Since the disappearance of her husband some years before, Lady Jane Franklin had taken to sleeping without a fire. It seemed to her that, so long as the expedition was trapped in the frozen North, it was downright vulgar for her to indulge in the most obvious comforts of a warm, dry, and safe home. Besides, no blaze of any size could chase away the chill in her heart when she was left alone with her thoughts.
Months ago, Sir John had been declared legally dead by the Admiralty. While she had steadfastly refused to accept the widow's pension they attempted to foist upon her, the righteous sense of purpose that spurred her through each day faded when she faced her empty bedchamber each night. Her ironclad certainty that those fools were both short-sighted and faithless could not withstand the doubts that crept into her bed alongside the cold and the dark.
Still, most nights she did sleep. The constant humming need to act was as draining as it was compelling, and for that, she was grateful. When she failed to work herself into exhaustion, her only nighttime companions were fear, pain, and cruelest of all, guilt.
Guilt was never far from her side. She'd long since learned to use its hateful whispers to galvanize her will for the impossible task set before her. But, when she was alone and defenseless, it stole beneath the sheets like a lover; clinging to her, penetrating her, siphoning the warmth from her soul until her very tears felt as though they might freeze upon her cheek.
She lay in her bed, feeling keenly how small she was, alone in the grand four-poster that John had proudly given her as a wedding gift. Tonight, she knew, was one of those nights when Guilt, her new husband and master, would arrive to take from her all she could give. There was naught she could do but to yield to the bitter grief and pray for dawn.
A dawn that her husband had done without for months, if not years, of his life. The Arctic sun is a fickle goddess, hiding her face for weeks without end in the dead of winter. When she was younger, she had fretted over the thought of John facing that unending night, fearing that the unchanging expanse of sky would drive him mad. One cozy evening, while he dozed on the couch with his head on her lap, she’d voiced her concerns. He’d chuckled sleepily, shifted to gaze up at her, and smiled just a little.
“ Ah my love, that is why I’m taking your portrait. With such radiance permanently fixed above my cot, I shall want for no feeble solar imitation. ”
She’d laughed at his flattery, all too accustomed to his ridiculous flights of romantic fancy, and brushed the hair away from his forehead as he closed his eyes again.
The memory of his soft hair beneath her fingertips was torture on nights like this; it was all too easy to get lost in the yearning, the deep physical ache his absence had left inside her body. She rolled over onto her back, kicking the blankets free to let the crisp air bite at her skin through her nightclothes. Sometimes, she was actually fond of the cold, imagining that it in some way linked her to Sir John, wherever he was. She stared at the damask canopy above, and tried to imagine, hoping against all hope and better sense, that he still lived. Not merely his life, though, did she desire; she would gladly trade her health for his if the heavens cracked open and she were given such a choice.
She knew that these melodramatic thoughts of self-sacrifice were another byproduct of her conscience. When she faced herself in the mirror, divested of her curls and gowns, she saw only the selfish harpy who'd sought glory for her husband - and by extension, herself. The humiliation he'd suffered in Van Diemen's Land had cut her deeply. She saw his pride wounded, and hers suffered even more, unable or unwilling to bear the scorn of their inferiors. John had wilted, in Australia, brightening only when two ships stopped by on their way to Antarctica and he was able to stand on the deck of the Erebus.
Seeing her husband, so faded and forlorn on land, smiling and laughing among his peers, she had then resolved to secure him a command back aboard a ship. He'd once been hailed as a sort of folk hero, the Man Who Ate His Boots, tough enough to survive any hardship the natural world could throw at him. But men, their petty politics and insidious gossip, had worn her stalwart lion into a pale imitation of his former self.
So she had pushed him to return to England, where she negotiated with every friend and colleague she could reach. Sir John Ross proved invaluable, having already decided without her influence that he would not be accepting any new command, despite being the clear frontrunner for the post. Her wheedling, as always, brought results, and before long she had the Admiralty convinced that Sir John Franklin was the man to lead the last great push for the fabled Northwest Passage. It still rankled her, knowing that Sir John was not the first or even second choice; but she knew well that it was often the case that men required the guidance of women in making the right decisions.
She smiled to herself in the darkness, thinking of how lively John had become once they secured the position. His health, which had not been sound since returning to England, was still faltering, but his spirits were as high as they'd been since she had known him. She had been quite sure that the terrible bout of influenza he'd suffered was a side effect of the toxic air of Van Diemen's Land finally leaving him for good.
But her smile faltered as she remembered how truly unwell he had looked in the daguerreotype photograph she'd arranged to have taken prior to the expedition’s departure. It had to be scheduled well before the ships were even fully stocked, and he looked stiff, sallow, and uncomfortable. Even his uniform, one he'd worn all through their time in Australia, was ill-fitting and shabby. It was a truly disappointing likeness of the man she'd married, and now her heart broke anew at the creeping suspicion that it would in fact be the last time she saw his face.
She preferred to remember him as he had been on the last day he took her aboard Erebus. He'd walked her around the ship, arm-in-arm as the last few workmen crawled up and down the many ladders that led to the lower decks. Some handed down large crates, others hauled sacks of grain upon their shoulders, and still more slung coils of rope around their necks as they scrambled to ensure the ship's readiness for departure.
He'd been so happy and proud, showing off to her. He'd even been delighted at Jacko, the monkey she'd secured as his companion for the voyage. The sun streaming through his cabin window had shown off the gold buttons of his uniform which she had, of course, commissioned to be newly made and custom tailored just for the voyage. He looked, on that day, much more like the man he'd been when they first met; only the lingering sadness at the loss of his first wife was absent.
That grief, too, she loved him for. Eleanor, his first wife, had died young. Rather than let herself be overtaken by the fits of jealousy she sometimes felt at having missed her chance to bear him a child, Jane chose to love the woman as she would a sister. They had been friends, after all, and Jane had long since reconciled herself to having inherited the care of his happiness. She was proud to have been able to heal his mourning heart, and on that day, to see him looking vibrant and happy without that pain of loss was a joy indeed.
Only once, during that bright spring morning, did a shadow fall across his countenance. His confidence had been badly shaken during his time as lieutenant governor in Australia, and she recognized at once his tendency toward self-pity. But she would not allow him to wallow, so she guided the monkey back into her cage and strode across the cabin to where he sat, looking troubled. She had given him words of reassurance, but could no longer recall what exactly she’d said. Her presence, her expression, and her love were far more important than the words themselves; she knew only that she had to soothe his anxieties with her faith in him.
She remembered the way he’d smiled up at her with such a delicate hope, backlit in radiance by unfiltered sunlight; her cheeks grew how thinking of how she had been unusually overcome on that bright afternoon. Without a second glance over her shoulder to see that they were truly alone, she’d run a hand through his hair, awed as always in the haphazard softness of it, and bent to place a kiss on his brow.
She hadn’t quite known herself just what she was doing; she'd only meant to ease his worries if she could, but she had found that her hand was buried in the hair at the back of his head and she couldn't stop herself from leaning close enough to kiss his lips. She was frozen for a moment, her nose not quite touching his. His surprise had been plain, and there was something deceptively innocent in the way he’d glanced at the open door. Now, in the cold and the dark, she felt again that low ache deep inside her when she thought of how his smile had turned sly and knowing. He’d stood and ducked out the door, checking that the narrow corridor was empty before easing it shut behind him.
Alone in her bed, as ever she may well be, her pain was momentarily chased away by the distant echo of the door closing, of his boots lightly scuffing over the cabin floor, of the soft creaking of the ship beneath their feet. His voice was in her ear, warm and soft.
“Why, Janie, whatever has gotten into you?”
She chased the memory, gasping aloud as her hands retraced the burning path left by his phantom fingers. Her need, having been unsatisfied these long years, was nearly as desperate and painful as her grief.
At last, heart slowing in her chest and tears drying on her cheeks, she fell into sleep.