Written by Elizabeth Harrison.
In a kitchen garden at the rear of an old, brick house in a country town, stood long rows of stately corn, whose shining green blades glistened in the sun and rustled if a passing breeze spoke to them.
Near at hand were some thickly-leaved currant bushes which looked as if they had been so busy bearing bunches of juicy, red currants that they had found no time to grow tall like their neighbors, the corn.
Just across the garden-path was a fine bed of feathery asparagus, separated from the rest of the garden by a low wooden border about two inches high. I do not know as to whether or not it was this exclusive life they lived that made them so lacking in strength, but they were swayed by the slightest breath of air, now this way and now that. In the same garden were many other vegetables, and towering far above them all were some giant plum trees. At least they seemed like giants to the potato vine and tomato plants nearby, both of whom were of a creeping nature and had a great admiration for anybody, or anything, that was higher than themselves. The young potato vines used to look up from the top of their hills and wonder if they would ever get as near to the sky as the branches of the plum trees seemed to be. Silly things! They did not know that their value lay in their keeping close to the ground and bearing as many fine, smooth-skinned potatoes as possible; that is, the younger vines did not know this important fact.
Our story, however, is not about the potato vines, but of something very wonderful which took place upon the outside leaf of a round, green cabbage-head which stood along with the other cabbage-heads in one corner of the garden. I don’t believe you would have understood much of what was going on if you had been there, any more than did the happy-faced, little woman who owned the garden. She thought she loved her garden, every tree, and shrub, and herb that grew in it; still she spent a great deal more time looking at the swift-flowing river and the stretch of hills beyond than she did at her cabbage-heads. She spent hours each day poring over her books, while the most wonderful things were happening all around her, under her very nose, as it were, or rather, I should say, perhaps, under her very feet—things far more interesting than her books could possibly have been.
Among these wonderful things of which her garden could have told her was the life-story of a little green caterpillar whose home was on the outside leaf of a large green cabbage-head. He was not an inch long and not much bigger around than a good-sized broom straw, yet he was an honest little fellow in his way, and spent most of his time crawling about on his cabbage-leaf and nibbling holes in it, which you know, is about all a caterpillar can be expected to do.
The great, beautiful sun, high up in the sky, sent his bright rays of light down to warm the little caterpillar just as regularly and with seemingly just as much love as he sent them to make the thousand wavelets of the swift-flowing river sparkle and gleam like diamonds, or as he sent them down to rest in calm, still sunshine on the quiet hill-tops beyond.
The little green caterpillar’s life was a very narrow one. He had never been away from his cabbage-leaf, in fact he did not know that there was anything else in the world except cabbage leaves. He might have learned something of the beautiful silvery moon, or the shining stars, or of the glorious sun itself, if he had ever looked up, but he never did, therefore the whole world was a big cabbage-leaf to him, and all of his life consisted in nibbling as much cabbage-leaf as possible.
So you can easily imagine his surprise when one day a dainty, white butterfly settled down beside him and began laying small green eggs. The little caterpillar had never before seen anything half so beautiful as the wings of the dainty, white butterfly, and when she had finished laying her eggs and flew off, he for the first time in his whole life, lifted his head toward the blue sky that he might watch the quick motion of her wings. She was soon beyond the tallest leaves of the tomato plants, above the feathery tips of the fine asparagus, even higher than the plum trees. He watched her until she became a mere speck in the air and at last vanished from his sight. He then sighed and turned again to his cabbage leaf. As he did so his eyes rested on the twenty small green eggs which were no larger than the heads of a pin.
“Did she leave these for me to care for?” he said to himself. Then came the perplexing question—how could he, a crawling caterpillar, take care of baby butterflies. He could not teach them anything except to crawl and nibble cabbage leaves. If they were like their beautiful mother, would they not soon fly far beyond his reach? This last thought troubled him a great deal, still he watched over them tenderly until they should hatch. He could at least tell them of how beautiful their mother had been and could show them where to fly that they might find her.
He often pictured to himself how they would look, twenty dainty little butterflies fluttering about him on his cabbage leaf for a time, and then flying off to the blue sky to visit the stars with their mother. He loved the great sun very dearly now, because it sent its rays down to warm the tiny eggs.
One day he awoke from his afternoon nap just in time to see a most remarkable sight! What do you think was happening? One after another the small green eggs were breaking open, and out were crawling—what do you suppose! Little white butterflies? No, nothing of the kind—Little green caterpillars were creeping out of each shell. Their foster-father, as he had learned to call himself, could hardly believe his own eyes. Yet there they were, wriggling and squirming, very much like the young angleworms in the ground below.
“Well, well, well!” said he to himself, “who would ever dream that the children of that beautiful creature would be mere caterpillars?” Strange as it seemed to him, there was no denying the fact and his duty was to teach them how to crawl about and how to nibble cabbage leaves. “Poor things,” he used to say as he moved among them, “you will never know the world of beauty in which your mother lived, you will never be able to soar in the free air, your lives must be spent in creeping about on a cabbage leaf and filling yourselves full of it each day. Poor things! Poor things!”
The young caterpillars soon became so experienced that they no longer needed his care. Feeling very tired and sleepy, he decided one day to make for himself a bed and go to sleep. He was soon softly wrapped from head to foot in the curious covering he had made, and then came a long, long sleep of three weeks or more.
When at last he woke up, he began to work his head out of his covering. Soon his whole body was free and he began to breathe the fresh air and feel the warm sunshine. He was sure that something had happened to him though he could not tell what. He turned his head this way and that, and at last caught sight of his own sides. What do you think he saw? Wings! Beautiful white wings! And his body was white, too! The long sleep had changed him into a butterfly!
He began to slowly stretch his wings. They were so new he could hardly believe that they were part of himself. The more he stretched them the more beautiful they became, and soon they quivered and fluttered as gracefully as the other butterfly wings did.
Just at this moment a strong, fresh breeze swept over the garden, and before he had time to refuse, the new butterfly was lifted off the cabbage leaf and was dancing through the air, settling down now on a bright flower, and now on a nodding blade of grass, then up and off again. He rejoiced in his freedom for a time, but soon came the longing to try his wings in the upper sunshine.
Before attempting the unknown journey, however, he flew back to the round, green cabbage-head on which he had lived so long. There were the twenty, small, green caterpillars, still creeping slowly about and filling themselves with cabbage-leaf. This was all they knew how to do, and this they did faithfully. “Never mind, little caterpillars,” said the new butterfly as he hovered over them, “keep at your work; the cabbage leaf gives you food, and the crawling makes you strong. By and by you, too, shall be butterflies and go free and into the great upper world.”
Having said this in so low a tone of voice that you would not have heard him had you been standing close by, he flew far away, so far that neither you nor I could have followed him with our eyes. As for the happy-faced, little, woman, she did not even know that he had been near her, for her eyes were fastened on her book, as usual.