The terror, p.12
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       The Terror, p.12
 

          

  Sir John involuntarily made a face. The surgeon could not have known that his commander had once survived on thin soup made from such lichen for several months. “You’re very welcome, Mr. Goodsir,” he said coolly.

  Sir John knew that the slouching young popinjay preferred the title of “Doctor” to “Mister,” a dubious distinction since, although from a good family, Goodsir had trained as a mere anatomist. Technically on par with the warrant officers on board both ships, the civilian assistant surgeon was entitled, in Sir John’s eyes, only to be called Mr. Goodsir.

  The young surgeon blushed at his commander’s coolness after the easy banter with the crewmen, tugged at his cap, and took three awkward steps backward on the ice.

  “Oh, Mr. Goodsir,” added Franklin.

  “Yes, Sir John?” The young upstart was actually red-faced, almost stammering with embarrassment.

  “You must accept my apologies that in our formal communiqué to be cached at Sir James Ross’s cairn on King William Land, we referred only to two officers and six men in Lieutenant Gore’s party,” said Sir John. “I had dictated the message prior to your request to accompany the party. I would have written an officer, a warrant officer, an assistant surgeon, and five men had I but known you would be included.”

  Goodsir looked confused for a moment, not quite sure of what Sir John was trying to tell him, but then he bowed, tugged at his cap again, mumbled, “Very good, there is no problem, I understand, thank you, Sir John,” and backed away again.

  A few minutes later, as he watched Lieutenant Gore, Des Voeux, Goodsir, Morfin, Ferrier, Best, Hartnell, and Private Pilkington diminish across the ice to the southeast, Sir John, under his beaming countenance and outward serenity, actually contemplated failure.

  Another winter — another full year — in the ice could undo them. The expedition would be out of food, coal, oil, pyroligneous ether for lamp fuel, and rum. This last item’s disappearance might well mean mutiny.

  More than that, if the summer of 1848 were as cold and unyielding as this summer of 1847 fully promised to be, another full winter or year in the ice would destroy one or both of their ships. Like so many failed expeditions before them, Sir John and his men would be fleeing for their lives, dragging longboats and whalers and hastily clabbered-together sledges across the rotten ice, praying for open leads and then cursing them when the sledges fell through the ice and the contrary winds blew the heavy boats back on the pack ice, leads that meant days and nights of rowing for the starving men. Then, Sir John knew, there would be the overland part of any escape attempt — eight hundred miles and more of featureless rock and ice, rivers of constant rapids strewn with boulders each capable of smashing their smaller boats (the larger boats could not get down northern Canada’s rivers, he knew from experience), and native Esquimaux who were hostile more often than not and thieving liars even when they seemed to be friendly.

  Sir John continued watching as Gore, Des Voeux, Goodsir, and the five crewmen and single sledge disappeared in the ice glare to the southeast and wondered idly if he should have brought dogs on this trip.

  Sir John had never liked the idea of dogs on arctic expeditions. The animals were sometimes good for the men’s morale — at least right up to the point when the animals had to be shot and eaten — but they were, in the final analysis, dirty, loud, and aggressive creatures. The deck of a ship carrying enough dogs to do any good, that is to harness to sledges the way the Greenland Esquimaux liked to do, was a deck filled with incessant barking, crowded kennels, and the constant stench of excrement.

  He shook his head and smiled. They’d only brought one dog along on this expedition — the mutt named Neptune — not to mention a small monkey named Jocko — and that, Sir John was sure, was quite enough of a menagerie for this particular ark.

  The week after Gore’s departure seemed to crawl for Sir John. One by one the other sledge parties reported in, their men exhausted and frozen and their woolen layers soaked with sweat from the exertion of hauling their sledge across or around countless ridges. Their reports were the same.

  From the east toward the Boothia Peninsula — no open water. Not even the smallest lead.

  From the northeast toward Prince of Wales Island and the path of their approach to this frozen desert — no open water. Not even the hint of dark sky beyond the horizon which sometimes suggested open water. In eight days of hard sledging the men had not been able to reach Prince of Wales Island, nor even catch a glimpse of it. The ice was more tortured with ridges and icebergs than the men had ever seen.

  From the northwest toward the unnamed strait that led the ice stream south toward them around the west coast and southern tip of Prince of Wales Island — nothing seen except white bears and frozen sea.

  From the southwest toward the presumed landmass of Victoria Land and the theoretical passage between the islands and the mainland — no open water, no animals except the confounded white bears, hundreds of pressure ridges, so many frozen-in-place icebergs that Lieutenant Little — the officer from HMS Terror whom Franklin had put in command of this particular sledging party, made up of Terrors — reported that it was like trying to struggle west through a mountain range of ice where the ocean should be. The weather had been so bad on the last part of the trip that three of the eight men had seriously frostbitten toes and all eight of them were snow-blind to some extent, Lieutenant Little himself completely blind for the last five days and sick with terrible headaches. Little, an old arctic hand, Sir John understood, a man who had gone south with Crozier and James Ross eight years earlier, had to be loaded onto the sledge and hauled back by the few men who could still see well enough to pull.

  No open water anywhere in the twenty-five straight-line miles or so they had explored — twenty-five straight-line miles gained in perhaps a hundred miles of marching around and over obstacles. No arctic foxes or hares or caribou or walruses or seals. Obviously no whales. The men had been prepared to haul their sledge around cracks and small leads in search of real open water, but the surface of the sea, Little reported, his sunburned skin peeling away from his nose and temples below and above the white bandages over his eyes, was a white solid. At the outermost point on their western odyssey, perhaps twenty-eight miles from the ships, Little had ordered the man with the best remaining eyesight, a bosun’s mate named Johnson, to climb the tallest iceberg in their vicinity. Johnson had taken hours to do so, hacking out narrow steps for his feet with his pickaxe and then digging in the cleats the purser had driven through the soles of his leather boots. Once on the top, the seaman had used Lieutenant Little’s telescope to look northwest, west, southwest, and south.

  The report was dismal. No open water. No land. Jangles of seracs, ridges, and bergs to the distant white horizon. A few white bears, two of which they later shot for fresh meat — but the livers and heart were unhealthy to humans they’d discovered. The men’s strength was already depleted from hauling the heavy sledge over so many ridges, and in the end they cut out less than a hundred pounds of the gamy, muscular meat to fold in tarps and haul back to the ship. Then they skinned the larger bear for its white fur, leaving the rest of the bears to rot on the ice.

  Four of the five scouting expeditions returned with bad news and frostbitten feet, but Sir John waited most anxiously for Graham Gore’s return. Their last, best hope had always been to the southeast, toward King William Land.

  Finally, on the third of June, ten days after Gore’s departure, lookouts from high in the masts called down that a sledge party was approaching from the southeast. Sir John finished his tea, dressed appropriately, and then joined the mob of men who’d rushed on deck to see what they could see.

  The surface party was visible even by men on deck now, and when Sir John lifted his beautiful brass telescope — a gift from the officers and men of a twenty-six-gun frigate Franklin had commanded in the Mediterranean more than fifteen years earlier — one glance explained the lookouts’ audible confusion.

  At first glance
all seemed well. Five men were pulling the sledge, just as during Gore’s departure. Three figures were running alongside or behind the sledge, just as on the day Gore left. All eight accounted for then.

  And yet …

  One of the running figures did not appear to be human. At a distance of more than a mile and glimpsed between the seracs and ice-rubble upthrusts that had once been the placid sea here, it looked as if a small, round, headless but very furry animal was running behind the sledge.

  And worse, Sir John could not make out Graham Gore’s distinctive tall figure in the lead nor the dashing red comforter he sported. All of the other figures hauling or running — and certainly the lieutenant would not have been hauling the sledge while his subordinates were fit — seemed too short, too bent, and too inferior.

  Worst of all, the sledge seemed far too heavily packed for the return trip — the rations had included a week’s extra canned goods, but they were already three days over the estimated maximum round-trip time. For a minute Sir John’s hopes soared as he considered the possibility that the men had killed some caribou or other large land animals and were bringing in fresh meat, but then the distant forms emerged from behind the last large pressure ridge, still more than half a mile away across the ice, and Sir John’s telescope revealed something horrible.

  Not caribou meat on the sledge, but what appeared to be two dead human bodies lashed atop the gear, one man stacked atop the other in a callous fashion that could only mean death. Sir John could now plainly make out two exposed heads, one at each end of the stack, with the head belonging to the body on top showing long white hair the likes of which no man aboard either ship possessed.

  They were rigging ropes down the side of the canted Erebus to aid their portly captain’s descent onto the steep ice there. Sir John went belowdecks only long enough to add his ceremonial sword to his uniform. Then, pulling his cold-weather slops on over uniform, medals, and sword, he went up on deck and then over the side — puffing and wheezing, allowing his steward to help him down the slope — to greet whoever or whatever was approaching his ship.

  10

  GOODSIR

  Lat. 69° 37′ 42″ Long. 98° 41′

  King William Land, 24 May–3 June, 1847

  One reason that Dr. Harry D. S. Goodsir had insisted on coming along on this exploration party was to prove that he was as strong and able a man as most of his crewmates. He soon realized that he wasn’t.

  On the first day, he had insisted — over the quiet objections of Lieutenant Gore and Mr. Des Voeux — on taking his turn at man-hauling the sledge, allowing one of the five crewmen so assigned to take a break and walk alongside.

  Goodsir almost could not do it. The leather-and-cotton harness the sailmakers and pursers had constructed, cleverly attached to the pull ropes by a knot the sailors could tie or undo in a second and which Goodsir could not figure out for the life of him, was too large for his narrow shoulders and sunken chest. Even by cinching the front girth of the harness as tight as it would go, it slipped on him. And he, in turn, slipped on the ice, falling repeatedly, forcing the other men off their stride of pull, pause, gasp, pull. Dr. Goodsir had not worn such issued ice boots before and the nails driven through the soles caused him to trip over his own feet.

  He had trouble seeing out of the heavy wire-mesh goggles, but when he raised them to his forehead, the glare of arctic sun on arctic ice half-blinded him within minutes. He’d put on too many layers, and now several of those layers of wool were so soaked with his own sweat that he was shivering even while being overheated by the extraordinary exertion. The harness pinched on nerves and cut off circulation to his thin arms and cold hands. He kept dropping his outer mittens. His panting and gasping grew so loud and constant that he was ashamed.

  After an hour of such absurdity, Bobby Ferrier, Tommy Hartnell, John Morfin, and Marine Private Bill Pilkington — the other men in harness, Charles Best walking alongside now — each pausing to brush the snow off his anorak, looking at one another but saying nothing, of him never finding the rhythm of literally working in harness with others, he accepted the offer of relief from Best and, during one of the brief stops, slipped out of the harness and let the true men pull the heavy, high-mounted sledge with its wooden runners that constantly wanted to freeze to the ice.

  Goodsir was exhausted. It was still morning of the first day on the ice, and he was so tired out from the hour of pulling that he could have happily unfurled his sleeping bag, set it on one of the wolfskin blanket robes, and gone to sleep until the next day.

  And this was before they reached the first real pressure ridge.

  The ridges to the southeast of the ship were the lowest in sight for the first two miles or so, almost as if the beset Terror herself had somehow kept the ice smoother in her lee, forcing the ridges farther away. But by late afternoon of the first day, the real pressure ridges rose up to block them. These were taller than those that had separated the two ships during their winter in the ice here, as if the pressures under the ice closer to King William Land were more terrible.

  For the first three ridges, Gore led them southwest to find low spots, dips in the ridges where they could clamber over without too much difficulty. It added miles and hours to their travel but was still an easier solution than unpacking the sledge. There was no going around the fourth ridge.

  Every pause of more than a few minutes meant that one of the men — usually young Hartnell — had to remove one of the many bottles of pyroligneous fuel from the carefully lashed mass on the sled, fire up a small spirit stove, and melt some snow in a pan into hot water, not to drink — to quench their thirst they had flasks they kept under their outer garments to keep from freezing — but to pour the warm water the length of the wooden runners so as to free them from the self-freezing ruts they dug in the scrim of icy snow.

  Nor did the sledge move across the ice like the sleds and sleighs Goodsir had known from his moderately privileged childhood. He’d discovered on his first forays onto the pack ice almost two years ago that one could not — even in regular boots — take a run across the ice and slide the way one did at home on a frozen river or lake. Some property of the sea ice — almost certainly the high salt content — increased the friction, reducing the ease of sliding to almost nil. A mild disappointment for a running man wishing to slide like a boy, but a huge increase in effort for a team of men trying to pull, push, and generally man-haul many hundreds of pounds of gear piled high on more hundreds of pounds of sledge across such ice.

  It was like hauling a cumbersome thousand pounds of lumber and goods across moderately rough rock. And the pressure ridges could have been four-storey-high heaps of boulders and gravel for all the ease of crossing one.

  This first serious one — just one of many stretching across their path to the southeast as far as they could see — must have been sixty feet high.

  Unlashing the carefully secured top foods, boxes of fuel bottles, robes, sleeping bags, and heavy tent, they lightened the load, ending up with fifty- to hundred-pound bundles and boxes that they had to pull up the steep, tumbled, jagged ridge before even attempting to move the sledge.

  Goodsir realized quickly that if the pressure ridges had been discrete things — that is, mere ridges rising out of relatively smooth sea ice — climbing them would not have been the soul-destroying exertion that it proved to be. None of the frozen sea was smooth, but for fifty to a hundred yards around each pressure ridge the sea ice became a truly insane maze of rough snow, tumbled seracs, and giant ice blocks — a maze that had to be solved and traversed before the real climbing could begin.

  The climbing itself was never linear but always a tortuous back-and-forth, a constant search for footholds on treacherous ice or handholds on a block that might break away at any moment. The eight men zigzagged upward in ridiculous diagonals as they climbed, handed heavy loads up to one another, hacked away at clumps of ice with their pickaxes to create steps and shelves, and generally tried not to fall or be
fallen upon. Parcels slipped out of icy mittens and crashed below, bringing up short but impressive clouds of curses from the five seamen below before Gore or Des Voeux shouted them into silence. Everything had to be unpacked and repacked ten times.

  Finally the heavy sledge itself, with perhaps half its load still lashed to it, had to be pulled, shoved, lifted, braced, dislodged from entrapping seracs, angled, lifted again, and tugged to the summit of each uneven pressure ridge. There was no rest for the men even atop these ridges since to relax for a minute meant that eight layers of sweat-sodden outer clothing and underlayers would begin to freeze.

  After tying new lines to the vertical posts and cross braces at the rear of the sledge, some of the men would get ahead of it to brace its descent — usually the large Marine, Pilkington, and Morfin and Ferrier had this duty — while others dug in their cleats and lowered it to a syncopated chorus of gasps, calls, warnings, and more curses.

  Then they would carefully reload the sledge, double-check the lashings, boil snow to pour on the frozen-in runners, and be off again, forcing their way through the tumble-labyrinth on this side of the pressure ridge.

  Thirty minutes later they would come to the next ridge.

  Their first night out on the ice was terrifyingly memorable for Harry D. S. Goodsir.

  The surgeon had never done any camping in his life, but he knew that Graham Gore was telling the truth when the lieutenant said, laughingly, that everything took five times longer on the ice: unpacking the materials, firing up the spirit lamps and stoves, laying out the brown Holland tent and securing screws as anchor stakes in the ice, unrolling the many blanket rolls and sleeping bags, and especially heating up the tinned soup and pork they’d brought along.

 
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