The kingdom of the bees was in a whirl of excitement. Not even in the days of the revolution had the turmoil been so great. The hive rumbled and roared. Every bee was fired by a holy wrath, a burning ardor to meet and fight the ancient enemy to the very last gasp. Yet there was no disorder or confusion. Marvelous the speed with which the regiments were mobilized, marvelous the way each soldier knew his duty and fell into his right place and took up his right work.
It was high time. At the queen’s call for volunteers to defend the entrance, a number of bees offered themselves, and of these several had been sent out to see if the enemy was approaching. Two had now returned—whizzing dots—and reported that the hornets were drawing near.
An awesome hush of expectancy fell upon the hive. Soldiers in three closed ranks stood lined up at the entrance, proud, pale, solemn, composed. No one spoke. The silence of death prevailed, except for the low commands of the officers drawing up the reserves in the rear. The hive seemed to be fast asleep. The only stir came from the doorway where about a dozen wax-generators were at work in feverish silence executing their orders to narrow the entrance with wax. As by a miracle, two thick partitions of wax had already gone up, which even the strongest hornets could not batter down without great loss of time. The hole had been reduced by almost half.
The queen took up an elevated position inside the hive from which she was able to survey the battle. Her aides flew scurrying hither and thither.
The third messenger returned. He sank down exhausted at the queen’s feet.
“I am the last who will return,” he shouted with all the strength he had left. “The others have been killed.”
“Where are the hornets?” asked the queen.
“At the lindens!—Listen, listen,” he stammered in mortal terror, “the air hums with the wings of the giants.”
No sound was heard. It must have been the poor fellow’s terrified imagination, he must have thought he was still being pursued.
“How many are there?” asked the queen sternly. “Answer in a low voice.”
“I counted forty.”
Although the queen was startled by the enemy’s numbers, she gave no sign of shock.
In a ringing, confident voice that all could hear, she said:
“Not one of them will see his home again.”
Her words, which seemed to sound the enemy’s doom, had instant effect. Men and officers alike felt their courage rise.
But when in the quiet of the morning an ominous whirring was heard outside the hive, first softly, then louder and louder, and the entrance darkened, and the whispering voices of the hornets, the most frightful robbers and murderers in the insect world, penetrated into the hive, then the faces of the valiant little bees turned pale as if washed over by a drab light falling upon their ranks. They gazed at one another with eyes in which death sat waiting, and those who were ranged at the entrance knew full well that one moment more and all would be over with them.
The queen’s controlled voice came clear and tranquil from her place on high:
“Let the robbers enter one by one until I give orders to attack. Then those at the front throw themselves upon the invaders a hundred at a time, and the ranks behind cover the entrance. In that way we shall divide up the enemy’s forces. Remember, you at the front, upon your strength and endurance and bravery depends the fate of the whole state. Have no fear; in the dusk the enemy will not see right away how well prepared we are, and he will enter unsuspecting....”
She broke off. There, thrust through the doorway, was the head of the first brigand. The feelers played about, groping, cautious, the pincers opened and closed. It was a blood-curdling sight. Slowly the huge black-and-gold striped body with its strong wings crept in after the head. The light falling in from the outside drew gleams from the warrior’s cuirass.
Something like a quiver went through the ranks of the bees, but the silence remained unbroken.
The hornet withdrew quietly. Outside he could be heard announcing:
“They’re fast asleep. But the entrance is half walled up and there are no sentinels. I do not know whether to take this as a good or a bad sign.”
“A good sign!” rang out. “Forward!”
At that two giants leapt in through the entrance side by side; after them, soundlessly, pressed a throng of striped, armed, gleaming warriors, awful to behold. Eight made their way into the hive. Still no orders to attack from the queen. Was she dumb with horror, had her voice failed her?
And the brigands, did they not see in the shadow, to right and left, the soldiers drawn up in close, glittering ranks ready for mortal combat...?
Now at last came the order from on high:
“In the name of eternal right, in the name of your queen, to the defense of the realm!”
At that a droning roar went up. Never before had the city been shaken by such a battle-cry. It threatened to burst the hive in two. Where, an instant before, the hornets had been visible singly, there were now buzzing heaps, thick, dark, rolling knots. A young officer had scarcely awaited the end of the queen’s words. He wanted to be the first to attack. He was the first to die. He had stood for some time ready to leap all a-quiver with eagerness for battle, and at the first sound of the order he rushed forward right into the clutches of the foremost brigand. His delicately fine-pointed sting found its way between the head and upper breast-ring of his opponent; he heard the hornet give a yell of rage, saw him double up into a glittering, gold-black ball. Then the bandit’s fearful sting leapt out and pierced between the young officer’s breast-rings right into his heart; and dying the bee felt himself and his mortally wounded enemy sink under a cloud of storming bees. His brave death inspired them all with the wild rapture that comes from utter willingness to die for a noble cause. Fearful was their attack upon the invaders. The hornets were sore pressed.
But the hornets are an old race of robbers, trained to warfare. Pillage and murder have long been their gruesome profession. Though the initial assault of the bees had confused and divided them, yet the damage was not so great as might have seemed at first. For the bees’ stings did not penetrate their breastplates, and their strength and gigantic size gave them an advantage of which they were well aware. Their sharp, buzzing battle-cry rose high above the battle-cry of the bees. It is a sound that fills all creatures with horror, even human beings, who dread this danger signal, and are careful not to enter into conflict with hornets unprotected.
Those of the assailants who had already penetrated into the hive quickly realized that they must make their way still deeper inward if they were not to block up the entrance to their comrades outside. And so the struggling knots rolled farther and farther down the dark streets and corridors. How right the queen had been in her tactics! No sooner was a bit of space at the entrance cleared than the ranks in the rear leapt forward to its defense. It was an old strategy, and a dreadful one for the enemy. When a hornet at the entrance gave signs of exhaustion, the bees shammed the same, and let him crawl in; but the instant the one behind showed his head a great swarm of fresh soldiers dashed up to defend the apparently unprotected entrance, while the invader who had gone on ahead would find himself, already wearied, suddenly confronted by glittering ranks of soldier-bees who had not yet stirred a finger in battle. Generally he succumbed to their superior numbers at the very first attack.
Now the groans of the wounded and the shrieks of the dying mingled in wild agony with the fierce battle-cries. The hornets’ stings worked fearful havoc among the bees. The rolling knots left tracks of dead bodies in their wake. The hornets, whose retreat had been cut off, realizing that they would never see the light of day again, fought the fight of despair. Yet, slowly, one by one, they succumbed. There was one great thing against them. Though their strength was inexhaustible, not so the poison of their sting. After a time their sting lost its virulence, and the wounded bees, knowing they’d recover, fought in the consciousness of certain victory. To this was added the grief of the bees for their dead; it gave them the power of divine wrath.
Gradually the din subsided. The loud calls of the hornets on the outside met with no response from the invaders within.
“They are all dead,” said the leader of the hornets grimly, and summoned the combatants back from the entrance. Their numbers had melted down to half.
“We have been betrayed,” said the leader. “The bees were prepared.”
The hornets were assembled on the silver-fir. It had grown lighter, and the red of dawn tinged the tops of the linden-trees. The birds began to sing. The dew fell. Pale and quivering with rage of battle, the warriors stood around their leader, who was waging an awful inward struggle. Should he yield to prudence or to his lust for pillage? The former prevailed. There was no use anyway. His whole tribe was in danger of destruction. Grudgingly, in a shudder of thwarted ambition, he determined to send a messenger to the bees to sue for the return of the prisoners.
He chose his cleverest officer and called upon him by name.
A depressed silence instead of an answer. The officer was among those who had been cut off.
The leader, overcome now by mortal dread lest those who had entered would never return, quickly chose another officer. The raging and roaring in the beehive could be heard in the distance.
“Be quick!” he cried, laying the white petal of a jasmine in the messenger’s hand, “or the human beings will soon come and we shall be lost. Tell the bees we will go away and leave them in peace forever if they will deliver up the prisoners.”
The messenger rushed off. At the entrance he waved his white signal and alighted on the flying-board.
The queen-bee was immediately informed that an emissary was outside who wanted to make terms, and she sent her aide to parley with him. When he returned with his report she sent back this reply:
“We will deliver up the dead if you want to take them away. There are no prisoners. All of your people who invaded our territory are dead. Your promise never to return we do not believe. You may come again, whenever you wish. You will fare no better than you did to-day. And if you want to go on with the battle we are ready to fight to the last bee.”
The leader of the hornets turned pale when this message was delivered to him. He clenched his fists, he fought with himself. Only too gladly would he have yielded to the wishes of his warriors who clamored for revenge. Reason prevailed.
“We will come again,” he hissed. “How could this thing have happened to us? Are we not a more powerful people than the bees? Every campaign of mine so far has been successful and has only added to our glory. How can I face the queen after this defeat?” In a quiver of fury he cried again: “How could this thing have happened to us? There must be treachery somewhere.”
An older hornet known as a friend of the queen’s here took up the word.
“It is true, we are a more powerful race, but the bees are a unified nation, and unflinchingly loyal to their people and their state. That is a great source of strength; it makes them irresistible. Not one of them would turn traitor; each without thought of self serves the weal of all.”
The leader scarcely listened.
“My day is coming,” he hissed. “What care I for the wisdom of these bourgeois! I am a brigand and will die a brigand.—But to keep up the battle now would be madness. What good would it do us if we destroyed the whole hive, and none of us came back alive?” Turning to the messenger, he cried:
“Give us back our dead. We will withdraw.”
A dead silence fell. The messenger flew off.
“We must be prepared for a fresh piece of trickery, though I don’t think the hornets are in a fighting mood at present,” said the queen bee when she heard the hornets’ decision. She gave orders for the rear-guard, wax-generators, and honey-carriers to remove the dead from the city while two fresh regiments guarded the entrance.
Her orders were carried out. Over mountains of the dead one brigand’s body after another was dragged to the entrance and thrown to the ground outside.
In gloomy silence the troop of hornets waited on the silver-fir and saw the corpses of their fallen warriors drop one by one to the earth.
The sun arose upon a scene of endless desolation. Twenty-one slain, who had died a glorious death, made a heap in the grass under the city of the bees. Not a drop of honey, not a single prisoner had been taken by the enemy. The hornets picked up their dead and flew away, the battle was over, the bees had conquered.
But at what a cost! Everywhere lay fallen bodies, in the streets and corridors, in the dim places before the brooders and honey-cupboards. Sad was the work in the hive on that lovely morning of summer sunshine and scented blossoms. The dead had to be disposed of, the wounded had to be bandaged and nursed. But before the hour of noon had struck, the regular tasks were begun; for the bees neither celebrated their victory nor spent time mourning their dead. Each bee carried his pride and his grief locked quietly in his breast and went about his work.
Notes: This book follows the adventures of a little bee.
Author: Waldemar Bonsels
Translators: Book - Adele Szold Seltzer, Poems - Arthur Guiterman
Publisher: Thomas Seltzer, New York