Everything was ready: under an awning that spread the brilliant light stood an upright chair, made fast to cleats, and in it sat Colley the patient, lead-colored, snoring still, and so tightly lashed by his friends that he was as incapable of independent movement as the ship’s figurehead. The deck and tops were strangely crowded with men, many of them feigning busyness, for the old Sophies [crew members of the Sophie] had told their present shipmates of that memorable day in the year two (1802), when, in much the same light, Dr Maturin had sawed off the top of the gunner’s head, had roused out his brains, had set them to rights, and had clapped a silver dome over all, so that the gunner, on coming back to life, was better than new: this they had been told, and they were not going to miss a moment of the instructive and even edifying spectacle. From under the forecastle came the sound of the armourer at his forage, beating a three-shilling piece into a flat gleaming pancake.
‘I have desired him to await our instructions for the final shape,’ said Stephen, ‘but he has already sharpened and retempered my largest trephine.’ He held up the circular saw, still gleaming from its bath, and suggested that Mr Cotton might like to make the first incision. The medical civilities that followed, the polite insistence and refusal, made the audience impatient; but presently their most morbid hopes were gratified. The patient’s shaved scalp, neatly divided from ear to ear and flensed away, hung over his unshaved livid snorting face, and now the doctors, poised above the flayed, shattered skull, were talking in Latin.
‘Whenever they start talking foreign,’ observed John Harris, forecastleman, starboard watch, ‘you know they are at a stand, and that all is, as you might say, in a matter of speaking, up.’
‘You ain’t seen nothing, John Harris,’ said Davis, the old Sophie. ‘Our doctor is only tipping the civil to the one-legged cove: just you wait until he starts dashing away with his boring-iron.’
‘Such a remarkable thickness of bone, and yet the metopic structure has not united,’ said Mr Cotton. ‘I have never seen the like, and am deeply gratified. But, as you say, it confronts us with a perplexing situation: a dilemma, as one might say.’
‘The answer, as I conceive it, lies in a double perforation,’ said Stephen. ‘And here the strength and steadiness of your left forearm will prove invaluable. If you would have the goodness to support the parietal here, while I begin my first cut at this point, and if then we change hands, why, there is a real likelihood that we may lift out the whole in one triumphant piece.’
Had it not been for the need to preserve the appearance of professional infallibility and god-like calm, Mr Cotton would have pursed his lips and shaken his head: as it was he muttered, ‘The Lord be with us,’ and slid in his flattened probe. Stephen turned back his cuffs, spat on his hands, waited for the roll, placed his point and began his determined cut, the white bone skipping from the eager teeth and Carol swabbing the sawdust away. In the silence the ship’s company grew still more intent: the midshipmen’s birth, ghouls to a man, craned forward, unchid by their officers. But as the steel bit down into the living head, more than one grew pale, more than one looked away into the rigging; and even Jack, who had seen this grisly performance before, turned his eyes to the horizon where the distant Astrée and Iphigenia flashed white in the sun.
He heard Stephen call out the measurements to the armourer as the second cut began; he heard a renewed hammering on the anvil forward; but as he listened a movement far over there to windward seized upon the whole of his attention. Both the Frenchmen were filling: did they mean to edge down at last? He clapped his glass to his eye, and saw them come right before the wind., and shut his telescope with a smile . . . He laughed aloud, and at the same moment he heard Mr. Cotton cry, ‘Oh pretty. Oh, very prettily done, sir.’
Stephen raised the piece of skull entire and held it up to peer at its underside with a look of sober triumph - a moment during which the audience might gaze with fascinated horror at the awful gulf, where Mr. Cotton was now fishing for splinters with a pair of whalebone tongs. As he fished, and as a long transverse splinter stirred the depths, an awful voice, deep, slow, thick-tongued and as if it were drunk, but recognizable as Colley’s, spoke from behind the hanging skin and said, ‘Jo. Pass me that fucking gasket, Jo.’ By this time the audience had dwindled, and many of the remaining ghouls were as wan as Colley himself; they revived, however, when the surgeons placed the silver cover on the hole, fastened it down, restored the patient’s scalp to its usual place, sewed it up, washed their hands in the scuttle-butt, and dismissed him below. A pleased murmur ran round the ship, and Jack, stepping forward, said, ‘I believe I may congratulate you, gentlemen, upon a very difficult manoeuvre?’