Of all the stories related by Sir Edmund Roberts, world adventurer, naturalist and explorer, one of the most endearing is his account of Christmas Day, 1835. The good ship Baci was becalmed as crew and captain celebrated in their own ways the significance of the day. A service was held, then later, gifts exchanged, hymns and shanties sung; some men lying about and telling tales while others went aloft to celebrate the magnificent if the day by taking in as much of the wonderful world as their eyes could see. Captain Constance Daphne Fitzwillie and Sir Edmund were on the quarterdeck conversing quietly as gnarly Dan edged into the periphery of their perception. He coughed softly until Sir Edmund looked up and acknowledged the old salt. “Best of the season to you, Mr. Dan!” he called and then looked to the captain to see if he might invite the sailor to the sanctity of her realm. She nodded and whispered, “Of course, by all means,” whereupon Sir Edmund gestured for the sailor to come forth.
“Do join us, my good fellow!” Sir Edmund entreated, smiling warmly as he did. Gnarly Dan shuffled forward, twisting his hat in his hand before he spoke. “Captain Constance ye, yer Honor, I was wantin’ ta wish ya both the top a’ the day.” He looked at his feet, obviously embarrassed, seemingly to trying to muster the courage to continue. “When I were a lad,” he added haltingly, “long ago, an well, when times was pretty tough fer Mum an’ us young ‘uns, why ever’ Christmas she made sure each an’ ever’ one of us gived somethin’ ta those we loved.” He looked out to sea and smiled. “Apples was passed, maybe a pair of socks what ain’t been wore out was traded. I recollect most clear little Seth onst give me a tooth he’d lost (that was afore he died). Point bein’, me ole Mum tried real hard ta learn us the pleasure a gob gets from givin’.”
Gnarly Dan looked from Sir Edmond to Constance Daphne. “Ya both been capital ta me ever’ chanst ya could, an’ I wants ya ta know them ain’t been breezes what I ain’t logged.” He walked to the starboard rail and looked out to of the sea that seemed a bit more active than the rest. “That there’d would be what I wants ta give ya both’” he said over his shoulder as he pointed. “If yer Honor’d indulge an ole fool, might be it’d turn out a right nice present.”
Gnarly Dan had surprised the naturalist often with his knowledge of the sea and his wisdom regarding Sea Maidens and he had never been the party to a cruel trick. So Sir Edmond called for Halley’s patented diving apparatus to be roused from the hold and lowered over as the old salt directed. There was a bit of grumbling from those called to the task, but at least a few also smiled secretly, knowing what was in store for the naturalist and their captain.
Into the clear water the three sank at last, Sir Edmond, Constance Daphne and Gnarly Dan all straining to look through the diving bell’s windows. It was apparent there was much activity about them, all manner of fishes and other beasts of the deep passing by the bell. Before long the naturalist detected a pattern and whispered, “Why they’re proceeding in a circular fashion; clockwise, to be sure.” And then he saw the Sea Maiden. At the heart of the circling mass, bedecked in seaweed and topped by a starfish, a beautiful Sea Maiden floated, her eyes closed, her face the image of serenity. Around and around her the others swam, some occasionally brushing by her, all of them at least as enraptured as she. Gnarly Dan explained, “They’d be celebratin’ life an’ creation an’ those what made it so. An’ it ain’t just here—why all acrost the sea it’d be the same.” He leaned a little closer to the window and continued, “Can’t say they does it exactly proper like we does; but it be respectful an’ full a’ love, that much is sure.”
The divine dance continued until twilight, Sir Edmond’s journal noting: I am beyond words.
Maidenus Celebratus, “Noel”
December 25, 1835