The Frozen Deep Page 01
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.