The Frozen Deep

Wilkie Collins

Chapter 18


The man was a sinister and terrible object to look at. His eyes glared like the eyes of a wild animal; his head was bare; his long gray hair was torn and tangled; his miserable garments hung about him in rags. He stood in the doorway, a speechless figure of misery and want, staring at the well-spread table like a hungry dog.

Steventon spoke to him.

"Who are you?"

He answered, in a hoarse, hollow voice,

"A starving man."

He advanced a few steps, slowly and painfully, as if he were sinking under fatigue.

"Throw me some bones from the table," he said. "Give me my share along with the dogs."

There was madness as well as hunger in his eyes while he spoke those words. Steventon placed Mrs. Crayford behind him, so that he might be easily able to protect her in case of need, and beckoned to two sailors who were passing the door of the boat-house at the time.

"Give the man some bread and meat," he said, "and wait near him."

The outcast seized on the bread and meat with lean, long-nailed hands that looked like claws. After his first mouthful of the food, he stopped, considered vacantly with himself, and broke the bread and meat into two portions. One portion he put into an old canvas wallet that hung over his shoulder; the other he devoured voraciously. Steventon questioned him.

"Where do you come from?"

"From the sea."

"Wrecked?"

"Yes."

Steventon turned to Mrs. Crayford.

"There may be some truth in the poor wretch's story," he said. "I heard something of a strange boat having been cast on the beach thirty or forty miles higher up the coast. When were you wrecked, my man?"

The starving creature looked up from his food, and made an effort to collect his thoughts--to exert his memory. It was not to be done. He gave up the attempt in despair. His language, when he spoke, was as wild as his looks.

"I can't tell you," he said. "I can't get the wash of the sea out of my ears. I can't get the shining stars all night, and the burning sun all day, out of my brain. When was I wrecked? When was I first adrift in the boat? When did I get the tiller in my hand and fight against hunger and sleep? When did the gnawi ng in my breast, and the burning in my head, first begin? I have lost all reckoning of it. I can't think; I can't sleep; I can't get the wash of the sea out of my ears. What are you baiting me with questions for? Let me eat!"

Even the sailors pitied him. The sailors asked leave of their officer to add a little drink to his meal.

"We've got a drop of grog with us, sir, in a bottle. May we give it to him?"

"Certainly!"

He took the bottle fiercely, as he had taken the food, drank a little, stopped, and considered with himself again. He held up the bottle to the light, and, marking how much liquor it contained, carefully drank half of it only. This done, he put the bottle in his wallet along with the food.

"Are you saving it up for another time?" said Steventon.

"I'm saving it up," the man answered. "Never mind what for. That's my secret."

He looked round the boat-house as he made that reply, and noticed Mrs. Crayford for the first time.

"A woman among you!" he said. "Is she English? Is she young? Let me look closer at her."

He advanced a few steps toward the table.

"Don't be afraid, Mrs. Crayford," said Steventon.

"I am not afraid," Mrs. Crayford replied. "He frightened me at first--he interests me now. Let him speak to me if he wishes it!"

He never spoke. He stood, in dead silence, looking long and anxiously at the beautiful Englishwoman.

"Well?" said Steventon.

He shook his head sadly, and drew back again with a heavy sigh.

"No!" he said to himself, "that's not _her_ face. No! not found yet."

Mrs. Crayford's interest was strongly excited. She ventured to speak to him.

"Who is it you want to find?" she asked. "Your wife?"

He shook his head again.

"Who, then? What is she like?"

He answered that question in words. His hoarse, hollow voice softened, little by little, into sorrowful and gentle tones.

"Young," he said; "with a fair, sad face--with kind, tender eyes--with a soft, clear voice. Young and loving and merciful. I keep her face in my mind, though I can keep nothing else. I must wander, wander, wander--restless, sleepless, homeless--till I find _her!_ Over the ice and over the snow; tossing on the sea, tramping over the land; awake all night, awake all day; wander, wander, wander, till I find _her!_"

He waved his hand with a gesture of farewell, and turned wearily to go out.

At the same moment Crayford opened the yard door.

"I think you had better come to Clara," he began, and checked himself, noticing the stranger. "Who is that?"

The shipwrecked man, hearing another voice in the room, looked round slowly over his shoulder. Struck by his appearance, Crayford advanced a little nearer to him. Mrs. Crayford spoke to her husband as he passed her.

"It's only a poor, mad creature, William," she whispered--"shipwrecked and starving."

"Mad?" Crayford repeated, approaching nearer and nearer to the man. "Am _I_ in my right senses?" He suddenly sprang on the outcast, and seized him by the throat. "Richard Wardour!" he cried, in a voice of fury. "Alive!--alive, to answer for Frank!"

The man struggled. Crayford held him.

"Where is Frank?" he said. "You villain, where is Frank?"

The man resisted no longer. He repeated vacantly,

"Villain? and where is Frank?"

As the name escaped his lips, Clara appeared at the open yard door, and hurried into the room.

"I heard Richard's name!" she said. "I heard Frank's name! What does it mean?"

At the sound of her voice the outcast renewed the struggle to free himself, with a sudden frenzy of strength which Crayford was not able to resist. He broke away before the sailors could come to their officer's assistance. Half-way down the length of the room he and Clara met one another face to face. A new light sparkled in the poor wretch's eyes; a cry of recognition burst from his lips. He flung one hand up wildly in the air. "Found!" he shouted, and rushed out to the beach before any of the men present could stop him.

Mrs. Crayford put her arms round Clara and held her up. She had not made a movement: she had not spoken a word. The sight of Wardour's face had petrified her.

The minutes passed, and there rose a sudden burst of cheering from the sailors on the beach, near the spot where the fishermen's boats were drawn up. Every man left his work. Every man waved his cap in the air. The passengers, near at hand, caught the infection of enthusiasm, and joined the crew. A moment more, and Richard Wardour appeared again in the doorway, carrying a man in his arms. He staggered, breathless with the effort that he was making, to the place where Clara stood, held up in Mrs. Crayford's arms.

"Saved, Clara!" he cried. "Saved for _you!_"

He released the man, and placed him in Clara's arms.

Frank! foot-sore and weary--but living--saved; saved for _her!_

"Now, Clara!" cried Mrs. Crayford, "which of us is right? I who believed in the mercy of God? or you who believed in a dream?"

She never answered; she clung to Frank in speechless ecstasy. She never even looked at the man who had preserved him, in the first absorbing joy of seeing Frank alive. Step by step, slower and slower, Richard Wardour drew back, and left them by themselves.

"I may rest now," he said, faintly. "I may sleep at last. The task is done. The struggle is over."

His last reserves of strength had been given to Frank. He stopped--he staggered--his hands waved feebly in search of support. But for one faithful friend he would have fallen. Crayford caught him. Crayford laid his old comrade gently on some sails strewn in a corner, and pillowed Wardour's weary head on his own bosom. The tears streamed over his face. "Richard! dear Richard!" he said. "Remember--and forgive me."

Richard neither heeded nor heard him. His dim eyes still looked across the room at Clara and Frank.

"I have made _her_ happy!" he murmured. "I may lay down my weary head now on the mother earth that hushes all her children to rest at last. Sink, heart! sink, sink to rest! Oh, look at them!" he said to Crayford, with a burst of grief. "They have forgotten _me_ already."

It was true! The interest was all with the two lovers. Frank was young and handsome and popular. Officers, passengers, and sailors, they all crowded round Frank. They all forgot the martyred man who had saved him--the man who was dying in Crayford's arms.

Crayford tried once more to attract his attention--to win his recognition while there was yet time. "Richard, speak to me! Speak to your old friend!"

He look round; he vacantly repeated Crayford's last word.

"Friend?" he said. "My eyes are dim, friend--my mind is dull. I have lost all memories but the memory of _her_. Dead thoughts--all dead thoughts but that one! And yet you look at me kindly! Why has your face gone down with the wreck of all the rest?"

He paused; his face changed; his thoughts drifted back from present to past; he looked at Crayford vacantly, lost in the terrible remembrances that were rising in him, as the shadows rise with the coming night.

"Hark ye, friend," he whispered. "Never let Frank know it. There was a time when the fiend within me hungered for his life. I had my hands on the boat. I heard the voice of the Tempter speaking to me: Launch it, and leave him to die! I waited with my hands on the boat, and my eyes on the place where he slept. 'Leave him! leave him!' the voice whispered. 'Love him!' the lad's voice answered, moaning and murmuring in his sleep. 'Love him, Clara, for helping _me!_' I heard the morning wind come up in the silence over the great deep. Far and near, I heard the groaning of the floating ice; floating, floating to the clear water and the balmy air. And the wicked Voice floated away with it--away, away, away forever! 'Love him! love him, Clara, for helping _me!_' No wind could float that away! 'Love him, Clara--'"

His voice sank into silence; his head dropped on Crayford's breast. Frank saw it. Frank struggled up on his bleeding feet and parted the friendly throng round him. Frank had not forgotten the man who had saved him.

"Let me go to him!" he cried. "I must and will go to him! Clara, come with me."

Clara and Steventon supported him between them. He fell on his knees at Wardour's s ide; he put his hand on Wardour's bosom.

"Richard!"

The weary eyes opened again. The sinking voice was heard feebly once more.

"Ah! poor Frank. I didn't forget you, Frank, when I came here to beg. I remembered you lying down outside in the shadow of the boats. I saved you your share of the food and drink. Too weak to get at it now! A little rest, Frank! I shall soon be strong enough to carry you down to the ship."

The end was near. They all saw it now. The men reverently uncovered their heads in the presence of Death. In an agony of despair, Frank appealed to the friends round him.

"Get something to strengthen him, for God's sake! Oh, men! men! I should never have been here but for him! He has given all his strength to my weakness; and now, see how strong I am, and how weak _he_ is! Clara, I held by his arm all over the ice and snow. _He_ kept watch when I was senseless in the open boat. _His_ hand dragged me out of the waves when we were wrecked. Speak to him, Clara! speak to him!" His voice failed him, and his head dropped on Wardour's breast.

She spoke, as well as her tears would let her.

"Richard, have you forgotten me?"

He rallied at the sound of that beloved voice. He looked up at her as she knelt at his head.

"Forgotten you?" Still looking at her, he lifted his hand with an effort, and laid it on Frank. "Should I have been strong enough to save him, if I could have forgotten you?" He waited a moment and turned his face feebly toward Crayford. "Stay!" he said. "Someone was here and spoke to me." A faint light of recognition glimmered in his eyes. "Ah, Crayford! I recollect now. Dear Crayford! come nearer! My mind clears, but my eyes grow dim. You will remember me kindly for Frank's sake? Poor Frank! why does he hide his face? Is he crying? Nearer, Clara--I want to look my last at _you_. My sister, Clara! Kiss me, sister, kiss me before I die!"

She stooped and kissed his forehead. A faint smile trembled on his lips. It passed away; and stillness possessed the face--the stillness of Death.

Crayford's voice was heard in the silence.

"The loss is ours," he said. "The gain is his. He has won the greatest of all conquests--the conquest of himself. And he has died in the moment of victory. Not one of us here but may live to envy _his_ glorious death."

The distant report of a gun came from the ship in the offing, and signaled the return to England and to home.

End of Project Gutenberg Etext of The Frozen Deep, by Wilkie Collins*