eBooks Cube
 
AT THE MISSION OF SAN CARMEL


PROLOGUE


It was noon of the 10th of August, 1838. The monotonous coast line
between Monterey and San Diego had set its hard outlines against
the steady glare of the Californian sky and the metallic glitter of
the Pacific Ocean. The weary succession of rounded, dome-like
hills obliterated all sense of distance; the rare whaling vessel or
still rarer trader, drifting past, saw no change in these rusty
undulations, barren of distinguishing peak or headland, and bald of
wooded crest or timbered ravine. The withered ranks of wild oats
gave a dull procession of uniform color to the hills, unbroken by
any relief of shadow in their smooth, round curves. As far as the
eye could reach, sea and shore met in one bleak monotony, flecked
by no passing cloud, stirred by no sign of life or motion. Even
sound was absent; the Angelus, rung from the invisible Mission
tower far inland, was driven back again by the steady northwest
trades, that for half the year had swept the coast line and left it
abraded of all umbrage and color.

But even this monotony soon gave way to a change and another
monotony as uniform and depressing. 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."

"Ah hoy--oi--oi--oy!"

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.




On the Frontier by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
Nabou.com: the big site