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The Life of the Spider by  Jean Henri Fabre

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CHAPTER XVI

THE CLOTHO SPIDER

[360]

S
HE is named Durand’s Clotho (Clotho Durandi, LATR.), in memory of him who first called attention to this particular Spider. To enter on eternity under the safe-conduct of a diminutive animal which saves us from speedy oblivion under the mallows and rockets is no contemptible advantage. Most men disappear without leaving an echo to repeat their name; they lie buried in forgetfulness, the worst of graves.

Others, among the naturalists, benefit by the designation given to this or that object in life’s treasure-house: it is the skiff wherein they keep afloat for a brief while. A patch of lichen on the bark of an old tree, a blade of grass, a puny beastie: any one of these hands down a man’s name to posterity as effectively as a new comet. For all its abuses, this manner of honouring the departed is eminently respectable. If we would carve an epitaph of some duration, what could we find [361] better than a Beetle’s wing-case, a Snail’s shell or a Spider’s web? Granite is worth none of them. Entrusted to the hard stone, an inscription becomes obliterated; entrusted to a Butterfly’s wing, it is indestructible. ‘Durand,’ therefore, by all means.

But why drag in ‘Clotho’? Is it the whim of a nomenclator, at a loss for words to denote the ever-swelling tide of beasts that require cataloguing? Not entirely. A mythological name came to his mind, one which sounded well and which, moreover, was not out of place in designating a spinstress. The Clotho of antiquity is the youngest of the three Fates; she holds the distaff whence our destinies are spun, a distaff wound with plenty of rough flocks, just a few shreds of silk and, very rarely, a thin strand of gold.

Prettily shaped and clad, as far as a Spider can be, the Clotho of the naturalists is, above all, a highly talented spinstress; and this is the reason why she is called after the distaff-bearing deity of the infernal regions. It is a pity that the analogy extends no further. The mythological Clotho, niggardly with her silk and lavish with her coarse flocks, spins us a harsh existence; the eight-legged Clotho [362] uses naught but exquisite silk. She works for herself; the other works for us, who are hardly worth the trouble.

Would we make her acquaintance? On the rocky slopes in the oliveland, scorched and blistered by the sun, turn over the flat stones, those of a fair size; search, above all, the piles which the shepherds set up for a seat whence to watch the sheep browsing amongst the lavender below. Do not be too easily disheartened: the Clotho is rare; not every spot suits her. If fortune smile at last upon our perseverance, we shall see, clinging to the lower surface of the stone which we have lifted, an edifice of a weather-beaten aspect, shaped like an over-turned cupola and about the size of half a tangerine orange. The outside is encrusted or hung with small shells, particles of earth and, especially, dried insects.

The edge of the cupola is scalloped into a dozen angular lobes, the points of which spread and are fixed to the stone. In between these straps is the same number of spacious inverted arches. The whole represents the Ishmaelite’s camel-hair tent, but upside down. A flat roof, stretched between the straps, closes the top of the dwelling.

[363] Then where is the entrance? All the arches of the edge open upon the roof; not one leads to the interior. The eye seeks in vain; there is nothing to point to a passage between the inside and the outside. Yet the owner of the house must go out from time to time, were it only in search of food; on returning from her expedition, she must go in again. How does she make her exits and her entrances? A straw will tell us the secret.

Pass it over the threshold of the various arches. Everywhere, the searching straw encounters resistance; everywhere, it finds the place rigorously closed. But one of the scallops, differing in no wise from the others in appearance, if cleverly coaxed, opens at the edge into two lips and stands slightly ajar. This is the door, which at once shuts again of its own elasticity. Nor is this all: the Spider, when she returns home, often bolts herself in, that is to say, she joins and fastens the two leaves of the door with a little silk.

The Mason Mygale is no safer in her burrow, with its lid undistinguishable from the soil and moving on a hinge, than is the Clotho in her tent, which is inviolable by any enemy ignorant of the device. The Clotho, [364] when in danger, runs quickly home; she opens the chink with a touch of her claw, enters and disappears. The door closes of itself and is supplied, in case of need, with a lock consisting of a few threads. No burglar, led astray by the multiplicity of arches, one and all alike, will ever discover how the fugitive vanished so suddenly.

While the Clotho displays a more simple ingenuity as regards her defensive machinery, she is incomparably ahead of the Mygale in the matter of domestic comfort. Let us open her cabin. What luxury! We are taught how a Sybarite of old was unable to rest, owing to the presence of a crumpled rose-leaf in his bed. The Clotho is quite as fastidious. Her couch is more delicate than swan’s-down and whiter than the fleece of the clouds where brood the summer storms. It is the ideal blanket. Above is a canopy or tester of equal softness. Between the two nestles the Spider, short-legged, clad in sombre garments, with five yellow favours on her back.

Rest in this exquisite retreat demands perfect stability, especially on gusty days, when sharp draughts penetrate beneath the stone. This condition is admirably fulfilled. [365] Take a careful look at the habitation. The arches that gird the roof with a balustrade and bear the weight of the edifice are fixed to the slab by their extremities. Moreover, from each point of contact, there issues a cluster of diverging threads that creep along the stone and cling to it throughout their length, which spreads afar. I have measured some fully nine inches long. These are so many cables; they represent the ropes and pegs that hold the Arab’s tent in position. With such supports as these, so numerous and so methodically arranged, the hammock cannot be torn from its bearings save by the intervention of brutal methods with which the Spider need not concern herself, so seldom do they occur.

Another detail attracts our attention: whereas the interior of the house is exquisitely clean, the outside is covered with dirt, bits of earth, chips of rotten wood, little pieces of gravel. Often there are worse things still: the exterior of the tent becomes a charnel-house. Here, hung up or embedded, are the dry carcasses of Opatra, Asidae and other Tenebrionidae that favour underrock shelters; [366] segments of Iuli, bleached by the sun; shells of Pupae, common among the stones; and, lastly, Snail-shells, selected from among the smallest.

These relics are obviously, for the most part, table-leavings, broken victuals. Unversed in the trapper’s art, the Clotho courses her game and lives upon the vagrants who wander from one stone to another. Whoso ventures under the slab at night is strangled by the hostess; and the dried-up carcass, instead of being flung to a distance, is hung to the silken wall, as though the Spider wished to make a bogey-house of her home. But this cannot be her aim. To act like the ogre who hangs his victims from the castle battlements is the worst way to disarm suspicion in the passers-by whom you are lying in wait to capture.

There are other reasons which increase our doubts. The shells hung up are most often empty; but there are also some occupied by the Snail, alive and untouched. What can the Clotho do with a Pupa cinerea, a Pupa quad- [367] ridens and other narrow spirals wherein the animal retreats to an inaccessible depth? The Spider is incapable of breaking the calcareous shell or of getting at the hermit through the opening. Then why should she collect those prizes, whose slimy flesh is probably not to her taste? We begin to suspect a simple question of ballast and balance. The House Spider, or Tegenaria domestica, prevents her web, spun in a corner of the wall, from losing its shape at the least breath of air, by loading it with crumbling plaster and allowing tiny fragments of mortar to accumulate. Are we face to face with a similar process? Let us try experiment, which is preferable to any amount of conjecture.

To rear the Clotho is not an arduous undertaking; we are not obliged to take the heavy flagstone, on which the dwelling is built, away with us. A very simple operation suffices. I loosen the fastenings with my pocket-knife. The Spider has such stay-at-home ways that she very rarely makes off. Besides, I use the utmost discretion in my rape of the house. And so I carry away the building, together with its owner, in a paper bag.

The flat stones, which are too heavy to move and which would occupy too much room [368] upon my table, are replaced either by deal disks, which once formed part of cheese-boxes, or by round pieces of cardboard. I arrange each silken hammock under one of these by itself, fastening the angular projections, one by one, with strips of gummed paper. The whole stands on three short pillars and gives a very fair imitation of the underrock shelter in the form of a small dolmen. Throughout this operation, if you are careful to avoid shocks and jolts, the Spider remains indoors. Finally, each apparatus is placed under a wire-gauze, bell-shaped cage, which stands in a dish filled with sand.

We can have an answer by the next morning. If, among the cabins swung from the ceilings of the deal or cardboard dolmens, there be one that is all dilapidated, that was seriously knocked out of shape at the time of removal, the Spider abandons it during the night and instals herself elsewhere, sometimes even on the trellis-work of the wire cage.

The new tent, the work of a few hours, attains hardly the diameter of a two-franc piece. It is built, however, on the same principles as the old manor-house and consists of two thin sheets laid one above the other, [369] the upper one flat and forming a tester, the lower curved and pocket-shaped. The texture is extremely delicate: the least trifle would deform it, to the detriment of the available space, which is already much reduced and only just sufficient for the recluse.

Well, what has the Spider done to keep the gossamer stretched, to steady it and to make it retain its greatest capacity? Exactly what our static treatises would advise her to do: she has ballasted her structure, she has done her best to lower its centre of gravity. From the convex surface of the pocket hang long chaplets of grains of sand strung together with slender silken cords. To these sandy stalactites, which form a bushy beard, are added a few heavy lumps hung separately and lower down, at the end of a thread. The whole is a piece of ballast-work, an apparatus for ensuring equilibrium and tension.

The present edifice, hastily constructed in the space of a night, is the frail rough sketch of what the home will afterwards become. Successive layers will be added to it; and the partition-wall will grow into a thick blanket capable of partly retaining, by its own weight, the requisite curve and capacity. The Spider [370] now abandons the stalactites of sand, which were used to keep the original pocket stretched, and confines herself to dumping down on her abode any more or less heavy object, mainly corpses of insects, because she need not look for these and finds them ready to hand after each meal. They are weights, not trophies; they take the place of materials that must otherwise be collected from a distance and hoisted to the top. In this way, a breastwork is obtained that strengthens and steadies the house. Additional equilibrium is often supplied by tiny shells and other objects hanging a long way down.

What would happen if one robbed an old dwelling, long since completed, of its outer covering? In case of such a disaster, would the Spider go back to the sandy stalactites, as a ready means of restoring stability? This is easily ascertained. In my hamlets under wire, I select a fair-sized cabin. I strip the exterior, carefully removing any foreign body. The silk reappears in its original whiteness. The tent looks magnificent, but seems to me too limp.

This is also the Spider’s opinion. She sets to work, next evening, to put things right. [371] And how? Once more with hanging strings of sand. In a few nights, the silk bag bristles with a long, thick beard of stalactites, a curious piece of work, excellently adapted to maintain the web in an unvaried curve. Even so are the cables of a suspension-bridge steadied by the weight of the superstructure.

Later, as the Spider goes on feeding, the remains of the victuals are embedded in the wall, the sand is shaken and gradually drops away and the home resumes its charnel-house appearance. This brings us to the same conclusion as before: the Clotho knows her statics; by means of additional weights, she is able to lower the centre of gravity and thus to give her dwelling the proper equilibrium and capacity.

Now what does she do in her softly-wadded home? Nothing, that I know of. With a full stomach, her legs luxuriously stretched over the downy carpet, she does nothing, thinks of nothing; she listens to the sound of earth revolving on its axis. It is not sleep, still less is it waking; it is a middle state where naught prevails save a dreamy consciousness of well-being. We ourselves, when comfortably in bed, enjoy, just before we fall asleep, [372] a few moments of bliss, the prelude to cessation of thought and its train of worries; and those moments are among the sweetest in our lives. The Clotho seems to know similar moments and to make the most of them.

If I push open the door of the cabin, invariably I find the Spider lying motionless, as though in endless meditation. It needs the teasing of a straw to rouse her from her apathy. It needs the prick of hunger to bring her out of doors; and, as she is extremely temperate, her appearances outside are few and far between. During three years of assiduous observation, in the privacy of my study, I have not once seen her explore the domain of the wire cage by day. Not until a late hour at night does she venture forth in quest of victuals; and it is hardly feasible to follow her on her excursions.

Patience once enabled me to find her, at ten o’clock in the evening, taking the air on the flat roof of her house, where she was doubtless waiting for the game to pass. Startled by the light of my candle, the lover of darkness at once returned indoors, refusing to reveal any of her secrets. Only, next day, there was one more corpse hanging from the [373] wall of the cabin, a proof that the chase was successfully resumed after my departure.

The Clotho, who is not only nocturnal, but also excessively shy, conceals her habits from us; she shows us her works, those precious historical documents, but hides her actions, especially the laying, which I estimate approximately to take place in October. The sum total of the eggs is divided into five or six small, flat, lentiform pockets, which, taken together, occupy the greater part of the maternal home. These capsules have each their own partition-wall of superb white satin, but they are so closely soldered, both together and to the floor of the house, that it is impossible to part them without tearing them, impossible, therefore, to obtain them separately. The eggs in all amount to about a hundred.

The mother sits upon the heap of pockets with the same devotion as a brooding hen. Maternity has not withered her. Although decreased in bulk, she retains an excellent look of health; her round belly and her well-stretched skin tell us from the first that her part is not yet wholly played.

[374] The hatching takes place early. November has not arrived before the pockets contain the young: wee things clad in black, with five yellow specks, exactly like their elders. The new-born do not leave their respective nurseries. Packed close together, they spend the whole of the wintry season there, while the mother, squatting on the pile of cells, watches over the general safety, without knowing her family other than by the gentle trepidations felt through the partitions of the tiny chambers. The Labyrinth Spider has shown us how she maintains a permanent sitting for two months in her guard-room, to defend, in case of need, the brood which she will never see. The Clotho does the same during eight months, thus earning the right to set eyes for a little while on her family trotting around her in the main cabin and to assist at the final exodus, the great journey undertaken at the end of a thread.

When the summer heat arrives, in June, the young ones, probably aided by their mother, pierce the walls of their cells, leave the maternal tent, of which they know the secret outlet well, take the air on the threshold for a few hours and then fly away, carried to some [375] distance by a funicular aeroplane, the first product of their spinning-mill.

The elder Clotho remains behind, careless of this emigration which leaves her alone. She is far from being faded indeed, she looks younger than ever. Her fresh colour, her robust appearance suggest great length of life, capable of producing a second family. On this subject I have but one document, a pretty far-reaching one, however. There were a few mothers whose actions I had the patience to watch, despite the wearisome minutiae of the rearing and the slowness of the result. These abandoned their dwellings after the departure of their young; and each went to weave a new one for herself on the wire net-work of the cage.

They were rough-and-ready summaries, the work of a night. Two hangings, one above the other, the upper one flat, the lower concave and ballasted with stalactites of grains of sand, formed the new home, which, strengthened daily by fresh layers, promised to become similar to the old one. Why does the Spider desert her former mansion, which is in no way dilapidated—far from it—and still exceedingly serviceable, as far as one can [376] judge? Unless I am mistaken, I think I have an inkling of the reason.

The old cabin, comfortably wadded though it be, possesses serious disadvantages: it is littered with the ruins of the children’s nurseries. These ruins are so close-welded to the rest of the home that my forceps cannot extract them without difficulty; and to remove them would be an exhausting business for the Clotho and possibly beyond her strength. It is a case of the resistance of Gordian knots, which not even the very spinstress who fastened them is capable of untying. The encumbering litter, therefore, will remain.

If the Spider were to stay alone, the reduction of space, when all is said, would hardly matter to her: she wants so little room, merely enough to move in! Besides, when you have spent seven or eight months in the cramping presence of those bedchambers, what can be the reason of a sudden need for greater space? I see but one: the Spider requires a roomy habitation, not for herself—she is satisfied with the smallest den—but for a second family. Where is she to place the pockets of eggs, if the ruins of the previous laying remain in the way? A new brood [377] requires a new home. That, no doubt, is why, feeling that her ovaries are not yet dried up, the Spider shifts her quarters and founds a new establishment.

The facts observed are confined to this change of dwelling. I regret that other interests and the difficulties attendant upon a long upbringing did not allow me to pursue the question and definitely to settle the matter of the repeated layings and the longevity of the Clotho, as I did in that of the Lycosa.

Before taking leave of this Spider, let us glance at a curious problem which has already been set by the Lycosa’s offspring. When carried for seven months on the mother’s back, they keep in training as agile gymnasts without taking any nourishment. It is a familiar exercise for them, after a fall, which frequently occurs, to scramble up a leg of their mount and nimbly to resume their place in the saddle. They expend energy without receiving any material sustenance.

The sons of the Clotho, the Labyrinth Spider and many others confront us with the same riddle: they move, yet do not eat. At any period of the nursery stage, even in the heart of winter, on the bleak days of January, [378] I tear the pockets of the one and the tabernacle of the other, expecting to find the swarm of youngsters lying in a state of complete inertia, numbed by the cold and by lack of food. Well, the result is quite different. The instant their cells are broken open, the anchorites run out and flee in every direction as nimbly as at the best moments of their normal liberty. It is marvellous to see them scampering about. No brood of Partridges, stumbled upon by a Dog, scatters more promptly.

Chicks, while still no more than tiny balls of yellow fluff, hasten up at the mother’s call and scurry towards the plate of rice. Habit has made us indifferent to the spectacle of those pretty little animal machines, which work so nimbly and with such precision; we pay no attention, so simple does it all appear to us. Science examines and looks at things differently. She says to herself:

‘Nothing is made with nothing. The chick feeds itself; it consumes or rather it assimilates and turns the food into heat, which is converted into energy.’

Were any one to tell us of a chick which, for seven or eight months on end, kept itself [379] in condition for running, always fit, always brisk, without taking the least beakful of nourishment from the day when it left the egg, we could find no words strong enough to express our incredulity. Now this paradox of activity maintained without the stay of food is realized by the Clotho Spider and others.

I believe I have made it sufficiently clear that the young Lycosae take no food as long as they remain with their mother. Strictly speaking, doubt is just admissible, for observation is needs dumb as to what may happen earlier or later within the mysteries of the burrow. It seems possible that the repleted mother may there disgorge to her family a mite of the contents of her crop. To this suggestion the Clotho undertakes to make reply.

Like the Lycosa, she lives with her family; but the Clotho is separated from them by the walls of the cells in which the little ones are hermetically enclosed. In this condition, the transmission of solid nourishment becomes impossible. Should any one entertain a theory of nutritive humours cast up by the mother and filtering through the partitions at [380] which the prisoners might come and drink, the Labyrinth Spider would at once dispel the idea. She dies a few weeks after her young are hatched; and the children, still locked in their satin bed-chamber for the best part of the year, are none the less active.

Can it be that they derive sustenance from the silken wrapper? Do they eat their house? The supposition is not absurd, for we have seen the Epeirae, before beginning a new web, swallow the ruins of the old. But the explanation cannot be accepted, as we learn from the Lycosa, whose family boasts no silky screen. In short, it is certain that the young, of whatever species, take absolutely no nourishment.

Lastly, we wonder whether they may possess within themselves reserves that come from the egg, fatty or other matters the gradual combustion of which would be transformed into mechanical force. If the expenditure of energy were of but short duration, a few hours or a few days, we could gladly welcome this idea of a motor viaticum, the attribute of every creature born into the world. The chick possesses it in a high degree: it is steady on its legs, it moves for a little [381] while with the sole aid of the food wherewith the egg furnishes it; but soon, if the stomach is not kept supplied, the centre of energy becomes extinct and the bird dies. How would the chick fare if it were expected, for seven or eight months without stopping, to stand on its feet, to run about, to flee in the face of danger? Where would it stow the necessary reserves for such an amount of work?

The little Spider, in her turn, is a minute particle of no size at all. Where could she store enough fuel to keep up mobility during so long a period? The imagination shrinks in dismay before the thought of an atom endowed with inexhaustible motive oils.

We must needs, therefore, appeal to the immaterial, in particular to heat-rays coming from the outside and converted into movement by the organism. This is nutrition of energy reduced to its simplest expression: the motive heat, instead of being extracted from the food, is utilized direct, as supplied by the sun, which is the seat of all life. Inert matter has disconcerting secrets, as witness radium; living matter has secrets of its own, which are [382] more wonderful still. Nothing tells us that science will not one day turn the suspicion suggested by the Spider into an established truth and a fundamental theory of physiology.


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