The Post Office and the Serpent
BY A. E. COPPARD.
T WALKED into the post office at the foot of the 1 mountain to buy a stamp. The mountain was no grand height, but it was long and boggy and got in the way of everything in that part of the county Clare. On the top of it, when the weather was kind, you could sniff the Atlantic and observe the Isles of Aran taking their ease in the sea like three great whales (so I heard), but on this day, and it was a kind day too, here was I at the foot of it, and the only other thing in sight was this post office looking as lonely as a seamark. For a post office it had no grand dignities : it was a kitchen with a pan of dough by the fire, a lean cat, and a steamer picture belauding the properties of Australia.
" Could I have two shillings' worth of stamps ? "
The old postmistress was flushed and husky ; she said " You can " with a smile of bright welcome, " 0 you can." So I got the stamps, and as she took the money she went on : " It is a big order, sir ; if there were many like you, it would be better for the post office."
" Don't they write letters hereabout then ? " I asked her.
" Oh, they do," she said, "but the postboy does, be selling them his stamps when he delivers the post. It's no profit to him at all and if he would let me have the chance of selling them it would be to the benefit of the post office. Sure, he's nothing but a bag and a bicycle, but, Holy Mary I if I make the little complaint to him he looks at me with a despicable appearance and rushes off on his bicycle like a great snake—may the bounty of God never overtake him ! "
" What a pity ! " said I, " and hardly anyone here to buy them anyway."
"Oh, there is," the postmistress explained, "but there's a great wantage of money for the circulation. Thank you for your custom, Sir ; you'll be coming this way again ? "
" Maybe I will, but I don't know," I answered. " I'm just taking a step now up to the top of the mountain."
She gazed rather queerly at me : " Why would you be doing that ? "
" I've nothing else to do," said I, " it's a fine evening and I think I'll take the walk."
" Ah; well," the old dame sighed, " you'll be getting over some ground anyway. But I'd not go near the lake that's hanging out of it." Now it was mostly because of this lake that I'd a mind to visit the mountain at all, so I asked her what was the matter with it. Confused she was for a moment, and cautious ; then she let on there was nothing the matter with it, but maybe there was a sort of serpent in it.
" Ah, go on with you I " I said. " St. Patrick drore all that kind out of Ireland, didn't he now ? "
" He did, Sir, he did, Sir, he did, and the country is no ways fertile in the production of serpent's food, thanks be to God, but this one was put in the lake before the time of the Fenians, and St. Patrick, Sir, he couldn't draw it out."
" Have you ever seen it ? "
" 0 God Almighty, Sir, I wouldn't know if I saw it dead or alive. And I've never set foot on that mountain, not that I'm frightened of a thing, but God knows my heart gives me a deal of trouble. Maybe it's only an old tale (though there's much truth in them, too), and it was Cocksey Lermont told me, the poor tinker, he hadn't even a shelter for the sole of his foot, but a friendly man who'd listen awhile to you with great laughs on him. The lies I told him There was a grand king had a baby son that nothing could sate or satisfy. Before it was a month old they'd have him stuffed with meat, but he'd be starving, and he'd crawl into the haggard and consume the geese for his meal. It was in prophecies that this very child would destroy the world when he 'grew up, and it looked as if he'd begun that in his cradle, going into fields and choking a pair of asses or swallowing flocks of sheep till the country was bare as the back of your heel. Och, hold him—everybody cried—or he'll devour the world and the county Clare with it ! So a crafty captain played a trick on him and changed him into a serpent and threw him in the lake up there. I have him drilled now, he said, though, of course, he could never break the prophecy for him to destroy the world when his time was come, but he put a penance on him not to come out of the lake until the day before the day of judgment, and that was a very good trick, Sir, because then he'll have but the one day to do his deadly damage in."
I said I must go up that mountain.
" Well, go straight on, Sir, don't divulge to the right or left, and may his venom never splash your shadow."
I went on and on up to the top of the mountain, over bog, heather, furze and scattering stones, until I could see beyond the vale and the straight roads ; I could see the far sea and the three isles afloat under the falling sun. In time, I came to a dark lake lying in a collar of rocks ; sublime and peaceful it was, without sound, without companionship, almost without life, though the breath of eternity seemed to brush its bosom ; alone, and lost, and yet for ever cherished. A few lilies were white in its black water, and a pile of green reeds were curved as if some weariness of time had bowed them. Aloof in the mute gloom I sat upon a rock. There was a long, long silence. Then a milky mist began to twirl up from the lake, not in the way of nature but urgently as though it had a desperate purpose. Fearful and silent it poured above the peak of the mountain until it reared the likeness of a vast snake's head, pale as wax, with hideous crystal eyes, the wide mouth toothed and fanged. Yet it had the long sprouts of a moustache and on its head was cocked a little black hat. And I heard it speak :
" Tell me," it said in soft, husky tones like the voice of the postmistress, " Is this day the day before the last day ? "
" It is not," I shouted, though my lips were stone itself and my heart was quailing. The serpent swayed its milky face and sighed. Then I heard the whole fog of it dripping back into the lake like drops from a shower.
I took to my heels and ran towards the sun on the skyline.