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The Frozen Deep, Page 2

Wilkie Collins

  ‘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 had the clue 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 colour 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 honour, Mrs Crayford. I belong to the Sea-Mew.’

  Mrs Crayford’s superb eyes looked shrewdly backwards and forwards 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 the 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 ballroom.


  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 towards 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 favour. 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 shall 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 fervour 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 favour 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; be 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. S
earching 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 colour 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 towards 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 leapt 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 right.

  ‘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 towards 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.’


  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.

  She heard him appeal 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 colour 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.’




  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 had 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 bo
at which takes him to his ship. You have got your bonnet on; what are we stopping here for? Come! ‘ir 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 rela-tives 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 ou 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-bye, or you will be too late for the boat.’