China Boat

Chapter 7

Needless to say, the Imperial Army's spirit lies in exalting the Imperial Way and spreading the National Virtue. Every single bullet must be charged with the Imperial Way and the end of every bayonet must have the National Virtue burnt into it. If there are any who oppose the Imperial Way or the National Virtue, we shall give them an injection with this bullet and this bayonet.

-General Sadao Araki, Japanese War Minister, 1933

* * *

Monday, April 12th, 1937
1:05 p.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea

" … that is so," from the large, broad man at the dining-table; smiling. "That is so." He regarded Father for just a moment, still looking amused, and then went on. "Nieuwenhuis; Royal Dutch Shell. And this, is my colleague Damkot." A nod from the slightly less-heavyset man on his left. "And this is our new friend, Price, of Standard Oil of California."

"Pleased to meet you," from the third man.

"Piers Williamson, of the M_____ Bank," Father replied. "My son Rhys," he went on, inclining his head toward me. Polite nods, all the way around.

Luncheon-time, in the First Class Dining Salon; the only sitting, and the round tables were less than half-filled. The stewards who seated us, by some alchemy, had been arranging for us to meet new passengers with each meal.

These particular fellow-passengers were the foreign-sounding businessmen, who had watched with me as the Clipper had taken off in San Francisco Bay, two mornings before.

They were proving to be very amusing. I was predisposed to like them, if only because two of them were Dutch, and Jack is most definitely of Dutch extraction … 

" … and of course, having visited the two oil fields in Southern California, and in view of the fact that we are considering an exchange of engineers, it was necessary to investigate the local living conditions. So, we had dinner at several restaurants, including the Brown Derby, in Hollywood." This, from the broad man, with a dry smile, and a twinkle in his eye.

"Naturally," from Father; solemnly, playing along. "And how did you find it — ?"

"A bit disappointing, I have to say. The veal cutlet was overcooked."

"We saw Marlene Dietrich!" from his Dutch companion. "And Olivia De Havilland!" He seemed awed.

"Well, yes," from the first man, his eyes still twinkling. "But it was hardly a fair exchange … But, the story has a happy ending, after all. Price, here, he brought us to a wonderful steak-house in San Francisco; 'Alfred's', I believe it was called, no — ?"

"Alfred's, it was." The American looked amused.

"The finest filet mignon I've had since Paris; it redeemed the entire trip to the United States … "

The man — Nieuwenhuis — really was broad; and not just in girth. His shoulders were broad, his face and mouth were broad, and ruggedly-built; his hands, engaged in cutting up some pork chops, were enormous. I thought of Plato, the nickname given to the wrestler-philosopher because of his big hands. Still; despite his appearance, there wasn't anything coarse or crude about Mister Nieuwenhuis that I could see; rather, he seemed full of humor, intelligent and shrewd.

As he exhibited, next.

"Of course, our trip to the United States was very profitable, very useful," he went on, after a pause to consume a bite of his chop. "I learned a great deal, myself. You have a lovely country, and so very large! Almost a whole day to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco by train, and this is just a small section of your Western Coast — !"

"It took us three days, and more, coming from New York," from Father; politely agreeing.

"Just so! One can hardly comprehend such distances, such resources … Still. I must say, wherever we went, whatever newspapers we read — it seems that financially, perhaps, things are maybe not going so well in your country just now, eh? If you will excuse me for saying it — ?" I could see him fixing Father with a keen look. "Wherever we went, in Los Angeles, in San Francisco, it was the same thing; 'For Sale'. 'For Lease'. And, men on the streets, in lines, or with placards, looking for work — "

"I'm afraid so," Father said; neutrally.

The broad man shrugged. "And then, I read of the stock markets going down, once again, of more and more labor strikes, of business conditions deteriorating, again … and, your President Roosevelt — a fine name!" he said, with a brief, deep laugh — "your President Roosevelt perhaps getting himself, into just a little bit of trouble, eh, over adding seats to your Supreme Court — ?"

For a Dutchman from the East Indies, he was very well-informed on American matters.

"All of which is true enough, I'm afraid," from Father, after a pause. "It is possible that there will be a … temporary … economic downturn, in the latter part of this year; our own forecasts, and the forecasts of the New York Federal Reserve, are somewhat — ambiguous."

I blinked, at this. For Father to be so forthcoming, in front of strangers … 

"Eh, just so," from Mister Nieuwenhuis; "just so. Things are the same in the Netherlands, just now, or they were when I visited, last year; 'Te Koop' and 'Te Huur', everywhere, in Amsterdam; our own 'For Sale,' 'For Rent'. It is perhaps becoming our national motto, I think?" He shrugged expressively, before taking another bite of his pork chop.

"Hmm," from Father, in what might have been sympathetic agreement.

A slight, momentary pause.

"Still," the broad man said, returning to his subject; and his eyes were fixed quite keenly upon Father, again. "One hopes we will not see a return of problems with our banks — ? I am sure your own bank is perfectly safe, and well-capitalized … it is very famous. But the memories of just a few years ago are, how do you say it, dreary? I myself lost quite a few guilders in a bank collapse; I still feel the pain. In my — wallet," he went on, smiling wryly, touching his enormous hand to his breast.

"There is no risk of loss due to bank failure in the United States today," from Father, with a hint of asperity. "At least, not to depositors. Our new regulations make such a thing quite impossible. Any bank at risk of failure will be taken over by the Federal Government, and its depositors will be made whole. Whether such a thing is good for business, or sound management, or for shareholder confidence, is another question."

"It would be good for my confidence," said Mister Nieuwenhuis, with a crooked smile, "were I a depositor in an American bank. Still; you reassure me. When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold; so the saying goes. Perhaps we will not need our handkerchiefs just yet, eh?"

"One hopes not," Father agreed, lifting his coffee cup slightly, in a salute; and nodding.

"So tell us, Mister Williamson," from Damkot, the other Dutch businessman. "Are you by any chance accompanying us all the way to Batavia — ? Or perhaps, you stop in Shanghai, or Hong Kong — ?" He glanced at each of us, Father and I, politely, in turn. His accent was just a little more pronounced than Mister Nieuwenhuis'.

I sensed Father stiffening, just a little, at my side; but his answer was smooth.

"We'll be stopping in Shanghai, initially; on routine banking business. We may quite possibly be going on to Hong Kong later, though, and possibly even Batavia. Our itinerary is not yet settled."

"Well, if you do come to Batavia, you must look us up," from Damkot, again, smiling. "We'd be delighted to show you around — eh, Erik?" This, aimed at Mister Nieuwenhuis.

"Of course, of course," the big man said, comfortably. "We would be delighted! And it would give me much pleasure, to introduce you to the local cuisine; the finest in the world, in my opinion, once one becomes somewhat acclimated to the heat of the spices … Although, to get the best food, when dining out, one must be sure to refer to the city as Jay-Djakarta. The locals appreciate it. Curious of them, to prefer their own name, for their own city, no — ?" A wry chuckle, from him. "But, tell me; have you been to Shanghai, before — ?"

"This will be my first visit," admitted Father.

The broad face broke into a very broad smile. "Indeed — ? Eh, I envy you — the both of you," he said, glancing my way, and nodding. "Shanghai is a marvel, and a wonder; the world's most cosmopolitan city, it is said. People from all over the world flock to Shanghai; why, they even allow in some Chinese! May I ask, where you are staying — ?"

"In the International Settlement, of course; on the Bund. The Cathay, I believe."

Another warm smile. "Excellent! The finest hotel in the city, which is saying quite a bit; you will be very comfortable there, I am quite sure. I have dined there."

"As have I," from his companion, Mister Damkot; with enthusiasm. I found myself trying to suppress a smile.

"Of course, there is more to life than mere physical comfort," said Mister Nieuwenhuis, as he slowly and carefully cut up a roasted potato, and applied butter to it. "And Shanghai, and all of China, really, is a very … complicated … place, just now. May one ask, how long you may be expecting to stay — ? Into the summer, perhaps — ?"

Father shrugged. "As I said, our plans are by no means final … but I expect we shall be in Shanghai, at any rate, for at least six weeks."

I looked down at my plate, trying not to wince.

"Six weeks … " from the broad man, musing. "So. Yes; I think you will have time, enough. But I personally, would not want to travel in China outside of Shanghai, or Hong Kong, much later in the year."

"I beg your pardon — ?" from Father, politely.

I saw Damkot, and Price, the American, looking on, intently.

"Well, part of it is the heat, of course. Southern and coastal China is like a brick oven, after Midsummer's Day; it must be experienced, to be believed. But most of all, one must avoid the Japanese; and that is almost as difficult as avoiding the weather. Eh, the Japanese are like a kind of weather in China, a monsoon, that won't go away … " He gave an ironic shrug of his massive shoulders, and took a bite of his potato.

"Ah," from Father, neutrally. "So, you are expecting another Sino-Japanese Incident, of some sort? I had been told that the troop requirements of the Japanese presence in Manchukuo had stabilized their movements, somewhat … " He sounded quite casual, in the asking.

The broad man shrugged, again.

"There are new Incidents, each year; it has become tiresome, if predictable. They are initiated by the Army, of course; and whether one can say the Japanese Government has lost control of the Army, or that the Army has taken over control of the Japanese Government, is an open question. But it amounts to the same thing, in the end."

"I had heard something along those lines," Father admitted.

"Eh, but no one truly knows what goes on, inside the Japanese leadership! That is what makes the study of the tea leaves — if you will pardon the expression, under the circumstances — so fascinating. Up can mean down, down can mean up — it is very much something out of your Lewis Carroll, 'Through the Looking Glass'. A general who makes the most bloodthirsty of speeches, may in fact be a moderate, who has joined with the war faction to slow them down, or stop them. Or, a civilian Minister who has previously been moderate-to-liberal, may deliberately bring shame on the Cabinet, in order to strengthen the Army … Both have happened, recently." He paused, for another fork-full of roast potato.

Silence around the table, for a moment.

"You seem to have very good sources of information," Father observed.

A crooked smile from Nieuwenhuis.

"As far as I know, no-one has very good information about the inner workings of the Japanese Government. It is impenetrable, as I said. But as a business matter, and yes, as a personal matter, one tries; Royal Dutch Shell can afford to pay for travelers' tales … Take, for instance, the attempted coup, last year. Did you hear of it — ?"

I could feel Father go very still, by my side.

"I had not heard it characterized, as such."

Another crooked smile, from Nieuwenhuis; with a shrug. "Well, 'Incident', then, perhaps. In February, last year; 1936; we are still piecing together the details. But we know that three Cabinet Ministers were assassinated in their beds, at night — assassination was very fashionable in Tokyo, last year! — and, we know that an Army regiment occupied key parts of the city, by force, and attempted to secure the person of the Emperor himself — in the name of restoring his rule, of course, although he had not been deposed. And, finally, we know that after some days, the troops eventually went back their barracks … After that, reports become somewhat confused." Another shrug, from him.

"In what way?" asked Father.

A sardonic look, from Nieuwenhuis. "Eh, well. One report said the Emperor himself was furious, and wanted to lead the Imperial Guard — his household troops — against the mutineers, in person. But another report said the Emperor's brother, Prince Chichibu — to whom he is very close — knew of the plot in advance, and had fully approved." Yet another shrug. "According to another, very credible report, the Government declared martial law in Tokyo … and then put the rebellious regiment in charge of enforcing it; which might have been an effort to shame them into submission. In fact, it may have worked. But, then, there is my favorite rumor, which is so far unsubstantiated, as far as I know."

"Yes?" This from Price, the Standard Oil man; who seemed fascinated.

"So. The word is, that His Imperial Majesty's disapproval was expressed, by messenger, to the officers leading the rebellious regiment; and that they, by the same messenger, begged His Imperial Majesty the favor of being allowed to commit ritual suicide, en masse, in atonement." Another sardonic look, at each of us, from Mister Nieuwenhuis. "This favor was refused; they were not considered as worthy. So, apparently, the officers involved became quite angry with His Imperial Majesty, in return." Another shrug, and another bite, this time of pork chop.

Silence, for a moment; the clink of cutlery, the low murmur of conversation, at nearby tables.

"Is such a thing truly possible — ?" from Price, at last.

"Oh, yes," from the broad man; and he tilted his massive head. "I lived in Tokyo for a time, some years ago; it is one of the reasons I follow such matters. Well, that and the fact that I want to be far, far away, before the Japanese come to Batavia … But yes, the thing is, all of those reports may well be perfectly true; and that is the devil of it. Japan is an ancient, and sophisticated, and most certainly non-Western, society; and that makes her, unpredictable. And unpredictability is bad for business … Oh! Except in one way!" He laughed, again, leaning back in his chair, smiling. "In one way, they are quite predictable, I mean; and that comes around, full circle, to my observation to you, my friend." He looked at Father.

"Yes?" he responded. Apprehensively, I thought.

"I mentioned further Incidents, in China? Well; this much, at least, is public knowledge. The Japanese Army publishes its promotions and transfers listings on August Fourth, this year. Competition to show one's zeal and efficiency in action, before then, is intense." He raised his wineglass — still almost full, after most of a large meal — in salute. "Governments may be impenetrable, and incomprehensible — but bureaucratic schedules will always, always persist." He raised his glass higher. "Here's to the hope of a quiet Spring and Summer, if such a thing is possible — contrary to expectations — in China."

* * *

"Perfect," I said, as we finished walking the circuit. "This will be perfect!"

"Yeah," from Tom; maybe a little less certainly. "Perfect!"

We were on the Sun Deck, in broad afternoon light and fresh air, after luncheon; and my spirits were almost as high, just for the moment, as our vantage point. The weather was fine; it was clear, and we were steaming directly into the wind, which blew our funnel-smoke straight aft, away from us. I filled my lungs with the clean ocean air, over and over and over again; it was intoxicating, it was deliciously refreshing, after the smoky confines of the decks below.

We do not openly smoke at school, of course, and never indoors; I was not used to how thoroughly tobacco smoke permeated this adult world, on board ship.

I shaded my eyes, and scanned the horizon; the swells had died to a light, breezy, white-topped chop; and the ship, while still moving, felt much steadier.

It was a glorious day, and it felt good to be out-of-doors. Especially without a tie on.

"Well," I said; scanning the open deck. Off of the running-track, one place looked as good as another. "Shall we stretch, first — ?" I dropped down, onto the sun-warmed teak, a little to one side — 

"Stretch — ?"

I looked up at him, standing uncertainly in front of me, in his improvised running-gear.

"You don't stretch, at your school, before running?" I asked, blinking.

"No … we just run."

"Oh … Well. Stretching is actually very good for you; it helps prevent injuries, and it improves one's performance. I can show you how, if you like — ?" I couldn't imagine going running, without stretching, first — 

"Okay," he said; a little uncertainly, and he lowered himself onto the deck, near me … 


I showed him the simple ones; the single-leg extension, touching one's toe with first one hand, and then the other; then, both legs folded, the soles of the feet together, to stretch the groin muscles — 

To me, it all felt wonderful; it had been days since I'd last been running, with Jack.

I was even wearing the same running uniform I'd had on, then; light cotton shorts, a plain, sleeveless, loose jersey, and my cross-country running shoes, thin, flexible, with light rubber soles … The breeze and sun on my bare arms, my bare legs, and on my neck, felt almost too wonderful for words.

But if I was well-outfitted for running … I was a little concerned for Tom.

"Are you sure you'll be all right, running in these — ?" I was looking at his shoes; they had rubber soles, but they were sturdily built; almost more like low boots, than running shoes.

"I should be … I've been running in them, before," he said.

"Hmm … let me see." He was doing the one-leg-extended stretch; I reached over and squeezed his shoe, testing the rubber for its flexibility — and he jerked, a little, under my hand.

"Relax, for a moment," I said; and I tested the stiff leather upper-body of his shoe, and I frowned. Distance-running in inappropriate shoes can cause blisters, at best, and worse injuries, later on.

Tom kept himself very still. "I should be fine, honest; I wore shoes like these in P.E., all last year … "

"All right," I said, releasing him, and smiling. Thinking, to myself, that if worst came to worst, we could always switch to running barefoot; the deck was very smooth, and very clean. In our cross-country team back home, we ran barefoot sometimes, in the Spring, or in muddy weather; ostensibly to toughen our feet, but really just for the joy of it … 

I stood up, and he followed my example.

"Ready to give it a try — ?" I asked, looking around at the funnels and deckhouses, the shining water, and the two or three fellow-passengers, in deck chairs. Then I smiled at Tom. "I'm a little out of practice; we'll have to take it a little bit easy, at first. Okay?"



The sensation of running on a moving ship was distinctly odd.

The deck was perfectly smooth; but because of the ship's motion, it almost felt uneven, as though I were running on hummocky grass; each footstep was unsure, which is not good, for a runner. It was uncomfortable at first, although I soon grew more used to it. But I wondered what running in a heavier sea was going to be like … 

And then, there was the wind. The deck was partially sheltered, by the bulk of the ship's bridge and the associated deckhouses, forward … but only partially. We were, according to the ship's morning, mimeographed newsletter, making twenty knots; which translated into something like twenty-three miles per hour. Which meant that running forward was like running into the teeth of a gale; while running sternward, on the other side of the track, was like having a hurricane push one from behind. I felt like I was almost flying down the painted track, going sternward.

Still; it was all wonderful.

A brass sign affixed to the deck near the stern read, '6 laps = 1 mile', which seemed a little arbitrary to me; but it was probably close enough. I kept the pace very slow, for Tom's sake, for the first two laps; his heavy footfalls thudded along, a little behind me, and his breathing was heavy, too. Which was only to be expected; he wasn't in training, after all. Then, I slowed us to a walk.

"It's our first day,' I called out, over my shoulder. "Let's not push it; we can walk the rest of this lap … and then, maybe, I'll do a little bit longer of a run — ? If you don't mind, I mean; I'm used to this, after all."

"I can … go on … longer," he managed, between pants.

"Well, how about this, then — ? Why don't you walk for a few laps, while I put in another mile … and then we'll run the last half-mile, together." I paused. "A mix of running and walking is how we condition ourselves, at the start of cross-country season."

It was a well-meant, white lie. Only the boys completely new to distance running trained by that method, and never for long. But it was the right thing for him to do, just now.

"Really — ?" he asked; still panting.


"Okay." He sounded relieved.


Up into the wind, on the right-hand — the starboard — side of the ship, past the skylight and funnels and the other, nameless, deck structures; then, cut to the left at the 'Crew Only' chained-off passageway at the back end of the Bridge structure; past the towering engine-room ventilator intakes, and the roar of distant fans, below; then back sternward, the wind blowing hard at my back, my feet falling lightly on the smooth teak.

I set an easy pace, a training pace; and I could feel my blood pumping, rhythmically, my breathing going into that familiar pattern; I could feel the joy, the sheer joy, of using my body again, of using my whole body again … 

And as usual, my mind roamed freely; first, just concentrating on leaning into the turns — there were so many of them! — and then, drifting, the way it always does, when I run — 

I thought about Jack; of course.

I thought about the last time we'd been running together, just a few days ago … and that led me to wonder what he was doing right now, at just this moment? And I realized, with a little jolt, that he was probably at dinner; it was past 2 p.m. ship's time, which meant it was after six o'clock, on the East Coast … we'd already set the clock back once, on board; we were due to do so, again.

I wasn't even sure of the time difference, between Shanghai and New York; I'd have to ask. Such things can be idiosyncratic, I knew, local time is what locals want it to be … 


And that, it turn, led me back to the subject of China; of China, and Japan, and of what I'd witnessed at luncheon, just now.


For Father to have volunteered such information, about the Bank's internal forecasts … and then, for the Dutchman to share so much of what he knew, about the Japanese … 

It hadn't been a casual, dinner-time conversation; I realized. It had been a transaction; a trade of information, profit for profit.

The information, itself, had been interesting enough; and frightening, actually. And it was all new to me. I follow news from Europe quite closely; I lived there for years, after all, and I still have friends at my old school, in Switzerland … and the news from Europe all seems very real to me, and frightening, and bleak enough, in its own way — 

But China, and Asia, had always seemed impossibly remote to me; a broad continent, and broader ocean, away. I knew little about China. Or Japan.

Well, that would need to change. I'd been lazy; I would need to raid the ship's Library, tomorrow, to see what I could learn. The President Hoover was a liner dedicated to the Orient run, after all. There should be material — 

Around a tight corner at the stern, and into the full force of the wind, again. And I passed Tom; trudging briskly along … 

Another, slight shock.

Tom had said his father would be going out into the Chinese countryside, on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; something about agricultural techniques — 

Tom's father had to hear what I'd just heard, at luncheon; he had to. Maybe I could engineer an introduction to the Dutchman, Mister Nieuwenhuis, if one didn't happen naturally — ? Tom's father, as a Government employee, was traveling in First Class; it was part of the Dollar Line's mail contract with the Government, Tom had told me, wonderingly. The Dutchman might have some very useful, specific advice for someone in Tom's father's position … Or, if I couldn't arrange a talk between them, perhaps Father could — ?

Back around the air-intake scoops, and the roar of the fans; then, around back to the sternward leg, the wind of our passage blasting me in the back.

My mind was still working; and, something was bothering me.

It was about the luncheon-time conversation, of course; the transaction, the information-trade, between Father and Mister Nieuwenhuis.

It was unexpected. It was a side of Father, that I'd never seen; and that was — unsettling.

Jack says, that in arranging things the way that I want — meaning, the way that we want — whether at home or at school, I am 'capable'.

I don't mince words. I call myself, devious. I've had to be; to succeed in a Swiss boarding school at a very young age, when one is small, barely speaking the language, and with no existing friends and no European roots — one has to grow skills. I learned how to influence people, and use information, and I learned how to keep quiet, and to think, and plan, ahead — 

And now, I wondered how much of my nature was inherited. I wondered, what my father was capable of. I wondered, if I'd been underestimating him … 

I thought, first, about the money I'd acquired in San Francisco.

Well, I'd done the best I could, with it. Three of the bundles of cash were in the safe in the Purser's Office; in a sealed manilla envelope, marked with my name, and the inscription, 'Personal'. The handwritten receipt for it was in my wallet. Without the receipt, I doubted it could be given to Father — even if he'd known of its existence; which he did not. I'd taken care to go the Purser's Office alone.

The Letter of Credit, and the other bundles of cash, were hidden deep amongst the books in one of my steamer-trunks. Which in turn was kept locked; and I had the only key. And even should someone break in, they would have to, by chance, be interested enough to open Thucydides' 'History of the Peloponnesian War', to find the Letter of Credit … 

No. No, I had to think that the Letter of Credit, in particular, was safe enough, from anything short of a police search.

And, unexpectedly devious or not, I also had to think that the Letter, and the bundles of cash — my means of escape, of getting home again, at extreme need — I had to think they were safe from any action Father would take. For if Father does not elect to tell me all the details about his own personal affairs, neither does he demand a full accounting of mine; thank goodness. He merely makes it clear that he expects me to act responsibly, and that he will be disappointed in me, should I not.

His disappointment is a very tangible thing. I do not incur it often; and perhaps for that reason, he does not enquire too closely, into my doings.


Father had surprised me: and a very great deal — a very great deal; Jack's freedom and happiness, as well as my own — depended on Father not surprising me, when it mattered the most.

I resolved to be more cautious, around Father, more personally circumspect … and I resolved to watch him more closely; for the duration of this trip, and beyond.

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