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Character in Spiders



I AM no naturalist, yet I have learned something of creature life. This has been, usually, not from books, but from first-hand observation; and I once made an experiment that resulted in conclusions in which I still take pleasure and, I hope, profit.

I went, for a matter of unpacking, to a house in the country which had not been lived in by human mortals for some months. The parlors have long French windows that open inward. I went with the intention of opening one of these and found that one of the two large lower panes was usurped entirely by two spiders. They were not of imposing species either in size or in workmanship. They were small creatures and their web, separate at the top of the pane, but joined at the bottom, testified rather to industry than art. Here was no careful or geometrical construction, but rather a tiny crisscrossing of threads and fibers resulting in what, in the spider textile trade, if there be such, would be looked on as a fairly solid gossamer. Here and there long cables or tent ropes, or whatever you have a mind to call them, held the web taut on to the sides of the casement in a most precautious and safe manner.

Presently you saw the object of all this care. In the upper right-hand corner and in the upper left-hand corner hung the treasure for which all this existed, bunches of those little nearly round paperlike sacks in which these Arachnes had carefully stowed away those tiny eggs which were warrant that this particular race of spiders in that locality should not perish from the earth.

For a long while I looked at them, and noted all the detail of their arrangement and security. For by strands and cables and weavings and cords they were indeed made as safe as spiders could spiderly make them. Here on their own scale, at least, was absolute security. Indeed, they were so secure that the spiders themselves had both traveled far from them, to the lower parts of the webs, and were giving them, I believe, not a single thought; off, bent on other things, and without a particle of anxiety for the young fry left suspended so neatly in those little prenatal cradles.

Then a giant thought came into my head as to these extremely diminutive people. Were they really capable of feeling secure as to these babies, or was it mere instinct to suspend them there in security and then go on about the other business of their lives? I had a lead pencil in my hand. I bent over and with it touched the so fine silvery fabric of the web, ever so delicately; but even the most delicate touch shook it to its farthest limits.

Immediately both the mothers—for so I take them to have been—fled, sped, climbed, with startling swiftness to those upper chambers where swung the cradles, put themselves in defensive position before them, and remained so for what must have been, I think, by spider clocks, several hours.

Presently, when the swaying had ceased, they both ventured forth to inquire into and examine the damage of this earthquake, or whatever had threatened the safety of their progeny.

They found the spot where the pencil had slightly loosened and damaged the web; probably had a good deal to say about it to each other; and began industriously to mend it.

It is not altogether pleasant to tell the rest of this tale, because my own part in it will no doubt appear to all but the scientific uncommendable. With the same intent of observation I repeated the earthquake, this time gently ("ah, gently! indeed!" I can hear one of them saying); yes, gently, tearing away one of the main cables.

Again they flew home, all anxiety and determination to defend those defenseless children. Again, after a longer interval this time, they left them to mend matters as best they could. I experimented again. By this time my experiments were drawing nearer to the cradles. I thought once I detected in one of the mothers a hint of thought of herself. She turned and ran away from her cradles rather than toward them, then recovered herself, faced about, and flew once more to defend them. The other mother was of sturdier character. She did not swerve. At the slightest threat of disaster back she went, swifter each time, it seemed to me, as though danger made her only the more efficient.

But the nerve of the other was evidently being broken by renewed calamity. More and more she hesitated in her purpose; more and more thought of her own safety crept into her reactions to the strain. Not until the other one had been several seconds in her position of defense did the second one arrive at hers.

By and by she began definitely to fail.

Why draw out the story? It ended finally by the one mother clinging to the defense of her tiny cradles, while the world of spiderdom rocked about her; and by the other one abandoning hers and seeking safety for herself in escape up, up the casement and away.

Whether the one mother took charge of both broods after that I do not know, or whether the other came back restored and repentant; but I myself was perhaps not so repentant as I should have been had I been less aware of the treasure which I had, at the expense of the temporary comfort of these little creatures, secured to myself and I may hope to others. For here beyond dispute, in this tiny and usually despised order of creation, was something answering to what we in our larger and more arrogant sphere have presumed to call character. So alike they were, these two tiny creatures, that probably even under the microscope no difference could have been detected in them; yet as different they were, nevertheless, as the two mothers who came before Solomon.

No doubt in their courts I might have been arraigned for a cruel creature; yet I came away a reverent and not less a humble one.

A great man has declared that two things forever struck him newly with awe—the starry heavens and the moral principle in man. How far, how far, I wonder, does the moral principle extend, and where are its remote beginnings? Personality, character, and infinite diversity, what are they? Whence are they called, and by what means attained? All that which adds flavor, variety, distinction, and a million, million treasures to the universe—what determines it? And who knows, remembering those two tiny creatures, the one faithful, the other not, how little and how small a thing is human blame in the midst of this vast variety.

There are many, many things I would not dare to call great; but yet many millions more I would not presume to think insignificant.

And you, neighbor?

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1957, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.