The terror, p.42
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       The Terror, p.42
 

          

  He was very aware that the only weapon he carried was the pistol sunk deep in the pocket of his greatcoat.

  Forty minutes of searching through seracs in the dark and −45-degree wind and Irving was close to deciding that he would exercise his initiative another day, preferably in a few weeks, when the sun stayed above the southern horizon for more than a few minutes each day.

  And then he saw the light.

  It was an eerie sight — an entire snowdrift in an ice gully between several seracs seemed to be glowing goldly from within, as if from some inner faerie light.

  Or witch’s light.

  Irving walked closer, pausing at each serac shadow to make sure that it was actually not another narrow crevasse in the ice. The wind made a soft whistling sound through the tortured-ice tops of the seracs and ice-boulder columns. Violet light from the aurora danced everywhere.

  The snowdrift had been heaped — either by wind or by Silence’s hands — into a low dome thin enough to show a flickering yellow light shining through it.

  Irving dropped down into the small ice gully, actually just a depression between two pressure-pushed plates of pack ice rounded over with snow, and approached a small black hole that seemed too low to be associated with the dome set higher in the drift to one side of the gully.

  The entrance — if an entrance it was — was barely as wide as Irving’s heavily layered shoulders.

  Before crawling in, he wondered if he should extract and cock his pistol. Not a very friendly gesture of greeting, he thought.

  Irving wriggled into the hole.

  The narrow passage went down for half the length of his body and then angled up for eight feet or more. When Irving’s head and shoulders popped out of the far end of the tunnel and into the light, he blinked, looked around, and his jaw fell slack.

  The first thing he noticed was that Lady Silence was naked under her open robes. She was lying on a platform carved out of the snow about four feet from Lieutenant Irving and almost three feet higher. Her bosoms were quite visible and quite bare — he could see the small stone talisman of the white bear she had taken from her dead companion dangling on a thong between her breasts — and she made no effort to cover them as she stared unblinkingly at him. She had not been startled. Obviously she had heard him coming long before he squeezed himself into the snow-dome’s entry passage. In her hand was that short but very sharp stone knife he had first seen in the forward cable locker.

  “I beg your pardon, miss,” said Irving. He was at a loss of what to do next. Good manners demanded that he wriggle backward out of this lady’s boudoir, as awkward and ungainly as that motion must be, but he reminded himself that he was here on a mission.

  It did not escape Irving’s attention that wedged in the opening to the snow-house as he was, Silence could easily lean over and cut his throat with that knife while there would be very little he could do about it.

  Irving finished extricating himself from the entry passage, pulled his leather bag in behind him, got to his knees, and then to his feet. Because the floor of the snow-house had been dug out lower than the surface of the snow and ice outside, Irving had enough room to stand in the center of the dome with several inches to spare. He realized that while the snow-house had seemed like nothing more than a glowing snowdrift from the outside, it had actually been constructed of carved blocks or slabs of snow angling and arching inward in a most clever design.

  Irving, trained at the Royal Navy’s best gunnery school and always good at mathematics, immediately noticed the upward spiral of the blocks and how each block leaned in just slightly more than the previous one until a final capping key block had been pushed down through the apex of the dome and then tugged into position. He saw the tiny smoke hole, or chimney — no more than two inches across — just to one side of the key block.

  The mathematician in Irving knew at once that the dome was not a true hemisphere — a dome built upon the principle of a circle would collapse — but rather was a catenary: that is, the shape of a chain held in both hands. The gentleman in John Irving knew that he was studying the ceiling, the blocks, and the geometric structure of this clever dwelling so as not to stare at Lady Silence’s naked breasts and bare shoulders. He assumed he had given her enough time to draw the fur robes up over herself, and he looked back in her direction.

  Her bosoms were still bared. The polar white bear amulet made her brown skin look all the more brown. Her dark eyes, intent and curious but not necessarily hostile, still watched him unblinkingly. The knife was still in her hand.

  Irving let out a breath and sat on the robe-covered platform across the small central space from her sleeping platform.

  For the first time he realized that it was warm in the snow-house. Not just warmer than the freezing night outside, nor just warmer than the freezing lower deck of HMS Terror, but warm. He had actually started to sweat under his many stiff and filthy layers. He saw perspiration on the soft brown bosom of the woman only a few feet from him.

  Tearing his gaze away again, Irving unbuttoned his outer slops and realized that the light and heat were coming from one small paraffin tin that she must have stolen from the ship. As soon as he had this thought of her thieving, he felt sorry for it. It was a Terror paraffin tin all right, but one empty of paraffin, one of hundreds they had thrown overboard in the huge garbage area they had excavated out of the ice only thirty yards from the ship. The flame was not burning from paraffin but from some sort of oil — not whale oil, he could tell from the scent — seal oil? A cord made out of animal gut or sinew hung down from the ceiling, suspending a strip of blubber over the paraffin lamp and dripping oil into it. Irving saw at once how, when the oil level would grow lower, the candlewick, which seemed to be made of twined strands of anchor-cable hemp, would become longer and the flame would burn higher, melting more blubber and dripping more oil into the lamp. It was an ingenious system.

  The paraffin container was not the only interesting artifact in the snow-house. Above and to one side of the lamp was an elaborate frame consisting of what appeared to be four ribs from what might have been seals — how had Lady Silence caught and killed those seals? wondered Irving — thrust upright in the snow of the shelf and connected by a complex web of sinew. Hanging from the bone frame was one of the larger rectangular Goldner food cans — also obviously scavenged from Terror’s garbage dump — with holes punched in the four corners. Irving saw at once that it would make a perfect cooking pot or teakettle hanging low over the seal-oil flame.

  Lady Silence’s bosoms were still uncovered. The white bear amulet moved up and down with her breathing. Her gaze never left his face.

  Lieutenant Irving cleared his throat.

  “Good evening, Miss … ah … Silence. I apologize for bursting in on you this way … uninvited as it were.” He stopped.

  Didn’t the woman ever blink?

  “Captain Crozier sends his compliments. He asked me to look in on you to see … ah … how you were getting along.”

  Irving had rarely felt more the fool. He was sure that despite her months on the ship, the girl understood not one word of English. Her nipples, he could not help noticing, had risen in the brief blast of cold air that he had brought into the snow-house with him.

  The lieutenant rubbed the sweat off his forehead. Then he removed his mittens and undergloves, bobbing his head as if to ask permission of the lady of the house as he did so. Then he mopped his forehead again. It was incredible how warm this little space under a cantenary dome made out of snow could get just from the heat of a single lamp burning dripping blubber.

  “The captain would like … ,” he began, and stopped. “Oh, bugger it.” Irving reached into his leather valise and brought out the biscuits wrapped in an old napkin and the crock of marmalade wrapped in his finest Oriental silk handkerchief.

  He offered the two bundles across the central space to her with hands that were slightly trembling.

  The Esquimaux woman made no attempt to take the b
undles.

  “Please,” said Irving.

  Silence blinked twice, slipped the knife under her robe, and took the small, lumpy packages, setting them next to her where she reclined on the platform. As she lay on her side, the tip of her right bosom was almost touching his Chinese handkerchief.

  Irving looked down and realized that he was also sitting on a thick animal fur set onto this narrow platform. Where did she get this second animal skin? he wondered before remembering that more than seven months earlier she had been given the outer parka of the old Esquimaux man. The grey-haired old one who had died on the ship after being shot by one of Graham Gore’s men.

  She untied the old galley napkin first, showing no response to the five ship’s biscuits wrapped in it. Irving had spent a serious bit of time finding the least weevil-infested biscuits possible. He felt a little piqued at her lack of recognition of his labours. When she unwrapped his mother’s little porcelain crock, sealed with wax on top, she paused to lift the Chinese silk handkerchief — its elaborate designs were in bright red, green, and blue — and to set it against her cheek for a moment. Then she laid it aside.

  Women are the same everywhere was John Irving’s giddy thought. He realized that while he had enjoyed sexual congress with more than one young woman, he had never felt such a strong sense of … intimacy … as he did at this moment sitting chastely in the seal-oil lamplight with this half-naked young native woman.

  When she pried open the wax and saw the marmalade, Lady Silence’s gaze snapped up to Irving’s face again. She seemed to be studying him.

  He made a rough pantomime of her spreading the marmalade on the biscuits and eating them.

  She did not move. Her gaze did not shift.

  Finally she leaned out and extended her right arm as if reaching for him across the blubber fire, and Irving flinched a bit before realizing that she was reaching to a niche — just a small recess in the ice block — at the head of his robe-covered platform. He feigned not noticing that her own robe had slipped lower and that both her bosoms were bobbing free as she reached.

  She offered him something white and red and reeking like a dead and decaying fish. He realized that it was another slab of seal or other-animal blubber that had been stored in the snowy niche to be kept cold.

  He accepted it, nodded, and held it in his hands above his knees. He had no clue what to do with it. Was he supposed to bring it home to serve as part of his own seal-oil blubber lamp?

  Silence’s lips twitched then, and for an instant, Irving almost thought she had smiled. She took out her short, sharp knife and gestured, drawing the blade quickly and repeatedly right up to and against her lower lip as if she were going to cut that full, pink lip off.

  Irving stared and continued holding the soft mass of blubber and skin.

  Sighing, Silence reached over, took the blubber from him, held it to her own mouth, and cut several slices off with her knife, pulling the short blade actually into her mouth between her white teeth with each morsel. She paused to chew a moment and then handed the blubber and rubbery sealskin — he was almost certain it was seal now — back to him.

  Irving had to fumble down through six layers of slops, greatcoat, jacket, sweaters, and waistcoat to get to his boat knife that was sheathed on his belt. He held the blade up to show her, feeling like a child seeking approbation during a lesson.

  She nodded ever so slightly.

  Irving set the reeking, stinking, dripping blubber next to his open mouth and pulled the sharp edge of his knife back quickly the way she had.

  He almost cut his nose off. He would have sliced his lower lip off if the knife had not caught in the sealskin — if sealskin it was — and soft meat and white blubber and jerked upward slightly. As it was, a single drop of blood dripped from his sliced septum.

  Silence ignored the blood, shook her head ever so slightly, and handed him her knife.

  He tried it again, feeling the strange weight of her knife in his palm, slicing confidently toward his lip even as a drop of blood dripped from his nose onto the blubber.

  The blade went through effortlessly. Her little stone knife was — somehow, incredibly — many times sharper than his own.

  The strip of blubber filled his mouth. He chewed, trying to idiot-mime and nod his appreciation toward the woman from behind his upraised strip of blubber and poised knife.

  It tasted like a ten-week-dead carp dredged from the floor of the Thames beneath the Woolwich sewer outlets.

  Irving felt a great urge to vomit, started to spit the wad of half-chewed blubber on the floor of the snow-house instead, decided that this would not further the goals of his delicate diplomatic mission, and swallowed.

  Grinning his appreciation for the delicacy while trying to force down his continued nausea — all the while surreptitiously mopping at his barely sliced but vigorously bleeding nose with a bunched-up frozen mitten serving as handkerchief — Irving was horrified to see the Esquimaux woman clearly gesture for him to cut and eat more of the blubber.

  Still smiling, he sliced and swallowed another piece. It was, he thought, precisely what it must feel like to be filling one’s mouth with a giant glob of some other creature’s nasal mucus.

  Amazingly, his empty stomach rumbled, cramped, and demanded more. Something in the reeking blubber seemed to be satisfying some deep craving he had not even known he felt. His body, if not his mind, wanted more of it.

  The next few minutes were quite the domestic scene, thought Lieutenant Irving, with him sitting on his white bear robe on his little snow shelf, quickly if not enthusiastically cutting and swallowing strips of seal blubber, while Lady Silence crumbled strips of ship’s biscuit, dunked them in his mother’s crock as quickly as a sailor mopping up gravy with his bread, and devoured the marmalade with satisfied grunts that seemed to come from deep in her throat.

  And all this time her bosoms remained bare and visible for Third Lieutenant John Irving’s constant and appreciative, if not relaxed, perusal over his diminishing strip of seal blubber.

  What would Mother think if she could see her boy and her crock now? wondered Irving.

  When the two were finished, after Silence had eaten all the biscuits and emptied the marmalade crock and Irving had made a serious dent in the blubber, he tried to mop his chin and lips with his mitten, but the Esquimaux woman reached to the niche once again and presented him with a handful of loose snow. Since the high temperature in the little snow-house felt as if it were actually above freezing, Irving self-consciously mopped the blubber grease off his face, dried his face with his sleeve, and started to hand the remaining strip of sealskin and fat back to the girl. She gestured to the storage niche and he stuffed the piece of blubber as far back into the niche as he could reach.

  Now comes the hard part, thought the lieutenant.

  How does one communicate just by the use of hands and dumb show that there are more than a hundred hungry men threatened by scurvy who need someone else’s hunting and fishing secrets?

  Irving made a game try at it. With Lady Silence’s deep, dark eyes watching unblinkingly, he acted out men walking, rubbing his stomach to show that they were hungry, the three masts of each ship, men getting sick — he stuck his tongue out, crossed his eyes in a way that used to upset his mother, and mimed falling over onto the bearskin robe — and then pointed to Silence and energetically acted out her casting a spear, holding a fishing pole, pulling in a catch. Irving pointed to the blubber he’d just stuffed away, in more ways than one, and pointed vaguely beyond the snow-house, again rubbing his stomach, crossing his eyes and falling, then rubbing his stomach again. He pointed to Lady Silence, floundered a moment on the sign language for “show us how to do it ourselves,” and then repeated the spear-throwing and fish-catching mimes while pausing to point to her, shoot splay-fingered rays out his eyes, and rub his stomach to specify the recipients of her teaching.

  When he was finished, sweat dripped from his brow.

  Lady Silence looked at him
. If she had blinked again, he’d missed it during his antics.

  “Oh, well, bloody hell,” said Third Lieutenant Irving.

  In the end, he just buttoned up his layers and slops again, stuffed the ship’s napkin and his mother’s crock back in his leather valise, and called it a day. Perhaps he had got his message across after all. He might never know. Perhaps if he returned often enough to the snow-house …

  Irving’s speculation veered into the highly personal at that point, and he reined himself in as if he were a coachman with a matched set of willful Arabians.

  Perhaps if he returned often … he would be able to go with her during one of her nocturnal seal-hunting expeditions.

  But what if the thing on the ice is still giving her these things? he wondered. After seeing what he had seen so many weeks ago, he had half-convinced himself that he had not seen what he had seen. But the more honest half of Irving’s memory and mind knew that he had seen it. The creature on the ice had brought her chunks of seal or arctic foxes or other game. Lady Silence had left that place among the ice boulders and seracs that night with fresh meat.

  And then there was Erebus’s mate, Charles Frederick Des Voeux, with his stories of men and women in France who transformed themselves into wolves. If that was possible — and many of the officers and all of the crewmen seemed to think it was — why could not a native woman with a talisman of the white bear around her neck turn herself into something like a giant bear with the cunning and evil of a human being?

  No, he had seen the two together on the ice. Hadn’t he?

  Irving shivered as he finished buttoning his slops. It was very warm in this little snow-house. Ironically, it was giving him the chills. He felt the blubber working at his bowels and decided it was time to go. He would be lucky if he made it back to Terror’s seat of ease in time as it was and he had no wish to stop out on the ice to see to such functions. It was bad enough when his nose became frostbitten.

  Lady Silence had watched while he packed away the old napkin and his mother’s crock — items that he realized much later she might very much have wanted — but now she touched her cheek with the silk handkerchief a final time and tried to hand that back to him.

 
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