Chapter XV - Serpent And Child

My pleasure in bird life--Mammals at our new home--Snakes and how children are taught to regard them--A colony of snakes in the house-- Their hissing confabulations--Finding serpent sloughs--A serpent's saviour--A brief history of our English neighbours, the Blakes.

It is not an uncommon thing, I fancy, for a child or boy to be more deeply impressed and stirred at the sight of a snake than of any other creature. This at all events is my experience. Birds certainly gave me more pleasure than other animals, and this too is no doubt common with children, and I take the reason of it to be not only because birds exceed in beauty, but also on account of the intensity of life they exhibit--a life so vivid, so brilliant, as to make that of other beings, such as reptiles and mammals, seem a rather poor thing by comparison. But while birds were more than all other beings to me, mammals too had a great attraction. I have already spoken of rats, opossums, and armadillos; also of the vizcacha, the big burrowing rodent that made his villages all over the plain. One of my early experiences is of the tremendous outcry these animals would make at night when suddenly startled by a very loud noise, as by a clap of thunder. When we had visitors from town, especially persons new to the country who did not know the vizcacha, they would be taken out after supper, a little distance from the house, when the plain was all dark and profoundly silent, and after standing still for a few minutes to give them time to feel the silence, a gun would be discharged, and after two or three seconds the report would be followed by an extraordinary hullabaloo, a wild outcry of hundreds and thousands of voices, from all over the plain for miles round, voices that seemed to come from hundreds of different species of animals, so varied they were, from the deepest booming sounds to the high shrieks and squeals of shrill-voiced birds. Our visitors used to be filled with astonishment.

Another animal that impressed us deeply and painfully was the skunk. They were fearless little beasts and in the evening would come quite boldly about the house, and if seen and attacked by a dog, they would defend themselves with the awful-smelling liquid they discharge at an adversary. When the wind brought a whiff of it into the house, when all the doors and windows stood open, it would create a panic, and people would get up from table feeling a little sea-sick, and go in search of some room where the smell was not. Another powerful-smelling but very beautiful creature was the common deer. I began to know it from the age of five, when we went to our new home, and where we children were sometimes driven with our parents to visit some neighbours several miles away. There were always herds of deer on the lands where the cardoon thistle nourished most, and it was a delight to come upon them and to see their yellow figures standing among the grey-green cardoon bushes, gazing motionless at us, then turning and rushing away with a whistling cry, and sending out gusts of their powerful musky smell, which the wind sometimes brought to our nostrils.

But there was a something in the serpent which produced a quite different and a stronger effect on the mind than bird or mammal or any other creature. The sight of it was always startling, and however often seen always produced a mixed sense of amazement and fear. The feeling was no doubt acquired from our elders. They regarded snakes as deadly creatures, and as a child I did not know that they were mostly harmless, that it was just as senseless to kill them as to kill harmless and beautiful birds. I was told that when I saw a snake I must turn and run for my life until I was a little bigger, and then on seeing a snake I was to get a long stick and kill it; and it was furthermore impressed on me that snakes are exceedingly difficult to kill, that many persons believe that a snake never really dies until the sun sets, therefore when I killed a snake, in order to make it powerless to do any harm between the time of killing it and sunset, it was necessary to pound it to a pulp with the aforesaid long stick.

With such teaching it was not strange that even as a small boy I became a persecutor of snakes.

Snakes were common enough about us; snakes of seven or eight different kinds, green in the green grass, and yellow and dusky-mottled in dry and barren places and in withered herbage, so that it was difficult to detect them. Sometimes they intruded into the dwelling-rooms, and at all seasons a nest or colony of snakes existed in the thick old foundations of the house, and under the flooring. In winter they hibernated there, tangled together in a cluster no doubt; and in summer nights when they were at home, coiled at their ease or gliding ghost-like about their subterranean apartments, I would lie awake and listen to them by the hour. For although it may be news to some closet ophiologists, serpents are not all so mute as we think them. At all events this kind, the Philodryas aestivus--a beautiful and harmless colubrine snake, two and a half to three feet long, marked all over with inky black on a vivid green ground--not only emitted a sound when lying undisturbed in his den, but several individuals would hold a conversation together which seemed endless, for I generally fell asleep before it finished. A hissing conversation it is true, but not unmodulated or without considerable variety in it; a long sibilation would be followed by distinctly-heard ticking sounds, as of a husky-ticking clock, and after ten or twenty or thirty ticks another hiss, like a long expiring sigh, sometimes with a tremble in it as of a dry leaf swiftly vibrating in the wind. No sooner would one cease than another would begin; and so it would go on, demand and response, strophe and antistrope; and at intervals several voices would unite in a kind of low mysterious chorus, death-watch and flutter and hiss; while I, lying awake in my bed, listened and trembled. It was dark in the room, and to my excited imagination the serpents were no longer under the floor, but out, gliding hither and thither over it, with uplifted heads in a kind of mystic dance; and I often shivered to think what my bare feet might touch if I were to thrust a leg out and let it hang down over the bedside.

"I'm shut in a dark room with the candle blown out," pathetically cried old Farmer Fleming, when he heard of his beautiful daughter Dahlia's clandestine departure to a distant land with a nameless lover. "I've heard of a sort of fear you have in that dilemma, lest you should lay your fingers on edges of sharp knives, and if I think a step--if I go thinking a step, and feel my way, I do cut myself, and I bleed, I do." Only in a comparatively snakeless country could such fancies be born and such metaphors used--snakeless and highly civilized, where the blades of Sheffield are cheap and abundant. In ruder lands, where ophidians abound, as in India and South America, in the dark one fears the cold living coil and deadly sudden fang.

Serpents were fearful things to me at that period; but whatsoever is terrible and dangerous, or so reported, has an irresistible attraction for the mind, whether of child or man; it was therefore always a pleasure to have seen a snake in the day's rambles, although the sight was a startling one. Also in the warm season it was a keen pleasure to find the cast slough of the feared and subtle creature. Here was something not the serpent, yet so much more than a mere picture of it; a dead and cast-off part of it, but in its completeness, from the segmented mask with the bright unseeing eyes, to the fine whip-like tail end, so like the serpent itself; I could handle it, handle the serpent as it were, yet be in no danger from venomous tooth or stinging tongue. True, it was colourless, but silvery bright, soft as satin to the touch, crinkling when handled with a sound that to the startled fancy recalled the dangerous living hiss from the dry rustling grass! I would clutch my prize with a fearful joy, as if I had picked up a strange feather dropped in passing from the wing of one of the fallen but still beautiful angels. And it always increased my satisfaction when, on exhibiting my treasure at home, the first sight of it caused a visible start or an exclamation of alarm.

When my courage and strength were sufficient I naturally began to take an active part in the persecution of serpents; for was not I also of the seed of Eve? Nor can I say when my feelings towards our bruised enemy began to change; but an incident which I witnessed at this time, when I was about eight, had, I think, a considerable influence on me. At all events it caused me to reflect on a subject which had not previously seemed one for reflection. I was in the orchard, following in the rear of a party of grown-up persons, mostly visitors to the house; when among the foremost there were sudden screams, gestures of alarm, and a precipitate retreat: a snake had been discovered lying in the path and almost trodden upon. One of the men, the first to find a stick or perhaps the most courageous, rushed to the front and was about to deal a killing blow when his arm was seized by one of the ladies and the blow arrested. Then, stooping quickly, she took the creature up in her hands, and going away to some distance from the others, released it in the long green grass, green in colour as its glittering skin and as cool to the touch. Long ago as this happened it is just as vivid to my mind as if it had happened yesterday. I can see her coming back to us through the orchard trees, her face shining with joy because she had rescued the reptile from imminent death, her return greeted with loud expressions of horror and amazement, which she only answered with a little laugh and the question, "Why should you kill it?" But why was she glad, so innocently glad as it seemed to me, as if she had done some meritorious and no evil thing? My young mind was troubled at the question, and there was no answer. Nevertheless, I think that this incident bore fruit later, and taught me to consider whether it might not be better to spare than to kill; better not only for the animal spared, but for the soul.

And the woman who did this unusual thing and in doing it unknowingly dropped a minute seed into a boy's mind, who was she? Perhaps it would be as well to give a brief account of her, although I thought that I had finished with the subject of our neighbours. She and her husband, a man named Matthew Blake, were our second nearest English neighbours, but they lived a good deal further than the Royds and were seldom visited by us. To me there was nothing interesting in them and their surroundings, as they had no family and no people but the native peons about them, and, above all, no plantation where birds could be seen. They were typical English people of the lower middle class, who read no books and conversed, with considerable misuse of the aspirate, about nothing but their own and their neighbours' affairs. Physically Mr. Blake was a very big man, being six feet three in height and powerfully built. He had a round ruddy face, clean-shaved except for a pair of side-whiskers, and pale-blue shallow eyes. He was invariably dressed in black cloth, his garments being home-made and too large for him, the baggy trousers thrust into his long boots. Mr. Blake was nothing to us but a huge, serious, somewhat silent man who took no notice of small boys, and was clumsy and awkward and spoke very bad Spanish. He was well spoken of by his neighbours, and was regarded as a highly respectable and dignified person, but he had no intimates and was one of those unfortunate persons, not rare among the English, who appear to stand behind a high wall and, whether they desire it or not, have no power to approach and mix with their fellow-beings.

I think he was about forty-five to fifty years old when I was eight. His wife looked older and was a short ungraceful woman with a stoop, wearing a sun-bonnet and sack and a faded gown made by herself. Her thin hair was of a yellowish-grey tint, her eyes pale blue, and there was a sunburnt redness on her cheeks, but the face had a faded and weary look. But she was better than her giant husband and was glad to associate with her fellows, and was also a lover of animals--horses, dogs, cats, and any and every wild creature that came in her way.

The Blakes had been married a quarter of a century or longer and had spent at least twenty years of their childless solitary life in a mud- built ranch, sheep-farming on the pampas, and had slowly accumulated a small fortune, until now they were possessed of about a square league of land with 25,000 or 30,000 sheep, and had built themselves a big ugly brick house to live in. They had thus secured the prize for which they had gone so many thousands of miles and had toiled for so many years, but they were certainly not happy. Poor Mr. Blake, cut off from his fellow-creatures by that wall that stood before him, had found companionship in the bottle, and was seen less and less of by his neighbours; and when his wife came to us to spend two or three days "for a change," although her home was only a couple of hours' ride away, the reason probably was that her husband was in one of his bouts and had made the place intolerable to her. I remember that she always came to us with a sad, depressed look on her face, but after a few hours she would recover her spirits and grow quite cheerful and talkative. And of an evening when there was music she would sometimes consent, after some persuasion, to give the company a song. That was a joy to us youngsters, as she had a thin cracked voice that always at the high notes went off into a falsetto. Her favourite air was "Home, sweet Home," and her rendering in her wailing cracked voice was as great a feast to us as the strange laugh of our grotesque neighbour Gandara.

And that is all I can say about her. But now when I remember that episode of the snake in the orchard, she looks to me not unbeautiful in memory, and her voice in the choir invisible sounds sweet enough.