It was ten o’clock–a sunny, gusty morning in early September–when H.M.S. Berenice, second-class cruiser, left the Hamoaze and pushed slowly out into the Sound on her way to the China Seas.
From the Hoe, on a grassy slope below the great hotel, John Gilbart watched her as she thrust her long white side into view between Devil’s Point and the wooded slopes of Mount Edgcumbe; watched her as she stole past Drake’s Island and headed up the Asia passage. She kept little more than steerage way, threading her path among anchored yachts gay with bunting, and now and then politely slowing in the crowd of smaller craft under sail. For it was regatta morning. The tall club flagstaff behind and above Gilbart’s head wore its full code of signals, with blue ensign on the gaff and blue burgee at the topmast head, and fluttered them intermittently as the nor’westerly breeze broke down in flaws over the leads of the club-house. Below him half a dozen small boys with bundles of programmes came skirmishing up the hill through the sparse groups of onlookers. Off the promenade pier, where the excursion steamers bumped and reeked and blew their sirens, the committee-ship lay moored in a moving swarm of rowboats, dingies, and steam-launches. She flew her B signal as yet, but the seconds were drawing on toward the five-minute gun; and beyond, on the ruffled Sound, nine or ten yachts were manoeuvring and trimming their canvas; two forty-raters dodging and playing through the opening stage of their duel for the start; four or five twenties taking matters easy as yet; all with jackyards hoisted. To the eastward a couple of belated twenties came creeping out from their anchorage in Cattewater.
All this Gilbart’s gaze took in; with the stately merchantmen riding beyond the throng, and the low breakwater three miles away, and the blue horizon beyond all. Out of that blue from time to time came the low, jarring vibration which told of an unseen gunboat at practice; and from time to time a puff of white smoke from the Picklecombe battery held him listening for its louder boom. But he returned always to the Berenice moving away up the Asia passage, so cautiously that between whiles she seemed to be drifting; but always moving, with the smoke blown level from her buff-coloured funnels, with clean white sides and clean white ensign, and here and there a sparkle of sunlight on rail or gun-breech or torpedo-tube. She was bound on a three-years’ cruise; and Gilbart, who happened to know this and was besides something of a sentimentalist, detected pathos in this departure on a festival morning. It seemed to him–as she swung round her stern and his quick eye caught the glint of her gilded name with the muzzle of her six-inch gun on the platform above, foreshortened in the middle of its white screen like a bull’s-eye in a target–it seemed to him that this holiday throng took little heed of the three hundred odd men so silently going forth to do England’s work and fight her battles. On her deck yesterday afternoon he had shaken hands and parted with a friend, a stoker on board, and had seen some pitiful good-byes. His friend Casey, to be sure, was unmarried–an un-amiable man with a cynical tongue–with no one to regret him and no disposition to make a fuss over a three-years’ exile. But at the head of the ship’s ladder Gilbart had passed through a group of red-eyed women, one or two with babies at the breast. It was not a pretty sight: one poor creature had abandoned herself completely, and rocked to and fro holding on by the bulwarks and bellowing aloud. This and a vision of dirty wet handkerchiefs haunted him like a physical sickness.