Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
H, how beautiful! Oh, my goodness, how beautiful they are!
There are some whose wings are barred with red on a garnet
background; some bright blue with black circles; others are
sulphur-yellow with orange spots; again others are white
fringed with gold-color. They have on the forehead two fine
horns, two antennæ, sometimes fringed like an
aigrette, sometimes cut off like a tuft of feathers. Under
the head they have a proboscis, a sucker as fine as a hair
and twisted into a spiral. When they approach a flower, they
untwist the proboscis and plunge it to the bottom of the
corolla to drink a drop of honeyed liquor. Oh, how beautiful
they are! Oh, my goodness, how beautiful they are! But if
one manages to touch them, their wings tarnish and leave
between the fingers a fine dust like that of precious
Now their uncle told the children the names of the
butterflies that flew on the flowers in the garden. "This
one," said he,
"whose wings are white with a black border and
three black spots, is called the cabbage butterfly. This
larger one, whose yellow wings barred with black terminate
in a long tail, at the base of which are found a large rust
colored eye and blue spots, is called the swallow-tail. This
 tiny one, sky-blue above, silver-gray underneath, sprinkled
with black eyes in white circles, with a line of reddish
spots bordering the wings, is called the Argus."
And Uncle Paul continued thus, naming the butterflies that a
bright sun had drawn to the flowers.
"The Argus ought to be difficult to catch," observed Emile.
"He sees everywhere; his wings are covered with eyes."
"The pretty round spots that a great many butterflies have
on their wings are not really eyes, although they are called
by that name; they are ornaments, nothing more. Real eyes,
eyes for seeing, are in the head. The Argus has two, neither
more nor fewer than the other butterflies."
"Claire tells me," said Jules, "that butterflies come from
caterpillars. Is it true, Uncle?"
"Yes, my child. Every butterfly, before becoming the
graceful creature which flies from flower to flower with
magnificent wings, is an ugly caterpillar that creeps with
effort. Thus the cabbage butterfly which I have just shown
you, is first a green caterpillar, which stays on the
cabbages and gnaws
 the leaves. Jacques will tell you how
much pains he takes to protect his cabbage patch from the
voracious insect; for, you see, caterpillars have a terrible
appetite. You will soon learn the reason.
"Most insects behave like caterpillars. On coming out of the
egg, they have a provisional form that they must replace
later by another. They are, as it were, born twice: first
imperfect, dull, voracious, ugly: then perfect, agile,
abstemious, and often of an admirable richness and elegance.
Under its first form, the insect is a worm called by the
general name of larva.
"You remember the lion of the plant-lice, the grub that eats
the lice of the rosebush and, for weeks, without being able
to satisfy itself, continues night and day its ferocious
feasting. Well, this grub is a larva, that will change
itself into a little lace-winged fly, the hemerobius, whose
wings are of gauze and eyes of gold. Before becoming the
pretty red lady-bird with black spots, this pretty insect,
which, in spite of its innocent air, crunches the
plant-lice, is a very ugly worm, a slate-colored larva,
covered with little points, and itself very fond of
plant-lice. The June bug, the silly June bug, which, if its
leg is held by a thread, awkwardly puffs out its wings,
makes all preparations, and starts out to the tune of 'Fly,
fly, fly!' is at first a white worm, a plump larva, fat as
bacon, which lives underground, attacks the roots of plants,
and destroys our crops. The big stag-beetle, whose head is
armed with menacing mandibles shaped like the stag's horns,
is at first a large worm that lives in old tree-trunks. It
is the same with
 the capricorn, so peculiar for its long
antennæ. And the worm found in our ripe cherries,
which is so repugnant to us, what does it become? It becomes
a beautiful fly, its wings adorned with four bands of black
velvet. And so on with others.
"Well, this initial state of the insect, this worm, first
form of youth, is called the larva. The wonderful change
which transforms the larva into a perfect insect is called
metamorphosis. Caterpillars are larvæ.
By metamorphosis they
turn into those beautiful butterflies whose wings, decorated
with the richest colors, fill us with admiration. The Argus,
now so beautiful with its celestial blue wings, was first a
poor hairy caterpillar; the splendid swallowtail began by
being a green caterpillar with black stripes across it and
red spots on its sides. Out of these despicable vermin
metamorphosis has made those delightful creatures which only
the flowers can rival in elegance.
Red-humped Apple Tree
(b) caterpillar natural size
"You all know the tale of Cinderella. The sisters have left
for the ball, very proud, very smart. Cinderella, her heart
full, is watching the kettle. The godmother arrives. 'Go,'
says she, 'to the garden and get a pumpkin.' And behold, the
scooped-out pumpkin changes under the godmother's wand, into
a gilded carriage. 'Cinderella,' says she again, 'open the
mouse-trap.' Six mice run out of it, and are no sooner
touched by the magic wand than they
 turn into six beautiful
dappled-gray horses. A bearded rat becomes a big coachman
with a commanding mustache. Six lizards sleeping behind the
watering pot become green bedizened footmen, who immediately
jump up behind the carriage. Finally the poor girl's shabby
clothes are changed to gold and silver ones sprinkled with
precious stones. Cinderella starts for the ball, in glass
slippers. You, apparently, know the rest of it better than
"These powerful godmothers for whom it is play to change
mice into horses, lizards into footmen, ugly clothes into
sumptuous ones, these gracious fairies who astonish you with
their fabulous prodigies, what are they, my dear children,
in comparison with reality, the great fairy of the good God,
who, out of a dirty worm, object of disgust, knows how to
make a creature of ravishing beauty! He touches with his
divine wand a miserable hairy caterpillar, an abject worm
that slobbers in rotten wood, and the miracle is
accomplished: the disgusting larva has turned into a beetle
all shining with gold, a butterfly whose azure wings would
have outshone Cinderella's fine toilette."