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Charlie Boy and Captain Fitz.

A One-Act Play.

Illustration by Rachel Lapp Whitt.



Charles Darwin
Robert Fitzroy
Primate Skull
Samuel Wilberforce
Thomas Henry Huxley

The scene is Down House in Kent. Charles Darwin’s study. There is a miscellany of books papers, prints, insects, slides, rocks, samples, a microscope, tweezers and magnifying glasses, as there was in his lifetime. He should be in black-and-white, as he always was in the photographs we have of him. If anything, he should appear even more monochrome now, since he is dead, and the rainbow is for the living.


Darwin: I’ve always been here. When you’ve lived in a room as long as I lived in this one, you never leave it; not even when they say you’re dead. Where that leaves my notions about evolution, I’ve really no idea. I was always interested in vestigial traces, to be fair, and now I suppose I’ve become one. My own vestigial trace. Vestigium Darwini.

I wonder if there might be something else I could explain for you all, since my ideas do seem to have taken such a hold about the place. Where does all the power, the destructive frenzy come, out of that phenomenon you now call fundamentalism? Is that really the big challenge you face in the modern world? We always thought it might be hunger sending you out to war with one another. Will it really all end up as a question of deciding on one book or the other?

We didn’t have the word in my day, you know—fundamentalism, I mean—but I fear we had the phenomenon. I lived with it for five years, those years I spent aboard the Beagle. And the phenomenon was called, by me anyway, Fitzroy. Captain Robert Fitzroy. Old Fitz.

Every word of the Bible was true, and he would establish it irrefutably by finding proofs of the Deluge, Noah’s Flood—that’s what he was searching for out there on those islands while I pondered the meaning of creation, and whether just the one act of creation could really have been enough to get everything around these parts started. Now when I set out with him in 1831, I was supposed to believe every word of the Bible too. After all, I was scheduled to become a clergyman of the Church of England on my return. That’s the promise I’d made to my father. But to be honest, I had never really examined every word and asked, Can this be shown to be unquestionably true? I was far more interested in Volume One of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which I had brought aboard with me. But Fitzroy wanted to establish the truth of the Flood in Genesis. So he asked me to keep my eyes peeled for diluvian remains. And I agreed. For him, you see, It had to be true, that book, every word of it, or his life would unravel like a rotted skein left decomposing on hot black basalt.

And it did too. At the end he took a full-blade razor to his throat and cut it, as we had once sliced the heads off our giant Galapagos tortoises, so that the soup could be made. He stood in front of the mirror and drew a line under everything he’d ever said. A red line right round his neck, like the equator on a Mercator projection. Did I help him do it, I wonder, each night in the cabin over our curious dinners, thinking out loud as I considered the various possibilities? I can’t remember precisely what I said as I pondered. Was the blade of the future sharpening even then, during our long conversations over the tortoise soup?

[Enter ghost of Captain Fitzroy in full naval uniform. He sits down on the other chair at Darwin’s untidy table.]

Fitzroy: Don’t flatter yourself, Darwin. I hated your book, it’s true, but I wouldn’t have taken my own life just because of either you or it. You’re not significant enough, either you or your heretical scribblings. I took my life because He had nothing to say in response.

Darwin: He?

Fitzroy: Well, which He do you think? Use your imagination, man.

Darwin: The Almighty fell silent on you.

Fitzroy: It was a deafening silence.

Darwin: I can imagine.

Fitzroy: Glad to hear you’ve retained some of that facility, then.

Darwin: You’d heard Him speak before?

Fitzroy: Oh yes. Usually in storms at sea. Sometimes through the creaking boards on the aft deck. Once through the mouth of a giant squid.

Darwin: But then He fell silent on you.

Fitzroy: Just when His word was most badly needed. On November 24th, 1859.

Darwin: The publication date of the first edition of my Origin of Species.

Fitzroy: And the day when I finally realised something for the first time. Realised it with terrible force.

Darwin: What?

Fitzroy: That Providence, which is another way of saying Him, let’s be frank,  had provided you with all the evidence you required, in the form of finches’ beaks or monkeys’ tails or octopus eyes or orchid odours, or whatever, to write that book of yours; but had provided me with nothing whatsoever to help prove the ultimate validity of that book of His. All those hours hacking through the Galapagos, up and down the mountains, and nothing. Not even a raven’s feather, with a grain of Flood salt still stuck to it. Or an old gnarled root from Eden, with perhaps a tress from Eve’s prelapsarian coiffure. It wouldn’t have taken much, after all, not if you’re omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. One of Noah’s wine bottles, perhaps. The old boy took to viniculture afterwards, if I remember rightly. Glad to see the back of the sea, I shouldn’t wonder. That really was a force-niner he had to navigate his way through, and no mistake … I did wonder, once or twice, if you might have picked something crucial up one day, and then hidden it from me. But it struck me you were too guileless and altogether frank for that.

Darwin: So what did you conclude in the end?

Fitzroy: I gave Him a test. Which one is not meant to do, I grant you. Jesus himself told us it was an evil generation that called for a sign. In which case I conclude that I am a member of an evil generation, and looking at you now I can believe it. I stood before the mirror, holding the razor, and I asked Him to stop my hand, as he had once stopped Abraham from sinking the blade into the flesh of Isaac, his only beloved son. By any means, if He wished to retain a believer, a man of the true faith, to stop that hand of mine on its journey to my throat.

Darwin: But God did not stay your hand.

Fitzroy: Indeed He did not. And now here we both are, in the afterlife, still discussing these texts of ours and how they relate one to another. Or don’t relate one to another, as the case might be. Has death brought you any new insights, out of interest?

Darwin: I always argued that extinction was one of the great motors of evolution. Mother Nature’s most definitive selection technique. And now I seem to be proving it on my own pulse, or lack of it. My sales are greater now than they ever were when I was alive.

Fitzroy: And my meteorological findings are used more these days than they were in my lifetime too. I recently had a region of the shipping forecast named after me. My name is uttered every day on Radio Four. Morning and night. How many sailors’ lives has my warning system saved, I wonder? Maybe we should both have died earlier, Darwin. It would have been … now what’s the phrase they use these days?

Darwin: A good career move?

Fitzroy: Precisely that. It’s an enormous effort, isn’t it?

Darwin: What is?

Fitzroy: Dying, of course. One leaves it altogether too late, I fear. One should sort such a mighty adventure out at the beginning. It requires energy, courage, even a certain amount of humour and forbearance. One needs to do such things when one is young, when one still has a little bounce, not leave it all till the very end. Did any of the species you studied manage that sort of arrangement?

Darwin: Dying first and living afterwards, you mean? Proceeding with a posthumous existence once one has elected voluntary self-annihilation? No. I don’t recall any species making that arrangement. It would certainly be … novel, in evolutionary terms anyway.

Fitzroy: I suppose we might be pioneers, then.

Darwin: How so?

Fitzroy: Well, we’ve both been dead for a lot longer than we were ever alive. And here we are.

Darwin: Here we are and here we aren’t. A logical antithesis I have not yet come to terms with, speaking personally. Epistemologically, it strikes me as contrarian. And I never allowed for it in any of my books, you know. When the living arrive, as they will shortly, we will be invisible to them. So who has the advantage there?

Fitzroy: The living. What do they know? They don’t even seem to have settled the matter as to where the truth resides, in your book or … His.

Darwin: And what conclusion have you yourself finally come to there?

Fitzroy: I haven’t. Now isn’t that curious? You would think, wouldn’t you, that one might at least come to a conclusion once one has died? But no, not a bit of it. The arguments on both sides simply seem to get more and more ferocious.

Darwin: The evidence for my theory keeps stacking up, all the same.

Fitzroy: Tell them that over in the Church of the Apocalypse in the Rust Belt in America. Or in the mosques of Iran. Or quite a few synagogues in Israel. I’m not sure evidence has much to do with the matter. Death has at least clarified that much for me.

Darwin: Then what?

Fitzroy: Do most men believe what they believe because of evidence?

Darwin: What else is there?

Fitzroy: Desire. Fear. Requirement. Education. The wish for redemption. The wish to be loved. You had a little difficulty there yourself, as I recall. With Emma’s sensibilities. She was as committed to those words on the sacred page as I once was.

Darwin: Still is.

Fitzroy: Where is she now?

Darwin: In heaven. In a secluded spot. An inglenook barred to freethinkers. We meet occasionally.

Fitzroy: Darwin in heaven. Now there’s a title to conjure with. Better not tell Richard Dawkins.

Darwin: It’s only on visitor’s night I go. And she comes out to meet me in the forecourt. She’s greatly relieved, all the same. That I am here, rather than in some darker, fiercer place.

Fitzroy: Taxidermy is hardly resurrection.

Darwin: Taxidermy? I’ve not actually been stuffed, Fitz. I’ve stuffed more animals than I can recollect, and I do know what’s involved, believe me. I would certainly have noticed. Learned it from a black man who’d travelled with Waterton.

Fitzroy: You called me Fitz.

Darwin: Did I?

Fitzroy: Yes. You never called me that when we were alive.

Darwin: Not to your face, certainly. I used sometimes to refer to you thus, when I was ashore again, with Emma.

Fitzroy: You know of course what the prefix signifies? Illicit copulations with a royal. In our case it was Charles II and Barbara Villiers, the Duchess of Cleveland. I am a grandson of the Duke of Grafton; a nephew of Castlereagh.

Darwin: A shrewd technique for injecting vigour into what might otherwise become etiolated and inbred stock. A form of secretive exogamy, where endogamy might threaten the health of future generations.

Fitzroy: I doubt such considerations were in the King’s mind at the time. You had children?

Darwin: Many. And many died. Including my little Annie, who might have been the comfort of my old age.

Fitzroy: Did anyone ever call you Charlie?

Darwin: Very few.

Fitzroy: Not even Emma?

Darwin: Particularly not Emma. After we had been married for decades I signed a letter to her ‘Yours, C. R. Darwin’.

Fitzroy: But we are dead now. All such protocols defunct. So do you mind?

Darwin: Not at all. I’m happy to be Charlie, as long as you don’t mind being Fitz.

Fitzroy: Captain Fitz, if you don’t mind: the skipper of the Beagle. If any man had addressed me thus on board, I’d have had him whipped.

Darwin: You were known to be a martinet on the quarter-deck.

Fitzroy: And you were known to be a coleopterist. Some of the men called you the Old Philosopher, but others called you the hirsute Egyptian.

Darwin: Why?

Fitzroy: Because you seemed to worship beetles.

Darwin: There were a remarkable number competing for my attention.

Fitzroy: How many do they reckon now?

Darwin: At least 350,000 species.

Fitzroy: Now why did He make so many, I wonder? Have you ever managed to work that out.

Darwin: I chose a different route of explanation.

Fitzroy: Ah yes, so you did. Even had your own creature named after you, I hear.

Darwin: Mylodon Darwini. A giant ground sloth, long extinct.

Fitzroy: One starts to know how he feels these days. Are we extinct, Charlie?

Darwin: No. Merely dead.

Fitzroy: The difference, precisely?

Darwin: Not nearly so final.

Fitzroy: Well, you could have fooled me. Stokes Pringle skippered the boat before me. Got so depressed with the whole business he put a bullet through his head.

Darwin: High suicide-rate with captains of the Beagle.

Fitzroy: Never thought about it before, but now you come to mention it … I didn’t actually do it onboard, of course. Never have dreamt of such behaviour with men still coiling ropes on deck. Hardly an example for any gentleman to set.

Darwin: You could be dark in your moods, though. Banishing me from the cabin.

Fitzroy: I brought you back.

Darwin: After a while, you did. There could be something of Ahab about you on bad days.

Fitzroy: Ahab? The king Elijah told his truths to, while being fed by ravens in the Book of Kings?

Darwin: No, the one in the novel by Herman Melville.

Fitzroy: Don’t read novels. And I’m a little surprised that you should regard it as a fit use of your time in the afterlife frankly, Charlie.

Darwin: There isn’t any time any more, is there Captain Fitz? Not in the old sense of the word. Except when we pass back into it. Haven’t you noticed that? Time for the dead seems to be an arena of retrospection; we re-trace the time of our lives. Only there do we have any presence. When we return to the present we are entirely insubstantial. Such stuff as dreams are made on.

Fitzroy: Are we being prepared, do you think?

Darwin: For what?

Fitzroy: I have no idea. But however insubstantial our bodies, our minds seem if anything even more efficient than before. Or mine does. Though I do entertain doubts much more than I did when I was incarnate.

Darwin: You appeared to me to be entirely incapable of self-doubt when you were incarnate.

Fitzroy: The captain of a ship needs to be possessed of a forceful disposition. There is a certain vehemence required of one who commands.

Darwin: You had that, certainly. You seem much … quieter now.

Fitzroy: I have taken to entertaining doubts, though I did that at the end anyway. My last doubt was a sharp blade in my hand. Do you ever entertain any, Charlie? Doubts, I mean.

Darwin: Regarding?

Fitzroy: Oh, that theory of yours which seems so to beguile the minds of the living these days. Do you ever wonder if Gosse might have had a point?

Darwin: Philip Gosse? You are referring to Omphalos?

Fitzroy: Published in 1857, remember, a mere two years before your own volume. At the time it seemed to me definitive. It acknowledged the existence and authenticity of the fossils, and even explained their apparent antiquity.

Darwin: God made them.

Fitzroy: God made them and buried them, anticipating the click-click-click of the geologist’s hammer, and the head-scratching of all those palaeontologists. God made them so as to give us a past. Who after all would give his son a mere present without a past, with no patrimony, no hidden wealth on which he might call? Who would wish to be born without some expectations?

Darwin: [Largely to himself]. If your son should call out for bread, would you give him a fossil?

Fitzroy: He was filling the museum shelves with time, by way of provision. All we had to do was be grateful. Adam he made at the age of thirty, having already filed down his teeth and put some decomposing food in his intestines. Otherwise he would have dropped dead promptly of starvation; died from thirty years of not-eating during his thirty years of not-living. Thirty years without a meal, and dead as a glyptodon.

Darwin: The glyptodon that had never actually lived in the first place.

Fitzroy: True.

Darwin: But was fashioned in the Almighty’s Wunderkammer. Might one not regard it as a slightly baffling manoeuvre, on the part of God?

Fitzroy: How so?

Darwin: People like myself, Lyell and Huxley would be bound to assume that creatures of great antiquity once walked the earth, and then became extinct, leaving us only their fossilised remains to try to understand. But it turns out after all that God was an antique artificer; a manufacturer of pre-distressed items for the treasure trove. God’s clues could start to seem a little misleading here, surely?

Fitzroy: Not if you accept the account of creation in the Good Book. Carefully dated back for us by Bishop Ussher, using the genealogies in the Book of Genesis.

Darwin: Yes, he even marked up the day and the hour of the kick-off, I seem to recall. Thoughtful of Jehovah to start the whole thing rolling on Trinity Sunday, first day of the academic year at Cambridge.

Fitzroy: Well, you were a Cambridge man, Charlie, so no grounds for complaint there.

Darwin: I don’t remember him ever rigging the boat race so methodically. But really, Captain Fitz, what kind of deity could play such tricks on the intellect of his own creatures?

Fitzroy: There is a museum in the southern states of America where dinosaurs wander about in the same landscape as Adam and Eve.

Darwin: And you have been there?

Fitzroy: I have. One of the advantages of being dead is universal free entry to exhibitions the world over.

Darwin: Not to mention free transport through space and time.

Fitzroy: Yes, it certainly beats sailing. Much drier.

Darwin: So why not travel back 6,000 years and simply see for yourself, then?

Fitzroy: We cannot go back beyond our own time, or forward beyond the present. Those are the rules. You must know that as well as I do. Don’t be coy. It hardly befits a man who concluded that our mother in this vale of tears turns out to be the greatest mass murderer in history.

Darwin: Or pre-history. We are time-bound revenants. If the dinosaurs had shared the earth with Adam and Eve, then our legendary parents would have constituted little more than lunch for the terrible lizards. There is a logic to evolution that can’t be nay-sayed.

Fitzroy: Not one I much like, frankly. Sometimes get the impression you’re not all that fond of it yourself.

Darwin: Species extinction has always struck me as a harsh experimental technique, so as to arrive at creatures more fitted for survival. I found a line in one of Coleridge’s Notebooks yesterday: ‘We are either the children of a kind and beneficent God or the outcasts of a blind Idiot called Nature.’ I know which I would prefer, Fitz, but I could not deny the evidence of my eyes and mind. So I would continue to take my wife and children to the church door every Sunday, but I remained outside. I would go and examine how nature actually works in the surrounding fields. She is, from my observations—here you are correct—the least sentimental of mothers. If you want a portrait of her actions on the stage, I should try Medea. When you looked in the mirror that day and took the blade to your throat, what did you see, Fitz?

Fitzroy: The outcast of a blind idiot called Nature. Your creation. So thanks for that. And it was my expert seamanship that helped you write the damned book in the first place. A less competent skipper and you would have been lost with all hands-on deck. Another minor extinction.

Darwin: And has He spoken since?

Fitzroy: The blind idiot?

Darwin: No, the other one.

Fitzroy: If He has, then I haven’t heard Him. Perhaps I closed my senses to His word when I lifted up that cut-throat razor.

Darwin: Have you actually read this? [Holding up a copy of the Origin of Species].

Fitzroy: I’ve dipped. Did bring back some memories of our time in the Galapagos. All our yesterdays. You have a vivid turn of phrase, Charlie.

Darwin: Thank you. And now I think I hear the present arriving.

Fitzroy: I think it might be the past, actually. I can feel it coming. Often happens. Do you have this effect? The lights from inside the mind project so vividly that the shapes are cast on the wall. Look, Charlie, look at the wall now. We’re all there again, except you of course. But then you weren’t there in the first place. It’s the Oxford Debate in the Museum. 1860.

[Sounds of commotion and loud argument in a vaulted arena. The scene is the Oxford Museum Debate of 1860. Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford is on his feet. He speaks in the tones of a man who constantly congratulates himself on his own existence.] 

Wilberforce: You said the other day, Huxley, that it was of little concern to you whether it was on your grandfather’s or your grandmother’s side that you were descended from an ape.

Huxley: I would prefer to be descended from an ape than to use whatever intellectual faculties I have to obfuscate the truth rather than elucidate it. You employ your position in the church to baffle, my lord, not make matters clearer.

[Sounds of cheers from one side, booing and catcalls from the other.]

Speaker: You now appear to have the floor, Mister Fitzroy.

Huxley [Confidentially]: That’s the biggest Bible I ever saw in my life. He is holding it over his head, but if he drops it, he’ll surely die. Crushed by the weight of holy writ. A sanctified termination, at least.

Fitzroy [Shouting]: This is the book that contains the truth, not that one in the gentleman’s hands over there. If I had known then, what I know now, I would never have taken that fellow Darwin aboard.

[The sounds subside, and we are once more entirely back in the study at Down House.]

Darwin: Would you have actually thrown me overboard, Fitz? If you had seen what was coming, would you have fed me to the fishes?

Fitzroy: When my temper was up, I think I might. Fortunately for you I didn’t know what was coming. I thought you were merely an opinionated Whig with a presumptuous dislike of slavery and trade.

Darwin: Slavery and trade, ah yes. They were thought to go so well together, weren’t they?

Fitzroy: Never had to make any money of your own, did you, Charlie?

Darwin: No, but had I needed to, I trust I should have avoided slavery as a road to fortune and redemption. That way we would bring them civilization, I seem to recall the argument went. Christianity would arrive along with the chains, the whip, the welts and the rapes in steerage. What we brought them was death, disease and oppression.

Fitzroy: Lennon had slaves. Even used them on that journey you made through the forest with him. You didn’t complain much then. Some of them were used as path-cutters, to ease your European way. You were unpaid of course. Five years unpaid. Even had to go and buy those pistols for fifty pounds, at my insistence. Your friend Alfred Russel Wallace couldn’t have done it, now could he? One would have had to pay him to come along. So one needed a gentleman, where there was no requirement for the sordid topic of coin to be raised. Though I wasn’t entirely sure about you at first glance. Didn’t necessarily like the cut of your jib.

Darwin: Any aspect in particular?

Fitzroy: Your nose. Didn’t look like the nose of a gentleman to me. Still doesn’t, to be honest, when I catch you in profile at this moment gazing out of the window. Mind you, later on, when you started to grow so wondrously bearded, you did sometimes look, well … almost primeval.

Darwin: Grew a beard onboard, Fitz, after we left Brazil. Started to look like a half-washed chimney-sweeper even then.

Fitzroy: But nothing like the exuberant facial shrubbery you sprouted later.  That was Sam Wilberforce’s little joke before the grand debate in 1860. The Bishop circulated a photograph of you, winked at the lot of us, and said: ‘One can see why he believes his theory about our origins. If that was the face you saw in the mirror every morning, you might well reckon you descended from an ape yourself. And so we’re now in the process of reclaiming your patrimony by way of autobiographical assertions.’ How we chortled.

Darwin: Didn’t chortle for long.

Fitzroy: You might at least have been there, Charlie. Left old Huxley to do all your spouting for you. Darwin’s bulldog, they called him. Why couldn’t you be your own bulldog? Do your own barking and biting?

Darwin: Grief and disability between them made me effectively housebound from that time on. So I left the tail to wag the dog.

Fitzroy: Just got your sailing done in time, then? Before making your final adieus to the Great Outdoors.

Darwin: Pretty much. Yes. The reports in the papers tended to move in our direction from that point on. It started to be noticed that Wilberforce’s position was untenable for anyone with a serious interest in modern science. Which meant that your position was untenable too.

Fitzroy: I do recall, yes. But look. Look out of the window there. God, that storm has got up. [Sound of winds and waves at sea in a gale.] That man on the foredeck, attend to that sail … [louder] … I said attend to that sail, sir. It needs trimming. [To Darwin.] Why do you look at me like that? Can you not see him?

Darwin: Afraid I can’t see anything out there.

Fitzroy: What, not the coast of Tierra del Fuego? Not the high waves? Not the man struggling with the foresail?

Darwin: Only my lawn, I’m afraid. The occasional blackbird. I think I spotted an earthworm making its painful progress, which may well be halted by a mower at any moment. I wrote a book about them, you know.

Fitzroy [Reflectively, as one who has suddenly understood]: Of course, I understand: you can only relive what you actually lived first. One of the rules of the afterlife. And you weren’t up there with us, were you? As so often before, you’d gone down below, nauseous and incompetent when faced with man-sized waves. And I gather you’ve spent a great many of your remaining years nauseous and incompetent, faced merely with the relatively unmoving land. Throwing up and writing; writing and throwing up. A landlubber, and that’s for sure—even a summer meadow seems to make you queasy. Is it all any better now?

Darwin: What exactly do you mean by ‘now’?

Fitzroy: Now that you have shuffled off this mortal coil?

Darwin: Being posthumous does bring about a certain settlement of the digestive system. There’s that to be said for it, at least.

Fitzroy: You might add a post-scriptum to your works to that effect, then. At least give those facing mass extinctions something to look forward to. You and all your kind will be wiped out for ever, mothers, brothers, children, aunts,  but it will at least bring a certain digestive calm in the afterlife …

Darwin: You and I, my friend, are both Schrödinger’s cat.

Fitzroy: How so?

Darwin: We are alive and dead at the same time.

Fitzroy: I feel singularly dead myself. Schrödinger’s cat or one of Darwin’s finches. What a posthumous choice to have to make. Oh, how I’d like to set sail from the Isle of Wight. Head for the Bay of Biscay. The higher the seas, the better. Tricky though, being quite so dead. Hard for me now to pull on a hawser or turn a winch. I could navigate as well as any of them, but they wouldn’t hear me when I shouted out my true course. Surely there’s no question of our being dead?

Darwin: But the dead don’t speak.

Fitzroy: A superstition of the living, surely? A very recent one too, I would have thought.

Darwin: I suppose.

Fitzroy: Jesus for example made some of his most interesting remarks post-mortem.

Darwin: He did get his dying done pretty early in life, to be fair.

Fitzroy: And then simply got on with his career expounding the word with dedication and vigour. Precisely my point earlier about our arrangements regarding dying and living. We go about things the wrong way round. Back to front. Preposterous.

Darwin: Curious how vivid etymologies can become posthumously, isn’t it? I wonder why.

Fitzroy: Digging out dead meanings with a pen. Like digging out dead bodies with a spade. Or maybe it’s simply something to do with the candle going out at both ends. Snuffing it. Popping one’s clogs. Kicking the bucket.

Darwin: Going back to where we were before, the way etymologies return upon their own deceased meanings. Wasn’t Jesus something of a special case, Fitz?

Fitzroy: We are all the children of God, surely.

Darwin: I thought you said you were the offspring of a blind idiot called Nature.

Fitzroy: I haven’t exactly resolved that matter fully in my mind. Have you, Charlie? Well, have you now? Self-immolation does seem so very decisive, and yet I sometimes think it amounts to no more than a postponement of decisions.

Darwin: Hush. I hear the approach of the living.

Fitzroy: Why hush? They can’t hear us, after all. The dead, who know almost everything that’s ever been known, are no more than deaf mutes in this culture. Mummers in a graveyard at midnight.

Darwin: No, but I like to hear what they’re saying.

[The sound of a curator of Down House entering the room with a few visitors. She is evidently giving them a guided tour.]

Guide: And this is the study where so many of his great works were written. This is where one of the mightiest minds that ever dwelt here among us explained who we really were, and where we actually came from. I have been here for years and yet I still cannot enter this room without a curious sensation. It’s not a very Darwinian thing to say, I know, [she laughs a little nervously] but I think his spirit is still here. Sometimes I feel it, almost like a breath on my skin.

Darwin: Let me show you why she feels that, Fitz.

[The sound of Darwin’s footsteps crossing the floor of his study. He creeps up behind the Guide, and blows on her neck.]

Darwin: Whhhhhhhh …

Guide: Oh.

Visitor: Are you all right?

Guide: Absolutely fine. As I said, the presence I feel here, Darwin’s aura, seems to make itself almost palpable sometimes.

Fitzroy: You’re a naughty boy, Charlie. Blowing on the necks of young female guides. Does she always wear such a low neck, or is that dress especially for your little posthumous encounters? What would Emma say, I wonder?

Darwin: She would say: Don’t. But she has been translated to heaven, where such distractions no longer count for much.

Fitzroy: So where are we, then?

Darwin: Good question. I’ve often asked myself that. I think it might be a sort of historical limbo, where judgment is suspended until the teleological investigations are complete.

Fitzroy: How did you do that, out of interest?

Darwin: What?

Fitzroy: Make her feel your breath upon her neck?

Darwin: It’s not my breath. That’s what I suspect anyway. It seems to come from some time earlier. Much earlier. It passed through me once while I was alive, and it can still pass through me now that I’m not.

Fitzroy: So which of your books did you mention that in, out of interest? I daresay it is the same spirit that moved over the waters. Ruah in Hebrew; pneuma in Latin. The breath that brought us life in the first place and that still animates us now that we are merely a vestige of our former selves. Shades in Dante’s Inferno could weep, though you would have thought all the salt had gone out of them. Like the salt of the oceans in my dreams. A vestige. If the salt should lose its savour, then there’d be no more shortage of drinking water.

Darwin: Vestigium Darwini. I named a dolphin after you, remember. Delphinius Fitzroyi.

Fitzroy: And I, in reciprocation, named a mountain in Tierra del Fuego after you. Those were the days. Oh my God.

Darwin: What is it?

Fitzroy: At the windows. Look. My Fuegians. My beloved little beasts. Jemmy Buttons. York Minster. Fuegia Basket. Boat Memory.

Darwin: They don’t seem to be smiling, Fitz.

Fitzroy: No. They often come to stare in at me. But like all those dark-skinned women in Gauguin’s paintings … or for that matter, John Everett Millais and Ruskin’s first and only wife Effie, perched on the front row at all of Ruskin’s London lectures, they never do smile. Endless stares, but no smiles. I suppose it’s an accusation.

Darwin: Happen often?

Fitzroy: Often enough. So you can see them, then?

Darwin: Yes I can. Now I wonder why.

Fitzroy: You did actually see them, that’s why. There are actual traces in your mind. Not like the storm, then, where you hid away.

Darwin: I saw them, spoke to them, even laughed with them. And now they’ve gone, as silently as they came. Like ghosts.

Fitzroy: Apart from our little missionaries on board, you do seem to have found the Fuegians utterly loathsome. And pretty interchangeable too, if memory serves. I read your descriptions of them, and was shocked, Charlie. You really didn’t want to know, did you? You seemed to spend far more time observing the individual characteristics of barnacles, or even worms, than you did of these dark-haired souls from a far-away country. I thought I read somewhere that you would have preferred never to have to speak of lower and higher creatures in evolution. But you seemed to find the Fuegians pretty low; not to your taste at all.

Darwin: I did not find the natives easy company, it’s true. I had no place to put them in my mind at the time. The ones onboard I became fond of. But you were the one who would take them to civilization, induct them into Christian ways, then return them so that they could inoculate their own people against the old heathen habits. Even though not one of us spoke a word of Yamana.

Fitzroy: And poor Boat Memory died of smallpox in London. Don’t rub it in. I remember it all well enough. One of the things I saw when I looked in the mirror that last time was their faces. It all still makes me angry. Could there be something of the boat here? I thought I sensed some presence of the boat just then.

Darwin: They have rebuilt our cabin from the Beagle here, so visitors can get a sense of things during those five years we were afloat.

Fitzroy: Did they rebuild the sea as well, while they were at it? Only way anyone would get a sense of things, surely. I saw you going off each day with that rifle of yours, and you’d come back with finches. So many finches. Then Sims Covington became your man. Joined us when he was only fifteen. Listed as: ‘Fiddler and Boy to the Poop Cabin’. Then he became your shooter. All those finches. Struck me as a little odd, to be frank. No one I knew ever tracked off to the heather on the Glorious Fourth to shoot finches.

Darwin: I studied their beaks later. Came to some remarkable conclusions.

Fitzroy: Yes, you came to the conclusion that we could all stop talking about God. And yet it’s odd, you know, but I have the feeling people talk just as much about Him these days as they ever did back then. Add together all the fundamentalist Christians, the fundamentalist Jews, the fundamentalist Muslims, and the old-fashioned fundamentalist fundamentalists, and I reckon there’s still a majority out there in favour of creation, all in one go, and by a God who has nothing whatsoever to do with your natural selection. A God who reads his own Big Book, with a growing conviction that it’s right in every detail.

Darwin [Resignedly]: I suspect you may well be right, Fitz. The other day there were a couple of men here, and when the Guide left them alone, they spoke of torching the place. Just as a little gesture, no more. A bit late for that, I’d have thought, but better than nothing, I suppose, from their point of view.

Fitzroy: Were they Christians, Muslims or Jews?

Darwin: Didn’t notice. Does it matter?

Primate Skull: They were creationists. Deniers of time. In love with the legend of their own unique fashioning.

Fitzroy: Did that skull over there just speak?

Darwin: Yes.

Fitzroy: What is it?

Darwin: A primate.

Fitzroy: Do they normally speak?

Darwin: Not normally, no. But we spend a great deal of time together. I thought I’d try a little experiment. And it worked.

Fitzroy: So not only have you written evolutionary history; you have now taken to re-writing it too. You do realise that the young man I gave you as your servant, taxidermist, classifier, shooter …

Darwin: He was a very good shot. So good he was soon bagging all my Galapagos finches, not to mention everything else …

Fitzroy: … did so much shooting he was damn nearly deaf by the time we got home. Seemed as though you wanted to take the whole sky back with you.

Darwin: I never even thought of it. Kept him in my service for some years after. I think that shows good will, at least.

Fitzroy: I don’t remember the Almighty making anyone deaf in His version of events.

Darwin: He did wipe out his whole creation bar one family in the sixth chapter of Genesis.

Fitzroy: True. But then you yourself always argued extinction was a great motor of evolution.

Darwin: Fair point. On the other hand, natural selection never wrote a decalogue. It never set about justifying itself to man.

[Long pause. Sound of mighty waves in the distance.]

Fitzroy: Does he say much?

Darwin: Who?

Fitzroy: The primate skull.

Darwin: He sings sometimes.

Fitzroy: Any good?

Darwin: Doubt he’ll have them queuing outside the Hackney Empire.

Fitzroy: I suppose he could always audition for the part of Yorick.

Primate Skull: Oh, very droll, I’m sure. Don’t trouble yourself about my feelings, after all these millions of years.

Fitzroy: How do you find history, as opposed to pre-history? I suppose the telecommunications weren’t nearly as good back then?

Primate Skull: You’re wrong, and presumptuous. All our communications were telecommunications in those days.

Fitzroy: What’s that supposed to mean?

Primate Skull: All further messages ended for today. System now closing down until further notice.

Fitzroy: Charlie, what did he mean by that remark?

Darwin: Not sure, to be honest. He often says something similar. He can be very cryptic at times. He could be being etymological, I suppose, since all we dead appear to share that particular obsession. In which case … telecommunications, let me think: sending meanings from afar. Which I suppose is what he’s doing now, in temporal terms. Or maybe he just means that all their communications travelled at the speed of light back in his day.

Fitzroy: How so?

Darwin: Something to do with instinct and simultaneity. Instincts move more swiftly, far more swiftly, than ratiocination. And they are always purposive, sometimes lethally so.

Fitzroy: Odd how often I find myself agreeing with you about so many things. When we set out on that fateful voyage of ours, we were much of a muchness, you and I, in the religious field. You certainly never gave me any impression that you doubted a single word of scripture yourself, even if you hadn’t necessarily paid the same attention to each word as I had. And you were the one destined to be a clergyman, remember, not me. And then one day I saw you staring at all those finches with their different lengths of beak. All laid out on the deck, shot for you by our boy Sims, and I caught a curious look in your eye. Look out of the window now. Can you see that?

Darwin: I can see it, yes. Very clearly. Does take one back, doesn’t it?

Fitzroy: St Paul’s Rocks. Six hundred miles from the coast of Brazil. Look at them. Boobies and terns so unused to predation that we simply stepped in amongst them and clubbed them to death. The men fancied a change of meat that night. And now look: the sharks are arriving to take our fish before we can manage to haul them aboard.

Darwin: The whole of nature is a preying-upon. We beat them with oars and gaffs, but they had no fear, those sharks. I felt fear, but they felt none. But then I’m not as fitted to my environment as they evidently are to theirs.

Fitzroy: You conducted some curious experiments, I seem to recall. You spent hours making a frog walk up and down a glass pane. Why?

Darwin: To observe the creature’s actions on unknown material. Almost free of friction. To see how quickly it adapted itself to its new circumstances.

Fitzroy: And I read somewhere that you once played your bassoon for over an hour to a boxful of worms in your garden.

Darwin: I did.

Fitzroy: Why?

Darwin: To find out if they had any sense of hearing.

Fitzroy: And did they?

Darwin: None whatsoever. Deaf as posts. No reaction at all.

Fitzroy: Perhaps they didn’t think much of your bassoon technique. You were the one who kept troubling yourself about this distinction between the lower creatures and the higher ones. Maybe you were underestimating them. Their aural discrimination, I mean.

Darwin: Can you smell anything now, Fitz?

Fitzroy: No. Never do any more. I suppose it’s a blessing, as often as not. What is it you are catching on the wind?

Darwin: Clove and cinnamon, camphor, peppers. All the smells of the South American forest. And look out of the window there. Anthills twelve feet high. Orchids bigger than a capstan. Birds brighter than the lights on Regent Street at Christmas. Toucans with beaks as red as sunsets. Luminous parrots. Butterflies of a beauty so startling that they would have fitted well in Eden before the Fall. Fitted well and flitted well. Listen: a storm that starts with a sound like a lion’s roar. An anaconda nearly thirty feet in length. Squeeze the life out of anything foolish enough to curl up in the greenery with it. And a moth whose wings formed fearsome Gothic eyes, so as to keep its predators at bay. Wondrous.

Fitzroy: And yet you insist, if I have read you correctly, that all this arrives in the form of freakish random mutation that then survives through a statistical grid with no intelligence whatsoever between its interstices. No inheritance of acquired characteristics. No close observation of one insect by another. No noticing that the birds don’t eat that particular one, because it is poisonous and makes them ill. So I’ll copy the patterns on its wings, then they won’t eat me either. Even though I’m actually delicious. None of any of that.

Darwin: None of any of that, I’m afraid, no.

Fitzroy: The outcasts of a blind idiot called Nature. The result of some vast infernal mathematics of mere chance and survival.

Darwin: [Sadly, to himself.] So it would appear, the more you inquire into the matter, disinterestedly. Without any sentimental forethought …

Fitzroy: Now look, Charlie. Quick, so you don’t miss it. Look out there now, Charlie Boy. See your vision of heaven and hell put into practice by the godless nature you bequeathed to us. The crabs along the coastline of Patagonia. I remember them as though it were yesterday. They scratched their way into my sleep, crawled over my dreams each night for a while. Given the dissolution of all chronologies once we enter the grey zone, maybe it is yesterday. Or even today. Though I hope not tonight. Look at them crawling around one another, crawling all over one another. Nature’s mastery. The inheritors of the earth. They probably would have inherited the earth too, had Noah not berthed that Ark of his so expertly on Ararat.

Darwin: A good sailor, evidently. Like yourself, Fitz.

Fitzroy: Captain Fitz. We might have had that much in common, yes. Why I was so keen to find a fragment, just a shard, that might have validated that mighty journey of his in the eyes of modern science. And then we went ashore, remember. Those Patagonian soldiers were not at all keen on you, Charlie. Oh no. Don Carlos Darwin they called you. With the twin pistols stuck in your belt. The ones I made you buy, though you baulked at the expense. Glad enough of them now, weren’t you? Wore them as though you were Butch Cassidy, or perhaps it was the Sundance Kid; I forget. We all seemed equal in Patagonia. They followed you, with that geological hammer of yours, hacking away at ancient bones in the cliff. They reckoned you were some sort of spy. Either sending or receiving secret messages back to England. A rum cove, anyway. Our flycatcher. Our old philosopher. Our hairy Egyptian.

Darwin: Twenty-two chronometers, Fitz. Did you really have to bring twenty-two? There was hardly room for me to sleep in there. I had to pull a drawer out of a cabinet to put my feet in. I had more ticks around me than some primate in the forest.

Primate’s Skull: Do you mind?

Darwin: Sorry. Thoughtless of me. Sorry.

Fitzroy: Exactitude, Charlie. That was the aim, remember. We’d both read our Lyell, after all. We were both avid for the new findings of geology. I simply thought I could add evidence of the Flood to them. We didn’t have any real disagreement when we started out, about searching out all the scientific evidence.

Darwin: Except that I decided at a certain point I would let it take me wherever it led me (it took decades to get there, I grant you) but you were determined it must take us all back to the Garden of Eden. Or at least Noah’s inundation.

Fitzroy: Instead of which it took me back to my house in Norwood, a mirror and a cut-throat razor. The mirror of the sea. The sea and the mirror. Now, either of those would make a good book-title for somebody. Remember the jackass penguin, Charlie? It barked like a dog. Look out there. They seem to be lined up on both sides as though they had entered a museum. Almost as though they were acknowledging us. We the taxonomists, and they the members of each taxon. Look.

Darwin: My tanager.

Fitzroy: Teenager?

Darwin: TANAGER. What a beautiful bird. Flying out of its painting by John Gould. And there’s the Rhea Darwini. Birds that run before they can fly; and afterwards too. Better watch out for that Falklands Fox (canis antacticus). What a sleek and lovely creature. Make it seem almost worthwhile to be a flightless bird, if only to get a good look at it up close. And all the cleoptera. All the colours of the rainbow. The hairy Egyptian loves you all. Look at those iguana. See the dragon’s world from the insect’s point of view, like Gulliver in Brobdingnag. Which giant squid was it that He spoke to you from?

Fitzroy: I think it might have been a giant squid without a name. I would happily have given it yours. Where did Mylodon Darwini end up, out of interest?

Darwin: In the Natural History Museum, under the Directorship of Richard Owen.

Fitzroy: Another old friend, then?

Darwin: For a while, but then it was like you and me all over again.

Fitzroy: Let’s get him in. Talk things over finally, the way you and I have done. I have found it very edifying.

Darwin: Not possible, I fear. To mark my bicentenary they removed his statue from the staircase at the entrance to his museum, and put mine there instead. I gather he is still a little sore about his physical translation.

Fitzroy: Posthumous resentment. What a remarkable species we are. Well, I’ve ended up with a different line on things, anyway. I did have another look at that book of yours before dropping in. And the ending sounds rather more hopeful than that book of His. That one that ended with plagues and volcanoes and threats, I seem to recall. They used to trouble my dreams and often wake me. Those images merged in some way with the Patagonian crabs. But your crescendo sounds—well, how can I put this, Charlie—not far off serene. Listen to your own words if you don’t believe me:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance, which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved. 

You sound postively exultant, my friend. After all these examinations of mass extinctions and a description of Mother Nature that makes her a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and Medea the child-slayer, you sound here as though you’ve discovered the redemptive secret at the heart of it all. The murderous love contained in every lethal garden bug. Beautiful forms inscribed in our mortality.

Darwin: Well, I didn’t want to end the book on a sour note. After all the living all the dying that we’ve had to endure, I thought we might at least celebrate the astonishing variety of so many survivals. The survivors. But hush now. I think the living are coming back once more to visit us. I always love observing the living and their changing forms. Always did.

[Sounds of Guide returning with new visitors.]

Guide: And here’s the study where Charles Darwin thought hard for a quarter of a century, and then wrote down the true history of our origins for the first time. The first time ever. Our world has never been the same since. Now we are free to choose between myth and science. Between telling ourselves stories in the darkness and going out in the bright light of day, so that we might actually examine the evidence. And I have come to believe that his spirit remains here, in some mysterious way. I often seem to sense it.

Fitzroy: I think your girl is awaiting your advance, Charlie. The breath of life.

Primate Skull: You’re in with more than a ghost of a chance there. If I could have my flesh back for an hour, I wouldn’t be so subtle. But at least give her a little blow. It seems to me, she’s gagging for it.

[Sound of Darwin making his way across the floor, till he is once more behind the Guide, and then the sound of him blowing on her neck. A little more exuberantly this time.]

Darwin: Whhhhhhhhhhhh … whhhhhhhhhhhhh …

Guide: Oh. Oh.

Visitor: Are you all right?

Guide: Oh yes. Absolutely. Never been better. It’s a little frisson I often feel in here. On the back of my neck.

Darwin: Does it always feel the same for you?

Guide: No. It’s never quite the same. A little different every time, in fact. I think it might even be evolving …

ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

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