HE nice tidy little old man who lived in the cottage, had a nice tidy little old wife. They had no children, and as he had earned good wages all his life at the mill down below in the village, they had put by a nice tidy little sum of money. Of this, the kind old people had promised to give twenty pounds to their nephew Jack, who was on the point of leaving the old country, and going off to seek his fortune as an emigrant.
As it had been arranged that Jack should call for his money next day, the old man had been over to the neighboring town to draw it out of the Savings bank and while poor Buz remained a prisoner in the cobweb, the old couple sat by the fire, counting out the yellow gold which it had taken them so long to collect, but which they were giving away with such ready generosity.
It looked so bright and beautiful—quite tempting!
Tempting? Yes, indeed too tempting by far! For as they were counting it over, a face appeared at the window outside.
It was an evil face, deeply carved by many vices—drunkenness, cruelty, theft, and even bloodshed having stamped their ugly marks upon it.
It was the face of a convict recently discharged from prison, who, coming to the cottage to see what he could pick up, was having a stealthy look round before knocking at the door.
As his cruel, cunning eyes peered into the room, they suddenly caught sight of the money, which had been counted out on a small round table in front of the fire.
The instant he saw it, he crouched down, hiding himself as well as he was able, and devouring the gold with hungry eyes.
After a time, the old man took up the pieces one by one, and dropped them into a stocking, which he placed under the pillow of the bed.
Directly the convict had seen where the stocking was hidden away, he dropped on his hands and knees, and crept to the garden gate, opening which as quietly as he could, he slunk out into the lane, and stole away unobserved.
But before he had gone far he stopped, and clenching his hands, swore a horrible oath that he would have the gold that night, even if he did murder to obtain it.
Meanwhile, the cruel spider was getting very hungry; for when he told Buz that he had lately eaten a fat fly, he told her what was false.
The fact is, he had eaten nothing for a very considerable time, and the wings he had pointed out were those of a miserable victim devoured long since.
So now he was becoming impatient, and had twice left his den to see if Buz was yet weak enough to be attacked with impunity.
On both occasions, however, she had seen his approach, and had made such a struggle to free herself, that he had been frightened back.
But the third time he came, Buz lay perfectly still, and to all appearance dead. Several times the spider made ready to attack her, but each time his heart failed him. At last—desperate with hunger—he rushed upon her, and seizing her in his jaws, began to drag her toward his den, taking the greatest care not to put himself within reach of her sting.
But Buz was not nearly so weak as he thought her, and had only remained quiet in order to deceive him.
The moment, therefore, that he made his attack, she clung tightly to him with her forelegs to prevent his getting away. Then began a fearful struggle! The spider tried to hold her down with his terrible fangs, and to prevent her from twisting her body round; and she, though weak and half-strangled, never lost heart, but battled bravely on, seeking for an opportunity.
After some time, she managed to break one of the threads which held her, and then another, and at last, turning over with a great effort, she brought her body alongside the spider, and shooting out her sting sideways, she drove it fairly into him.
The effect was instantaneous! The spider let go his hold, and curled completely up; then, as the poison took effect, his limbs again relaxed, and he lay dead, almost at the mouth of his own den.
Dead! where he had killed so many victims himself. Dead! where he had so lately mocked at Buz in her misery!
Just at this moment, the good wife, attracted by the sound of the struggle, during which Buz had made a sharp whirring with her wings, approached the window and called out to her husband, "Well, to be sure! if there isn't a poor little bee in a spider's web! Come and look, John."
"So there be," said John, as he came up.
"And only see, John, she've a killed the spider, I do declare!"
"Well done!" said John; "so she have, I see."
"Poor little creetur!" said the old woman, as she released Buz with a feather, and put her on the window-sill.
For some time they watched Buz, who at first was too much exhausted to free herself from the web which still clung to her; but, gradually recovering her strength, and receiving occasional help from the feather, she was able to do so at last.
"There!" said the old man; "let her bide till to-morrow morning. The room is nice and warm, and 'tis too late to turn her out to-night."
So they left her there, and drew the curtains, and put the kettle on, and had tea, and in due time went to bed.
Buz crept about a little to stretch her legs, and finally settled herself for the night on the handle of the lattice window.
Ten o'clock sounded from the belfry of the old church down in the village—eleven o'clock—midnight—and the old couple were sleeping soundly. But if they had been awake soon after midnight, they would have heard a stealthy, scraping sound! What was it?
It was the convict, engaged in removing the lead round one of the panes of glass close to the handle of the window. The knife that he was using was curved, and strong, and sharp; and in his hands, and close to the cruel face that was bending over the work, it had a murderous look.
A hammer with a long handle, such as is used for breaking stones, stuck out from his coat pocket.
He wore no mask—that was not necessary; for if either of the old people woke when he was once in the room, there should be no one left alive to give evidence against him—he had quite made up his mind about that. And as he could hardly draw the stocking from under their very pillow without waking them, he meant murder!
Murder was plainly written on his scowling face, and expressed in every motion of his body.
Oh! for something to wake the old man, before it should be too late!
But he slept quietly on.
And now the villain removed a small pane of glass, large enough to admit his
hand; he had only to open the window, climb into the room—and
But in turning the handle gently, he began squeezing Buz, who had settled there, and who, resenting such disturbance, planted her sting deeply in his thumb. With a dreadful oath, the man hastily withdrew his hand, but in so doing, swung violently open the window he had just unfastened.
The latter, coming against a flower-pot standing on the window-ledge, threw it with a crash upon the ground. This woke the old man, who realizing what was going on, got out of bed as quickly as he could, seized the poker, and made for the window.
Startled by the sudden pain of the sting, the noise he had himself made, and the shouts of the old man, the would-be murderer hesitated what to do, and thus gave the former more time to get to the window.
Now, to strike down a poor old couple in bed, or to cut their throats, was one thing; but to climb through a window guarded by a man who, however old he might be, was armed with a stout poker, was quite another matter.
On the whole, the cowardly ruffian thought it best to sneak away as quietly as possible, without letting his face be seen.
But the old people went to sleep no more that night, and were very glad next day to hand over to nephew Jack the money that had so nearly cost them their lives.
And Buz, brave Buz! the instrument by which their lives had been saved, lay dead upon the ground outside the window; for on feeling her sting, the man had given a sudden pressure of his thumb, which had killed her instantly.
Perhaps it was as well after all.
She could not have withdrawn her barbed sting from the horny hand of the man, as she had from the soft body of the spider; and in losing their stings, bees always receive a fatal injury.
She was therefore spared the pain of a lingering death.
And even if she had returned to her hive without any adventure, she would probably have died before the sweet soft spring time came round again. The life of a bee is very short, and one born as Buz was, early in the year, seldom survives the winter.
So perhaps she could hardly have died at a better time.
She had been useful all her life, and was useful even in her death.