Galápagos Regained, the long anticipated historical epic from F/SF satirist James Morrow, is out this week from St. Martin’s Press. Dramatizing the coming of the Darwinian worldview, Morrow’s loopy saga centers on the irrepressible Chloe Bathurst, a marginally popular Victorian actress who, due to her outspoken political views, loses her job in the spring of 1848 and must seek employment elsewhere.
In Chapter Two, presented here for the pleasure and amusement of Beneath Ceaseless Skies readers, we witness Chloe entering the sphere of the illustrious Charles Darwin (an eminent personage even before he published On the Origin of Species in 1859). We also become privy to the Great God Contest: an outrageous theological competition that will ultimately send our heroine on a madcap journey across the Atlantic Ocean, up the Amazon River, over the Andes Mountains, and along the Humboldt Current to the Galápagos Archipelago.
CHLOE FINDS EMPLOYMENT ON THE ESTATE
OF CHARLES DARWIN, TO THE BENEFIT OF CERTAIN GIANT
TORTOISES, EXOTIC IGUANAS, AND RARE BIRDS
When Chloe first clamped eyes on a Times advertisement indicating that on Sunday afternoon, between the hours of noon and four, a Mrs. Charles Darwin would be entertaining prospective governesses at her husband’s estate in Down, County Kent, she decided to ignore it, having no reason to imagine the meeting should go better than the forty previous such interviews. But then she noticed the final line, SYMPATHY WITH EDUCATIONAL THEORIES OF M. ROUSSEAU DESIRABLE, and her hopes soared, for she’d once auditioned for the part of Sophie in an adaptation of the philosopher’s most acclaimed novel.
On the evidence of Émile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau seemed to believe that amongst every child’s instincts were compassion, curiosity, and a love of adventure. The tutor’s job was to nurture these virtues, forswearing all forms of coercion and restraint. Very well, thought Chloe, if it’s amity Mrs. Darwin wants, I’ll become the most genial governess ever to draw breath in Britain. If freedom is the order of the day, I’ll let her offspring run wild as South Seas savages.
Although her liquidity was at low tide—shake her purse, and you would hear naught but a single farthing clink against a bereaved ha’penny—Chloe straightaway secured the steam train fare in the form of yet another loan from Fanny. Upon arriving at Bromley Station (so ran Chloe’s scheme) she would spare herself the hackney-coach fee by donning her calfskin boots, hoisting her parasol against the afternoon sun, and walking all five miles to Down Village, where she would change into her best clogs prior to the interview. A well-laid plan, to be sure, which proceeded to go spectacularly awry. Detraining, Chloe was thrown off balance by her portmanteau, accidentally wedging her foot between the last step and the station platform, thereby wrenching her ankle. The pain was implacable—knife-sharp when she moved at a normal pace, spasmodic when she shuffled—and, worse yet, a storm now arose, so she was obliged to trek through a downpour against which her little parapluie proved useless. At five o’clock she presented herself at the estate in the sorriest of conditions: cold, wet, muddy, exhausted—and one hour late.
Mrs. Darwin behaved with exemplary graciousness. Ignoring the raindrops cascading from Chloe’s bonnet and sleeves, she ushered her into the drawing-room, a commodious space boasting a bay window offering a panorama of sodden pastureland punctuated by mulberry trees and a Spanish chestnut. Mrs. Darwin proposed to serve her visitor a cup of chamomile. Given her half-frozen state, this offer delighted Chloe, though she accepted it with a studied restraint that she imagined bespoke refinement.
“I apologize for my tardiness,” she said. “Alas, at some point during my railway journey, my purse fell prey to a pickpocket,” she added (knowing that the truth might suggest an inveterate clumsiness), “and so I couldn’t hire a fly. If you and Mr. Darwin are about to have supper, I shall gladly wait here.”
“A pickpocket, Miss Bathurst?” said Mrs. Darwin. “Oh, dear.” She was a sweet-faced woman whose notable aspects included extravagant brown curls, pink cheeks, a pouty lower lip, and a pregnancy of perhaps six months’ duration. “Mr. Darwin and I should be pleased to put you up and provide for your return to London.”
“Am I to infer the other candidates have come and gone?”
“One stayed behind, a Miss Catherine Thorley, to whom I awarded the situation ninety minutes ere you arrived.”
So often had Chloe’s profession required her to sob on cue, she’d forgotten how it felt to weep spontaneously, but now such an episode was upon her, muffled cries breaking from her throat, fat tears welling in her eyes. Mrs. Darwin relieved Chloe of her cup and saucer, then placed a tender hand on her shoulder.
“I shall write to you the instant I learn that one of my relations requires a governess,” said Mrs. Darwin.
As if summoned by the din of Chloe’s despair, a tall gentleman strode into the room bearing a terra-cotta flowerpot covered with a pie plate, his confident carriage marking him as master of the house. Beetle-browed and side-whiskered, with a nose suggesting a small but assertive potato, he was far from handsome, though Chloe found him attractive nonetheless—physically magnetic and also, by the evidence of his kind eyes and warm smile, a person of abiding benevolence.
“There, there, my dear,” he said, observing her tears, “it can’t be as bad as all that,” a banality last spoken to Chloe by her gladiator lover in The Last Days of Pompeii. As articulated by Mr. Darwin, the platitude acquired a certain profundity—and he was right, she decided: it wasn’t as bad as all that. “If you like,” he continued, setting the flowerpot on the piano stool, “I shall lend you a pound or two till you find employment elsewhere.”
“I fear I’ve run short of elsewheres, sir,” said Chloe. “My peers in the theatre have spurned me, and yours is the twenty-first household where I shan’t become governess.”
“Miss Bathurst, meet Mr. Darwin, the county’s most celebrated naturalist and geologist,” said the mistress of Down House. “Charles, this is Miss Bathurst.”
“Charmed,” said Mr. Darwin, then snapped his fingers so emphatically that Chloe half-expected to see a spark. “I have an idea. Tonight, Miss Bathurst, you will sleep in the guest room.”
“The servants’ quarters,” Mrs. Darwin corrected him.
“The servants’ quarters,” he agreed. “After you awaken, exit by way of the veranda, then proceed to the vegetable garden and thence to the rear gate. You will find me up and about, rambling through the thicket and pondering some scientific problem or other. Before our stroll is done I shall have made my proposal, and you will have given me your answer.”
“Good heavens, Charles,” said Mrs. Darwin, pursing her lips in mock exasperation, “it sounds as if you mean to ask for our visitor’s hand in marriage.”
“When a man has so marvelous a creature as you for a wife,” said Mr. Darwin, “he requires no additional brides. You are a harem unto yourself.”
Mrs. Darwin blushed and lowered her head. Her husband issued an affectionate laugh. These people, Chloe surmised, took every imaginable pleasure in each another. Happiness was a hobby that she, too, hoped to pursue one day, but for now she must attend to more practical matters.
Mr. Darwin removed the pie plate from the flowerpot and pointed into the cavity. “Annelids,” he announced.
“Earthworms, Mr. Darwin?” muttered his wife in a world-weary tone, as if crawlers on the piano stool were but one amongst many oddities that accrued to her husband’s profession.
Saying nothing, he flipped back the piano lid. Gaze fixed intently on his worms, he struck the keys with both fists, filling the room with a distressing discordance. “Once again, they make no response.” He assaulted the keys a second time. “Not a wriggle, not a tremor, not a twitch. Yesterday they ignored Master Willy’s flute, the day before that Miss Annie’s tin whistle.”
“Our firstborn son and elder daughter,” Mrs. Darwin explained.
“I daresay, I’ve all but proved that earthworms are deaf.”
“My goodness, that finding must be as significant as Mr. Newton’s universal gravitation—am I right, dear?” said Mrs. Darwin, her lips assuming a wry curve.
“How blithely we underestimate the humble earthworm,” Mr. Darwin persisted. “Were it not for this species’s contributions to soil formation, agriculture would be at a standstill throughout the Empire and the rest of the world.”
Mrs. Darwin now summoned a willowy domestic named Mary, instructing her to find accommodation for Miss Bathurst. The servant bobbed her head deferentially, then guided her charge along a candlelit hall hung with pastoral landscapes, Chloe limping as inconspicuously as her ankle permitted. Suddenly a rambunctious band of children came spilling down the stairs. They brushed past Chloe and marched towards the drawing-room with its earthworms and its doting parents. The tall, serious boy was surely Master William (studiously ignoring his little brother), while the taller, giggling girl was certainly Miss Annie (casting a protective eye on a toddling sister). Near the end of the parade marched a young woman cradling a babe to her bosom, a nursemaid, no doubt, followed by a second lass holding a chalkboard on which she’d written, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” the capital letter A in “Adam” rendered in boldface, the lower-case a in “all” likewise enhanced.
For a fleeting instant Chloe endeavored to despise Miss Catherine Thorley, this person to whom she’d lost the coveted post. Her nemesis had at best eighteen years, exuded an air of rusticity, and evinced no obvious competence to cultivate Rousseauian curiosity in young minds. But then a sudden generosity took hold of Chloe, and she bestowed a smile on Miss Thorley, who smiled back. Blighted by workhouses, crippled by Parliamentary inertia, torn by Chartist unrest, the British nation in 1848 was not exactly Heaven on Earth—and yet by Chloe’s lights Mother Albion always had certain perennial virtues on display, not the least of which was governesses for whom even Adam’s lapse from grace could be turned to pedagogical advantage.
Hopes aloft, senses alive to the melodious larks and sun-soaked sky, Chloe stepped off the veranda and entered the grassy, clover-dotted back lawn of Down House, hobbling past an oval flowerbed bursting with lilies and larkspur. Her ankle felt better, and she moved at a sprightly pace to the brick-walled vegetable garden. Gimping quickly through the arched entrance, she sauntered amidst patches of turnips, rhubarb, and runner beans, then lifted the rear-gate latch and crossed into the wild environs beyond.
True to his prediction, Mr. Darwin had reached the thicket ahead of her. “Welcome to my sandwalk,” he said, indicating a path of pulverized flint mottled along its entire course with medallions of sunlight, flanked on one side by a tangled woodland and on the other by a vacant field. “I laid it out myself, an ellipse fit for every sort of rumination.”
She drew abreast of the scientist, and they proceeded towards a cottage located at the far swerve of the path, Mr. Darwin smoking a cigarette whilst propelling himself forward with his walking-stick. “Down to business,” he said. “Beyond the invertebrates whose deafness I demonstrated yesterday, other species occupy these premises, and they all require care and feeding.”
Chloe cringed. A sour curd congealed in her stomach. She could imagine cultivating Mr. Darwin’s roses or whitewashing the walls of his villa, but she had no desire to become his goose girl, milkmaid, or resident shepherdess. “I grew up in the streets of Wapping. I am ignorant of farm animals.”
“The creatures to whom I allude know nothing of farms.”
He guided her off the sandwalk, past a copse of birch and alder, and from there to a meadow dominated by a fantastical building suggesting an immense hoop-skirt frame. The thing was easily as large as the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, its circular windows arrayed like portholes on a ship, while an exoskeleton of iron girders arced heavenward to support a gleaming glass vault.
“My zoological garden,” Mr. Darwin explained, directing Chloe towards a riveted bronze door, evidently the only entrance.
Stepping into the strange edifice, she heard a chorus of tweets and chirps, even as she beheld a tableau of golden sunflowers and blossoming vines. Her nose, meanwhile, admitted fragrances so numerous and heady—cloying, piquant, tart, lemony, rank—she seemed to be inhaling the olfactory essence of Creation itself. “An aviary, is that what you call it?” she asked, noting the little birds perching on the vines, pecking at the sunflowers, and swooping across the crystalline ceiling.
“A more accurate term would be ‘vivarium.’ This dome is an aviary, herpetorium, and arboretum, all in one.”
“Here be dragons.” Mr. Darwin drew her attention to a sector jammed with granite boulders. A troop of large hideous lizards—some bright yellow, others a sallow gray, all sporting spines, scales, and surly faces—lay on a far rock, absorbing the sun. “Land iguanas from Las Encantadas, an archipelago six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador.” He rapped his knuckles on a firebox surmounted by a cylindrical boiler. Affixed to the curving walls, the attendant iron pipes pursued a loop apparently meant to supply the vivarium with steam heat. “Thanks to our furnace, these lizards suffer our English winters without complaint.”
“Las Encantadas.” Chloe hummed the musical syllables. “So it’s an enchanted place?”
Mr. Darwin nodded and said, “Sailors of long ago thought the islands went drifting magically about the Pacific Ocean when no one was looking.”
He next led Chloe past a palisade of bamboo towards six colossal tortoises: primeval beasts with serpentine necks and plated shells, shambling amidst cactus plants so tall they bid fair to be called trees. The tortoises, too, traced to the Encantadas, he explained. In fact, these animals had given the islands their Spanish name, Galápagos.
“I didn’t know a tortoise could grow so large,” said Chloe.
“Until Man appeared in the Encantadas, these creatures had no natural enemies, and so they were free to become as big and blatant as they wished.”
“How did you acquire such a menagerie?”
“In my youth I joined the company of H.M.S. Beagle on its mission to chart the South American coastline. My duty was to provide the skipper with intellectual companionship, though I was nominally the brig’s naturalist—a position that, as you see, I took rather seriously. Our mockingbirds descend from bonded pairs I brought back from Galápagos, likewise our finches and vermillion flycatchers. The tortoises and iguanas are the very beasts I persuaded Captain Fitzroy to take on board. His officers were forever insisting we cook a specimen or two, but to the man’s credit he wouldn’t hear of it.”
“How did you snare so many birds?”
“Most Galápagos creatures, including those with wings, are tame as lapdogs.” Mr. Darwin guided Chloe to a pond the size of the Adelphi stage. Several varieties of lizard, equal in ugliness to their terrestrial brethren, occupied the limpid depths and surrounding sandstone pylons. “Behold our marine iguanas. Initially I assumed their pond should be topped up with brine, but it happens they also thrive in fresh water. The job will find you helping my gardener, Mr. Kurland, in feeding the reptiles, cultivating the vegetation, providing nesting material for the birds, mucking out the place, and, come winter, supplying the firebox with coal—though your duties will extend to an intangible domain as well. I shall call it ‘affection.’ Mr. Kurland finds little to admire about my zoo. Mrs. Darwin is similarly unmoved. She thinks the tortoises stupid, the lizards grotesque.”
“I shall treat your menagerie most tenderly,” said Chloe.
“It’s the only point on which Mrs. Darwin and I disagree—well, that, and the immortality of the soul.”
“Your wife is a freethinker?”
“Quite the contrary.”
“She keeps exhorting me to join her and Master Willy and Miss Annie for Sunday services at St. Mary’s in the village,” said Mr. Darwin. “Alas, I cannot attend in good conscience. At one point my wife even convinced the Reverend Mr. Heathway to send me personal invitations via rock dove—the parson and I are both pigeon fanciers—but he gave up after my fifth expression of regret.” He rapped his walking-stick against a pylon, prompting its scaled occupant to dive into the pond with a great splash. “It’s settled, then—you shall be my assistant zookeeper!”
“May I assume the position comes with a salary?”
“Forgive my forgetfulness,” said Mr. Darwin, chiding himself with a smile. “Don’t tell Mrs. Darwin, but I mean to pay you what Miss Thorley will receive for tutoring the children, forty pounds every year.”
Forty pounds, mused Chloe. Not enough to redeem Papa, and well below the sixty per annum she’d netted during the Adelphi Company’s halcyon days, but sufficient for staying alive whilst she devised a strategy for growing rich. “At a yearly rate of forty pounds, I shall give your birds and beasts the best Rousseauian education within my competence.”
Mr. Darwin laughed melodically. “Rousseauian, you say? Splendid. We mustn’t corrupt these noble animals with civilization.”
“Rest assured, I shall never equip an iguana with a pocket watch or send him off to work in a textile mill.”
“As for my tortoises—promise me you’ll give them no cigars to smoke, spirits to drink, or waistcoats to wear.”
“You have my solemn word.”
“Miss Bathurst, you are obviously the right woman for the job.”
Later that afternoon she took the steam train back to London and retrieved from 15 Tavistock Street her most precious belongings, including her mother-of-pearl combs, her grandfather’s bayonet, and the gown of burgundy velvet she’d worn as the dauntless Françoise Gauvin in The Raft of the Medusa (she fully intended to return it one day), plus two items that would make splendid gifts for the eldest Darwin children—an Italian snow globe for Master Willy and a French doll representing Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, Little Red Riding Hood, for Miss Annie (both tokens from suitors whose names she’d forgotten). The rooms were deserted, Fanny being at the theatre playing Pirate Mary, so Chloe left a note telling of her new situation as an assistant zookeeper and promising to send ten shillings each month. The irony did not escape her. For the past fourteen weeks Fanny had been meeting the landlord’s bill in toto, and only now, having moved elsewhere, would Chloe be paying her fair share of the rent.
Even after a fortnight of caring for the Down House menagerie, she couldn’t say whether she was indeed the right woman for the job, but one fact was clear—Mr. Kurland, a gnarly wight of acerbic disposition, was ill suited to zookeeping. In his opinion maintaining the vivarium was demeaning work, the brute iguanas and loutish tortoises being ignoble substitutes for the cows and swine he thought he’d been hired to tend, while the birds were but “fiendish little devices through which the Devil contrives to squirt shite upon our heads,” and so he was happy to let Chloe make the vivarium her exclusive domain.
Naturally Kurland never bothered learning the names Mr. Darwin had given his tortoises—but Chloe soon did: Boswell and Johnson from James Isle, Tristan and Isolde from Charles Isle, Perseus and Andromeda from Indefatigable. As for the lizards, they had yet to be christened, and so she set about bestowing biblical names on the aquatic iguanas and literary appellations on their terrestrial brethren, a task she performed with all the joy of Adam bringing taxonomy to Paradise.
The economy of the zoological dome, Chloe soon realized, turned on its elaborate network of passion-flower vines, as well as its soaring stands of prickly-pear cacti. To nurture the vines, she routinely irrigated the soil with well water, thereby underwriting the survival of the tree-dwelling finches and arboreal mockingbirds, who feasted on the fruits and seeds. The cactus plants required little moisture, but she was obliged to spend many hours protecting the roots from moles—an essential task, for the low-hanging fruits were a favorite food of the tortoises, mockingbirds, and ground-dwelling finches. The land iguanas, meanwhile, preferred a menu of sunflowers, bluebells, and daisies, which she dutifully cultivated throughout the southwest sector.
Although the marine iguanas eagerly consumed the kelp that thrived in the vivarium’s pond, under Chloe’s administration they learned to appreciate whatever produce the Down House cook, Mrs. Davis, whom everyone called Daydy, had deemed unfit owing to spoilage. To augment the tortoises’ diet, Chloe again turned to the detritus of Daydy’s kitchen. The carapaced reptiles would eat almost anything, from rotting apples to fish eyes, sausage casings to poultry viscera, though they utterly lacked a predatory instinct, cheerfully ignoring the vermillion flycatchers who perched so trustingly on their heads and shells.
Beyond the Sisyphean task of keeping the zoo free of animal waste, the most unsavory of Chloe’s duties required her to scour the meadows for the remains of whatever hare, hedgehog, or badger the dogs had run to earth that week. Upon locating a carcass, she would put on canvas gloves, then use a tin pail to bear the foul thing and its attendant load of fly eggs to the vivarium. About half of the emergent maggots were consumed by the ground-dwelling birds, while the other half survived to become adult insects, which the flycatchers, true to their name, would snatch on the wing.
And what of Chloe’s promise to form emotional bonds with the zoo’s denizens? In the case of the birds, affection came easily, for she never tired of watching them hopping amongst the passion-flower vines and cactus pads like bejeweled machines wrought by a meticulous wizard. The tortoises likewise charmed her, for they’d become in her imagination a kind of deputation advocating on behalf of all the world’s ungainly and misbegotten creatures. For a full two months she regarded the iguanas with distaste, but then they, too, won her over. Unapologetic in their homeliness, unrepentant in their self-absorption, these dragons seemed to be saying, “Love us for what we are, for we shall never be anything else”—and so she did.
While Chloe looked to the welfare of Mr. Darwin’s reptiles and birds, Miss Thorley did the same for his offspring. Each morning beginning after breakfast, nine-year-old Willy and seven-year-old Annie learned about the world from their industrious governess. At one o’clock Miss Thorley would deliver Willy and Annie to the kitchen employees for a midday meal, after which the youngsters were free to play with their four siblings in the nursery or (if they so chose) assist Miss Bathurst in the vivarium. For Chloe the advantages of having a private staff were many. The arrangement not only reduced her work load, it also provided the reptiles and birds with a surfeit of nurturance—to say nothing of the fact that Willy and Annie were learning valuable lessons in animal husbandry and waste management.
“I’ve always been partial to the name ‘Annie’,” Chloe told Mr. Darwin’s eldest daughter. “In my days as an Adelphi player, I received favorable notices for my interpretation of a pirate called Anne Bonney.”
“You were an actress, Miss Bathurst?” gushed Annie, a child of sunny disposition and luminous intelligence. (She would never be so foolish as to wish for a wicked stepmother.) “How exciting!”
“I trod the boards for nearly nine years, beginning when I was sixteen.” Chloe and Annie were crouched beside the vivarium’s furnace, watching Willy use a garden trowel to remove the ashes from the firebox preparatory to supplying it with fresh coal.
“You played a pirate?” said the boy with uncharacteristic fervor. (He was normally as gloomy as his sister was effervescent.) “I like pirates. Did you ever disembowel anyone?”
“Willy, that’s a horrid question,” said Annie.
“On the stage I’ve skewered many a blackguard, but rarely in real life,” said Chloe, opening the knapsack containing the children’s gifts. “We shall now address a happier topic.” From the sack she produced the snow globe and passed it to Willy. Inside the sphere a comical scarlet Satan lounged on a golden throne. “This is for you, Master William.”
“Is that the Devil himself?” asked Willy, cleaning his sooty hands by rubbing them on a passion-flower leaf. “I love it!” He shook the globe, causing porcelain chips to swirl through the trapped water—the proverbial snowstorm in Hell. “Begone, Lucifer! Willy Darwin has brought you a blizzard!”
“And this is for you, Miss Annie,” said Chloe, retrieving the Red Riding Hood doll and pressing it into the child’s grasp. The doll’s ceramic face—a confluence of ruby lips, apple cheeks, and merry eyes—uncannily mirrored the features of the person in whose possession it now lay.
“She comes all the way from France,” said Chloe. “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge.”
Annie threw her spindly arms about Chloe and kissed her fleetingly on the lips. “Oh, Miss Bathurst, I shall treasure it always. Now if I only had a wolf.”
“Tell Father to whittle you one,” grumbled Willy. “He does whatever you ask of him.”
At this juncture Chloe was tempted to spellbind the children with the lurid and sardonic tale Willy’s snow globe inevitably called to mind, Mr. Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” But then she thought better of the idea, sensing that Mrs. Darwin would not approve, likewise the ghost of Monsieur Rousseau, so instead she simply asked her charges to assist her in dismantling the furnace pipes and purging them of soot.
In time Chloe noted that an irony flourished within the noisy estate she now called home. The Charles Darwin who took such an inordinate interest in earthworms was condemned by certain infirmities to assume the posture of his beloved annelids. Although this horizontality doubtless served well for producing children, it surely frustrated his scientific endeavors (the botany projects he pursued in the potting sheds, the pigeon-breeding experiments he conducted in the backyard cotes, the barnacle dissections he performed in his study). On his worst days he was up and about for only two or three hours, after which, beset by a wracking headache and a high fever, he took to his couch, not far from the basin that, owing to his spells of vomiting, he was obliged to keep at hand, occluded by a Chinese screen.
Not surprisingly, he rarely left the villa. Only once that autumn did he go to London, where he bought a cameo brooch for Mrs. Darwin and attended a meeting of the Geological Society. He much preferred that his colleagues come to him—and come they did. Amongst the illustrious visitors to Down House were the virile young botanist Mr. Joseph Hooker, recently returned from an expedition to the Antarctic, the affable Mr. John Gould, England’s greatest ornithologist, and the crusty Professor Charles Lyell, celebrated throughout Her Majesty’s realm for his Principles of Geology (a book that, as Mr. Darwin remarked to Chloe, “will be favorably impressing its readers even after the mountains for which it so eloquently accounts have turned to dust”). Occasionally the scientific triumvirate of Hooker, Gould, and Lyell spent the night, but usually they made a day trip of it, staying only long enough to partake of an afternoon meal. Because these luncheons normally occurred in the vivarium, Chloe oft-times found herself eavesdropping on the sages’ conversation (understanding but a fraction of what she heard), meanwhile pursuing her zookeeping tasks and supervising the children as they rode about the dome astride the tortoises like sheiks on camels.
Gradually it dawned on her that the master of Down House was no less renowned than Professor Lyell, thanks largely to his book chronicling his journey around the world. When Chloe asked Mr. Darwin if she might peruse The Voyage of the Beagle, he lent her a copy of the third edition. Every night, upon retiring to her little room, she read another chapter. Having scant interest in coral reefs, barrier beaches, silicified trees, sea-slugs, cuttle-fish, or fossil quadrupeds, she skipped the sections treating of these subjects, savoring instead the scenes in which Mr. Darwin held center stage. In his youth he’d been quite the adventurer, galloping with gauchos across the Pampas, hacking his way through a Patagonian jungle seething with hostile Indians, and traversing the Andes on a mule. He’d survived a volcano in Chile, an earthquake in Concepción, and the mountainous seas off Cape Horn, which had nearly capsized his ship.
But the most striking passages in The Voyage of the Beagle were the author’s fiery denunciations of chattel slavery, an institution Chloe herself had come to detest while appearing as the Southern belle Pansy Winslow in Lanterns on the Levee. “On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil,” Mr. Darwin wrote in the final chapter. “I thank God I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings when, passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured.” And then, a paragraph later, “These deeds are done by men who profess to love their neighbors as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that His will be done on Earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty.”
The sacred imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount versus the sordid institution of the Christian slave-trade: so it appeared that Chloe’s employer, like she herself, was attuned to irony—a coincidence she planned to exploit to her father’s advantage. Here we are, sir, the most civilized nation on Earth, sending innocent folk to abominable workhouses, as if they’d deliberately arranged to be poor. One might as well imprison a malaria victim for having the audacity to run a fever. Do you not agree?
She wondered what sum Mr. Darwin might be persuaded to donate to Papa’s deliverance. Certainly not the whole two thousand pounds. (A man will spend that much in acquiring a house but not on assuaging his indignation.) Perhaps she could convince him to part with two hundred. It is beyond your powers to liberate the Brazilian slaves, she would argue, and the American slaves as well, but you can help to save one blameless wretch from death by toil. Contribute to my fund, sir, and God will reward you with your first good night’s sleep in years.
On the twentieth day in April, 1849, Mr. Darwin sponsored at Down House a luncheon of particular import, for this would be his last opportunity to see Mr. Hooker prior to the swashbuckling botanist’s departure on yet another plant collecting adventure. Chloe spent the morning mucking out the zoological dome, while Daydy passed the same interval preparing roasted joints of lamb, plus puréed turnips, stewed spinach, and broiled mushrooms.
Upon their arrival, Mr. Darwin conducted the scientific triumvirate towards the vivarium. Parslow the butler followed with a salver holding ginger biscuits and three bottles of sherry wine. Entering the contrived jungle, Mr. Gould and Professor Lyell acknowledged the children with friendly waves—Master Willy was riding Johnson the tortoise, and Miss Annie had just mounted Isolde—whilst Mr. Hooker, as prepossessing as ever behind his spectacles, favored Chloe with an amiable wink.
Shortly after the guests assumed their places at the linen-draped table, Mr. Gould and Mr. Hooker began conversing about a noxious phenomenon on which the Evening Standard had been reporting for the past four months. It concerned the Percy Bysshe Shelley Society: a band of young, wealthy, sybaritic Oxford graduates who’d recently acquired for their debauches a private manse in the heart of town. Under the guidance of Lord Rupert Woolfenden, the twenty Byssheans were staging at Alastor Hall a competition whereby they would award an immense cash prize of £10,000 to the first scholar, scientist, or theologian who could prove, or disprove, the existence of God.
“What a scandalous project,” said the dour Professor Lyell, who’d evidently not heard of the prize despite its being, in Mr. Hooker’s words, “the talk of all London.”
“I quite agree,” said the roly-poly Mr. Gould, pouring a glass of oloroso. “Though the problem is not without a certain, shall we say, philosophical interest?”
“From my own perusal of the late Mr. Shelley, I infer that he possessed a first-rate mind.” Mr. Hooker availed himself of the amontillado. “True, it was reckless of him to write ‘On the Necessity of Atheism,’ though I feel that, in sending Shelley down for it, the University College officials displayed a decided want of imagination.”
Chloe’s first instinct was to hustle Willy and Annie out of the zoo, lest they learn prematurely there was such a thing as atheism, but she elected to stay, partly because the children seemed oblivious to the scientists’ chatter, but mostly because the phrase “ten thousand pounds” held an intrinsic allure. After settling down beside the iguana pond, she distributed her attention amongst five activities: minding her charges, sipping tea, eating hard-boiled eggs, pretending to read a pamphlet entitled The Fruit Farmer’s Guide to Mole Management, and listening furtively to the gentlemen’s conversation.
“You know what this damnable prize amounts to?” said Lyell, filling his glass with manzanilla. “It’s a ten-thousand-pound bounty on the head of God.”
“Judas got but thirty pieces of silver,” said Hooker in a tone Chloe thought oddly jocular given the seriousness of the subject.
“One might assume that on first principles these Oxford rakehells would skew the competition towards the atheist view,” said Gould, “and yet by the Standard’s account they happily entertain arguments on the Almighty’s behalf.”
“But how do they sort the robust proofs of God from the feeble?” asked Lyell.
“The same way they sort the substantive refutations from the trivial,” said Gould, sipping his wine. “Each contestant makes his case before a panel comprising three Anglican and three freethinking judges. The whole sorry circus convenes every fortnight, with a preselected theist and a corresponding unbeliever traveling to Oxford and presenting their arguments.” The ornithologist clamped a friendly hand on Mr. Darwin’s knee. “Charles, you’ve been strangely silent concerning the Great God Contest. Are you not outraged that these flâneurs would turn theology into a game?”
“Nowadays I make a point of abstaining from outrage,” Mr. Darwin replied. “It’s bad for the digestion. That said, I feel bound to reveal that, were I to conduct the judges about my little zoo, I might very well collect the prize, provided they understood my commentary.”
“I’ll wager I could understand it,” said Hooker, savoring his sherry. “Pray tell, sir, what manner of God proof lurks within your menagerie?”
“Charles has in mind the Argument from Design,” said Lyell. “William Paley’s Natural Theology and all that. No watch without a watchmaker.”
“You misunderstand me, gentlemen,” said Mr. Darwin, biting into a ginger biscuit. “I would win the contest by negating the Deity.”
Somehow Chloe prevented a mouthful of tea from reversing direction and spouting out her nose.
“Piffle,” said Lyell.
“Needless to say, I have no intention of entering the competition,” Mr. Darwin declared. “For one thing, my wife would never hear of it.”
“And for another, you’d be violating your own religious convictions,” said Lyell.
“Up to a point,” said Mr. Darwin with a raffish smile.
“Charles, you hold us on tenterhooks,” said Gould. “Please explain yourself.”
“I cannot explain myself—only God, wherever He may be, can do that—but I shall attempt to explain my theory.” Mr. Darwin brushed biscuit crumbs from his lower lip. “Look about you, gentlemen, and you’ll see the Encantadas replicated on a small scale. A question springs to mind. Why did God treat each Galápagos island as if it were—almost, but not quite—a biologically sovereign realm? Why did He install slim-beaked warbler finches on Albemarle Isle but large-beaked ground finches on Chatham? Why do the tortoises on the northern islands have shells suggesting igloos, whilst the specimens on the southern islands have shells resembling saddles, and the centrally located creatures wear simple sloping shells? What’s more, when we travel to other equatorial archipelagos, why do we meet no reptiles or birds that mirror the Galápagos types?”
“Scintillating questions,” said Gould.
“As an analogy,” said Hooker, “I’ve often wondered why the Kerguelan cabbage, quite the most ridiculous of vegetables, flourishes in the Indian Ocean but nowhere else.”
“Simply because God initially laid down a template for every species, that doesn’t preclude the emergence of variations, even ridiculous variations,” said Lyell. “When I consider how the Almighty built a benign plasticity into the scheme of things, my faith is renewed, not shaken.”
“Spend a moment contemplating three marine iguanas from different Galápagos islands,” Mr. Darwin persisted, “and a conundrum presents itself. So utterly distinctive, these creatures, and yet so fundamentally similar. Miss Bathurst, will you please show us some living illustrations of this mystery?”
Startled to be drawn into the conversation, Chloe dropped the hard-boiled egg she was about to peel. “Certainly, sir,” she said as the egg wobbled away. Gaining her feet, she stretched her arms over the iguana pond like a heathen priestess blessing its waters. “That red aquatic lizard is Jezebel from Hood’s Isle. Note also black Melchior from Tower. Our big multicolored fellow is Shadrack from Narborough.”
“Three separate addresses, three kinds of coloration, utterly distinctive, fundamentally similar,” said Mr. Darwin. “And then one day, following the orbit of my sandwalk, I fell upon an answer. Like every other lizard known to science, the first iguanas to live in Galápagos were strictly terrestrial—but over the ages some colonies found it expedient to inhabit the archipelago’s coastlines, drawing sustenance from the sea. This natural transmutation process continued even after these iguanas became full-blown aquatic creatures, hence our red, black, and multicolored species. A similar story might be told of the three varieties of Galápagos giant tortoise. For example, Miss Bathurst?”
Though once again caught off guard, she rose to the occasion, indicating the nearest tortoise with her index finger. “Domeshelled Boswell from James Isle”—she pivoted and pointed—“saddle-backed Tristan from Charles Isle”—again she pointed—“slope-backed Perseus from Indefatigable.”
“Boswell, Tristan, and Perseus: all reasonably good swimmers and thus arguably sharing an ancestor that, once upon a time, inhabited South America,” said Mr. Darwin. “By riding the Humboldt Current westward from the mainland, one or two small but seaworthy tortoises could have reached the Encantadas, where in time their descendants became huge, for if no other animal regards you as prey, it matters not how conspicuous you appear. I would further hypothesize that our bright yellow, flat-spined terrestrial iguanas, found on a majority of islands, share a South American heritage with our sallow gray, high-spined iguanas, exclusive to Barrington.”
“So your terrestrial iguanas can also swim?” asked Hooker.
“Not very well, but that doesn’t tell against my theory. The ancestors of our land lizards could have traveled from the continent to Galápagos on uprooted trees or floating mats of vegetation.” Mr. Darwin moved his flattened hand up and down as would a raft adrift on ocean waves, then fluttered the fingers of the opposite hand in a pantomime of flight. “Now what of our birds? The anatomical evidence suggests that all four Galápagos mockingbird species sprang from a long-tailed type that flew over from Ecuador or Peru. In the case of our vermillion flycatchers, I believe that during my round-the-world journey I spotted the parent kind on the South American mainland, broader of wing than its Encantadas posterity and gifted with a heartier song. As for my finches, they’re probably all descended from a continental species called the blue-black grassquit.”
“I could provide the judges with stuffed specimens of that very creature,” said Gould, draining his glass. “Not that I would ever make a bid for the Shelley Prize,” he added, so vehemently that Chloe thought perhaps he meant the opposite.
“I’m hearing Buffon’s idea of allied species sharing a pedigree,” said Lyell. “I’m hearing Lamarck’s notion of evolution through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. But neither hypothesis constitutes a disproof of the God of Abraham.”
“Not only do our two species of terrestrial iguana boast an ancestor in common with our aquatic iguanas,” Mr. Darwin continued in a tone of constrained exasperation, “but were you to travel back far enough in time, you would encounter an extinct creature that prefigured every variety of iguana to be found anywhere in the world. These primal lizards shared the Earth with primal turtles, primal snakes, and primal Crocodylia, all of them in turn sprung from a species of cold-blooded, egg-laying, scaly-skinned animal.”
Mr. Gould switched allegiances, oloroso to manzanilla. “An archetypal reptile? How intriguing.”
“Not archetypal, John, nothing so poetic and Platonic as all that,” said Mr. Darwin. “For it happens that our originary reptile in turn traces to a mutable stock of proto-reptiles.”
“So where does it all end?” asked Hooker.
“You mean, ‘Where does it all begin?’ By my lights the natural history of our planet is like a fantastically complex shrub or tree. Follow the twigs, and you’ll come to the branches, that is, to the first types of mammal, reptile, amphibian, and fish. But why stop there? Why not scurry along the branches until we reach the trunk, where we’ll meet the most primitive lineages yet, ancestral insects, crustaceans, mollusks, amoebas, and algae. The journey continues, ever downward, until finally, at the base of the trunk, we come upon a single, seminal form. Need I point out that we’ve long since parted company with Genesis chapter one? And there’s the rub, gentlemen. If God played no role in the cavalcade of life on Earth, from protozoans to primates, it behooves us to wonder why He goes to all the bother of existing.”
“Good heavens, Charles, you really do have a shot at the Shelley Prize,” said Hooker. “If I were an Alastor Hall rakehell, I’d be impressed.”
“My desire to impress those poseurs is nil. Ah, but here comes Parslow. Let us forget my eccentric speculations and enjoy Daydy’s culinary arts.”
The butler entered the vivarium pushing a tea cart laden with the feast. Speaking not a word, he deposited generous portions of lamb and vegetables on each guest’s plate.
“Come, come, Charles, is your Tree of Life really so outlandish an idea?” said Hooker. “Did not your illustrious grandfather Erasmus posit that all warm-blooded creatures arose from a single filament?”
“That estimable savant could describe no mechanism of transmutation,” Mr. Darwin asserted, then added, clucking his tongue, “but I can.”
“So can the Church of England,” said Lyell.
“Tell us about your mechanism,” said Hooker.
“I’d rather not. It’s like confessing a murder.”
“You’re amongst friends,” said Gould. “We’ll help you bury the body.”
“First lunch, then deicide,” said Mr. Darwin.
By Chloe’s reckoning it took the sages a mere thirty minutes to consume a meal that the staff had spent four hours preparing. While the gentlemen ate, the children dutifully amused themselves, Willy ensnaring a cactus plant with the bola his father had brought back from Patagonia, Annie enacting a conversation between her Red Riding Hood doll and its lupine nemesis. (Mr. Darwin had indeed whittled a wolf for his eldest daughter, cloaking it in the dry and scraped pelt of a Derbyshire hare.) No sooner had the sages cleaned their plates than Parslow appeared, carrying a tray of puddings and a bottle of port.
“I’m eager to hear about your momentous crime,” Hooker told the master of Down House, whereupon the butler blanched and hastily withdrew.
“I’ll begin by making a naïve observation,” said Mr. Darwin. “Within any sexually reproducing population, the offspring vary, yes? My Annie, my Henrietta, and my Betty are not duplicates of Mrs. Darwin, nor do they mirror one another. In this phenomenon lies the success of those who seek to improve domestic livestock. Chance provides the breeder with unsolicited novelties that he proceeds to exploit, selecting who shall mate with whom—and thus perpetuating desirable characteristics. And so we get horses faster and stronger than their ancestors, sheep with thicker fleece, and cows of greater fecundity. I contend that, just as a man might produce a superior pig by design, so might Nature craft a better boar by accident.”
“But how, Charles—how?” asked Gould, eating a forkful of apple tart.
“Our planet is forever in flux. Even as we speak, the Earth’s face is changing through natural processes of erosion, sedimentation, and vulcanism. If that canny geologist Lyell were here, he would corroborate me.”
“Pass the cherry tart,” said Lyell with a pained smile.
“From an individual animal’s perspective, every alteration in its environment must be greeted with grave suspicion,” said Mr. Darwin. “Oft-times the creature finds itself standing by helplessly as temperatures plunge, food supplies diminish, plagues appear, and enemies flourish. But occasionally Nature favors an endangered population, gifting a few offspring with characteristics not only fortuitous but fortunate—a luxuriant pelt, equal to the harshest winter; a mighty jaw, stronger than the toughest nut; a hearty constitution, able to survive epidemics; elongated limbs, crucial for outpacing predators. Compared to their cousins, these lucky juveniles are more likely to survive into adulthood, find mates—”
“And pass along the felicitous trait!” interrupted Hooker. “What a pretty hypothesis!”
“Eventually the modification spreads through the population, giving rise to a new variety, type, race, or species,” said Mr. Darwin. “Whilst conducting the judges about my zoo, I would bid them notice the broad, flat tail of Shadrack the marine iguana, essential for propelling him towards his underwater kelp dinner. Did Shadrack’s parents have such an appendage? Most probably, which is why they lived long enough to make Shadrack. His distant round-tailed relations, however, lacked this advantage, and so they lost what the Reverend Thomas Malthus famously called ‘the struggle for existence.’ ”
“I must say, sir—your argument enjoys the merit of logic,” said Gould.
“As did Satan’s presentation to our Savior,” said Lyell. “Forgive me, Charles. I didn’t mean to compare you to the Devil.”
“Nor yourself to Christ, I trust,” said Mr. Darwin.
The geologist scowled, licking cherry juice from his lips.
“What other adaptations would you commend to the judges’ attention?” asked Gould.
“The sturdy beaks of our ground-dwelling finches,” Mr. Darwin replied, “ideal for penetrating the fruits on which they feed. The slim beaks of our warbler finches, perfect for extracting insects from trees. The long bills of our Hood’s Isle mockingbirds, useful for cracking open nutritious booby eggs in their native habitat. The short bills of our Chatham mockingbirds, suited to consuming the palo santo seeds that sustained them back home. Finally, the arched shells of our saddleback tortoises, a modification that enabled them to reach the higher fruits on their beloved Charles Isle cactus plants.”
“Have you committed your theory to paper?” asked Hooker.
Mr. Darwin snapped his fingers in the same emphatic fashion that had heralded his decision to offer Chloe a situation at Down House. “Miss Bathurst, would you please go to my study and rummage about in the desk, left side, lower drawer? You’ll find a sketch of thirty-five pages titled ‘An Essay Concerning Descent with Modification.’ ”
“I’ll fetch it straightaway, sir,” said Chloe, setting down her tea.
“No, I don’t want the sketch. Retrieve what lies beneath—a manuscript called Towards a Theory of Natural Selection. In your absence I shall mind the children.”
“As you might imagine, I have mounds of questions,” said Hooker. “The problem of blending, for example. If a male marine iguana boasting a powerful tail mates with a female of more feeble extension, wouldn’t their offspring inherit mediocre tails?”
“Not to mention the problem of time,” said Lyell. “The drama you’re describing would have taken many millions of years to unfold. Can our planet truly be so ancient? I’m delighted that my book made buttered eggs of Bishop Ussher’s six-thousand-year-old Earth, but really, sir, you’re talking about a considerable slice of eternity.”
“Then there’s the problem of Man,” said Gould. “Are you impish enough to apply this theory to our origins? Yes, Charles, you wily son of a monkey, I believe you are.”
“Excellent questions, all three, and quite possibly fatal to the theory of natural selection,” said Mr. Darwin. “Let me offer my provisional answers.”
Chloe left the zoological dome in a state of frothing frustration, for she greatly desired to know how Mr. Darwin would address the objections raised by the scientific triumvirate. Anyone wishing to claim the Shelley Prize with a disproof of God—herself, for example—must be prepared to speak of blending, time, and Man. This hypothetical contestant could not allow a pious judge to wreck her case by appealing to regressive lizard-tails, a young planet, or a Supreme Being’s decision to bless His favorite creatures with rational intellects.
Of course, she had no intention of simply stealing her employer’s theory. That would be wrong. Also, it might not work. After all, she’d comprehended barely half of what Mr. Darwin had told his guests, so it was likely that, unless she received instruction from the master transmutationist himself, the Anglican judges at Alastor Hall would succeed in befuddling her. No, the ideal scheme would find her traveling to Oxford only after Mr. Darwin had endorsed her project and tutored her in the nuances of his disproof.
Entering the study, she found the manuscript in the specified location, nestled beneath the crumpled, tea-stained, thirty-five-page sketch from which it had descended. She snatched up Towards a Theory of Natural Selection and scurried away, leaving “An Essay Concerning Descent with Modification” in place. By the time she was back in the vivarium, Mr. Darwin had dispensed with blending, time, and Man. Now he was talking about crustaceans.
“That’s right, Joseph. The male of the Chonos Isles barnacle has two organs of procreation.”
“Two?” said Mr. Hooker. “I find it difficult enough maintaining one.”
Catching sight of Chloe, Mr. Darwin cut the conversation short with an embarrassed laugh. “Ah, Miss Bathurst, there you are. Kindly deliver my theory to our botanist.”
She quirked Mr. Hooker a smile and placed the pages in his grasp.
“Impressive,” he said, leafing through the manuscript. “But I shan’t have time to read it ere I embark for India.”
“Take it with you, Joseph,” said Mr. Darwin. “Last month I paid a scrivener to transcribe a fair copy, which I keep under lock and key. I’ve instructed Emma to publish it upon my death. Were you to mislay these pages, I shouldn’t count the loss a tragedy.”
“Nevertheless, I shall endeavor to protect them,” said Hooker.
“Charles, you’ve found a convert,” said Gould.
“I’m scarcely converted,” said Hooker. “Merely curious.”
“Miss Bathurst, I suspect you found our scientific chatter impossibly tedious,” said Mr. Darwin.
“Au contraire, I thought the conversation entrancing,” she said.
“Such a sweet girl you’ve hired, Charles,” said Lyell in a treacly tone. “I’ll wager she’s intelligent, too. I pray you, Miss Bathurst, give us your opinion of this Tree of Life business.”
“May I speak freely, sir?”
“Of course,” said Lyell.
“I think Mr. Darwin’s idea makes a ripping good yarn,” said Chloe, acting the part of a person who understood transmutationism. “As to its truth or falsity, I am not competent to venture a conclusion—but I must say I shan’t ever look at a finch’s beak, a mockingbird’s bill, a tortoise’s shell, or a lizard’s tail in quite the same way again.”
And with that the four gentlemen issued merry guffaws and returned to their pudding, though Professor Lyell laughed last and ate least.