An Egyptian Hornet

Algernon Blackwood

20 Aug, 2014 10:48 PM

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
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.

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 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.

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 focussed 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 -- in a word, that he was practically half naked.

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. 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 -- naked.

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 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 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."

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 scratch 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."

"Mornin'!" 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 a 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 'em 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 a 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 -- 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.

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 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 superior.

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Javed Khan says:
10 Aug, 2015 11:39 AM

an excellent story.. a classic

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