Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Mr. Darwin’s Shooter

by Roger McDonald

“Earthy, economical prose . . . wisdom and subtle understanding . . . Evolution, as Mr. Darwin’s Shooter demonstrates, is driven by forces more nuanced and mysterious than the crude survival of the fittest.” —Walter Kirn, Time

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 384
  • Publication Date February 26, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4356-3
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

From one of Australia’s most acclaimed authors, a dazzling and deeply imagined exploration of ambition, natural marvels, and scientific discovery, and one of history’s most significant crises of faith.

As a boy of thirteen, Syms Covington leaves his home in Bedford and goes to sea, passing into manhood as he sails the world, surveying Patagonia, and losing his virginity in the Pampas. Aboard the HMS Beagle, he enters the service of Charles Darwin as an energetic and precocious fifteen-year-old, and in the course of their voyages together he shoots and collects hundreds of specimens for his “gent,” specimens that become fundamental to the formulation of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Now a crusty, eccentric, near-deaf old man, Covington has settled in Australia and is awaiting the arrival of the first copy of On the Origin of Species. Beset by guilt over participating in a work that will shake the human worldview to its foundations, he nonetheless wonders what part of himself might be reflected in Darwin’s oeuvre. Mr. Darwin’s Shooter captures its time with rare and dazzling skill, evoking an unforgettable—but forgotten—man at a watershed moment in history.


“Engaging . . . Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, [Covington] forces MacCracken to listen to his tale of betrayal. . . . of Darwin’s failure to recognize Covington’s contribution to his work, and of Covington’s concern that Darwin’s project has been, all along, to disprove the existence of God . . . The reader experiences an almost visceral thrill . . . Darwin’s words appear to the contemporary audience with the full weight of revelation they must have held for their first readers. McDonald’s prose is uniformly well turned, and even his minor characters are observed with accuracy and humor . . . fully imagined and imbued with intellectual curiosity.” —Emily Barton, The New York Times Book Review

“Earthy, economical prose . . . wisdom and subtle understanding . . . Evolution, as Mr. Darwin’s Shooter demonstrates, is driven by forces more nuanced and mysterious than the crude survival of the fittest.” —Walter Kirn, Time

“A high-spirited, adventuresome, idiosyncratic ramble through the history of science . . . picaresque . . . earthily poetic . . . McDonald . . . shows a knack not only for a pungent sort of historical reconstruction but also for characters of craggy fragility.” —Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

“Exciting . . . a gripping rendering of Covington’s struggle to reconcile his faith with his contribution to the theory of evolution . . . Mr. McDonald has given this marginal historical figure a life, and what a life it is.” —Gabriella Stern, The Wall Street Journal

“A richly imagined period piece about the conundrums of discovery . . . McDonald deftly explores the uneasy balance between science and belief.” —James Zug, Outside

“The novel is not simply an account of religious disillusionment. Mr. McDonald is a generous, leisurely author who gives the reader a large cast of quirky characters, much peripheral detail, lively action, and a view of nineteenth-century social patterns.” —The Atlantic Monthly

“A near perfect new novel . . . In this latest novel, McDonald has given us a work of distinction that should establish him on this side of the world as a widely read man of letters . . . McDonald’s language is so marvelously taut, his imagery so fresh . . . that in reading him, you feel newly. . . . and maybe, for the first time in a long time. . . . pleasant acquainted with unselfish poetry. This writer is supremely generous with his gifts. His words don’t aim to dazzle or intimidate. Instead they mean to pull a sensible shape from the murk of received experience and the fertile lacunae of history.” —Norah Vincent, The Boston Globe

“Absorbing . . . McDonald has imagined Covington’s story. More than that, he has devised this shrewd, fiery and powerful character as a kind of human etching plate. Upon it, he has inscribed the shift in the 19th-century English cosmos from the assurances of religion to the painful uncertainties of science . . . vividly rendered . . . McDonald’s compelling writing. . . . he styles his phrases to suggest 9th century rhythms. . . . and his feel for place, for work and for the shaping of scenes help make Mr. Darwin’s Shooter a most distinctive book.” —Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times and Newsday

“From this puzzling shadow of a man, this historical question mark, the Australian writer Roger McDonald has fashioned a full-blooded novel of 19th-century adventure and mystery whose characters and settings are startlingly alive. McDonald . . . emulates the style and tone of Darwin and Covington’s time, but there is nothing of the dry postmodern exercise about Mr. Darwin’s Shooter. As a book of seafaring and exploration, shot through with an undercurrent of philosophical inquiry, it recalls Melville; as an account of an English country boy’s coming of age and success in the wider world, it suggests Dickens; as a euphonious hymn to the beauty and fecundity of creation, it has almost the poetic intensity of William Blake. On all counts, it’s an enthralling read, the kind of book that sweeps you into its world and absorbs you entirely. . . . Like any good novelist. . . . and on the strength of Mr. Darwin’s Shooter he is an extraordinary one. . . . McDonald refuses to take sides between God and science, for the fiction writer’s art requires a little of both . . . In the pages of this novel, so vibrant with the wonders of nature and language, even Charles Darwin can be reconciled with God.” —Andrew O’Hehir, The Washington Post Book World

“McDonald’s novel, wonderfully well written and elegantly structured, offers an intriguing glimpse at the ferment Darwin’s ideas provoked . . . drama aplenty, from an admirably skilled literary craftsman. Mr. Darwin’s Shooter speaks eloquently, through fiction, about a life that deserves more than history has to offer.” —John R. Alden, Philadelphia Inquirer

“Roger McDonald brings Covington to life in such a vivid way that the ink on the page seems mixed with sea brine and blood. From the first page, there is no doubt that this character and his story are in the hands of a strong, thoughtful writer.” —Mary K. Feeney, The Hartford Courant

“McDonald has produced a book that breathes life, with something solid and heart-breaking at is core. Building a convincing life from the fragments of history is never easy, but McDonald has created from broken pieces of the 19th century a living man and a living world. He has also produced a book with the weight and heft of a 19th-century novel . . . This is a book without a shred of postmodern irony. It does not wink at the reader; it does not mock the innocence of 19th-century science or of faith. Syms Covington may be a footnote in Darwin’s text, but in McDonald’s hands the spear carrier with the restless mind and troubled heart springs into splendid, uncompromising life.” —Wendy Orent, The Raleigh News and Observer and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“McDonald has plucked [Covington/his hero] from near anonymity and given him flesh, blood and best of all, a compelling voice.” —Sanford Pinsker, Providence Sunday Journal

“Charles Darwin dramatically changed the course of human history, but the drama of his life story pales next to this vividly imagined rendering of big-hearted Syms Covington, the colorful sailor, hunter, taxidermist and manservant who spent seven years at Darwin’s side collecting the specimens on which the theory of evolution was based . . . McDonald fashions a captivating seafarer’s tale rich in period detail and insight into relations among men. While the real, historical Covington may have been lost in the margins, McDonald’s vigorous incarnation will be difficult to forget.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A spectacular tale of 19th-century exploration and the conflict between science and religion, all based on Charles Darwin’s famous voyage of discovery . . . This is an impressively learned novel . . . But its learning is worn lightly, and the drama never flags. The triumphant characterization of the embattled Syms. . . . a man in whom intellect, appetite, and religious impulse coexist credibly and explosively. . . . is deepened as the story plays increasingly intriguing variations on the concepts of singularity and class both as scientific definition and as a more clumsy way of clarifying human relations. Brilliant work: an Australian novel that merits comparison with Patrick White’s masterpiece, A Fringe of Leaves.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“An impressively researched book, rich in the tangled issues that surround Darwin and his work, especially its shock to Victorian religious sensibilities . . . McDonald lovingly fills his story with the textures and assumptions of 19th-century life . . . a superbly imagined story of a man who embodies the era . . . McDonald constantly surprises. His prose is ebullient, even boisterous, grabbing the reader with language so vivid and original, alternately comic and tragic, that it reads like something out of Dickens. McDonald never falls into a dry historical tone, simply because he refuses to lose the sweaty, angry, sad, violent reality of life. Mr. Darwin’s Shooter is not merely a historical novel. It is a serious novel that happens to take place in a time before our own.” —Michael Sims, Book Page

“Roger McDonald explores the evolution not just of flora and fauna but of friendship and belief . . . a sensuous, provocative adventure.” —Molly Winterbotham, Amazon.com review

“The blazing heart of Australian novelist Roger McDonald’s brilliant Mr. Darwin’s Shooter is this insight: Big ideas produce big emotions . . . memorable and fully imagined . . . a book that seems to be not only about the early 19th century, but of it . . . McDonald’s greatest coup is to convey with perfect clarity the power of faith, the certainty and security that believers like the young Syms drew from their religion in the innocent days before Darwin suggested we might all be unshepherded in the universe. For all but the luckiest of us moderns that simple, unquestioning belief is practically unimaginable. Yet McDonald makes us understand how it felt to have it taken away by the advance of science.” —JoAnn C. Gutin, San Jose Mercury News

“McDonald writes clearly and lyrically, providing a wonderfully clear picture of life on the seas.” —Robin Vidimos, Denver Post

“A disarming novel.” —Jane Manaster, Austin American-Statesman

“Without raising any suspicion of a moral agenda, Roger McDonald accomplishes one of the greatest moral possibilities of fiction. . . . to imaginatively restore the lives that history has left out . . . Covington is the ideal mirror of the loss Western culture suffered when it came against the theory of evolution, and realized the threat to its spiritual life. . . . McDonald reminds us that spiritual exultation and scientific theories have the same origin. . . . in the close and wondering observation of the world around us. I cannot compliment highly enough this subtle, moving, intelligent book. A fascinating choice of subject is developed in a lyrical, original way.” —Amy England, Denver Rocky Mountain News

“McDonald is a passionate writer who loves the tastes and textures of the world, but never loses touch with the shifting tempestuous emotions of his characters. Such attention and imagination naturally beget an original prose style, but it is still surprising and fun to find McDonald so playful and Dickensian in his new book . . . A wild adventure that has something of the verve of Robert Louis Stevenson and the lyricism of Herman Melville.” —Michael Sims, Nashville Scene

“By reimagining this mysterious presence at the side of one of the most important scientists of all time, McDonald has created a dense, remarkably complex character and a life fascinatingly caught between faith and science.” —Jelena Petrovic, Minneapolis City Pages

“Because [McDonald’s] grand theme is woven into a fully written work of fiction. . . . with a meticulously imagined plot and vivid characters, and written in a lovely prose that blends 19th-century English vernacular, Australian dialect, and Melvillean rhythms. . . . it never seems merely schematic or imposed . . . In its combination of picaresque sea adventure and metaphysical inquiry, Mr. Darwin’s Shooter manages to be both an absorbing and a thoughtful book.” —Adam Kirsch, Boston Phoenix Literary Supplement

“A good historical novel is a glorious thing, and Roger McDonald has given us a story worthy of high praise. His fictionalized history of Syms Covington . . . is a novel rich with violent debate . . . exhilarating.” —Kristin Keith, Philadelphia City Paper

“Like Peter Carey with his rollicking challenge to the Dickensian map of the moral world in Jack Maggs, McDonald has profited handsomely from the fertile new territories open to novelists . . . McDonald’s book expands its lungs and shouts out a song in praise of human diversity and spirit.” —The Courier-Mail

“A work of astounding originality and skill [which] should deliver McDonald, finally, to the world literary stage . . . It is testimony to McDonald’s skills that Covington is dredged from history with such vibrancy and gusto.” —Sydney Sun-Herald

“Eloquent . . . you feel yourself always to be in the presence and the grip of an innovative, powerfully poetic imagination . . . an unerring touch and a witty, ebullient prose effortlessly carry a great density of idea and implication.” —Brian Matthews, The Weekend Australian

“The philosopher Daniel Dennett has described evolution as a ‘universal acid’: an idea so devastating in its implications that it cuts through almost every traditional concept, altering our understanding of the world, its origins and our place in it so profoundly that the world view it leaves in its wake is barely recognizable . . . It is precisely this corrosive power that preoccupies Roger McDonald’s Mr. Darwin’s Shooter [and] it is McDonald’s great achievement to see past this chilly vision to the beginnings of something deeper . . . the novel’s manifest strengths are many: its richness of character and allegorical power; the meticulous research; the deep, almost organic tensility and power the language achieves.” —The Australian Review of Books

“Roger McDonald’s most ambitious book so far, and the most satisfying . . . captivating . . . the accomplished work of a skilled writer . . . richly-textured . . . In short, Mr. Darwin’s Shooter is a notable achievement.” —Sydney Morning Herald

“Expansive . . . we are in blissfully safe hands with [this] author . . . beautiful . . . We have some first rate biographies of Darwin, we have Stephen Jay Gould to explain evolution to us, and now we have Roger McDonald to give back life, wit and warmth to an otherwise dry scientific story.” —Mark Thomas, Canberra Times

“Invigorating . . . wonderfully successful in making us feel the 19th century in prose as knotty as his main character . . . In its re-creation of that past, its drawing of character and its exploration of the evolution of faith for a modern age, Mr. Darwin’s Shooter is both an engaging and an impressive achievement.” —Adelaide Advertiser

“It is through a poet’s eye. . . . as acute as that of the world’s famous naturalist. . . . that his characters and their environments evolve, detail by detail; brought to life as skillfully as if by nature itself.” —Who

“The complexity of Covington ferries the book: his imperial energy and piety, his animal grasp of women, his good humor and cantankerousness, his docility as a servant and his raw mercenary ambition . . . Mr Darwin’s Shooter surpasses the contemporary Australian novels addressing the last century that I have read, in amplitude, depth and humor. It rings with the tones of Stevenson, Melville and Doctorow, which, to my mind, is high praise indeed.” —Jack Hibberd, The Age (Melbourne)

“A monumental novel about journeys, both personal and physical, while one unique man struggles to make sense of creation and a reason for being.” —Carolyn Gilpin, The Herald Sun

“Has the virtues of poetry’s concentration of focus and suggestion of wider meanings . . . The novelist can do what the biographer often longs to do, which is to get inside the subject’s mind and body with the freedom of imagination. Covington’s character is like a fist, which can injure a man’s jaw yet hold, without crushing, the tiny body of a finch, and caress the strings of his fiddle.” —Geoffrey Dutton, Australian Book Review

“Rich in drama, personal observation and humanity . . . Although historically based the novel rings of contemporaneity.” —Murray Waldren, The Weekend Australian

“Powerful . . . extraordinarily successful . . . McDonald lays on his character Covington’s shoulders the weight of the controversy between God’s design and evolution’s chance accommodation . . . Apparently rough, nonchalant, and yet close-honed, McDonald’s language pitches us into Covington’s sensations . . . In this fierce and fascinating novel Darwin is obscured, Covington revealed. McDonald thus pays tribute to unknown makers of modern Australia and, though fiction, seeks to contribute to its history.” —Gillian Beer, The Guardian

“The notion of chance as a branching tree instead of a linear progress; a new sense of the interdependence of organism and environment, the impersonal pattern that might underlie society’s customs: Darwinism was a fount of new stories, not just the theory that destroyed Genesis . . . a sustained piece of imagining . . . beautifully observed. McDonald is richly alert . . . This is a lavish, rich novel in an idiosyncratic countryman’s voice, thickened with metaphor. In this Eden, Darwin plants ‘the seeds of dismay.’ The novel ends as a sympathetic lament for the world we have lost.” —Francis Spufford, The Independent

“Gripping . . . unworldly and rather beautiful . . . McDonald creates an absorbing and moving portrait of a Prospero and a Caliban . . . [Covington’s] devastation has the weight of tragedy . . . There is something of Conrad in Roger McDonald’s tortuously elegant prose and old-fashioned concern with morality and belief.” —Jeremy Gavron, The Times Literary Supplement

“Historically, Covington is a shadowy figure: here he is physically and spiritually substantial . . . Mr. Darwin’s Shooter is written in a craggy, vivid prose that excels at evoking physical sensation . . . carefully crafted.” —David Grylls, Sunday Times

“A story too good to give away: beautifully written and meticulously researched, with intertwining subplots of love, friendship and betrayal.” —Time Out (London)

“Vividly described, generating a sense of the excitement that must have greeted each new find . . . a richly detailed narrative . . . wholly engaging . . . With Mr. Darwin’s Shooter, Roger McDonald has done both [Syms Covington] and us a valuable service.” —Nicola Walker, Literary Review (London)

“Sinewy, poetic prose . . . Places are vivid, and even marginal figures are strikingly well-drawn, so that Darwin’s research into the natural order is set within a richly detailed social order . . . Mr. Darwin’s Shooter is a persuasive argument for history with a (fictional) human face. The challenged posed by Darwin’s theory of evolution to the spiritual values of his day could hardly be more tellingly evoked . . . A stirring reminder that the Beagle sailed on a voyage into the unknown, and that beliefs now central to the way we see the world were once almost beyond imagination.” —Ian Brunskilt, The Times


Chapter One—1828

The day was hot and dusty with scattered leaves of poplars lining a towpath. A boy went swimming in green canal water, rolling himself belly-over, gulping and thrashing in pleasure. He beat the slowly moving water with the flat of his hand and floating facedown blew noisy bubbles.

Syms Covington was naked as a bulb, white and hairless except for a slicked-down tuft of red curls across the dome of his conspicuous head. At twelve years of age he was sturdy as a man and soon would become one, stretching in his bones until he reached a height of just six feet, and getting a strength across his shoulders and in his arms like a house beam squared from timber. Yet when Covington floated on his back between corridors of puffy summer clouds he felt small as a flea, and imagined he looked down on the earth. It made a field of blue for him to hop around in.

He laughed and squeaked, never minding how cold the water was, and went swimming any time of year to win wagers or for the joy of it alone. Other times he took bread and cheese in a sack and wandered the fields. On summer nights he slept with a stone for his pillow like Jacob, waking in the moonlight and hearing a badger grunt and watching a hare strip bark from a sapling. He fought his fears on such nights and saw them come to nothing in the early light.

When he reached the gates of the lock he could hear water trickling far below. It came from a dark door. There were times when Covington had swum below that door and thought of the weight of water above him. He knew the gates were held by iron bars, ratchets, cogs, and by oakwood planks. But all the same, what if the weight of water broke them? When he thought about that he saw himself on the surface of the water, shooting away like a leaf, and his illusion of floating in the sky vanished. Then he knew the feeling of being tested against eternal punishment and knowing he was loved.

Upstream Covington began his play again, heading back to where two bundles of clothes awaited him on the bank, one bloodstained and filthy, the second lot as clean as hard scrubbing and hanging in the sun could make them. The canal became a river at that place, with willows trailing their branches and a water rat making a spline of ripples. It was a place to be cleansed of stains, except the boy had been in the water a good half hour and his forearms were still sticky with blood and flecks of fatty meat. He grabbed a handful of clay and scrubbed himself. He started singing. While he stood there, balancing in the mire, a man got up from under a tree near the lock-keeper’s cottage and walked along the towpath.

The man wore a soft sailor’s cap with curly black hair poking from underneath, and a red waist-jacket leaving his ribs bare in the heat. He was past thirty years of age, short of stature, with a rounded black beard composed of tight corkscrew curls. His sunken eyes were feverish, his red lips parched, and when he swallowed a prominent Adam’s apple travelled up and down. He carried his belongings in a sailorman’s sack hung over his shoulder, and when he reached a narrow bridge that was barely more than a plank with a handrail, he shifted the sack to the other shoulder and walked the plank with an assertive and derisive gait, giving a few hard bounces along its length. From there he watched Covington amusing himself. Daubing and daydreaming the boy sang `Barley Mow’ in a sweet soprano as clear as any girl’s, and this was remarkable because the sailor, whose name was John Phipps, had been thinking the boy looked like a shaved pig, and in the purity of the outburst asked God’s forgiveness for such thoughts and said a prayer for the impressment of souls.

All that Saturday afternoon Covington had helped his father and brothers, hauling horsemeat from a wagon sticky with flies and chopping it into portions on a market table. His Pa was a Bedford butcher wielding a long knife and bringing unwanted carthorses to their knees in a welter of blood and callous humour. After the markets the boy did the scrubbing-down with a stiff broom and a tub of soapy water. He had smiling narrow eyes, dusty blue in colour, high cheekbones and a wide generous mouth. His nose was aquiline, his nostrils slightly flared, and the bones of his forehead were like a shield. When asked why he laboured with no pay when he slaved all week, a clerk in a leather-merchant’s house, he brushed curls from his forehead and gave a shrug:

“Say the broom makes a good sound hitting the bristles against the stone. Say I feel like I’m drumming and making music for ‘un.’”

Covington’s brothers and Pa at the end of their Saturday labours sank pots of dark ale, giving themselves winking blades of foam up their cheekbones. They earned them, in the boy’s honest estimation.

“My boy,” said his Pa in return admiration, “is a true old-time Covington, the most willing soul that ever lived.”

The steamy-breathed old man had bristly eyebrows flying back over his forehead, and prominent front teeth showing yellow and flat when he drew his lips back. Standing in his blood-brown boots he rocked back and forth as if hammered to the ground and twanging slightly with the force of his opinions.

He liked to call his son over and hold his head back in a playful grip, trickling bitter ale into his mouth and down his chin. Their people, he liked to boast, were Bedford notables in the time of Oliver Cromwell and their line went back past 1199, when they owned half a virgate of land. “Of all the children of my bowels, Simon is the one that God has chosen to better his self, and lucky for us and ours.” His brothers passed the boy the ale-pot in the same rough animal-play. After drinking it down companionably, and staggering around to make them laugh, Covington returned to his sweeping with a light head. The others stood in shabby doorways with their shirt collars open, their belts loosened and slippery leather laces dangling. They were ready to kick their boots off and go crawling in a corner when they were too drunk to stand. But it would be a good long while before they were felled. Something about the Covingtons recalled animals associated with primitive man. The barely domesticated. Those spirits to the end. Say bullocks with clear foreheads and curly scruffs of hair from the ancient cave paintings of Spain and France—they were found in their lifetime—or strong-necked ponies from the same smoky walls, ten or twenty or thirty thousand years ago, pale-eyed and bristly-maned in the dawn of the roping, the taming, and the hard use of innocence in the aims of civilisation. Covington would one day think so, anyway. They were dirty-fisted hard-working men given to their pipes, their ale, their loud opinions—likewise to their routines of sudden mayhem, sharp knives, rolled back horses’ eyes and clattering hooves. Being horse-butchers they were lower-placed than those who dealt with finished hides. But Covington never felt shame and pity for them, for while they were mired in blood they remembered they had souls, and Covington was of them truly—except that if he was to spend his whole life around them he would never find what he wanted.

In the deepest part of himself he knew what that was, and it meant setting off on a journey. A story tingled his arms to the fingertips and shook his shanks down to his toes with anxiety and restlessness. It was the Pilgrim’s Progress that belonged to their town and countryside, telling of a sally away from Bedford in a great undertaking. It was all about walking and peering and finding, coming out from behind trees and passing down narrow rocky paths into darkness and light. It was all a great test for goodness of heart. Obstacles were to be met, most horrendous, and there were dangers of falling into an abyss. Black rivers were to be crossed. Vain and foolish strangers were to be put to rights.

John Bunyan’s book was devotional reading in the house in Mill Lane from the time they were small. It cleansed them just to think of it. In Bedford and the nearby countryside you would think the very air breathed was old John Bunyan’s. The long, sky-wide quality of the light and the feel of the chalk and clay came from Bunyan’s pages. Likewise the water meadows and the winter floods, they all squelched and trickled with his words. Bunyan was preached without cease in their chapel and his language, whether imbued with ale or milkmaid’s curds, always had the taste of the countryside and its pleasures and pitfalls in it:

The next was a dish of milk well-crumbed. But Gaius said, Let the boys have that, that they may grow thereby.

None of them took it quite as Covington did, with the seriousness of a promise and a passion of loyalty in his bones. At the age he was he regretted how all the great wars had finished when he was too young to fight them. He wished that monster Napoleon who’d been imprisoned on St Helena Island had lived to old age and given him the chance to stand in arms against him, the way Christian in Bunyan’s pages had stood against Apollyon, who had scales like a fish, wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of whose belly came fire and smoke. Death was not to be feared in such a spirit except in failure, and if Covington succeeded it would be a greatness overcoming all. He would be a boy hero like those at Trafalgar and stand on a splintering deck risking his life with every thump of a gun. Or he would advance with a bayonet, impaling native heads. He would rise in worth and join with the chosen of England—although, as John Bunyan put it, “not at the first, nor second, nor third, nor fourth, nor fifth, no nor at the sixth time neither.” Because if you had a strong pull in any path of life then obstacles came at you to greet you.

His earliest memories were not of his mother nurturing him, hut of a man with golden curls. His name was Christian. He had rosy cheeks and wore a raspberry-red jacket with gold buttons. The light shone through him by day, while at night his colours went dead as mud. On Sunday mornings he flew soaring over a stile and simultaneously looked back over his shoulder and met Covington’s gaze with the bottle-brown of a single eye. He made a beckoning gesture with a crooked finger: “Follow me.” He was made from coloured glass in a window setting, but the boy didn’t know that, in his earliest conjecturing of the world, in which everything past the reach of his arms, whether a tree, a horse, a blackbird, or a river, had an existence equal to his own. Christian fairly gave off heat from his raiment when the sun shone through him. He was like one of Covington’s brothers dyed in red and always running away; and grand in the mood of his Pa and brothers when the boy liked them best, as they grinned and tossed him in the air, and caught him roughly. He wanted Covington to follow him to the Celestial City that shone from a cloud farther on. It could have been London, that city, for most had never been to London to know any difference; London, where the buildings were sculpted in gold and shone with celestial ice.

Covington as a small boy felt happy inside the chapel where Christian strode in stained glass. Everything was newly made there, planed and nailed by sincere English carpenters and plastered by English artisans. It was done in the spirit of realness yet formed an other-world for Covingtons to take inside themselves, just as surely as if they had swallowed the mysteries of the Hindoo. A smell of freshness filled the boy’s nostrils. He sniffed the grass under Christian’s heels and heard the gurgling of a stream lined with buttercups, which Christian would leap next after he cleared the stile. That jump was said to be near Elstow, where Covington had often sat sucking a grass-stem and looking at clouds. He was able to hear the Elstow bullock low down in the next field as it challenged the smiling man; it made a grunting noise in the field—a sound that Covington made in the back of his throat, first being the bullock, then being himself butting the bullock in imagination and getting his first taste of joy from a fair fight.

“Come along and be quick about it,” Christian seemed to say, even before there were any words in Covington’s head or ability in his legs to jump along to a command. Fixed in his blood from that earliest time was a readiness to respond to a beckoning gesture; and later, when that gesture was not offered, to boldly seek it and be sure it was made.

In the next part of memory Covington’s mother let go of him and the man reached down and pulled him up into the wall. The congregation sang a hymn:

He that is down needs fear no fall,
He that is low, no pride;
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his Guide.

The sailor stood on the footbridge overlooking the canal and stared at Covington in the water. Whether he looked with interest or just gazed in that direction like a blackbird with quick, sharp, alert-headed movements was of little account to Covington, who didn’t like it at all. The sailor scratched his ribs under his red waist-jacket. He wore flared canvas trousers, and on his feet were wooden clogs. His hairy shins showed bare. The sun glittered on the water and blinded him. He put a hand to his round beard and bunched it in his fist, giving it a twirl. Though it was the dress of a sailor he wore, the canal was far inland from the sea.

Who the man was Covington would learn when he saw him again in autumn, and remember him as if he had been planted in his brain and stored there to ripen. It would be cold by then and John Phipps would wear an overcoat and a cocked hat and call to a crowd under a lime tree with words to twist a rope around Covington’s heart and haul him up from being down:

I am content with what I have,
Little be it, or much:
And Lord, contentment still I crave,
Because thou savest such.

That summer day, however, the man stared into the canal a long time; too long; and Covington made a blurting sound like a wet trumpet to accuse him of foul curiosity. When the man still stared, Covington grabbed himself between the legs and gave a tug and yelled, “I caught a fish, it’s a big ’un, look, see?” Then Covington saw the man tiredly grin and heft his sack of belongings across his shoulder and screwing his eyes against the glare of the sun disappear from sight.

The day emptied except for hens from the lock-keeper’s cottage giving themselves dust baths on the towpath. Covington climbed from the water unpeeling strings of green weed from himself, giving a shake like a dog, then mopping his chest with his clean shirt taken from his bundle that smelled faintly of beeswax from Mrs Hewtson’s understairs cupboard. He dressed and was cool, and was clean enough, too, but still carried the over-sweet fatty odour of the slaughteryard about with him. It would never go away for as long as he lived in his father’s house.

Sunday meant chapel, where Covington sat next to Mrs Hewtson. She was his plump excitable stepmother, a fresh-faced widow and the best friend Covington ever had in the world. His real mother had died leaving him with a memory of sweetness and a green ribbon his father had placed in their Bible. Mrs Hewtson wore her best Sunday bonnet, which Covington told her was pretty, and she said he had better not say that to just any maid, or she would be jealous. She had rosy cheeks, humorous eyes, a teasing kindness and a great devotion in her heart. He played the fool and ground his knuckles into his forehead and dribbled spit from his hanging-open mouth onto the bare dusty boards between his boots. Mrs Hewtson nudged his knee and giggled, offering her bunched handkerchief to wipe his lips, and whispered, “Be serious about you, now.” From a low, sinister angle Covington flashed his pale blue eyes at her, smiled and grunted, going at her with a small jerk of his head just like that bullock. She was very young.

“Stop it,” she squeaked, and the preacher, Mr William Squiggley, paused in his delivery, sending Covington a look of accusation: “What was the last thing I said, Simon Covington?”

“You said that Abraham heard the voice of God and he took his son into the desert.”


“To cut his throat, that’s why.”

“To make of him a sacrifice. And what happened next?”

“You did not say what happened next.”

“That is true,” said the honest Squiggley, who was their printer and bookbinder in his weekday trade, and easy with bad debtors because they were all good Christians and true.

Squiggley continued the story of Abraham and how there was a ram caught in a thicket, and how the life of the animal was taken for that of the boy about to be sacrificed in obedience to God. Covington lifted his eyes to the window-glass where he lived in his thoughts. His Pa dozed, dreaming of Mrs Hewtson’s bezooms that were like jellies in his palms when he woke in the mornings. The brothers, matched each to their future wives in adjoining pews, had the look of dozing horses. Their ears twitched when the preacher’s voice rose, and steadied when he prayed.

Covington raised his hand to answer a question about the boy, Isaac, and how he must feel being released from having his throat cut. He did after all go forth and father the people of Israel, and nobody else seemed to know that. But the preacher wanted no more of him.

Come weekdays Covington sat at a high desk in a leather-merchant’s loft where he copied letters and entered transactions in ledger books. He had none of the scuttling resentment and affronted secrecy of the older clerks, but gave all to his work. He thrust his tongue between his teeth and twisted his body in keen concentration, half-slipping from his stool and balancing himself on his elbows as he wrote, one foot toeing him from the floor.

Cattle hides came to Quentin House from South America packed in bales and tied with hemp. They arrived in barges up the River Ouse and were unloaded at Great Barford. Broken open in the warehouse they were dry as parchment and so hard that being slid out by warehousemen they made the sound of a shovel being scraped on stone. They stank with an odour of dried blood and arrested decay. It was a stink known to Covington before he was ever taken on as a clerk, for it hung about the slaughteryard of his Pa. Thistle-heads squashed flat were often found in the packages, and once a greasy-handled Spanish knife that was passed about and then wired to the wall in the front office as an exhibit denoting the romance of cattle on the estates of La Plata.

It was a great illusion of power, sitting high above the busy town with the economy of leather radiating out from under Covington’s fingertips. Written words, with their dangling tails and spiny longitudinal bones, engrossed him as they flowed from the tip of his nib. He could go all day on a folio of long f’s and deep y’s. Bootmakers, jacketmakers, upholsterers, saddlers—all, down to the man who made leather stops for musical instruments and up again to the one who packed cushions for the royal coach, placed their bids at the auction rooms and came begging Covington’s master for terms to pay, which Covington conveyed back to them in his fine copperplate that he had learned in dame school from the age of seven.

But when he heard his Pa say that his boy would one day rise and stand equal to the Quentin House in money and fame, then Covington felt his stomach shrink. Those Quentins were mean procurers of shoddy advantage. They were Established Church and looked down on Baptists and Congregationalists as less than thistle-weeds. `No mind, they have found you good work, and a lifetime’s employment to keep you away from sticking a knife into gore,’ insisted his Pa. But there were nights when Mrs Hewtson’s sprogs pulled the bedclothes from Covington in their sleep, and he rolled to the floor lying groaning and looking up at the stars through a small breath-fogged window, believing he was always to stay down.

Covington would spit his shame out at his work by grunting like a bullock, extending his leg into the aisle of the office and tripping the messenger boys who came running past. While they were sprawled gathering their wits he took his aim and dipped a chewed-up ball of paper into a dish of ink and sent it flying from the tip of a wooden ruler. He could give a boy a wet black eye and send him howling in confusion and be poised over his next page of invoices before the ruckus began from on high, and a culprit was sought by the overseer. Covington beamed his innocence back in the face of any accusation. Though later there would be a challenge to a fight with bare knuckles along the canal-side, and Covington would find that the boy he chose to bully had great spirit, and wouldn’t give up, and so Covington wouldn’t give up either, and they would fight down to the end, slugging, mauling, damaging, until their skin rubbed raw and they powder-puffed to the finish.

One day late in the year Mr Timothy Quentin, brother of Covington’s master and a man with the manner of an undertaker and with a foul breath besides, asked Covington and six other boys to come with him to his rooms and be given something worthy of their services. The boys jostled to be first in line and the one with his hand out most promptly was Covington. He was given two dull florins and told of an excess of hides on the market. There were just too many cattle on the plains of South America and other houses were stealing the trade. What this had to do with Covington being rewarded he was slow to perceive, and only understood when he walked out of Mr Quentin’s rooms, and found warehousemen stacking the clerks’ stools and desks away. It made no difference that Covington was the one highest-praised. The busy room of boys and penmanship was to be made a storehouse until prices rose, and then the Quentins would have their hides as cheap as anyone. At the prospect they could barely hide their glee.

Carrying a half-eaten apple and a beef bone that was to be his dinner, Covington walked through chilly damp cobbled streets where houses leaned over his head and almost touched. He sat under the bare-limbed lime tree in Bedford town square, blinking around him at the unaccustomed hour of noon and seeing how worry and care seemed to line every face. He wasn’t hungry. A gangling youth walked around calling salted pilchards and an old woman dragged a bucket of slops between her knees and when Covington tried to help she scolded him. What was he to tell his Pa? That his sire’s pride was just a nag to the slaughterhouse, unwanted, without value, scorned? That same morning Covington had whistled and thrown conkers at stray dogs and everyone had seemed to be laughing in the brisk smoky chill. Now faces looked pinched. The same youth returned and called his salt-fish with his head thrown back, shaking his tray, and they were slow to be gone at a ha’penny a clutch. Covington dropped his head between his knees and closed his eyes. He did not know how much time went past. He was in the Vale of Despond.

But there came a sad moaning in the air like a swarm of bees beginning its flight. He listened without raising his head or opening his eyes—only his mind came to attention. Then curiosity overcame him, and he blinked and tipped his cap behind his ears and looked around. It was not bees but the sound of a song coming from a huddle of men in the square. One was the salt-fish boy. On looking closer he saw they were all boys and not much older than Covington himself. They had weatherbeaten long faces and a look of the earth about them, as if they had climbed from sleeping in the ground. He had seen them beforehand, separated from each other, smoking their little clay pipes and scuffing their poor boot-heels in the shiny, overtrodden ground. They had seemed like anyone else he might see that day, resigned to a change in their lives that would never come. Now they formed a line. They had peculiar life in them. Covington’s spirits gave a lift. A man joined them, older than the rest by far, and Covington recognised him with a kind of longing excitement in his heart: he was thin-faced, curly black bearded, and wearing a cocked hat and a sea-captain’s overcoat that swished the tops of his boots when he made his determined stride. He had famished red lips and an excitable smile. One minute he had not been there; the next he sprang from the pavement just a few feet from Covington’s face. “That is my sailor,” thought Covington, “who always goes round staring at a body.” The sailor took out a jew’s harp and sounded a key of C. His companions broke into a shanty:

Brace up the yards and put about
Cut a fine feather and fly
Give her a foot, she’ll go like a witch,
Sail till the seas run dry.

Covington jumped to his feet with a look of bright amazement. “I’ll be in this,” he muttered, and ran with others to where the quintet performed outside the baker’s shop, their arms around each other’s shoulders and their boots kicking right and left. Covington clapped his hands and shouted “Oi!” at the end of every verse:

The King’s commission is all we need
To climb the rollers high
Eternity’s port on the other side,
Sail till the seas run dry.


Sail till the seas run dry.

The baker came out and handed around sweet buns. Covington took one and sank his teeth into it. Then they went around the town venting their chorus on whoever cared to listen, stopping on corners, being handed more food, gathering coins. Covington went with them for a good few hours with all the fascination of a stray dog yelping at the moon. One of his brothers found him, and said they all knew what had happened at the Quentin House. They were sorry. What would he do now? He had not considered that, except that he was doing it, and his brother clapped him on the back, said it would do to warm the day, and let him alone.

In his uncracked soprano, Covington sang as joyfully as anyone, learning the words as he went along, adopting the rolling gait of a sailor and obeying the signals of the leader, John Phipps, the sharp-eyed seaman who at each turn when the boys formed a square raised his arm and fluttered his hand like a flag in the wind, laughing, smiling and encouraging the dance.

More than once Phipps caught Covington’s eye. More than once Covington laughed back at him. John Phipps was a gamecock challenging and strutting.

Then Phipps stopped still and said to Covington directly:

“Do I know you, boy? I think I do. I think I know your heart what’s more.”

Covington dropped his eyes from being known. He felt a nakedness to be covered, and nothing to shield him.

Then the seaman slipped his jew’s harp to his mouth and cupped his hands around it, making a tune that slowed everybody down, and brought them breathing slow and feeling warm and happy into a circle around him. They were back in the town square again. There came a last twang that faded into the silence.

“Be still,” was the meaning of that signal. “Furl your topsails and drop your anchor.” The sailor called for his squadron to kneel and be given a blessing. The crowd that had gathered wrapped its rags around itself and shuffled in a little tighter. They were the poorest of the parish, hungry for dreams, and if they could not have their dreams then toss them a sugar-crusted bun, and if the baker was not inclined to redouble his whim, then give them a pilchard from the fishboy’s basket. Give them something. Even words to chew upon.

John Phipps gave them his sermon. He said he knew a great admiral, and the admiral was Lord of the Fleet. The admiral was one in a thousand and could do many things at once: he could build ships, launch them, serve in them, sharing travail with their sailors, and he could fight with them when dying, leaping from ship to ship and always being there with them. Yes, John Phipps had met him and knew him. Yes, he had fought alongside him as his Lord’s Obedient Servant and had seen him die. And behold in the morning of the third day after the battle-smoke cleared, had seen him with his very own eyes, a man brocaded in gold and wearing a hat like a crown and carrying a book in his hand that was the King’s regulations of truth writ on his lips.

“How can he live when you saw him die?” asked a beggar, with hope.

John Phipps bent down to him.

“Landlubber,” he said, “for the love that he has in his King’s service, he is sure in the world that comes next to have glory for his reward.”

He took a testament from his pocket in the last grey dusk. Resting a foot on the worn roots of the lime tree he struck an easy pose, throwing his coat-tails back. His intensity had a hunger to it, Covington saw. It demanded everything to itself. And when his audience listened, as he bade them to, and only sparrow-chirp and the grind of a passing cartwheel disturbed the silence, the hunger disappeared. Phipps’s feverish eyes and his pained smile gave over to a changed appearance.

He caught Covington’s steady eye watching, and asked, “Ain’t that right, boy? Ain’t that how we can die and live?”

“But isn’t he the King,” Covington asked, “if he can do all them things, jump across water, live again, come back on the third day, and all? Isn’t he the one who rules everything,” and added stoutly, “isn’t he the King of the Jews?”

“A clever boy who exceeds my parable,” said the sailor, putting his arm around Covington’s shoulder, “says my Admiral is Jesus of Nazareth and indeed he is. What an emissary he makes. Yet though he is called King and Master,” (here twisting Covington’s ear with sharp humour) “I call him Admiral. He is the only man whom the Great King on High has authorised to lead the fleet in which any of you may serve. Wherefore take my meaning. Bear in mind my parable lest in your journey you meet with some that pretend to lead you right, but their way goes down to death.”

It was almost dark and Covington’s supper would be on the table. Mrs Hewtson would be sure to whack him on the head with her wooden spoon when he came in. But he lingered and heard the boys say it would soon be time for them to get back to the place where they would spend the night. Though the boys were ready to go, John Phipps flourished his hat and placed it at his feet. A feeling hung about him like smoke. His black curls jiggled on his head like springs being constantly plucked by an invisible hand. He chuckled throatily, excitedly, with a promise in his voice. When speaking of his enemies—the mention of whose names caused his voice to tighten and rise in intensity, and the tip of his pointed Adam’s apple to tremble—he made Covington feel that whoever John Phipps hated, then they were the ones Covington hated, too. Among them were ships’ pursers, weevils, bishops, landlords, hoity clerks and all enemies of the poor and needy, and those who refused pilgrims their barns to sleep in. Also those who drove pilgrims from their natural estates, denying them the animals of the earth to grill in their fires.

“You must hate all of England, then,” said Covington, “if that is the case.”

The sailor turned to Covington again, switching from ferocity to that look of quick good humour that Covington saw in him at their first coming across each other:

“Are my enemies those who lie in sluggish water, and think their sluggish thoughts, and make mockery of heavenly desire by carnal mimicry?”

Covington dropped his chin, feeling whole as a child in the company of this man. “They are my sins, I confess it.”

“Nay,” said the sailor, ruffling Covington’s hair. “Some would call them sins, but I would not—since you own them so freely.” He turned to his boys. “What do you say, lads, shall we have him in our fleet?”

John Phipps’s four adherents all said they would, but it was not their selection that counted, they added, it was the Admiral’s word.

“Well spoken. But I think the Admiral would have him in his fleet any day,” said Phipps. “He has goodwill for boys.”

“Then heave-ho,” said the others, grabbing Covington by the shoulders and frog-marching him ahead of them down the road. With their meeting over they declared their starvation, and broke into a trot. Covington ran with the sailor and his boys through the dark, out on a muddy road past the town and into a barn where they made a fire of sticks. They strung lanterns on beams and roasted potatoes and turnips in the coals. Covington liked the way they did everything with a snap, a rush, and then stretched their legs out before them and smoked their fierce pipes, which they plugged with tobacco handed around in pinches by John Phipps. One of them produced a pullet from his cloak and made ready to despatch it to perdition, only to find John Phipps’s cane across his neck. He asked where he had got the bird, and only allowed him to strangle it when satisfied it was from under a bush near a yeoman’s farm. `I would have you plucked if it came from any deserving poor,’ he said.

With firelight licking their pinched faces the boys told stories of where they were from. All but one belonged in Bedfordshire and neighbouring counties. Like Covington they had been ejected from their workplaces or else had never known anything except wandering the roads. In the right season if they were lucky they dug potatoes, cut willows, and drove turkeys to market for the reward of a few grubby pence. Now they would take their chance on the sea. None of them except Able Seaman John Phipps had ever worked the sea, but it was their sworn intention to do so. Indeed, as Covington soon learned, such was the whole purpose of John Phipps’s preaching–to take boys with him to the ships. It was to cultivate and escort to the naval yards of Britain a clutch of would-be sailors imbued with a parable of Christ which they would live-out in rough waters. For what was a Christian to do except bear witness to his fellow-man, and if driven to extremes bear it alone where there were no spectators, on the perilous deeps. There was no better test than that of a Christian’s mettle. But Phipps was not in a mood to lead his boys to Portsmouth in a hurry and find them Christian commanders, of which he knew several. He first wanted to check they could read their scriptures, and show in their hearts a love of the unseen. Then they would be a power on the four seas, and return home with treasure beyond reckoning.

Covington did not know if he had a love of the unseen.

“It was given to you by nature,” said Phipps.

“What is it, though?”

“It knows you. Pray stick by my side. You and Joey Middleton here, I think you are my prizes.”

Joey had a small, sad and eager face. He had the sniffles and a runny nose, and wiped his upper lip with the back of his hand. John Phipps gave him a woollen comforter from his deep pockets to wrap round his heck and keep himself warm. Joey was eleven years old but looked younger. He was the only one who knew ships, being a West Country boy from Devonport, where his father, he said, was a sailor with red hair. And his mother? She was in that town, too. But that is all he seemed to know, and John Phipps said that he had found him on a scow near Hull, curled up on the deck as if he were chained there. A lean bosun and his wife had taken him in charge. They claimed he was their own, whipped him when they liked, and used him as their lackey or galley slave as they made their way around the coast. They had got so far from Joey’s birthplace that he believed himself to be in another country altogether, where English was barely spoken. And he forgot that he was free, had no conception of prayer, and so was in a fair pickle when John Phipps stole him away and started breathing faith into his bones.

By the flame of a candle the Book was passed around. All stumbled over the words until it came Covington’s and Joey’s turns. The two outshone the rest in a reading of the Prodigal Son. It had a special meaning for Phipps, and they guessed he was estranged in the way of a prodigal himself. It was then everyone’s bedtime and they heaped up the hay. John Phipps would not let Covington stay, but sent him home in the moonlight with a promise that he would call upon his father in the morning at the slaughteryard, and parley about Covington joining his boys.