THE SNAKE AND THE BELL
by Louis Becke
When I was a child of eight years of age, a curious incident occurred in the house in which our family lived. The locality was Mosman’s Bay, one of the many picturesque indentations of the beautiful harbour of Sydney. In those days the houses were few and far apart, and our own dwelling was surrounded on all sides by the usual monotonous-hued Australian forest of iron barks and spotted gums, traversed here and there by tracks seldom used, as the house was far back from the main road, leading from the suburb of St. Leonards to Middle Harbour. The building itself was in the form of a quadrangle enclosing a courtyard, on to which nearly all the rooms opened; each room having a bell over the door, the wires running all round the square, while the front-door bell, which was an extra large affair, hung in the hall, the “pull” being one of the old-fashioned kind, an iron sliding-rod suspended from the outer wall plate, where it connected with the wire.
One cold and windy evening about eight o’clock, my mother, my sisters, and myself were sitting in the dining-room awaiting the arrival of my brothers from Sydney—they attended school there, and rowed or sailed the six miles to and fro every day, generally returning home by dusk. On this particular evening, however, they were late, on account of the wind blowing rather freshly from the north-east; but presently we heard the front-door bell ring gently.
“Here they are at last,” said my mother; “but how silly of them to go to the front door on such a windy night, tormenting boys!”
Julia, the servant, candle in hand, went along the lengthy passage, and opened the door. No one was there! She came back to the dining-room smiling—”Masther Edward is afther playin’ wan av his thricks, ma’am——” she began, when the bell again rang—this time vigorously. My eldest sister threw down the book she was reading, and with an impatient exclamation herself went to the door, opened it quickly, and said sharply as she pulled it inwards—
“Come in at once, you stupid things!” There was no answer, and she stepped outside on the verandah. No one was visible, and again the big bell in the hall rang!
She shut the door angrily and returned to her seat, just as the bell gave a curious, faint tinkle as if the tongue had been moved ever so gently.
“Don’t take any notice of them,” said my mother, “they will soon get tired of playing such silly pranks, and be eager for their supper.”
Presently the bell gave out three clear strokes. We looked at each other and smiled. Five minutes passed, and then came eight or ten gentle strokes in quick succession.
“Let us catch them,” said my mother, rising, and holding her finger up to us to preserve silence, as she stepped softly along the hall, we following on tiptoe.
Softly turning the handle, she suddenly threw the door wide open, just as the bell gave another jangle. Not a soul was visible!
My mother—one of the most placid-tempered women who ever breathed, now became annoyed, and stepping out on the verandah, addressed herself to the darkness—
“Come inside at once, boys, or I shall be very angry. I know perfectly well what you have done; you have tied a string to the bell wires, and are pulling it. If you don’t desist you shall have no supper.”
No answer—except from the hall bell, which gave another half-hearted tinkle.
“Bring a candle and the step-ladder, Julia,” said our now thoroughly exasperated parent, “and we shall see what these foolish boys have done to the bell-wire.”
Julia brought the ladder; my eldest sister mounted it, and began to examine the bell. She could see nothing unusual, no string or wire, and as she descended, the bell swayed and gave one faint stroke!
We all returned to the sitting room, and had scarcely been there five minutes when we heard my three brothers coming in, in their usual way, by the back door. They tramped into the sitting room, noisy, dirty, wet with spray, and hungry, and demanded supper in a loud and collected voice. My mother looked at them with a severe aspect, and said they deserved none.
“Why, mum, what’s the matter?” said Ted; “what have we been doing now, or what have we not done, that we don’t deserve any supper, after pulling for two hours from Circular Quay, against a howling, black north-easter?”
“You know perfectly well what I mean. It is most inconsiderate of you to play such silly tricks upon us.”
Ted gazed at her in genuine astonishment. “Silly tricks, mother! What silly tricks?” (Julia crossed herself, and trembled visibly as the bell again rang.)
My mother, at once satisfied that Ted and my other brothers really knew nothing of the mysterious bell-ringing, quickly explained the cause of her anger.
“Let us go and see if we can find out,” said Ted. “You two boys, and you, Julia, get all the stable lanterns, light them, and we’ll start out together—two on one side of the house and two on the other. Some one must be up to a trick!”
Julia, who was a huge, raw-boned Irish girl, as strong as a working bullock, but not so graceful, again crossed herself, and began to weep.
“What’s the matter with you?” said Ted angrily.
“Shure, an’ there was tirrible murders committed here in the ould convict days,” she whimpered. “The polace sargint’s wife at Sint Leonards tould me all about it. There was three souldiers murdered down beyant on the beach, by some convicts, whin they was atin’ their supper, an’ there’s people near about now that saw all the blood and——”
“Stop it, you great lumbering idiot!” shouted Ted, as my eldest sister began to laugh hysterically, and the youngest, made a terrified dart to mother’s skirts.
Ted’s angry voice and threatening visage silenced Julia for the moment, and she tremblingly went towards the door to obey his orders when the bell gave out such a vigorous and sustained peal that she sank down in a colossal heap on the floor, and then went into violent hysterics. (I assure my readers that I am not exaggerating matters in the slightest.)
My mother, who was a thoroughly sensible woman, pushed the whole brood of us out of the room, came after us, shut the door and locked it. She knew the proper treatment for hysterics.
“Let her stay there, boys,” she said quietly, “she will hurt the furniture more than herself, the ridiculous creature. Now, Ted, you and your brothers get the lanterns, and the little ones and myself will go into the kitchen.”
We ran out into the stables, lit three lanterns, and my next eldest brother and myself, feeling horribly frightened, but impelled to show some courage by Ted’s awful threats of what he would do to us if we “funked,” told us to go round the house, beginning from the left, and meet him at the hall door, he going round from the right.
With shaking limbs and gasping breath we made our portion of the circuit, sticking close to each other, and carefully avoiding looking at anything as we hurried over the lawn, our only anxiety being to meet Ted as quickly as possible and then get inside again. We arrived on the verandah, and in front of the hall-door, quite five minutes before Ted appeared.
“Well, did you see anything?” he asked, as he walked up the steps, lantern in hand.
“Nothing,” we answered, edging up towards the door.
Ted looked at us contemptuously. “You miserable little curs! What are you so frightened of? You’re no better than a pack of women and kids. It’s the wind that has made the bell ring, or, if it’s not the wind, it is something else which I don’t know anything about; but I want my supper. Pull the bell, one of you.”
Elated at so soon escaping from the horrors of the night, we seized the handle of the bell-pull, and gave it a vigorous tug.
“It’s stuck, Ted. It won’t pull down,” we said.
“Granny!” said the big brother, “you’re too funky to give it a proper pull,” and pushing us aside, he grasped the pendant handle and gave a sharp pull. There was no answering sound.
“It certainly is stuck,” admitted Ted, raising his lantern so as to get a look upwards, then he gave a yell.
“Oh! look there!”
We looked up, and saw the writhing twisting, coils of a huge carpet snake, which had wound its body round and round the bell-wire on top of the wall plate. Its head was downwards, and it did not seem at all alarmed at our presence, but went on wriggling and twisting and squirming with much apparent cheerfulness.
Ted ran back to the stables, and returned in a few seconds with a clothes-prop, with which he dealt the disturber of our peace a few rapid, but vigorous, blows, breaking its spine in several places. Then the step-ladder was brought out, and Ted, seizing the reptile by the tail, uncoiled it with some difficulty from the wire, and threw it down upon the verandah.
It was over nine feet in length, and very fat, and had caused all the disturbance by endeavouring to denude itself of its old skin by dragging its body between the bell-wire and the top of the wall. When Ted killed it the poor harmless creature had almost accomplished its object.