The Man and the Snake

Ambrose Bierce

02 Apr, 2014 09:51 PM


It is of veritabyll report, and attested of so many that there be
nowe of wyse and learned none to gaynsaye it, that ye serpente hys
eye hath a magnetick propertie that whosoe falleth into its svasion
is drawn forwards in despyte of his wille, and perisheth miserabyll
by ye creature hys byte.

Stretched at ease upon a sofa, in gown and slippers, Harker Brayton
smiled as he read the foregoing sentence in old Morryster's
"Marvells of Science." "The only marvel in the matter," he said to
himself, "is that the wise and learned in Morryster's day should
have believed such nonsense as is rejected by most of even the
ignorant in ours."

A train of reflections followed--for Brayton was a man of thought--
and he unconsciously lowered his book without altering the
direction of his eyes. As soon as the volume had gone below the
line of sight, something in an obscure corner of the room recalled
his attention to his surroundings. What he saw, in the shadow
under his bed, were two small points of light, apparently about an
inch apart. They might have been reflections of the gas jet above
him, in metal nail heads; he gave them but little thought and
resumed his reading. A moment later something--some impulse which
it did not occur to him to analyze--impelled him to lower the book
again and seek for what he saw before. The points of light were
still there. They seemed to have become brighter than before,
shining with a greenish luster which he had not at first observed.
He thought, too, that they might have moved a trifle--were somewhat
nearer. They were still too much in the shadow, however, to reveal
their nature and origin to an indolent attention, and he resumed
his reading. Suddenly something in the text suggested a thought
which made him start and drop the book for the third time to the
side of the sofa, whence, escaping from his hand, it fell sprawling
to the floor, back upward. Brayton, half-risen, was staring
intently into the obscurity beneath the bed, where the points of
light shone with, it seemed to him, an added fire. His attention
was now fully aroused, his gaze eager and imperative. It
disclosed, almost directly beneath the foot rail of the bed, the
coils of a large serpent--the points of light were its eyes! Its
horrible head, thrust flatly forth from the innermost coil and
resting upon the outermost, was directed straight toward him, the
definition of the wide, brutal jaw and the idiotlike forehead
serving to show the direction of its malevolent gaze. The eyes
were no longer merely luminous points; they looked into his own
with a meaning, a malign significance.


A snake in a bedroom of a modern city dwelling of the better sort
is, happily, not so common a phenomenon as to make explanation
altogether needless. Harker Brayton, a bachelor of thirty-five, a
scholar, idler, and something of an athlete, rich, popular, and of
sound health, had returned to San Francisco from all manner of
remote and unfamiliar countries. His tastes, always a trifle
luxurious, had taken on an added exuberance from long privation;
and the resources of even the Castle Hotel being inadequate for
their perfect gratification, he had gladly accepted the hospitality
of his friend, Dr. Druring, the distinguished scientist. Dr.
Druring's house, a large, old-fashioned one in what was now an
obscure quarter of the city, had an outer and visible aspect of
reserve. It plainly would not associate with the contiguous
elements of its altered environment, and appeared to have developed
some of the eccentricities which come of isolation. One of these
was a "wing," conspicuously irrelevant in point of architecture,
and no less rebellious in the matter of purpose; for it was a
combination of laboratory, menagerie, and museum. It was here that
the doctor indulged the scientific side of his nature in the study
of such forms of animal life as engaged his interest and comforted
his taste--which, it must be confessed, ran rather to the lower
forms. For one of the higher types nimbly and sweetly to recommend
itself unto his gentle senses, it had at least to retain certain
rudimentary characteristics allying it to such "dragons of the
prime" as toads and snakes. His scientific sympathies were
distinctly reptilian; he loved nature's vulgarians and described
himself as the Zola of zoology. His wife and daughters, not having
the advantage to share his enlightened curiosity regarding the
works and ways of our ill-starred fellow-creatures, were, with
needless austerity, excluded from what he called the Snakery, and
doomed to companionship with their own kind; though, to soften the
rigors of their lot, he had permitted them, out of his great
wealth, to outdo the reptiles in the gorgeousness of their
surroundings and to shine with a superior splendor.

Architecturally, and in point of "furnishing," the Snakery had a
severe simplicity befitting the humble circumstances of its
occupants, many of whom, indeed, could not safely have been
intrusted with the liberty which is necessary to the full enjoyment
of luxury, for they had the troublesome peculiarity of being alive.
In their own apartments, however, they were under as little
personal restraint as was compatible with their protection from the
baneful habit of swallowing one another; and, as Brayton had
thoughtfully been apprised, it was more than a tradition that some
of them had at divers times been found in parts of the premises
where it would have embarrassed them to explain their presence.
Despite the Snakery and its uncanny associations--to which, indeed,
he gave little attention--Brayton found life at the Druring mansion
very much to his mind.


Beyond a smart shock of surprise and a shudder of mere loathing,
Mr. Brayton was not greatly affected. His first thought was to
ring the call bell and bring a servant; but, although the bell cord
dangled within easy reach, he made no movement toward it; it had
occurred to his mind that the act might subject him to the
suspicion of fear, which he certainly did not feel. He was more
keenly conscious of the incongruous nature of the situation than
affected by its perils; it was revolting, but absurd.

The reptile was of a species with which Brayton was unfamiliar.
Its length he could only conjecture; the body at the largest
visible part seemed about as thick as his forearm. In what way was
it dangerous, if in any way? Was it venomous? Was it a
constrictor? His knowledge of nature's danger signals did not
enable him to say; he had never deciphered the code.

If not dangerous, the creature was at least offensive. It was de
trop--"matter out of place"--an impertinence. The gem was unworthy
of the setting. Even the barbarous taste of our time and country,
which had loaded the walls of the room with pictures, the floor
with furniture, and the furniture with bric-a-brac, had not quite
fitted the place for this bit of the savage life of the jungle.
Besides--insupportable thought!--the exhalations of its breath
mingled with the atmosphere which he himself was breathing!

These thoughts shaped themselves with greater or less definition in
Brayton's mind, and begot action. The process is what we call
consideration and decision. It is thus that we are wise and
unwise. It is thus that the withered leaf in an autumn breeze
shows greater or less intelligence than its fellows, falling upon
the land or upon the lake. The secret of human action is an open
one--something contracts our muscles. Does it matter if we give to
the preparatory molecular changes the name of will?

Brayton rose to his feet and prepared to back softly away from the
snake, without disturbing it, if possible, and through the door.
People retire so from the presence of the great, for greatness is
power, and power is a menace. He knew that he could walk backward
without obstruction, and find the door without error. Should the
monster follow, the taste which had plastered the walls with
paintings had consistently supplied a rack of murderous Oriental
weapons from which he could snatch one to suit the occasion. In
the meantime the snake's eyes burned with a more pitiless
malevolence than ever.

Brayton lifted his right foot free of the floor to step backward.
That moment he felt a strong aversion to doing so.

"I am accounted brave," he murmured; "is bravery, then, no more
than pride? Because there are none to witness the shame shall I

He was steadying himself with his right hand upon the back of a
chair, his foot suspended.

"Nonsense!" he said aloud; "I am not so great a coward as to fear
to seem to myself afraid."

He lifted the foot a little higher by slightly bending the knee,
and thrust it sharply to the floor--an inch in front of the other!
He could not think how that occurred. A trial with the left foot
had the same result; it was again in advance of the right. The
hand upon the chair back was grasping it; the arm was straight,
reaching somewhat backward. One might have seen that he was
reluctant to lose his hold. The snake's malignant head was still
thrust forth from the inner coil as before, the neck level. It had
not moved, but its eyes were now electric sparks, radiating an
infinity of luminous needles.

The man had an ashy pallor. Again he took a step forward, and
another, partly dragging the chair, which, when finally released,
fell upon the floor with a crash. The man groaned; the snake made
neither sound nor motion, but its eyes were two dazzling suns. The
reptile itself was wholly concealed by them. They gave off
enlarging rings of rich and vivid colors, which at their greatest
expansion successively vanished like soap bubbles; they seemed to
approach his very face, and anon were an immeasurable distance
away. He heard, somewhere, the continual throbbing of a great
drum, with desultory bursts of far music, inconceivably sweet, like
the tones of an aeolian harp. He knew it for the sunrise melody of
Memnon's statue, and thought he stood in the Nileside reeds,
hearing, with exalted sense, that immortal anthem through the
silence of the centuries.

The music ceased; rather, it became by insensible degrees the
distant roll of a retreating thunderstorm. A landscape, glittering
with sun and rain, stretched before him, arched with a vivid
rainbow, framing in its giant curve a hundred visible cities. In
the middle distance a vast serpent, wearing a crown, reared its
head out of its voluminous convolutions and looked at him with his
dead mother's eyes. Suddenly this enchanting landscape seemed to
rise swiftly upward, like the drop scene at a theater, and vanished
in a blank. Something struck him a hard blow upon the face and
breast. He had fallen to the floor; the blood ran from his broken
nose and his bruised lips. For a moment he was dazed and stunned,
and lay with closed eyes, his face against the door. In a few
moments he had recovered, and then realized that his fall, by
withdrawing his eyes, had broken the spell which held him. He felt
that now, by keeping his gaze averted, he would be able to retreat.
But the thought of the serpent within a few feet of his head, yet
unseen--perhaps in the very act of springing upon him and throwing
its coils about his throat--was too horrible. He lifted his head,
stared again into those baleful eyes, and was again in bondage.

The snake had not moved, and appeared somewhat to have lost its
power upon the imagination; the gorgeous illusions of a few moments
before were not repeated. Beneath that flat and brainless brow its
black, beady eyes simply glittered, as at first, with an expression
unspeakably malignant. It was as if the creature, knowing its
triumph assured, had determined to practice no more alluring wiles.

Now ensued a fearful scene. The man, prone upon the floor, within
a yard of his enemy, raised the upper part of his body upon his
elbows, his head thrown back, his legs extended to their full
length. His face was white between its gouts of blood; his eyes
were strained open to their uttermost expansion. There was froth
upon his lips; it dropped off in flakes. Strong convulsions ran
through his body, making almost serpentine undulations. He bent
himself at the waist, shifting his legs from side to side. And
every movement left him a little nearer to the snake. He thrust
his hands forward to brace himself back, yet constantly advanced
upon his elbows.


Dr. Druring and his wife sat in the library. The scientist was in
rare good humor.

"I have just obtained, by exchange with another collector," he
said, "a splendid specimen of the Ophiophagus."

"And what may that be?" the lady inquired with a somewhat languid

"Why, bless my soul, what profound ignorance! My dear, a man who
ascertains after marriage that his wife does not know Greek, is
entitled to a divorce. The Ophiophagus is a snake which eats other

"I hope it will eat all yours," she said, absently shifting the
lamp. "But how does it get the other snakes? By charming them, I

"That is just like you, dear," said the doctor, with an affectation
of petulance. "You know how irritating to me is any allusion to
that vulgar superstition about the snake's power of fascination."

The conversation was interrupted by a mighty cry which rang through
the silent house like the voice of a demon shouting in a tomb.
Again and yet again it sounded, with terrible distinctness. They
sprang to their feet, the man confused, the lady pale and
speechless with fright. Almost before the echoes of the last cry
had died away the doctor was out of the room, springing up the
staircase two steps at a time. In the corridor, in front of
Brayton's chamber, he met some servants who had come from the upper
floor. Together they rushed at the door without knocking. It was
unfastened, and gave way. Brayton lay upon his stomach on the
floor, dead. His head and arms were partly concealed under the
foot rail of the bed. They pulled the body away, turning it upon
the back. The face was daubed with blood and froth, the eyes were
wide open, staring--a dreadful sight!

"Died in a fit," said the scientist, bending his knee and placing
his hand upon the heart. While in that position he happened to
glance under the bed. "Good God!" he added; "how did this thing
get in here?"

He reached under the bed, pulled out the snake, and flung it, still
coiled, to the center of the room, whence, with a harsh, shuffling
sound, it slid across the polished floor till stopped by the wall,
where it lay without motion. It was a stuffed snake; its eyes were
two shoe buttons.

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