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A Wasp At Table


Even to a naturalist with a tolerant feeling for all living things,
both great and small, it is not always an unmixed pleasure to have a
wasp at table. I have occasionally felt a considerable degree of
annoyance at the presence of a self-invited guest of that kind.

Some time ago when walking I sat down at noon on a fallen tree-trunk to
eat my luncheon, which consisted of a hunk of cake and some bananas.
The wind carried the fragrance of the fruit into the adjacent wood, and
very soon wasps began to arrive, until there were fifteen or twenty
about me. They were so aggressive and greedy, almost following every
morsel I took into my mouth, that I determined to let them have as much
as they wanted--_and something more_! I proceeded to make a mash
of the ripest portions of the fruit mixed with whisky from my pocket-
flask, and spread it nicely on the bark. At once they fell on it with
splendid appetites, but to my surprise the alcohol produced no effect.
I have seen big locusts and other important insects tumbling about and
acting generally as if demented after a few sips of rum and sugar, but
these wasps, when they had had their full of banana and whisky, buzzed
about and came and went and quarrelled with one another just as usual,
and when I parted from them there was not one of the company who could
be said to be the worse for liquor. Probably there is no more steady-
headed insect than the wasp, unless it be his noble cousin and prince,
the hornet, who has a quite humanlike unquenchable thirst for beer and
cider.

But the particular wasp at table I had in my mind remains to be spoken
of. I was lunching at the house of a friend, the vicar of a lonely
parish in Hampshire, and besides ourselves there were five ladies, four
of them young, at our round table. The window stood open, and by-and-by
a wasp flew in and began to investigate the dishes, the plates, then
the eaters themselves, impartially buzzing before each face in turn. On
his last round, before taking his departure, he continued to buzz so
long before my face, first in front of one eye then the other, as if to
make sure that they were fellows and had the same expression, that I at
length impatiently remarked that I did not care for his too flattering
attentions. And that was really the only inconsiderate or inhospitable
word his visit had called forth. Yet there were, I have said, five
ladies present! They had neither welcomed nor repelled him, and had not
regarded him; and although it was impossible to be unconscious of his
presence at table, it was as if he had not been there. But then these
ladies were cyclists: one, in addition to the beautiful brown colour
with which the sun had painted her face, showed some dark and purple
stains on cheek and forehead--marks of a resent dangerous collision
with a stone wall at the foot of a steep hill.

Here I had intended telling about other meetings with other wasps, but
having touched on a subject concerning which nothing is ever said and
volumes might be written--namely, the Part played by the bicycle in the
emancipation of women--I will go on with it. That they are not really
emancipated doesn't matter, since they move towards that goal, and
doubtless they would have gone on at the same old, almost imperceptible
rate for long years but for the sudden impulse imparted by the wheel.
Middle-aged people can recall how all England held up its hands and
shouted "No, no!" from shore to shore at the amazing and upsetting
spectacle of a female sitting astride on a safety machine, indecently
moving her legs up and down just like a man. But having tasted the
delights of swift easy motion, imparted not by any extraneous agency,
but--oh, sweet surprise!--by her own in-dwelling physical energy, she
refused to get off. By staying on she declared her independence; and we
who were looking on--some of us--rejoiced to see it; for did we not
also see, when these venturesome leaders returned to us from careering
unattended over the country, when easy motion had tempted them long
distances into strange, lonely places, where there was no lover nor
brother nor any chivalrous person to guard and rescue them from
innumerable perils--from water and fire, mad bulls and ferocious dogs,
and evil-minded tramps and drunken, dissolute men, and from all
venomous, stinging, creeping, nasty, horrid things--did we not see that
they were no longer the same beings we had previously known, that in
their long flights in heat and cold and rain and wind and dust they had
shaken off some ancient weakness that was theirs, that without loss of
femininity they had become more like ourselves in the sense that they
were more self-centred and less irrational?

But women, alas! can seldom follow up a victory. They are, as even the
poet when most anxious to make the best of them mournfully confesses:

variable as the shade
By the light quivering aspen made.

Inconstant in everything, they soon cast aside the toy which had taught
them so great a lesson and served them so well, carrying them so far in
the direction they wished to go. And no sooner had they cast it aside
than a fresh toy, another piece of mechanism, came on the scene to
captivate their hearts, and instead of a help, to form a hindrance. The
motor not only carried them back over all the ground they had covered
on the bicycle, but further still, almost back to the times of chairs
and fans and smelling-salts and sprained ankles at Lyme Regis. A
painful sight was the fair lady not yet forty and already fat,
overclothed and muffled up in heavy fabrics and furs, a Pekinese
clasped in her arms, reclining in her magnificent forty-horse-power car
with a man (_Homo sapiens_) in livery to drive her from shop to
shop and house to house. One could shut one's eyes until it passed--
shut them a hundred or five hundred times a day in every thoroughfare
in every town in England; but alas! one couldn't shut out the fact that
this spectacle had fascinated and made captive the soul of womankind,
that it was now their hope, their dream, their beautiful ideal--the one
universal ideal that made all women sisters, from the greatest ladies
in the land downwards, and still down, from class to class, even to the
semi-starved ragged little pariah girl scrubbing the front steps of a
house in Mean Street for a penny.

The splendid spectacle has now been removed from their sight, but is it
out of mind? Are they not waiting and praying for the war to end so
that there may be petrol to buy and men returned from the front to cast
off their bloodstained clothes and wash and bleach their blackened
faces, to put themselves in a pretty livery and drive the ladies and
their Pekinese once more?

A friend of mine once wrote a charming booklet entitled _Wheel
Magic_, which was all about his rambles on the machine and its
effect on him. He is not an athlete--on the contrary he is a bookish
man who has written books enough to fill a cart, and has had so much to
do with books all his life that one might imagine he had by some
strange accident been born in the reading-room of the British Museum;
or that originally he had actually been a bookworm, a sort of mite,
spontaneously engendered between the pages of a book, and that the
supernatural being who presides over the reading-room had, as a little
pleasantry, transformed him into a man so as to enable him to read the
books on which he had previously nourished himself.

I can't follow my friend's wanderings and adventures as, springing out
of his world of books, he flits and glides like a vagrant, swift-
winged, irresponsible butterfly about the land, sipping the nectar from
a thousand flowers and doing his hundred miles in a day and feeling all
the better for it, for this was a man's book, and the wheel and its
magic was never a necessity in man's life. But it has a magic of
another kind for woman, and I wish that some woman of genius would
arise and, inspired perhaps by the ghost of Benjamin Ward Richardson in
his prophetic mood, tell of this magic to her sisters. Tell them, if
they are above labour in the fields or at the wash-tub, that the wheel,
without fatiguing, will give them the deep breath which will purify the
blood, invigorate the heart, stiffen the backbone, harden the muscles;
that the mind will follow and accommodate itself to these physical
changes; finally, that the wheel will be of more account to them than
all the platforms in the land, and clubs of all the pioneers and
colleges, all congresses, titles, honours, votes, and all the books
that have been or ever will be written.

W. H. Hudson