“Some of the bodies had been buried (probably those of the first victims of famine), some were in a tent or tents, others under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter, and several lay scattered about in different directions. Of those found on the island, one was supposed to have been an officer, as he had a telescope strapped over his shoulders, and his double-barreled gun lay underneath him.
“From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource—cannibalism—as a means of prolonging existence.”
—excerpt from Dr. John Rae’s report on the fate of the Franklin Expedition to the Secretary of the Admiralty (written from Repulse Bay on July 29, 1854)
Lady Jane said nothing when she first heard Dr. Rae’s report. She’d had Sophia read it aloud to her as she looked impassively out the window, while Sophia held the paper tightly in her hands, trying to keep her voice from shaking.
It was not until she read the dreaded word that her voice cracked, as did Lady Jane’s resolve. She nearly ripped the letter from Sophia’s hands, suddenly breathing hard. Her eyes flew over the text. Sophia was not prone to vapors, but she felt so faint and wanted desperately to lay down, to close her eyes and wake up in a world where Sir John had no expedition to go on. There would be no reason for Sophia to ask Francis to go with him, then.
That request has haunted her for nine long years; Francis himself will haunt her for many more to come.
She hopes that he was dead and buried long before the men resorted to that “last resource.” She somewhat remembers when news of Essex survivors reached England, nearly every conversation centered around the men’s sorry state, the horror and disgust that they had succumbed to the custom of the sea. Sophia, five years old at the time, hadn’t understood what that meant. Now she is thirty-eight, unmarried, and understands their fate all too well. The Essex was not the first to fall to it and Franklin’s men will not be the last.
Lady Jane was inconsolable after the report, leaving Sophia alone to her own grief. She isn’t a fool; she’d believed Sir Ross four years ago, when his search confirmed what she’d already known. The expedition was a failure, as is each one that follows to find it.
When Lady Jane comes to breakfast the next morning, declaring that they are to leave Orkney for Shetland within the week, Sophia feels resigned.
“The full stop at the end of Britain,” the man at the docks had called Out Stack, when Lady Jane requested a boat to the island. As they stand on it now, Sophia thinks that island is a generous term. Out Stack is nothing more than a great pile of rock jutting out from the water that Britain has claimed for its own. The salt water gets in Sophia’s eyes and throat, but Lady Jane stands resolute a few feet ahead of her, gripping the rocks as to not fall over while she looks somewhere beyond the horizon. Sophia does not have to wonder at what she sees.
She only spoke once over the journey to Shetland. In a hushed voice that belied her rage, Lady Jane wondered at Dr. Rae’s utter gall to accuse the men of the worst sin, something that she couldn’t even say aloud. Plenty other men had found themselves in similar situations without ever resorting to that, she’d declared, though Sophia found that she didn’t much care.
Sophia isn’t sure when she gave up on ever seeing Francis again. It was certainly sometime before Dr. Rae’s letter arrived. She’d admired Lady Jane, once, in her relentless fight against the admiralty as she continued searching for the expedition. Her hope and tenacity were something she tried to pull strength from. Now, Sophia is just tired.
They both know that Sir John was dead well before the men’s food would have ran out, based on the letter from the cairn. Lady Jane knows it to be true, but she’s never quite accepted it, without a body or mode of death to help her grieve. Lady Jane is desperate for a closure that she’ll never achieve. Sophia wonders when she will truly accept the facts: Sir John is long dead, as is Francis, and they did not die heroes. As long as she searches desperately for the answers that she wants instead of the truth in front of them, Lady Jane will never find peace, and she will keep Sophia from ever achieving hers.
The time that she would have worn mourning clothes for Francis has come and gone, though she was never his wife to begin with. She thinks, often, that she would have said yes if he returned; would have said yes back then, if she knew what was to come, that she would lose him forever. Sophia wants to move on, but her aunt won’t let her. This search will drive them both to the grave. Lady Jane refuses to do it alone.
They only have each other now. It comforts neither of them.