|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
NE morning, Mother Ambroisine was chopping herbs and cooked
apples for a brood of little chickens hatched not long
before. A large gray spider, letting itself slide the length
of its thread,
descended from the ceiling to the good
woman's shoulders. At sight of the creature with long
velvety legs, Mother Ambroisine could not suppress a cry of
fear, and, shaking her shoulder, made the insect fall, and
crushed it under her foot. "Spider in the morning stands for
mourning," said she to herself. At this instant Uncle Paul
and Claire entered.
"No, sir, it is not right," said Mother Ambroisine, "that we
poor mortals should have so much useless trouble. Twelve
little chickens are hatched out for us, bright as gold; and
just as I am preparing them something to eat, a villainous
spider falls on my shoulder."
And Mother Ambroisine pointed with her finger at the crushed
insect with its legs still trembling.
"I do not see that those little chickens have anything to
fear from the spider," remarked Uncle Paul.
 "Oh! nothing, sir: the horrid creature is dead. But you know
the proverb: 'Spider in the morning, mourning; spider at
night, delight.' Everybody knows that a spider seen in the
morning is a sign of bad luck. Our little chickens are in
danger; the cats will claw them.
sir, you'll see."
Tears of emotion came to Mother Ambroisine's eyes.
"Put the little chickens in a safe place, watch the cats,
and I will answer for the rest. The proverb of the spider is
only a foolish prejudice," said Uncle Paul.
Mother Ambroisine did not utter another word. She knew that
Maître Paul found a reason for everything, and on
occasion was capable of pronouncing a eulogy on the spider.
Claire, who saw this eulogy coming, ventured a question.
"I know: in your eyes all animals, however hideous they may
be, have excellent excuses to plead: all merit
consideration; all play a part ordained by Providence; all
are interesting to observe and to study. You are the
advocate of the good God's creatures; you would plead for
the toad. But permit your niece to see there only an impulse
of your kind heart, and not the real truth. What could you
say in praise of the spider, horrid beast, which is
poisonous and disfigures the ceiling with its webs?"
"What could I say? Much, my dear child, much. In the
meantime, feed your little chickens and beware of cats if
you want to prove the spider proverb false."
In the evening Mother Ambroisine, her large
 round spectacles
on her nose, was knitting stockings. On her knees the cat
slept and mingled its purring with the tick-tack of the
needles. The children were waiting for the story of the
spider. Their uncle began.
"Which of you three can tell me what spiders do with their
webs, those fine webs stretched in the corners of the
granary or between two shrubs in the garden?"
Emile spoke first. "It is their nest, Uncle, their house,
"Hiding place!" exclaimed Jules; "yes, I think it is more
than that. One day I heard, between the lilac branches, a
little shrill noise—he-e-e-e! A blue fly was entangled in
a cobweb and trying to escape. It was the fly that was
making the noise with its fluttering. A spider ran from the
bottom of the silken funnel, seized the fly, and carried it
off to its hole, doubtless to eat it. Since then I have
thought spiders' webs were hunting nets."
"That is even so," said his uncle. "All spiders live on live
prey; they make continual war on flies, gnats, and other
insects. If you fear mosquitoes, those insufferable little
insects that sting us at night until they bring blood, you
must bless the spider, for it does its best to rid us of
them. To catch game, a net is necessary. Now, the net to
catch flies in their flight is a cloth woven with silk,
which the spider itself produces.
"In the body of the insect the silky matter is, as with
caterpillars, a sticky liquid resembling glue or gum. As
soon as it comes in contact with the air,
 this matter
congeals, hardens, and becomes a thread on which water has
no effect. When the spider wants to spin, the silk liquid
flows from four nipples, called spinnerets, placed at the
end of the stomach. These nipples are pierced at their
extremity by a number of holes, like the sprinkler of a
watering-pot. The number of these holes for all the nipples
is roughly reckoned as a thousand. Each one lets its tiny
little jet of liquid flow, which hardens and becomes thread;
and from a thousand threads stuck together into one results
the final thread employed by the spider. To designate
something very fine there is no better term of comparison
than the spider's thread. It is so delicate, in fact, that
it can only just be seen. Our silk threads, those of the
finest textures, are cables in comparison, cables of two,
three, four strands, while this one, in its unequaled
tenuity, contains a thousand. How many spiders' threads are
required to make a strand of the thickness of a hair? Not
far from ten. And how many elementary threads, such as issue
from the separate holes of the spinneret? Ten thousand. To
what a degree of tenuity then this silky matter can be
reduced that stretches out in threads of which it takes ten
thousand to equal the size of one hair! What marvels, my
children, and only to catch a fly that is to serve for the
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