The Man and the Snake
by Ambrose Bierce
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 followedfor 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 somethingsome impulse which it did not occur to him to
analyzeimpelled 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 triflewere 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
serpentthe 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 tastewhich, 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 associationsto which, indeed, he gave little
attentionBrayton found life at the Druring mansion very much to his
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.
Besidesinsupportable 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 onesomething
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
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 flooran 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 unseenperhaps in the very act of springing
upon him and throwing its coils about his throatwas 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, staringa 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
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.