Erebus by Patrick Christie

The Captain had not been himself ever since we extracted the frozen bird carcass from the ice. He had become withdrawn, seeking solitude, showing disinterest in his duties even as four of his men resided in the makeshift infirmary, coughing up blood all hours of the day.

 

The expedition had begun without incident. We departed from the Port of Bluff in New Zealand on the 3rd November and spent only five days caught in pack ice in our passage across the Ross Sea. We entered McMurdo Sound under sail and landed on Ross Island on the 21st December with almost the entirety of our coal stores still intact. Although we worked through Christmas to establish camp, we were settled into our new hut in time to celebrate New Year’s. The cook, McPherson, prepared a special meal, making a most wonderful seal soup, followed by a beef joint with lentils and asparagus. We drank champagne and brandy until we were all in an agreeable languor.

The cook had all of a Scot’s reticence but none of one’s parsimoniousness (though we still joked that, were he ever to feel seasickness, he need only to lean over the side with a shilling between his teeth to cure himself). He was never seen without his cat. Instead of fulfilling its duties as a mouser, the creature laid across his shoulders whilst he cooked and curled up on his chest at night as he slept.

Cats have always struck me as supercilious creatures. I much prefer the company of dogs. Dense though they may be, you cannot fault them for loyalty. I’ve found this to be particularly true of the hounds we have brought on this expedition. They are monstrous in size – a mix of Newfoundlands and Canadian Eskimo dogs. The cold does not touch them one bit. We keep them housed outside in kennels made from snow. If it were not for the smell, I could sleep quite soundly nestled between them for the amount of heat they give off.

 

Two skiers in vast, dark, snowy landscape
Photo by carlos hevia on Unsplash

For the third morning in a row, I had found the mutilated body of a penguin, half buried among the snow. The dogs couldn’t be responsible – they were chained up at night – and there are no known land-predators in Antarctica. Nothing that required the agility for hunting could survive in these temperatures. I had slept under the stars on the peak of Ben Nevis, worked ski seasons in the Alps and celebrated Christmas in Canada but nothing could have prepared me for the chill of this white desert. There was such limited respite from it. Even in the cabin, it was only sat by the blubber stove, with supper in my stomach and a whisky in my hand, that I felt warmth through my whole being.

I heard a cough as I lit my pipe and realised that my neighbour, Wallace, had yet to leave his bunk though it was already passed ten. I turned him on his back and saw that his mouth and shirt were covered with blood. I called Dr Clarke and we set up a cot behind the curtain in the far corner of the hut, alongside the other convalescents, and then carried Wallace over to it. The physician wore a scarf around his own mouth and nose, which he’d soaked in rubbing alcohol. He wasn’t taking any chances with his own health.

 

A significant proportion of funding for our trip had come from the Geological Society for the purpose of studying Mount Erebus. Few volcanoes on Earth were so active. I had seen with my own eyes the magma bubbling within its crater, as if looking down into hell itself. When the flow of molten rock became violent and agitated, it sent fiery balls of lava up into the sky. It was one such eruption that revealed the bird carcass buried deep in the snow. The Captain ordered us to excavate. Professor Monroe was beside himself when we arrived back at camp with the thing on our sledge. He had come to Antarctica to examine the mating habits of Adélie penguins and now we had presented him with an apparent prehistoric relative of theirs, tall as a man, preserved by the ice. We took photos of it from every angle before the work of defrosting the body began so that Professor Monroe could dissect it.

 

Since the Captain was nowhere to be found in the cabin, I put my finneskoes, hat and coat back on and headed once more out into the cold. I climbed the slight incline that began at the south end of the hut and cast around the unremitting landscape with my binoculars. Spying a figure on the shoreline, I headed down to find the Captain, in nothing but his undershirt, drenched in sweat.

‘You’ll catch your death in these temperatures wearing nothing but your skivvies,’ I said.

‘I was actually half-tempted to go for a swim to cool down. I’ve just been running. I felt as though I needed to get my blood pumping.’

‘Wallace has been taken ill. Dr Clarke and I have moved him to the infirmary.’

The Captain turned away from the water and looked over my shoulder, back towards the hut. ‘I loved storms as a boy. Despite my mother’s protestations that I should stay inside, I always ran out into them, letting the wind whip me about, shouting at the top of my lungs and letting my words get carried away. I wondered where the storm would take them.’ He started walking back towards the hut and I followed him. ‘But here when the wind blows, I don’t shout. I listen.’

I made to reply but was drowned out by the sound of the dogs barking as we passed their ice kennels.

I have great respect for the Captain. I would not have volunteered for this expedition had he not asked me to personally. The legend that surrounds him is, without doubt, in part of his own making, but neither is it created entirely out of smoke. He was awarded a Victoria Cross for his involvement in the Battle of Paardeberg against the Boers. His memoir about his role in the Boxer Rebellion was a best seller. He was a Senior Fellow in military history at King’s College. Making his mark on the South Pole was simply the next step in a long line of achievements. He had never been given to endlessly mulling over a situation. He relied on his gut to take the correct course of action – and it had never steered him wrong.

 

The ground was too hard to dig a grave, so instead we constructed a small cairn out of stones, under which we laid Professor Monroe to rest. The Captain had agreed to say a few words but, when the time came, he was nowhere to be found. A week later, we buried two more. I called a meeting that evening. It had already commenced by the time the Captain returned to the hut. The mood among the men was grim – none more so than that of the cook who, in addition to the demise of our shipmates, had to contend with the loss of his cat, which had been missing for the last two days.

The Captain ignored us as he made his way to the blubber stove to serve himself the supper he had missed.

‘We must consider whether the time has come to abandon the expedition before the pack ice closes,’ I said. ‘We cannot say what hope there is for Wallace and Alderidge. However, should we be forced to winter here, and the disease were to spread, there’s no telling how many of us it might take before the thaw.’

The Captain sat down at the table and wiped his brow. He was sweating profusely. ‘What are your thoughts on this Dr Clarke?’ he asked, between bites of his bread roll.

‘From what we’ve seen, the incubation period of this disease is short, yet more than two weeks have passed since anyone new has fallen ill. The only ones to have succumbed took part in the dissection.’

‘Although of course, I was involved in the autopsy as well yet remain healthy,’ the Captain rejoined.

‘It’s possible that there was some kind of pathogen frozen in stasis within the bird, which was revived when we defrosted it.’

‘Is there a risk of it passing between humans?’

‘We’ve not seen any evidence of that. However, if it could be transmitted in such a way, we would run the risk of bringing an unknown virus back to England with us if we were to cancel the expedition.’

‘If we stay, we are condemning these men to death,’ I said.

The Captain lifted the bowl to his mouth and drank what remained of his stew. ‘We were clear with every man about what they were signing up for. Safe return not assured. We put it at the top of the advertisement. This is a land of death. We should not be hubristic and think otherwise. Every time the wind lashes this cabin it speaks of the brutal folly we made in coming here.’

I had bitten down on my tongue to measure my response and could taste the coppery note of blood as I replied. ‘May I suggest we put it to a vote?’

‘No. This is not a democracy. I am the Captain of this expedition and I have made my decision.’

 

Though we had lost our ornithologist, it seemed only right that we saw through his plans to collect a clutch of Adélie penguin eggs from the colony on the far eastern side of Ross Island. The Zoological Society back in London could analyse them in his place. Our decision to stay had been cemented not only by the directive of the Captain but also by the subsequent passing of Wallace and Alderidge. Resultantly, three of us, Milne, Ellis and myself, set off one clear morning with four dogs pulling a sledge laden with provisions and equipment. With something at last to distract from the tragedies that had beset the expedition – a fine mood was soon among us. We covered close to eight miles, despite walking uphill for most of the day, setting up our camp that evening under an overhanging rock face. I made a meal of hoosh with pemmican and sledging biscuits before we turned in to bed.

The confinement of the cabin had, without doubt, taken its toll on my fitness. We had been walking for over an hour the next day before the stiffness subsided in my legs. Clouds had rolled in overnight and by noon it had begun to snow, slowing our pace considerably. We had no choice but to make camp in an exposed position and resolved to press on the next day rather than wait for the storm to pass.

Despite the thick layer of fresh snow covering the ground when we set off, the sledge sped up as we began our descent, soon disappearing from view completely despite our efforts to catch up to it. More than half an hour passed before we found it – alerted by the sound of whimpering. The dogs had fallen down into a crevasse. The sledge was too heavy to pull up by rope, so we helped Milne rappel down into the fissure in order to retrieve as much of our equipment as we could carry. He was left with no choice but to euthanize the remaining dog, which was too injured to walk. It took us five more days to reach our destination. We had been reduced to half-portions of hoosh to conserve supplies and our strength had begun to falter.

We returned to the camp exhausted but victorious, having retrieved five eggs, only to be confronted with a sight that made each of our hearts sink. The hut was gone – the stove the only thing left standing, surrounded by mounds of ash. There was no sign of the Captain or any of the other men. Down by the shore we discovered the ship gone as well. At this time of year it had next to no chance of making it through the pack ice. There were no signs of what might have driven the men to flee – placing themselves in great danger while leaving their comrades behind. We searched through the cabin, scavenging tins of food that had survived the fire, finding nothing resembling human remains.

One of the lifeboats, which had been used to bring supplies in from the ship, had been left behind and we resolved to turn this into a shelter. Digging up stones from the beach, we created two walls of about three foot in height, upon which we set the boat upside down. Cutting the canvas from our tent into strips, we then fashioned a door and created a lining around the inside of the construction – preventing wind from entering through the gaps between the stones. Once we had recovered some of our strength, we removed a portion of the chimney from the old hut and fitted it to the boat, constructing a new smaller stove out of an oil drum. After more than two weeks of camping, making our beds off the ground in the thwarts of the boat in our new heated shelter seemed the height of luxury. With the nearby seal colony providing blubber for fuel and food, in addition to the penguins that regularly dotted the coast, we could survive for as long as was necessary for a rescue party to find us. There was no question among the three of us that a rescue was in store. However slim the chance was, it remained the only hope we had. We divided up cooking and hunting duties, doing what we could to keep our minds occupied, and the days soon turned into weeks.

 

It was dark when I woke up. There was little opportunity for light to penetrate the hut. As my eyes adjusted I noticed that my two bunkmates were missing. I pulled myself out of my reindeer sleeping bag and dropped to the floor, realising I had been woken up by the sound of barking. Lighting a lamp, I pulled aside the canvas cover and saw the Captain stood before me – his face so covered in grime and frost bite he was almost unrecognisable. Six of the dogs stood either side of him. Several more appeared to have given their skins up for the jacket he was wearing, which was caked in blood. He held up a large club with one hand, pointing it at me. By the lamp light his eyes looked black as coals.

‘Man cannot have dominion over nature, only other men,’ he said. ‘Nature is a force unto itself.’

Light barely penetrating through darkness
Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

Patrick ChristiePatrick Christie lives in London and works in higher education. His writing has previously appeared in Storgy Magazine and the Nonconformist. You can follow him at patrickchristie.co.uk

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