Work Header

whither thou goest

Work Text:


The camphor is doing what it can, but they are losing hope. Francis is slumped upon a stool at James’ side, taking watch while Bridgens attends the other failing men. 

“Read to me?” James’ voice is barely audible above the breeze that whistles through the seams.

Francis sits up and looks about him. “Mr Bridgens has something suitable, no doubt.”

James flops his good arm towards the canvas-covered floor, knocks his haversack with the back of one hand. Francis hoists it onto the cot and James roots through it by feel, drawing out a small volume bound in black leather, pushes it into Francis’ hands. Francis turns it over: a Bible, the initials JF embossed in crackling gold.

“Yours?” James has never seemed a pious man.

But James shakes his head minutely. Francis flicks past the frontispiece to find a handsome bookplate augmented by a lady’s curling hand. To my dear Husband, With a fervent wish that the Good Lord bless and keep you in all your travails. Your Ever-loving wife, Jane. An inheritance, then, with ship and captaincy besides. 

“Why keep it?” Francis muses, half to himself. “Why drag it all this way?”

“The men,” says James. “Divine service.”

And much precious bloody good it’s done them. No one spoke over the men at Terror Camp, or over poor John Irving, and certainly no service would have been said for Mr Hickey. The holy book would turn to snakes in your hands. Sergeant Tozer might have warranted it: a soldier’s funeral before they covered him with stones. 

“What shall I read?” asks Francis, feeling unmanned in the face of the thing. Much of his Bible learning has leeched unlamented from his brain in the years since Sunday school and, besides, the Presbyterians have their own favourites among the books and verses, which he fancies stray somewhat from the Church of England line. 

James gives an approximation of a shrug: an abortive twitch of shoulders that still, somehow, conveys insouciance. Francis turns the pages at random. Deuteronomy ought to be harmless enough. He begins with a passage on idolatrous cities, his voice rough and unpracticed as ever, stumbling over the cramped type and arcane words. The next chapter is a long list of animals and birds, and would almost be poetic, were it not an edict on which might be eaten and which not. 

But these are they of which ye shall not eat: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the osprey, and the glede, and the kite, and the vulture after his kind, and every raven after his kind, and the owl, and the nighthawk, and the cuckoo, and the hawk after his kind. ” Francis pauses to catch his breath, adding, “Though I daresay we could eat a hawk or two at present. What say you, James?”

James lowers his eyelids; his broken lips curled into a facsimile of a smile. 

The little owl, and the great owl, and the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle, and the cormorant, and the stork, and the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat. A swan would be capital. A whole flock of them.”

James has closed his eyes, still with that faint, saintly smile, and Francis reads on. He ought to stop now that James is resting, and rest himself, or else find what needs doing in the straggling camp. But there’s an uneven poetry to the words, and Francis reads more fluently, though he passes over the chapter on unleavened bread, feeling his empty stomach contract at the mere sight of the words. James seems to doze, static as a Norman knight upon his marble tomb. 

Francis pauses in his reading to look him over: the flakes of blood along his hairline, the riverbed cracks around his mouth, the waxen, sallow colour of his skin. If he could do so without disturbing him, Francis would inspect James’ wounds. That bloom of red across his chest; his writhing in the land-borne boat, the rattle of his shout. Francis will remember it for as long as he has yet to live. 

He returns to his reading, but James has begun to fret. He twitches his head on the rag-stuffed bag that is his pillow, jerks his limbs with alarming force, makes a noise that is not quite speech nor yet a wordless moan. 

Francis falls unthinking to his knees, grunting at the sharpness of the shale, and jostles James as gently as he can. “James. You’re dreaming.” Though he is not sure of it. Perhaps this is some mutation of the sickness: a semi-sleep, a living misery.

“No—Sir John,” James gasps, his voice thick and bubbling in his throat.

“He’s quite well, James.” What else can Francis say? That his corpse is bobbing below fifty feet of ice while his severed leg is neat and bundled in a too-big coffin?

James is thrashing, half awake, his eyes wide and rolling in his head. “He wouldn’t—if he knew, he wouldn’t—”

Francis is on the point of calling for Bridgens, or fumbling for a vial of morphia, when James takes a great breath, like a swimmer breaking the surface of the water. He goes still at last, sagging deeper into the sheepskin. His eyes are wet but apparently lucid, staring up at Francis, down at the Bible where it has fallen into his lap. He paws at it, folds his fingers around it, and then pushes it away.

“You had a nightmare,” says Francis, feeling foolish with James awake and watchful once again. He wants to hoist himself back onto the stool, but is wary of straying too far from James’ side.

“Not a nightmare.”

“A memory?” Francis is surprised. James and Sir John always seemed to get on famously; more like a stately uncle and his upstart nephew than captain and commander. 

“A vision, perhaps. Close enough now.”


“To the other side.” There’s a queer, greenish gleam in James’ face that Francis cannot abide.

“Don’t be absurd.” Francis reaches for the Bible and holds it closed, worrying at the dog-eared corners. What earthly good is this lump of leather and linen in a place like this? Much better eaten, like Sir John and his celebrated boots. “Shall I read again?”

James neither moves nor speaks. Francis busies himself with the pages, wanting something uplifting, peaceful; suitable for a soul on the brink of translation, for a man at the edge of death. 

“I’m a sinner, Francis.”

Francis looks up. James is quite calm, though the ecstatic martyr’s glow still hangs about him. “No, James. I see no sin in you.” He puts his hand on James’, trying not to think about the sharpness of the bones through his skin. 

But James nods, though it’s clear the movement pains him. “In thought, and word, and deed.” He quirks his crusted mouth. “Thought, in the main, lately.”

“What thoughts?” says Francis. “Of dying?” Hardly a sin in these direst of straits; a loving God would understand. Did not our Lord walk forty days in the wilderness, beset by temptation?

“Of you.” James’ eyes are full of light: the yellowish white of the canvas, the indifferent green of turning leaves, whisky caught in cut glass and lamplight. 

The holy book slips from Francis' hands. It falls with a dull, flat sound between them. 

“I spoke of brotherhood — I did not mean it.” James’ voice is ragged, the words spilling out on feverish breath. It’s as though, having resolved to speak, he cannot help himself. “Not quite — not as you… I was there, with him—Barrow. We covered it up, to our mutual advantage. But I was there.”

The Ross children had a dissected atlas, a wooden puzzle made with a marquetry saw; the excised countries fitting neatly into a painted sea. On his last visit, Francis had gone creaking to the nursery carpet and obliged them with his explorer’s expertise, slotting piece by piece together to make the world. He has now a parallel sensation: the same satisfaction and sudden clarity of understanding. A scandal that James both witnessed and concealed. Francis smells the cloy of opium, of macassar oil, of smoke and sweat. He sees James younger, leaner, browner: the reckless gunnery lieutenant.

Francis looks up to find the light gone out of James' eyes; he has read epiphany in Francis’ face, plain as daybreak, but read it wrong. 

James turns his head away, saying to the sailcloth wall, “You needn’t stay against your conscience.”

“I won’t leave you,” Francis says between his teeth. He clasps James’ bony shoulders, trying to mould his features into benevolence instead of abject grief, wanting his admiration to burn like fire from his eyes. “Ever, James.”

James is shaking under Francis’ hands, shuddering like a ship close-hauled. He is crying, every snagging breath an agony. Francis smooths his forehead, wipes the sluggish tears from his sunken cheeks, presses a thumb to his open, panting mouth. Only when James’ sobs have subsided does Francis realise he’s weeping too, his tears wetting the pin-tucked front of James’ shirt. 

He laughs at himself, a hollow, pointless sound, and scrubs his face with his sleeve. “Brothers, indeed,” he says thickly. “If we live as brothers we shall be damned as brothers, too.” 

The lines deepen in James’ forehead; it is cruel of Francis to be cryptic while disease eats into the matter of James’ brain. “If only you’d told me,” he says, “or made some intimation. I’ve been at sea a long while. Four years at furthest south — did you think Ross and I spent our time in sketching?” 

James looks stunned. His eyes fill with tears again and they run unchecked towards his ears. “Sophia?” 

Francis has never heard him call her that before; perhaps its sibilance is easier to say with a swollen tongue than the clashing consonants of her second name.

“A man may dine on fish and flesh,” he says, wishing for a better way to put it. 

James’ breath starts up a hectic rhythm, racked this time with laughter. At least, it looks like laughing, but the sound is closer to a wooden ratchet spun in a lazy hand, while tears still seep into his hair. 

“Be still, James.” 

“Soon I shall be still indefinitely,” James wheezes, “let me laugh a while yet.”

“Hush,” says Francis, wanting to push the thought from his own head as much as James’. But if he did so, what sense would there be in his crouching at James’ bedside, wetting his fingers with their mingled tears? James says something that he cannot hear, and Francis ducks his head to listen.

“More time,” James croaks. 

How often has Francis thought those very words, wanted to wind back the hours of his pocket watch, talk Sir John around, dry out faster, keep Gore’s party safe aboard? They might be clean through to the Pacific by now, heroes in the Sandwich Isles. 

“There’s still time,” he says. 

“Not enough.” James’ rough hand finds Francis’ collar, strokes the dirty hair at the base of his skull. Francis drops his head to James’ thigh and closes his eyes. 

“Samuel.” The word comes as a whisper. Francis turns his face, looking up the length of James’ body, James’ hand still knotted in his hair. 

Reluctantly, Francis pulls away, shifts back onto the three-legged stool, retrieves Sir John’s Bible from the ground. The books of Samuel are long and rambling, but Francis thinks he knows what it is James wants to hear. The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. As Francis reads, James watches him with glassy eyes.

And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle. ” Francis thinks of their shared water flask on the walk to Victory Point; of the mittens that, in some confusion, have become permanently interchanged. His voice cracks across the verse, “Tomorrow is the new moon: and thou shalt be missed, because thy seat will be empty.

He pauses as the chapters turn to the Amalekites, but James lifts a complaining hand, beckons with still-strong fingers. Francis holds the Bible out to him and James fumbles with the pages, tears one in his clumsiness, pushes the book back to Francis. 


But James has closed his eyes, forestalling any argument. Francis clears his throat, and finds it aching. 

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle,” he reads. “O Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine high places.” James drops like a broken mainmast on the shale, crashing from his great height to hands and knees, wretched, reeling.

I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me. Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” Francis wishes this was true: not the wonderful, but the was. That he’d had longer, known sooner, not been such an arrant, drunken fool. 

James is weeping again, but soundlessly. How many times has he sought these verses, wanting comfort, searching for himself in these flimsy pages? Francis allows himself, for a fleeting second, to imagine James in Erebus’ great cabin, poring over these words and thinking of him. The idea is faintly blasphemous; beguiling. 

As a child, Francis liked the psalms. He’s grown used to the Anglican mode of chanting, but retains a fondness for their dour recitation at home. “He is thy refuge and thy fortress,” he says, trusting to imperfect memory. “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust.” He wants to hide James from the arrow that flies by day, from the pestilence that stalks in darkness, to lift him in this fragile canvas away from anything that means to mar his strange, unearthly grace. He settles for joining their hands once more, comforted to feel James return his grasp. 

James’ breathing is shallow, and his neck strains as he swallows. “Isaiah, Francis. Fifty-six.”

Francis finds the place one-handed and skims the page. He cannot see the relevance: the sons of a stranger, perhaps? James gives an impatient hiss, and Francis props the book where he can see it; James traces a grubby finger down the columns and prods at a verse.

Francis reads, “For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths. Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name.”

James sighs, his blood-ringed eyes fluttering closed. “All the daughters of my father’s house. And all the brothers too.” 

The words seem to cost him a great effort, though they are plainly not his own. Francis cannot place them, but a new continent clicks into place within the puzzle of his brain. He hopes he understands. He hooks a piece of greasy hair behind James’ ear, strokes his eyebrow with his thumb.

“Britannia,” he says, voice catching on the word. “An everlasting name.”

For the first time James looks truly peaceful, unburdened in repose. Francis thinks of him as a child, growing to an adulthood he did not want or understand, scouring the Coningham family Bible for these pearls, these scattered jewels; fragmented mirrors turned towards himself. 

“What a sight you were. Splendid as a figurehead.”

“Too English for your Ulster blood?”

“I’d change my skin for you, James, in that helm and Hoplite shield.” 

Francis means it. Were James a graven image he would worship at her feet, pour sacred oil, let spill the entrails of a thousand sacrificial beasts. He would have her in her Grecian dress, in watered silk, in whatever thing she chose; only hale and living and unharmed. 

It cannot end like this. Why now, when they could have had so many years? This sliver of sobriety, stained with death and sacrifice. It's not enough. Francis’ mouth is dry of words, beyond either speech or psalm. The liturgy of evensong drifts distracted through his head — by thy great mercy defend us from all the perils and dangers of this night — but it's a futile thing, and toothless now. The perils and dangers are raging at the gates; have already broken through. 

James has slipped back into sleep, the Bible closed beneath one hand. Francis pays obeisance with a bended head, kisses book and bone by turns, tries to remember how to pray. 




When the end comes, it is cruelly beautiful and blessedly quick.

James shivers, as one awakened on a winter’s night, and then subsides. 

Francis kisses his sweat-damp forehead and marks a cross there, thumb still slick from the contents of the lethal jar. He closes James’ staring eyes, unshuttered to the last. A pale Arctic dawn is bleeding through the fabric of the tent. The lamplight seems to dim. 

He stumbles through the tent flap and into Mr Bridgens’ waiting arms. The rest are still abed, or patrolling out of sight, no one to witness captain and subordinate steward embracing in their grief.

They return together into the tent. James looks small and horribly still, his face slack, all meaning in his features drained away. Bridgens draws back the tangled covers, wets a cloth with snowmelt, washes hands and wrists. This is women’s work: the Magdalen at Calgary, Francis’ mother and sisters at the death of an aunt or friend. A privilege, to stand so close to the doors of death and yet not pass through.

Francis takes the rag and wipes the sweat from James’ face and neck, teases out his matted hair, cleans inside the collar of his shirt. Like Christ, James was anointed before the hour of death. Hartshorn and camphor in place of ointment from a broken box.

There comes the question of graveclothes. James has died in his boots, no easy job to get them off. The trousers must by necessity remain. Full uniform, or what is left of it. Francis buttons James’ shirt, lingering over the careful pleats, the fine and tiny stitches; finds a cleanish stock and ties it, hands shaking. 

Waistcoat, whiteness long-since dulled. His gansey nowhere to be found. Greatcoat, then. They turn James on his side to force it on, and Francis holds his breath, waiting for the shout of pain, but nothing comes. 

Sounds of movement from the camp. Lighter now, the lamp a fading star. Francis clasps Bridgens on the shoulder and leaves him to the rest. He must break it to the men. Make a burying party. 

A lad with a steady hand with his needle. A spare blanket for a shroud. 

Daybreak barely earns the name. The world is blank and grey.




Later, Francis trudging in Lady Silence’s wake, they pass that place again. James’ impermanent grave. 

The furrow in the shale is plain enough to see, and must have been a beacon to the mutineers. Francis is too weary to lay blame with Edward. What does it matter now? 

Take my body — feed the men. James was sanguine to the last. 

His boots, at least, met a definite end: rotting in the creature’s gullet with Mr Hickey and the rest. How many dotted corpses between here and the frozen sea are dressed in James’ clothes? How many have James’ flesh fattening their bellies? 

Take, eat — this is my body. Do this in remembrance of me. 

On a shallow hillside an odd shape is dark against the stones. Lady Silence looks towards it with her unreadable gaze, pauses, drops the rope of the sledge. Francis takes this as permission and hurries towards the spot, off-balance with his single hand.

It is a Royal Navy greatcoat, spread open like a sleeper on the shale, arms flung wide. The echo of a body seems to linger in the shadows under collar and lapel. The wool is dusty but pristine; not even any buttons missing. Francis drops onto his knees. 


He knows it before he even reaches out to touch the sleeve, or raise the collar to his face and take a great inhale, tears starting in his eyes. Some essence of him clings on here, beyond the scent of hair and skin. Francis sees again his strident shape on Terror’s upper deck, so crisp as to seem cut from coloured paper, immaculate as an actor on a stage. 

Francis hugs the coat against his chest. He heaves a single sob, too cold to truly cry. 

A strange weight, small but heavy, drags the folds of fabric down. Francis drops the thing entire and roots in the pockets. His hand closes on something square and almost warm: leather, embossed with gold.

Francis drops back on his heels. Bridgens must have done it, a final office for the dead. He rubs his remaining thumb over the initials.

JF. John Franklin. James Fitzjames. 

He lifts the coat once more, breathes in again, clutching empty fabric like a heartsick child. 

Lady Silence is awaiting his return. Francis slides the Bible into the pocket of his slops, rises with some effort, and lets the greatcoat fall where it will. Wherever James may be, he is not here.

But as Francis staggers back down the hillside, words rise unbidden in his mind. 

I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest. 

Blasphemy again, for they come to Francis not as dispassionate thought, nor as though reading from a page, but in James’ familiar voice: his sardonic timbre turned sacred and serene.

Francis rests his stump against the book at his hip. Its weight is comforting, courage-giving, and he bears it with him into an unknown day.