CHAPTER XXXI THE VIPER AND THE SCORPION
“YOU just said,” interposed Emile, “the bite of the viper, and not the sting. Then serpents bite, and do not sting. I thought it was just the other way. I have always heard they had a sting. Last Thursday lame Louis, who is not afraid of anything, caught a serpent in a hole of the old wall. He had two comrades with him. They bound the creature round the neck with a rush. I was passing, and they, called me. The serpent was darting from its mouth something black, pointed, flexible, which came and went rapidly. I thought it was the sting and was much afraid of it. Louis laughed. He said what I took for a sting was the serpent’s tongue; and to prove it to me, he put his hand near it.”
“Louis was right,” replied Uncle Paul. “All serpents dart a very flexible, forked, black filament between their lips with great swiftness.
For many purposes it is the reptile’s weapon, or dart; but in reality this filament is nothing but the tongue, a quite inoffensive tongue, which the creature uses to catch insects and to express in its peculiar manner the passions that agitate it by darting it quickly from between the lips. All serpents, without any exception, have one; but in our countries the viper alone possesses the terrible venomous apparatus.
“This apparatus is composed, first, of two hooks, or teeth, long and pointed, placed in the upper jaw. At the will of the creature they stand up erect for the attack or lie down in a groove of the gum, and hold themselves there as inoffensive as a stiletto in its sheath. In that way the reptile runs no danger of wounding itself. These fangs are hollow and pierced toward the point by a small opening through which the venom is injected into the wound. Finally, at the base of each fang is a little pocket full of venomous liquid. It is an innocent-looking humor, odorless, tasteless; one would almost think it was water. When the viper strikes with its fangs, the venomous pocket drives a drop of its contents into the canal of the tooth, and the terrible liquid is instilled into the wound.
“By preference the viper inhabits warm and rocky hills; it keeps under stones and thickets of brush. It is brown or reddish in color. On the back it has a somber zigzag band, and on each side a row of spots. Its stomach is slate-gray. Its head is a little triangular, larger than the neck, obtuse and as if cut off in front. The viper is timid and fearful; it attacks man only in self-defense. Its movements are brusk, irregular, and sluggish.
“The other serpents of our countries, serpents designated by the general name of snakes, have not the venomous fangs of the viper. Their bite therefore is not of importance, and the repugnance they inspire in us is really groundless.
“Next to the viper there is in France no venomous creature more to be feared than the scorpion.
It is very ugly and walks on eight feet. In front it has two pincers like those of the crayfish,
and behind a knotty, curled tail ending in a sting. The pincers are inoffensive, despite their menacing aspect; it is the sting with which the end of the tail is armed that is venomous. The scorpion makes use of it in self-defense and to kill the insects on which it feeds. In the southern departments of France are found two different kinds of scorpions. One, of a greenish black, frequents dark and cool places and even establishes itself in houses. It leaves its retreat only at night. It can be seen then running on the damp and cracked walls, seeking wood-lice and spiders, its customary prey. The other, much larger, is pale yellow. It keeps under warm and sandy stones. The black scorpion’s sting does not cause serious injury; that of the yellow may be mortal. When one of these creatures is irritated, a little drop of liquid can be seen forming into a pearl at the extremity of the sting, which is all ready to strike. It is the drop of venom that the scorpion injects into the wound.
“There are many other important things I could tell you about the venomous creatures of foreign countries, about divers serpents whose bite causes a dreadful death; but I hear Mother Ambroisine calling us to dinner. Let us go over rapidly what I have just told you. No creature, however ugly it may be, shoots venom or can do us any harm from a distance. All venomous species act in the same way: with a special weapon a slight wound is made; and into this wound a drop of venom is introduced. The wound, by itself, is nothing; it is the injected liquid that makes it painful and sometimes mortal. The venomous weapon serves the creature for hunting and for defense. It is placed in a part of the body that varies according to the species. Spiders have a double fang folded at the entrance of the mouth; bees, wasps, hornets, bumble-bees, have a sting at the end of the stomach and kept invisible in its sheath when in repose; the viper and all venomous serpents have two long hollowed-out teeth on the upper jaw; the scorpion carries a sting at the end of its tail.”
“I am very sorry,” said Jules, “that Jacques did not hear your account of venomous creatures; he would have understood that caterpillars’ green entrails are not venom. I will tell him all these things; and if I find another beautiful sphinx caterpillar I will not crush it.”