has an angry, malignant sound that brings the idea of attack vividly into
the mind. There is a vicious sting about it somewhere -- even a foreigner,
ignorant of the meaning, must feel it. A hornet is wicked; it darts
and stabs; it pierces, aiming without provocation for the face and eyes.
The name suggests a metallic droning of evil wings, fierce flight, and
poisonous assault. Though black and yellow, it sounds scarlet.
There is blood in it. A striped tiger of the air in concentrated
form! There is no escape -- if it attacks.
an ordinary bee is the size of an English hornet, but the Egyptian hornet
is enormous. It is truly monstrous -- an ominous, dying terror.
It shares that universal quality of the land of the Sphinx and Pyramids
-- great size. It is a formidable insect, worse than scorpion or
tarantula. The Rev. James Milligan, meeting one for the first
time, realized the meaning of another word as well, a word he used prolifically
in his eloquent sermons -- devil.
morning in April, when the heat began to bring the insects out, he rose
as usual betimes and went across the wide stone corridor to his bath.
The desert already glared in through the open windows. The heat would
be afflicting later in the day, but at this early hour the cool north wind
blew pleasantly down the hotel passages. It was Sunday, and at half-past
eight o'clock he would appear to conduct the morning service for the English
visitors. The floor of the passage-way was cold beneath his feet
in their thin native slippers of bright yellow. He was neither young
nor old; his salary was comfortable; he had a competency of his own, without
wife or children to absorb it; the dry climate had been recommended to
him; and -- the big hotel took him in for next to nothing. And he
was thoroughly pleased with himself, for he was a sleek, vain, pompous,
well-advertised personality, but mean as a rat. No worries of any
kind were on his mind as, carrying sponge and towel, scented soap and a
bottle of Scrubb's ammonia, he travelled amiably across the deserted, shining
corridor to the bathroom. And nothing went wrong with the Rev.
James Milligan until he opened the door, and his eye fell upon a dark,
suspicious-looking object clinging to the window-pane in front of him.
even then, at first, he felt no anxiety or alarm, but merely a natural
curiosity to know exactly what it was -- this little clot of an odd-shaped,
elongated thing that stuck there on the wooden framework six feet before
his aquiline nose. He went straight up to it to see -- then stopped
dead. His heart gave a distinct, unclerical leap. His lips
formed themselves into unregenerate shape. He gasped: "Good God!
What is it?" For something unholy, something wicked as a secret sin, stuck
there before his eyes in the patch of blazing sunshine. He caught
a moment he was unable to move, as though the sight half fascinated him.
Then, cautiously and very slowly -- stealthily, in fact -- he withdrew
towards the door he had just entered. Fearful of making the smallest
sound, he retraced his steps on tiptoe. His yellow slippers shuffled.
His dry sponge fell, and bounded till it settled, rolling close beneath
the horribly attractive object facing him. From the safety of the
open door, with ample space for retreat behind him, he paused and stared.
His entire being focussed itself in his eyes. It was a hornet that
he saw. It hung there, motionless and threatening, between him and
the bathroom door.
at first he merely exclaimed -- below his breath -- "Good God! It's an
a man with a reputation for decided action, however, he soon recovered
himself. He was well schooled in self-control. When people
left his church at the beginning of the sermon, no muscle of his face betrayed
the wounded vanity and annoyance that burned deep in his heart. But
a hornet sitting directly in his path was a very different matter.
He realized in a flash that he was poorly clothed -- in a word, that he
was practically half naked.
a distance he examined this intrusion of the devil. It was calm and
very still. It was wonderfully made, both before and behind.
Its wings were folded upon its terrible body. Long, sinuous things,
pointed like temptation, barbed as well, stuck out of it. There was
poison, and yet grace, in its exquisite presentment. Its shiny black
was beautiful, and the yellow stripes upon its sleek, curved abdomen were
like the gleaming ornaments upon some feminine body of the seductive world
he preached against. Almost, he saw an abandoned dancer on the stage.
And then, swiftly in his impressionable soul, the simile changed, and he
saw instead more blunt and aggressive forms of destruction. The well-filled
body, tapering to a horrid point, reminded him of those perfect engines
of death that reduce hundreds to annihilation unawares -- torpedoes, shells,
projectiles, crammed with secret, desolating powers. Its wings, its
awful, quiet head, its delicate, slim waist, its stripes of brilliant saffron
-- all these seemed the concentrated prototype of abominations made cleverly
by the brain of man, and beautifully painted to disguise their invisible
freight of cruel death.
he exclaimed, ashamed of his prolific imagination. "It's only a hornet
after all -- an insect!" And he contrived a hurried, careful plan.
He aimed a towel at it, rolled up into a ball -- but did not throw it.
He might miss. He remembered that his ankles were unprotected.
Instead, he paused again, examining the black and yellow object in safe
retirement near the door, as one day he hoped to watch the world in leisurely
retirement in the country. It did not move. It was fixed and
terrible. It made no sound. Its wings were folded. Not
even the black antennae, blunt at the tips like clubs, showed the least
stir or tremble. It breathed, however. He watched the rise
and fall of the evil body; it breathed air in and out as he himself did.
The creature, he realized, had lungs and heart and organs. It had
a brain! Its mind was active all this time. It knew it was being
watched. It merely waited. Any second, with a whiz of fury,
and with perfect accuracy of aim, it might dart at him and strike.
If he threw the towel and missed -- it certainly would.
were other occupants of the corridor, however, and a sound of steps approaching
gave him the decision to act. He would lose his bath if he hesitated
much longer. He felt ashamed of his timidity, though "pusillanimity"
was the word thought selected owing to the pulpit vocabulary it was his
habit to prefer. He went with extreme caution towards the bathroom
door, passing the point of danger so close that his skin turned hot and
cold. With one foot gingerly extended, he recovered his sponge.
The hornet did not move a muscle. But -- it had seen him pass.
It merely waited. All dangerous insects had that trick. It
knew quite well he was inside; it knew quite well he must come out a few
minutes later; it also knew quite well that he was -- naked.
inside the little room, he closed the door with exceeding gentleness, lest
the vibration might stir the fearful insect to attack. The bath was
already filled, and he plunged to his neck with a feeling of comparative
security. A window into the outside passage he also closed, so that
nothing could possibly come in. And steam soon charged the air and
left its blurred deposit on the glass. For ten minutes he could enjoy
himself and pretend that he was safe. For ten minutes he did so.
He behaved carelessly, as though nothing mattered, and as though all the
courage in the world were his. He splashed and soaped and sponged,
making a lot of reckless noise. He got out and dried himself.
Slowly the steam subsided, the air grew clearer, he put on dressing-gown
and slippers. It was time to go out.
to devise any further reason for delay, he opened the door softly half
an inch -- peeped out -- and instantly closed it again with a resounding
bang. He had heard a drone of wings. The insect had left its
perch and now buzzed upon the floor directly in his path. The air
seemed full of stings; he felt stabs all over him; his unprotected portions
winced with the expectancy of pain. The beast knew he was coming
out, and was waiting for him. In that brief instant he had felt its
sting all over him, on his unprotected ankles, on his back, his neck, his
cheeks, in his eyes, and on the bald clearing that adorned his Anglican
head. Through the closed door he heard the ominous, dull murmur of
his striped adversary as it beat its angry wings. Its oiled and wicked
sting shot in and out with fury. Its deft legs worked. He saw
its tiny waist already writhing with the lust of battle. Ugh!
That tiny waist! A moment's steady nerve and he could have severed that
cunning body from the directing brain with one swift, well-directed thrust.
But his nerve had utterly deserted him.
motives, even in the professedly holy, are an involved affair at any time.
Just now, in the Rev. James Milligan, they were inextricably mixed.
He claims this explanation, at any rate, in excuse of his abominable subsequent
behaviour. For, exactly at this moment, when he had decided to admit
cowardice by ringing for the Arab servant, a step was audible in the corridor
outside, and courage came with it into his disreputable heart. It
was the step of the man he cordially "disapproved of," using the pulpit
version of "hated and despised." He had overstayed his time, and the bath
was in demand by Mr. Mullins. Mr. Mullins invariably
followed him at seven-thirty; it was now a quarter to eight. And
Mr. Mullins was a wretched drinking man -- "a sot."
flash the plan was conceived and put into execution. The temptation,
of course, was of the devil. Mr. Milligan hid the motive from
himself, pretending he hardly recognized it. The plan was what men
call a dirty trick; it was also irresistibly seductive. He opened
the door, stepped boldly, nose in the air, right over the hideous insect
on the floor, and fairly pranced into the outer passage. The brief
transit brought a hundred horrible sensations -- that the hornet would
rise and sting his leg, that it would cling to his dressing-gown and stab
his spine, that he would step upon it and die, like Achilles, of a heel
exposed. But with these, and conquering them, was one other stronger
emotion that robbed the lesser terrors of their potency -- that Mr.
Mullins would run precisely the same risks five seconds later, unprepared.
He heard the gloating insect buzz and scratch the oilcloth. But it
was behind him. He was safe!
morning to you, Mr. Mullins," he observed with a gracious smile.
"I trust I have not kept you waiting."
grunted Mullins sourly in reply, as he passed him with a distinctly hostile
and contemptuous air. For Mullins, though depraved, perhaps, was
an honest man, abhorring parsons and making no secret of his opinions --
whence the bitter feeling.
men, except those very big ones who are supermen, have something astonishingly
despicable in them. The despicable thing in Milligan came uppermost
now. He fairly chuckled. He met the snub with a calm, forgiving
smile, and continued his shambling gait with what dignity he could towards
his bedroom opposite. Then he turned his head to see. His enemy
would meet an infuriated hornet -- an Egyptian hornet! -- and might not
notice it. He might step on it. He might not. But he
was bound to disturb it, and rouse it to attack. The chances were
enormously on the clerical side. And its sting meant death.
God forgive me!" ran subconsciously through his mind. And side by
side with the repentant prayer ran also a recognition of the tempter's
eternal skill: "I hope the devil it will sting him!"
very quickly. The Rev. James Milligan lingered a moment by
his door to watch. He saw Mullins, the disgusting Mullins, step blithely
into the bathroom passage; he saw him pause, shrink back, and raise his
arm to protect his face. He heard him swear aloud: "What's the d_____d
thing doing here? Have I really got 'em again?" And then he heard him laugh
-- a hearty, guffawing laugh of genuine relief -- "It's real!"
moment of revulsion was overwhelming. It filled the churchly heart
with anguish and bitter disappointment. For a space he hated the
whole race of men.
the instant Mr. Mullins realized that the insect was not a fiery
illusion of his disordered nerves, he went forward without the smallest
hesitation. With his towel he knocked down the flying terror.
Then he stooped. He gathered up the venomous thing his well-aimed
blow had stricken so easily to the floor. He advanced with it, held
at arm's length, to the window. He tossed it out carelessly.
The Egyptian hornet flew away uninjured, and Mr. Mullins -- the Mr.
Mullins who drank, gave nothing to the church, attended no services, hated
parsons, and proclaimed the fact with enthusiasm -- this same Mr.
Mullins went to his unearned bath without a scratch. But first he
saw his enemy standing in the doorway across the passage, watching him
-- and understood. That was the awful part of it. Mullins would
make a story of it, and the story would go the round of the hotel.
Rev. James Milligan, however, proved that his reputation for self-control
was not undeserved. He conducted morning service half an hour later
with an expression of peace upon his handsome face. He conquered
all outward sign of inward spiritual vexation; the wicked, he consoled
himself, ever flourished like green bay trees. It was notorious that
the righteous never have any luck at all! That was bad enough. But
what was worse -- and the Rev. James Milligan remembered for very
long -- was the superior ease with which Mullins had relegated both himself
and hornet to the same level of comparative insignificance. Mullins
ignored them both -- which proved that he thought himself superior.
Infinitely worse than the sting of any hornet in the world: he really was