The terror, p.26
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       The Terror, p.26


  The Admiralty and the three Commissioners of the Discovery Service — everyone involved in the selection except for the experienced Comptroller of the Deptford Victualling Yard — immediately recommended accepting Goldner’s offer at a full-payment value, or more than 3,800 pounds. (A fortune for any man, but especially for the foreigner that McDonald explained Goldner to be. The man’s only canning factory, Alex said, was in Golatz, Molavia.) Goldner was given one of the largest consignments in the history of the Admiralty — 9,500 cans of meats and vegetables in sizes weighing one to eight pounds, as well as 20,000 cans of soup.

  McDonald had brought one of Goldner’s handbills — Fitzjames recognized it at once — and looking over it made my mouth water: seven kinds of mutton, fourteen preparations of veal, thirteen kinds of beef, four varieties of lamb. There were listings for jugged hare, ptarmigan, rabbit (in onion sauce or curried), pheasant, and half a dozen other varieties of game. If the Discovery Service wished to have seafood, Goldner had offered to provide canned lobsters in the shell, cod, West Indian turtle, salmon steaks, and Yarmouth bloaters. For fine dining — at only fifteen pence — Goldner’s handbill offered truffled pheasant, calf’s tongue sauce piquant, and beef à la Flamande.

  In reality, said Dr. McDonald, we’re used to receiving salt horse in a harness cask.

  I had been at Sea long enough to recognize the terms — horse flesh substituted for beef until the sailors called the barrels a harness cask. But they ate the salted meat readily enough.

  Goldner cheated us much worse than that, continued McDonald in front of a livid Captain Crozier and an angrily nodding Commander Fitzjames. He substituted cheap foods under labels that sold for much more on the handbill — regular “Stewed Beef” under a label reading “Stewed Rump Steaks,” for instance. The former is listed at nine pence, but he charged fourteen pence by changing the label.

  Good God, man, exploded Crozier, every victualler does that to the Admiralty. Cheating the Navy is as old as Adam’s foreskin. That can’t explain why we’re suddenly almost out of food.

  No, Captain, continued McDonald. It’s the cooking and soldering.

  The what? demanded the Irishman, obviously trying to keep his Temper in check. Crozier’s face was crimson and white under his battered cap.

  The cooking and soldering, said Alex. As to the cooking, Mr. Goldner bragged of a patented process in which he adds a large dose of nitrate of soda — calcium chloride — into the huge vats of boiling water to increase the processing temperature … primarily to speed production.

  What’s wrong with that? demanded Crozier. The cans were overdue as it was. Something needed to be done to build a fire under Goldner’s arse. His patented process hurried things up.

  Yes, Captain, said Dr. McDonald, but the fire under Goldner’s arse was hotter than the fire under these meats, vegetables, and other foods that were hurriedly cooked before canning. Many of us in the medical field believe that proper cooking of food rids it of Noxious Influences that can cause disease — but I myself witnessed Goldner’s cooking processes and he simply did not cook the meat, vegetables, and soups long enough.

  Why didn’t you report this to the Discovery Service Commissioners? snapped Crozier.

  He did, Captain Fitzjames said tiredly. So did I. But the only one who listened was the Comptroller of the Deptford Yard Victualling Service, and he had no vote on the final commission.

  So you’re saying that more than half our food has gone bad in the last three years because of poor cooking methods? Crozier’s Countenance continued to be a Mottle of crimson and white.

  Yes, said Alex McDonald, but equally to blame, we think, is the soldering.

  The soldering of the cans? asked Fitzjames. His doubts about Goldner evidently had not extended to this technicality.

  Yes, Commander, said Terror’s assistant surgeon. Preserving food in tins is a recent innovation — an amazing part of our Modern Age — but we know enough in the past few years of its use to know that proper soldering the flange along the seams of the cylindrical body of the can is important if the foodstuffs within are not to turn Putrid.

  And Goldner’s people did not properly solder these tins? asked Crozier. His voice was a low, menacing growl.

  Not in about sixty percent of the tins we’ve inspected, said McDonald. The gaps in the careless soldering have resulted in incomplete seams. The incomplete seams appear to have accelerated the putrefaction of our tinned beef, veal, vegetables, soups, and other foodstuffs.

  How? asked Captain Crozier. He was shaking his broad head like a man who has been stunned by a physical blow. We’ve been in polar waters since shortly after the two ships left England. I thought it was cold enough up here to preserve anything until Judgement Day.

  Apparently not, said McDonald. Many of Goldner’s remaining twenty-nine thousand cans of food have ruptured. Others are already swelling from the gases caused by internal putrefaction. Perhaps some Noxious vapours entered the tins in England. Perhaps there is some microscopic animalcule of which Medicine and Science are not yet aware which invaded the tins during transit or even at Goldner’s victualling factory.

  Crozier frowned more deeply. Animalcule? Let’s avoid the fantastic here, Mr. McDonald.

  The assistant surgeon only shrugged. Perhaps it is fantastical, Captain. But you have not spent the hundreds of hours straining at the eyepiece of a microscope such as I have. We have little understanding of what any of these animalcules are, but I assure you that if you saw how many are present in a simple drop of drinking water, you would be deeply sobered.

  Crozier’s coloration had calmed somewhat, but he blushed again at the comment which might have been a reflection of his frequently less-than-sober state. All right. Some of the food is ruined, he said brusquely. What can we do to make sure the rest is safe for the men’s consumption?

  I cleared my throat. As you know, Captain, the men’s summer diet included a daily ration of one and a quarter pounds of salt meat with vegetables consisting of only one pint of peas and three-quarters pound of barley a week. But they received their daily bread and biscuits. When we went into winter quarters, the flour ration was cut back twenty-five percent on the baking of bread so as to conserve coal. If we could just begin cooking the remaining canned food rations longer and renewing the baking of bread, it would help not only in preventing the fouled meats in the canned goods from threatening our health but also help in the prevention of scurvy.

  Impossible, snapped Crozier. We barely have enough coal left to heat both ships until April as it is. If you doubt me, ask Engineer Gregory or Engineer Thompson here on Terror.

  I don’t doubt you, Captain, I said sadly. I’ve spoken to both engineers. But without a resumption of extended cooking of the remaining canned goods, our chances of being poisoned are very high. All we can do is throw out the obviously ruined canned foods and avoid the many poorly soldered cans. This cuts down on our remaining stores most dramatically.

  What about the ether stoves? asked Fitzjames, brightening a bit. We could use the camping stoves to heat the tinned soups and other doubtful provisions.

  It was McDonald who shook his head. We tested that, Commander. Dr. Goodsir and I experimented with heating some of the canned so-called Beef Stew on the patented Cooking Apparatus spirit stoves. The pint-sized bottles of ether do not last long enough to thoroughly heat the food and the temperatures are low. Also, our sledge parties — or all of us, should we be forced to Abandon Ship — will be dependent upon the spirit stoves to melt snow and ice for drinking water once we are on the ice. We should preserve the ether spirits.

  I was with Lieutenant Gore on our first sledge party to King William Land — and we used the spirit stoves daily, I added softly. The men used just enough ether and flame to get the canned soups to bubble a bit before digging in ravenously. The food was barely tepid.

  There was a long silence.

  You report that over half the canned food we had been counting on to get through the next
year or two — if necessary — is ruined, Crozier said at last. We don’t have the coal to recook this food on either Erebus’s or Terror’s large Frazer’s Patent Stoves, nor on the smaller whaleboat iron stoves, and you tell me that there is insufficient fuel to use the ether spirit stoves. What can we do?

  All five of us — the Four Surgeons and Captain Fitzjames — remained Silent. The only answer was to Abandon Ship and seek out a more hospitable clime, preferably Ashore somewhere south, where we might shoot fresh game.

  As if reading our collective minds, Crozier smiled — it was a uniquely mad Irish smile, I thought at the time — and said, The problem, gentlemen, is that there’s not a man aboard either ship, not even one of our venerable Marines, who knows how to catch or kill a seal or walrus — should those creatures ever grace us with their presence again — nor with the experience of shooting large game such as caribou, of which we have seen none.

  The Rest of Us remained silent.

  Thank you for your diligence, effort at doing the Inventory, and excellent report, Mr. Peddie, Mr. Goodsir, Mr. McDonald, and Mr. Stanley. We shall continue separating the cans you consider fully soldered and safe from those insufficiently soldered or bloated, distended, or otherwise visibly Putrid. We shall stay on the current Two-Thirds Rations until after Christmas Day, at which time I shall instigate a more draconian rationing plan.

  Dr. Stanley and I pulled on our many layers of winter slops and went up to the deck to watch Dr. Peddie, Dr. McDonald, Captain Crozier, and an honor guard of four seamen armed with shotguns begin their long trek back to Terror in the dark. As their lanterns and torches disappeared in the blowing snow and the wind howled in the rigging, the roar mixing with the constant grind and groan of the ice working against Erebus’s hull, Stanley leaned close and shouted into my mufflered ear: It would be a blessing if they missed the cairns and got lost on the way back. Or if the Thing on the ice got them tonight.

  I could only turn and stare in horror at the chief surgeon.

  Death by starvation is a terrible thing, Goodsir, continued Stanley. Trust me. I’ve seen it in London and I’ve seen it with shipwreck. Death by scurvy is worse. It would be better if the Thing took us all tonight.

  And with that we went below to the flame-flickering Darkness of the lower deck and to a cold almost the equal of the Dante-esque Ninth Circle Arctic Night without.



  Lat. 70°-05′ N., Long. 98°-23′ W.

  5 December, 1847

  On a Tuesday dogwatch in the third week of November, the thing from the ice came aboard Erebus and took the well-liked bosun, Mr. Thomas Terry, snatching him from his post near the stern, leaving only the man’s head on the railing. There had been no blood at Terry’s stern watch post: no blood on the ice-covered deck or on the hull. The conclusion was that the thing had taken Terry, carried him hundreds of yards out into the darkness where the seracs rose like trees of ice in a thick white forest, murdered and dismembered him — perhaps eaten him, although the men were growing increasingly doubtful that the white thing killing their crewmates and officers was actually doing so for food — and then it returned Mr. Terry’s head before the starboard or port watchmen noticed that the bosun had gone missing.

  The men who found the bosun’s head at the end of that watch spent the week telling and retelling the others about poor Mr. Terry’s visage — jaws open wide as if frozen in the middle of a scream, lips pulled back from his teeth, eyes protruding. There was not a tooth wound or claw mark on his face or head, only the ragged tearing at the neck, the thin pipe of his esophagus protruding like a rat’s grey tail, and the stump of white spinal cord showing.

  Suddenly the more than one hundred surviving seamen found religion. Most of the men aboard Erebus had grumbled for two years about Sir John Franklin’s endless Divine Services, but now even the men who wouldn’t have recognized a Bible if they’d wakened next to one after a three-day drunk found a deep need for some sort of spiritual reassurance. As word of Thomas Terry’s beheading spread — Captain Fitzjames had put the sail-wrapped bundle in Erebus’s own sealed Dead Room down on the hold deck — the men began requesting a single Sunday service for both crews. It was ferret-faced Cornelius Hickey who came to Crozier late on Friday night with the request. Hickey had been on a torchlight work party repairing ice cairns between the ships and had spoken to the men from Erebus.

  “It’s unanimous, sir,” said the caulker’s mate as he stood in the doorway of Captain Crozier’s tiny cabin. “All the men would like a combined Divine Service. Both ships, Captain.”

  “You speak for every man on both ships?” Crozier asked.

  “Aye, sir, I do,” said Hickey, flashing a once-winning smile that now showed only four of his remaining six teeth. The little caulker’s mate was nothing if not confident.

  “I doubt it,” said Crozier. “But I’ll talk to Captain Fitzjames and let you know about the service. Whatever we decide, you can be our appointed courier to tell all the men.” Crozier had been drinking when Hickey rapped on his door. And he’d never liked the officious little man. Every ship had sea lawyers — like rats, they were a fact of Naval life — and Hickey, despite his bad grammar and total lack of formal education, struck Crozier as the kind of sea lawyer that, on a difficult voyage, soon began fomenting actual mutiny.

  “One of the reasons we’d all of us like a service such as that what Sir John — God bless and rest his soul, Captain — used to provide is that all of us …”

  “That will be all, Mr. Hickey.”

  Crozier drank heavily that week. The melancholia that usually hovered over him like a fog now lay on him like a heavy blanket. He’d known Terry and thought him a more-than-capable boatswain, and it was certainly a horrible enough way to die, but the Arctic — at either pole — offered a myriad of horrible enough ways to die. So did the Royal Navy during peacetime or war. Crozier had witnessed more than a few of these horrible ways to die during his long career, so while Mr. Terry’s death was among the more uncanny he’d personally known and the recent plague of violent deaths more frightening than any real plague he’d seen aboard ships, what brought on Crozier’s deeper melancholy was more the reaction of the surviving members of the expedition.

  James Fitzjames, the hero of the Euphrates, seemed to be losing heart. He was made a hero by the press even before his first ship had left Liverpool when young Fitzjames had plunged overboard to rescue a drowning customs agent even though the handsome young officer was, as the Times said, “embarrassed by a greatcoat, hat, and very valuable watch.” The merchants of Liverpool, knowing the value — as Crozier well knew — of a customs officer who was already bought and paid for, had rewarded young Fitzjames with an engraved silver plate. The Admiralty had taken notice first of the silver plate, then of Fitzjames’s heroism — although in Crozier’s experience, an officer rescuing a drowning man was an almost weekly occurrence since few sailors knew how to swim — and finally of the fact that Fitzjames was “the handsomest man in the Navy” as well as a well-bred young gentleman.

  It hadn’t hurt the rising young officer’s reputation that he had twice volunteered to lead raiding parties against Bedouin bandits. Crozier noticed in the official reports that Fitzjames had broken his leg in one such foray and been captured by the bandits in the second adventure, but the handsomest man in the Navy had managed to escape, which made Fitzjames all the more the hero to the London press and the Admiralty.

  Then came the Opium Wars and in 1841 Fitzjames showed himself to be a real hero, being commended by his captain and by the Admiralty no fewer than five times. The dashing lad — twenty-nine at the time — had used rockets to drive the Chinese off the hilltops of Tzekee and Segoan, used rockets again to drive them out of Chapoo, fought ashore at the Battle of Woosung, and returned to his expertise with rockets during the capture of Ching-Kiang-Fu. Seriously wounded, Lieutenant Fitzjames had managed, on crutches and in bandages, to attend the Chinese surrender at the signing of the Tre
aty of Nanking. Promoted to commander at the tender age of thirty, the handsomest man in the Navy had been given command of the sloop of war HMS Clio, and his bright future seemed assured.

  But then in 1844 the Opium Wars ended, and — as always happened to rising prospects in the Royal Navy when treacherous peace suddenly broke out — Fitzjames found himself without a command, on shore, and on half pay. Francis Crozier knew that if the Discovery Service offer of command to Sir John Franklin had been a godsend to the largely discredited old man, the offer of effective command of HMS Erebus had been a shining second chance to Fitzjames.

  But now “the handsomest man in the Navy” had lost his pink cheeks and usual ebullient humor. While most of the officers and men were maintaining their weight even on two-thirds rations — for members of the Discovery Service received a richer diet than 99 percent of Englishmen ashore — Commander, now Captain, James Fitzjames had lost more than two stone. His uniform hung loosely on him. His boyish curls now fell limp from under his cap or Welsh wig. Fitzjames’s face, always a bit too chubby, now appeared drawn, wan, and hollow-cheeked in the light from the oil lamps or hanging lanterns.

  The commander’s public demeanor, which was always an easy mix of self-effacing humor and firm command, remained the same, but in private with only Crozier in attendance, Fitzjames spoke less, smiled less frequently, and too often looked distracted and miserable. For a melancholy man like Crozier, the signs were obvious. At times it was like staring into a looking glass, except for the fact that the melancholy countenance staring back was a proper lisping English gentleman rather than an Irish nobody.

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