Badger and the Echidna

Mrs. Miniver left the committee meeting about four o'clock in a mood half-way between exasperation and despair. The subject (a privately run, rather Utopian scheme connected with slum clearance) had fired her imagination when she had first heard of it: but why, she wondered, leaving the Comfreys' ample portico behind her and crossing over into Regent's Park, why must Pegasus always be harnessed to a dray, with a ham-handed cretin at the reins? By what mismanagement, what mistaking of bulk for importance, of bonhomie for goodwill, had a project like this been saddled with Lord Comfrey as chairman? And how could it succeed, if the meetings were always to be held in that moss-carpeted mausoleum of a house, at that smug post-prandial hour? If I had my way, she thought, walking very quickly so as to create a wind past her temples, I'd arrange the scene of every conference to suit its subject: and this particular committee ought to meet in a damp basement bedroom in Shoreditch, sitting on upturned soap-boxes. Rats, blackbeetles, and all.

She decided to go to the Zoo. It would be a relief to her feelings. As she passed the still open trenches she caught sight of old Badgecumbe standing among a little knot of sightseers, his vast head bent, his eyes hidden as usual beneath jutting, grizzled brows.

"Badger! You, rubber-necking?"

"I've been working with pyridine all day, and I need a breath of air."

" So do I. Not pyridine -- people. I was just going to do a Whitman. Why not come too?"

Badger nodded towards the trenches. "Woolley and the rest of 'em dig to uncover past civilizations. We dig to bury our own."

"I hear they're going to roof them in and put flower-beds on top."

"Very suitable, " said Badger drily." To remind us, I suppose, that 'this flower, safety,' is still growing in pretty shallow soil."

"Come mee-yer, Alf-ay!" A woman standing at the foot of a gravel mountain beckoned with peevish urgency to her child. "You'll fall in and break your neck, and serve you right. And besides," she added, "you'll get them new boots in a muck."

" 'I'm the King of the Castle,' " chanted the urchin from the topmost pinnacle.

"I'll give you Castle . . ." She breasted the foot-hills briskly. But her son had already slithered to the ground on the other side, and was bearing down upon some new sightseers with outstretched palm.

"This wye to the trenches, lidy. Penny to show you round . . ."

"I think perhaps you're right," said Badger, taking Mrs. Miniver’s arm. "it'll be a relief to go and look at creatures who only behave grotesquely because they can't help it."

"Let's choose the funniest," said Mrs. Miniver. "The mandrills. And the giraffes."

They made their way towards the main entrance of the Zoo.

On second thoughts," said Badger, we'll go straight to the echidna. You know the echidna?"

"I've seen its cage, but it's never been actually on view."

"It wouldn't be. It's nocturnal; but we'll get them to rout it out. It's worth seeing, as a horrible warning. Zaglossus bruynii. My unfavourite of God's creatures. If indeed it is one, which I sometimes doubt."

There was no gainsaying Badger. Mrs. Miniver relinquished her hopes of the brilliant, sneering mandrills, the gentle, bowing, improbable giraffes. But she liked the Small Rodent House, anyway. It contained three of the most engaging animals in the Zoo -- the Indian Fruit Bat, which was like a doll's umbrella; the Golden Hamster; and, best of all, the Fat Sand Rat.

But Badger marched her straight past these to the low cages at the end. The keeper opened the door of the sleeping-hutch; and there, huddled in one corner, was what looked like a sack-shaped lump of clay about two feet long. On closer investigation, however, it proved to be covered with short, sparse, dirty-white spines; and between the spines there was some coarse greyish-brown hair. The keeper reached over and lifted it out of the hutch by one hind leg. ("It's the only way," Badger explained. "There's no other approach to an echidna.") The under-side of the creature was even less attractive than its top view. It had tiny pig's eyes, squeezed tightly shut. Its face, almost non-existent, was extended into a pipe-shaped snout, so long and thin that it looked far more like a tail than did the short spatulate appendage at the other end of its body. Through this snout, which it kept pressed down against its belly in a vain attempt to curl up, it emitted a prolonged, petulant hissing. As soon as the keeper put it down it hunched itself back into its corner again, squirming with distaste for light and activity.

"Of course," said Mrs. Miniver, trying to be fair, "I suppose it's more lively at night."

"Not much," said the keeper. "Waddle sout just far enough to get its food, then back it goes." ("Habitat: West End," murmured Badger.)

"Sucks it in through that snout. No teeth."

"Tell me," said Mrs. Miniver, "I see it's been here for a good many years: have you ever managed to get up any affection for it?"

"Not much," said the keeper, apologetically. "It’s just about alive, and that's all you can say for it."

"Let's get out of here," said Badger abruptly. "It's as bad as pyridine. Besides, that animal gives me the horrors."

"It's certainly not pretty," said Mrs. Miniver.

"Pretty? It’s criminal. It’s what’s been peopling half the world. Lowest sub-class of mammal. Barely alive. The incarnation of accidie."

"Accidie? oh, yes -- one of the seven deadly sins."

"The only deadly one," said Badger. "Well, here we've all been. Some of us less than others, but all of us to a certain extent. No vision. No energy. No discrimination. Spiritual monotremata."

Mrs. Miniver had often noticed that when Badger got worked up his sentences grew shorter and his words longer. They stepped out into the fresh autumn sunshine.

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