The note read:
25th April 1848
HMShips Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April 5 leagues NNW of this having been beset since 12th Sept 1846.
Any who have come to recover the remaining supplies will find them in good order.
Sir John Franklin accounted for and on his way.
Do not follow us.
[signed] F. R. M. Crozier Captain & Senior Offr
[signed] James Fitzjames Captain HMS Erebus
Francis signed the note for both of them before passing it to James.
“You don’t really think they’ll follow us,” James said, peering at it. The strain in his vision was clear from his pinched expression.
“I don’t think they care in the slightest what happens to us after this.”
With more difficulty than either of them cared to acknowledge, James placed the note inside the cairn. Francis’ hand was light on his arm as he descended, merely for balance, he told himself.
“They never intended us to survive, did they?” James asked, once steadied on the ground.
“I’ll confess, the thought had occurred to me.”
It was nearly a whisper, James’ trepidation clear in his tone. They would never have been able to curse like that before. Not in England, where any whisper of sedition would mean more than just their careers, and not on the ships, where Sir John was inescapable. To think this godforsaken place could bring any small gift. Francis nearly smiled.
If they had only known what brought them across five thousand miles of water and ice, and what it would do to them. Ah, but would it have changed a thing, really, if they did? They were requested by the Queen herself, sending one of her beloved to conquer the last of the world. Refusal would be death, or as near a thing to it. At least this way their ignorance had drowned out the dread.
Sir John changed as the miles dragged on. His eyes developed a glassy hue, his words a noted slur, and he seemed to grow ever more bulbous, his chin receding into the folds of his neck. Francis was grateful to be a ship away as madness set in on Erebus.
James, though, James lived with it all.
It had been hard enough to lose Lt. Irving to it. Irving, being a true faithful of the Queen, chose to drink of Sir John’s blood. It was all Francis could do to keep the rest of the crew from where he sat, unmoving, his eyes fixed on a single point. There he remained until they abandoned the ships, though what was left behind bore little resemblance to the Lieutenant.
Here James was facing something far stranger and far less justified, something from which Francis was spared for the same reason he would never be an admiral: he wasn’t a gentleman.
“I can feel it in my chest,” said James, running his fingers over his heart, though surely he couldn’t feel it through his thick coat, “My hands barely fit in my gloves now. I thought somehow I might be spared this.”
“But surely you must have known, James.”
“I’m not half the adherent they make me out to be.”
“If that were so they would never have let you attend Sir John’s counsel.” They had certainly never let Francis.
“I think he found me funny. A private joke, since he’s the only one who could tell. Were I a touch less craven, I probably would have cared.” James' cheek was pale, and his hair matted. His derisive smile cracked his lip.
Francis shook his head because he could not bear the sight any longer. “Not craven, James. I’d never have expected anything like what you’ve done from someone born into it. Frankly, I sometimes think it’s the only reason we aren’t already mad or dead.”
Beside him, James had stopped walking. Francis, a few feet ahead, turned, and the look on James’ face made him want to close that gap and grip his shoulder, but Francis couldn't bear the thought of what he might feel beneath the loose hang of James’ coat.
“But I wasn’t born to it.” He stopped and his mouth did something complex, not quite forming words. When he spoke again, his voice was rough. “I’m a bastard, Francis," he said, and stopped again, as if the thing said so plainly was more than he could bear. Then, with iron in his tone, "That was supposed to be my salvation. They didn't want me, and so I wasn’t raised in the brotherhood. I was never bound to the Queen.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Sir John knew.”
“Aye, I suppose he did.”
Of course Sir John knew. How terrifying it must have been to keep such close quarters with him, if James remained as human as he said. Every moment of these long years at sea for Francis was filled with dread that Sir John might call him to his quarters. Even now he could so easily call to mind the sick feeling of Sir John’s thoughts coating him like caulker’s glue, a thick ooze that crept into his every crack and remained there, until he could flee back the distance to the Terror and chip, chip away at it, hoping he remembered how he had been shaped before. James lived next to Sir John, no more than a few feet of wood away. It was a marvel, really, a marvel to see that same man before him now.
And James turned his eyes to the sky and whispered, “We’ve damned this land, haven’t we? Bringing him here.”
“As if our thoughts on it mattered as much a grain of sand to a typhoon.”
It had surely been the intention of the journey to bring Sir John to this last unconquered place, though they were told nothing of it. Francis didn’t like to dwell on what Sir John became, once they reached the arctic. The night Sir John awoke and cut through the crew like a thresher and the near-blind flight that followed. The way he picked at them, slowly, as they pieced themselves back together, with no reason or pattern to it. Surely James would not become like that, not a howling monstrosity.
“But look, we’re away from them now,” Francis continued, “We’ve no call to answer but our own. Nothing hunting out our thoughts. Have any of the men ever felt that before? Have you? To think this place might be a blessing, but here we’re free.”
Free, yes, and starving. The bare emotion on James’ face would have been embarrassing a year ago, but now Francis could not be certain his face wasn’t the very mirror of his friend’s.
“But it is in me, despite it all,” James grated out.
“James I never had any reason to think it wasn’t.”
“All these years I thought that no matter how close I allowed myself to get, it wouldn’t matter, because my humanity was never in question. My father was a drunk, and he was a cad but - because of that I am not one of them, Francis. I am not supposed to be one of them.”
“Then don’t be. No Lord or Lady would lower itself to haul a boat or break bread with a common sailor. Would I be here with you now if I thought for a moment that you were?”
He reached out to James, could hardly help it after all, ignoring what he could feel moving beneath his clothes. There was a desperation in James’ returning grip on his forearm. He clutched at Francis as hard the ice clutching the ships. Francis lay his other hand over it. James seemed to sway, whether from feeling or illness Francis couldn’t be certain, but he leaned towards James, pressing their foreheads together.
“However else your body betrays you, your heart is, and will remain, your own.”
“I wish I could believe that.”
“Then I’ll believe it for both of us.”
Later, when James can walk no longer, Francis will take his hand in his, and though there will be no pretending that it is human, he’ll hold it to his lips. James’ hair will fall away beneath his hands, careful to avoid what could be sores, or could be eyes. He will wonder what will wake from that bed, whether it will be the death of them that he refused to leave James out on the ice, and he will do the only thing left to him: he will pray to a god he doesn’t believe in.
For now James said, “Francis, the men - I could be a great danger to you.”
Francis sighed and drew back, his eyes closing. “You could also be a help. If you can - We don’t yet know what it is about this place that made Sir John change like that. Maybe there is something here that can hold its own against it. Maybe you can…”
It was nothing more than a muddle of comforting phrases. Neither of them believed it. Francis could have done better, he should have...
“Francis,” said James.
“If it comes to that, I will, but it won’t come to that.”
Dr. Goodsir had already lost the same fight, of course, and his heart was the kindest on this condemned earth. Francis liked to think of him least of all.
They began walking, then. James, his eyes glinting with something that could be amusement, prodded Francis in the arm.
“If God saw me with your eyes then I would be the most decorated man in England.”
“If God saw you with my eyes, he would leave you alone.”