My first adventure was the snakebite. I was eleven, and I had been out in the woods in the spring. There was a sheltered valley with a stream, the Yeo, running down it, which led from my Aunt Rosalie’s lake at Arlington; a lush little valley with huge clumps of a broad-leaved plant like a giant rhubarb. I saw a snake twisting through the undergrowth beside a ride through the wood where it had been sunning itself. I caught it by the tail, got out my handkerchief and stowed it in that, then fastened the four corners together and set off for home, about 3 miles away.
Halfway across a big hillside field I saw a beetle in the grass, and thought it would be nice for the snake to have a feed. I took it out and put it on the grass, but it paid no attention to the beetle. Holding it by its neck, I touched its mouth with the beetle, but still it paid no attention; instead, coiled itself up and, bending its head back, hissed at me. I moved my hand to put it back in the handkerchief and it struck my second finger. This stung like six wasp stings, and I danced about sucking the finger which quickly swelled tight and went blue. I put the viper back in the handkerchief and set off for home (I wonder why it did not bite me again?).
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I was alternately running and walking. My arm was swelling and painful, particularly in the armpit. I got very frightened and, being intensely religious then, knelt down on the grass track through the wood at the top of the hill and prayed that I would not die. It was a lovely spring day and dappled sunlight was coming through the trees. When I reached the road in the valley at the back of our house, I met a farmer on horseback and told him I had been bitten by a snake; I undid the handkerchief and showed it to him. He got down from his horse and killed it with his heel, for which I was sorry.
When I reached home and told my father what had happened he said, ‘What a thing to do, bringing the snake home; it might have bitten your sister.’ (He was very fond of my sister.) He then told me to get on my bicycle and set off for the infirmary in Barnstaple, 4 V2 miles away. By the time I reached Barnstaple I was getting light-headed and lost my way in the town, although I knew it all perfectly well. I remember sitting on a bench in a waiting room. I was very hazy by this time, but I can still see the semi-oval white gauze-covered frame being put over my face, and still recall the dreadful feeling of suffocation when the chloroform that was poured on the mask began to take effect. I think that was the worst of the whole affair. I saw my father, who had harnessed the buggy and followed me, standing by my bed. There was a very sharp pain, presumably as they started slicing open my finger, and then I passed out.
I heard afterwards that they had sent my father back to fetch the snake, so that they could use some of the poison as an antidote, but then decided not to do so, and waited until some stuff came down from London on a train. This arrived in the evening, and it rippled round inside me as they squirted syringefuls of it into the skin of my stomach. Afterwards, my father told me that they did not know until next morning if I was going to survive.
This was my first experience of publicity. The adventure was reported in the local paper, and I seemed to have a stream of visitors in the hospital. They included Nancy Platt and my cousin Margaret, whom I adored.
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