Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/August 1882/My Spider

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First published in The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 252, June 1882, pp. 706-714.

632803Popular Science Monthly Volume 21 August 1882 — My Spider1882W. H. T. Winter



A SPIDER, sitting placidly on a hat-peg, awakened in me a vague enthusiasm for natural history; so I captured him, and put him in a bottle. He was lean and gaunt, and had an ominous countenance. The small row of eyes on the vertex of his head looked murder and rapine, and the formidable jaws—which he moved slowly, as if he were sucking his teeth—meant death to those who were his inferiors in strength. He seemed to have been lately in distressed circumstances, for the light came through his very carcass, and his legs were almost as weakly as the gossamer he wove. The strongest part of him seemed to be the stiff hairs that covered him. They stood out independently, and covered his body with such profusion that I was led to call him Esau.

The bottle most likely did not impart a generous warmth, and probably the garish light of day was not pleasant to this denizen of the rafters and remote corners, yet he settled himself in his new habitation with a calmness which commanded my admiration. No fear entered his breast; he was not daunted by captivity. He did not wildly seek an outlet, like most of the things we call insects. He seemed to be of the school of the ascetic Brahmans, and apparently regarded fate as invincible.

"Even if I keep you in captivity," I said, "I will provide you with a mansion, and you shall have an amplicity of food." After a little search a wide-necked jar was obtained, and I set to work to catch flies. The jar was glass, and its mouth was covered with muslin; but in case Arachnida cared not for light and ventilation, I provided him with a piece of paper rolled cone-wise, and in this inner chamber he could seek retirement.

On being placed in his new abode, my friend betrayed no curiosity. He merely settled himself on the piece of paper, as it had a more genial feel than the transparent floor. Perhaps he watched me, but I could not tell that from his expression. His face was typical of indifference.

I now began to make havoc among a colony of flies who had apparently spent their lives in obtaining from the window-panes some occult flavor which is not perceptible to our coarser palates. I made three captives, who were passed beneath the muslin door of the jar with a little sleight of hand. The appearance of these flies was my next subject of observation. They each had an individuality which I did not till then know that flies possessed. Their deportment, their figures, their very moral tone, had a distinct stamp; yet there was an harmonious something which united characters so different. The first had a fluffy appearance, his body looked sodden, and he behaved in a fat and sensual manner. He took the grossest pleasure in warming his ventral surface on the side of the jar toward the sun. He sipped the sweets of life to excess, and had lost that activity a fly ought to possess. Alas! his career rendered him unfit to battle in the struggle for existence. He became the spider's first meal.

The second fly had but one wing. He was lean and ill-nurtured, yet he had withal a chirpy and pleasing manner. He had neither the pompous bearing of opulence nor the boisterous ways of rude health. He was a sweet-tempered and amiable fly, and among the local muscæ undoubtedly occupied the same position that Tiny Tim did in his family. I should have let him go, only that I feared that, if I did so, I should also release the third fly, whom my soul loathed. Now, let me tell you why that fly was objectionable. He was the only fly left on the window-panes, and he walked over them with the arrogance of a landlord. I sought to catch him, but each attempt was more futile than the last. He dodged, he flew away from the window, he calmly floated about the room, and I followed him, flapping with my pocket-handkerchief till I visibly perspired. He was as cunning as the fox of Ballybogue, who, you remember, used to take in the newspaper to see where the meets were to be. My temper overcame me, and I swore I would have that fly.

After a hunt, which brought out all my worst characteristics, I caught him, and deposited him in my vivarium, rejoicing to myself that his death-agonies would be some compensation for my pains. As soon as he got into the jar, Mr. Fly discovered that his poor little brother in adversity had a raw place where his wing had been torn off, and he would follow him from place to place to put his sucker on to the sore. It was not the kindliness of the dogs of Lazarus which led him to lick the wound. He saw that Tim did not like it, and, as he was a nasty, bullying cad, he persisted in his obnoxious performances. I left him disgusted. He was a beast!

In the course of an hour or so I returned. The sensual fly was in the arms of the spider. The hunter, with his quarry in his clutch, was on the piece of paper, and I could see him well. Four black bead-like eyes, situated on the very summit of his head, gleamed at me with ferocity. His mandibles were stretched to their utmost. The hooked extremity of one was driven into the fly's eye, the other was fixed somewhere about its throat. Between these a pair of jaws were working with a synchronous and scissors-like movement, and his upper and lower lip (for such they were, I afterward learned) worked, as it were, between whiles. As the jaws approached each other, the lips parted. His palps, or leg-like antennæ, waved slowly as the tail of an angry cat; and his very spinnerets, six in number, stood out turgid with excitement. The fly was still, except for a quivering motion of one of its legs. It was the tremor of death.

For ten minutes, at least, the spider did not move a limb. The palpi forgot to wave, and he abandoned himself to the full and gross enjoyment of his meal. I forgot the fly's agonies. This poor starved creature, safe from the persecution of the house-maid, was reveling in the juices of a luscious fly. The gloom of his life was dissipated by a bright spot. Starvation even had a charm when followed by such a meal.

At last he fixed the fly against the paper with one foot, and loosened his grip, and, after giving a sigh of satisfaction, proceeded to decapitate his prey. He then held the carcass in such a manner that I thought he was going to blow into it, but he did not. The pangs of hunger were assuaged, and, with an Epicurean manner worthy of Brillat-Savarin, he sought for some dainty morsel in the chest.

Half an hour after, he still lovingly held his prize, although he ate no longer. The child-rhyme was floating in his memory:

"Oh, what fun!

Nice plum bun!
How I wish
It never was done!"

I went to bed, and on the morrow another corpse, that of Tim, lay on the floor of the bottle. His expression was placid as in life, and there was that beast of a fly, whom I described before, sucking at the old wound.

Days went on, and Esau's digestion seemed a laborious process. I watched with eagerness to see whether he would lay his hands on his companion by force or fraud. The spider lay immovable, the fly was idly busy in security.

Now, the utter disregard of decency paraded by that fly would have sent a cold shiver down the spine of any proper-minded person. He hustled the corpses of his brethren who were dead. He was constantly trying to extract from their bodies what juices the spider had left. He turned them on their stomachs. He turned them on their backs. He had no regard whatever for the deceased.

I sat in my arm-chair and pondered over the levity of that wretch till the dinner-bell rang, and I went sorrowfully to my evening meal. "How much superior am I to that fly! If a steak from one of my fellow-creatures were laid before me, I should reject it with abhorrence," thought I, "even if it were garnished with the savory onion or the mushroom—ay, even if it were relished with oyster-sauce and the tenderest asparagus. It is only the worst grades of life which can feed upon their kind."

We had chickens for dinner. The liver wing was excellent, and the en-dedans of the back afforded pleasant picking. I begged the maid to preserve the bones for a broken-legged dog whom I had adopted.

My plate was brought on to the lawn, and on it were the remains of the fowls; and the dog was carried out with all care to enjoy his meal on the grass. Poor old thing! His tail wagged with a steady flap, his eyes glistened softly, his neck was outstretched, and his nose was agitated with a delicate twitching till he was placed beside his repast. Then he fell-to, and with admirable judgment selected the most meaty morsels to commence with.

It was lucky that he had finished two pinions, for "the Philistines were upon him." A pea-hen close by heard the crunching. She listened. Curiosity seized her, and she looked at the eater, first with one eye, then with the other. (That was mere coquetry, as it gave her an opportunity of showing off the graceful movements of her neck.) She approached a few steps with stagy dignity; she saw there was food, and the bird of Juno, forgetting her state, ran with an ungainly and slop-slap step toward the plate.

The bird was large and powerful, and the dog was small and an invalid. He therefore secured the best advantages that the circumstances afforded, and sneaked off on three legs with a drumstick.

"Gristle?" quoth the pea-hen; "excellent! Tendon? better still."—Gaup, gaup.—"A small bone? 'twill do me no harm." Down it went.—"A little picking?"—peck, peck.

"Thou cannibal!" thought I, "those are the remains of thy companions of the farm-yard. That fly is not so unnatural, after all. I will let it go."

My resolution was short-lived. Two hours ago there were but a spider and a fly and a piece of paper in the glass jar. Now my friend the spider was evidently getting hungry, and he was exerting himself. Two strong cords were drawn from the paper to the bottom of the jar, and Esau meant business. His spinnerets were turgid, his aspect was determined, and steadily and slowly he commenced to make a web. Now and then the fly took a walk and broke through a strand or two. They stuck to his legs, and annoyed him. With a little difficulty the films were got rid of, but consternation began to seize the fly's mind, and he resolved to move from the scene of operations. He took up his quarters on the muslin which covered the neck of the jar.

Next morning the fly's head hung like a Bulgarian atrocity in the web, his body lay at the mouth of the spider's den. During the night Esau had made a cavern of cobweb.

It is the duty of the historian to adhere to the truth, even if it casts a slur on his favorite theories, and blasts his reputation as an observer.

Esau was not a male: he was a lady.

One day, while feeding the beast, I noticed that the den in the corner had been extended into a passage with two openings, and in the passage wall was a spot thicker and more opaque than the rest of the building. This I surmised was a deposit of eggs, and I afterward found that I was right.

Still, I had named the animal; and, on the principle of the parson who insisted on christening the little girl John, I adhered to the original appellation. Hitherto the spider had discovered none of the attributes proverbial to her sex, and I did not feel justified in naming her Lucy or Maria.

There were warm days that year, when the air smelled of clover, and flies came out plentifully, and Esau was fed on all available insects that had wings. The house-fly was her staple food, although she regarded small moths as delicacies, and thought midges and small gnats were toothsome articles of diet; but her soul loathed blue-bottles. They were to her what caviare and absinthe are to the uneducated. If a blue-bottle was put into her net she bound it down with many strands of cobweb, and killed it, and, before the animal had ceased to quiver, cast it from her web with evident repugnance. Beetles she did not care for, as they broke her web; but money-spinners she tolerated. Daddy-long-legs fell an easy prey to her, although she did not relish them. That I know, because she never took their carcasses to her cave.

By way of a treat I once offered her a small earth-worm. It wriggled and writhed, lengthened itself and shortened itself, assumed the shape of a corkscrew, and tied itself up into knots. Esau sought refuge in her house, and stuck her head out to watch these strange manœuvres. At first, she was as still as possible; then there was an oscillatory movement of the palpi. She generally did that when she was getting up her pluck. Then she made a rapid rush to within an inch of the worm, and reconnoitred again. She was not satisfied, and retired a second time to think the matter out. The worm, in the mean time, either got tired of struggling, or else philosophically arrived at the conclusion that he could make himself as comfortable in a cobweb as in any other place. The period of rest was fatal. Esau darted on her prey and stuck her mandibles into him. Vainly did the worm try to charm the enemy by tickling her with the end of his tail. Esau held on like a vice. The worm tried to encircle her body with furtive gyrations. Esau had no inclination to play at Laocoon, and eluded the strategy of his prey. That worm gave in.

I began to get tired of my pet. She was getting fat; and the fatter she grew the more ferocious she became. I sought another spider, and found one smaller than the one I possessed. To my mind it was of the same species, but from its size I imagined it was a male. "I will be the historian of the loves of spiders," I said. "Their domestic happiness shall be a moral to mankind. Two spiders together will give me an opportunity of making fresh observations."

I was not disappointed, but my researches gave a result that I had not anticipated.

When I put my finger near the new spider he gathered his legs together, and assumed an abject attitude; perhaps it was a simulation of death. Anyway, the position gave me the idea of meanness and knavery; so I called him Uriah Heep, because he was "so 'umble."

"Esau," I said, with befitting solemnity, "wilt thou take Uriah to be thy wedded husband?" I dropped him into the jar. The lady was sitting in her web; but she bolted into her chamber the moment she felt the impulse of the fresh arrival.

"Ah," thought I, "she is parading her coyness."

Uriah did not seem at his ease, and, leaving the cobweb, he took up a position between the paper and the wall of the jar. Esau protruded what ought to have been her nose—had she belonged to a higher species—from the doorway of her sanctum. There was evident uneasiness on both sides.

Now, I do not believe that these two creatures slept for two days and two nights. They regarded each other with profound suspicion. I put flies into the jar. They would not be allured by food. If one moved the twentieth part of an inch, the other altered its attitude to a similar degree. If Esau wished to get out of her apartment, Uriah occupied a different strategical position. It was a period of brain-tension, watchfulness, and terror.

On the third morning I found Uriah had fallen a victim. His thorax was separated from his abdomen, his legs were disarticulated and scattered, and Esau sat on her perch, placid and contented, the mistress of the situation.

Spiders of both sexes and of every shade of opinion successively shared the captivity of Esau, and they all shared the fate of Uriah. The blood of Mr. Heep had whetted the appetite of the Amazon, and she increased in valor and ferocity. She gauged the strength of her opponent with infallible precision. Now she would use all the arts of strategy; now she would trust to the prestige of victorious arms. Her jar became a very charnel-house of the remains of her kind. A battle occasionally took place, but superior strength and agility made Esau victress. As a rule, however, the new intruder said Kismet the moment it was seized, and resigned itself to fate.

I have yet to relate the most interesting part of my narrative. Pardon me whispering, reader; but Esau has yet to become a mother. The queen of the pickle-jar, who directed the destinies of her subjects—and I must say she directed them in pretty much the same direction—was herself to become the slave of a numerous progeny. It has been an enigma to me who the sire of that progeny could have been.

"No scandal against Queen Elizabeth, I hope?"

Reader, I assure you, my duties are those of a grave historian. I am no carrier of tattle.

It has been an enigma to me (allow me to resume the subject) who the sire of that progeny could have been. Perhaps it was some spider of ancient lineage, who did valiant battle in his ancestral cobwebs against predatory wasps. Perhaps he had won Esau's young affections, and become master of her charms. Perhaps it was some errant knight, who had vowed the extermination of the whole race of parasites which infest the spider's body. Perhaps it was some wealthy spider, who owned vast demesnes of netting, which extended over many a rafter, and offered hunting-ground for many a retainer. Perhaps her spouse was remarkable for his personal beauty, and had carried off her heart by his comeliness. I know that no spider base-born could have been the father of her offspring. Her behavior to Uriah Heep forbids so gross a surmisal.

Then, how was it that she was alone on the hat-peg? The aristocrat might have spurned her from his home from the prospect of a more advantageous alliance. The enthusiast might have doubted her intensity, and so deserted her. Dives might have been jealous, and have procured an act of separation; Adonis probably spirited away by some light of love.

Her history is open to conjecture alone. The fact remains, that she laid eggs, and they were hatched.

If my memory be not deceived, the small spiders appeared a fortnight or three weeks after I first noticed the eggs. When first born, they were small, yellowy-white, and indefinite, like cheese-mites—just what one would imagine spider-babydom to be. They moved at a pace almost imperceptible from its slowness, and their gait was weak and vacillating. As well as I could make out with the naked eye, they were constantly tumbling on their sides for the first few days. They seemed to meet with obstacles which are not apparent to our gross vision.

I thought the sun would be grateful to them, and their jar was placed on the window-sill. Either the warmth suited them, or baby spiders gain strength rapidly; for, before three days were over, Esau's offspring became marvels of agility. When they were at one end of the piece of paper, urgent business called them to the opposite extremity of the cone, and they ran as fast as their small legs could carry them. If they were on the floor of their home, urgent reasons induced them to promenade the ceiling. Occasionally one little chap would take a long journey around the floor of the jar, while another would start off on a commission of inquiry, and investigate the construction of the cobweb with the minutest care. A third would mount its mother's back, and crawl over her out of sheer curiosity. No pair of them ever seemed to do the same thing at the same time. I never saw them feed; but during the next week or two they increased in size and strength. Esau contemplated them with pleasure; her character was softened. Dozens of flies were put into the jar, but few were killed. Some became entangled and died in the toils, but the majority occupied the top of the jar, and especially affected the muslin doorway, which was moistened for their delectation with sugar and water.

The time for my summer holidays arrived, and I started for the south, leaving Esau to look after the house.

The friendship I had struck up with spiders certainly increased the pleasure of my trip. I found my friends in numbers everywhere I went. They were on the shady side of dock-leaves. They floated in the air and settled on my hat, and were carried off by the next breath of breeze. I found their webs in profusion between the branches of a monkey-tree in the garden; and in the corn-fields myriads of these small creatures trapped flies that were almost microscopic. On the sandy slopes of the sea-shore, cobwebs were among the gorse-bushes. The diadem spiders in the rose-trees vied with each other in the regularity of their nets, and every barn was rich in arachnean architecture. I had heard of water-spiders, and I hunted for them assiduously in every pool and stream in the neighborhood, but with no success. I found no water-spiders, but I became the possessor of many inhabitants of the ponds.

Three weeks passed too quickly, and I had to return to my work and to Esau. Alas! what a lamentable sight met my eyes! Esau was dead, and her children were certainly fatter than when I left. I could arrive at but one conclusion. The dauntless adventuress who had gloried in murder and fratricide had become the victim of misplaced love. Those little wretches whom she had brought into the world, and cared for and nurtured, had turned upon her and slain her and sucked her life-blood. Ah, poor mother, thy antecedents might not have been good! Possibly thou mightest have dined off thy husband or thy paramour—certainly thou hast waged unnatural though valiant war against thy kind; still, that was no reason why thou shouldst have been sacrificed by thy offspring in the bloom of thy maturity.—Gentleman's Magazine.