped forwards on hands and haunches, with the ungainly motion of a kangaroo at ease, and took it.
While she was eating he talked to her, humorously and gently.
She lifted her head and waited for more carrot. Instead, the offering hand came nearer and touched her muzzle. She shied, but it was n’t a determined shy. She tempted him again, ears pricked like the gracious ears of an antelope. He stroked her throat and scratched her behind the ears. She lay down on one elbow. Never hurrying, always talking, he stroked the brown back and the soft gray belly. The kangaroo fanned herself with coy detachment. At last she hopped away from him.
He left the paddock, happy as he had not been happy since childhood. He simply did n’t see the men who surrounded him. The keeper was generous and enthusiastic. The others, taking their cue from him, showed no less astonishment.
‘She sure loves you!’ exclaimed the keeper.
‘Loves me?’ repeated the little man, still dazed by his good fortune. ‘Loves me?’
The district leader guffawed.
‘And, oh boy! Is you in love with her!’
The gibe, innocently enough meant, crashed into the smooth and shining pool of his mind. He blushed, ducking his head within the butterfly collar, and walked rapidly and guiltily away.
He never went back to Kate or to the district. That was well for him. Yet, had he done so, he would have met with a new respect. They did n’t believe that he was really in love with his kangaroo.