China Boat

Chapter 19


$7,000 Collected for Loyalist
Ambulances at Hippodrome
Mass Meeting

New York, April 19th. — A mass meeting to protest against German and Italian troops with the Rebel army in Spain was held yesterday afternoon at the Hippodrome, Sixth Avenue at Forty-Third Street.

Among the 3,500 at the meeting were representatives of liberal, radical, labor and professional groups. The speakers included Thomas Mann, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, an exile from Germany; Fernando de los Rios, Spanish Ambassador to the United States … 

* * *

It is sixteen days from Honolulu to Shanghai; seventeen, if one counts the day lost, crossing the International Date Line.

That is a very long time, to be on a ship.

Sixteen days is more than long enough for boredom to set in; for settled habits to form, and for people to begin to tire of their surroundings, and of each other, and even of themselves.

Oh, the Purser and the Stewards did their best, of course; using all of the tricks I remembered from crossing the Atlantic.

There was always the thrill of gambling, for instance; the slot machine in the First Class Smoking Room became extremely popular, more so that I could have imagined … But there were also 'Horse Races'; contests in which miniature markers, standing in for horses, were pushed around a green-felt 'track', marked off in spaces, by stewards with croupier-sticks, their progress determined by rolls of dice. People bet on their 'horses' with great enthusiasm; and by keeping a cracking pace, with pairs of dice constantly rattling in dice-cups for each 'horse', the assistant pursers in charge actually made the whole thing exciting, capturing some of the feel of a real race. It was a remarkable thing to see.

Other amusements required some tact, if one wished to avoid them.

There was, of course, the old favorite, the Fancy Dress Contest … and its cousin, the Funny Hat Contest — 

The assistant pursers, and the cabin stewards, tried very hard to get us all to compete; and in fact, a remarkably large number of people seemed to enjoy the contests very much, spending hours and fair sums of money, acquiring materials for their costumes … 

I had been a morbidly shy, and bereft, seven-year-old on my first Atlantic crossing; and equally bereft, and not much less shy at fourteen, on the return trip. I'd been excused from such torments.

As for Father — the idea of him participating in such events was unthinkable; laughable. Absurd. Father has a wry, dry sense of humor … but his usual carriage ranges from 'formal', to 'austere'.


No, Father and I avoided the organized social distractions of the passage, the fancy-dress contests, the dances, the amateur singing … Instead, by default, we tended to spend more time in the First Class Smoking Room, with its green-glass ashtray-stands, the rubber tile floor, the clouds of smoke and the adult conversations. All of which, in any case, was in line with his expressed goals, of picking up on other people's thoughts on China.


The First Class Smoking Room had another important asset. It had a radio set.


"This is the BBC Empire Service," we heard from the cloth-covered speaker, set in the wood cabinet. The words came with the rising-falling background tones of shortwave. "The News." Another wordless pause, filled with the same, rising-falling background noise.

It was not, strictly speaking, a separate radio set; oddly enough. On the President Hoover, there were several centralized, multi-channel shortwave receivers which used the ship's main antenna; the First Class Smoking Room, and each individual cabin, had loudspeaker-cabinets, with knobs preset to a selection of radio services … We were now far enough away from home, that the British Broadcasting Corporation's powerful transmitters offered by the far the clearest reception.

The news-reader continued, in cultured tones.

"It is announced by officials of the Spanish Government, in Valencia, that an attempt by Nationalist forces to encircle Madrid has been turned back." A pause; more rising-and-falling tones. "It is said that irregular Loyalist forces, aided by the so-called International Brigades, have captured three hundred men and six guns."

A breath, from Mister Sayles; it sounded distinctly like a snort.

"It is further claimed," the measured voice intoned, "that the captured men are officers and enlisted personnel of the regular Italian Army." Another measured pause; that rising-and-falling background noise. "The Italian Government in Rome have issued a statement denying that Italian Army personnel are involved in the conflict in any way, describing the captured men instead as civilian volunteers." Another, rising-and-falling tone; a space of silence.

"Hmm," from Mister Grey. He seemed amused.

"The Spanish Government have further announced their strongest objections to the land and naval blockade of war materiel to both Loyalist and Nationalist forces, which will be initiated at midnight tonight under the authority of the League of Nations Committee of Non-Intervention, and which will employ ground observers and naval units of Britain, France, Germany and Italy … "

"Fat lot of good it will do them," put in Mister Sayles, forcefully. Viciously, even.

It was perhaps a rather poor choice of words, on his part. Mister Sayles was a rotund man. He was wearing a white linen suit, and he looked somewhat like an aggrieved pillow.

"Do you think so — ?" from Mister Grey, politely.

Our group was small, tonight; Father and myself, Mister Sayles and Mister Grey, and Doctor Yang. And I could already tell, that the conversation would be dominated by events in Europe, rather than Asia, as Father would have preferred. Mister Sayles had strong opinions, about happenings in Europe.

"I mean, really," from Mister Sayles. "It's only a matter of time. You have anarchists and Communists, up against some of the finest troops in Europe. The Spanish Radicals have already lost half the country, and a good thing, too. I give them perhaps six months."

Mister Grey swirled the brandy in his snifter, gently; he and Father and Mister Sayles, and Doctor Yang, all had brandies; I had a Coke.

"Some might say," said Mister Grey, mildly, "that the Spanish Republicans represent the democratically elected government of Spain … and that the Nationalists are promulgating a coup d'état."

In addition to being rotund, Mister Sayles had eyes that tended to bulge. They were bulging, now. Coldly.

"Any Government which looks the other way as priests and nuns are murdered, and churches are burnt, has lost all legitimacy. They are a bunch of Bolsheviks and Anarchists."

A brief pause.

"Well, that seems to cover it," from Mister Grey, brightly. He raised his brandy snifter to his lips.

"In London today," the newsreader continued, "it was announced in Parliament that the Royal Navy would not establish a convoy system for British vessels headed for the blockaded Spanish port of Bilbao. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Samuel Hoare, gave the following statement in response to questions from Opposition MP's: 'If it comes to the attention of a British man-of-war that a British merchant ship is being interfered with on the high seas by a Spanish warship, the British ship is to be afforded protection. However, no instructions have been issued for British merchant ships to be convoyed up to the limits of Spanish territorial waters … '"

I felt Mister Grey's eyes flick to mine; I kept my face expressionless, and my eyes on the radio-speaker.

"And what about your opinion, Mister Williamson — ? I believe you and your son spent quite a few years on the Continent — ?" He cleared his throat, apologetically. "For my own part, I confess I've been traveling so much lately, it's been difficult to keep up with the news … or the parts of it which don't involve rocks, at any rate."

Father puffed on his pipe, negligently.

"Oh, I don't really know; we've been back home for a few years, now." Another puff on his pipe, as he looked off into space. "Rhys is the one who follows these things, in any case. When we're in Town, he takes several foreign newspapers, I believe."

In football — American football — this was what is known as a lateral; a handoff to another player. It also deflected attention away from Father, and onto me.

Father's actions were becoming less predictable, and less explicable, by the day.

"Is that so, Mister Williamson — ?" Mister Grey turned his dangerous smile on me; and he swirled his brandy, in his snifter, a little. "Oh — would you mind if I called you, 'Rhys'? It would be less confusing, what with the two of you being Williamsons, after all."

"I wouldn't mind at all, sir."

"Call me Ian — ?" He gave me a winning smile, full of hidden meaning; half-mocking himself, at the same time.

"Yes, sir."

He smiled again, a little wryly, at that; and went on.

"You follow foreign newspapers, then — ? May one ask, which ones — ? I do need to catch up, from time to time … but my last expedition was to Brazil; 'Ordem e Progresso', and all that, but somehow, in school, I missed out on learning Portuguese." He put on a mock-pained look. "One does feel cut off, from time to time … "

"Yes, sir … " I shrugged, and paused. "Well; I really depend on the 'New York Times', of course … But I have friends in Switzerland, still; so I try to keep up. I read 'Le Tribune de Genève', sometimes, and I take 'Paris-Soir'." I shrugged a little, again. "And the 'Times' of London, too."

His eyes upon me were intent, and lazy, at the same time. "Nothing from Germany — ? Not the 'Völkischer Beobachter' — ?"

It was the official newspaper of the Nazi Party, the National Socialist Party; and it was all but unreadable, as well as odious.

"No," I said; trying to keep my face still. "No; although I read the 'Frankfurter Zeitung' at the New York Public Library, sometimes … "

"Ah," from Mister Grey, smoothly. Then I saw his eyes flick sideways to Mister Sayles, a moment, before coming back to meet mine. "Well, for my own part — do you know, I have a bit of a secret vice — ? When it comes to reading materials, to newspapers, that is. Whenever I'm back home in London, I mean."

I blinked. "Sir — ?"

A very slight smile crinkled the edges of his mouth, the little lines at the edges of his eyes. "I have been known to pick up a copy of the 'Manchester Guardian', from time to time."

It is a Labour, left-leaning newspaper in Britain; and a good one. I heard a 'pfft' sound, from Mister Sayles.

"Of course, I try not to be seen, actually reading it … I do wish they'd publish it with a nice, plain, brown-paper cover, or something. But then, that would take away part of the thrill of the whole experience, don't you think — ?" He smiled at me, more openly. Comically. With a suggestion of hidden meaning.


It had been like this, since that first dinner together, that first disastrous exchange of looks. Cat-and-mouse; and I was not the cat.


"I suppose, sir, it all depends on one's choice of neighborhoods. And on the company one keeps."

A very slight, amused, lift to his eyebrow; and another sip of his brandy.

I wondered if it was a mistake, to play along with him, like that; I did not want to encourage him. But then, I very much did not want one of his double entendres to penetrate Father's awareness … it seemed best to steer matters, a little.

The newsreader, was still reading.

"It has been announced, in London, that the Coronation of His Majesty King George the Sixth, which will take place on May 12th, will require the temporary closure of the following roads on that date:" Another rising-falling pause. "The Mall. Birdcage Walk. Horse Guards Road … "

Doctor Yang spoke up, for the first time.

"The newscast mentioned the International Brigades, as fighting near Madrid." He held his brandy snifter in both hands; he looked troubled. "Two of my students — two of my best students — recently left school to join the American brigade … I am very worried about them." He glanced at each of us, in turn. "And yet, I know very little about the International Brigades. The Spanish war is not well-covered, in the United States. Or," he went on, with a grimace, "not, at least, in San Francisco. Or Oakland."

A pause, at that; so I spoke up.

"Well, sir, the 'Paris Herald' covers the war, very well; if you can find a copy … although I guess it would be a little old, by the time it reached California. For war coverage, 'Le Temps' of Paris is excellent too; they run a front-page feature on the subject, every day."

For myself, I preferred 'Le Temps'; each edition featured a box on the top of the front page, entitled 'La Guerre Civile en Espagne'. And usually there was another box next to that, entitled 'Le Probleme de la Non-Intervention' — The Problem of Non-Intervention, which title alone summed up my fears and worries.

"I can tell you this much about these International Brigades," from Mister Sayles; in his rather nasal voice. "It is now illegal for my countrymen to join them; and I suppose it is for yours, as well. And rightly so." He fixed his bulging eyes on Doctor Yang.

"Yes — ?" from Doctor Yang; politely.

"Indeed. Far too many people fail to realize the true nature of the War in Spain. It is hardly a true civil war; it has become a proxy war, between East and West, between the Bolshevism of Lenin, and the capitalist, traditional values of Europe — as represented by Herr Hitler's Germany, and Signor Mussolini's Italy. It is the battle of our time, of our civilization — and the so-called International Brigades are on the wrong side of it." Mister Sayles paused, to look each of us in the eye. "If you ask me, non-intervention is a mistake; we, our two governments, should be providing aid to the Nationalists, in alliance with Italy and Germany."

Mister Grey looked amused. "I wonder if anyone would notice the difference — ?"

I blinked, at that.

Doctor Yang was not amused.

"I suppose one could make the case for Italy representing Western values, given her recent conquest of Ethiopia, using poison gas disseminated from airplanes against African tribesmen," he said; evenly. "And Herr Hitler's Germany certainly upholds the finest traditions in European racial discrimination. But I'm afraid that I, myself, am not persuaded that we should join with them. Perhaps, for obvious reasons."

A brief silence. He had said this last, with great dignity.

For my own self, I felt like applauding him. I love my country, I love her ideals … but we are very good at legally codifying racism, in many forms. I could hardly imagine Doctor Yang's path to a doctorate, to a Professorship, in the face of the obstacles put up to a member of his race. I wondered at his story.

Mister Sayles cleared his throat.

"Yes … Well. No country, no Empire, for that matter, is without flaws. My own country has committed many regrettable deeds; you Americans are the best judges of your own past. To my mind, this does not change the facts. I still maintain that Signor Mussolini, and Herr Hitler — along with Generalissimo Franco — are fighting on our behalf."

"On our behalf — ?" from Doctor Yang. With polite skepticism.

"Yes. They are fighting against Bolshevism. And they are doing so in a country removed from ours. It is hardly a stretch to say, that they are keeping the peace, in the rest of Europe."

I was sixteen; it was not my place to argue with an adult. But I did not have to; Father broke his silence.

"I disagree," he began, quietly. Looking down into his brandy.

"Oh — ?" from Mister Sayles; in a politely aggrieved tone.

"Yes … I have spent some time in Germany, and Austria, and Italy … as has my son." He swirled the brandy in his snifter, a little; looking down at it. "Germany, in particular, has become a militarized state. The Germans have re-militarized the Rhineland; they are rebuilding their air force, the Luftwaffe; they are building submarines, U-boats, openly again. Everywhere one goes in Germany, the Party and the Military are adulated, deified."

I had a brief, horrible flash of memory, of what had happened the time Father and I were in Berlin … it gave me nightmares, still.

"There will be no peace in Europe. There will be another Great War. And I can only hope that this time, my country can stay out of it, that we can escape it. But I fear we will not."

A long silence, then.

"Hmmph," from Mister Sayles, at last; and he buried his nose inside his brandy snifter.

"Well," from Mister Grey; looking down, a little mournfully, into his own, empty snifter. I saw him look around, vainly, for a steward, for a moment; then he went on. "Well. That is a bit discouraging to hear, I must say … Do you agree, Rhys — ?"

"I'm afraid so, sir. Even two years ago, Berlin was a very frightening place."

"Nonsense," said Mister Sayles. "It is all a show for the masses; it is theater, it is propaganda. Just as the Berlin Olympics was theater."

"I hope you're right, sir."

"As do I," from Mister Grey. "Of course. And may one ask, Rhys … do you suffer from the impulse to join the International Brigades in Spain, yourself, as do so many of your peers — ? Once you come of age, I mean. 'From each according to his ability', and all — ?" He fixed me with that lazy, interested look again.

Jack and I had indeed discussed the matter, in the abstract; as to whether it might be our duty … I believe I had successfully dissuaded him.

Not that I would ever relate that to another living soul. Mister Grey's question was extraordinarily personal, and impertinent; and I was aware of Father trying not to look at me. He certainly knew I was an anti-fascist.

"No, sir," I said, mildly. "No, sir; I think war is a futile business, and I hope to avoid it, if possible."

"Good man," from Mister Sayles. It made me immediately uncomfortable.

"But the 'if possible' part is the real trick, though, isn't it — ?" from Mister Grey, mock-thoughtfully. "In the last war, one didn't really have that much of a say … "

A steward arrived with another snifter of brandy, and Mister Grey took it, nodding his thanks.

" … In fact," he went on, "if worst came to worst — I believe you and I, Rhys, share an attribute that, shall we say, sets us apart, from most of us in this room — ?" He gestured around, gently, with his full brandy snifter, and half-smiled at me. Playfully.

"Sir — ?" I said it, neutrally.

More double entendres. More cat-and-mouse.

"Of course. We are both of age for military service … for the draft. Or rather, you will be, very soon; and I am, now. I'm only twenty-nine, after all." He fixed me with a slightly self-mocking look, a little beseeching, and a little anxious, at the same time. "That's not so terribly old as all that, is it — ?"

I believe I blushed, slightly, again; damn it. And then I found my voice.

"Of course not, sir. Why, that's less than twice my age."

A mock-wounded look from Mister Grey; accompanied by that slight, secret smile which crinkled the little lines at the corners of his eyes.

* * *

I did not return to my cabin right away, after the evening in the First Class Smoking Room. I had quite a bit to think about.

First, I took a turn up on the Sun Deck, pacing the running-track in the nighttime air … First forward, into the wind created by our passage; then sternward, the wind blowing a gale at my back.

The deck was completely deserted, and the clean air felt good; spotlights shone on the dollar signs, painted on the funnels, lighting the night. I briefly considered changing into my running clothes, and doing some laps; but it was far too late, the idea was absurd.

But I did pace, quickly. And I thought, as I paced.


Mister Grey was a problem.


Oh, not a tremendously serious problem; or so I thought, anyway. His quips and double-entendres were a sort of teasing, mixed with mild flirtation … but it was difficult to take it very seriously. In fact, it was all a little too obvious, to be taken seriously. Cat-and-mouse, I'd called it; and he was the cat, toying with the mouse, just for the amusement of it … 

Still. His interest in me was real enough, if hypothetical. And he knew I was attracted to him; and he had made me smile, several times, in the last two days … 

I would avoid being alone with him, for the rest of the voyage. On principle.

Still; I thought.

For someone idly passing time, by exercising his wit, by teasing a young shipmate … the direction of his teasing, of his badinage, had been rather — pointed. It had been rather pointedly political, in nature.

First, there'd been the mention of the 'Völkischer Beobachter', the Nazi newspaper … and then, his quip about the 'Manchester Guardian', in the brown paper cover — although, I wondered, now, if that had been aimed more at Mister Sayles, than at me. But after that, had come his impertinent question about joining the International Brigades, and his quote from Marx — 

Did he believe I was a leftist, and was so trying to gain favor with me, by raising the issue — ?

Whatever my charms, as a fellow-queer, a fellow-homosexual — I found it hard to believe, that he'd care about my political views. I was sixteen; I was still in school.


We had gotten into a political discussion, about the Spanish Civil War … and we'd heard from Mister Sayles; and Doctor Yang; and ultimately, from Father. It had all been interesting, and very revealing.

It reminded me, in fact, of the kind of discussion Father had said he wanted to generate, about China and Japan; the kind of discussion he wanted me to help steer. Tonight's talk had been revealing, about attitudes towards Communism and Fascism, and Spain, anyway … 

But, I thought to myself, it had all been due to luck. If Mister Grey had been fishing for information for some reason, he'd just been lucky, that Mister Sayles was there. Mister Sayles had been the perfect foil — 


I stopped, mid-stride, on the running track.


Yes. Mister Sayles had been the perfect foil. Hadn't he — ?


I stood still for a long minute; my thoughts tumbling around.


Who was Mister Grey's employer — ? Imperial Mining and Minerals — ? No; no, it was Imperial Mining and Metals. Limited; he'd stressed the 'Limited'. I'd never heard of it; and there was no way to look it up, on board ship.

Mister Sayles, I remembered, had said he was 'in imports and exports', based in Hong Kong. Nothing more. All we really knew was his name.

I blinked, and took a deep breath; and then I resumed my pacing, feeling the deck moving slightly, under my feet.

No; it was a ridiculous idea. I was just being ridiculous.

Although — if Father and I could have hidden agendas, in our conversations — why couldn't someone else — ? Mister Nieuwenhuis, for his part, clearly enjoyed giving, and receiving, interesting tidbits of information … 

I rounded the sternward turn, so that I was walking forward, 'uphill', again, the wind blasting my face, my front.


Maybe Mister Grey and Mister Sayles weren't in some sort of collusion, together … but it had been a very effective partnership, regardless. By chance, or design. Perhaps, I thought, Father and I could arrange something similar, for a future smoking-room conversation — ?

Not in front of Mister Grey, though. I had a moment's image of the dryly amused look on his face, as he recognized the tactic … 

Which again recalled the whole evening's worth of cat-and-mouse, of innuendo, aimed at me. A sexually-charged game, serious or not.

I would have to warn Tom about Mister Grey; another step in his education, his introduction to the homosexual world. 'Be careful of strange men, even if they are charming and attractive'.

Perhaps, especially, if they are charming and attractive.


I went back to my cabin, and prepared for bed, as quietly as possible, so as not to wake Father.

I was not sleepy. Like most boys my age, I found it very easy to stay up very late, and very unpleasant to get up very early … I hoped my pacing would help me sleep, tonight.

One other thing might help.

Sitting up in bed, I took my wallet from the nightstand drawer; and I opened it. I took out the folded telegram message-sheet, and smoothed it out, and I looked at it.

I'd sent my telegram — my radiogram — to Jack on Sunday afternoon, my time.

His reply had reached me first thing the next morning; I'd gone to the radio room to check, without really expecting to find it. As best as I could work out, Jack had gotten the wire at his lunchtime; and he had cut his — our — last class, to sneak out and hitchhike into town, to send me his reply, so as not to make me wait an extra day.

Beneath the time stamps and routing information, the message was clear. As was the love with which it was sent.





I had memorized Jack's first letter, before tearing it up; tearing it up had been almost physically painful, to do.

This cable — only two days old! — had taken the letter's place, in my wallet. Next to my heart.

Where it would stay, until we were together, again.

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