I have met persons, otherwise quite sane, who told me that they would like to visit India if it were not for the snakes. Now there is something very depressing in the thought that this state of mind is extant in England, for it is calculated, on occasion, to have results of a most melancholy nature. By way of example, let us picture the case of a broken-hearted maiden forced to reject an ardent lover because duty calls him to a land where there are snakes. Think of his happiness blighted for ever and her doomed to a "perpetual maidenhood," harrowed with remorseful dreams of the hourly perils and horrors through which he must be passing without her, and dreading to enter an academy or picture-gallery lest a laocoon or a fury might revive apprehensions too horrible to be borne. In view of possibilities so dreadful, surely it is a duty that a man owes to his kind to disseminate the truth, if he can, about the present condition in the East of that reptile which, crawling on its belly and eating dust and having its head bruised by the descendants of Eve, sometimes pays off her share of the curse on their heels. Here the truth is.
Within the limits of our Indian Empire, including Burmah and Ceylon, there are at present known to naturalists two hundred and sixty-four species of snakes. Twenty-seven of these are sea-serpents, which never leave the sea, and could not if they would. The remaining two hundred and thirty-seven species comprise samples of every size and pattern of limbless reptile found on this globe, from the gigantic python, which crushes a jackal and swallows it whole, to the little burrowing Typhlops, whose proportions are those of an earthworm and its food white ants.
If you have made up your mind never to touch a snake or go nearer to one than you can help, then I need scarcely tell you what you know already, that these are all alike hideous and repulsive in their aspect, being smeared from head to tail with a viscous and venomous slime, which, as your Shakespeare will tell you, leaves a trail even on fig-leaves when they have occasion to pass over such. This preparation would appear to line them inside as well as out, for there is no lack of ancient and modern testimony to the fact that they "slaver" their prey all over before swallowing it, that it may slide the more easily down their ghastly throats. Their eye is cruel and stony, and possesses a peculiar property known as "fascination," which places their victims entirely at their mercy. They have also the power of coiling themselves up like a watch-spring and discharging themselves from a considerable distance at those whom they have doomed to death—a fact which is attested by such passages in the poets as—
Like adder darting from his coil,
and by travellers passim.
This is the true faith with respect to all serpents, and if you are resolved to remain steadfast in it, you may do so even in India, for it is possible to live in that country for months, I might almost say years, without ever getting a sight of a live snake except in the basket of a snake-charmer. If, however, you are minded to cultivate an acquaintance with them, it is not difficult to find opportunities of doing so, but I must warn you that it will be with jeopardy to your faith, for the very first thing that will strike you about them will probably be their cleanness. What has become of the classical slime I cannot tell, but it is a fact that the skin of a modern snake is always delightfully dry and clean, and as smooth to the touch as velvet.
The next thing that attracts attention is their beauty, not so much the beauty of their colours as of their forms. With few exceptions, snakes are the most graceful of living things. Every position into which they put themselves, and every motion of their perfectly proportioned forms, is artistic. The effect of this is enhanced by their gentleness and the softness of their movements.
But if you want to see them properly, you must be careful not to frighten them, for there is no creature more timid at heart than a snake. One will sometimes let you get quite near to it and watch it, simply because it does not notice you, being rather deaf and very shortsighted, but when it does discover your presence, its one thought is to slip away quietly and hide itself. It is on account of this extreme timidity that we see them so seldom.
Of the two hundred and thirty-seven kinds that I have referred to, some are, of course, very rare, or only found in particular parts of the country, but at least forty or fifty of them occur everywhere, and some are as plentiful as crows. Yet they keep themselves out of our way so successfully that it is quite a rare event to meet with one. Occasionally one finds its way into a house in quest of frogs, lizards, musk-rats, or some other of the numerous malefactors that use our dwellings as cities of refuge from the avenger, and it is discovered by the Hamal behind a cupboard, or under a carpet. He does the one thing which it occurs to a native to do in any emergency—viz. raises an alarm. Then there is a general hubbub, servants rush together with the longest sticks they can find, the children are hurried away to a place of safety, the master appears on the scene, armed with his gun, and the
Wee, sleekit, cowrin', tim'rous beastie,
trying to slip away from the fuss which it dislikes so much, is headed, and blown, or battered, to pieces. Then its head is pounded to a jelly, for the servants are agreed that, if this precaution is omitted, it will revive during the night and come and coil itself on the chest of its murderer.