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Cold is the Arctic sea, far are your arms from me

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October 1846
HMS Erebus, somewhere north of King William Land

Stepping inside the great cabin on Erebus is less of a pang than it once was. A momentary sting; something pressing on an old bruise. Easy enough to ignore. Francis fumbles with his coat as he crosses the cabin, dripping snow onto the deck. He takes the only chair left unoccupied: one of the new ones at the table, still stiff and uncomfortable after a year and half of use. Hoar sets a cup of tea by his elbow.

In the crisp silence that follows, Francis can’t stop himself from glancing around the cabin. A mistake, maybe: the sting returns, sharper. It’s too neat, the furniture the wrong shapes and in the wrong places. Prim and stuffy and judgmental, just like its new occupant. Even with Erebus’s officers crowded around the table, the space looks strangely empty without the usual detritus covering every surface and spilling onto the floor—books and specimen jars and more swords than one man could need, a stuffed penguin nearly enveloped by the cocked hat on its head, that awful tomcat nesting in a discarded uniform jacket. A familiar, eccentric geography, and as Francis looks around he can’t help feeling that he’s woken up in a strange country, where he doesn’t speak the language and every face is unfriendly.

“Good of you to join us, Francis,” Sir John says. He leaves the at last unspoken, but it’s there in the way his mouth turns down at the corners. “Shall we get started, gentlemen?”

The command meeting runs on familiar lines. The ships: as stable as they can be under the circumstances, and the engines drawn down for winter hibernation. The ice: a solid mass for a mile in every direction, but holding the ships lightly so far, no threats of pressure ridges as yet. The men: generally in good spirits, no signs of scurvy, no further cases of consumption. The preparations for the winter. The continuing observations. Francis answers Sir John’s questions mechanically, his eyes drawn to the chart spread out on the table, and the two small x’s that mark the ships’ positions. Nothing around them but the ice. All too easy to think of Fury, cracked and broken on the barren shore.

Christ, he’s tired. Francis takes a mouthful of tea—gone cold and bitter—and wishes it were something stronger. Jopson would have known to slip a tot into his cup. He grimaces as he sets it back in its saucer; Lieutenant Fairholme, halfway through a summary of the week’s atmospheric measurements, falters briefly before continuing.

As the meeting wears on, he can feel what remains of his concentration slipping away. The last of the light seeps through the windows, wintry and wan; nothing like the bright, constant Antarctic daylight, but the shadows fall across the cabin the same way. Like a crack in the ice, his resolve crumples; the memories he’s been trying to ignore come flooding in, overwhelming him. He and James and Edward sitting around a table older and more battered than this one, the varnish scuffed from where they’ve propped their boots up on it, drinking Scotch and scoffing at the Americans’ chart. Seaweed spread over the long tables by the windows, and James sorting through the strands and fronds with his shirtsleeves pushed up to his elbows and his hair falling into his eyes. James pressing him up against the wall by the door and kissing him hungrily, Francis’s hands in his hair—

“And what do you think, Francis?” Fitzjames asks.

Coming back to the conversation feels like clawing up out of deep water. “About what?” Francis manages. With a not quite inaudible sigh, Sir John repeats what he’d said—something about the balance of salt meats and tinned provisions in the crew’s rations—and Francis doesn’t miss the look that Fitzjames and Le Vesconte exchange. He takes his hands off the table and clenches them together, out of sight. Sir John looks across at him, deceptively mild, waiting for an answer.

With an effort, he dredges up some comment on the matter. The meeting moves on, and Francis sinks back into silence. Sits there glaring at his wasted tea, nothing to soothe the sourness in his stomach. Wishing he’d sent Little in his stead; wishing himself back on Terror or, better yet, on the other side of the ocean.

The sun sets, the light fades, the cabin loses its illusion of familiarity. It’s not the Erebus he’d known. But the memories don’t fade so easily.

 

Once the meeting wraps up, Francis makes his excuses and ducks out before Sir John can remark on his tardiness or—worse—invite him to supper. He can’t bear the thought of another evening on this ghost-filled ship, enduring interminable self-aggrandizing war stories and hoping that the men seated next to him won’t hear how loudly his teeth are grinding. Better to be the unsociable boor the other officers surely think he is.

He walks back to Terror in the dark, across the ice. The snow has stopped and the clouds are gone; a faint sliver of moonlight washes across the new drifts. The ice mutters beneath his feet, as the hungry sea below presses against it. Terror’s lights are pinpricks in the distance.

A desolate place. Hard to remember that he’d ever felt at home here. A lifetime ago, when the blank spaces on the map had been a dare rather than a weary responsibility, when anything seemed possible. They’d all been so young: James and Edward and Jack and the rest, fresh and sure of themselves. Eager for adventure.

All far away now, and he’s still here. Francis shakes his head and keeps walking. As the wind gusts, he pulls his hat lower over his face and shoves his hands deeper into his pockets. The moonlight throws his shadow in front of him: the only thing moving out on the ice.

 

Terror holds her own memories, of course, but he’s made his peace with them by now. Francis dismisses Jopson with a growl, sheds his coat and his jacket and loosens his collar, then pours himself a generous glass of whiskey. Sits down to write out the day’s log—it doesn’t take long. The summer months kept him busy enough to leave little time for gloomy thoughts; now, in the long stretches of idleness, he can see them coming up on him, like a storm on the horizon. He stares into the bottom of his glass and contemplates the hours ahead, feeling exhaustion weigh on him.

He could give up and shuffle off to bed, wait in vain for sleep that, if it comes, will only pitch him into nightmares of the ships crushed and wrecked. But the thought of lying alone in his cold, narrow cot doesn’t appeal—especially not now, with the recollections Erebus had stirred up still lurking just below the surface. But sitting here in the dark with only memories for company is hardly more attractive. Difficult not to think back, with a fondness edged with bitterness, to Terror’s old gunroom: laughter and fellowship and scientific discussions, a group of men he’d come to know and rely on. And now here he is, brooding in his empty cabin, knowing that out of two ships’ companies he can count on one hand the number of people he’s happy talking to.

Oh, why not admit it: it’s not just company he wants, it’s James. James, who’d listen sympathetically while Francis fretted, and then clap him on the shoulder and tell him just what they’d do. Who’d give him that damned irrepressible smile and build elaborate plans until Francis had no choice but to lighten up a little, carried along by his enthusiasm. Who’d never have let them get trapped in the pack in the first place.

Or who’d just be there beside him, a warm vital presence. Francis’s arm around his shoulders or his head on Francis’s knee. And Anne on his other side, with her quick wit and kind eyes, her every remark bright and faceted like a jewel.

Francis pours himself another drink with an unsteady hand.

When he sits back down, he shoves the log aside, uncovering the half-finished letter beneath it. Well, my friends, we’re frozen in for the winter, and not at all where I’d wish… Followed by some remarks about Sir John that he ought to scratch out before he adds anything else. But he’s hardly in the mood for letter-writing now; it would just turn into one more sad refrain to join the heap of others locked away in the bottom drawer of his desk. He’ll post them all home from the Sandwich Islands, maybe. Or throw them on the stoker’s fire, if he feels so inclined. A lot of growling rubbish, most of them—nothing worth bothering James and Anne with.

His eyes snag on the same line again, as he tucks the letter away for later. My friends. Their absence gnaws at him more and more, now that there’s no hope of the ships getting through this year. An old wound, one he can’t seem to stop worrying at: the image of James and Anne settled somewhere in the countryside, snug and content and inseparable.

The few fleeting months spent with them before the expedition sailed seem further away than the Pacific, now. More like wishful thinking than memory. He’d been happier then than he could ever have imagined as he moped around Italy in the fall and winter of ’44, aimless and adrift. Far happier than he deserved. But he could never quite shake the feeling that he was edging out over rotten ice: he’d put his foot wrong eventually, and it would all crumble beneath him.

Some nights he’d wake with a start in the comfortable darkness of the spare bedroom at Eliot Place, with James sprawled half across him and snoring contentedly against his neck, and he’d feel the knowledge seep through him like ice water, pooling in his lungs: this won’t last.

James had closed one volume of his life and started another; Francis’s short time at Eliot Place was just an epilogue, if that. And if sailing for the Arctic without him had felt like leaving part of himself behind, at least Francis had the comfort that James was happy where he was.

But it’s hard not to wish that he could have stayed with them just a little longer.

The lamp sputters and burns down; Francis sits in the dark and rests his head in his hands, feels loneliness settle into his bones. Two years, maybe—longer—before he sees them again. They’ll be changed: some grey in James’s hair at last, or a line or two on Anne’s face, tracing her smile. Another child, maybe, whose name he won’t know. New habits, different occupations. A life he’d hardly dare to intrude on.

He clears his throat roughly, and the noise almost startles on him. It’s never quiet on a ship, even out here, but he feels muffled in silence all the same. Drowning in it, his voice growing rusty with lack of use. And another long winter in the ice offers no hope of that changing.

Francis drains the dregs of his whiskey, heaves himself up out of his chair, and shuffles across the great cabin to the stern windows. Outside, the moon sheds weak light over a perfect blank: the space where something has been erased, the emptiness of a map waiting to be filled in. He can feel the cold radiating from the glass.

Wind whistles outside the ship: down from the northwest, carrying more snow. He imagines its passage: over the frozen straits, across Somerset and the remnants on Fury Beach, across North Devon and the graves they’d left on Beechey. Along Lancaster Sound and out over the Atlantic. The long, long miles of ice and salt water, half a world’s distance. Francis leans his head against the wall and closes his eyes.

 


 

October 1846
Aston Abbotts, Buckinghamshire

In the long weary hours past midnight, when the house is shuttered and dark and the outside world seems far away, the quiet wraps around James like a heavy blanket. Warm and comforting. He sits on the edge of the bed and listens to Anne breathing—soft and steady, like waves on a distant shore—and feels the tension in his shoulders slowly ease. A loose strand of hair flutters against her mouth, and he brushes it back behind her ear. She doesn’t stir.

He wants nothing more than to settle back down beside her, join her in a dreamless, peaceful sleep. But restlessness has taken root in him now, the echo of disturbed dreams that he can’t recall now that he’s woken. Better to get up and find something to keep his mind busy than to lie there dreading what he’d find if he falls back asleep.

James gets to his feet slowly, pulls the quilt up to Anne’s chin and tucks it in, then presses a light kiss to her forehead. He shrugs a dressing gown on over his nightshirt and slips out the door. In the hallway, he pauses outside the children’s rooms; they’re both mercifully quiet. Annie will be awake and yelling in a few hours, no doubt—“Bawling like a sailor,” Anne would sigh—but for now she’s fast asleep. James rolls his shoulders, trying to work some of the stiffness from his back, then continues on down the hallway. He treads on a discarded toy in the dark; picking it up, he finds it’s the pocket compass he’s been trying to teach little James to use. He tucks it into his pocket.

As he drifts through the house, the only noises are the sound of his own footsteps and the distant tick of the clock downstairs. Occasionally the soft call of a bird out in the gardens. A far cry from the constant rumble of city nights. They’re secluded here, far from everything, and now that the strangeness has faded it’s wonderfully peaceful.

He walks from room to room in the dark: restive, not sure what he’s looking for. When they’d first moved in, the house a confusion of trunks and books and new furniture, he’d found himself doing much the same thing. Wandering through the new unfamiliar space, convinced there was something he’d forgotten, always sure he’d find it in the next room and remember what he’d needed it for. But he never did.

When he’d mentioned it to Anne, she’d smiled sadly and kissed his cheek, and said, “Do you really need me to spell it out for you, dearest?”

Well, no, perhaps not. Not that summer, when they both kept catching themselves turning to someone who wasn’t there, with a question or a joke or a glance meant to be shared. It had grown easier once they’d moved to the new house—but still, it had taken a long time for James’s feeling of dislocation to settle. Like the landscape had rearranged itself under his feet and now all his maps were out of date. Everything just slightly off.

But he still had a star to steer by: Anne had taken his hand and said, soft, “I wish he’d stayed longer.” He’d nodded mutely and buried his face in her hair. Clung to her like a raft, until his breathing eased.

James finds himself at the door to his study. He goes in and lights a lamp, trying to ignore the heaps of paper that stare back at him from the desk and the bookshelves and the floor. Most are riddled with crossouts and half-finished sentences that trail away into notes on some different subject. Phantom has shoved a stack of journals off the side table and curled up in their place, an untidy knot of brindled fur. As James leans down to gather the books up, the cat opens one orange eye, huffs out a rusty purr, then goes right back to sleep. James can’t help but envy him. Another old sailor, undeniably adapting to retirement.

He slumps in the desk chair—after moving an almanac and a set of dried mosses off it—and picks up a pen, spinning it between his fingers. Now that he’s here, he ought to try to write a few lines, maybe finish off the chapter he’s been struggling with all week. Put the night to some use. But the sight of the unfinished manuscript strewn everywhere is depressive. He glances at the pages immediately in front of him—October 1842, at sea off Cape Horn—and sighs. Writing a book ought not to be this difficult.

Well, in his defense, he’d expected to have help.

Anne talks it through with him, of course, chapter after chapter; Bird writes long letters from dull half-pay life with his brothers in Essex. And Dr. Hooker is working on the botanical results at Kew at a pace James finds himself exhausted just thinking about—he’s published a whole volume already. But all the same, James misses being able to call over to Francis where he’s sitting comfortably by the fire to ask him if he remembers which days they took deep soundings on the way to Kerguelen’s Land, or how he’d describe the color of the sea in the Antarctic pack.

Francis will be back soon enough, with memoirs of his own to write, but James will need to have the book finished well before then, and—

Oh, hang the book. It’s not a co-author he needs, it’s Frank. Here with him, not somewhere in the ice on the other side of the world.

They’d parted—not badly, but not quite as James would have wished. Too much left unsaid on both sides. The gloominess in Frank’s demeanor not wholly soothed away by the time he left, even if he put on a brave face before Anne and James and the Franklins.

Not that he’d admit it to anyone other than Anne, but if he’s being honest James would have preferred that Francis had not left at all. Amid the flurry of preparations that filled the too-brief time that Frank had spent at with them at Blackheath that spring, James could feel the knowledge hovering over them: that one of them was going off to the Arctic and the other was staying behind. Something that would have been unimaginable ten years earlier—something they’d assured each other would never happen again, as they fitted Cove out for the north.

A memory gets its teeth into him: a late night after some dinner party or other, a week or two before the expedition sailed. After Anne went to bed, he and Frank sat up in the parlor til the early hours, polishing off the leftover bottles. Side by side on the settee, their shoulders brushing comfortably. At some point, Francis had gotten up and walked over to the fireplace, and leaned against the mantel with the forgotten glass in his hand catching the light. James, suddenly cold without Francis’s solid warmth beside him, had followed him with his eyes. Half-drowsing already, but wanting to fix the image in his memory: the warm light outlining Francis’s careworn face, softening it, smoothing away the lines.

And Frank had said, thickly, still looking into the fire, “It won’t be the same, without you.”

Then stay, James had wanted to say, something catching in his chest as he watched Francis in the firelight. Damn the expedition: you’ve given the ice enough of yourself, over the years. Stay with us—with me. But it would be selfish beyond words to deny Francis a chance at the Passage and everything that would come with it, just for his sake. So he’d bitten it back, wishing Anne was with them. She could say something like that, with a smile to soften her frankness, and Francis—still a little shy of her, even then—would have to consider it.

“Sir John should count himself lucky to have you, old man,” he’d said instead. Meant as a compliment, but something in Francis’s face had shuttered. James had gone on, tongue clumsy with tiredness and loose with too much port—how much having Francis with him down in the south had meant, how he’d been everything and more than James could have asked for in a friend and a colleague. Too many words, spilling into the distance between them but not crossing it. And Francis, frozen next to the fire, had stayed silent.

James scrubs a hand over his face, then opens one of the desk drawers. The noise disturbs Phantom, who gives him a baleful look and curls up more tightly. James fishes some papers out from the neat stack at the bottom of the drawer. He holds them lightly, with his fingertips: their edges have crumpled a little from frequent handling. His eyes pass over the familiar handwriting, but he doesn’t need to read the words: they’re etched into him. All goes on smoothly, but James dear, I am sadly alone…

He’s had sad letters from Francis before, Lord knows, but none so sad and forlorn as this. The words blur in the dim lamplight. I shouldn’t have let him go, James thinks, for the hundredth time. He’d said as much to Anne when they’d first read this letter—heartsick, trying to keep his voice from shaking. I should have— No use thinking of what he should have done. He hadn’t done it, and the opportunity is gone.

“You know I’d want you to go after him,” Anne had said. Those beautiful blue eyes steely with a familiar resolve, behind the shocked sadness. “If you thought there was any way—”

But of course it was too late, even if James’s first instinct had been to rush off to Hull, find a whaler that would take him north, and bring Francis home. Nothing they could do but hope that the ships got through quickly, that a season of work brightened Francis’s spirits. A full year and more has gone now without word—nothing unusual in that. But on nights like this, all the things that James should have said to Frank before he left gather at the back of his mind, whispering to him when he tries to sleep.

He can quiet those thoughts with an effort: there will be time enough to tell Francis all of it, once he’s home. They’ll have all the time in the world, then. There’s a room set aside for him upstairs; Anne had spent last winter sewing a quilt for the bed. “Though I don’t imagine he’ll be sleeping there often,” she’d said with a grin as she tightened a seam; seeing James redden, despite himself, she’d laughed and blown him a kiss.

Frank will fit right back into the space he’d left: the missing piece. James can picture it perfectly: Francis telling the children yarns about the Arctic, putting up with Anne’s teasing until he’s red-faced and laughing, joining in on the next stage of the magnetic survey. Raising sheep or goats, maybe, like he’d joked about, and trying to write a book. Holding James close as he falls asleep.

But the anticipation of future happiness doesn’t take the sting out of the thought of Francis spending another winter in the Arctic, sinking deeper into misery. Doesn’t soften the knowledge of how long it will be before James sees his dear face again.

He replaces the letters carefully in their drawer, then shuffles a blank piece of paper out from the pile on his desk and picks up his pen again. The earliest a letter would reach the expedition would be at the Sandwich Islands, probably. A year from now or more, or it might pass them as they returned home. But he wants to set some of his thoughts down on paper nonetheless. Some little step to bridge the distance and cheer Frank on the long way back from the Pacific, until James can fold him in his arms and kiss him and tell him everything he should have said before.

A gust of wind rattles the windowpanes: cold from the north, bringing the promise of snow. James shivers; a drop of ink falls and stains the paper. He closes his eyes for a moment, picturing Frank by the fireside. The thought warms him, but it brings an ache with it. He sighs, and begins to write.