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    Wasps and Men

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    Chapter 33
    Previous Chapter
    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.
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