The Benevolent Rattlesnake

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The Benevolent Rattlesnake  (1894) 
by Phil Robinson

Extracted from English Illustrated magazine, Vol 33, 1894-95, pp. 75-80. Illustrated by Cecil Aldin



" HAD a frog, I see?"

"How do you see I've had a frog?" said the rattlesnake snappishly.

"Because I can see the frog you've had," said I.

"Why, it's inside me!"

"Yes, but it's all in one place: right in the middle of you. And any one can see it's a frog. But never mind that. Do you like frogs?"

"Do you think I look as if I'd eat things I didn't like?"

"Well, I can't say. You look as if you'd eat anything you could."

"Now you're getting personal," said the crotalus in a dismal tone of voice; "you're getting nasty. That's just how everybody gets who looks at me, and you can't imagine how depressing it is. Why do they do it?"

"Well, your name is 'horridus.' I confess myself I don't think that's fair, any more than I think it's right to hold the wombat up to public ridicule by labelling him 'the hairy-nosed wombat.' People laugh at him because of his name. Just in the same way they think badly of you. You're 'horridus,' and the common people's English for that is 'horrid.'"

Benevolent rattlesnake--English Illus 1894--had a frog i see.jpg


"But that's not me. That's an old label. The 'horridus' is dead: she choked herself with her old frock. Mean! She was so mean that she wouldn't even throw away her old skin, so she rolled it up into a little parcel, just as that old natter-jack toad does, and swallowed it. But it stuck somewhere, and so she died, I'm not the 'horridus': I'm 'durissus.'"

"Well, that's not much better, but 'the public' don't understand the word. They see you're a snake, and they take other people's word for it that you have got a rattle, and so they think that you're dangerous at both ends. A 'rattlesnake,' mind you, sounds much worse to most people than any other sort of snake."

"That's a great shame," said the worm pensively. "What's the use of having good intentions? I sometimes think I'll turn spiteful, and bite everybody—when I get out of this glass box."

"What on earth do you mean by your 'good intentions'? I've read about your 'rattling terrors,' but never heard before that you had rattling good intentions."

"Why, what do you think I rattle my tail for? Don't I do it to prevent people getting bitten? I've stopped all sorts of creatures from being killed by springing my rattle just as they were going to step right on me. You know that bison round the corner, the bull? well, I was lying asleep one day in a tussock of buffalo grass, and there came browsing along an old bull-bison as big as that one. And just as he had opened his mouth to take a bite off the grass I woke up—and I rattled. You should have seen that bison jump! He just went right up into the air, all four legs together, and I don't know where he came down. I never saw him again. Perhaps he didn't come down at all."

"I am sure that was very good of you. But if you hadn't startled him I suppose he would have crunched you up with the grass?"

"Perhaps he might, but there would have been one bull-bison the less that night on the Yellowstone River. One evening, too, a young Indian came creeping along through the grass, his eyes fixed on a crane by the water and his bow in his hand, and the setting sun shone red on his face; and, all of a sudden, before I had any time to warn him, he jumped up, and, putting one of his feet upon me without seeing me, fired an arrow at the crane. I struck him twice on the ankle between the lacings of his mocassin, and then he heard my rattle, and he thought no more of the bird he had shot, but was gone, as swiftly as a coyote, to his lodge. And when the women-folk came down to the river to wash his dead body there was still light enough in the red afterglow of the same sunset for them to see by, and to find at the edge of the water, still alive, a crane with an arrow through its breast."

"That was quick work."

"Yes; I can kill a man in two hours if my poison-bag is full and the weather has been hot."

"But there are three snakes that are quicker in death than you. The swiftest of all is a little daboia. A bitten child will actually die before it has done crying at the prick of the tiny teeth. It has no rattle, and I would not care to hunt for daboias as I used to hunt for rattlesnakes by the great Salt Lake in Utah."

"What did you do that for?"

"Well, the place swarmed with them, and in the summer-time trains run out from Salt Lake City to the Lake bringing numbers of children, who, after bathing, like to play about on the slopes or go hunting for crickets or birds' nests among the sage bush, and sometimes they were bitten. So it was good work killing rattlesnakes."

"Then you are not afraid of us?"

"Afraid! What is there to be afraid of in a snake if you have got a stick in your hand or boots on your feet? Why, the boys used to kick you out from under the bushes and stamp upon you. You can't even bite through trousers. I have flicked a rattlesnake in the face with a handkerchief and jerked it up into the air by its fangs. Against a forked stick you are as helpless as a fish on the grass."

"What do you mean by our not being able to bite through trousers? I could strike you through your shoe."

"If it was very thin you could, perhaps, but you would break your fangs off, and the odds are that you would never reach my skin. As for trousers, they puzzle you completely, and that is the reason (that and boots together) why in India, where coraits and cobras are so common, there is not a single authenticated case of a European's ever having been killed by a venomous snake. Anything loose hanging down over the leg makes you quite harmless."


"Because you have no control over your poison. The mere act of striking makes it come out. When you hit a native's naked foot your fang goes through the skin and the poison through the fang into the blood, and there's an end of the native. But if you hit my trousers, your fang goes through the cloth and the poison on to my stocking. That's why cobras don't kill mongooses."

"What are they? Do they wear trousers?"

Benevolent rattlesnake--English Illus 1894--still alive crane w arrow in heart.jpg


"No. They're a kind of a big weasel that eats snakes. But when a mongoose finds one it bristles up all its fur, which is very thick, and makes its tail like a bottle brush, and begins darting round and round the snake, a kind of dancing. The snake strikes at it, but only hits the fur, and out comes the poison and does no harm; and the mongoose goes on capering, offering the snake its bushy tail to strike at, till the snake is tired out. For, as you know yourself, after you have struck a certain number of times all your poison is gone, and you are no longer 'venomous.' And the snake knows it, and instead of striking when the mongoose comes close to it, it only bobs its head in imitation of striking and hisses, and then the mongoose knows the snake is harmless, and in a twinkling it gives it a bite. One bite from a mongoose is enough for a snake, but it gives it a dozen all along its body, and then it eats it up like a carrot. Take my advice. If you have ever got a mongoose after you, don't stop to fight, but slip into a hole as quick as you can or you'll be eaten up like a carrot in about half an hour; and that's quicker work than your poison, after all, isn't it, my gentle durissus? Above all, don't go rattling. A mongoose doesn't believe in a snake's 'good intentions.'"

"Was it by our rattling that you used to find us at the Salt Lake?"

"Yes, nearly always. I used to go round with a long stick and prod the bushes, and then they used to rattle; and after that there wasn't much to do except to knock them on the head or anywhere, and cut off the rattles."

"What did you do that for?"

"To make jewellery of. You have no idea how handsome your rattles look rimmed with gold or silver on each joint, and a gold tip on the 'button' at the end. We used to call a rattle of 'fifteen and a button' a very fine one, and didn't often get them over ten."

"How very cruel of you to talk in that way—before me, too."

"I suppose it is. But what use do you suppose you are?"

"That's not my business."

"Perhaps not. But I've often wondered what you were made for."

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"Anyhow, we're alive, and when you don't come prodding us, as you call it, and kicking us out of bushes and stamping on us, we're very happy, and we catch lizards and frogs——"

"How very cruel of you to talk in that way, and before all the frogs and lizards in the room too——"

"Quite right! Quite right!" piped a little green frog on an orange bush in an adjoining case. "Quoit roit! Quoit roit!" croaked a fat old gentleman with a very hoarse voice in the next.

"Well I never!" said the crotalus. "If I could only get out I'd show them what was quite right! And just look at that lizard, if he isn't putting his fingers to his nose at me!"

"No; he has only got his paw on the glass, but it does look like it, I confess. But lizards and frogs are harmless little people, and don't hurt anybody (even with the best intentions beforehand), and they are useful, too."

"Useful! Lizards and frogs?"

"Yes. They eat all kinds of insects, which——"

"But why should they eat insects? Insects don't annoy us. I don't call eating insects useful. Why, I used to eat insects myself sometimes, just for fun; but there's not much in them. No; give me a mouse. Do you like mice?"

"I never ate one."

"Never ate one! And yet you give them to us. That's very unselfish of you."

"H'm. Very good of you to say so, I'm sure."

"Oh, yes, it is. I'm sure if I had lots of mice I'd keep them all for myself. Ah! there's my attendant; he's very kind to me. He's the man who gives me his mice. Isn't it odd? there's always a mouse in his pocket when he comes round to feed me; how do they get there?"

"It is odd. I expect they grow there, somehow, or perhaps he puts them into his pocket before he comes round. I'll ask him if you like?"

"No; don't trouble, thanks. He's always being bothered with silly questions; but you might ask him if he would mind my changing my place for awhile, just for a change of air, you know. I'd like, for instance, to be in that one with the orange bush in it."

"Where the little green frogs are, eh?"

"Yes, that's the one."

"Ah! you sly old snake. You want to go in there for change of air, do you? or change of diet? Why, you'd eat the frogs."

"Upon my word I wouldn't—certainly not without warning them first."

"Oh, yes! I suppose you'll say next that, though you are disagreeable to look at and your manners are abominable, your heart's in the right place. Everybody says that who hasn't got a heart."

"There, you are getting personal again, just like all the rest who come and look at me. They make faces at me and disagreeable noises, and peck at my glass. Why don't they change my name? I'm sure my intentions are very good. What's the word for 'good intentions?'"

Benevolent rattlesnake--English Illus 1894--quoit roit, croaked a fat frog.jpg


"'Benevolens' would do. Crotalus benevolens, the benevolent rattlesnake. How would you like that? The rattlesnake with 'good intentions.'"

"Yes, that would do nicely. And everybody could translate it for themselves, and that would put them in a good temper with me to begin with; and don't you think I could be made a little gayer? There was a snake once next to me that every one used to look at and say, 'Isn't it pretty?' and the children would have given it nuts if it hadn't been for the glass, so they gave them to the alligators instead."

"Oh, yes; a little gold-leaf would brighten you up at once; or you could be bronzed very inexpensively, and have your rattles plated."

"Thank you. And would you mind telling the man who comes to do it that he need not be afraid of handling. I won't bite him; at least, I shall take care to rattle first."

"I'll be sure to tell him, when he comes. Good-bye."

"Thanks. Good-bye; and don't forget benevolens. And, I say, a little touch of red here and——"

But I had gone on, and the little green frogs piped "Ha! ha!" and the fat one croaked "Ho! ho!" and I am very much afraid they were laughing at the snake with the good intentions.

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This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.