The Frozen Deep

Wilkie Collins

Chapter 17


Clara stopped at the doorway, looking backward and forward distrustfully between the husband and wife. Entering the boat-house, and approaching Crayford, she took his arm, and led him away a few steps from the place in which Mrs. Crayford was standing.

"There is no storm now, and there are no duties to be done on board the ship," she said, with the faint, sad smile which it wrung Crayford's heart to see. "You are Lucy's husband, and you have an interest in me for Lucy's sake. Don't shrink on that account from giving me pain: I can bear pain. Friend and brother! will you believe that I have courage enough to hear the worst? Will you promise not to deceive me about Frank?"

The gentle resignation in her voice, the sad pleading in her look, shook Crayford's self-possession at the outset. He answered her in the worst possible manner; he answered evasively.

"My dear Clara," he said, "what have I done that you should suspect me of deceiving you?"

She looked him searchingly in the face, then glanced with renewed distrust at Mrs. Crayford. There was a moment of silence. Before any of the three could speak again, they were interrupted by the appearance of one of Crayford's brother officers, followed by two sailors carrying a hamper between them. Crayford instantly dropped Clara's arm, and seized the welcome opportunity of speaking of other things.

"Any instructions from the ship, Steventon?" he asked, approaching the officer.

"Verbal instructions only," Steventon replied. "The ship will sail with the flood-tide. We shall fire a gun to collect the people, and send another boat ashore. In the meantime here are some refreshments for the passengers. The ship is in a state of confusion; the ladies will eat their luncheon more comfortably here."

Hearing this, Mrs. Crayford took _her_ opportunity of silencing Clara next.

"Come, my dear," she said. "Let us lay the cloth before the gentlemen come in."

Clara was too seriously bent on attaining the object which she had in view to be silenced in that way. "I will help you directly," she answered--then crossed the room and addressed herself to the officer, whose name was Steventon.

"Can you spare me a few minutes?" she asked. "I have something to say to you."

"I am entirely at your service, Miss Burnham."

Answering in those words, Steventon dismissed the two sailors. Mrs. Crayford looked anxiously at her husband. Crayford whispered to her, "Don't be alarmed about Steventon. I have cautioned him; his discretion is to be depended on."

Clara beckoned to Crayford to return to her.

"I will not keep you long," she said. "I will promise not to distress Mr. Steventon. Young as I am, you shall both find that I am capable of self-control. I won't ask you to go back to the story of your past sufferings; I only want to be sure that I am right about one thing--I mean about what happened at the time when the exploring party was dispatched in search of help. As I understand it, you cast lots among yourselves who was to go with the party, and who was to remain behind. Frank cast the lot to go." She paused, shuddering. "And Richard Wardour," she went on, "cast the lot to remain behind. On your honor, as officers and gentlemen, is this the truth?"

"On my honor," Crayford answered, "it is the truth."

"On my honor," Steventon repeated, "it is the truth."

She looked at them, carefully considering her next words, before she spoke again.

"You both drew the lot to stay in the huts," she said, addressing Crayford and Steventon. "And you are both here. Richard Wardour drew the lot to stay, and Richard Wardour is not here. How does his name come to be with Frank's on the list of the missing?"

The question was a dangerous one to answer. Steventon left it to Crayford to reply. Once again he answered evasively.

"It doesn't follow, my dear," he said, "that the two men were missing together because their names happen to come together on the list."

Clara instantly drew the inevitable conclusion from that ill-considered reply.

"Frank is missing from the party of relief," she said. "Am I to understand that Wardour is missing from the huts?"

Both Crayford and Steventon hesitated. Mrs. Crayford cast one indignant look at them, and told the necessary lie, without a moment's hesitation!

"Yes!" she said. "Wardour is missing from the huts."

Quickly as she had spoken, she had still spoken too late. Clara had noticed the momentary hesitation on the part of the two officers. She turned to Steventon.

"I trust to your honor," she said, quietly. "Am I right, or wrong, in believing that Mrs. Crayford is mistaken?"

She had addressed herself to the right man of the two. Steventon had no wife present to exercise authority over him. Steventon, put on his honor, and fairly forced to say something, owned the truth. Wardour had replaced an officer whom accident had disabled from accompanying the party of relief, and Wardour and Frank were missing together.

Clara looked at Mrs. Crayford.

"You hear?" she said. "It is you who are mistaken, not I. What you call 'Accident,' what I call 'Fate,' brought Richard Wardour and Frank together as members of the same Expedition, after all." Without waiting for a reply, she again turned to Steventon, and surprised him by changing the painful subject of the conversation of her own accord.

"Have you been in the Highlands of Scotland?" she asked.

"I have never been in the Highlands," the lieutenant replied.

"Have you ever read, in books about the Highlands, of such a thing as 'The Second Sight'?"

"Yes."

"Do you believe in the Second Sight?"

Steventon politely declined to commit himself to a direct reply.

"I don't know what I might have done, if I had ever been in the Highlands," he said. "As it is, I have had no opportunities of giving the subject any serious consideration."

"I won't put your credulity to the test," Clara proceeded. "I won't ask you to believe anything more extraordinary than that I had a strange dream in England not very long since. My dream showed me what you have just acknowledged--and more than that. How did the two missing men come to be parted from their companions? Were they lost by pure accident, or were they deliberately left behind on the march?"

Crayford made a last vain effort to check her inquiries at the point which they had now reached.

"Neither Steventon nor I were members of the party of relief," he said. "How are we to answer you?"

"Your brother officers who _were_ members of the party must have told you what happened," Clara rejoined. "I only ask you and Mr. Steventon to tell me what they told you."

Mrs. Crayford interposed again, with a practical suggestion this time.

"The luncheon is not unpacked yet," she said. "Come, Clara! this is our business, and the time is passing."

"The luncheon can wait a few minutes longer," Clara answered. "Bear with my obstinacy," she went on, laying her hand caressingly on Crayford's shoulder. "Tell me how those two came to be separated from the rest. You have always been the kindest of friends--don't begin to be cruel to me now!"

The tone in which she made her entreaty to Crayford went straight to the sailor's heart. He gave up the hopeless struggle: he let her see a glimpse of the truth.

"On the third day out," he said, "Frank's strength failed him. He fell behin d the rest from fatigue."

"Surely they waited for him?"

"It was a serious risk to wait for him, my child. Their lives (and the lives of the men they had left in the huts) depended, in that dreadful climate, on their pushing on. But Frank was a favorite. They waited half a day to give Frank the chance of recovering his strength."

There he stopped. There the imprudence into which his fondness for Clara had led him showed itself plainly, and closed his lips.

It was too late to take refuge in silence. Clara was determined on hearing more.

She questioned Steventon next.

"Did Frank go on again after the half-day's rest?" she asked.

"He tried to go on--"

"And failed?"

"Yes."

"What did the men do when he failed? Did they turn cowards? Did they desert Frank?"

She had purposely used language which might irritate Steventon into answering her plainly. He was a young man--he fell into the snare that she had set for him.

"Not one among them was a coward, Miss Burnham!" he replied, warmly. "You are speaking cruelly and unjustly of as brave a set of fellows as ever lived! The strongest man among them set the example; he volunteered to stay by Frank, and to bring him on in the track of the exploring party."

There Steventon stopped--conscious, on his side, that he had said too much. Would she ask him who this volunteer was? No. She went straight on to the most embarrassing question that she had put yet--referring to the volunteer, as if Steventon had already mentioned his name.

"What made Richard Wardour so ready to risk his life for Frank's sake?" she said to Crayford. "Did he do it out of friendship for Frank? Surely you can tell me that? Carry your memory back to the days when you were all living in the huts. Were Frank and Wardour friends at that time? Did you never hear any angry words pass between them?"

There Mrs. Crayford saw her opportunity of giving her husband a timely hint.

"My dear child!" she said; "how can you expect him to remember that? There must have been plenty of quarrels among the men, all shut up together, and all weary of each other's company, no doubt."

"Plenty of quarrels!" Crayford repeated; "and every one of them made up again."

"And every one of them made up again," Mrs. Crayford reiterated, in her turn. "There! a plainer answer than that you can't wish to have. Now are you satisfied? Mr. Steventon, come and lend a hand (as you say at sea) with the hamper--Clara won't help me. William, don't stand there doing nothing. This hamper holds a great deal; we must have a division of labor. Your division shall be laying the tablecloth. Don't handle it in that clumsy way! You unfold a table-cloth as if you were unfurling a sail. Put the knives on the right, and the forks on the left, and the napkin and the bread between them. Clara, if you are not hungry in this fine air, you ought to be. Come and do your duty; come and have some lunch!"

She looked up as she spoke. Clara appeared to have yielded at last to the conspiracy to keep her in the dark. She had returned slowly to the boat-house doorway, and she was standing alone on the threshold, looking out. Approaching her to lead her to the luncheon-table, Mrs. Crayford could hear that she was speaking softly to herself. She was repeating the farewell words which Richard Wardour had spoken to her at the ball.

"'A time may come when I shall forgive _you_. But the man who has robbed me of you shall rue the day when you and he first met.' Oh, Frank! Frank! does Richard still live, with your blood on his conscience, and my image in his heart?"

Her lips suddenly closed. She started, and drew back from the doorway, trembling violently. Mrs. Crayford looked out at the quiet seaward view.

"Anything there that frightens you, my dear?" she asked. "I can see nothing, except the boats drawn up on the beach."

"_I_ can see nothing either, Lucy."

"And yet you are trembling as if there was something dreadful in the view from this door."

"There _is_ something dreadful! I feel it, though I see nothing. I feel it, nearer and nearer in the empty air, darker and darker in the sunny light. I don't know what it is. Take me away! No. Not out on the beach. I can't pass the door. Somewhere else! somewhere else!"

Mrs. Crayford looked round her, and noticed a second door at the inner end of the boat-house. She spoke to her husband.

"See where that door leads to, William."

Crayford opened the door. It led into a desolate inclosure, half garden, half yard. Some nets stretched on poles were hanging up to dry. No other objects were visible--not a living creature appeared in the place. "It doesn't look very inviting, my dear," said Mrs. Crayford. "I am at your service, however. What do you say?"

She offered her arm to Clara as she spoke. Clara refused it. She took Crayford's arm, and clung to him.

"I'm frightened, dreadfully frightened!" she said to him, faintly. "You keep with me--a woman is no protection; I want to be with you." She looked round again at the boat-house doorway. "Oh!" she whispered, "I'm cold all over--I'm frozen with fear of this place. Come into the yard! Come into the yard!"

"Leave her to me," said Crayford to his wife. "I will call you, if she doesn't get better in the open air."

He took her out at once, and closed the yard door behind them.

"Mr. Steventon, do you understand this?" asked Mrs. Crayford. "What can she possibly be frightened of?"

She put the question, still looking mechanically at the door by which her husband and Clara had gone out. Receiving no reply, she glanced round at Steventon. He was standing on the opposite side of the luncheon-table, with his eyes fixed attentively on the view from the main doorway of the boat-house. Mrs. Crayford looked where Steventon was looking. This time there was something visible. She saw the shadow of a human figure projected on the stretch of smooth yellow sand in front of the boat-house.

In a moment more the figure appeared. A man came slowly into view, and stopped on the threshold of the door.