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THE FLOWER AND THE SERPENT
His escape from the horrible black animal made Martin quite happy,
in spite of hunger and fatigue, and he pushed on as bravely as ever.
But it was slow going and very difficult, even painful in places, on
account of the rough thorny undergrowth, where he had to push and
crawl through the close bushes, and tread on ground littered with old
dead prickly leaves and dead thorny twigs. After going on for about
an hour in this way, he came to a stream, a branch of the river he
had left, and much shallower, so that he could easily cross from
side to side, and he could also see the bright pebbles under the
clear swift current. The stream appeared to run from the east, the
way he wished to travel towards the hills, so that he could keep by
it, which he wras glad enough to do, as it was nice to get a drink
of water whenever he felt thirsty, and to refresh his tired and sore
little feet in the stream.
Following this water he came before very long to a place in the
forest where there was little or no underwood, but only low trees
and bushes scattered about, and all the ground moist and very green
and fresh like a water-meadow. It was indeed pleasant to feel his
feet on the soft carpet of grass, and stooping, he put his hands
down on it, and finally lying down he rolled on it so as to have the
nice sensation of the warm soft grass all over his body. So
agreeable was it lying and rolling about in that open green place
with the sweet sunshine on him, that he felt no inclination to get up
and travel on. It was so sweet to rest after all his strivings and
sufferings in that great dark forest! So sweet was it that he pretty
soon fell asleep, and no doubt slept a long time, for when he woke,
the sun, which had been over his head, was now far down in the west.
It was very still, and the air warm and fragrant at that hour, with
the sun shining through the higher branches of the trees on the
green turf where he was lying. How green it was--the grass, the trees,
every tiny blade and every leaf was like a piece of emerald green
glass with the sun shining through it! So wonderful did it seem to
him--the intense greenness, the brilliant sunbeams that shone into
his eyes, and seemed to fill him with brightness, and the stillness
of the forest, that he sat up and stared about him. What did it
mean--that brightness and stillness?
Then, at a little distance away, he caught sight of something on a
tree of a shining golden yellow colour. Jumping up he ran to the tree,
and found that it was half overgrown with a very beautiful climbing
plant, with leaves divided like the fingers of a hand, and large
flowers and fruit, both green and ripe. The ripe fruit was as big as
a duck's egg, and the same shape, and of a shining yellow colour.
Reaching up his hand he began to feel the smooth lovely fruit, when,
being very ripe, it came off its stem into his hand. It smelt very
nice, and then, in his hunger, he bit through the smooth rind with
his teeth, and it tasted as nice as it looked. He quickly ate it,
and then pulled another and ate that, and then another, and still
others, until he could eat no more. He had not had so delicious a
meal for many a long day.
Not until he had eaten his fill did Martin begin to look closely at
the flowers on the plant. It was the passion-flower, and he had
never seen it before, and now that he looked well at it he thought
it the loveliest and strangest flower he had ever beheld; not
brilliant and shining, jewel-like, in the sun, like the scarlet
verbena of the plains, or some yellow flower, but pale and misty,
the petals being of a dim greenish cream-colour, with a large blue
circle in the centre; and the blue, too, was misty like the blue
haze in the distance on a summer day. To see and admire it better he
reached out his hand and tried to pluck one of the flowers; then in
an instant he dropped his hand, as if he had been pricked by a thorn.
But there was no thorn and nothing to hurt him; he dropped his hand
only because he felt that he had hurt the flower. Moving a step back
he stared at it, and the flower seemed like a thing alive that
looked back at him, and asked him why he had hurt it.
"O, poor flower!" said Martin, and, coming closer he touched it
gently with his finger-tips; and then, standing on tiptoe, he
touched its petals with his lips, just as his mother had often and
often kissed his little hand when he had bruised it or pricked it
with a thorn.
Then, while still standing by the plant, on bringing his eyes down
to the ground he spied a great snake lying coiled up on a bed of
moss on the sunny side of the same tree where the plant was growing.
He remembered the dear little snake he had once made a friend of,
and he did not feel afraid, for he thought that all snakes must be
friendly towards him, although this was a very big one, thicker than
his arm and of a different colour. It was a pale olive-green, like
the half-dry moss it was lying on, with a pattern of black and brown
mottling along its back. It was lying coiled round and round, with
its flat arrow-shaped head resting on its coils, and its round
bright eyes fixed on Martin's face. The sun shining on its eyes made
them glint like polished jewels or pieces of glass, and when Martin
moved nearer and stood still, or when he drew back and went to this
side or that, those brilliant glinting eyes were still on his face,
and it began to trouble him, until at last he covered his face with
his hands. Then he opened his fingers enough to peep through them,
and still those glittering eyes were fixed on him.
Martin wondered if the snake was vexed with him for coming there,
and why it watched him so steadily with those shining eyes.
"Will you please look some other way?" he said at last, but the
snake would not, and so he turned from it, and then it seemed to him
that everything was alive and watching him in the same intent
way--the passion-flowers, the green leaves, the grass, the trees,
the wide sky, the great shining sun. He listened, and there was no
sound in the wood, not even the hum of a fly or wild bee, and it was
so still that not a leaf moved. Finally he moved away from that spot,
but treading very softly, and holding his breath to listen, for it
seemed to him that the forest had something to tell him, and that if
he listened he would hear the leaves speaking to him. And by-and-by
he did hear a sound: it came from a spot about a hundred yards away,
and was like the sound of a person crying. Then came low sobs which
rose and fell and then ceased, and after a silent interval began
again. Perhaps it was a child, lost there in the forest like himself.
Going softly to the spot he discovered that the sobbing sounds came
from the other side of a low tree with widespread branches, a kind
of acacia with thin loose foliage, but he could not see through it,
and so he went round the tree to look, and startled a dove which flew
off with a loud clatter of its wings.
When the dove had flown away it was again very silent. What was he
to do? He was too tired now to walk much farther, and the sun was
getting low, so that all the ground was in shadow. He went on a
little way looking for some nice shelter where he could pass the
night, but could not find one. At length, when the sun had set and
the dark was coming, he came upon an old half-dead tree, where there
was a hollow at the roots, lined with half dry moss, very soft to
his foot, and it seemed a nice place to sleep in. But he had no
choice, for he was afraid of going further in the dark among the
trees; and so, creeping into the hollow among the old roots, he
curled himself up as comfortably as he could, and soon began to get
very drowsy, in spite of having no covering to keep him warm. But
although very tired and sleepy, he did not go quite to sleep, for he
had never been all alone in a wood by night before, and it was
different from the open plain where he could see all round, even at
night, and where he had feared nothing. Here the trees looked strange
and made strange black shadows, and he thought that the strange
people of the wood were perhaps now roaming about and would find him
there. He did not want them to find him fast asleep; it was better
to be awake, so that when they came he could jump up and run away
and hide himself from them. Once or twice a slight rustling sound
made him start and think that at last some one was coming to him,
stealing softly so as to catch him unawares, but he could see
nothing moving, and when he held his breath to listen there was no
Then all at once, just when he had almost dropped off, a great cry
sounded at a distance, and made him start up wide awake again.
"O look! look! look!" cried the voice in a tone so deep and strange
and powerful that no one could have heard it without terror, for it
seemed to be uttered by some forest monster twenty times bigger than
an ordinary man. In a moment an answer came from another part of the
wood. "What's that?" cried the answering voice; and then another
voice cried, and then others far and near, all shouting "What's that?"
and for only answer the first voice shouted once more, "O look! look!
Poor Martin, trembling with fright, crouched lower down in his mossy
bed, thinking that the awful people of the forest must have seen him,
and would be upon him in a few moments. But though he stared with
wide-open eyes into the gloom he could see nothing but the trees,
standing silent and motionless, and no sound of approaching
footsteps could he hear.
After that it was silent again for a while, and he began to hope
that they had given up looking for him; when suddenly, close by,
sounded a loud startling "Who's that?" and he gave himself up for
lost. For he was too terrified to jump up and run away, as he had
thought to do: he could only lie still, his teeth chattering, his
hair standing up on his head. "Who's that?" exclaimed the terrible
voice once more, and then he saw a big black shape drop down from
the tree above and settle on a dead branch a few feet above his
hiding-place. It was a bird--a great owl, for now he could see it,
sharply outlined against the clear starry sky; and the bird had seen
and was peering curiously at him. And now all his fear was gone, for
he could not be afraid of an owl; he had been accustomed to see owls
all his life, only they were small, and this owl of the forest was
as big as an eagle, and had a round head and ears like a cat, and
great cat-like eyes that shone in the dark.
The owl kept staring at Martin for some time, swaying his body this
way and that, and lowering then raising his head so as to get a
better view. And Martin, on his side, stared back at the owl, and at
last he exclaimed, "O what a great big owl you are! Please say
_Who's that_? again."
But before the owl said anything Martin was fast asleep in his mossy
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