Vespa at the Bar

TIME was, before the gentle days of kaisers and poison gas, that, when a small state began to wax rich and prosperous, it found it highly expedient to hire a ‘free company’ of cheerful plunderers to fend off all other plunderers — for a consideration. As a rule, the contract was carried out pretty faithfully by the swordsmen, down to its very last legal day.

Even in later times more than one Arab sheik found profit in guaranteeing safe transit through his passes in return for cash in hand, and was true to his ‘bread and salt’ for that space of country.

All these things may seem far off from a New England garden; and yet certain recent doings bring them sharp to mind.

I have a neighbor. He is a wise man. So, in early August, without beat of drum or other sign beyond the puffing of his ‘auto,’ he translated his entire family to a vacation sphere beyond my ken, and his place lay silent save for the weekly clatter of a lawn-mowing caretaker. Then he returned one afternoon, and immediately I saw him eying contemplatively a large pear tree that shades his cellarway in the rear, and that suddenly seemed to have acquired a fruit like unto an exceedingly healthy Jonah’s-gourd, some ten feet, from the ground. It was a good-sized nest of paper wasps.

Toward the acquirement of virtue I strolled over to observe.

‘How am I to get it down?’ he asked. ‘If I burn it, the tree will be damaged. If I leave it, the children will get stung, or else they cannot play on the rear lawn. If I try to wrap it up in a sack at. night, and if that sack should slip — ’ There was plenty of room for imagination beyond that point.

Then I sat down on the stonework and argued the case for Vespa, remembering that my friend is a lawyer of sorts, with a trained and able mind, not greatly hampered by prejudice.

‘To begin with, what is a paper wasp, socially, in her circle? She is perhaps the deadliest enemy of the house fly known; and the said house fly is a deadly enemy of man. Allies should not make war on each other! Also, it is safe to say that to the wasp the brilliant fly that is charged with carrying infantile paralysis to our children is as much a matter of daily food as is any other fly that flies. Does n’t that count for something?’

He looked at the nest, in noncommittal silence. So I began again.

‘ This summer I have been really puzzled to account for the unusual scarcity of flies around the screen-door of my kitchen, where formerly a dozen or more lay in wait for a dash in whenever it was opened. That nest accounts for it.’

He looked thoughtfully at the distance between our houses, and I divined his thought.

‘ Oh, as to t hat, a bee will go a mile or tw o for honey-searching. Would a wasp get lost in these few rods?’

He still made no comment of committal. Lawyers don’t. It is a trade-habit, I believe, to let the other man do the talking — at times. Instead, he asked, quite pointedly, ‘How about the sting?’

Then I threw open the doors of memory, and let out a story of other days.

‘When I was a small boy, about the size of your boy here,’ — with a handwave toward the eager-eyed laddie who was watching the nest uneasily with one eye and me with the other, — ‘a poor carpenter built himself a little house not far from the edge of a swamp. He was poor in goods, not skill, so he left it in part unfinished until he could raise more money by his work. Hence the main entrance had but a rough portico above it, and the windows had no screens. Not far off, a more wealthy neighbor had a large barn, a stable full of horses, and the manure heap at its rear bred a vast multitude of flies. The carpenter’s family moved into the new house, and the flies as promptly moved into that kitchen in myriads, till on a cool day you could not see the white ceiling because of the black flies. Imagine that!

‘Then came a mother-wasp one day, prospecting. She looked into that kitchen, and decided that here was right good hunting and not far to go: and pitching her tiny tent, in the rough timbers of the porch-roof, she started in to raise a brood. At first, the family did not notice it, and the nest waxed rapidly in size as the colony increased and built large and yet larger tiers of papercomb. Then the family debated anxiously as to its destruction. As they were laying fell plans to that end, a fly came down from the ceiling and buzzed around the table for a second ere it lit. In that; next second, as it. seemed, a big black wasp like an Arabian afreet boomed in from the window and dropped on that fly as a hawk would on a chicken. In two more seconds they both departed by the window route in close company, yea, embrace.

‘The united family looked at each other, and at the ceiling. Suddenly it struck them that the supply of flies up there had diminished, until now there were large areas of white ceiling without any; and the lesson slowly filtered in. “ Let’s wait a little,” said the carpenter; and they did. It seemed hardly a week before that nest was a foot in thickness, and simultaneously with its growth the fly-stock dwindled to the vanishing point; and ultimately the length of life of any fly that strayed into that kitchen could be fairly estimated at about a minute and a half before some hunting wasp heard its buzz and came in promptly after it; then — exit fly.

‘Meanwhile, no one member of that family had ever been stung.

‘The nest grew and grew, — there still was good hunting round the distant stable, — till the entrance to the deep, 18-inch cone of gray, at its lowest point, was barely above the hat-top of a tall man’s head. All summer long, the family, dog, cat, and visitors went in and out of that doorway; and no one of them ever heard even a threatening buzz. In fact, between those two homesteads there was perfect peace and harmony, each state having full powers of destruction of the other, neither having the least idea of exercising it. Canada and the U.S.A. were not more peaceful as to boundaries, if indeed as much so, for neither side bred a single Fenian. Each respected the ways of the other, attending strictly to its own affairs; of all the houses in town, screened or otherwise, that was the only one which might be justly claimed as absolutely fly-less.

‘That is my case for Vespa.’

My lawyer friend looked up at the big nest in his tree, and at the group of children playing apprehensively at a ‘safe’ distance, and said nothing. I judged that I had lost my case. I wished that I had the traditional eloquence of Webster, when that mighty Daniel argued the case of the marauding woodchuck till his father, as presiding judge, whisked away a tear from his weather eye and said with emphasis — ‘ Zeke, you let that woodchuck go.’ But I had n’t. I had simply done my best.

Then my lawyer neighbor roused himself from consideration, and remarked, meditatively, noncommittally still, yet appropriately, ‘Hum!’

But he did nothing more that day about the nest of Vespa. Nor the next. Presently I noticed that the children, and those of other neighbors, were playing moderately round about. Days passed, the fool ball season came, and play grew boisterous at times. But still the nest remained right there, the wasps peacefully coming and going about their hunting and their homeconcerns; and a welcome and goodly share of that hunting was about my kitchen screen-door. At last, the flysupply gave out, and Vespa came no more.

We have now had our first frosts, and the wasp nest still is intact in my neighbor’s family (pear) tree. My judgment of him is confirmed. He is a wise man.