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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Bible And The Butterfly

Title:     The Bible And The Butterfly
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

Once, in my old book-hunting days, I picked up, on the Quai Voltaire, a copy of the _Proverbs of King Solomon_. Then it was more possible than today to make finds in that quaint open-air library which, still more than any library housed within governmental or diplomaed walls, is haunted by the spirit of those passionate, dream-led scholars that made the Renaissance, and crowded to those lectures filled with that dangerous new charm which always belongs to the poetic presentation of new knowledge--those lectures, "musical as is Apollo's lute," being given up on the hill nearby, by a romantic young priest named Abelard.

My copy of the Great King's Wisdom was of no particular bibliographical value, but it was one of those thick-set, old-calf duodecimos "black with tarnished gold" which Austin Dobson has sung, books that, one imagines, must have once made even the Latin Grammar attractive. The text was the Vulgate, a rivulet of Latin text surrounded by meadows of marginal comments of the Fathers translated into French,--the whole presided over, for the edification of the young novice, to whom my copy evidently belonged, by a distinguished Monseigneur who, in French of the time of Bossuet, told exactly how these young minds should understand the wisdom of Solomon, told it with a magisterial style which suggested that Solomon lived long ago--and, yet, was one of the pillars of the church. But what particularly interested me about the book, however, as I turned over its yellow pages, was a tiny thing pressed between them, a thing the Fathers and the Monseigneur would surely have regarded as curiously alien to their wisdom, a thing once of a bright, but now of a paler yellow, and of a frailer texture than it had once been in its sunlit life--a flower, I thought at first, but, on looking closer, I saw it was, or had once been, a yellow butterfly.

What young priest was it, I wondered, that had thus, with a breaking heart, crushed the joy of life between these pages! On what spring morning had this silent little messenger hovered a while over the high garden-walls of St. Sulpice, flitting and fluttering, and at last darted and alighted on the page of this old book, at that moment held in the hands of a young priest walking to and fro amid the tall whispering trees--delivering at last to him on the two small painted pages of its wings a message he must not read....

The temptation was severe, for spring was calling all over Paris, and the words of another book of the Great King whose wisdom he held in his hand said to him in the Latin that came easily to all manner of men in those days: _Lo! the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.... Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away._

The little fluttering thing seemed to be saying that to him as it poised on the page, and, as his eyes went into a dream, began to crawl softly, like a rope-walker, up one of his fingers, with a frail, half-frightened hold, while, high up, over the walls of the garden the poplars were discreetly swaying to the southern wind, and the lilac-bushes were carelessly tossing this way and that their fragrance, as altar-boys swing their censers in the hushed chancel,--but ah! so different an incense.

_The flowers appear on the earth_, he repeated to himself, beguiled for a moment, _the flowers appear on the earth; and the time of the singing of birds is come...._

But, suddenly, for his help against that tiny yellow butterfly there came to him other stern everlasting words:

_The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the word of our Lord endureth forever._

Then it was, if I imagine aright from my old book, that my young novice of St. Sulpice crushed the joy of life, in the frail form of its little messenger, between the pages of the book he held in his hand just then, the book I held in my hand for a while a hundred and fifty years or so after--the book I bought that morning on the Quai Voltaire--guarding that little dead butterfly even more than the wisdom of Solomon. I wonder if, as he crushed that butterfly, he said to himself--in words that have grown commonplace since his time--the words of that strange emperor Hadrian--_Animula, vagula, blandula_!

Perhaps I should not have remembered that book-hunting morning in Old Paris on the Quai Voltaire, when I bought that beautiful old copy of the _Proverbs of Solomon_--with the butterfly so strangely crushed between its pages--had it not been for a circumstance that happened to me, the other day, in the subway, which seemed to me of the nature of a marvel. Many weary men and women were travelling--in an enforced, yet in some way humorously understanding, society--from Brooklyn Bridge to the Bronx. I got in at Wall Street. The "crush-hour" was near, for it was 4:25--still, as yet, there were time and space granted us to observe our neighbours. In the particular car in which I was sitting, there was room still left to look about and admire the courage of your fellow-passengers. Weary men going home--many of them having used them all day long--have little wish to use their eyes, so all the men in my car sat silently and sadly, contemplating the future. As I looked at them, it seemed to me that they were thinking over the day's work they had done, and the innumerable days' work they had still to do. No one smiled. No one observed the other. An automatic courtesy gave a seat here and there, but no one gave any attention to any business but his own thoughts and his own sad station.

It was a car, if I remember aright, occupied almost entirely by men-passengers, and, so far as I could see, there were no evidences that men knew women from men, or _vice versa_, yet, at last, there seemed to dawn on four men sitting in a row that there was a wonderful creature reading a book on the other side of the aisle--a lovely young woman, with all the fabled beauty of the sea-shell, and the rainbow, that enchantment in her calm pearl-like face, and in the woven stillness of her hair, that has in all times and countries made men throw up sails and dare the unknown sea, and the unknown Fates. The beauty, too, that nature had given her was clothed in the subdued enchantments of the rarest art. All unconscious of the admiration surrounding her, she sat in that subway car, like a lonely butterfly, strangely there in her incongruous surroundings, for a mysterious moment,--to vanish as swiftly as she had come--and, as she stepped from the car, leaving it dark and dazzled--

bright with her past presence yet--

I, who had fortunately, and fearfully, sat by her side was aware that the book she had been reading was lying forgotten on the seat. It was mine by right of accident,--treasure-trove. So I picked it up, braving the glares of the four sad men facing me.

Naturally, I had wondered what book it was; but its being bound in tooled and jewelled morocco, evidently by one of the great bookbinders of Paris, made it unprofitable to hazard a guess.

I leave to the imagination of lovers of books what book one would naturally expect to find in hands so fair. Perhaps _Ronsard_--or some other poet from the Rose-Garden of old France. No! it was a charmingly printed copy of The New Testament.

The paradox of the discovery hushed me for a few moments, and then I began to turn over the pages, several of which I noticed were dog eared after the manner of beautiful women in all ages. A pencil here and there had marked certain passages. _Come unto me_, ran one of the underlined passages, _all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest_,--and I thought how strange it was that she whose face was so calm and still should have needed to mark that. And another marked passage I noted--_He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not_. Then I put down the book with a feeling of awe--such as the Bible had never brought to me before, though I had been accustomed to it from my boyhood, and I said to myself: "How very strange!" And I meant how strange it was to find this wonderful old book in the hands of this wonderful young beauty.

It had seemed strange to find that butterfly in that old copy of the _Proverbs of King Solomon_, but how much stranger to find the New Testament in the hands, or, so to speak, between the wings, of an American butterfly.

I found something written in the book at least as wonderful to me as the sacred text. It was the name of the butterfly--a name almost as beautiful as herself. So I was enabled to return her book to her. There is, of course, no need to mention a name as well-known for good works as good looks. It will suffice to say that it was the name of the most beautiful actress in the world.

There is a moral to this story. Morals--to stories--are once more coming into fashion. The Bible, in my boyhood, came to us with no such associations as I have recalled. There were no butterflies between its pages, nor was it presented to us by fair or gracious hands. It was a very grim and minatory book, wielded, as it seemed to one's childish ignorance, for the purpose which that young priest of St. Sulpice had used the pages of his copy of the _Proverbs of King Solomon_, that of crushing out the joy of life.

My first acquaintance with it as I remember, was in a Methodist chapel in Staffordshire, England, where three small boys, including myself, prisoned in an old-fashioned high-back pew, were endeavouring to relieve the apparently endless _ennui_ of the service by eating surreptitious apples. Suddenly upon our three young heads descended what seemed like a heavy block of wood, wielded by an ancient deacon who did not approve of boys. We were, each of us, no more than eight years old, and the book which had thus descended upon our heads was nothing more to us than a very weighty book--to be dodged if possible, for we were still in that happy time of life when we hated all books. We knew nothing of its contents--to us it was only a schoolmaster's cane, beating us into silence and good behaviour.

So the Bible has been for many generations of boys a book even more terrible than Caesar's _Commentaries_ or the _Aeneid_ of Virgil--the dull thud of a mysterious cudgel upon the shoulders of youth which you bore as courageously as you could.

So many of us grew up with what one might call a natural prejudice against the Bible.

Then some of us who cared for literature took it up casually and found its poetic beauty. We read the _Book of Job_--which, by the way, Mr. Swinburne is said to have known by heart; and as we read it even the stars themselves seemed less wonderful than this description of their marvel and mystery:

_Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades or loose the hands of Orion?_

_Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?_

Or we read in the 37th chapter of the _Book of Ezekiel_ of that weird valley that was full of bones--"_and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together bone to bone_," surely one of the most wonderful visions of the imagination in all literature.

Or we read the marvellous denunciatory rhetoric of Jeremiah and Isaiah, or the music of the melodious heart-strings of King David; we read the solemn adjuration of the "King Ecclesiast" to remember our Creator in the days of our youth, with its haunting picture of old age: and the loveliness of _The Song of Songs_ passed into our lives forever.

To this purely literary love of the Bible there has been added within the last few years a certain renewed regard for it as the profoundest book of the soul, and for some minds not conventionally religious it has regained even some of its old authority as a spiritual guide and stay. And I will confess for myself that sometimes, as I fall asleep at night, I wonder if even Bernard Shaw has written anything to equal the Twenty-third Psalm.

Richard Le Gallienne's Essay: The Bible and the butterfly