The Broken Lands: A Novel of Arctic Disasterby Robert Edric
The Broken Lands -- a treacherous labyrinth of ice through which the fabled Northwest Passage was sought for centuries. Determined to succeed where others had failed, Sir John Franklin -- "the Lion of the Arctic" -- set sail from Greenland in 1845. His two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, were last sighted in August of that year, after which the entire expedition -- all 135 men -- disappeared. Nothing was heard of Franklin's expedition for over a decade, and only many years later did the world begin to learn of their terrible, agonizing fate. In this enthralling, richly inventive novel, Robert Edric re-creates what possibly happened to this doomed expedition.
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
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- First Edition
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- 5.54(w) x 8.36(h) x 1.06(d)
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The Broken Lands
A Novel of Arctic Disaster
By Robert Edric
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1992 Robert Edric
All rights reserved.
At the sound of the first explosion, Fitzjames stopped rowing and turned to the shore. Beside him, James Reid, ice-master to the Erebus, held his own oar steady in the water to compensate for the loss of balance.
"Our welcome ashore," Reid said, his soft Aberdonian burr barely audible. He indicated the men awaiting their arrival, then visible against the rising light.
Fitzjames raised himself in his seat to look. A second rocket hissed wavering into the air, its spiraling ascent marked by a trail of smoke and sparks before it too guttered out, exploded and fell.
It was not yet six in the morning, and despite the absence of any true night, the brightest constellations still shone above them in the Arctic dawn, and all around them the water lay black and glossy as lacquer. Their presence attracted a small flock of terns, and these hovered silently above. Occasionally one of the birds folded its wings and dropped into the water, barely disturbing the surface as it disappeared.
Closing on where they waited, there approached a second boat, only then drawing clear of the Erebus. In this were Harry Goodsir, Graham Gore and Henry Vesconte, assistant surgeon and two of Fitzjames' lieutenants. He beckoned them closer. Gore sat in the prow, a telescope to his eye, and Goodsir and Vesconte rowed.
"He makes a good figurehead," Fitzjames said to Reid, looking back to where Gore, the oldest and heaviest of the three men, craned forward for a better view of the men on the shore.
There were no more rockets, only the two fading scribbles of spent light against the brightening sky.
Fitzjames felt uncomfortable in his dress uniform with its high collar, epaulettes and bands of stiff braid, all of which impeded his rowing. Reid wore only a blue cotton shirt beneath his serge jacket, and on his head a cap with a thin polished band bearing the name of the whaler on which he had served his apprenticeship thirty years earlier.
The others drew alongside. Gore said that there had been some delay on the Terror and that they were all ordered to wait where they sat.
"That'll be your man Crozier," Reid said, remarking on the delay and making no effort to disguise his dislike of the man.
Fitzjames silently conceded this. He knew that much of what they now did was for the benefit of those ashore, and for those back at home who might afterwards hear of it.
"A pity we arrive so early," he said. "For their sake." He indicated the distant figures.
"They'd have waited another fifty years for this." Reid lit his pipe and tamped it with a brown thumb. "We are fabulous wealth and dreamed-of riches to all Greenlanders. We draw them the firm black line this way and that through the ice and they become the gatehouse to all we discover."
"An ice-free port," Fitzjames said absently. He saw immediately the impossibility of the plan Reid had half-seriously described.
"Sir John," Reid said, indicating the larger boat which had just then appeared around the stern of the Erebus, and in which sat John Franklin, with Crozier beside him, his chest ablaze where the climbing sun caught his medals and sword. They were being rowed by the Erebus' six marines, each measured stroke smooth and seemingly effortless.
Grasping his lapel, Fitzjames sat upright and said with mock gravity, "It has been calculated by Georges Louis Leclerc, a Frenchman wouldn't you know, Comte de Buffon, that our planet is seventy-four thousand and some years old, that it has sustained life — albeit not intelligent, reasoning, pipe-smoking life as represented by yourself and I, Mr. Reid — for some forty thousand of those years, and that — and this is his calculation which may interest you most — that due to an almost imperceptible annual fall in temperature, in another ninety-three thousand years the globe will become totally uninhabitable, forever sheathed over its entire surface in a thick and iron-hard layer of impenetrable ice. May we not then have to reconsider our notions of Hell?"
From the nearby boat there came a burst of applause and calls of "bravo."
"What do you have to say to that, Mr. Reid?"
"A Frenchman. The same, no doubt, who delivered a dozen mermaids to the King of Portugal with recommendation for their safe-keeping at the end of cables anchored to rocks upon the shore."
Fitzjames agreed that it may indeed have been the same man.
"Then I believe you," Reid told him, the joke now shared evenly between them. "The wonder of it all is that we are always taught to think of Hell as a burning, fiery place." He turned to look to the north, to the invisible sea beyond the islands. "Do you imagine that's the worst the men of God could conjure up to threaten us with?"
"Desert scribes," Fitzjames said.
"Who had burned their own backs and knew just how terrible it was."
"And yet the Eskimo is just as fearful of that Hell as we are."
Reid shook his head — not solely in disagreement, but in deeper understanding.
"Then what?" Fitzjames said.
"They have no idea. This is what they know, this and much worse, and everything they imagine or conjure up is in some way connected with it. Hell to them may indeed be a fire, but it would not be your fire or my fire; it would not be the all-consuming, flesh-stripping blaze that we are so ready to accept."
After this they sat in silence, both disappointed that the humor of only a moment earlier had so swiftly evaporated.
Goodsir was the first to call across to them. "Give me the ice and ice-master Reid any time," he shouted. The others affirmed this.
"You flatter me, gentlemen," Reid called back.
"So your indifference to the ice is a cultivated indifference," Fitzjames said, uncertain even as he spoke if this did not sound too insulting or critical.
"Oh, aye, indifferent's the word. Indifferent enough when you're up on the bowsprit and I'm walking the floes ahead of you, indifferent then as a father leading his only daughter down the aisle."
"Three cheers for Mr. Reid," Goodsir called out. "Father to the bride Erebus, wide and ugly as sin, ungainly and as unmarriageable as she is."
"And to us, her unwelcome dowry," added Graham Gore, still squatting in the prow.
Their shouts were silenced by Reid as he indicated how close Franklin and Crozier had come to them.
The marines still rowed like automata, each synchronized stroke propelling them an exact distance across the calm bay. They moved in measured pulls, and as their blades slid from the water they brought little of it with them. Their sergeant, Solomon Tozer, a bulldog of a man in his mid-forties, rowed at their head and paced them.
"See the grinning sergeant comes," Fitzjames whispered to Reid as the boat approached, and its oars were finally raised, turned and dipped to bring it to a standstill. Even in the chill air, and despite the apparent ease of their performance, the marines' faces were slick with sweat.
It was only as they all came closer to the shore that they saw for the first time the large number of other vessels already moored in the sheltered waters to the north of the settlement, whalers, transports and their supply ships gathered there for provisioning and waiting for the ice to break up in their hunting grounds.
Fitzjames scanned these, but could not distinguish any one from the others, and only where they lay at anchor further out in the bay could he make out the complete outlines of individual vessels.
Gore, Vesconte and Goodsir drew alongside, and the two boats closed on Franklin.
Crozier called out to them, indicating the reception which awaited them ashore. As yet no boat had put to sea, but men were now standing ready to receive them. Fires had been lit, and their reflections lay sharply defined across the shallows.
At a distance from the main body of the crowd stood a smaller group, arranged in an evenly spaced line, at either end of which stood a man with a flag, a Union Jack to the left, a Danish Cross to the right. This, Crozier pointed out, was the Governor's party.
"Henceforth, gentlemen, we move forward together," Franklin said.
Tozer and three of his marines held their oars rigidly upright.
Franklin and Crozier composed themselves in readiness.
They went on, expecting at any moment to feel the shingle against their keel, and as the first boat touched bottom a loud cry went up from the shore. Someone blew a trumpet and someone else banged upon a drum, and if not melodiously or with any real sense of formal preparation, then their arrival was at least celebrated in a manner fitting for a place so uncertain of its foundations and squatting so precariously at the edge of so vast and silent a void.
The crowd consisted of a hundred or so men, and a dozen Eskimo women and their children. The governor headed a party of eight. He came forward to greet Franklin and the crowd cleared a path for him. He held out both his arms, causing Franklin to regret that he was about to be embraced in the French fashion.
Alongside Fitzjames and the others, the marines climbed ashore and formed a short corridor, and upon Tozer's command they all saluted, at which a further cheer went up.
Franklin strode across the difficult shore to greet the governor, his hand held rigidly ahead of him, bayonet-like. Crozier followed two paces behind.
"Welcome, welcome, welcome," the governor called to them. He clasped Franklin's hand in both his own.
"It is, as ever, a great honor and privilege to be made so welcome upon a friendly shore," Franklin said, his perfunctory tone masked by the shouting and cheering all around him.
"And Captain Crozier. We meet again." The governor left Franklin and threw out his arms to Crozier.
"So we do," Crozier said, bracing himself against the man's effusive welcome.
"Please, gentlemen, honored guests, follow me." He indicated the raised mound upon which the remainder of his welcoming party waited.
"Ah, terra firma," Franklin said loudly, as though grateful of the offer, as though he were returning from his expedition and not just then setting out upon it. He shook hands with the seven other officials, two of whom still held their limp flags. The governor introduced him to each of the men, but it was obvious to Franklin that they understood little or nothing of what he said to them.
The small settlement stretched only a short distance to the north, and might have been easily walked from one end to the other in two minutes. The majority of the buildings were of wooden construction, though some, even cruder in appearance, were built in their lower parts of boulders and crudely applied black mortar. There was no surface to the road which ran through these dwellings other than the coating of shingle which had been spread on the ground. The settlement spilled down the shore to the wrack line, and was bounded inland by a low cliff.
To the south lay a number of beached wrecks, doors and windows cut into their hulls, and largely devoid of their rigging, the stumps of their masts and tangled yards fallen all around them like the toppled remains of some petrified forest.
The governor continued walking away from the shore party, beckoning them toward him as he went. Franklin and Crozier followed him, and as they did so the flag bearers assumed position on either side of them and kept pace. It was not what Franklin had hoped for: the remainder of the day, he now realized, was about to be taken up in wasteful civilities, all of which he had little choice but to endure.
Ahead of them, the governor stopped and pointed out to sea. "You are not all ashore."
They all turned and saw the boat coming toward them from the Terror, in which sat Edward Little, John Irving and George Hodgson.
"My lieutenants," Crozier said. "Their duties aboard prevented them from joining us earlier. They will be ashore presently."
"Then we must wait," the governor said.
When this last party was finally ashore, Franklin gathered them all together, hoping they might avoid constant repetition of these formalities and thus speed the proceedings. It was by then clear that some form of entertainment had been prepared for them.
The crowd pressed more closely around them. The Eskimo women and their children were the most inquisitive, and several of these came forward to tug at their jackets. Franklin had brought no gifts for them, and he regretted this oversight.
One of the women presented herself to Reid directly. She shook his hand, and the women accompanying her laughed at the gesture.
When they parted, the woman applauded with the others, and after watching Reid for a moment she turned and made her way back through the crowd.
Reid rejoined Franklin and the others.
"Ten days ago her husband was in Navy Board Inlet. She says all the Baffin ice between here and there has been broken and drifting free for almost a month."
"Good news for us," Fitzjames said.
The governor, anxious to overhear, was disappointed by the speed with which this information had been accepted by his visitors.
"A husky," he said. "So unreliable. She has been here a month with her sisters —" he seasoned the word with considerable contempt " — and their children, all of them having once again been abandoned by their untrustworthy husbands. If you were only to hear the accusations of theft which are conveyed to me daily. If only these people fell within my jurisdiction ... --" He threw up his hands and clicked his tongue at the injustice of it all.
"She's telling the truth," Reid said quietly to Fitzjames. "My youngest son has a pair of slippers made by her and sent to him as a gift on his third birthday."
Fitzjames looked to where the woman had been standing, but could no longer discern her amid the restless crowd.
Cheered by the prospect of an easy passage, Franklin told the governor to lead the way, ready now to put up with whatever had been prepared for them. He saw that they had been joined by four Lutheran ministers, all clutching large bibles and grimacing at everything they saw around them. All four men stared at him, and he found it hard to return their uncomfortable gaze.
They were led to a line of chairs, ahead of which a small area of ground had been cleared of its stones and boulders, these having then been made into a boundary circle. Franklin and the governor sat together, flanked by Crozier and Fitzjames. The governor's party did not sit, but instead stood behind the line of seats, positioning the two flags in holes in the ground.
Calling for silence from the crowd, the governor took a rolled paper from his pocket and read aloud his speech of welcome, concluding by informing Franklin that a copy of this had already been dispatched to the Danish parliament.
Prompted by Franklin, the seated men applauded. Franklin then rose and offered his thanks.
These additional formalities concluded, the governor called for the crowd to clear a space so that the open ground might now be occupied by the two men waiting to move into it. The crowd obeyed, and as the men emerged into the empty circle a further cheer went up.
Wrestling was a common pastime in the settlement, its participants coming largely from the moored vessels awaiting departure. In this instance, one of the men was from Iceland, the other from Lincolnshire, Franklin's home county. They were evenly matched in height and weight, and prior to making any contact they circled the ring growling at each other.
The fight began in earnest when the two combatants collided with their heads down and almost knocked each other senseless, and ended less than a minute later with the Lincolnshire man being lifted off his feet and thrown to the ground headfirst by the Icelander. He lay where he struck, groaning and fumbling around him. The Icelander declared himself the victor and presented himself to Franklin before returning to the more energetic appreciation of the crowd.
Several more bouts followed, most as brief and brutal as the first, some lasting for five or ten minutes, and one being concluded in a draw when, after twenty minutes, neither man was able to stand and continue.
Following this there was a long interval during which tea and food were served. It was by then ten o'clock and the sun was fully risen above the cliffs.
Surprised at the silver teapots and trays, and the fine quality of the china in which their refreshments were served, John Irving asked the governor how he had acquired them. At first the man was reluctant to answer, then waving his hand in the direction of the sea, he said, "The way we acquire most things in this starved place."
Excerpted from The Broken Lands by Robert Edric. Copyright © 1992 Robert Edric. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Robert Edric is the author of several acclaimed novels. The Broken Lands is the first of his novels to be published in America. He currently lives in East Yorkshire.
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