On the H.M.S. Zealous of the Royal Navy, Christmas celebrated and much needed heroics attempted.

EACH CHRISTMAS, all British naval ships stationed in North America and the West Indies cruised to the island of Bermuda. The Zealous had a smooth passage on the way and perfect breezes from Victoria to this idyllic British colony. All the so-called “idlers” on the ship, the carpenter and blacksmith and surgeon, rushed to deck to watch the snow-white sails fill up once they were underway. They reached the islands at sunrise, the brass-work on the ship looking like priceless gold as the deep water gleamed orange and red. A pair of dolphins danced around the hull.

Sydney Dickens had been stationed at Bermuda years earlier when serving on the HMS Orlando. The return was welcome for him, and did his spirits much good. Besides, he had managed to compose his article on behalf of Admiral Hastings for the Victoria Colonist and had proudly delivered it to the paper's editor. Bermuda would be his reward for his extra toils.

“Come on shore with me,” Sydney said to Goodlake and Duckie the day they arrived at the islands. “I shall show you around.”

First they stopped at another man-of-war at anchor to greet them, but found that every member of the gunroom was drunk. One of the more ancient mariners was using a stick to move around the bodies of imaginary dead rats on the floor.

When they had made it to the beaches, Sydney led them to a secluded road. Though Bermuda's people were extremely poor and humble, because England had never exported criminals here, most of the islands were safe to wander.

“Where are you taking us, Little Expectations?” Goodlake asked, removing his cap and fixing his fair hair to one side. “Can't we fish? I need to feed.”

“Come, Goodlake. Trust me.”

Duckie, who would follow Sydney to the end of the earth, seconded this obediently.

“Where I want to go,” Goodlake was saying in a complaining voice as they walked, “the only place I want to go...”

“China,” Sydney said.

“China! Well, one day I'll be transferred if there's another war with the Chinamen over our right to trade, and we'll be sent. Or if I'm ever court-martialed, well, you hear me say it now, first thing I'll do is board an opium trader to Hong Kong.”

Climbing over a dune, they found a small cabin where a colored woman was packing up a heap of supplies and food into a small boat.

“Why, Massa Dicksie, don't I know it!” she cried out. She had a beautiful, shining face and striking eyes. Madame Dinah was a bumboat woman who sold supplies to the ships in dock. Her presence was so radiant that Goodlake and Duckie both looked humbled and embarrassed as she embraced their friend. She gave them tea and toast, the latter pleasing the famished Goodlake greatly.

In the small drawing room of her cabin, all the decorations and ornaments had been retrieved from various wrecked and abandoned ships that had carelessly tested the rocks around in the islands. The walls, meanwhile, were almost completely covered with carte de visite photographs of junior officers, including Sydney, whom Dinah had befriended. As they drank tea, Dinah sang to them in haunting tones (“Better than the opera,” Duckie whispered, “coon songs are delightful!”). Dinah, seeing Sydney's uniform, and trained in the signs of the Royal Navy, suddenly looked at him with a melancholy smile.

“But you're moving up, ain't that so, Massa Dicksie, why, you'll be admiral!”

Little Admiral, Sydney thought to himself, thinking of his father walking him along the coast of Broadstairs during the summers. Hoshen Peck, my born little sailor.

That was long before Sydney entered a school ship at Portsmouth; and of course before Sydney's mother moved out of Gadshill when he was only ten years old. Before Aunt Georgy tried her best to explain why mama had to go to the crying boy. And certainly before he was old enough to hear the wicked slanders repeated, by boys too big for little Sydney to challenge, that Aunt Georgina, who had raised him, was actually his mother and that is why Catherine Dickens had been sent away.

“Oh, but why look sad about his promotion, Madame Dinah?” Duckie asked.

She gestured to the photographs. “This but a gunroom, my dear!” she exclaimed. All the photographs were of midshipmen and sub-lieutenants; no officers of higher rank.

Sydney understood and laughed. “Well, I'll still come back, were I the admiral of the whole fleet, were I a Lord Commissioner, Madame Dinah. I'd fancy I'd still come back here, I am not one to forget friends—that is, if you'd still sing. Now, what bargains do you have these days for us?”

Within minutes, Sydney had bought a basket with all kinds of native luxuries and unneeded objects: jars of guava jelly, whale cutlets, boot-laces, a lady's hat, and bananas fried in oil.

“No wonder she always invites you in, Little Expectations!” exclaimed Duckie on their way back to the ship. “The future of Bermuda shall be poor no more!”

A few days into their stay in Bermuda, the ships were given the order for a “chase” to Barbados. The officers of the Zealous were determined to show that their ship deserved its place as the flagship of the Pacific and set out into the high winds and by the nighttime were in a squall. Sydney, while taking the man-rope up the bridge ladder, wearing an oil skin over his head because of the harsh wind, thought he could see land through the dark spray. He located the first lieutenant.

“Sir,” Sydney said urgently, “I believe we are driving toward shore.”

“The navigating officer knows better than you do, doesn't he, Dickens?” the lieutenant said without taking the clay pipe from his mouth. Sydney wanted to quarrel—he knew what he had seen. He looked skyward—the navigating officer had fixed their position through the stars with the sextant and chronometer, but the sky was hardly clear enough.

They're going to kill us, Sydney said to himself as he walked back. They're going to kill every last one of us! A minute later, Sydney turned around with a renewed determination, but then relented and slouched back away. But the lieutenant was frantically calling out orders. He had seen it for himself now. They were driving violently onto high rocks of a nearby coast. The pipe whistled the unthinkable signal that most of the crew had never heard since school ship's training: Save ship. The captain shouted orders to let go both anchors, as sounds of cracking and breaking thundered through the ship.

“Up jib, bear a hand and make all the sail you can! Out all reefs! None of your yahooing, you beggars! If we must die, let us see what we can do first!”

Sydney was thrown aft and would have fallen over the stern and perished if he were any bigger. The captain edged out to sea, just barely clearing the breakers.

When the ship had been restored to its course, the first thing Commander Liddell did was to assemble the men aft for prayers. Sydney in his own mind could hear the words of the childhood prayer papa had made them each memorize: Make me a good little child and let me never be naughty and tell a lie, which is a mean and shameful thing. Make me kind to my nurses and servants and to all beggars and poor people and let me never be cruel to any dumb creature, for if I am cruel to anything, even a poor little fly, you, who are so good, will never love me.

Leaking, crippled, nearly rudderless, the Zealous arrived at Barbados before any other ship. The whole company cheered the captain. The other vessels, arriving one after the other, were astonished to find how battered the victor had been.

Afterwards, Captain Liddell approached Sydney. “My first lieutenant told me that you had your eyes open, and because of you he realized our mistake in time to save us. Mr. Dickens, we're proud to have you part of the Zealous family.”

Sydney, still dazzled by the episode, could hardly find the voice to thank the captain for the words.

“Oh, and the lieutenant-at-arms was quite animated, before he took leave, about the prospect of meeting your father. He clutches your letter of introduction to his heart.”

Sydney smiled weakly, thinking for the first time in a while about the lieutenant-at-arms and what would be said between him and Charles Dickens. Charles Dickens: A letter from my Sydney? Hoshen Peck! That sponger, that idler in his soul! And the lieutenant-at-arms: Ah, it is fitting, then, what we like to call him, sir: Little Expectations! Why, didn't you know that?

That night, the ship musician led all men on the forecastle in a celebration of the ship's triumph over the rest of the fleet.

Good news from home, good news for me, Has come across the dark blue sea, From friends that I had left in tears, From friends I have not seen for years. And since we parted long ago, My life has been a scene of woe; But now a joyful hour has come, For I have got good news from home...

Sydney listened to the singing and the fiddling. In truth, he was absolutely exhausted. But he did not want to go below yet. Did not want to see his hammock filled—he shuddered at the memory—filled high and swaying with goods from the bumboat mistress. The sailors were dancing the hornpipe and, in his hazy concentration, Sydney realized they were calling for him.

“Little Expectations, come on now! You can do it!”

He stood up, eager to dance as his sisters had taught him, but as he approached he saw the dancing was over and they were calling him to play one of the usual games—his least favorite—“baste the bear.”

“Not me,” Sydney said. “Please, I ought go below...” That sponger, Little Expectations!

Before he knew it, he was given the position of the “bear.” In this rough sport, one sailor assigned to be the bear crawled on all fours. A circle of attackers tried to whip the bear with ropes' end. Meanwhile, the bear was assigned his “keeper” (in this case, the sub-lieutenant Elephant) who would have his own lash to beat attackers. If the keeper struck an attacker first, the attacker would take the place of the bear. The players preferred to have a small, agile bear and so often urged on Sydney.

Whap. He was hit on the shoulder. Slap. A hard, stinging blow against his cheek. His neck. His leg. The fiddling continued and the whole company was uproarious with laughter. Sydney could hardly attempt to dodge again when Elephant valiantly struck one of the midshipman and a new bear and keeper assigned.

Sydney, burning through his skin, staggered down below (laughing, smiling, of course, in case anyone watched). Part of the Zealous family. As he reached his hammock, Sydney dumped his basket from the bumboat onto the floor, smashing one of the jars of guava jelly before throwing the other one against the beam; kicking and tearing the hat; destroying everything that he could among his day's purchases. Then he gathered up all that he could find that he had bought in the last week (much of which he didn't recall buying) and, carrying the valuables up to the deck, flung them into the sea with a primitive shout.