And so Wilbur came home to his beloved manure pile in the barn cellar. His was a strange homecoming. Around his neck he wore a medal of honor; in his mouth he held a sac of spider's eggs. There is no place like home, Wilburn thought, as he placed Charlotte's five hundred and fourteen unborn children carefully in a safe corner. The barn smelled good. His friends the sheep and the geese were glad to see him back.
The geese gave him a noisy welcome.
"Congratu-congratu-congratulations!" they cried. "Nice work."Mr. Zuckerman took the medal from Wilburn's neck and hung it on a nail over the pigpen, where visitors could examine it. Wilbur himself could look at it whenevere he wanted to.
In the days that followed, he was very happy. He grew to a great size. He no longer worried about being killed, for he knew that Mr. Zuckerman would keep him as long as he lived. Wilbur often thought of Charlotte. A few strands of her old web still hung in the doorway. Every day Wilburn would stand and look at the torn, empty web, and a lump would come to his throat. No one had ever had such a friend-so affectionate, so loyal, and so skillful.
The autumn days grew shorter, Lurvy brought the squashes and pumpkins in from the garden and piled them on the barn floor, where they wouldn't get nipped on frosty nights. The maples and birches turned bright colors and the wind shook them and they dropped their leaves one by one to the ground. Under the wild apple trees in the pasture, the red little apples lay thick on the ground, and the sheep gnawed them and foxes came in the night and sniffed them. One evening, just before Christmas, snow began falling. It covered house and barn and fields and woods. Wilbur had never seen snow before. When morning came he went out and plowed the drifts in his yard, for the fun of it. Fern and Avery arrived, dragging a sled. They coasted down the lane and out onto the frozen pond in the pasture.
"Coasting is the most fun there is," said Avery.
"The most fun there is," retorted Fern, "is when the Ferris wheel stops and Henry and I are in the top car and Henry makes the car swing and we can see everything for miles and miles and miles.""Goodness, are you still thinking about that ol'Ferris wheel?" said Avery in disgust. "The Fair was weeks and weeks ago.""I think about it all the time," said Fern, picking snow from her ear.
After Christmas the thermometer dropped to ten below zero. Cold settled on the world. The pasture was bleak and frozen. The cows stayed in the barn all the time now, except on sunny mornings when they went out and stood in the barnyard in the lee of the straw pile. The sheep stayed near the barn, too, for protection. When they were thirsty they ate snow. The geese hung around the barnyard the way boys hang around a drug store, and Mr. Zuckerman fed them corn and turnips to keep them cheerful.
"Many, many, many thanks!" they always said, when they saw food coming.
Templeton moved indoors when winter came. His ratty home under the pig trough was too chilly, so he fixed himself a cozy nest in the barn behind the grain bins. He lined it with bits of dirty newspapers and rags, and whenever he found a trinket or a keepsake he carried it home and stored it there. He continued to visit Wilbur three times a day, exactly at mealtime, and Wilbur kept the promise he had made. Wilbur let the rat eat first. Then, when Templeton couldn't hold another mouthful, Wilbur would eat. As a result of overeating, Templeton grew bigger and fatter than any rat you ever saw. He was gigantic. he was as big as a young woodchuck.
The old sheep spoke to him about his size one day. "you would live longer," said the old sheep, "if you ate less.""Who wants to live forever?" sneered the rat. "I am naturally a heavy eater and I get untold satisfaction from the pleasures of the feast." He patted his stomach, grinned at the sheep, and crept upstairs to lie down.
All winter Wilbur watched over Charlotte's egg sac as though he were guarding his own children. He had scooped out a special place in the manure for the sac, next to the board fence. On very cold nights he lay so that his breath would warm it. For Wilbur, nothing in life was so important as this small round object--nothing else mattered. Patiently he awaited the end of winter and coming of the little spiders. Life is always a rich and steady time when you are waiting for something to happen or to hatch. The winter ended at last.
"I heard the frogs today," said the old sheep one evening. "Listen! You can hear them now."Wilbur stood still and cocked his ears. From the pond, in shrill chorus, came the voices of hundreds of little frogs.
"Springtime," said the old sheep, thoughtfully. "Another spring." As she walked away, Wilbur saw a new lamb following her. It was only a few hours old.
The snows melted and ran away. The streams and ditches bubbled and chattered with rushing water. A sparrow with a streaky breast arrived and sang. The light strengthened, the mornings came sooner. Almost every morning there was another new lamb in the sheepfold. the goose was sitting on nine eggs. The sky seemed wider and a warm wind blew. The last remaining strands of Charlotte's old web floated away and vanished.
One fine sunny morning, after breakfast, Wilbur stood watching his precious sac. He wasn't thinking of anything much. As he stood there, he noticed something move. He stepped closer and stared. A tiny spider crawled from the sac. It was no bigger than a grain of sand, no bigger than the head of a pin. Its body was grey with a black stripe underneath. Its legs were grey and tan. It looked just like Charlotte.
Wilbur trembled all over when he saw it. The little spider waved at him. Then Wilbur looked more closely. Two more little spiders crawled out and waved. They climbed round and round on the sac, exploring their new world. Then three more little spiders. Then eight. Then ten. Charlotte's children were here at last.
Wilbur's heart pounded. he began to squeal. Then he raced in circles, kicking manure into the air. Then he turned a back flip. Then he planted his front feet and came to a stop in front of Charlotte's children.
"Hello, there!" he said.
The first spider said hello, but its voice was so small Wilbur couldn't hear it.
"I am an old friend of your mother's," said Wilbur. "I'm glad to see you. are you all right? Is everything all right?"The little spiders waved their forelegs at him. Wilbur could see by the way they acted that they were glad to see him.
"Is there anything I can get you? Is there anything you need?"The young spiders just waved. For several days and several nights they crawled here and there, up and down, around and about, waving at Wilbur, trailing tiny draglines behind them, and exploring their home. There were dozens and dozens of them. Wilbur couldn't count them, but he knew that he had a great many new friends. They grew quite rapidly. Soon each was as big as a BB shot. They made tiny webs near the sac.
Then came a quiet morning when Mr. Zuckerman opened a door on the north side. A warm draft of rising air blew softly through the barn cellar. The air smelled of the damp earth, of the spruce woods, of the sweet springtime. The baby spiders felt the warm updraft. One spider climbed to the top of the fence. Then it did something that came as a great surprise to Wilbur. The spider stood on its head, pointed its spinnerets in the air, and let loose a cloud of fine silk. The silk formed a balloon. As Wilbur watched, the spider let go of the fence and rose into the air.
"Good-bye!" it said, as it sailed through the doorway.
"Wait a minute!" screamed Wilbur. "Where do you think you're going?"But the spider was already out of sight. Then another baby spider crawled to the top of the fence, stood on its head, made a balloon, and sailed away. Then another spider. Then another. the air was soon filled with tiny balloons, each balloon carrying a spider.
Wilbur was frantic. Charlotte's babies were disappearing at a great rate.
"Come back, children!" he cried.
"Good-bye!" they called. "Good-bye, good-bye!"At last one little spider took time enough to stop and talk to Wilbur before making its balloon.
"We're leaving here on the warm updraft. This is our moment for setting forth. We are aeronauts and we are going out into the world to make webs for ourselves.""But where?" asked Wilbur.
"Wherever the wind takes us. High, low. Near, far. East, west. North, south. We take to the breeze, we go as we please.""Are all of you going?" asked Wilbur. "You can't all go. I would be left alone, with no friends. Your mother wouldn't want that to happen, I'm sure."The air was now so full of balloonists that the barn cellar looked almost as though a mist had gathered. Balloons by the dozen were rising, circling, and drifting away through the door, sailing off on the gentle wind. Cries of "Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye!" came weakly to Wilbur's ears. He couldn't bear to watch any more. In sorrow he sank to the ground and closed his eyes. This seemed like the end of the world, to be deserted by Charlotte's children. Wilbur cried himself to sleep.
When he woke it was late afternoon. He looked at the egg sac. It was empty. He looked into the air. The balloonists were gone. Then he walked drearily to the doorway, where Charlotte's web used to be. He was standing there, thinking of her, when he heard a small voice.
"Salutations!" it said. "I'm up here.""So am I," said another tiny voice.
"So am I,"said a third voice. "Three of us are staying. We like this place, and we like you."Wilbur looked up. At the top of the doorway three small webs were being constructed. On each web, working busily was one of Charlotte's daughters.
"Can I take this to mean," asked Wilbur, "that you have definitely decided to live here in the barn cellar, and that I am going to have three friends?""You can indeed," said the spiders.
"What are your names, please?" asked Wilbur, trembling with joy.
"I'll tell you my name," replied the first little spider,if you'll tell me why you are trembling.""I'm trembling with joy," said the first spider.
"Then my name is Joy," said the first spider.
"What was my mother's middle initial?" asked the second spider.
"A," said Wilbur.
"Then my name is Aranea," said the spider.
"How about me?" asked the third spider. "Will you just pick out a nice sensible name for me--something not too long, not too fancy, and not too dumb?"Wilbur thought hard.
"Nellie?" he suggested.
"Fine, I like that very much," said the third spider."You may call me Nellie." She daintily fastened her orb line to the next spoke of the web.
Wilbur's heart brimmed with happiness. He felt that he should make a short speech on this very important occasion.
"Joy! Aranea! Nellie!" he began. "Welcome to the barn cellar. You have chosen a hallowed doorway from which to string your webs. I think it is only fair to tell you that I was devoted to your mother. I owe my very life to her. She was brilliant, beautiful, and loyal to the end. I shall always treasure her memory. To you, her daughters, I pledge my friendship, forever and ever.""I pledge mine," said Joy.
"I do, too," said Aranea.
"And so do I," said Nellie, who had just managed to catch a small gnat.
It was a happy day for Wilbur. And many more happy, tranquil days followed.
As time went on, and the months and years came and went, he was never without friends. Fern did not come regularly to the barn any more. She was growing up, and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen. But Charlotte's children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, year after year, lived in the doorway. Each spring there were new little spiders hatching out to take the place of the old. Most of them sailed away, on their balloons. But always two or three stayed and set up housekeeping in the doorway.
Mr. Zuckerman took fine care of Wilbur all the rest of his days, and the pig was often visited by friends and admirers, for nobody ever forgot the year of his triumph and the miracle of the web. Life in the barn was very good--night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.
Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.