By Frank C. Pellett
THE CATERPILLAR'S PROPHECY
page 199The Naturalist had the blues; his digestion was working at cross purposes with his ambition, and the European war was getting on his nerves. Reading so much of death and destruction filled him with gloom, and raised many questions as to the cause, purpose, and end of life. The agnostic had almost convinced him that death was not a door, but a blind wall beyond which one might not pass. On this basis he tried to formulate some satisfactory philosophy on the purpose of life, but there was none. He speculated much on the futility of man’s labor in building his houses of sand. All men seemed as children older grown. Instead of games of marbles and ball they played at manufacturing, railroading, and banking, but no more purpose seemed apparent than in the childhood games, beyond the amusement of those who played. Some men lived like swine wallowing in the mud, other like horses pulling heavy loads, and still others like vain birds preening their feathers in the sun. He questioned whether those pulling their loads or those sitting in the sun enjoyed the present moment more than those wallowing in the mire.
He thought to little purpose, and his questionings were in vain, for he could find no solution of the enigma of life. Man’s origin and destiny remain shrouded in mystery, and the more serious the attempt to solve the riddle, the greater the confusion of the mind. Wearily he decided that life is but a tiny island in the unexplored sea of eternity. He knew nothing of how he had reached the island at birth and only knew that the relentless waves of death, constantly beating upon it, sooner or later would carry him off into the boundless sea. Vaguely he wondered whether there were other islands somewhere, which he might reach, or whether, with death, would come oblivion, as the agnostic taught.
Tiring of useless speculation, he threw himself down in the shade of an apple tree under which grew a milkweed. A monarch butterfly alighting, caught his attention, and he was soon so much absorbed in her movements that problems of life and death no longer vexed him. The butterfly tarried but a moment, flitting about carelessly from place to place. Finally she approached the milkweed, and after a moment of hesitation deposited a tiny white egg on the underside of a leaf. A moment more and she was gone without thought or care as to the fate of her offspring.
The Naturalist examined the plant with some care, and found that other butterflies had been there before and that several of the tiny eggs were present under the leaves on different parts of the plant. Immediately he was happy again in the living present, which could supply things denied him by the dead past and the uncertain future. Here was material to occupy his time most pleasantly for many days. The butterfly was concerned about only to-day; why should he bother his head about a longer time?
As free from care as a child or a bird, the Naturalist spent many hours dreaming beside the milkweed in the orchard. The tiny eggs soon hatched and ugly little caterpillars with black and white stripes appeared. They were voracious little fellows, apparently consuming more than their own bulk of coarse food within a few hours. As the days went by they moulted, or shed their skins, which were getting too tight, and appeared in new suits of larger size. As they grew they improved in appearance, and yellow bands in addition to the black and white became more conspicuous. Although the caterpillars had improved somewhat in appearance, they were still anything but attractive with their fierce-looking horns and prison stripes. The milkweed suffered seriously as a result of their presence, and was soon almost entirely stripped of its leaves.
As the youngsters neared maturity the Naturalist took them to his study, where he could observe the final change, the wonderful transformation toward which they had been hastening while he had dreamed beside their milkweed. They were supplied with an abundance of fresh leaves from other milkweeds, but it was not for long. They had eaten their portion of rough herbage and were preparing for the day when they should sip nectar from the flowers. The Naturalist was not alone in watching to see what should take place when a caterpillar has finished its portion of rough fodder, but his boys, who by this time were also coming to be naturalists on their own account, were equally watchful.
At last one after another of the caterpillars stopped feeding, and began looking about for a suitable place to don the rich raiment suited to the new life on which they were about to enter. When one found a place to its liking, it prepared a silken fastening and turned itself into the form of an inverted question mark, as though, like the Naturalist, trying to peer beyond the thick veil that hid its future. Then a most wonderful change took place. The Naturalist and the watching boys could not comprehend it, although it took place before their very eyes. No more could they describe it, but the questioning caterpillar gradually became incased in a beautiful casket of green and gold, as though some invisible fairy were preparing it for burial. Finally there was no longer any sign of the ugly caterpillar with its prison stripes, but a marvelous casket which might have been made for the body of a queen, hung silently before them.
It was on the nineteenth of June, just when nature was at her best, that the caterpillar entered her silent tomb, and the Naturalist and his sons kept close watch during the days that followed to see what would come next. Finally, ten days later, the green of the casket was seen to change to a rich brown, and they knew that mother nature was preparing another of her great surprises. A few hours later the casket was split from a movement from within, and a strange creature came forth. It was not the caterpillar which they had seen enter the strange habitation, that they had seen spun from sunlight, ten days before. It was a far more beautiful creature and as different in its habit, physical construction, and appearance as night is from day. Man may watch silently beside the casket of the silent occupant, and note the wonderful change in the creature that comes forth, but how the change is wrought is not for him to know.
At first the little stranger presented a very novel appearance. She had wings, but they were all folded over her back. She walked about uncertainly and gradually unfolded her wings until they were nicely spread, as a butterfly’s should be. She then remained quietly hanging to the shell of the empty casket from which she had so lately emerged, while she dried her feathers and gained strength to venture forth.
All too soon she began flitting her wings as though to try them, and soon finding them strong enough to bear her weight flew to the window. She was then released and sailed away in the sunshine. She was soon sipping nectar from the clover blossoms, and from the roadside thistles, all unmindful of the coarser food which had so lately sustained her, and probably forgetful of the hard life that had so recently prepared her for the glorified state in which she now found herself.
The Naturalist had lost all trace of his gloom. He was convinced that nature would do no more for the caterpillar than for him. He no longer speculated vainly concerning the beginning or end of life. He was content with his coarse fare, even as the caterpillar had been, being assured that when it no longer was sufficient to sustain him, the invisible fairies that prepared the casket for the caterpillar would do as much for him, and he would lie quietly down for his long sleep. Since the caterpillar could not foresee so wonderful a change as would make it a butterfly, neither could he foresee what might be in store for him. He had faith to believe that the same invisible Hand that had transformed the sleeping caterpillar would prepare him for such a state as would bring the fullest development to his dormant powers.
From a lowly and insignificant creature he had learned what the greatest philosophers among mankind had failed to teach him, and he now had faith to believe that some good purpose was being served by the lowliest lives. As a child cannot comprehend the thoughts of a man, no more can a man understand the designs of his Creator. Both must be content to await their normal growth.
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