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- Lady Mary and her Nurse - 20/22 -
"What colour was the snake, my dear?" asked her nurse.
"It was green and black, chequered all over; and it was very large, and opened its mouth very wide, and showed its red tongue. It would have killed me if it had bitten me, would it not, nurse?"
"It would not have harmed you, my lady or even if it had bitten you, it would not have killed you. The chequered green snake of Canada is not poisonous. It was more afraid of you than you were of it, I make no doubt."
"Do you think it was a rattlesnake, nurse?"
"No, my dear; there are no snakes of that kind in Lower Canada, and very few below Toronto. The winters are too cold for them, but there are plenty in the western part of the province, where the summers are warmer, and the winters milder. The rattlesnake is a dangerous reptile, and its bite causes death, unless the wound be burnt or cut out. The Indians apply different sorts of herbs to the wound. They have several plants, known by the names of rattlesnake root, rattlesnake weed, and snake root. It is a good thing that the rattlesnake gives warning of its approach before it strikes the traveller with its deadly fangs. Some people think that the rattle is a sign of fear, and that it would not wound people, if it were not afraid they were coming near to hurt it. I will tell you a story, Lady Mary, about a brave little boy. He went out nutting one day with another boy about his own age; and while they were in the grove gathering nuts, a large black snake, that was in a low tree, dropped down and suddenly coiled itself round the throat of his companion. The child's screams were dreadful; his eyes were starting from his head with pain and terror. The other, regardless of the danger, opened a clasp-knife that he had in his pocket, and seizing the snake near the head, cut it apart, and so saved his friend's life, who was well-nigh strangled by the tight folds of the reptile, which was one of a very venomous species, the bite of which generally proves fatal."
"What a brave little fellow!" said Lady Mary. "You do not think it was cruel, nurse, to kill the snake?" she added, looking up in Mrs. Frazer's face.
"No, Lady Mary, for he did it to save a fellow-creature from a painful death; and we are taught by God's word that the soul of man is precious in the sight of his Creator. We should be cruel were we wantonly to inflict pain upon the least of God's creatures; but to kill them in self-defence, or for necessary food, is not cruel; for when God made Adam, He gave him dominion, or power, over the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and every creeping thing. It was an act of great courage and humanity in the little boy, who perilled his own life to save that of his helpless comrade, especially as he was not naturally a child of much courage, and was very much afraid of snakes; but love for his friend overcame all thought of his own personal danger. [Footnote: A fact related to me by an old gentleman from the State of Vermont, as an instance of impulsive feeling overcoming natural timidity.]
"The large garter-snake, that which you saw, my dear lady, is comparatively harmless. It lives on toads and frogs, and robs the nests of young birds, and the eggs also. Its long forked tongue enables it to catch insects of different kinds; it will even eat fish, and for that purpose frequents the water as well as the black snake.
"I heard a gentleman once relate a circumstance to my father that surprised me a good deal. He was fishing one day in a river near his own house, but, being tired, seated himself on a log or fallen tree, where his basket of fish also stood; when a large garter-snake came up the log, and took a small fish out of his basket, which it speedily swallowed. The gentleman, seeing the snake so bold as not to mind his presence, took a small rock-bass by the tail, and half in joke held it towards him, when, to his great surprise, the snake glided towards him, took the fish out of his hand, and sliding away with its prize to a hole beneath the log, began by slow degrees to swallow it, stretching its mouth and the skin of its neck to a great extent; till, after a long while, it was fairly gorged, and then slid down its hole, leaving its neck and head only to be seen."
"I should have been so frightened, nurse, if I had been the gentleman, when the snake came to take the fish," said Lady Mary.
"The gentleman was well aware of the nature of the reptile, and knew that it would not bite him. I have read of snakes of the most poisonous kinds being tamed and taught all manner of tricks. There are in India and Egypt people that are called snake-charmers, who will contrive to extract the fangs containing the venom from the Cobra capella, or hooded snake; which then become quite harmless. These snakes are very fond of music, and will come out of the leather bag or basket that their master carries them in, and will dance or run up his arms, twining about his neck, and even entering his mouth. They do not tell people that the poison-teeth have been extracted, so that it is thought to be the music that keeps the snake from biting. The snake has a power of charming birds and small animals by fixing its eye steadily upon them, when the little creatures become paralysed with fear, either standing quite still, or coming nearer and nearer to their cruel enemy, till they are within his reach. The cat has the same power, and can by this art draw birds from the tops of trees within her reach. These little creatures seem unable to resist the temptation of approaching her, and, even when driven away, will return from a distance to the same spot, seeking, instead of shunning, the danger which is certain to prove fatal to them in the end. Some writers assert that all wild animals have this power in the eye, especially those of the cat tribe, as the lion and tiger, leopard and panther. Before they spring upon their prey, the eye is always steadily fixed, the back lowered, the neck stretched out, and the tail waved from side to side; if the eye is averted, they lose the animal, and do not make the spring."
"Are there any other kinds of snakes in Canada, nurse," asked Lady Mary, "besides the garter-snake?"
"Yes, my lady, several; the black snake, which is the most deadly next to the rattlesnake, is sometimes called the puff-adder, as it inflates the skin of the head and neck when angry. The copper-bellied snake is also poisonous. There is a small snake of a deep grass green colour sometimes seen in the fields and open copse-woods. I do not think it is dangerous; I never heard of its biting any one. The stare-worm is also harmless. I am not sure whether the black snakes that live in the water are the same as the puff or black adder. It is a great blessing, my dear, that these deadly snakes are so rare, and do so little harm to man. Indeed, I believe they would never harm him, were they let alone; but if trodden upon, they cannot tell that it was by accident, and so put forth the weapons that God has armed them with in self-defence. The Indians in the north-west, I have been told, eat snakes, after cutting off their heads. The cat also eats snakes, leaving the head; she will also catch and eat frogs, a thing I have witnessed myself, and know to be true. [Footnote: I saw a half grown kitten eat a live green frog, which she first caught and brought into the parlour, playing with it like a mouse.] One day a snake fixed itself on a little girl's arm and wound itself around it; the mother of the child was too much terrified to tear the deadly creature off, but filled the air with cries. Just then a cat came out of the house, and quick as lightning sprang upon the snake, and fastened on its neck, which caused the reptile to uncoil its folds, and it fell to the earth in the grasp of the cat; thus the child's life was saved, and the snake killed. Thus you see, my dear, that God provided a preserver for this little one when no help was nigh; perhaps the child cried to Him for aid, and He heard her and saved her by means of the cat."
Lady Mary was much interested in all that Mrs. Frazer had told her; she remembered having heard some one say that the snake would swallow her own young ones, and she asked her nurse if it was true, and if they laid eggs.
"The snake will swallow her young ones," said Mrs. Frazer. "I have seen the garter-snake open her mouth and let the little ones run into it when danger was nigh; the snake also lays eggs: I have seen and handled them often; they are not covered with a hard, brittle shell, like that of a hen, but with a sort of whitish skin, like leather; they are about the size of a blackbird's egg, long in shape, some are rounder and larger. They are laid in some warm place, where the heat of the sun and earth hatches them; but though the mother does not brood over them, as a hen does over her eggs, she seems to take great care of them, and defends them from their many enemies by hiding them out of sight in the singular manner I have just told you. This love of offspring, my dear child, has been wisely given to all mothers, from the human mother down to the very lowest of the insect tribe. The fiercest beast of prey loves its young, and provides food and shelter for them; forgetting its savage nature to play with and caress them. Even the spider, which is a disagreeable insect, fierce and unloving to its fellows, displays the tenderest care for its brood, providing a safe retreat for them in the fine silken cradle she spins to envelope the eggs, which she leaves in some warm spot, where she secures them from danger; some glue a leaf down, and overlap it, to ensure it from being agitated by the winds, or discovered by birds. There is a curious spider, commonly known as the nursing spider, who carries her sack of eggs with her, wherever she goes; and when the young ones come out, they cluster on her back, and so travel with her; when a little older, they attach themselves to the old one by threads, and run after her in a train."
Lady Mary laughed, and said she should like to see the funny little spiders all tied to their mother, trotting along behind her.
"If you go into the meadow, my dear," said Mrs. Frazer, "you will see on the larger stones some pretty shining little cases, quite round, looking like grey satin."
"Nurse, I know what they are," said Lady Mary; "last year I was playing in the green meadow, and I found a piece of granite with several of these satin cases. I called them silk pies, for they looked like tiny mince-pies. I tried to pick one off, but it stuck so hard that I could not; so I asked the gardener to lend me his knife, and when I raised the crust, it had a little rim under the top, and I slipped the knife in, and what do you think I saw? The pie was full of tiny black shining spiders, and they ran out, such a number of them,--more than I could count, they ran so fast. I was sorry I opened the crust, for it was a cold, cold day, and the little spiders must have been frozen out of their warm air-tight house."
"They are able to bear a great deal of cold, Lady Mary--all insects can; and even when frozen hard, so that they will break if any one tries to bend them, yet when spring comes again to warm them, they revive, and are as full of life as ever. Caterpillars thus frozen will become butterflies in due time. Spiders, and many other creatures, lie torpid during the winter, and then revive in the same way as dormice, bears, and marmots do."
"Nurse, please will you tell me something about tortoises and porcupines?" said Lady Mary.
"I cannot tell you a great deal about the tortoise, my dear," replied her nurse. "I have seen them sometimes on the shores of the lakes, and once or twice I have met with the small land-tortoise, in the woods on the banks of the Otonabee river. The shell that covers these reptiles is black and yellow, divided into squares--those which I saw were about the size of my two hands. They are very harmless creatures, living chiefly on roots and bitter herbs: perhaps they eat insects as well. They lie buried in the sand during the long winters, in a torpid state: they lay a number of eggs, about the size of a blackbird's, the shell of which is tough and soft, like a snake's egg. The old tortoise buries these in the loose sand near the water's edge, and leaves them to be hatched by the heat of the sun. The little tortoise, when it comes out of the shell, is about as big as a large spider--it is a funny-looking thing. I have heard some of the Indians say
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