"She always does," was the placid answer. "See!"
Lady Margaret had made a bracelet of a snake and was holding out her arm. One by one she added the others while Mrs. Morris, having interposed her friend between her and the spectacle, controlled her nerves as best she could. "They are quite harmless, quite, I assure you," said Lady Margaret, making a reassuring gesture with her arm, on which it happened two snakes were coiled. "Now, look, my lads, I'll put this one back; he is a well-meaning snake but rather stupid. _This_ one I'll lay on the table."
Mrs. Morris rapidly retreated towards the fire, stepping on the hound's tail by the way, and naturally bringing out a deep growl which sent her back again.
Unconscious of her guest's alarm, Lady Margaret continued: "His name is Marcus Aurelius; I call him that after the great Roman emperor, because he is so sweet-tempered and intelligent. See what a humorous expression he has!" (And, in fact, the snake's tiny eyes and wide mouth had something the look of an ironical grin about them.) "Look! See him follow me about the table. He knows his friend--don't you, my pet? Now, Marcus, I'll put up my arm for a pole; make a monkey of yourself. Climb down, again. Now," tapping the table, "be a dead snake. Very good. Now, show them what you think of strangers." She motioned to Oscar; but he edged back behind Nora, muttering, "No, they are nasty!"
Then Nora stepped forward. Instantly the snake coiled itself up, hissing.
"Now, you," said Lady Margaret to Edmund.
"He won't be afraid of me," laughed Edmund, stretching forth his hand; "come, pet!"
And to Lady Margaret's surprise the snake came, twining about the boy's wrist as it was used to twine about hers. "Ah, you have my gift, my dear!" she cried, delighted.
She put the snake back in the box and excused herself for a moment.
The page brought in the tea-tray. In a moment Lady Margaret returned and made the tea, Mrs. Morris who had been looking on all this while in a kind of trance of horror, recovered enough, at these refreshing signs, to sink into a chair by a low table. She clutched her sister's arm--Nora sat next to her--and murmured, "Was there ever such an awful menagerie of a house?"
"Be quiet," whispered Nora.
"I can't be quiet! Those dreadful little monkey things are under the table, nibbling at my ankles, I shall _have_ to scream!"
"You can't scream. Don't disgrace your country. Lady Margaret will hear us, I much fear!"
"She's making tea at the other table. Besides, Mrs. Darrel and Eddy are talking to her, Nora. Are you sure that big dog is safe? Did you hear him growl? It was an awfully fierce-sounding growl! And, Nora, I _think_ one of the snakes is loose. There were six in the box and I can count only five--yes, Lady Margaret, the tea is quite right. It is delicious."
But though, in truth it was delicious, and though equally to be praised were the thin bread and butter, the Scotch shortbread from Edinburgh, and the English plum cake, Mrs. Morris never enjoyed a repast less. She spent her time making little sorties with her feet at the marmosets, which took it for play and returned to the attack with new zest; and she whispered to Nora that she was morally sure the sixth snake was crawling up her chair.
Nora, herself, was not at ease; nevertheless, her patriotic politeness conquered; she ate everything, looked at everything, praised everything. Lady Margaret found her "most agreeable."
Mrs. Darrel had seen the snakes too often to be disturbed, and Edmund was in his element. As for Oscar, he fell into sad disgrace--he kicked the marmosets. Lady Margaret was too kind to say anything; but Mrs. Morris did the subject justice all the way home. "At least you might have kicked them, quietly, under the table," said she; "but no, you do it sideways in full view of everyone!"
The next day the party journeyed on towards London. The sun shone brightly and the weather, which had been so abnormally cold as to require overcoats, or as the English term them, "top coats," grew warmer, so that there was nothing to mar enjoyment unless it were the lack of harmony between the two boys. This still continued. If there were times when Edmund felt his dislike yielding ever so slightly to Oscar's good humor and gay spirits, his pride and his contempt for his cousin stiffened it at once.
It was two days after their arrival in a quiet town near London where they were to stay a few days for rest at a picturesque old inn, that Mrs. Morris received a letter from Mrs. Darrel. She read it at the breakfast table. Before she was half down the first page she turned to Nora: "There! Didn't I tell you one of those snakes was gone? Listen to this: 'Poor Lady Margaret is in such distress over losing her pet snake, the one she called Marcus Aurelius. She thinks she didn't replace the cover of the box securely the day you were there, for she hasn't seen it since. She fears it crawled away and wandered into the village and was killed. Isn't she a dear old goose?'"
"Was it the little trick-snake?" said Oscar. "What a shame!"
Edmund said nothing; he was sorry for Lady Margaret and he was sorry for himself. The little Marcus Aurelius had made a deep impression on him; ever since he had been meditating the bold venture of writing to Lady Margaret asking her if she would sell or exchange that snake.
He kept thinking of the matter all the morning, wondering what had become of Marcus. In the afternoon, he was to drive with his Aunt Nora. While he was dressing, Celeste, the maid, brought him his overcoat. Madame desired him to wear it, as he had a cold. "Very well," said Edmund, obliging as usual. Approaching to put the coat on, a little later, he stopped short. Surely the wind didn't cause that singular flutter in the cloth! Then the flap moved. "Come out!" cried Edmund.
As though in response to his invitation a small head erected itself from the pocket, a small green head with glittering eyes, a head which had an indescribably droll and Waggish air--the head, in short, of the lost Marcus Aurelius. The intelligent reptile immediately crawled out. He wound himself about the hand Edmund held to him, curled under the boy's sleeve, nestled under his sleeve with manifest pleasure at renewing the acquaintance.
It was plain enough to Edmund how it had happened. The intelligent Marcus crawling into the hall had spied the pocket of Edmund's coat and coolly entered. Once there, he had gone to sleep and the unsuspecting Celeste had rolled the coat up in a strap not to undo it until now. "So here you are, you beauty," said Edmund, "and I'll take good care of you while you are mine; I only wish you could be mine forever!"
There was a candy-box on the table with a glass cover. Of this he hastily made a prison, then sallied out to find his captive some mice. They were not the easiest thing in the world to get, requiring considerable seeking and talking. He did not venture to tell why he wanted mice; and he overheard the housekeeper grumble: "Most extraordinary boys, those Americans! Do you expect he wants to _cat_ them?"
By this time Nora was ready; he had hardly replaced the snake in the box before he heard her knock at the door. It was a charming day and drive, yet I fear he saw little of the scenery. Alas, that it must be confessed, a wicked thought had crept into his brain. He coveted Lady Margaret's snake. He coveted it so ardently that he began to imagine how easy it would be for him to keep it. There was a man in London who sold snakes. Edmund had been up buying some snakes from him which the man was to keep until he should want them. What more easy than to send Marcus Aurelius to this saurian boarding-house? Ah, what an ugly temptation for Edmund who had been called a good boy from his cradle. He would have no more of it. But it came back again and finally, when he reached the inn, he had almost decided to keep the snake. "Anyhow I'll take it to Tomlin's"
(Tomlin was the snake man), he said to himself; "there's no hurry."
Yet in his secret soul he knew that once taken to Tomlin's, Marcus Aurelius would never return to Lady Margaret. Thus thinking, he went toward the box. The snake was gone! Yes, gone, vanished absolutely, leaving no trace either in the box or in the room.
Vainly and long Edmund searched; either the cover had not fitted exactly, or Marcus, the intelligent Marcus, had managed to remove it; in either case he had evidently set off anew on his travels.
Edmund began to feel he had been a wicked boy. He stood in the centre of the room, trying to collect his wits. Oscar's room adjoined his; he could hear Oscar moving about, whistling out of tune. Should he go in and search there? Standing irresolute, he heard a loud cry from his cousin. "Sloped! gone!" Then followed a muffled sound which Edmund rightly interpreted to be Oscar poking under the bed with an umbrella; and, then, came a thundering rap on the door. "Say, Ned," called Oscar, entering immediately, "I'm in an awful scrape! Your snake's gone!"
"My snake," repeated Edmund, feebly.
"Yes; the one you bought to-day. I saw it in the glass box on your table."
Edmund remembered that he had left the box in full view when he went for mice. His face grew red. "Did you let it out?" said he.
"Of course I didn't," Oscar answered. "Did you think I'd do such a thing? I opened the door to speak to you and I saw it on the table and I remembered you'd been talking of buying some snakes, so I knew it was yours. I didn't go into the room at all, but this afternoon when I came into my own room, Ned, its little green head was sticking out of my overcoat pocket--ugh! I pretty near put my hand on it! I'd have called you, but you'd gone, and it wasn't any use calling Aunt Nellie--she'd just jump on the bed and scream; so I didn't know what to do, for I can't handle those things like you, Ned, so I pushed its head down with my tooth brush and pinned up the pocket with my scarf pin. Then I waited a while for you, and I thought it had gone into a torpid condition like you read of, and Jack Dale came for me to go to see a Punch-and-Judy and when I got back the little deceitful beggar had cleared out! I'm awful sorry, Ned."
Edmund from red, had turned pale; he did not lift his eyes from the floor; he was feeling more ashamed of himself than he had ever thought to feel in his life. Poor blundering Oscar whom he had despised had conquered his horror of snakes to do a service to a boy who had never given him a pleasant word; while he--_he_ had tried to steal Lady Margaret's pet! Now Oscar was avowing his carelessness without a thought of concealment, while he could not summon courage to tell the truth.
"It may be in the rooms somewhere," he managed to say finally; "and never mind, Oscar, you did your best to keep him."
"I'm awful sorry, I am, for a fact," said Oscar; "but of course it's my fault. You're good not to row me, Ned!"
"Don't!" said Edmund quickly.
"Why"--began Oscar; but his words were drowned by a tumult that suddenly arose outside; shrieks, voices, a great trampling of feet.
"They've found Marcus! They're killing him!" cried Oscar.
Both boys flew out of the room. "Don't kill him!" called Edmund.
"He is our snake!" shouted Oscar.
People opened doors in all directions as the boys raced past. One timid woman put her head out of her window, screaming, "Police!"
until quite a small army of blue-coated fellows had assembled.
Another of bolder stamp thought the hotel was on fire and rushed to the rescue with her water jug.
"Don't kill him!" Oscar and Edmund kept crying, a cry not calculated to reassure the nervous. Down the hall dashed the boys.
At the far end an agitated group, variously armed with canes, brooms and umbrellas, was gathered about a fainting chambermaid supported in the arms of a waiter and fanned by another chambermaid with a brush broom. Just behind her stood the head waiter in his immaculate dress suit, disgust painted on his countenance and a dustpan held aloft in his hand.
Something very like a groan burst from Edmund's lips; for, there, on the dustpan, his gleaming length trailing limply over the edges, bruised, battered, crushed, lay poor little dead Marcus Aurelius.
Thus tragically had all his travels ended.
"It's our snake!" cried Oscar, making a spring and snatching the dustpan from the man's hand. Without another word he darted off at full speed. He did not hear the head waiter's dignified reproof: "Young gentlemen as keeps snakes for pets better keep 'em safe 'ome, in _my_ opinion;" or one of the women's speeches: "I expect he have got a baby tiger hid somewhere; them American children will do anythink!"
But Edmund heard. Too dejected to retort, he crawled back to his room. This was the end of it, then. The poor pet must die because of his wicked wishes. He knew only too well that it was his haste to hide the snake lest his aunt should see it, that had displaced the cover. Had he spoken up like an honest boy he could have taken time to be careful and poor Marcus would still be rejoicing in the sun. He did not dare to lift his eyes as he entered the room; he was afraid to look again on that pitiful spectacle of his making.
Oscar had laid a newspaper on the bed and placed the dustpan on it and now was looking mournfully down at Marcus. "'Tain't no use," he muttered, "head's smashed. It's an awful shame! Don't see how it got out of the room--I shut the door tight. Wish I'd locked it!
Guess Aunt Nellie'll be vexed when she finds I've lost Ned's snake.
Well, she's vexed about something most of the time, so it can't be helped!" Then, for the first time seeing Edmund's miserable face, he tried to comfort him. "It's lucky you didn't have him long, Ned, so you hadn't got fond of him. And I'll buy you another"--
Edmund lifted his head. Though Oscar did not guess it, in those last few moments he had fought; a bitter fight with himself. He interrupted his cousin: "The snake isn't mine. I didn't buy it.
It's Lady Margaret Vincent's." He went on to tell of his finding the snake.