Lord Hillary Evenshot knelt by the pond, half hidden by the cattails and staring at the water with a look of intensity usually reserved for mind readers at the Odeon. The pool reflected the rich blue of the afternoon sky and the stones of the single arched bridge behind him were golden warm in the sunlight. The object of his intensity was the solitary swan gliding back and forth, doing a perfect impression of a swan gliding back and forth, only more majestically. The water barely rippled as he passed. No movement betrayed the effort to propel himself forward, cleaving the pond’s surface.
Earlier in the afternoon, Lord Hillary had decided on a spur of the moment walk after luncheon with his beloved Herminone. They had dined on the terrace of Hillmione Wold, the massive ark of a stately home that Lord Hillary had inherited a year ago when his cousin’s failure to procreate within the duly appointed time set by their grandfather’s will had triggered the entail on the property and given Lord Hillary not only the house but the title as well.
Cyrus, the ubiquitous gentleman’s gentleman whose devotion to the couple was surpassed only by nothing in the known universe, had served the light repast of quiche and salad and, as was quite customary, had not blinked an eye when Lord Hillary had thoroughly soused the fluffy quiche with vinegar. After years of serving his employer, Cyrus knew full well the sidetracks of the train of thought that ran pell mell through the Evenshot mind. In this particular instance, the quiche had prompted thoughts of eggs, which naturally, for Lord Hillary, had lead to a consideration of pickled eggs at the local pub he and Hermione frequented. Being a lover of the sour treat, he had simply picked up the cruet while declaiming to his bride-to-be on the merits of malt versus cider vinegar.
Herminone had been unperturbed by the action and had merely replied “Strongbow” as her own unique train of thought equaled the randomness of her fiance’s and she leapt ahead to a conversation about hard ciders. She had declined the offer of a walk immediately but had said she would catch him up presently. She had known that his long rambles usually came to a grinding halt no more than a few hundred yards down the drive because something would throw the brakes onto his train of thought.
On this particular day, the brake cord had been pulled at the bridge when Lord Hillary had been captivated by the sight of the swan. The elegant sight had propelled his mind into a rumination on ships’ prows and he had sunk down on his knees behind the bulrushes, oblivious to the damp ground soaking his trousers, while he surged ahead thinking about Viking warships.
His concentration was broken by the light, squishy step of Hermione coming along side him.
“I can’t imagine any Viking horde having a swan as their figurehead as they swept into the fens, can you, my beloved?” she whispered, not wanting to frighten the blindingly white creature sailing before them.
“Ah, my dear, this would be a fitting figure to the prow of a fearsome warship! Swans are notoriously bellicose. I have seen them take after both man and beast if their nest is disturbed.” Hillary replied, not even registering that yet again she had seemed to read his mind. She crouched down next to him, ready to settle in for the duration of this lovely late spring interlude.
The swan’s progress suddenly halted as it and the two watchers became aware of a goose that had appeared on the shore. It was clearly intent on intruding to feast among the grasses along the bank. Myriad insects clustered and swarmed along the edges of the pond, disturbed by the advent of the feathered waddler. The variety of insects had been merely background in the idyllic vista that Lord Hillary and Hermione were enjoying. The drone of the bees in the blackberries, the cumbersome dragonflies that dipped and darted with the sun reflecting iridescently off their impossible wings, had all been part of the sleepy tableau.
In an eruption of fury, the swan surged forward toward the interloper, intent on driving him back to his goosey lair. The huge white wings fanned to their fullest extent and the ire of the swan was displayed in a flurry of mad beatings of the air. The water surged before him like a tidal wave, foaming and churning, and the formerly sedate object of beauty became in a heartbeat the personification of territorial frenzy.
Remarkably the goose did not retreat in the expected ignoble disarray. On the contrary, he scuttled back from the edge of the water and set up an indignant cacophony of protest that he was the one wronged, his the territory being invaded. The enemy was engaged and the skirmish began in earnest. The swan bore down and the goose rallied. Back and forth he scuttled, honking, honking, honking, down to the water to challenge the swan, then waddling cumbersomely back in a parody of a fat burgher harassed by collection agents.
A cloud of dragonflies cycloned up at each feint. As the swan advanced, the dozens of brightly coloured wings whirred and the flying rainbows bore in on the goose. With each repost by the goose, they surged back to the pond’s edge to circle the enraged swan. Back and forth, this display of choreography was as fine as any swashbuckling fight. The noble David Niven swan pitted against the villainous, rotund Charles Laughton interloper.
“Look, Hillary,” cried Herminone, “they are battling for possession of your pond. It looks like a duel to the death!”
“Quite so, my love!” Lord Hillary brandished an imaginary gauntlet. “Sirrah, dragonflies at dawn on the field of honour!”
E.E. Whiting, who works for a financial services firm in Jersey City, is one of the readers for the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue. This short story is an excerpt from a longer work in progress titled “The Seven O'Clock Train of Thought.” The first chapter was published in the 2001 Summer Fiction issue.