But even this monotony soon gave way to a change and another monotony as uniform and depressed. The western horizon, slowly contracting before a wall of vapor, by four o’clock had become a mere cold, steely strip of sea, into which gradually the northern trend of the coast faded and was lost. As the fog stole with soft step southward, all distance, space, character, and locality again vanished; the hills upon which the sun still shone bore the same monotonous outlines as those just wiped into space. Last of all, before the red sun sank like the descending Host, it gleamed upon the sails of a trading vessel close in shore. It was the last object visible. A damp breath breathed upon it, a soft hand passed over the slate, the sharp pencilling of the picture faded and became a confused gray cloud.
The wind and waves, too, went down in the fog; the now invisible and hushed breakers occasionally sent the surf over the sand in a quick whisper, with grave intervals of silence, but with no continuous murmur as before. In a curving bight of the shore the creaking of oars in their rowlocks began to be distinctly heard, but the boat itself, although apparently only its length from the sands, was invisible.
“Steady now; way enough!” The voice came from the sea, and was low, as if unconsciously affected by the fog. “Silence!”
The sound of a keel grating the sand was followed by the order, “Stern all!” from the invisible speaker.
“Shall we beach her?” asked another vague voice.
“Not yet. Hail again, and all together.”
There were four voices, but the hail appeared weak and ineffectual, like a cry in a dream, and seemed hardly to reach beyond the surf before it was suffocated in the creeping cloud. A silence followed, but no response.
“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.