The terror, p.25
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       The Terror, p.25
 

          

  Thompson, who still had not blinked or turned his head, laughed softly. The sound was disturbing — a rattle of small stones in a jar — and it ended in a cough. “Listen,” said the engineer.

  Irving turned his head. There were only the usual noises, although louder down here in the dark hold: the slow moan of ice pressing in, the louder groaning of the iron tanks and structural reinforcements fore and aft of the boiler room, the more distant moan of the blizzard winds far above, the crash of falling ice carried down as vibration through the ship’s timbers, the thrum of the masts being shaken in their sockets, random scratching noises from the hull, and a constant hiss, screech, and claw-sliding noise from the boiler and pipes all around.

  “There’s someone or something else breathing on this deck,” continued Thompson. “Do you hear it?”

  Irving strained but heard no breathing, although the boiler sounded like something large panting hard. “Where are Smith and Johnson?” asked the lieutenant. These were the two stokers who worked round-the-clock here with Thompson.

  The supine engineer shrugged. “With so little coal to shovel these days, I need them only a few hours a day. I spend most of my time alone, crawling among the pipes and valves, Lieutenant. Patching. Taping. Replacing. Trying to keep this … thing … working, moving hot water through the lower deck for a few hours each day. In two months, three at the most, it will all be academic. We already have no coal to steam. We’ll soon have no coal to heat.”

  Irving had heard these reports in the officers’ mess but had little interest in the subject. Three months seemed a lifetime away. Right now he had to make sure Silence was not on board and report to the captain. Then he had to try to find her if she was not aboard Terror. Then he had to survive another three months. He would worry about shortages of coal later.

  “Have you heard the rumors, Lieutenant?” asked the engineer. The long form on the couch still had neither blinked nor turned his head to look at Irving.

  “No, Mr. Thompson, which rumor?”

  “That the … thing on the ice, the apparition, the Devil … comes into the ship whenever it wants to and walks the hold deck late at night,” said Thompson.

  “No,” said Lieutenant Irving. “I’ve not heard that.”

  “Stay down here alone on the hold deck through enough watches,” said the man on the cot, “and you’ll hear and see everything.”

  “Good night, Mr. Thompson.” Irving took his sputtering lantern and went back out into the companionway and forward.

  There were few places left to search on the hold deck and Irving had every intention of making a fast job of it. The Dead Room was locked; the lieutenant had not asked his captain for the key, and after inspecting that the heavy lock was solid and secured, he moved on. He didn’t want to see what was causing the scrabbling and chewing sounds he could hear through the thick oak door.

  The twenty-one huge iron water tanks along the hull offered no place for an Esquimaux to hide, so Irving went into the coal bunkers, his lantern dimming in the thick, coal-dust-blackened air. The remaining sacks of coal, once filling each bin and stacked from hull bottom to the deck beams above, merely lined the edge of each sooty room like low barriers of sandbags now. He couldn’t imagine Lady Silence making a new shelter in one of these lightless, reeking, pestilential hellholes — the decks were awash in sewage and rats scuttled everywhere — but he had to look.

  When he was finished searching the coal storage lockers and the stores amidships, Lieutenant Irving moved out into the remaining crates and barrels in the forepeak, directly below the crew’s berthing area and Mr. Diggle’s huge stove two decks above. A narrower ladder came down through the orlop deck to this stores area and tons of lumber were hanging from the heavy beams overhead, turning the space into a maze and requiring the lieutenant to proceed in a half crouch, but there were far fewer crates, barrels, and heaps of goods than there had been two and a half years earlier.

  But more rats. Many more.

  Searching between and in some of the larger crates, glancing to make sure that the barrels awash in the slush were either empty or sealed, Irving had just stepped around the vertical forward ladder when he saw a flash of white and heard harsh breathing, gasps and caught a rustle of frenzied movement just beyond the dim circle of the lantern light. It was large, moving, and was not the woman.

  Irving had no weapon. For the briefest instant he considered dropping the lantern and running back through the darkness toward the midship ladderway. He did not, of course, and the thought was gone almost before it was formed. He took a step forward and, in a voice stronger and more authoritative than he thought he might be capable of right then, shouted, “Who goes there? Identify yourself!”

  Then he saw them in the lantern light. The idiot, Magnus Manson, the largest man on the expedition, struggling back into his trousers, his huge, grimy fingers fumbling with buttons. A few feet away Cornelius Hickey, the caulker’s mate, barely five feet tall, beady-eyed and ferret-faced, was pulling his suspenders into place.

  John Irving’s mouth hung open. It took several seconds for the reality of what he was looking at to filter through his mind toward acceptance — sodomites. He had heard of such goings-on, of course, had joked with his mates about such things, had once witnessed a flogging around the fleet when an ensign on the Excellent had confessed to such doings, but Irving had never thought that he would be on a ship where … to serve with men who …

  Manson, the giant, was taking an ominous step toward him. The man was so large that everywhere belowdecks he had to walk in a stooped crouch to avoid the beams, giving him an habitual hunchbacked shuffle that he used even in the open air. Now, his huge hands glowing in the lamplight, he looked like an executioner advancing on a condemned man.

  “Magnus,” said Hickey. “No.”

  Irving’s jaw dropped farther. Were these … sodomites … threatening him? The prescribed sentence for sodomy on a ship of Her Majesty’s Navy was hanging, with two hundred lashes from the cat while being flogged around the fleet — literally from ship to ship in harbour — being considered great leniency.

  “How dare you?” said Irving, although whether he was talking about Manson’s threatening attitude or their unnatural act, even he did not know.

  “Lieutenant,” said Hickey, words rushing in that flute-high rush of the caulker’s mate’s Liverpool accent, “begging your pardon, sir, Mr. Diggle sent us down for some flour, sir. One of them damn rats rushed up Seaman Manson’s trouser leg, sir, and we was trying to set it right. Filthy buggers, them rats.”

  Irving knew that Mr. Diggle had not yet started the late-night baking of biscuits and that there was ample flour in the cook’s stores up on the lower deck. Hickey was not even trying to make his lie convincing. The little man’s beady, evaluating eyes reminded Irving of the rats scurrying in the darkness around them.

  “We’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t tell no one, sir,” continued the caulker’s mate. “Magnus here would hate to be made fun of for bein’ afraid of a little rat runnin’ up his leg.”

  The words were a challenge and a defiance. Almost a command. Insolence came off the little man in waves while Manson stood there empty-eyed, as dumb as a beast of burden, huge hands still flexed, passively awaiting the next command from his diminutive lover.

  The silence between the men stretched. Ice moaned against the ship. Timbers creaked. Rats scurried close by.

  “Get out of here,” Irving said at last. “Now.”

  “Aye, sir. Thank you, sir,” said Hickey. He unshielded a small lantern that had been on the deck near him. “Come, Magnus.”

  The two men scrambled up the narrow forward ladder into the darkness of the orlop deck.

  Lieutenant Irving stood where he was for several long minutes, listening to but not hearing the groans and snaps of the ship. The blizzard howl was like a distant dirge.

  If he reported this to Captain Crozier, there would be a trial. Manson, the village idiot of this expedition
, was well liked by the crew, however much they teased him about his fear of ghosts and goblins. The man did the heavy work of any three of his comrades. Hickey, while not especially liked by any of the other warrant or regular officers, was respected by the regular seamen for his abilities to get his friends extra tobacco, an extra gill of rum, or an article of needed clothing.

  Crozier wouldn’t hang either man, thought John Irving, but the captain had been in an especially foul mood in recent weeks and the punishments could be dramatic. Everyone on the ship knew that just weeks ago the captain threatened to lock Manson into the Dead Room with his chum Walker’s rat-chewed corpse if the huge idiot ever again refused an order to carry coal on the hold deck. No one would be surprised if he carried out that sentence now.

  On the other hand, thought the lieutenant, what had he just seen? What could he testify to, his hand on the Holy Bible, if there were an actual court of inquiry? He hadn’t seen any unnatural act. He’d not caught the two sodomites in the act of copulation or … any other unnatural posture. Irving had heard the breathing, the gasps, something that must have been whispered alarm at the approach of his lantern, and then seen the two struggling to raise their trousers and tuck in their shirts.

  That would be enough to get one or both of them hanged under normal circumstances. But here, stuck in the ice, with months or years ahead of them before any chance of rescue?

  For the first time in many years, John Irving felt like sitting down and weeping. His life had just become complex beyond all his imagining. If he did report the two sodomites, none of his crewmates — officers, friends, subordinates — would ever look at him quite the same way again.

  If he did not report the two men, he would open himself to endless insolence from Hickey. His cowardice in not reporting the man would expose Irving to a form of blackmail for weeks and months to come. Nor would the lieutenant ever sleep well again or feel comfortable on watch in the darkness outside or in his cubicle — as comfortable as anyone could be with that monstrous white thing killing them all one by one — waiting, as he would be now, for Manson’s white hands to close around his throat.

  “Oh, bugger me,” Irving said aloud into the creaking cold of the hold. Realizing exactly what he had said, he laughed aloud — the laugh sounding stranger, weaker, yet more ominous than the words.

  Having looked everywhere except a few hogshead barrels and the forward cable locker, he was ready to give up his search, but he didn’t want to go up to the lower deck until Hickey and Manson were out of sight.

  Irving made his way past floating empty crates — the water was above his ankles here, this far toward the downward-tilting bow, and his soaked boots broke through the scrim of ice. Another few minutes and he’d have frostbitten toes for sure.

  The cable locker was at the most forward part of the forepeak, right where the hull came together at the bow. It was not really a room — the two doors were only three feet tall and the space within not much more than four feet high — but rather a place to stow the heavy hawsers used for the bow anchors. The cable locker always stank to high heaven of river and estuary mud, even months or years after a ship’s weighing anchor from that place. It never fully lost its stench, and the massive hawsers, coiled and overlapping, left little or no free room in the low, black, evil-smelling space.

  Lieutenant Irving pried open the reluctant doors to the locker and held his lantern to the opening. The grinding of the ice was especially loud here where the bow and bowsprit were pressed into the shifting pack ice itself.

  Lady Silence’s head shot up and her dark eyes reflected the light like a cat’s.

  She was naked except for white-brown furs spread under her like a rug and another heavy fur — perhaps her parka — draped over her shoulders and naked body.

  The floor of the cable locker was raised more than a foot above the flooded deck outside. She had moulded and shoved the massive hawsers aside until the space opened made a low, fur-lined cave within the overhanging tangle of huge hemp ropes. A small food can filled with oil or blubber provided light and heat from an open flame. The Esquimaux woman was in the process of eating a haunch of red, raw, bloody meat. She was slicing directly from the meat to her mouth with quick cuts from a short but obviously very sharp knife. The knife had a bone or antler handle with some sort of design on it. Lady Silence was on her knees, leaning forward over the flame and the meat, and her small breasts hung down in a way that reminded the literate Lieutenant Irving of pictures he had seen of the statue of a she-wolf nursing the infants Romulus and Remus.

  “I’m terribly sorry, madam,” said Irving. He touched his cap and shut the doors.

  Staggering back a few steps in the slush, sending rats scurrying, the lieutenant tried to think through shock for the second time in five minutes.

  The captain had to know about Silence’s hiding place. The fire danger alone from the open flame there would have to be dealt with.

  But where had she got the knife? It looked like something made by Esquimauxs, rather than a weapon or tool from the ship. Certainly they had searched her six months ago in June. Could she have hidden it all this time?

  What else could she be hiding?

  And the fresh meat.

  There was no fresh meat on board, Irving was sure of that.

  Could she have been hunting? In the winter and blizzard and dark? And hunting what?

  The only things out there on the ice or under the ice were the white bears and the thing stalking the men of Erebus and Terror.

  John Irving had a terrible thought. For a second he was tempted to go back and test the lock to the Dead Room.

  Then he had an even more terrible thought.

  Only half of William Strong and Thomas Evans had been found.

  Lieutenant John Irving stumbled aft, feet sliding on the ice and slush as he fumbled and felt his way toward the central ladderway to fight his way up and out toward the light of the lower deck.

  18

  GOODSIR

  Lat. 70°-05′ N., Long. 98°-23′ W.

  20 November, 1847

  From the private diary of Dr. Harry D. S. Goodsir:

  Saturday, 20 November, 1847 —

  We do not have enough food to survive another Winter and Summer here in the ice.

  We should have had. Sir John had Provisioned the two ships for Three Years at extraordinarily full rations for all hands, Five Years for reduced but still adequate rations for men doing heavy work each day, and Seven Years with serious rationing but adequate for all men. By Sir John’s Calculations — and those of his ships’ captains, Crozier and Fitzjames — HMSs Erebus and Terror should have been amply provisioned until the year 1852.

  Instead, we shall be running out of our last edible supplies sometime next spring. And should we all perish because of this, the Reason is Murder.

  Dr. McDonald on Terror had been suspicious of the canned food supplies for some Time, and he shared his concerns with me after the Death of Sir John. Then the problem with spoiled and Poisonous canned foods on our First Outing to King William Land last Summer — tins removed from a deeper part of Stores beneath Deck — confirmed the problem. In October, the four of us Surgeons petitioned Captain Crozier and Commander Fitzjames to allow us to take a Full Inventory. Then the Four of us — aided by crewmen assigned to help us move the hundreds upon hundreds of crates, barrels, and heavy cans in both lower decks, orlop decks, and holds, and to open and test selected samplings — had done the Inventory twice so as not to make a mistake.

  More than Half the canned Food aboard both ships is worthless.

  We reported this three weeks ago to both captains in Sir John’s large and freezing former cabin. Fitzjames, while nominally still a mere Commander, is called “Captain” by Crozier, the new Expedition Leader, and others follow suit. In the secret meeting were the four of us surgeons, Fitzjames, and Crozier.

  Captain Crozier — I have to remember that he is Irish after all — flew into a rage the likes of which I have n
ever seen. He demanded a full explanation, as if We Surgeons had been responsible for the Stores and Victuals on the Franklin Expedition. Fitzjames, on the other hand, had always had his doubts about the canned goods and the victualler who had canned them — the only member of the Expedition or the Admiralty who seems to have expressed such reservations — but Crozier remained incredulous that such an act of criminal fraud could have been carried out on ships of the Royal Navy.

  John Peddie, Crozier’s chief surgeon on Terror, has seen the most Sea Duty of any of us four Medical Officers, but most of it had been aboard HMS Mary — along with Crozier’s boatswain John Lane — and that was in the Mediterranean, where very little of the Ship’s Stores had consisted of Canned Goods. Similarly, my nominal superior on Erebus, Chief Surgeon Stephen Stanley, had little experience with such Great Quantities of Canned Provisions aboard ship. Sensitive to the Various Diets thought Necessary to prevent scurvy, Dr. Stanley was shocked into speechlessness when our Inventory suggested via sampling that almost half the remaining tins of food, vegetables, meat, and soup may well be Contaminated or otherwise Ruined.

  Only Dr. McDonald, who had worked with Mr. Helpman — Captain Crozier’s Clerk in Charge — during the provisioning, had his Theories.

  As I recorded some Months ago in this Journal, besides the 10,000 cases of preserved cooked meats aboard Erebus, our tinned rations include boiled and roast mutton, veal, a wide variety of vegetables including potatoes, carrots, and parsnips, various types of Soups, and 9,450 pounds of Chocolate.

  Alex McDonald had been our Expedition’s medical liaison with the Captain Superintendent of the Deptford Victualling Yard and with a certain Mr. Stephan Goldner, our Expedition’s Victualling Contractor. McDonald reminded Captain Crozier in October that four contractors had put in bids to provide Canned Ship’s Stores for Sir John’s expedition — the firms of Hogarth, Gamble, Cooper & Aves, and that of the aforementioned Mr. Goldner. Dr. McDonald reminded the Captain — and astonished the rest of us — by reporting that Goldner’s bid was only half that of the other three (Much Better Known) victuallers. In addition, while the other contractors set a schedule of delivering the food in a month or three weeks, Goldner had promised immediate delivery (with the crating and drayage thrown in for no charge). Such immediate delivery was impossible, of course, and Goldner’s bid would have required him to lose a fortune if the food had been the quality advertised and cooked and prepared in the ways advertised, but no one except Captain Fitzjames appears to have taken notice of this.

 
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