Franklin smiled and nodded, wishing the old man would leave him alone.
“And your age,” continued Ross. “You’re sixty, for God’s sake.”
“Fifty-nine,” Franklin said stiffly. “Sir.”
The elder Ross smiled thinly but looked more like an iceberg than ever. “Terror is what? Three hundred thirty tons? Erebus something like three hundred seventy?”
“Three hundred seventy-two for my flagship,” said Franklin. “Three hundred twenty-six for Terror.”
“And a draft of nineteen feet each, isn’t that right?”
“That’s buggering insane, Franklin. Your ships will be the deepest draft vessels ever sent on an arctic expedition. Everything we know about those regions has shown us that the waters where you’re headed are shallow, filled with shoals, rocks, and hidden ice. My Victory only drew a fathom and a half and we couldn’t get over the bar of the harbour where we wintered. George Back all but ripped his bottom out on the ice with your Terror.”
“Both ships have been strengthened, Sir John,” said Franklin. He could feel sweat running down his ribs and chest onto his portly belly. “They’re now the strongest ice ships in the world.”
“And what is all the nonsense about steam and locomotive engines?”
“Not nonsense, m’lord,” said Franklin and could hear the condescension in his own voice. He knew nothing about steam himself, but he had two good engineers on the expedition and Fitzjames, who was part of the new Steam Navy. “These are powerful engines, Sir John. They’ll see us through the ice where sail has failed.”
Sir John Ross snorted. “Your steam machines aren’t even maritime engines, are they, Franklin?”
“No, Sir John. But they’re the best steam engines the London and Greenwich Railway could sell us. Converted for marine use. Powerful beasts, sir.”
Ross sipped his whiskey. “Powerful if you’re planning to lay down rails along the North-West Passage and take a God-damned locomotive across it.”
Franklin chuckled good-naturedly at this, but he saw no humor in the comment and the obscenity offended him deeply. He often could not tell when others were being humorous, and he had no sense of humor himself.
“But not really so powerful,” continued Ross. “That one-point-five-ton machine they crammed into the hold of your Erebus only produces twenty-five horsepower. Crozier’s engine is less efficient… twenty horsepower, maximum. The ship that’s towing you beyond Scotland – Rattler – produces two hundred twenty horsepower with its smaller steam engine. It’s a marine engine, built for sea.”
Franklin had nothing to say to that, so he smiled. To fill the silence he signaled a passing waiter carrying glasses of champagne. Then, since it was against all his principles to drink alcohol, all he could do was stand there holding the glass, occasionally glancing at the flattening champagne, and wait for some opportunity to get rid of it without being noticed.
“Think of all the extra provisions you could have crammed in the holds of your two ships if those damned engines weren’t there,” persisted Ross.
Franklin looked around as if seeking rescue, but everyone was in animated conversation with someone else. “We have more than adequate stores for three years, Sir John,” he said at last. “Five to seven years if we have to go on short rations.” He smiled again, trying to charm that flinty face. “And both Erebus and Terror have central heating, Sir John. Something I’m sure you would have appreciated on your Victory.”
Sir John Ross’s pale eyes gleamed coldly. “Victory was crushed like an egg by the ice, Franklin. Fancy steam heat wouldn’t have helped that, would it?”
Franklin looked around, trying to catch Fitzjames’s eye. Even Crozier’s. Anyone to come to his rescue. No one seemed to notice the old Sir John and the fat Sir John huddled here in such earnest, if one-sided, conversation. A waiter passed, and Franklin set his untouched glass of champagne on his tray. Ross studied Franklin through slitted eyes.
“And how much coal does it take just to heat one of your ships for a day up there?” pressed the old Scotsman.
“Oh, I don’t really know, Sir John,” said Franklin with a winning smile. He really did not know. Nor especially care. The engineers were in charge of the steam engines and coal. The Admiralty would have planned well for them.
“I know,” said Ross. “You’ll use up to one hundred fifty pounds of coal a day just to keep the hot water moving to heat the crew’s quarters. Half a ton of your precious coal a day just to keep steam up. If you’re under way – expect about four knots out of those ugly bombardment ships – you’ll be burning two to three tons of coal a day. Much more if you’re trying to force your way through pack ice. How much coal are you carrying, Franklin?”
Captain Sir John waved his hand in what he realized was a dismissive – and almost effeminate – gesture. “Oh, somewhere around two hundred tons, m’lord.”
Ross squinted again. “Ninety tons each for Erebus and Terror, to be precise,” he rasped. “And that’s when you’re topped off in Greenland, before you cross Baffin Bay, much less get into the real ice.”
Franklin smiled and said nothing.
“Say you arrive at where you winter in the ice with seventy-five percent of your ninety tons unburned,” continued Ross, boring ahead like a ship through soft ice, “that leaves you what… how many days’ steam under normal conditions, not ice conditions? A dozen days? Thirteen days? A fortnight?”
Captain Sir John Franklin had not the slightest idea. His mind, although professional and nautical, simply did not work that way. Perhaps his eyes revealed his sudden panic – not over coal but over appearing an idiot in front of Sir John Ross – for the old mariner clamped a steel vise grip on Franklin ’s shoulder. When Ross leaned closer, Captain Sir John Franklin could smell the whiskey on his breath.
“What are the Admiralty’s plans for your rescue, Franklin?” rasped Ross. His voice was low. All about them was the laughter and chatter of the reception in its late hour.
“Rescue?” Franklin said, blinking. The idea that the two most modern ships in the world – reinforced for ice, powered by steam, provisioned for five years or more in the ice, and manned by crews handpicked by Sir John Barrow – would or could require rescue simply did not register in Franklin ’s brain. The idea was absurd.
“Do you have plans to cache depots along your way in through the islands?” whispered Ross.
“Caches?” said Franklin. “Leave our provisions along the way? Why on earth would I do that?”
“So you can get your men and boats to food and shelter if you have to take to the ice and walk out,” Ross said fiercely, eyes gleaming.
“Why would we walk back toward Baffin Bay?” asked Franklin. “Our objective is to complete the transit of the North-West Passage.”
Sir John Ross had pulled his head back. His grip tightened on Franklin ’s upper arm. “Then there’s no rescue ship or plan in place?”
Ross grabbed Franklin ’s other arm and squeezed so tightly that the portly Captain Sir John almost winced.
“Then, laddie,” whispered Ross, “if we’ve not heard from ye by 1848, I’ll come looking for you myself. I swear it.”
Franklin slammed awake.
He was soaked with sweat. He felt dizzy and weak. His heart was pounding, and with each reverberation his headache tolled like a church bell against the inside of his skull.