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PAGE 2

Eight-Legged Friends
by [?]

Nevertheless, in spite of all this my vaunted philosophy, I will frankly confess that more than once Eliza and Lucy sorely tried my patience, and that I was often a good deal better than half-minded in my soul to rush out in a feverish fit of moral indignation and put an end to their ghastly career of crime without waiting to hear what they had to say in their own favour, showing cause why sentence of death should not be executed upon them. And I would have done it, I believe, had it not been for that peculiar arrangement of the drawing-room windows, which made it impossible to get at the culprits direct, without going out into the garden and round the house; which, of course, is a severe strain in wet or windy weather to put upon anybody’s moral enthusiasm. In the end, therefore, I always gave the evil-doers the benefit of the doubt; and I only mention my ethical scruples in the matter here lest scoffers should say, when they come to read what manner of things Lucy and Eliza did: ‘Oh yes, that’s just like those scientific folks; they’re always so cold-blooded. He could stand by and see these poor helpless flies tortured slowly to death, without a chance for their lives, and never put out a helping hand to save them!’ Well, I would only ask you one question, my sapient friend, who talk like that: Has it ever occurred to you that, if you kill one spider, you merely make room in the overflowing economy of nature for another to pick up a dishonest livelihood? Have you ever reflected that the prime blame of spiderhood rests with Nature herself (if we may venture to personify that impersonal entity); and that she has provided such a constant supply or relay of spiders as will amply suffice to fill up all the possible vacancies that can ever occur in insect-eating circles? Unless you have considered all these points carefully, and have an answer to give about them, you are not in a position to pronounce upon the subject, and you had better be referred for six months longer, as the medical examiners gracefully put it, to your ethical, psychological, and biological studies. The great point about the position in which Eliza and Lucy had placed themselves was simply this. They stood full against the light, so that we could see right through their translucent bodies, which were almost liquid to look upon, and beautifully dappled with dark spots on a grey ground in a very pretty and effective pattern. So favourable was the opportunity for observation, indeed, that we could clearly make out with the naked eye even the joints of their legs, the hairs on their tarsi–excuse the phrase–and the very shape of their cruel tigerlike claws, as they rushed forth upon their prey in a sort of carnivorous frenzy. At all hours of the day we could notice exactly what they were doing or suffering; and so familiar did we become with them individually and personally, that before the end of the season we recognized in detail all the differences of their characters almost as one might do with cats or dogs, and spoke of them by their Christian names like old and well-known acquaintances.

As the webs which Lucy and Eliza spun were several times broken or mutilated during the year, either by accident or the gardener, we had plenty of chances for seeing how they proceeded in making them. The lines were in both cases stretched between a white rose-bush that climbed up one side of the window, and a purple clematis that occupied and draped the opposite mullion. But Lucy and Eliza didn’t live in the webs–those were only their snares or traps for prey; each of them had in addition a private home or apartment of her own under shelter of a rose-leaf at some distance from the treacherous geometrical structure. The house itself consisted merely of a silken cell, built out from the rose-leaf, and connected with the snare by a single stout cord of very solid construction. On this cord the spider kept one foot–I had almost said one hand–constantly fixed. She poised it lightly by her claws, and whenever an insect got entangled in the web, a subtle electric message, so to speak, seemed to run along the line to the ever-watchful carnivore. In one short second Lucy or Eliza, as the case might be, had darted out upon her quarry, and was tackling it might main, according to the particular way its size and strength rendered then and there advisable. The method of procedure, which I shall describe more fully by-and-by, differed considerably from case to case, as these very large and strong spiders have sometimes to deal with mere tiny midges, and sometimes with extremely big and dangerous creatures, like bumble-bees, wasps, and even hornets.