Chapter 4: In Which a Wicked Cad Is Hanged
Lat. 69° ??' ??'' N., Long. 98° ??' ??'' W.
29 April, 1848
The day is perfect for a good hunt.
Two of the Inuit - Tiquerat and Amaruq - have already gone ahead to evaluate their best strategy.
Against the dull stones and retreating snow, an endless expanse of clear sky provides a shockingly blue burst of colour. Here and there, hardy little clumps of chickweed and bear sedge push up from the impoverished arctic soil.
As he pulls and tugs and scrambles forward, Irving considers the future.
Will their little hunting party really ensure enough food for the remaining survivors of the Franklin Expedition? He does not dare to imagine any other possibility.
‘Ai yei yai!’ Little Nauja sings.
Hickey has been afforded a seat on the very sled which Irving and Koveyook are working. Even without Dr Goodsir around to give medical advice, Irving is aware that ordering the scrawny man to pull his weight’s worth so soon would only cause a relapse.
The caulker’s mate is sharing a fur blanket with Nauja: they both whoop and cheer at every hillock that the two men manage to tow them across.
‘Ajaitlanguavinâgâluk!’ Koveyook exclaims to Hickey, shaking his head wryly.
‘Yes, you tell him, sir!’ Irving approves, even though he doesn’t understand the phrase.
He likes to think that complaining about Hickey’s behaviour is a cultural phenomenon which transcends all known languages.
Hickey falls silent, but a demure little half-smile continues to play across his face. Ever since his fever broke, in the early hours of the morning, he seems to have turned over a new leaf in earnest. He is much more obedient and agreeable than Irving has ever seen him before.
He even sat down next to Irving for morning prayers, as meek as a lamb, though he did not say any of the prayer words out loud.
It’s a reward from God Himself, Irving thinks. A well-earned respite after all the suffering he put me through in his brain-addled delirium.
That alone feels like a personal victory to Irving.
The sun is high and the barren landscape bounces off an uncomfortable light into Irving’s eyes.
‘Are you feeling very cosy back there?’ Irving grumbles to his subordinate.
His back and shoulders are aching terribly and there is something annoying about a third lieutenant hauling around a petty officer: a used-up dray animal with its obliviously satisfied load.
‘Oh yes’, Hickey replies, stretching around like a cat and folding his arms behind his neck.
He sighs contentedly. ‘I could get used to this.’
‘Well, you won’t be’, Irving grates. ‘Because I am kicking you out at the next hill. You need to start walking on your own two legs.’
‘That’s just what I was about to suggest, Lieutenant’, Hickey immediately agrees, his tone oily.
Irving does not believe him at all, but declines to comment.
‘Tuktu’, Nauja interrupts, tugging at Hickey’s sleeve.
She squirms out from under the fur blanket and leaps off the sled.
‘What’s she saying?’ Hickey asks, frowning.
‘Caribou!’ Irving breathes. ‘Look.’
Koveyook shares his telescope with Irving. There are at least two score of the animals, meandering together across the stony plains below them. At the sight of them, Irving’s heart begins to race.
The rest of the Inuit halt and begin to set up their camp. They have found a good spot, secluded against the wind by several large boulders. Nauja is already helping with unloading the cooking equipment. If the hunters are lucky, there will be a fine stew brewing tonight.
Irving quickly unties himself from the sled, ignoring the tent-making preparations and excitable chatter surrounding him.
This hunt will finally prove Irving’s worth as an officer. If Captain Crozier could promote his own steward to Third Lieutenant Jopson, why couldn’t there be a Second Lieutenant Irving in the near future?
With such optimism in mind, Irving unpacks his rifle and hurries forward, until he is abruptly stopped by a decisive wave of Koveyook’s hand.
Irving pauses, confused.
Koveyook beckons and leads him a small distance away, out of sight from the others. It takes some unflattering pantomime from the Inuit leader, acted out with a sort of apologetic kindness, to show Irving that he is considered too inept and lumbering to be out stalking caribou with the others.
The Englishmen will get their fair portion, Koveyook signs out as he speaks in rapid Inuktitut. He demonstrates the slicing of imaginary meat, into two equal parts.
Irving smiles as widely as possible and gives a firm nod.
The Inuit leader gently squeezes his hand before leaving to join the other hunters. He throws Irving a parting glance of understanding and sympathy.
Irving waves goodbye and remains standing there for a while, still smiling widely. The humiliation continues to bubble away unhappily.
‘The Inuit will be providing for us today’, Irving tells Hickey with resignation, when he finally returns to camp. ‘But we’ll get our full share, regardless of participation.’
He leans against one of the boulders, feeling equally useless to the lump of rock.
‘What did he say we should do?’ Hickey asks, settling down next to him.
Irving flushes slightly. ‘He begged us to stay behind and, erm, guard the members of his family who don’t hunt. I obliged, of course. These are very dangerous parts.’
My current social peers: a little girl and her mum, an old man and a brain-fevered sailor, Irving thinks glumly, but does not comment aloud.
‘Well then’, Hickey says cautiously. ‘That was good of our Mister Koveyook, if you don’t mind my saying, sir. You earned some rest after today’s hauling.’
‘But I’m sure I could have helped them’, Irving says, visibly deflating. ‘I had my hunting rifle ready with me and all.’
‘That’s where the problem lies. I don’t think they’ve seen fire weapons before’, Hickey says, idly picking away at something stuck in between two of his teeth. ‘We probably all look incompetent to them, running around with metal sticks.’
‘I know, I know’, Irving groans. ‘I didn’t want to be pushy yet, but we are running out of time. I can’t just show up to the hunt and transgress Koveyook’s authority. If only they would give me a chance!’
‘Go make your own chance. Show the old bloke how it’s done’, he says, jerking his head in the direction of Asiajuk.
‘You don’t need to make a kill. Just blow a few holes in something. He’ll probably believe you have magical powers and spread the good news.’
‘I shall do just that!’ Irving says, feeling a renewed glimmer of hope. He straightens his back and readjusts his uniform. ‘You must go set up a suitably impressive target for me to shoot at.’
‘Right away, sir’, Hickey grunts, getting to his feet.
‘Thank you, Hickey’, Irving suddenly intones, patting the caulker’s mate on the shoulder.
‘You see how nicely things can go, when you get along with others in Christian solidarity, instead of succumbing to mankind’s lowest drives?’
‘Of course’, Hickey replies, wrinkling his long nose as if repressing a deep desire to get away from Irving – or just itching to punch him.
‘If this trip has taught me anything’, Irving smiles, ignoring the distasteful expression, ‘It is that faithful perseverance and self-discipline are the keys to success. Fortunately, both are traits which I have been raised to fully embrace. With time and dedication, you may learn them also.’
‘Without a doubt’, the caulker’s mate responds. There does not seem to be an ounce of mockery in his voice, but Irving squints at him suspiciously all the same.
He is never quite sure, around Hickey.
Oh dear, Irving thinks.
For once, Hickey has outdone himself.
Using a few spare tent poles, a tall structure has been erected next to the Inuit camp. A rope hangs from the top. Half of the remaining seal meat has been strung up on it, drooping listlessly from a sharp hook of whale bone.
Irving stops at a respectable distance, wishing to demonstrate the range of his weapon as well as its firepower.
Hickey stands to the side, his hair cleanly combed and his thin frame arrested in a keen military posture. Nauja is next to him, drumming away dramatically on a little caribou-skin drum.
Asiajuk and Quamaniq have settled down to watch. Asiajuk is chewing on a piece of blubber.
Dusk lights the entire scene up in a morose reddish-orange glow.
The seal continues to hang sadly.
‘Don’t you think that’s a bit dark, Hickey?’ Irving finally manages. ‘It looks rather like a… gallows.’
‘That’s right. You did say you wanted something impressive’, Hickey smiles.
‘Yes, well done, but…’ Irving scratches at his beard and makes a face. ‘I don’t think it’s quite appropriate. It looks like we are torturing the poor dead thing.’
‘It was a very wicked seal, sir, a lowly cad among its whiskered brethren’, Hickey explains. ‘Capital punishment is the only way to go, believe me. It deserves everything it has coming to it. As judge and jury, I have already condemned it to death. You shall be my executioner.’
‘You are a very queer man, Mr Hickey’, Irving grumbles.
‘Oh, I try to be when I can, Lieutenant. Besides, you are forgetting the main value of a good public hanging.’
‘And what would that be?’ Irving fumbles around and manages to load the weapon.
‘Entertainment’, Hickey replies, retreating before Irving can respond.
Irving puts his fingers in his ears, to indicate to the Inuit that the gunshot will be loud. They merely nod and continue to stare at him.
‘Oh, well. Yes. Here goes’, Irving smiles nervously. He gulps down the spit stuck to the roof of his mouth.
It has been quite a while since he went hunting with his uncle and father. What he mostly remembers are the quails and rabbits, released only after being fattened well enough to be incapable of a fair chance of escape.
Unbidden, he feels that uncomfortably familiar pressure of being a youngster again, straining to please an altogether unpleasable parent. Only this time, he has to impress a small audience of a born-and-bred hunting nation instead.
His first shot startles the Inuit - and does little else. His second shot, however, nicely hits the makeshift target. The seal wobbles and spins on its hook.
‘There we go!’ Irving says, slowly exhaling with relief.
‘Eh’, old Asiajuk remarks, chewing on his bit of blubber with no discernible change in expression.
Quamaniq swiftly stands up. She walks over to inspect the animal, prodding and pulling at the shotgun hole in its flesh, until she recovers a pellet. She holds it up for everyone else to see.
‘Puijik akkavâ?’ Nauja asks, peering out from behind Hickey.
‘Ee’, Quamaniq replies.
‘Ajulunngitanga’, Asiajuk remarks, as he finishes eating.
‘May I go with the men tomorrow?’ Irving asks him. He points in the direction of the herd.
‘Koveyook, Tiquerat and Amaruq. John Irving. Hunt caribou. Together. Food?’
There is a long pause. The old hunter makes an extended humming noise in his throat, as if considering the matter deeply, before he finally turns to face Irving.
‘Ee’, he says, and smiles.
‘Yes!’ Irving shouts, hooting with joy.
He spins Nauja around in a little dance and claps Hickey on the back. ‘Oh yes!’
Koveyook and his men return late, to the excitement of the entire camp.
Of the two field-dressed caribous which they brought in, one is distributed to the Englishmen, while the other is sliced apart and carefully stored away by the Inuit.
Irving takes care to pack the flesh exactly as Quamaniq does, wrapped up in deposits of fat and layers of tight skin to prevent it from spoiling.
A large portion of a flank goes into Quamaniq’s best pot, where it simmers all evening until it is ready for their communal meal. After long weeks of starvation, followed by days of chewing on cold blubber or fatty broth, Irving’s mouth waters at the mere sight and smell of freshly cooked meat.
Hickey devours from his bowl with an almost animalistic zeal - his illness had been keeping him from eating properly.
Irving says grace, before tucking in with slightly more dignity.
After supper, the Inuit place themselves within the tent in their accustomed positions, using their thick fur coats as bedspreads. The men lie near the equipment and weapons, the women next to the all-important quilliq, that peculiar fat-burning lamp which they use for light and cooking and heat.
The Englishmen are afforded their usual place, near the tent opening and well away from their kind hosts. Irving thinks he can thank Hickey for that, because the man’s feverish thrashing and wailing had greatly upset the Inuit’s rest.
From what Irving can understand, a few of the men still consider the caulker’s mate to be a little disturbed, an opinion that Irving cannot quite disagree with. Some of the nonsense that Hickey said during his illness still haunts Irving at night.
Yet after a day’s work of hauling a heavy sled - and with a happily full stomach - he is more than ready to blissfully fall sleep.
Irving closes the tent flap, rolls over to his side under the fur covers and squeezes Hickey close, trapping him firmly beneath his arm and leg.
‘Sir?’ Hickey’s face has tightened in alarm. His eyes shoot towards Irving in confusion. ‘What is-?’
‘You want to know what’s happening? This is how I’ve been keeping you from running off like a mad dog in your delirium. You’re welcome, by the way.’
‘Oh. Oh. Thank you? But I’m feeling so much better now.’
‘That’s right, you are’, Irving says. ‘But I still want a fair warning if you’ll be getting up to any nonsense. You scratch your nose, I’ll know it. You get up, I’ll want to know where you’re off to. Understood?’
If Hickey finds this sleeping arrangement uncomfortable, that is hardly Irving’s problem. There is such a thing as earning trust and Hickey has never been prolific at that.
‘I will have a bit of dirty work for you to get down to tomorrow, Mr Hickey’, Irving remarks suddenly. ‘I’d say it’s time for you to start earning your keep again, isn’t it? I do hope you aren’t squeamish much.’
‘No’, Hickey replies slowly, his eyes narrowing and his short ginger whiskers twitching. ‘I don’t think that I am, very much. What exactly did you have in mind for me, Lieutenant?’
‘Nothing that you are not already well-equipped for’, Irving says, yawning. ‘I’ve kept your boat knife, you see.’
He lists out the tasks, flashing down a perfect white-toothed smile at the man awkwardly huddled against him.
‘Skin down all the caribou carcasses I’ll bring in. Clean out their insides. Help with hacking the flesh into cuts. Oh, and you’ll need to remove all the entrails.’
Irving lets this all sink in before he adds:
‘I just have a feeling, for some mysterious reason, that you could be very competent at poking knives into things. It would be such a shame not to put that raw talent to honest work.’
There is no reply.
‘Well, good night, Mr Hickey.’
For the first time since Irving has known him, Hickey looks vaguely sheepish.