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 h ead! 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.