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Our Little
African Cousin

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SUDDENLY Mpuke has a queer feeling about his bare legs, as though he were caught in a net. Has any one been setting a snare here for birds or rabbits? Surely not, or Mpuke would have heard of it. The boy's bright eyes discover in a flash that he has entered the palace of an immense black and yellow spider. At the moment of discovery he receives a sharp sting on one of his bare legs.

“Ouch! Ouch!” he cries, and jumps about in great distress.

Wicked as Mr. Spider looks, his bite is not dangerous, and Mpuke hurries home all the faster now to get some cooling herbs from his mother: They will soon take away the pain, and make the swelling go down.

Mpuke has watched the ways of spiders many times before, but always at a safe distance. This king of spiders spins so strong a web that he can even trap birds in it. He kills them by sucking their blood in the same way he treats his other prey. As for beetles, flies, and wasps, it is mere sport for him to end their lives, once they enter his castle.

It was only last week that Mpuke discovered a spider he had never heard of before. It had its home in a burrow in the earth, shaped like a tunnel. As the boy was lying under a tree, half curled up in the bright sunshine, he saw a spider suddenly appear on the ground near by. It had no web. It seemed as though the earth must have opened to let it out.

Mpuke was wide awake in an instant, for, as you know, he is always ready to learn a lesson from his kind teacher, Mother Nature. He watched the spider disappear into the earth again, at the very spot where it had come out.

“Aha!” said the boy to himself, “I understand now, Mr. Spider. Your home is underground, and you have made a trapdoor that swings as you push it. You have covered it with earth so no one can find out where you live. When you hear a noise of some one coming you creep out upon your prey.” At this moment the spider appeared again, and pounced upon a poor clumsy caterpillar who was making his way slowly past his enemy's home. The caterpillar was many times larger than the spider, but what of that ? The spider was quick and cunning in his motions ; the caterpillar was strong, yet clumsy. There were several minutes of hard fighting, during which the spider gave several sharp bites and drew blood from his enemy. Then, seizing him from behind, he drew him backwards down into his cell below.

Mpuke waited awhile before he dug open the spider's burrow. He found it lying quite still and stupid; the caterpillar was dead and partly eaten. Perhaps the spider felt dull after a big dinner; perhaps he was only startled at having his home suddenly destroyed and laid bare in the sunlight.

Many little gray spiders spin their webs in Mpuke's home, but his mother would not destroy them for the world. They are great helpers in destroying the insects which make it hard to rest comfortably at night. There are ants of different kinds, mosquitoes in abundance, swarms of flies, besides the great African cockroaches that make the walls creak as they travel along their sides.

Mr. Spider is a real friend to the people because he is not afraid of these creatures, although they are his enemies as well as Mpuke's.

The boy sometimes lies in bed and watches the battles fought by the spiders. There is one old fellow whose web is spun near Mpuke's head. He must be quite old, yet he is very quick, and always on the watch for his prey.

“I believe he never sleeps,” thinks the boy, at least I never yet saw his eyes closed. And, oh, my! what an appetite he has; although he eats so much, yet he does not seem to grow any fatter.”

Mpuke likes to tell his playmates of the way in which this old gray spider mastered an immense roach. The roach was walking grandly along one day, with no thought of any one interfering with his dignity, when out pounced Mr. Spider from behind and jumped upon his back. It would have been easy enough for the roach to walk off with his enemy, if the spider had not clung with its hairy hind feet to the wall. They seemed to have hooks on the ends and dug into the bark, holding the spider and its prey in the spot where the attack was first made.

Now the battle began in earnest. They fought as fiercely as two panthers. It sometimes seemed as though the roach would win the victory and carry off the spider, but the latter managed to reach over to his enemy's neck and give him a severe bite. The pain must have been great. He grew weaker and weaker, and, after two or three more bites, he gave up the battle. Mr. Spider had won a prize.

Some people say that it will be fair weather to-day because there are so many fresh cobwebs on the grass. They do not know why that is a good sign, but Mpuke knows. He has often watched spiders at work, and seen the half-liquid substance drawn out from tiny tubes in the body. As it reaches the air it hardens into the silk threads which are guided into place by the spider's hind legs. This odd substance is made in an organ called the spinneret, at the very end of the spider's body. He can draw it out as he pleases, but it takes time to make it, so he is never wasteful. He therefore does not spin a web unless he feels quite sure the winds and rains will not spoil it. He has wonderful senses by which he hears and feels things which are not heard or felt by human beings. He rarely makes a mistake in his judgment of the probable weather.

Did you ever see a spider's web propped up by a tiny twig? The threads are quite elastic, and after a time become stretched so that the web sags. Then the clever little workman feels that it can be made to last longer if it is strengthened. He looks around until he discovers the right kind of prop, and puts it into place much as a carpenter straightens a leaning building. The spider has certainly learned many things in Mother Nature's workshop.

But how does Mpuke spend the afternoon after he has returned from the camp of the dwarfs? He finds the women of the village starting on an excursion after land-crabs.

“Would you like to go?” asks his mother.

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