The Serpent in Literature
W. H. Hudson

Preamble

Among the thousand and one projects I have entertained at various times was one for a work on snakes, with the good though somewhat ambitious title of "The Book of the Serpent." This was not to be the work of one who must write a book about something, but a work on a subject which had long had a peculiar fascination for the author, which for years had cried to be written, and finally had to be written.

As it was a work requiring a great deal of research, it would take a long time to write, long years, in fact, since it would have to be done at odd times, when hours or days or weeks could be spared from the hard business of manufacturing mere bread-and-cheese books. Collecting material would have to be a slow process, involving the perusal or consultation of a thousand volumes, and probably ten thousand periodicals and annals and proceedings and journals of many natural history societies, great and small, of many countries. And all this research, with the classification and indexing of notes, would be exceeded by the task of selection to follow—selection and compression—since "The Book of the Serpent" would be in one volume and not in half a dozen. And after selection, or let us say deglutition, there would ensue the dilatory process of digestion and assimilation. If properly assimilated, the personal impressions of a hundred independent observers, field-naturalists and travellers, and of a hundred independent students of ophiology, would be fused, as it were, and run into one along with the author's personal observations and his deductions.

Now, even if all this could have been done, and the best form hit upon, and the work eloquently written, it would still fall far short of the ideal "Book of the Serpent" on account of insufficient knowledge of a particular kind—I don't mean anatomy. And had I been a person of means I should, before beginning my work—getting a pale, wan face through poring over miserable books—have gone away on a five or ten years' serpent quest to get that particular kind of knowledge by becoming acquainted personally with all the most distinguished ophidians on the globe. The first sight of a thing, the shock of emotion, the vivid and ineffaceable image registered in the brain, is worth more than all the knowledge acquired by reading, and this applies to the serpent above all creatures. There is indeed but little difference between this creature dead and in confinement. It was the serpent in motion on the rock that was a wonder and mystery to the wisest man. In one of my snake-books by a French naturalist in the West Indies there is an account of a fer-de-lance which he kept confined in order to study its habits. He watched it hour after hour, day after day, lying prone on the floor of its cage as if asleep or stupefied, until he was sick and tired of seeing it in that dull, dead-alive state, and in his disgust he threw open the door to let it go free. He watched it. Slowly the head turned, and slowly, slowly it began to move towards the open door, and so dragged itself out, then over the space of bare ground towards the bushes and trees beyond. But once well out in the open air its motions and aspect began to change. The long, straightened-out, dull-coloured, dragging body was smitten with a sudden new life and became sinuous in form; its slow motion grew swift, and from a dragging became a gliding motion: the dangerous head with its flickering tongue lifted itself high up, the stony eyes shone, and all along the body the scales sparkled like wind-crinkled water in the sun: watching it, he was thrilled at the sight and amazed at this wonderful change in its appearance.

And that is how I, too, would have liked to see the fer-de-lance in its dreadful beauty and power; the cribo too, that gives it battle, and conquers and devours it in spite of its poison fangs; also its noble relations, the rattlesnakes and pit-vipers, led by the Surucuru, the serpent monarch of the West; and the constricting anacondas, with the greatest of them all, the giant Camudi, "mother of the waters"; also the bull snake and the black snake, and that brilliant deadly harlequin, the coral snake. These all are in the New World, and I should then go to the Old in quest of blue sea-snakes and wonderful viridescent tree-snakes, and many historic serpents—the ticpolonga, the hooded cobras, and their king and slayer, the awful hamadryad.

A beautiful dream all this, like that of the poor little pale-faced quill-driver at his desk, summing up columns of figures, who falls to thinking what his life would be with ten thousand a year. All the thorny and stony and sandy wilderness, the dark Amazonian and Arawhimi forests, the mighty rivers to be ascended three thousand miles from the sea to their source, the great mountain-chains to be passed, Alps and Andes, and Himalayas and the Mountains of the Moon, the entire globe to be explored in quest of serpents, from the hot tropical jungles and malarious marshes to the desolate windy roof of the world —all would have to be sought in the British Museum and one or two other dim stuffy libraries, where a man sits in a chair all day and all the year round with a pile of books before him.

Alas! in such conditions, without the necessary precious personal knowledge so much desired, "The Book of the Serpent" would never be written. So I said and repeated, yet still went on with the preliminary work, and after two or three years, finding that so far as material went I had got almost more than I could manage, I thought I would begin to try my hand at writing a few chapters, each dealing with some special aspect of or question relating to the serpent, and about a dozen were written, but left in the rough, unfinished, as all would eventually have to go back into the melting-pot once more. By-and-by I took up and finished three or four of these tentative chapters just to see how they would look in print; these appeared in three or four monthly reviews and are all that is left of my ambitious book.

It could not be done, because, as I tried to make myself believe, it was too long a task for one who had to make a living by writing, but a still small voice told me that I was deceiving myself, that if I had just gone on, slowly, slowly, like the released fer-de-lance, until I had got out into the open air and sunshine—until I had a full mind and full command of my subject—I too might have gone on to a triumphant end. No, it was not because the task was too long; the secret and real reason was a discouraging thought which need not be given here, since it is stated in the paper to follow. There's nothing more to say about it except that I now make a present of the title "The Book of the Serpent"—to any person who would like to use it, and I only ask that it be not given to a handbook on snakes, nor to a monograph—God deliver us! as Huxley said. Or if he did not use that particular expression he protested against the multiplication of such works, and even feared that we should all be buried alive under them —the ponderous tomes which nobody reads, elephantine bodies without souls; or shall we say, carcasses, dressed and placed in their canvas coverings on shelves in the cold storage of the zoological libraries.

As to the paper which follows, it was never intended to use it as it stands for the book. It is nothing but a little exercise, and merely touches the fringe of a subject for a great book—not an anthology (Heaven save us!), but a history and review of the literature of the serpent from Ruskin back to Sanchoniathon, and I now also generously give away this title of "The Serpent in Literature."

 

When the snakists of the British Museum or other biological workshop have quite done with their snake, have pulled it out of its jar and popped it in again to their hearts' content; weighed, measured, counted ribs and scales, identified its species, sub-species, and variety; and have duly put it all down in a book, made a fresh label, perhaps written a paper—when all is finished, something remains to be said; something about the snake; the creature that was not a spiral-shaped, rigid, cylindrical piece of clay-coloured gutta-percha, no longer capable of exciting strange emotions in us—the unsightly dropped coil of a spirit that was fiery and cold. Where shall that something be found? Not assuredly in the paper the snakist has written, nor in the monographs and natural histories; where then?—since in the absence of the mysterious creature itself it might be interesting to read it.

It is true that in spite of a great deal of bruising by Christian heels the serpent still survives in this country, although it can hardly be said to flourish. Sometimes, walking by a hedge-side, a slight rustling sound and movement of the grass betrays the presence of the common or ring snake; then, if chance favours and eyes are sharp, a glimpse may be had of the shy creature, gliding with swift sinuous motions out of harm's way. Or on the dry open common one may all at once catch sight of a strip of coppery-red or dull brown colour with a curious black mark on it—an adder lying at ease in the warm sunshine! Not sleeping, but awake; a little startled at the muffled thunder of approaching footfalls, with crackling of dead leaves and sticks, as of a coming conflagration; then, perhaps, the appearance of a shape, looming vast and cloudlike on its dim circumscribed field of vision; but at the same time lethargic, disinclined to move, heavy with a meal it will never digest, or big with young that, jarred with their parent, have some vague sense of peril within the living prison from which they will never issue.

Or a strange thing may be seen—a cluster of hibernating adders, unearthed by workmen in the winter time when engaged in quarrying stone or grubbing up an old stump. Still more wonderful it is to witness a knot or twined mass of adders, not self-buried, semi-torpid, and of the temperature of the cold ground, but hot-blooded in the hot sun, active, hissing, swinging their tails. In a remote corner of this island there exists an extensive boggy heath where adders are still abundant, and grow black as the stagnant rushy pools, and the slime under the turf, which invites the foot with its velvety appearance, but is dangerous to tread upon. In this snaky heath-land, in the warm season, when the frenzy takes them, twenty or thirty or more adders are sometimes found twined together; they are discovered perhaps by some solitary pedestrian, cautiously picking his way? gun in hand, and the sight amazes and sends a sharp electric shock along his spinal cord. All at once he remembers his gun and discharges it into the middle of the living mass, to boast thereafter to the very end of his life of how he killed a score of adders at one shot.

To witness this strange thing, and experience the peculiar sensation it gives, it is necessary to go far and to spend much time in seeking and waiting and watching. A bright spring morning in England no longer "craves wary walking," as in the days of Elizabeth. Practically the serpent hardly exists for us, so seldom do we see it, so completely has it dropped out of our consciousness. But if we have known the creature, at home or abroad, and wish in reading to recover the impression of a sweet summer-hot Nature that invites our caresses, always with a subtle serpent somewhere concealed in the folds of her garments, we must go to literature rather than to science. The poet has the secret, not the naturalist. A book or an article about snakes moves us not at all—not in the way we should like to be moved—because, to begin with, there is too much of the snake in it. Nature does not teem with snakes; furthermore, we are not familiar with these creatures, and do not handle and examine them as a game-dealer handles dead rabbits. A rare and solitary being, the sharp effect it produces on the mind is in a measure due to its rarity—to its appearance being unexpected—to surprise and the shortness of the time during which it is visible. It is not seen distinctly as in a museum or laboratory, dead on a table, but in an atmosphere and surroundings that take something from and add something to it; seen at first as a chance disposition of dead leaves or twigs or pebbles on the ground—a handful of Nature's mottled riff-raff blown or thrown fortuitously together so as to form a peculiar pattern; all at once, as by a flash, it is seen to be no dead leaves or twigs or grass, but a living active coil, a serpent lifting its flat arrowy head, vibrating a glistening forked tongue, hissing with dangerous fury; and in another moment it has vanished into the thicket, and is nothing but a memory—merely a thread of brilliant colour woven into the ever-changing vari-coloured embroidery of Nature's mantle, seen vividly for an instant, then changing to dull grey and fading from sight.

It is because the poet does not see his subject apart from its surroundings, deprived of its atmosphere—a mere fragment of beggarly matter—does not see it too well, with all the details which become visible only after a minute and, therefore, cold examination, but as a part of the picture, a light that quivers and quickly passes, that we, through him, are able to see it too, and to experience the old mysterious sensations, restored by his magic touch. For the poet is emotional, and in a few verses, even in one verse, in a single well-chosen epithet, he can vividly recall a forgotten picture to the mind and restore a lost emotion.

Matthew Arnold probably knew very little about the serpent scientifically; but in his solitary walks and communings with Nature he, no doubt, became acquainted with our two common ophidians, and was familiar with the sight of the adder, bright and glistening in its renewed garment, reposing peacefully in the spring sunshine; seeing it thus, the strange remoteness and quietude of its silent life probably moved him and sank deeply into his mind. This is not the first and most common feeling of the serpent-seer—the feeling which Matthew Arnold himself describes in a ringing couplet:

 

Hast thou so rare a poison.?—let me be
Keener to slay thee lest thou poison me.

 

When no such wildly improbable contingency is feared as that the small drop of rare poison in the creature's tooth may presently be injected into the beholder's veins to darken his life; when the fear is slight and momentary, and passing away gives place to other sensations, he is impressed by its wonderful quietude, and is not for the moment without the ancient belief in its everlastingness and supernatural character; and, if curiosity be too great, if the leaf-crackling and gravel-crunching footsteps approach too near, to rouse and send it into hiding, something of compunction is felt, as if an indignity had been offered:

 

                        O thoughtless, why did I
Thus violate thy slumberous solitude ?

 

In those who have experienced such a feeling as this at sight of the basking serpent it is most powerfully recalled by his extremely beautiful "Cadmus and Harmonia":

 

                        Two bright and aged snakes,
           Who once were Cadmus and Harmonia,
            Bask in the glens and on the warm sea-shore,
            In breathless quiet after all their ills;
            Nor do they see their country, nor the place
            Where the Sphinx lived among the frowning hills,
            Nor the unhappy palace of their race,
            Nor Thebes, nor the Ismenus any more.
 

            There those two live, far in the Illyrian brakes!
            They had stayed long enough to see
            In Thebes the billows of calamity
            Over their own dear children rolled,
            Curse upon curse, pang upon pang,
            For years, they sitting helpless in their home,
            A grey old man and woman.

            . . . . . . . .

            Therefore they did not end their days
            In sight of blood; but were rapt, far away,
            To where the west wind plays,
            And murmurs of the Adriatic come
            To those untrodden mountain lawns; and there
            Placed safely in changed forms, the pair
            Wholly forget their first sad life, and home,
            And all that Theban woe, and stray
            For ever through the glens, placid and dumb.

 

How the immemorial fable—the vain and faded imaginings of thousands of years ago—is freshened into life by the poet's genius, and the heart stirred as by a drama of the day we live in! But here we are concerned with the serpentine nature rather than with the human tragedy, and to those who are familiar with the serpent, and have been profoundly impressed by it, there is a rare beauty and truth in that picture of its breathless quiet, its endless placid dumb existence amid the flowery brakes.

But the first and chief quality of the snake—the sensation it excites in us—is its snakiness, our best word for a feeling compounded of many elements, not readily analysable, which has in it something of fear and something of the sense of mystery. I doubt if there exists in our literature, verse or prose, anything that revives this feeling so strongly as Dr. Gordon Hake's ballad of the dying serpent-charmer. "The snake-charmer is a bad naturalist," says Sir Joseph Fayrer, himself a prince among ophiologists; it may be so, and perhaps he charms all the better for it, and it is certainly not a lamentable thing, since it detracts not from the merit of the poem, that Dr. Hake is a bad naturalist, even as Shakespeare and Browning and Tennyson were, and draws his snake badly, with venomous stinging tongue, and flaming eyes that fascinate at too great a distance. Fables notwithstanding, he has with the poet's insight, in a moment of rare inspiration, captured the very illusive spirit of Nature, to make it pervade and glorify his picture. The sunny, brilliant, declining day, the joyous wild melody of birds, the low whispering wind, the cool greenness of earth, where

 

The pool is bright with glossy dyes
And cast-up bubbles of decay:

 

and everywhere, hidden in grass and brake, released at length from the spell that made them powerless, coming ever nearer and nearer, yet as though they came not, the subtle, silent, watchful snakes. Strangely real and vivid is the picture conjured up; the everlasting life and gladness at the surface, the underlying mystery and melancholy— the failing power of the old man and vanishing incantation; the tremendous retribution of Nature, her ministers of vengeance ever imperceptibly gliding nearer.

 

Yet where his soul is he must go,

 

albeit now only to be mocked on the scene of his old beloved triumphs:

 

For all that live in brake and bough—
All know the brand is on his brow.

 

Even dying he cannot stay away; the fascination of the lost power is too strong on him; even dying he rises and goes forth, creeping from tree to tree, to the familiar sunlit green spot of earth, where

 

Bewildered at the pool he lies
And sees as through a serpent's eyes;

 

his tawny, trembling hand still fingering, his feeble lips still quivering, on the useless flute. He cannot draw the old potent music from it:

 

                                    The witching air
That tamed the snake, decoyed the bird,
Worried the she-wolf from her lair.

 

It is all fantasy, a mere juggling arrangement of brain-distorted fact and ancient fiction; the essence of it has no existence in nature and the soul for the good naturalist, who dwells in a glass house full of intense light without shadow; but the naturalists are not a numerous people, and for all others the effect is like that which nature itself produces on our twilight intellect. It is snaky in the extreme; reading it we are actually there in the bright smiling sunshine; ours is the failing spirit of the worn-out old man, striving to drown the hissing sounds of death in our ears, as of a serpent that hisses. But the lost virtue cannot be recovered; our eyes too

 

                        are swimming in a mist
That films the earth like serpent's breath;

 

and the shadows of the waving boughs on the sward appear like hollow, cast-off coils rolled before the wind; fixed, lidless eyes are watching us from the brake; everywhere about us serpents lie matted on the ground.

If serpents were not so rare, so small, so elusive, in our brakes we should no doubt have had other poems as good as this about them and the strange feelings they wake. As it is, the poet, although he has the secret of seeing rightly, is in most cases compelled to write (or sing) of something he does not know personally. He cannot go to the wilds of Guiana for the bush-master, nor to the Far East in search of the hamadryad. Even the poor little native adder as a rule succeeds in escaping his observation. He must go to books for his serpent or else evolve it out of his inner consciousness. He is dependent on the natural historians, from Pliny onwards, or to the writer of fairy-tales: a Countess d'Aulnoy, for example, or Meredith, in The Shaving of Shagpat, or Keats his Lamia, an amazing creature, bright and cirque-couchant, vermilion-spotted and yellow and green and blue; also striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard, eyed like a peacock, and barred with crimson and full of silver moons. Lamia may be beautiful and may please the fancy with her many brilliant colours, her moons, stars, and what not, and she may even move us with a sense of the supernatural, but it is not the same kind of feeling as that experienced when we see a serpent. That comes of the mythical faculty in us, and the poet who would reproduce it must himself go to the serpent, even as the Druids did for their sacred nadder-stone.

In prose literature the best presentation of serpent life known to me is that of Oliver Wendell Holmes: and being the best, in fiction at all events, I am tempted to write of it at some length.

Now, very curiously, although, as we have just seen, the incorrect drawing takes nothing from the charm and, in one sense, from the truth of Dr. Hake's picture, we no sooner turn to Elsie Venner than we find ourselves crossing over to the side of the good naturalist, with apologies for having insulted him, to ask the loan of his fierce light—for this occasion only. Ordinarily in considering an excellent romance, we are rightly careless about the small inaccuracies with regard to matters of fact which may appear in it; for the writer who is able to produce a work of art must not and cannot be a specialist or a microscopist, but one who views nature as the ordinary man does, at a distance and as a whole, with the vision common to all men, and the artist's insight added. Dr. Holmes's work is an exception; since it is a work of art of some excellence, yet cannot be read in this tolerant spirit; we distinctly refuse to overlook its distortions of fact and false inferences in the province of zoology; and the author has only himself to blame for this uncomfortable temper of mind in his reader.

The story of the New England serpent-girl is in its essence a romance; the author thought proper to cast it in the form of a realistic novel, and to make the teller of the story a clear-headed, calm, critical onlooker of mature age, one of the highest attainments in biological science who is nothing if not philosophical.

How strange that this superior person should select and greatly exaggerate for the purposes of his narrative one of the stupid prejudices and superstitions of the vulgar he is supposed to despise! Like the vulgar who are without light he hates a snake, and it is to him, as to the meanest peasant, typical of the spirit of evil and a thing accurst. This unphilosophical temper (the superstitious belief in the serpent's enmity to man), with perhaps too great a love of the picturesque, have inspired some of the passages in the book which make the snakist smile. Let me quote one, in which the hero's encounter with a huge Crotalus in a mountain cave is described.

His look was met by the glitter of two diamond eyes, small, sharp, cold, shining out of the darkness. but gliding with a smooth and steady motion towards the light, and himself. He stood fixed, struck dumb, staring back into them with dilating pupils and sudden numbness of fear that cannot move, as in a terror of dreams. The two sparks of fire came forward until they grew to circles of flame, and all at once lifted themselves up in angry surprise. Then for the first time trilled in Mr. Barnard's ears the dreadful sound which nothing that breathes, be it man or brute, can hear unmoved—the loud, long stinging whir, as the huge thick-bodied reptile shook his many-jointed rattle, and adjusted his loops for the fatal stroke. His eyes were drawn as with magnets towards the circle of flame. His ears rung as in the overture to the swooning dream of chloroform.

And so on, until Elsie appears on the scene and rescues the too easily fascinated schoolmaster.

The writing is fine, but to admire it one must be unconscious of its exaggeration; or, in other words, ignorant of the serpent as it is in nature. Even worse than the exaggerations are the half-poetic, half-scientific tirades against the creature's ugliness and malignity.

It was surely one of destiny's strange pranks to bestow such a subject on the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," and, it may be added, to put it in him to treat it from the scientific standpoint. I cannot but wish that this conception had been Hawthorne's; for though Hawthorne wrote no verse, he had in large measure the poetic spirit to which such a subject appeals most powerfully. Possibly it would have inspired him to something beyond his greatest achievement. Certainly not in The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, nor in any of his numerous shorter tales did he possess a theme so admirably suited to his sombre and beautiful genius as the tragedy of Elsie Venner. Furthermore, the exaggerations and inaccuracies which are unpardonable in Holmes would not have appeared as blemishes in Hawthorne; for he would have viewed the animal world and the peculiar facts of the case—the intervolved human and serpentine nature of the heroine from the standpoint of the ordinary man who is not an ophiologist; the true and the false about the serpent would have been blended in his tale as they exist blended in the popular imagination, and the illusion would have been more perfect and the effect greater.

Elsie's biographer appears to have found his stock of materials bearing on the main point too slender for his purpose, and to fill out his work he is obliged to be very discursive. Meanwhile, the reader's interest in the chief figure is so intense that in following it the best breakfast-table talk comes in as a mere impertinence. There is no other interest; among the other personages of the story Elsie appears like a living palpitating being among shadows. One finds it difficult to recall the names of the scholarly father in his library; the good hero and his ladylove; the pale schoolmistress, and the melodramatic villain on his black horse, to say nothing of the vulgar villagers and the farmer, some of them supposed to be comic. If we except the rattlesnake mountain, and the old nurse with her animal-like affection and fidelity, there is no atmosphere, or, if an atmosphere, one which is certainly wrong and produces a sense of incongruity. A better artist— Hawthorne, to wit—would have used the painful mystery of Elsie's life, and the vague sense of some nameless impending horror, not merely to put sombre patches here and there on an otherwise sunny landscape, but to give a tone to the whole picture, and the effect would have been more harmonious. This inability of the author to mix and shade his colours shows itself in the passages descriptive of Elsie herself; he insists a great deal too much on her ophidian, or crotaline, characteristics—her stillness and silence and sinuous motions; her bizarre taste in barred gowns; her drowsy condition in cold weather, with intensity of life and activity during the solstitial heats—even her dangerous impulse to strike with her teeth when angered. These traits require to be touched upon very lightly indeed; as it is, the profound pity and love, with a mixture of horror which was the effect sought, come too near to repulsion. While on this point it may be mentioned that the author frequently speaks of the slight sibilation in Elsie's speech—a strange blunder for the man of science to fall into, since he does not make Elsie like any snake, or like snakes in general, but like the Crotalus durissus only, the New England rattlesnake, which does not hiss, like some other venomous serpents that are not provided with an instrument of sound in their tails.

After all is said, the conception of Elsie Venner is one so unique and wonderful, and so greatly moves our admiration and pity with her strange beauty, her inarticulate passion, her unspeakably sad destiny, that in spite of many and most serious faults the book must ever remain a classic in our literature, among romances a gem that has not its like, perennial in interest as Nature itself, and Nature's serpent.

If it had only been left for ever unfinished, or had ended differently! For it is impossible for one who admires it to pardon the pitifully commonplace and untrue dénouement. Never having read a review of the book I do not know what the professional critic or the fictionist would say on this point; he might say that the story could not properly have ended differently; that, from an artistic point of view, it was necessary that the girl should be made to outgrow the malign influence which she had so strangely inherited; that this was rightly brought about by making her fall in love with the good and handsome young schoolmaster—the effect of the love, or "dull ache of passion," being so great as to deliver and kill her at the same time.

If the interest of the story had all been in the dull and pious villagers, their loves and marriages and trivial affairs, then it would have seemed right that Elsie, who made them all so uncomfortable, should be sent from the village, which was no place for her, to Heaven by the shortest and most convenient route. Miserably weak is that dying scene with its pretty conventional pathos; the ending somewhat after the fashion set by Fouqué, which so many have followed since his time the childish "Now-I-have-got-a-soul" transformation scene with which Fouqué himself spoilt one of the most beautiful things ever written. The end is not in harmony with the conception of Elsie, of a being in whom the human and serpentine natures were indissolubly joined; and no accident, not assuredly that "dull ache of passion," could have killed the one without destroying the other.

The author was himself conscious of the inadequacy of the reason he gave for the change and deliverance. He no doubt asked himself the following question: "Will the reader believe that a fit of dumb passion, however intense, was sufficient to cause one of Elsie's splendid physique and vitality to droop and wither into the grave like any frail consumptive schoolgirl who loves and whose love is not requited?" He recognises and is led to apologise for its weakness; and, finally, still unsatisfied, advances an alternative theory, which is subtle and physiological—a sop thrown to those among his readers who, unlike the proverbial ass engaged in chewing hay, meditate on what they are taking in. The alternative theory is, that an animal's life is of short duration compared with man's; that the serpent in Elsie, having arrived at the end of its natural term, died out of the human life with which it had been intervolved, leaving her still in the flower of youth and wholly human; but that this decay and death in her affected her with so great a shock that her own death followed immediately on her deliverance.

If the first explanation was weak the second will not bear looking at. Some animals have comparatively short lives, as, for instance, the earthworm, canary, dog, mouse, etc.; but the serpent is not of them; on the contrary, the not too numerous facts we possess which relate to the comparative longevity of animals give support to the universal belief that the reptilians—tortoise, lizard, and serpent—are extremely long-lived.

Now this fact—namely, that science and popular belief are at one in the matter—might very well have suggested to the author a more suitable ending to the story of Elsie than the one he made choice of. I will even be so venturesome as to say what that ending should be. Let us imagine the girl capable of love, even of "a dull ache of passion," doomed by the serpent-nature in her, which was physical if anything, to a prolonged existence, serpent-like in its changes, waxing and waning, imperceptibly becoming dim as with age in the wintry season, only to recover the old brilliant beauty and receive an access of strength in each recurring spring. Let us imagine that the fame of one so strange in life and history and of so excellent an appearance was bruited far and wide, that many a man who sought her village merely to gratify an idle curiosity loved and remained to woo, but feared at the last and left her with a wound in his heart. Finally, let us imagine that as her relatives and friends, and all who had known her intimately, stricken with years and worn with grief, faded one by one into the tomb, she grew more lonely and apart from her fellow-creatures, less human in her life and pursuits; joy and sorrow and all human failings touching her only in a faint vague way, like the memories of her childhood, of her lost kindred, and of her passion. And after long years, during which she has been a wonder and mystery to the villagers, on one of her solitary rambles on the mountain occurs the catastrophe which the author has described—the fall of the huge overhanging ledge of rock under which the serpent brood had their shelter—burying her for ever with her ophidian relations, and thus bringing to an end the strange story of "Elsie Venner Infelix."