28th April 1848
Left ships in command of Captain Bird at Port Leopold to proceed down along the east coast of Somerset Island. The men are generally in good humour, eager to set about the business of finding our lost countrymen.
Good progress, 12 miles gained.
5th May 1848
In the years since my own attempt at the passage I find that little has changed as far as the land is concerned, but I confess that the advantage of hindsight has somewhat softened my memory of the place. I had forgotten the grit of sea ice, and how trying it is on the sledges, and indeed on our own boots. At the end of each galling mile there is much to repair, which slows us considerably.
10 miles gained.
14th May 1848
Slower progress still today, many of the men are flagging and regular breaks in hauling are a necessity. Sea birds sighted, none shot. Ordered salt pork served as our evening meal to improve spirits.
8 miles gained.
17th May 1848
Men disturbed, mood poor from breakfast.
It took some cajoling to learn the cause of their disquiet, so abashed were they to admit that their tormentor was nothing but the weather. Mr Rose complained that the timbre and pitch of the wind reminded him of his own children weeping, and one of the mates described the echo as that of a banshee. All of them speak of a sense of being watched.
Knowing them to be otherwise reasonable and courageous men, and wishing to do everything in my power to prevent them falling further into superstition or melancholy, I suggested a hauling song to cover the whisper blowing in from the north. This seemed just the thing, and we were soon on our way.
9 miles gained.
It was not only the grit of the bitter sea ice that James Clark Ross had miraculously forgotten while happily ensconced in his new life of domestic peace back in England. It was the feeling of the place; the grey monotony which compounded exhaustion and confounded hope. Hauling was always a miserable business, and worse still when one did not know what he might be walking into.
The sky ahead remained white and endless, scorching their eyes, so their only respite was to cast their gazes downwards at the interminable continuity of rocks at their feet. This image imprinted itself on their retinas. At the end of each day, when they were finally at rest and Ross laid himself down to sleep, he could still see that infernal pattern burned into the backs of his eyelids. It was not dissimilar to the phantom rocking sensation felt when sleeping a night on land after a long voyage. Ross knew which he preferred.
They were all tired, and they could all feel their determination grow more desperate with every day. This was to be expected. But when the men began to take fright - when they began to stare wide eyed into the distance for some imagined threat, then Ross truly worried. Panic could be fatal, and it took root quickly in desolate places.
He would not consider turning back, not when they had come so far. He thought of his friends every moment; of Francis, and Sir John, and all of their crew. No matter what trials he was suffering, it could not possibly be more dire than the situation those men faced - may have been facing for years now. So on they pressed, and Ross stayed as merry as he could muster.
The singing seemed to improve things for a time, and Ross made sure to keep his own manner light and practical. Progress continued slowly but steadily.
On the fifth day, Ross heard the wind weeping too.
They had stopped to rest for only an hour or so. The men were silent, breathing hard and either sitting on the ground or leaning heavily against the sledges if they couldn't bear to bend their legs. They were less nervous than they had been the evening before, no longer glancing about themselves or jumping at the sound of the rocks, but their dull eyed stares told him that their mood was not much improved. And nor was it likely to be for some time.
He unharnessed and straightened his back, hearing an alarming clicking noise between his shoulders as he did so, gritting his teeth. His jaw ached, he clenched it often.
He walked a few steps, feeling impossibly light out of the harness, without the dead weight behind him. He almost stumbled, drifting across the hard pebbles like an untethered buoy. With some difficulty, for his arms were like lead, Ross withdrew his telescope, uncapped it and raised it gingerly to his face. He squinted at the brilliance of the white that surrounded them, focusing his attention on the pale grey streak of horizon. He peered east, and west, and north, and south as he slowly circled the resting sledge party. He may as well have stayed in one spot, for all the view changed.
"Anything, Captain?" lieutenant M'Clintock asked, holding out his flask as Ross strode back to the men.
He shook his head, accepted the bottle and drank.
"Perhaps tomorrow," M'Clintock said, imperturbable as always.
"Perhaps," Ross smiled broadly, clapping him on the shoulder and handing back the flask.
"It may be prudent…" M'Clintock cleared his throat and looked down, "... I mean to say that you might let the men know you have seen nothing. To assure them that we are not… that is, that we are alone, out here."
Ross tightened his jaw again, "Has there been more talk?"
"No. Only a little. A word from you might allay their fears," M'Clintock was being diplomatic. He knew how dangerous this creeping paranoia was.
"Lieutenant, there is nothing stalking us," Ross explained patiently but firmly, "there is no beast, no golem or banshee. I will not feed this delusion by pandering to it further. When we look to the horizon we are seeking our friends and countrymen, and that is all."
"Yes, sir." M'Clintock nodded neatly.
"Now rest. We'll have another song when we're back on our way, eh? You decide."
Ross knew that singing was hardly a remedy to the men now, but it was one of the only comforts he could endorse which cost them nothing.
With the Admiralty's promise of glory and adulation now completely forgotten, their faces blistered by the cold and their backs broken by the sledge, Ross could only pray that something would change soon - some distraction, some small victory to keep their minds on the task at hand. He pondered sending out a hunting party. They had not done so yet, he'd wanted to cover as much land as they could while they were all fit, and there were plenty of tinned rations. But perhaps a break from monotony would be just the thing.
He turned to say as much to M'Clintock, when the wind changed direction again and roared all the harder. Ross felt it was blowing right through him, the shock of cold as sharp and tangible as ocean spray. They both turned away, bending themselves slightly inwards as they waited for it to recede. It screamed past their ears, stabbing like knives, Ross' face lit up with agony and he winced, bowing his head.
That was when he heard the crying for himself - not the wind, but carried by it. A wrenching sob, a mournful animal keen. The wind finally died, and the men were all on their feet.
"Who heard that?" Bonnett shouted out, his own voice cracking, "tell me I'm not the only one who heard that?!"
M'Clintock looked up at Ross with wide eyes, the pupils so large and black Ross could see himself in them, see his own furrowed brow, his look of bafflement.
Reaching again for his telescope, Ross searched the horizon, straining his sight in the direction the wind had blown from. There was nothing, only rocks and greyness and the wind making his eyes stream. And then, just as he turned his head, he thought he saw something - a shadow on the edge of sight; a smudge on his lens.
“Look here,” he handed the telescope to M’Clintock, who raised it to his own face, frowning. Ross heard the weeping again, and he was almost sure. “Do you see?”
“I think… I think it’s moving. Yes.”
“Men!” Ross turned to address his ghost-faced crew, “Sergeant Smith, Private Jones, with me - Mr Whittock, you'd better come too.”
Both marines and Mr Whittock stood to attention and came forward obediently. M’Clintock looked at Ross, and they shared one of those peculiar moments of telepathy which sometimes occur between a captain and his second. M’Clintock nodded, as though Ross had given an order, and Ross proceeded with the marines with the complete certainty that his lieutenant had everything in hand.
The four men walked quickly towards the moving shape, their boots clicking the smooth grey stones together, announcing their approach. The closer they grew, the louder the sobbing became - choking, inconsolable. Mr Rose had been quite correct - it did sound like a child.
Smith saw it first, the greyish brown mound, like a small cairn. Only it was moving, dragging itself, shuddering and gasping. In Ross’ confusion, at first he thought it might be a new undiscovered creature, some pathetic Arctic beast not yet known to the world.
“Sir…” Smith lifted his rifle, legs apart.
“Steady, boys,” Ross said, holding out an arm to keep them back as they watched the thing unfurl.
It crawled slowly on all fours, and the noise it made - the dreadful despairing moan - was bestial; depraved. Suddenly it threw its head back, and Ross looked it in the eye, he saw its face. It was a man. Or had been, once.
When the creature saw them it stopped moving, stopped crying. The tears left deep pale tracks in its filthy face, poured into an overgrown beard which was stiff and rust coloured with old blood. It opened its mouth and coughed out a foul black matter that was as thick as treacle, accompanied by a terrible rattling gargle. The blood dribbled down his chin, onto the rocks below, which he gripped with swollen purple fingers.
Ross' men drew back in horror and watched the wild man climb slowly to his feet, his hollow eyes fixing them with a haunted stare as he pulled himself upright with brittle jerking movements. Once standing, he swayed on his feet, hunched slightly forward as another choking cough wracked his frame. Ross could now see that the man was not naked, as he first thought, but wearing thin long johns, badly torn and dirty all over. How the man had survived in such a state for any length of time was nothing short of miraculous - but there was no divinity here, Ross thought grimly as he started towards this wretched person.
"I am Captain James Clarke Ross, of her majesty's navy," he said, approaching the man, whose chest was heaving with the effort of standing, "we are searching for members of Sir John Franklin's expedition, are you--"
The man made a ragged high pitched noise which sounded like laughter. He reached to wipe his bloody mouth with his sleeve, and Ross saw that yes, he was smiling, paper thin skin stretching ghoulishly across his jutting cheekbones.
Unnerved, but fixed on his purpose, Ross pressed forward,
"Were you on those ships? Erebus? Terror? Do you know what happ--"
Without warning the man lunged forward with a snarl. He might have knocked Ross to the ground if there had been anything substantial of him at all, but he was small and light as a child, and so Ross was able to keep him at bay. Still, he had a surprising reserve of strength drawn from somewhere, and his dead fingers clawed at Ross’ uniform, teeth bared like a hunting dog, and when Ross grabbed at his cold arms to push him away, the man sank those sharp teeth into the soft flesh of his hand.
Ross yelled out in shock and pain, but the other men had reached them by then, and pulled the growling man away. This took some effort; he bucked and writhed and howled like a man possessed, even with three men holding him down. His skeletal limbs strained and pulled against them with such lunatic energy that Ross became anxious they would snap his bones as clean as twigs.
"Do not hurt him!" Ross shouted, cradling his bleeding hand, "take care!"
It proved impossible to do anything with their captive but hold him, for he did not tire, only seemed to grow more furious, snapping at them and making the most indecent noises. In the end Private Jones took the butt of his rifle and rendered the struggling man unconscious. Ross knew he ought to disapprove, but he could not help feeling a glow of relief when all was still.
"Fetch a blanket - furs, anything," Ross said urgently, keen to regain control. "And laudanum. In case he wakes."
Better to keep him pliant, if they could. And the poor creature might be grateful for it.
He stared down at the prone body, all blood and bones, and with a flush of hot delirium Ross thought of dear Francis - what dreadful thing had befallen them? What nightmare was this?
Sergeant Smith, the largest marine, volunteered to carry the man back to the sledge party, though Ross was sure that even the smallest of them might have managed it. They were met halfway by Whittock, the mate who had been sent for laudanum, and as many blankets as he had been able to carry. They bundled their charge up, and after some consideration Ross ordered Whittock to pour a measure of the tonic down his throat while he was still subdued.
“Not too much,” he instructed sharply, as Smith tipped the wretch’s head back. “We don’t want to shock him.”
“It’s us what got the shock, sir,” Smith shook his head. He pulled open the man’s cracked and bloodied lips, and there was a final shock waiting for them.
“Christ.” Jones staggered back, covering his own mouth. Smith swore violently, and Ross just stared, the dark heat of fear closing in even tighter.
This man had very recently had his tongue cut out.
* * *
There is a kind of singing in his head, all the time.
Is it the wind? Is it the rocks?
He thinks it must be. He thinks it is the land, the land which is inside him now. It whistles and it roars and it rages through his veins, and his veins are like canyons and his lungs are like bellows and his bones are pressure ridges, crushing, crushing, and there is lightning in his head and thunder in his belly, and it’s all so vast, so enormous, and he cannot, he cannot, he cannot hold it all.
He keeps waiting for it to fill him up, to reach crisis point and split his skull like a china bowl, but it keeps growing, the plains widen and stretch within him and he becomes more hollow, more empty, and he has no body, no mind, he is only rock and sand and ice and frigid howling air, he is a wilderness, he is everything and he is nothing at all.
Time is long and time is short, and how can he be expected to think, how can he understand anything when there is simply so much ? When everything is talking to him, when every particle in the glittering air is clamouring for his attention, and there are worlds within worlds and there is a cosmos inside of him and it is agony, cold and hot, gorgeous and terrifying, and so very much alone.
He was a part of something, he was bound to something else, something powerful and safe… but then it happened, he was wrenched away, spat out and left abandoned and suffering in a barren land. He cannot remember what it was, he cannot order his thoughts - he barely has thoughts at all. Instead he has the singing, and various earthly intrusions which clatter and break over him and leave him trembling, ringing, and jarred, as cracked as the ice, as raw as a wound.
He knows he is skin and blood and hair and teeth, he knows these things, but he does not feel them. He knows he is more flesh than magic, but he cannot anchor himself. He knows he had a name, but he cannot speak it now.
* * *
They got the laudanum down him, and it did not kill him. A fact which Mr Whittock, who had some medical training and had taken charge of the man’s care, expressed some surprise at. Even unconscious, the man's pulse was thrumming as hard and fast as a rabbit’s, rather than the slow syrupy throb which might be expected from a man half starved and wandering the Arctic desert.
Despite his missing appendage and his clearly malnourished form, there was little else Whittock could find wrong with him. His boots had been torn to pieces, and he had to lose toes as well as some fingers, but beyond that there were no signs of scurvy, at least not on the parts of him Ross could see. Perhaps that was a good omen, as far as finding the rest of Franklin’s crew was concerned.
It was not the kind of rescue Ross had anticipated. He could not shake the image of the man crawling about in the rocks. It called to mind a print he had seen once, by Blake, of the ancient king Nebuchadnezzar, whose hubris brought him to madness, so that he was forced to grovel like an animal. Those baleful eyes. That distant, distraught expression.
“The tongue,” he asked Mr Whittock, “what do you make of that?”
“I couldn’t rightly say, sir,” he shook his head, glancing back at the open tent, where the wild man lay sleeping.
“Was it cut out? Did he chew it?” Ross urged, keen to understand; to make some sense of the situation.
“I couldn’t say,” Whittock repeated, shifting from one foot to the other, “I should like Doctor Renholm to see him.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you Mr Whittock.”
“There’s something else, sir,” Whittock fidgeted with his cuff, “something I only saw once I cleaned him up.”
“What is it?”
“If you please, captain,” Whittock ducked back into the tent, holding the canvas apart to allow Ross to follow him in. He didn’t want to; he preferred to stay away from their wild man as much as he could, even while he was subdued. The bite on his hand still ached, the skin around it tight and throbbing angrily. Of course, it was hardly an excuse for a captain to shirk his responsibilities, and he was determined to treat this latest chapter in their journey as a victory, at least in front of the men.
Inside was only a few degrees warmer, but the patient (and he was a patient, no matter the circumstances, Ross reminded himself) was clean and well wrapped up. Mr Whittock had made a decent job of washing him and mending those wounds he could.
Dull beige light filtered through the canvas, lending a jaundiced glow to the man's fair skin and a brassy tint to his long hair and beard. He lay on his back like a tomb effigy, hands at his sides, bound up in thick bandages like an esquimaux’s mittens. With his mouth closed and the blood washed away, he might have been the picture of peacefulness, if not for his eyes, which rolled and flickered beneath dark mauve eyelids.
“If you please, sir," Whittock pulled back the blankets carefully, layer by layer.
They'd discarded his filthy under clothes and dressed him in someone's long shirt, which swamped his boney frame but was a vast improvement nonetheless. Next, Mr Whittock very gently lifted him, rolling him into his side, and to Ross' alarm, raised the shirt tails, revealing his backside.
"I shouldn't draw the captain's attention to it," Whittock said delicately, "being as we already know he's a sailor, and I don't like to judge a man by his stripes. Only. Well, as you see, sir. I should say these were not long healed, and it is rather… unusual, sir."
'Unusual' was too mild a term. Ross felt a cold sweat drip down his back as he looked upon the man's scars, still pink and raised, slashing the patient's buttocks and thighs. A flogging. A damned brutal one. Ross had ordered such punishments himself, of course, and witnessed more than he should have ever liked to. But this was beyond the pale, and combined with the rest of this man's physical state, it did not bode well at all.
"Not a mark on him otherwise, sir, though I'm keen to see him fed soon." Mr Whittock continued, settling the man down again in his cot and covering him up.
"When he wakes, I'll ensure Mr Rose has some broth ready. Sergeant Smith ought to be here too, in case in case he startles again."
"Quite right, sir," Whittock gave him a pleasant smile as he smoothed down the blankets. "I don't anticipate any problems, though. We've been getting along quite merrily."
Ross did not have a response to that. It seemed strange, but so much that had happened in the past few days had been strange. Whittock was a reliable man, and Ross knew himself that in dire situations it was often a comfort to have a responsibility; something to care for.
Following the wild man’s discovery Ross had sent out men in pairs to scour the area, in case Franklin’s crew were not far off. The rescuee's feral state led Ross to wonder if perhaps he had run off of his own accord - if scurvy was a factor then it was certainly possible, it often turned sailors insensible - delusional, even. Though he had never seen a scurvied man cut out his own tongue. He tried not to grimace as he returned to his tent to plan for the search parties’ return.
* * *
22nd May 1848
Man discovered, living. We have made camp to rest and to ensure the sailor’s health, which is, at present, poor.
Hoped that more of Franklin’s crew, if not the captain’s themselves might be discovered, but no such luck as yet. Once the man we have found is fit to be questioned I hope to learn more.
Ross set down his pen with a sigh. He had no notion at all how this questioning would take place. Still, something had to be done soon, the discovery of the wild man had only increased his urgency about finding the others. He refused to believe that this one scrawny sailor had survived where other men had not. If any man could triumph in this vile place then it was Francis Crozier.
His dreams had been plagued by thoughts of Francis, memories of their dreadful voyage through the Antarctic combined with the indelible image of the wild man crawling through the rocks, now with Crozier’s face. The bite mark on his hand itched, and he flexed his fingers to loosen the joints. His hands ached, but so did the rest of him, whether from sleeping on the cold ground, or failing to sleep on it and spending his night tossing and turning. They had to be close, he knew they had to be.
Raised voices outside distracted him from his troubles, and Ross quickly left his tent, squinting at the change in light, shoulders clicking again.
“I’m to feed him first, Captain Ross said!”
“And I was told to alert the captain of any changes!”
“You’d keep food from a starving man, is that it, Smith?!”
“Of course I wouldn’t, I only meant--”
“Fetch the broth, then!”
“I’m not your steward.”
“I can’t be away from him, can I? The captain left him in my care, and that means…”
“All right, gentlemen,” Ross strode over quickly.
Whittock was standing at the mouth of the sick tent like an angry she-bear, hands on his hips and pink in the face, while the red-coated sergeant was trying to reason with him. The marine turned to Ross now, beseeching,
“Sir, did you not leave strict instructions for someone to alert you once the… the sick man had woken?”
“And did you not say to me , sir,” Whittock pushed in front, “that I was to feed him as soon as possible?”
“I take it he is awake?” Ross said. Both men nodded. “Good, then consider me alerted. Mr Whittock, please fetch the broth. Sergeant Smith, with me.”
Whittock looked almost about to argue, but fortunately he had not completely forgotten himself, and with the curtest of nods, he set off towards the camp stove at a determined pace. Ross gave Smith a reassuring look before entering the tent.
The man had crawled out of his blankets and was sitting up on the bed in just the nightshirt he’d been given, despite the chill which lingered even inside the canvas. His knees were drawn up underneath the shirt, and his arms wrapped around them, so that once again Ross was reminded of a small child. He stared up at them as they entered, his eyes wide with pupils black as onyx, fair eyebrows knit together in a look of curious concern. His mouth was closed, which was a blessing.
At any rate, he didn’t look as though he was about to start biting again, so Ross cleared his throat and took a seat on the opposite cot. The man’s eyes followed his every movement, though his expression remained unchanged.
“I am Captain James Clarke Ross of HMS Enterprise. I have come at the behest of the Admiralty in search of surviving members of the Franklin Expedition. Are you one of those men?”
The man continued to stare at him, without so much as a flicker of recognition.
“A nod will do,” Ross urged.
The tent flaps opened, and Whittock returned, a steaming bow cupped in his bare hands.
“Here we are,” he said, approaching the wild man sitting on the bed. He held out the bowl, and for a moment the man seemed to completely ignore him, still watching Ross with that tiny frown. Ross had the distinct impression that he was being sized up. After a brief moment, the man caught the scent of the broth, and turned to look. He sniffed it, craning his neck forward like a rodent, then reached for the bowl with his bandaged hands and snatched it from Whittock.
“Careful now, it’s hot,” Whittock said, but again, the wild man made no sign he heard him as he pressed the rim of the bowl to his ragged lips, tipped back and swallowed every drop in a few slow gulps.
He dropped the bowl once it was empty; it clattered to the ground noisily, and he resumed watching Ross, beard now dripping. Whittock bent to pick up the bowl. “Shall I fetch him some more, Captain?”
“No, better not to,” Ross shook his head. He knew what happened if you overfed a starved man; it was best to go slowly. “Perhaps in a few hours. Whittock, has he spoken to you?”
“Not a word, sir,” Whittock shrugged. “He can’t.”
“Has he communicated in any way? Hand signals? Gestures?”
“Nothing at all, sir, he just sat up, that’s all.”
“P’raps he’s deaf, sir,” Sergeant Smith put in. “Seen it happen with scurvy.”
"Do you hear me ?" Ross asked, looking the man in the eye.
The man blinked.
"I understand you are not well,” Ross continued, managing the cadence of his voice, trying at least to appear patient, “I understand that the expedition has not been as successful as planned, but I am trying to help. We are looking for the others. Do you know… that is, can you tell us..." Ross trailed off, exasperated. He didn’t know how to form a question that this man could respond to, even if he was listening.
In the pause, the man tilted his head like a curious dog. Taking this as a positive signal, Ross continued.
"Are they near here? Sir John Franklin? Captain Crozier? You must know?"
Ross was just thinking that he ought to try showing the man a map, when he finally opened his hideous wound of a mouth, as if to reply.
"Cchh," the man said, making a dreadful crackling gargle in the back of his throat, wet and broken, "cchhhh cuhhh."
"What's that then, sir?" Smith said nervously, his hand on his rifle.
"Chhh cuuhh. Chhuh," he raised a hand to his throat, as if willing the words to form themselves. Black, noxious blood spewed forth, beading in his whiskers along with the spilled broth.
"Crozier?” Ross leaned in, urgently, “Is that what you mean to say? Do you know Captain Crozier, were you with him?"
"Cchh... " tears welled in the man's eyes and slid down his face. He stared desperately at Ross, as if begging him for help.
"Where? Where is he?" Ross pressed, leaning in even closer.
The man closed his mouth and shook his head, before burying his face in his bandaged hands and collapsing into loud, gasping sobs.
"Sir, can't you see he doesn't know?" Whittock said, coming between Ross and the crying man, settling him down and covering him up with the blankets. "There now, John, just you rest there," he murmured as he mopped at the blood on his face.
It was clear that there would be no further information. Ross rubbed the bridge of his nose. He had been battling a headache for days now, it seemed.
“Sergeant Smith, if you would continue guarding the patient for the time being,” he said, standing up, “I’ll have someone relieve you before supper.”
“Sir,” Smith said with a smart nod as he came to attention.
Ross left the tent without looking back - he needed to speak to M’Clintock urgently, they had to form a plan. If this wild man had no useful information for them, then Ross was keen to move on as soon as possible. There were one hundred and twenty eight men still unaccounted for, after all.
His men who were not on duty sat on their sledges, staring dully at their bleak surroundings in silence, waiting for the supper hour. They all looked hopefully at Ross as he passed, and he broadened his shoulders and offered them the warmest smile he could muster. He had them to think of, too. They had already borne so much more than he ought to have asked for.
He strode towards M’Clintock’s tent, his mind already made up. The only sensible course of action was to pack up and resume the search.
“Captain? Sir?” A voice behind him, accompanied by the rattle of rocks underfoot. He turned to face Whittock once more.
“Yes, Mr Whittock?”
“You see the state he’s in, sir,” Whittock said, panting a little at the effort of having chased after Ross. He wasn’t a young man, perhaps in his late forties, he had little hair remaining and a soft flabbiness about the middle which afflicts all men who live long enough.
“Yes, I see,” Ross nodded.
"I should like to take him back to the ship, sir, as soon as possible. See the doctor."
"We cannot abandon our search for the others, Mr Whittock, you understand that."
"I do, sir. I'm requesting you send just the two of us back. It would give Doctor Renholm time to ready himself, supposing you find more like him," he jerked his head back at the tent. "We'll get there all the faster, just the two of us."
Ross didn’t like it much; Whittock was hardly the first man he would suggest to lead an overland trek almost one hundred-fifty miles back to the ship, particularly hauling a sick man along with him. On the other hand, if the outlook was truly as bleak for the rest as Franklin's men, then Ross knew they could not afford to lose even one. He looked back at the rest of his men, huddled as still as rocks about the campfire. Some of them were done, he could tell. This might be an opportunity to relieve them and continue looking for Franklin’s men ‘all the faster’, as Whittock suggested.
“I shall consider your proposal, Mr Whittock. You’ll have your answer by the end of the day.”
“Thank you, sir,” Whittock tugged his forelock, then began to return to the sick tent and his charge there.
"Mr Whittock,” Ross said, suddenly, remembering something that had bothered him.
“Yes, sir?” Whittock half-turned back to face him.
“You called him John - did he give you a name, somehow?"
Whittock gave a small smile, and a shrug, "No, sir. Just for want of anything else to call him."
“Perhaps when we find the rest of his party we shall learn his true name.” Ross said, with a small frown.
“Perhaps, sir,” Whittock gave him an easy smile before turning back about his duties.
* * *
23rd May 1848
Decision made to send a party of five men back to the ships, escorting our Franklin sailor, who remains weakened by his trials. Private Jones will be leading four mates and the invalid, with instructions to send an advance rescue party from the ships as soon as possible.
It is my feeling, and M’Clintocks’, that should we find any further survivors of Franklin’s expedition then we should expect to find them in a similarly poor state of health. As such the advance party should relieve some of this burden as well as replenishing our supplies. I have also requested that Dr Renholm supply me with a surgeon, if he can spare one.
We plan to continue across King William Land tomorrow morning at the earliest opportunity.
Christmas is coming fast, so I will not say when the next chapter will be posted, but we will aim for it to be before or directly after the holiday.
Discoveries are made, both bad and good.
He named him John after John the Baptist. Whittock didn’t tell Sir James that, because why should captains be concerned with their men’s silly fancies?
He told John, though. He told him a lot of things, before he was even awake again. Whittock hadn’t talked to anyone at such length for months, perhaps a year.
It was like that when his own boy was still in the cradle - and Mrs Whittock was just the same, they would fuss and chatter around the baby as though he might start talking back at any moment.
Whittock was at sea when his son said his first words, but his wife promised him that she spoke of him often, to make sure they would not be strangers. He wept when he returned, and little Ned called him ‘papa’, right there on the dockside. He wasn’t ashamed of that - being a father softened you up, and that was the way it ought to be.
Ned would be eighteen now, and Whittock sometimes wondered whether he’d have taken to sea, like his old man. Mrs Whittock had hoped for something better, but what did women know. In any case, it wasn’t worth worrying over now, Ned had not reached his eighth birthday, let alone his eighteenth, and when he died Whittock was in Barbados.
Mrs Whittock came to meet him alone, wearing a black shawl, standing stoney faced on that same London dock where Ned had leapt into his arms five years earlier. Scarlet fever , she said, nothing anyone could do. He called out for you.
It wasn’t the same being at home after that. She’d clearly had enough of him, there was no more chatter in the evenings. There wasn’t enough room to weep over it, either. They had only known each other two weeks before they’d married, and he had been away as often he could get the work. Her sister had eight children, and wrote in a letter that she could do with the help. Mrs Whittock said she would - she missed having someone to look after, she said, and if he was bound for another ship then she’d rather not be alone. He didn’t try to stop her, he was not that sort of husband, he wanted to see her happy again.
He told John all of this. After all, who was John going to tell?
When they first came across John out there on his own, Whittock had felt the same shock everyone else had. For five months they had thought themselves courageous heroes, intrepid rescuers. At sea, with a strong breeze behind them it was easy to spin those kinds of stories. Whittock was as guilty as anyone of seeing the expedition through rose-tinted specs. When he heard they were sending men to find Franklin he had leapt at the chance - what lifelong sailor wouldn’t? The thought of all those young men lost in the ice, desperate for rescue and no one coming. Anyone might feel moved by it. Anyone would want to help.
And then they reached land, and the hauling began, and Whittock was prepared for that. He might not be as young as he was, but he was ready to suffer a little discomfort if they could just bring those poor lads home. Home to their families, to their fathers. The misery of the Arctic only made him work harder.
When they found John the last shred of glory left in his imagination fled. He had not been prepared for that. At first Whittock had not seen a man, or an animal, but a child. Even when he attacked Captain Ross, even when he snarled and fought them. He was so small, so thin and sorry. Smith had lifted him up like it was nothing at all.
Back at their camp, laid down asleep on a cot, John was not frightening at all. Whittock was a mate of very little consequence and so nobody minded that he took charge of John’s care. He was glad to do it, it was the most important work he could imagine.
He washed him carefully with a clean rag and warm water, just as he’d done for Ned as a baby. He looked to his wounds and removed the dead fingers and toes, then chafed his hands, arms and feet to get the warmth back in. Whittock wound him up in bandages and dressed him in one of his own shirts. He talked to him all the while, low and soft, just so neither of them felt alone. The poor boy had obviously been alone long enough.
He even washed his hair and combed the blood out of his beard, surprised to see how fair it was, how soft and neat he looked once the work was done.
When there was nothing left but to wait for him to rouse, Whittock read from the Bible. He was not a learned man, and never pretended to be - he had been a sailor all his life, and would die at sea no doubt. He could count on his two hands the number of books he had read, but he firmly believed that every man ought to know their Bible, and perhaps sailors most of all. That was how he landed upon the name John.
It was in the book of Matthew. Whittock had a brother named Matthew and that felt as good a place as any to begin. He held the weighty leather bound book in both hands, raising it close to his face to see the tiny little letters - his eyes weren’t what they were, and the blinding glare they’d all been facing for weeks had done nothing to help - glancing over the top every now and then to see if his patient stirred.
“‘In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of…’” he paused over a word he did not recognise, trying to sound it out, “J… Jud… well, somewhere, anyway,” he cleared his throat, “‘and saying, repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet… Es… Ees…’” he chuckled to himself and lowered the book, speaking directly to his sleeping charge. “You really must forgive me, young man, I learnt my letters on the deck of the Caledonia, and we never did any of these Bible-words.”
The man lay peaceful and silent, eyes closed. Whittock fancied he was listening all the same, and so carried on,
“Anyway, it’s a prophet whose name begins with an ‘E’. Him who spoke of John the Baptist, that is, ‘saying, the voice of one crying in the wilderness....’ ” he looked up again. “Well then! Isn’t that familiar, young man? For didn’t we hear you calling us from the wilderness? Like John the Baptist, eh?”
Whittock watched the man’s face carefully, and thought he saw the eyelids move, the snow white lashes fluttering.
“Shall I call you John, then? It’s a fine name.” No response, but Whittock thought it couldn’t hurt, and surely all men had a right to a name. “Very well then, John,” he smiled, “ ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And John had his’ … his… rr? Rrray… something about camel’s hair. Must be his clothes, I saw it in a picture, once...”
When John finally woke, eyes snapping open sharply, staring about like a horse ready to bolt, Whittock had been there, and kept him calm. And perhaps all of Whittock’s talking had helped after all, because John was not afraid of him.
* * *
24th May 1848
Lightning storms moving from the south west prevented our continued search party from setting out for two days. There was talk of returning east if the weather did not improve, but I would not countenance it. The man we found - who the men have christened John for want of anything better to call him - is in a poor state, but not so poor to have been alone with his agonies for a time.
Myself and Lt M'Clintock will lead out the sledge party tomorrow, weather and God willing, consisting this time of sixteen men, and will search outward from the place where the sorry man was rescued.
26th May 1848
No signs of Englishmen as of yet. Mood of the men holding steady. I had feared the condition of the man would have done for their nerves, but distance from him and the words Lt M’Clintock and myself spoke to them of the even greater need to find our countrymen if that is the deprivation they are suffering has bolstered them.
I worry greatly for what has become of my dear friend Captain Crozier out here in these wastes.
28th May 1848
12 Miles covered today. Sending out men in pairs to search the wider area about the sledges. Bonnett found to be suffering from a neuralgia and rode in the sledge for a part of the day before insisting on walking.
31st May 1848
Awoke thinking of my darling Anne, and then thought of all those that the men I search for long to see again. Some men are feeling the strain and are beginning to show signs of illness but I hope my renewed resolve will encourage them.
2nd June 1848
Muskox has been brought down by Sgt Smith after scouting parties sent out this morning. The fine beast will restore the men I have no doubt, as the tinned food we have brought is filling the stomach but bringing little sustenance. My mind goes to the hysteria that was brought about in "John" by the sight of the tinned provisions. At the time I thought the red tins were a memory of starvation, a perceived hallucination, but as I sit and watch the men butcher the Ox I cannot help but wonder...
Ross looked up at the sound of hurried footsteps on the shingle. It drew the attention of every man, all turning towards the sound of it as Ross struggled to his feet from where he had been crouched with his journal on his knees, the smell of the ox's blood and gore becoming suddenly awfully apparent as he strained to see what it was.
The footfall was not the scrabbling, uneven, halting pace of the man who had stumbled upon them over a week ago. That was some sort of hollow relief, as Ross did not know how morale could be maintained if all they brought back to the ships were shadows of men, weeping and half mad.
He stepped over the sprawling mass of the ox's innards, and a directionless sense of readiness came upon him when he recognised the figure hurrying towards them as one of the men he had sent out searching, absent his companion.
“Men!” Stanway shouted. “Men! We have…” with an oof the man slipped on the loose rocks and tumbled to the ground. He was not so far from the sledges, but all rushed to him, and sergeant Smith helped the man to sit as he gestured wildly to the east. “Sir James! Sir James! Men! We saw men on the…oh dear me.”
“Calm yourself Stanway, then speak.”
The man nodded, taking a couple of considered breaths and adjusted the cap on his head before speaking. "Three miles to the East, sir. About thirty of them, I admit I was too startled to get a good count, or to catch names..."
“What men?” Demanded M'Clintock.
“Mr Kitto is with them, sir. He sent me to come and fetch you.”
“Oh by God man!” Ross snapped. “What men!”
Stanway looked at those crouched around him, blinking wide grey eyes at them. "Why. It's Franklin's men, sir."
Ross ached from his teeth to his feet, his already exhausted muscles screaming in protest as he pushed on. This three mile walk had felt like an eternity but also nothing at all, the men of the single sledge he had taken to investigate flew over the ground as burst of speed and hope carried them forward on the fair westerly wind.
There was worry as well for Ross. The spectre of that wreck of a man hung constantly over him, that inhuman look in his eyes while he had raged at them all, and as Ross leant into his harness he went over what might possibly be done if all survivors where in such a pathetic state.
They came upon a furrow in the landscape, too shallow to be called anything but a scrape, and all stopped in their tracks.
There were indeed men. A crowd of them, walking and talking or sprawled upon the ground, not raving or twitching or gurgling foul smelling blood. They were in appalling condition though, Ross could tell even from this distance, but they were still men.
A figure stepped towards Ross' party, and he would recognise that damned hat and the way hands were tucked up high into greatcoat pockets anywhere.
He scrambled with the harness, throwing it off and taking off in a stumbling, inelegant dash across the shingle.
"Ross!" he heard Francis gasp just before he collided with him, holding his dear friend in an embrace that nearly sent them both crashing to the ground.
"Good christ Frank. Good christ. I thought… oh good christ old man ." Ross stepped back, the cold air biting at the tears slipping down his heated cheeks as he gripped onto the shoulders of Francis' filthy slops. "Haven’t you been giving us all the run around!"
"Hello to you too, James," Francis knocked one of Ross' tears away with the back of a threadbare glove as he smiled, although it did not reach his overly sharp eyes. He looked thin, and horribly worn, the faint prickle of a greying beard upon his jaw making him look a good twenty years older than he was. "I am always glad to see you, but I am especially glad now."
Ross gave Francis a shake. “How could I sit at home and not try my best to find you, all of you.” He wiped at his face with his sleeve as turned his attention to the Expedition’s men, and found his joyous relief become tarnished as he remembered the sudden urgency of his mission. His quick headcount turned up barely more than thirty ragged, exhausted Englishmen, officers and men indistinguishable from one another, but he did not see one venerable figure amongst them.
"Where is Sir John?" Ross asked as his party of men finally caught up with him.
Francis looked taken aback a moment, seemingly speechless, before rasping. "Dead over a year," as if such a fact were as common knowledge as the way into Plymouth harbour.
"Oh…" Ross breathed as a murmur went through his men. "A calamity for England, and Lady Franklin."
Francis agreed, no doubt sentiments he had already long come to terms with, and turned to greet each of Ross' men.
The medicine chest they carried was unloaded from their sledge was handed over to a Mr Goodsir - the expedition naturalist - who asked a little frantically, “Is there not a doctor amongst you?”
He looked stricken when told no, and Ross watched his narrow shoulders fall in on themselves as he gripped the chest tightly, swaying on his feet while muttering something forlorn under his breath. A touch on Goodsir’s arm from Francis along with a look that spoke of things Ross did not understand seemed to bolster him, and with a curt nod to Ross he was hurrying off amongst the shambling group.
Ross ordered two men to aid Mr Goodsir, then set the others to set up tents and share out any spare clothing they had brought with them, dispatching a man to fetch the other sledge. “James,” Francis spoke quietly, “would you send some men to relieve those I have guarding the perimeter?”
Ross glanced at the few Netsilik who were amongst the expedition's men, some watching the goings on with mild curiosity while others discussed something amongst themselves, then back at Francis. “What for? There cannot be any trouble from the local Netsilik?"
Francis worked his jaw, glanced at the horizon, and then ground out. “Polar bears.”
“We have not sighted any,” Ross said lightly, and was taken aback by the severe look he received from Francis.
“We have,” was the only explanation Ross got, and he frowned after Francis who turned and went back amongst his men.
Ross followed, all his earlier apprehension returning as he walked through the men even though he made a point of meeting the few welcomes and thanks that were called out from bloody, chapped lips that revealed flashes of dark gums and oozing teeth.
Ross knew the foul smell of scurvy, and of dead rotting things. The reek of these men was sharper than that, laced with a palpable fear that Ross could tell was putting some of his own men on edge. As was the way some of these lost men kept looking out towards the horizons with their bright, wild eyes as if they expected death itself to come flying towards them.
It saddened Ross to the marrow of his bones to see these men like this. He had held in his mind the image of them as they had departed from Greenhithe, fresh and smart and looking towards those horizons as if they were the source of glory itself.
It was because of this long held image that he did not recognise the man who seemed to have become the focus of the aid. He was propped up against one of the boats, so weak that he had to be held up by a frantic, almost entirely grey haired young officer while Mr Goodsir tended to him. Or tried to; the man kept on attempting to weakly bat him away with bloody hands tied up in rags, nails torn to pieces or simply missing altogether. It was only when Francis crouched to speak gentle words to him, laying achingly careful hands on his arms, that he seemed to submit to the care.
Commander Fitzjames had sparkled every time Ross had met him; if it was not the shine in his hair then it was the sharpness of his wit. He was athletic, and composed, and wonderfully smart, and was also this man before him, half rotten and bleeding through his shirt and his teeth and even his unseeing eyes.
He took a sharp step away from the sight and demanded Lieutenant Brown find something to make fresh dressings from, reminding himself that he was their rescue, that this was less than he had first hoped but more than he had ever expected when they had first came across that lone man.
“We were not all driven to try to haul on all fours like beasts, but those who became delirious would try to,” Francis said with a strange sort of kindness when he came to stand at Ross’ shoulder. “Commander Fitzjames has, somehow, stayed alive while others have not,” he nodded to a bundle of blankets laying between two of the boats. “Lieutenant Little dropped dead from the shock of simply being rescued, if you can believe such a tragedy possible.”
“And you left him there?” Ross demanded, appalled to his very core that an officer of her majesty’s navy had been left where he fell like some street dog.
Francis blinked at Ross as if he had said something strange. “Few of us are well Ross. And most live simply because of the generosity and sense of honour of those Inuit you see amongst us. They felt remorse after… A lieutenant and petty officer were killed near by to them, men who they had spoken to and exchanged gifts with,” he tucked his hands back into his pockets, the shingle grating against itself when his shifted his feet. “We have had little time or energy to bury men as we should have. A thing I regret greatly.”
“It is no fault of your own, Francis,” Ross said quietly, remembering himself and the tragedy he seemed to be in the center of. “The landscape… the circumstances” Ross looked about the camp that was being rapidly raised around them, and frowned. “Where are your doctors?” He demanded. “In fact, why is Fitzjames with you at all? Surely he should be with Erebus’ crew as Sir John has perished?” He glanced northward, following the direction of the drag marks from the boats. “Is there a base camp? I would have to send out another party from Enterprise to…”
"James," Franics rasped, pleaded almost, eyes fixed firmly on the ground. "As far as we can tell, this is all there is. We are all who has survived."
“All… there were over a hundred and twenty of you!”
“Oh Francis,” Ross stepped before him, ducking his head until he met his gaze. “Francis what on earth happened ? What nightmare have you come through?”
“I cannot tell you here.”
“We shall not be moving anywhere soon, we both know this. Francis…”
“I will tell you once we are safe, James.” Francis took off his cap to push a hand through his ragged hair before jamming it back on his head. “I dare not utter it out here unless calamity fall upon us again,” his voice cracked over his words, and Ross did not quite know what to do.
“All right old man, aboard ship it shall be,” he agreed.
Francis nodded, blowing out a great sigh, and nodded towards the Inuit. “Would you like to say hello to our Netsilik companions?”
“I would, yes. But first, I might have some good news for you, although it comes under a cloud.”
“What is it?”
“Before we came across you we found another of your men.”
“We do not know,” Ross looked long and hard into Francis’ eyes, trying to spot some reaction when he said, “he has no tongue.”
A happy midwinter cliffhanger for you all!
The end of the beginning for the journey home.
3rd June 1848
Hurrah! One hundred hurrahs! When this is read back in future times I declare that only a shadow of this joy shall be felt. We have found survivors, dear Francis amongst them, as hale and hearty as when we exited from the Antarctic (a jest, I know, for neither of us were hale nor hearty then), but he lives! And so do thirty-four other souls!
The number is smaller than is imagined by all, I know this. Yet is it greater than I thought possible at times. This place is so desolate, yet from Francis’ mouth I hear that it has been even more so. Game had not been present for the past two years, Francis tells me that the Inuit reported this also, and it had only been most recently that any have been spotted returning to the land.
From past experience I recall the barren nature of the polar regions clearly, as do I the strange beauty of it. Yet I am sure that I have never before felt them to be so peculiar as King William Land feels to us now.
The expedition men are mostly dulled to it compared to my own, who are taken upon by nerves at the tinkling sound of the rocks moved by the wind, or the thick silence that hangs in the air between the gusts of wind. Yet the expedition survivors, men and officers, find trepidation in the form of the horizon, and not even the sight of the marines’ proud red silhouettes against the dreary sky bring any comfort to them.
Maybe only a ship will do to settle us, for are we not all…
Ross hissed, placing his pencil down as the throbbing pain in his hand became unbearable. He looked over the bandage Whittock had tied so neatly around his palm after the mad man had been subdued, the once crisp white cotton now worn and dirtied after so many days hauling.
He knew better than to neglect a wound such as this, but since they came upon the remains of the expedition he had not felt his one bite, no matter how painful, was a priority compared to the state these men were in.
Pulling on his cap and slops Ross ducked out of his tent, taking a moment to let his eyes adjust to the white glare of sunlight reflecting off the flat stony ground before making his way towards the sprawl of sick tents.
He ducked into the one where his own men were, three suffering from the exhaustion of hauling while Bonnet was laid low with a biting neuralgia that Mr Goodsir was vehemently claiming came from the tinned foods. Ross spoke quietly to them, asking how they fared and if they needed for anything, and was about to duck back out of the tent when he almost collided with Mr Goodsir.
“Oh Sir James! Is all well sir?”
“I have a pain in my hand, and was wondering…”
“Of course sir, if you will allow me to -," he turned to the Erebus steward who had been assisting him. "Mr Bridgens, can you continue?”
“Aye sir,” the man nodded, stepping clear to allow Mr Goodsir and Ross to leave this tent and make their way into the one acting as the centre of the sprawling canvas sickbay.
“When did the pain in your hand begin, sir?” Goodsir asked as he motioned James to sit.
“It has become bad only recently,” Ross admitted as he let Goodsir unwrap the old bandage around his palm. “You see I was bitten not too long ago…”
“Bitten, sir?" Goodsir asked, wide eyed. "What on earth by?”
“The man we came by.”
“Oh,” Goodsir murmured as the old bandage fell away, Ross noting not for the first time the marked lack of curiosity those of the expedition seemed to have about that lost man. “You have not kept this clean, sir,” Goodsir admonished, delicately touching the places where the man’s teeth had broken his skin that were now red and tender.
“I was busy with the business of finding you, you know,” Ross said in jest, and got a smile from Goodsir in return that relaxed Ross more than it should. But then again, was a smile from a physician not always consoling?
Goodsir made personable conversation as he set to cleaning and re-dressing Ross’ hand, and Ross was struck by how talk never seemed to make its way towards home. No one had asked for news of England, not one word of it had been requested by anyone - Francis had not even asked after Miss Cracroft, who had been all he had thought about for years.
It was not so peculiar that they were unaffected by thought of home. The Arctic got into you, into your blood and into your dreams, shoving out all thoughts of anything else. Ross could remember how it had been in ‘33 after four years in the Arctic; he had thought of only survival for so long that the notion of home, and returning to it, had taken a good while to settle in.
Ross was just about to ask after the health of the men, and whether there was any marked improvement in those laid low, when a rattling cough came from behind the curtain dividing the tent in two.
He looked towards it, catching a glimpse of a sunken form beneath a worn blanket, and turned his attention forward again.
The sickest of the crew where through there, their fleshless forms haunting Ross. They were so drained of vitality, so exhausted, and Ross did pity them, but he also found something alarming about their lack of spirit. They seemed tired in a way beyond the physical, all the fight for life gone out of them even though salvation - Ross hoped - had come.
He watched Goodsir’s conscientious attentions for a moment, and almost asked him what the devil had happened out here. But the man was worn thin himself, did not seem to have slept in an age, and although Ross had just met him he knew Goodsir would not rest until they were aboard ship and sailing away from this strange place.
“Now sir, if you come to myself or Mr Bridgens we will re-dress these bandages for you daily.”
“I cannot take up your much required time.”
“I would rather you would than become far more ill later sir. Please,” he managed a smile that barely wavered. “As the health of the men improves I shall have less to do. I hope.”
5th June 1848
Today it has been three days since we came upon the men of Franklin’s expedition. The weather has held fair, and by the grace of God there was rainfall last night so we now have as much fresh, healthy water as we might need.
The last of the muskox meat was shared out amongst all yesterday, but there is still plenty of bone broth for the sick to drink. The Netsilik family left our camp today and were most pleased with the gift made to them of the beast’s hide and the horns, and were much affected by the weeping of some of the expedition men who were moved to see those who had sustained their chance of survival depart from us.
Mr Goodsir has advised in the most strongest terms that we do not eat from the Goldner tins as they may be the cause of this debility that plagued the expedition men and is beginning to plague my own. Hunting parties have been sent out daily and have so far returned with a Fox and a number of birds ...
“Lieutenant Le Vesconte, now is not the time to draw a line of demarcation between the crews," Ross said shortly, wondering how the man had the nerve to declare his two brace of ptarmigan was for the sick only.
“Are men of your ships not resident in the sick tends also, sir? Do they not lay as stricken as our own?”
Ross felt M’Clintock glance between him and Francis, and then down to the list of supplies before him.
“Henry…” Francis tried, sighing when the lieutenant tightened his grip on the birds' legs.
“If it might build up one of those fellows, I would be glad to give up a mouthful of my own food," Le Vesconte gave Francis a direct, weighty look. "The kind of selflessness that those amongst the sick would suffer for us, no doubt.”
“Those amongst the sick will not be hauling their weight, lieutenant,” Ross reminded him sternly, and that set off a reaction in the other two men that was almost one of anger.
“What the devil do you think we have been doing, sir, dancing a polonaise across the island? Why, sir, you’d make a stuffed bird laugh!”
“With all due respect, Crozier, I will not countenance such a thing. I request to be dismissed.”
Francis should have reigned the man in with the firm hand of a captain, but after a silence merely conceded to him. “I will not deny you the generosity. Tell Mr Diggle those are solely for the rations of the sick.”
“Francis…” Ross warned.
“Your conduct is not becoming, Henry, nor is your manner. I understand your concern for your friends, but you must hold fast. Letting emotions overcome you will not do us any good, nor will this conduct.”
Le Vesconte had looked at each one of them, the unkempt nature of his thick hair and the raw patches of frost nipped skin on his face giving the appearance of some savage from the dawn of time. His gaze was level and intent, and bright that way that spoke of their desperate scrabble survival.
It was still no excuse to behave like that. Ross watched him leave then turned to Francis who had his head in his hand, grim exhaustion and worry in every line of him. The rebuke died on Ross’ tongue, instead reaching out to lay an arm over his friends shoulders that he hoped might bring a modicum of comfort.
...though with all they seem to have suffered, and the general collapse of health, some harshness of manner can only be expected. Any ruffled tempers are immediately soothed by the sight of one of the poor suffering fellowes, or that lonely grave at the edge of our little camp.
Mr Goodsir, myself and Francis have consulted, and have agreed that in three days we shall depart this place.
7pm. Another man died as I wrote the above entry. We buried him next to Lt Little. God rest and preserve both their souls, these martyrs to exploration.
6th May 1848
There was a noise in the night. At first I thought it was a dream, one of the many uncanny ones brought about by this place. It is so empty that a blankness invades even your dreams, to such an extent that one might call it a nightmare.
The mournful, almost wailing noise had been loud enough to wake me and a few others, who all left their tents to try and discover the source of it. There is no night here, there is hardly darkness, but instead of taking away from the horror it only added to it, especially when no source could be detected.
"Sir," Stanway spoke in a quiet voice from Ross’ elbow, fearful eyes darting between the tents. "Does that not sound like poor old John?"
It did remind Ross of that wretched soul and those animal noises he had moaned out between ruined lips, and Ross found himself glancing around camp.
"It's the wind, Stanway. You know how it roars and wails around these strange parts," he smiled at the young man, then turned to the few others who were out of bed. "It is an unsettling sound, but nothing outside of God's nature, I am sure. Marines and those men on watch look over us."
His words seemed to have taken, and the men dispersed back to their shelters and duties, ducking down into their slops when the wailing whipped up again. Ross took a last look about, a prickle of apprehension spreading over the back of his neck, before ducking back into his tent.
The encampment is in a shallow scrape of land, and the nature of the rocky ground here is so that is enhances and distorts all sound. I can only assume it was some noise upon the wind that caught in an echo around this place.
None of the men of the Franklin expedition claimed to have heard the noise. All are now keen to be away from this place.
8th May 1848
We make our leave for he ships tomorrow. Preparations are being finalised. I ordered all but one boat broken down into more manageable sledges large enough to carry any men that cannot walk.
Spirits have been much lifted by the appearance of Captain Fitzjames from the sick tents! His left arm is still quite useless, but most virulent signs of scurvy have departed from him, and Mr Goodsir has declared his horribly reopened bullet wounds to be healing well. He was met with much relief by the expedition survivors , and by our own men who are relieved at even the smallest sign of health amongst those we have rescued.
Bonnet has recovered somewhat under the care of Mr Goodsir, but is still excused from duties. I hope he will not worsen on the walk back to the ships, for a true tragedy would be to lose a soul while saving so many more.
I feel the recovery of both Fitzjames and a steward from Terror is, hopefully, a good omen.
* * *
11th June 1848, diary of Dr Renholm, Chief Surgeon HMS Enterprise.
Five men returned today, pulling with them a sixth, who is one of Franklin’s surviving crew members. At least that is the likeliest conclusion we are able to reach, as the man is unable to explain himself.
I was at my work in sickbay when the men arrived, but the excitement above decks was raucous enough to disrupt me, and I came out at once. At first I was disheartened to see only five men, when our search is for more than one hundred sailors - but Mr Whittock explained quickly that Sir James has forged ahead, feeling that having discovered one man, others must be close by.
On Captain Bird's order, a further party is now preparing to leave the ships in the hopes that they will meet the rescuers and more readily provide assistance and provisions. I have nominated my assistant surgeon, Mr Gilpin, for this expedition.
Mr Whittock volunteered himself for the initial search party without any medical training, though I do believe he has had some experience caring for the sick on other voyages. Whatever his background, I must commend him for an excellent job ministering to this most unusual patient.
When he came into my care, I found the patient (who Whittock has been calling John, and so shall I, for the ease of simplicity) to be clean and fairly alert.
He is missing four toes and three fingers due to frostbite, removed expertly by Whittock. He is extremely malnourished, and Whittock reports that he has an unusual appetite - he will eat nothing from our tinned provisions, which I would usually recommend in order to build him up. Apparently on the journey back to the ship, John would not eat at all until a seabird was shot and cooked, and this he fell upon like a starved dog.
He also refused the pain relief offered to him - both the laudanum and the rum, which I have never yet seen a sailor turn down. As with the tinned food, he reacts with extreme violence if we even attempt to administer any tonic or tincture.
Delusion is well known as a symptom of scurvy, and while John shows no physical signs of that insidious disease, we must assume for now that this is the cause. He does appear to be suffering from melancholy, characterised by weeping fits, which Whittock says are frequent. Fortunately caribou were sighted only two days ago, and a hunting party sent, so by all accounts we will be supplied with fresh meat soon.
He has most of his teeth, in fair condition, and scars on his buttocks numbering over twenty from a recent flogging. These wounds had been well cared for and healed some time prior to the man’s separation from the group, but certainly occurred during the expedition.
Now I come to the most mysterious affliction suffered by our Franklin patient - his missing tongue. My first assumption was that the wretched man had chewed it out himself, perhaps in some temporary state of insanity - so often brought on by hunger, particularly amongst the lower classes and mentally feeble. Upon closer inspection, I found that the cut, however barbaric, was made cleanly, with a straight blade which I can only guess was an extremely sharp knife. I cannot imagine that a naval surgeon would perform such a procedure, and if he had, then John received no aftercare, as the wound has been left to turn septic.
I operated as best I could, requesting four men to hold John down, as still he refused laudanum or liquor, even when Whittock and I explained our intentions. He seemed to understand and was quite docile as Whittock reached into his mouth with the forceps. The men I had ordered to hold him found themselves unnecessary.
I cleaned the affected area, and sutured what remained of the tongue. I have prescribed regular rinses with salt-water - which thankfully we have here in abundance - to prevent infection. The patient did not make a sound during surgery, nor did he struggle. This confirmed to me that he must have understood us, and that although his injury has rendered John mute, he is still in possession of his mental faculties. This at least is good news and leads me to believe he may yet recover.
He succumbed to a deep sleep as soon as we had finished, and I have left him now in the care of Mr Whittock, who is both capable and willing.
In the meantime, I have been in conference with my fellow surgeons in preparation for any further survivors, and in particular Mr Gilpin who leaves tomorrow. We agree that starvation and scurvy will be our chief adversaries, and have requested that a good supply of the tinned food be brought up from the hold so that it is readily available.
In addition, before the captain departed he left with me a copy of Sir William Parry’s ‘Journal of a Third Voyage for the Discovery of a Northwest Passage’, which he told me contained certain observations on the treatment of scurvy which I may find of interest. With nothing further to do but await (and indeed, pray for) further patients, I shall be glad for the distraction.
* * *
11th June 1848
7 miles made - the way is slow going due to the still recovering health of Francis' men and the decreased condition of our own. I confided in M'Clintock that I have not seen such a rapid failing in health before, not even on my uncle's expedition of ‘29. At that time I sledged further north than this, in far worse conditions and over a longer distance as I searched for the magnetic North Pole, and the health of my men had not collapsed quite like this.
There must be something in the type of terrain here that saps the energy, for I myself begin to feel a weariness that is most unlike me. Or rather, the James Clarke Ross of my youth, a man who had not become used to the domestic pace of married life.
Mr Goodsir worries over our return to canned food, but I assured him our supplies are fresh new stock, and have shown no sign of spoiling.
14th June 1848
12 miles made, but at a great cost.
"Halt! Camp here!" was called from the first sledge, and with some relief Ross straightened, letting the harness hang a moment before tugging it off over his head. He rolled his shoulders to ease the ache in them, letting the men set theirs down before dropping his on top of the pile.
Ross did not need to order his men to unload the sledge as they were old hands at setting up camp by now, he simply made sure that all was in order before going to check on the light sledge in front that was made up of Franklin's men. Mr Blanky was riding atop it owing to the worsening state of his leg, and he was currently speaking to Fitzjames who, even though he was banned from hauling by both Francis and Mr Goodsir, insisted on walking, leaning heavily on the stick one of the Enterprisers had cleverly made from a discarded piece of boat planking.
He was still far from healthy however, and Ross was about to make his way over to order him to rest when a scream split the air, closely followed by the sound of something heavy hitting the shingle.
A number of men scattered as if death itself had come for them, some leaping into the sledges while others stumbled off into the barren landscape as Ross rushed to follow Fitzjames towards the source of the commotion.
"Move aside! Move aside!" Fitzjames called out as he weaved between the rushing men. He stumbled into the last boat sledge, hanging onto the bow a moment before tripping forward as if to grab something.
It turned out to be Bonnett. He was shaking and thrashing wildly upon the ground, his hands and face smeared with blood as he dribbled red frothing spittle all over himself. Ross could do no more than shout for Mr Goodsir as Fitzjames and Sergeant Smith tried to hold the man steady, watching helpless as Bonnett’s eyes rolled back in their sockets.
Ross made himself useful by sending the marines out to recover those who had fled, ordering those who had remained to concentrate on setting up camp. He tried to speak encouraging words, finding they were to bolster himself as much as them, watching along with everyone else as a now still Bonnett was picked up and carried to a hastily raised tent.
Mr Bonnett, who has been in ill health these past weeks, finally passed peacefully this night. He was a good, steady man, and he shall be greatly missed. God rest and keep his soul.
All is quiet.
20th June 1848
Young musk ox shot, enough for 2 days of meat. Mood begins to improve. 9 miles made.
22nd June 1848
10 miles. Progress improves despite the fewer numbers of those fit to haul. We are closer to the ships, so hope is high, and we look out every day for the relief party.
[Following lines heavily crossed out]
A heated discussion amongst the expedition officers. The oddly commissioned Lt Jopson's voice became raised as well as that of Lt LeVesconte, loud enough that they were just audible in the other officers tents, but were quickly silenced by Captain Crozier .
24th June 1848
No distance travelled due to storm that swept across the land. Three tents blown down and one blown away. Sledge damaged.
25th June 1848
To the great relief of all the advance party has found us, Assit. Surgeon Gilpin amongst them. Mr Goodsir almost fainted with relief upon hearing news of another physician, and then became much moved as expedition men were most honest as they complimented and thanked him for his tireless work, Francis being the loudest of all.
The mood feels like that of a fete compared to the last few monotonous, exhausting weeks. Laughter has even rung out on more than one occasion.
“I say,” Le Vesconte said from where he was standing on one of the sledges helping to unload it. “Who is the greatest chicken-killer in Shakespeare?”
There was a moment of silence before someone took the bait. “Who?”
“Why Macbeth, because he did murder most foul.”
Fitzjames, who had been set up on a folding chair and was making note of the fresh supplies, was the first to contribute to the laughter that rippled out amongst the men.
“I say,” Fitzjames then spoke up, “Why is a dog like a tree?”
“Why would they be so, Jas?” Le Vesconte asked as he dropped a bundle of blankets into Stanway’s arms, the man grinning widely already.
“My good man, because they both lose their bark once they're dead.”
That got a larger laugh, as those around them became accustomed to the joviality, and lieutenant M’Clintock called out. “Doesn't it make you both dizzy to waltz?”
There was a beat of silence, in which all turned towards him.
“One must get used to it, you know. For it's the way of the whirled.”
Fitzjames laughed, quickly followed by Le Vesconte who put his hands on his hips and declared it an “Appalling pun but a capital jest”.
“I say, what is the difference between a tube and a foolish Dutchman?” Le Vesconte proclaimed around a smile.
“What is it, sir?” A man called.
“Why, one is a hollow cylinder and the other….”
“...A silly Hollander!” Fitzjames finished, and they both fell about laughing, which was as amusing for the men as the jokes were.
“I - I say,” lieutenant Jopson spoke up, looking a little nervous when attention fell upon him. “If all the seas were dried up, what would Neptune say?”
“What would he say?” Fitzjames asked, his colour up in a way it had been sorely lacking over the past days.
“I really haven't got an’notion,” he said it as if it were ‘an ocean’, and as with sailors and nautical jests it set everyone into raucous humours of their own.
28th June 1848
Captain Fitzjames has been ordered to ride part of these last days on a sledge. He does not sicken, Mr Gilpin and Mr Goodsir have simply expressed concerns that he might exhaust himself further before the ships are reached.
There had been another argument - or rather Fitzjames had protested being pulled on a sledge alongside Mr Blanky (he had shot looks at Ross as he spoke, and he felt an irritated sort of shame at his uncle's past behaviours being so referenced), and Francis had burst forth in a temper that startled not only Ross and M'Clintock, but Francis' own officers also. " Damn your eyes James you will ride by choice or I will put you there myself! "
Francis was a man of deep feeling, and Ross knew it was concern more than rage that had him speaking so to his second, but it still sat strangely with Ross; both that he was so quick to anger, and that Fitzjames would tolerate being chastised like a boy.
Many things about the surviving men of the expedition were sitting oddly with Ross. There was a feverish, fervent nature about them that was caused by more than simply starving for food or sight of home. They looked about them as if haunted or hunted, Ross mused as he walked about the camp, trying to ease the restlessness behind his eyes and distract from his sore hand.
A number of the men looked to Francis as if he were a lighthouse in the storm (a opinion Ross had shared on more than one occasion before now) but Fitzjames' presence was the one who the majority, Terrors and Erebites both, seemed settled by as if he were the safe and trusted pair of hands and not Francis. The officers, what few remained, were united in vagaries when it came to what had occurred over the past three years, and even though not insubordinate a few - Le Vesconte chiefly - were permitted liberties Ross himself would never allow in his officers.
Francis was also not the man that Ross remembered. They had been open with one another in many ways from the very earliest days of their friendship, and now Francis was often distracted and brooding. He openly avoided certain details pertaining to the burial of Sir John, to the seeming lack of forethought in their plan to walk out, and to just what had happened to that wretched soul who they had discovered.
He had been flogged, brutalised, left to starve, and Francis would speak nothing of him. Fitzjames at least had relayed the charges brought against the man - if he was who they thought he might be - that had caused his punishment, but he had been unwell for so long that Ross was not surprised if facts escaped him. He would rather think that than suppose he was being sidestepped by both of the expedition's remaining commanders.
Ross stopped and looked in the direction of his ships, and felt a dull ache in his chest. Erebus and Terror , ships he knew and loved like a childhood home, were stuck fast in the ice on the easterly side of King William Land, and Ross was becoming unsure if the ones now under his command would be themselves freed during the short Arctic summer. Those Arctic veterans amongst them knew from a glance how uncommon the ice was, and how unnaturally sparse the land seemed, and Ross wondered if his search party would itself need to be searched for. If he as well as Francis would be dragged before a court martial to explain themselves.
He glanced around, feeling a prickle of something at his back, and retreated into the living circle of the camp.
All was agitation and discomfort in this place, all was unease, and Ross knew that he would not feel settled until he was back aboard ship with the prospect of open lanes about him. He could not imagine how much of a balm such a thing would be to these ragged men and those worn through officers.
He rubbed at his fingers through his glove as he wandered back towards his tent, returning the wave of lieutenant Jopson who was bustling about with his usual restless energy. Rationally Ross could not find fault in their reticence, it had taken him months to speak of the Antarctic to his dear Anne, and yet…
Christ, he had not thought of Anne once in almost a month, her place taken by the nothingness of this land. He sighed, weary to his bones, and covered his face lest he fell to weeping.
All are thoroughly fed up of all this hauling. I hope never to see such a rocky, featureless place as this, for surely we are in that Hades of Greek belief. Barren and cold and unfeeling.
I wish for home.
2nd July 1848
Ships made. Thank God.
kt_fairy had great fun with the dumb, Victorian jokes, and we hope you did too!
The ships are made, and old things swim to the surface
"See, Frank, to the Sou’West. You can see that the ice near the shore is shifting with the tide," Ross called, pointing to the far end of the bay known as Port Leopold. Which was a rather hopeful name, Francis thought, as it was little more than a dent in the high, bleak cliffs of Somerset Island than anything a sailor from warmer regions might dare call 'port'. The ice, clean and tinged blue it was so young, stretched past the squat shapes of Enterprise and Investigator and out into the sour horizon, so uncommonly flat and serene compared to the mountainous pressure ridges about King William Land.
Francis peered at what Ross’ ice master had pointed out as rotting ice against the southerly shore - which was a good sign that they would not be trapped for yet another winter, but if the ice here was in a similar condition, or about to turn, then it was most ill timed. Men and heavy sledges needed to travel out from the barren sloping shore over to the ships; it would be mostly firm, and a sprightly man might hop over or around dangerously thin parts of the ice, but none of his men could be called sprightly anymore.
“I shall take Mr Kerr’s word for it,” Francis sighed, glancing back with a heartsick feeling to where their party was spread out on the grey beach, too tired to celebrate finally making the ships.
“Oh come now, you have always had a better eye for ice of all types than most men I know. What do you think?” Ross tried, stepping closer, and Francis could only spare him what he knew was a wan smile.
“I think Mr Kerr is right.”
Ross looked liked he wished to press the matter but did not, a heavy silence falling that had never before had a place between them.
This was the moment to tell Ross the bare bones of what had happened - or rather, the truthful bare bones. Francis had asked for a delay until they reached the ships, too consumed by surviving to try and parse through what had occurred, and Ross had shown great patience and trust in Francis by granting it. He knew he should repay him with candid words now, but there were none that Francis could find that would describe all that happened, and he almost chuckled at the irony of wishing James would sweep in and tell a perfectly formed tale for him.
There was also an alcohol soaked admission he knew he must make although he feared the disapproval or (even worse) pity of his oldest friend. Details of 1847 were to him as if viewed through a fog brought on by the whiskey, and after that it was all long sleepless months of hauling and planning as he tried to cling to the festering remains of hope - and then there was the Tuunbaq.
Jesus christ, how would he even begin with that. The men called it “Mr Teeth and Claws”, which about summed up the total of sure facts Francis had about it - that it was male, that it was a Netsilik beast, and that it had plentiful teeth and claws. He thought that he had told Ross a lie about polar bears when they had been rescued, and although he did not owe anyone in England the truth, he owed at least most of it to the man who had saved them all. It was simply how, or even what he could - or indeed should , for no stranger was meant to know of Tuunbaq he was sure - tell Ross that stumped him.
Francis settled his feet on the thick sand as he summoned up the courage to speak, feeling Ross’ eyes on him, when the sound of raised voices came from the direction of the sledges.
There was no panicked fleeing, or gunshots, thank God, just the shifting crowd that always formed when a disagreement was in progress.
“Oh good fucking God, what now!” Francis growled as Ross let out a weary sigh, and he forced his sore legs to hurry across the mud-like sand towards the men.
“We’ve not come all this way to get iced in again fer another winter,” Sergeant Tozer was protesting, a group of men around him nodding in agreement while the rest looked on in blank, exhausted interest.
“You’d rather spend weeks out in the open would you?” Jopson was saying, drawing up to his full height. “Not knowing where that creature is?”
“He might be dead for all we’ve seen of 'im, the state he was in when we finally managed to chase 'im off!”
At Tozer’s words Francis glanced over at Ross. He was as expressionless as all officers were in dire situations, but Ross was his oldest friend and Francis could tell he had marked what was being said, that it had sparked some form of recognition in him, and Francis cursed himself for not finding honest words sooner.
“So,” Jopson started, his tone edging towards argumentative, “you men would hedge your bets out in the open rather than in the warmth of the ships?”
“A horribly, crowded, sickly warmth. We are used to adverse conditions, Jopson. We’re not soft, primping stewards as you.”
"There will be order here," Francis shouted, rocking back a moment as the land echoed his words back to him almost mockingly. "Do not forget yourselves or who you speak to. We must keep ourselves in order, men, now more than ever!"
"Ourselves in order?" he heard scoffed from the crowd of men as Tozer tipped his chin up and said. "Order has always been kept among us, the men, sir."
"No thanks to your mate," Hartnell snapped, which got grumbled agreements from a few of the seamen. "The captain's what got us 'ere."
"Eventually,” was spoken just loud enough to be heard, and Francis watched as Hartnell bristled.
"If you don't like it, you lot can stay 'ere and wait for the next whaler to come past."
Jopson was forgotten now as the men began rounding on one another. Ross' marines had come at the sound of raised voices and Francis was a seasoned enough captain to see the uncharacteristic disquiet in the way they fidgeted with their muskets, tired eyes turned to Ross as they impatiently awaited an order to action.
Chaos did not mix well with marines ill at ease, and Francis caught Ross’ eye to direct his attention towards them. Ross turned, but before he could speak three things happened in quick succession; Jopson was dragged into the bubbling fray while trying to bring order, Gibson was knocked to the ground, and the marines raised their muskets.
Ross shouted for them to hold their fire, shoving down the nearest musket as he berated them for rashness. He was as dynamic and firm as he had always been, but Francis found his mind weighed down and unable to provide him with the words to bring calm. Not when, even after seeing them this far, some of his own men evidently (and, he was man enough to admit, understandably) still did not trust Francis as they should.
He had no pistol to fire in order to subdue the men, and was about to start physically pulling them away when a voice, as clear and bell-like as any gun shot, broke through the chaos.
"Ships companies will separate."
James arrived with Le Vesconte (plus shotgun) in tow, and Francis thought himself blessed, most undeservedly so, in his second. Men turned towards the sound of James’ voice like children caught at mischief, a few distancing themselves from the trouble as James barked.
"There will be no mutinies or disorders before Sir James, do you hear me! Separate at once!"
The two remaining Erebus officers somehow managed to get the men jumping to it as if the order had come from the quarterdeck, not from shabby sick men on a shabby frozen shoreline. James had that look of disappointment on his face that seemed to work better on men than the most dire of threats, and a cringing sort of calm fell.
“Help that man up there!” James ordered with a motion towards Gibson who was looking much pained by his fall. “You will have a care for who and what you are!” James barked, glancing around the men before looking to Francis. “What has occurred here?”
“Sir, we do not wish…”
“Sergeant Tozer, you have acted commendably in all things on his expedition. I would hate for you to fall short now,” James said firmly but not unkindly, and Francis saw Tozer look over the grim faces of Ross' marines, men who had been prepared to shoot him for the sake of their duty, and straighten slightly.
“Good,” James gave him a long look before pulling himself to his full imposing height. “Some of you are reluctant to board the ships, yes?” there was a grumble in reply, and with a quick look to Francis to confirm they were of the same mind James began to issue orders. “If you wish to stay in a camp upon the ice, then you will be expected to come aboard the ships daily for your duties and your meals, and you will be guarded by the marines and Sir James' men at all times. If one report of ill behaviour, insubordination, or slacking in duties is made then you, Sergeant,” James turned to Tozer who snapped to attention, “Will be held responsible."
"And mark me, I will not have you mistaking this understanding for weakness.”
“Good,” James gave the men one last stern look, then turned to Francis for further direction. His eyes were dulled, they had not had their usual warm spark in them for months now, and his colour was as wan as that of his faded, tattered slops, except for a unhealthy flush of exertion that had sat high on his cheeks ever since Terror Camp.
“Henry,” Francis started, pulling Le Vesconte’s worried gaze from his friend. “Would you take lieutenants M'Clintock and Hogdson and see which men wish to stay upon the ice?”
Le Vesconte glanced back to James before complying, immediately directing a grey, exhausted Peglar to take Gibson aboard the ships as the man looked almost as ill as James was pretending he was not.
Ross approached then. He had been careful since the rescue to not take full charge of the men, no doubt not wishing to sweep in as the gallant Sir James Clarke Ross and save his dutiful Irish friend from disaster. Francis appreciated the concern, loved Ross dearly for how aware he was of these things, but none of Francis' oft wounded pride mattered anymore.
That any of them were still standing was a miracle, Francis knew that, and he simply wished for rest. For this to be an end to these trials and efforts, to have open water bathing the bow of a ship, and to not feel as if he was wading through mud just to form a thought.
“I’ll take all from here Francis,” Ross gave him an understanding smile, a gentle hand on his elbow. “Get to the ships and rest , Frank. Please. You have done enough.”
He almost staggered under the sudden lightness that came as the weight of responsibility was lifted away. Captains were never clear of it though, he knew that well enough, and turned instead to the all more personal responsibility he had for his friends.
Francis looked towards Enterprise , judging the distance, then made his way over to James. He had given up using the stick a while ago, about when Francis had ordered him onto a sledge, and was listing slightly as he held his left arm heavily against his side, looking as if bringing order had cost him greatly.
“I wish you would not run about,” Francis muttered. He took James by his good elbow, trying not to hold him too tightly as the joint felt so fragile beneath his grasp. “Why are you striding about? Have a care, James, you are exhausted.”
“We are all exhausted,” he swallowed grimly. “You also.”
“And yet I do not look like I’m about to keel over. Or maybe I am. I was never the finest walker in the service, after all.” Francis tried to joke, relieved when James chanced a dim smile. “We are at fresh ships with much thinner ice. Game has returned. Ross and his officers can take our slack now. I think we might have a rest for a few days.”
“And a wash,” James observed, a glitter in his eyes as let Francis put a steadying arm carefully around his injured ribs and help him the last half mile to Enterprise and safety.
* * *
He watches them arrive. Whittock has nailed a blanket up around his hammock, but he can peer through the gap to watch the men carried in, one by one. Sickness, fatigue, death. Rot. It’s foul, and it’s fascinating.
There is so much activity, he could stare for hours as the tiny space fills up, growing warmer with every new body. The air thickens, he starts to sweat. No one troubles him. Whittock says they won’t, if he’s good; if he stays quiet. He plans to do just that, for now.
When they first brought him to this place, this inside place made of wood and tar and iron, he was afraid. A long time ago he was in a place just like this. He thinks he can remember - he thinks they are his memories.
It was dark then, and stifling. There was pain, and blood, and hunger. Sometimes he wonders if he has been starving his entire life.
He will stay put, for now. With the beast dead he is alone, in body, if not in spirit, and Whittock has been kind.
Things are getting clearer every day. Every meal makes him stronger - they bring him meat, fresh. They bring him anything he wants, if he looks at them long enough. The pain inside his mouth is less, and the spaces where his fingers and toes once were no longer grieve him.
Slowly he begins to swim to the surface of this deep, cold abyss within himself.
The beast put him there, and part of the beast lives there still. They were one creature, they were one soul, and as sure as he can feel some part of himself still out there rotting on the ice, he knows too that some of that magic survives inside him.
There will be time for that.
Now is for waiting. Now is for watching.
He knows that man. He knows his form, he knows his hair and the slouch of his spine. He holds his face up to the gap in his curtain and fixes on the sleeping body. Something inside him stirs, a flinty spark of familiarity, something shared and something broken.
They carried him in hours ago, he was weak, head lolling, but there are so many like that. Does he know them all? Perhaps. He won’t know until he looks.
“This is Gibson,” said one of the men who hoisted him into his hammock, and that word strikes another spark. Gibson . He mouths it soundlessly from behind his veil. Gibson Gibson Gibson . He knows that word. "Bloody miracle he walked far as he did, ain't talked no sense for twenty miles at least."
"We'll see to him now," another man said. He has a soft voice, but he is in charge here. He is the one who cut out the rot and sewed him up, while Whittock cradled his head.
“Got your hands full in here, ‘aven’t ya?” the first man said, looking around.
“Less than we'd planned for,” said the man in charge. He stood in front of the hammock then, blocking the view from between the blankets.
Hours pass, the men are fed. When the food is brought up there is weeping from the new arrivals, they mutter prayers. There is a clamour, some of them are too eager, and afterwards they are sicker than before, their insides pain them. More weeping. He retreats behind his curtain and closes his eyes. Whittock tries to pass him a bowl of something, but he has no appetite.
The man in charge - doctor - he comes around too, with the salt water. He fills his mouth with the taste of the ocean and lets it sting and itch and consume his thoughts with faraway things. He is not trapped in this hot damp place, he is out on the ice, the cold sun on his skin. He spits out the water into a bowl, and sees it has turned fetid, yellow, thick and poisonous. Whittock washes his face.
The noise and movement eventually slows again, and the room turns quiet once more. He can think.
He waits until the able men have left. Whittock has fallen asleep in his stool, arms folded over his big belly, red face scrunched up as he snores. The sick men are mostly sleeping too, though one of them is crying quietly underneath his blankets. The air is rank with sour breath, piss and shit. A yellowish gloom hangs heavy as a pall, heavy as fog.
He climbs out of his hammock slowly, his feet touch the floor for the first time in weeks. Thickly bandaged, they make no sound at all.
The familiar man, the Gibson man, he’s sleeping in his hammock, long legs curled in sideways, head tucked down against his shoulder. Though he has been fed and washed, Gibson still smells sick, his face is still hollow and bruised.
Gibson. Gibson. Billy.
He thinks these words over and over as he approaches, to remember, and hold on to remembering. It’s so easy for thoughts to slip away, it’s so easy for him to drift back to the ice, and the beast.
He stands close enough to see Billy Gibson’s chest rise and fall, the only proof he is a living thing. He knows the hair, and the scent and the long legs and the flesh and the bones of him. It’s coming back, pictures are forming. They knew each other. It feels very long ago.
He pushes on the dead weight in the hammock with his good hand, and it swings back and forth. Billy Gibson does not stir.
He looks for his hand under the rough blankets, and grasps it, turning it over in his own. The bones in it are fine, like the bones of a fish. He remembers. He remembers these hands, the long fingers, always hot. Gibson Gibson Gibson .
He strokes the softest part inside the wrist, sees the ice blue veins. With his remaining fingers he pinches the skin there and twists it hard. Billy Gibson’s eyes open at once. He snatches back his hand and stares blinking into the dim shadows.
Billy Gibson sees him. Billy Gibson knows him.
That is a word he knows too. He mouths it back, silently. Cornelius Cornelius Cornelius . A long-ago word. Someone’s name. Someone young and blue eyed and long dead. I’m bound for the polar sea! he said. He’s in deep water now. He’s crumbling to pieces, eels are chewing his eyeballs. He has no tongue either. Cornelius Cornelius Corne--
“I thought you were dead.” Billy Gibson is still there.
He drifted out for a moment, but he is still in this wooden place, surrounded by stink and death. Gibson Billy Gibson is still staring up at him with bright eyes from his haggard face. He reaches out. “Can you be real?”
He nods in answer. Then shakes his head. He does not know what he is.
Gibson tries to get up, rocking back and forth again, elbows at right-angles, but he is too weak, and falls back. His head rolls, and they watch each other.
“Where did you go? What happened to you?”
He touches his fingers - the two he has left on his right hand - to his lips. He opens his mouth to show Gibson what he is now. Gibson’s face changes, turns even whiter.
“Your tongue,” he says, “did you do that? Why?”
It was necessary. It was important. We had to be joined, we belonged to each other. We needed to be… to be...
He cannot explain it - even if he still had his tongue he would not have the words, there are not words for what he was, what he is, or what he thinks he will soon become. He closes his mouth, and the tears come again. Scalding, salty, they slide and they drip. He is alone, alone, alone.
Billy Gibson reaches out with his long hot fishbone fingers, the red pinch mark on his wrist already bruising, deep gorgeous purple. He touches his cheek, “Cornelius,” he says, softly, “we are safe now. We are saved.”
He leans into Billy’s hand, inclining his head and closing his eyes. He wants to feel something, he wants it to dispel the clawing emptiness within, but nothing can reach him, and the tears still fall.
Journal of F.R.M.Crozier.
Ross has given me a book and pen with which to make a journal as the Admiralty like to have such things to refer to, and my own covering (sic) past three years are somewhere off the coast of King William Land.
James - Cpt Fitzjames, I know Ross has the seniority to claim the name but these last months Fitzjames has been all the James I have had room to think about - is still in poor health but as always is admirable in his behaviour. I note this for any Admiralty men who might read this, that he has acted at all times as an officer and a gentleman should, and that any of our circumstances or behaviours were not his responsibility.
We total thirty-four. The light number is a heavy load, but there is no time yet to mourn it.
A camp of crew has been set upon the shore. Some of the men are wary of being kept upon ice trapped ships once more, which I understand very well. No true peace will be had until the leads open up and we sail westwards for the open ocean...
Francis dropped the pen back into the inkwell and sat back heavily in his chair, almost scratching through his hair with his ink stained fingers before remembering himself.
“What’s the matter?”
He glanced over his shoulder to where James was propped up against the pillows of his burrowed bunk, looking all the worse for having washed and been dressed in clothes both too big and not quite long enough for him.
“I am a bad writer,” Francis grunted.
“We are naval men. Dickens is not expected of us.”
“You would make these truths sing better than I.”
“That may be so, but my words do not carry the weight yours do,” James smiled, showing the raw spaces where the surgeon had to pull those teeth that were past saving. He shifted around, trying not to grimace as he no doubt pulled at the wounds in his side. “What truths are you writing about?”
“I see no need to withhold facts about how we came to abandon the ships. Or the cause of our sickness. The rest… I cannot lie to Ross,” Francis sighed, stretching his aching legs out in front of him. “I owe him the truth not only for the sake of friendship, but because - I suppose I am too tired to try and make up anything believable.”
“What of our bearlike friend? You spoke to me of not wishing for others to flock here searching for truth and glory and reward money?”
“I can only hope Ross will agree with me on that front,” Francis turned in his chair to face James, about to ask him if he thought there could be any chance of the Tuunbaq coming for them now they were so far from King William Land, when a knock came on the door.
“Francis?” Ross called, and James sat bolt upright in bed.
“God’s sake man, lay down. He won't expect you to be on ceremony, you’re on the sick list,” Francis said not unkindly, smiling at the almost petulant look James gave him as he flopped back down against the pillows.
Francis pushed aside the hammock that had been hung in what free space there was in M’Clintock’s generously surrendered cabin and slid the door open. “Hello James.”
“Ah, Frank. Just checking that all of your men have settled into their new quarters and have all they need?”
“Rest, warmth, and cleanliness was all they wished for, and they have had it all and more, both those here and at the shore. Your men have been most hospitable. Thank you.”
“Oh, do not thank me! Good lord, a sailor would do nothing else for his fellows, as would any good Englishman,” he gave Francis a firm smack on the arm. “As any man worth his salt would do for his friend. I am only sorry it’s all at such close quarters.”
“It’s a relief after wide open spaces. So much so that I think that mine and James- Fitzjames’ friendship might even survive the journey home having to share a lieutenant’s cabin.”
“How is the command - excuse me - captain?”
“Refusing to rest,” Francis said loud enough for James to hear him. “First he would not take the damned bunk, and now he will not sleep,” he glanced over his shoulder and caught James’ unrepentant smile. “I have half a mind to drug him,”
“I dare say you have no reason to complain of a man’s stubbornness,” Ross laughed, then straightened his shoulders, becoming slightly more officer than friend. “Well. If all is well, might we speak?”
Francis slid the door closed behind him and followed Ross into the great cabin, taking the seat he was offered and belatedly remembering to turn down the offer of a drink. “I have become teetotal, had to dry out before we walked out.”
“Dry out? Good lord Francis.”
“It became - no. I became a man who you would not be glad to call friend, and who was unsuited to the position he found himself in. Drunken and sour and brooding, to the point Fitzjames had to reprimand me.”
Ross gently set down the elegant crystal decanter, obviously deciding carefully on what to say. “But you overcame it, and that is what matters in the discovery service, is it not? The overcoming of odds set against us by nature or human frailty.”
“I shall not argue your point.”
Ross strode to the cabin door and called for tea which was brought directly, the pristine china cups almost sending Francis into fits of laughter. Crystal decanters, bone china tea services, the damned velvet curtains, what good had any of it done the ninety-seven souls that had been lost since they entered Lancaster Sound.
Ross was silent as he poured the tea and pushed the plate of biscuits across the table to Franics, making an insistent motion when he shook his head. “Now Frank, do not think I am above mother-henning you.”
Francis obediently took a biscuit, his mouth unsure about the sweetness and the crumbling texture that was now so alien to him. “Ann still makes fine shortbread,” he eventually said, if only to see how pleased Ross looked.
“She would be most gratified to know she gave you some small comfort and reminder of home. Most gratified.”
Francis nodded, and took a gulp of tea to wash the sweetness from his mouth.
“Now, Francis,” Ross started, moving his chair so he could look at Francis directly. “I asked you when I found you what had occurred to bring you all so low. I understand why you wished to wait until the ships to speak to me of such tragedy, I do. Even if you were not my dear friend I would not have demanded,” he lent forward, clasped hands resting on the table. “I still do not demand - but Francis I must press you for what happened to Sir John at least . If only to have something to tell my own officers and men, for the wondering will only breed rumour and unpleasantness.”
Francis sighed, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes until he saw swirls before letting them fall limp into his lap. He told Ross of the two winters they had already spent on the ice before they approached King William Land, of the rapidly dropping mercury and the old ice still clogging the lanes. Of the decision to sail down the exposed and unknown western edge of King William Land instead of the more sheltered east.
“A rash choice,” Ross said slowly. “Did you not advise to the contrary?”
“I had not made myself a man Sir John - or indeed anyone - would wish to listen to.”
Ross frowned, reaching out to place a hand palm down on the table near to Francis’ arm. “I knew you were low when you sailed, but…”
Francis stopped him with a wave of his hand, and continued. “We spent another winter beset in the ice at the northern point of King William Land, and the temperature was refusing to rise when summer came again. The bloody ice just would not melt, James, it seemed to only grow and grow and… parties were sent out to search for leads, and it was while leading one that Lieutenant Gore was killed.”
“Killed! Graham Gore? How on earth...he is a most decent and competent officer. Experienced also…”
“A bear. Or what we thought was a bear, attacked him and took the body away.”
“Oh good God,” Ross muttered, visibly paling. “Bloody hell .”
“An accident had occurred just previous to his attack; a Netsilik man, a shaman, was shot by accident. All was done to save him, even transporting him back to Erebus , but he died, and was put down the fire hole.”
Ross' expression darkened. “That was most insensitive to the beliefs of people you might come to depend on.”
Francis nodded in agreement, turning the tea cup slowly one way, and then the other. “Sir John died on a shooting party that was trying to kill the bear. It put him down the same fire hole as the Netsilik man.”
“You -” Ross leant in closer. “You mean it knocked him down there?”
Francis could agree, it would be the easiest thing in the world to allow that to be the tale taken home to England and Lady Jane. It was not the noble death that would be expected of an expedition commander, but Sir John’s death had not been noble anyway. It made more sense than what had happened, that was certain, but as Francis looked over into his friend’s earnest, steely gaze he knew he would see it for the lie it was.
“No James,” Francis grimaced. “I mean it put him down there, just the same as the shaman had been.”
Ross sat back sharply. “What are you saying, Francis?”
“Simply what occurred, or what we could gather occurred. It was smart. I know bears can be uncommonly curious and intelligent but this one was… other. Different. There was a… the shaman’s daughter, she was amongst the Netsilik who were with us, she was aboard a while and… it was not something we should know of, James. It was a thing no strangers should know of, or even know it’s name, and we were punished for it.”
“What was it called?” Ross asked, holding up his hands when Francis bristled at the casualness of his tone.
“It pulled two men in half and left them merged together upon my deck,” Francis hissed, exhaustion making his temper flair.
“Peace Francis. Peace! I do not doubt the horror of what happened, or the basic truth of it, but you speak of such things any men of science count as native myth and superstition.”
Francis peered at him through the gloom of the great cabin, his eyes too used to the scalding brightness of the sunlight out there on the shingle and the ice. “Have you sent out hunting parties?”
Ross looked unsure at the change in subject, but shook his head. “Captain Bird did prior to our return. I do mean to before the week is out, I thought it best to allow all men to rest first.”
“You should send them out now,” Francis took another bite of biscuit and washed it down with the rest of his tea. “The tinned food does not stave off scurvy, and they are poorly sealed and likely to spoil. If the men do not fall foul of rotten food then poison from the lead will set in sooner rather than later. I have seen men beg for death because of it, and it has already killed Bonnet.”
“Our supplies were inspected after Mr Goodsir expressed concerns and they were found to be sound.”
“Have you checked the ones on the ship?”
“No,” Ross said slowly, and sighed. “I understand, I have been long gone from the polar regions. But Francis…”
“You may have the doctors report to you what has sickened my men if you do not believe me.”
Ross shifted, moving as if to grasp Francis’ arm before seeming to think better of it. "All will be done Francis, in due time. It must be due time for there is so much to do with you all aboard, I am sorry.”
“Do not apologise. You never have need to apologise to me, James. I am simply tired. So very tired.”
Ross did reach for him then, gripping his shoulder gently. “I find I do need to apologise, old man. It’s all so very peculiar.” Ross dropped his hands onto the table top and fidgeted with the bandage on his hand. “I have been to King William Land before, as you know. I built the cairn at Victory Point. But when we searched for you it did not feel as it once did. It felt hostile in the truest sense, not simply as a pretty descriptor in a memoir. It unsettled us all. I was unsettled by it greatly,” he glanced at Francis who leant forward, offering his friend what he hoped was an encouraging look. “Then we found that poor wretched man, and I admit we all became quite spooked. I panicked somewhat for your safety. Good god Frank, I would have the most terrible dreams of you reduced to that half animal, terrible state. It haunted me!”
“I do not take lightly what you say to me Francis. I never have nor ever shall I if I keep an ounce of sense in my head,” Ross shook his head and reached out to grip Francis’ arm again. “Good God man, what happened to the doctors?”
“There was a celebration for the first sunrise and a fire broke out. They were amongst the victims.”
Ross swore, rubbing at his injured hand. “Shamans and magic and creatures like this, and cursed places, it simply does not bare thinking about.”
Francis could only nod in agreement, not having much else to say. Ross poured them both another cup of tea and drank his with the single-mindedness of someone who had received a great shock, Francis sipping at his so he would have something to do with his suddenly restless hands.
“The man that was found, the broken wretch. None of your officers have asked me anything of him, there seems to be no desperation to know him, or of his health,” Ross’s eyes were trained on his tea cup as he spoke, his voice carefully quiet, and Francis braced himself. “I know of his lashing, the severity of which gave me pause, but did not change our gentle treatment of him. What happened to his tongue horrified me, but I was so very, very relieved when I saw horror and surprise on your face when I first mentioned it to you. I did not believe it a thing you, the man I hold dear, would be capable of, but I feared… no, I shall not give it voice. What I mean to say is, you suspect who this man is, do you not?”
“I do,” Francis whispered, something churning within him that he did not care to find a name for.
Ross nodded. “He is better than he was - I dare not say he is well,” he finally looked over at Francis, concern bright in his eyes. “I know you are exhausted Francis, but might you come and give him a name at least, so we know who he is?”
If this was Hickey - trouble maker, almost mutineer, probable murderer - then it would be better to know if he was aboard this ship. But maybe that was uncharitable of Francis, surely any man who was in such an awful condition to cause Ross this amount of unease would not be capable of causing trouble. Besides, after all that had happened was not even this man allowed some mercy? Was his state not punishment enough?
Hickey was, above all, one of Francis’ crew, and he was responsible for him no matter what. Maybe if he had taken more responsibility instead of drinking through a whole ship’s supply of whiskey less blood would have been spilt.
“Good,” Ross nodded, then finished his tea as if he was knocking back a much stiffer drink.
“You don’t have to abstain around me, you know,” Francis said, managing a smile.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ross huffed, and got to his feet.
Francis could not face his half empty tea cup, his half starved stomach no doubt full to the brim after the meagre meal the doctors had given them. He did consider the plate of biscuits still pushed purposefully in his direction, and pointed to them as he glanced up at Ross. “May I?”
“Oh of course old man! Of course! Take them all,” Ross pulled out his immaculate handkerchief and handed it to Franics. “No need to ask.”
Francis wrapped the majority up in the handkerchief and kept a hold of one. He followed Ross from the cabin, asking him to pause as he rapped on the door to the wardroom.
“Come in,” Le Vesconte called very softly, and Francis was careful to be quiet as he slid the door open.
The wardroom table had been removed, and in its place were set up pallets for his three remaining lieutenants who had been berthed here. Jopson was sound asleep closest to the door, and Le Vesconte was perched on the side of his with a book open on his lap.
“Sir?” he asked, making a half hearted attempt to stand that Francis waved down.
“Something for you boys,” Francis whispered, being careful not to wake Jopson as he crossed to Le Vesconte and placed the biscuits on his book.
Le Vesconte’s bloodshot eyes widened, then he blushed. “Sir, I...”
“See that there are some left for Jopson. And Hodgson when he returns from the basins.”
“This is very decent of you sir. Very decent indeed!” he glanced at where Ross was standing outside the door, then dropped his voice further. “I would like to make my apologies for how I behaved on the haul. It was most unlike me, only I was frightfully worried about James and…”
“It’s all right Henry. None of us were ourselves, and I think I of all people can allow some strong-headedness in my officers.”
“Thank you sir.”
“Less of this reading. Rest, that’s an order.”
“Aye sir,” Le Vesconte nodded, putting a biscuit between his teeth before re-wrapping them and tucking them away.
After leaving the wardroom the next stop was his and James’ cabin. James was finally asleep, curled up on his side to fit in the too small bunk, his bad arm laying limply on top of the covers. Francis left the biscuit he had kept hold of next to the mug of water on the desk, and did his best to be quiet in sliding the door closed behind him.
“Still a gentle heart, I see,” Ross said, looking pleasantly amused. “You could have asked for more, you know, I’m not such a tyrant I would deny men shortbread.”
“I know. But you get so used to sharing what food you have that it feels wrong not to, you see.”
Ross nodded, leading the winding way through the crowded deck towards the sickbay. “I understand. But you, Francis, are still soft at heart.”
The sickbay was as overused as they always tended to be in a crisis - the air fugged with sickness and too warm, which only made the stench even worse, the dim lighting making it feel even more hellish. Francis had been in here many times today, checking on the men who were filling up every space in the squat room or having himself seen to, but he had not paid much attention to the drawn curtain at the edge of the room which Ross now lead him to.
A chair was pulled up next to it and a man who Francis took to be an orderly was sound asleep in it, a well thumbed Bible set over his knees. Ross side-stepped him without waking him, so Francis did the same, keeping his hands firmly gripped behind his back as Ross moved the curtain aside.
It was Hickey, and thankfully he was sound asleep. He was as spotlessly clean as he had always been and obviously well cared for, in fact he looked positively doted on. He was too pale, skin almost translucent in that disconcerting way of the very sick, the shadows of his dark little den making him look like he was little more than a dessicated corpse. But he was very much alive, his strong steady breathing showed that, as did the slight tick under his left eye.
Ross was watching Francis as he straightened and took a step away, and he took a deep breath before looking at him and nodding. Ross let the curtain drop and they made their way silently from the sick bay, Francis concentrating on keeping his breath even and his step steady as he followed Ross back aft.
They paused in the corridor leading to the great cabin, letting M’Clintock pass as he went about his duties.
“You know him,” Ross stated.
“Yes. Cornelius Hickey, caulker’s mate upon Terror .”
Ross nodded, something in him relaxing. “Having a name and knowing him to be a caulker of all things makes him less of a horrific spectre, I must admit,” he ran his eyes over Francis, then gripped his elbow. “Enough of this, I have been remiss and kept you from rest far too long.”
Francis nodded, managing a smile for Ross as they parted company and he slipped back into his cabin. He leaned back against the door, only meaning to rest for a moment, but felt himself almost immediately slipping off to sleep. He managed to get his boots off mostly silently, his eyes on James to make sure he did not wake him, and then hauled himself into the hammock. It had been many, many, many years since he had slept to one, so much so that it was rather a novelty now. He had almost forgotten how wonderfully comfortable they could be, but did not have long to think about it as he was asleep almost at once.
* * *
It’s an ugly thing, an iced-in ship. Unnatural. Even at anchor, a ship shouldn’t be that still; it ought to rock and sway, just as a man at rest might breathe, his chest rising and falling. A still ship was like a dead man.
Tommy Armitage remembered looking back at Terror and Erebus on the first day of the haul, and being overcome with fear. He could not reconcile the sight of those great black tombs - looming out of the ice, appearing smaller with every mile they gained - with the place they had all called home. Something about the sight struck him so strangely. The size of the ships, which of course he had been aware of, took on a new and terrifying aspect at a distance.
When they reached the shore in which Enterprise and Investigator were held, that same horror came over him, ten fold. The hairs on Armitage's neck rose up, electrified, and he thought he might be sick. The enormousness of those wooden hulls towering over them, the sinister stillness. He fancied it might move at any moment; might tumble forward and crush every man on the shore. It was too much even to look at, he stared at the rocks on the ground instead, his heartbeat thrashing in his chest.
It was shameful for a sailor to fear ships, but that was the truth of it. One look at them and Armitage was quite sure he could not set even a foot closer to the monstrous structures. Weeks and weeks of sleeping on rough ground, nearly freezing to death in thin unstable tents, and all Armitage wanted to do was crawl back inside one and cover his head. They were not safe until the ships were free from the dreadful ice. Nothing could convince him otherwise.
He wasn’t the only one. He saw it in his friends’ faces, in Sergeant Tozer too, different shades of the same anxiety.
Tozer saw them through it, speaking for all of them just as he had every step of the way on that death march. They had shed uniforms out there, piece by piece. Left behind as burial goods for beloved friends, or cast off frippery too heavy to bear any longer. Parts of themselves sloughed off like dead skin. As hats and coats dropped away or found themselves re-purposed, so did the men’s ranks and former allegiances. Armitage hadn’t been thick with Tozer on Terror , not even after half the crew left for Erebus , but on the worst nights out in the wilderness they had huddled together, six, seven, eight men to a tent sometimes.
It changed your perspective, enough nights like that. Enough mornings waking to see who had survived. Enough graveside prayers.
Tozer may have been a marine, but he was one of them now, and he had propped them up all the way. He didn’t let them down that day they made Enterprise, either; Tozer fixed it for them all to stay on the shore, if they wanted, the captains themselves agreed it.
That was just as well, because Armitage was finished with captains. As soon as he was back on English soil he was going to be shot of the navy, become his own man.
They made camp once more, all of it being old hat to them by now. By keeping themselves busy they were able to avoid looking back up at the ships too often, or out to the barren sea. They set a fire to blazing, and tea - or what passed for it - was brought out by some of the mates on Enterprise .
The esquimaux had given them seal meat, back before Sir James found them, but there was nothing fresh here, so it was back to tins or hardtack. Too tired to grumble about it, they sat in their usual circle warming their hands and chewing carefully.
Tozer, taking his responsibility over the men on shore very seriously, organised some of the remaining marines to patrol the camp. There had been no sight of the creature in weeks - not since Irving and Farr were found. According to gossip, the beast had been sickening for something. Didn’t like the taste of English meat, perhaps. Armitage hoped it had choked.
“Not the bear I’m worried about,” Golding said as the marines changed watch and Tozer settled himself on an upturned biscuit box, “it’s the apparitions .”
Armitage turned his head to hear better. What with the wind always whistling past and a deaf ear, he had struggled for weeks now to catch everything his mates were saying.
“What are you on about, lad?” Mr Weekes yawned, scratching the back of his neck.
“Spirits!” Golding said, eyes widening. He was just a kid, really, was Golding. “Mr Gibbons told me the ghost of Henry Hudson walks up and down the coast here, looking for his mutinous crew. Wants revenge, and he’ll kill you if you see him.”
“You don’t believe in ghosts, do you Golding?” Tozer elbowed him. “You’re not that foolish.”
Golding bristled, straightening his back, “I never believed in demon bears before, but I’ve seen enough now to open my eyes.”
There was a general murmur, and the men looked about themselves, shifting and squinting out at the fog. Armitage didn’t say anything, but he agreed with Golding, at least in broad strokes. They’d all seen more than enough in the past few years to warrant an open mind. He’d never seen a spectre himself, but he had a spinster aunt on his mother’s side who saw odd things. She got premonitions too, she knew when a storm would blow in, and once predicted a threshing accident on a neighbour’s farm which killed three hands.
Armitage wasn’t a foolish man, or even a very imaginative one, but he didn’t take chances either. The one personal item he owned which he had not cast off, his St Clement’s Cross, was kept safe on a string around his neck, protection against the evils of this heathen land.
“If Hudson were a ghost,” said Brown, who liked to read books for pleasure, and thought himself learned, “he’d be roaming Hudson's Bay, surely. Not out here.”
“Plenty of men after Hudson have found themselves alone facing a slow death on these shores,” said Gibbons.
No one said anything to that. Tozer looked troubled, and Armitage supposed that his thoughts were with Private Heather. It was anyone’s guess where his soul roamed now; whether the light had gone out for good the day his skull split open, or whether it had been snuffed out in the smoke of the carnivale.
“Lieutenant Irving,” Weekes said, puffing his pipe. Every pair of eyes swivelled towards him, keen to be distracted. “Anyone’s going to haunt us it’ll be him, murdered souls are the vengeful ones, everyone knows that.”
“Mr Farr too, then,” someone else added. Weekes snorted,
“Farr! That dolt couldn’t find his bootlaces to tie ‘em, what’s the chance of him returning to the land of the living, eh?”
“Why would Irving be after us?” Golding pondered. “It was Cornelius that did him in.”
At the mention of that name everyone fell silent. They looked to Tozer, who shifted uncomfortably beneath the weight of scrutiny, eventually clearing his throat and saying,
“There’s no such thing as ghosts. Lieutenant Irving would be the first to say so. What’s behind us is behind us, and the men we buried are staying buried.” He climbed to his feet. “Gibbons, you’re on the next watch. No more telling tales.”
Things settled back after that, but Armitage patted a hand over his slops to feel the cross he wore tap against his chest. He saw Weekes make a sign with his fingers, like something country folk did to ward off the evil eye, and Gibbons kissed his wedding ring, crossing himself like a papist. Maybe there weren’t ghosts, but it did no harm to take precautions.
No one spoke of Hickey again, even after Solomon got up to check in with Wilkes, who was on duty guarding the camp. Armitage thought Golding might raise it again, or even Gibbons once Tozer was out of earshot, but they must have deemed it bad luck.
When Irving and Farr were found, Crozier ordered the camp searched for Mr Hickey, and every man who had been part of his circle seemed to unanimously agree to leave well enough alone. They were too exhausted, too addled to do much else, and Tozer more than filled the little caulker’s shoes. There was no more talk of splitting off from the rest of the company. Anyway, the esquies found them quick enough after that, and bought them a few days respite until Sir James’ party arrived to save them.
What might have happened if they’d been left undiscovered for more than a week didn’t bear thinking about, but Armitage couldn’t help mulling it over anyway. No doubt Crozier was being congratulated this very moment in the Enterprise ward room for his bravery and heroism; fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds. There would surely be a parade for the officers, once they were home. Statues and songs and their names all over every map.
Fine rewards for losing one hundred men; for allowing them to be picked off one by one by disease and cold and monsters while the Mick captain stupefied himself with whiskey.
Armitage was more than familiar with that kind of captain. The kind who hid in his cabin when things were at their worst, only to emerge at the eleventh hour with convoluted speeches meant to dazzle the crew into blind loyalty. And if they could not dazzle you, they damned you; Armitage well remembered the flogging that night on Terror, and it had come as no surprise at all, except that he himself escaped the lash.
If Armitage owed anyone his gratitude, it was Cornelius Hickey for sparing him that brutality. Armitage had seen much, much worse than the violence Crozier unleashed upon his men on that miserable night. In China he’d seen cabin boys crippled by cruel commanders and abused by wicked captains. He’d seen men starved for disobeying orders, ABs hung for their officer’s ignorant mistakes.
And Armitage knew for a fact that Crozier did not deserve anyone’s loyalty. He knew the truth - and Tozer, and Gibson, and plenty of others. Cornelius had told them before he left, before they even set off from Terror , about the captain’s own personal mutiny.
He’d have left them the moment he had the chance to; abandoned his own futile expedition. Crozier had no care for them, his crew, not beyond how far they could haul his fucking boats.
A fine uniform didn’t make you better than anyone; they’d proved that more than once out on the walk. There was a navy saying even older than Nelson; “Aft the most honour, but forward the better man.” Armitage was grateful that at least for now, on the shore, in their tents, there was no aft and no forward, only men he trusted and men he had bled with. No parades for them, no Tozer Strait or Manson Island or Gibson Bay. Men like them only had each other to remember, and only each other to depend on.
Armitage finished his tea and ran his finger around the bottom of the cup for the leaves. They were bitter and grainy, like sand in his teeth, but he wouldn’t waste them. He turned his back on the grim hulking ships and crawled into his tent to rest, and to pray for delivery from nightmares.
Well, now they've all survived the drama can begin!
in the wake of rescue the mutineers reconsider and remember
It was passing strange to find himself on the deck of a ship again, to walk on creaking timber and duck his head as he navigated through tight corridors and underneath low wooden beams. How long had it been? Weeks? Months? He had lost track of time so quickly in the confusion of movement, the pain in his legs and back the only measure of progress.
Things were tight on board; men were crowded in closer than they’d been on Erebus after Terror tipped. It was warm, too, Tozer had forgotten what it meant to be truly warm, to be over -warm. There was something unwholesome about the thick yellow mugginess below decks after so many long days exposed to the thin, clean air of King William Land. As he led his men through to the mess and watched their pale faces flush red and begin to shine with sweat, he had no regrets about his decision to stay on the shore until leads opened up.
At least out there they could see danger coming. Sometimes Tozer thought he could feel it, too. A man used to hunting could read the changes in trees and soil, could stalk a deer for miles before getting sight of it. Did it not follow, then, that a man three years gone in the Arctic developed a sense of when to expect a catastrophe? A change in the wind, tension in the air. Aching in your back teeth. On a ship your senses were muddied; you were blind and helpless.
Still, they dutifully presented themselves for their morning meal, as ordered. Even the peculiar unease brought on by being in a dark, enclosed space again was easily defeated by the promise of a hot meal.
Solomon had forgotten the sound of men off-duty - the babble of chatter, of companionable laughter and snatches of song. There had been hardly any talk, those last few miles - no one had the energy to waste.
The mess on Enterprise was startlingly loud after that long grey quiet; trapped voices churned and sprang against the decking, shocking Tozer's ears. The other men must have felt it too, he saw Armitage frown and shrink down into his collar, shaking his head doggishly, while Golding pressed his hands against the sides of his head. Tozer ignored his own mounting headache to give them all a smile and a slap on the shoulder as they filed silently past him towards the stove, where Enterprise's cook presided over a steaming cauldron of thick porridge.
"Have a look, lads," he raised his voice cheerfully, "what bloody luxury, eh? A hot meal and a bench to sit on, mind you don't get splinters in yer backsides from all this coddling."
His men smiled back slowly, lowering their shoulders as they looked forward to a meal which may well stretch to more than a few puny mouthfuls.
As they took their seats Tozer was aware of being watched, being cautiously observed by the Enterprise crew. They all recognised each other as sailors - men with things in common; with similar stories of long months far from home; hard work and bitter conditions. More than that, they shared a sense of questing, of wanting something that could not be found in England. But Tozer and his men stood apart now; they had a new and different sameness, an affinity that chained them to each other which the Enterprise crew found unsettling. They must seem like men fresh from war, and as the chatter turned to whispers and murmurs around them, Solomon wondered how much of it showed on his face.
The porridge was salted, and it had been so long since Tozer had eaten anything with more flavour than the blood in his gums that it made his head spin. Golding coughed, almost choking with surprise, and Hoar had to lean across and pound him on the back.
“Steady as she goes, fella,” said Private Wilkes. “Won’t do no good to have you keel over now. Be a crying shame if you dragged your carcass all that way through the ice only to die from breakfast.”
Golding grinned bashfully and took a smaller spoonful next. The spoon he was using had belonged to Heather, first. It had W. H. carved into one side of the bone handle, and R.G. on the other. Heather had done it neater than Golding, he'd had a very steady hand. He was steady in all things.
Solomon returned to his food, dismissing that thought. He’d been pushing it back since Carnivale, and it had been easier to stave off on the brutal march across King William Land, where there were living men who needed him. Now that Tozer had done his duty, and those men were safer than they had been in years, the ones he had not been able to save began to return to him like spectres. None more so than Private Heather, who Tozer had failed not once but twice.
He ate his porridge, now tasteless, and forced it down. He couldn’t allow regret to consume him now, they still had so far to go.
As they bowed their heads quietly over their breakfast, more familiar faces began to appear - the men of Erebus and Terror who had a different sense of the ship and berthed aboard the Enterprise . Hartnell and Jopson, Bridgens… Tozer felt the mood divide itself again as they arrived one by one, glancing down at the marines and assorted mates who had chosen the shore. Tozer knew the reason behind their suspicion. They thought it madness, choosing tents over timber.
That opinion was nothing Tozer could help; he had to think of his men, the ones who had looked to him when the officers were nowhere to be seen, and the fog was creeping in. It was not mutiny, it was camaraderie, and it kept them alive this far.
He had almost scraped his bowl clean when an unfamiliar voice addressed him. Solomon turned in his seat, then stood up at once to greet a fellow Royal Marine.
They shook hands firmly.
"Sergeant Smith," he introduced himself. He was about Tozer's height, dark haired with long whiskers. He had the bearing of a man with an easy temper and his smile was genuine. "I read the revised charter - no surprise to see so many marines on it."
"We did what was expected of us,” Tozer said, meaning it.
“No less than that,” Smith nodded, still gripping his hand. “We know what it means.”
There were two more marines standing behind Smith, who both stepped in to shake Solomon’s hand next. They were all very fine looking, their hair greased and combed, uniforms immaculate and boots polished, as though they’d all just stepped off the Chatham Dockyard.
“You don’t know how glad we all are to have found you,” one of the privates said, addressing the whole table, “wait until you get home, you’ve been in all the papers.”
Solomon felt his porridge coil into a heavy knot of rope in his belly at the mention of home, but he kept himself in check, “No gladder than we are to be here, I expect.”
“Anything you need,” Smith said magnanimously, “you or your men, just give the word.”
“Spot of tobacco wouldn’t go amiss,” Des Voeux raised his head.
The marines all laughed, and there was some shuffling between them as they each pooled their personal rations to share with Franklin’s men. The coarse knot in Solomon’s stomach began to loosen.
Over the swell of chatter, Sgt Smith leaned in conspiratorially, lowering his voice to speak only to Tozer, “We’ve a clean uniform for you, if you want it? It’s not new, but it’s not in bad nick.”
Tozer suddenly felt ashamed of how untidy he must look. They had all slept and spent some time at the wash basin since making the ships, and the Enterprisers even brought them clean shirts to wear, but he knew his hair and beard were a horror, and he had not seen his own uniform in weeks - he thought perhaps someone had been buried in it, but he struggled to recall clearly. In his dull slops, the colour of wet sand, he might be mistaken for any old AB.
Grateful for an opportunity to leave the noise of the mess, at any rate, Tozer followed Sergeant Smith towards the wardroom, coming to stop by the sergeant’s own trunk, where he withdrew a thick red jacket almost identical to the one Tozer had been issued with long ago. Solomon held it in both hands, thumbing the soft felt and letting the brass buttons catch the lamplight.
“I’ll have to ask ‘round for boots,” Smith commented, glancing down at Tozer’s shoes, scuffed and chewed up by the rough ice and rocks. He’d stuffed them with rags and wrapped his feet in whatever he could find to keep out the frost - a sleeve from someone else’s shirt; an old newspaper; pages from a book he will never read.
“Thank you,” he nodded at Smith.
“Welcome back, Sergeant,” Smith clapped him on the arm, and marched off, back to the mess.
Tozer looked at the jacket again, holding it up. It was so bright, a colour he had almost forgotten. Even blood looked dull out there in the great white nothing, where everything was washed out and robbed of joy.
“It won’t fit you,” a voice croaked to his left and he turned sharply to see the ghoulish, swaying figure of Billy Gibson, gripping the hammock rings to keep himself upright, “it won’t fit you now, but I can make it fit you.”
He looked dreadful, and Gibson had never exactly been the picture of robust good health. His grey eyes were sunken into their sockets, and his cheeks were hollow from lost teeth.
“Feeling better, Billy?” Solomon asked without masking his sarcasm. “Should you be about?”
“I’ve been instructed to exercise.” Billy replied humourlessly. His face was gaunt and pale as a wax skull, and as he approached Tozer found himself wanting to take a step back. He stood his ground and gripped his jacket tighter.
Billy held out his hands, “Please? I want to be useful, there’s precious little else to do.”
Tozer relented, handing it over. He understood; a sailor is a sailor, and everyone needed an occupation. The heavy coat was almost too much for Billy to bear, he staggered slightly as he accepted it, letting out a low huff of air like an ancient hound.
“Come where it’s light,” he said, nodding towards one of the gun ports, left open to allow air and light into the sweltering forecastle. Tozer felt a lot better about his own dishevelled appearance as he followed Billy’s loping, bow-legged gait across the deck.
It was cooler and lighter by the port, but that only made Tozer shiver and cast the lines and shadows Billy’s face into even sharper relief.
Still, he did as he was bade, because he recognised the need to keep busy, and because he’d never been any good with a needle and thread himself. It was a novelty to have your jacket tailored to your own proportions. Tozer pulled his slops over his head and shrugged into his new uniform to find that Gibson was quite right; it did not fit him at all. It couldn’t have been too much bigger than his original coat, but he was swimming in it, like one of the cabin boys playing at being a marine.
Solomon hadn’t been fully undressed in a very long time, but when he changed his shirt two days ago he’d been able to count every one of his ribs; they stood out like pipes on a church organ, and his breeches were held up only by the buckles of his braces. What muscle he ever had had long turned sinewy and ropey, and he supposed that perhaps he shouldn't have been so harsh in his judgements of Billy Gibson’s frame.
“I can make it fit,” Billy repeated, buttoning up the front to get the measure of the task. His fingers slipped and fumbled with the fastenings, trembling with effort, but his dull eyes sharpened at once, a frown of concentration forming which made him look more alive, and less ghoulish.
“How are those knees?” Tozer asked, trying to stand as straight as he could. The muscles in his back pulled and creaked.
“Agony,” Billy replied dryly. He licked his lips and pulled a leather pouch from his shirt pocket, unfolding it to reveal a row of pins, needles and even a neat little pair of sharp silver scissors.
“Kept that on you the whole march?” Tozer remarked, surprised.
Billy shook his head, “I borrowed it from an Enterpriser in sick bay. Whittock.”
“They seem good lads,” Tozer nodded.
Solomon hadn’t anything to say to that. He’d never exactly been pals with Billy Gibson, with so little in common. They each had their own spheres.
The set of circumstances which had, for a time, brought them into each others’ confidence were also the reasons they had been consciously avoiding each other ever since the rescue.
A young AB walked past, his head down. Billy’s eyes followed him as he hurried towards the mess for his breakfast. It was quiet on deck, otherwise; an older man was murmuring to himself in a far corner, rolling endless cigarettes, but otherwise it was as private as ships ever were.
“Our mutual friend is aboard,” Gibson said, his voice low and soft against Tozer’s collar, “Hickey. I’ve seen him, in sick bay. They found him.”
Tozer felt the ship closing in around him, sweat springing up on his skin. Aching in his back teeth.
“Cornelius? Alive?” His throat was dry.
Gibson nodded, pins pursed between his lips and teeth as he worked, deft fingers pinching and smoothing at the fabric of Tozer’s new jacket.
“What did he say?”
“Nothing,” Gibson murmured. “He cannot speak. He… do you remember the esquimaux girl? What she did to her tongue? It's like that.”
“Christ,” Tozer’s neck jerked back in horror, and Gibson gripped his arms at the elbows to hold him still. Tozer shook his head in disbelief. “Did he lose his mind?”
That would certainly explain Irving. The way they’d found him.
“I don’t know. I cannot account for it,” Gibson replied evenly. “He seems well enough. Calm. I'm not sure how much he remembers.”
Solomon supposed that if anybody was in a position to judge Hickey’s state of mind, it was probably Billy.
Still, he couldn’t ignore the rumble of dread in his midsection. Did it change things, if Cornelius - Mr Hickey - had been found alive? No, he decided. It did not. There had been no mutiny, and now there would be no mutiny, because they had been saved. They were going home. That had been Tozer’s only goal, and his only reason for associating himself with Cornelius in the first place.
As Gibson straightened his uniform, brushing Solomon’s shoulders, Tozer stood a little taller, feeling himself again at long last. The harness and the rocks, and Terror Camp, and the misery of hauling - those things were behind them now.
“You'd do best to keep clear of him," he said to Gibson, voice raised a little, because what did he have to hide? He had done his duty. He had been commendable in all things, that’s what Captain Fitzjames had said. "They’ll want to court martial him for what he did to Lieutenant Irving and Mr Farr.”
Billy moved behind Solomon to pull the loose jacket in and fold it to size.
“I expect so,” he said, quietly.
“That’s his look out,” Tozer said. “His choices were not ours.”
“No,” Billy replied. He fixed his pins and began pulling the jacket off. Tozer shrugged his shoulders to help him, turning around as he did.
Billy wouldn’t meet his eye, he fiddled with the gold braid on the coat. “Not all of his choices, I suppose.”
He looked up finally, and Tozer frowned. “You cannot compare putting down a lame animal to what that devil did to Irving?”
“So it’s true that Neptune broke his leg?” Gibson stared at him boldly. He was half an inch taller than Tozer, which was irritating.
“I don’t remember you asking that at the time.” Tozer hardened his tone.
“No,” Billy agreed, “there was a lot I didn’t question. None of us did.”
“There is no us , do you hear me? There was just him. What he did.”
“I’d have gone when he gave the word,” Billy said, barely above a whisper. “Wouldn’t you have?”
Tozer looked at him for a moment, then took a step back, tugging down on the fraying hem of his shirt, “I’d like that coat back as soon as possible, Mr Gibson.”
He walked briskly away, without looking back. It was time to get off the ship, back to the shore where he could think clearly, where he didn’t have to check the shadows for someone lurking, or listen to the infernal creaking of the ice as it gnawed at the hull.
Tozer struggled back into his slops when he returned to the mess, finding his men waiting for him. Armitage offered him a cigarette as he gathered them all and they began clambering up the ladders and onto the upper deck. It was covered still, but the air was clean and clear and Solomon took great gulps of it to realign himself.
He wouldn’t tell the men about Hickey, not yet. Not until he had to. Though he had immediately decided that it made no odds to him, he wasn’t yet sure what it might mean for them. Before his disappearance the little caulker’s mate had his nose in everybody’s business, and that could be a problem for them all later, especially if someone raised it with command.
If Gibson was right, and Hickey had no tongue left to wag, then that was all the better. Perhaps Cornelius' tongue was not the only appendage that enamoured Billy to him, but that was none of Tozer's concern. He had other things to worry about, like getting his men home.
Cornelius had been persuasive at a time when Tozer had wanted to be persuaded. He could talk all right, and he could make you listen. Lay his small white hands upon you like a call to arms and have you ready to do anything, to be anyone he told you you were.
After they found Irving’s body, with all that vile mischief wreaked upon it - things could have easily fallen apart then. But they hadn’t, because Tozer had done what he’d needed to do. Hickey had been gone a long while, but Tozer remembered his words. Reconfigure, reinvent. That is exactly what Solomon had done.
Up Next : A ruckus, and cracks widen.
Some honesty from both sides, and in the middle, suspicion.
Journal of FMRC, July 1848
I cannot tell the date, as time became lost on the walk and since coming aboard Enterprise time has been given solely to sleep and the keeping down of foodstuffs, not reacquainting ourselves with the date.
It is over one week since we made the ships, that is as much I can say. Dr Renholm and Mr Gilpin have said that three days would be when most would start to show improvement from scurvy, and indeed they have. I dare not call them healthy , but Mr Blanky is recovered enough from further sawing on his leg to sit up and demand tobacco, and several men in the sickbay can walk about without appearing as if they are about to pitch over at any moment, even though they have not yet been released fully from the care of the doctors.
I am glad for their health, of course, yet wish we all might have taken a little longer to recover if only to allow for some true rest.
I have no right to complain about my presence being requested at a command meeting for the remaining expedition officers following a meeting for his own, there are far worse things to face and our duties will only ended when England is reached. I think we all would like to lay down for a month before we feel as well as we should.
Ross and myself have confirmed on the ship's charter that the mystery crewman is indeed Mr Hickey. [Following lines heavily crossed out] . His state is much reduced, but he has survived some horrors, so he will not be put before court martial for what he may have done to the late Lieutenant Irving and Mr Farr until the health of his body and mind has been better discovered.
Ross did not have to do this, of course. The state of the ships and their supplies were the concern of himself and Captain Bird upon Investigator , and of their officers, not those of the expedition who were junior upon these ships if they had any authority at all. Yet Ross had never been selfish with his authority, or proud, and so took a personal hand in relaying the points of the command meeting that had been held in the morning. M'Clintock read out such things as the quantities of food and medicines, or the number of hunting parties that had been newly sent out, while Ross sat at the head of his fine mahogany table answering questions and listening to any concerns and points raised.
“Sir, I understand the inconvenience of the situation , ” Goodsir spoke up from the end of the table, a franticness in his manner and speech that had developed on the haul and was yet to fade away. “With the ice breaking up and all the extra work your men are doing chipping the pressure ridge away from the hull of Investigator. But we need exponentially more hunting parties to procure enough meat for the journey home. I…” his gaze flicked to James, who was sitting back in his chair in obvious discomfort, then to Jopson who was looking right back at Goodsir knowingly. “I fear that returning to tinned food this soon might ruin the health of those who are much weakened already. We must have fresh meat.”
“This was a matter raised by Dr Renholm this morning,” Ross explained, nodding to the man sat at the corner of the table next to Goodsir. “Mr Kerr and Mr Stout expect the lanes to be fully clear before the month is out, and I am sure you will all be as keen to leave this place as I will be to see you all safely on English soil. I do not think there is enough time or means to gather so much game. Yet!” Ross held up his hand when Goodsir made to protest. “We will put down nets and become a fishing boat, as we will sail through the fishing grounds around Greenland. Does this ease your concerns, Mr Goodsir?”
Goodsir looked to Dr Renholm, neither of them seeming wholly happy with the solution.“If Dr Renholm is satisfied.”
"I am not, as you already know, sir," Renholm said, his soft voice firm in that way physicians had. "After this morning's meeting I consulted the edition of Sir William Parry's memoirs that Captain Bird has leant to me. On his third voyage to this place they grew cress and such vegetation upon the stove pipes when first beset in these waters. Might I propose such a scheme to aid in our struggle against scurvy at least?”
A discussion was held between Renholm, Goodsir and M'Clintock on whether they did indeed carry the appropriate seeds, the idea faltering when it appeared the cultivation of plants was beyond all sailors and physicians present.
“At Beechey,” Jopson interrupted delicately. “When we wintered at Beechey I mean - Mr Honey and Mr Weekes, our carpenters, set up a garden upon North Devon island. They might know something of this?”
“By Jove, they did, didn’t they,” Le Vesconte piped up. “If they can persuade anemones and such to grow in that dire climate, I am sure cultivating a prodigious amount of cress will not be beyond them.”
"We should have grown those anemones on the pipes and chewed on those for our health,” James said drily, arching an eyebrow at Francis who shook his head with a sigh.
“Probably would have caught the ship on fire,” he muttered, and knew Ross was surprised when that was met with sharp, slightly hysterical laughter.
“Then we shall become both fishing boat and greenhouse,” Ross declared with a tap on the table, and then turned to Le Vesconte. “Would you and Lieutenant Jopson oversee this?”
“Oh,” Le Vesctone glanced down the table at Jopson who nodded, before turning back to Ross. “Of course, Sir James.”
“Capital. Now, I believe the next point of order was fresh shirts for the…”
There was a clatter from outside the door of the great cabin, and it slid open to admit Mr Gilpin who was in a state of some disarray, the faint sounds of commotion following close behind him. “Excuse me, Sir James, sirs, but might I request the presence of Dr Renholm and an officer with great immediacy sir, there is a disturbance in sickbay.”
“A disturbance?” Ross asked as M'Clintock and Renholm immediately got to their feet.
“I suppose our friend Mr Silence is lurking around in the shadows and putting the fear of the devil into everyone again.” Renholm sighed as he shuffled from the room, leaving a heavy silence as M'Clintock slid the door shut behind him.
That unfortunately familiar title gained a reaction from Francis’ officers. He doubted if any of them had given a second thought to the man Ross had found, certainly no-one had spoken of him or ever reacted whenever it had been brought up in the early days of the haul back to the ships. It was a harsh thing to admit, but a man already safe aboard the rescue ships had not been a priority to those who were still on the brink of not surviving long enough to reach them.
One by one those around the table turned to him, their captain, for an answer, and he sat back in his seat, letting his hands fall into his lap as he addressed the table.
“The crewman who Sir James found alone upon King William Land, and who is currently held in sickbay, is indeed Mr Hickey.”
“When did you know?” James demanded before anyone else had a moment to react.
“The night we came aboard,” Francis admitted.
James narrowed his eyes as if trying to recall something, but before he managed it Hodgson was speaking up.
“I...captain? I have an admission to make,” he said, voice less precise than it had been owing to his missing teeth. “When in Terror Camp, one day Mr Hickey spoke to me, with Sergeant Tozer present, of - of - he spoke of… the tins and the illnesses and many other things,” he glanced at Goodsir who was frowning at him, then to Jopson, before looking back down at the page of notes he was making out of habit. “How we were to keep healthy and well fed, and such. All of it in very seditious manner.”
“Mr Hickey spoke to you of a mutiny?” Francis asked slowly, trying to keep his voice even.
“At the time it felt like grousing, sir, but…”
“But then Irving was murdered, and you remained silent?” James’ tone was all sharp edges, and Hodgson flinched.
“I know, sir. I am sorry. I did not… so much was happening and I…”
“I understand, George. Our duties almost numbered as many as our responsibilities,” Francis soothed, preferring to have the truth from the man over railing at him.
“I know I should have spoken up. I should have…” he glanced at Jopson again and winced. “He claimed Neptune fell and broke his leg, and that he had put him out of his misery. I think he was luring men in with the promise of fresh meat.”
“The dog?” Ross interjected, obviously appalled.
“Yes. I am the worst kind of sorry, sirs. I did not think he would murder John.”
“A mutineer and a murderer,” Jopson said harshly, giving Hodgson a sideways look that had him shrinking in his chair. “Is there anything else we should know?”
“He boasted of having marines in his fold. And Mr Des Voeux. He asked about the esquimaux girl, but I said nothing! I refused to.”
“So,” James addressed Francis, swallowing hard. “Hickey was found alive… nearly one month , after he disappeared, and has no tongue . That is, it has been cut out, I assume?”
Francis held James’ level gaze as silence fell, Goodsir’s flinch the only outward sign anyone gave as to what they all now feared. A fear Francis had tried not to give any countenance to out of blind hope; for surely if that man had managed to do what Lady Silence had failed to then he would not be that abject creature hiding away in sickbay.
It was a risk, he realised as he looked around the hollow faces of his officers, that was not his choice alone to make, not now all of Hickey’s dubious and devious nature had been laid bare.
He looked to James once more, watching as exhaustion passed over his face. James rubbed at the old yellowed bruise on his jaw that scurvy had made bloom again, closing his eyes and sighing deeply before giving an almost imperceptible shake of his head that Francis understood clearly.
“Sir James,” Francis tired his best to not sound harried as he turned to Ross. “I know that we cannot prove the things Lieutenant Hodgson has spoken of, or indeed what was done to Lieutenant Irving as we have no body. It is only our exhausted and muddled word against a man who cannot speak."
“I do not doubt you easily, Francis,” Ross put in quietly.
“I have the word of an officer, not given under duress, that a mutiny was planned," Ross said with a nod to Hodgson who looked as if he wished to throw himself out of one of the large clear windows at his back. “And the murder of any officer must be treated with the upmost seriousness. Dr Renholm has complained of the man’s hidden presence causing trouble in sickbay, unsettling the men. I put off having him moved simply because there was nowhere to put him,” Ross rubbed at his injured hand with a sigh. “I shall have somewhere secure found for him made priority, and if he resists or causes any real trouble I shall have him clapped in irons.”
“Thank you, James.”
Ross nodded, then looked around the table. “I cannot say that any of this makes sense to me, but I will aim to do my very best by you all. In whatever way that may be.” he said, his gaze flicking to Francis in a manner he could not read. “Lieutenants Le Vesconte and Jopson, this applies to you also. If you wish to go now and see what is needed for this venture into horticulture, and report it back to me, then we shall get it started as soon as we might and return you all to health.”
Jopson looked to Francis when he stood, Le Vesconte whispering something to James before he joined Jopson in collecting his hat, the both of them pausing for Ross to formally dismiss them before slipping out of the door.
Francis glanced across the table to James who was already looking at him, a whole conversation had in that moment (“ the prospect of coming home will take the fire out of any mutineer” “better to keep a closer eye on them than a far one” ) and then Francis turned to Ross again. “The ice report speaks of the ice at the shore becoming impassable sooner rather than later, a thing we both saw a week ago. I do not want my men on shore to have no sure way back on to the ships. I would like to have this explained to them and asked to come aboard, now all has settled.”
“Of course. I shall send Sergeant Smith as he seems to have made a rapport with some of your men.”
“I shall go also, unless Goodsir has any vehement feelings on the subject,” James nodded to the man, pressing the back of his hand to his eye as he spoke. “I know Sergeant Smith is a most capable man but they should have one of their own officers speak to them.”
“You are still unwell, captain,” Goodsir said gravely.
“Not so unwell that a trip there and back will do me in,” James sounded just like a fine piece of writing in the Naval Gazette, and he flicked an ironic smile to Francis who shook his head at him. “Duty is not always pleasant, Mr Goodsir. Sergeant Tozer does not seem to have decided if he respects me or no, and he is the one they look to…”
“Respect?” Ross interjected, brow raised in consternation. “Surely a lack of obedience is insolence, not a matter of respect. That should be for your rank first, and then the man.”
They were true words, or rather things that Francis had held to be true until very recently. They left a startled silence in their wake, as it had been so long since any officer had thought such things on the scramble for survival.
"Sir James,” James broke the silence. “We must seem peculiar to you all with how we do things, and how we… how we all act. Men and officers both. But it is this peculiar place that has forced our hand. We have become quite un-shipshape and un-naval, and in some cases not much like men, but alas it is the land that has shaped us. And the ice."
Ross nodded in recognition of the words, hitting the arm of his chair with the palm of his good hand. “Well then, gentlemen, it seems that we will all have a good chance to remember who and what we are before we leave for warmer climes.....”
* * *
“Is he violent, do we need a marine?” M'Clintock asked the back of Mr Gilpin’s head as he followed the assistant surgeon through the narrow passage towards sickbay.
“Not violent sir, not like that.”
M'Clintock remembered Sir James’ bitten hand and chose to reserve judgement.
“He’s been difficult ever since Franklin’s men boarded,” Dr Renholm said from behind M'Clintock, sounding irritated and worn out by it all. “I have told Mr Whittock to keep him in check, but he continues to make a nuisance of himself.”
“What kind of nuisance?”
“He creeps about at night. He unsettles the men.”
“If he’s well enough to walk about, ought he to be in sickbay at all?”
“We’ve nowhere else to put him.” Renholm replied, at a loss. M'Clintock nodded, and began to descend the ladder to the lower deck after Gilpin.
Lieutenant M'Clintock had not seen the tongueless wretch since Whittock had returned with him to the ship, nor had he wished to. He was not generally in the business of bringing order to sickbay either, but nothing on this expedition had so far met expectations.
As they neared the bow of the ship M'Clintock could already hear the disturbance. He had expected to hear men shouting, but it was worse than that. He was very familiar with the sound of sailors fighting, or spoiling for a fight. He knew what excitement sounded like, and outrage, and discontent - all common enough on any voyage, and easy to quell with a firm hand. But the noises he heard now were not any of these things. This was a low, whispering rumble, a frenetic building of agitation and hushed murmurs - the same disquiet which spread like fog when there was disease on board. It was the sound of fear.
"We thought he wanted to tell us something," Gilpin was saying, his own voice very low now they were getting closer, so that M'Clintock had to strain to hear him. "We thought perhaps that was why he kept getting up. So Mr Whittock suggested--"
"Mr Whittock is not a physician, Mr Gilpin," Dr Renholm said sharply.
"No, doctor," Gilpin ducked his head. "He just seemed so very keen to help the man."
The three of them reached the end of the corridor and entered sick bay.
It was more crowded than M'Clintock had ever seen it, men were crammed in floor to ceiling, hammocks and blankets slung in every possible nook with barely room for the doctors to move about their work. Most of the men were Franklin’s, though there were a fair few from Enterprise who had fallen to the same queer debility which had afflicted them ever since landing on this frozen shore. Almost every man was awake, sitting up or standing, eyes wide and dark, faces sallow, rubbing overgrown beards or scratching their scalps in bewilderment. There was a sense of leaning in, of conspiracy and of hermetic mystery.
The focus of this furtive aggravation was Mr Silence himself - the tongueless creature who the Enterprise crew sometimes called John, and Captain Crozier had called Cornelius Hickey.
The diminutive man was sitting on the floor at the centre of the commotion, apparently oblivious to the turmoil he was causing. He clutched a pen in his left hand, gripping it in a fist to make up for his lost fingers, splattering black ink across the page, onto his nightshirt, and the bandages around his feet. He was scribbling furiously onto the pages of an empty copy book, his knees drawn up, knobbly white ankles crossed like a schoolboy, head bent so that his long hair fell forward, veiling his face.
As he used up one page he tore it out and tossed it away, allowing it to flutter upwards through the miasmic air and be caught by one of his fellow convalescents, who immediately began to read aloud from it, while others clamoured to see and hear, peering over each others' shoulders, or clutching sheets of their own, so that four or five men were reading aloud at once, and no sense could be made of the babbling. Their faces twisted as they mouthed the words, deep frowns settling into their pallid faces, expressions of stark confusion and even outright horror.
Lieutenant M'Clintock did not hesitate. This was much more than a disturbance; this was an infection, this was something which needed to be pulled out at the very root before it could spread.
"There will be order in here!" He barked, striding as quickly as he could through the throng. "Mr Whittock, explain yourself," he snatched at the leafs of paper from the mens' hands as he passed them.
Whittock was standing closest to the tongueless man, not reading, but watching over him.
"He is speaking, sir," the mate replied, "he has things he wishes to be known."
“This is not the way,” M'Clintock stood above the scribbling man, who did not look up, whose hands did not still. Ink flicked into M'Clintock’s boots, and he grimaced. He bent down and pulled the copy book from Mr Silence’s hands.
Mr Silence looked up, sharply, standing at once. Still a head shorter, he glared up at M'Clintock with colourless eyes, mouth set in a thin angry line. He was still clutching the fountain pen in his fist, its sharp gold nib glinting in the low light.
“If you have something to say,” M'Clintock said firmly, meeting his eyes, “you can say it to Sir James. Come on, now.”
The man made no sign he understood, he continued to stare insolently upwards, raising his chin and narrowing those fierce eyes.
“You will come with me,” M'Clintock said, loud enough for the rest of the room to hear.
“Perhaps if you lead the way, sir,” Whittock said, tentatively. “Perhaps then he will follow.”
M'Clintock turned his attention to Whittock, who was looking at Mr Silence with a soft indulgent smile. It turned M'Clintock’s stomach.
“Perhaps you have served your purpose here, Mr Whittock,” he replied. “I am sure you have other duties to be about.”
Whittock blinked, his mouth opened and closed like a fish, “sir, I--”
“You will be silent.” M'Clintock commanded. He looked down at the tongueless man, “and you will come with me. At once.”
The man’s face changed subtly, softening. Though his mouth was obscured by auburn whiskers, M'Clintock could have sworn he saw him smile, only for a moment.
"Sir, the things he has written here," one of the Enterprise crewmen held out a crumpled sheet, smudged with wet ink and scrawled with uneven lettering. "You ought to read--"
"I have no interest in indulging the delusions of a very sick man, and nor should any of you." M'Clintock snatched the paper from his crewman's hands, adding it to the rest. "You will all remember yourselves."
"But sir, the captain should see this!" Another man called from his hammock, "He's written about a beast, and danger following Franklin's men."
"Delusions," Dr Renholm spoke up now. "This behaviour is alarming but not uncommon in lunatics, and this man has--"
"He's not mad, there is a beast!" One of Franklin's men clambered to his feet, his eyes wide and frightened, "a great demon bear, we saw it, sir, we have all seen it!"
"It's true! It killed Sir John!"
"It cut Evans in two, sir!"
Three more men from Terror and Erebus agreed loudly, claiming that they, too, had seen a monster on the ice, and other things; witches and ghouls and dead men calling out from the hold. Their panic spread like fire and soon almost every man in sickbay was speaking, voices raised, flapping papers or else reading aloud - the heat around them rose steadily by degree and Mr Silence at the centre of it all, smiling.
M'Clintock caught the apprehension on the faces of Dr Renholm and Mr Gilpin, and realised too late that he ought to have brought a marine, another officer - anyone. This was much worse than he had first thought, the fear he had sensed as they approached was not just taking root now; it had already been tended to and allowed to flourish. It needed to be quashed, it needed to be settled, and this smirking stoat of a man before him needed to be removed.
"Sir, will you tell Sir James? We must get away from the shore at once, we must ." One of Franklin's men was tugging at M'Clintock's coat sleeve. He wrenched his arm away and shouted again,
"Every man will be silent! You will calm yourselves!"
They barely registered him, their terror too thick in the air, too much of a distraction, like the rustling of those infernal scraps of paper, which M'Clintock now began to seize, more vigorously than before, turning to reach across sick bodies and feeling a fever sweat break out on his own crawling skin.
"Men!" Another voice suddenly rose over the pandemonium, cutting across the room from the doorway. M'Clintock turned to see two of Franklin's officers standing there, deep frowns set into their weary faces.
"I say!" called out Le Vesconte, "what's this brouhaha? Mr Gibson, Mr Brown, back into your hammocks at once! I should think if this many sick men are able to create such a racket then they must be fit enough to holystone the decks. Do you agree, Lieutenant Jopson?"
"Aye," nodded Jopson, who stood at his side, looking rather like he ought to be in a hammock too.
The effect of their arrival was that of a release valve being turned. The chatter died away almost at once, men ducked their heads and backed into their sleeping places. Their faces did not change; not their stricken expressions, not the anxious trembling of their hands. But they were quiet.
"That is better," Le Vesconte raised his head, tugging down on his overlarge jacket. "Lieutenant M'Clintock, how may we be of assistance?"
"This man is to be removed at once," M'Clintock turned back to Mr Silence, who had not moved an inch, except to incline his head towards the doorway, showing a distant interest in Franklin’s officers.
"Mr Hickey," Jopson's eyes narrowed and he took a step forward. "Being difficult, again?"
The wide smile returned to Mr Hickey's face, but he still made no effort to move.
"Come along, Mr Hickey, do as you're ordered," Le Vesconte called out.
"Sir, he has been trying to tell us something," one of the sailors said from his bed, "it is about the creature, perhaps a warning."
"I very much doubt that, Mr Healey," Lieutenant Le Vesconte replied briskly. "You know as well as I that there has been nothing to worry about on that score for some time. Mr Hickey is unwell, and has grown excitable. We will take him somewhere he can rest. Mr Hickey, come along."
He did not move, but he opened his mouth now, and pointed at the wound inside. In the filmy gloom of the low-ceilinged sickbay it was difficult to see anything but a black empty cavern, but still the men winced and drew in their breath as the vile little creature began to make the most unpleasant sounds.
"Cccuuuh. Cuuhhuhh... cchh."
"That's enough of that." Jopson strode decisively forward, stepping over men to reach Mr Hickey and lifted him bodily, carrying him from the room. He struggled for a moment before realising it was futile, as Jopson had him gripped tight under the armpits, and in this extremely undignified fashion the cause of the chaos was finally extracted.
"Lieutenant M'Clintock, sir," Mr Whittock said, wringing his hands, "John is unwell, as the doctor has said - where will you take him?"
"That is none of your concern," M'Clintock shook his head, astounded by the man’s impudence. He turned to the rest of the men gathered, "that is none of anybody's concern. You have all behaved poorly, gentlemen, and you will correct yourselves at once. If I hear of any more disruption from this room - even one bad report from Doctor Renholm, then I shall have you all holystoning the decks - scurvy or no scurvy, do you understand me?"
A ripple of ‘yes sirs’ made its way through sickbay, and M'Clintock nodded at Renholm before quickly crossing the floor after Jopson and Le Vesconte. As he left, he heard Mr Whittock whisper loudly to the doctor,
"I shall start gathering John's things, if we are to be moved."
Jopson and Le Vesconte had acted quickly, and were already escorting Mr Hickey to the hold. M'Clintock ordered the next marine he saw to follow them and stand guard, before returning alone to the great cabin in search of his captain.
Just how he would explain what had just occurred, he did not know.
“Ah, Leo,” Captain Ross greeted him as he closed the door to the great cabin behind him. “All well down below?”
He was speaking quietly, and M'Clintock could guess why - Crozier and Fitzjames’ men were somewhat recovered from their trials, but remained uneasy and - in M'Clintock’s opinion - rather prone to dramatics. Now was the time for calm.
“If I may speak with you privately, sir?” M'Clintock said, in the same hushed tone. Sir James saw the look in his eye and nodded gravely, gesturing to what had once been the wardroom and was now the expedition lieutenants' sleeping quarters.
“The disturbance is in hand, I presume?” Ross asked, taking his seat.
“Yes, sir,” M'Clintock agreed, “though I rather think it is more than a disturbance.”
“Indeed, sir. I had him removed. He is under guard, but I do think it best that he be permanently isolated from sick bay. Doctor Renholm tells me he has been causing problems frequently, and the men are growing… discontented, sir.” M'Clintock was not a man who ever minced his words, but he truly found himself at a loss when it came to describing what he had just witnessed.
Captain Ross seemed to understand. He listened with his hands clasped as M'Clintock tried his best to explain. In the end he simply handed over the copy book and torn papers.
“It was Mr Whittock who gave him the materials, sir. From the school supplies, I presume.”
“Quite,” Ross replied distractedly as he looked down at the scrawled letters. He frowned, shaking his head. “What do you make of these?”
M'Clintock had been dreading that - he had no interest in interpreting the writings of a madman, and would have preferred not to know what had bothered the men in sickbay so. His experience with sailors and their superstitions had taught him that it was generally best to simply dismiss and ignore. But his captain was asking for his assistance, and so he leaned forward to look.
-- error left behind on T errOR on the ice pulling p u l l i n g pu llinG out walking hungry food hungry HUNGRY tins tins the sound out on the ice the sound i hear it do you hear it where is it come back back back please come back terror no no fire Crowzer CROZURE krOwzer lashed lashed again --
“He’s something of a dunce,” M'Clintock offered, attempting to lighten the situation, “my old school master would have broken my slate over my head if my spelling had been this poor.”
“But the subject matter,” Ross said urgently, apparently in no mood for levity, “does it not concern you?”
“He is not a well man,” M'Clintock replied. “We knew that. He cut out his own tongue.”
“Have we evidence of that?”
“He has no tongue, sir.”
“I mean evidence that he is the one who did it.” Ross shook his head again. He handed M'Clintock another sheet of paper, half torn in two, “see, here,”
Fire FIRE fire burning help us help us haul haul PULL men PULL out on the ice pull across the ice hurts hurts lowder and lowder can you hear it i hear it ---
---make it stop make it stop-- shoot me --put me down no sir no not one man left behind no man left behind many feats many feEt many feats occupy a captains imagination crozer crowzier lashes thirty lashes abandoning his ship abandoning his ship a captains ship its out there on the ice in the sea its in me its in all of us now the sickness in all of us and the tins and the tins and the lashing and crozer cROwzer-----
“It says ‘Crozier’, does it not?”
“I suppose so. After a fashion.” M'Clintock scanned the page with some impatience. Could it be that Sir James Clark Ross, who had come up against icebergs and polar bears and the Admiralty undaunted - who had triumphed over the Antarctic, who had spent more time aboard a ship than in his family home, had fallen prey to the same superstitious nonsense as might affect the very lowest ranking sailor?
“And this, here--” Sir James handed him another.
“Sir, it is only--”
---cold cold cold tender my resignation fire fire fire please stop disrespectful disrespect its owt there captain i can hear it its calling me i came to you on a wednesday and we drank then and you drank and you drunk and you drank the captain is unwell CroZSER stop now ---walking OWT abandon ship the ice in my head the ice in my bones the ice is my bones the bear the bear the baptist bapstit bones john john in the wilderness john is dead dead you killed him you did it crozer stop now forward forward pull pull--
“Sir, I understand it is distressing, but if you had seen the state he was in while he was writing these things, you would not--”
“Dr Renholm told me only yesterday that he believes Mr Silence - or Mr Hickey, rather - that his health is vastly improved.”
“His body, perhaps, but his mind, sir - these are the ramblings of a lunatic. Look here, what is all this about fire and lashing?”
“He was lashed, I have seen the scars. Recently.”
“He is a sailor.”
“And the fire, too - Francis told me himself, on the night we made the ships. There was a fire before they left Terror and Erebus , before they began walking - that is what this part refers to, I believe.” Ross pointed again at the passage which mentioned hauling.
“Easily explained, then,” M'Clintock said triumphantly. “An uneducated man relaying a difficult experience. No more than that.”
“Then why such animosity for Captain Crozier here? Why does he keep coming back to that?”
M'Clintock made a helpless gesture, “I could not say.”
“Leopold,” Ross gave a great sigh, rubbing at his temples with his forefingers, eyes shut a moment as if he were battling with a complex navigational error. “Am I a foolish man?”
“No, sir.” M'Clintock responded at once.
“Am I one of these ludicrous captains one hears about? Am I given to fantasy, or rash decisions?”
“Of course not, Sir James,” M'Clintock shook his head as forcefully as he could muster without looking foolish himself, “you are one of the most level-headed men I have had the fortune to serve with. If I may say so.”
Ross made no sign he was either flattered or embarrassed by this uncharacteristic compliment from his second, but nodded solemnly, “I would have said the same of Francis Crozier, only a week ago.”
“Be honest with me, now - how do Franklin’s men seem to you? On the whole? Disregard their health, I mean as officers as… as men? Do you find them trustworthy? Capable?”
M'Clintock took a moment to consider his words. He was not sure of the direction this conversation was taking, and felt a duty of care not only to Franklin’s men, who had clearly suffered for far too long already, but also to his captain, who was more unsettled than Leopold had ever seen him.
“Three years in the ice, Sir James, and without proper provisions,” he said, steadily, “I should say they are as well as can be expected. You and I have seen some grim winters, have we not?”
“Exactly,” the captain nodded eagerly, “yes, exactly that. It plays on the mind - the dark, the cold. Add to that their problems with the tinned food, and the loss of Sir John, does it not follow that improper decisions were made? Mistakes, perhaps, on the parts of the officers?”
“I have seen nothing from Captains Crozier or Fitzjames but deep care and concern for their men,” M'Clintock pressed. “To the point of over familiarity, in fact.”
“And yet, Francis did say…” Sir James muttered almost under his breath, and M'Clintock understood that he was no longer being addressed.
Still, he wanted to put Ross’s mind at rest, and felt sure that if anyone had seen what he had just seen in sickbay, then they could be in no doubt that Mr Silence, or Mr Hickey, or whatever his blasted name was - was quite mad.
“Sir?” M'Clintock pressed, “Perhaps if you saw Mr Hickey, you might find some answers to your questions?”
“Yes, I quite agree,” Sir James stood, shuffling the ragged papers into a tidy pile and tucking them inside the copy book. "I'll see him now."
Petition for Victorians to have more first names. Got two lots of James's and two lots of Francis's (which is why we went with Leopold for M'Clintock because 1) sanity 2) only room for one Francis in this here Arctic).
Up next - the ruckus continues.
Rising tensions, descent into the past, suspicions confirmed.
Goodsir was pacing. How he had so much walking left in him was beyond Francis, whose legs were so sore and stiff that sometimes just sitting made them ache appallingly; and yet Goodsir was pacing the length of the great cabin, shooting glances at the door Ross had just stepped out from.
“Captain, why did you not say Hickey was aboard?”
“You all deserved time to rest, without any worries plaguing you,” Francis answered, flexing one leg and then the other where he was leaning back against the cabinet that held the crystal decanters. “So we all might begin to get well again. I could not see how he could be a threat. But maybe I was not in any condition to be making such choices... ”
“You did as you thought best, which was all any man can do,” James said as Bridgens helped ease his left arm into the sleeve of his patched slops. It was not lame anymore, thank God, but the old wounds would take nearly all of the journey home to heal fully (or so Dr Renholm said) and Francis could vouch for how red and raw those places were where James' scars had fallen away.
“There is a great, great danger here still,” Goodsir protested, finally coming to a halt in the middle of the room. “I could not possibly consider that the man found was Hickey, even when such a deal of weight pointed to it being him. For how could he have survived so long without…" his eyes widened. "The creature ! He has removed his tongue, what if he attempted to...”
“We have not seen hide nor hair of that thing for a good six months," Francis sighed, watching as Goodsir began gnawing on his thumbnail once more. “It has either been run off, or we wounded it fatally. Just because he copied the Lady Silence does not mean anything occurred. He would not have left it behind if he had any kind of control over it, and nor do I think that it could have been left behind."
“I think it best that we do not wonder too much over how Hickey survived so long on his own. Only what we are to do with him… and what is to be done about the suspicions his condition will no doubt arouse.”
"Of us?" Hodgson piped up, eyes wide. "What of the esquimaux ! "
"We cannot have the Netsilik blamed, George. Even if it were one - one - of them who did those things to Mr Hickey, the repercussions on the whole people would be terrible." Francis said sharply enough that even Bridgens blinked. “Would you have those who kept us alive brutalised by those who come after us simply because it is the easiest lie to tell?"
“But what other explanation is there that does not point to one of us committing such savageness?"
"One that we will hopefully discover, Hodgson. Good God man, we've barely been on board a week," James snapped, giving Hodgson a look that made it clear there was far more he would like to say. The man turned back to his notebook, cowed under the weight of James’ gaze that lightened slightly when he looked up at Francis. "Well, I am dressed to Mr Bridgens liking, so I shall take my leave."
"I will walk you out, and brief you fully as to the state of the ice," Francis said as he pushed himself from the drinks cabinet, missing the sidelong glance James shot a purposefully blank faced Bridgens.
* * *
As he followed M'Clintock through Enterprise, Ross became aware of the troubling atmosphere below decks. Nothing could be kept quiet for very long on a ship, and something as unusual as this would surely be the topic of every whisper and complaint for the rest of the voyage.
He had hoped they had put all of that ill feeling and disquiet from the search behind them once they boarded, but he had been wrong. It was as if something of the desolate land had followed them back, or settled itself inside them.
He could not blame the men. Not if they had read what he had read. It was nonsensical in places, yes, but that, coupled with the strange behaviour of the crew and the rumours already abounding, made this latest development all the more dangerous, in Ross's mind. Incendiary.
Francis had confessed to several of the calamities mentioned in Mr Silence’s disturbing manuscript - the drinking and the fire included - but he had not explained them. At least, not to James Ross’s satisfaction.
Some of the blame for that lay with Ross himself, he knew. He had not pushed Francis for clarity or detail, he had not questioned further when Crozier scattered his account with sinister hints and half-told truths about the facts of their disastrous expedition. Gore’s death, for example, while hunting a bear, when Ross knew how good a shot Graham had been - and the fire which had done for every physician on the crew.
Francis had trudged wearily through the telling of these events as though they were neither shocking nor unbelievable. And all embroidered over with some bizarre esquimaux mythology - it made less sense than ever to Ross.
They were old friends - dear friends - and Ross realised now that he had perhaps been too soft-hearted when it came to Francis Crozier. He had been so relieved to find him, and so alarmed by the state of him, that at the time he was willing to accept anything at all, feeling sure that an honest explanation would be forthcoming, given time.
But time had passed, hunting parties were returning regularly with good, fresh meat, and no one had died since they made the ships. Still, Francis and his men seemed to draw themselves in even tighter. The looks they shared, the heavy silences and words unspoken seemed to collect more weight with each encounter. They made decisions with barely any deliberation, they trusted nobody else with their men - not even James Ross himself, their captain.
And now he was to add mutiny to the litany of misery and misfortune that had apparently plagued Franklin's expedition. A mutiny led by the weeping, mutilated creature Ross's men had first rescued. It was simply too far fetched, surely, that one man was the cause of so many difficulties. The man with no tongue, the man who could not speak for himself.
Only now he had found his voice, Ross thought, as he and M'Clintock made their way down through the ship.
The hold was freezing, colder than above deck. The ice was loosening its grip, it no longer clawed and groaned at them, but down in the belly of Enterprise it was impossible to tell. Their breath crystallised in great white plumes as they descended lower, into the dark.
As Ross reached the last rung of the ladder down, he was aware of low voices at the end of the row of storage compartments.
"I still say the captain ought to see him. See how he is."
"I am sure Lieutenant M'Clintock is bringing Sir James now."
"It was Captain Crozier I meant. Now we know about the mutiny, he ought to--"
"Sir James," Henry Le Vesconte turned to greet Ross, interrupting Lieutenant Jopson's earnest whispering.
"Gentlemen," Ross nodded at them both, pretending he had heard nothing. "A few days of calm was too much to ask for, eh?"
"I do hope you don't think us all blackguards and troublemakers, sir," said Le Vesconte. "I must say, I've never seen anything like this before."
"He was in a worse way when we found him, believe me," Ross said gravely. "Half dead."
"Seems well enough now, sir," Jopson said dryly, glancing behind himself at the closed door of the cabin stores. The amber glow of lamplight poured out underneath the cracks.
"In your opinion, does he present a danger to the crew?"
"Not shut in there, with a guard on him," Jopson replied. "I do think that Captain Crozier ought to know about this, sir."
Ross watched Jopson's face for a moment, looking for a sign of contempt, but saw only tired concern.
"Perhaps you ought to fetch him, Lieutenant," he dismissed Jopson, who tugged at his forelock and hurried away back up the ladder.
"Sir James, the men in sick bay," Lieutenant Le Vesconte said quickly, his breath coming in faint white puffs."I hope you don't think too poorly of them. They are nervous, I know, but they have reason to be."
"Yes, it seems they do," Ross said, "and are you telling me that their nervousness is all due to the man in that room? That it is he they are frightened of?"
Le Vesconte frowned slightly, "I do not follow, sir?"
Ross raised the copy book he was still carrying. "Did you see what he was writing? It's doomful stuff. It talks about the fire - and a lashing. It mentions Crozier."
"I have not read it, sir," Le Vesconte replied, glancing over at M'Clintock, then back at Ross.
"But there was a fire. And a flogging? You were there." Ross pushed.
"The fire, yes,” Le Vesconte swallowed. “The flogging took place on Terror . Though of course I knew it happened."
"And Francis? What was his part in these events? What was it that led to this man crawling in the rocks choking on blood?"
"Sir, I assure you, I have no idea what you mean to ask me. We survived a very difficult… a very trying …"
"Lieutenant, there is something you and your crew are not telling me, and I do not mean this 'demon bear' that has you all at sixes and sevens."
"I am sure if you spoke to Captain Crozier, then he could explain to you the… the highly unusual circumstances under which--"
"Yours is a naval family, is it not?"
Le Vesconte gave him a puzzled look. "...Aye sir, it is."
"Your father made Commander, if I remember correctly from letters received by the Admiralty pressing them about your fate. I am sure he spoke often to you of loyalty and duty and…"
"To my captain, yes," Le Vesconte said quickly, eyes flicking to the ladder.
"And to your men, and to the service, and to the Queen…"
"With all due and honest respect sir, I will not have you invoke the name of Her Majesty in whatever attempt at perjury this might be," he spoke hurriedly, his voice too sharp for a lieutenant addressing a captain. " 'Pon my honour sir, all that was pertinent was spoken of in our earlier meeting."
"Everything that Captain Crozier decided was pertinent?"
"Sir, I must protest this haranguing of a fellow officer," M'Clintock spoke up abruptly, moving to stand at Ross's shoulder. "They are the scrawlings of a mutineer and a lunatic, and I must advise that you remember that."
He was right of course, as seconds often tended to be, but there was still something untoward here, Ross knew it in his soul. A secret that had men scared, and officers unwilling to speak freely. Le Vesconte was showing commendable deference to Francis, but when on the haul to the ships he had been almost insolent - a change in character Ross was expected to believe was all due to Fitzjames' ill-health.
Ross was an Arctic veteran still, no matter the years of domestic peace he had spent in Hertfordshire, and he knew the unpleasant workings in the minds of men who had spent so long in the cold and dark. And had Francis not been three years with him in the Antarctic before this? The man was dear to him, but Lord knew what these hard three years might have done to him, on top of that crippling disappointment he had suffered.
He watched Le Vesconte as footsteps sounded on deck above, then on the ladder. He had drawn a careful composure over his face, they all did, and the three men must have looked for all the world as if they had been discussing nothing more drastic than the weather. He did not allow this mask to slip when Jopson hopped off the bottom rung of the ladder, but Ross fancied he saw a flicker of something in Le Vesconte’s eyes when Francis descended.
"Jopson told me what occurred in sickbay,” Francis said as he let his expert eye take in the hold, pausing on a patch of ice before turning to Ross. “I am sorry for the disturbance. The men have had a very bad time of it, and we are not quite ourselves, as you know.”
“Yes, well. No harm done thanks to the gathered lieutenants.”
Francis nodded to M'Clintock, no doubt meaning to speak when Le Vesconte cut over him.
“Sir James was telling me of the scrawlings Mr Hickey has been making, chap’s been talking of you a great deal. Seems he’s keen to have an audience, eh?”
Francis merely raised an eyebrow, but Jopson had a sharp look about him, eyes darting to the shadow passing through the lamplight visible under the cabin store door.
“Thomas told me that one of the mates was indulging his trouble making.”
“I believe he wished only to help the man communicate,” M'Clintock put in, “all of our men have been most concerned as to this man’s wellbeing.”
"Commendable," Francis said in that non-committal tone of his, nodding politely to M'Clintock as his eyes fell on the copy book. "He's written a novel I see."
Ross moved to stand beside him, holding out the book so they could both see the tattered and ink splattered pages in what little light there was. Ross watched Francis's face as he scanned one page thoughtfully, giving nothing away beyond a raised eyebrow and a pinching about his mouth when he untucked a hand from his pocket to flick to another. A grimness settled over Francis’ demeanor that did nothing to quell Ross's sense of unease.
“Well then,” he cleared his throat, looking up at the officers gathered, “far be it from us to keep Mr Hickey waiting.”
He gestured impatiently at the closed door, which Le Vesconte slid open.
The cabin stores were much depleted since the arrival of so many men on Enterprise , but with broad rows of shelves and piles of furled hammocks on the floor, there was still only just enough room for the marine, who stood as close to the doorway, and the light, as possible.
Mr Hickey himself was perched on a heap of coarse blankets, half cast in shadow. He was still holding a fountain pen, turning it between his remaining fingers, a thin line creasing his forehead giving Ross the impression that he was concentrating very hard.
He did not look up as the door opened, not until the marine was dismissed and Francis and Ross had both squeezed themselves inside. When he finally did, and saw Francis, his eyes turned brighter in the flickering light, the pupils as large and as black as they had seemed out on the island. He stared at him, and clutched his pen tighter, blinking up at both men.
“Mr Hickey,” Francis’s tone was short as he settled onto an upturned box. “You have decided there are things you wish to say?”
Hickey watched him take his seat, a smile transforming his impish features. He raised two ink blackened fingers to his mouth and touched his lips.
“Yes, the whole ship knows what you have done to yourself. And yet, Mr Hickey, it does not seem to have dampened your desire to spread sedition.”
Still smiling, Hickey leaned forward, towards Francis. He was still a good deal closer to the ground than his captain, and Francis had to lean back, alarmed as the man placed a hand on each of his knees, and, craning his neck forward foxishly, he opened his mouth. Ross, seated to Francis' right, was spared a full view of Dr Renholm's surgical ministrations, but he saw the wetly glistening stump inside Mr Hickey's mouth, and the lewd way he waggled it as he made the same dreadful sounds as before.
" Cccuuuh. Chhhh ."
Francis turned his head, grimacing, “Your usual pretty handiwork, I see.”
Hickey sat back again, still grinning, eyes merry with mischief, and he took his pen and tapped it smartly against the deck, like an order.
“A pen with nothing to write on? How suitable a situation you find yourself in,” Francis said archly. “You wish for more paper?”
Hickey cocked his head and tapped the pen on the deck once more, his eyes never dropping from Francis’s gaze as Ross removed the loose paper from the copy book before holding it out, having to move to the edge of his crate to bring it all the way to Hickey before he would take it from him.
When he did take it, he squatted down on the floor, laying the sheet flat and crouching over it, pen scratching loudly as it flew across the page. He raised his head when he was finished and handed it directly to Francis. As Francis accepted the paper, Hickey's hand flew to his shirt tail which he lifted just a little way, exposing his hip and side and the brutal red welts still clearly visible there. Ross winced at the memory of those marks, and leaned across to read what had been written in what was by now a very familiar spindly runic lettering, wet and smudged.
NoT SO Fine as your handywork Crowzer
Francis looked at the words a moment, his grip on the paper causing it to crease, before he set it aside on his thigh and turned his attention back to Hickey.
"And what about what you did to Mr Farr and Lieutenant Irving? I saw that you made no mention of slicing off his scalp and fingers and man parts in your carefully constructed ramblings."
Hickey swiped out like a cat, taking back the paper and flipping it, bending to write once more.
“You are wasting your time, Mr Hickey. What is more, you are wasting Sir James’ time.”
But Hickey would not be diverted, and kept scribbling, his knuckles whitening as he clenched the pen, pressing hard enough to puncture the paper. He tore it in two, and held half out to Francis again.
Francis gave a great, put-upon sigh as he held the paper to the light so that he and Ross could read.
Good christian man deliteful god-fearing man pleasures and graces and climbing and skittles irving
This latest missive seemed to baffle even Francis. He shook his head, bemused. Hickey gave an odd huffing sound deep in his throat, shook his head and wrote one more word on the scrap of paper he still had, handing that over next.
Francis stared at him, jaw twitching with rage. Ross, meanwhile, was at a complete loss to understand whatever was passing between them.
Hickey, still smiling, still fixed on Francis as if they were alone in the room, raised his hand to his mouth once again and covered it with his palm, widening his eyes, offering some suggestion which Ross did not understand.
"You know the consequence of disrespect, Mr Hickey,” Francis glowered, his accent slipping further towards Ulster as it always did when his temper was up. “I had hoped I’d taught you some restraint.”
Hickey seemed to consider this a few moments more, then, finding himself without means to retort, tapped his pen on the floor once more.
"No. No more paper. You have wasted your chance to speak."
Hickey tapped more insistently, rolling his ruined lips together convulsively as he made pathetic choking sounds.
"We might allow him a second chance to explain himself," Ross said as he rifled through the book for another blank sheet. "We owe a man that at least."
"A second chance maybe. This will be his fourth chance to not only be honest," Francis turned to Hickey. "But to show due respect."
"This is not the time for harshness, Francis," Ross chided as he came upon a fresh sheet, starting when Francis pushed his hand away.
"You only encourage the man."
"To speak, yes."
Hickey continued tapping the pen on the floor, more agitated now, and eventually gave up with a grunt of frustration, and turned instead to the wall, attacking it with the gold-nibbed pen, destroying it as he began to carve directly into the wood.
“Mr Hickey you will stop this.”
The noise of it was awful, a dry, splintering, clawing sound, as he pressed harder and harder. M A D was the first word, and as soon as he had traced it enough to be legible he moved on to his second. D R U N K.
With that Hickey dropped the pen, and turned his hot, angry eyes on Francis, slamming one palm against the wood, then pointing at his captain vehemently.
He slapped the wood again, harder, and now turned his distress onto Ross, eyes welling up again, red-rimmed, his chest heaving beneath the thin undershirt he wore. He seemed to be so desperately imploring, so anxious to be understood. Francis was not at all moved by this display,
"I know exactly what you are Hickey, and the hold is precisely where you belong. Amongst the filth and the rats, eating one another."
"Francis," Ross warned, Hickey now pounding his hand against the bulkhead.
"Your mutiny has been exposed. Your acolytes are saving themselves," Francis leant forward, and Hickey started to slur his grating ccchhh - chhurrr, eyes wide and frightened as a child, tears pouring down his face. "There is no beast anymore. You and I know it, and so will the men you are trying to frighten."
Hickey shook his head, pulling his hand from the wall and clenching his fists against his ears, sobbing. He made a bestial howling sound which filled the tiny cupboard they were all boxed into. He curled up, and Ross was reminded once more of the pitiful creature they had come across alone on that godforsaken island.
"Francis!" Ross snapped, grabbing him by the sleeve of his coat. "We will speak in my cabin. Immediately."
Up next - Fitzjames
Trust is given, and confidence is received.
James had known that the trek to the shore and back, short as it was, would not be pleasant. Dr Renholm had warned him against any strenuous activity, stating that he was on the brink of bringing back the infection that had almost killed him, but he was a officer in the Royal Navy which meant he had lost all perception of caution and self preservation in boyhood, and after everything that had occurred he felt he might at least survive this.
So here he was, struggling over ice that was in places no more sturdy than wet paper, the old wound on his ribs stabbing at him with every other laboured breath. He did not feel the need to hide it, no one in their small band (except those marines from Enterprise ) were a paragon of anything at the moment, although Sergeant Tozer had managed to find a shining red coat from somewhere that had been subjected to a stewards’ tailoring.
He - Tozer that is - had been less resistant than James had expected to coming aboard Enterprise. The hostility he displayed when they had first reached the ships (James had felt a cold sweat break out on the back of his neck at the prospect of yet more endless days listening to grinding, creaking ice, so could not blame their reluctance) had dissolved somewhat, no doubt aided by the provision of fresh food and medicine and proper rest that had done wonders for a great many, if not all.
These men had also, James noted, not mentioned the creature at all. Not one single frightened, half seen, half heard, half waking whisker of him. Just like on their long haul to this barren place that was their salvation, with its high grey cliffs and dirty ice, so different from that pristine white of King William Land that had blinded with its purity.
As James looked around at the sprawling landscape words came to him through the jumble of his memories - Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell? Sleeping or waking - that he could place to neither time nor person.
Upon making the shore camp James had been relieved to have a battered tankard of overly sweet tea handed to him by a nervous looking Mr Hoar, and to be offered a seat on one of the old biscuit boxes that had been dotted around the fire. It might have been meant as some kind of leveller, that a captain would sit amongst the men on the same scavenged chairs they used, but James had never been so proud as to take such a thing as a knock. He was still a dying man, and was that not the greatest leveller of all?
Francis had given James a detailed report on the state of the ice before his leaving Enterprise, pointing out leads and rotten patches as if preparing James for a lecture he was about to give on the subject. All it amounted to was ‘the ice is melting’, and that was what James told the men. It must have been something they had noticed on their walks to and from the ships for their meals, but it seemed that hearing it spoken of woke a concern in them, and they began to shoot nervous glances at the ships as if expecting them to put up sail and head off at once.
It was a fear that persisted through the breaking up of the camp and the agonisingly slow walk back across the ice that was deteriorating around them. The men would not spread out, or rather they would when Tozer or Sergeant Smith ordered it, but then were soon bunching close to one another as if fearing the ice would dissolve under their feet and drop them into the dark waters below.
The ships looked strange to James now that his eyesight had recovered enough for him to see them clearly; they sat so level in the water, so even keeled, unlike Terror’s pitching silhouette that James had looked at for so long. They reached Enterprise at a rush fueled by a relief that was wholly tangible, the nine men who had once been so resistant to coming aboard chattering and calling to one another as they pushed or hauled their small sledges up the listing ice ramp and onto the safety of the deck.
James paused at the bottom, leaning on the rail as he looked up at Enterprise’s bare masts which shone with ice like a finely glazed ornament. It was then that a feeling crept up on him, and he looked around at the crew on the ice, noting the unease in their manner and the apprehension on their faces. It reminded him of the marines aboard the Cornwallis when she had sailed into the fetid, hostile mouth of the Woosung river. Reminded him of the men aboard Terror on the day Hickey had forced Lady Silence on board; strained and disquieted, the usual good cheer of sailors dampened by a weight of tense expectation.
James let all the men go up before he started on the ramp, knowing he would have to take his time and not minding when Private Halfpenny fell back to walk beside him as if worried James would faint. He might faint, he was certainly tempted to when he stepped onto the deck and saw the groups of Enterprisers standing about under the canvas speaking nervously with one another, sending skittish glances their way that were bordering on distrustful.
Problems. Problems, problems, problems! He was sick of them. Could the great Sir James Ross and his officers not solve some of them? He could barely keep a thought in his head, could barely move without experiencing pain, and damned Mr Hickey had gone and attempted some sort of Inuit magic and God only knew if the man had succeeded or not.
James leant on the gunwale a moment, holding his left arm to his ribs, and breathed deeply. If he wished to be free of the responsibilities of his rank he could simply languish in a sick bed until they made London, but he had always lacked all sorts of sense, and managed to push himself upright by the time Sergent Smith stepped up to him.
“We find Enterprise under a cloud, sergeant.”
“I cannot account for the mood of the men, sir. I’d rather send a man below to enquire as to what might have happened in our absence than walk into it.”
“Whatever you think best, sergeant.”
Smith gave him a look, then moved closer to say in an undertone. “Should I ask for a doctor also, sir?”
James raised an eyebrow at him. “Do I truly look that ill?”
Smith seemed to consider his words, which made it clear that James did in fact look that ill, then shrugged. “Seen men who looked worse in China, sir. If that’s any comfort.”
James almost laughed at that, and clapped the man on the arm. James had recognised the sergeant as having been at Tiskee with him, could clearly remember a then Corporal Charles Smith rushing around after him with the box of rockets after the petty officer carrying them had been shot, and James was glad to be recognised in turn; it was comforting to remember that he had once existed outside of this damned place. “It is not, but thank you anyway.”
Private Halfpenny was dispatched down the hatch, and James looked about at the wayward men. They huddled together against the looks of the Enterprisers and were talking amongst themselves quietly enough that James could not quite hear them.
Tozer was not in the huddle of men. He was standing to the side with an apprehensive look on his face, running his fingers along the hem of his smart red coat as his eyes searched the deck for something.
James had had little cause or opportunity to get a firm read on Sergeant Tozer over the past three years. Most of what he knew of him came from either the Captain of Marines at Greenwich, from Sir John, and most recently from Francis and those other officers from Terror . James tried not to judge a man by the things he was told about him; rumour was never kind, yet what he had seen of Tozer - dutiful while hauling and but capable of remarkable insolence - had not made knowing the man any easier.
As a gunnery officer James had served with marines quite regularly. They were soldiers trapped aboard ships with sailors looking down upon them for their lack of skill and resenting them for their other-ness, existing somewhere between the men and the officers but not accepted by either as crew. They were neither one thing or another, and James knew something of what that was like, along with the expectation of throwing oneself into danger without thought for yourself, and the kind of deep seated pride that bred in a man.
Halfpenny came tripping back up the hatch, pulling his welsh wig down over his ears as he said something to a few Enterprisers before hurrying straight to James.
Smith and Lewis gathered next to James who, after a moment’s consideration, caught Tozer’s eye and signaled him to join them. He was the highest ranking marine left from the expedition afterall, it was only fair that the man be treated at such. Trust could not be won if it was not given, and all that.
“I spoke with Private Jones sir,” Halfpenny said in a low, hurried voice. "Something fair peculiar been going on. He don't know what exactly 'appened, as he was only called by Lieutenant M'Clintock after, but that Mr Silence 'as been causing problems in sickbay, so he 'as. He got 'old of a copy book and started scrawling all sorts a' rubbish about 'aulin' and lashin' and fire...."
James flinched at the mention of fire, and took another deep breath to calm the kick of his heart as he forced himself to focus on Halfpenny and not on the flicker of flames that had burnt out months ago.
"...or rather I should say your men, sir, took very badly to it. Marines ‘ad to be called, an’ your officers removed that Mr Silence down to the ‘old and then, well." Halfpenny gave James an uneasy glance before addressing his boots. “It's not pleasant down there, sir."
James sighed, pressing a hand to his temple as his head throbbed like it was about to split open.
“Sir?” came from beside him at a volume that made it clear it had not been the first attempt at catching his attention, and he was surprised to find that it was Tozer who was speaking to him. “Might I have a private word with you, sir? Concerning Mr Hickey.”
Men were usually extremely canny about what they knew of gossip onboard ship, so James was surprised by how candid Tozer was being. As were the men who had been on shore with him. Des Voeux seemed most alarmed and made to speak but James waved him off, nodding to Tozer to follow him over to the top of the snow ramp so they would be less easy to overhear.
“You know Mr Hickey is aboard.”
“Do you know anything of his state, sergeant?”
“I…” Tozer looked back at the marines on deck before meeting James’s eye. “Mr Gibson told me of his lack of tongue.”
“Mr Gibson the steward?”
“Aye, he and Cor - Hickey had some kind of closeness I will not speak of,” Tozer said shortly, trying not to look embarrassed, and James almost smiled at the quaintness of his phrasing; other men, so called better men, might have carelessly thrown out sodomite or mollyanne with enough bite to make him flinch. “He told me of Hickey being aboard but I did not see him nor wish to see him, for the man is mischief made real. A very devil when it comes to it sir. I only admit that I fell foul of his mischief because I have a care for the men and have… and a care for my duties.”
“You have my discretion sergeant, on my word.”
“I did not - thank you, sir. He was plotting mutiny, I do not know if you know it, but he was. A group of us planned to leave if no help was coming and try to make it on our own - there would have been no violence to anyone or I would not have been talked into it as I was,” he glanced over his shoulder at the deck. “As were others. He spoke of sharing food and ways out, of our officers being no good,” he managed to say this without cringing, which James almost respected him for. “And especially the captain, sir. Crozier. He was set against him in every way, Hickey was. He knew a thing, you see, and I wager he still knows it.”
“And what was that thing?” James prompted when Tozer fell silent, obviously having said more than he intended.
“Sir,” Tozer swallowed, keeping himself from any nervous fidgeting as he whispered, “it was that, on the day of Sir John’s demise, that Crozier was set to resign his captaincy.”
“How - how on earth would he know that? What proof did he give you?”
Tozer did cringe then. “Said he went into his cabin during Sir John’s funeral and found a letter.”
James took a moment to quell his anger at Francis, at that blasted man in the hold, and at anyone who had anything to do with this godforsaken expedition - including himself - and then became angry all over again. Francis would have taken a sledge party and gone, would have tried to save them all from what he knew had been coming, ending up with his head on a snow drift like Fairholme had. Leaving James to his fate as the sole, dying commander of a crew of dead men.
An abandonment that had not happened was not a concern now - the concern was surviving and getting home. Which, at this moment, seemed to involve riding out whatever devilry a mute Hickey had managed to work over the past few hours, or indeed over the weeks he had been on board.
“He told this to all who had planned to leave with him?”
James looked about him, at the melting ice and the barren shore and the sharp blueness of the bright sky, and wondered if he might yet end up a nameless pile of bleached bones for some future explorer, full of curiosity and ideas of glory, to find and wonder over.
“Is there any other thing that I must know of him, sergeant?”
“He isn’t right, sir, that’s all I can say. I’m not surprised that he cut his tongue out or did what he did to the lieutenant. Or that he causes trouble now. I do not think he cares to survive this place, but I do.”
“Why are you not surprised he cut out his tongue?”
Tozer shrugged. “I assumed it was the lead Doctor Goodsir goes on about. Gave him the idea to copy that esquimaux girl, sir.”
“Did he speak to you of her?” James asked, recalling that story they had all thought Hickey had concocted on the night he was flogged.
“Sometimes, but he was full of notions and ideas. When I first heard of what he'd done to himself I thought… but the game came back, and the creature never reappeared so… we'd all know about it if he had, sir.”
Out on the shore, all on his own, Sergeant Tozer of the Royal Marines, a man who had no doubt learnt his letters in the back of a barrack room, had worked out the logic of all this before all the fine wardroom officers had. If any man - any man - could control a creature such as that, then he would not be languishing in an overcrowded sickbay.
A certain amount of hysteria was understandable after all that had happened to them, but level-headedness would have to prevail once more before they set sail.
“Quite right, sergeant,” James smiled to himself, causing Tozer to give him a bewildered look. “Seems it is most timely that you and your men are aboard ship. I do not doubt Smith’s marines are most capable, but in a crisis there is no such thing as too few capable marines.”
“I will do my best, sir,” Tozer said, head held high.
An approaching footfall caught his attention, and James schooled the humour from his face as he looked to Des Voeux who had made his way over, Smith following discreetly behind.
“Is he on board then, sir? Hickey?”
“Why would you say that?”
“The rumours we’ve heard tell while we’ve been aboard for meals. Could only be Hickey. He had wanted to know everything I knew about that eski bitch from guarding her, and we all know what she was about until she took a liking to Goodsir’s soft tongue.”
James did not react to the lewdness as he was no doubt supposed to, but he did scowl at the tone used to speak of the lady. He had not trusted her wholly, Des Voeux knew that, but she had saved James’ life by shoving unmentionable bits of seal down his throat, so he did not feel he could let that stand.
“We would not be here at all if not for the Netsilik lady and her people, and are certainly not here because of anything you may have done,” he had allowed his voice to rise, which had Smith gripping the sling of his rifle a little tighter and the men on the deck, his own and from Enterprise, glancing over. “So you think Mr Hickey has engaged in Inuit magic, do you?
“And you do not?”
James looked to Tozer, who seemed to have decided that discretion was the better part of sense and was keeping his expression carefully blank, then over at the concerned faces of everyone who was listening in.
“Mr Hickey’s behaviour, both now and before his disappearance, is like that of a man suffering the advanced effects of lead poisoning. He is ill and delusional. I do believe he might have thought he was copying those Netsilik practices the men of the expedition saw on King William Land, but I doubt a caulker’s mate from Limerick could have succeeded,” he spoke firmly, the canvas over the deck preventing the vast landscape from swallowing up his voice which had not yet regained its old power. “These men have not been brought aboard for any worry about a bear , although I am sure Sergeant Smith will tell you that polar bears are not uncommon here, and easily scared off."
A murmur of agreement ran through both sets of marines at that.
"Mr Des Voeux,” James declared, half turning to the man. “Mr Hickey is not a man you should put your faith in. Mark me, men who do such things to themselves as he has done will do worse to others. Put your faith in Sir James Ross and Captain Bird, for they will see us safely home.”
A different sort of uneasiness had settled while he spoke, but it was more of disgruntled sailors than open fear, which he took to be an improvement.
“Sergeant Tozer,” James turned to the man, dropping his voice back to a volume that did not make his head ring. “Thank you for your assistance, it is appreciated.”
“Sir, might I speak boldly again?”
James paused in stepping onto the deck once more, settling on his back foot as he raised an eyebrow at Tozer. “Go on.”
“I only ask…” Tozer seemed to think very hard for a moment, then straightened. “I had your word for your discretion sir, can I… can I have your reassurance about Captain Crozier?” Whatever James’ expression was had Tozer adding quickly. “To take to the men, sir.”
“I remind you that Captain Crozier has been nothing but determined to see us all home for a good long while,” James said flatly. “He has my respect and loyalty, and now you are back under the law of the Articles I suggest you give him the same, and moreover, to Sir James Ross who is all our captain now.”
Tozer looked over at Smith who had shepherded Des Voeux back to the group of his men, weighing something up, then came to attention before James. “Thank you, sir.”
“Good man.” James pressed his arm to his side, taking a deep breath, then strode back onto the deck. “I am going below to see about what’s happening, Sergeant Smith. I'll take Sergeant Tozer with me and leave the deck to you.”
“I’ll order hot rum waiting when you come down,” James said as he passed the marines, smiling to himself at how the men’s ears pricked at that, and let Tozer lead the way down.
The atmosphere on deck had been nervous, but the clean air of an early Arctic winter and the prospect of a wide open sky on the other side of the canvas had dispersed it somewhat. The atmosphere down below was sharp, as drawn taught as a gun deck before battle, and James felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle as a sense of readiness came over him. He tried to tramp it down, knowing (hoping) that nothing physically explosive was about to occur, but could not help feeling like a fuse had been lit and was being left to burn down unchecked.
He peered through the thick, dim light and saw drawn, anxious faces glancing away when they met his gaze. There was a murmur seeping through the swaddled air, and James did not need to hear the words to know it was discontented. That the men were murmuring at all was a sign of their ill mood, of which one source was obvious - the raised voices coming from aft.
“... from the lunatic scratching accusations into the wall of the hold. Not you!... Christ!”
It all felt very familiar to James - the night in question had ended with Francis drying out and Thomas Blanky down most of a leg, and was not an experience he would care to repeat.
He caught Tozer’s eye, who had set a fine sergeant’s glare upon the men staring at them, and nodded back up the ladder. “Bring the men down will you, I’ll send someone to get you all settled, and by then things should be more calm."
“Aye sir," Tozer nodded, heading back up the ladder as Ross shouted.
“....you speak in as many half truths and riddles as Hickey and it is getting beyond what can be stood!"
"I have told you the truth. My men have,”
James pulled off his borrowed mittens with his teeth, and shoved them in the pockets of his tattered slops, making to undo the coat when a pale face appearing at his shoulder almost did for his already strained heart. “Mr Bridgens, your silent footfall would frighten the dead! What on earth are you doing?”
“I heard you were on deck sir, and had a restorative made for you.”
“You are an angel, John,” James breathed, taking the glass from him and sniffing it before knocking the bitter mixture back. “Even if that did taste like hell.”
Bridgens helped him off with his slops, relaying to him in hushed tones what Mr Peglar had told to him of the commotion in sick bay, how it still simmered through the men whose talk had perturbed the Enterprisers greatly, and how Hickey had named Francis over and over and over in his writings.
“ Drunk and mad, Francis? What am I to think?”
A devil for mischief indeed, James thought as he dispatched Bridgens to find Lieutenant Brown and alert him that the men from shore had come aboard, and to fetch some hot rum for the marines.
"And I saw how you reacted to his accusation of dirtiness."
Ross’ words echoed through James, and he steeled himself before heading towards the great cabin.
Fitzjames leaves the ship for an hour and all hell breaks loose!
The quote James thinks of is from The Comedy of Errors, which is rather ironic of him.
Up Next - the argument
All things laid bare, and long dormant things begins to take form.
Francis did not storm into the cabin, but he knew it was a close thing, and began pacing irritably before Ross had managed to slide the door closed behind them. He walked to the stove, turned on his heel, and crossed the room, his eyes resting on the array of full decanters, the warm liquid within glinting pleasantly in the light, before turning away.
“Well then,” Ross drawled, walking to the table and dropping the copy book heavily onto the middle of it. “What a display that was, Francis. Pitiful on all sides.”
“Pitiful?” Francis scoffed, that accusing scrawl of dirtiness still reverberating through him like a slap.
“Yes pitiful!” Ross shot back. “Would you not call that abject creature such?”
“He was not so abject until it suited him. You saw how he behaved until we no longer did his bidding.”
“Bold and saucy, aye…” Ross looked Francis up and down, eyes creased, then moved to stand by the stove. “Your words were cruel and harsh, something I would never expect from you, Frank. I could see they were targeted, and by the looks of it they hit their mark!”
“As they were meant to,” Francis muttered with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I will not be held in his thrall.”
“He is a wretched creature, what thrall can he possibly have?”
“Enough of one to send your sickbay into a near riot, if what I heard is true.”
"My sickbay is populated with your over familiar and loose disciplined men."
"You have your own men amongst them, do not pretend otherwise. Such arrogance is beneath you."
"Arro - " Ross began, shooting Francis a sour look. “We both know how sick sailors are even worse than healthy ones for taking fright. I will admit that Hickey has too much of a liking for causing a disturbance, but he is not this Machiavelli you all claim. Not now at least,” Ross stepped closer to Francis, considering his words. “I will not have you treat a sick man in such a way - I will not have you hound him with accusations…”
“I accuse him ?” Francis jabbed his finger at the copy book, fully aware that a shrill brogue had wrapped around his words. He was used to having his faults thrown in his face, but to have them thrown by Hickey, and with such uncanny accuracy, had him unfooted and furious. “What do you call all of that shite, then?”
“I call it a reason - a very insistent reason - for you to be clear with me, Frank,” Ross rubbed at his bandaged hand, then at his temple. “I do not wish to think ill of you, it repels me, but none of this is right. The way he reacts to you, and how you react to him. The fear I feel from your men…”
“They fear this place . We have been three years without respite - you cannot have forgotten how the men became after just one bitter winter in the Antarctic.”
“I understand, but that does not explain half of what you have told me,” Ross started at a level tone, his voice rising when Francis growled in frustration and shoved a chair out of the way to walk around the table and away from Ross. “It does not explain what drove Hickey to be wandering alone and starved. It does not explain his vicious flogging. Or what supposedly drove him to cut his own tongue out!”
“How should I know, I am not a madman.”
“You have fanciful reasons for most other things.”
The past three years and all that had happened yawned open between them, and for the first time in the twenty-one years they had known one another Francis could not think of what to say to James Ross. He bit down meaningless words, and a few harsh ones, and turned away to look stonily out of the window, hands behind his back.
“Do not - Frank they are fanciful!”
“Do you think I do not know that? I told them to you because our long friendship demanded the truth, even though I knew it would be hard to believe.”
“I am relieved to hear you admit to that. As I expect talk of some Netsilik bear demon to come from the lunatic scratching accusations into the wall of the hold. Not you!”
“ Christ !" Francis listened to Ross' heavy pacing behind him, only looking back when it came to an abrupt halt. "You are not answering my questions, damn you. None of your men will answer me straight - you speak in as many half truths and riddles as Hickey and it is getting beyond what can be stood!"
"I have told you the truth. My men have,” he said, remembering the cold that had settled over him at seeing words from his own resignation copied perfectly in that mad scrawl. “Even Hickey manages it…"
“What other truth would he have spoken of if you would have let him."
Francis sighed, not for the first time wishing that Ross could be less of a Jack Russel at times. Once the man had the scent of a thing he had a terrible time letting it go.
"You saw how he was. I spoke harshly to him, yes - but he is aware enough to know what he does and I do not trust that. "
"Do not be so paranoid, man. It makes you look guilty."
"Guilty? Don't be so…"
“ Drunk and Mad , Francis. You admitted to one. What am I to think?”
"I cannot say. Do you find me mad? More mad than him."
"I find you evasive and cornered. I find your treatment of an unwell man to be not only unbecoming of a captain but lacking in your kindness of character that I know so well," Ross worked his jaw, leaning back on his heels. "And I saw how you reacted to his statement, his accusation of dirtiness."
" His…! It was a charge levelled at him by….shit," he cursed as the image of Irving's mutilated corpse flashed behind his eyes. He raised a hand to his head, trying and almost failing to gather himself, before looking back to Ross. "Christ, James. You of all people would think that of me?”
“Come Francis. We know what men so far from feminine company can be driven to, and what hypocrisy there is when a man is pushed…”
"Yes I do! And this is nothing like those base things that occured on Fury. Any of the base things."
Francis spoke in a fit of frustration - at himself, at Ross, and mostly at Hickey - but Ross was angry, a flash of hot rage in his eyes that was too like his uncle. “Damn you Francis.”
“Do not think to turn this about on me simply because you married...”
A purposeful sound in the doorway silenced Francis abruptly. Ross turned sharply towards it, his posture tightening as Francis felt the red flush of anger on his face burn dark with shame.
His miseries must always be compounded it seemed. It was James standing there, hand resting on the half closed door as his eyes, made darker by the bruise like circles underneath them, flicked slowly between the two of them.
The keen embarrassment he felt at James twice overhearing harsh revealing words spoken at his own expense was soon overtaken by concern at how sickly he looked. Not like he had before the rescue, not like an old corpse, but his skin was sallow and papery with a sheen of sweat upon it that had no right being there.
"Hell James, sit down will you," Francis's voice had not settled from his anger but James did not flinch. He took two steps into the room to stand between Francis and Ross, casting a glance in both directions before easing himself down into the chair that had been knocked off centre during the earlier harsh words.
"Well, gentlemen. I should say that the whole ship knows the headlines of this disagreement," James sighed and Ross set his jaw, purposefully not looking towards the door, while Francis just sighed. "Not that such things can be reprimanded, we have all fallen foul of it in trying times," Fitzjames tipped his head to look back at Francis, raising an eyebrow at the warning look he was sent. "Tempers being what they are."
"Tempers, yes," Ross moved around the table, resting his fingers on the copy book. "Maybe some light could be shed on that, or do you stand with your officers on demuring to Francis in this?"
"Demuring?" James sounded incredulous. "Sir, our officers show discretion, they do not hesitate and they do not demure."
"Le Vesconte evaded my questions."
"Questions on what?"
"The contents -," Ross tapped the copybook. "Mr Hickey has been writing, and the reading is unsettling stuff."
Ross pushed the book over the table to James who turned awkwardly in his chair to rifle through the rumpled, ink smeared pages. There was a tremble in his left hand that shook the paper as he read, making Francis want to snatch them from him and spread the papers out so he did not have to listen to the accusatory rustle.
"I heard about the show he put on in sickbay," James muttered as he got to the screwed up papers Hickey had written in the hold, pausing over the one that mentioned dirtiness before sorting them all into a pile and slipping them back into the book. "It is obvious why the men became so excited - it recalls many of the dreadful things that happened last winter."
"You do not refute the truth of this, then?"
"No one is refuting the truth of what he wrote," Francis said for what felt like the tenth time. "It is the intent that is suspect."
"The conveniently raised mutiny, yes."
"Spare me the sarcasm.”
"And spare me from your attitude of…"
"Good God gentleman, please ," James spoke up, his voice dry and cracking. "The journey home will be long enough. Can we see to this matter and look to leaving this godforsaken place ."
Francis took the reprimand easily, settling onto his back foot as he watched Ross puff up and then deflate like he used to when he was a precocious midshipman being batted down by a Mate or Lieutenant who had only sometimes been Francis. Ross glanced over at him with a hint of a smile in his eyes like he was remembering the same thing, and it made the hurt of their argument sting all the keener.
"Of course," Ross said smartly, a level headed captain once again. "Rather got away from ourselves, eh?"
"Quite," Francis agreed a little tersely. "And you are quite right James."
There was a moment where neither James’ knew who he was addressing, and on any other day Francis might have laughed.
"There is one more thing for you to know," Francis sighed as he took a seat at the corner of the table. "Hickey carved the words Drunk and Mad into the hull and pointed to me."
James's eyebrows shot up towards his scarred hairline, giving the effect of incredulity, but Francis saw the nervous fidgeting of his fingers against his thumb. "We all went a little mad, Sir James…"
"That is no answer."
"It may not be, but it is what happened. Either your times in the polar regions have not ever been this dire, or your much lauded memoirs are missing things you do not wish known," James said in those clipped Whitehall tones that put sailors of any rank on edge. "The sickness and the lack of sun and the isolation combined to make a - a darkness. In ourselves you see. Not helped by the actions of some others."
"A man wished himself free of the effects of lead and forced the hands of the marines to shooting him - " he was speaking of Morfin, and Francis was set on by the memory of the acrid smell of gunpowder as the lamp James had been holding shattered, and the bright smear of blood and brains on the endless grey shingle. "Another is mentioned here," James continued on. "A man burnt himself alive and killed many…"
"Who?" Ross demanded.
"I will not put a shadow over his name when the fault is mine alone - "
"James, do not…" Francis murmured, but James ploughed on.
" - Francis was laid up curing himself of a drunkenness that would indeed have been grounds for mutiny, and we were stuck fast because no officers,” James paused, swallowed, then said sharply, “because Sir John - would not listen to his wisdom. There, a gamut of mistakes for you. Is there anything else?"
"The lashing Mr Hickey suffered. The violence of it is apparent on his body and in his writing, what do you know of it?"
James winced as he breathed deeply, pressing the side of his fist hard against the table as he half turned away from Francis.
"Dereliction of duty, abandoning his post, disrespect to an Inuit woman and then to Francis, and then Irving brought us an unproven accusation which was charged as dirtiness. A flogging is never a proud moment in a commander's career, I admit, but it was nothing worse than some captains have done. As for the tongue -" he kept his eyes on Ross, reaching out to touch the copy book as he spoke clearly and calmly. "These are ravings, you cannot deny that. Francis had him lashed and we all know how that stays with a sailor. Mistakes were made, but sometimes a madman is just a madman, and his reasons are unknowable."
Ross did not look happy with his reasoning, but James had been so clear and steady in his reply that a court martial of the most pedantic captains would have been content with it.
"Very well," Ross said shortly, leaning over the table to take the copy book back. "Hickey is in the care of my doctors, and therefore my responsibility. He will be confined to the hold as he causes too much unrest in sickbay, and my men will look to him."
"James please, you must..." Francis began, not wanting Ross to fall foul of the same mischief he had, but James reached out to lay a silencing hand on his arm.
"Very well, Sir James. As long as peace holds we are happy to relinquish him."
Francis would happily relinquish him over the side of the ship, but kept that thought to himself. "Aye, I am satisfied. May I request one of my officers be present if he is to be given more paper?"
"I shall have Jopson or Le Vesconte there."
“Of course old man,” Ross muttered. "Not that I think I shall soon want a repeat of today. I am of half a mind to leave all this to be set into the hands of the doctors in Greenwich, not that they will know what to make of him.”
James squeezed Francis arm gently, whether in support or warning Francis could not tell. “Indeed,” he said shortly, and Ross sighed.
“It makes me so low to exchange harsh words with you, Frank. Understand, I have been thrown wholly off centre by all this, as you know, and I am so used to having my legs under me while on the ice that I find myself at something of a loss.”
It was not an apology, but it was an olive branch, and Francis could do little else by accept it. “I know,” he said, offering a smile.
Ross nodded, then gathered up the copy book. "The matter will be handed to the Admiralty when we reach London, of course, but I am sure they will think little of it. My report will be… delicately phrased."
* * *
Deep in the hold, he still hears the singing, even boxed up and locked away. He hears it, and it no longer frightens him. He knows what it means now. He remembers the tune, he knows the voice; the voice that calls his name. It is himself.
Does he look different? He would like to know. He would like to know if they see the change in him. Perhaps in his eyes, or in his bearing. Do they understand what he is? They will.
He sits in the dark, alone. The red coated man took the lamp with him, but he’s just outside - Hickey can hear him breathing, he’s shivering.
He rolls the pen slowly between his palms. It is cold and smooth. The nib is cracked and broken, it won’t write any more, but it is still sharp. He presses the split end into the pad of his thumb and it breaks the skin easily. Blood and ink run together. The stump in his mouth twitches, the sharp pain of it filling his throat and head as he sucks the wound.
Aside from the shivering marine outside, he’s quite alone. He can hear the rats scrabbling behind the walls, chewing through the provisions and gnawing on the ropes, causing all kinds of unseen chaos. Down here nobody notices until too late, down here you can get away with plenty.
Crozier’s here with him. They’re all with him. This dark, cold place is a tomb. It’s a tomb it’s a tomb it’s a tomb. It’s a womb. He will emerge from it, and they will suffer for what they have done. This is his empire now; they do not belong. He will cast them out. He must cast them out, that is his responsibility.
He touches the lettering on the wall. DRUNK MAD. MAD DRUNK. Lashed. Crozier. Crozier. Crozier .
His memory is still in pieces, his mind broken up into parts - things that happened, and things he is not certain of yet.
Crozier is part of it, he is one of the shards that make up part of Hickey, and vice versa. A fragment, lodged inside; a splinter which has begun to blacken and rot under the skin. You cut it out, that’s what you do. You force it from yourself, otherwise you’ll sicken, weaken, die. He has no plans to die yet.
Everyone has fragments. Everyone has cracks running through them, bits that break off when they crash into one another. He and the beast, they were one thing, they sang together. But the poison was already deep inside, long before he bound himself to it, and it was weaker than he was, in the end.
It was not wasted. He still carries a fragment, and that’s enough, that will be enough to show Crozier. He was so frightened at first - he had been filled up with so much of everything, so much knowledge and so much space, a wilderness.
Before any of this, when he was still a man, he would look inside himself and see nothing. He would find only emptiness and hunger. Now he is overflowing, filled to the brim. Everything the creature was is now in him, every morsel it devoured, every spell protecting it.
He settles back onto the pile of blankets and sackcloth, stretching. He feels the chill rubbing against his skin, and he welcomes it inside.
It’s better down here in the cold, in the hold, where it’s quiet and he can think. It was stifling up there, all of those souls too close for comfort, clamouring for attention. He won’t be alone for long, Whittock will come for him. Whittock needs him as much as he needs Whittock, he’s that sort of man. He needs a purpose, and Hickey is more than happy to give him one.
He needs to be free of this place. He needs to find his way out. For now he is very tired. The effort of trying to be heard has exhausted him, his missing parts all sing with pain, his skin itches and burns. He will wait, then. He can wait.
* * *
“The day could have gone worse,” James observed with a brightness that would have had more effect if his voice was not so strained. “No-one died.”
“There is still plenty of time for that. It is not yet the dinner hour."
“The day - ” James huffed as he levered himself slowly up on to his bunk. “- is young, you are right. Plenty of time for disaster to strike.”
Francis ignored that, watching as James dug the toe of one boot into the other and eased it off to fall onto the deck with a thump. “How were the men on the shore? I hope they came without much need of persuading?”
“For once,” James smiled. “I was even brought tea, can you countenance it? After all this fuss, I am offered a biscuit box and a cup of tea by would be mutineers.”
“Safety affects people in more strange ways than danger,” Francis remarked as he bent to tug off James’ other boot. “Not that I am ungrateful that it was easy.”
“Easy,” James snorted. “The ice begining to break up got them going quickly enough, but word of Hickey has reached them and there was some worry about that bear.”
“There is some worry about that bear here,” Francis said as he dropped into the chair by the desk. He watched James as he gingerly moved to sit back against the bulkhead, his hand supporting his injured ribs that Francis knew were heavily strapped. “I feel like I should be fetching you a doctor, James.”
“Oh, what will Renholm do apart from give me some drug and a telling off. Bridgens has already given me something un-named to drink, and I think from the look on your face you will be telling me off before long.”
“I would not dare,” Francis said with enough conviction to make James laugh. “I shall be brooding too much for even that, I fear.”
“He is in the hold Francis, with no tongue and now no pen he can write with. Both by his own doing. At risk of raining the wrath of God down upon us, what is the worst that can happen?”
“Ross thinking me a madman and a tyrant,” Francis muttered petulantly, dropping his arm over the bunk rail to pick at the sheet. “He is in an awful state James, I almost pitied him when I first laid eyes on him, and then he laid eyes on me and let me tell you, his state is no hindrance.”
“I could tell. What a work those scrawls were.”
Francis hummed in agreement, exhausted at the mere thought of all that uneven and unhinged writing. He let himself think on it all for a while; the almost perfectly timed chaos, the distrust in James Ross’ eyes, and the wet raw stump in the dark maw of Hickey’s mouth that the man had almost seemed proud of.
“He -” Francis started, pausing when he looked up and found James’s eyes already on him. “What?”
“You still carry us all, don’t you?”
“Do not get all starry eyed over me now, for christ's sake. I could not take the turn about in opinion between that and what Ross thinks of me.”
“I wager he is simply desperate to know his closest friend is not whatever Mister Hickey wants him to think you are,” James pitched himself sideways so he could lean closer to Francis. “Ross is a steady man in a very unsteady situation, and the Arctic is something very different from what he remembers…”
James’ easy baritone and no doubt wise words washed around Francis as he stared down at his hand that was placed next to Francis’s own on the bunk. Despite the callouses and the strength across his palms Francis had once dared to judge him for his hands, taking one look at the elegance of James’s fingers and the neatness of his nails and deciding that he was no true sailor. He had even entertained the nasty thought that a nip of frostbite might do him some good, a thing that now filled him with horror. How much worse would his guilt be now if James had lost more of himself than teeth and fingernails, if he bore more scars than those caused by raw split skin.
No doubt there was clever metaphor in there somewhere, but even healthy and in good humour Francis had never been very quick with things like that.
He had no idea how Hickey knew of his almost resignation, but the words echoed back at him from that barely intelligible trail of ink - “ many feats occupy a captains imagination” - and were still resounding in his mind. Was that the cause of all this? Blanky had warned him that he would be despised if he had tried to make Fort Resolution, but Francis had not thought it would come in the shape of that devil in the hold.
Christ, if he had gone instead of Fairholme then the Tuunbaq would have had his life in a matter of days, no doubt a much deserved punishment for leaving his post, and left James with last burdens. Maybe Sir John would have acted differently if Francis had resigned, maybe he would not have been at the blind, but the Tuunbaq had wanted him and so he would have ended up down the fire hole any which way, and all of this would have been on James’s shoulders.
He was capable, immensely so, and even though Francis would not have wished this burden to rest on any one man alone, he could not help entertain the thought that a man far more likeable in temperament and nature than he (and who was so very English, no matter what the well guarded truth was) might have overseen a lesser disaster than what had occurred under his dour, whiskey soaked leadership.
"Francis really," James huffed, wrapping his fingers about his wrist to give his arm a brisk shake. “If anyone should be drifting it should be me.”
“You should be asleep," Francis grunted automatically and James snorted.
“How can I when you brood so. I will not have it, Francis! Hickey wants your attention and your anger, and that cannot be a good thing. So I suggest, as your second, that you leave Hickey be. Let him stew away in that hold, he is Ross’ responsibility now and I wager that all too soon he will see that he cannot help causing trouble."
Francis had not been brooding on that, but he found that now he was. He sat back in his seat, leaving his wrist under James's hand. "You saw the paper with 'dirtiness' on it."
"I regret my harshness in his punishment. I do. I regret many things, and I know that regret always comes far too late and is always ineffective," Francis shook his head. "I believe he killed Irving because he brought that charge of dirtiness to my ear."
"What punishment does he wish for me if he did all that to Irving. The creature is… we know that's not coming here, not now, but what else might he do. James, would it not be better for me to disembark so he does not do something to endanger you all?"
"Selflessness itself Francis, and very commendable. But I think an overly packed ship’s company might be able to contain the fellow." James pressed his hand down against Francis' then pulled it back. “But a smart red bird came to me on deck and spoke to me of a few things, the anxieties and concerns of the men, and of Hickey. Would you like to hear them?”
"Why not?" Francis groaned, resigned to this never ending ice bound purgatory.
James considered Francis, pressing his bottom lip against his teeth as he seemed to make a decision. "Hickey knows about this letter of resignation of yours, and told those supposed mutineers about it.”
Francis closed his eyes and sighed deeply. “ Shit. ”
“So it is true then,” James said tightly, and Francis would rather curl up down in the hold for the rest of the voyage home than face the disappointment he heard in James’ voice. “You were going to lead that damned sledge party yourself, weren’t you?”
"Yes," Francis said, looking at the floor rather than at James. "John Ross' expedition had barely survived long enough to be rescued, and they were only twenty two men. The risk was becoming too great, the chances too narrow with each passing day, and I was too… ‘high handed’ to make Sir John see. Too sure of myself."
He had been bitter also, willing to face court martial for deserting his post, a thing punishable by death, to make Sir John look incapable and the Admiralty foolish (for what had a good name and fine reputation mattered to a man who had not wanted to live) but at this moment Francis could not quite bring himself to admit that.
"I think too much pride may have been a sin we all indulged in," James sighed. "We should have listened to you, and for that..."
“No one could have foreseen what was to happen, James. Not even my thoughts of doom countenanced things going so badly.” They sat a while in silence, the familiar weight of their losses an old friend by now, until James made a sound of amusement.
“No, I do not think you would have left Terror with me otherwise.”
"Even when just the thought of you irritated me,” Francis admitted, glancing up at James to catch his smile. “I did not doubt that you were more than capable."
James smile faltered and fell, expression pinching as he pressed his thumb into the meat of his other hand. "I wonder at how you could have thought yourself the expendable captain."
“You were certainly not,” Francis said with enough sternness that James looked to him. “You would have made yourself listened to where I only made myself distant and peevish, and you took on the weight of my failings with an ease that does you credit, James. You have never been expendable. I would apologise for that, and for thinking to resign, but I do not think you would want it.”
“No I do not want it,” James reached over to take him by the shoulder of his borrowed coat and shook him gently. “The men followed you to rescue, all they want is to get home. I told you this not to chastise you, but so we will know the mischief it might cause when it raises its head. If it does. For Sir James is captain now, and he carries none of our burdens. It is he who we must all look to now, eh?”
“Yes,” Francis agreed quietly, reaching up to grasp the hand laying on his shoulder.
seeing as Jared Harris gets shouted at so well, how could we not?
this chapter has a Francis / Ross companion piece thing if you would like to read it.
Up next - a whisper campaign
Logbook Entry, HMS Enterprise, 10th July 1848
Ice report: break up continues, bergs dispersing into smaller pieces occurring slower than expected. Ships holding fast.
Weather report: still, low cloud. Thermometer average reading: 8 °C
Increased hunting parties sent out due to the fears from the physicians that the tinned food is unsuitable.
Expedition men all aboard ship, have been found berths in the orlop. Are much crowded. Disturbance in sickbay at two bells afternoon watch, troublemaker removed to hold.
“And as you see here, Sir James, shoots have taken hold in this section. Ah, I'll get out of your way Jopson...” Henry spoke evenly, stepping back to allow Thomas to cast lamplight over the strange yellow fuzz that was growing on the strips of fabric that had been wrapped at intervals around heating pipe. “Mr Weekes, fine fellow, he laid these down. The book Dr Renholm has kindly given us to consult has confirmed that all this is what is to expect on the second full day of growing.”
“Queer things, are they not?” Sir James said as he bent to peer at the cress, Thomas having to lean over to hold the lantern for him.
“Yes, sir,” Thomas said, letting his voice slip into the bland tones of a steward as he watched that Mr Whittock thud down the ladder without the slightest bit of neatness, bible hefted up under his arm, and hurry down the passage to the empty store Hickey had been shoved into. Lieutenant Le Vesconte and himself had been down here in the hold for three days so far seeing to the cress, and that man was either already down here, butchering the good book in some attempt to entertain or maybe even save Hickey, or was hurrying to him in a pathetic display that had even raised Henry’s eyebrows.
Thomas did not trust this at all. Trouble clothed that man Hickey, and a man like Whittock would be just the sort to fall foul of it. Both he and Henry had tried to engage him in conversation, as had Mr Honey of Terror , but his only care was for ‘his John’, a name which was horribly bad taste considering who had once led them, and what Hickey had done poor Lieutenant Irving who had not been all that unkind as lieutenants went.
He was not their concern apparently. Apparently Sir James had taken full responsibility for Hickey as he did not trust the captain with him, or some such nonsense. The entire ship’s company knew about the argument between the two men, and how Captain Fitzjames had put a stop to it, and Thomas did not think that sort of behaviour from the commander entire entitled him to pass such a judgement.
But that was not for Jopson to say. He had his duties, and would attend to them as he always did. He still caught Henry’s eye over Sir James’ head and directed him to where Whittock was irritating the marine guarding the door.
Captain Fitzjames had told Henry, who had then whispered it to Thomas, about a thing Hickey knew and had twisted to his own disloyal purposes. They had not been set to watch, as such, but the implication to keep their eyes open had been clear.
"Well," Sir James said smartly as he straightened, clapping his gloved hands once before rubbing them together sharply. "It all seems to be going as well as can be expected. Or as I can tell."
"It seems so, sir, God willing," Henry said pleasantly but firmly. "And as long as there are few distractions or disturbances." He looked purposefully to where lantern light was spilling out of the cracked open storeroom door, revealing a part of a shrunken figure and a skeletal shadow cast up the curving wall. Thomas watched Sir James tense at the sight, touching the bandage on his hand, before looking away.
"Yes well. Marines on guard keep men honest, and we cannot deny any man to hear the word of the lord can we?"
"No sir," they both chorused, Henry looking as dissatisfied by that reply as Thomas felt.
Journal of F.L. M'Clintock, 15th July 1848
It is all reworking of duty rosters for the foreseeable future, a task that has been valiantly taken up by Lieutenant Brown with help offered from Lieutenant Hodgson from the Expedition.
It is no complaint, only an observation. For when one sets out on such a task as we, a ship full to the brim of men is what is hoped for. Prayed for. And we shall meet the task gladly, and try to keep in good cheer even if we are squeezed together.
I have spoken more with the lieutenants of the expedition, and they are fine fellows now they have found safety and rest. They talk of how familiar and yet unnatural it is to be aboard a ship again, and voice surprise at how they were only but a few months on land when they have become so used to it. They have all been through an ordeal which is beyond words to describe, a true horror, so we must have patience with them still. Especially as some of their comrades have not improved upon reaching the ships, and I fear mourning may be in our future. All is in the hands of the Almighty.
Sympathy is natural, yet sailors need work to keep them from becoming morose. So light duties are given and despite some protestations, are carried out. I hope this will also encourage the crews to mix more for only a few of the expedition men have made use of the friendliness of our Enterprisers , and the rest keep mostly to themselves, a few even taking to gathering down on the orlop when the men are about their fun. They cause no trouble, and are quiet as they whittle and work and carve trinkets and oddities, but I hope they will not isolate themselves fully. If suspicion and tribes form we shall have an uneasy time of it.
Franklin’s men are on the whole very quiet and reticent, and sometimes peevish, but all will settle soon I trust. Open water will do them good. And no doubt the cress also, which is set to grow all over our pipes and is a cause of much curiosity.
* * *
Someone still needed to feed the lad, of course, even if he did have to be moved from sickbay. If you asked Whittock, it was an outrage - a cruelty. Locked away down in the hold like livestock when really he was an invalid! He was firm in arguing the case; poor John wasn't fully well, nobody in their right mind would say so.
And if the doctors would not protest the barren-hearted decision to cast John out of sickbay, then Whittock knew that he simply had to berth somewhere nearby. At least he would be doing his job, which was supposed to be making sure all of Franklin’s surviving men were returned home in one piece.
It was cold, so cold down there, and very dark, so Whittock saw his way to finding extra blankets and woollens. He laid his hands on an unused oil lamp and had that away too, so that John would not be afraid. He could not bear that; to think of John shivering and alone down there, without anyone to see to the things he needed.
All that fuss over a pen. To treat a man like a criminal just for trying to tell the truth. Whittock had thought better of Sir James than that. As far as Whittock could see, there was no evidence that John had caused or would cause anyone harm - he barely had it in him to finish his supper most evenings, and as long as nobody bothered him he was quite calm, and gentle as a kitten.
They sent the Franklin doctor down to see him eventually, perhaps because of Whittock’s complaints. It was a waste of time; he was a soft, overly earnest man who barely had his sea legs, Whittock could tell by the clumsy way he navigated the ladder, and the mincing way he walked, rubbing his hands together like an anxious boy. He called John by his other name, though Whittock tried to correct him.
“He prefers John.”
The doctor shook his head, “if you would give us the room, please, Mr Whittock?”
“Room, is it?” Whittock grunted, casting an eye about the dank little store. Still, he stepped back a little way and watched from the threshold.
“ Mr Hickey ,” the doctor said again, speaking loudly, as if John was an idiot, or deaf. John watched him, unmoved. “I have come to see how you are faring. Dr Renholm thinks perhaps you are unwell in your mind. Now, I am no alienist, but I have read a little on nervous disorders...”
John made a noise, a derisive snort through his nose.
“It might help to know what you remember, Mr Hickey,” the pale faced physician continued, stepping carefully over his words. “I understand that verbal communication is beyond you, but perhaps if you could nod, or shake your head?”
John nodded, which was a surprise even to Whittock. He could rarely draw such a simple response from his charge.
“Very good,” the milksop cleared his throat, “do you remember the ships? Terror ? Erebus ?”
He nodded again, quite calmly.
“And do you remember me, Mr Hickey?”
“Wonderful. What about… do you recall leaving the ships? The camp?”
John pressed his lips together and glanced up at Whittock, who tried to give him an encouraging smile. Perhaps the doctor was not such a fool, perhaps he might be some help after all.
John nodded, slowly this time.
“You left us, Mr Hickey, do you remember that? We found Lieutenant Irving and Mr Farr, but we did not find you. Do you remember what made you -- that is to say, do you remember why you chose to leave your shipmates?”
John stared at him for a long time. Then he opened his mouth. Whittock was used to the sight of John’s severed tongue by now, but it was enough to shock most others. This doctor, for all his stammering and trembling, did not flinch, but leaned forward for a closer look.
“You did that in rather a hurry, didn’t you?” He murmured. “It must have been very painful, you’re lucky to be alive.”
John closed his mouth and sat back.
“Why, Mr Hickey?” Goodsir said with more force now, “why would you do that? Why would you kill Irving? Were you trying to --” he looked back at Whittock and apparently decided not to finish the thought.
John was smiling at him. The doctor lost his patience, he didn’t understand.
“Is this amusing to you?” He huffed, “the men are frightened, Mr Hickey, and you know exactly why - now if you were a lunatic that would be one thing, but I do not believe--”
John stood up slowly on the pallet Whittock had made for him, watching the foolish young doctor as he did so. He began to raise the tails of his nightshirt, and the doctor blinked wildly, leaning away - only he couldn’t get far with Whittock still blocking the door. “Mr Hickey,” he blustered, “I must protest, please sit--”
John simply winked at him, still grinning, and taking himself in hand released a golden stream of piss into the pot at the foot of his bed. The doctor looked away, Whittock could see the colour of his face even in the weak light - pink-cheeked as a girl. The sound of running water clattered and echoed loudly in the small space, and Whittock laughed heartily at John’s joke while the flustered Franklin doctor stood up to push past him, shaking his head and muttering to himself.
They didn’t send any more doctors after that. They didn’t send anyone.
Whittock kept him company as best he could, reading the bible through the crack under the door when the marine on duty wouldn't let him in, or else sitting with him inside the store when someone more sympathetic was posted there.
He knew John so well now. He knew all of his little ways; his signals and what they meant. John would tap Whittock's hand lightly as his way of saying 'thank you,' and he always offered a smile. He sat still and quiet to have his fingernails trimmed, his wounds cleaned and his beard clipped. He was good as gold.
That's what Whittock told them when they asked him in the mess. He was still obliged to eat with the rest of the crew, though he finished as quickly as he could so that he could get back to John.
"Is it true Crozier had him flogged for summoning that demon bear all the Franklins are talking about?" One of the mates asked.
"Don't know anything about a demon bear," Whittock replied, "but he's been brutalised. Seen it."
"Mutiny, I heard," another man put in. "Murder, too."
"Ask Sergeant Smith how we found him," Whittock shook his head, tutting. "Ask anyone who was there. Brutalised, he was, and left to die. That's not right. Not for mutiny. Not for anything."
"I seen him in sick bay. Tiny wee chap. Couldn't've got the better of an officer."
"Then why flog him?"
"Who here hasn't been lashed? Who hasn't had one of them captains, you know what I mean?" Whittock said.
The mood tightened, there was a general murmur of agreement as each of them remembered something they would rather not.
"He was still acting off, either way," the first man said, "those things he wrote."
"He’s talking. More than the rest of them have done, eh?" Carnell glanced across the deck, where a group of Franklin's men sat huddled over their plates, tight-lipped and suspicious.
"Can't get any sense out of them." Shaw said grimly, "I'm telling you, him down in the hold, he's not the only one what's cracked."
"They're scared of him, though."
"Scared of something, anyway."
"Something he summoned, maybe. Something he could bring here. I don't blame them."
"If that's what they think, why not have him off the ship? Why won't Sir James court martial him?"
"Because there's nothing to fear," Whittock said. "He's just a sailor who's been mistreated. He's got a father back in England, probably, who doesn't know if he's dead or alive. And we're bringing him back. That's what matters."
"You're not saying it was one of them who cut out his tongue?"
"I'm not saying anything." Whittock returned to his food.
"Nah," Shaw shook his head, "Nah, no Englishman would do that to another. No Christian man. That's devilish, that is, savage."
"The bear, then, the esquimaux demon."
"He's not… written anything else?" Carnell asked, "Mr Whittock? If he's telling you things then you ought to tell us."
"Nothing like that," Whittock shook his head again, thinking of the picture John made of a bear - something like a bear - on the bulkhead.
Above the two words scratched into the wood; DRUNK MAD; there squatted a monstrous creature, painted in deep rust red, which Whittock hated to look at, he even tried to wash it away but John began to weep again, and that he could bear even less.
"What, then?" Another man prompted. They were all leaning in, now, keen to hear. Whittock shook his head, as if it meant little to him.
"Nothing. He is very peaceful. Why not come and see for yourself?"
The men looked at one another uncomfortably. Whittock pressed. "I take him his meals and there is no danger. A marine stands alone down there with him now, and there is no danger. What harm could there be?"
They didn't come all at once, or even that same day, but interest grew and gossip spread, and by the end of the week almost every petty officer and seaman had made the furtive journey down into the hold. They crept down one or two at a time, between their duties, just to find out for themselves what all the talk was about.
What with orders for a marine to guard John at all times, changing watches every few hours, and the general tumult of an overcrowded ship, the ladder down to the hold was almost constantly in use. Two of the Franklin officers were growing a garden on the pipes at one end of the corridor - medicine for the sick, they said, though Whittock could make neither head nor tail of it.
All of this activity meant that it was easy enough for men to enter the hold under the guise of scientific interest, if their usual duties had not brought them there. They might look at the cress and hem and haw over how deeply fascinating it was, all the while peering further down the passageway to the closed door at the end, where inside John sat patiently on the bed Whittock had fixed up for him.
If it was young Private Jones on duty, then they could go even further down the corridor and open the door to peer in. Jones was an amiable sort, and didn’t mind Whittock leaving the door open to let a bit of light into the store. As long as you slipped him a bit of tobacco the marine was perfectly content to turn a blind eye. Sergeant Smith was more severe, and a stickler for the rules, so Whittock had to keep his head down. Fortunately Smith had much to be about elsewhere on the ship, and rarely concerned himself with poor John’s imprisonment.
John himself was making the best of his trials. He was patient as a saint, and as long as Whittock was nearby, he was always very calm - there was none of this ‘wildness’ Lieutenant M’clintock had complained of.
The way Whittock saw things, John must have good reason to be afraid of the officers, particularly the Franklin lot, who were surely responsible for the sorry state he now found himself in. Whittock had known plenty of bad captains - whether they were poor leaders or just cruel men. Besides, if John was as deranged and dangerous as the Franklin officers claimed, then why was he so pleasant with men of his own rank? Surely a lunatic was a lunatic, and made no such distinction.
Word spread quickly, particularly among those who had been in sickbay the day John was removed. The Franklin crew, when they came down to visit, called him ‘Cornelius’, but he didn’t answer to that any more than he answered to John.
“You found him, didn’t you?” One of them asked Whittock, as he peered inside the store room, “what was he up to?”
“He wasn’t up to anything,” Whittock replied. “He was just lost.”
John sat cross legged on his bed, looking back at them inquisitively. The thick blanket wrapped around his shoulders kept slipping down, and he would sit there freezing in only his nightshirt unless Whittock went in to bundle him up again.
“It’s like he don’t feel the cold,” one of the other Franklin sailors said, drawing back slightly, his own breath freezing white in the air.
“‘Course he feels it, he’s just not well.” Whittock tutted.
They often had questions for him, as of course John could not speak for himself, and was not permitted writing materials.
“Is it true you found him all bloodied up?” One of the Enterprisers asked.
He’d brought a little rum down with him, perhaps as payment for his gawping. John refused it, of course, so the mate just set down the little pewter cup on the shelf above him.
“That’s right,” Whittock nodded, “wounded, he was; in a terrible state. Covered in his own blood.”
“Covered in Lieutenant Irving’s blood, more like,” a Franklin crew member piped up, craning over the Enterprise’s shoulder.
“Irving - officer on Terror. Found his body the day Hickey did a runner.”
John flinched - Whittock supposed at the mention of another cruel officer - and slapped the wall behind him. The two men who’d come to stare raised their eyes and their lanterns to the strange bear creature painted onto the wood. The eyebrows of the dark haired one - from Franklin's crew, Terror maybe - shot up, and he seemed to turn two shades paler.
“The one that killed Sir John?”
“Why’s he drawn it then, Mr Whittock?”
Whittock didn’t have an answer, but John seemed excited to be understood. He tried to speak, but of course the sounds he made were clear only to Whittock. The two visitors drew back even further at the sight of John’s open mouth.
“I heard he done that,” the Enterpriser said, grimacing, moving his own tongue inside his mouth, prodding his cheek. “What would bring a man to that, d’you think?”
“We saw that on Terror ,” the other man said, his eyes wide. “The eskie girl - she was a witch, the bear was tied to her. She was the one that called it. Cut her tongue out, right before we walked.”
“So if he’s done it…” the Enterpriser shot another look up at the bear drawing.
All the while, John seemed to be leaning in, his head cocked as he listened to them intently. The blanket slipped down his narrow shoulders again, his eyes were bright and more alert than Whittock had yet seen them.
“You reckon he commands the bear now? The bear that killed Franklin? That’s what they said, but I thought it was--”
“No one’s seen any bear.” Whittock said, quickly, pulling at the blanket again. John shook him off, though his skin was icy to the touch. “I’ve been with him longer than a month now, and I’ve not seen anything.”
“Hickey was the one who captured the witch - I was there,” the dark-haired Terror said. “He knew what was what, before any of us. Before the captain, probably. That’s why they flogged him. If he is in command of it, then he’s keeping it at bay.”
“What do you mean?”
“One of us, isn’t he?” The man stood a little taller, a shiver of pride straightening his spine. “Maybe that’s why he did it. We didn’t see hide nor hair of the beast after Hickey left us - so all I’m saying is, maybe he’s the reason why.”
A slow smile stretched across John’s face, and he dipped his head, seeming to nod. He raised his hand to the beast on the wall behind him once more, laying his palm flat against it.
“There you are,” Whittock beamed, “didn’t I tell you?”
Well, it's going all right for someone, isn't it?
Up Next - dissatisfaction
Letter from Lieutenant Le Vesconte, 17th July 1848
I should hope this note will find you after the news of our being run to ground has made itself known. If not, then you shall have had the jump on the whole county with the news!
Sir James C Ross, for I am aboard his ship, has said that a fast ship will be found in the whaling fleet to bring the news home. For the whaling fleet is off Greenland which is on our way home. He said we may send letters, and I am writing one now before I give it too much thought. It is suspected that it will take some weeks to clear all the ice out of our way, so this may be added to when I find myself lacking things to do.
We are all in the business of getting well again, and having a jolly good rest. I am in joint charge of growing some Cresses for our good health upon a contraption rigged up upon a heating pipe by our carpenters. I know this image shall give you a good laugh, as it has Fitzjas who is becoming better every day.
Well, now you know I am well, for I am, I shall leave you with my love, bisous à tous.
Henry T.D. LeV
* * *
Log Book Entry, HMS Enterprise 20th July 1848
Ice report : break up As Expected
Weather report : strong gale, calming to sunshine. Thermometer average reading: 7 °C
R.Golding, ship’s boy Terror , five lots of duty owing for being late on deck for watch.
Armitage, gunroom steward Terror , week of Middle Watches for being below decks and not attending a basin during wash day.
Lt Baynton’s hunting party returned. Scavenged what meat available from a whale corpse, shot three braces of ptarmigan and two foxes.
Two men buried today.
* * *
Letter from Sir James C Ross to Lady Ann Ross, July 1848
You will notice the gap in dates between when I wrote a letter to you last. Do not believe that I have not been thinking of you, for I have most dearly, but all is so very busy and confused. A captain is never at rest, and I am afraid to admit that I have been forgetting your wishes to not tax myself, for I can do little else.
So many things trouble me, and I wish you were here so that I might speak with you, for you are sensible and determined, and daresay wiser than I. I am troubled by grief at what has befallen Sir John, at what sadness it shall bring Lady Franklin, and for the sorry state of my fellow sailors, even though I cannot but be glad somewhere within me when I look at them. I am troubled by the ice, for I wish it all gone so I might be with you all the sooner my love. And I am troubled by things that should be left in this place and not brought to England, or into your fair hand, even by letter.
I am troubled also by the thought that I have become too settled to country living and am no longer the captain I once was. I feared this when I left, as you know, but I could not leave Frank out in the ice all alone, and I know you understood this for he is your dear friend also. I do not mean the skill of sailing is what I fear I lack, I know that will always be with me, but the way to handle men. Captaining a ship of eager, dutiful, healthy men is easy, but the men Franklin set out with are no longer these things and I fear I have lost the mettle to master men who are unhappy and afraid, and I do not think I can ask or expect it from the overtaxed expedition officers.
Oh Ann, I do not wish to only fill this letter with troubles. I may not send it, and simply put them all down in the hope your voice will come to me and advise me. I have shared words with Frank that do no compliment to our friendship, and I know you would bolster me and guide me to speaking to him as my friend again.
I miss you so, and lack the words to be poetic about it.
Know that I love you very much, and please kiss our dear child for me.
* * *
Journal of F.R.M.Crozier, 23ed July 1848
No surprise to those who know the man, but Crozier is too busy and brooding far too well to attend to this journal that the Admiralty and no doubt posterity will wish to consider. So I shall cover what I am able to, and he may come and cross out all he does not like.
Hunting parties have been returning consistently over the past four days, and they have been more successful than not, one even bringing back a handsome looking Caribou. Some trading has been embarked on also. A few Inuit passed by with their canoes and some fox furs, rope, and spare metals were exchanged for a seal and a good lot of fish. All in all we seem to have enough food to give us some capital meals over the coming week, especially as us invalids are still on reduced rations, as the results of eating a full meal is still rather unpleasant. A thing a few of the men who rather insisted upon a full ration discovered to their detriment.
The men released from the sickbay are as well as can be, and slow at times about the work given to them, but they get it done to as high a standard as can be expected. How I wish I was allowed to be kept busy! Ah well.
Dundy Lt. LeVesconte has just come past and told me the good news about his Cress. Lt Jopson and he have been, with Mr Honey and Mr Weeks and some advice from Dr Goodsir, cultivating a smart little crop, and is now ready for harvest! I told him he has done a capital job and clapped him on the arm and told him to pass my congratulations to Lt Jopson.
They have been growing it in the lower regions of the ship and shall be glad to be away from the chill down there no doubt. The whole operation has been of great interest to all and has been causing a lot of inquisitiveness amongst the crews. Many men have been disappearing down into the hold to look at it for days now but thankfully none disturbed it. Although Jopson has complained of the frequency of some faces, and Sgt Smith has reported that some marines have had to regularly send away men who are being too curious about Mr Hickey who lurks down there, still upsetting everyone.
Still, under one week until the ice breaks up! Or so I’ve been told by Mr Kerr, who is a reassuringly Scots type of Ice Master. The soul of a poet and the dourness of a mother superior, and unfailingly knowledgeable. Mr Blanky has even approved of him, and as he is now up an about on a brand new leg contraption they stand about on deck looking at and hmm-ing and haw-ing about the ice quite happily with Mr Stout from Enterprise .
I think this is all, if I remember more I shall add it, or if Francis chooses to he may continue. I am off to eat a no doubt delicious mess of liver and cress!
* * *
Log Book Entry, HMS Enterprise, 4th August 1848
Ice report : Hull almost lose, ice beginning to break into small, floating pieces.
Weather report : Squall at 6 bells on the First Watch and 3 bells on the Afternoon. Thermometer average reading: steady at 10
Mr Golding and Mr Brown, Terror and Erebus, reduced to six water for two weeks for willful slowness in his duty.
Mr Armitage and Mr Shaw AB, Terror and Enterprise, given six lots of duty each for being in the hold, where his duty does not take him
Mr Carnell and Mr Gibbons, Enterprise and Terror, six lots of duty each for talking instead of attending to duty
Health of crew improves with prescribed Cress, last hunting party returned and meat salted and frozen for travel.
* * *
The esquies came back. Maybe they had followed them all the way there, or maybe this was a different tribe altogether, Armitage had no way of telling. It was an excuse to get off the ship, anyway, and they were allowed to do business with them, with strict instructions not to trade away anything more than hoop iron or other scraps of metal.
He went down onto the shore with Des Voeux and Hoar - Tozer was nowhere to be found, and Golding too afraid to go. It was bright outside, lighter than Armitage remembered from before. He had spent so much time below decks that his eyes had grown weak, and he had to blink and squint like an old man. The rocks crackled and clicked under their boots, a nise already grown unfamiliar to them again.
The Esquimaux had all kinds on offer - from seal skin mittens to whale oil to spears and fishing poles. Most of the men were more interested in the dark eyed women they brought with them, though the officers were vigilant against any such propositioning.
Nothing particular struck Armitage’s interest, though Des Voeux was keen to take a seal skin home to his mother - or his sweetheart; he was speaking on Armitage’s left side, which was his bad ear, so he didn’t catch much.
Armitage’s mind was with Hickey, in the hold. He no longer held the ships in such horror as before, not since being brought aboard and finding that Cornelius was alive. That changed his perspective on a lot of things. Of all the men they had lost - stronger, healthier, bigger men; wiser, more experienced men, Mr Hickey had survived. Luck of the Irish. That was the sort of thing Cornelius might say if he could speak.
No one knew what had happened to him out there, no one except Hickey himself, but Armitage fancied he understood enough of it. Hadn’t he been there with Cornelius the night they captured Lady Silence? Hadn’t he seen the beast up close, seen for himself how the esquie witch could commune with it?
Cornelius always knew what to do - he’d known to go and fetch her in, he’d known she was up to something. And when it came to the haul, he had been right about separating off, too, it was pure chance any of them had been saved. But men with ideas like that were unwelcome in this life - unless they had the right uniform on. Hickey had paid the price twice now for daring to distinguish himself, and both times he had settled the account with his own flesh.
He had no tongue, just like Lady Silence. She had been able to draw the beast to them, but Cornelius - well. No one had seen it since he left them, had they? Not hide nor hair. The beast was gone; called off, and the man who had saved them was locked up in the hold like a common criminal.
It didn’t sit right with Armitage, or any of the others he’d spoken to. Visiting Cornelius in his prison was the least they could do to show their gratitude, and affirm their allegiance. If Hickey could send the beast away, might he not also be able to call it back? He might be capable of anything, and Armitage preferred to side with him than with the toffs who would have abandoned them first chance they got.
Des Voeux had entered into some kind of argument with an old man, who looked up at him with an expressionless face as he tried to haggle using a series of dramatic arm movements and pointing emphatically. Armitage stepped away, preferring not to be involved, when he caught sight of something interesting.
One of the women had spread out a skin on the ground and was laying out her wares just like the market women did at home. The objects she was selling were made of bone and some kind of black stone, the largest no bigger than a hand’s span, and the smallest barely the size of a fingernail. They were carved into shapes - at first Armitage took them for children’s toys or poppets, but on closer inspection he saw that they were just like the charms Morfin had described finding in Lady Silence’s father’s coat.
Curious, he squatted down to look. There were all sorts of shapes, some familiar to him, others less so. Tiny figures of naked men and women with esquimaux features, sleek little fish with intricately carved scales and fins, caribou with jagged antlers, geese and seals. And bears, of course, white and polished so smooth they looked as soft as soap. Armitage licked his lips as he cast his eyes over each object, landing on the very largest. It was like a bear, but not quite. It had a long neck and a fearsome head, teeth bared. A familiar sense of dread trickled through him, and he reached out to pick it up.
The woman selling these trinkets slapped him away at once, and shook her head at him. She held out her own hand, palm flat and empty, but quite insistent. He fumbled in his pockets for something to give her, turning up rags, scraps of paper and his own fork and spoon. Those she seemed most interested in, which was canny of her - they were the most valuable things he had to his name, aside from his boots.
“Yes, yes,” she nodded, as he mulled his decision over. He could borrow a fork maybe, or an Enterpriser might take pity.
He pointed at the long-necked bear charm, “This?” he said, “Swap for this?”
“ Tuunbaq ,” she said, picking it up. She looked at it, and then at him. Her eyes were like black holes, deep and endless. “Yes.” She nodded again.
He gave her both the fork and the spoon. “Toorn-ag?” He tried.
She laughed at him, “ Tuunbaq .”
He frowned, and didn’t try again. She handed over the icon and he held it in his hand. He wanted to take off his glove and feel it on his skin. He wanted to press his lips to it. It was a very queer object. Perhaps Cornelius would know what it was. Perhaps it would please him.
“What do you have there, Mr Armitage?” A cold hard voice over his shoulder. He grimaced, turning around.
It was Brown, third Lieutenant on Enterprise , and the bain of Armitage’s life these days. He seemed to have it in for the Franklin men, he was always hurrying them along or splitting them up, sticking his overlong nose in. Armitage slipped the bear statue underneath his sleeve, so that it rested snugly against his wrist. It wasn’t as cold as he’d thought it might be, it was warm as flesh.
“Nothing, sir,” he muttered in reply, looking at the officer’s boots.
“Speak up,” Brown barked.
“Nothing, sir, ” Armitage bit back, raising his voice much louder than necessary. Des Voeux and a few other men turned to look, abandoning their transactions.
“Did I see you give your cutlery to this woman?” Brown glared at him. He was a joyless man, perhaps in his late thirties with a florid complexion worsened by the bitter cold and flinty dark eyes.
“I was only looking. We were all given leave to trade if we wanted.”
The woman who sold him the object had clearly sensed that something was very wrong, and wasted no time in packing away her things and scarpering.
“Hoop iron only, Mr Armitage,” Brown hissed, “those were the captain’s orders, and well you know it. Unless you are feeble-minded, as well as a laggard?”
Fury reared up in Armitage and he gripped the bear figurine tight as he raised his face to look Brown in the eye. He might have said something very ill advised, if Des Voeux had not then stepped in.
“Leave him be, Brown, we were told hoop iron and other scraps.”
Brown turned his spiteful gaze on Des Voeux, “I am not sure which definition of ‘scrap metal’ you have read, Mr Des Voeux, but I can assure you that utensils are not included.”
“What’s it to you?”
“I am carrying out orders which come directly from the captain and--”
“Your captain, maybe,” Des Voeux countered, straightening up, stepping closer to Brown with a triumphant smirk, “not ours. Take it up with Crozier, if you’ve got a problem.”
Brown looked confounded by this, and neither Armitage nor Des Voeux moved or backed down.
“Don’t think I won’t take this up with Captain Crozier,” he said, weakening. “You men are out of line.” He glanced across the shore to where Crozier himself stood, with Fitzjames and Mr Blanky engaging in deep conversation with some of the esquimaux men over the price of meat.
“Go and bother him, then,” Armitage grunted, “leave us alone.”
Brown looked at the two men a moment longer, then around at the men gathered, still looking on with interest. The Franklin men generally had the sympathy of the crew, and he knew it. His eyes narrowed, and he broadened his shoulders.
“We shall speak of this again, Mr Armitage. I shan’t forget it.”
Armitage risked sneering at him as he turned and walked away. Des Voeux laughed, a grating cackle which Brown was meant to hear. Everyone turned back to their own business.
“What if he does tell Crozier?” Armitage asked Des Voeux quietly.
“Let him,” Des Voeux shrugged, “what’s Crozier going to do? He knows we’ve all suffered enough, he don’t want no trouble.”
“Yeah,” Armitage nodded, looking down at the object in his hand again. Cornelius would like it, he was sure.
Up next - responsibility
Journal of F.R.M Crozier, 10th August 1848
Ross had Fitzjames and Le Vesconte and myself for dinner in his cabin, which was a genial time. Ross and myself did manage a tale or two about Parry, and when Le Vesconte took James back to his sick bed we spoke a while, although things are a struggle still.
Jopson is in what might be called good health again, which brings me great relief, and James is on the brink of it also, which is a great weight lifted. The men who will be well again are up and about now, and we shall need all officers fit enough to keep an eye on their grousing and encourage them to the duties they have been given.
It is right to keep them busy, as they are still fearful and tend towards surliness, which is understandable. I cannot complain of it as I have been more surly than not over my time as their captain, and even before that, and have done things in the interest of their lives that have lessened their trust in me. I admit to this, as I have learnt to not have such great store in pride.
As Captain Fitzjames has noted in his typically spirited entry made to encourage and cajole me into attending to this journal, unhappy thoughts abound. But such is usual for a captain who has lost his ships and his command. I keep busy with what duties I have, and when I have none Mr Blanky accosts me for tobacco, or Lieutenants Le Vesconte and Jopson show me their cress, or James is purposefully cheerful at me, or I sit and speak about the Arctic places and people with Mr Goodsir.
Such unhappy thoughts are usual for the men too, who are still my worry even though Sir James Ross has taken responsibility for all of us. Mr Hickey’s presence has still agitated some while others are paying him no mind, as they should. As I should have. Speaking with Ross has eased some of both our concerns but all is uneasy in the wake of the mutiny the man had almost brewed.
I do not wish to blame the men for what they were almost driven to, but I fear further ruminating on it will only make me brood once again.
* * *
Journal of Dr A.R Renholm. 17th August 1848
I must begin this entry first by commending the ingenuity and perseverance of the Franklin Expedition crew. When Mr Goodsir and Captain Crozier made their compelling case against the efficacy of our tinned provisions in countering scurvy, added to our own discovery of the poor quality of these foods, I must say that I was quite at a loss as to how best to nourish so many sick men.
Indeed, with our own crew on reduced rations and fresh meat requiring so much time and effort to procure, the situation was looking extremely dire. I wager a sickbay has not been so overtaxed since Trafalgar.
But necessity is, of course, the mother of invention, and after three years in the ice beset by circumstances even more trying than those we face now, Franklin’s men have been entirely undaunted by the challenge and have surpassed all expectations in finding solutions.
In the first instance, the suggestion to make use of the humid atmosphere near the steam pipes for the heating system to grow lepidium sativum (that is, common garden cress) as a quick remedy for our scorbutic men. This plant of course requires little light and little time to grow in great quantities, which is extremely fortunate as both are in short supply this far north.
I am pleased to say that this experiment in Arctic horticulture has been a resounding success thanks to the attentions of Lt Le Vesconte (late of HMS Erebus ) and Lt Jopson (late of HMS Terror ), and under the advisement of Franklin’s carpenters, Mr Honey and Mr Weekes. Once our first crop was harvested, Mr Goodsir, Mr Gilpin and I managed the distribution of this cure and monitored the results. So far the outlook is excellent, as only a small amount of this cunning little herb administered over just a few days has already shown to be astoundingly beneficial to our sick men, several of whom have already been discharged from my care.
Our second victory over debility has been thanks to the passing esquimaux , with whom we have been able to trade some small trinkets and tools of little consequence to us, in exchange for the far more valuable seal meat and fish. This aided by Captain Crozier himself and Terror’s Ice Master, Mr Blanky, both quite fluent in the queer languages of the native people.
These hard won triumphs, combined with the return of our hunting parties bringing caribou and Arctic bird mean that the general health of the crew is much improved, and I daresay our outlook is good for the foreseeable future.
However, I do not wish to trivialise the situation for anybody in England who might read this and suppose that simple hard work and good fortune are easy things to come by. The fragility of the crew’s health and indeed the expedition entire cannot be overstated. Though in general conditions improve, we have still buried three men this week, two of Franklin’s, for whom rescue came too late, and one of our own Enterprisers , who I suppose may have suffered an underlying condition which made recovery difficult.
I must now address the curious case of Mr Hickey, who was removed to the hold over a month ago. It took us some time to return sickbay to order after his departure, as many of the men had grown nervous and near hysterical, and while Lt M'Clintock’s reassurances went some way to settle things, sailors are wont to gossip and grow fractious when unoccupied. That is beside the point. I should like to record that I had absolutely no reservations in releasing Mr Hickey from my care, as despite his self inflicted infirmity, he is remarkably well. He is considerably underweight, but I daresay many of his former shipmates are worse off, and in any case with fresh food in good supply as mentioned above, I saw this as no cause for concern.
I make a note of these things only because Mr Whittock, a mate who has taken up the care of Mr Hickey, has made a number of complaints about the decision (which was not mine to make in the first place), and I should like to pre-empt any further criticisms of my conduct, or the conduct of any of the officers. We have ensured that he receives the provisions he needs - though the man has refused laudanum, rum, and all other pain relief, and will go so far as to spit it out if myself or Mr Gilpin try to administer any - and his current berth, which is in one of the cabin stores down below, is more than adequate. In fact, I should say that Mr Hickey finds himself in a more comfortable situation than any other man on Enterprise - and in that I include our officers who are packed in as tight as the crew.
He has been removed for a number of reasons, which Sir James is no doubt better placed to delineate than I, but chiefly for his own safety and that of the men, who are overexcited by him. Still, he is hardly treated as a prisoner and does not want for company. Several times I have had to reprimand sick men for visiting the hold to see him when they are about their daily exercise. I shouldn’t be so firm, except that it is clear Mr Hickey’s influence - whatever it may be, because of course he is almost entirely unable to communicate - is so clearly deleterious to their convalescence. They return from below pink cheeked from the cold and with a feverish brightness in their eyes, and it takes them some time to settle again.
In any case, these complaints are minor in the grand scheme of our expedition and the fortunes of the ship at large.
* * *
“A man born to hang can never drown.”
His brother meant that as a joke when he bade Solomon goodbye three years ago. Solomon couldn’t swim; never learnt to; which was no impediment to becoming a marine. He’d seen men drown on this expedition and others, but he himself never came close. He wasn’t stupid; he made sure to keep his feet firmly on the deck and he never leant over the gunwale if he could help it.
Then the sea froze around them that first winter and drowning became an impossibility, so the prophecy of Lemuel Tozer held truer than even he could have imagined.
He’d not permitted himself to think of his brother much, not for a long while, but with the hope of leads finally opening in only a few days, Enterprise’s carpenters were making repairs to the yards. The scent of timber always reminded Solomon of home; Lemuel’s workshop had the same warm smell of freshly sawn wood. On Terror it had been a comfort to Tozer; when Mr Honey was working somewhere on the ship he might find an occasion to pass by. Solomon had worked as a carpenter himself before enlisting, and he and Mr Honey often shared trade stories and grumbles in the mess.
On Enterprise , Tozer leaned against the gunwale, watching the crew busy themselves. He could have offered to lend a hand, but he didn’t.
Tozer was always above deck if he had a moment off duty, smoking cig after cig. Even with the canvas still up he preferred the cold air to the suffocating labyrinth below. Smith had him guarding the captain’s cabin most days, probably because it was easy work. After Hickey’s little display in sickbay Smith had made sure that the officers were never more than a few strides away from a marine, just in case. Tozer heard about Cornelius’s caper second hand, but he was hardly surprised to hear the fuss it caused. Still. He’d made the choice to steer well clear, and he was going to stick by it.
It was kind of Sergeant Smith to give him guard duty - he could have pulled rank on Tozer, could have had him running about all over the ship like a skivvy, just to show who was in charge.
Still, he hated the looks he got from the officers as they passed him to enter the cabin. Captain Fitzjames had most likely told everyone what he’d confessed to doing, out on King William Land - what he’d almost done. Crozier hadn’t called him in, yet, but Tozer knew it must only be a matter of time.
Mutiny. The ice might be holding firm, drowning might be out of the question, but with four carpenters on board then a hanging could still be a possibility. What would Lemuel say?
Perhaps Hodgson had confessed. Tozer had thought it a mistake to include that foppish idiot at all, but Cornelius insisted they have an officer on side. Would they hang Hodgson too? Or had he contrived it so that all the blame would fall on Hickey? Fitzjames had given his word that Tozer had his discretion - but when all was said and done, Solomon wasn’t sure what that meant, or how much it really amounted to.
His cigarette burnt down to the dog end, Tozer heaved himself upright and made to return to his post. He walked slowly. He wasn’t as feeble as he had been after the rescue, but he found his limbs reluctant to respond with the same vigour they once had, his body as despondent as his thoughts. Some mornings when he was shaken awake for his watch he would lie in his hammock for long drawn out seconds, unable to find the will to move at all. He’d cover his head with his blanket and think of Heather wrapped up in Terror’s hold, frozen through, with sealing wax still pressed over his eyelids.
There was nothing wrong with Tozer, not really. His frost-chapped cheeks had begun to heal, and a series of regular meals improved everything else. He had no cause to trouble sickbay, where there were plenty of men worse off than him. It was only that he could not seem to shake the weight of dispiritedness which had been bearing down on him ever since the rescue.
He wasn’t the only one feeling it. The rest of his fellows were acting strangely - or at least Tozer thought it must appear strange to the crew of Enterprise . Golding, for example, had been brought to tears when the cup he had been drinking from was mistaken for rubbish and tossed away by the Enterprise’s cook. He’d made it from one of the Goldner’s tins years ago, with help from Mr Hornby. The handle was shoddy and bent, and it cut his lips to drink from, but when he found it was missing he had searched high and low and been quite inconsolable.
Armitage, who was not usually someone you could rely on for conversation of an evening, had retreated even further into himself, and could be found brooding silently most evenings, frequently joined by Crispe, Hoar and Private Wilkes. They had befriended some of the Enterprisers , but this hadn’t had the livening effect the officers seemed to hope it might. Instead, Franklin’s men had drawn the crew of Enterprisers into their grim confederacy, and were always gathered together, murmuring and passing queer objects between themselves.
They visited Hickey in the hold, he knew that. They weren’t even ashamed of it, Armitage told him quite boldly,
“You ought to see him, he’s changed.”
Tozer laughed without humour. Of course Cornelius had changed, Cornelius was in the business of adapting. He might be coy and timid one moment, then direct and forthright at the toss of a coin - but only as circumstances commanded that he must, and only for himself. Not for any noble reason like honour or duty, and never loyalty. If Hickey was meek and mild now, it was because he was no fool, and he knew himself reduced and was hedging his bets; it meant nothing.
Armitage and Golding might have forgotten what Hickey did to Irving, but Tozer had been there; he’d supervised the burial. A man didn’t come back from a thing like that once he’d done it. Some acts put a stain on the soul, and Tozer was determined to keep himself clean for the remainder of the voyage. He’d come too far now; if he truly was born to hang, then it would be in England, and not on the ice.
“He is in control of the creature now,” Golding told him, after Armitage brought it up, “he’s keeping us safe from it.”
“It’s true!” Golding shook his head, his big eyes earnest and innocent. Golding became a man out there years ago, but they still treated him like a boy. That couldn’t be right. “I saw it! I saw his tongue, he’s done eskie magic and saved us all.”
“Was that ‘eskie magic’, what he did to Irving?” Tozer challenged him.
He couldn’t be the only one sickened by it. Parts of Irving had never been found, they were nowhere near the body, and Goodsir said Hickey must have taken them. The men gathered had pretended to be shocked, to wonder why he had cut anything off at all, but they were all bluffing. Every man at Irving’s graveside was starving, and every man felt the same pain seeing the meat wasted.
“Maybe Irving tried to stop him,” Golding shrugged, and Tozer wondered if he wasn’t as soft in the head as poor dead Magnus. “You know what he was like, he was always trying to get at Cornelius.”
“Or maybe he had to do it,” Crispe suggested. “We don’t know, we just know that Irving’s dead and the beast is gone.”
"Could have been the beast that got Irving, even, we all heard how tore up he was."
"Yeah, that's right, like Fairholme's party, remember how Crozier lied to us about that - you told us, Sergeant, you and Mr Hickey."
They all looked at him, and Solomon didn't like it one bit. He looked up to see more men raising their heads, watching from across the mess.
"That was my mistake," Tozer said, raising his cup to drink. "I should never have told anyone."
He remembered what a relief it had been, unburdening himself to Cornelius. It was such a dreadful thing, discovering Fairholme’s party. So long dead, and all their hope with it. After Morfin turned mad and did what he did, Tozer had felt he was hauling twice the weight. Hickey made sure to find him at a private moment, alone in his tent, picturing those men’s heads in the snow. He had been so earnest as he pried and prodded carefully with soothing words and friendly tones until Tozer spilled everything, a long and sore confession. Cornelius listened attentively.
"And Crozier said you were to tell no one?"
"Yes.” Solomon had nodded, “I only tell you because... because you'd already brought me into your confidence, over that letter you read."
Hickey tilted his head in that odd way he did. Something womanish about it, self-satisfied and over familiar. He smiled, pulled out a cigarette.
"And what do you think of that? Being ordered to lie?" He dipped his chin to light the fag between his teeth, glancing up at Tozer as he did.
Tozer swallowed. "Doesn't matter what I think, does it?"
Hickey shrugged, exhaling smoke, shaking out the match with a gloved hand. The charred scent filled Tozer's nostrils. His mouth watered.
"Doesn't matter? Certainly mattered to Morfin."
"Don't talk about that."
"I'm just saying."
"Give me one of those," Tozer nodded at Hickey's pocket where he knew there were more cigarettes, the man never ran short.
Hickey smiled again, produced one and held it out, reaching through the blue smoke hanging between them. He handed over the matches too, and watched Tozer light up and take his first puff.
"You remember what we discussed? The notion that Mr Gibson raised, back at the ships?" He was speaking quickly, on the verge of excitement.
"How many more men will die, Solomon? Morfin ended it over headaches. I've had a bit of a headache myself, these past few miles, how about you?"
Tozer shifted uncomfortably. His head had been splitting for days, the pain seared behind his eyes and when he laid down it swilled inside his skull like boiling water. Hickey kept talking.
"The men trust you more than they do Irving or Little. The men know you, you've been among them all this time, haven't you? You're one of them, only you're better, because you're a sergeant. What do those officers in their fancy coats know, eh? Fine dinners and ballrooms? You're a Royal Marine. You're built to weather this. And everyone knows it."
Tozer shook his head, remembering Fairholme and his men, their dead lips blue, their blood turned black and frozen like tar to the rocks.
"If you'd seen it," he said, shivering.
"Tell me," Hickey leaned forward, his face open, "what was it like?"
"They were dead, all this time. Our rescue ," Solomon chuckled bitterly. "Enough to send a man mad, eh?"
Hickey's grin widened and Tozer watched him closely, he watched his eyes. There was nothing there.
"You can't," Hickey said. "You can't go mad in a place like this, if you do then it's over for you. You can't do it. But you can think about it."
Later, when Tozer saw Irving and Farr lying dead on that barren hillside he recalled that conversation and cursed his own foolishness.
Since the rescue, Solomon sometimes imagined how he would tell Lemuel about all of the things that had gone on, and all the things that did not kill him. He was born to hang, so he did not drown, or starve, or sicken, or burn. Just as you said, brother.
It was a dead-end line of thinking, it always ended with Heather slipping from his arms, the sound of his ribs cracking as his chest caved in. Fairholme’s party, poor suffering Morfin, Sir John’s leg. Irving, scalped.
A hot bubble of bile filled Tozer’s throat and he tried not to choke on it as he crossed the deck for the hatch heading down, back to his post.
Fuck this. He grumbled to himself as he climbed down the ladder, into the dark warm air. Fuck the Arctic, fuck Armitage, fuck Terror and fuck that filthy little maryanne in the hold. The whole expedition could do one , as far as he was concerned; Tozer was going to keep his head down, get home and get on with his life. He would collect his pay, tumble the first doxy that crossed his path, eat something that had grown from the earth, not on those grimy hot pipes, and he would rid his mind of every vile image from the past three years.
He hadn’t even reached the wardroom when Sergeant Smith approached him, just as he was retrieving his rifle from the gun rack. He caught Tozer by surprise, his blood red jacket looming into view from the grey shadows.
“Sergeant,” Tozer stood to attention, his knees knocking together as he came to a stop.
“Sergeant,” Smith nodded back with his usual pleasant smile. Tozer didn’t smile back, he’d lost the knack for it.
“Just on my way to--”
“Can I have a word?”
There was hardly anywhere for them to go, no private room, no quiet corner, so they simply stood closer together and lowered their voices, eyes peeled for passing eavesdroppers.
"I have just spoken with Dr Renholm; two more expedition men are free to rejoin the crew."
"That is good news." Tozer replied woodenly. "We shall have to find space for them on the orlop."
"Would you like to know which men?" Smith raised his eyebrows.
"Henry Peglar and William Gibson."
Tozer nodded. He was in no mood for light conversation, he’d rather be left to his post, counting down until his next cigarette.
"Men you know well?"
"Both on Terror , if that's what you're asking."
Smith nodded sagely, and they both flattened themselves against the bulkhead as two men inched past them. Smith waited until the sailors were out of earshot before saying, "It's getting tight back there, no mistake. I know how fractious men can get, packed in like that."
"We’re all very grateful,” Tozer replied. “We know how fortunate we are, you'll hear no complaints."
"No complaints," Smith agreed. "Perhaps something else, though? Something a bit… blacker?"
"As I say, I know how men can get. How the thoughts can turn, over long winters."
Tozer felt suddenly very tired, his arms heavy, his eyes itching. He did not want to think of this. He did not want to speak of it.
"It's a long time to be lost," Smith continued, "it changed you all, I know. But we must keep order, you and I, mustn't we? That is our job."
"What is this about?"
"The hold. We cannot have the men visiting the hold any longer." Smith gave him a hard look.
Tozer scowled. "So tell an officer."
"I plan to. But first I am telling you, as a courtesy. Sergeant to sergeant. Get your men in line."
" My men ." Solomon fought the urge to spit.
"Aye," Smith nodded, sharply, his voice lowering to a growl. "They look to you, they respect you. At least they did, before you all came aboard. I saw it."
Tozer could not meet his eye.
"They'll obey a command from an officer, most likely," Smith continued. "But you and I both know what the difference is, don't we? When they close that door," he nodded his head in the direction of the wardroom, "and it's just us on the other side. The ice will break up soon, and when it does we still have a good few months to go. That… creature, in the hold. It isn't natural."
"You say that, having seen him?" Tozer finally looked up, interested. He hadn’t seen Hickey yet. He had only imagined.
"Aye. I was one of those who found him out there, raving. He attacked Sir James, have they told you that?"
Tozer shook his head.
"He did, bit him like a mad dog." Smith said with a grimace, his eyes seeming to burn. "And the man who saw to caring for Mr Hickey - Mr Whittock, he's turned strange since then. I can't account for it, but I know it’s there. I see it in the men now, the strangeness - I see it in your men, and mine. Do you see it, Sergeant Tozer?"
Tozer would have liked to lie. But with the gallows still heavy on his mind and the scent of tobacco smoke still clinging to his jacket, he nodded. "Yes. But you'd better know - if he has his claws in them then they might be driven to anything. He has a way of convincing."
"Out there, maybe, but here he can be controlled. He must be controlled, do you understand? For the sake of the men."
"They are not my men."
"Did you not lead them here? Keep them together and keep their spirits up? When the captain finished whatever fancy speeches and the officers gave their last orders, who did they turn to for brotherhood? For a man on their side? You did not do those things for a promotion, or a knighthood, you did them because you are a Royal Marine."
Tozer flinched, looking down again. “I know what I am.”
"Then I should have no need to tell you, Sergeant, to bring your men into line. To ensure their safety and the safety of our officers, and to do your damn job."
“I’m sorry to keep you from your duties, Sergeant Tozer. Good afternoon,” Smith straightened up and moved back, standing aside to let Tozer pass.
Tozer blinked, feeling his throat turn sour again, the prickle of shame like cold sweat inching down his back. He nodded, and went to leave.
As he did, Smith leaned in once more and said, “You have ash on your jacket.”
Solomon walked on stiffly, reaching the wardroom door and nodding to the marine on duty, a young Enterpriser named Jones, who nodded back and left him quickly, heading towards the hatch. When he was sure he was alone, Tozer looked down at his jacket, pulling it out to see in the light. There was a smudge of white grey ash near his left shoulder. He licked his thumb and rubbed it away, then brushed at the area until it was clear. Satisfied, Tozer stood straight, adjusted his rifle, and faced forward.
Mufasa voice = "Tozer, remember who you are"
Up Next - people get yelled aaaat.
Sergeant of Marines Charles Smith, HMS Enterprise
I should say it will be soon that we make for home, as the great quantities of Ice on which I have written previous is breaking about us and is a prettier sight than it was as a solid thing. We are all very happy to see the blue of the Water again, and it is a fine colour.
All about are much more cheerful and well. Captain Fitzjames said to me that the scurvy caused the wound that almost felled him in China to return and injure him again, which is a curious thing but I am glad to see him well for he was a fine lieutenant and I hope a good captain.
It has been blowing fresh, and as the canvas had been removed from deck few wish to be on deck. We are cramped below decks which is very damp, and Pvt Halfpenny has had to remove several men from both crews from the hold where they come to be curious about the prisoner and the cress, and he threatened Mr Whittock with removal also which had me called to settle both men.
Rough must be Taken with the Smooth, I suppose.
* * *
He was so thin that he had to wrap a blanket around his hips to sleep, otherwise the chafing of his bones against his skin drove him to distraction. But he was getting better, the doctor said; they were all getting better, and he was well enough to return to duty before leads opened up. He could hardly believe it. He’d never in his life felt as fragile has he did those first few nights on Enterprise .
Billy Gibson first went to sea at fourteen; he had faced rough treatment of all kinds and brutal weather in every thinkable climate. He was used to it, he knew how to bear up.
In China, when the ship keeled on stormy nights Billy had slept soundly while other men puked their guts up. He’d survived malaria sweats, he’d gone hungry, eaten worm-riddled biscuits that chipped his teeth, and fought off rats the size of yorkshire terriers. He’d been humbled a thousand times before, in a thousand different ways - and yes, he had even been lashed, once. But he’d never felt as weak as he had on this cursed expedition.
It hadn’t killed him, and that was perhaps one of the biggest surprises for Billy - of all of the mysteries and strange events that had occurred over the past three years - that he went on living. Even on the haul, when things felt truly hopeless, and every time he closed his eyes he thought that would be the end. In the mornings he opened them again and took up his work, and pushed on, because there was nothing to do but push on. Weakness and strength so often walked beside each other.
When they were rescued, Billy did not feel any special sense of victory that he, personally, had been saved; only a tired gratitude to have been among the fortunate few.
By the end of the first week on Enterprise he’d apparently eaten enough fresh meat and slept long enough that his eyesight improved, his fingers and toes were no longer numb, the bruises that covered his body began to fade once again.
They were still there, though. He could not shake the memory.
It occupied all of his thoughts, this new and sinister knowledge that nothing truly healed. Every forgotten bump and scrape lay dormant inside him, just below the surface, waiting for the right conditions. Stripes from his father’s belt, ancient burns from years of laundry service, needle pricks which had long calloused over - they had all re-visited him, reminders of hard work and hard times. Bite marks, too. The imprints of teeth, where his neck met his shoulder, and lower; on his chest and on his thighs. Reminders of something else.
To see your life tallied up on your own skin, in notches of pain and notches of pleasure. He didn't know what to make of it. What a mess he was; what an odd collection. A queer jumble of bones and hair and skin and meat, shambling pitifully on, never quite reaching an end.
Ill at ease and unable to rest, Billy tried to keep busy in sickbay to distract himself. He forced his swollen joints to work, coercing his aching fingers to remember their old occupation, and he mended his friends’ clothes huddled under a lamplight. He’d sit in place for hours, bent double like an old spinster, working, working, until he thought his spine might snap and burst through his skin. He never looked up. He listened to Bridgens visit with Peglar, and the doctors about their business. The miracle cress, fresh meat, letters home, news of the ice breaking up. None of it reassured him.
When Billy was well enough to be discharged by the doctors he slung up his hammock between Hoar and Armitage on the orlop, but he kept away from them otherwise - they only wanted to talk about one thing, and he refused to hear it.
He spent much of his time back in sickbay caring for the other men. He’d done that kind of work before, and had never been squeamish. He threw himself into it, wiping their fevered brows and washing their stinking bodies, changing their dressings, mopping up piss and pus and worse from the decks. He took his meals standing up, between tasks, he allowed no time for rest.
Was he doing penance? Perhaps, though he didn’t know what for. Billy Gibson was a sinner, like every other man on the ship, like every other man in the world, and he had never felt the urge to atone for it before. Perhaps it was seeing that running account add up in welts.
“You’ll sicken again,” Peglar told him when he found Billy perched on a ladder long after other men on his watch had gone to sleep, darning his way through a pile of rat-bitten socks and gloves. “Go to sleep.”
“I can’t sleep.” Billy muttered, pricking himself, wincing, carrying on.
“You could lie still for a few hours and see.” Peglar suggested, good natured as always, though his voice cracked in his throat more often than it did a year ago.
Billy shook his head, sucked the blood from his fingertip to keep the wool from staining, and carried on darning.
“I’m sure if you speak to Dr Renholm he’ll give you something to help you sleep."
“I’d rather see to my work. There’s much to do.”
“And time to do it in,” Peglar raised an eyebrow at him.
Billy tutted. He knew exactly what Henry was thinking - that Gibson’s work was surplus to requirements in their present circumstances. John Bridgens still had Fitzjames and Lt Le Vesconte to see to, but with Irving and Little dead, and Hodgson avoiding him at every opportunity, Billy had no one to steward.
“No sense putting it off.” Billy replied. He wished Peglar would go away, he didn’t want company or conversation.
“If it’s your dreams you’re avoiding,” Peglar said, standing a little closer to Billy, as if to confide something, “or your thoughts? You must know you’re not alone. Remember that it’s over now - we are saved, our trials are almost ended.”
Billy looked up at him. Peglar’s face was as drawn and sallow as everyone else’s, but he had looked much worse only a week ago. When they were in sickbay Gibson and Peglar had slept side by side, and Peglar barely opened his eyes once. They thought he would die; Billy could tell by the way the doctors spoke gently over him, and the way John Bridgens had wept so bitterly.
No one would weep over Billy, not even in England. His mother was dead and his father remarried the year before he left for the Arctic, beginning his new family at once, making it very clear that Billy was expected to make his own way from then on. Billy had never married, and thought he probably never would, having no inclination at all in that direction. The only place for men like him - and like Peglar too, come to that - was at sea, where they could make themselves useful, perhaps find some small comfort, and make the best of things.
“Come on, Billy,” Peglar smiled, “we’ll be on our way home soon enough!”
He gave Billy’s shoulder a squeeze. It was the same place the harness had rubbed, and his skin underneath was still dark as a plum. Peglar hadn’t the strength in him to hurt, still, Billy flinched. He used to like to be touched, but not any more.
“Have you heard something I haven’t?” Billy snapped, hearing the spite in his own voice. “Been up in your foretop and seen leads, have you?”
“Not yet,” Peglar shrugged, undeterred. “But soon. Can’t you feel it?”
“No,” Billy returned to his work. “I can’t feel anything.”
* * *
Ice Report, Mr Kerr, HMS Enterprise. 25th August 1848
Leads open to the north. Upon investigation found to be heavy with sea ice but should not trouble the ships. Lancaster sound open to the east and to the west as far as can be sighted. In agreement with Mr Stout of HMS Enterprise and Mr Blanky late of HMS Terror that all is clear to make sail again once the ships are freed from the ice current in Port Leopold.
* * *
“An’ this, Mr Jopson?”
“I take that to be a… they are marks for the contours of the seabed, Mr Blanky.”
“Good. An’ what be the distance between these two, lad?”
Francis smiled as Jopson leant forward to examine the chart, Hartnell moving the lamp he was holding to further illuminate the part Blanky was pointing to. Jopson considered it, then picked up his calipers to take the minuscule reading before turning to consult his sliding rule.
“Think of…” Francis began, falling silent when Blanky jabbed at him with his cane.
“Don’t ‘elp the lad, ‘e can do it hisself. Yer not a clueless midshipmen are ye, Jopson?”
“No, Mr Blanky,” Jopson agreed with a smile as he checked the map scale. “Eighteen feet I make it to be.”
“Could you sail this ship Enterprise through that gap?”
“Her draught is shallow enough when unloaded, but as she is laden, then no.”
Francis nodded his approval, standing aside to allow Lieutenant Brown to stride down towards the mess where the men were finishing their dinner.
“Very good! Now, this ‘un, lad.”
“Seventy foot high lighthouse upon a cliff.”
“Duty men!” Lieutenant Brown called, drowning out the murmured conversations of the men. “Watson, Mr Armitage, Mr Stanway, Sinkler, Golding, and Private Halfpenny. Watch on deck!"
Francis glanced over towards the dull, cramped mess, watching as men hopped dutifully to their feet while they scraped their bowls, the headcount he took out of habit coming up one man short.
"Mr Armitage," Brown called again. "Mr Armitage I have seen you about, and you will answer. For if you do not then I will put you on deck all night !"
A murmur went through the mess, Francis easily picking out Sergeant Tozer’s voice saying “Don’t look at me, get to it then!” firmly, before Armitage's head of dark hair shifted from the depths of the shadowed benches
Enterprise was Ross’ ship, and all on board were subject to his command, even Francis. He had not put aside his responsibility to his men when rescue came - he had kept an eye on their health and their work, and made himself read a service for all those who had not been saved by warmth and safety - but he had not wanted to interrupt how the ship was run day to day. The concerns Ross had for the behaviour of a part of Francis’ crew was no small thing and it could not be allowed to continue, but Francis could not help thinking that Ross’ officers were not quite up to the task of bringing his men in to line.
They were worn down by sickness and death, their edges as sharp as the stones of that cursed island they had hauled themselves over, all strict sense of rank burned away by the need to pull together, leaving fragile trust and respect in its place. Which, Francis could not help thinking in the dead of night, was why some men had looked to Hickey or Sergeant Tozer when things had been getting tight; trusting the men they knew rather than officers struggling to react to things that were beyond anyone.
The ice was breaking up, the weather was warming, and the number of his men in trouble was slowly dropping. Even Tozer was no longer insubordinate and scared, returning to the steady marine sergeant he had been aboard Terror . Francis had seen the improvements in health and slow abandoning of fear rather than the slackness that was so worrying Ross - even though the use of ‘slack’ might have been Ross’ diplomatic nature Francis mused as he watched Armitage saunter past the Enterprisers who cringed into silence like all sailors who knew to fear the lash.
Armitage shrugged up to Lieutenant Brown who was looking like he wished to give the man a thrashing. He glanced over at where Francis stood by the capstan and visibly contained himself, turning to speak to Armitage in hushed tones which did not seem to affect the man greatly.
On the long walk Francis had been glad that the crack of the cat he had used too well aboard Terror had faded to almost nothing. He could not have led them far enough to be rescued with the spectre of the tyrant he had once been hanging over them; but this was no longer a desperate struggle to live on, and the cat had always been a warning for what the Articles demanded as much as it was a punishment.
The men of the Franklin expedition were not Ross’ responsibility, or James, or Tozer’s. They were his, whether they liked it or not. Francis’ duty would not be done until he had seen them safely to England, not indulge in brooding over his failings or that man locked in the hold. It was not his job to be liked, and if Ross was pushed to order a flogging then it would be as much his fault as it had been on Terror .
"Mister Armitage," Francis called down the deck, the hull amplifying his shout so he sounded rather fierce even to his own ears. A chastened silence fell as he strode forward, keeping his attention on Armitage’s surprised face even as he felt the prickle of eyes following him. “You will make your apologies to Lieutenant Brown for your manner.”
“I never - ”
“You will make them at once , Mr Armitage,” he said levelly, being careful not to raise his voice. “Or the lieutenant will not be the only one you have shown disrespect to.”
Armitage looked thunderous, then noticed everyone watching him and became sheepish. "Sorry, sir," he said to Francis, then turned to Brown. "Apologies for any disrespect.”
“Very well,” Brown said with a haughtiness that had always grated on Francis. “To your duty.”
“These are my men, lieutenant,” Francis reminded him sharply, staring at Brown until he gave a nod of acquiescence. “A moment,” Francis called when he turned to his crew who were glancing among themselves uncertainly. All except Mr Gibson, who’s melancholy gaze was dropped to some point on the floor, and Tozer, who was sitting at attention and bringing those other marines on this table to straighten also.
Francis shifted, beginning to feel uneasy as he always did when called on for public speaking, the added attention of the Enterprise crew very obvious to him. Nevertheless he set his shoulders and tucked his hands behind his back, pressing the thumb of one hand into the meat of the other as he collected himself in order to speak.
"There has been enough of this dawdling, men. You are not on the sick lists now and I should think you would be glad of it!" he said firmly, letting his eyes track over the hunched forms of his crew. "There are more than enough of you with duty owing, and that brings shame on no-one but yourselves, and causes trouble for no-one but yourselves . If you do not look smart about pulling yourselves together then Sir James will be forced to use harsher punishment than merely giving out duties! Do you hear me?”
Francis would not threaten these men with the lash, never again , but he could tell from the grave faces turned to him that his meaning was clear and so gentled his voice. “We are no longer orphans on the ice, gentlemen. We have all - all - at times, forgotten what the Navy demands and expects of us. We have made mistakes like any man who has been very desperate, and misplaced responsibility out of anxieties for ourselves and for one another, but no more! Your behaviour is not becoming of the fine, good men I know you to be. Dare I say braver than any crew in the long history of this service. A crew who has, at times, been a reminder of resilience and responsibility to their captain, and I will not repay that by allowing you fall into rabble and disgrace.”
He let the words sit a moment - hoping that those who knew of that resignation letter would grasp his meaning - then drew himself up. “The next man who is insubordinate, or lax, will see the whole crew on deck for inspection at both sun up and sun down, and from that point on the whole crew will take punishment together no matter who has incurred it. Is that understood, gentlemen?"
“And mark me, if I hear of any of you causing trouble in the hold, then you will all be holystoning this ship from bottom to top all the way to Greenland. Which I am sure those innocent parties will be very grateful to you for. There will be no dissention now we are homeward bound, is that clear?”
“Aye sir!” came echoing back again, Francis catching a few stern glances being shot between men.
“Very well. Keep up the behaviour that does you credit and I’ll buy you all a drink to celebrate surviving this when we make port.”
A cheer went up, a few mugs being banged on the tables, and Francis nodded to Brown to carry on as he made his way back aft.
Blanky and Jopson made a poor effort of pretending they had not been watching, being too studious in their attention towards sea marks, while James, who was halfway down the hatch, watched Francis approach with a glint in his eye.
“Good lord Francis, that was bracing,” James declared when Francis reached him. “I’ve not seen a display like that in a good while.”
“I am a captain,” Francis grumbled, not sure what to do with his crawling embarrassment and fast beating heart now he had no drink to dull it with.
James smiled, and Francis almost though it had a hint of pride about it. “That you are indeed. A fine one.”
Francis had no idea what to say to that, and Blanky was giving him one of his looks over Jopson’s head, so instead he gestured at James and grunted. “Come on, Juliet, clear the ladder."
“Juliet hardly clambered about on ladders,” James informed him as he stepped down onto the deck, keeping one hand on the ladder as he removed his cap and tossed his hair out of his eyes in a spark of his old flare. “Rather think that was Romeo.”
“If you say so.”
James ignored that purposeful ignorance, glancing past Francis towards the mess, squinting slightly even now. “I suppose we are healthy enough to have no excuses, and must be orderly and ship shape once again, ” he asked as he looked back to Francis. “Now that the nasty business of surviving is behind us.”
“It is the nasty business of having survived to attend to now.”
James hummed in agreement, giving Francis a wry smile as he straightened from leaning on the ladder, tucking his cap under his arm. “Hardly gave it a thought until Jopson took up his studies,” James turned to look at the lesson. “Reminded me there’s a life to go on living somewhere.”
Francis gave his elbow a squeeze, waiting until James had turned back to him to speak. “Will you oversee and help? Your shallow water navigation is second to none.”
“You needn’t flatter me into it,” James scoffed, then narrowed his eyes at him. “Why, what are you doing?”
“To hopefully put a stop to all this nonsense in the hold.”
James did not look assured by that, but did not ask any further questions, giving Francis a look that said ‘keep your temper’ before going to peer over Jopson’s shoulder in a very captain-like and unhelpful fashion.
Up Next - Rumble in the Hold pt 2
bet they've never seen the breath of a god in the hold
see notes at end for a rat warning
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land…. ”
If he did not know any better, he might by now have come to the conclusion that he died out there, with the creature. Perhaps even before that; perhaps the blood he lost when he cut into himself was too much, after all. It would make sense; he remembers being shocked at how much there was. He remembers lying down and watching the slick red turn to glittering crystals on the frozen rocks.
Were he not quite sure of the truth then he might believe that it killed him, and that he now finds himself in hell. Or purgatory. Or limbo. He has never been a pious man, and perhaps that explains the punishment. He smirks to himself at the irony - trapped here without speech for eternity listening to that toothless old seaman drone on and on from the fucking Bible.
“And I will shake all nations and the desire of all nations shall come and I will fill this house with glory…”
Whittock is not permitted inside, today. The marine on duty is not a friend, and so he prefers to pretend Hickey's not here at all. That would suit Hickey very well, except that Whittock will not leave. He sits outside and reads through the door. On and on. Until his voice is broken and raw, and he can barely wheeze out a ‘goodnight’ as he hauls himself up to leave.
Whittock can read, but he doesn’t understand the words he is saying. He stumbles over them, mangles their sound and allows them to crash and collide into each other like a dimwitted schoolboy. Hickey wonders how the marine can stand it. Perhaps he has plugged his ears somehow.
It will be hours before Whittock tires, or the watch changes. He can tell it is early in the day because they have only brought food in once.
His stomach growls, but the stench of the stew they serve him, rotting in its bowl at his feet is enough to dissuade any appetite. He has not eaten anything in days, he will not; it is poison, it will kill him. He pours it into his pisspot and stirs, so that Whittock thinks it’s puke. Either Whittock doesn’t report that, or no one cares.
He stares up at the ceiling, covering his ears to muffle Whittock’s reading. The lantern casts strange shadows, sometimes they trouble him, so he blows it out, but Whittock will only come in to reignite it if he does. It’s worth it for the respite from his dreadful garbled sermons, but really he is grateful for the lantern, because the dark is worse. In the dark he forgets how many fingers he has, he cannot tell where his skin meets the frigid air, he cannot tell what of him is here, lying on the mouldering sailcloth, and what of him is elsewhere; floating high above, or beyond, or closer still, part of the timbers of the ship, part of its bones.
His insides are a cavern, he knows that. Empty and groaning and dark as the hold of Terror . He wonders if the men who stayed behind are dead, yet. He wonders who made the decision first. He wonders how hungry they became.
He remembers their faces. He remembers almost everything, now.
“The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the Lord of hosts.”
At first, he thinks the beast must still have had hold of him; like the ice that now grips the ship, so too was his mind beset - locked in by the creature, and its power, and the enormity of what he had done.
But the thawing began the moment he was on a ship again, and when his old friends began to reappear, when they returned to him one by one and thanked him for his sacrifice, for his courage and his protection - then he knew. It was not madness, it was metamorphosis. Of course it hurt; of course it was difficult. It was rebirth.
“Then said Haggai, If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean? And the priests answered and said, It shall be unclean.”
Something about that makes him want to laugh. He tries it, stretching his face in a way he thinks he remembers, forcing the sound up from his chest. The noise that comes out is wrong. His ribs hurt and his lungs whistle and rattle, like stones dragged over by the tide. Whittock pauses in his reading and shifts his great fat backside against the door,
“All well in there, my John?”
Rolling his eyes, Hickey raps his knuckles on the bulkhead three times. Their sign. He’s amazed Whittock can count to three.
“Just you sing out, if you need something,” Whittock replies, then returns to his droning.
Hickey returns to watching the ceiling, the flame in the lantern skitters and dances in the draught. The objects on the shelf above him cast long, peculiar shadows - they are mermaids and bears and seahorses and serpents, but thrown into relief against the grain of the wood they lose all form, and appear to him like men, marching all in line across his ceiling. The light flickers and blinks and the men seem to stumble and fall and rise again. Hunch backed and squirming with untold misery they walk on - dutiful and pitiful, until he cannot watch it any longer, and rolls onto his side, squeezing his eyes shut.
There is a sound - if he closes his eyes and pushes down Whittock’s biblicising, he can just make out the distant creak and thud of boots on the ladder. The hatch at the end of the passageway. It might be nothing - that ladder is often in use, they are busy with something up there which he has not discovered yet - so it might be nothing, but often it is something - Armitage, with a gift for him, or Crispe, or Golding, or one of the new ones. Tozer has not come down yet, but he is not dead, the others have spoken of him. Hickey wonders what keeps him away. He wonders if they are enemies now, that was always a risk.
He hopes it is Golding; twice Golding has brought him a ship’s biscuit, and as the rats will deign to eat that while they turn up their noses at the foul broth, then he will eat it also. Golding has not been down in some time, though, and these footsteps are too heavy. Besides, Golding is light and scrawny, and has an awkward disjointed gait - he knew a boy like that growing up; bow-legged, it’s common in slums.
This man now approaching walks with purpose. Not sharp and hurried like a marine; he is striding, his boots are heavy and fall evenly on the deck. This man is an officer, and no mistaking.
He sits up, his head spins and the shadows on the walls twist. He retches and gulps air to revive himself. He listens.
Whittock is slow to stop reading; the dolt is concentrating so hard on the book that he does not even notice anyone has joined him. When he does, the book slams closed with a loud thump - oh christ, let him not have lost his place and now have to begin at the beginning - and the old sailor climbs to his feat, bracing against the store door, making it creak and whine.
“Captain Crozier, sir,”
Inside his cell he sits up as straight as he is able. He would stand if he thought his legs would hold him. He listens intently, every working muscle inclined towards the door.
“What are you doing down there, Mr - who are you?”
“Whittock, sir, Edward Whittock.”
“Do you not have duties elsewhere, Mr Whittock?”
“Yes, sir, I mean - I mean my duty is here, sir, I am charged with caring for poor John, you see. He is unwell.”
“Is that so.” It wasn’t a question. “...did you say John ?”
He grins to himself, inside his store, he rubs at his whiskers, and flexes his hands to coax the blood back into them. Crozier . He thinks. Crozier, Crozier, Cro-zier .
“He means the prisoner, sir,” the lobster-back is speaking now.
“The patient.” Whittock mutters.
“Mr Whittock,” Crozier’s voice rumbles. “That man is Cornelius Hickey. That man is not called John.”
He practically spits these last words, Hickey can hear the bile. He can feel it, blazing through the door, it is the only warm thing, a furious simmering just beyond reach. His stomach tightens, and it is not in hunger.
Not called John . You could forgive Whittock for the mistake. There have been a surfeit of Johns on these shores of late. John Torrington. John Franklin, John Hartnell, John Irving. Why not one more John. Why not any name at all.
“I was only reading to him from the scripture, sir, you can ask Sir James, he made me responsible for Joh--for the patient, sir.”
Whittock is grovelling now, it makes Hickey want to shout, he wishes for his tongue more than ever. Crozier shares this disgust, he does nothing to mask it.
“Go away and make yourself useful somewhere else.”
Hickey smooths down his hair. He pulls his legs into a sitting position, crossing them over. His limbs are slow moving, lately - weak. He must have plenty of rest while he grows used to his new state, whatever that will be. The blanket he throws off, he does not need it, he knows he won’t shiver.
Whittock is leaving - miracle of miracles - the great gormless brute ambles away, thunderous footfall receding. With his retreat comes light, washing like a wave into the cabin store, drowning out the lamp, burning the shadow-men to nothing.
He leaves the door open. He enters, and he sits. Hickey salivates and his eyes water, he can barely see for the swimming of his vision and the bright golden light. Captain Crozier looks at him. What is that look? It is not hate. He doesn’t know this trick.
Crozier knows he cannot respond. He clenches his teeth. The captain has Whittock’s Bible in his hands. He looks down at it a moment, then puts it on the floor. It’s within Hickey’s reach and he doesn’t move yet, but he marks it. The pen he has kept, that is hidden in the folds of calico. It is also within reach.
“You have been stirring up trouble again,” Crozier says. He is looking at Hickey; they see each other. Crozier has always seen him. “I have come to tell you that it will stop now.”
Hickey watches his face, he searches it for a sign of the understanding they once shared. He has seen Crozier speak the native tongue, he knows that Crozier, above all men, must recognise the trials Hickey has suffered, and for what.
“Do you understand me, Mr Hickey?” He raises his voice and Hickey flinches. It’s quiet down here, in the hold. He’s had long, long hours of dark quiet with only the rats creeping softly and Whittock’s hoarse chanting. He cannot bear loud noises. He wants to cover his ears.
“Do you? I have told every one of those sorry men you have duped - Armitage, Crispe, Golding, I have told the entire crew that they must stay away from you. And they will obey me, Mr Hickey, be it now or later, because I am their captain and they are going home.”
Crozier pauses, breathing deeply. He shakes his head. Hickey can feel it again now, the heat of rage. But it isn’t in Crozier. He didn’t need to seek warmth there.
He begins to itch. Follow him! A man who has only ever lied and deceived. A man who took no action, but punished those who did. A filthy drunken sot, a miserable, crawling hypocrite. Too much of a coward to be honest even with himself. Hickey grinds his teeth. They twist in their sockets and he tastes iron. He reaches forward.
He has learnt quickly to manage with his new number of fingers, and flicks easily to the last page Whittock had dog-eared. He has no voice, only a mouth full of blood, but here are words enough, words he knows, and Crozier too.
He holds out the book, forces it into Crozier’s lap and stabs at the verse with his middle finger.
Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes.
Thus saith the Lord; Consider your ways.
Crozier reads it, he stares for a long time. Hickey watches his eyes move, he waits for his face to change. Finally, Crozier looks up. He sets the book aside again. Hickey bites back a snarl.
“‘Consider your ways,” Crozier nods, “advice for us all, I should think.” The captain’s eyes flick upwards to the words carved into the bulkhead, and Hickey is at least satisfied he understands that much.
He points at Crozier, arm extended almost far enough to touch him. He tries to speak his name, but the words take no form, only that red hot agony where his tongue once was, searing down his throat into aching the abyss inside him.
Crozier , he wants to say, you murderous bastard . How many might have lived if you’d had the balls to be honest? If you’d stopped trying to be another kind of man?
A change of name is a necessity every now and then. Gull the world if you must. But only you must live with the choices you make, and so your actions must be your own.
Crozier only grimaces at the attempt at speech. He refuses to understand; he only cares about trivial things like the ice and this wooden prison and those men he did not lead to the slaughter. It’s too late for all of that. Perhaps two years ago, but there’s no saving them now.
“We are all going home, Mr Hickey, even you - surely you must want that as much as any of us?”
He sits back, leaning against the bulkhead. His back hurts from the strain of sitting upright, and he’s tired. He’d like Crozier to leave now. He looks away.
“Mr Hickey? You will listen to me. You will obey me. I have warned your shipmates and now I am warning you - you will be held here for the remainder of the voyage, and you will not make any further nuisance of yourself. No visitors. No gifts.”
Hickey grunts, staring at the wall. He didn’t ask for any of that - he cannot be blamed if the men look for leadership elsewhere.
“If you cause any further disorder - and I mean even the faintest whiff of disunity amongst the crew - I will not hesitate to court martial you. Do you know what that would mean?”
Hanging, no doubt.
“I will do it, Mr Hickey, mark me. I have lost too many men already, and I will not allow you to drag any more of them down with you. I am taking them home. If you can behave yourself until then, perhaps the Admiralty will be lenient when they read what the doctors have to say about your state. What I or Captain Fitzjames might be persuaded to say about you. You might escape a public hanging and the anatomist's table for Bedlam, where you will be cared for and looked after a little better than you are here."
For the first time in many days, Hickey feels the cold. It begins in his extremities and travels inwards, touching every part inside and out and making him shiver. His hands will not be still, his teeth gnash against each other, his shoulders twitch. Not a hospital, not a prison, he will not do it, he will not allow it. He knows what 'cared for' means, he knows what 'looked after' means for people like him, for boys like him, and he won’t go back.
The sound of shrieking fills his head. The bow-legged boy crying. Dark dormitories, stinking of shit and fear. Mad men wailing, voices threaten a beating. He’s been there before, he’s not going backwards.
“Mr Hickey? Do I have your word you will behave?”
Crozier’s voice is far away, he is in the coal cellar, he is small and alone and his insides hurt. He covers his head with his arms and rocks.
* * *
"...and then he curled up and began to… began to sway and wail. It was…” Francis shook his head, tapping his clenched fist on the gunwale as he looked out at the appalling flatness of Prince Regent Inlet, stretching from the grey mouth of Port Leopold all the way to the horizon. “He is a murderer, and a trouble maker. He has brought all this upon himself, and yet his distress was uncomfortable to see.”
James had expected Francis to emerge from the hold affected in some way - madness itself was impactful, and Hickey seemed like a man who always garnered some sort of reaction - but when James had looked up from explaining moving sandbanks to Jopson he had seen a man most troubled.
Having caught James' eye Francis had looked up the hatch and James followed him up onto the weather deck, discreetly averting his eyes while Francis had taken deep breaths of air cold enough to make your lungs hurt.
“He is mad, Francis,” James sighed as he moved his stinging fingers inside his gloves, wondering why this kept needing to be said. “And should be pitied. His distress should be distressing in turn, even if he is violent.”
“I understand empathy,” Francis grunted, glancing down at the bible he had brought up from the hold and was set between them on the gunwale. “This anger was not that of a lunatic. He was as lucid as I ever saw him, and yet as soon as I told him what choices he had he became as pathetic as a frightened child.”
“If I was told I was destined for Bedlam I might curl up like a child also,” James glanced over at footsteps moving along the quarterdeck, nodding to Lieutenant Brown who passed by with his arms full of signal books. “You gave him the two awful paths his life is set to take, and it sounds as if he was sane enough in that moment to know it was no choice at all.”
“No choice?” Francis sounded surprised, his brow furrowed as he looked up at James. “It is life or death, James. It is a clear choice.”
By the kindness of Fate’s hand James had never seen the inside of a workhouse or a foundling hospital, nor indeed a madhouse, but he had been raised surrounded by all sorts of reformers and abolitionists so had a good idea of the conditions. If Hickey knew of them more intimately, then James could understand why he might despair.
“His clear choice may not be the same as yours,” he said levelly. “Some men might prefer death to a reduced life.”
“I am not here to talk philosophy,” Francis grumbled. “I am here to - to speak to you. As my second and my friend.”
“Quite right,” James said shortly, resting his hand upon the gunwale as he tucked the other into the small of his back. “He is not your devil to carry. A captain is responsible, yes, but this is far, far outside of that. A man losing his way so completely amongst all of this? It is not your fault.”
“That is not what he thinks. I was a wretched captain. Foolishly wretched. I gave him the means to cause trouble, and then gave him hate and a need for vengeance. I made him…”
“It is argued by some that certain punishments only create more evil if carried out for the wrong reasons,” James conceded, feeling Francis tense. “Yet, men have been flogged for hundreds of years, and in far worse ways than what occurred on Terror . You have heard the stories, same as I, and those men did not go on to do what Hickey did.” James pressed his chapping lips together, making an effort to keep his eyes open until the image of Irving and Farr’s carefully hacked at bodies no longer threatened to appear before him. “That sort of thing is already in a man, I think, and will come out one day no matter what.”
They were silent for a while, just the creak of rope and the distant hum of activity of a crowded ship, until Francis sighed. “I have felt small and horribly mortal in front of nature before, but over these past two years I feel like she has stripped me of everything I thought I knew. And here you are, level headed as ever and still talking philosophy.”
James also felt as if all he considered solid and real had been wrenched from him, and could easily point to at least three occasions where he had felt anything but level headed, but now was not the time to admit to that. “Other perspectives usually feel more clear, I find. You would get the same from Mr Blanky, I wager, just more inventively put.”
“Indeed,” Francis said, watching as James blew into his hands and held them to his face a moment to rid his nose of a nip of cold. “I think I will brood over what I might have done better for a good while yet.”
“Which is why you are a fine man, and a good captain - ah! Only fools and the arrogant think they cannot improve themselves, or have no regrets.” James smacked Francis on the arm with the back of his hand. “And that is experience speaking, not philosophy!”
“Very well, very well.”
“Anyway,” James huffed a great steaming breath, feeling easier now that Francis was chancing a smile. “As you have brought me into this by telling the man that my word shall help sway what fate he has, I suppose I should ask after Hickey - what do the doctors say of him?”
“Goodsir tried speaking to him a few times, but those results are as mixed as expected,” Francis said diplomatically. “Only the fresh food never causes him illness, but Renholm does not want to give him too much as he deems the innocent crew are in greater need of it.” Francis leant one arm on the gunwale as he turned to James, a fist planted on his hip. “They apparently want to exercise him on deck.”
“Once we are at Greenland, I do not see why they should not.”
“You agree with this?”
“All holds are damp and stinking and awful, Francis. We cannot bring him ashore in England sickly and bent and wholly broken, we will already have many difficult questions to answer,” he glanced around the deck and dropped his voice. “Let us not have light shone on things we do not wish to explain, or, as you said at the cairn, bring about dangerous curiosity.”
Francis hummed noncommittally, then scrubbed a hand over his face. “A tangled web we shall never leave,” he muttered, gaze dropping to the bible once more. “I suppose taking this from him will be declared a cruelty by some.”
“How did he get his hands on a bible of all things?”
“No. One of Ross’ men - Whittock - was reading it to him. I took it when I sent him on his way.”
James took up the weighty book, turning it to glance at the cracked spine out of habit before running a gloved finger down the faded gilding on the brittle edges, noting the ones that were kinked where they had recently been turned down to mark a place.
“He was reading him the Old Testament it seems,” he said under his breath. “Doom laden stuff for a man being kept in the hold. It might have been a kindness to remove it.”
Francis did not laugh, but it seemed to be a close thing as he failed utterly at the disapproving look he - as a captain - should be giving James for such a remark.
James tucked his chin into his collar, considering the God who lived amongst these pages, both righteously furious and as gentle as a mother, and let the book fall open in his palms.
Let us go down and mix up their language so that they will not understand one another.” So the LORD scattered them all over the earth, and they stopped building the city.
Which was about as much clear advice as James had ever received from God, and he carefully shut it once more.
“I shall see it gets back to the man, and recommend him some more hopeful passages. Who knows, the word of the Lord might do Mr Hickey some good.”
* * *
The hemp blankets rub him raw. If he sleeps he wakes with great red rashes across his back and his belly. It reminds him of scabies, pestilence of the workhouse. It makes him want to claw his skin off, it makes him impatient for change. Every rung of his life has been plagued by disease and filth and famine, and he is ready to move beyond. There is no going back, he knows now.
When he is alone he claws idly at the wall of his prison with the broken pen. He scrapes up splinters, pulls out the tar and fibres. If he stays very still, if he doesn’t even breathe, the rats come in through the gap he has made. They are curious about him, not afraid. If he is patient - and he has plenty of time to learn patience - they will crawl right into his hands, and let themselves be held. He runs a finger along their downy backs, feeds them crumbs from his biscuits, watches their fine whiskers twitch and feels their tiny hearts beating. It’s easy, then, to pull the head clean off. Grip and twist, even with so few fingers left he can do it. You just have to be firm.
He has to do it, if he’s going to get well again, if he's going to get free. The slop they feed him is worse than nothing, he must have meat, and it’s the freshest available. Their blood is so hot, the warmest thing in his black little cell.
When Whittock comes Hickey covers the gap up with his blankets, and anyway Whittock’s eyes are bad in the dark, it’s obvious from the way he squints.
He’s not quite sure what they want from him.
His friends still visit him often, even though Crozier said they wouldn't - some men he remembers from before, others are faces he has never seen. It doesn't matter, the only thing that matters is that they see him. They see him for what he is.
Whittock has a dead child, buried back in England. He wants someone to care for, and Hickey is pleased to acquiesce. Whitock feels guilty over the death, he will not let it happen again, he will prevent it at any cost, and this makes him the most useful.
The others have been helpful before, and may be again. They tell him things, they whisper through the door, or they come in and sit in the dark, talking. Armitage tells him about the goings on above deck, complains about the crew. Golding always wants to confess something, and Crispe talks endlessly of all the things he will do to his wife when he is home - most of it is unimaginative, some of it really quite filthy.
He listens to everything, without discrimination. He nods and smiles.
They bring him things - cups of evil smelling spirits, morsels of food and twists of paper packed with tobacco. He handles each offering with reverence, cups them in his hands and closes his eyes. That seems to please them, they like that.
Sometimes he touches them; he reaches out lays his hands on their heads, or their shoulders. They like that too, their eyes shine and their cheeks glow. He feels how warm they are, he feels their troubled souls and their blood rushing, and his stomach growls.
He has no problem seeing in the dark, perhaps because he has been kept down here so long. Perhaps because of what he is now, perhaps it is a sign his metamorphosis is complete.
They ask him questions, like ‘where is the bear?’ and he points vaguely in whichever direction takes his fancy. Sometimes at himself. That produces a fine reaction.
They ask if they will be safe, if he will keep them safe. He taps the gifts they bring him, all lined up on their shelf, and smiles. Sometimes he tries to speak, but that doesn’t get him very far.
Crozier does not come again. Why not? He wonders often, in his lonely hours. He gets little sleep, he does not think he needs much, now. Surely he is beyond such trivialities; he cannot feel pain, or the cold, so why should he tire. All he needs is warm blood, living and beating and real. He traces the words, DRUNK MAD, and he scratches at the wood, and wills Crozier to feel him clawing and gnawing away down below.
He grows tired of waiting. Why should he be patient? He cannot live on rats forever.
The men keep visiting. They bring their trifling talismans, and he holds them and sighs and puts them on his shelf with the rest. Nothing he wants.
He hears plenty about what they want. A way out of the ice, better food, a warmer coat, relief from their tiresome pain. He isn't interested in giving them these things, their weaknesses are not his concern. He begins to turn away when they pile into his cell, begging with him, heads bobbing, hands open and empty.
He shakes his head vigorously, but they keep asking, “Please, Cornelius, please tell us, please help us.”
They’re pressing in too close, they will regret this, they’re going to make him do something, and he doesn’t know what. His blood is pounding in his ears, he can smell them all, their fear and their sweat and their sour breath. Their filthy, desperate souls clog up his senses, they are choking him.
He stands up, his knees are weak, but he can do it now he has meat regularly enough. They draw back, shocked. Standing on his pile of coarse blankets, he opens his mouth and howls, and slaps the wall, where the bear is.
“He’s calling it!” Golding wailed, pulling at his hair.
“Please Cornelius, no!”
“We’d better not be here - if we’re caught --”
He slaps it again, harder this time, to remind them who he is, and what they will suffer. He grinds his teeth, snarls, a deep gurgle in the back of his throat. Seeing the terror in their faces, eyes like silver moons beaming back at him, he hits the bulkhead once more for good measure, making a fist this time. He purses his lips and inhales as he does it, letting out a high pitched whistle which makes the men wince and cover their ears, even Whittock.
As his hand connects with the wood, something else happens. It’s as if the bear has burst out of his chest, the force of his blow knocks the whole world off balance, he staggers and almost falls. The ship sighs with relief. The great claw of ice which has gripped them all these weeks finally uncurls, falls away, and the entire hull rocks beneath their feet. He feels it in his belly, a sickly tug behind his navel.
The movement is felt everywhere, it runs through the timber, touching every man aboard. There is distant cheering, and the men packed into the hold stare at each other, the fear in their eyes melting away and turning to ecstatic joy.
“Thank you!” They turn to him, weeping, “thank you Cornelius! You have saved us!”
He would like to rip every one of their throats out.
In the last section Hickey kills and eats a rat. The moment is telegraphed and not that graphic.
Up Next - A celebration goes the way they always go in the arctic
All ready to depart - some sooner than others.
When benjos go wrong, pt. 2.
I thought I heard the old man say,
"Leave her, Johnny, leave her,
It's a long, hard pull to the next payday
And it's time for us to leave her".
The crew had sung brightly and spontaneously while they hauled the yards and sails back into the masts, topmen scurrying over the nets to see to the rigging with surer feet than Ross had ever felt like he had on land.
To see the ship so alive after so long spent in stillness and silence, to see her putting off the mourning starkness of an iced in winter and being in her fully rigged, full sailed glory once more had put a spring in his step. Had put him in mind of the times when the ice releasing the ships had been met with a stony, exhausted silence as the furious weather of the Antarctic chased them like shrieking furies all the way back to the equator.
Ross had turned from watching the masts then, and had gone to search out Francis, determined to put these intolerable days of timidity and silted conversation since their harsh words behind him. There would be more than enough dangers to face on their journey home, and Ross would not dare face them with a cloud hanging over his dearest friendship. Not when Francis had survived a thing that was yet beyond his comprehension.
Oh, the winds were foul and the work was hard,
Leave her, Johnny, leave her!
From King William Land to Baffin Bay
And it's time for us to leave her.
The change of the words, provided by a few expedition men who had been hanging on to a rope, had amused Ross, and he had been heartened to see it win a smile from Francis and a laugh from Mr Blanky where they had been stood in the bow consulting about one thing or another.
Ross had spoken quietly and sincerely to Francis, who had been quiet and sincere in turn. Hickey may be a broken wretch, but his influence on the crew had been insidious enough to bring complaints from doctors and marines both (a rare thing indeed). Ross had expressed his regrets about how fear and doubt had clouded his judgement of Francis, who had been regretting his own loose temper when the men on deck sang out with great gusto;
Oh, the skipper was bad , but the mate was worse.
Leave her, Johnny, leave her.
Francis had tensed at the words despite their lacking the venom of a truly unhappy crew, and Ross wondered at how disheartened his friend had become as the men had immediately began to cheer and hoot and applaud. The center of the good-humour had been a Mr Collins, one of the masters on Erebus , who had been caught on a precipice of fear for a good long while, and with the melting of the ice had managed to retreat from it and finally leave not only the confines of his cabin but the lower decks entire.
All had felt more normal once the ships were fully rigged again, the unsettling heaviness of King William Land more like a dream than a living terror. The expedition crew began to behave less like dead men and more like sailors, lifting Ross’ crew also, the whispers of leads bringing men up from loitering about in the dank hold to come and join the singing and dancing that broke out on deck despite the ice still in the air.
It continued to a point where it felt like the men were imagining Portsmouth harbour might be on the other side of Devon island, that those familiar islands of home were within touching distance. So much so that on the day Enterprise and Investigator had their courses set and the sails down, with the sky a wonderful calm blue and the sun clear between the steady progression of the clouds, it felt like a fête on the weather deck.
Ross had allowed the majority of the expedition crew to be on deck for the occasion, recognising the moment for what it was. Three years was too long to be in the cold and the dark, and too many had been lost; who was he to deny them the sight of a gentle sun and open waters, and the sensation of steady power that came when a fine ship was underway.
Men were peering over the gunwale and chattering in excitement, the topmen happily covering the masts like a noisy flock of nesting birds and no doubt enjoying their magnificent view of the leads that would see them up to Lancaster Sound and westwards to the open ocean and to England.
“I say, you’d think we were off to the Med,” Captain Fitzjames called as he strode across the quarterdeck. He was still too thin for a man of his build, but he was once more the fine figure of an officer Ross remembered from Admiralty dinners, his uniform and person as neat as could be and his posture as perfectly correct as if he were one of those ridiculous illustrations in the Naval Gazette.
“Rather,” Le Vesconte agreed, keeping pace with Fitzjames’ long stride with practiced ease. “Do you think they’d let us go right on through and sun ourselves in Malta for a stretch?”
“As I am a captain I think I might be able to see to it, old boy.”
“Capital! Rather feel like we’ve earnt a chance to butter up the bacon, eh?”
Fitzjames laughed, clapping Le Vesconte on the back as they parted ways and he came to stand by the ship’s wheel with Francis and Ross.
“Planning our next voyage, I see,” Francis commented, brow quirked in that gently amused way of his that Ross had not seen in a good while.
“I -” Fitzjames began, looked to Ross and then up into sails that were pulling taunt as they were prepared to tack into the fair easterly breeze. “Once we are back upon the open ocean, even if the weather is foul and the journey unpleasant, I think I should be sad to be on dry land again so soon.”
It was a sentiment Ross himself had once held, before Ann and life as a family man had come to him, and he shook his head at the bold romanticism in Fitzjames that had managed to withstand all that had occurred.
“The very nature of the ocean is that it goes nowhere, that she always waits for you," Ross spoke over the noise on deck. "And the call of home and family is very strong once native shores are sighted again after so long, are they not?”
“Ah, but is home not a strange thing when you are a sailor,” Francis said sagely, his keen eye turning to the mainmast as the men began singing again. "And family also." He slanted a look to Fitzjames as he said the last part, receiving the hint of a smile in return.
The lightness of his manner lightened Ross's further also, for he had seen Francis far too low recently, and he tried not to mind that it was someone other than he who had brought it out of him. They had suffered a great thing together, and Ross knew well how tight a bond that made between men.
All was set, Investigator signalled that she was ready, and Ross’s order to weigh anchor was shouted along the deck and down the hatch. At once there came the creak of rope and the ship shifted ever so slightly as she took the weight of her anchor once more, settling as it was slowly hauled back into its place tucked in against her hull. Enterprise did not leap into motion as ships did in firmer weather; she crept through the water at first, as if tentative after her time stuck in the ice, and then she began moving with confidence.
The expedition officers around Ross stumbled or had to catch their footing as the ship rolled gently beneath their feet, and Ross kept a discreet eye on the masts so his noticing would not embarrass them.
That long looked at sloping shore of dull grey, lifeless sand began to recede as they tacked out of the natural harbour of Port Leopold and into open waters. Mr Kerr was calling down course corrections to the helmsman as they navigated their way through the more firm ice out in the larger channels. Such careful navigation usually called for silence on deck, but the men were singing Spanish Ladies in fine voice, and maybe Ross had learnt too much laxness from Francis over the past month or so because he did not have the heart to stop them.
It was a song for sailors on their way home after all, promises of drinking and raucousness dispersed between those landmarks sailors looked for when they sailed up the Channel towards home port.
Ross turned to make a jest about the lack of pretty, dark eyed ladies they were leaving behind, but kept his words to himself when he saw the shine of emotion on the faces of the expedition men. Perhaps it was being underway and moving out of sight of the endless flat, barren lands where they had left so many and lost so much, or maybe it was hearing the crews singing out the names of long left behind English places, but they finally looked like men who were going home instead of men waiting for the next calamity.
Ross pressed his lips together to keep down his own emotion, and, with a nod to M’Clintock to follow, he made his way forward to give them a moment with this hard won joy.
* * *
James had not dressed for dinner since Sir John died. There had been little point, as with Gore dead and Fairholme gone it had only been Dundy and he most of the time, and on the rare occasion he had dined with Francis before Carnivale the man had usually been too drunk and morose to care, and afterwards such things had not mattered.
Not that he could dress properly now as his uniform was either heavily patched or borrowed, and his epaulettes were somewhere upon King William Land, discarded amongst all the rest of the dead weight. It was the same for all of them of course, officers and men all looked pitifully tatty and mismatched, but James had once put so much store in his appearance, his vanity , that he was almost embarrassed to appear in such a fashion at the table of Sir James Clark Ross.
This self pity would not do, of course. The wardroom line had been reinforced quite firmly by Francis only a few days ago, so it was his duty to not go morbing about the place - all must be ‘smiles and good cheer for the men’ and all that. Especially as the crews were finally in a buoyant mood now they had weighed anchor, being as rambunctious as Jack Tars were wont to be when their grog ration had been doubled.
The sounds of their singing and music drifted into the Great Cabin from the fo’c’sle where they were all having as jolly a time as everyone had been having at Carnivale before… James glanced at the fine piece of pork Ross had ordered roasted for the dinner, then firmly down at the pattern on his plate, not wishing to give that thought any room at all.
The men were certainly having a far more roisterous time than the officers gathered for a more genteel celebration of setting sail. Even if it would be soaked in a greater deal of alcohol, judging by how generous Ross’ stewards were being with the wine. James’ remaining teeth would be aching by the end of the evening as the Hock being served was so sweet, but that was not going to stop him draining his glass, hoping it would make the room feel less close and the distant music less threatening.
It was only then that he noticed the pitcher of ice water on the table between Ross and Francis, the clear liquid in their glasses, and he felt like an uncultured, flat footed arse. How could he play at this civility when he could hardly bear to sit at this table, let alone show enough restraint to remain sober for Francis’ sake.
Good God , if Hodgson asked for a blasted story James did not know what he would do. He could not recount some past glory that did not matter, that had never mattered, when all his concentration was turned towards trying to remember how a gentleman ought to behave at dinner. James failed to recall the last time he had eaten with a fork, not simply spooned meagre rations that he could barely chew into his bleeding mouth.
He was pulled from his fast running thoughts by Dundy moving suddenly next to him. James glanced over to watch him take an inelegant gulp of wine, Dundy swallowing it down with a wince before setting his glass carefully back on the table next to James' then glancing over to give him a firm nod.
The frost burn on his face had healed into dull pink scars across his nose and cheeks, and with his trimmed whiskers and jacket borrowed from M’Clintock he almost looked as dashing as he had before all this. It was his eyes that gave him away, his ever level grey gaze hollowed out by the same thing that had James feeling trapped and uncertain at a fine dinner table of all things - a place that was once their domain.
They were all suffering the same thing, James reminded himself as he glanced around the table, all of them damaged and changed and unsure how to fit back into the rigid slots that the civilised world had laid out for them.
He considered them all, and the darkening cloud hanging over the table that was in such a stark contrast to the roaring good time they could hear the crew having. They were heading home after all, they should have some jolliness, and if it would not come naturally then James would just have to buck up and try to call to mind the charming and entertaining man who had once been the delight of wardrooms and ladies salons.
“Well now,” James breathed as he adjusted into an easy posture that his body half remembered, ignoring the pain in his ribs as he picked up his fork and gave it a flourishing wave. “It’s been such a while since I sat down to dinner that I struggle to recollect what this contraption is, but I assume it must be a tool for eating.”
Amusement went around the expedition officers, and James saw them relax by increments from the rigid way they were holding themselves.
“Ah, I see you have found the tuning fork!” Brown, who was improved by a drink or two, joked as he tapped his fork on the edge of the table (much to the steward's agony) and made a purposefully bad job at imitating a note.
Such after dinner behaviour got a laugh, the strained atmosphere around the table loosening as Jopson spoke up to name the fork some strange caulking instrument that had made it onto the table.
The joke went on while the stewards continued to serve the dinner, Francis and Ross making a fine case for their forks being navigational equipment that had the whole table grinning as everyone dutifully dipped their heads to say grace.
Dinner pushed on as well as it might when half those about the table had fallen out of the habit of polite conversation. It felt flighty and wasteful to talk about something other than the men or the ice, and James was sure he was not the only one who found that the fatty pork was sitting heavy and greasy in his stomach. Nevertheless they pushed through the odd silences that were made heavy by the sharp scrape of cutlery over china and the distant fiddling of the men's carefree revels (and their filthy songs) - yet James found it pleasant to listen to talk about something other than this place. He fancied that the world beyond the Arctic Circle was behind a hazelike barrier that separated it from here, or that might have been the wine mixing with the lead and laudanum still in his system.
“I might…” Jopson spoke up, then nervously patted at his mouth with his handkerchief. He was not timid when sat in officers meetings or when speaking to the men, but, as might be expected, sitting down to dinner and being served by stewards seemed to make him a little uneasy. “I have a younger brother who is living with an aunt. I suppose he might be grown by now, we have been gone so long. I should like to take him to Greenwich as he always was fascinated by the ships I would go away on.”
“Does he have an idea to join the Navy?” M’Clintock asked politely.
“I could not say now s… He was but nine years old when we left, and my aunt might have found him a profession by now, unless he has already joined.”
“Well, if he has, you can get him on a smart ship with a good captain. You are an officer after all, Thomas,” Francis said, gesturing at him with his glass of ice melt. “But don’t throw him on a ship so soon. Spend some good time with the boy, as that’s what we’ve been trying so hard to get home to, is it not? Family, and the like,” he said, applying himself to his potatoes as a chorus of hear hear went around the table.
“That is what I plan to do as soon as the Admiralty are done with me,” Dundy declared. “I shall be off back down to Devon to be fussed over by relations and fattened up by the cook. Go about finding a wife and all that, eh?”
“Domesticity is a fine life, Henry,” Ross put in immediately. “And marriage is a blissful state if you find a good woman to love.”
James glanced across the table at Francis who was trying to keep a neutral look on his face, a thing the man had never been terribly good at, as his mind no doubt turned to the uneasy topic of Miss Cracroft. James had no clue if Francis had thought of her since they left the ships, or even since he sobered up, but the spectre of two rejected proposals was a thing that would never not cause a fellow unease.
“Well, I shall risk your accusations of frivolity and say that what I hope to do on our return is to go riding,” James spoke up, pulling the topic away from what might be delicate ground for Francis. He caught his gaze a moment, knocking his ankle against Francis’ leg under the table as he declared dismissively - “Not that trotting they do in Hyde Park with the ladies, oh no! I shall go to the country and gallop, I say.”
“Ah, I should have known a man with legs as fine as yours should be a fine horseman,” Dr Renholm put in, which almost had Francis choking into his drink “It never leaves a man’s physique you see.”
“I should say. I always took a chance to go ashore and do any riding I could.”
“It is true," Dundy said sagely. "The man shot off all around the Orient as soon as we'd moor up some place, made a fellow feel like he'd done something."
"You were with me half the time, old boy. I won't stand for it! I wager more than I around this table have done such a thing."
"Oh,” Brown blustered. “Of course."
"There was that one time in Belize…"
"Alas, I cannot ride a horse," Francis said just as Hodgson spoke, and James put on such an affected look of shock it brought a smile to the man's face.
"I say, I will not stand for it!" James declared, the wine making him thump the table a little hard. "Francis, I shall whisk you away to Sussex and teach you myself. I shall not take no for an answer!"
Francis was laughing now, his stricken look vanished as he held his hands up in surrender. “Then I can do nothing but submit.”
“Good!” James grinned, finishing his third glass of wine as the noise from the fo’c’sle picked up once again.
“I say. Really,” Dundy said with a great deal of passion as he rested his knife and fork on the edge of his plate, and James had to hide his smile at the man’s (almost) faux indignation. “I know this isn’t fine dinner conversation - and I apologise to the married men - but the crew! They’re singing about maids and their thingumies , by God!”
“Yes, it is a whalers song I believe,” Ross said easily, seemingly unsure if Dundy was actually outraged or acting up to it. “For when they would leave the waters about Greenland and go down to Dundee to port and such.”
“Go down to Dun dee ?” Dundy breathed, widening his eyes as he held his glass up for the steward to refill. “ Good lord .”
* * *
“Oh, I am a Dundee weaver and I come frae bonnie Dundee,
I met a Glesga fella an' he came courtin' me
He took me oot a walkin' doon by the Kelvin Ha'
And there the dirty wee rascal stole ma thingamajig awa’.”
Being largely made up of whalers, the bulk of the crew outside of the wardroom were Scots and Irishmen, which meant that any celebration was an opportunity for heavy drinking and incomprehensible singing. Billy had never developed an ear for the bastard English the gaelic sailors spoke amongst themselves, but the meaning behind their singing was not difficult to follow.
The fo’c’sle was so vibrant and so filled with gaiety that it seemed an entirely different place than it had been only a few hours before. Colours stood out brighter - green and red neckerchiefs, ink blue tattoos, the thick amber gleam of whisky. It was as merry as Billy had seen the deck of a ship since Strong’s birthday, nearly two years ago on Terror . The off-duty marines, still in their uniforms, were gathered together clucking like red hens, and the ship’s boys tripped over their own feet, giddy with liquor. Men who only weeks ago had been unable to stand now danced energetically to the tune of one of the Enterprise crew's fiddles.
The ice had released them, leads were open, the canvas was off and the sails were up. There was much cause for joliety, and Billy Gibson had no desire to dampen anybody’s high spirits. He watched and smiled and drank - only a little, after seeing Peglar keel over having been goaded into swallowing three tots of rum in quick succession - but none of the merriment touched Billy.
The officers were having a full dinner at the captain’s table, and Billy volunteered to wait on them, but the Enterprise stewards wouldn’t hear of it. It was probably just as well, his hands still trembled sometimes, and he’d hate to embarrass his captains by breaking anything. Still, he’d have liked to have made himself useful, if only to enjoy standing somewhere quiet, with just the gentle clink of wine glasses and refined conversation. Billy liked to be discreet, to be unseen until he was needed. He liked knowing what was expected of him.
In the warm fug of the fo’c’sle, he did not quite know where he belonged. Many of the Enterprisers were still wary of the Terrors and the Erebites , and Billy’s old shipmates - those who were still living - came with their own set of troubles.
“Now I’ll gang back tae Dundee looking bonnie, neat and fair,
I'll put on ma buckle and shoe and tie up my bonnie broon hair,
I'll put on ma corset tight to mak' my body look small,
And wha' will ken frae me rosy cheeks, that me thingamajig's awa'?”
He sat by himself, a little way apart from Armitage, Crispe and Golding. Sergeant Tozer had joined them, and was clearly agitated about something, he was not a man who guarded his emotions. They’d shunned Tozer like they’d shunned Billy - the day before there had been more fuss over their visiting the hold, and the Terror marine sergeant had sided with the Enterprise marine sergeant, which was apparently unforgivable.
Billy didn’t like to eavesdrop, but he could hardly help it as their voices grew loud even over the piercing fiddle.
“I know what I saw,” Crispe was saying, “it was magic, or a miracle - whatever you want to call it.”
“The ice was already coming away,” Tozer said, exasperation plain in his voice. His cheeks were a high colour, perhaps from the heat of all the close bodies. “Ask Mr Blanky - or go on and ask Mr Kerr, he’s just there!”
“You didn't see it, Sol,” scoffed Armitage. “You’d understand if you’d been there.”
“That’s Sergeant Tozer, thank you, Mr Armitage.” Tozer broadened his shoulders, “Unless you need another lesson in respect from Captain Crozier?”
“Pah,” Armitage folded his arms on the table, sour faced. “Don’t talk to me about that Mick.”
“Looking to get lashed now, is it?”
“Come, Sol--Sergeant Tozer,” Crispe put in, “you know what Cornelius told us - Crozier don’t deserve our loyalty, not when he was going to abandon us out there.”
“And did he?” Tozer said, forcefully. “Did the captain abandon us? Did he leave even one man behind?”
“You know who did abandon you? Eh? Who carved up Farr and Irving then vanished into the bloody ether? Mr Hickey.”
“He was luring away the bear!” Golding piped up, slurring with drink.
“I don’t want to hear about that fucking bear!” Tozer barked.
Billy stood up, slowly, and began to pick his way through the dancing sailors and away from his old friends. He wasn’t like Tozer, he didn’t have it in him to persuade them of Cornelius’ lies; he could barely unpick them himself.
Of course he regretted it; after all, the idea to separate from the rest of the crew had been his. He had put it in Cornelius’s mind. Neptune, too, that had been Billy’s suggestion. Hickey had been thrilled to do it, grinning as he plunged his boat knife right through the animal’s neck. Somehow Cornelius already knew to stick it the base of the skull, where the bone was weakest, and it caused no pain. He laughed, as he did it, though Billy had barely registered that at the time. He hadn’t exactly relished the meal they’d made of the poor dog, but he’d swallowed every morsel he was offered, tearful with relief.
“You and me getting out alive,” Cornelius had whispered as Billy drifted to sleep on a full stomach that night, “that’s what matters, isn’t it? More than some mutt. More than anything.”
Billy hadn’t felt guilt then - it was impossible to feel anything at all, out there - but he felt it now. It slunk behind him, always; it lay its black hands on his shoulders and pressed down. It curled up beside him in his hammock at night and whispered in his ear with a familiar voice. Mutiny. It hissed. Conspiracy.
“Noo a' ye Dundee weavers tak' this advice frae me
And never let a Glesga lad an inch above yer knee
Never stan' the back o' a close or up agin a wa',
For if ye dae ye can surely say yer thingamyjig's awa’”
From the other side of the deck Billy could still see Tozer, now standing over his erstwhile mutineers, still talking as they grunted and snarled back at him. Solomon must have had some kind of epiphany, or the sense of duty which yet eluded Billy had returned to him. Tozer was strong, that’s why Cornelius liked him.
The most shameful thing of all was how lonely Billy was without Hickey. He missed how their eyes could cut across the mess, he missed having someone else to look out for. It was difficult to get by so long without friends, and confidences grew tight and deep very quickly between men at sea. Alliances split, fractured and reformed into new shapes.
His head was aching with the noise and the heat, so with a final weary gaze about the deck Billy left the celebrations behind, hoping to find a quiet corner to take up some work. Perhaps the stewards would want help with the tableware once the officer’s dinner was over, surely Billy wouldn’t be in the way at the wash tub.
He’d just stepped down onto the orlop when he heard raised voices once more.
“Mr Whittock, you know you are not supposed to be down there.” A marine private of Enterprise was blocking the hatch down to the hold. Mr Whittock, a portly, grey haired man Billy recognised from sickbay, was clutching a steaming bowl of seal broth and seemed to be quite upset.
“So poor John must starve, is that it?” He said, raising his voice.
The marine eyed him with a weary sternness.
“You also know that he is not called John. I’ll send down a bowl of something with the next watch, he’ll keep until then.”
“This is cruelty! You cannot keep food from sick men!”
“If he’s sick, I’m the Queen of Sheba,” the marine smirked. “Go back and join your mess mates, Mr Whittock, or I shall have to take things further. You’ve been warned before.”
“I’ll take it down,” Billy stepped forward. He wasn’t sure what made him do it. Perhaps curiosity had simply got the better of him, or perhaps he wanted to seek out the only other person on the ship who must feel as lonely as he did. “Give me the bowl, I’ll do it.”
Both Enterprisers turned to look at him with mixed expressions of surprise and suspicion.
“Who are you?”
“William Gibson,” Billy straightened as much as the low ceiling would allow. “Officers’ steward, Terror .”
“Been down there before, have you?” The marine jerked his head towards at the hatch.
“No, Private,” Billy replied, affecting disinterest, “I was only looking to be helpful. Here, I’ll take it.”
He reached for the bowl, but Whittock drew back,
“I always take him his supper, he won’t like a stranger bringing it.”
“I’m no stranger.”
The marine watched him a moment longer, then gave a weary sigh. “Give him the food, Mr Whittock.”
“Private Halfpenny, I must--”
“Give Mr Gibson the bowl and report to the officer of the watch before I am forced to interrupt the evening's celebrations to have you dealt with."
Whittock was clearly in the throes of some great internal struggle, as his watery silver eyes darted between Gibson, Private Halfpenny and the hatch, but eventually something seemed to win out, and he reluctantly handed over the hot bowl, pulling a tarnished spoon from his breast pocket and giving that too. Billy nodded to both men, then turned to climb down, nimbly lowering himself one-handed into the thick darkness below.
It was still quite warm at the foot of the ladder, where the hot water pipes lined the walkway. As his eyes adjusted he couldn’t help stopping to look at the garden growing there, and how incongruous it was to see thousands of ghostly white tendrils growing dense as fur along the rigid metal tubes. Like mould on bread, something about it turned his stomach.
At the end of the corridor he could see the marine on guard, scarlet jacket illuminated by the yellow glow of a lamp. He was leaning against the bulkhead picking his teeth, and straightened up as Billy approached. The air grew colder the further he moved into the belly of the ship, towards the puddle of light, the reek of whale oil from the lantern reaching him and adding to his queasiness. He remembered catching Genge drinking from a bottle of the stuff shortly before they left the ships and feeling a hypocrite for chastising him when really he wished he’d had the idea first.
“I’ve brought supper for Mr Hickey,” he announced himself to the marine, holding up the bowl like Oliver Twist.
The marine shrugged, uninterested.
"I should just go in, then?” Billy asked, finding himself nervous, having come this far.
The private shrugged again, “As you please. Whittock always does.”
Billy looked at the cabin store door, warily. It was very still, very quiet, the thin slice of light at the bottom was the only sign that anyone was inside. Swallowing hard, Billy slid the door open and entered.
The lamp was on the floor, so that the light spread upwards, throwing tall ghastly shadows up the walls. Somebody - Whittock, no doubt - had made up a cot from blankets, disused hammocks and other rags. Cornelius was lying there on his back, staring up at the ceiling, turning a broken fountain pen between his fingers, screwing and unscrewing the gold casing. His eyes were darting back and forth, his mouth twisting. He was deep in thought, it seemed. He sat up as Gibson entered, eyes wide and bright with curiosity. He was only wearing a nightshirt, bony knees exposed, scrawny white legs, no shoes or socks.
“Good evening,” Billy said, quietly, as he squeezed inside, drawing the door closed behind him.
It was tight quarters, but that was nothing exceptional in his encounters with Cornelius Hickey. A memory of their first coupling flickered briefly across his mind - in a store much like this one, their awkward limbs scrabbling for purchase, the huffs of laughter as they attempted to twist and bend themselves into a mutually satisfactory configuration.
Hickey watched Gibson seat himself on a biscuit box set up opposite, no doubt for his acolytes' use. It was lower than the cot, putting them eye to eye.
“I find myself waiting on you, once again,” Gibson said, holding out the bowl.
Cornelius looked at it, then at Billy.
“Come on,” Gibson tutted, pushing it into his hands, “I’m not feeding you, you’re perfectly capable.”
With a quirk of his eyebrow, Hickey relented and accepted the meal, cupping it in both hands and lifting it to his lips. He closed his eyes as he drank, and Billy saw how dark red his eyelids were, how black the rings beneath them. His remaining fingers were boney and sharp as blades at the knuckles, and deep creases of pain had settled in his young face.
“You look dreadful, you know,” Billy said.
Hickey opened his eyes, glaring at him over the rim of the bowl. Billy could easily imagine what he was thinking.
How strange to think of Cornelius Hickey without a tongue, unable to retort.
He finished his meal, set the bowl down beside him, and wiped his whiskers with the sleeve of his thin shirt. Billy shivered, “aren’t you cold? It’s very cold, down here.”
“You’re causing quite a fuss, above decks,” Billy tried. “Though I expect you knew that.”
A tilt of the head, that steady gaze. Billy sighed and scratched behind his ear, agitated. He looked up at the mess Hickey had made of the wall. “What are you doing? What’s the purpose of all this?”
Hickey reached up and hit the wall with the crude drawing on it. Gibson supposed that must be the beast.
“Yes, I know that’s what you’d have us all believe,” he said. “But I know you’re no god. I know you’re as much flesh and blood as I am. As Irving was.”
Hickey narrowed his eyes. Gibson continued - he may as well, he had no other confessor.
“ You and me, getting out alive , that’s what you promised me. My error, in trusting you, I suppose. I should have known after the flogging - and that was your own fault, you know, you could never leave well enough alone. I must have told you, twenty times or more - you ought to just do your job, and trust that other men are doing theirs.” Billy could hear the furious quaver in his voice, he could feel his temperature rising, “That was always your problem, you couldn’t just let things lie.”
He had Hickey’s full attention, now. He was leaning in, eyes shining.
“My mistake. My error." Billy sighed again. "You know, Irving said that I’d ‘erred grievously’, in associating with you. He was right. You are an error from top to bottom, Cornelius Hickey. A deviation.”
Cornelius grinned wide at that, and raised his eyebrows suggestively. It was a look Billy knew well, and he couldn’t help returning a very small laugh. If Hickey had a tongue, he’d be licking his lips.
“Yes, and me, too.” Billy agreed. “Deviants.” He leaned back, rolling his stiff shoulders. “We did get out alive, I suppose, both of us. You in your way, I in mine.”
There was movement outside, low murmuring and footsteps. The marines were changing guard. Hickey and Billy sat very still, ears cocked and tense all over, like rats behind a biscuit barrel waiting for the cat to leave.
When all was still outside again, their eyes found each other.
“I’m still not sure, sometimes,” Billy said, very quietly now, afraid to say it out loud. “I’m not sure I didn’t die out there. If this is just… some lingering dream, perhaps. I suppose I shouldn’t be in any pain, if it was a dream.”
Hickey sat with his head tilted back a little to rest against the wall. He cocked his head, and opened his dreadful mouth.
" Ccch chhuh ." Filthy noises, all spite and no significance.
Billy winced and shook his head, "I wish you wouldn't do that."
Cornelius stopped at once, closing his mouth, the coy smile remaining. Billy might have smiled back, but he was so tired, and this was obviously another game. Either that, or Hickey was as insane as they said he was, and Billy may as well be reading him the ice reports for all he understood.
"You're bound for Bedlam, you know. If you keep this up." He told him, dully.
Cornelius blinked. Those bruise dark hollows under his eyes, he looked as though he hadn't slept in days. Cross legged, in his under clothes, he was smaller than ever, pale and pinched with cold all over.
“If not a dream, maybe a story. It feels like that, doesn’t it?"
Hickey watched for a moment, as if waiting for something else, and then he leaned forward, slowly, gently, and laid one of his dainty white hands on Billy’s chest, over the place where the ring still hung from a string around his neck under his many layers of clothes. Though it lay against his heart all day the metal was still biting cold on his skin as Cornelius pressed. His eyes met Billy's and in a moment Billy knew that Hickey was not mad at all - or if he was, then no madder than he had always been.
Billy fought not to close his eyes and lean into the familiar touch. But it wasn’t what he came for, and steeling himself he took hold of Hickey’s fragile wrists to push him away. His skin was icy to the touch, raising goosebumps on Billy’s own flesh.
“Christ, you’ll catch your death,” he stood up to better organise Cornelius’s pitiful bedding. “Really, I hate to see you like this, there’s no dignity in it.”
He raised one of the threadbare blankets to shake it out, and a dead rat fell to the deck with a soft thud. Gibson glanced at it, but carried on about his work - he’d seen much worse than that in sickbay.
“Here, shift over and I can…” Billy bent forward, then clambered on his knees to pull out even more blankets and old sacks. Hickey behaved like a child, would not move until Billy physically pushed him, and that was when he saw the hole.
It took him a moment to fully comprehend what he was seeing. Cornelius must have been scraping away there for hours at a time, pulling back at the splintered boards with his bare hands - or perhaps that jagged broken pen he’d somehow been allowed to keep. The gap was narrow, but Billy could tell that Hickey would fit without much trouble, thin as he was now.
“What on earth have you--” Gibson cringed as he felt those cold hands on his shoulders, gripping firm as claws. He turned to see the madness in Cornelius’s face, as he forced Billy down with uncanny strength, covering his mouth with a three-fingered hand.
His other hand slipped inside Billy’s jacket, and withdrew the little sewing wallet Whittock gave him weeks ago. There were scissors in it, he remembered with a sense of grim resolution, he sharpened them only yesterday. Hickey’s fingers were just as light and nimble as ever.
Billy closed his eyes as the bitter sting of metal broke his flesh. Hickey needn’t have done that. Covered his mouth, that is. Billy wouldn’t have screamed.
Up Next - things get gross
Grey. That grey endless purgatory, rocks uneven and slipping under his feet, every stride pushing the horizon and the figures upon it half a league onward, time and again.
He slipped, feet going out from under him as if he was on the ice, and his palms became cut to shreds on the brittle ground. The blood was bright, burning bright, each drop falling slowly onto the jagged edges of the ground with a resounding clang.
One, two, three, four, five.
He looked up, and found the horizon had crept close to him, a grey line against a grey sky, the figures arranged like a tableau in a darkened church.
He stood, letting the blood trail down his fingers to fall onto his shadow as he moved closer, ankles feeling as if they were tied together, needing to see. To Know.
The standing figure was dressed in the neat uniform of a lieutenant, ragged blond hair touching the glimmering epaulettes on his narrow shoulders, standing as elegantly as if this were a Italian painting. The figure looked up, and Hickey smirked at him, eyes as blue as the ice, and pointed down to the other figure laying on the ground a pace away from him.
When gazes landed upon it, the shape of a man shrank and shrank until it was little more than a skeleton, paper like skin pulled tight over the skull, bones visible through the disarray of the meagre clothes it was wrapped in, its blanket like shroud pulled away. A corpse, dessicated and rifled, left flung upon the ground, and the longer it was looked at gnaw marks began to appear upon it, like so many rats attacking its bare feet.
It was a sight that could not be borne to be witnessed, but when he tried to look away Hickey was there again, pointing accusingly at him.
"Worst kind of First," he declared in a mockingly accurate approximation of Francis Crozier's voice, glaring when he shook his head.
"Again!" he ordered, and pointed down to what was left of James. “Again!” Hickey thundered in Crozier’s voice, and the corpse twitched, elegant hands curling up against its chest like a body burnt.
"There are many thoughts that occupy a captain's imagination."
He closed his eyes against the sight, horror clawing at his throat as guilt burrowed down into his chest.
He felt the wind pick up and thought he heard a voice on it, calling his name. He braced himself for rebuke, for the voice to become a wail of agony and betrayal, demanding why he had allowed this to happen, to condemn him in the voices of the one hundred men he had lost.
Instead it was one voice, insistent and strong, almost James' voice, calling to him louder and louder, "Francis. Francis," as he felt a hand grip his arm beneath the seal skin he was wearing.
"Francis." The voice rumbled right next to his ear, so close he fancied he could feel the warm brush of breath against it. "Francis!"
He jerked awake, only prevented from tumbling out of his hammock because of the hold someone had on it.
It was the dark cabin on Enterprise , the sun struggling through the sky light and turning everything grey apart from the wide, bright blue eyes looking at him.
"Sir, you must come quickly."
Francis blinked at Jopson, and then down to the empty bunk beside him. "Where's James?"
"Captain Fitzjames was up already and he went to the hold as soon as the marines came, sir."
"The hold?" Francis asked, swallowing down a gag as that awful bloody smell of the dream came back to him once more.
"Billy was found - " Jopson swallowed, "Mr Gibson was found murdered, sir, and an Enterpriser as well. And Hickey is no longer in the cabin stores."
“Fuck ,” Francis ground out, slipping out of his hammock with little elegance. “Does Sir James know?”
“M’Clintock woke him, sir. Dund - Le Vesconte has gone to get Dr Renholm.”
“Go and make sure the men hear nothing of this.”
“Sir,” Jopson hesitated as he watched Francis pull his braces over his shoulders and shove his nightshirt into his trousers, then hurried off, slipping the door closed behind him with his usual delicacy.
An uncanny feeling came over Francis in the following silence. He glanced around the dreary cabin that was as cluttered as one might expect with two men living in it, noting that the bottles of ointment for James’ re-opened scars had been left in an unusual disorder as he dragged on his boots.
It was most likely the stillness of the ship while he was in such a swirl that was causing this unease in Francis. At least that was what he told himself as he tugged on the Aran that Ross had given him, his gaze falling back to the far corner of the cabin as he pulled it down over his middle.
No, not the stillness. It was that same thing they had all experienced, even Ross' men, out on King William Land - that feeling of a presence just out of sight. Francis cared even less for it now than he had then, and searched about for his coat so he could get out of this dark, empty cabin.
Francis knew that he was not alone as soon as he thought it, and a prickle ran up his back when he caught movement in the corner of his eye.
It should have been rather comical to see a man unfold himself from beneath a wash stand, but the overly precise movement of the straining limbs, streaked with blood, had Francis backing up against the low desk with a startled gasp.
This was not the composed man of Francis' dream. Hickey was swaying on the balls of his feet, a shiver running through his form that seemed so small and frail outside of the hold, his skin abominably bright and flushed under the streaks of blood.
"Mr Hickey," Francis said carefully, aware of how calm he felt even as Hickey tightened his grip on the sharp pair of scissors clutched in his hand.
Hickey tipped his head to either side in one fluid movement, lips pulling into a flat smile under his moustache as he jumped forward a pace, the hammock swinging on its ropes as he knocked into it.
Francis flinched, but made no move to defend himself or cry out. He would not give Hickey fear or desperation, nor try to plead and reason with him. If these were to be his last moments then Francis did not wish to be played with like a bird in the clutches of a cat, he would rather stand on his own two feet and face his fate head on.
Hickey sniffed loudly, watery eyes flicking over Francis' face. His smile widened as he let out a quiet, gagging laugh, skin twisting where it was pulled so tight to his skull, and then turned away from Francis towards James' bunk. He put his hand on the sheets, leaving a smear of drying blood in its wake as he dragged it down to the nightshirt James left folded at the foot of the mattress.
"Cchh," Hickey gurgled, swallowed, then choked out, "chitsgams", eyes gleaming at whatever expression was on Francis' face as he pawed at the white calico.
There was a sound from the great cabin next door and Hickey paused, cocking his head like a dog to listen to the faint sound of Ross' voice, before stepping back. He was not smiling anymore as he used his heel to slide the door open, the bright lamp light of the passageway bathed him in warmth for a moment as if he were an emaciated christ hung up in a Papist church, then he jumped back and let the door slam closed after him.
Francis tore across the cabin, swearing at the hammock when the heavy canvas tried to knock him into the sway of the ship, tipping out of the door and into the passage just as Ross hurried from the Great Cabin.
"Ah Francis, evil day…" he started, falling silent when Francis began pulling open the doors of the other officer's cabins, much to the consternation of those conscious within. "What on earth, man?"
"Hickey was here. In my fucking cabin."
"Hick…" Ross' eyes widened, and he hurried to grab Francis' arm. "Are you sure? Are you all right? Are you harmed?"
"Yes I am bloody sure, there's…” Francis swallowed at the thought of William Gibson, his own steward, laying dead in the hold, his blood now smeared all over his cabin. All over crisp white cloth that had been folded so neatly by its new owner. “I am sure, and I am all right. He… we need to protect the crew, James.”
Ross’ wide, concerned gaze became steely once more, and he let go of Francis’ arm as he turned to M’Clintock. “Leopold, all crew on deck. Have Brown signal Investigator that we are transferring men to her.”
“And have all marines readied at once. After we have seen what villainy has occurred in the hold, we will send them ratting."
* * *
The walls felt very close. Lamps had been lit to flush out any shadowy hiding places, and while the hold was a good deal brighter than Solomon had ever seen it, the place felt strangely airless. The passage he was standing in, from the hatch at the entrance to the grim covered shape lying at the far end, seemed somehow to be shrinking, rushing towards him. His chest felt strangely tight in his loose jacket, and his vision swam.
“Sergeant Tozer,” Captain Fitzjames’ voice broke through his stupor.
Tozer blinked, turned to look at him, “Sir?”
Fitzjames held him with a steady gaze. “Now that you have had a moment to collect your thoughts, perhaps, while we are waiting, you should tell me what happened?”
“Yes, sir,” Tozer nodded, his neck strangely limp.
They were waiting for Captain Ross and Dr Renholm - perhaps Crozier too, Tozer had missed the end part of the string of commands Fitzjames had barked out the moment he saw what Hickey had done.
“I… well, as you see, sir. Whittock and I, we were… but there wasn’t… and when we found Mr Gibson, and saw what had happened, I...” his mouth was so dry, and perversely he wanted a cigarette more than anything in the world.
“Calmly now, Sergeant, we are in no hurry. Start at the beginning,” Fitzjames said, without a trace of impatience, “what brought you and - what brought you both down here?”
“I volunteered, sir. I’d not been down before, but after last night’s festivities, I thought to relieve Corporal Lewis. Mr Whittock, he’d been caring for Mr… Mr Hickey. He was bringing him breakfast.”
He’d been whinging, is what. Disturbing the mess and causing a fuss where there needn’t be any, when almost every man had a sore head from the night before. One man had yelled at him to quiet down, then another suggested letting Hickey starve, which riled up Crispe and Armitage, along with their cohorts.
Tozer thought he had been doing the right thing, offering his own services. It would put paid to any more Terrors going down there, he’d make sure of that.
Whittock hadn’t seemed a man worth worrying about, just an old sailor grown sentimental from years away from home. Tozer had seen lifelong navy men grow shrewish as old women; they liked to have things just so and it was often easier to tread softly than try to argue.
“Had it been noticed that Mr Gibson was absent?”
“No, sir,” Tozer shook his head, guiltily. “I’m afraid things have been a little slow moving in the forecastle this morning.”
“Quite,” Fitzjames returned a rueful, closed lipped smile. He looked as neatly put together and naval as he always did, but his pallid complexion and the film of sweat on his top lip told Tozer that the wine and brandy had been flowing just as freely in the officers’ quarters. “Do go on. You came down with Whittock?”
“Yes, sir, to relieve Corporal Lewis, sir.”
“And he had not seen Mr Gibson come or go?”
“He didn’t mention it sir. He was just as distressed as we were, when we saw…” He squeezed his eyes shut, without meaning to, and quickly opened them again. “You’ve seen it yourself, sir.”
He didn’t want to think about it again. He thought he was finished with seeing things like that.
Whittock had yanked open the door and strolled right in as if it was his own berth, and Tozer was close behind, his jaw set, both wanting and not wanting to finally see Cornelius. The first thing he noticed was the cold. The next was the smell.
It was too dark to see at first - Whittock sucked his cheek at that, muttering, “All alone in the dark, my poor boy…” until Tozer took Lewis’ lantern and thrust his arm through the doorway, illuminating everything. Lewis gasped, then gagged, behind him. Whittock shook his head, stunned.
It wasn’t Hickey’s body, that was plain at once. The man who lay on the floor of the cabin store was long limbed, his elbows stuck out, his knees folded, neck bent at an unnatural angle to accommodate him, like a puppet packed into its box. His skin was white as marble, his shirt torn away and a queer black mass piled onto his stomach, glistening and quivering like a jelly. It took Tozer a moment to realise that these were the man’s insides; he had been unseamed and pulled apart. He forced himself to raise his light higher, to get a clear view of the face. He caught only the briefest glimpse of burnished curls, a broad forehead and a narrow chin, before seeing his dark empty eye sockets, and dropped the lamp with a strangled moan.
Darkness swallowed them, and Solomon felt just as he had on Terror, those long watches on deck not knowing when it was coming for them, or who it was coming for. Corporal Lewis began to panic, his voice breaking like a boy’s, “Sergeant? What should we do?”
Tozer squatted, scrambling blindly on the floor for the lamp. His fingers had gone stiff, he felt cold all over without the light, as if the chill was coming from inside him.
“John!” Mr Whittock rasped. “Where has he got to?”
There was some movement, wheezing, and Whittock shoved Tozer roughly aside on his way out of the store. Tozer finally grasped the lamp, getting to his feet.
“Mr Whittock, do not move - Lewis, light this.” He reached for the marine and grasped his shoulder, pushing the lamp into his hands.
But Whittock didn’t listen to him, Tozer could already hear his heavy footfall, lumbering away into the black unknown.
“I’m afraid it was me that dropped the lamp, sir,” Tozer confessed to Captain Fitzjames as they stood only yards from Billy Gibson, still disarranged and slowly freezing on a pile of bloody rags. “The shock of the thing. That allowed Mr Whittock to run off - he seemed to have some notion that Mr Hickey needed his help.”
“He was not afraid of him, having seen…” Fitzjames didn’t gesture, but his eyes flicked towards the closed door.
“No, sir. I do not believe he thought he was in any danger. He has been acting oddly for weeks, sir, you ought to speak to Sergeant Smith about it.”
“We have had rather a dearth of odd behaviour, have we not?" Fitzjames sighed, then encouraged Tozer on. “And when you had re-lit the lamp?”
“I had Lewis’ rifle off him, and I ordered him to wait at the top of the ladder, block any man coming down, and call for Sergeant Smith, if he was able,” Tozer said, more confident in his telling of this part of the story, “I’d have gone myself, sir, but with Mr Hickey not being where he was supposed to be, and Mr Gibson already lost, I hoped I might at least keep Mr Whittock out of more mischief.”
Fitzjames gave him an encouraging nod.
“He had not got far, I sighted him just - just over there, by the wood store - and he was calling for Mr Hickey, he was saying all sorts of queer things, sir.”
The lamp hadn't been glowing as bright since he’d dropped it, and he knew the disadvantage he was at, carrying that in one hand and trying to train his rifle in the other, but he wouldn’t have set aside either for anything.
He could barely see, but the scent of cut wood was strong back there, reminding him again of coffins, and his brother Lemuel’s parting jest. A man born to hang… well, Solomon was not hung yet. He steeled himself, heart still thrumming fit to burst, and pressed on. Whittock was lurching in and out of the shadows, turning over boxes, stooping to peer between barrels, his white shirt just visible as Tozer hissed at him, “Mr Whittock you will obey me! Come here!”
The old man ignored him, shivering and whispering, wringing his hands like a madman as he called out for ‘John’ - whoever he thought that was. “I won’t leave him, not alone…”
Tozer advanced and the light caught Whittock’s wild eyed face - he was weeping. Disgusted, Tozer made to stride over and seize him, when in the space of a moment two white arms, bone thin, reached through the impassable gloom and wound around Whittock’s neck, pulling him backwards with such force that the man staggered and fell with a bone-breaking thud.
The creature that leapt onto him sank its teeth into his throat, biting and tearing with rabid growls, and with its free hand it raised a blade - a streak of silver metal flashed in the lamplight and was brought down hard, once, twice, ten times, into Whittock’s chest, his neck, his face.
Whittock’s shirtfront drenched red as he kicked feebly, moaning, his eyes rolling back, and the demon crouched over him, one arm still stabbing, stabbing. Dreadful wet chewing noises filled the hold as it ground Whittock’s flesh between its teeth.
Tozer stepped back, aimed, fired, and in the shattering bang and shock of light, the creature - Mr Hickey - snarled furiously, then disappeared through the musket smoke back into the darkness once more. Once the smoke had cleared Whittock’s eyes were already blank, staring at nothing, the heat already rising from his wounds in eerie white vapour.
“He came out of nowhere, Captain Fitzjames,” Tozer explained, “there was nothing I could do for Whittock, he was -- he went for the throat, he…” he cleared his own throat and continued, “I fired, but he ran off. I came back here and sent Lewis for help. He must have found you, sir.”
Fitzjames was quiet. “Sometimes a man finds himself brooding over what he might have done better, or berating himself for not seeing a thing sooner. That does not mean he has behaved wrongly. You did your best, I am sure of that.”
Tozer looked down at his scuffed boots, stuffed with rags, and his uniform, Billy’s stitches already coming loose. He looked back into the bowels of the hold.
“If he’s still down here - Mr Hickey - he could be listening to everything we say.” He shivered, the tightness in his chest returning.
“That may be,” Captain Fitzjames acknowledged decisively, “but we are both armed, and all is brightness now. I do not think he is so foolish to return here.”
“He is mad,” Tozer spat, “he might do anything.” he glanced at the closed cabin store door once again. “To do a thing like that. It’s depraved.”
He pictured Billy’s ruined body again, and Irving’s scalp, and Heather’s skull.
“You knew Mr Gibson, did you not?” Fitzjames asked, watching him. “On Terror ? And on the haul, I seem to remember?”
Tozer flinched to be reminded of that, but nodded, “A little. He was from Marylebone. He’d some family, I think, but he didn’t speak of them often. His life was the navy.”
That was nothing much at all; that might be said of half the men on the ship. He looked at the door again, and thought of Billy’s crooked neck and open mouth. “Sir?”
“Might I… might I just go in and make him presentable? He’s in a dreadful state, and he was such a tidy sort.”
“Of course, Sergeant. We all deserve our dignity.”
It felt good to move, and Tozer crossed the deck quickly, sliding back the cabin store door once more. Being prepared for what he would find this time, he saw not a thing to fear, but a thing to pity. Fitzjames took one of the lamps from its bracket and held it over Tozer as he gingerly squeezed into the dark cell, bending down to touch the cold body of Billy Gibson, and set him to rights.
He worked as quickly as he could, for it was very cold, and the atmosphere too heavy to bear for very long. He straightened Billy’s legs, first. They were so long, he did not quite fit in the store, and his feet stuck out over the threshold. Fitzjames drew back, so as not to be in the way, but kept holding the lamp as far over Tozer's work as he could.
Billy had already grown quite stiff, but he wasn't heavy, and Tozer was able to lift him at the waist to wrap a blanket around his gaping belly, covering the worst of the mess. He then worked his arm under Billy's shoulders, carefully cradling his head and settling him down to lie flat. He rolled up sack cloth for a pillow, and with his neck resting against it just so, he did look more peaceful. Next Solomon pulled out blankets to cover the rest of him, from his ice-torn boots to the top of his head - he had to cover the face because of the eyes, and as he did, he couldn't help muttering a curse for Cornelius Hickey.
This all done, Tozer rocked back on his heels to survey the makeshift shroud. It was better - at least he would not be gawped at now.
"Look there, Sergeant," Fitzjames said, his voice low. He directed the lamp over Billy's body, past the filthy nest of rags against the wall, and Tozer looked up. The wood had been defaced, painted with some grotesque icon, and below that the wall had been broken through - torn and scratched away, dark blood dried on the jagged edges.
So that was how the little beast had got out. It suited him well. No magic, no divinity, all trickery and deception. The shelves above were littered with hundreds of little curiosities. The skull of a sea bird, ornaments carved from seal bone and bits of wood or formed out of old melted candle wax, little cups of rum, paper twists of tobacco. Tozer saw them and knew at once that Hickey could not have found all those things himself; someone had brought them to him, and Tozer knew exactly who.
Fitzjames saw the offerings too, raising his lamp higher again. “Good God,” he said, his fog of breath turning butter yellow in the oil light. “So that is what all those men were doing skulking about down here,” he snorted humourlessly, and moved the lamp closer to the shelves so that the shadows of the objects raced up the walls. “No wonder the threat of the log book did not deter them.”
“Sir,” Tozer stood, quickly, feeling a little lightheaded as the blood rushed back into his legs, “I do believe it was those men, but they are not entirely to blame - you see what he did to Whittock, you see what he does to those who fall in with him.”
He was careful not to look down at Gibson, lying between them as he said this. Tozer suddenly regretted ever having mentioned Billy’s association with Hickey to Fitzjames, because what did that matter now?
“Sergeant Tozer, if they are a danger to the rest of the crew--”
“They are only frightened, Sir,” Tozer said, desperate enough to interrupt, “as we all have been, on this expedition - at some time or other. Only frightened, and easily led. Please, Captain Fitzjames, I know they do not deserve your leniency, I know I deserve your trust least of all, but I hauled with them, I camped with them - they are rough men, but they are not wicked, only mesmerised by something none of us have understood. They can be reasoned with, I know it. We made it through that hell together, and I will not believe they are lost to us now.”
Fitzjames watched Tozer’s face for a long time. Solomon was breathing harder, slightly giddy - he did not think he had spoken so many words strung together in at least a year. Fitzjames seemed to give a very slight nod - concession or simply acknowledgement, Tozer did not know.
“Sergeant, you understand that I cannot promise mercy,” he said, very firmly. “I am a captain, yes, but we have a surfeit of captains aboard this ship and I must yield to the wishes of Captain Crozier and Sir James if necessary. I do understand,” he paused, casting one more look at the shelves of votive trinkets, then stepped back to allow Tozer out of the cabin store, finally. “I see that they were led on, and I find myself trusting your judgment in this matter, sergeant. I will do all that I can, will you take my word on that?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Tozer stepped over Billy’s covered body and back into the light of the passageway, some of the dread and panic brewing inside of him dispelled.
“Perhaps we could have them moved to Investigator for the remainder of the voyage,” Fitzjames said, thoughtfully, replacing the lantern into its bracket. “But I do think that our primary concern ought to be locating Mr Hickey and putting a stop to all this… violence.”
“Aye, sir,” Tozer agreed whole-heartedly, standing to attention once more.
“Captain Ross, coming down!” Corporal Lewis called down the hatch as footsteps sounded on the deck above.
so..."It is a truth universally acknowledged that a newly made Bear God must be in need of fresh meat"
Up Next - Rockets
Up and up until the land takes what it's owned
"Forward deck swept, sir,” Sergeant Smith reported as his detachment of marines fell into an orderly line behind him, their red coats wonderfully bright in the dank hold. “Private Halfpenny found traces of blood. Lieutenant Le Vesconte has taken some men to check further while we search on.”
"Thank you, Sergeant," James nodded to him, glancing over to where Tozer and his detachment were trying to keep warm after having swept the aft section with not one trace of their quarry. Which was quite a thing, considering how much blood had pooled on the deck or been smeared wildly over the bulkheads.
James took out his borrowed pocket watch, having to hold it close to the steaming warm lamp that Mr Peglar was carrying in order to peer at the hands, his old headache trying to press behind his eyes
The hold had taken a good two hours to sweep. The cold and the dark, and that purveying charnel house smell impeding the search that had every barrel peered behind and every store rifled through in search of Hickey. The orlop - which was at least tolerably lit - would no doubt take only slightly less time to search through, all depending on what state it had been left in by the crews hurrying themselves up onto the weather deck.
“Mr Kitto, give my compliments to Sir James and Captain Crozier, and please inform them that the hold is clear. Take Mr Ameson with you.”
“Sir,” the two Enterprisers chorused, and James watched them make their cautious way up the hatch before turning to the waiting men.
"Fine work, gentlemen. At least the orlop will be warmer." James said as he snapped the watch closed and slipped it back into his pocket. "Mr Hartnell made a pail of awfully strong tea on the heating stove, have a ladle each and we shall get to it. It is not rum, alas, but I think we all had enough of that last night, eh?"
There was a murmur of amusement from the marines as they crowded around Hartnell. Their faces all became lit by the warmth of the lamp one of them was still clutching and James was pleased to see they looked a little happier now they were getting something warm in them. All except Sergeant Tozer, who still had his eyes fixed on the deep, shifting shadows that clung to the ribs of the ship.
“Sergeant,” James said softly, nodding over to the other men when Tozer turned to him. “Do not forget yourself.”
“Aye sir,” he nodded, remaining somewhat furtive as he went to get his tea.
Francis had been wary of giving Tozer men to command in the search for Hickey - his mind understandably still turned to the man's previous waver in loyalty - but James had found himself vouching for his honesty. No-one could have seen his anger in that stinking room, nor seen his care for Gibson's body, and not think that Tozer might hate Hickey more than anyone.
As blood had been found forward, James decided to take that hatch up to the orlop, sending Corporal Paterson and Private Healey - two of his own surviving marines from Erebus - to the mizzen in case Hickey slipped down while they all trudged up and turned this sweep into a farce.
Corporal Lewis led the way up, followed by Wilkes and Peglar with the lamp, the sound of their boots on the rungs loud in the creaking silence of the hold.
“Shan’t miss being stuck down ‘ere a watch,” the marine in front of James grumbled to the one at the foot of the ladder just as a cry of alarm came from above them.
Lewis jerked wildly, his shoulders thumping into the back of the hatch as a thick wet sound filled the air before he slid backwards, sending everyone on the ladder tumbling down onto the men still in the hold.
Peglar’s lantern dropped with a smash, the other one rolling along the deck before petering out.
Lewis was yelling out in pain, adding to the panicked shouting as men scrabbled around in the near blackness.
“Keep watch on the ladder! Keep watch!”
“Where’s the captain?”
Someone had tried to pull James out of the way before everyone came crashing down, but he had still taken the full weight of a marine to the chest and fallen hard enough to knock the air from his lungs. He could do little more than struggle to his knees to try and avoid being trampled by the boots thumping around him, his stomach rolling as he tried to catch his breath.
Footsteps came running, bringing light with them along with Dundy’s voice ordering quiet.
“Silence now!” he barked, holding his lantern up high to illuminate the scene. “Hartnell, collect that lamp, watch the hatch. Where is cap-,” there was a muffled curse, and James flinched away from the lantern light shining directly into his face.
“James,” Dundy gasped as he dropped down to his knees next to him, grasping at him as if he might keel over. “Are you hurt?”
“Winded,” he managed to wheeze, patting Dundy on the chest.
“Oh thank God,” Dundy breathed, James not missing the hand that brushed over the twice healed wound in his side. “Good to stand?”
James grunted an affirmative, and his other arm was taken in firm hands as he was helped to his feet.
“All right, sir?” Tozer’s pinched voice asked from his side and James took a moment to allow his swimming head clear before nodding.
He surveyed the scene; the pool of whale oil slowly setting solid between the shards of broken glass, the other men getting themselves in order, and Hartnell holding a fresh lantern up over Peglar who was helping Corporal Lewis to sit up against the side of the ladder.
James made his way over with Tozer following close behind, waving Lewis down when the marine when he tried to sit up straighter. “What happened, Private?”
“Little shit knifed me,” Lewis hissed as Peglar eased his arm out of his coat, revealing the blood soaking into the arm of his shirt. “Sorry sir. The man jumped out and stabbed at me when I was halfway up the ladder.”
“Can you tend to him, Mr Peglar?”
“He didn’t stab me that deep sir, I held him off as well as I was able.”
“I do not doubt that, Lewis.”
“I can tend to him for the moment, sir,” Peglar said softly. “But he will need to see a physician for stitching up.”
“Very well, you will have some nice scars to show off when we get home, Corporal.”
Lewis managed a smile at that, and James turned back to the marines who were ready and waiting for his order.
“We will have to go up the hatch one way or another, men. Jones, take two men and go to Corporal Paterson, inform him what has happened and tell him to make his way up to the orlop.”
“Hickey is armed. We must use more caution than before, but he is only one weak man, and you are all Royal Marines. We shall run him to ground in no time, shall we not, eh?”
“Good,” James clenched his fingers to try and bring some warmth back into them, then turned to Dundy for his shotgun. “I will go up first.”
“You have already taken a fall, sir,” Dundy said, keeping the weapon firmly in his hands. “I must say I do not think that wise.”
“Henry,” James warned, not being mollified by Dundy's sudden use of ‘sir’ in front of the men.
“I’ll go, sir.” Smith said immediately. “This is my ship after all.”
“Captain Fitzjames,” Tozer spoke up from his shoulder. “I should like to go up the ladder first. Hickey was a crewman upon Terror after all. I am responsible, sir.”
He met Tozer’s determined, bright gaze, so at odds with his ashen face and his ragged appearance.
“I know it is your duty, sergeants, but I can neither ask nor order you to put yourselves in such danger.”
“I know, sir. I volunteer freely,” Tozer said before Smith could speak again, moving his gaze to look somewhere in the vicinity of James’ forehead before meeting his eyes again, determined.
“Very well,” James sighed out a great cloud of steaming breath. “No heroics, do you hear? You move carefully, and you duck back down if you see anything.”
James turned back to Dundy who finally handed his shotgun over, catching Sergeant Smith saying something to Tozer about “ not making up for what has happened, take heed of the captain’s words, all right? ”
The two men, Tozer and Smith, crept up the hatch, Tozer clutching a lamp in one hand that he placed onto the deck, the light rushing over what parts of the hull James could see when Tozer pushed the lamp as far from the hatch as he could. He and Smith moved up quickly, and there were a tense few minutes for those huddled down in the cold, dark hold as they listened to the slow, measured footsteps moving about on the deck above before Smith’s head appeared in the hatch to beckon them up.
"No sign of him sir," Smith reported quietly when James was stooping in the orlop. "But there is blood on the ladder going up."
Far be it for James to give a madman too much credit, but he knew enough of Hickey to know his deviousness, and would not put a deception past him.
"Two men to guard the hatch and ladder" James said to Dundy. "Take Tozer forward, I will go aft with Smith and..."
“ Oh!” come from Hartnell and he stumbled back from where he had been peering around the door of the carpenter’s workshop. “There’s a - sir there’s a body!”
Smith moved forward at once, a man at his shoulder holding a lantern, and slowly slid the door open with the end of his musket.
There was indeed something beneath the saw bench, James could just see it around the marine’s shoulder. It appeared to be little more than a bundle of brown cloth, and at first James thought that the flicker of the lamplight was giving it the appearance of movement. Then he saw filthy hands press into the deck, and the bundle raised up, sharp shoulders rolling under a thin cotton nightshirt that was horribly stained with what James realised was old blood. The head of lank blond hair was lolling between shaking arms, and with a sound that could only be the horrid one that had been described to James, Hickey looked up, those remaining awfully clean teeth framing his black, tongueless mouth.
The door slammed shut as Smith moved away quickly, clearing right away as everyone took a startled step back.
“What the devil!" someone gasped from next to James, breaking the thick, horrified silence that had fallen in the wake of that nightmarish sight.
“This door needs to be sealed,” James said as something thumped into the back of it. He moved to hold it closed when suddenly the door was ripped open with such ferocity that it came off it’s runners, and Hickey jumped out with a gleeful look in his overly bright, sunken eyes.
“Hold your fire!” James ordered, in case the marines ended up shooting one another in the cramped space. He dodged back as well as he could while trying to avoid the low beams as Hickey made a wild swipe with the weapon that was held tightly in his hand, that was made grotesque by the blunt stumps of his amputated fingers.
Hickey made a gurgling, growling sound deep in his chest, eyeing them with a disconcerting confidence as if they were the ones cornered and not he.
"Cornelius," Tozer spoke up, holding his musket low as he raised his other hand peaceably. "Cornelius be calm. Stop this, now. Hurt no others, or they will do worse than 'ang you."
Hickey was staring at Tozer, still making that grating sound, and James took advantage of the distraction to catch Dundy's eye and look up the hatch. Dundy nodded, sparing the back of Hickey's head a glance as he stepped away.
The sound or the movement caught Hickey's attention, and with a sharp whistling noise that made James flinch at its shrillness, he scrambled after Dundy, his awful hands grasping for him.
Marines caught him, Paterson around his middle while Halfpenny grabbed at his hand that was clutching a shining, clean knife, but they could not subdue him. He struggled wildly, free arm flailing as he kicked his legs, catching Dundy in the stomach when he writhed back and cracked Paterson in the face with the back of his head. Hickey was dropped as the marine staggered away, holding his bleeding nose, and before anyone else could grasp him he was sinking his teeth into Halfpenny’s hand until his arm was released.
The carnage that knife could inflict on the men Hickey was now in the midst of could have been terrible, but he just swiped wildly at Wilkes, drawing blood across his face, before scurrying up the hatch.
James took off after him without thinking, someone clattering up the ladder behind him. He jumped up onto the berth deck, the bright grey sunlight flooding down from the hatch open to the sky dazzling him after so long spent in lamp light. It illuminated a body lying in a pool of thick blood that was half dragged up the wardroom passage, but James' attention was on Hickey.
His shaking arm was stretched out between the rungs of the ladder going up, bloodied blade inches from James' chest. Hickey strained as if trying to reach James, a grin pulling at his face as he made a lewd, wet, slurping sound at him.
"You little bastard!" Tozer hissed from behind James, and Hickey made that awful choking noise again before scrambling up the ladder.
They followed him, cries of fright meeting them as they stumbled out into the bright, frozen air. Most of the crew had been moved to Investigator to keep them from getting in the way of the search, but the deck seemed crowded now as those left to man the ship were running about in alarm as Hickey dashed around taking swipes at them.
“Permission to take a shot at 'im sir,” Tozer asked, musket tucked into his shoulder already.
“Only if it is a clear one,” James said, looking about for Francis and Ross who were at the stern shouting orders to try and bring calm.
“ Move move move move move ,” Tozer was muttering under his breath, tracking Hickey as he gleefully chased men about like a rabid dog. He must have found a clear shot as he fired, the stinking smoke billowing up and around before the wind whipped it away.
The shot had not hit its mark, but it had distracted Hickey enough to let the men sprint forward. He whistled again, the sound somehow louder out in the open air, and then hauled himself up onto the shrouds.
James shouldered his shotgun and tried to train it on the small figure clambering up the rat-lines into the rigging. The pale sun was beginning to sink down towards the horizon, light slanting through the rigging and turning Hickey into a smudge against the sky.
There was no chance of hitting him, but James tried anyway. The nets shivered as the pellets passed through them, and Hickey carried on up into the rigging, his dry awful laughter emerging from the echo of the blast.
" Bugger ."
Mr Kerslake, Enterprise's captain of the maintop, peered up into the rigging, shielding his eyes from the glare of the setting sun. He glanced back to Francis, then down to Peglar who was standing beside him. “He’s got himself confused at the lift block for the topgallant, do you agree, Mr Peglar?”
“I do Mr Kerslake. I think if one of us could get to the lifts, we could drive him along the yard before he finds his way to the stays and over onto the main sail.”
“Agreed.” They both turned to Francis, not an ounce of fear in either of them. “We can get him along, sir.”
Francis nodded to both of them, and signalled for Jopson to hand over the pistols he was holding. “Remember. Ropes and sails can be replaced, do not let his attacking the rigging cause you to act rashly. Try and get a good shot at him, but do not fear if you can not, for that is our concern,” he looked to Peglar, who’s frost chapped cheeks had still not healed properly. “You are sure you are fit, Mr Peglar?”
“Aye, sir,” Peglar declared as he tucked the pistol into his belt like he was on a boarding party. “He killed Mr Gibson.”
“Good man,” Francis said, stepping back to allow the two of them to swing themselves up onto what was left of the rat-lines, letting his gaze travel up into the towering masts.
All but the mizzen were covered with topmen working quickly to put up the sails and let go the stay ropes that connected the masts, all in an effort to prevent Hickey running full rampage in the sails as he had below decks. Three dead - Mr Gibson, Whittock, and Ameson - and two wounded - Corporal Lewis, and Mr Kitto who was clinging to life after the severity of his attack - in a day. Francis felt Gibson's death down to his marrow, for the man had been declared healthy, he had survived and was supposed to be on his way home, and now he was wrapped up in the dead room.
Francis passed through the marines who were keeping everyone from going forward, shielding his gaze as he peered up at the shape of Hickey who had managed to drag himself up to the very top sail, the frozen shrouds shaking as he attacked them with his knife. He had left swathes of rigging in tatters, ropes hanging limp, their frayed ends swinging in the swirling wind, but Francis had seen worse - ships had sailed home with worse, if tales he had heard about Trafalgar were true - and his mischief seemed to be no hindrance to Peglar and Kerslake who were were already at the main yard. With one last worried look at their progress Francis made his way to the quarterdeck where a hubbub of activity surrounded Ross.
"Francis, I am not at peace with this plan,” Ross called when he approached, rubbing a gloved hand over the greying stubble on his chin. “That man is too small a target, and the masts are too large a one. And the frost on the ropes…"
"Oh belay your worries, Sir James," Blanky said from where he was perched on a lamp locker, pointing his cane at Ross with great relish. "I think we can trust a hero a' the China war not te set the sails a-fire."
Francis gave Thomas a sour look, unimpressed that he would choose to jest at a time like this, but Thomas was all seriousness in return. "I mean it, Francis. ‘E is a most capable man, you know that better than I."
"I do," Francis watched Le Vesconte hurry up on deck clutching some sort of frame, then looked to Ross. "I trust Fitzjames in all things completely - with my life . If Hickey is driven to the yardarm, he will see it done. Of that I have no doubt.”
“I shall take your word and your advice, as I always have,” Ross conceded with a sigh. “Leopold, be so kind as to signal to Captain Bird on Investigator what we mean to do, and to ask him to put his jolly boats back down as a precaution,” Ross ordered, then turned his attention up to the masts as M'Clintock hurried off.
Some sort of battle of wills was occurring up there. Peglar, having made his way high into the mast, was brandishing his pistol at Hickey who was hacking at the loose sail or swiping at him or Kerslake who was edging towards him along the footropes.
The atmosphere on deck was fraught still, the panic from when Hickey had burst up on deck - covered in blood both old and horribly new - lingering on despite the relative calm that had been brought. Hickey was too far away to do any man violence, but he was still a horror looming over them, all powerless to do anything but watch the topmen work and hope no more innocent blood would be spilled.
Ross had ordered all officers to appear calm and in control as if this was nothing to fear. Francis did not know if he was making a good go of appearing calm, especially with how he could not help pacing to the gunwale and then back to the centre of the deck, but he certainly felt in control. Hickey had got himself into a corner, and despite the setting sun the nights this late in the year were never truly dark. He had no place to hide himself or his very ordinary nature - those men who had fallen under his sway would have to face the reality that there were no Inuit magics here, only madness.
Sergeant Smith came backing out of the hatch, hauling a long, heavy wooden chest that was being supported by Sergeant Tozer on the other end. James followed them up, the same image of unflappable calm as when he had chased Hickey up on deck with Tozer in tow, standing tall amid the panic and filling Francis with a sense of great relief.
“Gentlemen,” James greeted the huddle of officers around Ross. He caught Francis’ eye and nodded for him to follow as he made his way over to where the chest was being set down carefully by the frame Le Vesconte had erected on a clear part of the deck. Tozer was careful to keep his gaze set above Francis’ head when he and Smith came to attention, and Francis spared him a glance before having them stand at ease.
“We moved as fast as we could. The armoury steward had these stacked right at the back,” James said as he pulled a key from his pocket and gingerly crouched down by the chest.
“Hickey is still to be moved along the yard, we may be waiting a while yet.”
James peered up into the rigging at where Hickey was standing firm upon a dangerously tilting yard, such a small figure against an endless sky, then let the chest lid drop back to reveal the slim rockets stored carefully within.
“Excuse me, Captains,” Lieutenant Brown said a little breathlessly as he hurried up to them. Francis braced for news of some other disaster, but the man simply turned his slightly bashful attention to James. “Sir, as you know I passed through HMS Excellent, and we all heard of… that is to say, might I stand ready?”
“If Sir James has no need of you,” James said, obviously amused, and bent over the rockets. He touched some of the fuses between his fingers, picking up the ones that passed inspection and handing them off to Smith who held them with familiar care.
The crack of a gun shot rang out then, drawing all attention up into the mast. Peglar seemed to have lost patience and fired at Hickey, and it was hard to tell from down on the deck whether he had hit him. Nevertheless Hickey was finally moving back, no doubt encouraged by Peglar shouting a curse that was muffled by the wind and hurling the empty pistol at him.
“Right. If you please,” James said, directing everyone to step to the side as he plucked the cloth wrapped matches from the bottom of the box.
He knelt by Le Vesconte, taking a rocket from Smith to set carefully into its own groove on the frame. He was in discussion with Le Vesconte the entire time, both of their gazes trained into the masts where Hickey had finally been pushed out onto the yardarm and into a clear patch of brilliant purple sky.
The gloom of what passed for a sunset in the Arctic summer almost seemed to swallow Hickey up, and Francis hoped James’ eyesight was as recovered as everyone assumed as he watched him take one of the long matches he was holding between his lips and strike it on the frame.
Hickey was jumping on the yardarm now, rocking the topsail that was only held up by the few ropes he had not managed to hack through in what was no doubt an attempt to bring the whole middle part of the rigging down.
James swore under his breath and made a final adjustment to the frame. He pulled it back as far as he could, peering up at Hickey’s frantic movement all the while, before touching the match to the fuse. It sparked suddenly, burning brightly in the twilight as it made its way towards the body of the rocket. A hush fell over the deck at the rushing sound the rocket made when the flame reached it, the two men kneeling by it moving aside as a noise split the air like the loud, sudden sharp gust of wind amidst a gale, the kind that made you fear for the safety of the masts, and the rocket took off with enough force to shift the entire frame and scorch the deck.
It missed Hickey, the bright orange light tearing through what space there was between him and the top most sail. Hickey staggered back with a shriek, slipping and almost tumbling into the frozen water but managed to catch the yard under his arms. He dangled there, skeletal legs kicking wildly as he tried to push himself back up.
James must have sensed the shot was not true, and already had another rocket set into the frame by the time the first one had disappeared into the far distant waters.
“Damn you, sir!” Ross shouted as he came running over, wide eyed and overwrought. “Have a care for my ship! If, I dare say, you can even see it!”
Francis took hold of Ross’ arm and dragged him sharply to the side as James lit the second rocket, this time taking hold of the end of the frame and lifting it a few inches off the deck to get his aim just right.
“Should he be doing that?” Francis heard Tozer give voice to the very real worry he was having, but he did not hear any reply as the rocket made that roaring, gusting sound again as it soared up into the rigging, the brilliant burst of light illuminating the sails as it passed.
The topmen shielded their eyes against the dazzling brightness, but Hickey was still clinging to the yardarm, legs swinging wildly as he scrambled for enough purchase to bring himself back up. He clawed desperately at the sails, dropping his knife as he did - it fell straight down, turning brightly in the air before clattering noisily onto the deck below. As it did, Hickey finally pushed upwards with both arms, bringing his torso above the yard. He was making to hook his leg over next, but it was already too late.
In the last few seconds as the rocket reached him, Hickey finally looked up and Francis saw his face clearer than ever. His mouth gaped open in surprise, lit up by the burning glare of the rocket as it met its mark, hitting him square in the chest.
James dropped to sit on his heels as those around Francis gasped at the sight, the deck bathed in an orange light as, for one phantasmagorical moment, it looked for all the world as though Hickey was being illuminated from the inside like a paper lantern; as though he was filled with light as the rocket lodged itself between his ribs, the flying sparks setting his parchment skin glowing gold against the darkening sky. The force of it threw him backwards, his arms ripped from the yard as he sailed through the air in a shower of stars, a perfect arc sailing down into the frigid black waters below.
Ross followed the blur of light through the sky, moving along with everyone else to the gunwale to watch the blaze disappear into the thick black water.
There was a moment of silence, a final pause in the action, that was finally broken by a distant chorus of noise from Investigator that was taken up by the men in the masts and then on deck. Ross turned to Francis, too stunned by all that had happened this day, these past months, to do anything but smack his oldest friend on the chest and say something very underwhelming and unsuitable for the occasion. "Bloody hell ."
Francis laughed, a startled sound to match his startled expression. He grasped Ross's arm and then turned to look at Fitzjames who was still kneeling on the deck and being heartily slapped on the back by an assortment of officers, marines, and expedition men.
"Bloody hell, indeed," Francis agreed, smiling at Ross and giving his arm one more squeeze before letting go.
Ross watched Francis cross to Fitzjames and take him by the shoulders, leaning over him to say something that made the man bark out a laugh as he leant back into him, before he turned back to the gunwale.
Lightning was flashing on the distant, endless horizon, the sky to the west thickening with a far away storm. Ross watched it for a moment, fancying as all sailors did that he could smell the weather on the breeze, pressing his thumb to his still tender hand when he dropped his gaze down to the calm waters of the Sound.
A creature was down there, as horrifying as it had been when Ross had first laid eyes upon it hundreds and hundreds of miles behind them. The body was a burned, blackened ruin, its eyes opened wide and unseeing as a string of tiny silver bubbles rose out of its yawning mouth. Ross flinched, hardly believing the sight that disappeared in a blink of an eye, the jagged sea ice closing over it and keeping it for its own.
You get the Evening Star part of the title now lool
Up Next - Epilogue
...and, the rest of their lives.
(sorry this is late, we forgot to sort out the Epilogue and work got in the way - enjoy!)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“My darling,” Ann’s voice whispered sweetly in his ear, and Ross jolted from blinding brightness into the thick, safe dark. He gasped, feeling sweat prickling over his back and forehead as he slowly released his grip on the blankets.
“Yes, my dear,” she whispered, hand resting gently on his arm. “You were crying out in your sleep.”
“Oh,” Ross sighed as he felt for her slim hand. “I am sorry I woke you, my love.”
“There is no need to be sorry. I shall light the candle, and cast away these foul dreams with some light.”
“Thank you,” he whispered, smiling when her soft lips touched his cheek. He listened to her shift beneath the covers to roll over, frowning into the darkness as he tried to recall the dream.
It was of the polar regions, he was sure of that. It was the only place on earth so horribly clean and pure, so sterile , the crystal clear sunlight bouncing back into your eyes from the crisp white world to blind and confuse. Ross raised his hand to rub at his eyes, but the skin of his hand pulled and a pain went through his palm like it had been stabbed.
He gasped, peering through the faint light of the match Ann had struck to try and see if the wound had swollen like it tended to in drier weather, when, from the corner of the room, came a grating, scraping sound.
Chhhh, ccchh, crrccchhh.
Ross cried out in alarm, scrambling closer to Ann when the candle flared into life.
“James! James what is it!” she gasped, holding the candle out so it would not be dropped onto the bedding.
The warm light took a moment to banish Ross’ horror as he came to the realisation that the bone like fingers scraping against the glass, begging to be let in, were only the branches of the bare Beech tree outside the window.
“Oh,” Ross exclaimed, pressing his hand over his beating heart, then gasped, “ oh ”, softly as he turned to hide himself in the comfort of Ann’s arms.
* * *
James felt he ought to move his desk. It was only a small, light thing; lifting it would be no trouble. The orderlies who'd brought it into the room at his request had set it down in the neat little alcove beneath the window, which was very sensible, considering the smallness of the hospital quarters and the benefit of natural light. It was damned distracting, though. James would sit down to his correspondence each afternoon, glance up, and then lose a good half hour to simply taking in the view. Doubly distracting now that spring had finally arrived in Plymouth.
He had a perfect view of the lawn - startlingly green and immaculately manicured - and every day he watched the red coated marines marching from their barracks out past the water tower to the dockyard. To see this all play out beneath a blue sky, seagulls overhead and the open sea shining just beyond - it was the greatest luxury he could imagine, and one he had almost lost forever.
The first time he heard birdsong after their return he thought he might start bawling like a child. And when the colour returned to the trees he marvelled like starry-eyed Miranda at the lush greenery, the movement of wind through the leaves, the soft yellow sunlight hitting the limestone of the hospital walls. The sight of flowers delivered by friends and well-wishers sent him into ecstasies - papery orange poppies, sturdy-stemmed tulips with petals like crushed velvet; blousy, generous chrysanthemums.
But there was hardly time to moon over this ‘brave new world’; Fitzjames had work to do, and he knew that this last month of convalescence at Stonehouse Naval Hospital was the best possible opportunity to get it done. He had already received more invitations to balls, banquets and gala dinners than he would be able to cope with in a lifetime, not to mention speaking engagements, lectures and suppers at private clubs. James had a very good excuse to ignore these demands for now, but he knew that the moment the doctors released him there would be no peace and quiet for a year.
A rap at the door made him start and James snatched up his pen, almost spilling his ink everywhere like a schoolboy caught daydreaming when he ought to be practising composition. “Enter,” he called out, shuffling papers pointlessly.
“A visitor for you, Captain Fitzjames,” the nurse said in her soft west country accent.
“Ah,” James twisted in his chair, that stitch of pain still deep in his side, in time to see the blushing young woman back out of the room as a familiar figure entered. He was tall and handsome with the rigid posture and steady, honest gaze Fitzjames had come to not only appreciate, but depend upon in their last few months at sea. He’d had a close shave and a haircut since last they met, and had been outfitted with a glorious new red jacket.
“Sergeant Tozer!” Fitzjames beamed, before remembering himself and standing to shake his hand, “my apologies - Colour Sergeant Tozer! You look very well.”
“I am, sir,” Tozer smiled back, standing so straight he seemed to have gained half an inch in height since James last saw him. “And I hear you are much improved yourself - I shouldn’t have come to trouble you, otherwise.”
“Only with a favour, Captain Fitzjames.” A discomfited expression briefly crossed Tozer’s features, “ another favour, I ought to say.”
“Well, you’d better sit down. Shall I have some tea brought in?”
“No, no need sir. I won’t keep you long, I’ve to present myself at the coach station shortly.”
“Ah!” Fitzjames nodded, still gesturing at the empty chair in the corner. Tozer sat, tugging down his jacket as he did. “On your way home at last?”
“Aye, sir. I’ve leave enough to visit my brother before I must report to Chatham.”
There was a pause between them, and James wasn’t sure how to fill it. He had grown to understand something of Sergeant Tozer’s nature over the past few years, but he couldn’t say he knew quite how to converse with the man, who could only be described as taciturn at best.
Tozer’s own gaze was drawn to the window while he apparently gathered his thoughts. For a frightful moment James thought he might comment on the weather. He moved his inkwell again, and Tozer blinked.
“I won’t keep you, sir,” he said again.
“Not at all, Sergeant. You are rescuing me from some very dull letter writing.”
“Ah, well then you may be sorry to hear what I have to ask you,” Tozer cleared his throat and reached into his jacket, withdrawing a collection of papers which rustled as he unfolded and smoothed them flat on his thigh. “I have… I mean to say… I have been writing some letters of my own, sir.”
“Yes,” Tozer nodded, not looking up from the papers he now held in his hands, “to the families of some of the men who did not… who are not with us here.”
“I see,” James set down his pen and pushed away from his desk, turning his chair to face Tozer directly. “And you need my assistance?”
“I know how busy you must be, sir, and I know I have asked a great deal of you already, only this is not for me, but for the families, and--”
“It is quite all right, Sergeant. In fact, owing to the circumstances we found ourselves in, Captain Crozier and I have already begun composing letters to the families of those men we have lost. For every man.”
“Is that so?” Tozer looked at him, finally. “Then perhaps there is no need,” he glanced down at his papers once more, “I have written already to the families of my men - the marines, I mean. I thought that best, sir.” He looked up, as if asking permission, or worried he had overstepped.
“Very appropriate, I should say,” James nodded. “You must have known them best, I am sure your words brought all the more comfort for that.”
“I was responsible for them ,” Tozer replied. “Particularly Private Heather.” He looked away, his face turning pink and his eyes brightening.
James turned back to his desk discreetly, pretending that his pen nib had some kind of blockage and applying himself to wiping it with his handkerchief while Tozer collected himself once more. Eventually the marine cleared his throat and continued,
“I wrote to Mrs Heather, I told her how brave he was, what a fine job he did, and how much he was missed by all of us.” The papers rustled again, “I kept parts of the truth from her. It felt… I thought maybe it was better that she did not know of his injuries, or of the Carnivale. I think that is something only I ought to bear, for it was me who… well. I was responsible. Do you see, sir?”
“I do,” James nodded sharply, a familiar sickness brewing in his gut as he involuntarily recalled the sounds and the smells of that dreadful night.
Tozer straightened again and looked ahead, his face resolute. “Heather I knew very well. I was glad to relay all of these things to his wife, and to his kid. But Mr Gibson - we were not close, sir, I spoke with him only a handful of times. I didn’t know what family he had, or whether he was good at his job. I think he must have been, but I couldn’t speak to these things myself. Perhaps Captain Crozier will know what to say about Billy.”
James was at a loss - he and Francis were writing to every lost man who had put down an address when they signed up, but it was true that they did not know, could not have known each man personally.
“But in case he finds himself without the words, as I did,” Tozer said, “then I have collected these.”
He stood and crossed to the desk, handing James the papers he’d been clutching. James looked down and laid them out on his desk. The writing was in various different hands, short sentences, snatches of verse.
“I went to visit those who knew him, sir,” Tozer explained, “his mess mates… you see what Mr Gibbons has put? And Mr Armitage, there - then Mr Peglar knew Mr Gibson very well, they sailed together before, so he has written his fondest memories. Even Lieutenant Jopson was kind enough to add his own thoughts, just here. Altogether, I think we have the shape of something. A good man, a good sailor.”
“You have been very busy,” James murmured, eyes skimming over the writing - some neat, some scrawled.
“I should like him to have a fine tribute, after the way we found him.” Tozer said, simply, “But I am not much for fancy writing. I remembered how you had a knack for it, Captain Fitzjames. I hoped you might be able to smooth out our rough words.”
“I would be honoured.” James was almost speechless, still reading. There was nothing rough about these words; they were the gentlest thing he had ever seen.
“May I leave these with you, sir?”
“Of course, Sergeant Tozer. I shall take the utmost care with them.”
“Thank you, Captain Fitzjames.” Tozer smiled at him, stepping back into the light of the window. The sun’s rays caught his fair hair, and lit up his jacket blindingly scarlet. “I had better be on my way. The coach - if you’re not there early then you’re stuck up by the driver, and heaven help me if it rains.”
“Of course,” James stood to shake his hand again. “Awfully long way back to Liverpool for you, Sergeant.”
“Three hundred miles that I’m glad I shan’t be walking, sir.”
Fitzjames chuckled, “Quite right. Still, let me lend you a crown, eh? I hate to think of a hero of the Franklin Expedition travelling third class - what would Lady Jane say?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, sir.”
“She would call me a heartless blackguard.” James went to his bedside drawer to find his purse. “Here,” he proffered the coin, “Let me rest easy knowing you will have a comfortable journey, for once.”
“Thank you, sir,” Tozer accepted. It was such a trifling reward, James thought to himself. A crown, at the end of everything.
“I hope we’ll meet again,” he said, and meant it, shaking Tozer’s hand.
“Stranger things have happened at sea, sir.” Tozer gave him a small smile, before saluting neatly and leaving the room as quietly as he had entered it.
* * *
"Oh, would you look at that," James said, pointing Francis' attention down the rolling slope towards the distant sails that would be nothing but haze to an untrained eye. They were moving steadily out from Devonport dockyard, which was just visible from Stonehouse’s grounds, and away towards the sea. "We have been here for longer than that Third Rate has been in dry dock."
"She cannot have needed as much of an overhaul as we have."
" Overhaul ," James scoffed, then laughed. "Some days I do feel as if I have been put on my side and had barnacles scraped from my keel."
Francis was not above chuckling at that, glancing up at James who had obviously amused himself.
The early spring air was fresh and bright and so gentle, the morning dew on the grass lawns glittering in the weak sunlight. The mild weather could be foolishly mistaken for warmth after years trapped in ice, and Francis was glad of the soft, dark blue scarf that James had given to him on Christmas Eve as he was in greater need of it than he had thought.
He had been in Stonehouse longer than he had expected, if he were honest. Francis had been one of the healthier men amongst the survivors, improving quickly with food and rest. Yet, upon their arrival home, the years of drink and the strain of sobering up and walking out all finally came knocking, and he had fallen into a state of such nervous exhaustion that James had been the one the fretting over him for a change.
"I shall miss this, you know," Francis mused as they paused a moment to take in the misty view of the Tamar river and the rolling green country beyond it. "Not Stonehouse, feel like a bloody midshipman again. Or you, I shall never be rid of you," he grumbled in jest, smiling when James squeezed the arm he had tucked his through. "But peace and quiet. No pulls or stresses. The expectation of sitting about."
" Sitting about !" James gasped as they began walking again. "Decadence itself! I shall be gluttonous of it my whole life."
"You will not sit about even when ordered to."
"I do!" James protested, then. "Sometimes.”
“ Sometimes indeed.”
“I had become so used to being weak that to have the smallest ounce of energy once more made me want to use it! Now I feel used to it, and the return of my old constitution - or rather, what passes for it. So, now of course I wish to sit about…”
“Unlike you to be so contrary.”
“Now! It did me no harm, did it?” James protested, knocking their shoulders together. “I am merely saving my strength for when we are both flung upon society.”
Francis grunted in reply to that. He doubted that James had ever allowed himself to be flung anywhere, let alone onto society which he navigated so well even now, accepting and declining all sorts of things for the both of them. Ross had mostly allowed Francis to demur after their return from the Antarctic in ‘43, but he knew full well that James both would and could persuade him into almost anything and make him enjoy himself also.
"We shall make the best of it, eh,” James encouraged, fingers tripping along the seam of Francis' sleeve. “For we live, do we not?"
"I was thinking on that yesterday, and today I suppose, how the hands of Fate or Luck or Chance brought us here.”
“I try not to think about it,” Francis said quietly. “I prefer to think of the present. Of you here and now, rather than what might have happened if Ross had missed us.”
James smiled softly, tucking his chin into his own scarf as he let his arm drop so his fingers rested against the back of Francis' gloved hand, a gentle touch that remained as James spoke.
"Yesterday afternoon Colour Sergeant Tozer came to speak to me…"
"Had he not been released that morning?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes. He was on his way to catch the coach to Liverpool, or thereabouts. He had gathered some..." James paused, a frown pulling at his brow as his fingers fidgeted over Francis' knuckles until he caught them, hiding their hands in the folds of their slightly too large coats. "Excuse me. Some testimonies from other Terrors , about Gibson, and wished for me to sort them into a letter. Or rather a tribute, after - well…"
"That is a very fine thing to do," Francis agreed.
"Yes. I thought so. Very fine. Very - very noble. Although, he was rather shy to ask me, but when I told him we were writing to the families, you and I, he put it to me."
They walked on quietly arm in arm for a moment, Francis wondering what he could add to those no doubt uncomplicated, sincere words that had been collected.
There had been so many words needed recently. Words for Lady Franklin, words for the Admiralty, words for the perfunctory court martial he and James would face when they were fit enough. Words for the families of men he knew by name or by sight and whose deaths he had tried to remember. And yet all words had failed them both, and continued to do so, when they were told that Cornelius Hickey had not met his fate in the Arctic, but had in fact been fished out of Regent's Canal mere days after they had set sail.
"Did he ask about what we would write to Hickey's family?" Francis asked carefully, looking back at James.
"No, thank God," James huffed, turning his face up towards the powder blue sky. "I wouldn't know the first thing to say about that."
"I would like the chance to be honest with the men one day soon. To tell them the truth of it before it becomes a sensation."
"We shall," James said in that purposeful way of his that made it sound like he could speak a thing into existence. He dropped his gaze to the evenly paved path, then over to Francis, the brightness of health and spring sunshine in his eyes. "There is no rush. Our lives ahead will now be counted in decades, not days or hours. We have the time."
And that's a wrap, folks!
We're so pleased people have enjoyed this little passion project that was a pain in the arse some times, and a joy quite a lot of the time. Thank you all so much for reading, and for all the kind, wonderful, insightful comments. It has been a pleasure!