CHAPTER V  VOICES HEARD IN THE MIST

    The sun became fainter stilI, and vanished. Though the air round the dinghy seemed quite clear, the on-coming boats were hazy and dim, and that part of the horizon that had been fairly clear was now blotted out.

    The long-boat was leading by a good way. When she was within hailing distance the captain's voice came.

   "Dinghy ahoy!"

   "Ahoy!"

   "Fetch alongside here!"

    The long-boat ceased rowing to wait for the quarter-boat that was slowly creeping up. She was a heavy boat to pull at all times, and now she was overloaded.

    The wrath of Captain Le Farge with Paddy Button for the way he had stampeded the crew was profound, but he had not time to give vent to it.

    "Here, get aboard us, Mr. Lestrange!" said he, when the dinghy was alongside; "we have room for one. Mrs. Stannard is in the quarterboat, and it's overcrowded; she's better aboard the dinghy, for she can look after the kids. Come, hurry up, the smother is coming down on us fast. Ahoy I"--to the quarter-boat, "hurry up, hurry up."

    The quarter-boat had suddenly vanished.

    Mr. Lestrange climbed into the long-boat. Paddy pushed the dinghy a few yards away with the tip of a scull, and then lay on his oars waiting.

   "Ahoy! ahoy!" cried Le Farge.

   "Ahoy!" came from the fog bank.

    Next moment the long-boat and the dinghy vanished from each other's sight: the great fog bank had taken them.

    Now a couple of strokes of the port scull would have brought Mr. Button alongside the long-boat, so close was he; but the quarterboat was in his mind, or rather imagination, so what must he do but take three powerful strokes in the direction in which he fancied the quarter-boat to be.

   The rest was voices.

   "Dinghy ahoy!"

   "Ahoy!"

   "Ahoy!"

    "Don't be shoutin' together, or I'll not know which way to pull. Quarter-boat ahoy! where are yez?"

    "Port your helm!"

    "Ay, ay!" putting his helm, so to speak, to starboard--"I'll be wid yiz in wan minute, two or three minutes' hard pulling."

    "Ahoy !"--much more faint.

    "What d'ye mane rowin' away from me?"--a dozen strokes.

   "Ahoy!" fainter still.

   Mr. Button rested on his oars.

    "Divil mend them I b'lave that was the long-boat shoutin'."

    He took to his oars again and pulled vigorously.

    "Paddy," came Dick's small voice, apparently from nowhere, "where are we now?"

    "Sure, we're in a fog; where else would we be ? Don't you be affeared."

    "I ain't affeared, but Em's shivering."

    "Give her me coat," said the oarsman, resting on his oars and taking it off. "Wrap it round her; and when it's round her we'll all let one big halloo together. There's an ould shawl som'er in the boat, but I can't be after lookin' for it now."

    He held out the coat and an almost invisible hand took it; at the same moment a tremendous report shook the sea and sky.

    "There she goes," said Mr. Button; "an' me old fiddle an' all. Don't be frightened, childer; it's only a gun they're firin' for divarsion. Now we'll all halloo togither--are yiz ready?"

    "Ay, ay," said Dick, who was a picker-up of sea terms.

   "Halloo!" yelled Pat.

   "Halloo! Halloo!" piped Dick and Emmeline.

    A faint reply came, but from where, it was difficult to say. The old man rowed a few strokes and then paused on his oars. So still was the surface of the sea that the chuckling of the water at the boat's bow as she drove forward under the impetus of the last powerful stroke could be heard distinctly. It died out as she lost way, and silence closed round them like a ring.

    The light from above, a light that seemed to come through a vast scuttle of deeply muffed glass, faint though it was, almost to extinction, still varied as the little boat floated through the strata of the mist.

    A great sea fog is not homogeneous--its density varies: it is honeycombed with streets, it has its caves of clear air, its cliffs of solid vapour, all shifting and changing place with the subtlety of legerdemain. It has also this wizard peculiarity, that it grows with the sinking of the sun and the approach of darkness.

    The sun, could they have seen it, was now leaving the horizon.

    They called again. Then they waited, but there was no response.

    "There's no use bawlin' like bulls to chaps that's deaf as adders," said the old sailor, shipping his oars; immediately upon which declaration he gave another shout, with the same result as far as eliciting a reply.

    "Mr Button!" came Emmeline's voice.

    "What is it, honey?"

   "I'm 'fraid."

   "You wait wan minit till I find the shawl--here it is, by the same token!--an' I'll wrap you up in it."

    He crept cautiously aft to the stern-sheets and took Emmeline in his arms.

    "Don't want the shawl," said Emmeline; "I'm not so much afraid in your coat. The rough, tobacco-smelling old coat gave her courage somehow.

    "Well, thin, keep it on. Dicky, are you cowld?"

    "I've got into daddy's great coat; he left it behind him."

    "Well, thin, I'll put the shawl round me own shoulders, for it's cowld I am. Are ya hungray, childer?"

    "No," said Dick, "but I'm direfully slapy?"

    "Slapy, is it? Well, down you get in the bottom of the boat, and here's the shawl for a pilla. I'll be rowin' again in a minit to keep meself warm."

    He buttoned the top button of the coat.

    "I'm a'right," murmured Emmeline in a dreamy voice.

    "Shut your eyes tight," replied Mr. Button, "or Billy Winker will be dridgin' sand in them.

    'Shoheen, shoheen, shoheen, shoheen,
    Sho-hu-lo, sho-hu-lo.
    Shoheen, shoheen, shoheen, shoheen,
    Hush by the babby o.'"

    It was the tag of an old nursery folk-song they sing in the hovels of the Achill coast fixed in his memory, along with the rain and the wind and the smellof the burning turf, and the grunting of the pig and the knicketyknock of a rocking cradle.

    "She's off," murmured Mr. Button to himself, as the form in his arms relaxed. Then he laid her gently down beside Dick. He shifted forward, moving like a crab. Then he put his hand to his pocket for his pipe and tobacco and tinder box. They were in his coat pocket, but Emmeline was in his coat. To search for them would be to awaken her.

    The darkness of night was now adding itself to the blindness of the fog. The oarsman could not see even the thole pins. He sat adrift mind and body. He was, to use his own expression, "moithered." Haunted by the mist, tormented by "shapes."

    It was just in a fog like this that the Merrows could be heard disporting in Dunbeg bay, and off the Achill coast. Sporting and laughing, and hallooing through the mist, to lead unfortunate fishermen astray.

    Merrows are not altogether evil, but they have green hair and teeth, fishes' tails and fins for arms; and to hear them walloping in the water around you like salmon, and you alone in a small boat, with the dread of one coming floundering on board, is enough to turn a man's hair grey.

    For a moment he thought of awakening the children to keep him company, but he was ashamed. Then he took to the sculls again, and rowed "by the feel of the water." The creak of the oars was like a companion's voice, the exercise lulled his fears. Now and again, forgetful of the sleeping children, he gave a halloo, and paused to listen. But no answer came.

    Then he continued rowing, long, steady, laborious strokes, each taking him further and further from the boats that he was never destined to sight again.


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