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Wasps and Men


I now find that I must go back to the subject of my last paper on the
wasp in order to define my precise attitude towards that insect. Then,
too, there was another wasp at table, not in itself a remarkably
interesting incident, but I am anxious to relate it for the following
reason.

If there is one sweetest thought, one most cherished memory in a man's
mind, especially if he be a person of gentle pacific disposition, whose
chief desire is to live in peace and amity with all men, it is the
thought and recollection of a good fight in which he succeeded in
demolishing his adversary. If his fights have been rare adventures and
in most cases have gone against him, so much the more will he rejoice
in that one victory.

It chanced that a wasp flew into the breakfast room of a country house
in which I was a guest, when we were all--about fourteen in number,
mostly ladies, young and middle-aged--seated at the table. The wasp
went his rounds in the usual way, dropping into this or that plate or
dish, feeling foods with his antennae or tasting with his tongue, but
staying nowhere, and as he moved so did the ladies, starting back with
little screams and exclamations of disgust and apprehension. For these
ladies, it hardly need be said, were not cyclists. Then the son of the
house, a young gentleman of twenty-two, a footballer and general
athlete, got up, pushed back his chair and said: "Don't worry, I'll
soon settle his hash."

Then I too rose from my seat, for I had made a vow not to allow a wasp
to be killed unnecessarily in my presence.

"Leave it to me, please," I said, "and I'll put him out in a minute."

"No, sit down," he returned. "I have said I'm going to kill it."

"You shall not," I returned; and then the two of us, serviettes in
hand, went for the wasp, who got frightened and flew all round the
room, we after it. After some chasing he rose high and then made a dash
at the window, but instead of making its escape at the lower open part,
struck the glass.

"Now I've got him!" cried my sportsman in great glee; but he had not
got him, for I closed with him, and we swayed about and put forth all
our strength, and finally came down with a crash on a couch under the
window. Then after some struggling I succeeded in getting on top, and
with my right hand on his face and my knee on his body to keep him
pressed down, I managed with my left hand to capture the wasp and put
him out.

Then we got up--he with a scarlet face, furious at being baulked; but
he was a true sportsman, and without one word went back to his seat at
the table.

Undoubtedly it was a disgraceful scene in a room full of ladies, but
he, not I, provoked it and was the ruffian, as I'm sure he will be
ready to confess if he ever reads this.

But why all this fuss over a wasp's life, and in such circumstances, in
a room full of nervous ladies, in a house where I was a guest? It was
not that I care more for a wasp than for any other living creature--I
don't love them in the St. Francis way; the wasp is not my little
sister; but I hate to see any living creature unnecessarily,
senselessly, done to death. There are other creatures I can see killed
without a qualm--flies, for instance, especially houseflies and the big
blue-bottle; these are, it was formerly believed, the progeny of Satan,
and modern scientists are inclined to endorse that ancient notion. The
wasp is a redoubtable fly-killer, and apart from his merits, he is a
perfect and beautiful being, and there is no more sense in killing him
than in destroying big game and a thousand beautiful wild creatures
that are harmless to man. Yet this habit of killing a wasp is so
common, ingrained as it were, as to be almost universal among us, and
is found in the gentlest and humanest person, and even the most
spiritual-minded men come to regard it as a sort of religious duty and
exercise, as the incident I am going to relate will show.

I came to Salisbury one day to find it full of visitors, but I
succeeded in getting a room in one of the small family hotels. I was
told by the landlord that a congress was being held, got up by the
Society for the pursuit or propagation of Holiness, and that delegates,
mostly evangelical clergymen and ministers of the gospel of all
denominations, with many lay brothers, had come in from all over the
kingdom and were holding meetings every day and all day long at one of
the large halls. The three bedrooms on the same floor with mine, he
said, were all occupied by delegates who had travelled from the extreme
north of England.

In the evening I met these three gentlemen and heard all about their
society and congress and its aim and work from them.

Next morning at about half-past six I was roused from sleep by a
tremendous commotion in the room adjoining mine: cries and shouts,
hurried trampings over the floor, blows on walls and windows and the
crash of overthrown furniture. However, before I could shake my sleep
off and get up to find out the cause, there were shouts of laughter, a
proof that no one had been killed or seriously injured, and I went to
sleep again.

At breakfast we met once more, and I was asked if I had been much
disturbed by the early morning noise and excitement. They proceeded to
explain that a wasp had got into the room of their friend--indicating
the elderly gentleman who had taken the head of the table; and as he
was an invalid and afraid of being stung, he had shouted to them to
come to his aid. They had tumbled out of bed and rushed in, and before
beginning operations had made him cover his face and head with the
bedclothes, after which they started hunting the wasp. But he was too
clever for them. They threw things at him and struck at him with their
garments, pillows, slippers, whatever came to hand, and still he
escaped, and in rushing round in their excitement everything in the
room except the bedstead was overthrown. At last the wasp, tired out or
terrified dropped to the floor, and they were on him like a shot and
smashed him with the slippers they had in their hands.

"And you call yourselves religious men!" I remarked when they had
finished their story and looked at me expecting me to say something.

They stared astonished at me, then exchanged glances and burst out
laughing, and laughed as if they had heard something too excruciatingly
funny. The elderly clergyman who had been saved from the winged man-
eating dragon that had invaded his room managed at last to recover his
gravity, and his friends followed suit; they then all three silently
looked at me again as if they expected to hear something more.

Not to disappoint them, I started telling them about the life and work
of a famous nobleman, one of England's great pro-consuls, who for many
years had ruled over various countries in distant regions of the earth,
and many barbarous and semi-savage nations, by whom he was regarded,
for his wisdom and justice and sympathy with the people he governed,
almost as a god. This great man, who was now living in retirement at
home, had just founded a Society for the Protection of Wasps, and had
so far admitted two of his friends who were in sympathy with his
objects to membership. As soon as I heard of the society I had sent in
an application to be admitted, too, and felt it would be a proud day
for me if the founder considered me worthy of being the fourth member.

Having concluded my remarks, the three religious gentlemen, who had
listened attentively and seriously to my praises of the great pro-
consul, once more exchanged glances and again burst out laughing, and
continued laughing, rocking in their chairs with laughter, until they
could laugh no more for exhaustion, and the elderly gentleman removed
his spectacles to wipe the tears from his eyes.

Such extravagant mirth surprised me in that grey-haired man who was
manifestly in very bad health, yet had travelled over three hundred
miles from his remote Cumberland parish to give the benefit of his
burning thoughts to his fellow-seekers after holiness congregated at
Salisbury from all parts of the country.

The gust of merriment having blown its fill, ending quite naturally in
"minute drops from off the eaves," I gravely wished them good-bye and
left the room. They did not know, they never suspected that the
amusement had been on both sides, and that despite their laughter it
had been ten times greater on mine than on theirs.

I can't in conclusion resist the temptation to tell just one more wasp
incident, although I fear it will hurt the tender-hearted and religious
reader's susceptibilities more than any of those I have already told.
But it will be told briefly, without digression and moralisings.

We have come to regard Nature as a sort of providence who is mindful of
us and recompenses us according to what our lives are--whether we
worship her and observe her ordinances or find our pleasure in breaking
them and mocking her who will not be mocked. But it is sad for those
who have the feeling of kinship for all living things, both great and
small, from the whale and the elephant down even to the harvest mouse
and beetle and humble earthworm, to know that killing--killing for
sport or fun--is not forbidden in her decalogue. If the killing at home
is not sufficient to satisfy a man, he can transport himself to the
Dark Continent and revel in the slaughter of all the greatest and
noblest forms of life on the globe. There is no crime and no punishment
and no comfort to those who are looking on, except some on exceedingly
rare occasion when we receive a thrill of joy at the lamentable tidings
of the violent death of some noble young gentleman beloved of everybody
and a big-game hunter, who was elephant-shooting, when one of the great
brutes, stung to madness by his wounds, turned, even when dying, on his
persecutor and trampled him to death.

In a small, pretty, out-of-the-world village in the West of England I
made the acquaintance of the curate, a boyish young fellow not long
from Oxford, who was devoted to sport and a great killer. He was not
satisfied with cricket and football in their seasons and golf and lawn
tennis--he would even descend to croquet when there was nothing else--
and boxing and fencing, and angling in the neighbouring streams, but he
had to shoot something every day as well. And it was noticed by the
villagers that the shooting fury was always strongest on him on
Mondays. They said it was a reaction; that after the restraint of
Sunday with its three services, especially the last when he was
permitted to pour out his wild curatical eloquence, the need of doing
something violent and savage was most powerful; that he had, so to say,
to wash out the Sunday taste with blood.

One August, on one of these Mondays, he was dodging along a hedge-side
with his gun trying to get a shot at some bird, when he unfortunately
thrust his foot into a populous wasps' nest, and the infuriated wasps
issued in a cloud and inflicted many stings on his head and face and
neck and hands, and on other parts of his anatomy where they could
thrust their little needles through his clothes.

This mishap was the talk of the village. "Never mind," they said
cheerfully--they were all very cheerful over it--"he's a good sports-
man, and like all of that kind, hard as nails, and he'll soon be all
right, making a joke of it."

The result "proved the rogues, they lied," that he was not hard as
nails, but from that day onwards was a very poor creature indeed. The
brass and steel wires in his system had degenerated into just those
poor little soft grey threads which others have and are subject to many
fantastical ailments. He fell into a nervous condition and started and
blanched and was confused when suddenly hailed or spoken to even by
some harmless old woman. He trembled at a shadow, and the very sight
and sound of a wasp in the breakfast room when he was trying to eat a
little toast and marmalade filled him, thrilled him, with fantastic
terrors never felt before. And in vain to still the beating of his
heart he would sit repeating: "It's only a wasp and nothing more." Then
some of the parishioners who loved animals, for there are usually one
or two like that in a village, began to say that it was a "judgment" on
him, that old Mother Nature, angry at the persecutions of her feathered
children by this young cleric who was supposed to be a messenger of
mercy, had revenged herself on him in that way, using her little yellow
insects as her ministers.

W. H. Hudson