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Ways of Wood Folk by 


 

 

A TEMPERANCE LESSON FOR THE HORNETS

[161]

L AST spring a hornet, one of those long brown double chaps that boys call mud-wasps, crept out of his mud shell at the top of my window casing, and buzzed in the sun shine till I opened the window and let him go. Perhaps he remembered his warm quarters, or told a companion; for when the last sunny days of October were come, there was a hornet, buzzing persistently at the same window till it opened and let him in.

It was a rather rickety old room, though sunny and very pleasant, which had been used as a study by generations of theological students. Moreover, it was considered clean all over, like a boy with his face washed, when the floor was swept; and no storm of general house cleaning ever disturbed its peace. So overhead, where the ceiling sagged from the walls, and in dusty chinks about doors and windows that no broom ever harried, a family of spiders, some mice, a daddy-long-legs, two crickets, and a bluebottle fly, [162] besides the hornet, found snug quarters in their season, and a welcome.

The hornet stayed about, contentedly enough, for a week or more, crawling over the window panes till they were thoroughly explored, and occasionally taking a look through the scattered papers on the table. Once he sauntered up to the end of the penholder I was using, and stayed there, balancing himself, spreading his wings, and looking interested while the greater part of a letter was finished. Then he crawled down over my fingers till he wet his feet in the ink; whereupon he buzzed off in high dudgeon to dry them in the sun.

At first he was sociable enough, and peaceable as one could wish; but one night, when it was chilly, he stowed himself away to sleep under the pillow. When I laid my head upon it, he objected to the extra weight, and drove me ignominiously from my own bed. Another time he crawled into a handkerchief. When I picked it up to use it, after the light was out, he stung; me on the nose, not understanding the situation. In whacking him off I broke one of his legs, and made his wings all awry. After that he would have nothing more to do with me, but kept to his own window as long as the fine weather lasted.

When the November storms came, he went up to a big crack in the window casing, whence he had [163] emerged in the spring, and crept in, and went to sleep. It was pleasant there, and at noontime, on days when the sun shone, it streamed brightly into his doorway, waking him out of his winter sleep. As late as December he would come out occasionally at midday to walk about and spread his wings in the sun. Then a snow-storm came, and he disappeared for two weeks.

One day, when a student was sick, a tumbler of medicine had been carelessly left on the broad window sill. It contained a few lumps of sugar, over which a mixture of whiskey and glycerine had been [164] poured. The sugar melted gradually in the sun, and a strong odor of alcohol rose from the sticky stuff. That and the sunshine must have roused my hornet guest, for when I came back to the room, there he lay by the tumbler, dead drunk.


[Illustration]

He was stretched out on his side, one wing doubled under him, a forward leg curled over his head, a sleepy, boozy, perfectly ludicrous expression on his pointed face. I poked him a bit with my ringer, to see how the alcohol affected his temper. He rose unsteadily, staggered about, and knocked his head against the tumbler; at which fancied insult he raised his wings in a limp kind of dignity and defiance, buzzing a challenge. But he lost his legs, and fell down; and presently, in spite of pokings, went off into a drunken sleep again.

All the afternoon he lay there. As it grew cooler he stirred about uneasily. At dusk he started up for his nest. It was a hard pull to get there. His head was heavy, and his legs shaky. Half way up, he stopped on top of the lower sash to lie down awhile. He had a terrible headache, evidently; he kept rubbing his head with his fore legs as if to relieve the pain. After a fall or two on the second sash, he reached the top, and tumbled into his warm nest to sleep off the effects of his spree.

One such lesson should have been enough; but it [165] wasn't. Perhaps, also, I should have put temptation out of his way; for I knew that all hornets, especially yellow-jackets, are hopeless topers when they get a chance; that when a wasp discovers a fermenting apple, it is all up with his steady habits; that when a nest of them discover a cider mill, all work, even the care of the young, is neglected. They take to drinking, and get utterly demoralized. But in the interest of a new experiment I forgot true kindness, and left the tumbler where it was.

The next day, at noon, he was stretched out on the sill, drunk again. For three days he kept up his tippling, coming out when the sun shone warmly, and going straight to the fatal tumbler. On the fourth day he paid the penalty of his intemperance.

The morning was very bright, and the janitor had left the hornet's window slightly open. At noon he was lying on the window sill, drunk as usual. I was in a hurry to take a train, and neglected to close the window. Late at night, when I came back to my room, he was gone. He was not on the sill, nor on the floor, nor under the window cushions. His nest in the casing, where I had so often watched him asleep, was empty. Taking a candle, I went out to search under the window. There I found him in the snow, his legs curled up close to his body, frozen stiff with the drip of the eaves.

[166] I carried him in and warmed him at the fire, but it was too late. He had been drunk once too often. When I saw that he was dead, I stowed him away in the nest he had been seeking when he fell out into the snow. I tried to read; but the book seemed dull. Every little while I got up to look at him, lying there with his little pointed face, still dead. At last I wrapped him up, and pushed him farther in, out of sight.

All the while the empty tumbler seemed to look at me reproachfully from the window sill.


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