China Boat

Chapter 20

"If, sir," she begins, "in my knowledge of my secret — " But he interrupts her.

"Now, Lady Dedlock, this is a matter of business, and in a matter of business the ground cannot be kept too clear. It is no longer your secret. Excuse me. That is just the mistake. It is my secret, in trust for Sir Leicester and the family. If it were your secret, Lady Dedlock, we should not be here holding this conversation."

-Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter 46

* * *

Wednesday, April 21st, 1937
9:55 a.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea

"C'mon, Mickey, this is my friend Rhys; you've seen him before. Go on up and say hello to him!"

We were in the ship's Children's Area, on the starboard side of the Boat Deck; there were fairy-tale characters painted on the walls, and a sandbox, and a miniature play-castle, with wooden walls and turrets, all about three feet tall.

Mickey — his real name was Eugene, but no-one called him that — was standing before me, regarding me with great solemnity; he had brown eyes like Tom's, and was dressed in a toddler's tweed suit. He also had his right index finger inserted into his mouth, his palm facing me. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor; our eyes were almost level.

I tried to give him an encouraging smile. "Hello, Mickey — !" I said, brightly.

Another solemn moment, as he stood, swaying a little with the motion of the ship … and then he turned, and pelted back into Tom's arms, burying his face against Tom's chest. "Ta — !" he said; loudly and clearly.

"Awww, Mickey … it's okay." Tom hugged his brother, and patted him on the back. He looked over Mickey's head, at me. "He's a little shy around strangers, until he gets to know them."

"That's all right; I know the feeling."

"Yeah … "

I couldn't help smiling over at him. "'Ta' — ?" I made it into a question.

"Yeah … yeah, that's me … There's 'Ma', or 'Mama'; there's 'Da', for my dad, and I'm 'Ta', for Tom." He seemed slightly embarrassed. "His vocabulary is still a little limited."

"Well, it won't be for long."

Mickey wriggled himself around in Tom's arms, until he could look back at me, again, sideways; he went back to regarding me, shyly.

"C'mon, Mickey … we have blocks, here! Do you want to play with the blocks, with me?" Tom turned his brother around, and set him down on his bottom, facing the pile of blocks; he looked over at me. "Come closer, and help us out — ?"

I slid a little closer, across the rubber-tiled floor.

Mickey seemed fascinated by the blocks; his mouth opened, and his eyes went wide … it was actually beautiful to see. He was a beautiful creature, in truth; so perfectly-formed, and so very small … 

"Ba — !" from Mickey.

A wry look from Tom. "'Ba' is for 'Block'. Except when it's for 'Ball'." Tom stacked up four blocks; one yellow, one blue, and two green. "See, Mickey? These spell out, 'ball'. B-A-L-L. Can you say 'Ball'?"

"Ba!" Then, "Ba!" A look of wide delight on his face; I had a feeling that he just liked saying, 'Ba'. That, and perhaps that he liked saying it loudly.

I had some reason to believe that he liked being loud.

"I really appreciate … you know. Being able to sleep over with you," Tom said; not quite looking at me. "It'll make a big difference. To all of us, I think."

Mickey was not the only Fletcher brother who was a little shy with me, just then. Tom had been — well, a little shy, a little awkward — around me, since the kiss in the shower-room; and the talk we'd had at the railing, afterwards.

"That's fine, that's all right; it's my pleasure." I shrugged. "I've got two beds in my cabin, and I'm only using one. And I can't imagine what it would be like, the four of you in one room, trying to sleep. Especially if your brother didn't want to sleep."

"He usually doesn't, at night," from Tom; a little gloomily, watching his brother push over a stack of blocks. "I don't know how Mom does it … I hope she's asleep, right now." He glanced up at me, quickly. "You're sure it's okay with your dad — ?"

"I'm sure," I said; smiling at him.

In fact, Father had not seemed happy at the idea, when I'd broached it … but I had the impression, he couldn't think of a good enough reason to say 'no'.

I'd taken pains to tell him, that I'd keep the Bank business, the gold bullion, and the cypher-material, completely secret, and locked away … and that Tom would only 'sleep over', as he put it, when his brother was making a fuss at night. And that we would stay out of the sitting room.

That last had seemed to mollify him.

I'd also told Tom, that sleeping was all we'd be doing. The sliding partition-door to the sitting-room, and Father's cabin, was thin; and Father is a very light sleeper.

Tom had blushed, at that.

He'd also blushed, when I'd told him I had thought of other ways, for us to be together … 

That blush — and the hopeful, and anxious look on his face — had told me I was doing the right thing, by him, for him, in that regard. It had eased my doubts.

"Okay, Mickey, try this one … " Tom piled up three blocks, red, blue, and yellow, one atop the other. "This spells 'Dog'. You know; Doggie — ?" He looked over at me. "Mickey just loves dogs … C'mon, Mickey! Can you say, Doggie — ?"

Mickey's mouth opened a little, and his eyes went wider; his expression was rapt. "Da — !" he went; but the 'a' was lower, it almost came out like 'Daw'. Then, he said it again; "Da — !"

Tom was delighted. "Hey, that was great — ! Good job, little brother — !" He leaned closer and hugged him, and kissed the top of his head.

"Da — !"

Mickey was also not the only Fletcher brother who was beautiful, just then.

Tom glanced up at me, his brother still in his arms; and he smiled, a little self-consciously, I thought.

"You know," I started; into the pause. "You know … I didn't have any brothers or sisters, growing up … and Jack is the youngest in his family." I smiled a little at them, both; and it felt like a wistful smile. "I think he and I both missed something … "

I'd told Tom about losing my mother, and my baby sister, when I was four; he looked grave, now, for just a second, before patting his brother again, and letting him go.

"Well, I don't know … he can be a pain, sometimes. Like when I have to take care of him, and when he won't let me sleep. And there's the whole thing with diapers … " He shuddered.

I laughed, at his expression.

"I'm serious! You really don't want to know … But." His expression softened a little, as he looked at his brother. "I guess I have to admit; he can be fun to play with." He watched his brother moving blocks around, trying to stack them, with limited degrees of success. "And it's been fun, watching him grow … "

And Mickey chose that moment to heave himself up on his short little legs, and to pick up a yellow block; and he turned to me, and came towards me in tottering little steps, holding the block out to me with a wide, delighted smile.

"Ba — !"

Tom laughed, as I accepted the offered block.

"See — ? The little pest knows we've been talking about him." He took his brother back into his arms, lifting him up, and he began tickling him. "Doesn't he — ? Doesn't he — ?!", and Mickey was laughing, and squirming, and squealing … 

* * *

Father and I dressed for luncheon at the usual time.

Father took an unusually long time, knotting and straightening his tie, in the sitting-room mirror; as I waited, reading the mimeographed ship's newspaper. My own tie was already straight, and much too tight for comfort.

"Rhys — ?"

"Sir?" I looked up.

He went on fiddling with his tie, not looking at me.

"I'm going to need your help again, this afternoon … I have another message for you to encode." He frowned, momentarily at the mirror, and undid his tie, again. "This one is of a comparatively pressing nature; that is why it must go out today."

"Yes, sir."

A slight pause, as he aligned the ends of his silk necktie. Father favors the full-Windsor knot; which is tricky to pull off. I would never wear one, myself; it is bulky, and unusually uncomfortable.

"I'll be asking you to take the message to the radio office, yourself, when it's done; and to bring back the receipt, when it is transmitted. And I am afraid, there will be a reply in a day or two, which I will ask you to help decode for me."

"Yes, sir," from me, again. Cautiously.

Father's eyes, in the mirror, flicked briefly towards mine.

"In case the subject comes up … you might as well know, that I have sent a few messages, in code, without asking for your assistance. They were of a more routine nature, and shorter; it hardly seemed worth it, to bother you."

No mention of seven-letter code groups.

"I see, Father."

His hands moved slowly and carefully, as he made the loops of his Windsor knot; his eyes stayed on the mirror. There was a pause, of several seconds.

"That was a rather interesting conversation we had, last night, in the Smoking Room."

I blinked. Father is not given to idle generalities, as a rule.

"Yes, sir. I thought so, too."

"Mister Sayles seems to have very definite opinions, in respect to the Spanish War, and to European matters in general." His face, in the mirror, grew a little thoughtful. "I have met a great many people in New York, and in Washington, for that matter, who share his views."

If they were, indeed, his views. I said nothing.

Father pulled a tie-end through a loop, and then carefully began tightening his knot.

"Mister Grey, for his part, seems like an odd sort of person … Have you, by any chance, had some prior conversations with him — ?" He asked it with a kind of careful casualness.

"No, sir! None at all."

"I thought his manner with you seemed somewhat — familiar." His eyes stayed on the knot he was smoothing, with his fingers.

"I thought so too, Father. Perhaps it's merely due to my age."

I kept my face still. This was getting into very dangerous territory.

"Perhaps … Still. One meets some strange people, on shipboard. It is always best to be on one's guard."

As if I needed any such warning; now, or at any time.

"Yes, sir … Father?"

"Yes — ?"

I'd been thinking a great deal about last night, and Messrs. Grey and Sayles; several possibilities had occurred to me, unlikely as they might seem.

"I thought last night's conversation seemed a little odd, too … " I hesitated. "Have you, by any chance, mentioned the gold bullion to anyone else on board — ?"

Father's eyes, in the mirror, snapped to mine; and I realized, with a bit of a shock, that he must have been thinking along the same lines as I. I could read it in his face; I wondered if he could read it, in mine.

"No," he said. "I have not. And I hope you have not, either?"

"No, sir … Only, I was thinking; there is a very great deal of gold on board. It seems logical, that some people might find it … interesting — ?"

Father's face, in the mirror, relaxed. He finished adjusting his tie-knot, and he picked up his hair-brushes.

"The bullion is in the ship's vault, and the vault — the specie-tank — is very strong; I inspected it. And in any case, since this is a chartered mail-boat, the gold is insured by the Federal Government. The Government has gold enough to cover any loss."

This last, came with a certain sardonic edge. Father had been very unhappy with the Roosevelt Administration's moves to nationalize the nation's gold supplies.

"Yes, sir … and, we're on a ship, in the middle of the ocean. I was just thinking, that a single chest, or even a single bar, is worth a great deal of money. And, a few bars could probably make it off the ship, in someone's luggage … "

Father put his hands through the straps of his hair-brushes, and began to carefully brush his hair into perfect order.

"We will examine the seals on the caskets in Shanghai, before we sign for them," he said. "Of course. Still, I'm not worried. A ship is a closed environment; outright theft is seldom successful; it is too easy to seal off a ship, and prevent a getaway." He paused, a moment. "As a rule, there are only three ways to make money, on an ocean voyage; by gambling — table-games, I mean; or, by extortion; or, by acquiring information which might be useful in gaming the markets. This last is what I have feared, all along."

I blinked.

"Extortion, Father — ?"

Extortion — blackmail — is a constant fear, for people like Jack and me. For members of our tribe.

Father's eyes flicked to mine, in the mirror, again.

"Oh, yes; it is a very popular activity, on the Atlantic run, at least." He finished brushing his hair, and examined himself in the mirror; and then he turned, to put the hair-brushes back in their case. "The scheme usually involves two confederates, a man and a woman. The woman will — befriend — a man, usually a married man, traveling alone … and will eventually entice him into a liaison."

He paused, a moment, as he fastened the case.

"Later, near port, the male confederate will present himself as the injured husband, and threaten scandal, and divorce proceedings." His look, then, was sardonic. "At some point in the ensuing conversation it becomes clear that a cash settlement will salve the husband's wounded honor … It is a scheme as old as the transatlantic trade."

I thought of Mister Grey's knowing looks; his innuendo.

No; no, this was different. A situation in which both parties would be criminals, and social outcasts … No. As an adult, he had more to lose, than I.

And, he had no proof, about me.

If that really mattered.

Father picked up his coat, and put it on; looking in the mirror, again.

"Of course, that is the Atlantic, not the Pacific … a five-, or seven-day trip, rather than three weeks. And Mister Bennett, the Purser, strikes me as unusually competent; I'm sure he knows a great deal about his passenger roster, and would never allow such a scheme to operate. The best pursers are very good at such things."

I blinked, at that, again.

Father glanced at me one last time, in the mirror, as he cleared his throat.

"Perhaps I shouldn't have raised the subject … Still. You are coming of age — difficult as it is, for me to remember it, at times."

I blinked, twice, at that admission.

"I doubt we'll find any trouble of the sort, on board. But … once we reach Shanghai — you might want to watch yourself; when it comes to strange girls. Or women, for that matter." He picked up his hat; looking vaguely embarrassed. "All right, son — ?"

"Yes, sir," I managed.

Girls, or women, would not be a problem, ever; I didn't say.

"Good," he said; reaching for the door handle. "Good. Shall we go down to luncheon — ?"

"Yes, sir."

* * *

I had gotten into the habit of re-reading one of Jack's letters, before going to sleep at night. It was a comfort, seeing his own words, in his own hand … it brought him closer.

The talk with Father before luncheon had not been a comfort. And it had reminded me of a disturbing passage in one of Jack's letters.

I looked for it now; sitting up in bed, the slow motion of the ship gently rocking the mattress, beneath me. Eventually, I found it.

 … Well, old man; the Spring Mixer with Saint Claire's is coming up, next week. I'm missing you, acutely; I had looked forward to having your moral support, throughout the whole ordeal; it just won't be the same, without you, as so many things here are not the same.

The glorious liar.

Jack is comfortable, and charming, almost anywhere and almost everywhere. It was I, who had been looking forward to his lead and support, during the mixer-dance with the girls of Saint Claire's, from the other side of the lake. And he knew it.

But do you know which of us is the most anxious about the whole thing? It's Harris!

Honestly, Rhys, I wish you were here to see it. He was all but hyper-ventilating on the subject; he's trying, desperately, to get his best trousers altered in time for the mixer — he's growing, again — but much worse, he's convinced himself, that he's forgotten how to dance.

So of course, he's been begging us to help.

Some of us have been trying to give him some refresher lessons. But of course, that involves … yes. Trying to follow, rather than leading.

Can you imagine, dancing with Harris, in the Common Room, with the furniture pushed back, and a scratchy Strauss waltz playing on the record-player, — and following? With that great hulk lurching around, and trying to stay out from underneath those feet of his?

Well, imagine me, doing it. I did my part. I tried.

R., you have no idea how hard it is, to follow — ! But, do I dare mention that, to any of the girls from Saint Claire's?

Harris is a very large boy. At sixteen, he's over six feet tall, and at least two hundred pounds. He is a Linebacker, on our football team. He is also relatively boyish-looking, and the best in our Form, in Mathematics; he is very bright, as well as sweet-natured.

He is also utterly devoted to, and fixated upon, girls. He does not bed-visit, with other boys; neither does he play, during shower-times … 

Well. Except once; when he clearly couldn't bear it any longer, and he'd satisfied himself, with a group of us looking on, transfixed … 

Harris is very large, in more than just his frame; and that particular incident is still whispered about, it will become part of our House's unwritten history, remembered by some of us for years to come; I can already tell.

So, I didn't last long with Harris. But you know who did? Who has?


It's true! Coe's been the best of us, when it comes to teaching-whilst-following; as it turns out, he's actually quite a good dancer. And as I write this, he's actually got Harris up doing turns, and moving properly on the dance-floor — or at least, the Common Room floor — and, he's been very patient. And the sight of the two of them, lumbering majestically down the room at full steam, is at least as hilarious, as it is terrifying. One does not want to be in the way … 

As best as I can figure out, Coe's doing it all out of the goodness of his heart; I honestly can't think what he's getting out of it.

I didn't think the little weasel had it in him! Maybe he's getting soft in his advancing years. Or maybe he's just grown a soft spot for Harris. If so, I can understand why; he (Harris, I mean) is so pathetically fixated on this one dance … it's as though it's his one and only chance to ever meet, or get, a girl.

When in fact, it's just the beginning of a long, long string of dances. And Events. And Seasons.

In all seriousness, old man, I am going to need your moral support, when we get to that point. I won't get through it all, without you … 

I blinked, and I set the letter down on my bed covers. I looked up at the ceiling — the overhead it was called, on this ship so far away from where I wanted to be.


Jack was right; the mixer was only a dance, and not a very serious one, at that. No girl would openly date a boy until she came out to Society, at the end of secondary school. Not in our circles, anyway.

But it was the start of a process; a process designed to introduce eligible young women, to eligible young men … and to produce Good Matches.

There was a ponderous weight to the process; it was a process weighted down by tradition, and parents' expectations, and — yes — calculations involving money, inheritance, and reputations; and family fortunes, and the requirement to Settle Down, and Be Respectable — 

And it all worked against Jack and me. The whole, awful, inevitable process worked directly contrary to our interests. Directly contrary to our love.

And it really was starting, however slowly, with this Mixer.

People — whole families — would begin to take notice, of all of us. People would begin keeping a kind of speculative score, for all of us, girls and boys alike … We knew it. The knowledge was bred in our bones.

Oh, we still have some time. Jack and I will share rooms together in college, as I said; and that will take us years and years ahead; and the stretch of time after that is too far away to worry about. All I know is, we'll confront what comes after, together.

But even in college, we'll need to address the issue. There will be more mixers, more dances; there will be friends and family, attempting to Fix Us Up, with dates — 


Jack always says, that I worry too much.

But between the lines of his letter, I could see him worrying, too. And that I wasn't there, to face it with him, was painful to me; it truly was.

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