The Empty Corridor

by Katharine O’Flynn

I.

It was Franklin’s wife Jane who made him lead the search for the Northwest Passage. John Franklin himself would just as soon have stayed home. He was fifty-nine, too old for new explorations, he thought.

Nonsense! said Jane. You’re in your prime.

But it seemed to John that he had travelled far enough, spent years enough in cold and outlandish places. What he wanted now – and didn’t he deserve it? – was a quiet and peaceful old age. He would walk in the garden, eat large and regular meals, write a memoir of his time as governor of Van Dieman’s Land, and enjoy the company of his beloved wife and daughter and of all his many friends.

There’s just that tiny little section of the globe you weren’t able to get to. Jane held up thumb and forefinger to illustrate how little of the elusive Northwest Passage remained unexplored. You came so close on your previous expeditions. This third time you are bound to succeed. You must finish what you began.

John shivered as he recalled those earlier ventures. On the Coppermine River in ‘22, he’d almost died of starvation. Eleven of his twenty men did die. He himself would never have made it out but for the kindness of savages who nursed him and the other survivors back to health. On the expedition from the mouth of the Mackenzie in ‘25, it seemed sure that rough seas and ice floes must capsize their small boats. Divine providence alone had brought them safely through that attempt.

You were so brave; you were a true English hero. You can’t show yourself less of a hero now.

He had not been a hero. He was, to be sure, titular head of those expeditions, but he knew, as Jane, bless her dear loyal heart, could never know, how cold and starvation and constant danger break a man down, undermine all semblance of purpose, order and discipline. Survival becomes the only aim. On the Coppermine, his men stole and murdered and possibly cannibalized the dead to survive. And he was too weak and tired to care. On the second expedition he dithered about turning back, left it dangerously late.

Naturally he hadn’t mentioned the mistakes and uncertainties in his reports and after-dinner speeches. Disorder, indecision, poor equipment, insubordination, and cannibalism were not what people wanted to hear about. Instead, he told of survival through cold and hunger, and of how he boiled and ate his leather boots. That made a good story, rather amusing in the telling, if not in the experiencing.
England and the Royal Navy expect you to assume leadership once again, Jane continued. You are the very man for the job.

It will be so cold.

Cold! Hark at the man! Jane scoffed. I seem to remember your complaining of the heat in times gone by. Cold invigorates, my dear.

Not Arctic cold. You had to have felt that cold to understand how it penetrates through the blood, into the bone, sapping away strength and will.

The sea has a mitigating effect on climate, Jane lectured. You will find the temperatures at sea more comfortable than those you experienced along the coast and on the rivers.

He would find, he knew, ship’s decks and railings slippery with ice. Ropes frozen fast. Icy drenchings when waves rose high. The Arctic sea is never a ‘comfortable’ place.

He tried another tack. And if I should once again fail to find the Passage?

It is your duty to find it, Jane whispered in his ear, your duty to God and the Queen.

Duty was a long narrow corridor with no doors opening off it, not till you reached the end. There was no escape.

I’ll go, John said.

II.

Almost at once John began to reap the rewards that came of making the right decision. Jane was happy and busy and kind to him.

The expedition would be the most expensive the Royal Navy had ever mounted. It would have the best of everything. His two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, specially reinforced for travel through ice, were fitted with the latest equipment: powerful steam engines and retractable screw propellers, as well as sail. The officers’ quarters were tastefully fitted out, and an ingenious heating system installed.

And you worried about being cold! Jane teased.

Enough food was stowed aboard to feed the one hundred and thirty-five members of the expedition for three years, and there was fine china and silver for the officers to eat it from.

You won’t have to eat your boots this time, Jane laughed.

Franklin liked supervising the hurry and scurry of preparations. He enjoyed instructing his officers in their duties. They seemed to like him, and the men did too. On shore, he was dined and feted by admirers. It was pleasant to meet with deferential members of the Arctic Council and the Geographical Society. It amused him to see his likeness surrounded by union jacks adorning tea caddies and china plates in shop windows. Perhaps he was indeed a hero.

But as the day of departure neared, anxieties returned. He was really going to have to do this.

By the time his two ships were being towed down the Thames, he was feeling ill. He complained of fever and chills, a terrible headache. He woke from troubled sleep with premonitions of doom.

You’ve caught an indigestion. You ate too much at all those farewell dinners, Jane told him. Look at the people on shore, gathered to see you off. Wave to them.

John Franklin waved and sailed away from Jane, and from England. It was May of 1845.

III.

Franklin followed orders. He stopped at Stromness to take on final supplies. He stopped at the whaling station on Disco Island off the coast of Greenland. He sailed on to Lancaster Sound and into Barrow Strait. When he encountered ice, he turned north. Only when that way too was blocked by ice did he admit that they wouldn’t make it through the passage this season. This was not what he’d hoped for, but it was not unexpected either. The ships circled back to a natural harbor on Beechey Island which would be a good place to overwinter.

They got through the long, dark Arctic winter as well as could be expected. Captain Fitzjames got up games on the ice. Captain Crozier organized evening entertainments. Franklin gave readings of sermons as well as conducting the usual Sabbath services. Reading classes were provided for the illiterates among the men, and the junior officers were encouraged to make use of the ship’s excellent library to further their knowledge of seamanship, geography, history and philosophy.

Three men died. Weak lungs, they had. They weren’t fit for the rigours of the Arctic climate, Franklin judged. Still, he saw to it that they were buried with all due ceremony .

Spring came. The ice melted and broke. The ships sailed free from their winter harbor and took up a course towards Cape Walker. From there the way lay south through unknown waters towards King William Land. Then it would be plain sailing to the Bering Sea and the end of the Northwest Passage. They’d be out by mid-summer, Franklin reckoned. By autumn he’d be home in England with his Jane again.

But off Cape Walker they ran into ice. Winter seized the sea early, far too early. By September twelfth they were fast beset again, and this time no harbor shielded them from the fiercest winds, the driving snow, and the creaking, shifting ice.

Well, they had food enough. That was one comfort. They’d be all right. Though it was terribly discouraging to be beset again and so soon and in such dire cold.
He ordered Fitzjames and Crozier to organize their winter programmes again.
But now everyone knew all the jokes, had seen all the turns. Men yawned through the shows; some didn’t attend at all. No one could think of any new acts.

And the men, it seemed, were tired of ice cricket and football. They didn’t put their hearts into it, only shuffled about listlessly.

Through Franklin’s sermon readings, they dozed or surreptitiously played cards.
One night they broke into the officers’ stores and stole a keg of spirits. Fights broke out. The ringleaders were put into the brig on bread and water, but it wasn’t long before the same thing happened again.

Discipline was breaking down. To keep warm, men wore all the clothing they had. Lining up for morning prayers, unwashed and unshaven, they looked like a band of ragamuffins more than proud seamen of the British navy.

Franklin gave orders, and for a day or two there was improvement, but then a gale blew up, and it would be unfair to punish a man for wearing a blanket around his uniform then. And it was difficult to wash and shave in such cold temperatures. Even the officers grew slack in matters of appearance. Though not, of course, Franklin himself.

The supply of coal was dwindling. They cut back on the heating. Franklin suffered from chilblains. He remembered the cold of the Coppermine .

Again the men got into the casks of rum. One man was stabbed, another had his head broken in the fights that followed. Flog those responsible for this outrage! Franklin ordered.

But you never have anyone flogged, Crozier answered.

Flog them, I say.

Flog them all?

Oh, find out who started out it, and flog him. Or them, Franklin ordered peevishly. He had a headache.

Thank goodness they still had enough to eat. He ordered tea and scones. The cook made quite good scones. Not as good as the cook at home made under dear Jane’s direction, but quite passable.

His head ached infernally. He would very much like to have a warm bath. And then a dinner of roast mutton and boiled potatoes with parsley. And strawberries and cream to finish.

The men were surly. The sick bay was full and most of the occupants were malingerers, in Franklin’s opinion. The lookouts sat through their watches by the stove in the galley, smoking their pipes.

What are we to look out for? Approaching sail? Land to starboard? one asked insolently when reprimanded. He was right. Lookouts were hardly needed in a land of nothing.

But the men needed occupation. What was to be done with them? They couldn’t be set to scrubbing or polishing when water and polish froze before it could be applied. They wouldn’t play games. They wouldn’t attend concerts and lectures.

We must stimulate their minds, Franklin decided. Mr. Crozier, you will give the junior officers lectures on navigation and mathematics. Mr. Fitzjames, you shall organize a group reading of Shakespeare’s history plays. And I shall offer a prize of ten shillings for the best poem on the subject of the Arctic landscape.

Aye, sir. Crozier and Fitzjames shambled off.

Franklin blew on his cold hands.

Spring came, according to the calendar, but not according to the ice, which showed no sign of melting.

Two men were found in unlawful embrace. They were only trying to keep warm, they said. Franklin half believed them, but their reasons were irrelevant. Order was breaking down. Franklin retreated to his cabin and wept with helpless rage.

They must escape from this cold, soul-destroying place, they must.

Franklin ordered fires built to melt the ice. He set men to hacking out a way with axes. It was futile. He knew it was futile before he started. So did the men.

Let me launch an expedition to the nearest land, Crozier suggested. Six or eight men, a sled, supplies for two weeks. We could reach King William Land, I’m sure.

And what would you find of use there?

An open lead of water, perhaps. Or natives who could help us find the way we need to go.

We can’t go anywhere until the ice melts! Franklin shouted. Wasn’t that obvious enough?

We could leave a message of our whereabouts in case the Admiralty are searching for us. Also, the preparations and the expedition itself would give occupation for some. And perhaps hope for all, Crozier suggested.

Such a small band, on this ice, in this weather… you might well perish.

If the ice does not melt soon, we may all perish on these ships.

There. Crozier had said it. It was what Franklin had been thinking, what they had all been thinking. But he should not have said it, not aloud. Nonsense! Franklin thundered. We have food enough for another year.

He waved a dismissive hand. But organize your expedition if you must. It would, as Crozier pointed out, at least make a change in the monotonous, hopeless routine. Volunteers only. Under a lieutenant’s leadership, not yours. You are needed here.

Aye, sir.

Preparations for the expedition did indeed create a flurry of excitement for a week or two. Everyone gathered to cheer the sledders off, watched till they were only small brave specks on the ice, then turned back to the ships that groaned as if in pain as the ice pressed closer and tighter.

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Through the following days officers and men slipped further into despondency. There were no more entertainments, no lectures, no sports. The men played cards, gambled their few possessions and their future earnings, cheated and fought, pilfered from the officers’ stores, found their way again and again into the rum casks.

In his cabin, Franklin prayed for strength to see this task through. He read his favourite sermons over and over again. There was nothing else he could do.
The sledders returned. They had reached King William Land, but found nothing. No natives. No open water. Nothing but ice and rock: ice-covered rock and rock-covered ice. They left a message in a cairn. That was all.

Nothing had changed. It was May and the ice was not melting.

This expedition would be another of his failures, Franklin thought, most likely the worst of them, certainly the last, ending most probably in death for some, or all, and for nothing. The Northwest Passage – if there was such a passage – was of no more use than a break in the clouds. No ships would ever again venture knowingly into this cold and lifeless chaos of land and sea, the one scarcely differing from the other.

Still, he would carry on. He must. He had set out to walk the long, straight corridor of duty and he would walk that empty, endless way as a British officer should. Clean shaven – except for the mutton chop whiskers that Jane loved to stroke with her pretty white hands – and in full uniform, with every brass button of it polished, he would walk for God and for Queen and country, and for his dear, sweet, foolish Jane.

Franklin died on June 11, 1847. No survivors of the expedition were ever found.

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Katharine O’Flynn lives in Montreal. Although she hates winter, snow and ice, she loves to read (and write) about Arctic and Antarctic adventures.   Her work has appeared online in Commuter.Lit, The Copperfield Review, and Arctica Magazine, and in print journals such as The Nashwaak Review and Kalliope.

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