My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter X

The Sport of Fate

“A populous solitude of bees and birds

And fairy-formed and many-coloured things.”


Was ever a more glorious season for butterflies, and, alas! be it said, for sand and fruit and other flies of humble bearing but questionable character?

Light-hearted, purely ornamental insects, sober and industrious, ugly, mischievous, destructive, all have revelled — and the butterfly brings the art of inconsequent revelling to the acme of perfection — in the comparatively dry air, in the glowing skies, and in the succession of serene days. Moreover there has been no off-hand, untimely destruction of the nectariferous blossoms of millions of trees and shrubs. Frail as some flowers are, others linger long if unmolested by profane winds, offering a protracted feast of honey, pure and full-flavoured. The light sprinklings of rain have served to freshen the air and moisten the soil without diluting the syrupy richness of floral distillations. All the generous output has been over-proof.

Gaudy insects, intoxicated and sensuous, have feasted and flirted throughout the hours of daylight, and certain prim moths, sonorous of flight, find subtly scented blossoms keeping open house for them the livelong night.

Let others vex their souls and mutter the oddest sorts of imprecations because the fruit-fly cradles its pampered young in the juiciest of their oranges. Me it shall content to watch butterflies sip the nerve-shaking nectar of the paper-barks, and in their rowdy flight cut delirious scrolls against the unsullied sky.

Shall not I, too, glory in the superb season, and its scented tranquillity? Even though but casual glances are bestowed on the dainty settings of the pages on which Nature illustrates her brief but brilliant histories, understanding little, if aught, of her deeper mysteries, but thankful for the frankness and unaffectedness of their presentation — shall not I find abundance of sumptuous colour and grace of form for my enjoyment, and for my pondering texts without number?

What more fantastic scene than the love-making of the great green and gold and black Cassandra — that gem among Queensland butterflies-when four saucy gallants dance attendance on one big, buxom, sober-hued damsel of the species, and weave about her aerial true lovers’ knots, living chains, festoons, and intricate spirals, displaying each his bravest feathers, and seeking to dazzle the idol of the moment with audacious agility, and the beauty of complex curves and contours fluid as billows?

The red rays of the Umbrella-tree afford a rich setting to the scene. The rival lovers twirl and twist and reel as she — the prude — flits with tremulous wings from red knob to red knob — daintily sampling the spangles of nectar.

Not of these living jewels in general, but of one in particular, were these lines intended to refer — the great high-flying Ulysses, first observed in Australia on this very island over half a century ago. It was but a passing gleam, for the visiting scientist lamented that it flew so high over the treetops that he failed to obtain the specimen. True to name, the Ulysses still flies high, and wide — a lustrous royal blue with black trimmings and dandified tails to his wings that answer the dual purpose of use and ornament.

When Ulysses stops in his wanderings for refreshment he hides his gorgeous colouring, assuming similitude to a brown, weather-beaten leaf, and then the tails complete the illusion by becoming an idealistic stalk. He is one of the few, among gaily painted butterflies that certain birds like and hawk for. When in full flight, by swift swerves and doubles, he generally manages to evade his enemies, but during moments of preoccupation is compelled to adopt a protective disguise.

As the boat floated with the current among the bobbing, slender spindles of the mangroves — youthful plants on a voyage of discovery for new lands — there appeared a brown mottled leaf on the surface. A second glance revealed a dead Ulysses — an adventurous creature which had succumbed to temporary weakness during a more than usually ambitious maritime excursion. Here was a flawless specimen, for the wings of butterflies, in common with the fronds of some delicate ferns, have the property of repelling water, and do not readily become sodden, But as I essayed to take it up tenderly the wings boldly opened, displaying just the tone of vivid blue for which the silvery sea was an ideal setting.

It was sad to be weary and to fail; to experience gradual but inevitable collapse; to flop helplessly to the water to drown; but the lightest touch of the hand of man was a fate less endurable — too, frightful by far to submit to without a struggle. So, with a grand effort the great insect rose; and the sea, reluctant to part with such a rare jewel, retained in brown, dust-like feathers the pattern of the mottling of the under surface of the wings. What finicking dilettantism — was ever such “antic, lisping, affecting fantastico?”— that rough Neptune, who in blind fury bombards the stubborn beaches with blocks of coral, should be delicately susceptible to the downy print of a butterfly’s wings!

Though languid and weary, the butterfly was resolute in the enjoyment of the sweetness of life, Its flight, usually bold, free, and aspiring, was now clumsy, wavering, erratic. Three-quarters of a mile away was an islet. Some comely instinct guided it thitherwards, sometimes staggering low over the water, sometimes flitting splendidly high until distance and the glowing sky absorbed it.

My, course lay past the islet, and I stood in the boat that I might see the coral patches slipping past beneath, the shoals of tiny fish, and the swift-flying terns, the broad shield of the sea, and the purple mountains. Close to the islet what I took to be the tip of a shark’s fin appeared. It seemed to be cutting quick circles, rising and dipping as does the dorsal fin when a shark is closely following, or actually bolting its prey. As the boat approached, the insignia of a voracious shark changed to the spent Ulysses, making forlorn and ineffectual efforts to rise. Once again, however, the fearsome presence of man inspired a virile impulse. Ulysses rose, flapping wildly and unsteadily but with gallant purpose. The islet was barely twenty yards away. Would the brave and lovely emblem of gaiety reach it and rest? It rose higher and higher in lurching spirals, and having gained the necessary elevation, swooped superbly for the sanctuary of the tree-lined beach.

Rest and safety at last! But at that moment ironic Fate — having twice averted drowning, twice waved off the hand of man — flashed out in the guise of a twittering wood swallow. In the last stage of exhaustion no evading swerve was possible.

Two blue wings on the snow-white coral marked where the wanderings of Ulysses had ended, while at the corner of the little cove a dozen heedless Cassandras rioted amongst the rays of the umbrella-tree in curves and swoops of giddy flight.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50