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The fog had lifted, and a few stars were to be seen twinkling feebly; but the wind was very light, and what there was of it was dead ahead. There was a heavy swell rolling in from the eastward, but no sea running. The Gloucester fishing schoonerSea Robin was homeward bound from the Newfoundland Banks, and as she slowly climbed each glassy incline of black water, and then slid down into the windless hollow beyond, she seemed to be making no progress whatever on her course.
Although the Sea Robin had been out for more than four months, and had seen vessel after vessel of the fleet leave the Banks before she did and sail for home with full fares, not half the salt in her pens was used up, and she was returning with the smallest catch of the season. In spite of the fact that provisions were running low on board the schooner, her captain, Almon McCloud, would not have given up and left the Banks yet, had not a recent gale swept away his dories, and caused the loss of his new four-hundred-fathom cable.
Under these circumstances the crew of the schooner were very low-spirited, and there was none of the larking and fun among them that is usually to be noticed in a homeward-bound Banker. The men wondered as to the “Jonah” who had caused all their ill-luck. Finally they whispered among themselves that it must be the skipper. They now remembered that he had been unfortunate in more than one undertaking during the past year or two, and all were agreed that it would be wise not to sail with him again. This decision had been unanimously reached a few days before the one on which this story opens; and when, shortly before daybreak, there came a loud pounding on the cabin hatch, and a request that the captain should come on deck, one of the watch below turned restlessly in his bunk, and growled out,
“I expect we are in for another bit of the skipper’s tough luck.”
Reaching the deck, Captain McCloud found the two men on watch gazing earnestly at a dull red glow that lighted the distant horizon behind them.
“Looks like there was suthin afire back there, skipper,” said the man at the wheel.
The captain waited until the schooner rose on top of a swell, and then, after a long look at the light, gave the order to put her about and run for it.
There was some grumbling among the crew at this, for they were tired and sick of the trip. They wanted to get home and have it over with, and this running back over the course they had just come seemed to promise a long and vexatious delay. However, lucky or unlucky, their skipper had proved himself to be the captain of his vessel in every sense of the word more times than one, and they dared not question his action loudly enough for him to hear them.
For nearly an hour longer the light glowed steadily, then it expanded into a sudden wonderful brightness, and the next instant had disappeared entirely.
Three hours later, just as the sun was rising in all its sea-born glory, the Sea Robin sailed slowly through a mass of charred timbers and other floating remains of what evidently had been a large vessel. There were no boats to be seen, nor was anything discovered by which her name or character could be identified. For some time the schooner cruised back and forth through the wreckage in a fruitless search for survivors of the catastrophe. As they were about to give it up, and Captain McCloud had begun to issue the order to head her away again on her course towards home, he all at once held up his hand to command silence, and listened.
It was certainly the cry of an infant that came clear and loud across the water. The crew looked at each other in amazement, not unmixed with fear. There was no boat to be seen, no sign of life; and yet there it came again, louder and more distinct than before; the vigorous cry of a healthy baby who has just waked up and is hungry. The wind had died out entirely, the water was oily in its unruffled smoothness, and only the long swell remained.
Once more the cry was heard, and now it seemed so close at hand that several of the men trembled and turned pale. There was still nothing to be seen, save on the crest of the swell above them an apparently empty cask maintaining an upright position in the water, and showing a third of its length above it.