The Vortex

(notes edited by John Radcliffe)


First published in Scribner’s Magazine of August 1914, illustrated by six black and white drawings by Angus MacDonall. Collected in A Diversity of Creatures in 1917, accompanied by the poem, “The Song of Seven Cities”. In the Sussex Edition the poem “The Fabulists” is also indexed with this story.

Also collected in:

  • Scribner’s Edition vol. XXVI
  • Burwash Edition vol. IX
  • Sussex Edition vol. IX, p. 381

A Diversity of Creatures is available in various paperback editions, and on Kindle, from Amazon.

The story

The narrator, who bears a strong resemblance to Kipling himself, is visited by his friend Penfentenyou, ‘Premier in all but name’ of a British Dominion overseas. Later in the day two colleagues join them, a senior civil servant, his Agent-General, and a Mr Lingnam, whose status is unclear, but who is an enthusiastic proponent of complicated schemes for future relationships within the British Empire. The narrator is warned by the others that Lingnam is a wordy man, and this proves to be the case, since he theorises at length late into the night, before breakfast the following morning, and in the car as they tour the English countryside.

They approach a village, crowded with people, where on a hot summer’s day there are various festivities going on. With Mr Lingnam at the wheel, they cross a railway bridge, and knock a delivery boy off his bicycle. He had been carrying four boxes of bees, which swarm out into the village, stinging everyone in their path. One ends up in Mr Lingnam’s lap, and he throws it over the bridge onto the platform, thinking that there is a river below. He takes refuge, a bedraggled and much-stung figure, in the pond. The whole village is thrown into chaos.

Mr Lingnam is made to take the blame for everything, and pay for the wrecked bicycle, which he wrecks anew. All desire for further negotiation or discussion has left him.

But as J M S Tompkins suggests (page 37): ‘Mr Lingnam becomes quite human and almost lovable, when in his beestung frenzy he demolishes under the wheels of his car, the bicycle that was the cause of the trouble…’


Charles Carrington is quoted by the ORG as reporting:

A very early Kipling piece, “A Germ Destroyer” (Plain Tales from the Hills) described the discomfiture of Lord Dufferin by a patent fumigatory. The grain of truth behind this story was somewhat different. A well-known joke in India was that Dufferin had been put to flight by a swarm of bees at one of his Vice-regal ceremonies. Kipling transformed the circumstances in 1887, but perhaps filed away the bee story in his memory for use twenty-five years later. [see ORG page 50]

Carrington (p. 407) also notes in his biography of Kipling:

Rudyard had become an enthusiastic bee-keeper at Bateman’s, and more than once made symbolic use of of the social life of the bee in his comments on the contemporary human scene.

[See “The Mother Hive” in Actions and Reactions (1909).]

The whole issue of Britain’s relationship with the different territories of the Empire, of Tariff Reform and Imperial Defence, of how the Empire should be secured against enemies, who should bear the cost, and where the decisions should lie, interminably addressed by Mr Lingnam in the story, was very topical at the time.
Writing (p. 252) of his ‘Reciprocally co-ordinated Senatorial Hegemony’, elaborated for three quarters of an hour, Angus Wilson comments:

When we remember that Kipling and his fellow-Imperialists were dedicated to exactly such federation, we can get something of the boredom that he suffered from colonial visitors to Bateman’s.

Some critical comments

J M S Tompkins, introducing Kipling’s farces, writes (page 33):

Complex, deliberately wrought, visually rich, and ringing with various voices, these astonishing structures stand along the road of his art from “The Rout of the White Hussars” in Plain Tales from the Hills to “Aunt Ellen” in Limits and Renewals. They are houses of boisterous and primitive mirth … Sooner or later in these tales we reach the moment of physical disorder, the inversion of human and official dignity, surely the oldest and most proved of the sources of laughter.

But see also notes (page 37):

Not every lover of Kipling can love these farces. Some are repelled by the barbarousness of the occasion, and some disconcerted by the imagined pain of the victim. Others share the genial contempt of Meredith for ‘the great stomach laugh of the English— on which they found their possession of the sense of humour’. If the mirth-quake, towards which the story forges, does not appear to the reader to be an exquisite moment of perception and sensation, then the whole tale results for him in an anti-climax, and the elaboration of the approach to it becomes tedious.


©John Radcliffe 2008 All rights reserved