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He was thirty-four years old at the time, but she was the first naked human female he had ever seen and even now the most beautiful. The dark skin. The breasts already heavy as globed fruit but also still those of an adolescent, the nipples not yet raised, the areolae strange, smooth dark-brown circles. It was an image Sir John had not been able to eradicate from his memory – try and pray as he might – in the quarter of a century since then. The girl had not the classic V of pubic hair that Franklin had later seen on his first wife, Eleanor – glimpsed only once, as she prepared for her bath, since Eleanor never allowed the slightest light to illuminate their rare lovemaking – or the sparser but wilder wheat-coloured nest that was part of the aging body of his current wife, Jane. No, the Indian girl Greenstockings had only a narrow but pure-black vertical escutcheon above her female parts. As delicate as a raven’s feather. As pitch black as sin itself.

The Scotsman midshipman, Robert Hood, who had already fathered one bastard with a different Indian woman during that endless first winter at the cabin Franklin had named Fort Enterprise, had promptly fallen in love with teenaged Copper squaw Greenstockings. The girl had previously been lying with the other midship-man, George Back, but with Back gone hunting, she’d shifted her sexual allegiance to Hood with the ease known only to pagans and primitives.

Franklin could still remember the grunts of passion in the long night – not the passion of a few minutes, as he had experienced with Eleanor (never grunting or making a noise, of course, since no gentleman would do that), or even two brief bouts of passion, such as on that memorable night on his honeymoon with Jane; no, Hood and Greenstockings went at it half a dozen times. No sooner would Hood’s and the girl’s noises stop in the adjoining lean-to than they would begin again – laughter, low giggles, then soft moans, leading again to the louder cries as the brazen girl-woman urged Hood on.

Jane Griffin was thirty-six years old when she married the newly knighted Sir John Franklin on December 5, 1828. They honeymooned in Paris. Franklin did not especially like the city, nor did he like the French, but their hotel had been luxurious and the food very good.

Franklin had been in a sort of dread that during their travels on the continent they might run into that Roget fellow – Peter Mark, the one who gained some sort of literary attention by preparing to publish that silly dictionary or whatever it was – the same man who had once asked for Jane Griffin’s hand, only to be rejected like all the other suitors had been in her younger years. Franklin had since peeked into Jane’s diaries from that era – he rationalized his crime by thinking that she wanted him to find and read the many calfskin-bound volumes, why otherwise would she have left them in such an obvious place? – and saw, in his beloved’s tight, perfect hand, the passage she had written on the day Roget had finally married someone else – “the romance of my life is gone.”

Robert Hood had been making noises with Greenstockings for six endless arctic nights when his fellow midshipman George Back returned from a hunting party with the Indians. The two men arranged a duel to the death at sunrise – around 10:00 a.m. – the next morning.

Franklin had not known what to do. The corpulent lieutenant was unable to exert any discipline over the surly voyageurs or the contemptuous Indians, much less able to control the headstrong Hood or the impulsive Back.

Both midshipmen were artists and mapmakers. From that time on, Franklin had never trusted an artist. When the sculptor in Paris did Lady Jane’s hands and the perfumed sodomite here in London had come for almost a month to paint her official oil portrait, Franklin had never left the men alone with her.

Back and Hood were meeting at dawn for a duel to the death and there was nothing John Franklin could do but hide in the cabin and pray that the resulting death or injury would not destroy the last vestige of sanity in his already compromised expedition. His orders had not specified that he should bring food on the 1,200-mile arctic overland, coastal sea, and river trek. Out of his own pocket, he’d provided enough supplies to feed the sixteen men for one day. Franklin had assumed the Indians would then hunt for them and feed them adequately, just as the guides carried his bags and paddled his birch-bark canoe.

The birch-bark canoes had been a mistake. Twenty-three years after the fact, he was willing to concede that – to himself, at least. After just a few days in the ice-clogged waters along the northern coast, reached more than a year and a half after their departure from Fort Resolution, the flimsy vessels had started to come apart.

Franklin, his eyes closed, his brow burning, his head throbbing, half-listening to the uninterrupted stream of Jane’s chatter, remembered the morning when he’d lain in his heavy sleeping bag and squeezed his eyes shut as Back and Hood had stepped off their fifteen paces outside the cabin, then turned to fire. The confounded Indians and confounded voyageurs – equally savage in many ways – were treating the duel to the death as entertainment. Greenstockings, Franklin remembered, was radiant that morning with an almost erotic glow.

Lying in his bag, his hands over his ears, Franklin still heard the call to pace, the call to turn, the call to aim, the command to fire.

Then two clicks. Then laughter from the crowd.

During the night, the old Scottish seaman calling the pacing, that tough and ungentlemanly John Hepburn, had unloaded charge and balls from the carefully prepared pistols.

Deflated by the unceasing laughter of the mob of voyageurs and knee-slapping Indians, Hood and Back had stalked off in opposite directions. Shortly after that, Franklin ordered George Back to return to the forts to purchase more provisions from the Hudson ’s Bay Company. Back was gone most of the winter.

Franklin had eaten his shoes and had subsisted on lichen scraped from rocks – a slime meal that would make a self-respecting English dog vomit – but he had never partaken of human flesh.

A long year after the forestalled duel, in Richardson ’s party after Franklin ’s group had separated from it, that surly, half-mad Iroquois on the expedition, Michel Teroahaute, shot the midshipman artist and mapmaker Robert Hood in the centre of his forehead.

A week before the murder, the Indian had brought back a strong-tasting haunch of meat to the starving party, insisting that it had come from a wolf that had either been gored to death by a caribou or killed by Teroahaute himself using a deer horn – the Indian’s story kept changing. The ravenous party had cooked and eaten the meat, but not before Dr. Richardson noticed a slight hint of a tattoo on the skin. The doctor later told Franklin that he was certain that Teroahaute had doubled back to the body of one of the voyageurs who had died that week on the trek.

The starving Indian and the dying Hood were alone when Richardson, off scraping lichen from the rocks, had heard the shot. Suicide, Teroahaute had insisted, but Dr. Richardson, who had attended on more than a few suicides, knew that the position of the ball in Robert Hood’s brain had not come from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Now the Indian armed himself with a British bayonet, a musket, two fully charged and half-cocked pistols, and a knife as long as his forearm. The two non-Indians remaining – Hepburn and Richardson – had only a small pistol and one untrustworthy musket between them.

Richardson, now one of the most respected scientists and surgeons in England, friend of the poet Robert Burns, but then only a promising expedition surgeon and naturalist, waited until Michel Teroahaute returned from a foraging trip, made sure his arms were full of firewood, and then lifted his pistol and cold-bloodedly shot the Indian through the head.