This is how it goes. James returns to the Arctic and walks farther than anyone thought possible.
He tells McClintock to set up camp, leaving them on the bank of the frozen strait as he crosses into Boothia alone. It is folly more than anything. A single misstep in the wet slush could be James’s end, but he must discover once and for all if this ice-choked seaway could have once allowed the passage of two ships.
His legs grow heavier at each step. His pack presses at his shoulders. His mind wanders eastward to the North Magnetic Pole on which he made his name. James wonders if he might find them there, if they would have made a go of standing on the spot where he once stood.
But no, the area is too far inland and hardly abundant in game. Frank would never have allowed it. He would never have—
James hasn’t said that name in months.
No one in the Enterprise will have known who that is, and as far as James can recall, neither will any in either Erebus or Terror. He wonders if Frank would still recognize it—this pet name that only James is allowed to use. If they were to meet now, would he even turn his head?
“Frank,” he says again. There is nothing to hear him but the biting wind. James looks out on the frozen sea and imagines his dearest friend there, walking across the pack, like a lighthouse in motion.
He blinks away the wetness in his eyes and the image disappears. Instead it is replaced by a movement in the horizon, a shadow of a cloud some miles southwest of what he presumes to be Cape Felix. The shadow passes and James lets out a startled cry. He brings out his spyglass and looks, breathless, at the hazy outline of a ship.
No, this is how it goes. James returns to England and lends his support to an audacious campaign.
Richard King is no sailor, but he is an arctic veteran in his own right and James is desperate enough to seek help from any quarter. He examines the charts spread out on the table, and in his mind, King’s plan begins to take shape.
“Do I have your support then?” King haughtily asks. He reminds James of his uncle.
“Your party is too small. How can you possibly carry enough provisions for a hundred men?”
“Our objective is not to provision them ourselves, but to lead them to a line of supply depots left by the Hudson Bay Company. Besides,” King gestures to the maps, to the long line from Great Fish River to Somerset Island, “I expect their party to be much reduced by the time we reach them.”
The ease with which he says it makes James want to punch his face.
“Will you endorse it, Sir James? I’ll get none from Sir George—in fact, quite the opposite—but if you lent me your good opinion, then no other voice would be heard as readily.”
What will Lady Jane say—if it comes to her that James has endorsed a foolhardy plan made on questionable premises? If King fails, there is no knowing if the Admiralty would send another, even if James was again to volunteer his services.
But he won’t. No matter how much he wants to, he can no longer. And instead he is confined to sending out second-rate proxies.
It ought to be me, he thinks to himself. He’ll be expecting me.
James swallows the bitter knot in his throat and says, “You may count on it.”
There is something in his grave countenance that King must see, and as they shake hands, King also places his free hand over James’s—a gesture not of comfort, but of acknowledgment, of the passing on and acceptance of something important.
Richard King gives a most perfunctory nod. He sets to rolling up his charts, bundling them under his arms and touching his hat as he leaves.
He finds them a hundred miles from the mouth of the river.
No, this is how it goes. James receives a letter from Florence and leaves it unanswered.
He is entreated to vouch for Frank’s fitness, to secure him an appointment, but James acts on neither and does the unthinkable instead—he puts forward the name of a commander he has never met.
“Tell him why at least,” Ann says as they turn in for the night. He dismisses her concern with a stubborn shake of his head.
More letters come, each more anxious than the last, and the day that the pile topples over James’s desk is the day that Frank returns. There is a question thrown silently between them, an unspoken ‘why’ floating in the air. James thinks of the trembling in Frank’s hands, of the silver bits in his hair, of the ache in his own heart at the thought of Frank leaving—and says nothing.
Frank finds lodgings elsewhere.
In the weeks that follow, James pays a visit to almost every naval household in London. He delights them with his charm, and through gossip freely given he begins to form a picture of how his dearest friend has been.
“Why, yes, I saw him in Greenwich Park. He’s looking well.”
“I hear he’s taken in a dog from the Henderson litter.”
“I hear he means to retire to Dublin. Is it true, Sir James?”
They cross paths eventually, to advise Sir John and his second. The afternoons are strange and strained in Sir John’s office, but his second has cannily taken it upon himself to fill the silences. By the time the ships set sail from Greenhithe, they still cannot meet each other’s eyes.
It is Ann who finally puts her foot down. She deploys her charm and bullies Frank to tea—and when James has gathered enough courage to enter the sitting room, he finds Frank on the couch, pinned in place by the baby asleep on his lap.
“James,” he implores, adorably flustered. “James dear, what do I do?”
There is a wide grin on James’s face before he even realises it. His heart swells to bursting, and he takes up the space beside Frank with a reverent sort of care. He gingerly lifts the baby onto his lap.
“You never did tell me his name,” Frank says, careful to keep his voice low. “I kept asking you in my letters.”
James lets out a weak laugh and brushes the hair from his son’s face. “Well, Frank,” he says, blushing slightly. “Frank,” he says again.
The child stirs and looks up at the sound of his name.
This is how it really goes. James is in the middle of a conference in Balmoral when a telegram arrives from McClintock.
He is unaware of it at first, too absorbed in deciphering his own notes, only to look up and find several pairs of eyes gazing upon him curiously. A hand gently tugs at his arm.
“A moment, old boy.”
Captain Sabine leads him out of the lecture chamber. They pass through winding hallways and turn heads at every corner, and when finally they find themselves alone, Sabine warily hands him an envelope.
This is how James learns that had he marched a hundred and eighty more miles, he would have sighted the ships.
“King William Land?” he mutters under his breath, incredulous.
It has been ten years since James had last set foot on the Arctic. There is not a day where he does not call to mind the sight of that frozen seaway, solid and impassable. He had stared out at the ice until his vision was nearly blind from brightness, and it took McClintock’s appeals on behalf of the ailing men for James to issue their retreat.
A hundred and eighty miles. A fortnight’s march.
Sabine carefully plucks the telegram from James’s closed fist. He bids James to get some rest, and James takes to his heels with nary a word.
He retreats to his room and begs a servant for a bottle of whisky.
He downs it well into the night, dreaming of how it could have gone.