Excerpt from a Novel in Progress:
The Sound of Butterflies
He realised he hadn't written before they left Santarem, and there was no point in writing until they got back to the city. Though he thought of her often, he found that more and more his head was filled with lepidoptera - specifically butterflies - and his daydreams filled with the discovery of the giant butterfly. The rumours put it in the stretch of forest between Manaus and Santarem - did the Tapajós qualify?
The more he collected, the more Thomas realised how far from a scientist he actually was. He was still an amateur, even if he would make some money from his sales through the agent, Ridewell. His last letter from the agent said he had fetched a healthy sum for the first consignment, and he had sent details of his bank account to make sure Sophie was well provided for while he was gone.
There it was. That guilt again, at leaving his wife.
But her letters were cheerful enough - full of meals with friends, with games, with walks in the park - his beloved park. When he stopped to think about it, he did miss Richmond Park, despite that it would seem quite bare and barren of insect life to him when he returned.
As a child, the first trip to the park was like a walk in the countryside. He even saw his first deer, picking its way through the bracken. His father had gripped his hand and walked briskly towards the flowerbeds, the rough tweed of his jacket flapping in Thomas's face. Thomas had to run to keep up with him and his first attempts at swiping at a red admiral had failed. He was on the verge of tears when his father put his big hand over his to guide it. Together they caught the butterfly and Thomas watched its slow struggle in the light netting, its legs as fine as hairs poking through the tiny holes.
The sadness that rose up inside him as he lay on his hammock surprised him. He hadn't thought of his father for some time. His gut twisted and a pain shot him between his lower ribs. His father had loved the park. And now Sophie was discovering the delights of its shaded walks and the hidden valleys. In her letter, she also spoke of her friendship with Agatha, who he knew would keep her happy - Agatha had a gift for making people laugh, Thomas included. Sophie also mentioned a retired army Captain she had met at church. Some kindly old widower, he expected, who had taken an avuncular interest in Sophie in the absence of her husband and her father.
His guilt was subsiding, along with the pain in his stomach. He turned his thoughts to the giant swallow-tailed butterfly he hoped to capture. What if he only found one? He would be reluctant to kill it right away, but knew if he didn't it could damage itself and then be useless as a perfect specimen. Would he sell it? Or would he donate it to the Natural History Museum in the name of science? Science. He shuddered. He was no scientist, he knew. Harris and Sebel made that obvious to him every day - not always intentionally. He had to identify many of the specimens he caught with books, and Sebel seemed to be able to recognise many species that he couldn't. He had pored over the cabinets of lepidoptera at the museum, but their Latin names filled him with frustration at their unwillingness to adhere to his memory. Then there were the studies he tried to make; he couldn't even draw pictures of them, diagrams, without making a mess of it. He was never going to make his name as a great Lepidopterist. Especially since he did not collect moths.
No, it was clear to him that the only way he could truly make a difference in the world was as an explorer - he would bring home the papillio sophia and the world would remember him for it. His wife's name would be immortalised, and he would be revered. He could continue with his plan to become a clergyman, but he could travel the world speaking to entomological societies about the butterfly. He would relate again and again the adventure of the chase, the triumph he would feel when he caught one in his net; the skill he would use to do so.
The jaguar yowled again, and another blast of pain echoed around his stomach. Perhaps it wasn't grief hurting him after all. Perhaps there was something wrong with him. It seemed the closer he got to the butterfly, the more the dark rainforest was trying to hinder him. He would speak to Dr. Harris tomorrow.
The following afternoon when they returned from collecting, Antonio met them on the path. Thomas walked with his hand over his gut to try to subdue the waves of pain.
"We have a visitor," Antonio said.
"Who is it?" Sebel asked, drawing himself taller and gripping his bags tighter.
"He is a hat merchant, Senhor Sebel. A white man, like you."
"He’s English?" Harris took an eager step towards camp.
"Peruvian. I thought you would not mind if he spent the night here."
The men looked at one another, not sure who would speak up first, or if any of them would speak out. Thomas had no reason not to trust Antonio, whose wide face was waiting for approval. They also had no reason to believe a stranger should be threatening - so far they had only encountered either helpful or disinterested parties - nobody hostile.
Thomas smiled. "Well, let's meet the fellow!"
Outside the cookhouse, a man of about fifty years was sitting on a chair with his feet up on a stool. He stood and removed his hat before walking forward to greet them. His neat cream suit was remarkably spotless and he was smooth-shaven except for a large grey moustache, waxed into thick leaves. There was something unnatural about the face beneath the combed and oiled hair. Thomas couldn't quite place it until they stood face to face with him: his skin was utterly dry. While all around him men wiped at their grimy brows, slick with sweat, this man was as cool as if it were an English spring day. He bowed slightly as he shook each of their hands; his palm confirmed Thomas’s perception of him - it felt like cool glass.
"I am very honoured to meet you, sirs," he said in almost flawless English. "Your man Antonio has told you who I am?"
"Only that you are a hat merchant, my dear fellow," said Sebel, whose nervousness had deserted him; Thomas could tell by his relaxed hands, which no longer clasped his bags, but which were folded loosely in front of him.
"My name is Julio," the man said. "Please just call me Julio. I am very pleased to make your acquaintance. No!" He held up his hand as Harris began to speak. "Please do not tell me. You are the doctor, Ernest Harris?" Harris nodded and raised his eyebrows, before following Julio’s gaze to John. "And you? You must be Mr. John Gitchens, I think. The hardy plant-hunter." John nodded, but looked at the ground. Thomas sensed he was anxious to wander away, to snatch some moments alone with his work. His whole body seemed to be straining towards the hut. "And this must be Mr. George Sebel, of course, the learned scholar. And finally young Mr. Thomas Edgar."
Thomas had the curious sense they were being welcomed to their own camp; he almost expected the hat seller to stretch his arms out to them. "And how do you know so much about us?" he asked.
"Ah, that would be your man Antonio, again. We have been talking for a good two hours in your absence. I trust you had a good day collecting?" Harris suggested they sit down. They gave their equipment to Paulo, who staggered away under its collective weight.
"What brings you up the Tapajós, sir?"
"Hats. I have come from Manaus, and I thought I would take a detour up the Tapajós before leaving Santarem for Belém. I have many hats to sell."
"And you’re from Peru?"
"Yes. I came to Brazil to make my fortune in Manaus. I arrived there two years ago and tried to sell my hats there, but nobody wanted to buy them. I even tried to drop the price, but nobody wanted them. Then I learned something. You see," he leaned forward in his chair, as if about to let the men in on a secret. "In Manaus everything is very expensive. The people there, they don't care for quality, they only want what costs them the most so they can brag to their neighbours about it. Those rubber men! They have more money than sense, I believe is the expression. When they would not buy my hats, I put the price up 1000 percent. I sold out within a week. They all wanted my hats! They were the most expensive, you see, and to them, that means status! So you see before you a much wealthier man than the man who left Peru."
"And well educated I am guessing sir, by your excellent English," Sebel said.
"Oh, you know, you pick it up." He laughed. "May I be so bold as to ask if we may have some tea?"
They looked at one another. Tea was a habit they had fallen away from in Belém.
"I'm afraid we don't have any tea, old man," Harris said, and Thomas wondered if Julio would be offended by the expression. "We can offer you some coffee. Please forgive us for not offering before."
"Coffee?" Julio looked terribly disappointed. "But you are English! Surely you drink tea?"
"We do, but it has been a little hard to get. And we have developed a taste for coffee."
"Never mind. I have brought a supply of my own. I think it the most charming habit of the English - they want to drink tea at all times of the day."
"Have you been to England, Mr. Julio?" Thomas asked.
"No," Julio said. Then, "Manuel!"
Thomas jumped; he was not expecting the man to suddenly shout out.
A man walked out from behind the cookhouse; Thomas hadn’t seen him previously. He was Indian, short but well muscled, with a loose collarless shirt and trousers cut off at the calf. Scars marked his bare feet and Thomas wondered how he could cope with the fire ants. His hair grew past his chin, with a rough fringe cut to frame his face.
"Manuel, bring me some of my tea," Julio said in Portuguese. "Enough for the gentlemen."
Manuel nodded, but his face showed no expression. He emerged a few minutes later - the water must have been already on the boil for their supper - with a pristine china teapot and five tiny cups and saucers. The cup he set down in front of Thomas had a chip in the rim, but the rest were unmarked - a remarkable sight in the middle of the jungle.
"Obrigado, Manuel," John said. "Vocî gosta de chá?"
Manuel eyed John for a moment, then turned questioning eyes to Julio, who waved him away.
"I congratulate you on your excellent Portuguese, Mr. Gitchens," Julio said when the servant’s back had disappeared again. "But Manuel cannot speak. He is mute."
"But not deaf?" Sebel asked.
"No. He is mute because he has no tongue. I see you looking at me in horror, gentlemen. It is one of the hazards of the Amazon. He lost it in an accident."
"God," Harris said. "What sort of accident?"
"I would not like to upset you by telling you," Julio said. "Please do not ask me to explain." He took up his teacup, clutching the tiny handle between thumb and forefinger and cocking his little finger as he raised it to his lips. He gave a satisfied sigh as he lowered it back to the saucer perched on his belly. "I prefer it with milk, but I like it almost as much with a slice of lemon, don’t you, gentlemen?"
Thomas’s tea was too hot; he blew on it. He couldn't remember the last time he had drunk tea, and the familiar smell coursed through him and made him smile.
"I see you smile, Mr. Edgar," Julio said. "You are missing England, I think."
"Why, yes," Thomas said. "That is, I am not, but I did for a moment remember tea at home, you're right."
"I should miss England if I were you," Julio said. "I imagine it is a fine country. I would very much like to go there one day."
"What is it you like about England?" Sebel asked.
"The tea, of course! But you can have that anywhere. I am very much moved by your poets, sir. I am particularly fond of Byron and Shelley. And Wordsworth, not forgetting him! Through them I come to know your landscape. And William Blake. Such a wise man!"
"You are an educated man," Sebel said. "Just as I suspected." He sat with one leg slung over the other, seemingly forgetting the threat of ants, and waved a fly away with one hand while holding his tea in the other.
"If one can read, Mr. Sebel, one can be educated."
"True, true," Sebel said.
John stood and excused himself. "I have some work to do before the day's end. I will take supper in my room, so I bid you good-night." He sloped off, and Thomas sensed that the circle was broken somehow - an edge of it now lay exposed to the darkening forest.
"I understand you are under the patronage of Senhor Santos," Julio said. "Have you met the man?"
"Not yet," Harris said. "Do you know him?"
"I am aware of him, yes. It would be difficult to live in Manaus and not know of him."
"What is he like?" Thomas asked. An image of Captain Arturo’s angry face appeared in his mind.
"You mean you know nothing of him? You have heard nothing?" Julio asked.
"No, nothing," Sebel said. "All we know is that he has been very kind to us. He has provided us with accommodation and transport, including our passages here, and we are making our way to Manaus to meet him. He was to have met us at Santarem, but he had some trouble with some of his Indian rubber workers upriver."
"Yes, the Indians can be troublesome in employment. It is very hard to find decent men amongst the Indians or the Negroes. Since slavery was abolished, it is even harder. So I am told. They are too proud to work for the white man, and try and subsist on their own." He finished his tea and poured himself another as he spoke.
"So nobody has talked to you of Santos?"
"No," Sebel said.
"Well," Thomas said. He paused. He couldn't be sure he remembered what Captain Arturo had said about Santos. Perhaps it was better to keep quiet. But then again, perhaps Julio could shed some light on it. The others were looking at him, so he went on. "Harris and I had an encounter with a man downriver from here. I’m ashamed to say we were quite drunk when it happened, so I don’t really remember. He mentioned Santos, I think."
"I see." Julio leaned forward in his chair.
"I canąt be sure -- only when we mentioned we were under the patronage of Mr. Santos, he became quite angry and all but threw us out of his house." He looked at Harris for confirmation, but Harris shrugged.
"I haven't a clue old man," Harris said. "Can't remember a moment past pudding. Mark of a good rum, or whatever that hell-water was we were drinking." It was not unusual for Ernie to forget events that occurred when he was intoxicated, and he seemed unconcerned.
"Interesting," Julio said. He stroked his gigantic moustache for a moment. "What was this man’s name?"
"Arturo. A retired sea captain. Do you have any idea what he might have been bothered by?"
"It is hard to tell." He sighed and adjusted his jacket, pulling it over his solid belly. "Some of the Portuguese are jealous of the success of the rubber developers. You may have run into nothing more than a case of petty envy. I would forget about it immediately."
Thomas smiled. "Yes, of course. I will. I don't even know if I'm remembering it correctly. Thank you, sir."
"Do you know what he is like?" Harris asked.
"Santos?" Julio smiled. "A good man. But a man to be careful with. He likes to play games with people I am told. You should be wary of him, but at the same time treat him with respect. And he will do the same for you, I am sure of it."
As they spoke, the evening was falling around them. Thomas needed to set the day’s specimens while they were fresh, so he too excused himself and joined John in their hut.
"An interesting man, don't you think, John?"
John sat at his desk scribbling notes. "Yes," he said, without turning around.
His posture invited no more conversation, so Thomas unpacked his day's catches. He took them from their temporary boxes, where they had been pinned onto pieces of cork. He picked up his pen and card to write the labels for them - the species, the location, and his own name next to the date. He was pleased that he had not had to consult any books - he was as sure of these species as he was of his own name. He thought about what the hat merchant had said - as long as one can read one can be educated. So Thomas had never been to Cambridge like Sebel. So what? He had a good basic education, was knowledgeable in matters theological of course, due to his years at the Wesleyan College - the rest of what he needed to know about science he could glean from the books he read. Alfred Wallace had never trained as an entomologist, yet he was accepted by the Entomological Society as a pioneer. He made a mental note to himself to spend more time reading and less time daydreaming, although he had read all of the books he had brought with him. He would read them again.
He was also envious of the way Julio - a Peruvian, therefore a native Spanish speaker - slipped easily into English or Portuguese. Thomas's own Portuguese was still very limited. He could give basic instructions to the men, but still relied heavily on John to translate sentences for him.
As he set the cithaeris aurorina on its new card, his hand slipped and tore one of its wings. He cursed to himself then looked up to see if John had heard him. If he had, he didn’t react. Thomas lifted the specimen up again and ran a light finger over the tear. It was so delicate that he couldn't feel it on his callused fingers. He placed the wing between his finger and thumb and rubbed harder, and there they were - the velvety scales, seducing his skin. His fingertips came away with stardust on them and he wondered at the jewel-like quality of the butterfly. What woman needed diamonds, he thought, or sapphires, if she had a butterfly to adorn her? He glanced at an unusually small morpho rhetenor he had carried from Santarem, reluctant to leave it behind. He would make a gift of it to Sophie; perhaps set it in resin so she could pin it to her coat or her hat. Its wings would reflect in the blue of her eyes; its deep black lines in her eyelashes.
Potentially, might be ...