HM Bark Endeavour, April 12, 1770.
The outcome of a journey of discovery can never be predicted. We find ourselves, therefore, betwixt and between.
The further south we venture, the Pole Star retreats from view. The world is a Bobbin and the North Star its Spindle. In these southern climes I fear that the thread will sever.
Sailing inverted under alien skies and gazing up into that river of stars our vessel seems to have been lifted from its watery road and we be embarked for the Moon itself. In such circumstances we rely upon the rhythms of the day. Time is counted differently on the seas: from midday to midday makes up the 24 hours. It means that what happens today has already been or else it will not happen until tomorrow. Very possibly I am mad to think it.
I was prompted to these thoughts as we sailed west in quest of the southern land which is the substance of my instructions. The transit of Venus was a mere magic lantern show by contrast. The smoke and mirrors of the fairground attraction. The swell of the tides suggests to me that Terra Australis will remain forever incognita. I fear we are on a sleeveless errand.
Putting time and distance between the distressing incidents of our voyage so far does not diminish their lingering effect. It is not possible to forget, besides, when the person of Mr Banks is there daily to assault the sight. Nor can one move without being confronted by specimens, animal and botanical, in various states of preservation. We resemble nothing so much as an ark with all its malodorous humours. Some days I am certain the ship must positively hum.
Mr Banks has contrived it that he occupies the finest space. When he and the Scientific Gentlemen join the officers in a meal it can seem to us mortals that we are honoured with a visit from Olympus. The talk over dinner is necessarily concerned with Azimuths and our progress along the watery roads. Mr Banks and his party are more inclined to dwell upon the philosophical. Thus do we communicate at cross purposes.
‘You were right, sir, to await a favourable swell before we ventured upon the southern seas,’ quoth Mr Molyneux a young man of good parts.
‘Aye, sir,’ opined Lt Hicks, ‘the genteel breezes and the flatness of the sea are welcome after the tumult of the Horn.’
Such tarry talk is insufficient for our scientific friends.
‘Linnaeus writes of the language of flowers,’ Dr Solander informs us. ‘God’s Creation speaks to us in colour and form and perfume if only we may interpret what is being communicated.’
‘Beauty?’ suggested Parkinson mildly.
It was at this moment that his fellow artist Buchan excused himself from the table. Holding his side in the region of the lower ribs he departed the company for his quarters. The look that passed between Mr Monkhouse our surgeon and Mr Banks did not escape me and I determined to sound the bottom of the mystery.
‘Mr Monkhouse, sir,’ I said as the plates were being spirited away to the galley, ‘Perhaps if you would accompany me on deck as I make my rounds.’
‘Now, sir,’ I said in tones calculated not to carry beyond the wheelhouse, ‘I cannot help but notice that Mr Buchan has not been himself since we entered upon these seas.’
To say that Monkhouse was astonished by my words is to express it mildly and it was clear to me that the surgeon was making fine calculations within that great dome of forehead and with a rapidity that could almost be read on the skin.
‘Not himself, sir?’
‘Granted Buchan is a peculiar egg—one might say an odd fish—but I mean to be informed about any developments which may impinge upon our task.’
Even in the gloaming Mr Monkhouse took on a pallor which was notable.
‘Perhaps,’ said Monkhouse, ‘if you were to speak with Mr Banks.’
‘Mr Banks!’ My lips struggled with the reticence I knew was proper to the moment.
Inclining his head, Monkhouse put a kerchief to his mouth and excused himself on the grounds of sudden illness.
The morrow came not a moment too soon.
‘I crave your indulgence, Mr Banks,’ I said when it was finally possible to tear Banks away from his specimens, ‘Regarding Mr Buchan.’
‘An essential member of our company.’ Was Banks seeking to flank me from the outset?
‘He with Parkinson are our recording angels.’
Banks I early noted will take every opportunity to patronise us salty folk.
‘I believe it was Dampier,’ Banks pressed his advantage, ‘who recommended an onboard artist.’
Banks gifted me with a look that I can only describe as sly.
‘Mr Banks, sir,’ I ventured, ‘There are things concerning Mr Buchan I do not understand.’
‘Like the doubter Thomas perhaps,’ Banks smiled infuriatingly, ‘You require the evidence of your own eyes.’
What the deuce did the man mean?
I had Buchan summoned and no sooner had he presented himself than Banks ordered the man to divest himself of his upper garments.
‘There,’ said Banks with evident satisfaction and leaning in to Buchan’s pale body I saw it too. ‘Remarkable, yes?’
‘Are you absolutely certain of it?’ I asked in all earnestness, when Buchan had departed.
‘Only time will tell,’ Banks admitted ‘but Dr Solander and I agree that Mr Buchan is presenting as a man undergoing profound change.’ And here Mr Banks adopted the stance of the thespian as he declaimed: ‘Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade/ But doth suffer a sea-change/ Into something rich and strange. Shakespeare,’ the man appended.
‘I am grateful to be so instructed,’ I said disappointed that I had allowed Banks to burrow like the shipworm under my skin. ‘But it still does not account for the alteration in the man. Fish gills!’
Banks pondered the conundrum with something akin to delight and I understood immediately that to our Soho Square popinjay Buchan is nothing more than another specimen to be catalogued according to Linnaeus and preserved for the future benefit of Science.
‘The enigma is indeed a challenging one,’ he said with relish. ‘Was it something that the man ate in which case why are we not all afflicted? Is it the presence of lead in his paints? Surely Mr Parkinson would display like symptoms. No, it is my considered opinion that we are entering upon regions strange. Terra incognita, if you please.’
My face must have been eloquent of astonishment for Banks pressed on.
‘While explanation remains elusive, it is important, sir, to consider Buchan’s imminent needs.’
‘Presumably, if the change proceeds along a predictable path, he soon will be requiring a tank.’
A Whitby man through and through there was nothing for it but that I should retire for the interim to be alone with my thoughts and a measure of rum. As the drink worked on me my mind was filled with possible places —regions strange, aye, which became places of possibility. What lay ahead? I endured a disturbed sleep.
Next week: Land Ho!