China Boat

Chapter 13


Goering Going to Rome This Month to Plan for Meeting in Late Summer or Fall



Wireless to the New York Times

ROME, April 15.-It can now be stated with certainty that Premier Benito Mussolini will visit Chancellor Adolf Hitler in Germany at the end of the Summer or early in the Fall unless something happens to disturb Italo-German relations.

Col. Gen. Hermann Goering, German Air Minister, who conveyed the invitation to Mussolini on his last visit to Rome in January, will obtain his acceptance and make some tentative arrangements when he returns at the end of this month … .

* * *

Friday, April 16th, 1937
1:21 p.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea

"Rhys, may I have a word with you?"

"Sir — ?"

It was just after luncheon; we were back in our suite. Well, actually, I'd been on the verge of leaving, again; I had my book-bag in my hand, and a definite mission on my mind.

"Sit down, please … " he gestured towards the green-baize sofa; I sat, running my mind quickly over recent events, wondering if I'd done something wrong. Father sat in the armchair opposite, crossed his legs as usual, and reached for his pipe.

"Son, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask for more of your help." He knocked his pipe-bowl into the ashtray, and took the tobacco-pouch from his pocket. "As you know, we took on many more passengers in Honolulu — " he looked at me, as if expecting an answer.

"Yes, sir."

We'd actually taken on more passengers in Honolulu, than had sailed from San Francisco. The ship was still less than half-full — according to Mister Bennett, the Purser — but it felt considerably less deserted. Lifeboat-drills saw actual crowds of people mustering on the Boat Deck, now, rather than scattered knots of us.

"Many of our new shipmates, it seems, are old China hands; they are people who live and work in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and are returning from business in Hawaii or Los Angeles. Or, so the Purser informed me." Father scooped the pipe-bowl into the tobacco pouch, and set about tamping down the tobacco; a thing I've watched him do thousands of times.

"Yes, sir."

Father grimaced.

"It has become all too apparent, that I was … not adequately aware of … the severity of the Japanese threat, to the coastal parts of China. And, to East Asia, in general. Our friend, the Dutch oil-man, — Mister — " he frowned, for a moment.

"Nieuwenhuis," I provided. It was a difficult name to pronounce.

" — Mister Nieuwenhuis, has been quite a source of information; I've had several long talks with him, and several with a few other passengers, as well." He paused, to take out his silver match-case, and to extract a match; I waited quietly, for him to go on.

"The fact is, that I need to apprise Senior Management of this state of affairs … it has a direct bearing on the business decisions we will be taking, in the near future. In fact, there are several active propositions before the Executive Committee, which might be affected … "

He struck the match, and applied it to the pipe-bowl; not looking at me. He drew on the pipe a few times, puffing out, starting the tobacco.

"So. I will need to sound out some of our fellow-passengers, and gauge their opinions; and cable back to the Bank, soon. Certainly before we reach Shanghai; we are still fifteen days out."

Fifteen days, with no chance to send or receive mail; I was very aware of it.

"Is it that urgent, Father?"

He puffed on his pipe, again, and looked at me; a little ironically, I thought.

"The world is unlikely to blow up, in the next fifteen days; but we — the Bank — are to sign two relatively modest contracts, with Chinese counter-parties, by the end of this month. And several of my colleagues on the Executive Committee would prefer to see the advent of the Apocalypse, rather than see us actually losing money on an investment."

"Yes, sir."

More puffs, on his pipe. The sweet smell of his pipe-smoke, filled the room.

"Bluntly put, son — I'd like your help, in collecting opinions on the matter; impressions, feelings, any hard information you might be able to come by. Keep your ears open, in other words. The Japanese situation is bound to be a major topic on conversation, as we head West."

I blinked at him. "I'll try, sir."

He regarded me, closely.

"In addition, and somewhat more specifically — I would like your help, in conversation; at meal-times, but also in social settings. I'll be spending more time in the First Class Lounge, and the Smoking Room; and to the extent that you could join me, on occasion, and help … turn … the conversation, when you see a discreet opportunity, I would deeply appreciate it." Another two slow puffs, on his pipe. "It would hardly be a bad thing, in any case, for you to have the opportunity to engage in more adult interactions; you are, after all, coming of age."

I had a definite feeling of unreality.

"I'll try, Father … But, I hardly think I can be of much help, in steering topics of conversation — ?"

Father looked amused.

"On the contrary, you are adept at it; as witness, whenever your grandfather and I are on the verge of disagreeing on some subject or other … I have great faith in your skills."

I blinked, and tried to keep my face still. It was true, Father and my Grandfather are both strong-willed persons; they can, from time to time, with the utmost urbanity, veer towards very strong disagreement … and when they do, I am usually successful in subtly interjecting, usually by way of a question, and thereby changing the discourse — 

But Father wasn't supposed to have noticed.

"That reminds me … it isn't really any of my business; but, have you written your grandparents, yet? It was very good of them, to come and see us off." He asked it, casually.

"Yes, sir; a letter, and several postcards." I'd written them, with honest love. "I gave them to Mister Spivney, to post."

The tension between Father and Grandfather had been … noticeable … that day, as they'd said goodbye to us on the platform.

"And you've received no mail, yet?"

"Nothing from them yet, no sir. I expect they'll write care of the hotel in Shanghai."

I'd answered carefully. I hadn't mentioned the letters from Jack, slipped to me by our cabin steward when we'd re-boarded in Honolulu; three letters — the maximum number he could be sure of reaching me, in Hawaii — each mailed separately, the profligate idiot, and two postcards. Postcards, mailed at Air Mail rates — !

I had read them through quickly, once, last night. My mission, just now, was to slip off by myself, and immerse myself in them, again; I was almost drunk, at the prospect. It was an almost physical feeling, of joy and exaltation, mixed with yearning and loss … That they'd come from Jack, in his own hand — !

The presence of his letters in my book-bag colored my whole world. And yes, I am too damned sensitive for my own good, and probably Jack's. But I was going to spend the day with his letters, and starting a reply, and shutting away the rest of the world — 

If I was allowed.

A few more puffs, from Father's pipe. He turned back to the business at hand.

"Naturally, I won't expect you to join me in the Lounge, every night; I'll try to signal you, when I can best use your help. In any event, Movie Nights are likely to be a lost cause. In fact — isn't there a showing, tonight — ?"

"I believe so, sir. 'Captain January', with Shirley Temple."

Father winced, slightly. "Well," the said, philosophically. "A lost cause on several fronts, perhaps … but there's always tomorrow." He puffed on his pipe, twice more; his expression turned serious. "In any case, Rhys, I deeply appreciate your assistance in this matter … and I'm sure I don't have to add, that this is all to be treated as highly confidential — ? It is very important that we are both as discreet as possible. And of course, our business in Shanghai is to be discussed in as general a way as possible. If at all." Another puff on his pipe. "And that includes any conversations you might have with your friend, Tom."

He looked at me, directly.

I blinked once, again; and I held his gaze.

"Of course, Father. I'm surprised you felt it necessary to mention."

What in heaven's name, I thought at the same time, prompted that — ?

A pause; then, Father shrugged. "I'm sorry, son; perhaps it's merely that we're sailing into new waters. In more ways than one." He puffed on his pipe, again, thoughtfully; at length. "So. Thank you again, in advance; and I'll leave you to your afternoon, then. I have more than enough work for the day, thanks to the Bank's agent in Honolulu." He removed his pipe from his mouth, for a moment, and looked at me, a little wistfully. "Will you be trying out your new swimming-trunks — ?"

"I think that will be tomorrow, sir, actually … I'll be in the Library this afternoon, doing some reading and writing. I'd thought to look into recent Japanese history, and culture."

A white lie; I was going to do so, before swimming, tomorrow.

A raised eyebrow from him, and another pipe-puff. "Really — ? That is an excellent idea; I'd appreciate any information or insights you could provide; quite seriously. You were always very good at such things, when we traveled in Europe. I always valued your contributions."

"Thank you, Father." I smiled at him; touched. We really had gotten on well, when we traveled in the summers, in Europe; I'd always been the one with the guide book, the one to do the advance reading, and the one to handle the maps. The memories were good ones.

A pause, then; and I made a motion to rise. "Shall I leave you to your work, then, Father — ?"

"One last favor, before you go, son?" The pipe was back in his mouth; and a corner of his mouth was quirked up, for a moment, in humor.

"Sir — ?"

A few more pipe-puffs; some more aromatic smoke. He cleared his throat.

"I am of course aware that fashions, men's fashions in dressing, change over time … but I was wondering, as a special dispensation for your elderly father, if you might consider knotting your necktie just a trifle higher? At mealtimes, and at Church services, at any rate; I'll leave the rest of the time to your own judgment."

I resisted the urge to reach for my tie-knot.

"Of course, Father."

"You needn't overdo it; if the knot is just marginally higher than your clavicle, I'd be very grateful."

We do tease each other, back-and-forth, a little. It is how we touch one another.

"It will be a sacrifice," I said, with mock gravity, and a straight face; "but I think I can manage it … Uh, Father — ?"

"Yes — ?"

I paused, and lowered my head, just a little. "Since we're on the subject of men's fashions … Your cardigan — ?"

It was his favorite sweater; it had also become somewhat ragged, and tobacco-stained, and against all expectations, it had put in an appearance on deck. Mrs. F_____ would not have been pleased.

A pause from him.

"Is it truly that bad?" He looked at me.

"Yes, sir."

He winced, slightly. "Very well. I promise not to wear it, outside our quarters." He sighed, and set his pipe down, carefully, in the ashtray. "So. Then. Do we have a deal — ?"

"Yes, sir." And, we reached over the coffee table, and shook hands, in mock-solemnity.

* * *

The Library was mercifully uncrowded, when I arrived; most people seemed to be taking advantage of the fine weather, out on deck. The sea was almost calm; the sun was extraordinarily bright, and banks of puffy white cumulus clouds drifted in the blue sky, casting shadows on the water below. The air still felt tropics-warm, and tropics-wet, soft and caressing on the skin … 

The Library was the perfect place to find solitude.

The enormous, forward-facing windows showed a bow barely heaving at all, against the horizon, as the ship cleaved through the water; the sky was luminous. It was a dazzling view. I chose a writing-table far away from it, towards the after wall; for the sake of privacy.

Unfortunately, the after wall held the bulk of the Library's collection, in their glass-enclosed shelves; and as I pulled my writing implements out of my book-bag, I found I was not quite alone. A slender, youngish-looking man — one of the new passengers — was wandering along the shelves, apparently aimlessly, peering at the book titles; and now and then coming a little too close to me for comfort. He was wearing a white linen suit, and was humming to himself, under his breath.

I thought his humming was rude, and I wished he would go away.

I waited another minute or two; then I took out my fountain-pen, and made a production out of filling it from my ink bottle, and wiping it down; then I pulled some ship's stationery from the writing desk's drawer, and straightened up a little stack of it; until, finally, finally, the humming was gone, and I looked up, to find I was alone.

At last.

I pulled the packet of Jack's letters and postcards from my book-bag; and as I had done last night, I went to the last letter — the most recent letter — first.

Friday, April 9th, 1937
The ______ School
______, ______

Rhys — Read the postscript, first!


Dear Rhys … 

Well, old man, I'm reasonably sure this will get to you in Hawaii; that's what I'm told, at any rate, and so that's what I'm assuming, and very much hoping … 

And then, just as I had last night, I skipped to the bottom of the last page of his letter:

 — All of my best. Always.

M.O.C., squared. Cubed, even; to how high a power, can I raise it?



P.S. — All right, Rhys, I know you; I expect you opened my last letter, first, so you could skim through it and check for earthshaking news or shattering disaster. You are the only person I know who reads the last page of a novel, first.

Well, there isn't, and aren't, any. I'm fine, if lonely; the family is fine. Nothing dramatic has happened at school, which unfortunately includes the skit we presented a few days back; it is our only disaster, and I wrote about it in the first of my letters. Charles is fine; except that he has two pimples on his forehead, and thinks his world is coming to an end. That should tell you exactly how exciting things have been, around here.

So, go back and read these letters start-to-finish, all right, old man? If anything dire ever happens here or at home, I'll cable you, I promise. (In fact, I'd like us to start cabling each other, occasionally, regardless; but I wrote about that idea in yesterday's letter.)

M.O.C., all over again.


P.P.S — I admit it; when I get your next letters, I'll check your last letter first, for the same reasons. You've rubbed off on me!

Jack, again — 

In the sunlit First Class Library, west of Hawaii, I just read his postscripts over again; they were so very much like him, so very much in his voice … It felt, sharply, as through he was sitting beside me, close enough to touch, close enough to feel. Just for a moment; but the feeling was strong, and I held on to it … 

Finally, I sighed; and I pulled his first letter, his oldest letter, out of the pile, and I opened it up again.

 … and, two postcards from you, in one day! Rhys, old man, you have no idea how you've cheered me up! And, I had no idea the Chicago skyline was so impressive; we've just got to go there to explore, sometime, together; maybe we can get Elliott to take us, I know he'd love to see it, too … 

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