The Moth

Search on this Page:



Probably you have heard of Hapley--not W. T. Hapley, the son, but the
celebrated Hapley, the Hapley of _Periplaneta Hapliia_, Hapley the
entomologist.

If so you know at least of the great feud between Hapley and Professor
Pawkins, though certain of its consequences may be new to you. For those
who have not, a word or two of explanation is necessary, which the idle
reader may go over with a glancing eye, if his indolence so incline him.

It is amazing how very widely diffused is the ignorance of such really
important matters as this Hapley-Pawkins feud. Those epoch-making
controversies, again, that have convulsed the Geological Society are, I
verily believe, almost entirely unknown outside the fellowship of that
body. I have heard men of fair general education even refer to the great
scenes at these meetings as vestry-meeting squabbles. Yet the great hate
of the English and Scotch geologists has lasted now half a century, and
has "left deep and abundant marks upon the body of the science." And this
Hapley-Pawkins business, though perhaps a more personal affair, stirred
passions as profound, if not profounder. Your common man has no conception
of the zeal that animates a scientific investigator, the fury of
contradiction you can arouse in him. It is the _odium theologicum_ in
a new form. There are men, for instance, who would gladly burn Professor
Ray Lankester at Smithfield for his treatment of the Mollusca in the
Encyclopaedia. That fantastic extension of the Cephalopods to cover the
Pteropods ... But I wander from Hapley and Pawkins.

It began years and years ago, with a revision of the Microlepidoptera
(whatever these may be) by Pawkins, in which he extinguished a new species
created by Hapley. Hapley, who was always quarrelsome, replied by a
stinging impeachment of the entire classification of Pawkins.[A] Pawkins
in his "Rejoinder"[B] suggested that Hapley's microscope was as defective
as his power of observation, and called him an "irresponsible meddler"--
Hapley was not a professor at that time. Hapley in his retort,[C] spoke of
"blundering collectors," and described, as if inadvertently, Pawkins'
revision as a "miracle of ineptitude." It was war to the knife. However,
it would scarcely interest the reader to detail how these two great men
quarrelled, and how the split between them widened until from the
Microlepidoptera they were at war upon every open question in entomology.
There were memorable occasions. At times the Royal Entomological Society
meetings resembled nothing so much as the Chamber of Deputies. On the
whole, I fancy Pawkins was nearer the truth than Hapley. But Hapley was
skilful with his rhetoric, had a turn for ridicule rare in a scientific
man, was endowed with vast energy, and had a fine sense of injury in the
matter of the extinguished species; while Pawkins was a man of dull
presence, prosy of speech, in shape not unlike a water-barrel, over
conscientious with testimonials, and suspected of jobbing museum
appointments. So the young men gathered round Hapley and applauded him. It
was a long struggle, vicious from the beginning and growing at last to
pitiless antagonism. The successive turns of fortune, now an advantage to
one side and now to another--now Hapley tormented by some success of
Pawkins, and now Pawkins outshone by Hapley, belong rather to the history
of entomology than to this story.

[Footnote A: "Remarks on a Recent Revision of Microlepidoptera."
_Quart. Journ. Entomological Soc._, 1863.]

[Footnote B: "Rejoinder to certain Remarks," etc. _Ibid._ 1864.]

[Footnote C: "Further Remarks," etc. _Ibid._]

But in 1891 Pawkins, whose health had been bad for some time, published
some work upon the "mesoblast" of the Death's Head Moth. What the
mesoblast of the Death's Head Moth may be does not matter a rap in this
story. But the work was far below his usual standard, and gave Hapley an
opening he had coveted for years. He must have worked night and day to
make the most of his advantage.

In an elaborate critique he rent Pawkins to tatters--one can fancy the
man's disordered black hair, and his queer dark eyes flashing as he went
for his antagonist--and Pawkins made a reply, halting, ineffectual, with
painful gaps of silence, and yet malignant. There was no mistaking his
will to wound Hapley, nor his incapacity to do it. But few of those who
heard him--I was absent from that meeting--realised how ill the man was.

Hapley got his opponent down, and meant to finish him. He followed with a
simply brutal attack upon Pawkins, in the form of a paper upon the
development of moths in general, a paper showing evidence of a most
extraordinary amount of mental labour, and yet couched in a violently
controversial tone. Violent as it was, an editorial note witnesses that it
was modified. It must have covered Pawkins with shame and confusion of
face. It left no loophole; it was murderous in argument, and utterly
contemptuous in tone; an awful thing for the declining years of a man's
career.

The world of entomologists waited breathlessly for the rejoinder from
Pawkins. He would try one, for Pawkins had always been game. But when it
came it surprised them. For the rejoinder of Pawkins was to catch
influenza, proceed to pneumonia, and die.

It was perhaps as effectual a reply as he could make under the
circumstances, and largely turned the current of feeling against Hapley.
The very people who had most gleefully cheered on those gladiators became
serious at the consequence. There could be no reasonable doubt the fret of
the defeat had contributed to the death of Pawkins. There was a limit even
to scientific controversy, said serious people. Another crushing attack
was already in the press and appeared on the day before the funeral. I
don't think Hapley exerted himself to stop it. People remembered how
Hapley had hounded down his rival, and forgot that rival's defects.
Scathing satire reads ill over fresh mould. The thing provoked comment in
the daily papers. This it was that made me think that you had probably
heard of Hapley and this controversy. But, as I have already remarked,
scientific workers live very much in a world of their own; half the
people, I dare say, who go along Piccadilly to the Academy every year,
could not tell you where the learned societies abide. Many even think that
research is a kind of happy-family cage in which all kinds of men lie down
together in peace.

In his private thoughts Hapley could not forgive Pawkins for dying. In
the first place, it was a mean dodge to escape the absolute pulverisation
Hapley had in hand for him, and in the second, it left Hapley's mind with
a queer gap in it. For twenty years he had worked hard, sometimes far
into the night, and seven days a week, with microscope, scalpel,
collecting-net, and pen, and almost entirely with reference to Pawkins.
The European reputation he had won had come as an incident in that great
antipathy. He had gradually worked up to a climax in this last
controversy. It had killed Pawkins, but it had also thrown Hapley out of
gear, so to speak, and his doctor advised him to give up work for a time,
and rest. So Hapley went down into a quiet village in Kent, and thought
day and night of Pawkins, and good things it was now impossible to say
about him.

At last Hapley began to realise in what direction the pre-occupation
tended. He determined to make a fight for it, and started by trying to
read novels. But he could not get his mind off Pawkins, white in the face
and making his last speech--every sentence a beautiful opening for Hapley.
He turned to fiction--and found it had no grip on him. He read the "Island
Nights' Entertainments" until his "sense of causation" was shocked beyond
endurance by the Bottle Imp. Then he went to Kipling, and found he "proved
nothing," besides being irreverent and vulgar. These scientific people
have their limitations. Then unhappily, he tried Besant's "Inner House,"
and the opening chapter set his mind upon learned societies and Pawkins at
once.

So Hapley turned to chess, and found it a little more soothing. He soon
mastered the moves and the chief gambits and commoner closing positions,
and began to beat the Vicar. But then the cylindrical contours of the
opposite king began to resemble Pawkins standing up and gasping
ineffectually against check-mate, and Hapley decided to give up chess.

Perhaps the study of some new branch of science would after all be better
diversion. The best rest is change of occupation. Hapley determined to
plunge at diatoms, and had one of his smaller microscopes and Halibut's
monograph sent down from London. He thought that perhaps if he could get
up a vigorous quarrel with Halibut, he might be able to begin life afresh
and forget Pawkins. And very soon he was hard at work in his habitual
strenuous fashion, at these microscopic denizens of the way-side pool.

It was on the third day of the diatoms that Hapley became aware of a novel
addition to the local fauna. He was working late at the microscope, and
the only light in the room was the brilliant little lamp with the special
form of green shade. Like all experienced microscopists, he kept both eyes
open. It is the only way to avoid excessive fatigue. One eye was over the
instrument, and bright and distinct before that was the circular field of
the microscope, across which a brown diatom was slowly moving. With the
other eye Hapley saw, as it were, without seeing. He was only dimly
conscious of the brass side of the instrument, the illuminated part of the
table-cloth, a sheet of notepaper, the foot of the lamp, and the darkened
room beyond.

Suddenly his attention drifted from one eye to the other. The table-cloth
was of the material called tapestry by shopmen, and rather brightly
coloured. The pattern was in gold, with a small amount of crimson and pale
blue upon a greyish ground. At one point the pattern seemed displaced, and
there was a vibrating movement of the colours at this point.

Hapley suddenly moved his head back and looked with both eyes. His mouth
fell open with astonishment.

It was a large moth or butterfly; its wings spread in butterfly fashion!

It was strange it should be in the room at all, for the windows were
closed. Strange that it should not have attracted his attention when
fluttering to its present position. Strange that it should match the
table-cloth. Stranger far that to him, Hapley, the great entomologist, it
was altogether unknown. There was no delusion. It was crawling slowly
towards the foot of the lamp.

"New Genus, by heavens! And in England!" said Hapley, staring.

Then he suddenly thought of Pawkins. Nothing would have maddened Pawkins
more...And Pawkins was dead!

Something about the head and body of the insect became singularly
suggestive of Pawkins, just as the chess king had been.

"Confound Pawkins!" said Hapley. "But I must catch this." And looking
round him for some means of capturing the moth, he rose slowly out of his
chair. Suddenly the insect rose, struck the edge of the lampshade--Hapley
heard the "ping"--and vanished into the shadow.

In a moment Hapley had whipped off the shade, so that the whole room was
illuminated. The thing had disappeared, but soon his practised eye
detected it upon the wall-paper near the door. He went towards it poising
the lamp-shade for capture. Before he was within striking distance,
however, it had risen and was fluttering round the room. After the fashion
of its kind, it flew with sudden starts and turns, seeming to vanish here
and reappear there. Once Hapley struck, and missed; then again.

The third time he hit his microscope. The instrument swayed, struck and
overturned the lamp, and fell noisily upon the floor. The lamp turned over
on the table and, very luckily, went out. Hapley was left in the dark.
With a start he felt the strange moth blunder into his face.

It was maddening. He had no lights. If he opened the door of the room the
thing would get away. In the darkness he saw Pawkins quite distinctly
laughing at him. Pawkins had ever an oily laugh. He swore furiously and
stamped his foot on the floor.

There was a timid rapping at the door.

Then it opened, perhaps a foot, and very slowly. The alarmed face of the
landlady appeared behind a pink candle flame; she wore a night-cap over
her grey hair and had some purple garment over her shoulders. "What
_was_ that fearful smash?" she said. "Has anything----" The strange
moth appeared fluttering about the chink of the door. "Shut that door!"
said Hapley, and suddenly rushed at her.

The door slammed hastily. Hapley was left alone in the dark. Then in the
pause he heard his landlady scuttle upstairs, lock her door, and drag
something heavy across the room and put against it.

It became evident to Hapley that his conduct and appearance had been
strange and alarming. Confound the moth! and Pawkins! However, it was a
pity to lose the moth now. He felt his way into the hall and found the
matches, after sending his hat down upon the floor with a noise like a
drum. With the lighted candle he returned to the sitting-room. No moth was
to be seen. Yet once for a moment it seemed that the thing was fluttering
round his head. Hapley very suddenly decided to give up the moth and go to
bed. But he was excited. All night long his sleep was broken by dreams of
the moth, Pawkins, and his landlady. Twice in the night he turned out and
soused his head in cold water.

One thing was very clear to him. His landlady could not possibly
understand about the strange moth, especially as he had failed to catch
it. No one but an entomologist would understand quite how he felt. She was
probably frightened at his behaviour, and yet he failed to see how he
could explain it. He decided to say nothing further about the events of
last night. After breakfast he saw her in her garden, and decided to go
out and talk to reassure her. He talked to her about beans and potatoes,
bees, caterpillars, and the price of fruit. She replied in her usual
manner, but she looked at him a little suspiciously, and kept walking as
he walked, so that there was always a bed of flowers, or a row of beans,
or something of the sort, between them. After a while he began to feel
singularly irritated at this, and to conceal his vexation went indoors and
presently went out for a walk.

The moth, or butterfly, trailing an odd flavour of Pawkins with it, kept
coming into that walk, though he did his best to keep his mind off it.
Once he saw it quite distinctly, with its wings flattened out, upon the
old stone wall that runs along the west edge of the park, but going up to
it he found it was only two lumps of grey and yellow lichen. "This," said
Hapley, "is the reverse of mimicry. Instead of a butterfly looking like a
stone, here is a stone looking like a butterfly!" Once something hovered
and fluttered round his head, but by an effort of will he drove that
impression out of his mind again.

In the afternoon Hapley called upon the Vicar, and argued with him upon
theological questions. They sat in the little arbour covered with briar,
and smoked as they wrangled. "Look at that moth!" said Hapley, suddenly,
pointing to the edge of the wooden table.

"Where?" said the Vicar.

"You don't see a moth on the edge of the table there?" said Hapley.

"Certainly not," said the Vicar.

Hapley was thunderstruck. He gasped. The Vicar was staring at him. Clearly
the man saw nothing. "The eye of faith is no better than the eye of
science," said Hapley awkwardly.

"I don't see your point," said the Vicar, thinking it was part of the
argument.

That night Hapley found the moth crawling over his counterpane. He sat on
the edge of the bed in his shirt sleeves and reasoned with himself. Was it
pure hallucination? He knew he was slipping, and he battled for his sanity
with the same silent energy he had formerly displayed against Pawkins. So
persistent is mental habit, that he felt as if it were still a struggle
with Pawkins. He was well versed in psychology. He knew that such visual
illusions do come as a result of mental strain. But the point was, he did
not only _see_ the moth, he had heard it when it touched the edge of
the lampshade, and afterwards when it hit against the wall, and he had
felt it strike his face in the dark.

He looked at it. It was not at all dreamlike, but perfectly clear and
solid-looking in the candle-light. He saw the hairy body, and the short
feathery antennae, the jointed legs, even a place where the down was
rubbed from the wing. He suddenly felt angry with himself for being afraid
of a little insect.

His landlady had got the servant to sleep with her that night, because she
was afraid to be alone. In addition she had locked the door, and put the
chest of drawers against it. They listened and talked in whispers after
they had gone to bed, but nothing occurred to alarm them. About eleven
they had ventured to put the candle out, and had both dozed off to sleep.
They woke up with a start, and sat up in bed, listening in the darkness.

Then they heard slippered feet going to and fro in Hapley's room. A chair
was overturned, and there was a violent dab at the wall. Then a china
mantel ornament smashed upon the fender. Suddenly the door of the room
opened, and they heard him upon the landing. They clung to one another,
listening. He seemed to be dancing upon the staircase. Now he would go
down three or four steps quickly, then up again, then hurry down into the
hall. They heard the umbrella stand go over, and the fanlight break. Then
the bolt shot and the chain rattled. He was opening the door.

They hurried to the window. It was a dim grey night; an almost unbroken
sheet of watery cloud was sweeping across the moon, and the hedge and
trees in front of the house were black against the pale roadway. They saw
Hapley, looking like a ghost in his shirt and white trousers, running to
and fro in the road, and beating the air. Now he would stop, now he would
dart very rapidly at something invisible, now he would move upon it with
stealthy strides. At last he went out of sight up the road towards the
down. Then, while they argued who should go down and lock the door, he
returned. He was walking very fast, and he came straight into the house,
closed the door carefully, and went quietly up to his bedroom. Then
everything was silent.

"Mrs. Colville," said Hapley, calling down the staircase next morning, "I
hope I did not alarm you last night."

"You may well ask that!" said Mrs. Colville.

"The fact is, I am a sleep-walker, and the last two nights I have been
without my sleeping mixture. There is nothing to be alarmed about, really.
I am sorry I made such an ass of myself. I will go over the down to
Shoreham, and get some stuff to make me sleep soundly. I ought to have
done that yesterday."

But half-way over the down, by the chalk pits, the moth came upon Hapley
again. He went on, trying to keep his mind upon chess problems, but it was
no good. The thing fluttered into his face, and he struck at it with his
hat in self-defence. Then rage, the old rage--the rage he had so often
felt against Pawkins--came upon him again. He went on, leaping and
striking at the eddying insect. Suddenly he trod on nothing, and fell
headlong.

There was a gap in his sensations, and Hapley found himself sitting on the
heap of flints in front of the opening of the chalk-pits, with a leg
twisted back under him. The strange moth was still fluttering round his
head. He struck at it with his hand, and turning his head saw two men
approaching him. One was the village doctor. It occurred to Hapley that
this was lucky. Then it came into his mind with extraordinary vividness,
that no one would ever be able to see the strange moth except himself, and
that it behoved him to keep silent about it.

Late that night, however, after his broken leg was set, he was feverish
and forgot his self-restraint. He was lying flat on his bed, and he began
to run his eyes round the room to see if the moth was still about. He
tried not to do this, but it was no good. He soon caught sight of the
thing resting close to his hand, by the night-light, on the green
table-cloth. The wings quivered. With a sudden wave of anger he smote at
it with his fist, and the nurse woke up with a shriek. He had missed it.

"That moth!" he said; and then, "It was fancy. Nothing!"

All the time he could see quite clearly the insect going round the cornice
and darting across the room, and he could also see that the nurse saw
nothing of it and looked at him strangely. He must keep himself in hand.
He knew he was a lost man if he did not keep himself in hand. But as the
night waned the fever grew upon him, and the very dread he had of seeing
the moth made him see it. About five, just as the dawn was grey, he tried
to get out of bed and catch it, though his leg was afire with pain. The
nurse had to struggle with him.

On account of this, they tied him down to the bed. At this the moth grew
bolder, and once he felt it settle in his hair. Then, because he struck
out violently with his arms, they tied these also. At this the moth came
and crawled over his face, and Hapley wept, swore, screamed, prayed for
them to take it off him, unavailingly.

The doctor was a blockhead, a just-qualified general practitioner, and
quite ignorant of mental science. He simply said there was no moth. Had he
possessed the wit, he might still, perhaps, have saved Hapley from his
fate by entering into his delusion, and covering his face with gauze, as
he prayed might be done. But, as I say, the doctor was a blockhead, and
until the leg was healed Hapley was kept tied to his bed, and with the
imaginary moth crawling over him. It never left him while he was awake and
it grew to a monster in his dreams. While he was awake he longed for
sleep, and from sleep he awoke screaming.

So now Hapley is spending the remainder of his days in a padded room,
worried by a moth that no one else can see. The asylum doctor calls it
hallucination; but Hapley, when he is in his easier mood, and can talk,
says it is the ghost of Pawkins, and consequently a unique specimen and
well worth the trouble of catching.



Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Email:
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.
Email: