The Man And The Snake





I





It is of veritabyll report, and attested of so many that there be

nowe of wyse and learned none to gaynsaye it, that ye serpente hys

eye hath a magnetick propertie that whosoe falleth into its svasion

is drawn forwards in despyte of his wille, and perisheth miserabyll

by ye creature hys byte.





Stretched at ease upon a sofa, in gown and slippers, Harker Brayton

smiled as he read the foregoing sentence in old Morryster's

"Marvells of Science." "The only marvel in the matter," he said to

himself, "is that the wise and learned in Morryster's day should

have believed such nonsense as is rejected by most of even the

ignorant in ours."



A train of reflections followed--for Brayton was a man of thought--

and he unconsciously lowered his book without altering the

direction of his eyes. As soon as the volume had gone below the

line of sight, something in an obscure corner of the room recalled

his attention to his surroundings. What he saw, in the shadow

under his bed, were two small points of light, apparently about an

inch apart. They might have been reflections of the gas jet above

him, in metal nail heads; he gave them but little thought and

resumed his reading. A moment later something--some impulse which

it did not occur to him to analyze--impelled him to lower the book

again and seek for what he saw before. The points of light were

still there. They seemed to have become brighter than before,

shining with a greenish luster which he had not at first observed.

He thought, too, that they might have moved a trifle--were somewhat

nearer. They were still too much in the shadow, however, to reveal

their nature and origin to an indolent attention, and he resumed

his reading. Suddenly something in the text suggested a thought

which made him start and drop the book for the third time to the

side of the sofa, whence, escaping from his hand, it fell sprawling

to the floor, back upward. Brayton, half-risen, was staring

intently into the obscurity beneath the bed, where the points of

light shone with, it seemed to him, an added fire. His attention

was now fully aroused, his gaze eager and imperative. It

disclosed, almost directly beneath the foot rail of the bed, the

coils of a large serpent--the points of light were its eyes! Its

horrible head, thrust flatly forth from the innermost coil and

resting upon the outermost, was directed straight toward him, the

definition of the wide, brutal jaw and the idiotlike forehead

serving to show the direction of its malevolent gaze. The eyes

were no longer merely luminous points; they looked into his own

with a meaning, a malign significance.





II





A snake in a bedroom of a modern city dwelling of the better sort

is, happily, not so common a phenomenon as to make explanation

altogether needless. Harker Brayton, a bachelor of thirty-five, a

scholar, idler, and something of an athlete, rich, popular, and of

sound health, had returned to San Francisco from all manner of

remote and unfamiliar countries. His tastes, always a trifle

luxurious, had taken on an added exuberance from long privation;

and the resources of even the Castle Hotel being inadequate for

their perfect gratification, he had gladly accepted the hospitality

of his friend, Dr. Druring, the distinguished scientist. Dr.

Druring's house, a large, old-fashioned one in what was now an

obscure quarter of the city, had an outer and visible aspect of

reserve. It plainly would not associate with the contiguous

elements of its altered environment, and appeared to have developed

some of the eccentricities which come of isolation. One of these

was a "wing," conspicuously irrelevant in point of architecture,

and no less rebellious in the matter of purpose; for it was a

combination of laboratory, menagerie, and museum. It was here that

the doctor indulged the scientific side of his nature in the study

of such forms of animal life as engaged his interest and comforted

his taste--which, it must be confessed, ran rather to the lower

forms. For one of the higher types nimbly and sweetly to recommend

itself unto his gentle senses, it had at least to retain certain

rudimentary characteristics allying it to such "dragons of the

prime" as toads and snakes. His scientific sympathies were

distinctly reptilian; he loved nature's vulgarians and described

himself as the Zola of zoology. His wife and daughters, not having

the advantage to share his enlightened curiosity regarding the

works and ways of our ill-starred fellow-creatures, were, with

needless austerity, excluded from what he called the Snakery, and

doomed to companionship with their own kind; though, to soften the

rigors of their lot, he had permitted them, out of his great

wealth, to outdo the reptiles in the gorgeousness of their

surroundings and to shine with a superior splendor.



Architecturally, and in point of "furnishing," the Snakery had a

severe simplicity befitting the humble circumstances of its

occupants, many of whom, indeed, could not safely have been

intrusted with the liberty which is necessary to the full enjoyment

of luxury, for they had the troublesome peculiarity of being alive.

In their own apartments, however, they were under as little

personal restraint as was compatible with their protection from the

baneful habit of swallowing one another; and, as Brayton had

thoughtfully been apprised, it was more than a tradition that some

of them had at divers times been found in parts of the premises

where it would have embarrassed them to explain their presence.

Despite the Snakery and its uncanny associations--to which, indeed,

he gave little attention--Brayton found life at the Druring mansion

very much to his mind.





III





Beyond a smart shock of surprise and a shudder of mere loathing,

Mr. Brayton was not greatly affected. His first thought was to

ring the call bell and bring a servant; but, although the bell cord

dangled within easy reach, he made no movement toward it; it had

occurred to his mind that the act might subject him to the

suspicion of fear, which he certainly did not feel. He was more

keenly conscious of the incongruous nature of the situation than

affected by its perils; it was revolting, but absurd.



The reptile was of a species with which Brayton was unfamiliar.

Its length he could only conjecture; the body at the largest

visible part seemed about as thick as his forearm. In what way was

it dangerous, if in any way? Was it venomous? Was it a

constrictor? His knowledge of nature's danger signals did not

enable him to say; he had never deciphered the code.



If not dangerous, the creature was at least offensive. It was de

trop--"matter out of place"--an impertinence. The gem was unworthy

of the setting. Even the barbarous taste of our time and country,

which had loaded the walls of the room with pictures, the floor

with furniture, and the furniture with bric-a-brac, had not quite

fitted the place for this bit of the savage life of the jungle.

Besides--insupportable thought!--the exhalations of its breath

mingled with the atmosphere which he himself was breathing!



These thoughts shaped themselves with greater or less definition in

Brayton's mind, and begot action. The process is what we call

consideration and decision. It is thus that we are wise and

unwise. It is thus that the withered leaf in an autumn breeze

shows greater or less intelligence than its fellows, falling upon

the land or upon the lake. The secret of human action is an open

one--something contracts our muscles. Does it matter if we give to

the preparatory molecular changes the name of will?



Brayton rose to his feet and prepared to back softly away from the

snake, without disturbing it, if possible, and through the door.

People retire so from the presence of the great, for greatness is

power, and power is a menace. He knew that he could walk backward

without obstruction, and find the door without error. Should the

monster follow, the taste which had plastered the walls with

paintings had consistently supplied a rack of murderous Oriental

weapons from which he could snatch one to suit the occasion. In

the meantime the snake's eyes burned with a more pitiless

malevolence than ever.



Brayton lifted his right foot free of the floor to step backward.

That moment he felt a strong aversion to doing so.



"I am accounted brave," he murmured; "is bravery, then, no more

than pride? Because there are none to witness the shame shall I

retreat?"



He was steadying himself with his right hand upon the back of a

chair, his foot suspended.



"Nonsense!" he said aloud; "I am not so great a coward as to fear

to seem to myself afraid."



He lifted the foot a little higher by slightly bending the knee,

and thrust it sharply to the floor--an inch in front of the other!

He could not think how that occurred. A trial with the left foot

had the same result; it was again in advance of the right. The

hand upon the chair back was grasping it; the arm was straight,

reaching somewhat backward. One might have seen that he was

reluctant to lose his hold. The snake's malignant head was still

thrust forth from the inner coil as before, the neck level. It had

not moved, but its eyes were now electric sparks, radiating an

infinity of luminous needles.



The man had an ashy pallor. Again he took a step forward, and

another, partly dragging the chair, which, when finally released,

fell upon the floor with a crash. The man groaned; the snake made

neither sound nor motion, but its eyes were two dazzling suns. The

reptile itself was wholly concealed by them. They gave off

enlarging rings of rich and vivid colors, which at their greatest

expansion successively vanished like soap bubbles; they seemed to

approach his very face, and anon were an immeasurable distance

away. He heard, somewhere, the continual throbbing of a great

drum, with desultory bursts of far music, inconceivably sweet, like

the tones of an aeolian harp. He knew it for the sunrise melody of

Memnon's statue, and thought he stood in the Nileside reeds,

hearing, with exalted sense, that immortal anthem through the

silence of the centuries.



The music ceased; rather, it became by insensible degrees the

distant roll of a retreating thunderstorm. A landscape, glittering

with sun and rain, stretched before him, arched with a vivid

rainbow, framing in its giant curve a hundred visible cities. In

the middle distance a vast serpent, wearing a crown, reared its

head out of its voluminous convolutions and looked at him with his

dead mother's eyes. Suddenly this enchanting landscape seemed to

rise swiftly upward, like the drop scene at a theater, and vanished

in a blank. Something struck him a hard blow upon the face and

breast. He had fallen to the floor; the blood ran from his broken

nose and his bruised lips. For a moment he was dazed and stunned,

and lay with closed eyes, his face against the door. In a few

moments he had recovered, and then realized that his fall, by

withdrawing his eyes, had broken the spell which held him. He felt

that now, by keeping his gaze averted, he would be able to retreat.

But the thought of the serpent within a few feet of his head, yet

unseen--perhaps in the very act of springing upon him and throwing

its coils about his throat--was too horrible. He lifted his head,

stared again into those baleful eyes, and was again in bondage.



The snake had not moved, and appeared somewhat to have lost its

power upon the imagination; the gorgeous illusions of a few moments

before were not repeated. Beneath that flat and brainless brow its

black, beady eyes simply glittered, as at first, with an expression

unspeakably malignant. It was as if the creature, knowing its

triumph assured, had determined to practice no more alluring wiles.



Now ensued a fearful scene. The man, prone upon the floor, within

a yard of his enemy, raised the upper part of his body upon his

elbows, his head thrown back, his legs extended to their full

length. His face was white between its gouts of blood; his eyes

were strained open to their uttermost expansion. There was froth

upon his lips; it dropped off in flakes. Strong convulsions ran

through his body, making almost serpentine undulations. He bent

himself at the waist, shifting his legs from side to side. And

every movement left him a little nearer to the snake. He thrust

his hands forward to brace himself back, yet constantly advanced

upon his elbows.





IV





Dr. Druring and his wife sat in the library. The scientist was in

rare good humor.



"I have just obtained, by exchange with another collector," he

said, "a splendid specimen of the Ophiophagus."



"And what may that be?" the lady inquired with a somewhat languid

interest.



"Why, bless my soul, what profound ignorance! My dear, a man who

ascertains after marriage that his wife does not know Greek, is

entitled to a divorce. The Ophiophagus is a snake which eats other

snakes."



"I hope it will eat all yours," she said, absently shifting the

lamp. "But how does it get the other snakes? By charming them, I

suppose."



"That is just like you, dear," said the doctor, with an affectation

of petulance. "You know how irritating to me is any allusion to

that vulgar superstition about the snake's power of fascination."



The conversation was interrupted by a mighty cry which rang through

the silent house like the voice of a demon shouting in a tomb.

Again and yet again it sounded, with terrible distinctness. They

sprang to their feet, the man confused, the lady pale and

speechless with fright. Almost before the echoes of the last cry

had died away the doctor was out of the room, springing up the

staircase two steps at a time. In the corridor, in front of

Brayton's chamber, he met some servants who had come from the upper

floor. Together they rushed at the door without knocking. It was

unfastened, and gave way. Brayton lay upon his stomach on the

floor, dead. His head and arms were partly concealed under the

foot rail of the bed. They pulled the body away, turning it upon

the back. The face was daubed with blood and froth, the eyes were

wide open, staring--a dreadful sight!



"Died in a fit," said the scientist, bending his knee and placing

his hand upon the heart. While in that position he happened to

glance under the bed. "Good God!" he added; "how did this thing

get in here?"



He reached under the bed, pulled out the snake, and flung it, still

coiled, to the center of the room, whence, with a harsh, shuffling

sound, it slid across the polished floor till stopped by the wall,

where it lay without motion. It was a stuffed snake; its eyes were

two shoe buttons.





From "Tales of Soldiers and Civilians," by Ambrose Bierce.

Copyright, 1891, by E. L. G. Steele.





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