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THE BUTTERFLY OF DREAMS

By Richard Le Gallienne


IT was said that a tragic disappointment accounted for young Lord Laleham's curious passion for butterflies. Actually there was no such explanation, or, of course, any need of it; but pursuits out of the common naturally demand uncommon excuses—for the common mind—and it was evident to the watchful critics of Lord Laleham's career that nothing short of a great sorrow could have driven him to so trivial a means of alleviation. According to others, this dainty passion—which might well have subjected him to the contempt of his fellows, had he not been able to give a somewhat formidable physical account of himself—was to be put down as due to one of those strains of freakishness liable to break out in old families. No one, of course, dreamed that Laleham could care for butterfly-hunting for its own sake, except those entomologists for whom his collection was famous throughout the world, authoritative, classical; for Lord Laleham was one of the handsomest and richest of young English peers, and as difficult for match-making mothers to catch as one of his own butterflies—surely the last man in the world to seek the humble laurel of the lepidopterist.

And, indeed, it was true that butterflies were something more to Laleham than entomology. They were rather a poetic than a scientific passion. There was a strong vein of the mystic and poetic in his nature to which in some way mysterious to himself these strange little painted things had from childhood appealed. As the smallest boy, he had proved himself a passionist of the solitudes of nature by lone woodland truancies and long tramps through that gipsy wilderness which England, with all its lawns and market-gardens and nurseries, has so remarkably preserved. And, from the first moment that he found himself alone, hushed and watching and listening and a little afraid, in the belt of mighty beeches that was perhaps the chief honor of his pedigree, there had seemed a spell, an enchantment, over these lonely leaves, these gnome-like shapes of mottled bole and these twisted roots that seemed to have become so through some mysterious agonies of ancient torture—though, indeed, to most folk there was nothing there but leaves and the famous Laleham covers.

He had never forgotten the day when that spell of exquisite silence and dappled sunshine—the whole woodland with its finger on its lip—had suddenly become embodied in a tiny shape of colored velvet wings, that came floating zigzag up the dingle, swift as light, airy as a perfume, soft and silent as the figured carpet in some Eastern palace. With what awe he watched it, as at length it settled near him on a sunlit weed; with what a luxury of observation his eyes noted its sumptuous unearthly markings; and what an image of wonder and exquisite mystery it there and forever left upon his mind! In a moment it was up and away upon its uncharted travel through the wood. Instinctively he ran in pursuit. But it was too late. He had lost his first butterfly.

For Laleham from that moment all the beauty of the world, and the mystery and the elusiveness of it, were symbolized in a butterfly. From that moment it seemed to him that the success of life was—the catching of a certain butterfly.


He was now thirty years old and had caught many butterflies, caught them in every part of the world, and the adventures he had met with in the apparently insignificant chase, were they to be written, would fully justify the defense he sometimes made of what the world called his whimsical hobby.

"You must not look upon my butterflies as trivial," he would say. "The study of much smaller things has made modern science; and a butterfly may well lead you to the ends of the earth—and even lose you among the stars. You never know where it may take you. There is no hunting more full of exciting possibilities. If you dare follow a butterfly you dare go anywhere; and no quarry will lead you into stranger places, or into such beautiful, unexpected adventures."

At thirty he was still unmarried. Life was still for him a lonely woodland, through which he chased the one butterfly he had never been able to capture. The butterflies of the world were in his marvelously arranged cabinets—rainbow upon rainbow of classified wings—but one butterfly was not there. The butterfly, indeed, might possibly have been had by exchange with other collectors, though it was one so rare and so beyond equivalent in any form that the man who had been fortunate enough to come into possession of it seldom cared to part with it.

Besides, though occasionally Laleham had resorted to this means of supplying a missing species, it was a course he seldom took. Nearly every butterfly in his vast flower garden of shimmering wings had been caught by his own hand. There was no country in the world he had not visited in his determined dream of being, one might say, the Balzac of the butterfly; and it was only the commoner sort of butterfly he had occasionally obtained by exchange. The butterfly that was missing from his collection he made it a point of honor, and indeed, in course of time, a sort of superstition, to capture for himself.

To the ordinary entomological observer, untouched by Laleham's mystic passion, there would seem little enough to account for his preoccupation in the quite insignificant object of it, a tiny blue butterfly, to ordinary eyes not differing from any other tiny blue butterfly, and, in fact, only to be known for what it was by a mystic marking almost imperceptible, hidden beneath its wings. Not even the collector himself could be sure of what he was pursuing, on account of the butterfly's resemblance to another species comparatively common, exactly alike, except for that hidden signature, that distinguishing hall-mark.

If one were to depreciate the value of this illustrious insect and say that its sole distinction was that of rarity, the collector would only smile, and could afford to, perhaps. Rarity! only rarity! Was not that enough? Had not mankind agreed, throughout recorded history, that rarity alone, unaccompanied by any other precious characteristic, is of all qualifications the qualification of immortality; and is not rarity of all values the ideal value, a value not measurable by the eye or any method of external judgment, a value of the soul? Besides, what are the highest prizes in any chase or contest whatsoever?—a simple wreath of laurel, the antlers of a deer, objects in themselves only symbolically valuable. Why, therefore, should not the ambitious pursuing spirit of man stake its fortunes on a butterfly—for what could be more typical of its own wandering course and ever changing goal?


The Laleham butterfly, as it is now called, and as not seldom happens with other rare things in nature—this being, I may add, not the least of nature's mysterious whims—had never been found except in one remote corner of England, a fenny country producing a hardly less rare variety of flowering rush on which its caterpillar alone could feed. It was a country of boundless marshy levels and peaty solitudes, a country of herons and long, dark-eyed pools, which, flashing every few yards under the boundless sky, filled the loneliness with magic mirrors.

For the gay it was a dreary land, but for those who have found "naught so sweet as melancholy" it was melancholy only as great music is melancholy, and its loneliness was that of some splendid raven-haired widow with her tragic gaze upon the sky. It was a thinly populated region, with here and there an inn and a few cottages taking shelter under the wing of some moldering grange. It was, in short, one of the sad, beautiful ends of the earth.

Here it was, and here alone, that Laleham's butterfly had chosen to dwell, to secrete itself, indeed, as though in a place so remote it might hope to preserve its fragile aristocratic race from extinction. Yet, though it was known to inhabit this solitude, not a dozen living people had ever seen it, and only two had caught it for many years; for there again it illustrated another mystery of nature, the persistent survival of a rare type, in such unchangeably small numbers as almost to risk extinction, as it were, for the purpose of aristocracy. For at least two hundred years, as long as it had been known at all, the Laleham butterfly had existed apparently in the same small family, only propagating itself sufficiently to keep its race and name upon the earth, and no more. It had not become rare by process of extinction, but because nature apparently had made few of it from the beginning.

Happily this aristocratic law of nature is not only applied to butterflies. In fact, one might justly say the same of the family that had dwelt in an old embattled house which had stood here, sinking deeper and deeper into the solitude, since the days of Richard II. Noctorum the house was called, as was the cluster of cottages around it—a name appropriately dark and mysterious, like the cry of owls at night across the fen.

In this old house of Noctorum, which had been built by his ancestors and inhabited by Fantons ever since, lived studious old Sir Gilbert Fanton, Baronet, alone most of the year round with his gout and his books, and one beautiful daughter, hardly yet a woman. A young wife, dead now many years, had left him with two sons, both soldiers, and therefore seldom at home, and one great-eyed little girl, who, far from finding the solitude of her life irksome, had taken kindly to it, and had more and more, year by year, seemed to embody the solemn beauty of her melancholy surroundings. Laleham had been a friend of young Christopher Fanton's at Oxford, and had, several years before, come down to Noctorum with the young soldier in quest of the butterfly which was the legendary glory of the district.

Though Sir Gilbert was a much older man than himself, he had found in him a scholar with similar mystic tendencies to his own, and, when the sons had gone to the wars, Laleham continued to come down to visit the father and incidentally to pursue the quest of his butterfly. Then he had taken a trip about the world, visiting the tropical haunts of his hobby, which had lasted so long that when again he returned to England it had been three years since he had visited his old friend. Besides, he had once more returned from his pilgrimage without that mystic butterfly, which continued still to evade his persevering pursuit. In every part of the world he had sought it, but still, so far as he could hear, the one place in which it might be found was the marshes of Noctorum. So, thinking less of his quest than of his friend, he determined to run down and see what progress Sir Gilbert was making with his great book on the folk-lore of the fens—for fairies and hobgoblins were Sir Gilbert's particular substitute for idleness. He found Sir Gilbert boyishly happy over his recent discovery of an indigenous and heretofore unrecorded variant of the story of Cupid and Psyche.

"Think of it!" exclaimed the old scholar, "here in this land of clods and pitchforks, uncouth in form, indeed, but still the old dainty fancy, the old Greek fairy tale in homespun. Isn't it strange how these frail shapes of story, frail as moonbeams, are still hardy enough to make their way from land to land and take on the disguises of the peoples, rough or gentle, among which, like a thistledown, they happen to settle?"

"Yes!" answered Laleham, smiling; "they are like the butterflies of the imagination—frail but indestructible."

Sir Gilbert laughed at this reminder that there were other hobbies than his own.

"Forgive me," he said, "I am afraid I am selfishly riding my own hobby, and in my Psyche forgetting' yours. Tell me about your Psyche."

Laleham shook his head and proceeded to tell of his varying fortune in foreign lands, and how he had come back with all the butterflies of the world, except the one butterfly. Sir Gilbert gave him the sympathy of a fellow-collector.

"But surely," he said, "you haven't given up the chase—at your age?"

"Almost," answered Laleham. "I am too old. The wildest enthusiasm—for butterflies—can hardly outlive thirty. I think I shall take up some serious study—like yours."

Both the friends laughed, and Sir Gilbert said:

"But seriously, I have heard of your butterfly having been seen within a mile or two from here no longer than a week ago. There were two fellows staying at the inn last month who called to see me, enthusiasts like yourself, and they were positive that they had seen it over by the Black Ditches—of course you know the place. But they missed it, all the same."

"The worst of the beast is," said Laleham, "that you cannot be sure, so to say, that it is itself till you have it in your hand. The other brute is so like it."

"Yet you were once sure enough, dear friend," answered Sir Gilbert.

"True," said Laleham sadly, "but who knows, I may have been wrong."

"Anyhow, here you are," said Sir Gilbert, "in the best season of the year. You never had a better opportunity. If you don't catch your butterfly this time you never will. This is your home, you know, and you know, too, that I shall treat you with no ceremony. You can go about your butterflies, and I shall go about my fairies, and if I seem to neglect you Mariana will make up for me."

Mariana entered at that moment and stood by her father. When Laleham had last seen her hers were still those reluctant feet of maidenhood of which the great poet has sung. Now she was a woman; a very young woman, it is true, but a woman. That grave beauty of the melancholy fens, of which I have spoken as having "passed into her face," was there now in a still more decided presence. Her hair was black as English hair seldom is, her skin was an exquisite olive, and her eyes were like those strange pools which flashed darkly in the evening light outside the library window. Her black eyelashes were so thick that you could not help thinking of them as rushes guarding the secrecies of the strange mirrors inside. And not externally only did she seem the very embodiment of her surroundings, but her spirit seemed also to have absorbed their passionate silence.

Perhaps no landscape says so little and is yet so richly eloquent as the elegiac landscape of a fen country. How beyond all speech is its silence, how beyond the shallow, spectacular changes of showier natural effects is its solemn art of imperturbability! Mariana was strangely silent—but, indeed, not speechless. The lesson of the nature about her seemed to have entered into her whole being, the lesson that such silence must only be broken by very significant, very beautiful words—as though silence were an exquisite, unsullied sky, only now and again to be interrupted by stars.

Laleham had observed her but little on his former visits, for, as I have said, she was hardly more than a child; and, besides, was it the cloud of his butterflies or was it some other unforgotten face that veiled for him the faces of women, so that all these years he had passed unscathed through all the battalions of beautiful faces?

Be that as it may, it was on the occasion of this visit that he saw the beauty of Mariana Fanton for the first time, and, as the days went by, he found that beauty making an even stronger appeal to his imagination, which, as always is the case with such natures as his, lay very near to his heart.

As Sir Gilbert had "threatened," it was on Mariana that he had to rely for companionship on those days when he was not out alone with his net across the fens; for Sir Gilbert was so hard at work upon a paper for the Folk-Lore Society on his recent discovery that he could only spare his evenings for his friend.

As Laleham's visit lengthened into weeks the days he spent alone grew less, and the days he spent with Mariana grew more, and the butterfly remained uncaught. Sometimes Mariana would go hunting it with him, but oftener they would go out on long, aimless walks together, saying little but always coming nearer and nearer through that language of expressive silence which both had been born to speak and understand. When Mariana did speak, what a heavenly animation swept its sunlight over her face! But her silence, as someone has said of her, was like a sky full of stars.

Laleham's stay at Noctorum was nearing its end. So far as his old friend was concerned, he could, of course, have stayed there forever.

"If I were you," said Sir Gilbert, "I would not leave this place till I had caught it."

"The continued presence of such a determined huntsman might frighten it from the district altogether," answered Laleham. "I will use stratagem—let it rest in security a while, and come again."

It was the hour after dinner when the two usually smoked their pipes together, and Sir Gilbert was genuinely sorry to lose his friend, but the proofs of his pamphlet on Cupid and Psyche had just arrived by the evening post, and his fingers were itching to open them. Besides, Laleham was to be with them yet a day or two longer. Presently Sir Gilbert's proofs became irresistible, and turning to bis friend he said:

"Do you mind, old man, but I am just dying to look at these silly proofs of mine—pride of authorship, you know. Suppose you look up Mariana—she is out there, I see, on the veranda—and talk astronomy to her for a few minutes. Then we can have a talk."

"With all my heart," said Laleham, laughing as he opened the door onto the star-lit veranda, and left the old man to himself.

As Laleham took a chair by Mariana's side, her recognition of his presence would have been imperceptible to anyone who did not understand her language of silence. Her eyes remained fixed on the stars, and he sat down near her without attempting even to join her reverie. He was well content to look at her and know that she was near. Presently, without turning her head, with her eyes still among the stars, she said in her curious, deep, sudden voice:

"You have not found your butterfly?"

"No."

"Do you still hope to find it?"

"Yes."

"Have you ever seen it?"

"Yes."

"How often?"

"Twice."

"Twice!" she exclaimed, at length turning and looking at him. "Twice! and you lost it both times?"

Before he could answer she raised her hand to the stars. "Look!" she said. "I sometimes think that the soul is like a butterfly, and that it goes from star to star, as a butterfly goes from flower to flower—" Then, with another of her sudden, and often disconcerting, transitions, she turned again to Laleham.

"Will you tell me about those times you saw your butterfly?" she said.

"It is an odd story," Laleham began, "and I am afraid you may think me superstitious. But you mustn't think that it accounts for my butterflies, for I have loved them, for some unexplained reason, since I was a boy."

"Perhaps," he added, "some tastes are prophetic." And then he went on: "The first time I saw it was one morning about eight years ago. I was hunting it among similar country to this, and suddenly it rose out of a bed of reeds. It was so near me that I made sure it was mine, so sure that I was in no haste to strike with my net, but watched it and studied it a while, was quite carelessly certain of it, in fact—and then, just as I held my net ready to capture it, away it went on the wind not quite out of sight, but always keeping a coquettish distance, near enough to lure me on, far enough away to escape."

"It rather served you right for being so sure, didn't it?" said Mariana.

"You see, I was only a young butterfly hunter then," said Laleham. "I have learned wisdom since."

"Go on," prompted Mariana.

"Well, it led me on in this way for quite two hours, till we came to the end of the wild country, and suddenly dropped down into a small village. You will laugh at what follows, though it had its sad side for me. We had come on the village at the end where stands the parish church."

"I know the village," said Mariana absently, as if she were saying nothing. Laleham shot a troubled look at her, but continued:

"The churchyard was filled with a throng of people gaily dressed as for a wedding. What should my butterfly do but dash among them, and I after it, for it was too precious to lose. Soaring over the heads of the crowd, it dashed for shelter into the church, and I again after it, forgetting all but my butterfly—and there were two young people kneeling at the altar. My abrupt entrance naturally made a sensation which brought me to myself, and dropping on my knees in a pew, I watched my butterfly flicker up the aisle till it settled itself on the clasped hands of the kneeling bride. In surprise, she turned her head, and—"

"Well?"

"I saw her face."

"And the butterfly?"

"Escaped by the belfry."

"Quite a fairy tale," said Mariana, after a pause. "Now tell me about the second time you saw your butterfly."

"1 hardly care to speak of it, Mariana—unless you care very much to hear."

"Would you rather not speak of it?"

"I would speak of it to no one but you."

"Do you wish to speak?"

"I do. Do you wish me to speak?"

"Yes, speak of it—to me," said Mariana gently.

"It is a very short story, Mariana—almost the same, excepting the end; for three years afterward, once more my butterfly rose out of the reeds in almost exactly the same spot, and once more it coquetted with me for miles, and once more it dashed into that little churchyard—but this time it did not vanish into the church, but went from grave to grave, as you say the soul perhaps wanders £rom star to star, and presently it stopped at one of the graves. I thought that now it was surely mine, and raised my net to strike, but, as I did so, I read a name upon a stone——"

In the darkness Mariana reached out her hand and took Laleham's, and, after a silence, she said:

"I know the grave," and, after another silence, she said:

"I have heard she was very beautiful."

Then the two sat on saying no more in the starlight, and all the while, though neither knew of it till they returned to the library lamps, a little blue butterfly had been hiding in Mariana's hair.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1947, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.