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PAGE 5

Eight-Legged Friends
by [?]

One insect there was, however, before which even Eliza herself, hardened wretch as she seemed, used to cower and shiver; and that was the great black bumble-bee, the largest and most powerful of the British bee-kind. When one of these dangerous monsters, a burly, buzzing bourgeois, got entangled in her web, Eliza, shaking in her shoes (I allow her those shoes by poetical licence) would retire in high dudgeon to her inmost bower, and there would sit and sulk, in visible bad temper, till the clumsy big thing, after many futile efforts, had torn its way by main force out of the coils that surrounded it. Then, the moment the telegraphic communication told her the lines in the web were once more free, Eliza would sally forth again with a smiling face–oh yes, I assure you, we could tell by her look when she was smiling–and would repair afresh with cheerful alacrity the damage done to her snare by the unwelcome visitor. Hummingbird hawk-moths, on the other hand, though so big and quick, she would kill immediately. As for Lucy, craven soul, she had so little sense of proper pride and arachnid honour, that she shrank even from the wasps which Eliza so bravely and unhesitatingly tackled; and more than once we caught her in the very act of cutting them out entire, with the whole piece of web in which they were immeshed, and letting them drop on to the ground beneath, merely as a short way of getting rid of them from her premises. I always rather despised Lucy. She hadn’t even the one redeeming virtue of most carnivorous or predatory races–an insensate and almost automatic courage.

I need hardly say, however, that the spider does not kill her prey by a mere fair-and-square bite alone. She has recourse to the art of the Palmers and Brinvilliers. All spiders, as far as known, are provided with poison-fangs in the jaws, which sometimes, as in the tarantula and many other large tropical kinds, well known to me in Jamaica and elsewhere, are sufficiently powerful to produce serious effects upon man himself; while even much smaller spiders, like Eliza and Lucy, have poison enough in their falces, as the jawlike organs are called, to kill a good big insect, such as a wasp or a bumble-bee. These channelled poison-glands, combined with their savage tigerlike claws, make the spiders as a group extremely formidable and dominant creatures, the analogues in their own smaller invertebrate world of the serpents and wolves in the vertebrate creation.

Lucy and Eliza’s family relations, I am sorry to say, were not, we found, of a kind to endear them to a critical public already sufficiently scandalized by their general mode of behaviour to their inoffensive neighbours. As mothers, indeed, gossip itself had not a word of blame to whisper against them; but as wives, their conduct was distinctly open to the severest animadversion. The males of the garden spider, as in many other instances, are decidedly smaller than their big round mates; so much so is this the case, indeed, in certain species that they seem almost like parasites of the immensely larger sack-bodied females. Now, just as the worker bees kill off the drones as soon as the queen-bee has been duly fertilized, regarding them as of no further importance or value to the hive, so do the lady-spiders not only kill but eat their husbands as soon as they find they have no further use for them. Nay, if a female spider doesn’t care for the looks of a suitor who is pressing himself too much upon her fond attention, her way of expressing her disapprobation of his appearance and manners is to make a murderous spring at him, and, if possible, devour him. Under these painful circumstances the process of courtship is necessarily to some extent a difficult and delicate one, fraught with no small danger to the adventurous swain who has the boldness to commend himself by personal approach to these very fickle and irascible fair ones. It was most curious and exciting, accordingly, to watch the details of the strange courtship, which we could only observe in the case of the cruel Eliza, the rather gentler Lucy having been already mated, apparently, before she took up her quarters in our climbing white rose-bush. One day, however, a timid-looking male spider, with inquiry and doubt in every movement of his tarsi, strolled tentatively up on the neat round web where Eliza was hanging, head downward as usual, all her feet on the thread, on the look-out for house-flies. We knew he was a male at once by his longer and thinner body, and by his natural modesty. He walked gingerly on all eights, like an arachnid Agag, in the direction of the object of his ardent affections, with a most comic uncertainty in every step he took towards her. His claws felt the threads as he moved with anxious care; and it was clear he was ready at a moment’s notice to jump away and flee for his life with headlong speed to his native obscurity if Eliza showed the slightest disposition, by gesture or movement, to turn and rend him. Now and again, as he approached, Eliza, half coquettish, moved her feet a short step, and seemed to debate within her own mind in which spirit she should meet his flattering advances–whether to accept him or to eat him. At each such hesitation, the unhappy male, fearing the worst, and sore afraid, would turn on his heel and fly for dear life as fast as eight trembling legs would carry him. Then, after a minute or two, he would evidently come to the conclusion that he had wronged his lady-love, and that her movement was one of true, true love rather than of carnivorous and cannibalistic appetite. At last, as I judged, his constancy was rewarded, though his ominous disappearance very shortly afterwards made me fear for the worst as to his final adventures.