Alice Perrin.

Tales that are told online

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and set herself to pacify her small guest, who clung
to her, his sobs abating.

" Perhaps it's because he comes from India,"
suggested the mother of the fat little girl. " I have
a horror of snakes myself."

" Oh, he can't remember India ! " said Mrs.
Colebrook over the curly yellow head on her
shoulder. " He was sent home as an infant. I
think his mother died when he was born." She
patted and rocked the still quivering little body.

Then " Nanny " arrived, anxious, alarmed ; a
stout woman with a dark skin and dull black eyes,
their whites tinged with yellow. John was trans-
ferred to her arms.

" I will take him upstairs," said Nanny in curious,
jerky tones, which Mrs. Colebrook, who had lived
in India, knew to be the typical Eurasian accent.

She led the way from the large London dining-
room, and took nurse and child upstairs to the nur-
sery, empty now save for the furniture, and some
scattered toys. She bade Nanny sit in the rocking-
chair by the fire.

" He will be all right soon, nurse. It was just a
sudden fright one of those paper snakes jumped
out of the cracker he was pulling, and I suppose he


thought it was a real one. Poor little fellow !
My children love them, but probably he had never
seen one before. Perhaps he was over-excited too.
It's his first party, I think ? "

The child lay exhausted in his nurse's arms,
soothed by the warmth of the fire, the absence of
noise, and the gentle rocking movement of the chair.

" Yess, yess, he is a nervous," said Nanny in
apology for the behaviour of her charge. Then,
encouraged by the lady's compassionate counte-
nance, she added confidentially : " And what else,
when his poor mother died so frightened ? "

" Frightened ? " The lady looked with combined
curiosity and pity at the sensitive face of the child,
now in repose, with long lashes lying on the pale
cheeks. " How was she frightened ? "

Nanny answered low. "It was a snake, ma'am,
and I was with her when it happened in India,
at Cawnpore. It was one night in the rains, a snake
fell on her and then the child, this one here, he
was born too soon and she died."

" Dear, dear, how sad ! I did not know." Mrs.
Colebrook had only lately settled in the South Ken-
sington house with gardens at the back shared by
her neighbours, John Fleming's grandmother among
them. Her two children had made friends with
little John in these gardens, and at their urgent
petition Mrs. Colebrook had written a polite note
to old Mrs. Fleming inviting the little boy to their
Christmas party.

" He is asleep now," said Nanny. Her dull eyes
rested fondly on the yellow curls. Then she looked


up, and the sympathetic understanding in the lady's
face encouraged her tongue. She spoke rapidly
under her breath as though utterance gave her

" Always always will he fear anyt'ing that is
like a snake," she said, " and Mrs. Fleming, his
grandmother, will not believe. I said when we
went to the Zoo Gardens, ' Do not take him to the
snake-house.' But, no, no, she take him, and he
was altogether ill for two weeks after. He will not
go into one room in the house because of the candle-
sticks on the mantelpiece that are snakes made in
brass. And if he sees a worm he cries and cries
and trembles. His grandmother say : ' Little coward ;
do not give way to him. His father never was
afraid of anyt'ing.' You see his father was her son,
and he was killed fighting in some wild part, I think
by Assam."

" I see. So poor little John has no father or
mother ? " She spoke in pity, regarding the
Eurasian nurse with interested attention. She could
picture the hard old grandmother's unsympathy
with any form of fear. Had she not observed her
walking in the gardens a forbidding figure, with
hooked nose, hawk's eyes, her personality breathing
of intolerance. He was to be pitied, this delicate,
highly strung little child, committed by Fate to
the old woman's charge. Mrs. Colebrook divined
the nurse's antagonism to the tyranny of her mistress
by the woman's appreciation of this opportunity
to voice her grievance. It was obvious that devo-
tion to the child she had tended from his untimely


birth was all that induced the half-caste woman to
remain in Mrs. Fleming's service. Probably kin-
dred, country, inclination called her eastward, yet
love for the child held her captive in uncongenial
surroundings, companionship, servitude.

" It will be always the same," Nanny went on,
still in a husky whisper with jerky intonation.
" Always ! See, ma'am he has a mark."

With gentle caution she unbuttoned the left
sleeve of the child's blouse and bared the little
thin arm to the elbow. On the tender flesh was a
curious blemish, that with a little self-persuasion
might have been likened to the imprint, in miniature,
of a snake the diamond-shaped head, the undulat-
ing body, the tapering tail.

Mrs. Colebrook gazed at the mark in mingled
doubt and fascination. Surely the thing was only
an unusual form of mole, an odd coincidence not
the impress of the mother's terror that had forced
the babe into the world before his due time ? She
had an idea that science did not recognize the
possibility of such outward signs of pre-natal

" What does his grandmother say to that ? "
she inquired.

"Oh, she laugh and say it is nothing just a
mole nothing to do with a snake. But, all the
same, I know. It is a snake-mark what else ?
The fear is marked on his mind too, and it will
be there always."

The little boy, John Fleming, who had screamed


at his first party, grew up. From his early school-
days he was told continually that his brains were
his only asset for the future, which was true. The
income of his grandmother, who educated him
without stint, was derived from a pension and an
annuity. Nothing had he inherited from his ill-
fated parents in the way of material possessions.
India, he was also told, must naturally be his ulti-
mate goal. His claim to an Indian cadetship was
clear. But there his father's name would help him,
provided he proved himself as good a man. In
India his mother's people, too, had not yet been

But, perversely, he admitted a reluctance to
enter the army. How tiresome of him, said his
grandmother and her friends, when he was good
at games and so clever, too ! Well, what his was
own idea the Civil Service, the police, the public
works what ? Desperately, realizing his position,
he elected to try for the Civil Service, because, he
told his grandmother, it was the best paid profession
in India. Certainly a flawless and definite reason.

But to Mrs. Colebrook, whose motherly friendship
had been his since the memorable day of the Christ-
mas party, so many years ago, he revealed the true
motive of his choice.

" I hate the very thought of India," he told her
in dirncult, shamefaced confidence, " but I quite
realize the sense of granny's arguments, and I
couldn't go against her wishes. She has done so
much for me sent me to Oxford at a real sacrifice
to herself. She gave up her carriage to be able to


do it, and she insured her life long ago, so that if
anything should happen to her before I am launched
I should have just enough to carry me on to get
through my exams. I chose to try for the Civil
Service, because, if I work awfully hard, I might
pass high enough for the English Civil instead of
the Indian. Do you see ? "

It was the time of the winter vacation, and John
Fleming had been dining with Mrs. Colebrook, who
still lived in the South Kensington house with the
gardens at the back wherein her son, now a soldier,
and her daughter, lately married, had played as
children with John. Since then, as John passed
from dame school to preparatory tuition, to Marl-
borough and to Oxford, he had always been welcome
in Mrs. Colebrook's house during holidays spent in
London. Always had he shown her an affectionate
regard that had never lessened with the years.

The two now sat by the fire in the drawing-room,
a curiously contrasted couple she with white hair
and widow's cap, he a tall, fair youth with anxious
blue eyes, sensitive mouth, and long slender hands.

" But why do you so hate the idea of India,
John ? " she asked.

He moved restlessly, then rose and stood by the
mantelpiece, looking down at her, troubled, hesi-

" That's the worst of it," he said. " I can't
quite explain. It sounds so silly. But but I
think it's something to do with snakes."

He laughed self-consciously, turned his back to
her, and played with a china ornament by the clock.


Her thoughts flew back over the years, and in her
mind she saw a little boy screaming on the dining-
room floor in terror because a paper snake had
jumped out of a cracker. Often since had she remem-
bered the curious mark on the child's arm, and the
fond Eurasian " Nanny," who, soon after the memor-
able Christmas party, had returned to India. Some-
times she had wondered if the boy himself knew the
circumstances of his mother's tragic end ; wondered,
too, if the mark still remained on his arm, and, if
so, how he regarded it.

Now she said " Snakes ? " with sympathetic
curiosity, and he turned again towards her.

" Yes. I've always had such an unbearable
horror of them. I can't help it."

" Well, they are certainly very unpleasant, as
well as dangerous creatures. I can't imagine any
normal person liking them."

" But this is more than a normal dislike, Mrs.
Colebrook. I can't even think of them without
shivering. And when I have nightmare, it's always
a snake ! " A shrinking shudder ran the length of
his young form. " Of course the fellows at school
found it out, and I can't describe to you what I've
endured. At Oxford there's peace from that kind
of torment I don't find snakes in my bed or suffer
perpetual practical j okes connected with them . But
last summer, playing golf, I nearly stepped on a
grass snake, and I was literally sick with fright.
The idea of going to a country where I may often
see them, and see the very worst kind, too, nearly
drives me mad ; and I can hardly bring that forward


as a reason for refusing to go to India ! I should
be ashamed to tell anybody but you. I've been
ashamed even to tell you till now ! And who would
take it seriously if I did speak of it to anyone else ? "

" But, John, many people pass the best part of
their lives in India and often never even see a snake.
I think I only saw two the whole time I was out
there. They aren't all over the place, you know,
as people imagine ! "

" I know. But there they are. And I should
always be looking and thinking. I'm sure I should
never be able to eat or sleep for the terror that
I might come across one. It's not fancy," he added
earnestly, " it's like a disease like the horror some
people have of cats, only ten thousand times worse.
It seems to be in my very being and " Sud-
denly he undid the link in his shirt cuff, and bared
his forearm. " Look at that ! What does it
mean ? "

Mrs. Colebrook leaned forward. On the boy's
white flesh, just below the bend of the elbow, was
the mark she had seen so many years before, a
brown mark, perhaps three inches long, recalling
unmistakably the likeness of a snake.

Evidently John was ignorant of the cause of his
own premature birth and his mother's death. To
tell him would increase rather than relieve his
weakness, however uncertain might be the evidence
concerning the true origin of such marks.

" Why should you imagine it necessarily means
anything ? " she murmured reassuringly. " It's
only a mole. Lots of people have them. It's


just an accident that yours should be that shape.
You must fight against this unfortunate feeling,
dear boy, or it may hamper your whole career."

" I do fight against it," he said quietly, and drew
down his sleeve. " Nobody could ever realize how
I fight against it."

" Well, let us hope you will pass high enough to
get into the English Civil," she soothed, " and then
it will be all right, won't it ? " She gave him a com-
forting smile.

John Fleming did pass high enough for the English
Civil. But all the same, he chose to go to India,
because in the meantime he fell in love ; and his
desire to marry the girl he loved, the penniless
daughter of a major retired from the army on
account of age, forced into abeyance the secret
terror of his existence. In India he could marry
within a reasonable period, and give his wife a
home with comparative comforts, and provision
for the future ; whereas in England it must be
years before they could afford matrimony, and
then, without interest or private means, how dis-
couraging the prospects.

The death of his grandmother just then gave
him money that he needed for his outfit and initial
expenses on joining the service. He was sent to a
little station far up country, miles from a railway,
where he shared a thatched bungalow of six rooms
with the Police Officer and the Engineer for roads
and buildings. In a year's time Amy was to come
out to him, and he would be able to take the little
house standing empty in the next compound, that,


with judicious improvement, could be made quite
habitable. He regarded the rather forlorn looking
little building with affectionate sentiment whenever
he passed it.

Soon he began to think Mrs. Colebrook was right
that snakes were the exception and not the rule
in India. For the first six months he saw no trace
of any snake, nor even heard the reptile mentioned,
and he almost ceased to look fearfully under his
furniture, on the bed and chairs, behind the doors,
and all about the floor. The thought of Amy filled
his heart to the exclusion of fear, and even the
sinister mark on his arm seemed to grow fainter,
less insistent, to be " only a mole," as Mrs. Cole-
brook had said.

Then one midday when the hot weather had
begun, and they were sitting at breakfast, a thin
plaintive piping arose outside the dining-room
veranda, a fascinating little minor sound, and it
set all Fleming's nerves vibrating.

" What's that ? " he looked up from the chicken
cutlet on his plate and listened.

The Police Officer glanced out of the long, open
door. " Only a snake charmer," he said carelessly,
and added to the servant behind his chair : ' Tell
him to go away and take his snakes with him."

The man went out, and the piping ceased. The
Police Officer and the Engineer began to talk about
snake charmers, but Fleming sat silent, neither eat-
ing nor speaking.

" Clever humbugs," they said. " They'll pretend
to draw a snake from any spot you like to indicate,


but of course it's hidden in their loin cloths, or in
their hair, or even in their mouths. ..." Then
they agreed that the wonderful part of the profession
was the catching of the snakes in the first instance,
which must entail the swiftness of the mongoose.
Once caught, the reptiles could soon be rendered
harmless by the drawing of their fangs, or by squeez-
ing out the poison, or by sewing up the lips. The
two men reminded each other of a servant they had
engaged last year who claimed to be the son of a
snake charmer, and of how curious it was that they
were perpetually worried with snakes about the
place until they got rid of him.

" Why, we saw eleven snakes either in or just
outside the bungalow in the course of a fortnight,"
the Engineer said, turning to Fleming, " which was
a bit too thick. It's an old bungalow certainly, and
I daresay there are plenty of snakes in the roof,
on the other side of the ceiling cloths ! But even
then, one doesn't bargain for a plague of them."

Fleming got up. "I think I felt the sun rather
this morning," he said jerkily. " I can't eat any
more breakfast. I'll go and lie down."

The others offered remedies and gave advice,
but the young civilian barely answered, and dis-
appeared through his bedroom door.

"If he feels the sun now what will he do later
on ? " was the comment on Fleming's indisposition.
" The fellows they send out nowadays seem to
have no stamina a weak, overworked lot," etc.,

The two men, superior in the consciousness of


their own acclimatization, could not have known
that it was their conversation, not the sun, that
had caused their companion to turn sick and faint,
so that he fled from their presence to throw himself
on his bed quivering in nerve and limb. Otherwise,
a few nights later, when they were all sitting out-
side, smoking, on the round platform of masonry
that is to be found in most old Indian compounds,
they would not, being excellent fellows, have talked
about snakes so persistently. As it was, they told
terrible tales of the dread king cobra, the fiercest
and most deadly of the serpent kind, that is said
to attack without provocation, to grow to a length
of thirteen feet that will drive all other living
creatures from the dense jungles it inhabits, and is
forced, in consequence to devour most of its own
eggs for food. They spoke of the rare little dust
snake, whose bite is swifter, more instantaneous
death even than that of the karait ; and the police-
man quoted the horrid verse that begins :

' ' And death is in the garden awaiting till we pass,
For the karait is in the drain-pipe, the cobra in the grass."

The man, deeply interested in native lore, went
on to recall proverbs such as " The snake-bite
goes in like a needle, but comes out like a plough-
share." And he declared he himself had beheld
the rare and extraordinary spectacle of two snakes,
cobras, twined together, reared upright, swaying
in weird enchantment. His father, he said, used
to tell of spots in remote quarters of India where,
when the floods were out, black cobras could be


seen coiled together in multitudes upon the trees
and bushes in horrible festoons and ropes, torpid,
slow stirring. . . .

Fleming shivered audibly. He feared his self-
control would leave him. A little more of such
talk and he might leap, yelling, from his chair
and make a fool of himself. The shiver turned the
attention of the other men. They hoped he was
not going to have fever ? Otherwise surely he
couldn't be feeling cold in this infernal heat ? It
must be well over a hundred even out here.
Fleming said he did feel rather cheap and would go
to bed. He stood up unsteadily.

" Wait a second," said the Engineer, " the bhisti
has been watering the ground round the house to
cool it. You'd better call for another lantern, or
take this one and send it back."

He meant that the wet ground might possibly
have attracted a snake, so that it was safer to walk
across to the house with a light. Fleming under-
stood and winced. He called to a man squatting
in the veranda to bring another lantern to him.

Once in his room he turned up the lamps hanging
on the wall, then, lantern in hand, he searched every
corner, looked under every piece of furniture, raked
beneath the cupboards with a stick, and passed the
stick along the tops of the doors, holding it at the
very end, standing well away, ready to spring aside.

When a lizard ran down the wall and dropped on
to the matting with a clammy thud, though he saw
what it was, he yet started and cried out involun-
tarily. The sound of his own voice shamed him


into partial self-control. Trembling, with every
nerve and muscle racked, he ceased the frenzied
search, and stood still, gripping both stick and lan-
tern. He found he was dripping with perspiration.
The atmosphere felt thick and heavy, mosquitoes
were shrilling all about the room, disturbed by his
investigations, otherwise the silence seemed leaden.
Exhausted, he had undressed and thrown himself
on the bed before he realized that the punkah was
not working. Then he shouted " Punkah ! " two
or three times, and heard the scraping of an empty
packing case on the veranda floor the punkah
coolie's seat heard a few hoarse exclamations, and
the white frill with the red border began to flap
to and fro above his head. The relief of the moving
air was definite, it calmed his nerves and soothed
his tired body. Yet, in spite of the waving punkah
and the open doors the heat seemed unendurable,
the very sheets felt warm, the pillow like a poultice.
He tossed from side to side in a semi-doze. Then
the punkah stopped and the rope hung slack.
Fleming woke and found himself staring up at the
rope in the dim light. It was like a great snake
swinging in mid-air. Loudly he shouted to the
coolie to pull, pull, pull, and with a jerk and a flap
the frill waved to and fro once more with renewed

Again John Fleming dozed, but he dreamed that
he was still searching his room that he might feel
satisfied there was no snake, large or small, con-
cealed within it. Round and round he groped,
peering, tapping. . . . Then in his dreams he got


into bed, only to remember with dismay that he
had omitted to pass the stick along the top of the
punkah. A little karait, even a cobra, might so
easily drop from the ceiling cloth and find refuge
along the bar or amid the thick folds of the frill.
He must get up, must feel sure. But nightmare-
wise, he could not move, he lay paralysed, and then
distinct against the white material of the punkah-
frill he noticed a dark streak that began to descend,
lower, lower, till it hung directly above him, sway-
ing, writhing, gradually falling.

With a yell he awoke as something dropped on
his chest. Frenzied, he leapt from the bed, fling-
ing off the coiling, moving thing, and ran blindly,
madly out of his bedroom door, through the warm
veranda into the dark, stifling night. The border
of broken bricks around the house cut his feet, but
he felt no pain. Insane with fear he ran, stumbling,
gasping, on and on, into a patch of coarse, dry grass.
Then under his foot wriggled the hard, scaly body
of a cobra seeking rats for food in the darkness, and
in an instant it had wound itself up the man's bare
leg and struck its fangs into the flesh just above the

Afterwards the Police Officer and the Engineer
blamed themselves for " talking snakes " in that
way to a nervous fellow lately out from home like
poor young Fleming. But, they protested, how
were they to know that the punkah rope was going
to break and fall on his chest, and that, waking in
a horrible funk, he would rush "into the compound


with bare feet and tread on a cobra in the grass ?
That was what had happened. He told them, when
they ran out and found him, that a snake had fallen
from the punkah on to his chest, and it turned out
to be only the broken rope ! What wicked luck,
poor chap ! He must have been a frightfully
nervous beggar overworked, probably, getting into
the Civil Service.

Fleming was buried next day, according to the
obligation of the climate, and nobody noticed the
odd little blemish on his arm except his Hindu bearer,
who salaamed to it when unobserved. But Mrs,.
Colebrook, when she heard of poor John's death
from snake-bite, thought of the fatal impress and
of the day when John, as a little child, had screamed
on the floor at sight of a paper snake ; and while
she grieved sorely, she yet knew that she was not




IN a dirty, dismal little dwelling mid a sordid quarter
of London, lived Mrs. Perks, who was middle-aged,
of enormous proportions and oily appearance,
and who said she was a widow. She let the upper
rooms of her house, but only to tenants requiring
bed without board and the minimum of attention.
By this means she paid her rent irregularly, and
was able to keep a servant who she never paid at
all, because, according to Mrs. Perks, the girl being
" an orphan picked out of the gutter " was only
too thankful for a roof over her head, food to eat,
and the shreds of her mistress' old clothes.

Martha, the little servant, was supposed to " do "
the rooms of the lodgers, cook meals for Mrs. Perks,
and carry them to the frowzy front room wherein
Mrs. Perks dozed, ate, and consumed gin some-
times with water, more often without ; or if Mrs.
Perks elected to remain in bed the tray was taken
to the back room which was choked by an old
four-poster and piles of rubbish, cardboard boxes,
broken furniture, odds and ends of an uninviting
description. The girl was also responsible for the
marketing, and was expected to bring home bargains


at night from the naphtha-lighted barrows in an

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Online LibraryAlice PerrinTales that are told → online text (page 7 of 14)