Lament the night, p.1
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Lament The Night
Lament The Night

  by

  Kassandra Alvarado

  Lament The Night

  Copyright 2013

  Cover Art designed by the author whom gratefully acknowledges contribution from Dr. Elisha Kent Kane.

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold

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  Table of Contents

  Lament the Night

  Lament the Night

  “Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night...”

  - Psalm 91

  A chill September wind whistled across the ice-choked bay, gathering fragmentary shards of crystallized droplets off the sheer peaks surmounting the dark hulk of the island. The ships lay at anchor in the natural curve of land, shelter afforded with the closing of a polar winter fast approaching. Preparations were being made aboard each vessel for their first taste of the long arctic nights prophesied by Parry, written of darkly by Ross and endured by many that had come before them.

  Commander James Fitzjames could feel the palpable sense of excitement experienced by the crew, shared by many of his brother-officers. Most were first-entry men, having never known the hardships foretold in quiet parlors and in discreet corners by old polar hands. Fitzjames had felt particularly supercilious that day, having taken tea with Captain Crozier in the afternoon. The latter formed the other half of command, yet Fitzjames could only observe with certain liberties afforded him by the Admiralty, offices previously enjoyed by Crozier had been bestowed upon him.

  There was no small disagreement between them, though he had oft noted Crozier was most pleased to make note of small errors that he - Fitzjames made, during the beginning of their magnetic observations. At face-value, Francis Crozier was polite and every bit as ingenious of spirit save for a few minor days of dispirits when their mastheads had bid farewell to England in late May. As third-in-command, Fitzjames felt none of his powers limited, perhaps enhanced by Crozier’s distance, therefore that afternoon when the latter had made some obscure observation on the signs of a harsh winter ahead; Fitzjames had been swift to deny the possibility of it. For a harsh winter now, only foretold of perilous ice conditions the next-year.

  The man elder to them both, Sir John Franklin, had wavered between agreement and some disappointment of their sailing season being considerably shorter after winter’s end and Spring’s come. Passing cloud cover had obscured the brief sunlight filtering through the wide swath of windows situated on Erebus’s stern, the curtains had been drawn back to allow the fullest of natural light to illuminate the interior, yet with the turn in conversation, had darkened the mood invariably brought by Crozier’s dire assessment.

  “No more talk of dark things, I can say with no small amount of anticipation, I’m looking forward to the coming winter. When sailing conditions materialize next-year, I’m sure we will all defer to your opinions, Mister Crozier.” Fitzjames had said; a small brown-furred body with the blackest little eyes, scampered up his trouser leg. He fed the ship’s monkey, Jacko, the last petit-four from the china plate as if that settled the matter.

  Now, on the quarterdeck of Erebus, observing preparations, a slight satisfied smile curved his mouth, filling his pouchy cheeks. In one of his last letters to reach England’s shores, he had wished for just-this occurrence to come true; one overwintering in polar lands before the passage was theirs.

  The single blight in his vision was the sickness of one of Crozier’s men. The lead stoker, Petty Officer, John Shaw Torrington. It was the chief surgeon of Terror, John Peddie, and assistant surgeon, Alexander M’Donald’s opinions respectively that Mister Torrington had a preexisting condition prior to sailing and had hidden it well from Admiralty inspectors. True, some parts of the symptoms suffered appeared to be consumptive in nature yet none save for Torrington showed the slightest bit of weakness during exertions. Deep in the recesses of Fitzjames’s mind, he knew this to be troubling, something forewarning of a different force at work than the evils recognized by man.

  ***

  The skies darkened above ere they watched the sun fade with keenness. Snug they were in their wooden ships, veritable castles against the bleakness of the barren lands. The monotony of which was broken by visits to sister ship Terror, acquaintances flourished among the lower officers, winter school with slates, pencils and books was provided for those who wished to learn and even a humble newspaper circulated on certain days, profiting the sup table with witty anecdotes

  It was of this, light, cheerful things which Fitzjames cherished most, having settled for the evening in his cabin, the candle burning low into a pool of scented wax. The paper before him was half-filled, enumerating an amusing occurrence between one of the mates and the ship’s dog. Something pleasant to write of to his sister by marriage, Elizabeth Coningham. He did not write of increasing claustrophobia, the gradual sickness of one of his own men to whose decay was made worse day by day. Nor of the animal shrieks and groans of the ice, making light of the frozen harbor clinching Erebus and Terror fast to the polar winter.

  Such things were indelicate to the eye of a Lady, he felt, pen paused. Without the nearness of constant heat, ink froze into black pools of ice. Thinking of another sentence, he dipped the pen only to discover the hindrance had formed, the ink had frozen yet again. Ah, well, such is that for an adventurer, thought he, his mouth wryly twisting.

  Before he could take up the recalcitrant pot to warm between his palms; a hesitant knock came at his door. “May I have a word, Commander?” The faintest trace of Scottish brogue lilted the voice on the other side.

  He placed identity immediately, capping the inkwell. “You may, Mister Goodsir.” He watched as the door slid back to reveal the lanky surgeon. They had spoken among company about one thing or another; Fitzjames thought him a trifle serious, easily in raptures over a specimen of anything once-living or unusual appearing. It was rare for Harry Goodsir to seek him out alone. “What is on your mind?” Though, in private, preferring first-name basis with his fellows, Fitzjames hesitated on abandoning decorum with a man he knew little of.

  “It is about Mister Torrington, sir.” The surgeon said uncomfortably, closing the flimsy partition firmly.

  “Yes?” Fitzjames gave his full attention. He was well aware of the deteriorating health of Torrington and Hartnell. Scarce could they remove the younger brother of Hartnell’s, from his bedside in the Erebus sickbay. “Is it curable?”

  “No-ah, I meant, yes. We are doing our best.” The surgeon’s gaze dropped, his shoulders hunched. “I wish our best were only enough.”

  “Something else seems to be troubling you,” Fitzjames observed, noting the pallor of Goodsir’s skin, the bruising beneath dark brown eyes. He was nervous, glancing furtively toward the corners of the room as if he might read the answer there to the disease plaguing the men.

  Goodsir exhaled a mist of white, at length he spoke. “We examined Mister Torrington, Steph- Mister Stanley did, with myself in attendance. “He had a...” the surgeon hesitated, color more pronounced.

  “Well, speak, man.”

  Goodsir sighed, “a most peculiar bite mark on his inner arm.” From nervousness, he nearly lapsed into complicated medical-speak, aware too that the other would have trouble comprehending him. “We initially thought it was a mosquito bite and thought not much of it until Steph- ah, Mister Stanley discovered the mark had all but disappeared this morning!”

  “It may have healed.” Fitzjames reasoned, leaning back. “What is so odd about that?”

  “Nothing, sir.” Goodsir muttered, casting his eyes down, searching for words to describe his anxiety. “Nothing at all.” He worried his hands, long thin fingers proportioned to the rest of his flat, straight height. Where once, the assistant surgeon had found joy in the simple facets of natural life in the brief summer, his eyes now saw the veil of things to come. Polar darkness, bane of rats and scurvy. Twice over he had been reassured by the Ice-master, a former whaler tapped in England by the Admiralty to furnish his expertise to the expedition in the facet as Ice-master, James Reid, that there was little chance of their ships being ‘nipped’ by the ice.

  “She arl right.” Growled the Scotsman, bewhiskered face ruddy with the cold.

  “There is one other matter,” Harry paused on the threshold. “Mister Torrington, when asked, said he’d had that mark since the night before we sailed.”

  Fitzjames lifted his eyes from the paper he had been perusing. “Then...?”

  But, the surgeon would say no more, wouldn’t speak of those suspicions that had troubled him as of late. “G’night, sir.” Simply because they were madness to think of.

  ***

  A few days into November, presaging the very worst of months spent in polar lands, Sir John Franklin retired to his bed with an uneasy mind, made all the worse restless by the sermon he had ordained that same afternoon. He had felt it needed for morale amongst the men, sensing a proclivity to downed spirits. James had shared his views, appearing distant himself, speaking only when directly spoken to and often seeming lost in thought.

  This was very different from the man that had first sailed north with him in May. Sir John couldn’t account for it, other than having a few men sick in each set of surgeons’ care. But, even that felt a paltry excuse. Attempting to banish gloom and dark thoughts, he had gone against his own sensibilities and ordered a little extra grog to be served after Divine Service. The officers had cheered some at the prospect and had been able to tell their respective shift mates, a spot of good news.

  Sir John had taken especial care in preparing his sermon, thinking it wise to denounce the Devil in all his forms and remind the often-superstitious seamen of God’s goodness. He had chosen psalms of David, speaking of protection in the face of adversity and breaking again with tradition, had the on-duty watch dismissed to attend service. After all, Sir John reasoned with his officers, who would be likely to disturb them on the Sabbath day?

  All had gone well with the opening benediction. Prone to pauses for the men to absorb the beauty of the bible scripture, Sir John had descended into the second of these, glancing over the rapt and intent faces gazing up at him on his makeshift pulpit. Someone - in the back row moved, turning about curiously as if hearing something.

  “How then, can we fear the unknown?” Sir John expounded, deciding to overlook a member of the flock’s loss of attention. He, himself had heard nothing, having hearing problems since youth. “For the unknowable shall soon be brought to light and -”

  More faces tilted upward, but not to a vision of God in the highest. Losing his train of words, Sir John floundered with several false starts, briefly looking to the side where the senior-most officers stood respectfully. James met his gaze, querying.

  “Who’s up there?” Sergeant Bryant asked sharply.

  Graham Gore, a tall well-built fellow serving as First Lieutenant, shook his head slightly, answering the Royal Marine. “No one. No one’s up there. They’re all...down here.”

  A frisson of apprehension spread like wildfire throughout the seamen ranks. Feeling as though he must regain control, Sir John reluctantly abandoned his post on the pulpit, near to asking aloud what the devil were they going on about, when he finally heard it.

  Footsteps.

  “Why it must be a messenger from Captain Crozier.” He declared, somehow unable to convince himself of it. “Go and see what the lad wants, Sergeant Bryant.”

  The Royal Marine mumbled, “sir.” In acknowledgement of the order, complete spit and polish in his red coat and ivory trousers. Bryant clicked his heels and disappeared astern, the opening of the hatchway in the officers’ quarters felt by a heavy gust of frigid air sending the feeble oil lamps sputtering. Sir John held his breath, waiting, feeling the need to grasp onto something. Yet because of his station, he refused to give into feeble-heartedness, standing erect aside from Fitzjames, noting how even then, the minor sounds the Sergeant made above were nothing similar to those heard only moments prior.

  “Nothing.” Bryant announced upon his return to the Forecastle, a layer of frost rimmed his coarse black whiskers, belying the desolateness of the conditions. The atmosphere thickened, the seamen’s faces were alike in their pallor and wary looks to each other. Sensing the uselessness of his special sermon, Sir John dejectedly handed over the conductor’s chair to Purser Osmer, whose bass voice was loud enough when raised in singing to drown out even the most nefarious disembodied footstep. Osmer led the crew in traditional hymns while someone else cranked out calliope tunes from the barrel organ.

  Despite some of the gloom seeping off from the surroundings, a lingering trace remained. Indefinable fear of something beyond the four walls of their ship, clung to Sir John’s weak heart. Try as he might, he was unable to shake it from his bones.

  Even in the sanctity of his room, surrounded by deep bookshelves and books detailing the conquered world, he felt as though some things remained which should never be comprehended by man. Briefly, he then challenged those thoughts, wondering why at all he should be afraid of a little noise? It was only a noise and at that, an all too human one. So, consoling himself with it, he turned over to face the rest of the room. Long before, the steward had smothered the rushlights, plunging the room into darkness, he was accustomed to.

  On this night, however, he missed the comforts of sharing Jane’s bed, having only a small cross made of olive wood she had gifted him from the Holy Land, brought from one of her many travels. The cross was smallish in length threaded through by a woven cord. He found it in the opening of his nightshirt, fingers closing upon the smooth surface as a new sound pierced his hearing.

  Before his mind could define it, he had sat up in bed, shivering when the blankets fell from his shoulders. Yes, he was certain of it. The sound came from the windows. Not by them as he’d originally surmised, but on the other side. Sir John was not a superstitious man at heart yet as he clutched the cross to his breast, mumbling disjointed prayers; a cold sweat broke out on his skin, his old heart beat faster than at Trafalgar, and still that infernal noise continued.

  “Go away. Go away. Please!” He whispered, realizing prayer had no effect. Afraid to slide back into the blankets, afraid to even move from his stock still position, seated upright. His feeble sight burned, peering into the darkness of the room, familiar objects became terrifying possibilities that little rationality could dispel.

  Finally pulling the cross from his breast, he flung it in the direction of the windows, “be gone with you! You’ll find no entry here!” He cried, momentary daring fleeing. For the rest of the night, he clutched a velvet framed portrait miniature of Jane, wishing he had half her courage and briefly wishing he were still in England, not listening to something scratching at the window pane.

  Long after Franklin had drifted off into a troubled sleep, a sleeper in a cabin three down from his own, possessed a fitful dreamer. James Fitzjames awoke from the depths of a nightmare, sweat-clad, tangled in his own bed-sheets. Pulling free from the moist furs, the shock of the cold against his face and upper body cleared his mind from the grains of sleep, and more aware of his surroundings, he sighed heavily, rubbing life back into his cold face.

  He had dreamt of death, faceless men that were not men at all, but animals. As much as he attempted to convince himself of the dream’s unreality, he couldn’t shake the disquieting sensation that he knew those men. Had he been among them? Lost in white world. “The ice was here, the ice was there, the ice was all around.” He mumbled a few lines of Coleridge, his heart rate easing into slower levels. Fitzjames smiled faintly at himself, calmer. “Too much Port, old boy.” Observing Sir John’s wedding anniversary had led to a full glass all around that evening. They had toasted the Queen, the Passage and Lady Franklin all in one salutary lush. Franklin had been much moved by their toast, wiping a stray tear from his withered cheek.

  Thoughts of those left behind in England cheered Fitzjames’s heart, banishing the isolation of polar darkness stealing over his soul. One season, he assured himself, settling the blankets around himself. In the coming year, we take the Passage and sail through to glory. Yet young enough and proven upon their return, he would turn thoughts to broaching a new expedition to conquer the Pole, after all he’d had confidential and very emboldening advice from polar patriarch, Edward Parry, that conquering the Pole was possible.

  Fitzjames’s mind thus occupied by future honors bestowed upon his willing shoulders, failed to note the carrying of sound like that a howling dog. The ship’s dog, a Newfoundland beast gifted by conscientious Lady Franklin, had a bed in the Forecastle and wasn’t prone to fits of nervousness nor mad barking quite unlike its mangy landlubber fellows.

  With the ceasing of that distant howl, a rasping, grating, awful sound made itself known apposite his bunk. The chill that had fled after the nightmarish awakening, presented itself foremost in the Erebus Commander’s mind. Just the ice, he thought to himself, shuddering violently. Just the ice scraping past my berth and nothing more.

  ***

  The wine passed freely on Christmas night. By God, it was needed, Francis Crozier thought, passing an eye over the listless officers lingering over the mess table. A relaxation of Sir John’s infamous teetotalling was welcomed by both crews, though none of the officers’ mess tables in either ship had suffered. The quality of the beef had deteriorated some with heavy salt needed to preserve it, furnishing subordinate and senior messes with a prerequisite treat for the season. The crew’s portion had gone unexpectedly rancid, in lieu of the promised meat, their tables in the Fo’c’sle were laden with a variety of turtle and ox cheek soups. Both of which were a poor substitute once the quality of the cans was laid bare.

 
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