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An essay by A. A. Milne

The Chase

Title:     The Chase
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

The fact, as revealed in a recent lawsuit, that there is a gentleman in this country who spends L10,000 a year upon his butterfly collection would have disturbed me more in the early nineties than it does to-day. I can bear it calmly now, but twenty-five years ago the knowledge would have spoilt my pride in my own collection, upon which I was already spending the best part of threepence a week pocket-money. Perhaps, though, I should have consoled myself with the thought that I was the truer enthusiast of the two; for when my rival hears of a rare butterfly in Brazil, he sends a man out to Brazil to capture it, whereas I, when I heard that there was a Clouded Yellow in the garden, took good care that nobody but myself encompassed its death. Our aims also were different. I purposely left Brazil out of it.

Whether butterfly-hunting is good or bad for the character I cannot undertake to decide. No doubt it can be justified as clearly as fox- hunting. If the fox eats chickens, the butterfly's child eats vegetables; if fox-hunting improves the breed of horses, butterfly-hunting improves the health of boys. But at least, we never told ourselves that butterflies liked being pursued, as (I understand) foxes like being hunted. We were moderately honest about it. And we comforted ourselves in the end with the assurance of many eminent naturalists that "insects don't feel pain."

I have often wondered how naturalists dare to speak with such authority. Do they never have dreams at night of an after-life in some other world, wherein they are pursued by giant insects eager to increase their "naturalist collection"--insects who assure each other carelessly that "naturalists don't feel pain"? Perhaps they do so dream. But we, at any rate, slept well, for we had never dogmatized about a butterfly's feelings. We only quoted the wise men.

But if there might be doubt about the sensitiveness of a butterfly, there could be no doubt about his distinguishing marks. It was amazing to us how many grown-up and (presumably) educated men and women did not know that a butterfly had knobs on the end of his antennae, and that the moth had none. Where had they been all these years to be so ignorant? Well-meaning but misguided aunts, with mysterious promises of a new butterfly for our collection, would produce some common Yellow Underwing from an envelope, innocent (for which they may be forgiven) that only a personal capture had any value to us, but unforgivably ignorant that a Yellow Underwing was a moth. We did not collect moths; there were too many of them. And moths are nocturnal creatures. A hunter whose bed-time depends upon the whim of another is handicapped for the night-chase.

But butterflies come out when the sun comes out, which is just when little boys should be out; and there are not too many butterflies in England. I knew them all by name once, and could have recognized any that I saw--yes, even Hampstead's Albion Eye (or was it Albion's Hampstead Eye?), of which only one specimen had ever been caught in this country; presumably by Hampstead--or Albion. In my day-dreams the second specimen was caught by me. Yet he was an insignificant-looking fellow, and perhaps I should have been better pleased with a Camberwell Beauty, a Purple Emperor, or a Swallowtail. Unhappily the Purple Emperor (so the book told us) haunted the tops of trees, which was to take an unfair advantage of a boy small for his age, and the Swallowtail haunted Norfolk, which was equally inconsiderate of a family which kept holiday in the south. The Camberwell Beauty sounded more hopeful, but I suppose the trams disheartened him. I doubt if he ever haunted Camberwell in my time.

With threepence a week one has to be careful. It was necessary to buy killing-boxes and setting-boards, but butterfly-nets could be made at home. A stick, a piece of copper wire, and some muslin were all that were necessary. One liked the muslin to be green, for there was a feeling that this deceived the butterfly in some way; he thought that Birnam Wood was merely coming to Dunsinane when he saw it approaching, arid that the queer- looking thing behind was some local efflorescence. So he resumed his dalliance with the herbaceous border, and was never more surprised in his life than when it turned out to be a boy and a butterfly-net. Green muslin, then, but a plain piece of cane for the stick. None of your collapsible fishing-rods--"suitable for a Purple Emperor." Leave those to the millionaire's sons.

It comes back to me now that I am doing this afternoon what I did more than twenty-five years ago; I am writing an article upon the way to make a butterfly-net. For my first contribution to the press was upon this subject. I sent it to the editor of some boys' paper, and his failure to print it puzzled me a good deal, since every word in it (I was sure) was correctly spelt. Of course, I see now that you want more in an article than that. But besides being puzzled I was extremely disappointed, for I wanted badly the money that it should have brought in. I wanted it in order to buy a butterfly-net; the stick and the copper wire and the green muslin being (in my hands, at any rate) more suited to an article.

[The end]
A. A. Milne's essay: Chase