An Item of Such Rarity

Tell me Mister Butler. Have you ever had to keep a secret?

August 21st, 1933. After a six day journey across the Mediterranean, my ship arrived at Alexandria. I had journeyed there to find specimens for my butterfly collection - in particular, I had my heart set on finding an example of the Madagascan Sunset Moth, Chrysiridia rhipheus, one of the most beautiful and colourful moths in existence. Even poor quality specimens were sought after with great determination by collectors - In 1862, the Scottish explorer Angus Morley raced across Africa and Europe in two weeks to preserve a living specimen he had captured for his patron, King Maximilian of Bavaria. He presented the Chrysiridia in a silver cage to the King, but the next day the moth was eaten by one of the splendid, carefully bred peacocks that were allowed to wander about the palace. As the moth is poisonous to most predators, the bird died not long afterwards. But the story goes that the King was more grieved by the loss of the moth than the peacock, and to the relief of Morley, his funding was continued.

Examples of the Chrysiridia were rare in the European market, particularly after the war, but the regular journals of lepidoptery had often mentioned that excellently mounted butterflies, moths, spiders, scorpions and other insects were common in the markets and shops of Alexandria. I had been planning this little mission for some time - with the money I had saved by taking cheap passage across the Mediterranean, I was able to treat myself to comfortable accommodation, and I looked forward to the adventure of wandering the streets and alleys of the city.

As my ship approached the docks, I was assaulted by the smells that surged back and forth with the angry gulls in the hot air of the old port. Of course there was the black stench of the many steamers moving around each other, but beyond that there was a many faceted odour that told of ages of history, of sprawling humanity squabbling and scrapping for survival, of hard commerce and exotic wares, but also, and most compelling of all, the scent of danger. How could this be so unmistakable? Was it my imagination? Had I seen so much and taken fright too often, that I saw peril everywhere? The fear gripped me, and almost made me think of leaving, of continuing to some place that did not disturb me so much, disturb me with something not heard or seen, but still there.

I had to stay. Yes, I wanted to follow my quest, however trivial, to find the Chrysiridia. But I could not live with the knowledge that I had turned so easily in the face of nameless fears. What if I should suffer derision, theft, injury, even death? Life is risk, and as the passing of my wife had taught me, life is loss, and we must accept that reality or not live at all. Whatever I might suffer, my self respect must always be there.

I disembarked, went looking for my luggage, arranged some currency exchange, paused for breath, wiped my brow... but the sense of threat remained. I made my way to my hotel, and spent an hour lying in a tub of water, without afterwards feeling any cleaner or more at ease than before.

I spent the next few days wandering the streets and alleys, carrying as little cash as possible to frustrate the pick-pockets. The feeling of danger was continually with me, in my nostrils, in the sly glances of people in the streets and in my own unnamed fears. In my travels I had developed a technique to avoid becoming lost, which was to always walk in a straight line, and if a deviation was necessary, to thoroughly look around and try to remember the intersection first. There were few street signs, and God knows what would have happened had I become lost. Fortunately that never occurred, however there were many parts of the city which I was not seeing as a result of my technique. At one point I stopped at a corner, and as I was trying to memorise the landmarks, I became aware of the sensation of being watched. I looked around to see that, indeed, a man was casually inspecting me, about thirty yards down a lane filled with a small number of street children. He wore a white linen suit, grey vest and a dark cherry coloured tie, and although much of his face was shaded by a pith helmet, I could see that he was an Egyptian. He kept returning my stare, then after a few moments he smiled and briefly raised his hat. I cautiously nodded, then kept walking.

I continued to wander down such streets as I dared to explore, finding bazaars and shops, with no end of fascinating objects for sale at prices that ranged from bargain to robbery. Occasionally I found lepidoptera for sale, but inevitably poor, common examples, suffering from the humid Egyptian heat. The journals which had spoken of the lepidoptera to be found in Alexandria had given no clue as to how one might go about finding them. I decided to return to my hotel, thinking that as I was not enjoying myself, perhaps I should leave Alexandria and continue my travels.

When I got to the hotel I approached the concierge, hoping for some advice. He listened, then almost without pause, presented me with a pasteboard business card. The writing on the card was an address, and underneath it said:

SOUGHT AFTER WARES

He then looked at me as if to say, that is all you will need. There is no point in asking me anything further.

The next day I rose late, to save my energies, ate a full breakfast, and made my way to the address. I found it half way down a narrow street, the only shop in sight. Inside the poorly lit shop I found a mean scattering of filthy objects for sale. As I began to inspect them I was somewhat surprised to see rising from behind a table the Egyptian who had raised his hat to me in the street the day before.

"Ah, good morning. I think I have seen you before, sir."

The man spoke perfect English. He was meticulously groomed, with a neatly trimmed moustache, perfectly manicured fingernails, and wore a faint but aristocratic scent. The coincidence of seeing him added to the unease I continued to feel.

"My name is Edward. I am the sole owner and proprietor of this shop. How may I assist you?"

"The concierge at the Paracelsus tells me that you have fine specimens of mounted lepidoptera. I'm a collector, and I'm interested in seeing what you have for sale. I'm particularly interested in finding a good specimen of the moth Chrysiridia rhipheus."

"Well if I may say so, Mister...?"

"Butler, Albert Butler."

"Mister Butler, I believe this may be your lucky day."

How often had a shopman said something similar? I felt no relief, felt nothing more than the oppression I had been feeling. The man reached over to his desk and opened a drawer. Seemingly the first thing that came to hand was a large butterfly display case.

"Chrysiridia rhipheus, the Madagascan Sunset Moth. An example of unmatched quality."

I put on my spectacles to examine the Chrysiridia. It was, beyond any argument, a superb specimen. The moth was large, vibrantly coloured, had obviously been preserved with meticulous care, and pinned and mounted also with the utmost precision. The delicate antennae and the tails of the hindwing, so often ruined by indifferent craftsmanship, were perfect, the nap and scales were unaffected, and to complete the presentation, it was mounted in a gilded frame. No specimen I had ever seen even came close to the magnificence of what I held in my hands. I was seized by the desire to possess it, and in my mind I had already begun to appraise my funds. After a few minutes he said quietly,

"It is just as beautiful as any butterfly, don't you think? As beautiful as any creature at all. It is as if every book ever given to a little boy or girl contained a picture of the perfect thing you are holding. Worth so much, but unlike gold or jewels, it is as fragile as a falling feather."

"How much are you asking?"

For some moments the man did not move, but continued to watch me as he had done while I examined the moth. Then he spoke.

"The moth has a price... or should I say, the moth can be obtained."

"What do you mean? What's the difference?"

"The offer that I make to you to obtain it, can take two forms. It has a price in monetary terms, and to a discerning collector such as yourself, the price I offer is three hundred pounds."

I gasped. The price was utterly insane, and certainly not one that I could afford in my wildest dreams. As to whether or not it was fair for what was being purchased was virtually impossible to ascertain.

"You are shocked. This is understandable, for three hundred pounds is a sum beyond the reach of humble denizens of the world such as you or I. In January, a professor of entomology from the University of Helsinki was here expressing an interest, but also could not afford such a sum. As I was not in a position to negotiate the price, he left in tears. But I assure you, the price is necessary, and the price is fair."

"You mentioned that the offer could take two forms. What did you mean?"

The man again paused before speaking.

"Tell me Mister Butler. Have you ever had to keep a secret? Now, I don't mean any little piece of schoolyard gossip, or even maintaining the discretion of a grubby love affair, I mean a secret of such momentous import that to divulge it would cause so much pain and disaster that it must be kept, even to the death of the one who keeps it."

I could not think of how to reply. What could he mean? How would this weigh into the question of the purchase of the moth?

"I... I don't think I've ever been a party to... such a secret as you describe."

"Well I think in some ways you are a lucky man. Now please listen to what I will tell you. When I was a much younger man, it fell upon me to be the keeper of such a secret. The nature of the situation made it clear that to betray the secret would bring the pain to many which I have mentioned, that I must not speak even of the existence of such a secret. I held the secret, and I held it tightly, for years, until I felt that I was being torn apart, that it was wrenching me from my fellow men, and that I was losing... that I was losing part of me, my humanity, that I was losing part of my soul. I decided I had to tell somebody, somebody who I could trust even with my life, to save myself. I gave much thought for a long time, and eventually decided who to tell. I made him swear on the bible, I implored him to help me and share my secret, and then... And then I told him. Three months later, the person who shared my secret died of consumption."

Once more he paused, then gave me an empty smile.

"Now this means nothing. One was not the cause of the other, why would anybody think so? All that it meant to me was that I had lost a friend, but also that I could no longer share the burden of my secret. So I continued to live my life, and continued to keep my secret. But as time went on, I could feel again that my soul was withering, as it had done before. So, again, I looked for another to share the knowledge. And it was not until ten years ago that I finally decided upon a person to whom I could tell."

The air was not moving in the shop, and I was beginning to perspire. I spied a dusty papyrus fan lying on his desk, but I fought the urge to grab it and use it.

"Alas, this person also died, or should I say he disappeared, presumably fell overboard, when a ship on which he was travelling weathered a storm off the coast of Portugal, only a week after he learnt my secret. But again, why should the two things be connected? Why should the knowledge of a secret, no matter how momentous, cause one to meet death earlier than their allotted time?"

Again the man looked at me intently, but I could not think of how to reply.

"And yet I was assailed by a conviction that I sent two of my friends to their deaths - a conviction without rational basis. Yet one that gained strength with each passing year, no matter how hard I tried to shake it."

He tilted his head to one side, very slightly...

"So, Mister Butler, my offer to you is this. You may have the Chrysiridia, to take with you through that door, without surrendering a penny, if you will first hear what I have suffered for so long to keep secret. If you decide that my belief is that of a fool, then we shall both be... overjoyed with the deal. Or, you can pay me three hundred pounds for the moth... or you could continue your search... which would be a long one to find what is, as I'm sure you'll agree, such a perfect example as this."

I was now sweating uncomfortably, and I began to feel faint. I could not think, much as I tried to understand all that the Egyptian had told me... That he should ask such a monstrous price, the price which he really wanted to pay me to listen to his story, that the Chrysiridia was just a token in the deal. How could mere knowledge and coincidence rock such a cultured man to his core, to believe things which had no foundation in common sense, and in so doing make other intelligent men pause and consider? And the nature of the secret - I had as much curiosity as any man, even if there were no prize on offer. What knowledge could ruin lives, a power that it seemed to have, undiminished by the passage of time? Why was a secret of such power known to only one man? And why would he place so much trust in a complete stranger?

There was no question of whether or not I could afford the money. Only one question remained. Would I take the moth, and listen to his story?

"I... I s-s-suppose.. I mean I... I have to think..."

"There is no rush, Mister Butler, I assure you. It is seldom that anybody expresses interest in such a piece, let alone one who might consider such a pact. If you return here tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that... I will still be here, and so will the Chrysiridia."

I mumbled some words to the effect that, yes, I must think it over, and left, finding my way back to the hotel by a way that I later could not remember.

Should I listen to the Egyptian's secret? Or would I give in to the same superstition that had consumed him, and leave behind a lepidopterum of such rarity? And even if I listened to his story, but suffered no demise, might I also become overwhelmed by a feeling of isolation from my fellow man, that I may want to pay a stranger every cent I own, just to hear my secret?

If I slept that night it was the dreamless, tormented writhing of a man facing a decision that could ruin his life, and I woke in damp sheets, convinced that I had not slept, and still no closer to knowing what to do.

I walked in the direction of the shop, almost in a trance. My mind seemed paralysed, as if I was moving under the will of something or someone else.

Then, I found myself in a loud, heaving street market, and after a minute or two, on a trestle table, I found a dozen or so mounted lepidoptera for sale. One was a Chrysiridia, small and shabby, but a Chrysiridia rhipheus nonetheless. I gave the dirty little man the few coins he asked, and fled.

* * * * * *

All over the city of Alexandria, as it had done every day for thousands of years, the squabbling and scrapping for survival, the hard commerce and the danger, the arrogance, fear and ennui, all died away and surrendered to a night of secrets. At a small al fresco bar within sight of the port, I sat for hours, watching the sun go down. I felt utterly defeated in a way I couldn't understand, fixated by a few minutes of conversation with a stranger that I should have long since forgotten. And yet after all the sour rumination over the Egyptian's proposal, some tiny part of me felt that maybe I had come face to face with something monstrous, and escaped.

The next morning I packed to leave the city. I wanted to remove all reminder of it as soon as I could, and go to new places. As I was paying my account, the concierge smiled, and asked me,

"Did you find what you were looking for, sir?"

"I suppose so," I muttered.

"Well I'm sorry to see you downcast, sir. But take heart, you know what they say - better the devil you know!"

December, 2009. Denouement April, 2016

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