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Eight-Legged Friends
by [?]

At night my eight-legged friends slept always in their own homes or nests under shelter of the rose-leaves. But during the day they alternated between the nest and the centre of the web, which last seemed to serve them as a convenient station where they waited for their prey, standing head downward with legs wide spread on the rays, on the look-out for incidents. Whether at the centre or in the nest, however, they kept their feet constantly on the watch for any disturbance on the webs; and the instant any unhappy little fly got entangled in their meshes, the ever-watchful spider was out like a flash of lightning, and down at once in full force upon that incautious intruder. I was convinced after many observations that it is by touch alone the spider recognizes the presence of prey in its web, and that it hardly derives any indications worth speaking of from its numerous little eyes, at least as regards the arrival of booty. If a very big insect has got into the web, then a relatively large volume of disturbance is propagated along the telegraphic wire that runs from the snare to the house, or from the circumference to the centre; if a small one, then a slight disturbance; and the spider rushes out accordingly, either with an air of caution or of ferocious triumph.

Supposing the booty in hand was a tiny fly, then Lucy or Eliza would jump upon it at once with that strange access of apparently personal animosity with seems in some mysterious way a characteristic of all hunting carnivorous animals. She would then carelessly wind a thread or two about it, in a perfunctory way, bury her jaws in its body, and in less than half a minute suck out its juices to the last drop, leaving the empty shell unhurt, like a dry skeleton or the slough of a dragon-fly larva. But when wasps or other large and dangerous insects got entangled in the webs, the hunters proceeded with far greater caution. Lucy, indeed, who was a decided coward, would stand and look anxiously at the doubtful intruder for several seconds, feeling the web with her claws, and running up and down in the most undecided manner, as if in doubt whether or not to tackle the uncertain customer. But Eliza, whose spirits always rose like Nelson’s before the face of danger, and whose motto seemed to be ‘De l’audace, de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace,’ would rush at the huge foe in a perfect transport of wild fury, and go to work at once to enclose him in her toils of triple silken cables. I always fancied, indeed, that Eliza was in a thoroughly housewifely tantrum at seeing her nice new web so ruthlessly torn and tattered by the unwelcome visitor, and that she said to herself in her own language: ‘Oh well, then, if you will have it, you shall have it; so here goes for you.’ And go for him she did, with most unladylike ferocity. Indeed, Eliza’s best friend, I must fain admit, could never have said of her that she was a perfect lady.

The chawing-up of that wasp was a sight to behold. I have no great sympathy with wasps–they have done me so many bad turns in my time that I don’t pretend to regard them as deserving of exceptional pity–but I must say Eliza’s way of going at them was unduly barbaric. She treated them for all the world as if they were entirely devoid of a nervous system. I wouldn’t treat a Saturday Reviewer myself as that spider treated the wasps when once she was sure of them. She went at them with a sort of angry, half-contemptuous dash, kept cautiously out of the way of the protruded sting, began in most business-like fashion at the head, and rolling the wasp round and round with her legs and feelers, swathed him rapidly and effectually, with incredible speed, in a dense network of web poured forth from her spinnerets. In less than half a minute the astonished wasp, accustomed rather to act on the offensive than the defensive, found himself helplessly enclosed in a perfect coil of tangled silk, which confined him from head to sting without the possibility of movement in any direction. The whole time this had been going on the victim, struggling and writhing, had been pushing out its sting and doing the very best it knew to deal the wily Eliza a poisoned death-blow. But Eliza, taught by ancestral experience, kept carefully out of the way; and the wasp felt itself finally twirled round and round in those powerful hands, and tied about as to its wings by a thousand-fold cable. Sometimes, after the wasp was secured, Eliza even took the trouble to saw off the wings so as to prevent further struggling and consequent damage to the precious web; but more often she merely proceeded to eat it alive without further formality, still avoiding its sting as long as the creature had a kick left in it, but otherwise entirely ignoring its character as a sentient being in the most inhuman fashion. And all the time, till the last drop of his blood was sucked out, the wasp would continue viciously to stick out his deadly sting, which the spider would still avoid with hereditary cunning. It was a horrid sight–a duel a outrance between two equally hateful and poisonous opponents; a living commentary on the appalling but o’er-true words of the poet, that ‘Nature is one with rapine, a harm no preacher can heal.’ Though these were the occasions when one sometimes felt as if the cup of Eliza’s iniquities was really full, and one must pass sentence at last, without respite or reprieve, upon that life-long murderess.