China Boat

Chapter 9


War Office Aide Examines
Papers Found on Prisoner
Who Landed Saturday

Wireless to the New York Times

LONDON, April 12th.-Otto Karl Ludwig, a German, was charged today with a violation of the Official Secrets Act. He had been arrested early Saturday morning when he landed at Harwich from a British steamer aboard which he had come from the Netherlands.

The arrest was revealed today when the prisoner was arraigned in a police court near Harwich, charged with an illegal attempt to enter Britain and with possession of documents calculated to constitute an act preparatory to the commission of an offense under the Official Secrets Act … 

* * *

Tuesday, April 13th, 1937
10:05 a.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea

" … Are you ready, Son?" from Father, at the breakfast table, next to me.

"Yes, sir."

I'd been ready for some time. I do not, as a rule, eat breakfast — a habit formed at my Swiss boarding school; breakfast was not served, there, just petit déjeuner — and I usually prefer just coffee, and a roll or pastry, as I'd just had now. But we were surrounded by fellow-passengers consuming prodigious quantities of eggs, and sausage, and chops and bacon … I felt right on the edge of nausea.

"Gentlemen; Madam — if you'll excuse us — ?" Father nodded to our table-mates, and we rose, and slipped away.

As we threaded through the tables, I saw Tom, sitting next to a sandy-haired man in tweeds, with round eyeglasses and features like his; his own father, I assumed. Both were listening, closely, to Mister Nieuwenhuis, the Dutch businessman, who seemed to be enjoying the attention; and I was profoundly glad.

We started to ascend the Grand Staircase, the opulent, red-carpeted stairway leading back up to 'A' deck and our cabins, when Father paused for a moment on the landing. He looked down at me.

"Rhys, I'll be requiring some of your time, today."


We resumed climbing; and he fell in, beside me.

"I've drafted my first cable to Senior Management," he said, a little off-handedly. "It is not long; it is something of a test message, actually. But we will be encoding it, in the usual way, regardless."

"Sir," from me; as we ascended the carpeted steps, noiselessly.

And I felt a pang of … unease. I actually blinked. It is very much unlike Father to explain the nature of a confidential communication, to me; to explain anything at all about such a communication, actually.

"The encoding process occurs in two stages. I will undertake the first stage this morning; I would like you to finish the process, after luncheon." He paused a moment, as we reached the 'A' deck lobby, and started towards our staterooms. "I will explain the process to you, then; but if you like, you can read about the basics, now — ?"

We reached our respective cabin doors; rich, carved wood, in the more lightly-colored, paneled passageway, lined with gleaming brass hold-on rails.

"Yes, sir. I'd be glad to."

It seemed like the best thing to say, in spite of all of my reservations.

"Good," he said; unlocking his door. "I'll bring the book to you, in just a moment."

Which made me pause, and then blink, again, as I entered my cabin.


Father and I had staterooms; but technically, we shared a Suite.

The layout was, Father had a bedroom — with twin beds — which opened onto a sitting-room, with chairs and a sofa and a coffee-table, and a large writing-desk, under a porthole. His bathroom adjoined his bedroom.

My own cabin was essentially a cozy bedroom — again, with twin beds — and another adjoining bathroom, and a much smaller writing-desk, and chair … and a light, sliding wood-panel door, with a brass pull-ring, which opened on to the sitting-room. It is the sort of arrangement we have always preferred, when traveling; Father sleeps very lightly, and I appreciate the chance to retreat to privacy, as I'm sure does he.

But as a rule, we've always considered any shared space, as, shared … 

Evidently, not this time. Not today, at least.


I was just setting my cap down, and reaching for my tie, when there was a light, double-tap on the sliding partition door. The door slid open immediately, and Father came through, with a slender book.

"Yes," he said; clearing his throat. "As I was saying, Son, we'll be encoding the cable in a two-step process. My part of the task will use a cypher which is proprietary to the Bank … but your task will be to encode the result in a more standard fashion; you will be using a Vigenère square, and the cypher-method of the same name. Both are discussed, in this book."

He handed it to me, and I looked at it; 'Prestons's Commercial Codes and Cyphers', was the title; and, 'Eleventh Edition', under that, in smaller letters. It had a black binding, and was well-worn.

Father's eyes stayed on the book, for the moment.

"It is an infernal nuisance," he went on, in a different tone, "to go through all this just for the sake of business communication … but it is necessary. Radiograms are, after all, broadcast; anyone can receive them, and in fact, many Governments and business organizations make it their standard practice to do so, looking for profitable information. Even land-based cables are insecure; cables are routinely tapped, and operators are easily bribed. It is a reality I've faced, throughout my career." He paused, slightly. "As I've said, many of our business cables will be encoded, on this trip; whether sea-based, or land-based."

"Yes, sir."

I hadn't forgotten our conversation in the Headmaster's office. I was actually surprised he'd mentioned the matter, again.

Father's expression grew slightly — wistful, perhaps? — as he glanced back at the volume I held. "It's an interesting book, on several levels … even the chapters which do not apply to us. I recommend the Introduction, and the Appendices, in particular."

I blinked, at that.

"Very well," he went on, after a moment; and he glanced back at the sliding partition-door. 'If you'll excuse me, I'll get started … I shall see you back here, in time to go to luncheon — ?"

"Yes, sir."

And with that, he left my cabin, and the sliding-door slid shut — 

And there was a 'click', as the door was locked, from his side.

I looked at the door for a moment; my mouth a little open … and seconds later, I heard another faint, but definite 'click'; Father locking his main stateroom door, the one leading to the corridor.

I blinked.

I'd lived with Father, summers and holidays, for seven years in Europe, and then two years at home; we'd traveled all through Europe, sharing quarters much like these. And, although he'd excused himself, often enough, to work on Bank business with Bank papers — he had never, in all that time, locked himself away, to do so … Physically, locked himself away … 

* * *

Just at that moment, I craved solitude, deeply; and I just as deeply did not want to find it in my own cabin. So, I reverted to habit, and sought the highest point on the ship I could reach, with the freshest air I could find; which meant the Sun Deck again, of course.

At first, it was fine; the weather was fair, with brilliant blue sky, and enormous white clouds, and the sun was shining. I could see the set of the waves, marching across the water, a little bit to our starboard — our right — beam, now; I could feel the ship corkscrewing, just lightly. It wasn't unpleasant; but it would make running a bit more of a challenge, today … 

Which reminded me; I'd need to speak to Tom, to change our meeting time, slightly. He was, I knew, taking care of his younger brother, this morning — a regular chore — but I was bound to see him, at luncheon — 

"Do you see what I mean, now?" came a voice; a male one. "I wasn't exaggerating, was I — ?"

"Oh, Ed, I had no idea — !" A woman's voice; sounding thrilled. "Oh, isn't this just wonderful, Mother? Oh! Just look at the way you can see the ship move, against the line of the horizon — "

"I think," came an older woman's voice, "I need to sit down." The voice was a bit grim.

"Oh, of course, Mother! I'm sorry; here, let me help you — " The sound of hard heels, clicking on the teak decking, coming nearer; then, the sounds of a weight settling onto a deck-chair, right around the corner of the deck-house, against which my own chair was placed.

"There, now that's better, Mother, isn't it — ?" from the man; his voice, practically in my ear. "You know, I've found it's better to try not to look at the horizon, especially when there's quite a sea, running. Although that can be a tall order; I remember one time, on the Berengaria — we were in quite a winter storm, you see — well. We were rolling, from side to side, you know, more than thirty degrees, they said; looking out the porthole, first you'd see water, then blue sky, then water again, then blue sky, again — " There was a definite note of gleeful mischief, in his tone.

"Oh, Ed, stop it, you're impossible!" from the younger woman, again. "Don't listen to him, Mother; here, we'll all sit down together, and enjoy the clear sky, and the sunshine, and we'll talk about what we'll be seeing in Hawaii — "

I hoisted up my book-bag, and left; keeping the deck-house between us, as I went.


I took refuge, back down on the Promenade Deck; in the deck-chair assigned to me.

Interestingly enough, the windows had been cranked open — I hadn't known they could do that; it certainly never happened on the Atlantic liners — and the deck was flooded with fresh air. The smell of new paint was long gone. Three people were lingering, at the railing, aft of me; otherwise, I was alone.

I was saving the writing of my day's letter to Jack for the evening, after dinner; so I took out Father's book, 'Preston's Commercial Codes and Cyphers — Eleventh Edition', and I began to read.


Against all expectation — it was fascinating. Striking, actually. And in a way, disturbing.


Not all of it; not the bulk of it, to be sure. As it turned out, 'Commercial Codes' were meant primarily to save telegraph costs, rather than to conceal; the bulk of the volume was a kind of dictionary of abbreviations. So, 'gross', 'net', 'retail', 'invoice' — all of the many reasonably standard business terms — had their recognized abbreviations, or number and letter codes, or both. Using the codes, a salesman traveling on business could save — according to the authors — something like forty-five percent of his net cable costs, over the course of a year. Using such codes made good sense — although I gathered that the cable companies, Western Union, RCA, Deutche Reichsposte, and the rest, were less enthusiastic about the practice … 

All this was mildly interesting. It was all new to me. But as Father had said, the Introduction, and the Appendices, were far more interesting, still. And that fact, alone, I found — disturbing.

The Introduction actually started off with a very basic discussion of the whole field; the nature and definition of a code — a communication between two or more parties, with elements whose meaning is known only to those parties … and then moved on to a definition of a cypher; a communication using a technique whereby an entire text message is altered, or disguised, in such a way that, to a person not possessing the key to the technique, the disguised message is meaningless, and useless.

As it turns out, Jack and I have been using Codes, over the entire course of our lives together. 'The light on Oakley Commons'; 'Memories of Oakley Commons' — that is our new, born-of-necessity Code, for 'I Love You'.

I had to pause, and blink, and breathe a moment, at the realization; before looking back down at the text.

It seemed that Jack and I had actually done well, with our code. We'd chosen code words whose meanings were known only to the both of us, and were not written down anywhere; and according to the authors, this was absolutely key to the ultimate success of the scheme … 

Although, they warned — context could be a danger; context could lead to the code-words and code-phrases being guessed.

I touched my wallet, in my breast pocket, guiltily. I hadn't had the heart to burn Jack's wonderful, and revealing, first letter to me. I would need to do so; after reading it, one more time … 

There was more, of course. A discussion on the nature of cyphers; from simple substitution cyphers, of the sort we used to solve in boys' magazines; and then, transposition cyphers, in which the letters of words in a given message were rearranged, in a consistent pattern … both of which were simple to decrypt. But then came more complicated schemes, involving tables, of letters, and numbers … the Vigenère cypher was one such — 

I skimmed the section on it quickly, without immediately understanding it; and I went on.

The Appendices moved more deeply, into the subject of deception, and misdirection.

Cyphers, it seemed, had one cardinal disadvantage; an encrypted cypher-text was clearly a secret message, of some kind; even if the contents of the message were not known. Secret messages invited attempts to decrypt them, by means fair or foul. So, one of the ultimate arts in secret message-craft was Steganography; whereby a message is disguised as something else entirely, such that even the existence of a secret message is hidden … 

I thought of my pin-prick message, in my letter to Jack, waiting to be mailed. I thought of Jack's surprise message to me, written in tiny letters, trailing around the back edges of the last page of his latest letter to me … And I read on, fascinated — 


And so it went. For some time.


What was disturbing, in the end, was not so much the parallels between the codes and cyphers in the book, and Jack's and my hidden communications with each other … No. It went far beyond that.

The book was a window of sorts, into the world of secrecy; of lives, being lived in hiding, in secrecy, and yet in plain view.

Which described my life, actually. And Jack's too, of course. But not just our lives together; the secrecy extended back long before we met, for the both of us.

For we are both inverts, of course; members of the Third Sex; homosexuals. And so, by definition, we are criminals under law; sinners of the worst order, in the eyes of the Church; and to the psychiatric profession, we are afflicted with mental illness worthy of treatment by hospitalization.

We both reject all such judgments, of course; with contempt. But the penalties of discovery are no less harsh for all that.

Secrecy is a necessary part of our lives. Secrecy, and discretion, will be our means of staying together, of living together, for as long as we live; if we can. We've always known it.

Reading this book, then, about the theory and practice of secret communications, on such a grand and scientific scale, left me feeling … exposed. Almost naked, even; in the figurative sense.

It was not a pleasant feeling.


Aft of where I was sitting, the three figures at the railing broke apart, and headed towards the doorway leading inside. As I watched them go, swaying a little, with the roll of the ship, as they went, I heard footsteps on my other side; I turned to see a blue-jacketed deck-steward, carrying a tray, approaching me.

"Good morning, sir," he said, politely. "May I bring you anything? From the bar, perhaps — ?" He looked down at me, expectantly.

"Umm … Yes, please. A cup of hot chocolate — ?" It was the first thing I could think of.

"Yes, sir." He smiled; glad, I thought, to have something to do, on this nearly-empty ship … 

After he'd left, I looked down at my lap. I discovered that I'd closed the book, and put it face-down, hiding the title. By instinct.

I sighed, as I picked it up again, and found the place where I'd left off.


The other disturbing thought, was that the book was Father's. That he had used it; that he had specifically recommended the Appendices. To me.

I had to think, that he perhaps understood such things — living a life of discretion, of necessary secrets — better than I'd realized.

I was glad, all over again, that I'd arranged to retrieve my own mail, back in San Francisco. And that I'd made similar arrangements with Mister Spivney, our cabin-steward.

I paused, a moment, to reflect upon that; then, my thoughts wandered on.


Of course, I was aware that Father had his own secrets; his own semi-secret life, actually, although his secrets are nowhere near as dire as Jack's and mine.

Still; there is a central aspect of his life which he must keep hidden; his friendship with Mrs. F_____.

'Hidden' is perhaps too strong a word. 'Discreet' might be more appropriate. For theirs is a secret widely-known, and a friendship played out in plain sight.

Mrs. F_____ is a very fashionable woman, of Father's age; she is formally separated from her husband, who lives openly with his mistress in the South of France.

For reasons which are none of my business, she chose — chooses — not to divorce him.

While we were living in Europe, Father and Mrs. F_____ had become … close.

Their friendship continued, after Father and I returned to the United States; Mrs. F_____ returned at about the same time, and took up residence in her flat on Central Park South, not far from our Park Avenue place.

She is a woman of warmth, and wit, and elegance, and great beauty; and she is fond of me, and I like her very much. It is a pleasure to spend time with her.

It is a pleasure, spending time with the both of them, together.

They are both perfectly correct with one another, rarely even using their Christian names, at least not in front of me — but the tenderness of Father's feelings show through in every look, every gesture towards her, however formal. And her answering smiles, which are slow and graceful and profound, show that Father's affections are returned … 

And yet, their relationship is unacknowledged. If they happen to stay at the same hotel at the same time, or if they are invited to a weekend in the country at the same time — their rooms are separate, and apart; and they are by no means always seated together, at meals.

It was Jack's brother Elliott who gave us insight into their situation.

We were discussing the matter, one summer afternoon when I was Jack's guest at their place on the Hudson; it was the summer Jack and I were to turn fifteen, and Elliott was a worldly, soon-to-be-college student of eighteen, which seemed very old to us, at the time — 

Elliott is the brother closest to Jack, in age; and the closest in many other respects, too. Which makes him almost equally close to me; I would not have dreamed, of discussing Father's personal business with any other person in the world, besides Jack and Elliott.

"But," I remembered saying, "it seems so unfair. Mrs. F______'s husband lives in a large house, with his mistress; they have a staff, they entertain, they are written about in the society pages; I've seen them mentioned in the 'New Yorker'. But Father and Mrs. F_____ are so utterly circumspect … the most open they've been, was when Father served as her escort for the opening of the Opera season last year."

They had made an elegant couple, too, with Father in white tie and tails, and Mrs. F_____ in a beautifully sculpted gown; the sight of them together had made me wish, all over again, that they could be together more often. Her presence makes Father very happy.

"Well," Elliott said, slowly — "I can think of several good reasons, for that. For their discretion, I mean."

We were in the boathouse, down on the river, preparing to go out rowing; the boathouse door was open, and glittering light illuminated us.

"You can — ?" from me.

Elliott's cheerful, honest face scrunched up, just a little; deciding, I supposed, how much to say. Elliott is not, to be honest, quite as beautiful as Jack; but he shares Jack's trait of being very open, in his expressions.

"Well," he said again. "I mean, it all makes a certain amount of sense … It's fairly well-known that Mrs. F_____ does not want to divorce her husband. So, it stands to reason, she would not want to give him legal cause to divorce her. There are such things as private detectives in the world, after all."

Silence, for a moment. Then, from Jack; "Would he do such a thing — ? The way he lives — ?"

Elliott shrugged. "He might … especially if it is a question of money, and fault. A divorce between two parties who are equally at fault, might be very disadvantageous to Mrs. F_____; but that is only a guess."

Another pause, as Jack and I digested that.

"But regardless of that, even," Elliott went on, slowly running his hand along the oar he was holding, "their being discreet also protects your father's reputation, Rhys. And yours."

"Mine — ?" I blurted out.

Elliott shrugged. "You know how Society is … it's a small set, and people talk. If your father were named as a correspondent in a divorce suit, it wouldn't help his position at his Bank; and it wouldn't help you, either. People remember such things; especially when it comes time for you to start thinking about a good marriage … "

Elliott actually blushed, as he said it; and I didn't dare look at Jack. We both knew better. We both knew it would never happen.

"I don't care about that!" I said instead.

"Well, your father does," Elliott said. "About your reputation, I mean; perhaps more than his own." He paused, again. "But still," he went on, still absently stroking the oar, "I don't expect that's the real reason, for them being so careful."

"No — ?" from me.

Elliott was looking sideways, out the boathouse door; the light on his face highlighted his thoughtful expression.

"I haven't yet met your father, Rhys," he said; slowly. "But of course I've met Mrs. F_____; she's a friend of Mother's, and of our sisters. And if your father is anything like her — well. I just couldn't imagine her carrying on a love affair openly, in public. I couldn't imagine her doing anything so … well … vulgar."

And at the word 'vulgar', Jack's eyes snapped around to meet mine, his eyebrows slightly raised, in sudden, surprised, recognition; his expression saying, 'well, of course', about as clearly as if he'd said it out loud.

We communicate like that; we do, often enough.

And of course, he was right; of course he was, and if I hadn't been fifteen, I would have seen it already too. If there was one thing I could predict about Father, it was that he would never behave in what he considered a vulgar fashion — particularly, if by so doing, it would reflect poorly on anyone close to him … 


And so, Father and Mrs. F_____ continue their friendship; but they do so discreetly, and they maintain their secrets, much as Jack and I do. And although I do not read his mail, I assume that when they write one another — and it was a letter from Mrs. F_____ which had arrived for Father, on our last day in San Francisco — I assume that when they write, they are as circumspect in what they set down, as Jack and I (usually) are.

In one additional, very important way, however, Father and Mrs. F_____ are very unlike Jack and me — 

"Your hot chocolate, sir — ?" from the deck-steward; startling me out of my reverie, all over again.

"Oh … oh, thank you, very much."

The steam from the hot liquid was whipping sternward, fast, as the deck-steward set up the little portable drink-stand, and set down the cup, and saucer, and the napkin. I signed for the drink, adding a nice tip; and then I settled back in my deck-chair, watching him walk back down the deck.

No; there was one big difference, in our respective relationships, as discreet and hidden as both might be.

I knew that, if worst came to worst, and Father were to remain in Asia for some time … I knew that Mrs. F_____ would decide to vacation, in exotic China, or fashionable Hong Kong, or that bastion of British comfort, Singapore. I knew that that vacation, someplace relatively close by to Father, would last some time, too … 

Jack and I did not have that option.

If Father did stay in Asia for months and months … it would be up to me, to find a way for us to be together, again. By means fair or foul.

A secure way to communicate with Jack, in detailed terms, would help that effort tremendously.

I sighed, and opened up 'Prestons's Commercial Codes and Cyphers — Eleventh Edition' all over again; and I began reading, in dead seriousness.

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