“Poison of Asps”
There is, at the far end of one of the never-ending suburbs of San Paulo, a snake-farm where serums are prepared and dispensed against the bites of venomous serpents, which abound in these parts. Like most of the things that matter, it was one man’s notion and work. Unluckily, the man himself was up or down coast at the time of our visit. But we found the “farm” sitting alone amid beautiful grounds in a faultless stretch of drive—a big, white, shuttered remote pile in dead heat among the crashing (colours hit here) green of its cut lawns and the raw bosses and clumps of flowers.
One lawn, enclosed by a low wall, was dotted with two-foot high white domed Kaffir kraals, each pierced by a tiny arch. A moat a couple of feet wide ran between the lawn and the bounding wall which overhung, a trifle, as it rose from the water. Nothing else showed, or moved or sounded, in all that heat and space and colour and overwhelmimg light, till a door in the face of the building opened, and one passed thankfully into cool stillness. A girl in white linen stole down a corridor that gave a glimpse of a hall full of bottles on shelves, and a faint smell of varnish, hard woods and chemicals. Then a block of solid silence, while portraits of eminent men looked down from the pale walls. A far-off echoing step—and a young man came in clad like an umpire, with shortish linen trousers, enticingly low shoes and white socks, and beckoned us to the open, quivering air. His weapon was a stick with a piece of wire bent to right angles at one end of it. He led down to the walled enclosure, entered it across the moat and stood among the tiny kraals as though making up his mind. Had he by chance forgotten his leggings? Not in the least, I was told, but leggings were unnecessary as well as warm. And, talking of leggings, a snake cannot as a rule strike higher than a man’s knee. So, on many farms and factories, leggings are issued to the workmen in the fields. Do they wear them? Not unless they are chased into them. For one thing it is a new notion; and for another it bothers their free legs.
Now a decent, forest-bred snake hates glare as much as an elephant does. Hence the baby kraals, with their small single apertures. The young man felt inside one of these with his stick, and slung out a snake, which he named, balanced on the wire. The body dropped raspingly on the dry crab-grass at the edge of the moat and recovered itself like coiled lighting, its head already set, and in cocked watch upon the man. He half kicked towards it with his shoed foot. It half struck back, showed its death-coloured mouth, and sank back into its coils, cursing a little. Perhaps it knew the routine, or was dizzy with the glare.
The young man passed from kraal to kraal, drawing out, always balanced on the wire, snake after snake, which he named, and pitched beside the first; and as each snake came to rest, its head was watching him as though it had been on that duty since The Expulsion. The recover after the throw-down is quicker than eye can follow, for if a snake be not right side up he is the most helpless of things; but the orientation of the head is quicker than the recover.
Then, as the dishevelled and indignant tangle of them grew, one was lifted out of its dark, who dropped from the wire clumsily, almost in a straight line, and lay belly up, drawing painful breath through the length of him; being solely concerned with the business of dying, to which he was left. A little lithe thing, rather like a karait, raced over him into the moat, where it flashed anxiously up and down along the concrete, seeking escape. But the Architect of its Universe had foreseen that there should be no purchase in still water, and it crawled back, over the thoughtfully roughened lip, on the prison side. A companion, making the best of upheaval, floated along the moat effortless in a luxurious knot, but all the while his head was turned towards the man. Some of the others in the heap kept slipping away to the nearest kraal just as worms slip into grass when the bait-can upsets.
There were rattlers among them—big and bad-tempered—who raised their heads and warned. The “rattle” is more like the “sizzle” of dry seeds in a bean, just enough to hint that there is death in the pot; and, curiously, it impresses anyone who has once heard it as much behind secure walls as it does in the open. We had a companion who knew and seemed to love the snakes of his native land. He and the young man talked together about them (most of their names seemed to begin with ja) and to illustrate some point, one flat head was pinned down by the wire stick, caught behind the thin neck, and, with a “scraunch” like shelling prawns, the jaws were forced open to start the fangs. But they carried no venom at the moment, and the thing was thrown into the discard, as though it were a journal that had been read or a politician that had served his turn.
“Yes. All the snakes in this enclosure are venomous—some more than others—but all quite enough. They are collected. They last a year or eighteen months. They are not fed because the hungrier they are the more poisonous they grow.” (This gift also the Serpent bequeathed to the sons of Adam.) “Besides our regular collectors, the farmers send us snakes. For each snake, malignant or harmless, the Institute returns them a dose of serum; and also perforated boxes for sending us more snakes. Of course, the best serum is made from the same breed of snake as bit you. But people are often not accurate when they are bitten, so a ‘general’ serum is sent to the farmers. It cures—it cures surely—but it takes longer and it hurts a little more than the specialized serum. There is no danger in handling snakes if you know how, and if anything happens the injections are just round the corner. Are snakes man-hunters? Only one sort of snake really likes chasing men. The others all want to get away—the harmless snakes first, and, then the poison ones. You see, a poisonous snake is never afraid. He does not hurry. Oh, yes! There is a tale of a snake that is attracted by the smell of wood or tobacco smoke, and will follow it up till it casts itself into the fire. True? Who knows? Snakes are all curious. Would you care to look at our harmless ones? They are put in another place, a little way off.” We moved along the wall of that death-compound, past an enclosure where the grass had not been cut for some time, and half hid the little kraals. Why? “Oh, that is where they breed. We leave them alone.” It must have been imagination, for there was no breath of wind, that made one fancy a tussock of herbage parted and bowed as we looked, but, at any rate, one was glad to think that the A’tosis are left in peace sometimes, and have not to bare their teeth to strangers.
Hunger in the Vines
The harmless snakes lived in an enclosure with a vine-covered pergola, and an evergreen tree in the centre. The stems wove easily back and forth as they crowned the trellis; and in exact and perfect camouflage of curve and colour (when the eye had seized the trick) lay half a dozen or more long thin serpents waiting hopefully for birds that never alighted. The evergreen tree, also, was filled with snakes, said the young man, but the local birds knew too much. These particular snakes came of a breed that always hunted in this fashion. So they climbed hungrily and copied the vines and the mottling and disking of the sunlit leaves, and the shapes of the twigs; and not till we had worked up to the unwinking eyes at the ends could we guess that they were anything else. The short grass beneath the wall was full of snakes, at first invisible, and then—till one saw nothing else—two and three overlapping, deep down among the blades. But, nakedly on the top, no more to be concealed than an orange, was a brilliant yellow-red snake with a rat tail, and when she struck at the young man’s foot it was with a curious stiff, weaving, frantic motion like a choking dog. To make more fear, she spread out the ribs behind her neck, and somehow suggested a cobra. “She can bite a little—not much,” said the young man and offered her a fold of linen trouser. She closed and bit, but at once dropped from it dry-mouthed, and hurried away with that stiff, beseeching, uplifted neck as though she were trying to escape from herself, or seeking a deliverer. (And why on earth she should have suggested Lady Macbeth in the sleep-walking scene is another mystery.) Meanwhile, our companion had identified a small graceful little creature as of a kind he had once brought down from the North, and sent in here. “I didn’t know whether she could do anything, but she didn’t all the way from Para to here; so she must have been all right.”) He was fondling her. She made no protest, but twined herself as prettily as Lilith round his arm.
Last of all, was a small boa, who comes of a breed less forsaken than the rest, because boas have a rounded, almost man-jowl and little piggy noses. He was changing his skin—and was therefore half blind, as well as blackish and frayed along his outline. “He can bite, too, if he wants to; but up North where they keep them for pets against the rats, they never bite the people of their own house.” We left him sullen and dazed, waiting for the change which will turn him green, purple, and gold again, and the young man gave our companion the snake that had taken his fancy—in a perforated paper box.
Then we went off to one of the distant museums where the Tarantulas are; and the life-size wax models of what happens to your limbs after you are bitten. Here again all was silence and heat, with one small girl-student in white linen, and a blaze of flowers outside the pale hall. The models make one heave with disgust, but there were two, differentiating the mixed scratch of a harmless serpent’s teeth from the sufficient double puncture of venomous fangs, that brought back, atop of the nausea, the memory of a night when a half-fainting man’s leg was examined by matchlight for certain signs, and he broke into helpless tears on being told that he would live.
Little Children of Death
The Tarantulas are manifestly the creation of the Personal Devil. They are not larger than the clenched fist, and are nourished by putting in with each one a thin snake about a foot long who stays alive till the end of the fortnight next ensuing. Then the Tarantula kills and eats it at great leisure. One looks into beautiful gauze-roofed glass-sided worlds, each with a red earth floor and little tin of damped wool to maintain humidity for the tenant and its ration. In one cage, a lady had hatched out a multitude of babes about the size of half-pennies, and had added to her works by casting, it seemed, all her skin. A person is officially allowed twenty-four hours after having been bitten by such a lady; but he will not be able to attend to his own affairs in that time.
Then we returned to the outside blaze, on our way back, and passed another silent range of white buildings, where are the horses and such, through whose systems the poisons are attenuated and controlled, so that folk may live longer who would otherwise have died horribly.
Roughly speaking the process begins with an infinitely small injection of poison into a carefully kept horse. He reacts, but lives (for the dose is well known now), and the injection is gradually increased till he can resist, proportionately, as much of the venom as opium-eaters could of laudanum. Then he is tapped for some pints of his blood, and of its serum, duly attenuated and sterilised, the anti-venom is made. When it is administered to a man in need, the two powers war together on the physical side, as one may see the powers of the spirit tearing the soul of a sinner “under conviction” before he finds salvation. Every muscle and nerve and blood corpuscule may be involved, as well as other powers that we know not of; but normally, after the throes and disintegrations, the body recovers and—since it is sister of the soul—hrows off and puts behind it in a very little while all that nightmare of experiences in restored health. But, they say, the process is not a pleasant one to watch; and men are thinking and working all their lives to make it less vehement.
Yet, after all, the only cure for venomous bites is the foot of man making hard paths from hut to hut, field to field, and shrine to shrine, through the length and breadth of a land.
The A’tosis hate the look and texture of trodden ground, the smell of the cattle who come after, the hoes and axes that eat into the edges of their nesting-places, and the heavy wheels that make earthquakes beneath their sensitive bellies.