Dog Watch

 

 

          ‘Hold ye that line!’
          The shuffle of rope-soled shoes stopped abruptly. The gangplank rattled noisily against the gunwhale as the last of the men on it stepped lightly to the quay, becoming suddenly aware that the stones did not move under their feet. On deck, the remainder of the line unshouldered their bags and laid them on the deck.
          ‘Mr. Wickham. That man there.’
          The lieutenant took hold of a seaman by the shoulder,
          ‘This one…?’
          ‘Yes. His name, man.’
          Wickham shook the shoulder held tightly in his grasp. The seaman stuttered a reply,
          ‘Melville… Sir’
          ‘Hand me that bag.’
          Melville picked up the bag and laid it gently at the Captain’s feet. The bag settled, the canvas folds drifting slowly into the shapes of  salt-stiffened clothes, native carvings and the idle moments of scrimshaw within. As the Captain watched, the folds shifted and rippled. Melville’s face paled to the sheen of a scrubbed deck.
          ‘Open it, man.’
          FitzRoy stood over the bag, his expression filled with the surety of being 28 years old and in total command. Melville’s hands shook as he bent to the bag. He fumbled at the buttons until FitzRoy swiped him out of the way with his stick,
          ‘Mr. Wickham. Let us bear witness what he has here.’
          Wickham bent tentatively to the bag, undid a button, then just as quickly drew away his hands as the bag rippled quietly again. He looked up at Melville who nodded. He undid the last two buttons and stood back. FitzRoy prodded Melville with the end of the stick,
          ‘Take it out, man.’
          ‘Sir…’
          The stick lanced out again, this time catching Melville unawares in the rib. He grunted and scowled at the unjust pain.
          ‘Enough, man…’ FitzRoy was now in his element. Melville could sense his anger rising and reinforcing the one thing they had all learned during this voyage, that FitzRoy did not carry the nickname of ‘Hot Coffee’ for little reason.
          ‘Drag it out. Now. Or I shall have thyself and thy bag tipped unceremoniously over the side.’
          Melville bent to open the flap of canvas, all the time expecting the cane to land smartly between his shoulderblades. The blow did not arrive. He felt inside the bag until his fingers enclosed something soft and warm. He straightened and handed the dog to FitzRoy. FitzRoy stepped back in amazement,
          ‘What… what…?’
          Wickham pulled it away from FitzRoy, horrified at what he saw. He dragged Melville around by the shirt,
          ‘What mean’st thou by this? Thou knowest the order…’
          ‘Wait…’ FitzRoy held his stick in the air. Poised as it was between them, Melville knew that a twist of the handle would reveal a slender blade of shining steel, of which he had no desire to make the aquaintance.
          FitzRoy lowered the stick until the end touched the animal,
          ‘How dare’st thee…’
          Melville cast down his eyes to the deck. The sun bounded up from it with half the power he had witnessed a few weeks before, adrift then in other latitudes where the sun was not the only thing that would willingly flay men’s backs.
          ‘Thou hast contravened a direct order. Thou art aware that, as Captain of a vessel afloat, I have the authority to hang thee?’
          Wickham cast a glance to the forard capstan, where the rope bound it into creaking protest as the tide came in to take up the slack. FitzRoy followed his gaze and took the inference,
          ‘Mr. Wickham, shall I give the order to cast off again, make sail from port until we can find somewhere we can comfortably hang him?’
          Wickham studied the faces of the men remaining in line behind Melville, and found it in him to respond,
          ‘Sir. There is a time for example when there is a need for men to be so driven. Let us drive these men ashore with a lasting example of mercy under command. They may follow another more willingly.’
          ‘And where, Wickham, in the annals of the Admiralty does it state that willingness stands in the stead of duty?’
          ‘I merely suggest, Sir, that duty may be enhanced by willingness. A willing ship may yet sail fairer seas.’
          ‘Attend to thy scribbling, Wickham. Leave discipline to myself. Thou finds it seemingly difficult to comprehend.’
          Wickham’s face flushed fiercely. He was acutely aware of the Captain’s disregard for the journal he had written during the voyage. FitzRoy had found him at the chart table one evening, compiling by lamplight, the sperm oil bright and unsputtering. The Captain had snatched it from beneath his quill, read a few lines and thrown it to the floor in disgust,
          ‘There are men on ship who are paid to inscribe, Wickham. What pallid sense of journalism is thine? What lack of wit aboard thy quill?’

          Melville tucked the dog beneath his arm where it shivered in the unaccustomed sunlight. The day was late, October-ish in the way that month performs solely for the English with their strained complexions and subtly weighted clothes. The dog remained silent, trained by Melville not to speak, although unaware of the reasons and the salvation that silence had bought throughout the remainder of the voyage.

         The gangplank rattled once against the side of the ship and was stilled, but the silence surrounding the three men was impenetrable; eyes locked in a limited arc of awareness that existed peculiarly for them.
          ‘Mr. Wickham. Kill this damned abomination.’
          ‘Sir…?’
          ‘Now, man. Before we are all damned for eternity. Now, man!’
          Wickham reached for the dog. The dog, sensing ill will, retreated further under Melville’s arm and emitted a low growl. Wickham stood back in alarm. FitzRoy exploded in anger,
          ‘For the sake of Our Lord, man. Do as I say. Hast thou no spine?’
          The steel blade inched out from inside the cane,
          ‘Nay! I shall save the rope and run them through together…’
          FitzRoy drew back his arm. The steel caught the sunlight in a bright flash that illuminated briefly the whole of Melville’s life. He tucked the dog further against him, half-turning to shield it from the blade, although the wicked pervasiveness of that steel was well known.
          FitzRoy found his hand clamped by that of another. The tip of the blade wavered willingly in the air between them. Melville shrank away from it as the seeking point flailed without reason.
          ‘Hold that blade.’
          ‘Mr. Darwin! How dare’st thou interfere with matters of ship’s discipline!’
          ‘FitzRoy, how dare’st thou attempt the murder of one of my specimens? Along with that of an innocent seaman?’
          FitzRoy allowed Darwin to lower the tip of the blade, then shook himself free of the grip and replaced the blade within the cane but, significantly, did not twist to lock the handle.
          ‘Thou shall never set foot on an Admiralty ship again.’
          ‘FitzRoy, after five long years in thy company, I assure thee I have no desire to.’
          FitzRoy twisted the lock on the cane handle,
          ‘How dost thou claim this … animal… as thine own. Knowing well the origin of its progeniture?’
          ‘I find it instrumental. As with many things, it is but a piece in the puzzle of the origin of all species. An unwitting but welcome adjunct to the completion and furtherance of my work, which, and I do not need to give further explanation to thy good self, was the provenance of the voyage for which thou shall be renowned the world over. Remark thee well, FitzRoy…’ he reached out to comfort the shaking animal. Melville turned it within reach of his gentle touch, ‘…that if thou wouldst pin the word ‘abomination’ in the air between us, thou wouldst be well to heed that Eve span from Adam’s rib, and attach it just as firmly to thyself.’
          FitzRoy tucked the cane under his arm,
          ‘Have care, Mr. Darwin. I fear though hast fallen under Wickham’s quill.’
          Darwin reached for the dog under Melville’s arm. The dog, sensing the easy release of pressure, exchanged hands willingly. Darwin hefted it against his shoulder,
          ‘Thou see’st, FitzRoy, an Eden on it’s day so thinly populated that Adam found only Eve. God gave him no choice in the matter, and he found himself as subtly subverted as thine own sire was by the bitch thou brought with him.’
          ‘But… but…’ FitzRoy stalled for words, ‘But thine is a most specious argument… and to bring the Bible into disrepute is worthy of a good hanging in itself. Mr. Wickham? Is it too late to warp ship out into the river where I can end this blasphemy once and for all?’
          ‘I’m afraid so, Sir. A coach has just drawn to the quay bearing Admiralty arms. I suspect that news of our arrival has already reached the City.’
          ‘Then what do I have time for, Wickham?’
          ‘A graceful retreat, Sir…?’
          ‘Wickham? Is this why my uncle committed suicide?’
          ‘I have no idea, sir.
          ‘Then scribe one, Wickham, when thou must. And I would have sight of it.’
 
          With a scornful glance at Darwin, FitzRoy retreated to his cabin. As he entered, his favourite dogs roamed and twisted playfully around his feet. He bent and stroked their ears. For once, his voice became unusually soft as he spoke to them,
          ‘How coulds’t thou this? Thou art Brother against Sister. What thinkest thou?’
          The dogs licked at his hands, then shook out their long ears, hiding the slants of their eyes partially behind them as if contrite and reclusive, sharing blame for something of which they knew naught.
          A breeze took the window, slamming it out against the stern timbers. The air played around his hands, cooling them, changing his thoughts to the singularity of polar waters; southern destitute latitudes where isolation knocked at the door of every man’s thoughts. He lifted the ears of Erin, sister to MacCoul,
          ‘And how found thyself at the gates of this Eden? How solitary? I thought me that thou wouldst find companionship… in the way I might with mine own siblings. How base thy level, to which I can never attain. And if I can never attain this, then how can I blame thee? On deck thou art blessed by progeny that I can never let thee see. Because if I let thee share in that, I can then only blame myself for the order that drowned his siblings. Thinking it rightful at that time, I can never apportion myself a share of that blame, so how can I salve thee? With words to which thou dost not listen? With language, like that of Wickham, which is overly convulsed?… No… I can only let him live… but far away from thee and thy scent.’
 
          FitzRoy returned to the deck,
          ‘Mr. Darwin… I shall allow thee to remove this… this… from my sight. I shall not offend thee with explanation save to state that thou knowest the.. specifics… of his origin.’
          Darwin nodded a slight bow of gratitude, although he had never the intention of allowing the dog to remain on board, whatever the personal cost,
          ‘I thank thee with grace, Captain. Be assured thou shall find favour in my journal.’
          He turned to the seaman and handed back the dog,
          ‘Melville. Take the dog down to the quay and await the arrival of myself on shore. Move not thyself nor let him loose.’
 
          Melville felt his arm in the tight grip of Darwin, and being led without hesitation across the quay, through an archway and into the pub yard beyond, where behind them the prow of the ship was framed as if in cameo.
          Melville found himself thrust down onto a rude bench beside a table. Darwin raised an arm and a girl came across to them.
          ‘Decent beer. Two.’
          The girl went away.  Melville stroked the dog absently,
          ‘I… know not what to say to thee…’
          ‘Then say little. Ignorant prattle has been my fare for the hour past. I care for none more. What willst thou do with the animal?’
          ‘I know not sir. I fear I cannot keep him. If I sail again, I shall not be able to take him on board.’
          ‘Especially with FitzRoy, eh?’
          Melville nodded. Darwin took hold of the beer as the girl laid it to the table,
          ‘I have an idea, Melville. Art thou game?’ He caught hold of the girl’s wrist,
          ‘Art thou game, too, wench?’
          ‘For what, Sir?’ she replied, drawing back her wrist, although maintaining her position by the table.
          ‘For this…’ he took the young dog from Melville. Melville nodded and smiled, in a sense, regretfully.
         Darwin handed it to her,
         ‘It hath need of thy good services…’
         ‘Oh, Sir. I am not sure…’
         ‘Come now, girl. It will not trouble thee overmuch, being of a kindly disposition, as thyself may fairly be described.’
         ‘I thank thee, sir. I do not deserve that, I am sure, but the dog does seem kindly disposed toward myself. By what name shall I call it?’
         Darwin looked across the table at Melville expectantly,
         ‘Well, man?’
         Melville coloured slightly. He shuffled on the bench, spoke in a whisper.
         Darwin nudged him,
         ‘Speak up man. We can’t hear you.’ 
         ‘Dick, Sir… Moby Dick.’
         ‘What sort of a name is that, man?’
         ‘It… it’s a… more of a… family legend, sir’
         ‘Ah, I see… and from where comes that legend, as indeed thyself sailor?’
         ‘America, sir.’
         ‘That explains much. I have heard there are many such peculiarities in that ungracious land.’
          The dog nipped gently at the girl’s hand,
          ‘Would the sirs mind if I chose my own name for him?’
          Darwin waved his hand expansively,
          ‘Feel free… eh, Melville?’
          ‘It’s just that, sirs, if he misplaced himself, I would feel a right fool in the calling of his name.’
          Darwin reached up to stroke the dog one last time,
         ‘And what might thy name be, wench?’
         ‘Miss Newson, sir. Carlon… Carlon Newson. I hope it finds thee with favour.’
         ‘Just so, Miss Newson, just so. A comely enough appellation.’
         ‘Thank 'ee kindly sir, but one more thing… if thy will grant…’
         Darwin nodded in quiet aquiescence.
         ‘What breed of dog is he, sir?’
         Darwin turned to look back out of the courtyard, through the low archway to where the prow of the ship remained docked and visible, his home, willing or not, for good or ill, for the last five years, and realised how much and how little he would miss her. He turned back and smiled,
         ‘A Beagle, Miss Newson… A Beagle.’
 
 
Bill Allerton
03/05/2008


 


 

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