It is one of the most famous quotes in the history of exploration: “I am just going outside. I may be some time.”
The story of how former cavalry officer Lawrence Oates came to deliver his brave last words, before walking bootless into a Antarctic blizzard so that Robert Falcon Scott and the other members of the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition might have a better chance of survival, is brilliantly reimagined in this epic novel based on fact. A hero of the Boer Wars, Oates joined Scott’s second journey to Antarctica with dreams of winning the race to the South Pole for England. But small mistakes and bad luck plagued the mission from the start, and when they finally reached the Pole on January 17, 1912, Oates and Scott were heartbroken to find that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them there—by more than a month. Little did they know, things were about to get much, much worse.
Death on the Ice is the 2nd book in the Great British Heroes and Antiheroes Trilogy, which also includes Empire of Sand and Signal Red.
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Death on the Ice
By Robert Ryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Robert Ryan
All rights reserved.
The two men sharing the cramped office in Burlington House on Savile Row sat formal and straight backed, sizing each other up as they conversed. They were hemmed into one corner of the room by untidy piles of boxes and packing cases. There were samples of the chocolate Cadbury's would be providing, custard and baking powder from Alfred Bird and Sons, various recipes of high-fat pemmican, oil lamps of interesting design, candles, rolls of oilskin, britches and Burberry sledging suits. There was a great mound of finnesko, the fur boots the Esquimeaux used on the ice, along with bundles of the grass they stuffed in them for insulation. Next to them was a stack of the new double-compartment Nansen stoves shipped from Christiana. Elsewhere sat three different models of wooden sledges and a teetering pile of equipment catalogues, featuring everything from folding spoons to fur sleeping suits.
On the walls were two detailed maps of the Southern Hemisphere, with large lacunae where the most southerly continent should be. Dotted around the charts were images of whaling and sealing ships and the famous Fram, the polar exploration vessel of Fridtjof Nansen. Photographs of previous expeditions to both poles adorned the other spaces, men wrapped in so many clothes they lost any discernible human shape. Frequently they were posed before their tents or with their stranded ship as a backdrop. In the largest, a group of six with blackened faces, bandaged hands and raw, slightly haunted eyes were staring balefully at the camera. They looked shocked to find themselves there, on the ice, far from home.
There was even a husky pinned up, a grainy picture of a keen-looking animal on the snow, its harnesses laid out around it as if it were a canine maypole. The clutter, the hastily opened cartons and the carelessly displayed wall decorations lent the room a sense of fevered urgency.
'As you can see, Mr Shackleton,' said the older man. 'There is much to do.'
Each was dressed in his civilian best. Commander Scott noted approvingly that Lieutenant Shackleton's boots were as shiny as his own and his collar stiff and new. Shackleton at least buffed up well out of uniform, unlike some of his slovenly colleagues in the merchant service. Scott had already seen some howlers.
The commander picked up a piece of paper from his overcrowded desk and held up the report, which concentrated on Shackleton's service record with the Union Castle line. 'Armitage speaks highly of you. Which bodes well. He does not suffer fools.' Bert Armitage was Scott's newly appointed second-in-command, a good navigator, and a veteran of Arctic waters. He was also famously blunt in expressing his opinions.
Shackleton smiled. 'Well, that's good to know. That I'm not a fool. And to have it in writing. Grand.'
According to the dossier, the Anglo-Irishman had spent his formative years in England, so Scott was surprised by the thickness of his brogue. He wondered what they had made of that at Dulwich College. 'You realise, of course, that, although yourself and Armitage are merchant men, the enterprise, and the ship, will be run according to Royal Navy rules and regulations.'
'So I understand.'
'And you will have to sign an undertaking to that effect.'
'If required to do so, then of course I shall.' Shackleton leaned forward a little in his seat. Slightly shorter than Scott, but bulkier, he exuded an earthy physicality. He possessed sharp, steady blue eyes that made Scott think he would be difficult to unbalance or panic. He was also six years younger than the commander's thirty-two, although he did not act as if he were addressing an older man. Or, indeed, a superior officer. 'And I appreciate that you probably would have preferred a crew made up entirely from your service.'
Scott smiled at his perception. He was expedition leader because of the patronage of Sir Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society. He had championed Scott in the face of opposition from other factions in the Royal Society and the RGS, which were jointly behind this voyage to Antarctica. In the subsequent sparring for total control, Scott had been forced to yield some ground. The societies' scientists were no longer in charge of the expedition, but he had been restricted on how many RN personnel he could take. So he was obliged to turn to the merchant branch.
'There are good men in both services,' Scott said diplomatically. 'However, we must have but one code of discipline or the result will be confusion and anarchy.' He made a show of examining Armitage's report once more. 'Why do you want to go South?' Scott asked. 'Your record shows no predilection for cold climates.'
Nor yours, Shackleton thought, but didn't voice it. 'No, but I know square-rigged ships like the one you are having built. And there was the advertisement.'
'In The Times.'
Scott tugged on his earlobe, as he often did when puzzled. 'You think the Royal Geographical Society advertised for expedition members in The Times?'
'Longstaff told me they did. Said I should get a move on if I wanted a place because so many would apply.' Llewellyn Longstaff was one of the expedition's more generous sponsors and had vigorously put Shackleton forward as a potential recruit. Scott could ill afford to cross anyone who was contributing to the expedition's meagre purse, which is why he had agreed to consider the Irishman. 'I have the wording still.'
Shackleton reached into his pocket, took out the handwritten note, and read it aloud: '"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of winter. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success."'
Scott guffawed and clapped his hands together. 'Marvellous. But I think a little prank has been played on you, perhaps to hurry you along. There was no such notice placed.'
'Oh.' And then, Shackleton, too, chortled. 'Damn. It sounded right up my street. Apart from the low wages. A joke?'
'I fear so.'
'But it changes nothing.' He took Scott aback by leaping to his feet and jabbing at one of the charts. 'Even if that piece of fiction is Longstaff's idea of a jest, it surely holds true. Doesn't it?'
Scott fiddled with the unlit pipe on his desk. 'I suppose it does. It has a brutal honesty one has to admire.'
'Precisely. Pulls no punches. I like that. I can feel the tingle of anticipation already.' He swept his hand over the blank areas of the map. 'Terra Incognita. Constant danger. Not so worried about the honour and recognition at this moment, but I won't lie and say I haven't thought of the future. Of the privileges that accrue from belonging to a very exclusive club, for those who have been where no other man has trod. Cook, Ross, Perry, Franklin, Borchgrevink. And, now, Scott. And perhaps a footnote for Ernie Shackle. And a bit of cash.'
He finished off with a broad wink as he sat back down. Scott had to remind himself that they did things differently in the Merchant Navy. Scott was aware that those who risked the poles tended to do very well upon their return, but he would hesitate to proffer an urge for advancement—as opposed to pushing the boundaries of science and geography—as a reason for going South. Clearly, Ernest Shackleton had no such qualms.
'And you can be released from your duties with Union Castle? I intend to overwinter for at least one year down there.'
'You know what that means? Overwintering.' Scott pronounced the word with all the gravitas he could muster.
Shackleton nodded. 'It means we should pack our best bed warmers.'
'I suggest you read the physicist Bernacchi's account of the Southern Cross 's Antarctic overwintering. It makes for uneasy reading.'
'How comes the ship?' asked Shackleton.
The expedition's vessel, a wooden coal-powered three-masted sailing ship, was being built in Dundee. Scott's reply was guarded. 'Well, I hear.'
'You hear? You've not seen it?'
Scott bristled a little at the implied criticism. 'My dear fellow, of course I've seen it. Just not recently There is much to do here in London. Fundraising and the gathering of supplies. Planning an expedition such as this is like negotiating a series of increasingly tiresome locks, till, at last, you reach the open sea. Be assured, Reginald Skelton, my engineer, is keeping an eye on things. He was on the Majestic with me.' Scott said this as if it was all the recommendation a man needed. 'It is on schedule.'
'She will be launched in February of next year. March at the very latest. You know, we might have unwelcome company going South?'
'So I hear.' The Scots, the French, the Swedes and particularly the Germans were putting together their own expeditions to Antarctica. The still-unfinished ship must sail for southern waters no later than August 1901, just over a year away, if the expedition was to take advantage of what passed for summer in the South. Shackleton indicated the happy husky on the wall. 'And you'll use dogs? I hear they are much in favour with the Americans and Norwegians. Although not with Markham. Is that true?'
'It is.' Scott leaned forward, as if Markham were next door, eavesdropping. 'No skis, no dogs, no primitive Eskimo ways, so Sir Clements advises.' The only truly noble way to achieve the poles, Markham counselled, was by man-hauling. It had a pure, heroic quality that appealed to him. There were acid tongues at the RS that claimed Markham simply liked the idea of young muscular bodies in harnesses. Scott thought such salacious tittle-tattle pure mischief making.
'However, we will take dogs,' Scott confirmed. 'I have corresponded with Nansen on the subject. He recommends Greenland huskies, although Armitage has a promising contact in Siberia. But who knows what the ice will be like? Nansen himself admits dogs struggle on rough ice. We have to face the possibility that we will have to rely on our own resources.'
'Well, personally, there are none I trust as much, Commander Scott. When all else fails, you need to know you can rely on yourself. As for sitting down while dogs pull ... well, as Sir Walter Scott said, "Too much rest is rust".'
Scott smiled at the familiar quotation. '"Ere long we will launch, a vessel as goodly strong and staunch as ever weathered a wintry sea",' he quoted. It was one of Markham's favourite verses.
'Longfellow,' Shackleton replied. 'Not always to my taste, but I applaud that sentiment. I'm sure she will be. And I'd be pleased to be on her.'
Scott stood and held out his hand. 'In which case, I think we should get along very well, Mr Shackleton. I would like to offer you a position as my third lieutenant. Subject to a medical.'
'You'll have no worries there.' The medical was another formality. Longstaff had let slip that the ship's naturalist and assistant doctor, Edward Wilson, had TB scars that should have disbarred him. The commander made sure it did not. And they'd find no such problems on the fit, young Irishman.
'I am sure that will be so.'
Shackleton had been warned that Scott was a cold, distant man, slow to show his emotions, but there seemed to be a smile of genuine warmth and pleasure on his face. It changed his rather ordinary features entirely, lending him a spark Shackleton had not previously detected.
Only as he gripped Scott's proffered hand did Shackleton feel the enormity of what he had accepted. Now he really did experience a lightning bolt of anticipation and excitement, leavened with a hint of apprehension. He was twenty-six years old and, for better or worse, he was going South, into the last great unknown, with the equally unknown, and untried, Scott.CHAPTER 2
The Curragh, Co. Kildare, Ireland, 1900
Lawrence Oates loathed writing letters. It was worse than arithmetic and that was torture, almost as bad as Latin or Greek. Yet, he knew he must. His mother insisted.
Oates struggled with the grammar and spelling for ten minutes before he conceded defeat. 'McConnell!' he yelled.
His steward stuck his head around the door of the tiny quarters. 'Sir?'
'Want to earn yourself another sixpence?'
'Oh, aye, sir.'
'Come in, then.'
McConnell was a willowy man of thirty, a mere decade older than Oates, but already, devoid of front teeth and much of his hair. He had left the employ of the Guinness brewery to find some adventuring. For the moment that consisted of putting the finest shine on his lieutenant's cavalry boots.
Oates slapped the coin on the table. 'Between us as always?'
'Oh, yes, sir. I'd rather fall on your sword than spread gossip.'
Oates laughed and swung his legs on to the rickety desk. He put his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair. 'Go ahead, then.'
McConnell picked up the scrawled letter and began to read it, his mouth silently moving as he did so.
'I think it's an account, sir.'
'You've put "required to open a account". Should be an.'
'Change it, would you?'
McConnell picked up the pen, dipped it in the inkpot and added the letter. It wasn't hard to approximate the lieutenant's writing. He just had to pretend he was an eight year old again.
'And there is an apostrophe in Cox's.'
McConnell spoke from the corner of his mouth, as if passing on a confidence or a racing tip. 'Some of the troopers were wondering if you would do them a service, sir.'
'Yes? Not write to their mothers, I hope?'
McConnell smiled. 'No, sir. They've got me for that if need be. There is a horse contest. On Saturday. A bit of a wager.'
'A wager? You know the colonel doesn't hold with such things.'
McConnell corrected another spelling mistake. 'That's why they didn't ask him, sir, and why they've asked you. They want you to hold the stake and officiate.'
'Who is it?'
'Troopers Regan and Lamb ton, sir.'
Oates thought for a moment. Personally, he saw no harm in competition between the men. It could only be good for the regiment and the troopers' riding ability. 'Very well. Get me the details. And tell them I'll take on the winner.'
McConnell's eyes lit up. 'Oh, well done, sir.'
'Read me the letter so far, can you?'
McConnell made a show of clearing his throat.
'"Dear Mother,"—I've put a comma in there, sir, hope you don't mind.'
'No, punctuation was never my strong point. Carry on.'
'"Dear Mother",' McConnell continued, '"As part of my duties here I am required to open an account at Cox's, the regimental bankers. I need horses, boxing gloves and kit, new boots, and various parade requirements. If you could let me have a hundred and fifty pounds—"'
McConnell whistled at the amount.
'Do you know how much it costs to be an officer in the Inniskillings?' Oates asked.
'I do now, sir.'
Oates laughed. 'Don't be impertinent or I'll cut your wages.' Under new rules, a junior officer was not entitled to a batman; stewards, or 'Boots' as they were collectively known, had to come out of a lieutenant's own purse. 'Carry on.'
'"I should like to put it in as soon as possible as you have to pay for what you have ordered as soon as you have ordered it. I promise I shall live as cheaply as possible to the end of the year." That's it so far, sir.'
Oates had not been joshing with McConnell. Being an officer was, indeed, a constant stream of expenses, with no way he knew of turning off the tap. The mess kit, polo whites and everyday uniforms, plus the mess bills and McConnell's salary, had gobbled up most of his cash and now he needed two horses. The 6th Inniskillings might be the best heavy cavalry regiment in the army, but its officers had to bleed money to ensure they kept up appearances. Much as he despised himself for having to beg from his mother, she had ensured there was no other way he could function. Whenever he objected, she either feigned an attack of the vapours or threatened him, and the family, with disgrace.
'Titus!' Lieutenant George Culshaw, of the Sheffield Steel Culshaws, burst into his billet. He was the one who had nicknamed Oates after the infamous Reformation cleric. 'Titus, we have orders.'
Oates swung his feet off the desk and snatched the letter back. 'And Boots,' he said, 'if I catch you reading my mail again, I'll fine you more than a tanner.'
'Sir. Very sorry, sir. Didn't mean nothing by it.'
Oates scooped up the sixpence and made sure McConnell caught the fast wink before he pocketed it. He might make it a shilling this time. Boots saw the worst side of officers as it was: drunk, disorderly, nursing a life-threatening hangover or even wrestling with one venereal disease or other they were too shamed to go to the MO with. The best Boots had the discretion of a priest. Better McConnell knew about his difficulties with writing than a man like Culshaw, who, in his cups, might tell the whole mess.
Excerpted from Death on the Ice by Robert Ryan. Copyright © 2009 Robert Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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