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IT was a great purple butterfly which led me over the brow of the hill, one of the “white admirals,” curiously enough so called, though this one had but four minute spots of white on him near the tips of his wings. Some members of his genus have a right to the name for they have broad bands of white across all four wings, but this one, the Basilarchia astyanax, is a black sheep.
Nevertheless he is a beautiful creature, well worth following under any circumstances to note the ease and sureness of his floating flight and admire the beauty of his velvety rufous-black, shoaling into lustrous blue in the rounded crenulations of the after wings. This one I thought worth following for another reason, however, for he seemed to have something on his mind. Not that his flight was direct. A bird with something to do goes to his work in a straight line; but a butterfly must dance along, even if it were to a funeral in the family. And yet with all this my blue and rufous-black white admiral carried in his dancing progress something which told me he was troubled and led me to follow him over the brow of the hill.
The hill itself is worth noting. Here the glaciers which some thousands of years ago planed off the rougher surface of eastern New England dropped their chips in a vast terminal moraine of sand and gravel, whose northern declivity is so steep that you may throw a stone from its rim to the top of a pine growing on the level, eighty or ninety feet below. I know many terminal moraines in New England; but I know no other at once so high and so abrupt in its declivity. A few rods back from its summit the trolley car clangs incessantly, and the speed-mad automobilist tears hooting through.
Along the crest, in spite of this, sleep peacefully the forefathers of the hamlet. I like to feel that they neither note nor heed the uproar of the highway; that they now and then cock a pleased ear to the rumble of a passing hay-cart or the jog of a farmer's horse, but that the bedlam of modern hurry whangs by them till perceived. Rather they turn their faces to the sough of the summer winds in the century-old pines which shade the steep and sleep on, happy in the benediction that descends from the spreading branches. Wonderful pines, these, so shading the whole declivity that not more than a dapple of sunlight has touched the ground beneath them for a century.
Here the hepatica finds the cool, dry seclusion that it loves and lifts shy blue eyes to you while yet the winter ice nestles beside it among the pine roots. Here while the July sun distills pitchy aroma from the great trees the partridge berry carpets favored spots with the rich green of its little round leaves, leaves no bigger than the pink nail of your sweetheart's little finger, a green figured with the scarlet of last year's berries and the white of its wee starry twin flowers. Here, too, in July the pyrola lifts its spike of bells like a woodland lily-of-the-valley and the pipsissewa shows its waxy flowers to the questing bee.
A butterfly, especially a large butterfly, rarely bothers with these low-growing herbs, though each has its own delicious fragrance -- and a butterfly's scent is keen. So my black white admiral alternately danced and soared on down through the richly perfumed areas of the wood while I plunged eagerly after, glissading the needle-carpeted slope, making station from trunk to trunk lest a too headlong flight plunge me to oblivion in what I knew was at the foot of the hill.
Without, the perfervid July sun beat upon the landscape till the dust of its concussion rose in a blue haze that loomed the nearby hills into misty mountain tops and glamoured the whole world with tropical illusion. To our hard-cornered, clear-cut New England it is the midsummer which brings the atmosphere of romance. The swoon of Arabian Nights is upon the landscape, and it is through such heat and through such misty evasion that the Caliph of Bagdad was accustomed to set forth incognito to meet strange adventures.
At the foot of the hill, almost at the borderland which separates this under-pine world from another far different, the resinous air is shut in like the genie in the bottle. You feel the oppression of its restraint and wonder, if like the fisherman you might uncork it, if it would loom aloft in a dense cloud that would speak to you in a mighty voice. Here my butterfly paused for the first time and lighted upon the trunk of a pine, head high.
Quietly I drew near. His wings were rising and falling in rhythmic unconscious motion that was tremulous with what seemed eagerness. One of them, I noted, had a little triangular bit snipped out of it with a clean cut. Some insect-eating bird had snapped at him not long before, and he had come within a half inch of death. Yet this did not trouble him; very likely he never knew it. It was something else which absorbed him so that he took no notice of my close approach. And now I could see that his proboscis was uncoiled and apparently he was eating rapidly. Now the proboscis of any butterfly is simply a double-barrelled tube through which he sucks honey or other moist nutriment. That a Basilarchia astyanax, or any other butterfly for that matter, should be able to draw nourishment from the dry, rough bark of a pine-tree was sufficient cause for astonishment, and I drew eagerly nearer to see what he was getting.
It was a humid day and I was thirsty myself. What woodland brew could be on tap here? In Ireland it used to be true that the Leprachauns, the little men of the hedge, could make good beer of heath, and if you could only catch and hold one he would tell you how. Here might be a similar chance. My nose was within six inches of the white admiral's now and my eyes were bulging out with surprise as much as his do naturally, for behold he had what butterfly never had before, -- a little red tongue on the tip of his proboscis, and with it he was nervously licking the bark in its roughest places as hard as he could.
I might have seen more had not my foot slipped on the glossy pine needles, and while I clutched the trunk of the pine to save myself the butterfly danced away, thinking, I dare say, that I was an abnormally developed wood peewee and had just missed getting him for luncheon. Evidently the south wind had blown up from the gulf more than an Arabian Night's atmosphere; it had sent along portions of the fauna as well. A butterfly with a tongue on the end of his proboscis belongs in the land where rocs pick up elephants in their talons and soar away with them!
Eagerly I sought to follow my Basilarchia astyanax and learn more, but it was not so easy. To follow his flight without care as to the setting of my feet might well be to reach a country undiscovered indeed, for from the very bottom of the northern declivity of the terminal moraine well the springs of the fountain head, and out across these he lightly floated, toward the sphagnum bottom pasture swamp beyond.
I suppose it is well settled, geologically, that a river of pure water flows from some distant northern point, Labrador perhaps, under the eastern portion of Massachusetts. Driven wells find this water almost everywhere. In places it rises to the surface in clear ponds which have no apparent inlet, and from which little water flows, but which are clear and sparkling at a good level the year round. Houghton's Pond, in the Blue Hill Reservation, is one of these nearest Boston. Walden Pond is another, and there are plenty more.
In other places still the water boils out of springs through quicksands of unknown depths, flowing in clear streams through surrounding swamps where trees have made firm ground alternating with bits of quaking bog and open pools, where a misstep will drop you over your head in a clinging mud that never gives up what it once gets.
Such is the fountain head, and you would know you were coming to it of a hot day even were your eyes shut, for the ice-cold water makes its own atmosphere. We read of bodies of ice that have lasted since the glacial age buried under these terminal moraines whence well such cooling springs; I do not know about the ice, but I can testify to the cold, sparkling water and the grateful atmosphere which it disseminates on these our Arabian days.
Yet you must mark well your going. Just under the slope the water boils up through fine sand that dances in the up current. A few feet farther down it wells more silently, and the decayed vegetation of centuries has made a mud bank over the quicksand. You may sink to the knee here and find bottom. A few steps farther on you may drive a twenty-foot pole down through mud and sand and find nothing to obstruct it.
Yet Nature always provides the remedy. Mosses and swamp grass have grown on the surface of this liquid mud and alders and swamp maple have rooted in these and encouraged wild rose and elder and many another shrub, till their intertwined roots have formed a surface which is in part safe to the foot. And here is a world of itself in this hidden pasture corner, for here linger the trout and the watercress, and many another shy woodland thing, driven to bay by the encroachments of surrounding civilization.
In early July you will find the watercress in bloom in the open pools, surrounded by quaking bog and alder shade. Toward this my butterfly had gone, and I followed, balancing warily from clump to clump in the grateful coolness, testing each foothold lest it drop me into the clinging depths below whence nothing but a derrick might lift me. The arethusa, daintiest of orchids, nodded its pink head at me from the quaking sphagnum, daintily bowing me on, but I paused a moment.
In the water right between my feet was a spotted turtle that had just captured an appetizing, but by no means dainty morsel. This was a terrapin-like bug that was more than a mouthful. His body, indeed, was already out of sight, but claw-like legs protruded front both sides of that isosceles triangle which a turtle's mouth makes when it is closed, and waved a frantic farewell to the passing under-water world. The turtle was a long time in masticating his terrapin, but it was a happy time. His whole body blinked contentedly, and he waved his forelegs with at caressing out-push, a motion exactly like that of a child at the breast. Then he wagged his head solemnly from side to side as a wise turtle might who feels that such good lunches are put up by fate only for the knowing ones of this watery world, and pushed himself half way under the roots of a tussock for a nap. Soon the nether half circle of his shell was motionless, with his hind legs drawn up within. Only his little spike tail protruded, waving to a wee passing trout the news that the millennium was at hand, and the turtle and the bug-terrapin had lain down together in peace and prosperity, with the bug-terrapin inside.
I looked up for the butterfly. He was nowhere to he seen. Yet my trip was to be worth while, for right in front of me was an open pool surrounded by a quaking bog, a pool twenty feet across packed almost solid with the white panicled heads of water-cress blooms in which swarmed a myriad of bees. Their drone was like that at the front door of a hive on a hot July day, yet it was not a monotone as that is. It was rather like a grand chorus singing many parts, for these were all wildwood bees of a dozen varieties. There was not a hive tender among them.
Lifting my admiring gaze from the pool with its white panicles and swarming bees I saw further beauty beyond. On firmer ground nestling lovingly against an old chestnut post was a great, glorious spike of habenaria, the purple-fringed orchis. It is not uncommon, the habenaria, in peaty meadows, but no man sees it for the first time in the season without a great glow of delight, and I hastened over to give it nearer a greeting. Just as I reached it the butterfly came dancing up, but not to sip the sweets of the wonderful great orchid. Instead he lighted, right under my nose, in the roughest part of the old fence post and began to lick this as he had the pine trunk.
I watched him again, hearing subconsciously the voice of a great crested flycatcher over on a near-by tree, crying “Grief,” “Grief.” A moment and the little red tongue which I had noted before seemed to catch on the roughest part of the old fence post, and with a sudden scrape the Basilarchia scraped it off. I looked in amaze, for now I saw what it was. From the honey heart of some flower a little red worm had become attached to the tip of the butterfly's proboscis, and all this licking of rough surfaces had been merely to get rid of him.
Up into the bright sunshine danced my black white admiral. There was the swish of wings, the snip-snip of a bird's beak, and it was all over. The cry of the great crested flycatcher had been a prophecy indeed, and the white admiral had danced blithely out of existence.
But the equatorial haze had more tropical enchantment in store, for the midday still was suddenly wiped out by an ominous figure. Some one had uncorked that bottle which held the heat genie confined, and he was looming from a black nimbus below into white pile's of cumulus at the zenith. His eyes flashed red lightnings and he spoke in thunder tones. Somewhere over yonder I heard the great crested flycatcher crying “Grief,” “Grief,” again. It might be my turn next, and I patted the great orchid good-by and tiptoed through the sphagnum and climbed the hill again. It had been a brief but pleasant trip. A butterfly that found a tongue and a turtle that ate terrapin with a happy smile may belong with the genie in the Arabian Nights, or with Alice in Wonderland, or both. I know that I found them at the fountain head, under the grove of immemorial pines, below the brow of the terminal moraine where sleep the fathers of the hamlet.
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