China Boat

Chapter 16

Saturday, April 17th, 1937
7:30 p.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea

-Lieutenant Nicholas Dunleavy — American Army officer, about 30, dark-haired, pale, and slight; bound for Manila.

-Lieutenant Michael Allison — his companion, also American Army, about the same age, red-haired and sunburned; also headed to Manila. They are Staff officers.

As we were at the dinner table, in the First Class Dining Salon, I wasn't actually making the notes on paper, yet; but I was planning them out.

It was the evening of our second full day, West-bound from Hawaii; and so, with the new draft of passengers, we were again being mixed and matched by the dining-room stewards, in an effort to make us all acquainted with one another. It was another round of introductions, for all of us.

This, of course fit Father's information-gathering goals, perfectly. And I knew that these two Army officers — who were traveling in civilian clothes — would be of special interest to him. So, I listened intently, ready to speak up, if a chance to steer the conversation towards Father's questions, presented itself.

All of which was preferable to thinking about poor Tom. And, the question of what to do about him, what to say to him, when we talked, next … 

Well, there really was not much question, of what I had to do. But the prospect was deeply frightening.

I was glad that Tom and his family were in the early seating, now.

I missed Jack, horribly.

" … and so, you are returning from leave, Stateside, as I believe you put it — ?" asked Mister Nieuwenhuis, with good humor, and a raised eyebrow.

This evening, it was just Mister Nieuwenhuis, and Mister Price, at our table; their colleague, Mister Damkot, was at another table, across the salon.

Lieutenant Dunleavy looked amused.

"No, not leave, exactly; we went over to help prepare for the General's wedding, really. Although there were some briefing sessions at the War Department to attend, as well."

Nieuwenhuis leaned back in his chair, a little. It creaked, under his bulk. "'The General'? You mean, General MacArthur — ?"

"General MacArthur; yes. He is going to be married April 30th, in two weeks' time. And did you know, he met his future wife, Jean, on this very ship — ?"

"No! Really?"

"Just a moment," from Mister Price, the Standard Oil man. "You mean General Douglas MacArthur? The Generalissimo of the Philippines — ?"

"And of the American forces in the Philippines. The very same," from Lieutenant Dunleavy. "He was traveling Westbound from the States two years ago, in '35, and he met the future Mrs. MacArthur on board, and, well, they hit it off. A shipboard romance, that worked out very well."

I tried not to wince.

"And so!" from Mister Nieuwenhuis, his eyes shrewd, and interested, in his broad face. "You are helping to organize General MacArthur's wedding, that suggests you serve on the great man's staff! How wonderful, for both of you! You must know a good deal of his mind, then, no — ?"

Lieutenant Dunleavy glanced sideways at Lieutenant Allison; a little uncomfortably, I thought.

"Well, actually," spoke up Lieutenant Allison, "we don't see all that much of the General. We do most of our work for Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower, his Chief of Staff … he'll be coming back on the same boat, as the General. The Colonel sent us back to Manila early, to get things ready for them, in Intramuros … Does anyone mind if I smoke?" he looked around the table. "Sir?" he asked, of the male half of the only couple present. "Ma'am — ?"

"Not at all, young man, you go right ahead," the rather large woman replied. In tones I remembered, and disliked.

"Most of what we do," offered Lieutenant Dunleavy, in turn, "is very boring; routine, really. Supplies and personnel; supplies, and personnel." He shrugged. "You wouldn't believe what it takes, to get canned food shipped in from the West Coast; or, how old some of it is, when we get it. Still," he went on, brightening a little. "You couldn't ask for a better boss than Colonel Eisenhower. We're lucky to have him."

"Eisenhower?" from Mister Nieuwenhuis, a little thoughtfully. "We have heard of your General MacArthur, in the Netherlands East Indies; and believe me, we are very grateful that you Americans are there, in the Philippines! It makes the neighborhood a little less — lonely, one might say … But we had not heard of your Colonel Eisenhower, before. Hm." He leaned back in his chair, again; and again, it creaked, alarmingly.

There was a pause, in the conversation; and I took a chance. It seemed like a good one, at the time.

"Father, don't you know General MacArthur? Didn't you have dinner with him in Washington, sometime last Fall — ?"

It was my attempt to 'steer' the conversation, as Father had requested. And, I knew quite well that he had dined with General MacArthur; the General is quite a famous — or infamous, depending on one's viewpoint — figure, in certain circles.

"You know the General, sir?" from Lieutenant Dunleavy, politely; eyebrows raised.

"We have met socially, a few times," from Father; and there was a certain — reserve — that I sensed, in the way that he said it. "But, I met him the first time during the War; in France. He was a Brigadier, then, and I was very briefly on the staff of General Pershing."

"You were a staff officer for Black Jack Pershing — ?" from Lieutenant Dunleavy; in amazement, sitting up, straight. Then, he turned to the rest of us, at the table. "General Pershing was the C.O., the Commanding Officer, of the American Expeditionary Force, in the war," he said, a little apologetically.

"Him, we have heard of as well," from Mister Nieuwenhuis, drily.

I tried not to turn and stare at Father.

"I was very briefly on his staff, as a very junior Lieutenant," Father said, dismissively. "When I found I was doing no real work of substance, I requested a transfer to a Line unit; I was posted to Field Artillery. I was still attending Artillery classes at Saint-Cyr, when the Armistice was reached."

I had known of Father's attendance at Saint-Cyr — the French West Point — but I had never heard of his having been on General Pershing's Staff.

"Ah," from Lieutenant Allison; with a shrewd look in his eyes. "If you were at Saint-Cyr in 1918, you might have been mobilized for the Battle of the Marne — ? The second one, I mean."

"Yes," Father said; a little quietly. "But we did not see action." Then; "It is not a pleasant memory."

I blinked, again. I had not known this, either.

Lieutenant Allison inclined his head, slightly, with a distinct look of respect.

"I'd like, very much, sir, to hear more about your experiences in France. Especially, your time with Black Jack Pershing; he has always been a hero, of mine."

"Of course," from Father. "It would be a pleasure. And, we have plenty of time … "

And, as the conversation turned next to Doctor Yang, on Lieutenant Allison's right — it occurred to me, that Father had very adroitly pivoted the conversation away from General MacArthur; or at least, his acquaintance with General MacArthur. And, that he had done so, at the cost of talking about himself; which is something he does not ordinarily like to do.

As witnessed by the two surprises he had just delivered, to me.

I wondered, how much else was there, about Father's past, which I did not know — ?


In due time, the dining room stewards circled the tables, taking our orders; and the soups and salads came out, temporarily slowing, if not halting, the introductions.

Father introduced himself simply, and briefly, and described the purpose of our trip as 'arranging certain inter-bank settlement agreements'. No mention was made of the gold bullion in the Specie Tank.

I, in turn, was introduced merely as 'my son, Rhys'; with no reference to any role as Confidential Secretary. This suited me fine.

Unfortunately, I did not entirely escape scrutiny.

" … and how old are you, honey? Let me guess! Fourteen? Fifteen — ?"

This, from the large woman across the table from us. We had already learned that she was one Iris Cooke, the 'better half' of George; and that they hailed from Richmond, Virginia. And Father and I had already gone to considerable lengths, to avoid the both of them. They had boarded our train in Chicago, and traveled with us, ever since; and I had had an unpleasant run-in with her.

"Sixteen, actually, ma'am," I replied politely.

"Oh, and is this your first trip abroad — ? You must be so excited! It's the first trip for George and I, and I feel like a schoolgirl!" At that, she took her husband's arm, and — I don't know how else to put it — she virtually pressed her ample bosom against his shoulder.

On the train, more than a week back, now, Father had of course been ill, with his cold; and I had intercepted one of the porters, to ask him to please make up Father's bed; the porters had the special key needed, to lower the berth. And in doing so, I had addressed the porter as, 'Sir'. And, she had witnessed it.

Later, in the dining car, Mrs. Cooke had rebuked me; in Father's presence, and many others'. 'Oh, honey, you don't call them 'Sir'! You'll just embarrass them. Call them, 'Boy', or 'George', that's what they're used to.'

The Pullman porters are, of course, black; and, extremely competent; and I would rather bite through my tongue than address any black adult of any occupation, as 'Boy'.

Father and I, by unspoken consent, had managed to dodge Mr. and Mrs. Cooke, ever since.

Until now.

"Well, actually, ma'am, I have been abroad, before," I replied, innocently.

"You have — ?"

She had asked; I was bound to reply.

"Yes, Ma'am. Father and I lived in Europe for seven years. I went to school near Geneva; but we spent quite a bit of time in London, and Paris, and Vienna, and Zurich … but especially, Paris; my grandparents keep a flat in the Seventh, the Seventh Arrondissement, I mean; we used to spend Christmases there." I paused, to give her one of my sunnier smiles. "But this will be my first time in Asia, too!"

Beside me, Father found it expedient to take a sip from his water-glass.

"Your grandparents live in Paris — ?" from Doctor Yang; clearly interested.

"On, no, sir; but they visit, when they can."

"And they certainly have a taste for the finer neighborhoods," said Mister Nieuwenhuis; amusement playing over his broad, thick face. He glanced at me, quickly, and I thought I detected the briefest of winks; and it occurred to me, again, that very little seemed to escape him.

* * *

The soups and salads were soon replaced by the entrees; and the conversations slowed, further. Mister Nieuwenhuis, in particular, seemed happily occupied with his roast beef and baked potato; which was Father's choice, as well. I'd made the mistake of ordering the Chicken Kiev; it was very good, a stuffed chicken breast — but it was rich.

I'd forgotten one of my own first rules of extended traveling; which was, to eat lightly, and simply. My years at the School In The Sky had left me … somewhat incompatible … with rich food. Or breakfasts; or with too much food at one time, of any description, actually.

Well. I would do better, I promised myself; going forward.

At last, the plates were cleared away; the dining-stewards came around with their silver coffee-pots, and the little cards listing the dessert offerings; and our table, like all the other tables in the First Class Dining Salon, enveloped itself in a cloud of cigaret-smoke.

It is curious, how cigaret-smoke seems to be acceptable in almost all times and places, whereas cigar-smoking is reserved for smoking-rooms … Even Father refrained from filling and lighting his pipe; he instead accepted the offer of a cigaret from Lieutenant Dunleavy.

The last person to introduce himself at our table was no exception; he'd lit a brown cigaret with a silver lighter.

He was, I realized upon looking at him, the annoying, humming man from the Ship's Library, the previous evening.

"Me — ? Oh; oh, of course. Ian Grey; grey, you know, like the color. Pleased to meet you," he said, earnestly, shaking hands enthusiastically with Mister Cooke on one side of him, then Doctor Yang on the other side; then — "There," he said, peering around at the rest of us; "We'll just have to pretend we've all shaken hands already, until I can reach you … " He seemed slightly anxious, about the omission. "And … yes; I'm with I.M.M. Limited, Imperial Mining and Metals, that is; and this will be my first time in Shanghai — no, wait, is it — ? Yes," he paused for a second, with a quizzical look on his face, as if he were thinking out loud. "Yes, it will be."

Mister Grey was, I thought, around thirty, perhaps a little less; slender, with blond hair, which might be thinning, a little … and, he was very clearly British.

Actually, I had encountered enough British people, both in Europe and back home, to recognize that his accent was rather distinctive; 'Plummy', is how another English person might describe it, meaning, cultivated, and upper-crust. He sounded like one of Grandfather's and Grandmother's distinguished, English guests.

"And may one inquire, what it is you do at … Imperial Mining and Metals — ?" from Mister Nieuwenhuis, in polite good humor.

"Limited," from Mister Grey; "I.M.M., Limited. Well, I play with rocks, actually; the Front Office in London sends me all over, with this whacking great crate of hammers, and files, and mortars and pestles and chemicals and whatnot, to the most absurd places, so I can tell them what kind of rocks they have, there." He paused, to take a quick sip from a short glass full of ice, and a lime twist; then he set it down. "It's really very inconvenient; why they can't just mail the rocks to London, and let me look at them there, I don't know."

"Maybe because they want to be sure of where the rocks are coming from — ?" offered Mister Nieuwenhuis, with a smile.

"Well, the Front Office have mentioned that," from Mister Grey, a little mock-petulantly, I thought. "Still; it would be so much more comfortable, if I could stay in London."

"And what metals are you interested in, Mister Grey — ?" from Mister Price, at Mister Nieuwenhuis' side. "We're both — my friend here, and I — in the petroleum business, as we said. It seems we're all three of us involved in pulling things up out of the ground." This, with a wry smile.

"Oh, we'll take whatever comes along," from Mister Grey. "Iron, of course; always. Copper; nickel; zinc. Manganese. Bauxite is very big, right now, everyone's interested in bauxite. Unfortunately for us, the damned stuff is everywhere, it's hard to avoid. Hard to find a profit in it, according to the Front Office."

"Bauxite — ?" from Doctor Yang.

"They make aluminium from it," said Mister Grey. "Lots of future, in aluminium; lots of people building aeroplanes, these days, and there's more to come."

A slight pause, and pall, in the conversation. We all knew that Italy and Germany were building air-forces, rapidly.

"Well," from Mister Price; after a moment. "Let's hope some of that bauxite, at least, goes to the British; and the French."

"Oh, yes, yes," from Mister Grey. "Let us hope." He looked down in his glass, for a moment, and then he rattled the ice in it; and then, in a very practiced move, he looked over at one of the dining-stewards, lifted his eyebrows, and raised his glass, just very, very slightly … it was a telling move.

"And, so, your destination is Shanghai — ?" asked Mister Nieuwenhuis; spooning some sugar into his coffee. "I believe you said so, at any rate. And, if one may ask, shall you be using Shanghai as a base from which to, ah, go out, 'playing with rocks' — ?" I had the impression that he found Mister Grey, amusing.

"Yes," from Mister Grey; then a pause. "Or, well, rather — I don't really know; I just assume so. It's a little bit like the passage about the Centurion, in Luke; 'I tell this one to go, and he goeth; and I tell this one to come, and he cometh.' Only, I'm the one who is told to goeth and cometh; and the Front Office is, or are, the Centurion … I'm just a slave to my wages, really. Oh, thank you!" This last as a new, short, condensation-dappled cocktail-glass appeared in front of him, complete with lime-twist, and the empty glass was efficiently removed. "Sometimes, they'll send me to a place, and I have to wait days, or weeks, even, before they send me out to a site … really, it would be so much more convenient, if we could just do it all by mail."

"Perhaps so, perhaps so," from Mister Nieuwenhuis, with a smile, leaning back, again. "Still. One cannot help thinking, that if one must wait, in a place — perhaps Shanghai might be a very comfortable place for it … No?"

"Hmmm … so I've heard." And as he raised his full cocktail glass up to take a sip — I saw the briefest hint of a sly, and secret smile, touch the corners of his mouth.

I had of course been mentally constructing the notes I would write out about Mister Grey, later that evening. 'Geologist of some kind' … 'Drinks quite a bit' … To those, I decided I would add: 'Probably not nearly as silly as he acts.'


The first cigarets were finished, and the second ones lit, in a polite, ritual flurry of murmurs, and lighter-snaps, and flaring matches. The coffee-cups were refilled; I added quite a bit of milk to mine, as was my custom with American coffee. The conversation became rather general, and desultory; people searching for common interests, common acquaintances, with limited success. Father, as far as I could tell, was saying very little of substance; and he gave me no signals, of any kind.

My mind turned, rather miserably, to my situation with Tom. My dilemma, with Tom. And to Jack; of course. Of course.

In his next-to-last letter, Jack had suggested — asked, really — that we wire each other, from time to time. For safety's sake, partly; so that we always knew, for a certainty, how to get in touch with one another, quickly, in case of disaster. Even apart from my own situation, it made sense; careful as we both are, had been, boys who bed-visit with other boys at school risk discovery, expulsion and disgrace. The risk, even if low, in our community, is a constant companion. I would need to know, right away, if Jack were caught up in a 'purge'.

All of this was written-between-the-lines; of course. But what came across even more clearly, more poignantly, was that Jack wanted us to wire one another, occasionally, for heart's ease. For the sake of reading each other's words, for the sake of reaching out and touching one another, with a time lag of hours, rather than of weeks. Even via Airmail, letters from Shanghai to Massachusetts or New York would take — 

Well. We weren't sure; but we knew, mail would still take many days to cross the distance. A week? Nine days? Two weeks — ?

I agreed, with the idea of wiring each other, whole-heartedly. My heart had actually leaped, at the prospect.

And now — this.

My first wire to him, after receiving his suggestion, would be about — this. About Tom. And, he would know I'd read his suggestion. The timing made me wince.

Worse — I needed to talk to Tom, tomorrow. There was no way I could wire Jack, covertly asking permission for what I needed to do, and then wait for his reply … I could not wait. Rather, I'd be asking his forgiveness, after the fact.

He'd give it, of course. In my place, he'd do exactly the same thing, without hesitation … I knew him. Still; the whole situation was miserable, for me, for Jack, for Tom, and far from lacking in risk — 


And then, just as I was thinking all this — the next disaster struck.


As I'd been sitting, brooding, feeling wretched — I'd been looking at Mister Grey, as he conversed with Doctor Yang.

I'd been doing so unconsciously, my mind thousands of miles away, as was my heart … 

Still. Part of my mind was here. And that unthinking, automatic part of me had noticed, that Mister Grey was not unattractive. His blond hair was clean-looking, and brushed to the side, rather boyishly, without oil or pomade; his fair skin was smooth, with just the faintest beginnings of small lines, appearing at the outside corners of his eyes … I wondered if Jack would get little lines like that, when he got to the same age; there was something touching about them, for some reason … 

He looked over at me. Our eyes met.

I'd been wool-gathering. I was unprepared.


It is our eyes, that give us away.


We held each other's gaze for several heartbeats, several seconds, before I did the sane thing; I let my eyes slide smoothly away, off into the middle distance, unfocused, as if to say, 'I wasn't really looking at you'.

But I was far too late. I fooled no-one; and I could do nothing about the flush I could feel, spreading over my face … 

It is remarkable, how much can be conveyed, in a look. A glance.

In Mister Grey's look, I saw a very great deal; many things.

Keen interest, at the first; it was not coincidence, or chance, that had brought his eyes to mine … 

And then — a shock of recognition. A shock which clearly matched my own. A shock, of mutual recognition … 

Amusement, then; I'd seen the little lines at the corners of his eyes tighten, just slightly, as he'd tried not to smile … 

And finally, ultimately, above and beneath, and surrounding all the rest — desire. Naked desire.

Desire is the coin of exchange, in looks such as these. It was a look of desire which had brought Jack and me together, initially, two years before; it is a thing which cannot be feigned. It is electric, and honest; it can lead to love, or to disaster.

Damn. Merde. Hell. Putain. Scheisse. Hell, and Hell, again.


We are everywhere, of course; not just in boys' boarding schools, not just in public parks. Our tribe is everywhere, in every profession, every place, men and boys alike; and as we are all outlaws, the age of majority counts for very little. This was not the first time in my life that I had been admired by an adult male.

It was the first time I'd slipped, by admiring one back. And been caught, doing so.

It was the very last thing I needed, just at that miserable moment.

Damn, and Hell.

And, to my mental notes on Mister Grey, I added two additional lines, which could never be actually written out:

Homosexual. Like me.

Like Tom.

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