Paul T. Gilbert

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the stories: Snake CharmerArthur Borella, ClownThe Flying WardsReporter in TightsElephant TrainerTight WireDress Rehearsal

Reporter Finds Out How it Feels to Cuddle Snake

—Paul T. Gilbert, from the Chicago Evening Post, July 23, 1925

It was a strange world in which I found myself. Opposite me on a platform was Tik Tak the Aztek, his head about the size of a grapefruit. To his left, Tom Tom, the fat boy, a mountain of human flesh. Seated in a rocking chair was Bo-Bo, the educated chimpanzee, proof positive of the Darwinian theory and the descent of man. Laurella of the revolving head, Koo Koo, the bird girl. Chick, the African bushman, who according to the lurid banner at the entrance of the "kid show," improves his idle moments by stalking lions with a blow-gun. A brass band thumping out a jazzy tune while a black-face minstrel did a shuffle.

The announcement, over the platform on which I stood read: Mlle. Cleo—Wonderful Snake Performance. The banner outside proclaimed her a sort of modern Eve, a huge green serpent coiled around her neck whispering his wicked secrets into her ear. And I—Pauly of the circus—was to share the honors with madamoiselle today!

The little snake charmer, whose warm hand lingered in mine for some time after the introduction, was daintiness personified. A fairy creature of pink and white and gold. Gold hair, eyes of azure blue, a girlish pink frock—rather scanty—white silk stockings and Cinderella slippers.

"Of course," she explained, "I'm not the real Mlle. Cleo. She's the wife of the proprietor, and she isn't with us this week. I'm Peggy from Paris, the illusion girl. But I know how to handle snakes," she added reassuringly.

"An illusion girl?" I asked.

"Well, it's just a sort of a magician's trick. It looks as if my head were cut off and standing on the table. Worked with mirrors, you know."

Peggy's real name, she told me, was Colette—which is even prettier.

"Just how," I asked, "did you become a snake charmer? Weren't you frightfully scared at first?"

"Terribly. But, you see, I was flat broke—stony! I had been brought up in an orphan asylum, and I hadn't a cent to my name. One day I was out job hunting and dropped into a museum. Thought I could sell tickets or something. Well, they didn't have any job in the ticket office, but they did want a girl in the snake pit. I gazed down into it and saw a twenty-eight-foot python—the kind you see over there in the cage. I was scared pink, but I didn't dare to show it, so I got down there with that snake."

Colette began reaching down into a green box where her little pets were kept. There were seven pythons and six boas, she said. A writhing, squirming mass of snakes.

"This one has just eaten a live rabbit," said Colette, "so we won't work with him. He's sleeping it off. And this python is shedding. Snakes aren't particularly affable when they're shedding—liable to be fussy."

"But here's a black python—Satan—the sacred snake of India. You can have him, and I'll take this reticulated python."

"That Satan, now—er—isn't he pretty big?" I was beginning to regret my rashness.

"Really," said Colette, "he's perfectly harmless. A regular pet. He's pretty heavy, though—ninety-eight pounds. You see, snakes are so solid."

She had disentangled him and was pulling him out. I thought she'd never get to the tail. Satan was a whopper of a snake. The creature wrapped himself about her, raised his wicked, flat head and darted out a tongue.

"See how affectionate he is. He's trying to kiss me."

The crowd had gathered around our platform and the band had struck up Chant Hindu.

Colette let Satan down gently on the floor, where I nearly stepped on him.

"Just place your hands under him. Don't grab," she coached, while she nonchalantly draped the other reptile about her waist."

"Don't be afraid of touching him. Snakes aren't a bit slimy, as most people imagine. They're nice and clean. And if he clings to you it's just because he wants to hang on—doesn't like the idea of falling. Snakes haven't got feet, you know, to break a fall."

I placed my hands under the scaly creature and lifted him up from the floor. Immediately he shifted his weight and began slipping. He seemed to be full of marbles or something that rolled back and forth. I set him down again. "Wind him around your neck," said Colette—"like this."

If you have ever tried to juggle a twelve-foot squirming sack of flour, a slippery one at that, you will have some kind of an idea of how it feels to handle snakes.

Satan's head and forked tongue weaved around my face. His milky eyes gazed into mine.

"He's nearly blind in this light," said Colette. "He knows you are a stranger and he's trying to get acquainted."

Satan took another hitch around my neck. He wriggled himself loose from my grasp and lashed his tail around my waist.

There is a famous statue, the Laocoon, showing a man and his sons being strangled by serpents. I know how they felt—I'd always wondered. Colette—or Mlle. Cleo—is welcome to the job.