From CHAPTER XI
THE ESCAPED WOLF.
PERILOUS ADVENTURE OF OUR INTERVIEWER.
Interview with the Keeper in the Zoölogical Gardens.
After many inquiries and almost as many refusals, and perpetually using the words “Pall Mall Gazette” as a sort of talisman, I managed to find the keeper of the section of the Zoölogical Gardens in which the wolf department is included. Thomas Bilder lives in one of the cottages in the enclosure behind the elephant-house, and was just sitting down to his tea when I found him. Thomas and his wife are hospitable folk, elderly, and without children, and if the specimen I enjoyed of their hospitality be of the average kind, their lives must be pretty comfortable. The keeper would not enter on what he called “business” until the supper was over, and we were all satisfied. Then when the table was cleared, and he had lit his pipe, he said:—
“Now, sir, you can go on and arsk me what you want. You’ll excoose me refoosin’ to talk of perfeshunal subjects afore meals. I gives the wolves and the jackals and the hyenas in all our section their tea afore I begins to arsk them questions.”
“How do you mean, ask them questions?” I queried, wishful to get him into a talkative humour.
“ ’Ittin’ of them over the ’ead with a pole is one way; scratchin’ of their hears is another, when gents as is flush wants a bit of a show-orf to their gals. I don’t so much mind the fust—the ’ittin’ with a pole afore I chucks in their dinner; but I waits till they’ve ’ad their sherry and kawffee, so to speak, afore I tries on with the ear-scratchin’. Mind you,” he added philosophically, “there’s a deal of the same nature in us as in them theer animiles. Here’s you a-comin’ and arskin’ of me questions about my business, and I that grumpy-like that only for your bloomin’ ’arf-quid I’d ’a’ seen you blowed fust ’fore I’d answer. Not even when you arsked me sarcastic-like if I’d like you to arsk the Superintendent if you might arsk me questions. Without offence did I tell yer to go to ’ell?”
“An’ when you said you’d report me for usin’ of obscene language that was ’ittin’ me over the ’ead; but the ’arf-quid made that all right. I weren’t a-goin’ to fight, so I waited for the food, and did with my ’owl as the wolves, and lions, and tigers does. But, Lor’ love yer ’art, now that the old ’ooman has stuck a chunk of her tea-cake in me, an’ rinsed me out with her bloomin’ old teapot, and I’ve lit hup, you may scratch my ears for all you’re worth, and won’t git even a growl out of me. Drive along with your questions. I know what yer a-comin’ at, that ’ere escaped wolf.”
“Exactly. I want you to give me your view of it. Just tell me how it happened; and when I know the facts I’ll get you to say what you consider was the cause of it, and how you think the whole affair will end.”
“All right, guv’nor. This ’ere is about the ’ole story. That ’ere wolf what we called Bersicker was one of three grey ones that came from Norway to Jamrach’s, which we bought off him four years ago. He was a nice well-behaved wolf, that never gave no trouble to talk of. I’m more surprised at ’im for wantin’ to get out nor any other animile in the place. But, there, you can’t trust wolves no more nor women.”
“Don’t you mind him, sir!” broke in Mrs. Tom, with a cheery laugh. “ ’E’s got mindin’ the animiles so long that blest if he ain’t like a old wolf ’isself! But there ain’t no ’arm in ’im.”
“Well, sir, it was about two hours after feedin’ yesterday when I first hear my disturbance. I was makin’ up a litter in the monkey-house for a young puma which is ill; but when I heard the yelpin’ and ’owlin’ I kem away straight. There was Bersicker a-tearin’ like a mad thing at the bars as if he wanted to get out. There wasn’t much people about that day, and close at hand was only one man, a tall, thin chap, with a ’ook nose and a pointed beard, with a few white hairs runnin’ through it. He had a ’ard, cold look and red eyes, and I took a sort of mislike to him, for it seemed as if it was ’im as they was hirritated at. He ’ad white kid gloves on ’is ’ands, and he pointed out the animiles to me and says: ‘Keeper, these wolves seem upset at something.’
“ ‘Maybe it’s you,’ says I, for I did not like the airs as he give ’isself. He didn’t git angry, as I ’oped he would, but he smiled a kind of insolent smile, with a mouth full of white, sharp teeth. ‘Oh no, they wouldn’t like me,’ ’e says.
“ ‘Ow yes, they would,’ says I, a-imitatin’ of him. ‘They always likes a bone or two to clean their teeth on about tea-time, which you ’as a bagful.’
“Well, it was a odd thing, but when the animiles see us a-talkin’ they lay down, and when I went over to Bersicker he let me stroke his ears same as ever. That there man kem over, and blessed but if he didn’t put in his hand and stroke the old wolf’s ears too!
“ ‘Tyke care,’ says I. ‘Bersicker is quick.’
“ ‘Never mind,’ he says. ‘I’m used to ’em!’
“ ‘Are you in the business yourself?’ I says, tyking off my ’at, for a man what trades in wolves, anceterer, is a good friend to keepers.
“ ‘No’ says he, ‘not exactly in the business, but I ’ave made pets of several.’ And with that he lifts his ’at as perlite as a lord, and walks away. Old Bersicker kep’ a-lookin’ arter ’im till ’e was out of sight, and then went and lay down in a corner and wouldn’t come hout the ’ole hevening. Well, larst night, so soon as the moon was hup, the wolves here all began a-’owling. There warn’t nothing for them to ’owl at. There warn’t no one near, except some one that was evidently a-callin’ a dog somewheres out back of the gardings in the Park road. Once or twice I went out to see that all was right, and it was, and then the ’owling stopped. Just before twelve o’clock I just took a look round afore turnin’ in, an’, bust me, but when I kem opposite to old Bersicker’s cage I see the rails broken and twisted about and the cage empty. And that’s all I know for certing.”
“Did any one else see anything?”
“One of our gard’ners was a-comin’ ’ome about that time from a ’armony, when he sees a big grey dog comin’ out through the garding ’edges. At least, so he says, but I don’t give much for it myself, for if he did ’e never said a word about it to his missis when ’e got ’ome, and it was only after the escape of the wolf was made known, and we had been up all night-a-huntin’ of the Park for Bersicker, that he remembered seein’ anything. My own belief was that the ’armony ’ad got into his ’ead.”
“Now, Mr. Bilder, can you account in any way for the escape of the wolf?”
“Well, sir,” he said, with a suspicious sort of modesty, “I think I can; but I don’t know as ’ow you’d be satisfied with the theory.”
“Certainly I shall. If a man like you, who knows the animals from experience, can’t hazard a good guess at any rate, who is even to try?”
“Well then, sir, I accounts for it this way; it seems to me that ’ere wolf escaped—simply because he wanted to get out.”
From the hearty way that both Thomas and his wife laughed at the joke I could see that it had done service before, and that the whole explanation was simply an elaborate sell. I couldn’t cope in badinage with the worthy Thomas, but I thought I knew a surer way to his heart, so I said:—
“Now, Mr. Bilder, we’ll consider that first half-sovereign worked off, and this brother of his is waiting to be claimed when you’ve told me what you think will happen.”
“Right y’are, sir,” he said briskly. “Ye’ll excoose me, I know, for a-chaffin’ of ye, but the old woman here winked at me, which was as much as telling me to go on.”
“Well, I never!” said the old lady.
“My opinion is this: that ’ere wolf is a-’idin’ of, somewheres. The gard’ner wot didn’t remember said he was a-gallopin’ northward faster than a horse could go; but I don’t believe him, for, yer see, sir, wolves don’t gallop no more nor a dog does, they not bein’ built that way. Wolves is fine things in a storybook, and I dessay when they gets in packs and does be chivyin’ somethin’ that’s more afeared than they is they can make a devil of a noise and chop it up, whatever it is. But, Lor’ bless you, in real life a wolf is only a low creature, not half so clever or bold as a good dog; and not half a quarter so much fight in ’im. This one ain’t been used to fightin’ or even to providin’ for hisself, and more like he’s somewhere round the Park a-’idin’ an’ a-shiverin’ of, and, if he thinks at all, wonderin’ where he is to get his breakfast from; or maybe he’s got down some area and is in a coal-cellar. My eye, won’t some cook get a rum start when she sees his green eyes a-shining at her out of the dark! If he can’t get food he’s bound to look for it, and mayhap he may chance to light on a butcher’s shop in time. If he doesn’t, and some nursemaid goes a-walkin’ orf with a soldier, leavin’ of the hinfant in the perambulator—well, then I shouldn’t be surprised if the census is one babby the less. That’s all.”
I was handing him the half-sovereign, when something came bobbing up against the window, and Mr. Bilder’s face doubled its natural length with surprise.
“God bless me!” he said. “If there ain’t old Bersicker come back by ’isself!”
He went to the door and opened it; a most unnecessary proceeding it seemed to me. I have always thought that a wild animal never looks so well as when some obstacle of pronounced durability is between us; a personal experience has intensified rather than diminished that idea.
After all, however, there is nothing like custom, for neither Bilder nor his wife thought any more of the wolf than I should of a dog. The animal itself was as peaceful and well-behaved as that father of all picture-wolves—Red Riding Hood’s quondam friend, whilst moving her confidence in masquerade.
The whole scene was an unutterable mixture of comedy and pathos. The wicked wolf that for half a day had paralysed London and set all the children in the town shivering in their shoes, was there in a sort of penitent mood, and was received and petted like a sort of vulpine prodigal son. Old Bilder examined him all over with most tender solicitude, and when he had finished with his penitent said:—
“There, I knew the poor old chap would get into some kind of trouble; didn’t I say it all along? Here’s his head all cut and full of broken glass. ’E’s been a-gettin’ over some bloomin’ wall or other. It’s a shyme that people are allowed to top their walls with broken bottles. This ’ere’s what comes of it. Come along, Bersicker.”
He took the wolf and locked him up in a cage, with a piece of meat that satisfied, in quantity at any rate, the elementary conditions of the fatted calf, and went off to report.
I came off, too, to report the only exclusive information that is given to-day regarding the strange escapade at the Zoo.