At the sound of the first explosion, Fitzjames stopped rowing and turned to the shore. Beside him, James Reid, ice-master to the Erebus, held his own oar steady in the water to compensate for the loss of balance.
“Our welcome ashore,” Reid said, his soft Aberdonian burr barely audible. He indicated the men awaiting their arrival, then visible against the rising light.
Fitzjames raised himself in his seat to look. A second rocket hissed wavering into the air, its spiraling ascent marked by a trail of smoke and sparks before it too guttered out, exploded and fell.
It was not yet six in the morning, and despite the absence of any true night, the brightest constellations still shone above them in the Arctic dawn, and all around them the water lay black and glossy as lacquer. Their presence attracted a small flock of terns, and these hovered silently above. Occasionally one of the birds folded its wings and dropped into the water, barely disturbing the surface as it disappeared.
Closing on where they waited, there approached a second boat, only then drawing clear of the Erebus. In this were Harry Goodsir, Graham Gore and Henry Vesconte, assistant surgeon and two of Fitzjames’ lieutenants. He beckoned them closer. Gore sat in the prow, a telescope to his eye, and Goodsir and Vesconte rowed.
“He makes a good figurehead,” Fitzjames said to Reid, looking back to where Gore, the oldest and heaviest of the three men, craned forward for a better view of the men on the shore.
There were no more rockets, only the two fading scribbles of spent light against the brightening sky.
Fitzjames felt uncomfortable in his dress uniform with its high collar, epaulettes and bands of stiff braid, all of which impeded his rowing. Reid wore only a blue cotton shirt beneath his serge jacket, and on his head a cap with a thin polished band bearing the name of the whaler on which he had served his apprenticeship thirty years earlier.
The others drew alongside. Gore said that there had been some delay on the Terror and that they were all ordered to wait where they sat.
“That’ll be your man Crozier,” Reid said, remarking on the delay and making no effort to disguise his dislike of the man.
Fitzjames silently conceded this. He knew that much of what they now did was for the benefit of those ashore, and for those back at home who might afterwards hear of it.
“A pity we arrive so early,” he said. “For their sake.” He indicated the distant figures.
“They’d have waited another fifty years for this.” Reid lit his pipe and tamped it with a brown thumb. “We are fabulous wealth and dreamed-of riches to all Greenlanders. We draw them the firm black line this way and that through the ice and they become the gatehouse to all we discover.”
“An ice-free port,” Fitzjames said absently. He saw immediately the impossibility of the plan Reid had half-seriously described.
“Sir John,” Reid said, indicating the larger boat which had just then appeared around the stern of the Erebus, and in which sat John Franklin, with Crozier beside him, his chest ablaze where the climbing sun caught his medals and sword. They were being rowed by the Erebus’ six marines, each measured stroke smooth and seemingly effortless.
Grasping his lapel, Fitzjames sat upright and said with mock gravity, “It has been calculated by Georges Louis Leclerc, a Frenchman wouldn’t you know, Comte de Buffon, that our planet is seventy-four thousand and some years old, that it has sustained life—albeit not intelligent, reasoning, pipe-smoking life as represented by yourself and I, Mr. Reid—for some forty thousand of those years, and that—and this is his calculation which may interest you most—that due to an almost imperceptible annual fall in temperature, in another ninety-three thousand years the globe will become totally uninhabitable, forever sheathed over its entire surface in a thick and iron-hard layer of impenetrable ice. May we not then have to reconsider our notions of Hell?”
From the nearby boat there came a burst of applause and calls of “bravo.”
“What do you have to say to that, Mr. Reid?”
“A Frenchman. The same, no doubt, who delivered a dozen mermaids to the King of Portugal with recommendation for their safe-keeping at the end of cables anchored to rocks upon the shore.”
Fitzjames agreed that it may indeed have been the same man.
“Then I believe you,” Reid told him, the joke now shared evenly between them. “The wonder of it all is that we are always taught to think of Hell as a burning, fiery place.” He turned to look to the north, to the invisible sea beyond the islands. “Do you imagine that’s the worst the men of God could conjure up to threaten us with?”
“Desert scribes,” Fitzjames said.
“Who had burned their own backs and knew just how terrible it was.”
“And yet the Eskimo is just as fearful of that Hell as we are.”
Reid shook his head—not solely in disagreement, but in deeper understanding.
“Then what?” Fitzjames said.
“They have no idea. This is what they know, this and much worse, and everything they imagine or conjure up is in some way connected with it. Hell to them may indeed be a fire, but it would not be your fire or my fire; it would not be the all-consuming, flesh-stripping blaze that we are so ready to accept.”
After this they sat in silence, both disappointed that the humor of only a moment earlier had so swiftly evaporated.
Goodsir was the first to call across to them. “Give me the ice and ice-master Reid any time,” he shouted. The others affirmed this.
“You flatter me, gentlemen,” Reid called back.
“So your indifference to the ice is a cultivated indifference,” Fitzjames said, uncertain even as he spoke if this did not sound too insulting or critical.
“Oh, aye, indifferent’s the word. Indifferent enough when you’re up on the bowsprit and I’m walking the floes ahead of you, indifferent then as a father leading his only daughter down the aisle.”
“Three cheers for Mr. Reid,” Goodsir called out. “Father to the bride Erebus, wide and ugly as sin, ungainly and as unmarriageable as she is.”
“And to us, her unwelcome dowry,” added Graham Gore, still squatting in the prow.
Their shouts were silenced by Reid as he indicated how close Franklin and Crozier had come to them.
The marines still rowed like automata, each synchronized stroke propelling them an exact distance across the calm bay. They moved in measured pulls, and as their blades slid from the water they brought little of it with them. Their sergeant, Solomon Tozer, a bulldog of a man in his mid-forties, rowed at their head and paced them.
“See the grinning sergeant comes,” Fitzjames whispered to Reid as the boat approached, and its oars were finally raised, turned and dipped to bring it to a standstill. Even in the chill air, and despite the apparent ease of their performance, the marines’ faces were slick with sweat.
It was only as they all came closer to the shore that they saw for the first time the large number of other vessels already moored in the sheltered waters to the north of the settlement, whalers, transports and their supply ships gathered there for provisioning and waiting for the ice to break up in their hunting grounds.
Fitzjames scanned these, but could not distinguish any one from the others, and only where they lay at anchor further out in the bay could he make out the complete outlines of individual vessels.
Gore, Vesconte and Goodsir drew alongside, and the two boats closed on Franklin.
Crozier called out to them, indicating the reception which awaited them ashore. As yet no boat had put to sea, but men were now standing ready to receive them. Fires had been lit, and their reflections lay sharply defined across the shallows.
At a distance from the main body of the crowd stood a smaller group, arranged in an evenly spaced line, at either end of which stood a man with a flag, a Union Jack to the left, a Danish Cross to the right. This, Crozier pointed out, was the Governor’s party.
“Henceforth, gentlemen, we move forward together,” Franklin said.
Tozer and three of his marines held their oars rigidly upright.
Franklin and Crozier composed themselves in readiness.
They went on, expecting at any moment to feel the shingle against their keel, and as the first boat touched bottom a loud cry went up from the shore. Someone blew a trumpet and someone else banged upon a drum, and if not melodiously or with any real sense of formal preparation, then their arrival was at least celebrated in a manner fitting for a place so uncertain of its foundations and squatting so precariously at the edge of so vast and silent a void.
The crowd consisted of a hundred or so men, and a dozen Eskimo women and their children. The governor headed a party of eight. He came forward to greet Franklin and the crowd cleared a path for him. He held out both his arms, causing Franklin to regret that he was about to be embraced in the French fashion.
Alongside Fitzjames and the others, the marines climbed ashore and formed a short corridor, and upon Tozer’s command they all saluted, at which a further cheer went up.
Franklin strode across the difficult shore to greet the governor, his hand held rigidly ahead of him, bayonet-like. Crozier followed two paces behind.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” the governor called to them. He clasped Franklin’s hand in both his own.
“It is, as ever, a great honor and privilege to be made so welcome upon a friendly shore,” Franklin said, his perfunctory tone masked by the shouting and cheering all around him.
“And Captain Crozier. We meet again.” The governor left Franklin and threw out his arms to Crozier.
“So we do,” Crozier said, bracing himself against the man’s effusive welcome.
“Please, gentlemen, honored guests, follow me.” He indicated the raised mound upon which the remainder of his welcoming party waited.
“Ah, terra firma,” Franklin said loudly, as though grateful of the offer, as though he were returning from his expedition and not just then setting out upon it. He shook hands with the seven other officials, two of whom still held their limp flags. The governor introduced him to each of the men, but it was obvious to Franklin that they understood little or nothing of what he said to them.
The small settlement stretched only a short distance to the north, and might have been easily walked from one end to the other in two minutes. The majority of the buildings were of wooden construction, though some, even cruder in appearance, were built in their lower parts of boulders and crudely applied black mortar. There was no surface to the road which ran through these dwellings other than the coating of shingle which had been spread on the ground. The settlement spilled down the shore to the wrack line, and was bounded inland by a low cliff.
To the south lay a number of beached wrecks, doors and windows cut into their hulls, and largely devoid of their rigging, the stumps of their masts and tangled yards fallen all around them like the toppled remains of some petrified forest.
The governor continued walking away from the shore party, beckoning them toward him as he went. Franklin and Crozier followed him, and as they did so the flag bearers assumed position on either side of them and kept pace. It was not what Franklin had hoped for: the remainder of the day, he now realized, was about to be taken up in wasteful civilities, all of which he had little choice but to endure.
Ahead of them, the governor stopped and pointed out to sea. “You are not all ashore.”
They all turned and saw the boat coming toward them from the Terror, in which sat Edward Little, John Irving and George Hodgson.
“My lieutenants,” Crozier said. “Their duties aboard prevented them from joining us earlier. They will be ashore presently.”
“Then we must wait,” the governor said.
When this last party was finally ashore, Franklin gathered them all together, hoping they might avoid constant repetition of these formalities and thus speed the proceedings. It was by then clear that some form of entertainment had been prepared for them.
The crowd pressed more closely around them. The Eskimo women and their children were the most inquisitive, and several of these came forward to tug at their jackets. Franklin had brought no gifts for them, and he regretted this oversight.
One of the women presented herself to Reid directly. She shook his hand, and the women accompanying her laughed at the gesture.
When they parted, the woman applauded with the others, and after watching Reid for a moment she turned and made her way back through the crowd.
Reid rejoined Franklin and the others.
“Ten days ago her husband was in Navy Board Inlet. She says all the Baffin ice between here and there has been broken and drifting free for almost a month.”
“Good news for us,” Fitzjames said.
The governor, anxious to overhear, was disappointed by the speed with which this information had been accepted by his visitors.
“A husky,” he said. “So unreliable. She has been here a month with her sisters—” he seasoned the word with considerable contempt “—and their children, all of them having once again been abandoned by their untrustworthy husbands. If you were only to hear the accusations of theft which are conveyed to me daily. If only these people fell within my jurisdiction …” He threw up his hands and clicked his tongue at the injustice of it all.
“She’s telling the truth,” Reid said quietly to Fitzjames. “My youngest son has a pair of slippers made by her and sent to him as a gift on his third birthday.”
Fitzjames looked to where the woman had been standing, but could no longer discern her amid the restless crowd.
Cheered by the prospect of an easy passage, Franklin told the governor to lead the way, ready now to put up with whatever had been prepared for them. He saw that they had been joined by four Lutheran ministers, all clutching large bibles and grimacing at everything they saw around them. All four men stared at him, and he found it hard to return their uncomfortable gaze.
They were led to a line of chairs, ahead of which a small area of ground had been cleared of its stones and boulders, these having then been made into a boundary circle. Franklin and the governor sat together, flanked by Crozier and Fitzjames. The governor’s party did not sit, but instead stood behind the line of seats, positioning the two flags in holes in the ground.
Calling for silence from the crowd, the governor took a rolled paper from his pocket and read aloud his speech of welcome, concluding by informing Franklin that a copy of this had already been dispatched to the Danish parliament.
Prompted by Franklin, the seated men applauded. Franklin then rose and offered his thanks.
These additional formalities concluded, the governor called for the crowd to clear a space so that the open ground might now be occupied by the two men waiting to move into it. The crowd obeyed, and as the men emerged into the empty circle a further cheer went up.
Wrestling was a common pastime in the settlement, its participants coming largely from the moored vessels awaiting departure. In this instance, one of the men was from Iceland, the other from Lincolnshire, Franklin’s home county. They were evenly matched in height and weight, and prior to making any contact they circled the ring growling at each other.
The fight began in earnest when the two combatants collided with their heads down and almost knocked each other senseless, and ended less than a minute later with the Lincolnshire man being lifted off his feet and thrown to the ground headfirst by the Icelander. He lay where he struck, groaning and fumbling around him. The Icelander declared himself the victor and presented himself to Franklin before returning to the more energetic appreciation of the crowd.
Several more bouts followed, most as brief and brutal as the first, some lasting for five or ten minutes, and one being concluded in a draw when, after twenty minutes, neither man was able to stand and continue.
Following this there was a long interval during which tea and food were served. It was by then ten o’clock and the sun was fully risen above the cliffs.
Surprised at the silver teapots and trays, and the fine quality of the china in which their refreshments were served, John Irving asked the governor how he had acquired them. At first the man was reluctant to answer, then waving his hand in the direction of the sea, he said, “The way we acquire most things in this starved place.”
Irving knew not to pursue the matter.
It would have been more conducive to informal conversation had the chairs been drawn into a group, but the governor insisted on them remaining in a line, keeping the sea and its breezes to their backs, as though by this simple expedient he might deny its presence.
Franklin was about to comment on this, when he was distracted by a group of men entering the ring carrying a strange wooden construction consisting of two poles lashed at one end, across which a short bar had been fastened. When positioned upright this looked like either the frame for a child’s swing or a crude and miniature gallows.
The governor asked if everyone had finished their drink. He became suddenly nervous and, watching him closely as he fussed among the men collecting the trays and crockery, Franklin felt a sudden chill. He saw Fitzjames signaling to him, but could not understand what he was trying to communicate.
In the crowd, men began to shout out; others started a low chant.
“Please, please,” the governor called to them, but with no success. He turned to Franklin and the others and shrugged apologetically.
At that moment, Reid leaned forward. “Sir John, Captain Crozier, do nothing. No interruptions.”
“What is it?” Crozier asked him. “Why has that flimsy contraption been thrown up before us?”
The governor put his hand on Franklin’s shoulder. “Sir John, I feel it is my duty to inform you that what you are about to see is the work of men from those vessels,” he motioned to the wrecks, “and surely by the most despicable among them. I am assured that no harm is to come to anyone, but nevertheless I have washed my hands of the whole affair. They insisted. When you did not arrive as expected several days ago, I felt certain the whole business would be over. But your delay in coming here …” He threw up his hands, absolving himself of any responsibility for what was about to happen.
“The thing is a gallows,” Crozier said suddenly. “A gallows, Sir John.”
“Mr. Crozier,” Reid said, his voice calm. “Let us be assured and wait to see what happens.” Of them all, he alone had noticed the suspicious and hostile glances from those among the crowd who had overheard them.
“He knows,” Crozier said, looking accusingly at Reid as he sat down.
“They are whalers, you have to understand,” the governor said, encouraged by support from this unexpected quarter.
“What they are has nothing to do with it,” Reid said.
“Of course,” the governor said. “I forgot.”
“What is it, James?” Fitzjames asked Reid when the others had looked away.
“I saw it once before. A dog had gone wild, killed two of its harness companions and then turned on its driver.”
Fitzjames considered this for a moment. “You mean they intend to hang a dog? To hang it here, on that device? A dog?” His disgust at the prospect was tempered by his relief.
The men in the ring formed themselves into a line, and as the surrounding crowd fell silent, their leader approached Franklin and Crozier. “I hope our sport today does not offend you, Sir John. We intend to hang a mad dog, not a working dog, but a scavenger from the settlement. It is customary that such animals be destroyed, and we intend to hang ours.” He deliberately avoided the eyes of the governor as he spoke. “I believe we have a fair case and hope you will stay to watch. It’s true we have saved the hanging for three days, but no one would think any the worse of you or your party if you chose not to witness it.” He paused and saw that no immediate objection was forthcoming. “Then let me make our case. I am Jacob Seeley, first mate of the Dotterel.”
Franklin was impressed by the speech, having expected some coarse and illogical explanation for what was about to happen.
“Seeley,” he repeated, recognizing the name.
“My brother Abraham is an able seaman aboard your own ship.”
“Of course. A good man.”
“And I wish it were me and not him who was going with you.”
“He is younger than you,” Franklin said, having formed a vague impression of the man, with whom he was as yet unfamiliar.
“This is his first voyage under cold-water colors.”
“Whereas you, I can see, are an old hand.” Franklin was more pleased than Jacob Seeley at the easy compliment, the connection made.
“My name was on the Admiralty list for when you next went.”
“Out of my hands, I’m afraid,” Franklin said.
“I know. I only hope that we now understand one another better.”
“Of course,” Franklin said, reassured even further.
Jacob Seeley turned away, acknowledging Reid and Hodgson as he did so. He called for one of the other men in the cleared circle to join him. The man approached and held out a bandaged hand for them to see.
“The dog,” Seeley said. The man removed his bloody dressing. Beneath it his hand was badly torn and swollen, the little finger bitten off completely.
“We were stacking ashore when the animal rushed at us and made off with a side of salted meat. My companion here was foolhardy enough to try and stop it. As you can see, he would have been wiser to let the meat go.”
“I assure you, the dog was not from the settlement,” the governor interrupted. “It lives out among the boats, fed and encouraged by the men out there.”
“Nevertheless,” Seeley went on, “you now understand our motives, Sir John.”
Franklin nodded. “My assistant surgeon.” He indicated Goodsir. “Perhaps when the proceedings here are completed …”
The injured man rewrapped his bandage and left them.
The dog was led forward by two men, each holding a rope attached to its neck, keeping it at a safe distance between them.
There was little ceremony to its hanging after such lengthy preliminaries. It was not a particularly large or ferocious-looking dog, and showed signs of the beatings and starvation it had endured over the previous days. One of its hind legs dragged uselessly along the ground and a long scar shone across its ribs. It made no attempt to escape from the men who held it. The two ropes were thrown over the crossbar and then pulled tight, dragging the dog forward until it stood directly beneath, its forelegs rigid. The proceedings were halted and words exchanged. Four men took hold of the ropes and drew in the remaining slack, forcing the animal to stand on its one good hind leg, its neck craned, its head up. At a shout from Jacob Seeley the four men pulled together, each of them calling out or grunting with the sudden exertion, and with that one pull the dog was raised to the top of the gallows, pedalling wildly until its neck broke, whereupon it fell suddenly limp, twisting and then shaking for a few seconds as its nerves received and then released the shock of its sudden death. It was inspected and lowered to the ground. The crowd cheered. A man approached and kicked the animal. It looked like nothing more than a dirty rag at his feet.
Looking up, Fitzjames saw that a small flock of expectant crows had gathered in the sky above, circling in the current of air rising off the cliff.
The dog was lifted by one of its paws and dragged away, its thin body contorting over the stony ground. Most of the crowd followed behind it, signaling the end of the proceedings. In the distance the small band had re-formed and was once again playing.
Despite the governor’s entreaties for them to remain longer, Franklin insisted it was necessary for himself and his officers to return to their ships, reassuring him that they would be back ashore the following day.
He led his party to the rise overlooking the beach, where he was cheered by the sight of the Erebus and the Terror, stark and impressive upon the clean bronze plane of the sea.
They were accompanied by the governor and his party back down to the water’s edge, where the Lutherans now stood among their waiting marines and inspected them in the same grim silence as though they were exhibits in a visiting fair.
Two days after their arrival three Eskimos climbed aboard the Erebus , one of whom spoke English, and who asked to see Reid. They waited at the rail as Reid was sent for. On the water below sat a dozen kayaks and two larger umiaks, filled mostly with women and children, and all of them silent and watching the men above.
Reid arrived with Fitzjames and greeted the Eskimo, the two of them holding each other in a clasp until the man finally stood back. Fitzjames envied the ice-master his easy familiarity with the natives, and the firm roots of his affection for them. He himself had had few dealings with them, and his knowledge of them was formed largely of other men’s tales, some apocryphal, some fantastic, and most tainted by ignorance and fear and contempt.
Reid introduced him to the man. “He lived in Dundee and Whitby,” Reid said.
“And two miserable Faeroe summers,” the man added, and laughed.
They were joined by Thomas Blanky, ice-master on the Terror, who came through the waiting boats calling to the individuals he recognized. He too was greeted by the man, and the two masters listened to his reports of the Middle Pack and the movement of spring storms in the bay.
Several of the waiting women then climbed aboard and traded small bone and obsidian carvings for pieces of cloth and other trinkets.
Goodsir appeared as the man with whom Reid had spoken was about to leave, and he persuaded him to wait a moment longer so that he might make a sketch of him. When he had finished the man climbed down to his canoe and paddled swiftly away, his companions following behind him, until one by one all the small craft were turned and moving across the bay, looking as light and precarious as surface-skimming insects.
“A perfect specimen,” Goodsir said to those who stood watching, holding out his sketch for them to see.
Only Fitzjames felt uncomfortable with the choice of words, but said nothing, and he too praised the drawing.
He knew of the Eskimos that they had once had cloven hooves instead of feet, and that beneath their mittens their hands were black. He knew that they believed all early Arctic explorers to have been women owing to the nature of their dress, and that they were captivated by music and thus afforded the means of their salvation. He knew that John Davis had sailed in these same waters with a four-piece orchestra on board to prove his peaceful intentions, and that Martin Frobisher had captured a man by the simple expedient of ringing a small bell until the curious native reached up to claim his prize and was hauled aboard. He knew too that the man had died soon after Frobisher’s return to England and that Frobisher had regretted the abduction for the rest of his life.
He had recently seen a portrait of that same native on the wall of Lord Haddington’s office when he was called there with Franklin and Crozier. In the picture the man stood erect with a dignified look on his face. He wore a fur suit embroidered with colored beads, and his hair was short and parted at the center. In one hand he held a limp white hare and a small bow, and in the other a plump leather pouch, from which shone the gleam of gold. Mirroring this in the background was the rigid fan of a rising sun, and around this on a perfect blue sea drifted the sculpted peaks and arches of impossible bergs. The man’s features were more Asiatic than Eskimo, Frobisher’s irrefutable evidence that he had at last located a waterway leading directly to the even greater blinding glow of Cathay.
There were more recent tales, too: the tale, for instance, of Parry’s carpenter fitting a wooden peg to an Eskimo he encountered who had lost his leg, and then meeting the man’s daughter years later to discover that her father was dead and that she carried the stump with her everywhere she went, convinced that his spirit still lived within it.
THE BROKEN LANDS: A NOVEL OF ARCTIC DISASTER. Copyright © 1992 by Robert Edric. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.