A Moth, Genus Novo, by H. G. Wells
Bacillus and Other Incidents
Probably you have heard of Hapley—not W.T. Hapley, the son, but the
celebrated Hapley, the Hapley of Periplaneta Hapliia, Hapley the
entomologist. If so you know at least of the great feud between Hapley
and Professor Pawkins. Though certain of its consequences may be
new to you. For those who have not, a word or two of explanation is
necessary, which the idle reader may go over with a glancing eye, if
his indolence so incline him.
It is amazing how very widely diffused is the ignorance of such really
important matters as this Hapley-Pawkins feud. Those epoch-making
controversies, again, that have convulsed the Geological Society, are,
I verily believe, almost entirely unknown outside the fellowship of
that body. I have heard men of fair general education even refer to
the great scenes at these meetings as vestry-meeting squabbles. Yet
the great Hate of the English and Scotch geologists has lasted now
half a century, and has "left deep and abundant marks upon the body of
the science." And this Hapley-Pawkins business, though perhaps a more
personal affair, stirred passions as profound, if not profounder. Your
common man has no conception of the zeal that animates a scientific
investigator, the fury of contradiction you can arouse in him. It is
the odium theologicum in a new form. There are men, for instance,
who would gladly burn Professor Ray Lankester at Smithfield for
his treatment of the Mollusca in the Encyclopaedia. That fantastic
extension of the Cephalopods to cover the Pteropods … But I wander
from Hapley and Pawkins.
It began years and years ago, with a revision of the Microlepidoptera
(whatever these may be) by Pawkins, in which he extinguished a new
species created by Hapley. Hapley, who was always quarrelsome, replied
by a stinging impeachment of the entire classification of Pawkins[A].
Pawkins, in his "Rejoinder[B]," suggested that Hapley's microscope
was as defective as his powers of observation, and called him an
"irresponsible meddler"—Hapley was not a professor at that time.
Hapley, in his retort[C], spoke of "blundering collectors," and
described, as if inadvertently, Pawkins' revision as a "miracle of
ineptitude." It was war to the knife. However, it would scarcely
interest the reader to detail how these two great men quarrelled, and
how the split between them widened until from the Microlepidoptera
they were at war upon every open question in entomology. There were
memorable occasions. At times the Royal Entomological Society meetings
resembled nothing so much as the Chamber of Deputies. On the whole, I
fancy Pawkins was nearer the truth than Hapley. But Hapley was skilful
with his rhetoric, had a turn for ridicule rare in a scientific man,
was endowed with vast energy, and had a fine sense of injury in the
matter of the extinguished species; while Pawkins was a man of dull
presence, prosy of speech, in shape not unlike a water-barrel,
over-conscientious with testimonials, and suspected of jobbing museum
appointments. So the young men gathered round Hapley and applauded
him. It was a long struggle, vicious from the beginning, and growing
at last to pitiless antagonism. The successive turns of fortune, now
an advantage to one side and now to another—now Hapley tormented by
some success of Pawkins, and now Pawkins outshone by Hapley, belong
rather to the history of entomology than to this story.
[Footnote A: "Remarks on a Recent Revision of Microlepidoptera."
Quart. Journ. Entomological Soc. 1863.]
[Footnote B: "Rejoinder to certain Remarks," &c. Ibid. 1864.]
[Footnote C: "Further Remarks," &c. Ibid.]
But in 1891 Pawkins, whose health had been bad for some time,
published some work upon the "mesoblast" of the Death's Head Moth.
What the mesoblast of the Death's Head Moth may be, does not matter a
rap in this story. But the work was far below his usual standard, and
gave Hapley an opening he had coveted for years. He must have worked
night and day to make the most of his advantage.
In an elaborate critique he rent Pawkins to tatters—one can fancy the
man's disordered black hair, and his queer dark eyes flashing as
he went for his antagonist—and Pawkins made a reply, halting,
ineffectual, with painful gaps of silence, and yet malignant. There
was no mistaking his will to wound Hapley, nor his incapacity to
do it. But few of those who heard him—I was absent from that
meeting—realised how ill the man was.
Hapley had got his opponent down, and meant to finish him. He followed
with a simply brutal attack upon Pawkins, in the form of a paper upon
the development of moths in general, a paper showing evidence of a
most extraordinary amount of mental labour, and yet couched in a
violently controversial tone. Violent as it was, an editorial note
witnesses that it was modified. It must have covered Pawkins with
shame and confusion of face. It left no loophole; it was murderous in
argument, and utterly contemptuous in tone; an awful thing for the
declining years of a man's career.
The world of entomologists waited breathlessly for the rejoinder from
Pawkins. He would try one, for Pawkins had always been game. But when
it came it surprised them. For the rejoinder of Pawkins was to catch
the influenza, to proceed to pneumonia, and to die.
It was perhaps as effectual a reply as he could make under the
circumstances, and largely turned the current of feeling against
Hapley. The very people who had most gleefully cheered on those
gladiators became serious at the consequence. There could be no
reasonable doubt the fret of the defeat had contributed to the death
of Pawkins. There was a limit even to scientific controversy, said
serious people. Another crushing attack was already in the press and
appeared on the day before the funeral. I don't think Hapley exerted
himself to stop it. People remembered how Hapley had hounded down his
rival, and forgot that rival's defects. Scathing satire reads ill over
fresh mould. The thing provoked comment in the daily papers. This it
was that made me think that you had probably heard of Hapley and this
controversy. But, as I have already remarked, scientific workers live
very much in a world of their own; half the people, I dare say, who go
along Piccadilly to the Academy every year, could not tell you where
the learned societies abide. Many even think that Research is a kind
of happy-family cage in which all kinds of men lie down together in
In his private thoughts Hapley could not forgive Pawkins for dying.
In the first place, it was a mean dodge to escape the absolute
pulverisation Hapley had in hand for him, and in the second, it left
Hapley's mind with a queer gap in it. For twenty years he had worked
hard, sometimes far into the night, and seven days a week, with
microscope, scalpel, collecting-net, and pen, and almost entirely with
reference to Pawkins. The European reputation he had won had come as
an incident in that great antipathy. He had gradually worked up to a
climax in this last controversy. It had killed Pawkins, but it had
also thrown Hapley out of gear, so to speak, and his doctor advised
him to give up work for a time, and rest. So Hapley went down into a
quiet village in Kent, and thought day and night of Pawkins, and good
things it was now impossible to say about him.
At last Hapley began to realise in what direction the pre-occupation
tended. He determined to make a fight for it, and started by trying to
read novels. But he could not get his mind off Pawkins, white in the
face, and making his last speech—every sentence a beautiful opening
for Hapley. He turned to fiction—and found it had no grip on him.
He read the "Island Nights' Entertainments" until his "sense of
causation" was shocked beyond endurance by the Bottle Imp. Then
he went to Kipling, and found he "proved nothing," besides being
irreverent and vulgar. These scientific people have their limitations.
Then unhappily, he tried Besant's "Inner House," and the opening
chapter set his mind upon learned societies and Pawkins at once.
So Hapley turned to chess, and found it a little more soothing. He
soon mastered the moves and the chief gambits and commoner closing
positions, and began to beat the Vicar. But then the cylindrical
contours of the opposite king began to resemble Pawkins standing up
and gasping ineffectually against Check-mate, and Hapley decided to
give up chess.
Perhaps the study of some new branch of science would after all be
better diversion. The best rest is change of occupation. Hapley
determined to plunge at diatoms, and had one of his smaller
microscopes and Halibut's monograph sent down from London. He thought
that perhaps if he could get up a vigorous quarrel with Halibut, he
might be able to begin life afresh and forget Pawkins. And very soon
he was hard at work, in his habitual strenuous fashion, at these
microscopic denizens of the way-side pool.
It was on the third day of the diatoms that Hapley became aware of
a novel addition to the local fauna. He was working late at the
microscope, and the only light in the room was the brilliant little
lamp with the special form of green shade. Like all experienced
microscopists, he kept both eyes open. It is the only way to avoid
excessive fatigue. One eye was over the instrument, and bright and
distinct before that was the circular field of the microscope, across
which a brown diatom was slowly moving. With the other eye Hapley saw,
as it were, without seeing[A]. He was only dimly conscious of the
brass side of the instrument, the illuminated part of the table-cloth,
a sheet of note-paper, the foot of the lamp, and the darkened room
[Footnote A: The reader unaccustomed to microscopes may easily
understand this by rolling a newspaper in the form of a tube and
looking through it at a book, keeping the other eye open.]
Suddenly his attention drifted from one eye to the other. The
table-cloth was of the material called tapestry by shopmen, and rather
brightly coloured. The pattern was in gold, with a small amount of
crimson and pale blue upon a greyish ground. At one point the pattern
seemed displaced, and there was a vibrating movement of the colours at
Hapley suddenly moved his head back and looked with both eyes. His
mouth fell open with astonishment.
It was a large moth or butterfly; its wings spread in butterfly
It was strange it should be in the room at all, for the windows were
closed. Strange that it should not have attracted his attention when
fluttering to its present position. Strange that it should match the
table-cloth. Stranger far that to him, Hapley, the great entomologist,
it was altogether unknown. There was no delusion. It was crawling
slowly towards the foot of the lamp.
"Genus novo, by heavens! And in England!" said Hapley, staring.
Then he suddenly thought of Pawkins. Nothing would have maddened
Pawkins more…. And Pawkins was dead!
Something about the head and body of the insect became singularly
suggestive of Pawkins, just as the chess king had been.
"Confound Pawkins!" said Hapley. "But I must catch this." And, looking
round him for some means of capturing the moth, he rose slowly out
of his chair. Suddenly the insect rose, struck the edge of the
lampshade—Hapley heard the "ping"—and vanished into the shadow.
In a moment Hapley had whipped off the shade, so that the whole room
was illuminated. The thing had disappeared, but soon his practised eye
detected it upon the wall paper near the door. He went towards it,
poising the lamp-shade for capture. Before he was within striking
distance, however, it had risen and was fluttering round the room.
After the fashion of its kind, it flew with sudden starts and turns,
seeming to vanish here and reappear there. Once Hapley struck, and
missed; then again.
The third time he hit his microscope. The instrument swayed, struck
and overturned the lamp, and fell noisily upon the floor. The lamp
turned over on the table and, very luckily, went out. Hapley was left
in the dark. With a start he felt the strange moth blunder into his
It was maddening. He had no lights. If he opened the door of the
room the thing would get away. In the darkness he saw Pawkins quite
distinctly laughing at him. Pawkins had ever an oily laugh. He swore
furiously and stamped his foot on the floor.
There was a timid rapping at the door.
Then it opened, perhaps a foot, and very slowly. The alarmed face of
the landlady appeared behind a pink candle flame; she wore a night-cap
over her grey hair and had some purple garment over her shoulders.
"What was that fearful smash?" she said. "Has anything—" The
strange moth appeared fluttering about the chink of the door. "Shut
that door!" said Hapley, and suddenly rushed at her.
The door slammed hastily. Hapley was left alone in the dark. Then in
the pause he heard his landlady scuttle upstairs, lock her door and
drag something heavy across the room and put against it.
It became evident to Hapley that his conduct and appearance had been
strange and alarming. Confound the moth! and Pawkins! However, it was
a pity to lose the moth now. He felt his way into the hall and found
the matches, after sending his hat down upon the floor with a noise
like a drum. With the lighted candle he returned to the sitting-room.
No moth was to be seen. Yet once for a moment it seemed that the thing
was fluttering round his head. Hapley very suddenly decided to give up
the moth and go to bed. But he was excited. All night long his sleep
was broken by dreams of the moth, Pawkins, and his landlady. Twice in
the night he turned out and soused his head in cold water.
One thing was very clear to him. His landlady could not possibly
understand about the strange moth, especially as he had failed to
catch it. No one but an entomologist would understand quite how he
felt. She was probably frightened at his behaviour, and yet he failed
to see how he could explain it. He decided to say nothing further
about the events of last night. After breakfast he saw her in her
garden, and decided to go out to talk to her to reassure her. He
talked to her about beans and potatoes, bees, caterpillars, and the
price of fruit. She replied in her usual manner, but she looked at him
a little suspiciously, and kept walking as he walked, so that there
was always a bed of flowers, or a row of beans, or something of
the sort, between them. After a while he began to feel singularly
irritated at this, and to conceal his vexation went indoors and
presently went out for a walk.
The moth, or butterfly, trailing an odd flavour of Pawkins with it,
kept coming into that walk, though he did his best to keep his mind
off it. Once he saw it quite distinctly, with its wings flattened out,
upon the old stone wall that runs along the west edge of the park,
but going up to it he found it was only two lumps of grey and yellow
lichen. "This," said Hapley, "is the reverse of mimicry. Instead of
a butterfly looking like a stone, here is a stone looking like a
butterfly!" Once something hovered and fluttered round his head, but
by an effort of will he drove that impression out of his mind again.
In the afternoon Hapley called upon the Vicar, and argued with him
upon theological questions. They sat in the little arbour covered with
briar, and smoked as they wrangled. "Look at that moth!" said Hapley,
suddenly, pointing to the edge of the wooden table.
"Where?" said the Vicar.
"You don't see a moth on the edge of the table there?" said Hapley.
"Certainly not," said the Vicar.
Hapley was thunderstruck. He gasped. The Vicar was staring at him.
Clearly the man saw nothing. "The eye of faith is no better than the
eye of science," said Hapley, awkwardly.
"I don't see your point," said the Vicar, thinking it was part of the
That night Hapley found the moth crawling over his counterpane. He sat
on the edge of the bed in his shirt-sleeves and reasoned with himself.
Was it pure hallucination? He knew he was slipping, and he battled
for his sanity with the same silent energy he had formerly displayed
against Pawkins. So persistent is mental habit, that he felt as if it
were still a struggle with Pawkins. He was well versed in psychology.
He knew that such visual illusions do come as a result of mental
strain. But the point was, he did not only see the moth, he had
heard it when it touched the edge of the lampshade, and afterwards
when it hit against the wall, and he had felt it strike his face in
He looked at it. It was not at all dreamlike, but perfectly clear and
solid-looking in the candle-light. He saw the hairy body, and the
short feathery antennae, the jointed legs, even a place where the down
was rubbed from the wing. He suddenly felt angry with himself for
being afraid of a little insect.
His landlady had got the servant to sleep with her that night, because
she was afraid to be alone. In addition she had locked the door, and
put the chest of drawers against it. They listened and talked in
whispers after they had gone to bed, but nothing occurred to alarm
them. About eleven they had ventured to put the candle out, and had
both dozed off to sleep. They woke up with a start, and sat up in bed,
listening in the darkness.
Then they heard slippered feet going to and fro in Hapley's room. A
chair was overturned, and there was a violent dab at the wall. Then a
china mantel ornament smashed upon the fender. Suddenly the door of
the room opened, and they heard him upon the landing. They clung to
one another, listening. He seemed to be dancing upon the staircase.
Now he would go down three or four steps quickly, then up again, then
hurry down into the hall. They heard the umbrella stand go over, and
the fanlight break. Then the bolt shot and the chain rattled. He was
opening the door.
They hurried to the window. It was a dim grey night; an almost
unbroken sheet of watery cloud was sweeping across the moon, and the
hedge and trees in front of the house were black against the pale
roadway. They saw Hapley, looking like a ghost in his shirt and white
trousers, running to and fro in the road, and beating the air. Now he
would stop, now he would dart very rapidly at something invisible, now
he would move upon it with stealthy strides. At last he went out of
sight up the road towards the down. Then, while they argued who should
go down and lock the door, he returned. He was walking very fast, and
he came straight into the house, closed the door carefully, and went
quietly up to his bedroom. Then everything was silent.
"Mrs Colville," said Hapley, calling down the staircase next morning.
"I hope I did not alarm you last night."
"You may well ask that!" said Mrs Colville.
"The fact is, I am a sleep-walker, and the last two nights I have been
without my sleeping mixture. There is nothing to be alarmed about,
really. I am sorry I made such an ass of myself. I will go over the
down to Shoreham, and get some stuff to make me sleep soundly. I ought
to have done that yesterday."
But half-way over the down, by the chalk pits, the moth came upon
Hapley again. He went on, trying to keep his mind upon chess problems,
but it was no good. The thing fluttered into his face, and he struck
at it with his hat in self-defence. Then rage, the old rage—the rage
he had so often felt against Pawkins—came upon him again. He went
on, leaping and striking at the eddying insect. Suddenly he trod on
nothing, and fell headlong.
There was a gap in his sensations, and Hapley found himself sitting on
the heap of flints in front of the opening of the chalkpits, with a
leg twisted back under him. The strange moth was still fluttering
round his head. He struck at it with his hand, and turning his head
saw two men approaching him. One was the village doctor. It occurred
to Hapley that this was lucky. Then it came into his mind, with
extraordinary vividness, that no one would ever be able to see the
strange moth except himself, and that it behoved him to keep silent
Late that night, however, after his broken leg was set, he was
feverish and forgot his self-restraint. He was lying flat on his bed,
and he began to run his eyes round the room to see if the moth was
still about. He tried not to do this, but it was no good. He
soon caught sight of the thing resting close to his hand, by the
night-light, on the green table-cloth. The wings quivered. With a
sudden wave of anger he smote at it with his fist, and the nurse woke
up with a shriek. He had missed it.
"That moth!" he said; and then, "It was fancy. Nothing!"
All the time he could see quite clearly the insect going round the
cornice and darting across the room, and he could also see that the
nurse saw nothing of it and looked at him strangely. He must keep
himself in hand. He knew he was a lost man if he did not keep himself
in hand. But as the night waned the fever grew upon him, and the very
dread he had of seeing the moth made him see it. About five, just as
the dawn was grey, he tried to get out of bed and catch it, though his
leg was afire with pain. The nurse had to struggle with him.
On account of this, they tied him down to the bed. At this the moth
grew bolder, and once he felt it settle in his hair. Then, because he
struck out violently with his arms, they tied these also. At this the
moth came and crawled over his face, and Hapley wept, swore, screamed,
prayed for them to take it off him, unavailingly.
The doctor was a blockhead, a half-qualified general practitioner, and
quite ignorant of mental science. He simply said there was no moth.
Had he possessed the wit, he might still, perhaps, have saved Hapley
from his fate by entering into his delusion and covering his face with
gauze, as he prayed might be done. But, as I say, the doctor was a
blockhead, and until the leg was healed Hapley was kept tied to his
bed, and with the imaginary moth crawling over him. It never left him
while he was awake and it grew to a monster in his dreams. While he
was awake he longed for sleep, and from sleep he awoke screaming.
So now Hapley is spending the remainder of his days in a padded room,
worried by a moth that no one else can see. The asylum doctor calls
it hallucination; but Hapley, when he is in his easier mood, and can
talk, says it is the ghost of Pawkins, and consequently a unique
specimen and well worth the trouble of catching.