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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Hurtado de Mendoza (1503–1575)

The Cheese-Eating Snake

From “Lazarillo de Tormes”

ONE day, when my wretched, miserable, covetous thief of a master had gone out, an angel, in the likeness of a tinker, knocked at the door—for I verily believe he was directed by Providence to assume that habit and employment—and inquired whether I had anything to mend. Suddenly a light flashed upon me, as though imparted by an invisible and unknown power.

“Uncle,” said I, “I have unfortunately lost the key of this great chest, and I’m sadly afraid my master will beat me. For God’s sake, try if you can fit it, and I will reward you.”

The angelic tinker drew forth a large bunch of keys and began to try them, while I assisted his endeavors with my feeble prayers, when lo, and behold! when least I thought it, the lid of the chest arose, and I almost fancied I beheld the divine essence therein in the shape of loaves of bread. “I have no money,” said I to my preserver, “but give me the key and help yourself.”

He took some of the whitest and best bread he could find, and went away well pleased, though not half so well as myself.

My wretched master returned, and it pleased God that the deficiency remained undiscovered by him. The next day, when he went out, I went to my farinaceous paradise, and, taking a loaf between my hands and teeth, in a twinkling it became invisible; then, not forgetting to lock the treasure, I capered about the house for joy to think that my miserable life was about to change, and for some days following I was as happy as a king. But it was not predestined for me that such good luck should continue long. On the third day I beheld my murderer in the act of examining our chest, turning and counting the loaves over and over again.

After he had been some time considering and counting, he said, “If I were not well assured of the security of this chest, I should say that somebody had stolen my bread; but, however, to remove all suspicion, from this day I shall count the loaves; there remain now exactly nine and a piece.”

No sooner did the priest go out than I opened the chest to console myself even with the sight of food, and as I gazed on the nine white loaves a sort of adoration arose within me, which the sight of such tempting morsels could alone inspire. I counted them carefully to see if, perchance, the curmudgeon had mistaken the number; but, alas! I found he was a much better reckoner than I could have desired.

But as hunger increased, and more so in proportion as I had fared better the few days previously, I was reduced to the last extremity. After some consideration, I said within myself, “This chest is very large and old, and in some parts, though very slightly, is broken. It is not impossible to suppose that rats may have made an entrance and gnawed the bread. To take a whole loaf would not be wise, seeing that it would be missed by my most liberal master, but the other plan he shall certainly have the benefit of.” Then I began to pick the loaves on some table-cloths which were there, not of the most costly sort, taking one loaf and leaving another, so that in the end I made up a tolerable supply of crums, which I ate like so many sugar-plums; and with that I in some measure consoled myself and contrived to live.

The priest, when he came home to dinner and opened the chest, beheld with dismay the havoc made in his store; but he immediately supposed it to have been occasioned by rats, so well had I imitated the style of those depredators. He examined the chest narrowly, and discovered the little holes through which the rats might have entered, and calling me, he said, “Lazaro, look what havoc has been made with our bread during the night.”

I seemed very much astonished, and asked what it could possibly be.

“What has done it?” quoth he; “why, rats, confound ’em! There is no keeping anything from them.”

I fared well at dinner, and had no reason to repent of the trick I played, for he pared off all the places which he supposed the rats had nibbled at, and, giving them to me, he said, “There, eat that; rats are very clean animals.”

In this manner, adding what I thus gained to that acquired by the labor of my hands, or rather my nails, I managed tolerably well, though I little expected it. I was destined to receive another shock when I beheld my miserable tormentor carefully stopping up all the holes in the chest with small pieces of wood, which he nailed over them, and which bade defiance to further depredations.

Necessity is a great master, and being in this strait, I passed night and day in devising means to get out of it. All the rascally plans that could enter the mind of man did hunger suggest to me, for it is a saying, and a true one, as I can testify, that hunger makes rogues, and abundance fools. One night, when my master slept, of which disposition he always gave sonorous testimony, as I was revolving in my mind the best mode of renewing my intimacy with the contents of the chest, a thought struck me, which I forthwith put in execution. I arose very quietly, and taking an old knife which, having some little glimmering of the same idea the day previous, I had left for an occasion of this nature, I repaired to the chest, and at the part which I considered least guarded I began to bore a hole. The antiquity of the chest seconded my endeavors, for the wood had become rotten from age, and easily yielded to the knife, so that in a short time I managed to display a hole of very respectable dimensions. I then opened the chest very gently, and, taking out the bread, I treated it much in the same manner as heretofore, and then returned safe to my mattress.

When the unhappy priest found his mechanical ability of no avail, he said, “Really, this chest is in such a state, and the wood is so old and rotten, that the rats make nothing of it. The best plan I can think of, since what we have done is of no use, is to arm ourselves within against these cursed rats.”

He then borrowed a rat-trap, and baiting it with bits of cheese which he begged from the neighbors, set it under the chest. This was a piece of singular good fortune for me, for although my hunger needed no sauce, yet I did not nibble the bread at night with less relish because I added thereto the bait from the rat-trap. When in the morning he found not only the bread gone as usual, but the bait likewise vanished, and the trap without a tenant, he grew almost beside himself. He ran to the neighbors and asked of them what animal it could possibly be that could positively eat the very cheese out of the trap and yet escape untouched.

The neighbors agreed that it could be no rat that could thus eat the bait and not remain within the trap, and one more cunning than the rest observed, “I remember once seeing a snake about your premises, and depend on it that is the animal which has done you this mischief, for it could easily pick the bait from the trap without entering entirely, and thus, too, it might easily escape.” The rest all agreed that such must be the fact, which alarmed my master a good deal.

He now slept not near so soundly as before, and at every little noise, thinking it was the snake biting the chest, he would get up, and taking a cudgel which he kept at his bed’s head for the purpose, began to belabor the poor chest with all his might, so that the noise might frighten the reptile from his unthrifty proceedings. He even awoke the neighbors with such prodigious clamor, and I could not get a single minute’s rest. He turned me out of bed, and looked among the straw, and about the blanket, to see if the creature was concealed anywhere; for, as he observed, at night they seek warm places, and not infrequently injure people by biting them in bed. When he came I always pretended to be very heavy with sleep, and he would say to me in the morning, “Did you hear nothing last night, boy? The snake was about, and I think I heard him at your bed, for they are very cold creatures, and love warmth.”

“I hope to God he will not bite me,” returned I, “for I am very much afraid.”

He was so watchful at night that, by my faith, the snake could not continue his operations as usual, but in the morning, when the priest was at church, he resumed them pretty steadily as usual.

Looking with dismay at the damage done to his store, and the little redress he was likely to have for it, the poor priest became quite uneasy from fretting, and wandered about all night like a hobgoblin. I began very much to fear that, during one of these fits of watchfulness, he might discover my key, which I placed for security under the straw of my bed. I therefore, with a caution peculiar to my nature, determined in future to keep this treasure by night safe in my mouth.

It was decreed by my evil destiny, or rather, I ought to say, as a punishment for my evil doings, that one night, when I was fast asleep, my mouth being somewhat open, the key became placed in such a position therein that my breath came in contact with the hollow of the key, and caused—worse luck for me—a loud whistling noise. On this my watchful master pricked up his ears, and thought it must be the hissing of the snake which had done him all the damage, and certainly he was not altogether wrong in his conjectures. He arose very quietly, with his club in his hand, and stealing toward the place whence the hissing sound proceeded, thinking at once to put an end to his enemy, he lifted his club, and with all his force discharged such a blow on my unfortunate head that it needed not another to deprive me of all sense and motion. The moment the blow was delivered he felt it was no snake that had received it, and, guessing what he had done, called out to me in a loud voice, endeavoring to recall me to my senses. Then, touching me with his hands, he felt the blood, which was by this time in great profusion about my face, and ran quickly to procure a light. On his return he found me moaning, yet still holding the key in my mouth, and partly visible, being in the same situation which caused the whistling noise he had mistaken for the snake. Without thinking much of me, the attention of the slayer of snakes was attracted by the appearance of the key, and drawing it from my mouth, he soon discovered what it was. He ran to prove it, and with that at once found out the extent of my ingenuity.

“Thank God,” exclaimed this cruel snake-hunter, “that the rats and the snakes which have so long made war upon me and devoured my substance, are both at last discovered!”