'Solitude is indeed dangerous for a working intelligence. We need to have around us people who think and speak. When we are alone for a long time we people the void with phantoms'.―Guy de Maupassant
The tale that you are about to read is my haunting account, as the lone survivor of the harrowing expedition of the Aegeus. My name is Elliot Archibald, and I was a faithful mate, the second hand of the ship. In the year of 1850, an expeditionary ship took off from the port in Portsmouth in Hampshire, England. Our daring mission was to search for the newest route to Asia, across the unknown Northwest Passage, along the upper coast of North America. Ultimately, our destination was to explore the Bering Sea, below the Arctic Ocean that loomed above. It had been revealed that the possibility of passing through the Bering Strait would lead to Russia. The intention of the Aegeus was to attempt to sail, beyond the Northwest part of Canada.
In 1845, we were aware of the lost ship of the Erebus expedition, and we were not going to make the same mistake in our diligent preparations. We had determined to reach the continent of Asia, but with a meticulous plan elaborated. Although we had attempted to be accurate in our calculations, we would require proper assistance, from the locals of that frigid and remote area of the world. Therefore, amongst the members of the crew aboard of tenacious Canadians, Scotsmen, Irish, Russians, and naturally Englishmen with their leed or Babeldom, were several Inuits aboard, who had joined the expedition. We had paid them handsomely, for their active involvement in the voyage, and were very eager to know of their intuitive prowess. The captain of the Aegeus was Harold Barnaby, a former officer of the Royal Naval Academy. He was a stout man in stature, but vocal and imperant in his disposition. He had served the queen faithfully, and his career as an officer of the Royal British Navy was impeccable and praiseworthy. He was selected due to his ample experience in the waters, and he had been to Australia, India, the United States, and more importantly to Canada.
As for me, I was a graduate of the Royal Naval Academy of Portsmouth, but I had never been outside of Europe before on an expedition of this nature. This was the first veritable expedition I was to be a member, and I was chosen thuswise, because of my commitment and knowledge of the Maritime history. There was a doubt whether or not I was experienced enough in my credentials to be second in command. However, Captain Barnaby had received excellent recommendations, about my public persona. He thought I was befitting of this opportune moment, but I would have to prove myself through my just merits and actions. I had prepared myself studiously for this fascinating expedition, and was emboldened by the historical relevance of its conceivable treasures.
I had spent the previous night pondering, about the fantastic adventures I would discover, and the mysterious creatures I would descry along the way. I had heard much about this unique part of the world that was still undisclosed to countless persons in Europe and had read the accounts of the exploration of Samuel de Champlain of France in North America. The chances for success unfolding were as feasible, as the chances for failure. I was totally aware of either extreme circumstance. We were a hundred and forty men on board the Aegeus, when the vessel had embarked from the port. The Aegeus was sturdily constructed of three hundred and ninety tons of hard iron plating surface. It had a furnace and a steam engine. The rigid bows had heavy beams, screw propellers, and the rudders were solid iron. The ship was thirty-three metres in length and contained two mortars and ten guns. The ship was stowed with plentiful provisions to last us the journey, across the Atlantic Ocean.
On the 18th of March at around midday the Aegeus had departed the harbour of Portsmouth, passing the embankment. The ship known as the Odyssey had joined us on the expedition, and was led, by Captain Ian Merrick, a Welshman. The winds of the port were favourable, and the currents of the sea seemed normal, with a slight billow. The rainy night had delayed our determined embarkation, since it had extended through the early morning. Mother Nature had offered us a momentary respite to proceed forth, and we soon were riding the tides of the sea. The sails were up, the masts were fastened, and the propellers were running smoothly. For a brief interval the sun had shone and steered us clear, from the nebulous patch of the cumuli that loured, with the energy on the surface currents. The velocity of the Aegeus was at two knots, but the capacity was five knots. The speed of the vessel was not a grave concern from the start, since we were instantly confronted, with the instability of the area.
We passed south of the Isle of Wight, then Lyme Bay. We were in the northern part of the English Channel, and the Strait of Dover was on the east. We were then south of the Celtic Sea, with Ireland to the north fifty kilometres to the Atlantic Ocean. The brunt of the vibrant tropical winds from the Canary Islands and Azores carried our latitude, through the briny water for a good portion of our early days. We were extremely mindful of the fluctuation of the currents and temperature that changed at a variance. The busy seagulls were manifest hovering above us soon, as the weather was lukewarm.
Occasionally, I saw a pelagic dolphin, manatee, or a blue and humpback whale, as we entered deeper into the Atlantic Ocean, where I had marvelled, with the variegated colours of the multifarious life forms of the ocean alive. The receptive warmth of the austral part of the Atlantic had provided us good shelter, from the misty moisture of the northern gales that were frequent and leewards. That first week upon the ocean felt, like an undeniable journey to the immortal Atlantis for a handwhile. But this visionary haven would be a transient illusion that served, as a hiatus to our resolute expedition. Lurking ahead of us was the ubiquitous waters of such unknown peril and mystery. By the end of the month, we had encountered our first serious threat. The accumulation of the warm currents of the Arctic Sea and the hot currents of the Lower Atlantic Ocean caused the clouds to darken, as a raging tempest appeared from afar.
One of the members from the crew, from on top of the main mast had spotted the storm in the opening, and we prepared ourselves for the coming of the oragious threat. The masts were fastened, and the awning covered the ship. The bands of the sails were thereafter straightened, as the men belayed around the delicate areas of the ship. The Aegeus had continued to advance at two knots then instead of four. The speed had been reduced, for precautionary measures, as we awaited the tempest. The crew was boun and entirely seasoned, for storms of any nature. They had survived the wrath of typhoons, simoons, hurricanes before, and were well-tested. Anon, the grasp of the tempest reached us, with a blind hypenemious fury. The light rain had become a torrent downfall that was perceptible. The audible flashing lightning and thundering had intensified, as the rain pounded the hulk and the prow with force, causing the ship to sway to and fro.
Captain Barnaby had a man of the crew signal the Odyssey, who was behind us to stay relatively close. The captain told us to bear down and prepare for the worse if necessary. The bowman anxious to show his duty had stirred the men in a roar of strength and support. The buntings flapped side to side, but withstood, as did the Aegeus. The sails were in place as we sought to save the fuel of the steam power. Despite the ferocious nature of the tempest, the ship remained intact, due to the iron-plated bulk that surrounded the hull and deck. We had lost five men to the graveyard of the ocean. They had been tossed overboard, by the storm and were sadly presumed dead.
On that day, the list of the dead would begin, with these five members of the crew. After the chaos of the tempest, we attempted to locate the men, but were unsuccessful in that earnest endeavour. It was truly unfortunate that we could not give them a proper burial. Captain Barnaby was gracious enough to offer a prayer in their name. The calm and temperate mood of the ocean would never reappear, and we were heading past the point of no return from Europe. From that point on, the days of the bracing warmth and the sun diminished in durability, and we were soon to be exposed, to the harsh reality of the North Atlantic Ocean.
When we were south of Iceland we had felt a sudden, low atmospheric pressure, and the air was flowing in a counterclockwise direction. From the distance a distressing sign of the cold loomed, as a token of an unreceptive welcome. It was the image of towering icebergs breaking off floating glaciers in the ocean that were then heading southwards. We were forced to reduce our velocity forthwith, so that we could avoid a direct collision, with any iceberg of great mass. It was indeed a precursor to what we could expect, as we continued forward. The tumultuous ocean currents and the density of the water had been influenced, by the sea floor of which had lain beneath us. This was evident to the eye, and the fairly steady currents from east to west that we rode upon were gradually becoming more unsteady. The sunsets and dawns were scarcely witnessed from the taffrail. The men ever committed and strong in disposition began to spend their nights of leisure, in the quarterdeck or their quarters warming and amusing themselves, with scotch and card games.
Then in the second week of our expedition, we saw solid and compact icebergs off Greenland that was fifty degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Our course had remained westwards, and once more we reduced our speed to escape the floating icebergs. It was such an impressive view, as the men stared, with disbelief and astonishment. Captain Barnaby, who had seen many odd things along his voyages was amazed, but there were, still more gigantic icebergs ahead to be descried. By the time we reached mainland Canada, we had been passing, through a thick and dense fog and turbulent seas, where the high tides were fifteen metres or so. It was the cold region, where the water lost heat to the atmosphere, and became frigid. That had caused the freezing water to form sea ice and ice spicules.
We subsequently reached the tip of Newfoundland Canada in twenty-two days. We had battled against heavy odds, and the vapour of the mist had caused us to abandon the compass for the nonce. The cold had begun to numb us and affect our stamina. We had lost ten men and were down to a hundred and twenty-five able men. The Odyssey had lost twenty brave men during the journey. The view of the coast was visibly detected afterwards. Once at Newfoundland, we were greeted by helpful Canadians, who provided provisions and lewth, since we were slowly running out. The provisions were oatmeal, biscuits, molasses, blankets and mattresses. Needed fuel was suppeditated also, as the depleting fuel had forheld our advance. The area was exceedingly cold for this month, but we managed to rest amidst the fires of the hearty villagers, who lived at times in this inhospitable region beyond the frozen tundra in winter.
In the early morning, we had sailed off the coast of Newfoundland in route to the Labrador Sea. The turbid sea ahead was extremely frigid and precarious. It was the most dangerous part of the Northwest Passage, since it was a narrow path between Canada and Greenland. The Northwest Passage was a sea route connecting the northern Atlantic and Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Ocean, along the septentrional coast of North America. Several islands of the archipelago were separated from one another and from the mainland of Canada, by a series of arctic waterways that were known, as the Northwest Passage. The international strait was yet to be claimed, by any elite country. We were only twenty kilometres heading north, when disaster occurred. The icebergs that were floating off the southwest coast of Greenland struck the bulwark of the Odyssey and incapacitated the propellers of the vessel suddenly. The Odyssey was forced to abandon the mission, and the crew, were forced to return to Newfoundland, leaving the Odyssey behind to gradually sink. Fortunately, no one was killed, but serious injuries did occur. Naturally, this meant that we would have to continue the expedition alone, in the chilling and unfriendly waters of this area.
Captain Barnaby instructed Captain Merrick of the Odyssey to abandon the ship, and to return to Newfoundland at once, using the small boats afforded on the journey. It was a perilous situation, since the waters were cold. The captain did what he was instructed and gathered the men together, and sent them rowing back to the coast of Newfoundland, in groups of eight at intervals. I was told after the expedition that Captain Merrick and his remaining crew did make it back to Newfoundland alive. As for the Aegeus, it continued through the narrow passage until the ship reached then Baffin Bay off Baffin Island. The trade winds were at twenty degrees north, and we were then in the Hudson Bay, above the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The temperature for some inexplicable reason had dropped to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, which was-9.4 degrees in Celsius. Along the way it would drop even more, below the normal temperatures registered. I was not certain what had caused this climate change or decrease in the abnormal temperature. Could this phenomenon be attributed to contamination of the North Pole and Arctic Circle?
It was impossible to imagine being in April that the temperatures would fall so abruptly, but I knew since I was foreign to these waters, my supposition was based on my previous calculations. I took notes of these changes we had encountered, along the travelled expedition. Even though I was not a biologist, I had studied enough biology to determine such oddities and occurrences. It was indeed a disconcerting matter, since these temperatures were not registered before in Maritime history. Penguins, polar bears and auks were common throughout this region, but I had noticed that killer whales were absent. They usually came down from the North Pole above us to hunt at times, for the migratory seals and their pups.
We had reached the Northwest Passage and were treading unfamiliar waters to many. We had been travelling at a slower pace, since the area we were heading was very narrow in space within an interstice. From our initial calculations, we had surmised that the ship would be able to pass the narrow strait that reached the Beaufort Sea over Northwest Canada. Howbeit, very few vessels had ever reached the Beaufort Sea, from the Northwest Passage. The ice spicules were seen, but the iron-plated hull was secured and robust in nature to endure such obstacles. The bilge as well was not affected much, during the voyage.
Captain Barnaby had demonstrated more faith in me, and I was no longer the unproven academite. The Inuits had been a valuable resource to us, when it came to leading the ship in the right direction, and the Canadians were an asset in the trading posts in Newfoundland. The Inuits who had possessed inwit were keen to the movement of the winds and vibrations of the ice. They had foreseen the pending disaster of the Aegeus. As we were heading through the strait above the Northwest Territory of Canada, a huge killer whale had appeared before us, and it startled the men. The whale caused the ship to veer off and it struck an object. Immediately, the propellers were damaged, and the vessel had come to an abrupt shrieking stop afterwards. The collision had knocked men overboard, who were on the edges of the deck. Quickly, we tried to rescue the men, who were at the mercy of the killer whale, with our desperate effort. We threw down the ropes, but were only able to save two out of the three men in the water. The third man had been killed and devoured, by the killer whale that came from beneath the water to the surface, to attack the sailor viciously. It was such a horrible sight, but one that was reflective of the horrors of the seas. The harpoons of the Inuits had injured the whale. Our provisions in the bay were depleting, and the whale was the welcomed nourishment if killed.
The guns or mortars of the ships would disrupt the currents of our vicinity, so we decided to use our muskets. The Inuits had taken a boat to kill the whale, with their harpoons, but they were attacked, by the killer whale that was not dead. The whale turned over the boat and killed the Inuits. The shots of bullets rang loudly over the whale, as it escaped into the netherwards depth of the sea. The whale managed to elude capture. The crew were discouraged, and desperation was seen in their hopeless eyes. Captain Barnaby was succumbing to dysentery, as well as many of the men. Phthisis was beginning to plague the men and exposure to lead. Disease was becoming rampant, as the variable temperatures fell, as we reached the entrance to the Beaufort Sea.
The paddle wheels were used for propulsion, as the screw propellers were not properly functioning. That meant reduction in speed, as the sails and masts drifted. The crew were starving for meat, as their defences were being attenuated, by each passing hour. A caustic feud ensued, as the weary and enraged men, wanted to return back to Ontario, and attempted to steer the boom, and disrupt the keel. Mutiny had afflicted the subversive cause of the crew. I used the outrigger to maintain the ship floating, as the poop was stabilised, but I could not convince the men to continue. It was suicide in their eyes, and I understood that.
Captain Barnaby was in his cabin being tended to. He was languishing away in his debilitating sickness, and he coughed, as I spoke to him. I had informed him of the contentious revolt of the susceptible crewmen. His response was to jail them in the brig, for being scurrilous traitors to England and the queen. He was not coherent or rational, and I knew from that moment, I was then in command of the Aegeus, but I could not exert authority over the bulk of the remaining men. We had been through these eerie waters, for eighteen long and cold days of a bitter experience. The peril and uncertainty of heading for land or retreating had scared the men before. They were told horrible tales of wild polar bears and wolves that lurked in the edges of the mainland, but they were determined to take that risk. Without the Inuits we were lost, and the vessel was starting to crack from the bottom, due to the heavy pressure.
Then, the refractory mutineers seized the boats except one and abandoned the vessel. They cramped into the boats, like sardines. I had my pistol pointed and therefore threatened any man, who took the Aegeus by force or periclitated me. A few loyal and valiant men of the ship had remained on board. They were former military men, but they too had doubt and fear, and were inclined to reach the mainland. I knew the possibility of the ship reaching mainland was evident, except the fact that the encompassing fog was everywhere. It was apparent that the Aegeus was sailing unto the uncharted area of a possible demersal abyss. By the end of the week, Captain Barnaby had died from phthisis that was contagious afterwards. Several men on board had died as well, from the disease. We were forced to do the unthinkable, throw the men overboard to avoid the sickening contagions. The memory of their bodies being tossed on to the sea, and being engulfed by the frigid waters was powerful and unforgettable. I could not come to throw the dead body of Captain Barnaby.
What had started off as an explorative voyage from the port of Portsmouth had become an evocative manifestation of arrant dread and incertitude. I had never seen such desperation and debasement in the eyes of the remaining crewmen. Their eyes were vividly poignant and beyond the state of ratiocination. I thought I was fully prepared to assume the duties of the captain of the Aegeus, but I would be sorely mistaken, and to compound my unease was the lack of my experience. The sea that had surrounded us was beginning to compress and expend our energy. There was no time for austere soothfastness or to display cynicism, when Captain Barnaby was no longer in command. I did not allow myself to be elegiac after his death, but the consequential death of the captain for the nonce did cause the few remaining men to reflect discernibly. But for how long would they remain loyal not only to the memory of Captain Barnaby, but also, to my authority?
I bid my time thinking and pondering, what was ahead? A faint gleam from the horizon shone, through the obtenebrated clouds that had gradually appeared. It was a token sign of the welkin that was, beyond those sombre clouds. We were heading towards nowhere it seemed, except the grisly and navigerous graveyard of the doomed ships forlorn of no appertainment. We saw as we floated onwards, deserted and empty hulks of former ships and one in particular, with frozen dead bodies of seamen, who perished in their journey so horrifically. I cannot explain with mere words the description of the horrid image of such a macabre nature we were not aware of. The manifold carcasses of animals frozen and floating as well, none of us could had forewist. We had lost the thalassiarchy and were totally doomed. Upon the morning, we decided to abandon the Aegeus and had attempted to reach the mainland, before we would absolutely die or vanish into the Bering Strait that was ahead.
The engine room was astern and abandoned. It was regretful that I was truly compelled to leave behind Captain Barnaby, my herried mentor. I knew a man of his stature would have wanted to go down afterwards with his ship. Thus, I left him behind on the deck, as we got into the only boat we had. There were seven of us, and the capacity was for only six. No one had wanted to be left behind, and we had to cramp ourselves tautly. We were fortunate that we were all emaciated by then that our combined weight was sufficient to be tolerated, by the structure of the boat. Once aboard the boat, we were hit constantly by the turgid sea and tidewater glaciers that were coming, from the continental shelf. The boat swayed back and forth, as the currents began to cause us to stray more and more, from the refuge of the mainland.
Days had passed, and the cold penetrated our thick garments, as the sunlight was reduced in hours. Within two days, we were demonstrating signs of frostbite and hunger. Our minds were weakening, as we tried to keep each other alive by singing old hymns, but our lips were frozen completely. We were dying, as the flesh of our bones was dissipating. I felt the sharp pang of my ribs, as hypothermia was beginning to consume me as I shivered. We no longer had the strength to fish for salmon. The pallor and sores were manifest, as they extended throughout my body, when my spiral exhalations had derived from a cold vapour, beyond the eighteen fathoms of the narrow passage of the sea.
At the end of the week, there was only myself left from the lave of the crew, and I was forced to commit such an inscrutable act of indecency and barbarity—consume the raw frigid flesh of my dead companions to survive and drink the last bottles of rum as a toast to them. I threw into the water with disgust, the rigid bones of my former jolly companions that sank into the nethermost depths of the sea. The alcohol and morphine had numbed the pain, but left me still vulnerable to the consequences of my ordeal. The boat had drifted and drifted askew, or side to side in the sea, as I faded gradually.
Unbeknownst to me was the fact that during the night, the currents had pulled me closer to the shores of the mainland. I awoke to the sounds of the auks and murres hovering from above the buoyant boat. Then I listened to the sounds of the seals that had passed me by, as I felt the waft that lissed the discomfort. The position of the boat I had perceived was only some kilometres from the coastal shoreline. When hope seemed impossible, through my telescope, I saw the incredible image of a ship approaching nigh, as I heard its bells ring and the internal combustion engines of the vessel. I had avoided the Chukchi Sea of Russia. It was a Russian steamship that was approaching the boat, as it had sailed through the conticent bimarian waters.
Swiftly, I had grabbed the paddles and paddled towards the vessel. I screamed so vociferously, until I was spotted by a member of their crew. I had reached Russia, and I Elliot Archibald, the last remaining member of the Aegeus was saved. My slurred speech was incomprehensible, but they had understood the fathomless torment I had endured upon the waters of the sea. I was found terribly sick to stand and barely able to speak. I was holding a diary in my arms and dressed in the tattered clothing of a heavy coat, over a pea jacket, thick woolen duck trousers, duck frock, check shirt, stockings and torn shoes, but I survived. By the grace of God, I had survived hypothermia and dysentery and saw their lyterian effects. I did not succumb to the contagious malady of phthisis as the others did, but the exposure to frostbite had caused several of my fingers and toes to be amputated. I had returned to England and vowed to return one day, to locate the lost Aegeus. My last fainting memory was the ghastly image of the daunting ship, drifting off towards the largifical Arctic Ocean. Through the viscous fog and turbulent sea, it had reappeared adrift, with its indelible flag at the masthead and the forecastle protruded. It passed by my boat fore and aft, before it finally disappeared into the harr. It was the spectral voyage of the Aegeus.