THE GREAT PEACOCK OR EMPEROR MOTH
It was a memorable night! I will name it the Night of the Great Peacock.
Who does not know this superb moth, the largest of all our European
butterflies with its livery of chestnut velvet and its collar of
white fur? The greys and browns of the wings are crossed by a paler
zig-zag, and bordered with smoky white; and in the centre of each wing
is a round spot, a great eye with a black pupil and variegated iris,
ing into concentric arcs of black, white, chestnut, and purplish
Not less remarkable is the caterpillar. Its colour is a vague yellow. On
the summit of thinly sown tubercles crowned with a palisade of black
hairs are set pearls of a turquoise-blue. The burly brown cocoon, which
is notable for its curious tunnel of exit, like an eel-pot, is always
found at the base of an old almond-tree, adhering to the bark. The
foliage of the same tree nourishes the caterpillar.
On the morning of the 6th of May a female emerged from her cocoon in my
presence on my laboratory table. I cloistered her immediately, all damp
with the moisture of metamorphosis, in a cover of wire gauze. I had no
particular intentions regarding her; I imprisoned her from mere habit;
the habit of an observer always on the alert for what may happen.
I was richly rewarded. About nine o'clock that evening, when the
household was going to bed, there was a sudden hubbub in the room next
to mine. Little Paul, half undressed, was rushing to and fro, running,
jumping, stamping, and overturning the chairs as if possessed. I heard
him call me. "Come quick!" he shrieked; "come and see these butterflies!
Big as birds! The room's full of them!"
I ran. There was that which justified the child's enthusiasm and his
hardly hyperbolical exclamation. It was an invasion of giant
butterflies; an invasion hitherto unexampled in our house. Four were
already caught and placed in a bird-cage. Others--numbers of them--were
flying across the ceiling.
This astonishing sight recalled the prisoner of the morning to my mind.
"Put on your togs, kiddy!" I told my son; "put down your cage, and come
with me. We shall see something worth seeing."
We had to go downstairs to reach my study, which occupies the right wing
of the house. In the kitchen we met the servant; she too was bewildered
by the state of affairs. She was pursuing the huge butterflies with her
apron, having taken them at first for bats.
It seemed as though the Great Peacock had taken possession of my whole
house, more or less. What would it be upstairs, where the prisoner was,
the cause of this invasion? Happily one of the two study windows had
been left ajar; the road was open.
Candle in hand, we entered the room. What we saw is unforgettable. With
a soft _flic-flac_ the great night-moths were flying round the
wire-gauze cover, alighting, taking flight, returning, mounting to the
ceiling, re-descending. They rushed at the candle and extinguished it
with a flap of the wing; they fluttered on our shoulders, clung to our
clothing, grazed our faces. My study had become a cave of a necromancer,
the darkness alive with creatures of the night! Little Paul, to reassure
himself, held my hand much tighter than usual.
How many were there? About twenty. To these add those which had strayed
into the kitchen, the nursery, and other rooms in the house, and the
total must have been nearly forty. It was a memorable sight--the Night
of the Great Peacock! Come from all points of the compass, warned I know
not how, here were forty lovers eager to do homage to the maiden
princess that morning born in the sacred precincts of my study.
For the time being I troubled the swarm of pretenders no further. The
flame of the candle endangered the visitors; they threw themselves into
it stupidly and singed themselves slightly. On the morrow we could
resume our study of them, and make certain carefully devised
To clear the ground a little for what is to follow, let me speak of what
was repeated every night during the eight nights my observations lasted.
Every night, when it was quite dark, between eight and ten o'clock, the
butterflies arrived one by one. The weather was stormy; the sky heavily
clouded; the darkness was so profound that out of doors, in the garden
and away from the trees, one could scarcely see one's hand before one's
In addition to such darkness as this there were certain difficulties of
access. The house is hidden by great plane-trees; an alley densely
bordered with lilacs and rose-trees make a kind of outer vestibule to
the entrance; it is protected from the _mistral_ by groups of pines and
screens of cypress. A thicket of evergreen shrubs forms a rampart at a
few paces from the door. It was across this maze of leafage, and in
absolute darkness, that the butterflies had to find their way in order
to attain the end of their pilgrimage.
Under such conditions the screech-owl would not dare to forsake its
hollow in the olive-tree. The butterfly, better endowed with its faceted
eyes than the owl with its single pupils, goes forward without
hesitation, and threads the obstacles without contact. So well it
directs its tortuous flight that, in spite of all the obstacles to be
evaded, it arrives in a state of perfect freshness, its great wings
intact, without the slightest flaw. The darkness is light enough for the
Even if we suppose it to be sensitive to rays unknown to the ordinary
retina, this extraordinary sight could not be the sense that warns the
butterfly at a distance and brings it hastening to the bride. Distance
and the objects interposed make the suggestion absurd.
Moreover, apart from illusory refractions, of which there is no question
here, the indications of light are precise; one goes straight to the
object seen. But the butterfly was sometimes mistaken: not in the
general direction, but concerning the precise position of the attractive
object. I have mentioned that the nursery on the other side of the house
to my study, which was the actual goal of the visitors, was full of
butterflies before a light was taken into it. These were certainly
incorrectly informed. In the kitchen there was the same crowd of
seekers gone astray; but there the light of a lamp, an irresistible
attraction to nocturnal insects, might have diverted the pilgrims.
Let us consider only such areas as were in darkness. There the pilgrims
were numerous. I found them almost everywhere in the neighbourhood of
their goal. When the captive was in my study the butterflies did not all
enter by the open window, the direct and easy way, the captive being
only a few yards from the window. Several penetrated the house
downstairs, wandered through the hall, and reached the staircase, which
was barred at the top by a closed door.
These data show us that the visitors to the wedding-feast did not go
straight to their goal as they would have done were they attracted by
any kind of luminous radiations, whether known or unknown to our
physical science. Something other than radiant energy warned them at a
distance, led them to the neighbourhood of the precise spot, and left
the final discovery to be made after a vague and hesitating search. The
senses of hearing and smell warn us very much in this way; they are not
precise guides when we try to determine exactly the point of origin of a
sound or smell.
What sense is it that informs this great butterfly of the whereabouts of
his mate, and leads him wandering through the night? What organ does
this sense affect? One suspects the antennae; in the male butterfly they
actually seem to be sounding, interrogating empty space with their long
feathery plumes. Are these splendid plumes merely items of finery, or do
they really play a part in the perception of the effluvia which guide
the lover? It seemed easy, on the occasion I spoke of, to devise a
On the morrow of the invasion I found in my study eight of my nocturnal
visitors. They were perched, motionless, upon the cross-mouldings of the
second window, which had remained closed. The others, having concluded
their ballet by about ten o'clock at night, had left as they had
entered, by the other window, which was left open night and day. These
eight persevering lovers were just what I required for my experiment.
With a sharp pair of scissors, and without otherwise touching the
butterflies, I cut off their antennae near the base. The victims barely
noticed the operation. None moved; there was scarcely a flutter of the
wings. Their condition was excellent; the wound did not seem to be in
the least serious. They were not perturbed by physical suffering, and
would therefore be all the better adapted to my designs. They passed the
rest of the day in placid immobility on the cross-bars of the window.
A few other arrangements were still to be made. In particular it was
necessary to change the scene; not to leave the female under the eyes of
the mutilated butterflies at the moment of resuming their nocturnal
flight; the difficulty of the search must not be lessened. I therefore
removed the cage and its captive, and placed it under a porch on the
other side of the house, at a distance of some fifty paces from my
At nightfall I went for a last time to inspect my eight victims. Six had
left by the open window; two still remained, but they had fallen on the
floor, and no longer had the strength to recover themselves if turned
over on their backs. They were exhausted, dying. Do not accuse my
surgery, however. Such early decease was observed repeatedly, with no
intervention on my part.
Six, in better condition, had departed. Would they return to the call
that attracted them the night before? Deprived of their antennae, would
they be able to find the captive, now placed at a considerable distance
from her original position?
The cage was in darkness, almost in the open air. From time to time I
visited it with a net and lantern. The visitors were captured,
inspected, and immediately released in a neighbouring room, of which I
closed the door. This gradual elimination allowed me to count the
visitors exactly without danger of counting the same butterfly more than
once. Moreover, the provisional prison, large and bare, in no wise
harmed or endangered the prisoners; they found a quiet retreat there and
ample space. Similar precautions were taken during the rest of my
After half-past ten no more arrived. The reception was over. Total,
twenty-five males captured, of which one only was deprived of its
antennae. So of the six operated on earlier in the day, which were strong
enough to leave my study and fly back to the fields, only one had
returned to the cage. A poor result, in which I could place no
confidence as proving whether the antennae did or did not play a
directing part. It was necessary to begin again upon a larger scale.
Next morning I visited the prisoners of the day before. What I saw was
not encouraging. A large number were scattered on the ground, almost
inert. Taken between the fingers, several of them gave scarcely a sign
of life. Little was to be hoped from these, it would seem. Still, I
determined to try; perhaps they would regain their vigour at the lover's
The twenty-four prisoners were all subjected to the amputation of their
antennae. The one operated on the day before was put aside as dying or
nearly so. Finally the door of the prison was left open for the rest of
the day. Those might leave who could; those could join in the carnival
who were able. In order to put those that might leave the room to the
test of a search, the cage, which they must otherwise have encountered
at the threshold, was again removed, and placed in a room of the
opposite wing, on the ground floor. There was of course free access to
Of the twenty-four lacking their antennae sixteen only left the room.
Eight were powerless to do so; they were dying. Of the sixteen, how many
returned to the cage that night? Not one. My captives that night were
only seven, all new-comers, all wearing antennae. This result seemed to
prove that the amputation of the antennae was a matter of serious
significance. But it would not do to conclude as yet: one doubt
"A fine state I am in! How shall I dare to appear before the other
dogs?" said Mouflard, the puppy whose ears had been pitilessly docked.
Had my butterflies apprehensions similar to Master Mouflard's? Deprived
of their beautiful plumes, were they ashamed to appear in the midst of
their rivals, and to prefer their suits? Was it confusion on their part,
or want of guidance? Was it not rather exhaustion after an attempt
exceeding the duration of an ephemeral passion? Experience would show
On the fourth night I took fourteen new-comers and set them apart as
they came in a room in which they spent the night. On the morrow,
profiting by their diurnal immobility, I removed a little of the hair
from the centre of the corselet or neck. This slight tonsure did not
inconvenience the insects, so easily was the silky fur removed, nor did
it deprive them of any organ which might later on be necessary in the
search for the female. To them it was nothing; for me it was the
unmistakable sign of a repeated visit.
This time there were none incapable of flight. At night the fourteen
shavelings escaped into the open air. The cage, of course, was again in
a new place. In two hours I captured twenty butterflies, of whom two
were tonsured; no more. As for those whose antennae I had amputated the
night before, not one reappeared. Their nuptial period was over.
Of fourteen marked by the tonsure two only returned. Why did the other
twelve fail to appear, although furnished with their supposed guides,
their antennae? To this I can see only one reply: that the Great Peacock
is promptly exhausted by the ardours of the mating season.
With a view to mating, the sole end of its life, the great moth is
endowed with a marvellous prerogative. It has the power to discover the
object of its desire in spite of distance, in spite of obstacles. A few
hours, for two or three nights, are given to its search, its nuptial
flights. If it cannot profit by them, all is ended; the compass fails,
the lamp expires. What profit could life hold henceforth? Stoically the
creature withdraws into a corner and sleeps the last sleep, the end of
illusions and the end of suffering.
The Great Peacock exists as a butterfly only to perpetuate itself. It
knows nothing of food. While so many others, joyful banqueters, fly from
flower to flower, unrolling their spiral trunks to plunge them into
honeyed blossoms, this incomparable ascetic, completely freed from the
servitude of the stomach, has no means of restoring its strength. Its
buccal members are mere vestiges, useless simulacra, not real organs
able to perform their duties. Not a sip of honey can ever enter its
stomach; a magnificent prerogative, if it is not long enjoyed. If the
lamp is to burn it must be filled with oil. The Great Peacock renounces
the joys of the palate; but with them it surrenders long life. Two or
three nights--just long enough to allow the couple to meet and mate--and
all is over; the great butterfly is dead.
What, then, is meant by the non-appearance of those whose antennae I
removed? Did they prove that the lack of antennae rendered them incapable
of finding the cage in which the prisoner waited? By no means. Like
those marked with the tonsure, which had undergone no damaging
operation, they proved only that their time was finished. Mutilated or
intact, they could do no more on account of age, and their absence meant
nothing. Owing to the delay inseparable from the experiment, the part
played by the antennae escaped me. It was doubtful before; it remained
My prisoner under the wire-gauze cover lived for eight days. Every night
she attracted a swarm of visitors, now to one part of the house, now to
another. I caught them with the net and released them as soon as
captured in a closed room, where they passed the night. On the next day
they were marked, by means of a slight tonsure on the thorax.
The total number of butterflies attracted on these eight nights amounted
to a hundred and fifty; a stupendous number when I consider what
searches I had to undertake during the two following years in order to
collect the specimens necessary to the continuation of my investigation.
Without being absolutely undiscoverable, in my immediate neighbourhood
the cocoons of the Great Peacock are at least extremely rare, as the
trees on which they are found are not common. For two winters I visited
all the decrepit almond-trees at hand, inspected them all at the base of
the trunk, under the jungle of stubborn grasses and undergrowth that
surrounded them; and how often I returned with empty hands! Thus my
hundred and fifty butterflies had come from some little distance;
perhaps from a radius of a mile and a quarter or more. How did they
learn of what was happening in my study?
Three agents of information affect the senses at a distance: sight,
sound, and smell. Can we speak of vision in this connection? Sight could
very well guide the arrivals once they had entered the open window; but
how could it help them out of doors, among unfamiliar surroundings? Even
the fabulous eye of the lynx, which could see through walls, would not
be sufficient; we should have to imagine a keenness of vision capable of
annihilating leagues of space. It is needless to discuss the matter
further; sight cannot be the guiding sense.
Sound is equally out of the question. The big-bodied creature capable of
calling her mates from such a distance is absolutely mute, even to the
most sensitive ear. Does she perhaps emit vibrations of such delicacy or
rapidity that only the most sensitive microphone could appreciate them?
The idea is barely possible; but let us remember that the visitors must
have been warned at distances of some thousands of yards. Under these
conditions it is useless to think of acoustics.
Smell remains. Scent, better than any other impression in the domain of
our senses, would explain the invasion of butterflies, and their
difficulty at the very last in immediately finding the object of their
search. Are there effluvia analogous to what we call odour: effluvia of
extreme subtlety, absolutely imperceptible to us, yet capable of
stimulating a sense-organ far more sensitive than our own? A simple
experiment suggested itself. I would mask these effluvia, stifle them
under a powerful, tenacious odour, which would take complete possession
of the sense-organ and neutralise the less powerful impression.
I began by sprinkling naphthaline in the room intended for the reception
of the males that evening. Beside the female, inside the wire-gauze
cover, I placed a large capsule full of the same substance. When the
hour of the nocturnal visit arrived I had only to stand at the door of
the room to smell a smell as of a gas-works. Well, my artifice failed.
The butterflies arrived as usual, entered the room, traversed its
gas-laden atmosphere, and made for the wire-gauze cover with the same
certainty as in a room full of fresh air.
My confidence in the olfactory theory was shaken. Moreover, I could not
continue my experiments. On the ninth day, exhausted by her fruitless
period of waiting, the female died, having first deposited her barren
eggs upon the woven wire of her cage. Lacking a female, nothing could be
done until the following year.
I determined next time to take suitable precautions and to make all
preparations for repeating at will the experiments already made and
others which I had in mind. I set to work at once, without delay.
In the summer I began to buy caterpillars at a halfpenny apiece.
The market was in the hands of some neighbouring urchins, my habitual
providers. On Friday, free of the terrors of grammar, they scoured the
fields, finding from time to time the Great Peacock caterpillar, and
bringing it to me clinging to the end of a stick. They did not dare to
touch it, poor little imps! They were thunderstruck at my audacity when
I seized it in my fingers as they would the familiar silkworm.
Reared upon twigs of the almond-tree, my menagerie soon provided me with
magnificent cocoons. In winter assiduous search at the base of the
native trees completed my collection. Friends interested in my
researches came to my aid. Finally, after some trouble, what with an
open market, commercial negotiations, and searching, at the cost of many
scratches, in the undergrowth, I became the owner of an assortment of
cocoons of which twelve, larger and heavier than the rest, announced
that they were those of females.
Disappointment awaited me. May arrived; a capricious month which set my
preparations at naught, troublesome as these had been. Winter returned.
The _mistral_ shrieked, tore the budding leaves of the plane-trees, and
scattered them over the ground. It was cold as December. We had to
light fires in the evening, and resume the heavy clothes we had begun to
My butterflies were too sorely tried. They emerged late and were torpid.
Around my cages, in which the females waited--to-day one, to-morrow
another, according to the order of their birth--few males or none came
from without. Yet there were some in the neighbourhood, for those with
large antennae which issued from my collection of cocoons were placed in
the garden directly they had emerged, and were recognised. Whether
neighbours or strangers, very few came, and those without enthusiasm.
For a moment they entered, then disappeared and did not reappear. The
lovers were as cold as the season.
Perhaps, too, the low temperature was unfavourable to the informing
effluvia, which might well be increased by heat and lessened by cold as
is the case with many odours. My year was lost. Research is
disappointing work when the experimenter is the slave of the return and
the caprices of a brief season of the year.
For the third time I began again. I reared caterpillars; I scoured the
country in search of cocoons. When May returned I was tolerably
provided. The season was fine, responding to my hopes. I foresaw the
affluence of butterflies which had so impressed me at the outset, when
the famous invasion occurred which was the origin of my experiments.
Every night, by squadrons of twelve, twenty, or more, the visitors
appeared. The female, a strapping, big-bellied matron, clung to the
woven wire of the cover. There was no movement on her part; not even a
flutter of the wings. One would have thought her indifferent to all
that occurred. No odour was emitted that was perceptible to the most
sensitive nostrils of the household; no sound that the keenest ears of
the household could perceive. Motionless, recollected, she waited.
The males, by twos, by threes and more, fluttered upon the dome of the
cover, scouring over it quickly in all directions, beating it
continually with the ends of their wings. There were no conflicts
between rivals. Each did his best to penetrate the enclosure, without
betraying any sign of jealousy of the others. Tiring of their fruitless
attempts, they would fly away and join the dance of the gyrating crowd.
Some, in despair, would escape by the open window: new-comers would
replace them: and until ten o'clock or thereabouts the wire dome of the
cover would be the scene of continual attempts at approach, incessantly
commencing, quickly wearying, quickly resumed.
Every night the position of the cage was changed. I placed it north of
the house and south; on the ground-floor and the first floor; in the
right wing of the house, or fifty yards away in the left wing; in the
open air, or hidden in some distant room. All these sudden removals,
devised to put the seekers off the scent, troubled them not at all. My
time and my pains were wasted, so far as deceiving them was concerned.
The memory of places has no part in the finding of the female. For
instance, the day before the cage was installed in a certain room. The
males visited the room and fluttered about the cage for a couple of
hours, and some even passed the night there. On the following day, at
sunset, when I moved the cage, all were out of doors. Although their
lives are so ephemeral, the youngest were ready to resume their
nocturnal expeditions a second and even a third time. Where did they
first go, these veterans of a day?
They knew precisely where the cage had been the night before. One would
have expected them to return to it, guided by memory; and that not
finding it they would go out to continue their search elsewhere. No;
contrary to my expectation, nothing of the kind appeared. None came to
the spot which had been so crowded the night before; none paid even a
passing visit. The room was recognised as an empty room, with no
previous examination, such as would apparently be necessary to
contradict the memory of the place. A more positive guide than memory
called them elsewhere.
Hitherto the female was always visible, behind the meshes of the
wire-gauze cover. The visitors, seeing plainly in the dark night, must
have been able to see her by the vague luminosity of what for us is the
dark. What would happen if I imprisoned her in an opaque receptacle?
Would not such a receptacle arrest or set free the informing effluvia
according to its nature?
Practical physics has given us wireless telegraphy by means of the
Hertzian vibrations of the ether. Had the Great Peacock butterfly
outstripped and anticipated mankind in this direction? In order to
disturb the whole surrounding neighbourhood, to warn pretenders at a
distance of a mile or more, does the newly emerged female make use of
electric or magnetic waves, known or unknown, that a screen of one
material would arrest while another would allow them to pass? In a word,
does she, after her fashion, employ a system of wireless telegraphy? I
see nothing impossible in this; insects are responsible for many
inventions equally marvellous.
Accordingly I lodged the female in boxes of various materials; boxes of
tin-plate, wood, and cardboard. All were hermetically closed, even
sealed with a greasy paste. I also used a glass bell resting upon a
base-plate of glass.
Under these conditions not a male arrived; not one, though the warmth
and quiet of the evening were propitious. Whatever its nature, whether
of glass, metal, card, or wood, the closed receptacle was evidently an
insuperable obstacle to the warning effluvia.
A layer of cotton-wool two fingers in thickness had the same result. I
placed the female in a large glass jar, and laced a piece of thin cotton
batting over the mouth for a cover; this again guarded the secret of my
laboratory. Not a male appeared.
But when I placed the females in boxes which were imperfectly closed, or
which had chinks in their sides, or even hid them in a drawer or a
cupboard, I found the males arrived in numbers as great as when the
object of their search lay in the cage of open wire-work freely exposed
on a table. I have a vivid memory of one evening when the recluse was
hidden in a hat-box at the bottom of a wall-cupboard. The arrivals went
straight to the closed doors, and beat them with their wings, _toc-toc_,
trying to enter. Wandering pilgrims, come from I know not where, across
fields and meadows, they knew perfectly what was behind the doors of the
So we must abandon the idea that the butterfly has any means of
communication comparable to our wireless telegraphy, as any kind of
screen, whether a good or a bad conductor, completely stops the signals
of the female. To give them free passage and allow them to penetrate to
a distance one condition is indispensable: the enclosure in which the
captive is confined must not be hermetically sealed; there must be a
communication between it and the outer air. This again points to the
probability of an odour, although this is contradicted by my experiment
with the naphthaline.
My cocoons were all hatched, and the problem was still obscure. Should I
begin all over again in the fourth year? I did not do so, for the reason
that it is difficult to observe a nocturnal butterfly if one wishes to
follow it in all its intimate actions. The lover needs no light to
attain his ends; but my imperfect human vision cannot penetrate the
darkness. I should require a candle at least, and a candle would be
constantly extinguished by the revolving swarm. A lantern would obviate
these eclipses, but its doubtful light, interspersed with heavy shadows,
by no means commends it to the scruples of an observer, who must see,
and see well.
Moreover, the light of a lamp diverts the butterflies from their object,
distracts them from their affairs, and seriously compromises the success
of the observer. The moment they enter, they rush frantically at the
flame, singe their down, and thereupon, terrified by the heat, are of no
profit to the observer. If, instead of being roasted, they are held at a
distance by an envelope of glass, they press as closely as they can to
the flame, and remain motionless, hypnotised.
One night, the female being in the dining-room, on the table, facing the
open window, a petroleum lamp, furnished with a large reflector in
opaline glass, was hanging from the ceiling. The arrivals alighted on
the dome of the wire-gauze cover, crowding eagerly about the
prisoner; others, saluting her in passing, flew to the lamp, circled
round it a few times, and then, fascinated by the luminous splendour
radiating from the opal cone of light, clung there motionless under the
reflector. Already the children were raising their hands to seize them.
"Leave them," I said, "leave them. Let us be hospitable: do not disturb
the pilgrims who have come to the tabernacle of the light."
During the whole evening not one of them moved. Next day they were still
there. The intoxication of the light had made them forget the
intoxication of love.
With creatures so madly in love with the light precise and prolonged
experimentation is impracticable the moment the observer requires
artificial light. I renounced the Great Peacock and its nocturnal
habits. I required a butterfly with different habits; equally notable as
a lover, but seeking out the beloved by day.
Before going on to speak of my experiments with a subject fulfilling
these conditions, let me break the chronological order of my record in
order to say a few words concerning another insect, which appeared after
I had completed these inquiries. I refer to the Lesser Peacock (_Attacus
pavonia minor_, Lin.).
Some one brought me, from what locality I do not know, a superb cocoon
enveloped in an ample wrapping of white silk. From this covering, which
lay in large irregular folds, the chrysalis was easily detached; in
shape like that of the Great Peacock, but considerably less in size. The
anterior extremity, which is defended by an arrangement of fine twigs,
converging, and free at the converging ends, forming a device not unlike
an eel-pot, which presents access to the chrysalis while allowing the
butterfly to emerge without breaking the defence, indicated a relative
of the great nocturnal butterfly; the silk-work denoted a spinning
Towards the end of March this curious cocoon yielded up a female of the
Lesser Peacock, which was immediately sequestered under a wire-gauze
cover in my study. I opened the window to allow news of the event to
reach the surrounding country, and left it open so that such visitors as
presented themselves should find free access to the cage. The captive
clung to the wire gauze and did not move for a week.
She was a superb creature, this prisoner of mine, with her suit of brown
velvet, crossed by undulating lines. The neck was surrounded by white
fur; there was a carmine spot at the extremity of the upper wings, and
four great eyes in which were grouped, in concentric crescents, black,
white, red, and yellow ochre: almost the colouring of the Great Peacock,
but more vivid. Three or four times in my life I had encountered this
butterfly, so remarkable for its size and its costume. The cocoon I had
recently seen for the first time; the male I had never seen. I only knew
that, according to the books, it was half the size of the female, and
less vividly coloured, with orange-yellow on the lower wings.
Would he appear, the elegant unknown, with waving plumes; the butterfly
I had never yet seen, so rare does the Lesser Peacock seem to be in our
country? Would he, in some distant hedge, receive warning of the bride
who waited on my study table? I dared to hope it, and I was right. He
arrived even sooner than I had hoped.
Noon struck as we were sitting down to table, when little Paul, delayed
by his absorption in the expected event, suddenly ran to rejoin us, his
cheeks glowing. Between his fingers we saw the fluttering wings of a
handsome butterfly, caught but a moment before, while it was hovering in
front of my study. He showed it me, questioning me with his eyes.
"Aha!" I cried, "this is precisely the pilgrim we are waiting for. Fold
your napkin and come and see what happens. We will dine later."
Dinner was forgotten before the marvels that came to pass. With
inconceivable punctuality the butterflies hastened to meet the magical
call of the captive. With tortuous flight they arrived one by one. All
came from the north. This detail is significant. A week earlier there
had been a savage return of the winter. The _bise_ blew tempestuously,
killing the early almond blossom. It was one of those ferocious storms
which in the South commonly serve as a prelude to the spring. But the
temperature had now suddenly softened, although the wind still blew from
Now on this first occasion all the butterflies hastening to the prisoner
entered the garden from the north. They followed the direction of the
wind; not one flew against it. If their guide was a sense of smell like
ours, if they were guided by fragrant atoms suspended in the air, they
should have arrived in the opposite direction. Coming from the south, we
might believe them to be warned by effluvia carried on the wind; coming
from the north in time of _mistral_, that resistless sweeper of earth
and air, how can we suppose that they had perceived, at a remote
distance, what we will call an odour? The idea of a flow of odoriferous
atoms in a direction contrary to that of the aerial torrent seems to me
For two hours, under a radiant sun, the visitors came and went before
the outer wall of the study. Most of them sought for a long time,
exploring the wall, flying on a level with the ground. To see them thus
hesitating you would say that they were puzzled to find the exact
position of the lure which called them. Although they had come from such
a distance without a mistake, they seemed imperfectly informed once they
were on the spot. Nevertheless, sooner or later they entered the room
and saluted the captive, without showing any great ardour. At two
o'clock all was over. Ten butterflies had arrived.
During the whole week, and always about noon, at the hour of the
brightest sunlight, the butterflies arrived, but in decreasing numbers.
The total approached forty. I thought it useless to repeat experiments
which would add nothing to what I had already learned. I will confine
myself to stating two facts. In the first place, the Lesser Peacock is
diurnal; that is to say, it celebrates its mating under the dazzling
brilliance of noon. It needs the full force of the sunlight. The Great
Peacock, on the contrary, which it so closely resembles both in its
adult form and the work of its caterpillar, requires the darkness of the
first hours of the night. Who can explain this strange contrast in
In the second place, a powerful current of air, sweeping away in a
contrary direction all particles that might inform the sense of smell,
does not prevent the butterflies from arriving from a direction opposite
to that taken by the effluvial stream, as we understand such matters.
To continue: I needed a diurnal moth or butterfly: not the Lesser
Peacock, which came too late, when I had nothing to ask of it, but
another, no matter what, provided it was a prompt guest at the wedding
feast. Was I to find such an insect?