“It’s no use to beach her and go ashore until we find the boat,” said the first voice, gravely; “and we’ll do that if the current has brought her here. Are you sure you’ve got the right bearings?”
“As near as a man could off a shore with not a blasted pint to take his bearings by.”
There was a long silence again, broken only by the occasional dip of oars, keeping the invisible boat-head to the sea.
“Take my word for it, lads, it’s the last we’ll see of that boat again, or of Jack Cranch, or the captain’s baby.”
“It does look mighty queer that the painter should slip. Jack Cranch ain’t the man to tie a granny knot.”
“Silence!” said the invisible leader. “Listen.”
A hail, so faint and uncertain that it might have been the long-deferred, far-off echo of their own, came from the sea, abreast of them.
“It’s the captain. He hasn’t found anything, or he couldn’t be so far north. Hark!”
The hail was repeated again faintly, dreamily. To the seamen’s trained ears it seemed to have an intelligent significance, for the first voice gravely responded, “Aye, aye!” and then said softly, “Oars.”
The word was followed by a splash. The oars clicked sharply and simultaneously in the rowlocks, then more faintly, then still fainter, and then passed out into the darkness.
The silence and shadow both fell together; for hours sea and shore were impenetrable. Yet at times the air was softly moved and troubled, the surrounding gloom faintly lightened as with a misty dawn, and then was dark again; or drowsy, far-off cries and confused noises seemed to grow out of the silence, and, when they had attracted the weary ear, sank away as in a mocking dream, and showed themselves unreal. Nebulous gatherings in the fog seemed to indicate stationary objects that, even as one gazed, moved away; the recurring lap and ripple on the shingle sometimes took upon itself the semblance of faint articulate laughter or spoken words. But towards morning a certain monotonous grating on the sand, that had for many minutes alternately cheated and piqued the ear, asserted itself more strongly, and a moving, vacillating shadow in the gloom became an opaque object on the shore.
With the first rays of the morning light the fog lifted. As the undraped hills one by one bared their cold bosoms to the sun, the long line of coast struggled back to life again. Everything was unchanged, except that a stranded boat lay upon the sands, and in its stern sheets a sleeping child.
The 10th of August, 1852, brought little change to the dull monotony of wind, fog, and treeless coast line. Only the sea was occasionally flecked with racing sails that outstripped the old, slow-creeping trader, or was at times streaked and blurred with the trailing smoke of a steamer. There were a few strange footprints on those virgin sands, and a fresh track, that led from the beach over the rounded hills, dropped into the bosky recesses of a hidden valley beyond the coast range.