09y

09y

Elizabeth was more disapproving than ever. This was mere bravado. She did not speak again until they reached the hives.

In the neighbourhood of the hives a vast activity prevailed. What, heard from afar, had been a pleasant murmur became at close quarters a menacing tumult. The air was full of bees--bees sallying forth for honey, bees returning with honey, bees trampling on each other's heels, bees pausing in mid-air to pass the time of day with rivals on competing lines of traffic. Blunt-bodied drones whizzed to and fro with a noise like miniature high-powered automobiles, as if anxious to convey the idea of being tremendously busy without going to the length of doing any actual work. One of these blundered into Lord Dawlish's face, and it pleased Elizabeth to observe that he gave a jump.

'Don't be afraid,' she said, 'it's only a drone. Drones have no stings.'

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'They have hard heads, though. Here he comes again!'

'I suppose he smells your tobacco. A drone has thirty-seven thousand eight hundred nostrils, you know.'

'That gives him a sporting chance of smelling a cigar--what? I mean to say, if he misses with eight hundred of his nostrils he's apt to get it with the other thirty-seven thousand.'

Elizabeth was feeling annoyed with her bees. They resolutely declined to sting this young man. Bees flew past him, bees flew into him, bees settled upon his coat, bees paused questioningly in front of him, as who should say, 'What have we here?' but not a single bee molested him. Yet when Nutty, poor darling, went within a dozen yards of the hives he never failed to suffer for it. In her heart Elizabeth knew perfectly well that this was because Nutty, when in the presence of the bees, lost his head completely and behaved like an exaggerated version of Lady Wetherby's Dream of Psyche, whereas Bill maintained an easy calm; but at the moment she put the phenomenon down to that inexplicable cussedness which does so much to exasperate the human race, and it fed her annoyance with her unbidden guest.

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Without commenting on his last remark, she took the smoker from him and set to work. She inserted in the fire-chamber a handful of the cotton-waste and set fire to it; then with a preliminary puff or two of the bellows to make sure that the conflagration had not gone out, she aimed the nozzle at the front door of the hive.

The results were instantaneous. One or two bee-policemen, who were doing fixed point-duty near the opening, scuttled hastily back into the hive; and from within came a muffled buzzing as other bees, all talking at once, worried the perplexed officials with foolish questions, a buzzing that became less muffled and more pronounced as Elizabeth lifted the edge of the cover and directed more smoke through the crack. This done, she removed the cover, set it down on the grass beside her, lifted the super-cover and applied more smoke, and raised her eyes to where Bill stood watching. His face wore a smile of pleased interest.

Elizabeth's irritation became painful. She resented his smile. She hung the smoker on the side of the hive.

'The stool, please, and the screw-driver.'

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She seated herself beside the hive and began to loosen the outside section. Then taking the brood-frame by the projecting ends, she pulled it out and handed it to her companion. She did it as one who plays an ace of trumps.

'Would you mind holding this, Mr Chalmers?'

This was the point in the ceremony at which the wretched Nutty had broken down absolutely, and not inexcusably, considering the severity of the test. The surface of the frame was black with what appeared at first sight to be a thick, bubbling fluid of some sort, pouring viscously to and fro as if some hidden fire had been lighted beneath it. Only after a closer inspection was it apparent to the lay eye that this seeming fluid was in reality composed of mass upon mass of bees. They shoved and writhed and muttered and jostled, for all the world like a collection of home-seeking City men trying to secure standing room on the Underground at half-past five in the afternoon.

Nutty, making this discovery, had emitted one wild yell, dropped the frame, and started at full speed for the house, his retreat expedited by repeated stings from the nervous bees. Bill, more prudent, remained absolutely motionless. He eyed the seething frame with interest, but without apparent panic.

'I want you to help me here, Mr Chalmers. You have stronger wrists than I have. I will tell you what to do. Hold the frame tightly.'

'I've got it.'