Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/Night and the "lucciole"


There are scenes of night to be witnessed or felt in Italy which realise far more completely than the haze or glare of day the difference of latitude in which they occur. A good place for enjoying them is on the margin of some vast lake, like the broad part of Maggiore off Baveno, and there, while listening to the placid ripple of the waters, one's own "particular star" may be observed not only in the ascendant, but, what for once we like as well, in the descendant also. As if using a permission to gladden the stranger and orbit in the heavens, it sends in our direction a transverse flood of silvery light over the drowsy expanse that separates us from the looming mountains of Laveno on the opposite shore. Turning our eyes upwards, we seem to have more visitors from celestial regions than the fabled Endymion, and a sudden consciousness comes over us that, almost imperceptible specks as we are, we do indeed form, as astronomers say, part of that to us illimitable galaxy which closer home appears so distant. But the poets have not omitted to notice that there may be myriads of mimic stars beneath our eyes here below to remind us sensibly of the circling spheres so far above us. And the soberest consideration of realities about a June evening in the South will suffice to raise enthusiastic admiration without drawing over-much on the resources of imagination, for the fire-flies are astir in their graceful country-dance, with vigour unabated by toiling through the burden and heat of the day, and they dart forth from their coverts to triumph over the jaded forms of their wingless human neighbours. Small dark insects at other times, and only developing their brightest qualities when they are in activity and happiness, they awake to their sprightly revelry when darkness shrouds more vulgar beauties, and thread the mazes of their fantastic curves with delicate scintillations of the palest blue or green. Unlike the lady glowworm, from whom wings are withheld by nature like the use of the foot by the stern law of Chinese barbarity, the female of the Lampyris Italica—as naturalists call our little favourite—disports herself on equal terms with her cavalier, sometimes rivalling him in untaught gambols round the upper branches of the trees, sometimes flitting away in expeditions to some well-known wheatear, or paying visits at the fashionable hour of the community. Perhaps few things are better adapted to rebuke a carelessness about what is going on at all times beyond the sight than, after kicking drearily over the piles of dust which fascination, and looking vacantly by day at the motionless growth of ordinary crops, to return by the same road after nightfall with a commanding position in the banquette of the conveyance. Then a change comes o'er the spirit of our philosophy, and we observe that all we thought of in the field is as nothing to the teeming growth and life that really belongs to it. Beings are crowding there like the lights of a populous city suddenly revealed to us from the brow of some neighbouring hill, or like the splendours of a theatre or ballroom as they appear before the eyes of one who has been walking in darkness and solitude. Some are more sedately spangling the lowlier class of herbs, but innumerable hosts of them are on the wing—dashing, wheeling, quaintly curvetting about the leaves of the festooned vine, or wantonly pretending to fly away from the earth which soon charms their pretty vagrancy back again to its bosom. The little coleopters seem coquettishly to take their different ranges for exhibition, and worthily act the part of torch-bearers to represent the inconceivable multitude of other animated creatures which hold as high a rank in the realm of science as they do without being conspicuous after their precise fashion. Their luminous beauty has gained them amongst the inhabitants the congenial name of "Lucciole," and they are by many held to prognosticate changes of weather with valuable accuracy. But superstition has contrived in some places to invest them with a supernatural and rather formidable character, as though they were emissaries from the grave, and might therefore be, as they are said to be at Genoa, justly held in abhorrence. A story is told of some foreigners who, finding them fly into their houses, as they will sometimes do even in the midst of cities, put their whole establishment into mourning, under an idea that they must needs be the disturbed souls of certain relatives come back unexpectedly to earth again. This unfounded notion, however, might ensure their being treated with respect, and enlists more sympathy than what we hear of the doings in tropical climates, where the brightest species of the Lampyris are found. There the ladies make head-dress ornaments of them; surely too bold and unscrupulous use of a phenomenon which has excited the deepest interest in naturalists and observers from the earliest ages. Far better that they should dance and glimmer out their little lives with the brevet-rank of elves, and please the eyes of all, instead of ministering to the vanity of a few. It is said that the concentrated light of three or four of the fire-flies would make a small object clearly visible, so that if the eye has not seen, the mind has some data for imagining the effect of passing through their busy multitudes, all contemptuously independent of the roads or gauges to which the traveller is limited. The description of these flying diamonds, quoted from the great Linnæus, is to this effect:—"Lampyris Italica. Black; thorax transverse, with the legs rufous; abdomen clear white at the tip." There seems reason to believe that they are found in most places, at the proper season, in the south of Europe, and as far north as the Mediterranean provinces of France.