There was once a man called Paolo Maria Encarnacao Esplendido. He lived at Manaos in Brazil. He was a very rich man. He owned two gold mines and a silver mine. You might think one got more money from a gold mine than a silver mine because gold is worth more than silver. But, as a matter of face, more money goes down gold mines than comes out of them, because people are always digging mines for gold in places where there isn’t enough to make it worth their while.

The Snake with the Golden Teeth [Published by Vigyan Prasar, India]
The Snake with the Golden Teeth [Published by Vigyan Prasar, India]

Senhor Esplendido’s gold mines weren’t of that sort. He got a fair amount of money out of them but a lot more from the silver mine. One reason why he was so rich was that he paid the miners very badly. So people didn’t like him very much.

Now when people have a lot of money some of them spend it on things like hospitals and universities and parks and picture-galleries, so they are some use. Others buy diamonds and racehorses, so they aren’t any use to anyone. Senhor Esplendido was one of the useless kind. But because he lived where he did, he spent it mostly on different sorts of things from what rich men in England buy. The roads round there are so bad that it is no fun motoring. So he only had one car.

But he had three motor-boats, because in that part of Brazil people use the rivers instead of roads. Of course, Manaos is at the place where the Amazon river joins the Rio Negro, so he had lots of water for boating. These motor-boats had all their fittings made of silver, for swank. He gave his wife some diamond bracelets for swank, too, and they had to be very big ones, because she was so fat. And inside his house he had all sorts of golden things made of the gold from his gold mines. All his tooth-brushes had gold handles; he had golden forks and spoons and ash-trays and soap-dishes and door-handles, and he wore a different gold watch every day of the week.

He had a lot of animals that he kept in a private menageria. I think his liking for animals was the only nice thing about him. For a person who is fond animals can’t be nasty all through. He had some of all the sorts of animals bigger than a mouse that live a Brazil.

He had seven caimans, which are the sort of crocodiles that live there. They look fairly like the crocodiles from India, but they have two holes in their upper jaw to fit the two biggest teeth in their under jaw, which most of the Indian ones haven’t. Also they are different from the alligators which live in the United States of America. Some of them are twenty feet long.

He had three jaguars, and two anacondas, which are large snakes that live in Brazil, nearly as big as pythons. They are not poisonous, but they can squash people by twisting round them. They are very good at swimming.

One of them was a she-snake, and he used to have her eggs boiled, and eat them in a golden egg-cup with a golden spoon. He said they were very good, but he was such an awful swanker that very likely they weren’t good at all. I don’t know because I have never eaten one. The only man I know who has is an explorer called Mr. McOstrich. He ate three at a sitting, but then he hadn’t had any food for a week before, so no wonder he liked them.

Now caimans, and for that matter all sorts of crocodiles, are stupid beasts; they can’t generally learn anything. Though their heads are so big their brains are smaller than a rabbit’s, let alone a dog’s or a monkey’s or a man’s. So they are only wound up to do quite a few sorts of things. A dog has a bigger brain, so he can do thousands of different sorts of things. A man has a bigger brain still, so he can do millions.

But one of these crocodiles must have had a bigger brain than usual, because it learned to do one or two tricks. It was taught by a man called Pedro Rodriguez, whose job it was to look after the beasts. He was very fond of animals and very patient too. He taught this crocodile to come out of the water when he called it. Its name was Rosa.

I forgot to say it was a she-crocodile. Perhaps I ought to say a hen-crocodile. As one says a hen-lobster. For, after all, crocodiles are rather like lobsters in some ways. They live in the water, and are hard outside and can nip you. But crocodiles are not as good to eat as lobsters. Or perhaps I ought to say Rosa was a cow-crocodile. Anyway, doesn’t much matter, because next time I talk about her I will just call her Rosa.

Well, Rosa learned to do several other things. She could sit up on her tail and two hind legs, and open her mouth for people to throw her food. And she could put her tail in her mouth and waddle round after it. Her husband, who was called Joao, which is Portuguese for John, was stupid and grumpy. At least he was grumpy to men, and would have been to Rosa, only she kept him in order, and used to smack him with her tail if he was greedy, and didn’t let her have a fair share of his food.

Well one day Senhor Esplendido asked Pedro Rodriguez how the animals were. And he said, ‘they are all very well, sir, except the he-anaconda, who has broken two of his teeth, but I expect he will grow some more.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Senhor Esplendido. ‘He is grown-up, and can’t grow any more teeth.’

Pedro just said, ‘Very good, sir,’ because he knew it was no use answering back, even if he was right. His master was a very conceited man, and got very angry if you found him out in a mistake.

And then Senhor Esplendido had a great idea. He thought he would have the snake’s teeth stopped with gold, so that he would be the only person in the world to have a snake with golden teeth. Because all sorts of people have gold spoons and watches and salt-cellars, and things like that. And some of the kings and princes in India have the oddest things made from gold. The Akoond of Swat had seven wives with gold nose-rings. The Jam of Las Bela has seventeen golden toothpicks, five golden parrot cages, and a golden foot-scraper. The Begum of Bhopal had a golden sewing machine. She was an old lady, and quite intelligent, but she always went about with her head in a bag because she thought it would never do if people saw her face. And the Nono of Spiti has a golden spittoon. (You may think I have made up the Nono of Spiti. But I haven’t. There really is a place called Spiti in the Himalaya mountains in latitude thirty-two north and longitude seventy-eight east, and the king of it is called the Nono. I can’t help it if people and places have funny names like that.)

So Senhor Esplendido said, ‘I will see the dentist about making some gold teeth for Jacinto,’ for that was the anaconda’s name. There was quite a good dentist at Manaos, only I have forgotten his name, but it doesn’t make any difference to the story what his name was. He had made a lot of gold fillings and some solid gold teeth for Senhor Esplendido, and when he opened his mouth it looked like the cellar at the Bank of England where they keep all the gold they promise to pay you, if you ask for it, on the pound notes.

The only other man I ever knew who had as much gold in his mouth was a pilot on the Yukon river in Canada, which goes past Klondyke, where there is a lot of gold. So gold is very cheap there. You can get a lot of gold for an ordinary sort of that everything else except gold is very dear. I met this Yukon pilot in Mesopotamia. He was there during the war to pilot a ship that used to take soldiers up the river Tigris to fight against the Turks, and I was one of the soldiers he piloted up. He drank a great deal of whisky and used to swear wonderfully.

Well, the dentist didn’t very much like the job of making teeth for an anaconda, because, as he said, ‘If I am doing something to a man, however much I hurt him, he won’t eat me; but a big snake like that might, or if it didn’t it might squash me in its coils.’

So Senhor Esplendido said, ‘Come and look at the snake to see what size and shape to make the teeth, and we will take good care he doesn’t bite you when the time comes to put them in.’

They argued for a time, and then the dentist said he would do the job if he were paid three times as much as if the snake were a man. So he came in one of the swanky motor-boats and had a look at the snake’s teeth. Then he went home and made some gold ones. Meanwhile Pedro Rodriguez thought of a trick to keep the snake quiet while the dentist put in the gold teeth.

Jacinto was eighteen feet long, so he got an iron drainpipe about that length, and over one end of it he fixed a cloth. In the cloth there was a round hole that could be shut up by pulling a string, like the mouth of a sponge bag. The other end was open.

Now Jacinto and his wife lived in a pen. He didn’t have to live indoors like the snakes in the Zoo, because Brazil is so much warmer than London. In England you have to keep snakes in warm place, because they don’t warm themselves from inside like people and dogs and horses and birds.

Pedro made a hole in the wall of this pen and put the open end of the pipe against it. Then he got guinea-pig, of which there are lots in Brazil, because that is one of the countries where they grow wild. He held on to Mrs. Jacinto, and put the guinea-pig in the pen. It was very frightened and ran into the pipe. Jacinto crawled in after it, so it ran out at the other end, and got right away, and lived happily ever after.

Jacinto chased it, and the moment he put his head out someone pulled the string tight round his neck, so only his head was left sticking out. Then they lifted up the pipe, snake and all, and blocked up the hole in the wall so that his wife couldn’t get out.

It took four men to carry him in his pipe. You can see them in the picture. Jacinto is putting his tongue out because he is so angry and hissing like anything; only the man who drew the picture didn’t know how to draw a hiss, so you can’t see it. The man in front is Pedro, and Senhor Esplendido and his wife are watching.

They got Jacinto in his pipe on to the motor-boat and took him to the dentist. The dentist was rather frightened, but he drank a glass of rum and got to work. First they put the pipe on a table so that Jacinto’s head just struck over the edge. Then they put another guinea-pig just in front of his mouth, and when he opened it to snap, Pedro put a stick between his jaws from the side, and he and another man held it tight while the dentist was working.

So poor Jacinto couldn’t shut his mouth or turn his head round. Then the dentist got to work with his buzzer, and you should have heard Jacinto hiss. It was like a steam locomotive that has waited too long in a station, so the driver has to let some steam out or the boiler will burst.

The dentist was so frightened that he had to take another drink. However, in the end the two golden teeth were stuck in quite firmly, and they took Jacinto back to his pen and let him loose.

So Senhor Esplendido was very proud, and took his wife and all his friends to see the snake with the gold teeth.

Neither Jacinto nor his wife was pleased, because they didn’t think gold was any better than any other kind of stuff. That is one of the few things that snakes are more sensible about than men. I think people waste an awful lot of time and trouble making mines for gold; and when they have got it, it isn’t really as useful as iron, or chocolate, or India-rubber, and not as pretty as glass, or flowers, or pictures.

Now Pedro knew what was bound to happen next, even if you don’t. One day Senhor Esplendido came along to took at Jacinto, and one of the gold teeth was missing, and there was an ordinary tooth where it had been.

He lost his temper and rushed at Pedro with his big stick, shouting, ‘You wicked thief, you’ve taken out the gold tooth and put in an ordinary false one. I’ll give you the sack and have you put in prison.’

Now snakes’ teeth aren’t like people’s. A person can grow two teeth in some places and only one in others. They lose the first lot when they are about six or seven, and if they lose the grown-up set they have to buy false ones, so it is better to get holes in them stopped before they get so bad that they have to be pulled out.

A very few extraordinary and special people can grow a third tooth where one of the grown-up ones has been pulled out. My wife did. But snakes and lizards and crocodiles can grow any number of teeth in the same place, and when one falls out another comes up. Pedro knew that; in fact, he had got a lot of Rosa’s old teeth and made them into a necklace for his wife.

So he knew that Jacinto had just dropped the stump of the old tooth with the gold part stuck on it, and it must be lying about somewhere in his pen. He would have gone to look for it, only after his visit to the dentist Jacinto was so grumpy that Pedro didn’t dare to go crawling about on his hands and knees for fear Jacinto would come up behind and bite his feet. For he was too poor to be able to afford boots.

Well, Pedro had thought what to do if his master went for him with a stick. He ran into the yard where the crocodile pond was and shouted for Rosa. Rosa came scuttling out of the water and sat up on her hind legs. Senhor Esplendido came after Pedro with his big stick and Pedro kept dodging round and round Rosa.

As Senhor Esplendido was running between Rosa and the pond, Rosa got angry with him for chasing her friend, and she opened her mouth very wide and made the noise an angry crocodile makes. It is something between a hiss and a snort and a bark and a grunt.

If you are lucky you can get one of the keepers at the Zoo to poke a crocodile, and then it will make that noise. But you mustn’t poke it yourself for two reasons. First, you might fall into the crocodiles’ tank from leaning too far over the railings. And second, if the keeper caught you poking crocodiles you would be turned out of the Zoo and never allowed in again, which is a dreadful thing even to think of, though I suppose not so bad as being eaten by crocodiles.

But Rosa was twenty feet long, nearly twice as long as the big crocodiles at the Zoo, and twice as thick, too. The noise she made was a perfectly awful noise, and her mouth with all its teeth looked as large as a doorway, Senhor Esplendido was so frightened that he lost his balance and fell into the pond.

And Joao was waiting near the edge with his mouth open because he thought it was his feeding time. And so it was, though no one had meant it to be, for he ate Senhor Esplendido so quickly that he burnt his tongue on a cigar the Senhor was smoking. One often burns one’s tongue if one eats too quickly, and I think it serves one right.

But he left one leg for Rosa, because she would have smacked him with her tail if he hadn’t. So that was the end of Senhor Esplendido. And nobody knows how long his gold watch went on ticking inside Joao, because Joao went to sleep in the middle of the pond, and if you know anyone who is brave enough to swim into the middle of a pond full of man-eating crocodiles and put his ear on one of their stomachs to listen for a watch. I should like to meet him, that’s all.

Well, they arrested Pedro and took him before a judge, but when the judge heard his story, he said. ‘I think it served Senhor Esplendido right, and it really wasn’t your fault, so I’ll let you off.’

And next week an American called Mr. Fysh who was there bought Rosa off Senhor Esplendido’s widow, and hired Pedro to be her keeper. And now they act together in a circus, and Rosa has learned two more tricks.

She can smoke a pipe and beat time to a tune with her tail. And Pedro gets paid fifteen times as much as Senhor Esplendido used to pay him.

So if that circus ever comes to England you mustn’t forget to go and see it.

First published by Vigyan Prasar, India

3068 words | 34 minutes
Readability: Grade 5 (10-11 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: stories
Tags: #snakes, #teeth, #crocodiles, #dentist

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