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Toward No Earthly Pole

by Lauren Triola about a year ago in humanity
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The Pieces Left Behind

James limped toward the manor, dodging a coach as it barreled down the cobblestone road. The horses never once slowed as they trotted over the stones, iron shoes echoing. It had taken James weeks to find the home of Lady Hartfield. Captain Hartfield had spoken often of his country manor, but he hadn’t mentioned the one in the city, the one his wife had apparently preferred. James couldn’t image having one house let alone two. He was renting a single room from a local family of cotton spinners, a garret bedroom he couldn’t properly stand up in with gaps in the walls that whistled when the freezing wind blew through, his tiny coal stove not enough to heat it.

Oh, to be able to choose between a country or city manor. Wealth was wasted on the rich.

Although Captain Hartfield… James clutched the small black notebook to his chest as he hobbled closer to the front gate. He knew Captain Hartfield had been a good man, one who gave to charity, one who didn’t think his inherited wealth made him better than others. He had taught James and other crewmen like him how to read during their long days in the ice. He had cared for each of them like they were his children.

He had cried as each of them died.

James had to take a rest, leaning against the stone wall protecting the manor from the view of the bustling street. The prosthetic leg the doctor had fitted him with was cheap, the wood already cracked from only a month of use. The stub of his lower leg ached from lack of padding. If he wasn’t careful, he could lose the whole leg. To think he’d once run races with his childhood friends, played sports among his fellow crewmembers only a few years ago. But that was before the frostbite took his foot. Before the ice took everything from him.

Two men in suits and top hats eyed him as they walked past. He knew he wasn’t dressed for this part of town, his only clean set of clothes consisting of frayed trousers, scuffed boots, and a shirt made more of patches than the original material. He’d put on his pea coat to hide the sorry state of his shirt, but the coat had its own fair share of patches. He couldn’t afford to replace it.

Dead men don’t earn money.

Captain Hartfield had had a vision, to reach the north pole. Explorers had tried but none had yet succeeded. He thought he could do it, but the US Navy refused to fund such an expedition. So Captain Hartfield had funded it himself, recruiting seasoned sailors and adventurous newcomers who believed they could sail to the pole in a matter of months. James had just lost his mother and father to illness, so he couldn’t think of a reason not to try. The crew was promised fame and fortune. James had stepped foot—two whole feet—onto the ship with dreams of luxury clouding his eyes.

That was four years ago.

Their ship became stuck in the ice the first year. They began exploring on foot. But the ice…the ice was endless. A vast landscape of frozen white, blinding in the eternal summer sun. The darkness of winter was worse, no dawn to bring so much as a spark of light. They ran through their candles and coal during that first winter, but they kept going. The further they marched, the further they went from any game they could hunt. They rationed the food but there was only so much to ration.

After two years, they tried to free the ship, but the ice had gripped it like a vice. The timbers cracked, crushed. Even if the ice had loosed its hold, it would have sunk. The only option was to walk out, to reach an area where whalers might find them. They marched back along the route their ship had carved through the ice, but it had frozen over completely. No ships could have gotten through. They marched and marched until they reached the furthest south they could go, a choppy sea of arctic water blocking their path. They could spot no land nearby. All they could do was wait for someone to sail by and find them.

They waited. And waited.

Back home they were declared dead. What little James had had left from his family was sold off. It was an unpleasant fact to come home to, after everything he had already endured.

But he had a mission, and that had kept him going, burning within him hotter than the dim flames of his coal stove in the garret.

James knocked on the door of the manor, breathing heavily from hauling his wooden leg down the walkway. Waiting, he tongued the gaps in his mouth from where the scurvy had taken several teeth. Chewing the hardtack and salt pork the whaling ship that had picked him up had offered to him had felt almost impossible with what teeth he had left. But lost teeth were better than lost life.

He had seen the worst that could have happened. He’d seen it as the rest of the men had succumbed.

A serving girl answered the door, her white apron spotless. She looked James and his shabby clothes up and down and sighed.

“Are you here for the reward too?”

James furrowed his brow, confused. “Reward?”

The serving girl nodded. “Lady Hartfield announced last month that she would reward anyone who could find her husband alive and provide proof of his location with $20,000. People have been visiting every day since, each with some outlandish tale.” The girl eyed James again. “She can tell lies from truth, you know. She’s not a fool.”

“I don’t think she’s a fool,” James said and meant it.

He could only image what life was like for the families left behind. It had been two months since he’d spotted a distant speck on the horizon—a creaky, battered whaling ship, the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. It took a month to sail back to shore, and he had spent all his days since trying to find Lady Hartfield. The whalers had promised not to say a word about who they’d found because he had wanted to tell Lady Hartfield in person. No one knew James was alive, or that any member of the expedition had survived.

The serving girl pulled the door open further and gestured for him to come inside.

“There are two men in the parlor with her now,” she said. “I’ll bring you there, and you can put forth your claim, like the rest of them.”

James had no intention of making a claim. He had come here on a different task, but he figured this was his best chance at getting inside the manor, so he kept his mouth shut and followed the serving girl.

In the parlor, Lady Hartfield sat behind an ornate desk of mahogany. Her hair was gray, her face lined, but she held herself with a regal air full of vigor. She watched as two men, foppish in dress and manner, gestured excitedly as they narrated some tale of daring escape that James knew to be utter bull.

“And we saw the ship come into port!” one of them said dramatically.

“In Spain!” the other man exclaimed. “He and his crew are resting there now. Their health is too delicate for another voyage this soon, but your husband is alive!”

Lady Hartfield glanced slowly from one man to the other. She sat with her back as straight as a mast, her hands folded in front of her on the desk. Her face let no emotion show, but James had a feeling he knew what she thought of these two men.

“I’m happy my husband is alive and well in Spain,” Lady Hartfield said. “And I would be filled with immense joy to grant you the $20,000 reward.” She lightly but pointedly touched an attaché case sitting on the desk.

The two men’s faces lit up. They shared an ecstatic look.

“However,” Lady Hartfield went on, “I would be remiss if I did not ask for proof. As I believe I outlined in my announcement, proof is required.”

“Of course, my lady, and we bring proof!” One of the men produced a black fountain pen from his pocket. “This belongs to your husband.” He handed it over to her.

She studied the pen then handed it back.

“My husband favored such a pen, as was well known from his memoirs. But many men own such pens. You could have bought one anywhere.”

“Your husband gave it to us just one month ago, I swear!”

“That would be impossible,” James said.

The two fops eyed him with distaste. Lady Hartfield gave him a thoughtful onceover.

“It’s not impossible,” one of the men said. “I swear on my mother’s life that it’s true.”

James shook his head. “You’re lying.”

“Do you have better proof to offer me?” Lady Hartfield asked.

“I’m not here to claim the reward,” James said. He shuffled forward, all too aware of his limping steps across the opulent rug. “No one here can claim it. You require proof that your husband is alive. And no one can provide that proof.”

Lady Hartfield narrowed her eyes in question. “What do you mean?”

“He wanted to bring us all back. He tried. But that frozen hell picked us off one by one, until it was just me and him. He asked me to bring you this. He said if there was nothing else he could do, he could at least return his soul to you.”

James held out the notebook. Lady Hartfield took it, her hand trembling slightly.

She touched the leather reverently then opened it. A heart with a rose at the center was drawn on the inside cover. “I gave him this the night before he set sail. I told him he could use it to write in as if he were speaking to me across the waves, that I would hear his words…”

She carefully flipped through the book until she reached the last page of writing. Her head was bent over the page and James couldn’t see her expression. The last page was covered in a shaky scrawl, far removed from the captain’s usual neat script, but he had been too sick by then. James had seen him write the last message the day before he died, but James had never read the words. They weren’t for him.

A tear dropped and fell onto the page from Lady Hartfield’s hidden face, staining the last word her husband ever wrote to her.

She closed the book but kept her head bent a moment, wiping a hand across her face. Then she looked up at James, eyes overbright. She picked up the attaché case and handed it to him.

“Your reward.”

James shook his head in disbelief. “No, I—I didn’t bring what you asked for—”

“You brought me something I needed.” She picked up the notebook as carefully as if it were an egg. “I think that deserves something.”

James heard the fops scoffing behind him as he opened the case to see the promised money inside. There was a lot he could do with $20,000. He could get himself a better leg. He could get softer cuts of meat he could chew with his few remaining teeth. He could live quite comfortably for the rest of his life.

But $20,000 wouldn’t bring back his health. It wouldn’t bring back the years he’d lost. It wouldn’t bring back his friends, the crew, his captain.

It wouldn’t bring back his innocence.

But he had already brought something back. The book Lady Hartfield now clutched to her chest was worth more to her than any fortune. What was $20,000, when she held her husband’s heart and soul?

humanity

About the author

Lauren Triola

I'm mostly a fiction author who loves Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but I also love history and archaeology. I'm especially obsessed with the Franklin Expedition. Occasionally I write poetry too. You can find me at my blog or on Twitter.

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