Setting our scene just north of the United States, at the Esquimalt harbor on the Pacific Ocean, where at the time of Mr. Dickens's American tour the English naval flagship H.M.S. Zealous is anchored off Victoria Island, British Columbia. On board, a call for Sydney Dickens, twenty years old, Sub-Lieutenant.

CLEAR LOWER deck, lay aft!

Commander Liddell, captain of the warship Zealous, waited for the sailors and marines to muster in response to the piped command. The captain was a markedly old man, the type who if not in military service would be confined somewhere in bed. He was permanently bent from more than fifty years at sea and it was said some portion of that bending had occurred in the Napoleonic Wars next to Lord Nelson. Whenever asked the current date, Liddell would shout, “eighteen hundred and war!”

Crew assembled, Liddell passed along the instructions of the admiral of their Pacific fleet. The admiral, Liddell said, had heard reports that the Fenian Brotherhood in America had convened secretly in Philadelphia and vowed to try another raid after the one at the Canadian border at Niagara the previous year failed. Admiral Hastings wanted all the Royal Navy ships docked at Esquimalt harbor, but especially the Zealous (as the Pacific flagship), to be on the alert.

When the men were dismissed, one name was ordered to stay behind.

“Sub-Lieutenant Dickens!”

Sydney Dickens, surprised at the call, was informed by the captain's steward that he was to dine with the captain that evening. Descending to his berth with this unexpected invitation on his mind, the sailor passed another sub-lieutenant, a rather gigantic gunnery-mate from Scotland who was called Elephant.

Elephant was known for being a blustering sort and a bully, but he greeted Dickens warmly enough and moved on without harassment. Though both twenty, Elephant could hardly find a way for his stubble to cooperate with the navy's two rules on shaving—that sailors were to be shaved on Thursdays and Sundays and that no sailor was to have a beard or mustache—while Sydney's visits to the ship barber for his shave were a humbling formality. Sub-Lieutenant Dickens, in comical contrast to the other man, was only a twig or two above five feet, though since his promotion to a junior officer he seemed to carry himself with a new dignity. He was accommodating to all the other sailors at all times, to the degree that it could be called a true flaw of character were he in any other line of business. His demeanor was so remarkable that everyone, even the bullies and roughs aboard, alternately liked and made demands on him.

Even Horatio, the ship's pet squirrel, seemed to fancy Sydney Dickens more than any of the others. The squirrel shared mess with all classes of the ship and so was very round in the belly and, making for a strange appearance, had caught his tail in the tiller at one point so that he only had half of it left.

As he had a late watch, Sydney decided to try for sleep, though there was enough in this thoughts to prevent it: not just the invitation from Liddell, but also his latest bills forwarded to him. He shook with fear and uncertainty thinking about them and his knowledge that he could not clear them with the money he had. Horatio had curled next to the officer in his gently rocking hammock. Sydney reached into his sea-chest for his box of beautiful rings and studied them closely. This always calmed him.

It further calmed him to say this to Horatio. “I am Sub-Lieutenant Sydney Dickens of the Royal Navy!” What a fairy tale it would have seemed, if he had been told a year earlier that he would have been able to walk into his father's library at Gadshill after his promotion, garnished with gold on his sleeves, with those words on his lips!

“Capital, capital!” was his father's first response, and it seemed that was the whole degree of his enthusiasm. Later that day, riding in silence in their pony cart around Rochester, Charles Dickens had stopped the cart, pressed Sydney's hand, and said “God bless you, my boy! God bless you!”

When he was just a child, Sydney would sit looking out at the sea when they were on holiday in Broadstairs. His eyes were fixed on the water in a strange, unmoving glare. “Ocean Specter” was the name his father gave him for the habit, but the little boy couldn't say it (“Hoshen Peck!” he'd try gamely), so eventually he was called simply “Little Admiral.” That was not the name his messmates called him, of course. It was around the time his father's novel Great Expectations had been published, that his name among the sailors had changed.

“Little Expectations!”

Horatio leaped over Sydney and scampered out. Sydney looked up from his rings.

“There you are. Is it true you're to have the good grog with the captain tonight?” It was a gunner's-mate, Goodlake.

“Where did you hear it?”

Goodlake waved the point off. “Never mind all that, my dear Little Expectations. It's Ugly Duckling.” Now he changed to a private whisper. “Duckie's gone on shore, and without leave. He has first dog watch—the quartermaster will find out then. He'll get four dozen with the cat-of-nine-tails! You don't think he's deserted for California?”

Sydney considered this and took charge at once. “Poor Duckie. Well, we must help him. Wait for me.” Sub-Lieutenant Dickens, always accommodating to any trouble, particularly to poor Duckie, had a clever idea at once. He requested permission from a superior officer to search for a suspicious person seen when clearing a trail in the woods with a working party. In light of the new warnings about Fenian troops, Sydney explained, he wanted to locate the stranger and ensure it was not one of the Irish agitators.

Heartily approved for his stated mission, Sydney walked up Esquimalt road toward the post office looking for any sign. They had suffered many deserters every time there was news of a new discovery of silver mines in San Francisco or gold in Cariboo. But he knew Duckie would never desert, the navy was his whole life and purpose. As he searched, there was a series of shouts and curses down the road from some passing drivers. Sydney was always a little perplexed when hearing oaths and curses outside the ship. The sailors hurled curses of the ugliest kind quite freely but, unlike landsmen, a sailor even after a single voyage had seen too much to ever blaspheme God.

He found the source of the shouting. There was a man in the telltale blue jacket and white trousers intoxicated and lying in the middle of the road. Sydney dragged him to the side out of the way of passing carriages. Ugly Duckling was the name given to this stringy, awkward sailor who had a face with every feature either protruding too much (his ears, cheeks, chin, tongue) or receding so much as to appear invisible (his eyes, nose, forehead). He had trained his tongue to touch the bottoms of his large ears. Though adopted as a butt of abuse by many on board the Zealous, Sydney tried to look after him. The first time the two sailors had met, after the exchange of only a few trivialities, Duckie had said, “You and I are going to be friends.” That had endeared the other man to Sydney forever.

“Duckie, Duckie, can you hear me? It's Little Expectations. Where have you been?” Duckie was covered in dirt and branches from the dense forest all around Victoria island. Sydney managed to move him toward the ship with Duckie stumbling and staggering on his arm. He noticed at several points Duckie's nose bleeding thickly and tried to stop it with a cotton handkerchief.

“What have you done to yourself?” Sydney asked, sadly reprimanding his oblivious messmate.

Having arranged a signal previously with Goodlake, they timed Duckie's return to the ship and into his hammock in a way to avoid detection. Their system was to tie a hammock-lashing around the port stern-ring, wrap the other end to the inebriated specimen, on whom they also placed a lifebelt in case he fell into the water, and pull him up through the stern port. They would hide him behind the captain's milch cow until they could shuttle him into the berth. Goodlake would make sure Duckie was ready for his watch. By that time, Sydney had to dash to his own hammock and dress to meet the captain.

Before dinner, Commander Liddell offered some of his finer whiskey for his young officer. They spoke of Esquimalt and Victoria Island, which had recently united with another colony, British Columbia, and was expected to do the same within a year or so with the Canadian colonies.

“The leaders of the colony here, Mr. Dickens, do not like that our fleet has been drawing supplies from American vendors, instead of those of Victoria and British Columbia. Politicians, confound 'em all! You understand me.”

“I do, Commander,” said Sydney Dickens, trying hard to. “Politicians...” he echoed doubtfully.

“Agreed entirely! Blasted politicians! There are too many of 'em for such a small scrap of land. If their government could clear these damned forests, they could cultivate more and we'd buy from their farmers instead! Now, I was going to say. Admiral Hastings is being used up about the whole business of procuring American supplies in the local Victoria newspaper. Then the colonists are already warm over the fact that the Fenians could be drawn to our fleet to embarrass the Royal Navy—well, the admiralty needn't add more problems!”

“No, sir. I'd think not.”

“That is why the admiral wanted me to speak to you!” The admiral wanted him to? Had Sydney even met the admiral before? After all, the young officer had been just a midshipman until a few months earlier when he was commissioned an officer. Admiral Hastings and his wife lived on a mansion up the hill from the the harbor where the Zealous was moored. “You see, Sub-Lieutenant, we need a representative on our side to defend our position by writing an article in the newspaper. The admiral needs to persuade the public of Victoria that we have justice on our side of things. We need to set their minds on fire with our words! Admiral Hastings would like you to write this defense—anonymously, of course—signed 'Vindicator.' So, how soon do you think you can have it?”

Dickens. That was all the admiral of the Pacific fleet had known about him, a name, a word, and that was enough. He likely didn't even know Sydney's Christian name, just that he was a Dickens. And now he was expected to turn out a persuasion piece worthy of Luther. How Sydney's father would have twisted his mouth into an absurd expression of displeasure and flattery at this! But it made Sydney feel ill.

The next night after evening drills, when the rest of his messmates danced and sang on deck to the music of the ship's fiddler, and played leap frog across the deck until they could hardly walk, Sydney sat below with a pen and paper in utter torment. He had started and stopped his “Vindicator” article over and over. The frog-leaping resounded in cannon-like booms into his berth.

In despair, Sub-Lieutenant Sydney examined the complete set of Charles Dickens's novels from his sea chest that his father had the publisher sent him the year before when Sydney was still midshipman on the Bristol. It had been with such pride that Sydney received the packet! Now he opened pages arbitrarily as though the mere sight of a particular word chosen by his father in Nicholas Nickleby or Our Mutual Friend would inspire his own.

My daughter,” he read, “there are times of moral danger when the hardest virtuous resolution to form is flight, and when the most heroic bravery is flight.”

At one point, Goodlake interrupted and asked if he would go shooting and fishing the next afternoon. Not Sydney, couldn't think of it, too much writing to do. At another point, Horatio began making horrid noises by Duckie's hammock (where Duckie, still recovering from his expedition on the island, and the realization that he had spent every cent to his name, slept with his mouth wide open and his hands flung over his head). Sydney peeled back the pilot jacket they had put over Duckie to keep him warm. Inspecting him, Sydney found that Duckie's nose was bleeding again—this time it seemed to be a viscous, black fluid. On closer examination after he shook his messmate awake, Sydney found that a leech had crawled up the poor sailor's nose, likely when he was boozily sleeping in the Victoria forest. Using lemon juice, Sydney forced most of the leech out and then clipped it off with scissors.

“Better than a flogging, old Duckie, or to be planked, if they heard what you were doing,” Sydney said as his messmate screamed.

Goodlake, who had entered the berth during the bloodiest surgical moment, fainted and had to be carried to sick bay. Sydney, selfishly, didn't find the violent distractions from his work wholly unwelcome. His futility composing the article continued into the following day, when he was interrupted again by the receipt of a letter. A steamship had just arrived from England that morning and carried mail for the Pacific fleet.

“Oh, see here,” said the stern and serious lieutenant-at-arms, who was handing him the letter which had mistakenly been put with his mail. “I am taking leave for a month to complete some business in the eastern portion of the United States. I have timed it so that I could meet Charles Dickens while he travels on his reading tour.”

“You are—you know him?” Sydney asked timidly, his heart pounding hard.

“Of course I don't, you numskull! That is why I tell you. How would you like to write a letter of introduction for me? You are a connection to him, I understand?” The lieutenant-at-arms was a true martinet in relation to sailors junior to him, leaving even pleasant talk somehow feeling mechanical. It was known he would use the extra oil the gunner's mate didn't need for the guns in his hair, which always looked bright, glossy and artificial—like a wax statue.

“Yes. I am his youngest son.” In fact, there were two Dickens sons, Harry and Plorn, who were younger than Sydney. Harry was studying at Cambridge and Plorn in Australia. But Sydney always preferred to say he was the youngest. There was a certain sympathy that would set in for the youngest; besides, he was smaller than his brothers.

“Well, how about a letter of introduction then?”

“It would be my delightful pleasure,” Sydney said, smiling, though his mouth felt dry and uneasy as he spoke. “Of course!”

In his hand was a letter from his father written before he had left England for his American reading tour. Sydney's various creditors had begun writing to him demanding their money! Not that it was the first time for his father to hear of his debts. If he were anybody else, Sydney's habits could be invisible. But not with the name Dickens. His famous father could be tracked down by anyone.

In the letter, Charles Dickens fumed over the intelligence of Sydney's continued financial extravagance. What would his father say if he met the lieutenant-at-arms? What would he tell him about Sydney that could ruin his career forever?

Sydney immediately began writing to his father once the lieutenant-at-arms had exited.

“I must apply to you, I am sorry to say, and if you won't assist me—I'm ruined. You can't understand how ashamed I am to appeal to you again. You know what American people are, you know their habits of drinking—that has run me into debt. It is with shame and regret I inscribe myself your son. If any promises for future amends can be relied on you have mine most cordially, but for God's sake assist me now, it is a lesson I'm not likely to forget if you do and if you do not I can never forget. The result of your refusal you can imagine is not exaggerated—utter ruination.”

Why did these pathetic words of pleading and regret flow so easily, and an article about American and Victorian provisions dried up in his mind instantly like an old well being pumped? Sydney tore up the letter in disgust. It didn't matter. He had written ones just like it before and he knew he would rewrite it in more or less the same language again by the time he went to sleep. But just now he needed to murder the paper and sob and curse the name Dickens.