THE FROZEN DEEP
by Wilkie Collins
First Scene—The Ball-room
The date is between twenty and thirty years ago. The place is an English sea-port. The time is night. And the business of the moment is—dancing.
The Mayor and Corporation of the town are giving a grand ball, in celebration of the departure of an Arctic expedition from their port. The ships of the expedition are two in number—the Wanderer and the Sea-mew. They are to sail (in search of the Northwest Passage) on the next day, with the morning tide.
Honor to the Mayor and Corporation! It is a brilliant ball. The band is complete. The room is spacious. The large conservatory opening out of it is pleasantly lighted with Chinese lanterns, and beautifully decorated with shrubs and flowers. All officers of the army and navy who are present wear their uniforms in honor of the occasion. Among the ladies, the display of dresses (a subject which the men don't understand) is bewildering—and the average of beauty (a subject which the men do understand) is the highest average attainable, in all parts of the room.
For the moment, the dance which is in progress is a quadrille. General admiration selects two of the ladies who are dancing as its favorite objects. One is a dark beauty in the prime of womanhood—the wife of First Lieutenant Crayford, of the Wanderer. The other is a young girl, pale and delicate; dressed simply in white; with no ornament on her head but her own lovely brown hair. This is Miss Clara Burnham—an orphan. She is Mrs. Crayford's dearest friend, and she is to stay with Mrs. Crayford during the lieutenant's absence in the Arctic regions. She is now dancing, with the lieutenant himself for partner, and with Mrs. Crayford and Captain Helding (commanding officer of the Wanderer) for vis-a-vis—in plain English, for opposite couple.
The conversation between Captain Helding and Mrs. Crayford, in one of the intervals of the dance, turns on Miss Burnham. The captain is greatly interested in Clara. He admires her beauty; but he thinks her manner—for a young girl—strangely serious and subdued. Is she in delicate health?
Mrs. Crayford shakes her head; sighs mysteriously; and answers,
"In very delicate health, Captain Helding."
"Not in the least."
"I am glad to hear that. She is a charming creature, Mrs. Crayford. She interests me indescribably. If I was only twenty years younger—perhaps (as I am not twenty years younger) I had better not finish the sentence? Is it indiscreet, my dear lady, to inquire what is the matter with her?"
"It might be indiscreet, on the part of a stranger," said Mrs. Crayford. "An old friend like you may make any inquiries. I wish I could tell you what is the matter with Clara. It is a mystery to the doctors themselves. Some of the mischief is due, in my humble opinion, to the manner in which she has been brought up."
"Ay! ay! A bad school, I suppose."
"Very bad, Captain Helding. But not the sort of school which you have in your mind at this moment. Clara's early years were spent in a lonely old house in the Highlands of Scotland. The ignorant people about her were the people who did the mischief which I have just been speaking of. They filled her mind with the superstitions which are still respected as truths in the wild North—especially the superstition called the Second Sight."
"God bless me!" cried the captain, "you don't mean to say she believes in such stuff as that? In these enlightened times too!"
Mrs. Crayford looked at her partner with a satirical smile.
"In these enlightened times, Captain Helding, we only believe in dancing tables, and in messages sent from the other world by spirits who can't spell! By comparison with such superstitions as these, even the Second Sight has something—in the shape of poetry—to recommend it, surely? Estimate for yourself," she continued seriously, "the effect of such surroundings as I have described on a delicate, sensitive young creature—a girl with a naturally imaginative temperament leading a lonely, neglected life. Is it so very surprising that she should catch the infection of the superstition about her? And is it quite incomprehensible that her nervous system should suffer accordingly, at a very critical period of her life?"
"Not at all, Mrs. Crayford—not at all, ma'am, as you put it. Still it is a little startling, to a commonplace man like me, to meet a young lady at a ball who believes in the Second Sight. Does she really profess to see into the future? Am I to understand that she positively falls into a trance, and sees people in distant countries, and foretells events to come? That is the Second Sight, is it not?"
"That is the Second Sight, captain. And that is, really and positively, what she does."
"The young lady who is dancing opposite to us?"
"The young lady who is dancing opposite to us."
The captain waited a little—letting the new flood of information which had poured in on him settle itself steadily in his mind. This process accomplished, the Arctic explorer proceeded resolutely on his way to further discoveries.
"May I ask, ma'am, if you have ever seen her in a state of trance with your own eyes?" he inquired.
"My sister and I both saw her in the trance, little more than a month since," Mrs. Crayford replied. "She had been nervous and irritable all the morning; and we took her out into the garden to breathe the fresh air. Suddenly, without any reason for it, the color left her face. She stood between us, insensible to touch, insensible to sound; motionless as stone, and cold as death in a moment. The first change we noticed came after a lapse of some minutes. Her hands began to move slowly, as if she was groping in the dark. Words dropped one by one from her lips, in a lost, vacant tone, as if she was talking in her sleep. Whether what she said referred to past or future I cannot tell you. She spoke of persons in a foreign country—perfect strangers to my sister and to me. After a little interval, she suddenly became silent. A momentary color appeared in her face, and left it again. Her eyes closed—her feet failed her—and she sank insensible into our arms."
"Sank insensible into your arms," repeated the captain, absorbing his new information. "Most extraordinary! And—in this state of health—she goes out to parties, and dances. More extraordinary still!"
"You are entirely mistaken," said Mrs. Crayford. "She is only here to-night to please me; and she is only dancing to please my husband. As a rule, she shuns all society. The doctor recommends change and amusement for her. She won't listen to him. Except on rare occasions like this, she persists in remaining at home."
Captain Helding brightened at the allusion to the doctor. Something practical might be got out of the doctor. Scientific man. Sure to see this very obscure subject under a new light. "How does it strike the doctor now?" said the captain. "Viewed simply as a Case, ma'am, how does it strike the doctor?"
"He will give no positive opinion," Mrs. Crayford answered. "He told me that such cases as Clara's were by no means unfamiliar to medical practice. 'We know,' he told me, 'that certain disordered conditions of the brain and the nervous system produce results quite as extraordinary as any that you have described—and there our knowledge ends. Neither my science nor any man's science can clear up the mystery in this case. It is an especially difficult case to deal with, because Miss Burnham's early associations dispose her to attach a superstitious importance to the malady—the hysterical malady as some doctors would call it—from which she suffers. I can give you instructions for preserving her general health; and I can recommend you to try some change in her life—provided you first relieve her mind of any secret anxieties that may possibly be preying on it.'"
The captain smiled self-approvingly. The doctor had justified his anticipations. The doctor had suggested a practical solution of the difficulty.
"Ay! ay! At last we have hit the nail on the head! Secret anxieties. Yes! yes! Plain enough now. A disappointment in love—eh, Mrs. Crayford?"
"I don't know, Captain Helding; I am quite in the dark. Clara's confidence in me—in other matters unbounded—is, in this matter of her (supposed) anxieties, a confidence still withheld. In all else we are like sisters. I sometimes fear there may indeed be some trouble preying secretly on her mind. I sometimes feel a little hurt at her incomprehensible silence."
Captain Helding was ready with his own practical remedy for this difficulty.
"Encouragement is all she wants, ma'am. Take my word for it, this matter rests entirely with you. It's all in a nutshell. Encourage her to confide in you—and she will confide."
"I am waiting to encourage her, captain, until she is left alone with me—after you have all sailed for the Arctic seas. In the meantime, will you consider what I have said to you as intended for your ear only? And will you forgive me, if I own that the turn the subject has taken does not tempt me to pursue it any further?"
The captain took the hint. He instantly changed the subject; choosing, on this occasion, safe professional topics. He spoke of ships that were ordered on foreign service; and, finding that these as subjects failed to interest Mrs. Crayford, he spoke next of ships that were ordered home again. This last experiment produced its effect—an effect which the captain had not bargained for.
"Do you know," he began, "that the Atalanta is expected back from the West Coast of Africa every day? Have you any acquaintances among the officers of that ship?"
As it so happened, he put those questions to Mrs. Crayford while they were engaged in one of the figures of the dance which brought them within hearing of the opposite couple. At the same moment—to the astonishment of her friends and admirers—Miss Clara Burnham threw the quadrille into confusion by making a mistake! Everybody waited to see her set the mistake right. She made no attempt to set it right—she turned deadly pale and caught her partner by the arm.
"The heat!" she said, faintly. "Take me away—take me into the air!"
Lieutenant Crayford instantly led her out of the dance, and took her into the cool and empty conservatory, at the end of the room. As a matter of course, Captain Helding and Mrs. Crayford left the quadrille at the same time. The captain saw his way to a joke.
"Is this the trance coming on?" he whispered. "If it is, as commander of the Arctic expedition, I have a particular request to make. Will the Second Sight oblige me by seeing the shortest way to the Northwest Passage, before we leave England?"
Mrs. Crayford declined to humor the joke. "If you will excuse my leaving you," she said quietly, "I will try and find out what is the matter with Miss Burnham."
At the entrance to the conservatory, Mrs. Crayford encountered her husband. The lieutenant was of middle age, tall and comely. A man with a winning simplicity and gentleness in his manner, and an irresistible kindness in his brave blue eyes. In one word, a man whom everybody loved—including his wife.
"Don't be alarmed," said the lieutenant. "The heat has overcome her—that's all."
Mrs. Crayford shook her head, and looked at her husband, half satirically, half fondly.
"You dear old innocent!" she exclaimed, "that excuse may do for you. For my part, I don't believe a word of it. Go and get another partner, and leave Clara to me."
She entered the conservatory and seated herself by Clara's side.
"Now, my dear!" Mrs. Crayford began, "what does this mean?"
"That won't do, Clara. Try again."
"The heat of the room—"
"That won't do, either. Say that you choose to keep your own secrets, and I shall understand what you mean."
Clara's sad, clear gray eyes looked up for the first time in Mrs. Crayford's face, and suddenly became dimmed with tears.
"If I only dared tell you!" she murmured. "I hold so to your good opinion of me, Lucy—and I am so afraid of losing it."
Mrs. Crayford's manner changed. Her eyes rested gravely and anxiously on Clara's face.
"You know as well as I do that nothing can shake my affection for you," she said. "Do justice, my child, to your old friend. There is nobody here to listen to what we say. Open your heart, Clara. I see you are in trouble, and I want to comfort you."
Clara began to yield. In other words, she began to make conditions.
"Will you promise to keep what I tell you a secret from every living creature?" she began.
Mrs. Crayford met that question, by putting a question on her side.
"Does 'every living creature' include my husband?"
"Your husband more than anybody! I love him, I revere him. He is so noble; he is so good! If I told him what I am going to tell you, he would despise me. Own it plainly, Lucy, if I am asking too much in asking you to keep a secret from your husband."
"Nonsense, child! When you are married, you will know that the easiest of all secrets to keep is a secret from your husband. I give you my promise. Now begin!"
Clara hesitated painfully.
"I don't know how to begin!" she exclaimed, with a burst of despair. "The words won't come to me."
"Then I must help you. Do you feel ill tonight? Do you feel as you felt that day when you were with my sister and me in the garden?"
"You are not ill, you are not really affected by the heat—and yet you turn as pale as ashes, and you are obliged to leave the quadrille! There must be some reason for this."
"There is a reason. Captain Helding—"
"Captain Helding! What in the name of wonder has the captain to do with it?"
"He told you something about the Atalanta. He said the Atalanta was expected back from Africa immediately."
"Well, and what of that? Is there anybody in whom you are interested coming home in the ship?"
"Somebody whom I am afraid of is coming home in the ship."
Mrs. Crayford's magnificent black eyes opened wide in amazement.
"My dear Clara! do you really mean what you say?"
"Wait a little, Lucy, and you shall judge for yourself. We must go back—if I am to make you understand me—to the year before we knew each other—to the last year of my father's life. Did I ever tell you that my father moved southward, for the sake of his health, to a house in Kent that was lent to him by a friend?"
"No, my dear; I don't remember ever hearing of the house in Kent. Tell me about it."
"There is nothing to tell, except this: the new house was near a fine country-seat standing in its own park. The owner of the place was a gentleman named Wardour. He, too, was one of my father's Kentish friends. He had an only son."
She paused, and played nervously with her fan. Mrs. Crayford looked at her attentively. Clara's eyes remained fixed on her fan—Clara said no more. "What was the son's name?" asked Mrs. Crayford, quietly.
"Am I right, Clara, in suspecting that Mr. Richard Wardour admired you?"
The question produced its intended effect. The question helped Clara to go on.
"I hardly knew at first," she said, "whether he admired me or not. He was very strange in his ways—headstrong, terribly headstrong and passionate; but generous and affectionate in spite of his faults of temper. Can you understand such a character?"
"Such characters exist by thousands. I have my faults of temper. I begin to like Richard already. Go on."
"The days went by, Lucy, and the weeks went by. We were thrown very much together. I began, little by little, to have some suspicion of the truth."
"And Richard helped to confirm your suspicions, of course?"
"No. He was not—unhappily for me—he was not that sort of man. He never spoke of the feeling with which he regarded me. It was I who saw it. I couldn't help seeing it. I did all I could to show that I was willing to be a sister to him, and that I could never be anything else. He did not understand me, or he would not, I can't say which."
"'Would not,' is the most likely, my dear. Go on."
"It might have been as you say. There was a strange, rough bashfulness about him. He confused and puzzled me. He never spoke out. He seemed to treat me as if our future lives had been provided for while we were children. What could I do, Lucy?"
"Do? You could have asked your father to end the difficulty for you."
"Impossible! You forget what I have just told you. My father was suffering at that time under the illness which afterward caused his death. He was quite unfit to interfere."
"Was there no one else who could help you?"
"No lady in whom you could confide?"
"I had acquaintances among the ladies in the neighborhood. I had no friends."
"What did you do, then?"
"Nothing. I hesitated; I put off coming to an explanation with him, unfortunately, until it was too late."
"What do you mean by too late?"
"You shall hear. I ought to have told you that Richard Wardour is in the navy—"
"Indeed! I am more interested in him than ever. Well?"
"One spring day Richard came to our house to take leave of us before he joined his ship. I thought he was gone, and I went into the next room. It was my own sitting-room, and it opened on to the garden."—
"Richard must have been watching me. He suddenly appeared in the garden. Without waiting for me to invite him, he walked into the room. I was a little startled as well as surprised, but I managed to hide it. I said, 'What is it, Mr. Wardour?' He stepped close up to me; he said, in his quick, rough way: 'Clara! I am going to the African coast. If I live, I shall come back promoted; and we both know what will happen then.' He kissed me. I was half frightened, half angry. Before I could compose myself to say a word, he was out in the garden again—he was gone! I ought to have spoken, I know. It was not honorable, not kind toward him. You can't reproach me for my want of courage and frankness more bitterly than I reproach myself!"
"My dear child, I don't reproach you. I only think you might have written to him."
"I did write."
"Yes. I told him in so many words that he was deceiving himself, and that I could never marry him."
"Plain enough, in all conscience! Having said that, surely you are not to blame. What are you fretting about now?"
"Suppose my letter has never reached him?"
"Why should you suppose anything of the sort?"
"What I wrote required an answer, Lucy—asked for an answer. The answer has never come. What is the plain conclusion? My letter has never reached him. And the Atalanta is expected back! Richard Wardour is returning to England—Richard Wardour will claim me as his wife! You wondered just now if I really meant what I said. Do you doubt it still?"
Mrs. Crayford leaned back absently in her chair. For the first time since the conversation had begun, she let a question pass without making a reply. The truth is, Mrs. Crayford was thinking.
She saw Clara's position plainly; she understood the disturbing effect of it on the mind of a young girl. Still, making all allowances, she felt quite at a loss, so far, to account for Clara's excessive agitation. Her quick observing faculty had just detected that Clara's face showed no signs of relief, now that she had unburdened herself of her secret. There was something clearly under the surface here—something of importance that still remained to be discovered. A shrewd doubt crossed Mrs. Crayford's mind, and inspired the next words which she addressed to her young friend.
"My dear," she said abruptly, "have you told me all?"
Clara started as if the question terrified her. Feeling sure that she now had the clew in her hand, Mrs. Crayford deliberately repeated her question, in another form of words. Instead of answering, Clara suddenly looked up. At the same moment a faint flush of color appeared in her face for the first time.
Looking up instinctively on her side, Mrs. Crayford became aware of the presence, in the conservatory, of a young gentleman who was claiming Clara as his partner in the coming waltz. Mrs. Crayford fell into thinking once more. Had this young gentleman (she asked herself) anything to do with the untold end of the story? Was this the true secret of Clara Burnham's terror at the impending return of Richard Wardour? Mrs. Crayford decided on putting her doubts to the test.
"A friend of yours, my dear?" she asked, innocently. "Suppose you introduce us to each other."
Clara confusedly introduced the young gentleman.
"Mr. Francis Aldersley, Lucy. Mr. Aldersley belongs to the Arctic expedition."
"Attached to the expedition?" Mrs. Crayford repeated. "I am attached to the expedition too—in my way. I had better introduce myself, Mr. Aldersley, as Clara seems to have forgotten to do it for me. I am Mrs. Crayford. My husband is Lieutenant Crayford, of the Wanderer. Do you belong to that ship?"
"I have not the honor, Mrs. Crayford. I belong to the Sea-mew."
Mrs. Crayford's superb eyes looked shrewdly backward and forward between Clara and Francis Aldersley, and saw the untold sequel to Clara's story. The young officer was a bright, handsome, gentleman-like lad. Just the person to seriously complicate the difficulty with Richard Wardour! There was no time for making any further inquiries. The band had begun the prelude to the waltz, and Francis Aldersley was waiting for his partner. With a word of apology to the young man, Mrs. Crayford drew Clara aside for a moment, and spoke to her in a whisper.
"One word, my dear, before you return to the ball-room. It may sound conceited, after the little you have told me; but I think I understand your position now, better than you do yourself. Do you want to hear my opinion?"
"I am longing to hear it, Lucy! I want your opinion; I want your advice."
"You shall have both in the plainest and fewest words. First, my opinion: You have no choice but to come to an explanation with Mr. Wardour as soon as he returns. Second, my advice: If you wish to make the explanation easy to both sides, take care that you make it in the character of a free woman."
She laid a strong emphasis on the last three words, and looked pointedly at Francis Aldersley as she pronounced them. "I won't keep you from your partner any longer, Clara," she resumed, and led the way back to the ball-room.
The burden on Clara's mind weighs on it more heavily than ever, after what Mrs. Crayford has said to her. She is too unhappy to feel the inspiriting influence of the dance. After a turn round the room, she complains of fatigue. Mr. Francis Aldersley looks at the conservatory (still as invitingly cool and empty as ever); leads her back to it; and places her on a seat among the shrubs. She tries—very feebly—to dismiss him.
"Don't let me keep you from dancing, Mr. Aldersley."
He seats himself by her side, and feasts his eyes on the lovely downcast face that dares not turn toward him. He whispers to her:
"Call me Frank."
She longs to call him Frank—she loves him with all her heart. But Mrs. Crayford's warning words are still in her mind. She never opens her lips. Her lover moves a little closer, and asks another favor. Men are all alike on these occasions. Silence invariably encourages them to try again.
"Clara! have you forgotten what I said at the concert yesterday? May I say it again?"
"We sail to-morrow for the Arctic seas. I may not return for years. Don't send me away without hope! Think of the long, lonely time in the dark North! Make it a happy time for me."
Though he speaks with the fervor of a man, he is little more than a lad: he is only twenty years old, and he is going to risk his young life on the frozen deep! Clara pities him as she never pitied any human creature before. He gently takes her hand. She tries to release it.
"What! not even that little favor on the last night?"
Her faithful heart takes his part, in spite of her. Her hand remains in his, and feels its soft persuasive pressure. She is a lost woman. It is only a question of time now!
"Clara! do you love me?"
There is a pause. She shrinks from looking at him—she trembles with strange contradictory sensations of pleasure and pain. His arm steals round her; he repeats his question in a whisper; his lips almost touch her little rosy ear as he says it again:
"Do you love me?"
She closes her eyes faintly—she hears nothing but those words—feels nothing but his arm round her—forgets Mrs. Crayford's warning—forgets Richard Wardour himself—turns suddenly, with a loving woman's desperate disregard of everything but her love—nestles her head on his bosom, and answers him in that way, at last!
He lifts the beautiful drooping head—their lips meet in their first kiss—they are both in heaven: it is Clara who brings them back to earth again with a start—it is Clara who says, "Oh! what have I done?"—as usual, when it is too late.
Frank answers the question.
"You have made me happy, my angel. Now, when I come back, I come back to make you my wife."
She shudders. She remembers Richard Wardour again at those words.
"Mind!" she says, "nobody is to know we are engaged till I permit you to mention it. Remember that!"
He promises to remember it. His arm tries to wind round her once more. No! She is mistress of herself; she can positively dismiss him now—after she has let him kiss her!
"Go!" she says. "I want to see Mrs. Crayford. Find her! Say I am here, waiting to speak to her. Go at once, Frank—for my sake!"
There is no alternative but to obey her. His eyes drink a last draught of her beauty. He hurries away on his errand—the happiest man in the room. Five minutes since she was only his partner in the dance. He has spoken—and she has pledged herself to be his partner for life!
It was not easy to find Mrs. Crayford in the crowd. Searching here, and searching there, Frank became conscious of a stranger, who appeared to be looking for somebody, on his side. He was a dark, heavy-browed, strongly-built man, dressed in a shabby old naval officer's uniform. His manner—strikingly resolute and self-contained—was unmistakably the manner of a gentleman. He wound his way slowly through the crowd; stopping to look at every lady whom he passed, and then looking away again with a frown. Little by little he approached the conservatory—entered it, after a moment's reflection—detected the glimmer of a white dress in the distance, through the shrubs and flowers—advanced to get a nearer view of the lady—and burst into Clara's presence with a cry of delight.
She sprang to her feet. She stood before him speechless, motionless, struck to stone. All her life was in her eyes—the eyes which told her she was looking at Richard Wardour.
He was the first to speak.
"I am sorry I startled you, my darling. I forgot everything but the happiness of seeing you again. We only reached our moorings two hours since. I was some time inquiring after you, and some time getting my ticket when they told me you were at the ball. Wish me joy, Clara! I am promoted. I have come back to make you my wife."
A momentary change passed over the blank terror of her face. Her color rose faintly, her lips moved. She abruptly put a question to him.
"Did you get my letter?"
He started. "A letter from you? I never received it."
The momentary animation died out of her face again. She drew back from him and dropped into a chair. He advanced toward her, astonished and alarmed. She shrank in the chair—shrank, as if she was frightened of him.
"Clara, you have not even shaken hands with me! What does it mean?"
He paused; waiting and watching her. She made no reply. A flash of the quick temper in him leaped up in his eyes. He repeated his last words in louder and sterner tones:
"What does it mean?"
She replied this time. His tone had hurt her—his tone had roused her sinking courage.
"It means, Mr. Wardour, that you have been mistaken from the first."
"How have I been mistaken?"
"You have been under a wrong impression, and you have given me no opportunity of setting you right."
"In what way have I been wrong?"
"You have been too hasty and too confident about yourself and about me. You have entirely misunderstood me. I am grieved to distress you, but for your sake I must speak plainly. I am your friend always, Mr. Wardour. I can never be your wife."
He mechanically repeated the last words. He seemed to doubt whether he had heard her aright.
"You can never be my wife?"
There was no answer. She was incapable of telling him a falsehood. She was ashamed to tell him the truth.
He stooped over her, and suddenly possessed himself of her hand. Holding her hand firmly, he stooped a little lower; searching for the signs which might answer him in her face. His own face darkened slowly while he looked. He was beginning to suspect her; and he acknowledged it in his next words.
"Something has changed you toward me, Clara. Somebody has influenced you against me. Is it—you force me to ask the question—is it some other man?"
"You have no right to ask me that."
He went on without noticing what she had said to him.
"Has that other man come between you and me? I speak plainly on my side. Speak plainly on yours."
"I have spoken. I have nothing more to say."
There was a pause. She saw the warning light which told of the fire within him, growing brighter and brighter in his eyes. She felt his grasp strengthening on her hand. He appealed to her for the last time.
"Reflect," he said, "reflect before it is too late. Your silence will not serve you. If you persist in not answering me, I shall take your silence as a confession. Do you hear me?"
"I hear you."
"Clara Burnham! I am not to be trifled with. Clara Burnham! I insist on the truth. Are you false to me?"
She resented that searching question with a woman's keen sense of the insult that is implied in doubting her to her face.
"Mr. Wardour! you forget yourself when you call me to account in that way. I never encouraged you. I never gave you promise or pledge—"
He passionately interrupted her before she could say more.
"You have engaged yourself in my absence. Your words own it; your looks own it! You have engaged yourself to another man!"
"If I have engaged myself, what right have you to complain of it?" she answered firmly. "What right have you to control my actions—?"
The next words died away on her lips. He suddenly dropped her hand. A marked change appeared in the expression of his eyes—a change which told her of the terrible passions that she had let loose in him. She read, dimly read, something in his face which made her tremble—not for herself, but for Frank.
Little by little the dark color faded out of his face. His deep voice dropped suddenly to a low and quiet tone as he spoke the parting words.
"Say no more, Miss Burnham—you have said enough. I am answered; I am dismissed." He paused, and, stepping close up to her, laid his hand on her arm.
"The time may come," he said, "when I shall forgive you. But the man who has robbed me of you shall rue the day when you and he first met."
He turned and left her.
A few minutes later, Mrs. Crayford, entering the conservatory, was met by one of the attendants at the ball. The man stopped as if he wished to speak to her.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am. Do you happen to have a smelling-bottle about you? There is a young lady in the conservatory who is taken faint."
Between the Scenes—The Landing Stage
The morning of the next day—the morning on which the ships were to sail—came bright and breezy. Mrs. Crayford, having arranged to follow her husband to the water-side, and see the last of him before he embarked, entered Clara's room on her way out of the house, anxious to hear how her young friend passed the night. To her astonishment she found Clara had risen, and was dressed, like herself, to go out.
"What does this mean, my dear? After what you suffered last night—after the shock of seeing that man—why don't you take my advice and rest in your bed?"
"I can't rest. I have not slept all night. Have you been out yet?"
"Have you seen or heard anything of Richard Wardour?"
"What an extraordinary question!"
"Answer my question! Don't trifle with me!"
"Compose yourself, Clara. I have neither seen nor heard anything of Richard Wardour. Take my word for it, he is far enough away by this time."
"No! He is here! He is near us! All night long the presentiment has pursued me—Frank and Richard Wardour will meet."
"My dear child! what are you thinking of? They are total strangers to each other."
"Something will happen to bring them together. I feel it! I know it! They will meet—there will be a mortal quarrel between them—and I shall be to blame. Oh, Lucy! why didn't I take your advice? Why was I mad enough to let Frank know that I loved him? Are you going to the landing-stage? I am all ready—I must go with you."
"You must not think of it, Clara. There will be crowding and confusion at the water-side. You are not strong enough to bear it. Wait—I won't be long away—wait till I come back."
"I must and will go with you! Crowd? He will be among the crowd! Confusion? In that confusion he will find his way to Frank! Don't ask me to wait. I shall go mad if I wait. I shall not know a moment's ease until I have seen Frank, with my own eyes, safe in the boat which takes him to his ship! You have got your bonnet on; what are we stopping here for? Come! or I shall go without you. Look at the clock; we have not a moment to lose!"
It was useless to contend with her. Mrs. Crayford yielded. The two women left the house together.
The landing-stage, as Mrs. Crayford had predicted, was thronged with spectators. Not only the relatives and friends of the Arctic voyagers, but strangers as well, had assembled in large numbers to see the ships sail. Clara's eyes wandered affrightedly hither and thither among the strange faces in the crowd; searching for the one face that she dreaded to see, and not finding it. So completely were her nerves unstrung, that she started with a cry of alarm on suddenly hearing Frank's voice behind her.
"The Sea-mew's boats are waiting," he said. "I must go, darling. How pale you are looking, Clara! Are you ill?"
She never answered. She questioned him with wild eyes and trembling lips.
"Has anything happened to you, Frank? anything out of the common?"
Frank laughed at the strange question.
"Anything out of the common?" he repeated. "Nothing that I know of, except sailing for the Arctic seas. That's out of the common, I suppose—isn't it?"
"Has anybody spoken to you since last night? Has any stranger followed you in the street?"
Frank turned in blank amazement to Mrs. Crayford.
"What on earth does she mean?"
Mrs. Crayford's lively invention supplied her with an answer on the spur of the moment.
"Do you believe in dreams, Frank? Of course you don't! Clara has been dreaming about you; and Clara is foolish enough to believe in dreams. That's all—it's not worth talking about. Hark! they are calling you. Say good-by, or you will be too late for the boat."
Frank took Clara's hand. Long afterward—in the dark Arctic days, in the dreary Arctic nights—he remembered how coldly and how passively that hand lay in his.
"Courage, Clara!" he said, gayly. "A sailor's sweetheart must accustom herself to partings. The time will soon pass. Good-by, my darling! Good-by, my wife!"
He kissed the cold hand; he looked his last—for many a long year, perhaps!—at the pale and beautiful face. "How she loves me!" he thought. "How the parting distresses her!" He still held her hand; he would have lingered longer, if Mrs. Crayford had not wisely waived all ceremony and pushed him away.
The two ladies followed him at a safe distance through the crowd, and saw him step into the boat. The oars struck the water; Frank waved his cap to Clara. In a moment more a vessel at anchor hid the boat from view. They had seen the last of him on his way to the Frozen Deep!
"No Richard Wardour in the boat," said Mrs. Crayford. "No Richard Wardour on the shore. Let this be a lesson to you, my dear. Never be foolish enough to believe in presentiments again."
Clara's eyes still wandered suspiciously to and fro among the crowd.
"Are you not satisfied yet?" asked Mrs. Crayford.
"No," Clara answered, "I am not satisfied yet."
"What! still looking for him? This is really too absurd. Here is my husband coming. I shall tell him to call a cab, and send you home."
Clara drew back a few steps.
"I won't be in the way, Lucy, while you are taking leave of your good husband," she said. "I will wait here."
"Wait here! What for?"
"For something which I may yet see; or for something which I may still hear."
Mrs. Crayford turned to her husband without another word. Clara's infatuation was beyond the reach of remonstrance.
The boats of the Wanderer took the place at the landing-stage vacated by the boats of the Sea-mew. A burst of cheering among the outer ranks of the crowd announced the arrival of the commander of the expedition on the scene. Captain Helding appeared, looking right and left for his first lieutenant. Finding Crayford with his wife, the captain made his apologies for interfering, with his best grace.
"Give him up to his professional duties for one minute, Mrs. Crayford, and you shall have him back again for half an hour. The Arctic expedition is to blame, my dear lady—not the captain—for parting man and wife. In Crayford's place, I should have left it to the bachelors to find the Northwest Passage, and have stopped at home with you!"
Excusing himself in those bluntly complimentary terms, Captain Helding drew the lieutenant aside a few steps, accidentally taking a direction that led the two officers close to the place at which Clara was standing. Both the captain and the lieutenant were too completely absorbed in their professional business to notice her. Neither the one nor the other had the faintest suspicion that she could and did hear every word of the talk that passed between them.
"You received my note this morning?" the captain began.
"Certainly, Captain Helding, or I should have been on board the ship before this."
"I am going on board myself at once," the captain proceeded, "but I must ask you to keep your boat waiting for half an hour more. You will be all the longer with your wife, you know. I thought of that, Crayford."
"I am much obliged to you, Captain Helding. I suppose there is some other reason for inverting the customary order of things, and keeping the lieutenant on shore after the captain is on board?"
"Quite true! there is another reason. I want you to wait for a volunteer who has just joined us."
"Yes. He has his outfit to get in a hurry, and he may be half an hour late."
"It's rather a sudden appointment, isn't it?"
"No doubt. Very sudden."
"And—pardon me—it's rather a long time (as we are situated) to keep the ships waiting for one man?"
"Quite true, again. But a man who is worth having is worth waiting for. This man is worth having; this man is worth his weight in gold to such an expedition as ours. Seasoned to all climates and all fatigues—a strong fellow, a brave fellow, a clever fellow—in short, an excellent officer. I know him well, or I should never have taken him. The country gets plenty of work out of my new volunteer, Crayford. He only returned yesterday from foreign service."
"He only returned yesterday from foreign service! And he volunteers this morning to join the Arctic expedition? You astonish me."
"I dare say I do! You can't be more astonished than I was, when he presented himself at my hotel and told me what he wanted. 'Why, my good fellow, you have just got home,' I said. 'Are you weary of your freedom, after only a few hours' experience of it?' His answer rather startled me. He said, 'I am weary of my life, sir. I have come home and found a trouble to welcome me, which goes near to break my heart. If I don't take refuge in absence and hard work, I am a lost man. Will you give me a refuge?' That's what he said, Crayford, word for word."
"Did you ask him to explain himself further?"
"Not I! I knew his value, and I took the poor devil on the spot, without pestering him with any more questions. No need to ask him to explain himself. The facts speak for themselves in these cases. The old story, my good friend! There's a woman at the bottom of it, of course."
Mrs. Crayford, waiting for the return of her husband as patiently as she could, was startled by feeling a hand suddenly laid on her shoulder. She looked round, and confronted Clara. Her first feeling of surprise changed instantly to alarm. Clara was trembling from head to foot.
"What is the matter? What has frightened you, my dear?"
"Lucy! I have heard of him!"
"Richard Wardour again?"
"Remember what I told you. I have heard every word of the conversation between Captain Helding and your husband. A man came to the captain this morning and volunteered to join the Wanderer. The captain has taken him. The man is Richard Wardour."
"You don't mean it! Are you sure? Did you hear Captain Helding mention his name?"
"Then how do you know it's Richard Wardour?"
"Don't ask me! I am as certain of it, as that I am standing here! They are going away together, Lucy—away to the eternal ice and snow. My foreboding has come true! The two will meet—the man who is to marry me and the man whose heart I have broken!"
"Your foreboding has not come true, Clara! The men have not met here—the men are not likely to meet elsewhere. They are appointed to separate ships. Frank belongs to the Sea-mew, and Wardour to the Wanderer. See! Captain Helding has done. My husband is coming this way. Let me make sure. Let me speak to him."
Lieutenant Crayford returned to his wife. She spoke to him instantly.
"William! you have got a new volunteer who joins the Wanderer?"
"What! you have been listening to the captain and me?"
"I want to know his name?"
"How in the world did you manage to hear what we said to each other?"
"His name? has the captain given you his name?"
"Don't excite yourself, my dear. Look! you are positively alarming Miss Burnham. The new volunteer is a perfect stranger to us. There is his name—last on the ship's list."
Mrs. Crayford snatched the list out of her husband's hand, and read the name:
Second Scene—The Hut of the Sea-mew.
Good-by to England! Good-by to inhabited and civilized regions of the earth!
Two years have passed since the voyagers sailed from their native shores. The enterprise has failed—the Arctic expedition is lost and ice-locked in the Polar wastes. The good ships Wanderer and Sea-mew, entombed in ice, will never ride the buoyant waters more. Stripped of their lighter timbers, both vessels have been used for the construction of huts, erected on the nearest land.
The largest of the two buildings which now shelter the lost men is occupied by the surviving officers and crew of the Sea-mew. On one side of the principal room are the sleeping berths and the fire-place. The other side discloses a broad doorway (closed by a canvas screen), which serves as a means of communication with an inner apartment, devoted to the superior officers. A hammock is slung to the rough raftered roof of the main room, as an extra bed. A man, completely hidden by his bedclothes, is sleeping in the hammock. By the fireside there is a second man—supposed to be on the watch—fast asleep, poor wretch! at the present moment. Behind the sleeper stands an old cask, which serves for a table. The objects at present on the table are, a pestle and mortar, and a saucepanful of the dry bones of animals—in plain words, the dinner for the day. By way of ornament to the dull brown walls, icicles appear in the crevices of the timber, gleaming at intervals in the red fire-light. No wind whistles outside the lonely dwelling—no cry of bird or beast is heard. Indoors, and out-of-doors, the awful silence of the Polar desert reigns, for the moment, undisturbed.
The first sound that broke the silence came from the inner apartment. An officer lifted the canvas screen in the hut of the Sea-mew and entered the main room. Cold and privation had badly thinned the ranks. The commander of the ship—Captain Ebsworth—was dangerously ill. The first lieutenant was dead. An officer of the Wanderer filled their places for the time, with Captain Helding's permission. The officer so employed was—Lieutenant Crayford.
He approached the man at the fireside, and awakened him.
"Jump up, Bateson! It's your turn to be relieved."
The relief appeared, rising from a heap of old sails at the back of the hut. Bateson vanished, yawning, to his bed. Lieutenant Crayford walked backward and forward briskly, trying what exercise would do toward warming his blood.
The pestle and mortar on the cask attracted his attention. He stopped and looked up at the man in the hammock.
"I must rouse the cook," he said to himself, with a smile. "That fellow little thinks how useful he is in keeping up my spirits. The most inveterate croaker and grumbler in the world—and yet, according to his own account, the only cheerful man in the whole ship's company. John Want! John Want! Rouse up, there!"
A head rose slowly out of the bedclothes, covered with a red night-cap. A melancholy nose rested itself on the edge of the hammock. A voice, worthy of the nose, expressed its opinion of the Arctic climate, in these words:
"Lord! Lord! here's all my breath on my blanket. Icicles, if you please, sir, all round my mouth and all over my blanket. Every time I have snored, I've frozen something. When a man gets the cold into him to that extent that he ices his own bed, it can't last much longer. Never mind! I don't grumble."
Crayford tapped the saucepan of bones impatiently. John Want lowered himself to the floor—grumbling all the way—by a rope attached to the rafters at his bed head. Instead of approaching his superior officer and his saucepan, he hobbled, shivering, to the fire-place, and held his chin as close as he possibly could over the fire. Crayford looked after him.
"Halloo! what are you doing there?"
"Thawing my beard, sir."
"Come here directly, and set to work on these bones."
John Want remained immovably attached to the fire-place, holding something else over the fire. Crayford began to lose his temper.
"What the devil are you about now?"
"Thawing my watch, sir. It's been under my pillow all night, and the cold has stopped it. Cheerful, wholesome, bracing sort of climate to live in; isn't it, sir? Never mind! I don't grumble."
"No, we all know that. Look here! Are these bones pounded small enough?"
John Want suddenly approached the lieutenant, and looked at him with an appearance of the deepest interest.
"You'll excuse me, sir," he said; "how very hollow your voice sounds this morning!"
"Never mind my voice. The bones! the bones!"
"Yes, sir—the bones. They'll take a trifle more pounding. I'll do my best with them, sir, for your sake."
"What do you mean?"
John Want shook his head, and looked at Crayford with a dreary smile.
"I don't think I shall have the honor of making much more bone soup for you, sir. Do you think yourself you'll last long, sir? I don't, saving your presence. I think about another week or ten days will do for us all. Never mind! I don't grumble."
He poured the bones into the mortar, and began to pound them—under protest. At the same moment a sailor appeared, entering from the inner hut.
"A message from Captain Ebsworth, sir."
"The captain is worse than ever with his freezing pains, sir. He wants to see you immediately."
"I will go at once. Rouse the doctor."
Answering in those terms, Crayford returned to the inner hut, followed by the sailor. John Want shook his head again, and smiled more drearily than ever.
"Rouse the doctor?" he repeated. "Suppose the doctor should be frozen? He hadn't a ha'porth of warmth in him last night, and his voice sounded like a whisper in a speaking-trumpet. Will the bones do now? Yes, the bones will do now. Into the saucepan with you," cried John Want, suiting the action to the word, "and flavor the hot water if you can! When I remember that I was once an apprentice at a pastry-cook's—when I think of the gallons of turtle-soup that this hand has stirred up in a jolly hot kitchen—and when I find myself mixing bones and hot water for soup, and turning into ice as fast as I can; if I wasn't of a cheerful disposition I should feel inclined to grumble. John Want! John Want! whatever had you done with your natural senses when you made up your mind to go to sea?"
A new voice hailed the cook, speaking from one of the bed-places in the side of the hut. It was the voice of Francis Aldersley.
"Who's that croaking over the fire?"
"Croaking?" repeated John Want, with the air of a man who considered himself the object of a gratuitous insult. "Croaking? You don't find your own voice at all altered for the worse—do you, Mr. Frank? I don't give him," John proceeded, speaking confidentially to himself, "more than six hours to last. He's one of your grumblers."
"What are you doing there?" asked Frank.
"I'm making bone soup, sir, and wondering why I ever went to sea."
"Well, and why did you go to sea?"
"I'm not certain, Mr. Frank. Sometimes I think it was natural perversity; sometimes I think it was false pride at getting over sea-sickness; sometimes I think it was reading 'Robinson Crusoe,' and books warning of me not to go to sea."
Frank laughed. "You're an odd fellow. What do you mean by false pride at getting over sea-sickness? Did you get over sea-sickness in some new way?"
John Want's dismal face brightened in spite of himself. Frank had recalled to the cook's memory one of the noteworthy passages in the cook's life.
"That's it, sir!" he said. "If ever a man cured sea-sickness in a new way yet, I am that man—I got over it, Mr. Frank, by dint of hard eating. I was a passenger on board a packet-boat, sir, when first I saw blue water. A nasty lopp of a sea came on at dinner-time, and I began to feel queer the moment the soup was put on the table. 'Sick?' says the captain. 'Rather, sir,' says I. 'Will you try my cure?' says the captain. 'Certainly, sir,' says I. 'Is your heart in your mouth yet?' says the captain. 'Not quite, sir,' says I. 'Mock-turtle soup?' says the captain, and helps me. I swallow a couple of spoonfuls, and turn as white as a sheet. The captain cocks his eye at me. 'Go on deck, sir,' says he; 'get rid of the soup, and then come back to the cabin.' I got rid of the soup, and came back to the cabin. 'Cod's head-and-shoulders,' says the captain, and helps me. 'I can't stand it, sir,' says I. 'You must,' says the captain, 'because it's the cure.' I crammed down a mouthful, and turned paler than ever. 'Go on deck,' says the captain. 'Get rid of the cod's head, and come back to the cabin.' Off I go, and back I come. 'Boiled leg of mutton and trimmings,' says the captain, and helps me. 'No fat, sir,' says I. 'Fat's the cure,' says the captain, and makes me eat it. 'Lean's the cure,' says the captain, and makes me eat it. 'Steady?' says the captain. 'Sick,' says I. 'Go on deck,' says the captain; 'get rid of the boiled leg of mutton and trimmings and come back to the cabin.' Off I go, staggering—back I come, more dead than alive. 'Deviled kidneys,' says the captain. I shut my eyes, and got 'em down. 'Cure's beginning,' says the captain. 'Mutton-chop and pickles.' I shut my eyes, and got them down. 'Broiled ham and cayenne pepper,' says the captain. 'Glass of stout and cranberry tart. Want to go on deck again?' 'No, sir,' says I. 'Cure's done,' says the captain. 'Never you give in to your stomach, and your stomach will end in giving in to you.'"
Having stated the moral purpose of his story in those unanswerable words, John Want took himself and his saucepan into the kitchen. A moment later, Crayford returned to the hut and astonished Frank Aldersley by an unexpected question.
"Have you anything in your berth, Frank, that you set a value on?"
"Nothing that I set the smallest value on—when I am out of it," he replied. "What does your question mean?"
"We are almost as short of fuel as we are of provisions," Crayford proceeded. "Your berth will make good firing. I have directed Bateson to be here in ten minutes with his ax."
"Very attentive and considerate on your part," said Frank. "What is to become of me, if you please, when Bateson has chopped my bed into fire-wood?"
"Can't you guess?"
"I suppose the cold has stupefied me. The riddle is beyond my reading. Suppose you give me a hint?"
"Certainly. There will be beds to spare soon—there is to be a change at last in our wretched lives here. Do you see it now?"
Frank's eyes sparkled. He sprang out of his berth, and waved his fur cap in triumph.
"See it?" he exclaimed; "of course I do! The exploring party is to start at last. Do I go with the expedition?"
"It is not very long since you were in the doctor's hands, Frank," said Crayford, kindly. "I doubt if you are strong enough yet to make one of the exploring party."
"Strong enough or not," returned Frank, "any risk is better than pining and perishing here. Put me down, Crayford, among those who volunteer to go."
"Volunteers will not be accepted, in this case," said Crayford. "Captain Helding and Captain Ebsworth see serious objections, as we are situated, to that method of proceeding."
"Do they mean to keep the appointments in their own hands?" asked Frank. "I for one object to that."
"Wait a little," said Crayford. "You were playing backgammon the other day with one of the officers. Does the board belong to him or to you?"
"It belongs to me. I have got it in my locker here. What do you want with it?"
"I want the dice and the box for casting lots. The captains have arranged—most wisely, as I think—that Chance shall decide among us who goes with the expedition and who stays behind in the huts. The officers and crew of the Wanderer will be here in a few minutes to cast the lots. Neither you nor any one can object to that way of deciding among us. Officers and men alike take their chance together. Nobody can grumble."
"I am quite satisfied," said Frank. "But I know of one man among the officers who is sure to make objections."
"Who is the man?"
"You know him well enough, too. The 'Bear of the Expeditions' Richard Wardour."
"Frank! Frank! you have a bad habit of letting your tongue run away with you. Don't repeat that stupid nickname when you talk of my good friend, Richard Wardour."
"Your good friend? Crayford! your liking for that man amazes me."
Crayford laid his hand kindly on Frank's shoulder. Of all the officers of the Sea-mew, Crayford's favorite was Frank.
"Why should it amaze you?" he asked. "What opportunities have you had of judging? You and Wardour have always belonged to different ships. I have never seen you in Wardour's society for five minutes together. How can you form a fair estimate of his character?"
"I take the general estimate of his character," Frank answered. "He has got his nickname because he is the most unpopular man in his ship. Nobody likes him—there must be some reason for that."
"There is only one reason for it," Crayford rejoined. "Nobody understands Richard Wardour. I am not talking at random. Remember, I sailed from England with him in the Wanderer; and I was only transferred to the Sea-mew long after we were locked up in the ice. I was Richard Wardour's companion on board ship for months, and I learned there to do him justice. Under all his outward defects, I tell you, there beats a great and generous heart. Suspend your opinion, my lad, until you know my friend as well as I do. No more of this now. Give me the dice and the box."
Frank opened his locker. At the same moment the silence of the snowy waste outside was broken by a shouting of voices hailing the hut—"Sea-mew, ahoy!"
The sailor on watch opened the outer door. There, plodding over the ghastly white snow, were the officers of the Wanderer approaching the hut. There, scattered under the merciless black sky, were the crew, with the dogs and the sledges, waiting the word which was to start them on their perilous and doubtful journey.
Captain Helding of the Wanderer, accompanied by his officers, entered the hut, in high spirits at the prospect of a change. Behind them, lounging in slowly by himself, was a dark, sullen, heavy-browed man. He neither spoke, nor offered his hand to anybody: he was the one person present who seemed to be perfectly indifferent to the fate in store for him. This was the man whom his brother officers had nicknamed the Bear of the Expedition. In other words—Richard Wardour.
Crayford advanced to welcome Captain Helding. Frank, remembering the friendly reproof which he had just received, passed over the other officers of the Wanderer, and made a special effort to be civil to Crayford's friend.
"Good-morning, Mr. Wardour," he said. "We may congratulate each other on the chance of leaving this horrible place."
"You may think it horrible," Wardour retorted; "I like it."
"Like it? Good Heavens! why?"
"Because there are no women here."
Frank turned to his brother officers, without making any further advances in the direction of Richard Wardour. The Bear of the Expedition was more unapproachable than ever.
In the meantime, the hut had become thronged by the able-bodied officers and men of the two ships. Captain Helding, standing in the midst of them, with Crayford by his side, proceeded to explain the purpose of the contemplated expedition to the audience which surrounded him.
He began in these words:
"Brother officers and men of the Wanderer and Sea-mew, it is my duty to tell you, very briefly, the reasons which have decided Captain Ebsworth and myself on dispatching an exploring party in search of help. Without recalling all the hardships we have suffered for the last two years—the destruction, first of one of our ships, then of the other; the death of some of our bravest and best companions; the vain battles we have been fighting with the ice and snow, and boundless desolation of these inhospitable regions—without dwelling on these things, it is my duty to remind you that this, the last place in which we have taken refuge, is far beyond the track of any previous expedition, and that consequently our chance of being discovered by any rescuing parties that may be sent to look after us is, to say the least of it, a chance of the most uncertain kind. You all agree with me, gentlemen, so far?"
The officers (with the exception of Wardour, who stood apart in sullen silence) all agreed, so far.
The captain went on.
"It is therefore urgently necessary that we should make another, and probably a last, effort to extricate ourselves. The winter is not far off, game is getting scarcer and scarcer, our stock of provisions is running low, and the sick—especially, I am sorry to say, the sick in the Wanderer's hut—are increasing in number day by day. We must look to our own lives, and to the lives of those who are dependent on us; and we have no time to lose."
The officers echoed the words cheerfully.
"Right! right! No time to lose."
Captain Helding resumed:
"The plan proposed is, that a detachment of the able-bodied officers and men among us should set forth this very day, and make another effort to reach the nearest inhabited settlements, from which help and provisions may be dispatched to those who remain here. The new direction to be taken, and the various precautions to be adopted, are all drawn out ready. The only question now before us is, Who is to stop here, and who is to undertake the journey?"
The officers answered the question with one accord—"Volunteers!"
The men echoed their officers. "Ay, ay, volunteers."
Wardour still preserved his sullen silence. Crayford noticed him. standing apart from the rest, and appealed to him personally.
"Do you say nothing?" he asked.
"Nothing," Wardour answered. "Go or stay, it's all one to me."
"I hope you don't really mean that?" said Crayford.
"I am sorry to hear it, Wardour."
Captain Helding answered the general suggestion in favor of volunteering by a question which instantly checked the rising enthusiasm of the meeting.
"Well," he said, "suppose we say volunteers. Who volunteers to stop in the huts?"
There was a dead silence. The officers and men looked at each other confusedly. The captain continued:
"You see we can't settle it by volunteering. You all want to go. Every man among us who has the use of his limbs naturally wants to go. But what is to become of those who have not got the use of their limbs? Some of us must stay here, and take care of the sick."
Everybody admitted that this was true.
"So we get back again," said the captain, "to the old question—Who among the able-bodied is to go? and who is to stay? Captain Ebsworth says, and I say, let chance decide it. Here are dice. The numbers run as high as twelve—double sixes. All who throw under six, stay; all who throw over six, go. Officers of the Wanderer and the Sea-mew, do you agree to that way of meeting the difficulty?"
All the officers agreed, with the one exception of Wardour, who still kept silence.
"Men of the Wanderer and Sea-mew, your officers agree to cast lots. Do you agree too?"
The men agreed without a dissentient voice. Crayford handed the box and the dice to Captain Helding.
"You throw first, sir. Under six, 'Stay.' Over six, 'Go.'"
Captain Helding cast the dice; the top of the cask serving for a table. He threw seven.
"Go," said Crayford. "I congratulate you, sir. Now for my own chance." He cast the dice in his turn. Three! "Stay! Ah, well! well! if I can do my duty, and be of use to others, what does it matter whether I go or stay? Wardour, you are next, in the absence of your first lieutenant."
Wardour prepared to cast, without shaking the dice.
"Shake the box, man!" cried Crayford. "Give yourself a chance of luck!"
Wardour persisted in letting the dice fall out carelessly, just as they lay in the box.
"Not I!" he muttered to himself. "I've done with luck." Saying those words, he threw down the empty box, and seated himself on the nearest chest, without looking to see how the dice had fallen.
Crayford examined them. "Six!" he exclaimed. "There! you have a second chance, in spite of yourself. You are neither under nor over—you throw again."
"Bah!" growled the Bear. "It's not worth the trouble of getting up for. Somebody else throw for me." He suddenly looked at Frank. "You! you have got what the women call a lucky face."
Frank appealed to Crayford. "Shall I?"
"Yes, if he wishes it," said Crayford.
Frank cast the dice. "Two! He stays! Wardour, I am sorry I have thrown against you."
"Go or stay," reiterated Wardour, "it's all one to me. You will be luckier, young one, when you cast for yourself."
Frank cast for himself.
"Eight. Hurrah! I go!"
"What did I tell you?" said Wardour. "The chance was yours. You have thriven on my ill luck."
He rose, as he spoke, to leave the hut. Crayford stopped him.
"Have you anything particular to do, Richard?"
"What has anybody to do here?"
"Wait a little, then. I want to speak to you when this business is over."
"Are you going to give me any more good advice?"
"Don't look at me in that sour way, Richard. I am going to ask you a question about something which concerns yourself."
Wardour yielded without a word more. He returned to his chest, and cynically composed himself to slumber. The casting of the lots went on rapidly among the officers and men. In another half-hour chance had decided the question of "Go" or "Stay" for all alike. The men left the hut. The officers entered the inner apartment for a last conference with the bed-ridden captain of the Sea-mew. Wardour and Crayford were left together, alone.
Crayford touched his friend on the shoulder to rouse him. Wardour looked up, impatiently, with a frown.
"I was just asleep," he said. "Why do you wake me?"
"Look round you, Richard. We are alone."
"Well—and what of that?"
"I wish to speak to you privately; and this is my opportunity. You have disappointed and surprised me to-day. Why did you say it was all one to you whether you went or stayed? Why are you the only man among us who seems to be perfectly indifferent whether we are rescued or not?"
"Can a man always give a reason for what is strange in his manner or his words?" Wardour retorted.
"He can try," said Crayford, quietly—"when his friend asks him."
Wardour's manner softened.
"That's true," he said. "I will try. Do you remember the first night at sea when we sailed from England in the Wanderer?"
"As well as if it was yesterday."
"A calm, still night," the other went on, thoughtfully. "No clouds, no stars. Nothing in the sky but the broad moon, and hardly a ripple to break the path of light she made in the quiet water. Mine was the middle watch that night. You came on deck, and found me alone—"
He stopped. Crayford took his hand, and finished the sentence for him.
"Alone—and in tears."
"The last I shall ever shed," Wardour added, bitterly.
"Don't say that! There are times when a man is to be pitied indeed, if he can shed no tears. Go on, Richard."
Wardour proceeded—still following the old recollections, still preserving his gentler tones.
"I should have quarreled with any other man who had surprised me at that moment," he said. "There was something, I suppose, in your voice when you asked my pardon for disturbing me, that softened my heart. I told you I had met with a disappointment which had broken me for life. There was no need to explain further. The only hopeless wretchedness in this world is the wretchedness that women cause."
"And the only unalloyed happiness," said Crayford, "the happiness that women bring."
"That may be your experience of them," Wardour answered; "mine is different. All the devotion, the patience, the humility, the worship that there is in man, I laid at the feet of a woman. She accepted the offering as women do—accepted it, easily, gracefully, unfeelingly—accepted it as a matter of course. I left England to win a high place in my profession, before I dared to win her. I braved danger, and faced death. I staked my life in the fever swamps of Africa, to gain the promotion that I only desired for her sake—and gained it. I came back to give her all, and to ask nothing in return, but to rest my weary heart in the sunshine of her smile. And her own lips—the lips I had kissed at parting—told me that another man had robbed me of her. I spoke but few words when I heard that confession, and left her forever. 'The time may come,' I told her, 'when I shall forgive you. But the man who has robbed me of you shall rue the day when you and he first met.' Don't ask me who he was! I have yet to discover him. The treachery had been kept secret; nobody could tell me where to find him; nobody could tell me who he was. What did it matter? When I had lived out the first agony, I could rely on myself—I could be patient, and bide my time."
"Your time? What time?"
"The time when I and that man shall meet face to face. I knew it then; I know it now—it was written on my heart then, it is written on my heart now—we two shall meet and know each other! With that conviction strong within me, I volunteered for this service, as I would have volunteered for anything that set work and hardship and danger, like ramparts, between my misery and me. With that conviction strong within me still, I tell you it is no matter whether I stay here with the sick, or go hence with the strong. I shall live till I have met that man! There is a day of reckoning appointed between us. Here in the freezing cold, or away in the deadly heat; in battle or in shipwreck; in the face of starvation; under the shadow of pestilence—I, though hundreds are falling round me, I shall live! live for the coming of one day! live for the meeting with one man!"
He stopped, trembling, body and soul, under the hold that his own terrible superstition had fastened on him. Crayford drew back in silent horror. Wardour noticed the action—he resented it—he appealed, in defense of his one cherished conviction, to Crayford's own experience of him.
"Look at me!" he cried. "Look how I have lived and thriven, with the heart-ache gnawing at me at home, and the winds of the icy north whistling round me here! I am the strongest man among you. Why? I have fought through hardships that have laid the best-seasoned men of all our party on their backs. Why? What have I done, that my life should throb as bravely through every vein in my body at this minute, and in this deadly place, as ever it did in the wholesome breezes of home? What am I preserved for? I tell you again, for the coming of one day—for the meeting with one man."
He paused once more. This time Crayford spoke.
"Richard!" he said, "since we first met, I have believed in your better nature, against all outward appearance. I have believed in you, firmly, truly, as your brother might. You are putting that belief to a hard test. If your enemy had told me that you had ever talked as you talk now, that you had ever looked as you look now, I would have turned my back on him as the utterer of a vile calumny against a just, a brave, an upright man. Oh! my friend, my friend, if ever I have deserved well of you, put away these thoughts from your heart! Face me again, with the stainless look of a man who has trampled under his feet the bloody superstitions of revenge, and knows them no more! Never, never, let the time come when I cannot offer you my hand as I offer it now, to the man I can still admire—to the brother I can still love!"
The heart that no other voice could touch felt that appeal. The fierce eyes, the hard voice, softened under Crayford's influence. Richard Wardour's head sank on his breast.
"You are kinder to me than I deserve," he said. "Be kinder still, and forget what I have been talking about. No! no more about me; I am not worth it. We'll change the subject, and never go back to it again. Let's do something. Work, Crayford—that's the true elixir of our life! Work, that stretches the muscles and sets the blood a-glowing. Work, that tires the body and rests the mind. Is there nothing in hand that I can do? Nothing to cut? nothing to carry?"
The door opened as he put the question. Bateson—appointed to chop Frank's bed-place into firing—appeared punctually with his ax. Wardour, without a word of warning, snatched the ax out of the man's hand.
"What was this wanted for?" he asked.
"To cut up Mr. Aldersley's berth there into firing, sir."
"I'll do it for you! I'll have it down in no time!" He turned to Crayford. "You needn't be afraid about me, old friend. I am going to do the right thing. I am going to tire my body and rest my mind."
The evil spirit in him was plainly subdued—for the time, at least. Crayford took his hand in silence; and then (followed by Bateson) left him to his work.
Ax in hand, Wardour approached Frank's bed-place.
"If I could only cut the thoughts out of me," he said to himself, "as I am going to cut the billets out of this wood!" He attacked the bed-place with the ax, like a man who well knew the use of his instrument. "Oh me!" he thought, sadly, "if I had only been born a carpenter instead of a gentleman! A good ax, Master Bateson—I wonder where you got it? Something like a grip, my man, on this handle. Poor Crayford! his words stick in my throat. A fine fellow! a noble fellow! No use thinking, no use regretting; what is said, is said. Work! work! work!"
Plank after plank fell out on the floor. He laughed over the easy task of destruction. "Aha! young Aldersley! It doesn't take much to demolish your bed-place. I'll have it down! I would have the whole hut down, if they would only give me the chance of chopping at it!"
A long strip of wood fell to his ax—long enough to require cutting in two. He turned it, and stooped over it. Something caught his eye—letters carved in the wood. He looked closer. The letters were very faintly and badly cut. He could only make out the first three of them; and even of those he was not quite certain. They looked like C L A—if they looked like anything. He threw down the strip of wood irritably.
"D—n the fellow (whoever he is) who cut this! Why should he carve that name, of all the names in the world?"
He paused, considering—then determined to go on again with his self-imposed labor. He was ashamed of his own outburst. He looked eagerly for the ax. "Work, work! Nothing for it but work." He found the ax, and went on again.
He cut out another plank.
He stopped, and looked at it suspiciously.
There was carving again, on this plank. The letters F. and A. appeared on it.
He put down the ax. There were vague misgivings in him which he was not able to realize. The state of his own mind was fast becoming a puzzle to him.
"More carving," he said to himself. "That's the way these young idlers employ their long hours. F. A.? Those must be his initials—Frank Aldersley. Who carved the letters on the other plank? Frank Aldersley, too?"
He turned the piece of wood in his hand nearer to the light, and looked lower down it. More carving again, lower down! Under the initials F. A. were two more letters—C. B.
"C. B.?" he repeated to himself. "His sweet heart's initials, I suppose? Of course—at his age—his sweetheart's initials."
He paused once more. A spasm of inner pain showed the shadow of its mysterious passage, outwardly on his face.
"Her cipher is C. B.," he said, in low, broken tones. "C. B.—Clara Burnham."
He waited, with the plank in his hand; repeating the name over and over again, as if it was a question he was putting to himself.
"Clara Burnham? Clara Burnham?"
He dropped the plank, and turned deadly pale in a moment. His eyes wandered furtively backward and forward between the strip of wood on the floor and the half-demolished berth. "Oh, God! what has come to me now?" he said to himself, in a whisper. He snatched up the ax, with a strange cry—something between rage and terror. He tried—fiercely, desperately tried—to go on with his work. No! strong as he was, he could not use the ax. His hands were helpless; they trembled incessantly. He went to the fire; he held his hands over it. They still trembled incessantly; they infected the rest of him. He shuddered all over. He knew fear. His own thoughts terrified him.
"Crayford!" he cried out. "Crayford! come here, and let's go hunting."
No friendly voice answered him. No friendly face showed itself at the door.
An interval passed; and there came over him another change. He recovered his self-possession almost as suddenly as he had lost it. A smile—a horrid, deforming, unnatural smile—spread slowly, stealthily, devilishly over his face. He left the fire; he put the ax away softly in a corner; he sat down in his old place, deliberately self-abandoned to a frenzy of vindictive joy. He had found the man! There, at the end of the world—there, at the last fight of the Arctic voyagers against starvation and death, he had found the man!
The minutes passed.
He became conscious, on a sudden, of a freezing stream of air pouring into the room.
He turned, and saw Crayford opening the door of the hut. A man was behind him. Wardour rose eagerly, and looked over Crayford's shoulder.
Was it—could it be—the man who had carved the letters on the plank? Yes! Frank Aldersley!
"Still at work!" Crayford exclaimed, looking at the half-demolished bed-place. "Give yourself a little rest, Richard. The exploring party is ready to start. If you wish to take leave of your brother officers before they go, you have no time to lose."
He checked himself there, looking Wardour full in the face.
"Good Heavens!" he cried, "how pale you are! Has anything happened?"
Frank—searching in his locker for articles of clothing which he might require on the journey—looked round. He was startled, as Crayford had been startled, by the sudden change in Wardour since they had last seen him.
"Are you ill?" he asked. "I hear you have been doing Bateson's work for him. Have you hurt yourself?"
Wardour suddenly moved his head, so as to hide his face from both Crayford and Frank. He took out his handkerchief, and wound it clumsily round his left hand.
"Yes," he said; "I hurt myself with the ax. It's nothing. Never mind. Pain always has a curious effect on me. I tell you it's nothing! Don't notice it!"
He turned his face toward them again as suddenly as he had turned it away. He advanced a few steps, and addressed himself with an uneasy familiarity to Frank.
"I didn't answer you civilly when you spoke to me some little time since. I mean when I first came in here along with the rest of them. I apologize. Shake hands! How are you? Ready for the march?"
Frank met the oddly abrupt advance which had been made to him with perfect good humor.
"I am glad to be friends with you, Mr. Wardour. I wish I was as well seasoned to fatigue as you are."
Wardour burst into a hard, joyless, unnatural laugh.
"Not strong, eh? You don't look it. The dice had better have sent me away, and kept you here. I never felt in better condition in my life." He paused and added, with his eye on Frank and with a strong emphasis on the words: "We men of Kent are made of tough material."
Frank advanced a step on his side, with a new interest in Richard Wardour.
"You come from Kent?" he said.
"Yes. From East Kent." He waited a little once more, and looked hard at Frank. "Do you know that part of the country?" he asked.
"I ought to know something about East Kent," Frank answered. "Some dear friends of mine once lived there."
"Friends of yours?" Wardour repeated. "One of the county families, I suppose?"
As he put the question, he abruptly looked over his shoulder. He was standing between Crayford and Frank. Crayford, taking no part in the conversation, had been watching him, and listening to him more and more attentively as that conversation went on. Within the last moment or two Wardour had become instinctively conscious of this. He resented Crayford's conduct with needless irritability.
"Why are you staring at me?" he asked.
"Why are you looking unlike yourself?" Crayford answered, quietly.
Wardour made no reply. He renewed the conversation with Frank.
"One of the county families?" he resumed. "The Winterbys of Yew Grange, I dare say?"
"No," said Frank; "but friends of the Witherbys, very likely. The Burnhams."
Desperately as he struggled to maintain it, Wardour's self-control failed him. He started violently. The clumsily-wound handkerchief fell off his hand. Still looking at him attentively, Crayford picked it up.
"There is your handkerchief, Richard," he said. "Strange!"
"What is strange?"
"You told us you had hurt yourself with the ax—"
"There is no blood on your handkerchief."
Wardour snatched the handkerchief out of Crayford's hand, and, turning away, approached the outer door of the hut. "No blood on the handkerchief," he said to himself. "There may be a stain or two when Crayford sees it again." He stopped within a few paces of the door, and spoke to Crayford. "You recommended me to take leave of my brother officers before it was too late," he said. "I am going to follow your advice."
The door was opened from the outer side as he laid his hand on the lock.
One of the quartermasters of the Wanderer entered the hut.
"Is Captain Helding here, sir?" he asked, addressing himself to Wardour.
Wardour pointed to Crayford.
"The lieutenant will tell you," he said.
Crayford advanced and questioned the quartermaster. "What do you want with Captain Helding?" he asked.
"I have a report to make, sir. There has been an accident on the ice."
"To one of your men?"
"No, sir. To one of our officers."
Wardour, on the point of going out, paused when the quartermaster made that reply. For a moment he considered with himself. Then he walked slowly back to the part of the room in which Frank was standing. Crayford, directing the quartermaster, pointed to the arched door way in the side of the hut.
"I am sorry to hear of the accident," he said. "You will find Captain Helding in that room."
For the second time, with singular persistency, Wardour renewed the conversation with Frank.
"So you knew the Burnhams?" he said. "What became of Clara when her father died?"
Frank's face flushed angrily on the instant.
"Clara!" he repeated. "What authorizes you to speak of Miss Burnham in that familiar manner?"
Wardour seized the opportunity of quarreling with him.
"What right have you to ask?" he retorted, coarsely.
Frank's blood was up. He forgot his promise to Clara to keep their engagement secret—he forgot everything but the unbridled insolence of Wardour's language and manner.
"A right which I insist on your respecting," he answered. "The right of being engaged to marry her."
Crayford's steady eyes were still on the watch, and Wardour felt them on him. A little more and Crayford might openly interfere. Even Wardour recognized for once the necessity of controlling his temper, cost him what it might. He made his apologies, with overstrained politeness, to Frank.
"Impossible to dispute such a right as yours," he said. "Perhaps you will excuse me when you know that I am one of Miss Burnham's old friends. My father and her father were neighbors. We have always met like brother and sister—"
Frank generously stopped the apology there.
"Say no more," he interposed. "I was in the wrong—I lost my temper. Pray forgive me."
Wardour looked at him with a strange, reluctant interest while he was speaking. Wardour asked an extraordinary question when he had done.
"Is she very fond of you?"
Frank burst out laughing.
"My dear fellow," he said, "come to our wedding, and judge for yourself."
"Come to your wedding?" As he repeated the words Wardour stole one glance at Frank which Frank (employed in buckling his knapsack) failed to see. Crayford noticed it, and Crayford's blood ran cold. Comparing the words which Wardour had spoken to him while they were alone together with the words that had just passed in his presence, he could draw but one conclusion. The woman whom Wardour had loved and lost was—Clara Burnham. The man who had robbed him of her was Frank Aldersley. And Wardour had discovered it in the interval since they had last met. "Thank God!" thought Crayford, "the dice have parted them! Frank goes with the expedition, and Wardour stays behind with me."
The reflection had barely occurred to him—Frank's thoughtless invitation to Wardour had just passed his lips—when the canvas screen over the doorway was drawn aside. Captain Helding and the officers who were to leave with the exploring party returned to the main room on their way out. Seeing Crayford, Captain Helding stopped to speak to him.
"I have a casualty to report," said the captain, "which diminishes our numbers by one. My second lieutenant, who was to have joined the exploring party, has had a fall on the ice. Judging by what the quartermaster tells me, I am afraid the poor fellow has broken his leg."
"I will supply his place," cried a voice at the other end of the hut.
Everybody looked round. The man who had spoken was Richard Wardour.
Crayford instantly interfered—so vehemently as to astonish all who knew him.
"No!" he said. "Not you, Richard! not you!"
"Why not?" Wardour asked, sternly.
"Why not, indeed?" added Captain Helding. "Wardour is the very man to be useful on a long march. He is in perfect health, and he is the best shot among us. I was on the point of proposing him myself."
Crayford failed to show his customary respect for his superior officer. He openly disputed the captain's conclusion.
"Wardour has no right to volunteer," he rejoined. "It has been settled, Captain Helding, that chance shall decide who is to go and who is to stay."
"And chance has decided it," cried Wardour. "Do you think we are going to cast the dice again, and give an officer of the Sea-mew a chance of replacing an officer of the Wanderer? There is a vacancy in our party, not in yours; and we claim the right of filling it as we please. I volunteer, and my captain backs me. Whose authority is to keep me here after that?"
"Gently, Wardour," said Captain Helding. "A man who is in the right can afford to speak with moderation." He turned to Crayford. "You must admit yourself," he continued, "that Wardour is right this time. The missing man belongs to my command, and in common justice one of my officers ought to supply his place."
It was impossible to dispute the matter further. The dullest man present could see that the captain's reply was unanswerable. In sheer despair, Crayford took Frank's arm and led him aside a few steps. The last chance left of parting the two men was the chance of appealing to Frank.
"My dear boy," he began, "I want to say one friendly word to you on the subject of your health. I have already, if you remember, expressed my doubts whether you are strong enough to make one of an exploring party. I feel those doubts more strongly than ever at this moment. Will you take the advice of a friend who wishes you well?"
Wardour had followed Crayford. Wardour roughly interposed before Frank could reply.
"Let him alone!"
Crayford paid no heed to the interruption. He was too earnestly bent on withdrawing Frank from the expedition to notice anything that was said or done by the persons about him.
"Don't, pray don't, risk hardships which you are unfit to bear!" he went on, entreatingly. "Your place can be easily filled. Change your mind, Frank. Stay here with me."
Again Wardour interfered. Again he called out, "Leave him alone!" more roughly than ever. Still deaf and blind to every consideration but one, Crayford pressed his entreaties on Frank.
"You owned yourself just now that you were not well seasoned to fatigue," he persisted. "You feel (you must feel) how weak that last illness has left you? You know (I am sure you know) how unfit you are to brave exposure to cold, and long marches over the snow."
Irritated beyond endurance by Crayford's obstinacy; seeing, or thinking he saw, signs of yielding in Frank's face, Wardour so far forgot himself as to seize Crayford by the arm and attempt to drag him away from Frank. Crayford turned and looked at him.
"Richard," he said, very quietly, "you are not yourself. I pity you. Drop your hand."
Wardour relaxed his hold, with something of the sullen submission of a wild animal to its keeper. The momentary silence which followed gave Frank an opportunity of speaking at last.
"I am gratefully sensible, Crayford," he began, "of the interest which you take in me—"
"And you will follow my advice?" Crayford interposed, eagerly.
"My mind is made up, old friend," Frank answered, firmly and sadly. "Forgive me for disappointing you. I am appointed to the expedition. With the expedition I go." He moved nearer to Wardour. In his innocence of all suspicion he clapped Wardour heartily on the shoulder. "When I feel the fatigue," said poor simple Frank, "you will help me, comrade—won't you? Come along!"
Wardour snatched his gun out of the hands of the sailor who was carrying it for him. His dark face became suddenly irradiated with a terrible joy.
"Come!" he cried. "Over the snow and over the ice! Come! where no human footsteps have ever trodden, and where no human trace is ever left."
Blindly, instinctively, Crayford made an effort to part them. His brother officers, standing near, pulled him back. They looked at each other anxiously. The merciless cold, striking its victims in various ways, had struck in some instances at their reason first. Everybody loved Crayford. Was he, too, going on the dark way that others had taken before him? They forced him to seat himself on one of the lockers. "Steady, old fellow!" they said kindly—"steady!" Crayford yielded, writhing inwardly under the sense of his own helplessness. What in God's name could he do? Could he denounce Wardour to Captain Helding on bare suspicion—without so much as the shadow of a proof to justify what he said? The captain would decline to insult one of his officers by even mentioning the monstrous accusation to him. The captain would conclude, as others had already concluded, that Crayford's mind was giving way under stress of cold and privation. No hope—literally, no hope now, but in the numbers of the expedition. Officers and men, they all liked Frank. As long as they could stir hand or foot, they would help him on the way—they would see that no harm came to him.
The word of command was given; the door was thrown open; the hut emptied rapidly. Over the merciless white snow—under the merciless black sky—the exploring party began to move. The sick and helpless men, whose last hope of rescue centered in their departing messmates, cheered faintly. Some few whose days were numbered sobbed and cried like women. Frank's voice faltered as he turned back at the door to say his last words to the friend who had been a father to him.
"God bless you, Crayford!"
Crayford broke away from the officers near him; and, hurrying forward, seized Frank by both hands. Crayford held him as if he would never let him go.
"God preserve you, Frank! I would give all I have in the world to be with you. Good-by! Good-by!"
Frank waved his hand—dashed away the tears that were gathering in his eyes—and hurried out. Crayford called after him, the last, the only warning that he could give:
"While you can stand, keep with the main body, Frank!"
Wardour, waiting till the last—Wardour, following Frank through the snow-drift—stopped, stepped back, and answered Crayford at the door: