The terror, p.50
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Terror, p.50
 

          

  Once on the river, if they ever reached the river, they would be confronted with what Back had described as “a violent and tortuous course of 530 geographical miles, running through an iron-ribbed country without a single tree on the whole of its banks” and then “no fewer than 83 falls, cascades, and rapids.” Crozier had trouble imagining his men, after another month or more of man-hauling, being fit enough or well enough to confront 83 falls, cascades, and rapids in even the sturdiest boats. The portages alone would kill them.

  A week earlier, before heading out with the boat-sledge teams to Terror Camp, Surgeon Goodsir told Crozier that the lemon-juice antiscorbutic, their only defense against scurvy now — as weak as it had become — would run out in three weeks or less, depending upon how many men died between now and then.

  Crozier knew how quickly the full onslaught of scurvy would weaken all of them. For this 25 miles to King William Land with light sledges and full teams, on full half rations for the crossing, on a runners path that had been beaten into the ice for more than a month, they had to cover a little more than eight miles a day. On the rough terrain or coastal ice of King William Land and south, that distance might be cut in half or worse. Once the scurvy began having its way with them, they might only cover a mile a day and, if the wind died, might well not be able to pole or paddle the heavy boats upstream against the current of Back’s River. A portage of any distance in the weeks or months to come might soon become impossible.

  The only things working in their favor in heading south were the very long-shot chance that a rescue party was already heading north from Great Slave Lake, searching for them, and the simple fact that it would be getting warmer as they traveled farther south. They would be following the thaw, at the very least.

  Still, Crozier would have preferred staying in the northern latitudes and going the longer distance east and north to Boothia Peninsula and then across it. He knew there was only one even relatively safe way to attempt that: take the men to King William Land, cross it, then make the relatively short traverse across open ice, sheltered from the worst of the northwest wind and weather by the island itself, to the southwestern coast of the Boothia, then slowly north along the edge of the ice or on the coastal plain itself, and finally across the mountains toward Fury Bay, hoping every step of the way to meet Esquimaux.

  It was the safe way. But it was the long way. 1,200 miles, almost half again longer than the alternate route south around King William Land and then further south up Back’s River.

  Unless they met friendly Esquimaux soon after crossing to the Boothia, they would all be dead weeks or months before such a twelve-hundred-mile trip could be completed.

  Even so, Francis Crozier would have preferred to have wagered everything on a dash straight across the ice — northeast over the worst of the pack ice in a mad attempt to replicate the astounding 600-mile small-group sledge trip made by his friend James Clark Ross eighteen years earlier when the Fury was frozen in on the opposite side of the Boothia Peninsula. The old steward — Bridgens — had been absolutely correct. John Ross had taken the best bet on survival, forcing his way north by foot and sledge and then in boats left behind up to Lancaster Sound and waiting for whalers. And his nephew James Ross showed that it was possible — just possible — to sledge from King William Land back to Fury Beach.

  Erebus was still in its final ten days of agony when Crozier had detached the best man-haulers from each ship — the winners of the biggest prizes and the last money Francis Crozier had in the world — given them the best-designed sledge, and ordered Mr. Helpman and Mr. Osmer, the purser, to fit this superteam of man-haulers out with everything they might need for six weeks on the ice.

  It was an eleven-man sledge headed by Erebus second mate Charles Frederick Des Vouex, its lead puller the giant Manson. Each of the other nine men were asked to volunteer. Each man did.

  Crozier had to know if it was possible to man-haul a fully loaded boat sledge across the open ice in such a straight dash toward rescue. The eleven men left at six bells on 23 March, in the dark, with the temperature at thirty-eight below zero, to three rousing cheers from every ambulatory crewman assembled from both ships.

  Des Voeux and his men were back in three weeks. No one had died, but they were all exhausted and four of the men had serious frostbite. Magnus Manson was the only one of the eleven-man team, including the apparently indefatigable Des Voeux, who did not seem close to death from exhaustion and hardship.

  In three weeks they had been able to travel less than twenty-eight miles in a straight line from Terror and Erebus. Des Voeux later estimated that they had man-hauled more than a hundred and fifty miles to gain those twenty-eight, but there was no possibility of traveling in a straight line that far out on the pack ice. The weather northeast of their current position was more terrible than the Ninth Circle of Hell where they had been trapped for two years. Pressure ridges were Legion. Some rose to heights greater than eighty feet. Even steering their course was close to impossible when clouds hid the southerly sun and the stars were hidden for several eighteen-hour nights on end. Compasses, of course, were useless this close to the north magnetic pole.

  The team had brought five tents for safety’s sake, although they had planned to sleep in only two of them. The nights were so cold out on the exposed ice that the eleven men slept the last nine nights, when they were able to sleep at all, in a single tent. But in the end they’d had no choice in the matter, since four of the sturdy tents had blown away or been ripped to shreds by the twelfth night on the ice.

  Somehow Des Voeux had kept them moving to the northeast, but every day the weather worsened, the pressure ridges grew closer together, the necessary deviations from their course became longer and more treacherous, and the sledge sustained serious damage in their Herculean struggle to haul and shove it over the jagged ice ridges. Two days were lost just repairing the sledge in the howl of wind and blowing snow.

  The mate had decided to turn around on their fourteenth morning on the ice. With only one tent left, he gauged their chances of survival as low. They then tried to follow their own thirteen days of ruts back to the ships, but the ice was too active — shifting slabs, moving bergs within the pack ice, and new pressure ridges rising in front of them had obliterated their track. Des Voeux, the finest navigator on the Franklin Expedition except for Crozier, took theodolite and sextant readings in the few clear moments he found in the days and nights but ended up setting his course based mostly on dead reckoning. He told the men that he knew precisely where they were. He was sure, he later admitted to Fitzjames and Crozier, that he would miss the ships by twenty miles.

  On their last night on the ice, the final tent ripped and they abandoned their sleeping bags and pressed on to the southwest blindly, man-hauling just to stay alive. They jettisoned their extra food and clothing, continuing to man-haul the sledge only because they needed their water, shotguns, cartridges, and powder. Something large had been following them for their entire voyage. They could see it through the spindrift and fog and pelting hail. They could hear it circling them each endless night in the darkness.

  Des Voeux and his men were sighted on the northern horizon, still headed due west and oblivious of Terror three miles south of them, on the morning of their twenty-first day on the ice. An Erebus lookout had spotted them, but the ship itself was gone by then — crushed and splintered and sunk. It was Des Voeux’s and his men’s good fortune that the lookout, Ice Master James Reid, had climbed the huge iceberg that had been part of the Grand Venetian Carnivale before dawn that day and spotted the men through his glass just at first light.

  Reid, Lieutenant Le Vesconte, Surgeon Goodsir, and Harry Peglar led the party that went out to fetch the Des Voeux team, bringing them back past the crushed timbers, tumbled masts, and tangled rigging that was all that remained of the sunken ship. Five of the Des Voeux champion team were not able to walk the last mile to Terror but had to be sledged there by their mates. The six Erebuses among the super
team of sledgers, including Des Voeux, wept at the sight of their destroyed home as they were led past it.

  So … the short way northeast to Boothia was no longer an option. After debriefing Des Voeux and the other shattered men, both Fitzjames and Crozier agreed that a few of the 105 survivors might make it to Boothia, but the vast majority were certain to perish on the ice under such conditions, even with the longer days, slightly rising temperatures, and added sunlight. The possibility of open leads would only add to the hazard.

  The choices now were either stay on the ships or set up a camp on King William Land with the option of making a run south to Back’s River.

  Crozier began the planning for the evacuation the next day.

  Just before sunset and their dinner stop, the procession of sledges came across a hole in the ice. They stopped, the five sledges and harnessed men making a ring around the pit. The black circle far below them was the first open water the men had seen in twenty months.

  “This weren’t here last week when we brung the pinnaces to Terror Camp, Captain,” said Seaman Thomas Tadman. “You can see how close them runner tracks come to it. We would’ve seen it, sure like. There was nothing here.”

  Crozier nodded. This was no ordinary polynya — the Russian word for one of those rare holes in pack ice that remained open all year long. The ice was more than ten feet thick here — less thick than the congealed pack ice around Terror but still solid enough to erect a London building on — but there was no sign of pressure slabs or cracking around this hole. It was as if someone or something had taken a gigantic ice saw of the sort both ships packed and cut a perfectly round hole through the ice.

  But the ships’ ice saws would not cut so cleanly through ten feet of ice.

  “We could take our dinner here,” said Thomas Blanky. “Enjoy our victuals by the seaside, as it were.”

  The men shook their heads. Crozier agreed — he wondered if the others felt the same unease he did about the uncannily perfect circle, deep pit, and black water. “We’ll keep moving for another hour or so,” he said. “Lieutenant Little, have your sledge take the lead, please.”

  It was perhaps twenty minutes later, the sun had set with an almost tropical suddenness and stars were shaking and twitching in the cold sky, when Privates Hopcraft and Pilkington, who had been serving as rear guard, crunched up to Crozier where he was walking beside the rearmost sledge. Hopcraft whispered, “Captain, there’s something following us.”

  Crozier pulled his brass telescope from the top-lashed box on the sled and stood stationary on the ice with the two men for a minute while the sledges rasped their way past them into the gathering gloom.

  “There, sir,” said Pilkington, pointing with his good arm. “Maybe it come up out of that hole in the ice, Captain. Do you think it did? Bobby and I think it probably did. Maybe it was just down there in the black water under the ice waiting for us to pass and then come up for us. Or hoping for us to tarry there. Do you think, sir?”

  Crozier did not answer. He could see it through the glass, just visible in the failing light. It looked white but only because it was briefly silhouetted against storm clouds building in the night-black sky to the northwest. As the thing passed seracs and ice boulders the sledge procession had grunted its way past only twenty minutes earlier, it was easier to get a sense of its enormous size. At the shoulder, even when it was moving on all fours as it was now, it was taller than Magnus Manson. It moved lithely for something so massive — the movement looked to be more foxlike than bear-heavy. As Crozier struggled to steady the glass in the rising wind, he saw the thing rise up and begin walking on two legs. It moved a little less rapidly that way, but still more quickly than men attached to 2,000-lb. sledges. It now towered over seracs whose tops Crozier could not have reached with his fully raised arm and extended telescope.

  Then it was dark and he could no longer make it out against the background of pressure ridges and seracs. He led the Marines back to the sledge procession and set his glass into the storage box as the men ahead leaned steeply into their harnesses and grunted and panted and pulled.

  “Stay close to the sledges but keep looking rearward and keep your weapons primed,” he said softly to Pilkington and Hopcraft. “No lanterns. You’ll need whatever vision you have in the dark.” The bulky shapes of the Marines nodded and moved rearward. Crozier noted that the guards ahead of the first sledge had lit their lanterns. He could no longer see the men, just the ice-crystal-haloed circles of light.

  The captain called Thomas Blanky over. The man’s peg leg and wooden foot exempted him from man-hauling even though the foot had been thoughtfully studded with nails and cleats for the ice. The half-leg simply didn’t give Blanky the leverage and pulling power he needed. But the men knew that the ice master might soon figuratively, if not literally, pull his weight and more; knowledge of ice conditions would be crucial if they encountered leads and had to launch their boats from Terror Camp in the coming weeks or months.

  Now Crozier used Blanky as a messenger. “Mr. Blanky, would you be so good as to go forward and pass the word to the men not hauling that we will not be stopping for supper? They should retrieve the cold beef and biscuits from the appropriate sledge boxes and pass them out to the Marines and men in harness along with the word that everyone should eat on the march and drink from the water bottles they carry under their outer clothing. And also please ask our guards to make sure that their weapons are ready. They might wish to remove their outer mittens.”

  “Yes, Captain,” said Blanky and disappeared ahead into the gloom. Crozier could hear the crunch of his hobnailed wooden foot.

  The captain knew that within ten minutes, every man on the march would understand that the thing on the ice was following them and closing the gap.

  35

  IRVING

  Lat. 69° 37′ 42″ N., Long. 98° 40′ 58″ W.

  24 April, 1848

  Except for the fact that John Irving was sick and half-starving and his gums were bleeding and he feared that two of his side teeth were loose and he was so tired that he was afraid he would collapse in his tracks at any moment, this was one of the happiest days of his life.

  All this day and the previous day, he and George Henry Hodgson, old friends from the gunnery training ship Excellent before this expedition, had been in charge of teams of men doing some hunting and honest-to-God exploring. For the first time in this accursed expedition’s three years of sitting around and freezing, Third Lieutenant John Irving was a true explorer.

  It was true that the island he was exploring eastward across, the same King William Land to which he’d come with Lieutenant Graham Gore a little more than eleven months ago, wasn’t worth a drop of Chinaman’s piss what with it being all frozen gravel and low hills, none rising more than twenty or so feet above sea level, inhabited only by howling winds and pockets of deep snow and then more frozen gravel, but Irving was exploring. Already this morning he had seen things that no other white man — and perhaps no other human being on the planet — had ever seen. Of course, it was just more low hills of frozen gravel and more windswept pockets of ice and snow, not so much as an arctic fox track or a mummified ring seal to be found, but it was his discovery: Sir James Ross had sledged around the northern coast to reach Victory Point two decades or so ago, but it was John Irving — originally from Bristol and then the young master of London Town — who was the first explorer of the interior of King William Land.

  Irving had half a mind to name the interior Irving Land. Why not? The point not far from Terror Camp was named after Sir John’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, and what had she ever done to deserve the honour except marry an old, fat, bald man?

  The various man-hauling teams were beginning to think of themselves as distinct groups. So yesterday, Irving led this same band of six men on a hunting party while George Hodgson took his men out to reconnoiter the island, as per Captain Crozier’s instructions. Irving’s hunters had found not so much as an animal track in the snow.


  The lieutenant had to admit that since all of his men had been armed with shotguns or muskets yesterday (Irving himself had carried only a pistol in his coat pocket, as he was doing today), there had been moments when he had felt some concern about the caulker’s mate, Hickey, being behind him and carrying a gun. But, of course, nothing had happened. With Magnus Manson more than twenty-five miles away at the ship, Hickey was not only polite but actually deferential to Irving, Hodgson, and the other officers.

  It reminded John Irving of how their tutor used to separate his brothers and him during classes at their Bristol home when the boys had become too rowdy during the long, dreary days of lessons. The tutor would actually set the boys in separate rooms in the old manor and conduct their lessons separately for hours, moving from one part of the second floor of the old wing to the next, his high-heeled buckled shoes echoing on the ancient oak floors. John and his brothers, David and William, such a handful around Mr. Candrieau when the three were together, became almost timid in front of the pale-faced, knobby-kneed beanpole of a white-wigged tutor when alone with him. Originally very reluctant to approach Captain Crozier about leaving Manson behind, Irving was now glad he had spoken up. He was even gladder that the captain had not pressed him for a reason; Irving had never told the captain about what he had seen going on between the caulker’s mate and big seaman that night on the hold deck and never would.

  But today there was no tension about Hickey or anything else. The only member of the scouting party to carry a weapon, other than Irving himself with his pistol, was Edwin Lawrence, who was armed with a musket. Shooting practice near the line of sledge-mounted boats at Terror Camp had shown that Lawrence was the only man in this group who could shoot a musket worth a damn, so he was their guard and protector today. The rest carried only canvas packs slung over their shoulders, jury-rigged bags hanging from one strap. Reuben Male, the captain of the fo’c’sle and an inventive type, had worked with Old Murray the sailmaker to make up these packs for all the men, so naturally the seamen called them Male Bags. In the Male Bags they kept their lead or pewter water bottles, some biscuits and dried pork, a tin of Goldner’s canned goods for emergency rations, some extra layers of clothing, the wire goggles that Crozier had ordered made up to protect them from sun blindness, extra powder and shot for when they were hunting, and their blanket sleeping bags just in case something should prevent them from returning to camp and they had to bivouac that night.

 
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll
Add comment

Add comment