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Chapter 15

The King of the Poets: Citheronia Regalis


To the impetuosity of youth I owe my first acquaintance with the rarest moth of the Limberlost; "not common anywhere," say scientific authorities. Molly-Cotton and I were driving to Portland-town, ten miles south of our home. As customary, I was watching fields, woods, fence corners and roadside in search of subjects; for many beautiful cocoons and caterpillars, much to be desired, have been located while driving over the country on business or pleasure.

With the magnificent independence of the young, Molly-Cotton would have scouted the idea that she was searching for moths also, but I smiled inwardly as I noticed her check the horse several times and scan a wayside bush, or stretch of snake fence. We were approaching the limits of town, and had found nothing; a slow rain was falling, and the shimmer on bushes and fences made it difficult to see objects plainly. Several times I had asked her to stop the horse, or drive close the fields when I was sure of a moth or caterpillar, though it was very late, being close the end of August; but we found only a dry leaf, or some combination that had deceived me.

Just on the outskirts of Portland, beside a grassy ditch and at the edge of a cornfield, grew a cluster of wild tiger lilies. The water in the ditch had kept them in flower long past their bloomtime. On one of the stems there seemed to be a movement.

"Wait a minute!" I cried, and Molly-Cotton checked the horse, but did not stop, while I leaned forward and scanned the lilies carefully. What I thought I saw move appeared to be a dry lily bloom of an orange-red colour, that had fallen and lodged on the grasses against a stalk.

"It's only a dead lily," I said; "drive on."

"Is there a moth that colour?" asked Molly-Cotton.

"Yes," I replied. "There is an orange-brown species, but it is rare. I never have seen a living one."

So we passed the lilies. A very peculiar thing is that when one grows intensely interested in a subject, and works over it, a sort of instinct, an extra sense as it were, is acquired. Three rods away, I became certain I had seen something move, so strongly the conviction swept over me that we had passed a moth. Still, it was raining, and the ditch was wet and deep.

"I am sorry we did not stop," I said, half to myself, "I can't help feeling that was a moth."

There is where youth, in all its impetuosity, helped me. If the girl had asked, "Shall I go back?" in all probability I would have answered, "No, I must have been mistaken. Drive on!"

Instead, Molly-Cotton, who had straightened herself, and touched up her horse for a brisk entrance into town, said, "Well, we will just settle that 'feeling' right here!"

At a trot, she deftly cut a curve in the broad road and drove back. She drew close the edge of the ditch as we approached the lilies. As the horse stopped, what I had taken for a fallen lily bloom, suddenly opened to over five inches of gorgeous red-brown, canary-spotted wing sweep, and then closed again.

"It is a moth!" we gasped, with one breath.

Molly-Cotton cramped the wheel on my side of the carriage and started to step down. Then she dropped back to the seat.

"I am afraid," she said. "I don't want you to wade that ditch in the rain, but you never have had a red one, and if I bungle and let it escape, I never will forgive myself."

She swung the horse to the other side, and I climbed down. Gathering my skirts, I crossed the ditch as best I could, and reached the lily bed, but I was trembling until my knees wavered. I stepped between the lilies and the cornfield, leaned over breathlessly, and waited in the pelting rain, until the moth again raised its wings above its back. Then with a sweep learned in childhood, I had it.

While crossing the ditch, I noticed there were numbers of heavy yellow paper bags lying where people had thrown them when emptied of bananas and biscuits, on leaving town. They were too wet to be safe, but to carry the moth in my fingers would spoil it for a study, so I caught up and drained a big bag; carefully set my treasure inside, and handed it to Molly-Cotton. If you consider the word `treasure' too strong to fit the case, offer me your biggest diamond, ruby, or emerald, in recompense for the privilege of striking this chapter, with its accompanying illustration, from my book, and learn what the answer will be.

When I entered the carriage and dried my face and hands, we peeped, marvelled, and exclaimed in wonder, for this was the most gorgeous moth of our collections. We hastened to Portland, where we secured a large box at a store. In order that it might not be dark and set the moth beating in flight, we copiously punctured it with as large holes as we dared, and bound the lid securely. On the way home we searched the lilies and roadside for a mile, but could find no trace of another moth. Indeed, it seemed a miracle that we had found this one late in August, for the time of their emergence is supposed to be from middle May to the end of June. Professor Rowley assures me that in rare instances a moth will emerge from a case or cocoon two seasons old, and finding this one, and the Luna, prove it is well for nature students to be watchful from May until October. Because these things happened to me in person, I made bold to introduce the capture of a late moth into the experience of Edith Carr in the last chapter of "A Girl of the Limberlost." I am pointing out some of these occurrences as I come to them, in order that you may see how closely I keep to life and truth, even in books exploited as fiction. There may be such incidents that are pure imagination incorporated; but as I write I can recall no instance similar to this, in any book of mine, that is not personal experience, or that did not happen to other people within my knowledge, or was not told me by some one whose word I consider unquestionable; allowing very little material indeed, on the last provision.

There is one other possibility to account for the moth at this time. Beyond all question the gorgeous creature is of tropical origin. It has made its way north from South or Central America. It occurs more frequently in Florida and Georgia than with us, and there it is known to have been double brooded; so standing on the records of professional lepidopterists, that gives rise to grounds for the possibility that in some of our long, almost tropical Indiana summers, Regalis may be double brooded with us. At any rate, many people saw the living moth in my possession on this date. In fact, I am prepared to furnish abundant proof of every statement contained in this chapter; while at the same time admitting that it reads like the veriest fairy tale `ever thought or wondered.'

The storm had passed and the light was fine, so we posed the moth before the camera several times. It was nervous business, for he was becoming restless, and every instant I expected him to fly, but of course we kept hiM guarded.

There was no hope of a female that late date, so the next step was to copy his colours and markings as exactly as possible. He was the gaudiest moth of my experience, and his name seemed to suit rarely well. Citheroma--a Greek poet, and Regalis--regal. He was truly royal and enough to inspire poetry in a man of any nation. His face-was orange-brown, of so bright a shade that any one at a glance would have called it red. His eyes were small for his size, and his antennae long, fine, and pressed against the face so closely it had to be carefully scrutinized to see them. A band of bright canary-yellow arched above them, his thorax was covered above with long silky, orange-brown hairs, and striped lengthwise with the same yellow. His abdomen was the longest and slenderest I had seen, elegantly curved like a vase, and reaching a quarter of an inch beyond the back wings, which is unusual. It was thickly covered with long hair, and faintly lined at the segments with yellow. The claspers were very sharp, prominent brown hooks. His sides were dotted with alternating red and orangebrown spots, and his thorax beneath, yellow. The under side of the abdomen was yellow, strongly shaded with orange-brown. His legs and feet were the same.

His fore-wings were a silvery lead colour, each vein covered with a stripe of orange-brown three times its width. The costa began in lead colour, and at half its extent shaded into orange-brown. Each front wing had six yellow spots, and a seventh faintly showing. Half an inch from the apex of the wings, and against the costa, lay the first and second spots, oblong in shape, and wide enough to cover the space between veins. The third was a tiny dot next the second. The hint of one crossed the next vein, and the other three formed a triangle; one lay at the costa about three-quarters of an inch from the base, the second at the same distance from the base at the back edge of the wing, and the third formed the apex, and fell in the middle, on the fifth space between veins, counting from either edge. These were almost perfectly round. The back wings were very hairy, of a deep orange-brown at the base, shading to lighter tones of the same colour at the edge, and faintly clouded in two patches with yellow.

Underneath the fore-wings were yellow at the base, and lead colour the remainder of their length. The veins had the orange-red outlining, and the two large yellow dots at the costa showed through as well as the small one beside them. Then came another little yellow dot of the same size, that did not show on the upper side, and then four larger round spots between each vein. Two of them showed in the triangle on the upper side full size, and the two between could be seen in the merest speck, if looked for very closely.

The back wings underneath were yellow three-fourths of their length, then next the abdomen began a quarter of an inch wide band of orange-brown, that crossed the wing to the third vein from the outer edge, and there shaded into lead colour, and covered the space to the margin. The remainder of the wing below this band was a lighter shade of yellow than above it. From tip to tip he measured five and a half inches, and from head to point of abdomen a little over two.

While I was talking Regalis, and delighted over finding so late in the season the only one I lacked to complete my studies of every important species, Arthur Fensler brought me a large Regalis caterpillar, full fed, and in the last stages of the two days of exercise that every caterpillar seems to take before going into the pupa state. It was late in the evening, so I put the big fellow in a covered bucket of soft earth from the garden, planning to take his picture the coming day. Before morning he had burrowed into the earth from sight, and was pupating, so there was great risk in disturbing him. I was afraid there were insects in the earth that would harm him, as care had not been taken to bake it, as should have been done.

A day later Willis Glendenning brought me another Regalis caterpillar. I made two pictures of it, although transformation to the pupa stage was so far advanced that it was only half length, and had a shrivelled appearance like the one I once threw away. I was disgusted with the picture at the time, but now I feel that it is very important in the history of transformation from caterpillar to pupa, and I am glad to have it.

Two days later, Andrew Idlewine, a friend to my work, came to the Deacon with a box. He said that he thought maybe I would like to take a picture of the fellow inside, and if I did, he wanted a copy; and he wished he knew what the name of it was. He had found it on a butternut tree, and used great care in taking it lest it `horn' him. He was horrified when the Deacon picked it up, and demonstrated how harmless it was. This is difficult to believe, but it was a third Regalis and came into my possession at night again. My only consolation was that it was feeding, and would not pupate until I could make a picture. This one was six inches from tip to tip, the largest caterpillar I ever saw; a beautiful blue-green colour, with legs of tan marked with black, each segment having four small sharp horns on top, and on the sides an oblique dash of pale blue. The head bore ten horns. Four of these were large, an inch in length, coloured tan at the base, black at the tip. The foremost pair of this formidable array turned front over the face, all the others back, and the outside six of the ten were not quite the length of the largest ones.

The first caterpillar had measured five inches, and the next one three, but it was transforming. Whether the others were males and this a female, or whether it was only that it had grown under favourable conditions, I could not tell. It was differently marked on the sides, and in every way larger, and brighter than the others, and had not finished feeding. Knowing that it was called the `horned hickory devil' at times, hickory and walnut leaves were placed in its box, and it evinced a decided preference for the hickory. As long as it ate and seemed a trifle larger it was fed. The day it walked over fresh leaves and began the preliminary travel, it was placed on some hickory sprouts around an old stump, and exposures made on it, or rather on the places it had been, for it was extremely restless and difficult to handle. Two plates were spoiled for me by my subject walking out of focus as I snapped, but twice it was caught broadside in good position.

While I was working with this caterpillar, there came one of my clearest cases of things that `thrust themselves upon me.' I would have preferred to concentrate all my attention on the caterpillar, for it was worth while; but in the midst of my work a katydid deliberately walked down the stump, and stopped squarely before the lens to wash her face and make her toilet. She was on the side of the stump, and so clearly outlined by the lens that I could see her long wavering antennae on the ground glass, and of course she took two plates before she resumed her travels. I long had wanted a katydid for an illustration. I got that one merely by using what was before me. All I did was to swing the lens about six inches, and shift the focus slightly, to secure two good exposures of her in fine positions. My caterpillar almost escaped while I worked, for it had put in the time climbing to the ground, and was a yard away hurrying across the grass at a lively pace.

Two days later it stopped travelling, and pupated on the top of the now hardened earth in the bucket that contained the other two. It was the largest of the pupae when it emerged, a big shining greenish brown thing flattened and seeming as if it had been varnished. On the thin pupa case the wing shields and outlines of the head and different parts of the body could be seen. Then a pan of sand was baked, and a box with a glass cover was filled. I laid the pupa on top of the sand, and then dug up the first one, as I was afraid of the earth in which it lay. The case was sound, and in fine condition. All of these pupae lived and seemed perfect. Narrow antennae and abdominal formation marked the big one a female, while broader antlers and the clearly outlined `claspers' proved the smaller ones males. A little sphagnum moss, that was dampened slightly every few days, was kept around them. The one that entered the ground had pushed the earth from it on all, sides at a depth of three inches, and hollowed an oval space the size of a medium hen egg, in which the pupa lay, but there was no trace of its cast skin. Those that pupated on the ground had left their skins at the thorax, and lay two inches from them. The horns came off with the skin, and the lining of the segments and the covering of the feet showed. At first the cast skins were green, but they soon turned a dirty grey, and the horns blackened.

So from having no personal experience at all with our rarest moth, inside a few days of latter August and early September, weeks after hope had been abandoned for the season, I found myself with several as fine studies of the male as I could make, one of an immense caterpillar at maturity, one half-transformed to the moth, and three fine pupa cases. Besides, I had every reason to hope that in the spring I could secure eggs and a likeness of a female to complete my illustration. Call this luck, fairy magic, what you will, I admit it sounds too good to be true; but it is.

All winter these three fine Regalis pupa cases were watched solicitously, as well as my twin Cecropias, some Polyphemus, and several ground cocoons so spun on limbs and among debris that it was not easy to decide whether they were Polyphemus or Luna. When spring came, and the Cecropias emerged at the same time, I took heart, for I admit I was praying for a pair of Regalis moths from those pupa cases in order that a female, a history of their emergence, and their eggs, might be added to the completion of this chapter. In the beginning it was my plan to use the caterpillars, and give the entire history of one spinning, and one burrowing moth. My Cecropia records were complete; I could add the twin series for good measure for the cocoon moth; now if only a pair would come from these pupa cases, I would have what I wanted to compile the history of a ground moth.

Until the emergence of the Cecropias, my cocoons and pupa cases were kept on my dresser. Now I moved the box to a chair beside my bed. That was a lucky thought, for the first moth appeared at midnight, from Mr. Idlewine's case. She pushed the wing shields away with her feet, and passed through the opening. She was three and one-half inches LONG, with a big pursy abdomen, and wings the size of my thumbnail. I was anxious for a picture of her all damp and undeveloped, beside the broken pupa case; but I was so fearful of spoiling my series I dared not touch, or try to reproduce her. The head and wings only seemed damp, but the abdomen was quite wet, and the case contained a quantity of liquid, undoubtedly ejected for the purpose of facilitating exit. When you next examine a pupa, study the closeness with which the case fits antennae, eyes, feet, wings, head, thorax, and abdominal rings and you will see that it would be impossible for the moth to separate from the case and leave it with down intact, if it were dry.

Immediately the moth began racing around energetically, and flapping those tiny wings until the sound awakened the Deacon in the adjoining room. After a few minutes of exercise, it seemed in danger of injuring the other cases, so it was transferred to the dresser, where it climbed to the lid of a trinket case, and clinging with the feet, the wings hanging, development began. There was no noticeable change in the head and shoulders, save that the down grew fluffier as it dried. The abdomen seemed to draw up, and became more compact. No one can comprehend the story of the wings unless they have seen them develop.

At twelve o'clock and five minutes, they measured two-thirds of an inch from the base of the costa to the tip. At twelve fifteen they were an inch and a quarter. At half-past twelve they were two inches. At twelve forty-five they were two and a half; and at one o'clock they were three inches. At complete expansion this moth measured six and a half inches strong (sic!), and this full sweep was developed in one hour and ten minutes. To see those large brilliantly-coloured wings droop, widen, and develop their markings, seemed little short of a miracle.

The history of the following days is painful. I not only wanted a series of this moth as I wanted nothing else concerning the book, but with the riches of three fine pupa cases of it on hand, I had promised Professor Rowley eggs from which to obtain its history for himself. I had taxed Mr. Rowley's time and patience as an expert lepidopterist, to read my text, and examine my illustration; and I hoped in a small way to repay his kindness by sending him a box of fertile Regalis eggs.

The other pupa cases were healthful and lively, but the moths would not emerge. I coaxed them in the warmth of closed palms--I even laid them on dampened moss in the sun in the hope of softening the cases, and driving the moths out with the heat, but to no avail. They would not come forth.

I had made my studies of the big moth, when she was fully developed; but to my despair, she was depositing worthless eggs over the inside of my screen door.

Four days later, the egg-laying period over, the female, stupid and almost gone, a fine male emerged, and the following day another. I placed some of the sand from the bottom of the box on a brush tray, and put these two cases on it, and set a focused camera in readiness, so that I got a side view of a moth just as it emerged, and one facing front when about ready to cling for wing expansion. The history of their appearance, was similar to that of the female, only they were smaller, and of much brighter. colour. The next morning I wrote Professor Rowley of my regrets at being unable to send the eggs as I had hoped.

At noon I came home from half a day in the fields, to find Raymond sitting on the Cabin steps with a big box. That box contained a perfect pair of mated Regalis moths. This was positively the last appearance of the fairies.

Raymond had seen these moths clinging to the under side of a rail while riding. He at once dismounted, coaxed them on a twig, and covering them with his hat, he weighted the brim with stones. Then he rode to the nearest farm-house for a box, and brought the pair safely to me. Several beautiful studies of them were made, into one of which I also introduced my last moth to emerge, in order to show the males in two different positions.

The date was June tenth. The next day the female began egg placing. A large box was lined with corrugated paper, so that she could find easy footing, and after she had deposited many eggs on this, fearing some element in it might not be healthful for them, I substituted hickory leaves.

Then the happy time began. Soon there were heaps of pearly pale yellow eggs piled in pyramids on the leaves, and I made a study of them. Then I gently lifted a leaf, carried it outdoors and, in full light, reproduced the female in the position in which she deposited her eggs, even in the act of placing them. Of course, Molly-Cotton stood beside with a net in one hand to guard, and an umbrella in the other to shade the moth, except at the instant of exposure; but she made no movement indicative of flight.

I made every study of interest of which I could think. Then I packed and mailed Professor Rowley about two hundred fine fertile eggs, with all scientific data. I only kept about one dozen, as I could think of nothing more to record of this moth except the fact that I had raised its caterpillar. As I explained in the first chapter, from information found in a work on moths supposed to be scientific and accurate, I depended on these caterpillars to emerge in sixteen days. The season was unusually rainy and unfavourable for field work, and I had a large contract on hand for outdoor stuff. I was so extremely busy, I was glad to box the eggs, and put them out of mind until the twenty-seventh. By the merest chance I handled the box on the twentyfourth, and found six caterpillars starved to death, two more feeble, and four that seemed lively. One of these was bitten by some insect that clung to a leaf placed in their box for food, in spite of the fact that all leaves were carefully washed. One died from causes unknown. One stuck in pupation, and moulded in its skin. Three went through the succession of moults and feeding periods in fine shape, and the first week in September transformed into shiny pupa cases, not one of which was nearly as large as that of the caterpillar brought to me by Mr. Idlewine. I fed these caterpillars on black walnut leaves, as they ate them in preference to hickory.

I am slightly troubled about this moth. In Packard's "Guide to the Study of Moths", he writes: "Citheronia Regalis expands five to six inches, and its fore-wings are olive coloured, spotted with yellow and veined with broad red lines, while the hind wings are orange-red, spotted with olive, green, and yellow."

He describes two other species. Citheronia Mexicana, a tropical moth that has drifted as far north as Mexico. It is quite similar to Regalis, "having more orange and less red," but it is not recorded as having been found within a thousand miles of my locality. A third small species, Citheronia sepulcralis, expands only a little over three inches, is purple-brown with yellow spots; and is a rare Atlantic Coast species having been found once in Massachusetts, oftener in Georgia, never west of Pennsylvania.

This eliminates them as possible Limberlost species. Professor Rowley raised this moth from the eggs I sent him.

The trouble is this: Packard describes the fore-wings as `olive,' the hind as `olive, and green.' Holland makes no reference to colour, but on plate X, figure three, page eighty-seven, he reproduces Regalis with fore-wings of olive-green, the remainder of the colour as I describe and paint, only lighter. In all the Regalis moths I have handled, raised, studied minutely, painted, and photographed, there never has been tinge or shade of GREEN. Not the slightest trace of it! Each moth, male and female, has had a basic colour of pure lead or steel grey. White tinged with the proper proportions of black and blue gives the only colour that will exactly match it. I have visited my specimen case since writing the preceding. I find there the bodies of four Regalis moths, saved after their decline. One is four years old, one three, the others two, all have been exposed to daylight for that length of time. The yellows are slightly faded, the reds very much degraded, the greys a half lighter than when fresh; but showing to-day a pure, clear grey.

What troubles me is whether Regalis of the Limberlost is grey, where others are green; or whether I am colour blind or these men. Referring to other writers, I am growing `leery' of the word `Authority'; half of what was written fifty years ago along almost any line you can mention, to-day stands disproved; all of us are merely seekers after the truth: so referring to other writers, I find the women of Massachusetts; who wrote "Caterpillars and Their Moths", and who in all probability have raised more different caterpillars for the, purpose of securing life history than any other workers of our country, possibly of any, state that the front wings of Regalis have "stripes of lead colour between the veins of the wings," and "three or four lead-coloured stripes" on the back wings. The remainder of my description and colouring also agrees with theirs. If these men worked from museum or private collections, there is a possibility that chemicals used to kill, preserve, and protect the specimens from pests may have degraded the colours, and changed the grey to green. But to accept this as the explanation of the variance upsets all their colour values, so it must not be considered. This proves that there must be a Regalis that at times has olive-green stripes where mine are grey; but I never have seen one.

I think people need not fear planting trees on their premises that will be favourites with caterpillars, in the hope of luring exquisite te moths to become common with them. I have put out eggs, and released caterpillars near the Cabin, literally by the thousand, and never have been able to see the results by a single defoliated branch. Wrens, warblers, flycatchers, every small bird of the trees are exploring bark and scanning upper and under leaf surfaces for eggs and tiny caterpillars, and if they escape these, dozens of larger birds are waiting for the half-grown caterpillars, for in almost all instances these lack enough of the hairy coat of moss butterfly larvae to form any protection. Every season I watch my walnut trees to free them from the abominable 'tent' caterpillars; with the single exception of Halesidota Caryae, I never have had enough caterpillars of any species attack my foliage to be noticeable; and these in only one instance. If you care for moths you need not fear to encourage them; the birds will keep them within proper limits. If only one person enjoys this book one-tenth as much as I have loved the work of making it, then I am fully repaid.


THE END.

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Gene Stratton-Porter

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