For instance, on a fine day early in April, as we were crossing over to superintend the building of our house, we were startled by a striped snake, with his little bright eyes, raising himself to look at us, and putting out his red, forked tongue. Now there is no more harm in these little garden-snakes than there is in a robin or a squirrel--they are poor little, peaceable, timid creatures, which could not do any harm if they would; but the prejudices of society are so strong against them that one does not like to cultivate too much intimacy with them. So we tried to turn out of our path into a tangle of bushes; and there, instead of one, we found four snakes. We turned on the other side, and there were two more. In short, everywhere we looked, the dry leaves were rustling and coiling with them; and we were in despair. In vain we said that they were harmless as kittens, and tried to persuade ourselves that their little bright eyes were pretty, and that their serpentine movements were in the exact line of beauty: for the life of us, we could not help remembering their family name and connections; we thought of those disagreeable gentlemen the anacondas, the rattlesnakes, and the copper-heads, and all of that bad line, immediate family friends of the old serpent to whom we are indebted for all the mischief that is done in this world. So we were quite apprehensive when we saw how our new neighbourhood was infested by them, until a neighbour calmed our fears by telling us that snakes always crawled out of their holes to sun themselves in the spring, and that in a day or two they would all be gone.
So it proved. It was evident they were all out merely to do their spring shopping, or something that serves with them the same purpose that spring shopping does with us; and where they went afterwards we do not know. People speak of snakes' holes, and we have seen them disappearing into such subterranean chambers; but we never opened one to see what sort of underground housekeeping went on there. After the first few days of spring, a snake was a rare visitor, though now and then one appeared.
One was discovered taking his noontide repast one day in a manner which excited much prejudice. He was, in fact, regaling himself by sucking down into his maw a small frog, which he had begun to swallow at the toes, and had drawn about half down. The frog, it must be confessed, seemed to view this arrangement with great indifference, making no struggle, and sitting solemnly, with his great unwinking eyes, to be sucked in at the leisure of his captor. There was immense sympathy, however, excited for him in the family circle; and it was voted that a snake which indulged in such very disagreeable modes of eating his dinner was not to be tolerated in our vicinity. So I have reason to believe that that was his last meal.
Another of our wild woodland neighbours made us some trouble. It was no other than a veritable woodchuck, whose hole we had often wondered at when we were scrambling through the underbrush after spring flowers. The hole was about the size of a peck-measure, and had two openings about six feet apart. The occupant was a gentleman we never had had the pleasure of seeing, but we soon learned his existence from his ravages in our garden. He had a taste, it appears, for the very kind of things we wanted to eat ourselves, and helped himself without asking. We had a row of fine, crisp heads of lettuce, which were the pride of our gardening, and out of which he would from day to day select for his table just the plants we had marked for ours. He also nibbled our young beans; and so at last we were reluctantly obliged to let John Gardiner set a trap for him. Poor old simple- minded hermit, he was too artless for this world! He was caught at the very first snap, and found dead in the trap,--the agitation and distress having broken his poor woodland heart, and killed him. We were grieved to the very soul when the poor fat old fellow was dragged out, with his useless paws standing up stiff and imploring. As it was, he was given to Denis, our pig, which, without a single scruple of delicacy, ate him up as thoroughly as he ate up the lettuce.
This business of eating, it appears, must go on all through creation. We eat ducks, turkeys, and chickens, though we don't swallow them whole, feathers and all. Our four-footed friends, less civilized, take things with more directness and simplicity, and chew each other up without ceremony, or swallow each other alive. Of these unceremonious habits we had other instances.
Our house had a central court on the southern side, into which looked the library, dining-room, and front hall, as well as several of the upper chambers. It was designed to be closed in with glass, to serve as a conservatory in winter; and meanwhile we had filled it with splendid plumy ferns, taken up out of the neighbouring wood. In the centre was a fountain surrounded by stones, shells, mosses, and various water-plants. We had bought three little goldfish to swim in our basin; and the spray of it, as it rose in the air and rippled back into the water, was the pleasantest possible sound of a hot day. We used to lie on the sofa in the hall, and look into the court, and fancy we saw some scene of fairy-land, and water-sprites coming up from the fountain. Suddenly a new-comer presented himself,--no other than an immense bull-frog, that had hopped up from the neighbouring river, apparently with a view to making a permanent settlement in and about our fountain. He was to be seen, often for hours, sitting reflectively on the edge of it, beneath the broad shadow of the calla-leaves. When sometimes missed thence, he would be found under the ample shield of a great bignonia, whose striped leaves grew hard by.
The family were prejudiced against him. What did he want there? It was surely some sinister motive impelled him. He was probably watching for an opportunity to gobble up the goldfish. We took his part, however, and strenuously defended his moral character, and patronized him in all ways. We gave him the name of Unke, and maintained that he was a well-conducted, philosophical old water- sprite, who showed his good taste in wanting to take up his abode in our conservatory. We even defended his personal appearance, praised the invisible-green coat which he wore on his back, and his gray vest, and solemn gold spectacles; and though he always felt remarkably slimy when we touched him, yet, as he would sit still and allow us to stroke his head and pat his back, we concluded his social feelings might be warm, notwithstanding a cold exterior. Who knew, after all, but he might be a beautiful young prince, enchanted there till the princess should come to drop the golden ball into the fountain, and so give him a chance to marry her and turn into a man again? Such things, we are credibly informed, are matters of frequent occurrence in Germany. Why not here?
By-and-by there came to our fountain another visitor,--a frisky, green young frog of the identical kind spoken of by the poet