Chapter 44 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The Spitting-Snake.

“What can be the matter with my pretty birds?” asked Trüey of herself. “Something wrong surely! I see no hawk. Perhaps they are fighting among themselves. I shall go round and see. I shall soon pacify them.”

And so saying she mended her pace; and passing round the end of the lake, walked out upon the peninsula until she stood under the willow.

There was no underwood. The tree stood alone upon the very end of the spit of land, and Trüey went close in to its trunk. Here she stopped and looked up among the branches, to ascertain what was causing so much excitement among the birds.

As she approached, several of the little creatures had flown towards her, and alighted upon her arms and shoulders; but not as was their wont when desiring to be fed. They appeared to be in a state of alarm, and had come to her for protection.

Some enemy certainly must be near, thought Trüey, though she could see none.

She looked around and above. There were no hawks in the air, nor on the neighbouring trees,—no birds of prey of any kind. Had there been one in the willow, she could easily have seen it, as the foliage was light and thin; besides a hawk would not have remained in the tree with her standing so near. What, then, caused the trouble among the birds? what was still causing it—for they were as noisy and terrified as ever? Ha! At last the enemy appears—at last Trüey’s eyes have fallen upon the monster who has disturbed the peaceful colony of weavers, and roused them to such a pitch of excitement.

Slowly gliding along a horizontal branch, grasping the limb in its many spiral folds, appeared the body of a large serpent. Its scales glittered as it moved, and it was the shining of these that had caught Trüey’s eyes, and directed them upon the hideous reptile.

When she first saw it, it was gliding spirally along one of the horizontal branches of the willow, and coming, as it were, from the nests of the birds. Her eyes, however, had scarce rested upon it, before its long slippery body passed from the branch, and the next moment it was crawling head-foremost down the main trunk of the tree.

Trüey had scarce time to start back, before its head was opposite the spot where she had stood. No doubt, had she kept her place she would have been bitten by the serpent at once; for the reptile, on reaching that point, detached its head from the tree, spread its jaws wide open, projected its forked tongue, and hissed horribly. It was evidently enraged—partly because it had failed in its plundering intentions, not having been able to reach the nests of the birds,—and partly that the latter had repeatedly struck it with their beaks—no doubt causing it considerable pain. It was further provoked by the arrival of Trüey, in whom it recognised the rescuer of its intended victims.

Whatever were its thoughts at that moment, it was evidently in a rage—as the motion of its head and the flashing of its eyes testified; and it would have sprung upon any creature that had unfortunately come in its way.

Trüey, however, had no intention of getting in its way if she could avoid it. It might be a harmless serpent for all she knew; but a snake, nearly six feet in length, whether it be harmless or venomous, is a terrible object to be near; and Trüey had instinctively glided to one side, and stood off from it as far as the water would allow her.

She would have run back over the narrow isthmus; but something told her that the snake was about to take that direction, and might overtake her; and this thought induced her to pass to one side of the peninsula, in hopes the reptile would follow the path that led out to the mainland.

Having got close to the water’s edge, she stood gazing upon the hideous form, and trembled as she gazed.

Had Trüey known the character of that reptile, she would have trembled all the more. She saw before her one of the most venomous of serpents, the black naja, or “spitting-snake”—the cobra of Africa—far more dangerous than its congener the cobra de capello of India, because far more active in its movements, and equally fatal in its bite.

Trüey knew not this. She only knew that there was a great ugly snake, nearly twice her own length, with a large open mouth and glistening tongue, apparently ready to eat her up. That was fearful enough for her, poor thing! and she gazed and trembled, and trembled and gazed again.

Angry as the cobra appeared, it did not turn aside to attack her. Neither did it remain by the tree. After uttering its long loud hiss, it descended to the ground, and glided rapidly off.

It made directly for the isthmus, as if intending to pass it, and retreat to some bushes that grew at a distance off on the mainland.

Trüey was in hopes that such was its design, and was just beginning to feel safe again, when, all at once, the snake coiled itself upon the narrow neck of land, as if it intended to stay there.

It had executed this manoeuvre so suddenly, and so apparently without premeditation, that Trüey looked to discover the cause. The moment before, it was gliding along in rapid retreat, its glistening form stretched to its full length along the earth. The next instant it had assumed the appearance of a coiled cable, over the edge of which projected its fierce head, with the scaly skin of its neck broadly extended, into that hood-like form which characterises the cobra.

Trüey, we have said, looked for the cause of this sudden change in the tactics of the reptile. She learnt it at the first glance.

There stretched a piece of smooth sloping ground from the edge of the lake back into the plain. By this the little peninsula was approached. As she glanced outward, she saw the springbok advancing down this slope. It was the approach of the antelope that had interrupted the retreat of the serpent!

Trüey, on first discovering the snake, had uttered a cry of alarm. This cry had summoned her pet—that had lingered behind browsing upon the grass—and it was now bounding forward, with its white tail erect, and its large brown eyes glistening with an expression of inquiry.

It saw its mistress out upon the peninsula. Had she called it? Why had she uttered that strange cry? They were not sounds of joyful import it had heard. Was anything amiss? Yonder she stood. It would gallop to her and see what was wanted; and with such thoughts passing through its brain, the bright little creature bounded down the bank towards the edge of the lake.

Trüey trembled for her pet. Another spring, and it would be upon the lurking serpent—another— “Ha! it is safe!”

These words escaped from the lips of the young girl, as she saw the springbok rise high into the air, and leap far and clear over the coiled reptile. The antelope had observed the snake in time, and saved itself by one of those tremendous bounds, such as only a springbok can make. The fond creature, having passed the danger, now ran on to its mistress, and stood with its big shining eyes bent upon her inquiringly.

But the cry that Trüey had uttered had summoned another individual. To her horror, she now saw little Jan running down the slope, and coming directly upon the path where the cobra lay coiled!