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Expressing Egrets

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Daegaer wrote, @ 2004-06-16 00:41:00
Instead of going to sleep, I seem to have written something of a different manly stripe. I can offer only apologies for the title.
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When asked in later years for his recollections of Miss Nightingale, Captain Banner generally replied that she was a d----d forgiving woman when faced with a man grown intemperate in his speech. At the time, however, he had less thought for that famous lady and more for the bullet that had torn through the lower part of his thigh, ending both his youthful grace and his military career in one swift moment. For, not desiring to feel the weight of his brother officers' pity, Banner had resigned his commission on medical grounds not long after being told that while his leg would heal it would never again be the strong firm limb it had been.

He took himself away from all wars to reside in an English sea-side town, having some vague thought that the salt air would be healthful, and spent his days sitting in the parlour of the house he had taken, glaring in miserable fury at the world. His doctor pushed at him to take exercise which he did but reluctantly, hating how he limped and leaned on his cane and feeling that people stared at him in the street. The only benefit the town truly had was, as he savagely told himself, that he was a stranger to its inhabitants. His especial opprobrium was reserved for the vicar of the nearest church, who was much given to long and incomprehensible sermons half in Greek and featuring the battle rage of Achilles. 'Why, if I had such a bad officer in my regiment I would be ashamed,' thought Banner, who had long since forgotten most of his childhood lessons in Greek and Latin, and reserved only the thought that officers should leave squabbling over girls to the ranks.

'We shall, I trust, hear some text from Scripture expounded upon some day, Gregg?' he asked acidly after one service, taking a mean enjoyment in the twittering of approval from some of the older ladies of the congregation and the flustered look upon the reverend gentleman's face. For the next three weeks the wars of Israel against Canaan, of Israel against the Philistines and the awful dread of the Assyrian campaigns were heard of from the pulpit, with only side references to the Greeks for the sake of comparison.

Banner was less than pleased to be disturbed in his daily routine of boredom by his housekeeper announcing that the Reverend Gregg had come to call upon him. With some ill grace he had his guest furnished with a cup of tea, and then the two of them sat silently and awkwardly drinking their tea and trying to think of a topic of conversation.

'You are well, I hope, Captain Banner?' said Gregg, a soft-fleshed man who, approaching his thirty-fifth year, was some five years the elder of the two.

'As well as can be expected,' said Banner shortly.

Silence fell once more, broken only by the ticking of the hideous clock that Banner's landlady had pointed out with pride as a treasure of its kind.

'You were in the Crimea, I believe?' said Gregg, a shade of desperation in his voice.

'I believe I was,' said Banner.

'And -- you received your wound there?'

'Yes,' said Banner, and proceeded to elaborate with some glee on the sensations of a bullet wound that needs must be endured while one ensures one's men will still have adequate leadership, and the fates of men less fortunate than he, whose screams in the hospital he still heard in his uneasy slumbers. Gregg went quite pale and did not manage to eat another bite of the Madeira cake he had been given with his tea. Banner drank his tea with a renewed vigour, stating, 'Not like your Greek poems, eh, Gregg?'

'No, no,' murmured Gregg, and took his leave soon after, to Banner's delight.

The sermon that Sabbath day was on peace and healing, with no Greek at all, and Banner found it far easier to sleep through, now that the Reverend Gregg was modulating his voice against over-excitement. After two more Sundays on the topic of healing and rest, however, he felt quite annoyed and spoke in anger to Gregg, telling him that he needed no pity, and walking off as quickly as his leg might bear. The next day Gregg called on him once more, and Banner tried to be polite, feeling with some shame that it was not a gentlemanly thing to have shouted at a man of the cloth in the doorway of his own church.

'Not at all, not at all, my dear Banner,' said Gregg. 'I was being most intrusive in my assumptions.'

'Hmpf,' said Banner. 'It was I who was being a brute. I have been quite out of sorts since -- since I retired from the army.'

Gregg patted his arm in a kindly fashion, and poured him more tea. 'Do you read the war reports in the London Times?' he asked.

'No,' said Banner shortly.

'Will you dine with me tomorrow?' asked Gregg, trying for a lighter mood. 'My cook is very good.' He patted his round midriff ruefully.

Banner readied himself to refuse, and then hesitated, seeing the hope in the other's eyes. It would do no harm, he thought, and nodded. 'Thank you,' he said, and felt absurdly pleased to see the smile in response.

At the appointed hour he presented himself at the vicarage, handing his hat to the maid who opened the door to him and being shown into the parlour. He sat stiffly, drinking his sherry and trying not to laugh at Gregg who bustled around offering him more sherry, a cushion for his back, obviously trying to think of a way to ask if he needed something to make his leg more comfortable. Banner found his gaze drawn to a photograph on the mantelpiece, showing a young woman in the style of dress he remembered his older sister wearing when he had been nearing the end of his schooling. Gregg caught him looking, and said in a neutral tone, 'My wife.'

Banner made a polite noise in response, seeing that his host did not wish to say more. The vicarage had clearly been without a lady's touch for many years, if it had ever had it. He tried to convey silent sympathy, and Gregg smiled with only the ghost of old sadness in his eyes.

'A long time ago,' he said quietly, and seemed vastly relieved to have the maid come in to tell them that their dinner was ready.

Banner lay in bed that night, wondering if he should really have enjoyed himself. He wanted to be angry at his fate and to despise the boredom of the sleepy little town, but the amused memory of poor Gregg's embarrassment at hearing army jokes kept interfering in this plan. He called on Gregg the next day in thanks, and found himself extending an invitation to dinner for the following day. His relief to have this accepted was quite childish, he told himself, but it buoyed him up on his slow walk home nonetheless.

They dined at each other's homes at least once a week thereafter, and Greek began to make its stealthy way back into Gregg's sermons, culminating in one that apart from a few linking words on the use of the language of sporting activities by the Apostle Paul was entirely a quoting of texts from the ancients on the gymnasium and notable victories at Olympia. The congregation, when they awoke, departed in peace and bewilderment while Banner laughed to himself at the absurdly pleased expression on Gregg's face at a capital sermon, well delivered. After lunch - for he had been invited to the vicarage for that meal - Gregg looked at him with enthusiasm.

'I say, Banner,' he said, 'it's a fine day, why don't we walk out and see if we can spot any interesting specimens of bird-life?'

'I don't know,' said Banner, whose sole knowledge of wild birds was which could be shot in season.

'Oh, come along,' said Gregg. 'We won't take too long, I have to be back to prepare for Evensong. Do say yes, I'm a keen ornithologist - the word comes from the Greek, you know --'

'All right, all right,' said Banner, holding up a hand in surrender. 'But no more Greek today, please,' he continued in a teasing tone.

Gregg laughed pleasantly, and rushed upstairs to change his attire to clothing more suitable for a walk. Soon they were strolling slowly towards the seafront, where they observed many specimens of the common gull, after observing many specimens of the house sparrow in the town.

'We seem to be out of luck,' said Banner. 'Perhaps we should go back.'

'No, no,' cried Gregg. 'Let us go a little inland, and I'm sure we'll see something better.' He sounded so eager that Banner gave in and followed him upstream when they came to the little river that ran past the town. After some time they did indeed see more species of birds, although they were all still common to the area. The day was warm and the sunshine bright, and Banner felt quite content to walk along the river bank, letting Gregg's voice wash over him. The man was talking about Greek again, describing the bird omens used by the ancients and bemoaning the fact that they would, no doubt, see no oracular eagles on their walk. Banner's leg began to tire, and he forced himself not to stumble.

'I really think we should go back,' he said.

'No, I want us to go further,' said Gregg. 'Do say you'll come with me?'

'All right,' said Banner, but within minutes he was regretting his words, his leg complaining with every step. 'Be a man,' he told himself sternly, 'a child could walk this far.' He looked back the way they'd come and felt much alarmed at the distance travelled, suddenly reckoning the price he would pay for walking all the way back. 'I say, Gregg,' he said, 'I think we might stop for a rest, don't you?'

'Of course,' said Gregg, turning to him, pink-faced with the exertion of walking in the heat. He stood there, much on his clerical dignity as Banner lowered himself carefully to sit on the dry grass, then awkwardly plumped down beside him, like a great boy. 'You should have said earlier that you wished to rest.'

'Oh, it's nothing,' said Banner, embarrassed, 'I just need a moment.' A flash of white caught his eye on the far bank of the river and he pointed at it curiously. 'What's that?'

Gregg looked over at the white bird as it stepped with exaggerated care through the shallow water, lifting its thin black legs high to reveal startlingly yellow feet. 'I don't know,' he said curiously. 'Some sort of heron, perhaps? Look at its bill.'

'I don't think I've ever seen a heron of that colour,' said Banner. 'What relation do you think it bears to our familiar grey-plumaged herons?'

Gregg looked at the bird fixedly, and his face became pinker. 'I'm not really much of an ornithologist,' he said apologetically. 'I just thought you'd go home and the afternoon seemed to have such a fearful lonely stretch in my mind. It was the first thing I thought of to encourage you to come on the walk.'

Banner laughed uproariously, saying, 'You need not have gone to such lengths, my dear Gregg, I would have kept you company in your house or garden quite happily, with a walk thrown in to boot.'

'You would?' said Gregg, smiling broadly.

'Yes, of course,' said Banner, 'oh, look!' He pointed to where the small bird had spread its wings and flapped away, white and brilliant in the sun. 'Lovely,' he said, surprising himself.

'Yes, lovely,' agreed Gregg in a small and far-away voice. He abandoned all dignity and lay back, staring up into the sky. 'Like those wisps of cloud,' he said.

Banner lay back too, the blue of the sky and the thin white cloud passing by restful to his gaze.

'I feel so very small when I look at the sky,' said Gregg. 'It makes me dizzy.' He paused and went on more quietly. 'It makes me feel I have a small life. All those places they write of in the classics, Rome and Athens, Egypt and Persia - do you know, I've never been outside England, not even as far as Wales or Scotland.' He sighed. 'You must find me very boring, Banner.'

'Nonsense,' said Banner gruffly. 'The rest of the world's much the same as this - rivers in Macedon, rivers in Wales and all that. It's far more interesting in your books, I'm sure.'

'I'd still like to see it,' said Gregg, and sighed once more. 'But I suppose I'll never even leave this parish.'

Banner stared upwards, thinking about this man who'd never been anywhere yet who wanted to, who loved his ancient writers, perhaps, because they showed him a wider world. He blinked back sudden tears. The wider world had not been kind to him and he should accept the confines life had placed upon him. His melancholy almost made him miss Gregg's words.

'Do you think it was always sunny in Greece and Rome? When I read the texts they always seem to me to have been written in sunlight. Even when they talk about snow.'

It was such a silly thing that Banner had to laugh, Gregg laughing with him. His leg felt much better, the angle of repose suiting it, and he felt as if the years had rolled away and he were a schoolboy, idly enjoying a long summer's day with a friend. Like a boy seeking comfort he reached out and took Gregg's hand in his, feeling warm fingers curl securely about his own. Gregg squeezed his hand, lightly running his thumb over the back in companionable silence. They lay there quietly, hand-in-hand, looking up until all the thin wisps of white had moved off and there was only blue sky in their vision and the sun that had shone on Athens, Rome and Balaclava shone down warmly on their little spot of England.

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The Little Egret is a French bird, and was first reported in large numbers in Britain in 1989. Gregg would have to be a very keen ornithologist indeed to recognise it in the 1850s.

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