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Title: A Plague of Butterflies
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1601381h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Dec 2016
Most recent update: Jan 2017

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A Plague of Butterflies


Fred M. White

Cover Image

Published under syndication in, e.g.:
The Chronicle, Adelaide, Australia, December 28, 1918

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2017

WHEN Professor Felix Kleiser resigned the Vice-Chancellorship of Marchester University in August, 1914, the average Briton, with his nice sense of the proper proportion of such things, declared that the learned gentleman had done exactly what was to be expected from any man of honor.

It was true that the learned pundit in question was German born, but then he had been naturalised for over twenty years, and that before he came to this country he had been at open variance with the Kaiser and his Junkers with regard to their blatant militarism. Indeed, it was on record that high words had passed in the Wilhelmstrasse, after which the professor had turned his back on his native country for good and all, saying that England and Germany were natural allies and destined between them to rule the world. And, at any rate, it was a matter of public record that after the funeral of Queen Victoria Kleiser had rudely turned his back on the Kaiser, who had offered to shake hands with him.

Still, Kleiser had undoubtedly done the right thing, despite these facts. For, had he stayed at Marchester, there would have been a good deal of ill feeling, so that he gracefully retired with the regrets of the staff and the hearty good wishes of all who knew him. Whereupon he retired to a secluded spot some twenty miles from the port of Marmouth, where he devoted himself to the collection and study of butterflies. On this subject he was something of an authority, but, by comparison with his former work, this pursuit was a mere hobby. Still, he could do work of national importance in this direction, and he did. It was mainly owing to his exertions that the ravages of insects and caterpillars amongst the now precious crops were kept within limits; indeed, the Kleiser formulae for treating growing potatoes had been a marked success.

But it was butterflies that Kleiser mainly affected, and from the first he had been amazingly successful; so successful, indeed, that he had established a regular correspondence between himself and Zoomstag of Stockholm, probably the greatest authority on lepidopterae in the world. As a matter of fact the authorities had rather gone out of their way to make this correspondence easy, because Zoomstag had been enthusiastic on the subject of these crop parasites, and Kleiser had found some of his hints of the greatest value. There had been times occasionally when the U-boats were busy and posts irregular, that a letter had been conveyed to Stockholm by a British destroyer. But all this is more or less by the way.

Certainly Kleiser had been amazingly successful in his pursuit of butterflies all through the summer of 1917. He was probably the only man in England who had succeeded in capturing a Swallow Tail that year, to say nothing of a Purple Emperor or two, and when at length he proudly displayed a Camberwell Beauty and wrote a description of it to the papers, the jealousy of his rivals broke out into open and pointed cynicism.

Canon Hillgard, a near neighbor of his and himself a collector and authority, was frankly incredulous. But it was small use to talk like this when the professor came across to the rectory with the specimens actually in his hand. He was a tall, wiry figure of a man with a grey beard and keen eyes behind his gold-rimmed spectacles, the sort of man who suggested a certain amount of physical strength, in spite of his years.

"Ach, my friend," he said. "Look at this. A fine specimen of a Camberwell Beauty, beyond doubt. What you say to dot, mein freindt. Is she not a beauty?"

In common fairness the Canon was bound to admit, that it was. He said the usual polite thing, but he was worried and distressed all the same. He could put up with the Swallow Tails and Emperors, and the quite phenomenal number of White Admirals that had fallen captive, so to speak, to the professor's bow and spear, but he was not prepared to swallow the Camberwell Beauty for the simple reason that no such thing had been heard of, even in that favored haunt, for the best part of half a century.

"How do you account for it?" he asked. "Surely it could not be an indigenous specimen. Do you suppose it has flown out of a passing ship?"

"Dot might be," the Professor said. "A Dutch boat, perhaps. But dere it is, and you cannot deny it."

Naturally, with the specimen before him, the Canon was not prepared to go that length. All he could do was to congratulate the Professor on his great good fortune and make a record of the event in his diary. When the Professor at length departed, the Canon turned to his nephew, Haddon Hillgard, who had taken no interest in the discussion; in fact, he appeared to be frankly bored by the whole thing. It seemed to him rather absurd that two elderly and learned gentlemen should be so excited about a mere butterfly.

"What do you think of it, Haddon?" the Canon asked.

Haddon Hillgard shrugged his shoulders. He was a young man who apparently took no interest in anything; he seemed to have reduced the doctrine of nil admirari to a fine art. He ought, in the Canon's private opinion, to be in the army or navy, instead of which he appeared to have some vague job in Whitehall that allowed him frequent vocations in different parts of the country. Just now he was supposed to be doing work of national importance at Marmouth, on the great naval port and base some twenty miles away, but for the last week he had quartered himself upon the Canon. He did little else but smoke cigarettes all day and moon about the place in an indolent fashion that caused a certain amount of irritation to the Canon, who was an essentially outdoor man and had played cricket for his university in his time.

"Don't interest me much," Haddon drawled.

"No, I suppose not. I should like to see you interested in something. But that butterfly. Now, here's a man who is more or less of a theorist, but one who has never studied moths in their native haunts as I have. And he's found more rare butterflies this summer than I have found in the whole course of my life. Why, I haven't seen a Purple Emperor for three years, and, as regards a Swallow Tail, I haven't taken one since the Australians were here in 1884. As to a Camberwell Beauty—tell you what it is, Haddon, that man's a humbug. I believe he imports the larvae and turns it loose, so to speak, for the mere sake of saying he has caught a butterfly afterwards. It has been done."

"German, isn't he?" Haddon asked listlessly.

"German born," the Canon said honestly. "But English to all practical purposes. Resigned his job at Marchester University as soon as the war broke out."

"Still, he is a German," Haddon persisted.

"I am not denying it. But his instincts are purely English. He has done a lot of good, too. That new treatment of his must have saved thousands of acres of crops. He was thanked in the House of Commons for what he did. I am not denying that he owes a good deal to Zoomstag of Stockholm."

"I've heard of him," Haddon said. "Big scientific swell, isn't he? But how does your friend get in touch with him?"

"Well, it's like this. Zoomstag is the authority on creeping pests, and therefore the Government have gone out of their way to make it easy for Kleiser to communicate with Zoomstag. His correspondence is uncensored, and, indeed, I happen to know that our destroyers carry it sometimes."

But Haddon Hillgard did not appear to be listening. He strolled out presently in his indolent way and went off on his motor cycle in the direction of Marmouth. It was quite late before he returned, and when he did come back he did not go out of his way to inform his uncle where he had been. For the next day or two he rambled about the neighborhood with a considerable quantity of cigarettes and a powerful pair of field-glasses. Towards the end of the afternoon he was crossing a field in the neighborhood of the Professor's house when he came in contact, apparently quite by accident with an acquaintance from Marmouth. This was none other than a civilian draftsman in the Naval Arsenal there whom Hillgard knew by the name of Boom, a clever American naval architect, who enjoyed a position of trust in the drawing office to the department responsible for the turning out of destroyers. Hillgard accosted this man in his usual listless way.

"Well, Boom," he drawled. "What are you doing here?"

For some reason or another Boom did not appear particularly pleased to see his acquaintance.

"Oh," he said, "I'm having an afternoon off. Been spending an hour or two on my favorite hobby—butterflies. So I thought I'd drop in and see Professor Kleiser and introduce myself to him. I've had a very interesting afternoon."

"I don't doubt it," Hillgard said drily. "See the Camberwell Beauty? No, I don't take an interest in that sort of thing myself, but my uncle, the Canon here, the man I am staying with, talks about nothing else. Well, so long, Boom."

With that he strolled away in the direction of the Canonical residence. Quickening his pace once Boom was out of sight. Then he proceeded to shut himself in the little room at the back of the house where the telephone was situated. He called up a certain number in Marmouth—a number which, by the way, was not in the book—and presently got in contact with the man he was after.

"That you, Sutton?" he said. "Yes, it sounds like your voice, but give me the key letter. Repeat it. Yes, that's all right. Now, listen. I believe I've got it. I want you to keep your eye open for the next two or three days for the correspondence of Professor Kleiser. All his letters are to be opened and, as they are read, send a confidential messenger over here with them for me to see. What's that? Say it again."

"It's a big order," said the voice at the other end of the wire. "The Home Office has given instructions that the professor's correspondence isn't to be tampered with."

"Ah, I expected some tomfoolery like that," Hillgard said. "Now, go to Admiral X——, you know who I mean, and tell him what I said. Ask him to 'phone the Home Office at once and explain to them exactly what I want. Now, get busy."

With this Hillgard rang off and went in unconcernedly to dinner. It was a day or two before the first of the censored letters reached him, and it proved to be, as he had confidently expected, a communication from Kleiser to Zoomstag at Stockholm on general subjects, ending up with a long account of the capture of the Camberwell Beauty. This part of the letter Hillgard read again and again. It ran as follows:—

It was a bit of great big luck to me, my friend. I was passing along by a belt of trees behind some shrubs when I saw the butterfly high overhead. At first I did not guess what it was till the insect came down low and settled on some green stuff. Then I saw almost to my amazement, that it was a fine specimen of the Camberwell Beauty. I need not tell you that no specimen of this kind has been seen in the country for forty years. It was poised there with its tail towards the north-east, in fact, I send you a sketch of it just as it lay there on the foliage. By rare good luck I managed to catch it without doing the beautiful creature the slightest harm. You never saw a more beautiful specimen. I thought at first of mounting it myself, but so great a rarity deserves special treatment. So therefore I take it myself to London on Thursday and I leave Marmouth by the train that departs for London just after eleven o'clock. My Purple Emperors I am taking as well, but those need not go to London. Those I shall dispatch to York so that they will reach there on Friday. Perhaps I had better tell you that the Camberwell Beauty was flying in a north-easterly direction when I captured him—a small matter to the ignorant, perhaps, but highly worthy of notice by scientific students like ourselves. I will send you the two White Admirals in the course of a day or two, and perhaps I shall be able to enclose a special of the Swallow Tail at the same time. But as to this I'll write you more fully to-morrow.

It was some time before Hillgard locked the letter away, which he did presently with the air of a man who is not displeased with himself. He strolled towards the dining-room presently and sat down to his dinner, knowing perfectly well that the subject of butterflies would come up before long. And it did. It was easy thence to draw the Canon on to talk of Zoomstag.

"What nationality is he!" young Hillgard asked.

"None," the Canon said promptly. "Zoomstag boasts he belongs to no nation. As a matter of fact, he is a Swede by birth. But it pleases him to boast that he is purely cosmopolitan, which enables him to have correspondents in every country, even those that are at war with the Allies."

"Extravagant man?" Hillgard asked.

"Oh, very. Keeps a sort of open house. Like most scientific men, always painfully short of money. But he's a great man, all the same, and I have the highest opinion of him."

"That's all right," Hillgard said. And with that the subject dropped. Nor did Hillgard bring it up again till the best part of a week had elapsed.

During this time he seemed to have shaken off a good deal of the languid pose that caused the athletic and vigorous Canon to regard him with something almost approaching dislike. He passed most of his time on his motor cycle travelling backwards and forwards to Marmouth. Government work, he moaned.

Then, one evening at dinner, he introduced the subject of Kleiser and his butterflies again. They had reached the stage when the port and cigarettes had been introduced, and Hillgard sprawled in his chair much as if there was nothing in the world of interest beyond the enjoyment of the moment.

"I suppose you keep a record of these things?" he said. "I mean that whenever one of these beastly butterflies turns up you make a note of it."

"Yes," the Canon said curtly, "I do." He did not like this flippant way of speaking on what, to him, was an almost sacred subject. "Of course, it is almost of national importance. I have a diary in which all the circumstances surrounding the finding of a rare butterfly are carefully recorded. Not only that, but I have a note of the measurements as well. I suppose the last month or two Kleiser must have discovered a score of rare butterflies—White Admirals, Swallow Tails, Purple Emperors, and, of course, the Camberwell Beauty."

"And the dates as well?" Hillgard asked.

"The dates, certainly. But why do you ask? I began to think you didn't take an interest in anything."

"Oh, of course, I know you regard me as a slacker," Hillgard said good-naturedly. "But I think I shall be able to justify my existence when the time comes. Would you mind my having a look at those diaries and making a few notes from them?"

Somewhat flattered, the Canon assented. And he was pleased to note how carefully this slacker of a nephew of his went through his neatly-written pages. The latter had just completed his notes when the telephone bell rang, and the old butler came in with a message.

"A friend of yours has just rung up from Marmouth, sir. He wouldn't give his name. I was to tell you that the man you are asking about went to York Castle this afternoon, and that he left all his fishing tackle behind him. That was all, sir."

With the disappearance of the butler a strange change came over Haddon Hillgard. He stood up and discarded both his eyeglass and that indifferent manner of his. He had become, suddenly and unexpectedly, a man of action. The cynical smile faded from his face, his mouth grew stern and hard, and there was a look in his eyes that had the Canon's high approval.

"Uncle," he said in a quick decisive voice, "are you good for an adventure? I meant a bit of real melodrama with a prospect of physical danger behind it?"

The one-time University blue and champion amateur middleweight responded promptly to the challenge.

"My dear boy," he said, "I wish you could think you were half as good a man as I am. Oh, I know I'm fifty-six, but it isn't very long ago since I gave the village bully the hiding of his life. And he knew something about using his fists, too. What is it?"

"Government Service," Haddon said curtly. "I want to have a look at Professor Kleiser's collection of pupae and larvae. You told me a few days ago that you believe he imported these things and bred them so that he might have the honor and glory of catching them in the open. It's quite an innocent vanity, but it might be put to very dangerous purposes. At any rate, I am going over to the Professor's house, and, if necessary, I am going to burgle it. Mind, I'm not doing this for amusement. You think I am doing nothing at Whitehall—as a matter of fact, I am in the Secret Service, though no one's supposed to know it. I'm bound to tell you because I want your help, and I know you'll respect my confidence. Now, are you good for a little housebreaking?"

"In the cause of my country, certainly," the Canon cried.

"Well, come on then. I think you told me that the Professor was in the habit of retiring early. Put on a pair of old tennis shoes and I'll do the same. What I want is to get into the Professor's workshop and satisfy myself that these rare butterflies are really hatched from the chrysalides, or whatever you call them, that have been imported from abroad. This is exactly where I want your assistance. Oh, it's a big thing, I assure you."

They set off presently across the fields in the direction of the Professor's house. It was past 11 o'clock by this time, and rather a dark night for the time of year, for there was no moon. Haddon Hillgard had to stop and send a telephone message before they started, and, this being done, he declared that there was nothing more to detain him. They came, at length, to the outbuildings of the unpretentious house where Kleiser had taken up his abode, and, very cautiously, they moved round till they found an open window leading into the kitchen. Through this they climbed until they reached at length a small stone-flagged room which had originally been a dairy but which now contained a number of boxes neatly arranged on shelves in which were the eggs of butterflies in various states of progress. The Canon whispered that he had been here before, so that he was treading on more or less familiar ground. Then presently, with the aid of a chair, he reached a few boxes down from a top shelf and laid them on the table. Turning on his flash-lamp he examined the contents of the boxes carefully. A little grunt of satisfaction escaped him.

"Ah, here we are, my boy," he said. "It is exactly as I expected. Here are butterflies—rare butterflies—in every stage from the egg to the chrysalis. Some of them are almost ready to hatch out now. Look at those, and those. That's a Purple Emperor, and those in the other box are Swallow Tails. And here are some Camberwell Beauties. Those dingy-looking objects don't convey anything to you, but to me they're as plain as print. Now, isn't that like a German? These have been all imported from abroad beyond the shadow of a doubt—procured from Zoomstag, probably. So this is that old humbug who has been triumphing over all of us!"

"You're sure of this?" Haddon asked.

"Of course I am, though I don't know what it all means. Pure vanity, I expect."

Haddon muttered something under his breath. He was keen enough now and a very different man to the languid youth who had apparently been idling for the last fortnight. He was about to say something when there came the sound of a footstep in the passage and a second later Kleiser came into the room. He flashed a powerful light on to the two figures hanging over the boxes on the table, and an ominous click was heard. The Canon stood up straight enough, looking Kleiser in the face as far as possible, whilst Haddon Hillgard crouched so low that his relative half-imagined that he was lying there to escape a shot from the revolver which, beyond doubt, the German Professor had in his hand.

But it was only for an instant, then young Hillgard with a crab-like motion launched himself fairly through the air and gripped Kleiser round the knees. It was a beautiful piece of rugby tackling, executed to the instant, so that the Professor crashed on the floor and as he did so the weapon he carried flew from his hands.

The Canon was on to it like a flash. Then, knowing something about the room in which the encounter was taking place, he reached for the electric switch and flooded the room with light.

Kleiser lay on his face with his hands behind him—hands no longer capable of evil, for Haddon had produced a pair of handcuffs from somewhere and had neatly snapped them on the German's wrists. He dragged the scowling Professor to his feet, a Professor no longer amiable and suave, but a sullen, baffled spy with eyes venomously gleaming behind his glasses.

"I think the game is up, Professor," Haddon said coldly. "When I tell you that Boom has been arrested and that he has made a full confession you will probably agree with me. At the present moment your confederate is safe in York Castle. You can say what you like, or you can be silent."

The German had himself well in hand by this time. He was breathing heavily, but beyond that showed no sign of what was passing through his mind. Haddon Hillgard opened the kitchen door and put a whistle to his lips. A second or two later two unmistakable police-officers in plainclothes made their appearance. They seemed to know Hillgard, for they touched their hats to him and stood there as if waiting for further orders.

"Here's your man," he said curtly. "You'd better take him to Marmouth. I'll be there directly after breakfast. Meanwhile you can leave me to search the house."

Once Kleiser had disappeared the search of the house began. There was very little to reward a long and patient search with the aid of a flashlight until finally Hillgard dropped upon the Professor's copy letter book. His eyes gleamed as he turned over the flimsy pages and read a paragraph here and there.

"This is a fine bit of luck," he said. "The methodical German has kept a record of all his correspondence. Here are all his letters to Zoomstag. Come along, uncle, we'll take this back with us and I'll tell you all about it."

Half an hour later they were closeted in the Canon's study with the copy letter book before them.

"Now, it's like this," Haddon said. "For months past we have been suffering a series of casualties in connection with naval units entering and leaving Marmouth. As you know, it's one of our biggest naval bases. Since the intensive U-boat warfare began we must have lost at least twenty ships off Marmouth. Even to-day one of our super-Dreadnoughts had a narrow escape. Well, that sort of thing can't go on long without the authorities coming to the conclusion that there was something radically wrong somewhere. So I volunteered to come down here to investigate. I knew that I could stay with you so that my presence in the neighborhood would arouse no suspicion. And you know I have been backwards and forwards to Marmouth on my motor cycle making enquiries. And it didn't take me long to discover that a man called Boom was spending a great deal more money than a man in his position ought to. So I watched him carefully, and when I discovered that he was a butterfly man visiting Kleiser as a kind of worshipping disciple I began to see my way. Then you told me your suspicions about the wonderful capture of rare specimens. You see, Boom was in the drawing office and therefore in a position to learn a great deal about the movements of ships. And I happen to know what you don't, namely, that Zoomstag of Stockholm has been in the German pay for years. You see where I got to. Boom found out about the movements of ships and flotillas, and he conveyed that information to the Professor. Something like this. A White Admiral means a destroyer, a Swallow Tail a cruiser, a Purple Emperor a flotilla, and a Camberwell Beauty a super-dreadnought. Of course, that's only a rough estimate, but good enough for my purpose. A week before there was anything like a fleet movement, Boom let Kleiser know. Then he goes straight out on the hills, and comes back with a butterfly he'd caught, or said he'd caught. This insect in the code corresponds to a cruiser, or a flotilla, or a dreadnought, as the case may be. Your innocent Professor, who has behaved so well, and whose throat the Kaiser would like to cut, writes of his find to the papers, and sends a letter to Zoomstag, telling him all about it. Now, if you'll take the trouble to read those letters—which, by the way, our authorities expedited to Stockholm—you will see that Kleiser introduces certain details of the capture which really cover sailing routes, and the direction in which our boats are going. For instance, here, he says, he is going to take a Purple Emperor to York to be mounted on Thursday at two o'clock. My dear uncle, that's the time and date of the sailing of the ship, which information reached Zoomstag three or four days in advance. Need I say any more?"

"It's wonderful," the Canon said. "Marvellous. And this must have been thought of years ago. And meanwhile we all thought that there was a personal quarrel between the Kaiser and the Professor, which, well—I am lost in astonishment. And, by the way, my boy, I must apologise to you."

"Oh, that's all right," Haddon smiled. "You see, I was bound to lie low. I wanted your friend the Professor to regard me as a sap-headed fool, and I think I succeeded."

"What will become of him?" the Canon asked.

Hillgard shrugged his shoulders.

"Pretty obvious, isn't it?" he asked. "You'll hear in a few days that a traitor has been shot in the Tower, and you can draw your own conclusions. But not to anybody but yourself, my dear uncle. There are some things that are best not spoken about."


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