The terror, p.7
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       The Terror, p.7
 

          

  “Aye, sir,” say Hornby and the seaman in unison. The pounding of running boots is felt but goes unheard over the wind screech.

  Crozier stands and swings his lantern in a circle.

  The heavy railing where Private Heather was standing watch at the base of the iced-over ratlines has been smashed away. Beyond the gap, Crozier knows, the heaped ice and snow runs down like a toboggan ramp for thirty feet or more, but most of that ramp is not visible in the blinding snow. There are no prints visible in the small circle of snow illuminated by the captain’s lantern.

  Reuben Male lifts Heather’s musket. “It wasn’t fired, Captain.”

  “In this storm, Private Heather couldn’t have seen the thing until it was right on him,” says Lieutenant Little.

  “What about Strong?” asks Crozier.

  Male points toward the opposite side of the ship. “Missing, Captain.”

  To Hornby, Crozier says, “Choose a man and stay with Private Heather until Crispe is back with the hammock and carry him below.”

  Suddenly, both surgeons — Peddie and his assistant, McDonald — appear in the circle of lamplight, McDonald wearing only light slops.

  “Jesus Christ,” says the chief surgeon, kneeling next to the Marine. “He’s breathing.”

  “Help him if you can, John,” says Crozier. He points to Male and the rest of the seamen crowding around. “The rest of you — come with me. Have your weapons ready to fire, even if you have to take your mittens off to do it. Wilson, carry both those lanterns. Lieutenant Little, please go below and choose twenty more good men, issue full slops, and arm them with muskets — not shotguns, muskets.”

  “Aye, sir,” Little shouts over the wind, but Crozier is already leading the procession forward, around the heaped snow and vibrating canvas pyramid amidships and up the canted deck toward the port lookout station.

  William Strong is gone. A long wool comforter has been shredded, and the tatters of it, caught in the man lines here, are flapping wildly. Strong’s greatcoat, Welsh wig, shotgun, and one mitten are lying near the railing in the lee of the port privy where men on watch huddle to stay out of the wind, but William Strong is gone. There is a smear of red ice on the railing where he must have been standing when he saw the large shape coming at him through the blowing snow.

  Without saying a word, Crozier dispatches two armed men with lanterns aft, three more toward the bow, another with a lantern to look beneath the canvas amidships. “Rig a ladder here, please, Bob,” he says to the second mate. The mate’s shoulders are hidden under heaps of fresh — that is, not yet frozen — rope he’s carried up from below. The ladder goes over the side within seconds.

  Crozier leads the way down.

  There is more blood on the ice and snow heaped along the exposed port-side hull of the ship. Streaks of blood, looking quite black in the lantern light, lead out beyond the fire holes into the ever-changing maze of pressure ridges and ice spires, all more sensed than seen in the darkness.

  “It wants us to follow it out there, sir,” says Second Lieutenant Hodgson, leaning close to Crozier so as to be heard over the wind howl.

  “Of course it does,” says Crozier. “But we’re going anyway. Strong might still be alive. We’ve seen that before with this thing.” Crozier looks behind him. Besides Hodgson, only three men had followed him down the rope ladder — all the rest were either searching the upper deck or were busy hauling Private Heather belowdecks. There is only one other lantern here besides the captain’s.

  “Armitage,” Crozier says to the gunroom steward, whose white beard is already filled with snow, “give Lieutenant Hodgson your lantern and you go with him. Gibson, you remain here and tell Lieutenant Little where we’ve headed when he comes down with the main search party. Tell him for God’s sake not to let his men fire at anything unless they’re sure it’s not one of us.”

  “Yes, Captain.”

  To Hodgson, Crozier says, “George, you and Armitage head out about twenty yards that way — toward the bow — then stay parallel to us as we search south. Try to keep your lantern within sight of ours.”

  “Aye, aye, sir.”

  “Tom,” Crozier says to the only remaining man, young Evans, “you come with me. Keep your Baker Rifle ready but only at half-cock.”

  “Aye, sir.” The boy’s teeth are chattering.

  Crozier waits until Hodgson reaches a point twenty yards to their right — his lantern only the dimmest glow in the blowing snow — and then he leads Evans out into the maze of seracs, ice pinnacles, and pressure ridges, following the periodic smears of blood on the ice. He knows that a delay of even a few minutes will be enough to blow snow over the faint trail. The captain doesn’t even bother to remove the pistol from the pocket of his greatcoat.

  Less than a hundred yards out, just where the lanterns of the men on the deck of HMS Terror become invisible, Crozier reaches a pressure ridge — one of those great heaps of ice thrown up by the ice plates grinding and surging against each other beneath the surface. For two winters in the ice now, Crozier and the other men of the late Sir John Franklin’s expedition have watched these pressure ridges appear as if by magic, rise with a great rumbling and tearing sound, and then extend themselves across the surface of the frozen sea, sometimes moving faster than a man can run.

  This ridge is at least thirty feet high, a great vertical rubble of ice boulders each at least as large as a hansom cab.

  Crozier walks along the ridge, extending his lantern as high as he can. Hodgson’s lantern is no longer visible to the west. Nowhere around Terror is the view simple any longer. Everywhere the snow seracs, drifts, pressure ridges, and ice pinnacles block one’s line of sight. There is one great ice mountain in the mile separating Terror and Erebus and half a dozen more in sight on a moonlit night.

  But no icebergs here tonight, only this three-storey-tall pressure ridge.

  “There!” shouts Crozier over the wind. Evans steps closer, his Baker Rifle raised.

  A smear of black blood on the white wall of ice. The thing had carried William Strong up this small mountain of icy rubble, taking an almost vertical route.

  Crozier begins climbing, holding the lantern in his right hand while he searches with his mittened free hand, trying to find cracks and crevices for his frozen fingers and already icy boots. He hadn’t taken time to put on his pair of boots in which Jopson had driven long nails through the soles, giving traction on such ice surfaces, and now his ordinary seaman’s boots slip and skitter on the ice. But he finds more frozen blood twenty-five feet up, just below the ice-jumbled summit of the pressure ridge, so Crozier holds the lantern steady with his right hand while kicking against a tilting ice slab with his left leg and leveraging himself up to the top, the wool of his greatcoat rasping against his back. The captain can’t feel his nose and his fingers are also numb.

  “Captain,” calls Evans from the darkness below, “do you want me to come up?”

  Crozier is panting too hard to speak for a second, but when he gets his wind back, he calls down, “No … wait there.” He can see the faint glow of Hodgson’s lantern now to the northwest — that team isn’t within thirty yards of the pressure ridge yet.

  Flailing for balance against the wind, leaning far to his right as the gale streams his comforter straight out to his left and threatens to topple him off his precarious perch, Crozier holds the lantern out over the south side of the pressure ridge.

  The drop here is almost vertical for thirty-five feet. There is no sign of William Strong, no sign of black smears on the ice, no sign that anything living or dead has come this way. Crozier can’t imagine how anything could have found its way down that sheer ice face.

  Shaking his head and realizing that his eyelashes are almost frozen to his cheeks, Crozier begins descending the way he’d come, twice almost falling onto the rising bayonets of ice before slip-sliding the last eight feet or so to the surface where Evans is waiting.

  But Evans is gone.

  The Baker
Rifle lies in the snow, still at half-cock. There are no prints in the swirling snow, human or otherwise.

  “Evans!” Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier’s voice has been trained to command for thirty-five years and more. He can make it heard over a sou’westerly gale or while a ship is white-foaming its way through the Strait of Magellan in an ice storm. Now he puts every bit of volume he can muster into the shout. “Evans!”

  No answer except the howl of the wind.

  Crozier lifts the Baker Rifle, checks the priming, and fires it into the air. The crack sounds muffled even to him, but he sees Hodgson’s lantern suddenly turn toward him and three more lanterns become dimly visible on the ice from the direction of Terror.

  Something roars not twenty feet from him. It could be the wind finding a new route through or around an icy serac or pinnacle, but Crozier knows that it isn’t.

  He sets the lantern down, fumbles in his pocket, pulls the pistol out, tugs off his mitten with his teeth, and, with just a thin woolen glove between his flesh and the metal trigger, holds the useless weapon in front of him.

  “Come on, God-damn your eyes!” Crozier screams. “Come out and try me instead of a boy, you hairy arse-licking rat-fucking piss-drinking spawn of a poxy Highgate whore!”

  There is no answer except the howl of the wind.

  6

  GOODSIR

  Lat. 74°-43′-28″ N., Long. 90°-39′-15″ W.

  Beechey Island, Winter 1845–46

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

  1 January, 1846 —

  John Torrington, stoker on HMS Terror, died early this morning. New Year’s Day. The beginning of our Fifth Month stuck in the ice here at Beechey Island.

  His death was not a surprise. It has been obvious for several months that Torrington had been in the advanced stages of Consumption when he signed on the expedition, and if the Symptoms had manifested themselves just a few weeks earlier in the Late Summer, he would have been sent home on Rattler or even with the two whaling ships we encountered just before sailing west across Baffin Bay and through Lancaster Sound to the Arctic Waste where we now find ourselves wintering. The sad Irony is that Torrington’s doctor had told him that going to Sea would be good for his health.

  Chief Surgeon Peddie and Dr. McDonald on Terror treated Torrington, of course, but I was present several times during the Diagnosis stage and was escorted to their ship by several of Erebus’s crewmen after the young stoker died this morning.

  When his illness became Obvious in early November, Captain Crozier relieved the 20-year-old of his duties as stoker down in the poorly ventilated lowest deck — the coal dust in the air alone there is enough to asphyxiate a person with normal lungs — and John Torrington had been in a consumptive invalid’s Downward Spiral since then. Still, Torrington might have survived for many more months had not there been an Intermediating Agent of his death. Dr. Alexander McDonald tells me that Torrington, who had become too weak in recent weeks even to allow his short Constitutionals around the lower deck, helped by his messmates, came down with Pneumonia on Christmas Day, and it had been a Death Watch since then. When I saw the body this morning, I was shocked at how Emaciated the dead John Torrington was, but both Peddie and McDonald explained that his appetite had been waning for two months, and even though the ship’s surgeons altered his Diet more heavily toward Canned Soups and Vegetables, he had continued to lose weight.

  This morning I watched as Peddie and McDonald prepared the corpse — Torrington in a clean striped shirt, his hair recently and carefully cut, his nails clean — binding the usual clean cloth around his head to keep the jaw from dropping, then binding him with more strips of white cotton at the elbows, hands, ankles, and big toes. They did this in order to hold the Limbs together while they weighed the poor boy — 88 Pounds! — and otherwise prepared his body for burial. There was no discussion of Postmortem Examination since it was obvious that Consumption accelerated by Pneumonia had killed the lad, so there was no worry of contamination reaching other crew members.

  I helped my two surgeon colleagues from HMS Terror lift Torrington’s body into the coffin carefully prepared for it by the ship’s able Carpenter, Thomas Honey, and by his mate, a man named Wilson. There was no rigor mortis. The carpenters had left a residue of Wood Shavings along the bottom of the coffin, so carefully constructed and shaped out of standard ship’s mahogany, with a Deeper Pile of shavings under Torrington’s head, and because there was yet little Scent of Decay, the air was scented primarily by the wood shavings.

  3 January, 1846 —

  I keep thinking about John Torrington’s Burial late yesterday.

  Only a small contingent of us attended from HMS Erebus, but along with Sir John, Commander Fitzjames, and a few officers, I made the Crossing on Foot from our ship to theirs, and hence the extra two hundred yards to the Shore of Beechey Island.

  I have not been able to Imagine a worse winter than the one we have suffered frozen into this small anchorage in the lee of Beechey Island itself, set in the cusp of larger Devon Island, but Commander Fitzjames and others have assured me that our Situation here — even with the Treacherous Pressure Ridges, Terrible Dark, Howling Storms, and Constantly Menacing Ice — would be a thousand times worse out beyond this anchorage, out where the Ice flows down from the Pole like a hail of Enemy Fire from some Borean god.

  John Torrington’s crewmates gently lowered his coffin — already covered with a fine blue wool — over the railing of their ship, which is Wedged High on its own pillar of ice, while other Terror seamen lashed the coffin to a large Sledge. Sir John himself draped a Union Jack over the coffin, and then Torrington’s friends and messmates set themselves into Harness and pulled the sledge the six hundred feet or so to the ice-and-gravel shore of Beechey Island.

  All of this was performed in near Absolute Dark, of course, since even at midday, the sun makes no Appearance here in January and has not done so for three months. It shall be another month and more, they tell me, before the Southern Horizon welcomes back our Fiery Star. At any rate, this entire procession — coffin, sledge, man-haulers, officers, surgeons, Sir John, Royal Marines in full dress concealed under the same drab Slops the rest of us were wearing — was illuminated only by bobbing lamplight as we made our way across the Frozen Sea to the Frozen Shore. Men from Terror had chopped and shoveled away at the several recently arisen Pressure Ridges which stood between us and the graveled beach, so there were few Deviations from our sad Route. Earlier in the Winter, Sir John ordered a system of Stout Poles, ropes, and Hanging Lanterns to line the shortest route between the Ships and the graveled isthmus where several Structures had been built — one to house much of the ships’ stores, removed should ice destroy our vessels; another as a sort of emergency bunkhouse and Scientific Station; and a third housing the armourer’s forge, set here so that the Flames and Sparks should not ignite our tindered shipboard Homes. I have learned that Sailors fear fire at sea above almost everything else. But this Course of wooden Poles and Lanterns had to be abandoned since the ice is constantly shifting, rising up, and scattering or smashing anything set out on it.

  It was snowing during the burial. The wind was blowing hard, as it always does here on this godforsaken Arctic Waste. Just north of the burial site rose Sheer Black Cliffs, as inaccessible as the Mountains of the Moon. The lanterns lit on Erebus and Terror were only the dimmest of glows through the blowing snow. Occasionally a fragment of Cold Moon would appear from between quickly moving clouds, but even this thin, pale moonlight was quickly lost in the snow and dark. Dear God, this is truly a Stygian bleakness.

  Some of the strongest men from Terror worked almost without pause since the hours right after Torrington’s death, using pickaxe and spade to excavate his Grave — a regulation five feet deep, as commanded by Sir John. The Hole had been dug out of the most Severely Frozen ice and rock and one glance at it revealed to me what Labour had gone into its excavation. The flag was removed, and the coffin wa
s lowered carefully, almost reverently, into the narrow Pit. Snow immediately covered the top of the coffin and Glistened in the light from our several lanterns. One man, one of Crozier’s officers, set the wooden headboard in place and it was driven down into the frozen gravel with a few slams of a giant wooden hammer wielded by a giant of a seaman. The words on that carefully carved headboard read

  SACRED

  TO

  THE MEMORY OF

  JOHN TORRINGTON

  WHO DEPARTED

  THIS LIFEJANUARY 1ST

  A.D. 1846

  ON BOARD OF

  H.M. SHIP TERROR

  AGED 20 YEARS

  Sir John conducted the Service and spoke the Eulogy. It went on for some time and the soft drone of his soft voice was interrupted only by the Wind and by the stamping of Feet as the men tried to avoid frostbite of the toes. I confess that I heard little of Sir John’s eulogy — between the howling wind and my own wandering thoughts, oppressed by the loneliness of the place, by the memory of the striped-shirted body, limbs bound, that had just been lowered into that Cold Hole, and oppressed most of all by the Eternal blackness of the cliffs above the graveled isthmus.

  4 January, 1846 —

  Another man is dead.

  One of our own here on HMS Erebus, twenty-five-year-old John Hartnell, an able seaman. Just after what I still think of as 6:00 p.m., just as the tables were being lowered on chains for the men’s dinner, Hartnell stumbled against his brother, Thomas, fell to the deck, coughed blood, and was dead within five minutes. Surgeon Stanley and I were with him when he died in the cleared part of the forward area of the lower deck which we use for Sick Bay.

  This death stunned us. Hartnell had shown no symptoms of scurvy or consumption. Commander Fitzjames was there with us and could not hide his consternation. If this were some Plague or beginning of Scurvy moving through the crew, we needed to know at once. It was decided then and there, while the curtains were drawn and before anyone made ready to prepare John Hartnell for his coffin, that we would do a Postmortem Examination.

 
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