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It was in the afternoon of a beautiful summer day, and Mr. Munchausen had come up from the simmering city of Cimmeria to spend a day or two with Diavolo and Angelica and their venerable parents. They had all had dinner, and were now out on the back piazza overlooking the magnificent river Styx, which flowed from the mountains to the sea, condescending on its way thither to look in upon countless insignificant towns which had grown up on its banks, among which was the one in which Diavolo and Angelica had been born and lived all their lives. Mr. Munchausen was lying comfortably in a hammock, collecting his thoughts.
Angelica was somewhat depressed, but Diavolo was jubilant and all because in the course of a walk they had had that morning Diavolo had killed a snake.
"It was fine sport," said Diavolo. "He was lying there in the sun, and I took a stick and put him out of his misery in two minutes."
Here Diavolo illustrated the process by whacking the Baron over his waist-coat with a small malacca stick he carried.
"Well, I didn't like it," said Angelica. "I don't care for snakes, but somehow or other it seems to me we'd ought to have left him alone. He wasn't hurting anybody off there. If he'd come walking on our place, that would have been one thing, but we went walking where he was, and he had as much right to take a sun-bath there as we had."
"That's true enough," put in Mr. Munchausen, resolved after Diavolo's whack, to side against him. "You've just about hit it, Angelica. It wasn't polite of you in the first place, to disturb his snakeship in his nap, and having done so, I can't see why Diavolo wanted to kill him."
"Oh, pshaw!" said Diavolo, airily. "What's snakes good for except to kill? I'll kill 'em every chance I get. They aren't any good."
"All right," said Mr. Munchausen, quietly. "I suppose you know all about it; but I know a thing or two about snakes myself that do not exactly agree with what you say. They are some good sometimes, and, as a matter of fact, as a general rule, they are less apt to attack you without reason than you are to attack them. A snake is rather inclined to mind its own business unless he finds it necessary to do otherwise. Occasionally too you'll find a snake with a truly amiable character. I'll never forget my old pet Wriggletto, for instance, and as long as I remember him I can't help having a warm corner for snakes in my heart."
Here Mr. Munchausen paused and puffed thoughtfully on his cigar as a far-away half-affectionate look came into his eye.
"Who was Wriggletto?" asked Diavolo, transferring a half dollar from Mr. Munchausen's pocket to his own.
"Who was he?" cried Mr. Munchausen. "You don't mean to say that I have never told you about Wriggletto, my pet boa-constrictor, do you?"
"You never told me," said Angelica. "But I'm not everybody. Maybe you've told some other little Imps."
"No, indeed!" said Mr. Munchausen. "You two are the only little Imps I tell stories to, and as far as I am concerned, while I admit you are not everybody you are somebody and that's more than everybody is. Wriggletto was a boa-constrictor I once knew in South America, and he was without exception, the most remarkable bit of a serpent I ever met. Genial, kind, intelligent, grateful and useful, and, after I'd had him a year or two, wonderfully well educated. He could write with himself as well as you or I can with a pen. There's a recommendation for you. Few men are all that — and few boa-constrictors either, as far as that goes. I admit Wriggletto was an exception to the general run of serpents, but he was all that I claim for him, nevertheless."
"What kind of a snake did you say he was?" asked Diavolo.
"A boa-constrictor," said Mr. Munchausen, "and I knew him from his childhood. I first encountered Wriggletto about ten miles out of Para on the river Amazon. He was being swallowed by a larger boa-constrictor, and I saved his life by catching hold of his tail and pulling him out just as the other was getting ready to give the last gulp which would have taken Wriggletto in completely, and placed him beyond all hope of ever being saved."
"What was the other boa doing while you were saving Wriggletto?" asked Diavolo, who was fond always of hearing both sides to every question, and whose father, therefore, hoped he might some day grow up to be a great judge, or at least serve with distinction upon a jury.
"He couldn't do anything," returned Mr. Munchausen. "He was powerless as long as Wriggletto's head stuck in his throat and just before I got the smaller snake extracted I killed the other one by cutting off his tail behind his ears. It was not a very dangerous rescue on my part as long as Wriggletto was likely to be grateful. I must confess for a minute I was afraid he might not comprehend all I had done for him, and it was just possible he might attack me, but the hug he gave me when he found himself free once more was reassuring. He wound himself gracefully around my body, squeezed me gently and then slid off into the road again, as much as to say 'Thank you, sir. You're a brick.' After that there was nothing Wriggletto would not do for me. He followed me everywhere I went from that time on. He seemed to learn all in an instant that there were hundreds of little things to be done about the house of an old bachelor like myself which a willing serpent could do, and he made it his business to do those things: like picking up my collars from the floor, and finding my studs for me when they rolled under the bureau, and a thousand and one other little services of a like nature, and when you, Master Diavolo, try in future to say that snakes are only good to kill and are of no use to any one, you must at least make an exception in favour of Wriggletto."
"I will," said Diavolo, "But you haven't told us of the other useful things he did for you yet."
"I was about to do so," said Mr. Munchausen. "In the first place, before he learned how to do little things about the house for me, Wriggletto acted as a watch-dog and you may be sure that nobody ever ventured to prowl around my house at night while Wriggletto slept out on the lawn. Para was quite full of conscienceless fellows, too, at that time, any one of whom would have been glad to have a chance to relieve me of my belongings if they could get by my watch-snake. Two of them tried it one dark stormy night, and Wriggletto when he discovered them climbing in at my window, crawled up behind them and winding his tail about them crept down to the banks of the Amazon, dragging them after him. There he tossed them into the river, and came back to his post once more."
"Did you see him do it, Uncle Munch?" asked Angelica.
"No, I did not. I learned of it afterwards. Wriggletto himself said never a word. He was too modest for that," said Mr. Munchausen. "One of the robbers wrote a letter to the Para newspapers about it, complaining that any one should be allowed to keep a reptile like that around, and suggested that anyhow people using snakes in place of dogs should be compelled to license them, and put up a sign at their gates:
"The man never acknowledged, of course, that he was the robber, — said that he was calling on business when the thing happened, — but he didn't say what his business was, but I knew better, and later on the other robber and he fell out, and they confessed that the business they had come on was to take away a few thousand gold coins of the realm which I was known to have in the house locked in a steel chest.
"I bought Wriggletto a handsome silver collar after that, and it was generally understood that he was the guardian of my place, and robbers bothered me no more. Then he was finer than a cat for rats. On very hot days he would go off into the cellar, where it was cool, and lie there with his mouth wide open and his eyes shut, and catch rats by the dozens. They'd run around in the dark, and the first thing they'd know they'd stumble into Wriggletto's mouth; and he swallowed them and licked his chops afterwards, just as you or I do when we've swallowed a fine luscious oyster or a clam.
"But pleasantest of all the things Wriggletto did for me — and he was untiring in his attentions in that way — was keeping me cool on hot summer nights. Para as you may have heard is a pretty hot place at best, lying in a tropical region as it does, but sometimes it is awful for a man used to the Northern climate, as I was. The act of fanning one's self, so far from cooling one off, makes one hotter than ever. Maybe you remember how it was with the elephant in the poem:
"'Oh my, oh dear!' the elephant said,
'It is so awful hot!
I've fanned myself for seventy weeks,
And haven't cooled a jot.'
"And that was the way it was with me in Para on hot nights. I'd fan and fan and fan, but I couldn't get cool until Wriggletto became a member of my family, and then I was all right. He used to wind his tail about a huge palm-leaf fan I had cut in the forest, so large that I couldn't possibly handle it myself, and he'd wave it to and fro by the hour, with the result that my house was always the breeziest place in Para."
"Where is Wriggletto now?" asked Diavolo.
"Heigho!" sighed Mr. Munchausen. "He died, poor fellow, and all because of that silver collar I gave him. He tried to swallow a jibola that entered my house one night on wickedness intent, and while Wriggletto's throat was large enough when he stretched it to take down three jibolas, with a collar on which wouldn't stretch he couldn't swallow one. He didn't know that, unfortunately, and he kept on trying until the jibola got a quarter way down and then he stuck. Each swallow, of course, made the collar fit more tightly and finally poor Wriggletto choked himself to death. I felt so badly about it that I left Para within a month, but meanwhile I had a suit of clothes made out of Wriggletto's skin, and wore it for years, and then, when the clothes began to look worn, I had the skin re-tanned and made over into shoes and slippers. So you see that even after death he was useful to me. He was a faithful snake, and that is why when I hear people running down all snakes I tell the story of Wriggletto."
"He used to wind his tail about a fan and he'd wave it to and fro by the hour."
There was a pause for a few moments, when Diavolo said, "Uncle Munch, is that a true story you've been giving us?"
"True?" cried Mr. Munchausen. "True? Why, my dear boy, what a question! If you don't believe it, bring me your atlas, and I'll show you just where Para is."
Diavolo did as he was told, and sure enough, Mr. Munchausen did exactly as he said he would, which Diavolo thought was very remarkable, but he still was not satisfied.
"You said he could write as well with himself as you or I could with a pen, Uncle Munch," he said. "How was that?"
"Why that was simple enough," explained Mr. Munchausen. "You see he was very black, and thirty-nine feet long and remarkably supple and slender. After a year of hard study he learned to bunch himself into letters, and if he wanted to say anything to me he'd simply form himself into a written sentence. Indeed his favourite attitude when in repose showed his wonderful gift in chirography as well as his affection for me. If you will get me a card I will prove it."
Diavolo brought Mr. Munchausen the card and upon it he drew the following:
A snake in the form of 'Uncle Munch'
"There," said Mr. Munchausen. "That's the way Wriggletto always used to lie when he was at rest. His love for me was very affecting."