I thanked him, and we laughed together. Then I walked up the pier a little way, seeing a movement in the mist. A sailor came up to me. “They all went to sea last night,” he said in my ear—“and there are the slow ones coming back!” And out of the mist came the black shapes of war-ships, moving majestically up the harbour—one might have fancied, with a kind of injured dignity, because their unreasonable fellows had been faster and had gone farther afield than they.
I walked back to my motor, disappointed indeed, and yet exulting. It was good to realise personally through this small incident, the mobility and ever-readiness of the Fleet—the absolute insignificance—non-existence even—of any civilian or shore interest, for the Navy at its work. It was not till a week later that I received an amusing and mysterious line from Commodore ——, the most courteous of men.
[Illustration: Marines Drilling on the Quarterdeck of a British Battleship.]
[Illustration: Fifteen-inch Guns on a British Battleship.]
By the time it reached me, however, I was on the shores of a harbour in the far north “visiting the Fleet,” indeed, and on the invitation of England’s most famous sailor. Let me be quite modest about it. Not for me the rough waters, or the thunderous gun-practice—
“Breaking the silence
of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides”—
which I see described in the letters of the Russian or American journalists who have been allowed to visit the Grand Fleet. There had been some talk, I understand, of sending me out in a destroyer; it was mercifully abandoned. All the same, I must firmly put on record that mine was “a visit to the Fleet,” by Admiralty permission, for the purpose of these letters to you, and through you to the American public, and that I seem to have been so far the only woman who, for newspaper ends, has been allowed to penetrate those mysterious northern limits where I spent two wonderful days.
It was, indeed, a wintry visit. The whole land was covered with snow. The train could hardly drag itself through the choked Highland defiles; and it was hours behind its time when we arrived at a long-expected station, and a Vice-Admiral looking at me with friendly, keen eyes came to the carriage to greet me. “My boat shall meet you at the pier with my Flag-Lieutenant to-morrow morning. You will pick me up at the Flag-ship, and I will take you round the Fleet. You will lunch with me, I hope, afterwards.” I tried to show my grateful sense both of the interest and the humour of the situation. My kind visitor disappeared, and the train carried me on a few miles farther to my destination for the night.