The word 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.
In Egypt, 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 the universal quality of the land of the Sphinx and Pyramid’s 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.
One 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 traveled 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.
And 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 his breath.
For 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 focused itself in his eyes. It was a hornet that he saw. It hung there, motionless and threatening, between him and the bathroom door.
And at first, he merely exclaimed below his breath “Good God! It’s an Egyptian hornet!”
Being 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.
From 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.
“Bah!” 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 it. 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.
There 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 without clothes.
Once 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.
Unable to devise any further reason for the 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.
Human 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 behavior. 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.”
In a 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 scratches the oilcloth. But it was behind him. He was safe!
“Good morning to you, Mr. Mullins,” he observed with a gracious smile. “I trust I have not kept you waiting.”
“Morning!” 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.
All 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.
“May God forgive me!” ran subconsciously through his mind. And side by side with the repentant prayer ran also recognition of the tempter’s eternal skill: “I hope the devil it will sting him!”
It happened 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 them again?” And then he heard him laugh a hearty, guffawing laugh of genuine relief “It’s real!”
The moment of revulsion was overwhelming. It filled the churchly heart with anguish and bitter disappointment. For space he hated the whole race of men.
For 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 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.
The 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 signs 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 superior.