The little summer tragedies in Nature which we see or notice are very fewnot one in a thousand of those that actually take place about us in a spot like this, teeming with midsummer life. A second one, which impressed me at the time, had for its scene a spot not more than eight minutes' walk from that forest gate where the stag-beetle, too long in cooling his wrath, had been overtaken by so curious a destiny. But before I relate this other tragedy, I must describe the place and some of the creatures I met there. It was a point where heath and wood meet, but do not mingle; where the marshy stream that drains the heath flows down into the wood, and the boggy ground sloping to the water is overgrown with a mixture of plants of different habitslovers of a dry soil and of a wetheather and furze, coarse and fine grasses, bracken and bog myrtle; and in the wettest spots there were patches and round masses of rust-red and orange-yellow and pale-grey lichen, and a few fragrant, shining, yellow stars of the bog asphodel, although its flowering season was nearly over. It was a perfect wilderness, as wild a bit of desert as one could wish to be in, where a man could spy all day upon its shy inhabitants, and no one would come and spy upon him.
Here, if anywhere, was my exulting thought when I first beheld it, there should be adders for me. There was a snakiness in the very look of the place, and I could almost feel by anticipation the delightful thrill in my nerves invariably experienced at the sight of a serpent. And as I went very cautiously along, wishing for the eyes of a dragon-fly so as to be able to see all round me, a coil of black and yellow caught my sight at a distance of a few yards ahead, and was no sooner seen than gone. The spot from which the shy creature had vanished was a small, circular, natural platform on the edge of the bank, surrounded with grass and herbage, and a little dwarf, ragged furze; the platform was composed of old, dead bracken and dry grass, and had a smooth, flat surface, pressed down as if some creature used it as a sleeping-place. It was, I saw, the favourite sleeping- or basking-place of an adder, and by-and-by, or in a few hours' time, I should be able to get a good view of the creature. Later in the day, on going back to the spot, I did find my adder on its platform, and was able to get within three or four yards, and watch it for some minutes before it slipped gently down the bank and out of sight.
This adder was a very large (probably gravid) female, very bright in the sunshine, the broad, zigzag band an inky black on a straw-coloured ground. On my third successful visit to the spot I was agreeably surprised to find that my adder had not been widowed by some fatal accident, nor left by her wandering mate to spend the summer alone; for now there were two on the one platform, slumbering peacefully side by side. The new-comer, the male, was a couple of inches shorter and a good deal slimmer than his mate, and differed in colour; the zigzag mark was intensely black, as in the other, but the ground colour was a beautiful copper red; he was, I think, the handsomest red adder I have seen.
On my subsequent visits to the spot I found sometimes one and sometimes both; and I observed them a good deal at different distances. One way was to look at them from a distance of fifteen to twenty yards through a binocular magnifying nine diameters, which produced in me the fascinating illusion of being in the presence of venomous serpents of a nobler size than we have in this country. The glasses were for pleasure only. When I watched them for profit with my unaided eyes, I found it most convenient to stand at a distance of three or four yards; but often I moved cautiously up to the raised platform they reposed on, until, by bending a little forward, I could look directly down upon them.
When we first catch sight of an adder lying at rest in the sun, it strikes us as being fast asleep, so motionless is it; but that it ever does really sleep with the sun shining into its round, lidless, brilliant eyes is hardly to be believed. The immobility which we note at first does not continue long; watch the adder lying peacefully in the sun, and you will see that at intervals of a very few minutes, and sometimes as often as once a minute, he quietly changes his position. Now he draws his concentric coils a little closer, now spreads them more abroad; by-and-by the whole body is extended to a sinuous band, then disposed in the form of a letter S, or a simple horseshoe figure, and sometimes the head rests on the body and sometimes on the ground. The gentle, languid movements of the creature changing his position at intervals are like those of a person reclining in a hot bath, who occasionally moves his body and limbs to renew and get the full benefit of the luxurious sensation.
That the two adders could see me when I stood over them, or at a distance of three or four yards, or even more, is likely; but it is certain that they did not regard me as a living thing, or anything to be disturbed at, but saw me only as a perfectly motionless object which had grown imperceptibly on their vision, and was no more than a bush, or stump, or tree. Nevertheless, I became convinced that always after standing for a time near them my presence produced a disturbing effect. It is, perhaps, the case that we are not all contained within our visible bodies, but have our own atmosphere about ussomething of us which is outside of us, and may affect other creatures. More than that, there may be a subtle current which goes out and directly affects any creature (or person) which we regard for any length of time with concentrated attention. This is one of the things about which we know nothing, or, at all events, learn nothing from our masters, and most scientists would say that it is a mere fancy; but in this instance it was plain to see that always after a time something began to produce a disturbing effect on the adders. This would first show itself in a slight restlessness, a movement of the body as if it had been breathed upon, increasing until they would be ill at ease all the time, and at length they would slip quietly away to hide under the bank.
The following incident will show that they were not disturbed at seeing me standing near, assuming that they could or did see me. On one of my visits I took some pieces of scarlet ribbon to find out by an experiment if there was any truth in the old belief that the sight of scarlet will excite this serpent to anger. I approached them in the usual cautious way, until I was able, bending forward, to look down upon them reposing unalarmed on their bed of dry fern; then, gradually putting one hand out until it was over them, I dropped from it first one then another piece of silk so that they fell gently upon the edge of the platform. The adders must have seen these bright objects so close to them, yet they did not suddenly draw back their heads, nor exsert their tongues, nor make the least movement, but it was as if a dry, light, dead leaf, or a ball of thistledown, had floated down and settled near them, and they had not heeded it.
In the same way they probably saw me, and it was as if they had seen me not, since they did not heed my motionless figure; but that they always felt my presence after a time I felt convinced, for not only when I stood close to and looked down upon them, but also at a distance of four to eight yards, after gazing fixedly at them for some minutes, the change, the tremor, would appear, and in a little while they would steal away.