Gateway to the Classics: Tommy Smith's Animals by Edmund Selous
Tommy Smith's Animals by  Edmund Selous

The Grass-Snake and Adder

"Tommy Smith has a talk with the grass-snake, and then

With the adder: they're both as conceited as men."

W HEN Tommy Smith had said good-bye to the hare, he thought he would walk home through some woods which were not far off. So off he set towards them, and as he went along he said to himself, "I know there are a great many animals that live in the woods. Now I wonder which of them will be the first to have a talk with me. Let me see. The pigeon and the squirrel both live there, for I have often seen them together on the same tree. And then there is the—" Good gracious! What was that just gliding out from under a bush? Tommy Smith gave a start and a jump, and well he might for it was a large snake, perhaps three feet long. He was so surprised that, at first, he didn't quite know what to do, and before he had made up his mind, it was too late to do anything, for the snake had wriggled away into another bush. "It was an adder," said Tommy Smith out loud. "That, at least, is an animal which I ought  to kill, because it is poisonous."

"I beg your pardon," said a sharp, hissing voice. "I am not an adder, and I am not  poisonous."

Tommy Smith looked all about, but he could see nothing. Still, he felt sure that it must be the snake who had spoken, because the voice came from the very centre of the bush into which he had seen it go. So he answered, "Of course it is very easy for you to say that, but everybody knows that snakes are poisonous, and if you are not a snake, I should just like to know what you are."

"I did not say that I was not a snake,"  said the voice again. "Of course I am, but I am not an adder for all that. There are two different kinds of snakes in this country. One is the adder, which is poisonous, and the other is the grass-snake, which is quite harmless. Now I  am the grass-snake, so if you had killed me, you would have done something very wrong, for you would have killed a poor harmless animal."

"Well," said Tommy Smith, "if that is true, I am glad I didn't kill you. But are you quite sure?"

"If you don't believe me," said the snake, "you must get some good book of natural history, and there you will find it mentioned that we grass-snakes are quite harmless. It is the great superiority which our family have always had over that of the adder. People may call him  a 'poisonous reptile,' but they cannot speak of us  in that way. If they were to, they would only show their ignorance."

"But how am I to know which is one and which is the other?" asked Tommy Smith.

"You will not find that  very difficult," the grass-snake answered; "and if you will promise not to hurt me, I will come out from where I am and show you."

Of course Tommy Smith promised (you see he was getting a much better boy to animals than he used to be), and directly he had, the snake came gliding out from under the bush, and lay on the ground just at his feet. "Now," he said, "to begin with, I am a good deal longer than an adder. I should just like to see the adder that was three feet long, and I am an inch longer than that. No, indeed! Whenever you see such a fine, long snake as I am, you may be sure that it is a nice grass-snake, and not a nasty adder."

"I won't forget that," said Tommy Smith. "But, I suppose, snakes grow like other animals. How should I be able to tell you from an adder if I were to meet you before you were three feet long?"

"Why, by my skin, to be sure!" said the grass-snake. "Look how beautifully it is marked, and what a fine greenish colour it is. I may well be proud of it, for a very great poet indeed has called it 'enameled,' and says that it is fit for a fairy to wrap herself up in. Think of that!  The adder's is quite different, only a dull, dirty brown, which I might  call ugly if I were ill-natured. But I am not, so I will only say that it is plain. I don't think any fairy would like to wrap herself in his  skin."

"But are there fairies?" said Tommy Smith.

"There are, as long as you are a little boy," said the grass-snake; "but as soon as you are grown up there will be none."

"How funny!" said Tommy Smith. "But do you know, Mr. Grass-Snake, I should not like to wrap myself up in your skin, even if I could, because it is so hard and covered with scales. And besides, how could the fairies get into it without killing you first? I don't suppose you can change it as the frog and the toad do."

"Not change it!" said the grass-snake. "And why not, pray? I should think myself a very stupid animal if I could not do that. Of course I change it, and then it looks and feels quite different to what it did when it was on me. You see, it is only just the outer part which comes off. That is quite thin, and I don't think you would find it very much harder than the petal of a flower. Some day, perhaps, you may find it if you look about in the grass or the bushes; for I rub myself against the grass or bushes to get it off."

"Then you do not swallow your skin as the toad does?" Tommy Smith asked.

"I should not like to do anything so nasty," said the grass-snake angrily, "and I wish you wouldn't keep talking to me about frogs and toads. They are very low animals, and only fit to be eaten."

Tommy Smith was quite shocked when he heard this, and he said, "Take care, Mr. Grass-Snake. Frogs and toads are very useful animals, and my friends, too. So I won't let you eat them."

"That is talking nonsense," said the grass-snake. "You can't help my eating them, especially frogs. Why, there are three frogs in my stomach at this moment."


"There are three frogs in my stomach at this moment."

Directly Tommy Smith heard that, he made a dart at the grass-snake, and caught hold of him before he could get away. I don't know what he meant to do. Perhaps he meant to kill the poor snake, which would have been very wrong, as you will see. But before he had time to do anything at all, two curious things happened. One was that the snake opened his mouth very wide indeed, and out of it came first one, then another, and then a third frog. Yes; three large frogs came out of the snake's mouth, one after the other, and there they all lay on the grass. That was one funny thing, and the other was that, as soon as Tommy Smith caught hold of the snake, the snake began to smell in a way that was not at all pleasant. Indeed, it was such a very  nasty smell that Tommy Smith was glad to drop him, so that he got away into the bush again.

"Ah, ha!" the snake said, as soon as he was safe, "I thought you wouldn't hold me very long. Just look at your hand now."

Tommy Smith looked at his hand. It had a thick yellowish fluid on it, which made it feel quite moist, and it was this fluid which had such a disagreeable smell. He was very much offended with the grass-snake, and he called out to him, "I think that is a very nasty trick to play, indeed."

"I thought you wouldn't like it," replied the grass-snake, "and that is just why I did it. I wanted you to let me go, and, you see, you very soon had to. I always do that when anyone catches me; and, for my part, I think it is a very clever idea of mine."

"But how do you do it?" asked Tommy Smith, whilst he stooped down and wiped his hand on the grass.

"Why, I hardly know," said the grass-snake. "It comes naturally to me. Nobody can be cleaner or more well-behaved than I am, as long as I am treated properly. But when I am attacked, and my life is in danger, I do the only thing which I can do to protect myself. It is just as if you had a bottle of something which smelt so strongly that when you took out the cork and sprinkled it about, nobody could stay in the room. Now I have something which smells like that, only instead of keeping it in a bottle, I carry it under my skin, and when I want to use it, then, instead of taking out the cork, I just open my skin, and it comes out in little drops all over me."

"Open your skin?" said Tommy Smith. "Why, how do you do that?"

"I don't know < I>how  I do it," said the grass-snake, "but I do  do it."

"Well," Tommy Smith said, "however you do it, I think it is a very nasty habit. And besides, I shouldn't have caught hold of you if you hadn't told me that you had been eating frogs. I think it is very cruel of you to eat them. Why do you do it?"

"Why do I do it?" answered the grass-snake. "Why, because I feel hungry, to be sure. Why do you eat sheep, and oxen, and pigs, and ducks, and fowls, and turkeys?"

"Oh! but everybody eats them," said Tommy Smith.

"Every snake  eats frogs," said the grass-snake. "We were made to eat them, and the frogs were made for us to eat. That is my theory. It is a good one, I feel sure, for it explains the facts  and makes me  feel comfortable."

"But they are so useful," said Tommy Smith; "and they do so much good in the garden."

"I don't eat them all," said the grass-snake, "and I don't often go into gardens. Frogs and toads may be very useful, but perhaps if I didn't eat some of them there would be too many of them in the world, and then, instead of being useful, they would be a nuisance. You see, I don't eat them all. I leave just as many as are wanted, as long as you  don't kill them. But if you  were to kill them too, then there would be too few."

Tommy Smith thought a little, and then he said, "Are you obliged to eat them?"

"Of course I am," said the grass-snake, "just as much as you are obliged to eat beef and mutton. You would think it very hard if you were to be killed just for eating your dinner. Then why should you want to kill me for eating mine? No, no; take my advice, and learn this lesson. Never kill one animal for eating another animal."

Tommy Smith thought over this for a little, and it seemed to him to be right. "After all," he thought, "the frog and the toad eat insects, and if no animal might eat any other animal, then a great many animals would die of starvation, and that would be very dreadful." So he said to the grass-snake, "Well, Mr. Grass-Snake, I think you are right, and, if you come out of your bush, I will not try to catch you any more." So the grass-snake came wriggling out again, and then Tommy Smith asked him why he had brought the frogs out of his mouth after he had eaten them.

"It was because you frightened me," said the grass-snake. "You see, I wanted to get away, and, with three frogs inside me, I felt rather heavy. But as soon as the frogs were gone I was much lighter, and could go much quicker. Now don't you think it was a very  clever idea?"

"I don't think it was a very clean  idea," said Tommy Smith; "but as you were frightened, perhaps you couldn't help it. But now, Mr. Grass-Snake, are there any other clever things which you can do, and which are not quite so nasty? If there are, I should like to hear about them."

"I can lay eggs," said the grass-snake, "which is more than the adder can do."

"But can you really lay them?" said Tommy Smith; "and do you make a nest for them, like a bird?"

"No," said the grass-snake. "A bird makes a nest for her eggs because she has to sit on them, and she wants a nice, comfortable place to sit in. Now I don't sit on my eggs, for that is not at all necessary. I just find a nice, warm, moist place for them, and when I have laid them there, I go away and leave them. I have no time to sit on them like a bird. I am much too busy."

"But how are your eggs ever hatched?" said Tommy Smith.

"Oh," said the grass-snake, "I am so clever that I know the heat of the place where they lie will be enough to hatch them. So when they are once safely laid, I don't bother about them any more."

"Yes," said Tommy Smith; "but if you go away, who is there to look after the young snakes when they come out of the egg?"

"They look after themselves," said the grass-snake. "Birds are like little boys and girls. They are great babies, and want someone to take care of them whilst they are young. But we snakes are so clever that as soon as we come into the world we can take care of ourselves, and don't want anyone to help us."

"I should like to see some of your eggs," said Tommy Smith. "What are they like?"

"They are white," said the grass-snake, "and they are joined together in a long string, sometimes as many as sixteen or even twenty. So you may think how beautiful they look, like a necklace of very large pearls. Only they are not hard like pearls. Their shell is soft, and not at all like the shell of a bird's egg."

"I should  like to see them," said Tommy Smith.

"Well," said the grass-snake, "you must look about in manure-heaps, and then, perhaps, you will find some. That is the sort of place that I like to lay them in."

Tommy Smith thought that this was another nasty habit of the grass-snake, but he didn't like to say so, because he had said it twice before; so, after a little while, he said, "And do you really like being a snake, Mr. Grass-Snake?" You see he had to say something, and he didn't quite know what to say.

"Like it?" said the grass-snake. "Of course I do. I should be very sorry to be anything else. Yes, we snakes have a happy life. In summer we crawl about and eat frogs, and in winter we find some nice place to go to sleep in."

"Then do you sleep all the winter?" said Tommy Smith.

"Of course," said the grass-snake. "What else is there to do? There are no frogs in winter, and it is cold and unpleasant. The best thing is to go to sleep, and that is what I always do."

Now whilst Tommy Smith was talking to the grass-snake he kept looking at the poor dead frogs that were lying on the grass, and you can think how surprised he was when, all at once, one of them moved a little, and then began to crawl away very slowly. Then the others moved, and began to crawl away too. So they were not dead after all. You see, when a snake eats a frog (or anything else), he does not chew it, as we do, but just swallows it whole, and then sometimes the frog will keep alive for some time inside the snake's stomach. Tommy Smith spoke to the frogs, but they were too faint to answer. So he took them up, and washed them in a little ditch which was close by, and then laid them in a nice long tuft of grass. When he had done that, he came back to where he had left the grass-snake, but he did not find him there again. "Where are you?" he called out. "Do you mean me?" said a voice quite near him. It was a hissing voice, certainly, and sounded a good deal like the grass-snake's. But still it did not sound quite the same, Tommy Smith thought. So he said, "I mean you, if you are the grass-snake," in rather a doubtful tone of voice. "No, indeed," hissed the voice again, "I am something better than a grass-snake. I  am an adder." And as the adder said this, he came crawling out from a little clump of furze-bush, where he had lain hidden.

Tommy Smith saw that what the grass-snake had said was true, for the adder's body was shorter and of a duller colour than the grass-snake's. His head, too, was different. It was flatter, and swelled out more on each side where it joined the neck, so that the neck looked smaller in proportion to the size of the head. Altogether, Tommy Smith felt sure that the next time he went out for a walk and saw a snake, he would be able to tell whether it was a grass-snake or an adder. "And if it is an adder," he said to himself, "why, I ought to kill it." And then he said out loud, "Mr. Adder, you don't seem at all afraid of me; but, do you know, I think I ought to kill you, because you are poisonous."

"I  think you ought to leave me alone because I am poisonous," said the adder. "For if you were to try to kill me, I should have to bite you, and then, perhaps, I  should kill you." 

Tommy Smith did not like this remark of the adder's at all. He began to feel afraid himself, and he would have liked to have run away. But he thought that if he did, the adder might attack him when his back was turned. So he stood quite still, and only said, "Why aren't you harmless like the grass-snake?"

"That is not a very polite question!" said the adder in reply. "I  belong to the poisonous branch of the family, and I am proud to belong to it. The grass-snake is a poor creature, and I pity him. I should like to see anyone catch me  in the same way that they catch him. I would soon teach them the difference between us."

"But you do so much harm," said Tommy Smith.

"What harm have I ever done you?"  said the adder.

"You have not done me any harm," said Tommy Smith, "but that is because I have never seen you before now."

"You  may never have seen me,"  said the adder, "but I  have seen you  very often. Sometimes I have been quite near to where you were walking, but when I have heard you coming, I have just crawled out of the way, and let you go by without hurting you. Now don't you think that was very good of me? I should just like to know what you have to complain of."

"You have never hurt me, I know," said Tommy Smith. "But think how many people you do hurt."

"Do you know anybody that I have hurt?" asked the adder.

"No," answered Tommy Smith, "I don't know anybody; but I am sure you must have hurt a great many people, because you are poisonous."

"Well," said the adder, "I think you might walk about a long while asking people before you found anyone that I had done any harm to. I never interfere with people unless they interfere with me, so I think the best thing they can do is just to let me alone. It is true that my two front teeth are poisonous, and that I can kill some creatures by biting them. But these creatures are not men or women, but only mice or small birds or frogs. You know I have to eat them, so I may just as well kill them before I begin. The grass-snake eats his  frogs alive. That is much more cruel than if he killed them first, as I do."

"How do you kill them?" said Tommy Smith. "I suppose you sting them with your forked tongue, and then they die."

"Did you not hear me say that I bit them," said the adder; "and that I had two poisonous teeth? My tongue is not poisonous at all. There is no more harm in it than there is in yours."

"Oh! but, Mr. Adder," cried Tommy Smith, "do you know I once went to the Zoological Gardens in London, and I saw the snakes there, and whenever one of them put out his tongue, as you do yours, the people all said, "Look at its sting! Look at its sting!"

"That is only because they were ignorant people," said the adder, "and did not know any better. No; it is the two long teeth in my upper jaw that are poisonous, and, if you will just kneel down, I will open my mouth so that you can see them, and then I can explain all about it to you."

Tommy Smith didn't quite like the idea of kneeling down and putting his face close to the mouth of the adder. He had heard of men who put their heads inside a lion's mouth, and he thought that this would be almost as dangerous. However, the adder promised not to bite him, and as he said he never had  bitten a little boy in the whole of his life, and should not think of doing so without a proper reason, he thought he might trust him. So he knelt down and looked. Then the adder opened his mouth, and, as he did so, two little white things like fish-bones seemed to shoot forward into the front part of it. "Those are my two poison-fangs," he said. "When my mouth is shut, they lie back against my upper jaw, but as soon as I open it to bite anyone, they shoot forward so as to be in the right place." Tommy Smith looked at the teeth. They were as sharp as needles and almost as thin, but they were not straight like common needles, but curved backwards like crochet-needles. "What curious teeth!" he said.

"Perhaps they are more curious than you think," said the adder; "just look at the tips of them, and see if you notice anything."

Tommy Smith looked as the adder told him, and he was surprised to see a tiny little hole at the tip of each tooth. "Why, Mr. Adder," he said, "it seems to me as if your teeth are hollow and wanted stopping."

"They are  hollow," said the adder, "and I will tell you why. At the root of each of them I have a little bag which is full of poison. You cannot see it, of course, because it is hidden under the flesh of my upper jaw. But things which cannot be seen are very often felt. Now, when I bite an animal, these little bags open, and a drop or two of poison runs down each tooth where it is hollow, so that it goes into the flesh of that animal and mixes with its blood."

"And does that kill it?" asked Tommy Smith.

"Oh yes!" answered the adder; "because I only bite small animals. It would not kill a horse, or a sow, or even a pig, unless it was very young. But it kills field-mice, and shrew-mice, and things of that sort."

"But there is one thing, Mr. Adder, which I don't understand," said Tommy Smith. "I thought that one had to swallow poison for it to kill one. But you say that this poison of yours goes into the blood."

"I don't know anything about poisons that have to be swallowed," said the adder; "I only know about my  poison, and I use that in the way I have told you. My  poison must go into the blood. If you were only to swallow it, I daresay it would not hurt you at all."

"I should not like to try," Tommy Smith said. "But are you going?" for the adder had begun to crawl away.

"Yes," said the adder; "I am going now, for I have plenty to do. I should not have wasted my time like this, only I heard that poor creature, the grass-snake, talking about himself, so I thought I would just show you what a much more important animal I am than he."

"I think that you are rather conceited, Mr. Adder," said Tommy Smith. "The grass-snake is very clever. He can lay eggs, and he says that is more that you can do."

"I  should be ashamed to do such a thing," said the adder. "A young grass-snake requires  an egg, but a young adder knows how to do without one. We  can crawl as soon as we come into the world. As for my being conceited, perhaps I am, just a little. But that is natural. I can never  forget that I have poison  flowing in my veins. Now I will say good-bye, for I have plenty to do, and must not waste my time any longer."

"Good-bye, Mr. Adder," Tommy Smith called after him, for he thought he had better be friendly with such an animal. "I hope that you will never bite me." But the adder merely gave a contemptuous hiss, and was gone.

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