Once upon a time there was a boy called Jim Robinson. He also had a middle name which was Peter, in case he didn’t like being called Jim when he was older, and wanted to be called Peter instead. But at the time I am telling you about, he hadn’t thought very much about it, and was still called Jim.
Now Jim Robinson was tremendously interested in insects. He liked to watch them and notice the way they behaved. As a matter of fact this bothered his mother sometimes. Especially once when she found him making pets of the black beetles.
The house was full of black beetles. They came out at night through tiny cracks and spaces in the floor boards. However careful she was to sweep up every crumb, there were still about thirty black beetles all over the floor every night.
One evening she found Jim putting little pots all over the floor of his room. One had bread crumbs in it; one had ink; one had pieces of old wall paper; one had whitewash. One even had a little of his father’s beer in it. He was trying to find out what beetles like best. He already thought they seemed to like beer best, but he wasn’t sure.
She was very angry indeed, and said what was the use of trying all she could to get rid of the beetles if Jim was spending all his time inviting them to parties. And she threw all the pots away.
You can understand her being angry like that. After all she wasn’t very interested in insects, and she had to work very hard to keep the house clean, and the beetles always worried her.
But as a matter of fact Jim was doing a very useful thing. And if she had only put some of whatever it was Jim found that beetles like best into a bottle, and balanced a piece of wood against it, for the beetles to climb up, she would have found the bottle full of hundreds of beetles the next morning. Then she could have thrown the bottle away and caught another few hundred the next night in a new bottle. And she could have gone on like that until there were no more beetles in the house. But she didn’t think of that.
Anyway I wasn’t really going to tell you about Jim and the black beetles. I wanted to tell you what happened about the centipedes.
I expect you have often seen centipedes. They look like very thin brown caterpillars with lots of legs. They like being in very narrow places, and that is why sometimes they like to crawl up the pipe, and end up in your bath.
Babies and other young animals, like puppies and kittens, like being in narrow places too. They always like to crawl under a chair instead of going round it, even if they do get caught in between the legs. And they like to sit underneath tables, or stools, or other places where they just fit. I don’t know why babies should be like centipedes in this way. If I ever find out, I shall write a story about it.
But just now I was telling you about the centipedes.
One morning when Jim came into the bathroom to wash himself and brush his teeth, he found a centipede had got into his bath. He forgot all about getting washed, and leaned over the bath and tried to pick the centipede up. But he couldn’t reach it.
Then he brought a box that was in the corner of the bathroom and stood on that. He just managed to touch the centipede with the tips of his fingers. And what do you think? The centipede bit him.
Jim was so surprised he fell off the box. While he was looking for some iodine to put on his finger another centipede crawled out of the pipe.
Jim was rather excited to see another one when he came back, and very, very carefully indeed he touched it with his finger. But this one didn’t try to bite at all. Instead it just curled up in a ball.
‘Well, you seem a much more friendly fellow,’ said Jim. ‘I’ll call you Happy. And the snarly one I shall call Snappy.’
‘And now that I have a really good look at you,’ he went on, ‘I can easily tell you apart. Because Happy is like a round worm, and Snappy is like a flat worm. Now I will always knows which is which if I ever meet you again.’
When Jim came back into the bathroom in the afternoon he found the centipedes had gone. So he guessed quite rightly that they had gone back down the pipe and into the garden.
He met them often after that. Happy, the round one, Snappy, the flat one. In fact he spent quite a lot of time with them.
He found out that Happy had lots of friends and always went around with a gang. But Snappy generally went out alone – and I don’t wonder, thought Jim, with that temper. Happy always wandered along quite slowly, taking plenty of time. But Snappy was always in a tremendous hurry.
He also found out they ate quite different things for dinner. Happy was a vegetarian, but Snappy ate insects and worms. Jim became quite friendly with them, at least as friendly as anyone ever does become with centipedes.
Now just about this time there was a terrible plague of insects in Jim’s town. The Mayor of the town was a very busy and important man, who was always having special weeks, like ‘Starling Week’, when everybody had to get rid of all the starlings, or ‘Frog Week’ when everybody had to get rid of frogs, or ‘Centipede Week’ when everybody had to get rid of centipedes.
When this plague of insects happened, he immediately started an ‘Insect Week’. But although all the other weeks had been a great success, this time no one could find out how to rid the town or insects.
There hadn’t been so many insects for a hundred years at least. Every morning more and more came; every afternoon new ones were born. Insects of every size, shape and colour were covering the town.
The Mayor was desperate. Wrapped in his red robes with a golden chain round his neck, he sat in the big high chair in the Council Chambers, and he tore out handfuls of his own hair, as he wondered what to do.
One moment a man came rushing up to tell him that insects had eaten up all the cabbages in the Council allotments. Another rushed up to say all the lettuces had been bitten to shreds.
Another said that the roses in the Station garden were covered from the tips to the roots with green fly. And they would never again win the prize for the best station garden in England. Another said the corn was covered with thousands of Daddy-long-legs, who flew up into the farmers’ faces and blinded them.
At last the Mayor shouted out: ‘I will give a gold watch and my daughter in marriage to the person who clears this town of insects.’
Now when Jim heard this bit of news, he went straight to the Council Chambers, and said to the Mayor: ‘Sir, first you must bring back the rooks and the starlings. It was they who ate up all the Daddy-long-legs before. Bring them in from other towns, and see that no one harms them. And in a week the Daddy-long-legs will have gone, and the corn will grow strong again.’
The Mayor had his orders printed on huge posters, and they were pasted up all over the town. Everyone did as the Mayor commanded. And in a week the Daddy-long-legs had gone, and the corn was strong.
Then Jim came to the Mayor and said: ‘Now the town is free of Daddy-long-legs, please give me the golden watch and your daughter’s hand in marriage.’
But the mayor said” ‘Not so fast, young man. Only the Daddy-long-legs are gone. You promised to rid the town of insects.
‘Already the green fly are eating the roses, and the pear trees will be ruined. They fly in their thousands, and darken the sky. They cover my robe as I walk through the street.
‘If you wish to have the golden watch and my daughter in marriage, first rid the town of the green fly.’
‘Very well,’ said Jim. ‘ You must bring the frogs back to town. Let them live in the gardens as they used to do, and they will eat the green fly.’
So the Mayor had a new lot of posters printed with new orders on. And they were pasted up throughout the town. The gardens and allotments were filled again with frogs, and in a week the roses were blooming, and the Station garden was again the prettiest in the land. The pears were growing, and the beans and hops were saved.
Once more Jim arrived at the Council Chambers. ‘I have done as you asked,’ he said. ‘The gardens are blooming again. Where is the gold watch and your daughter in marriage?’
But the Mayor said: ‘Nonsense. Even now the lettuces are being bitten to shreds by earwigs of every kind, shape and size. They nibble the fresh green grass, and they gobble the flower petals.
‘When you have rid the allotments or these pests, then we can talk about watches and my daughters hand.’
‘Well.’ said Jim, ‘you are very hard to satisfy. Still, I will do as you say. But this time you must keep your promise, or you will rue it.
‘Tell the people they must bring the centipedes back to their gardens. No, to show my good faith I’ll bring them back myself. This very night I will bring sackfuls of centipedes, and drive the insects out of town.’
The reason Jim said this was that he wanted to make sure the right kind of centipede was brought back. If he brought Happy’s gang along, things would be just worse than ever, for they would eat the vegetables faster than anyone. So he did as he promised and brought along Snappy, and hundreds of others like him.
He dumped them all in the gardens where they had a lovely feast of earwigs, and any insects they could find. And in a week the last troublesome set of insects had disappeared.
‘Now,’ said Jim, appearing again at the Chamber door, ‘now it is time to carry out your promise. Give me your gold watch and your daughter’s hand in marriage.’
The Mayor didn’t know what to say. He was the kind of man who was always promising things but never giving them. He hated having to keep his word. Quite forgetting how miserable he had been before Jim had rid the town of insects, he jumped up in a rage, and shouted for his councillors to throw Jim out.
But before anyone could move Jim had quietly taken out two centipedes from his pocket, put them on the Council table, and put between them a piece of lettuce. While the Mayor watched, horrified, one centipede ate right through the lettuce.
‘That,’ said Jim, ‘is the kind of centipede I shall dump in all the gardens and allotments tonight if you do not keep your promise. And in a week you will be ruined.’
The Mayor turned white. ‘Mercy, mercy,’ he cried. ‘Please don’t mix the centipedes, or the townspeople will throw me out and choose a new Mayor. I swear I will keep my promise, and you may marry my daughter tomorrow.’
‘Very well,’ said Jim, ‘I am glad to hear you are a man of your word. That’s all I want to know. As it happens I don’t want your daughter in marriage. She may be a very charming and beautiful lady – I have never met her – but I think it is a dreadful thing to give your daughter to someone as a prize, as if she were a parcel of books or a packet of money.
‘But I’ll certainly take the watch, because it will be very useful to me to have a watch that says on the back “For ridding the town of insects”. It will probably help me to get a job.’
So that was how it was settled. Jim got himself a fine job, and he and his father and mother went to live in a pretty little house where Jim could keep glass cases full of insects in his room, and learn more about them.
One of the things he learned was that the kind or centipede he called Happy was even more different than he had ever thought from the kind he called Snappy. In fact it wasn’t a centipede at all. It was a millipede. Centipede means one hundred feet, and millipede means a thousand feet. But Snappy only had eighty-two, and Happy had one hundred and fifty six, which shows you that the names we give to things sometimes turn out to be nonsense.
But what is much more exciting really, is that Jim did marry the Mayor’s daughter after all. But that was years later, when he had been sent for to rid her home of wasps. He did this so cleverly that the Mayor’s daughter fell in love with him. And as he had fallen in love with her, they were married and lived happily ever after.