China Boat

Chapter 21

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written ambassage
To witness duty, not to show my wit ;
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul's thought, all naked, will bestow it ;
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tottered loving
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect :

Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee ;
Til then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

William Shakespeare, 1564 — 1616
Sonnet 26

* * *

Thursday, April 22nd, 1937
10:10 a.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea


A whole world of rain, in all directions, as far as the eye could see; lashing down in sheets and sheets, turning the surface of the water a strange, speckled, milky color. Oddly enough, the sea was relatively calm; long, deep, slow swells, but no choppiness to speak of. The rain turned the swells into speckled hills.

We were on the Promenade Deck, Tom and I, doing circuits. There was no question of us running, today.

Besides, it was time for us to talk.

" — Shakespeare?" from Tom; in a tone of awe. "William Shakespeare — ?"

I paused, for a few steps, a few heartbeats.

"Just read the Sonnets," I said; walking along, slowly, my hands in my pockets. Waves of rain beat against the forward Promenade Deck windows, which had been cranked closed. "Jack and I read them, together, last year. Some of them were written to a woman — and that seems to have been a rather tortured affair … But then, the first ones were written to a young man, who likely was a patron of some sort; they praise the young man's beauty, and urge him to marry, and have beautiful children … "

If one took that exhortation, that evident reason for the sonnets' being, at face value.

I paused a moment, again, as we rounded a forward corner of the Promenade Deck, where a bored-looking deck-steward stood in easy earshot. Then I went on, in a lower voice.

"But many of the Sonnets — most of them — are love poems, passionate love poems, written, also, to a young man. Maybe the same young man; that's what I think, anyway … But if you really read them closely, and take the time to understand the old, Elizabethan English, there is no doubt at all. Shakespeare was passionately in love with the young man; and the young man loved him back." I paused. "They were lovers."

Although, I didn't add, it seemed to have have been something of a trial, for poor Will. It had not necessarily been an easy love, by any means … 

A long silence.

"But … ", from Tom. "He also wrote sonnets to … a woman — ?"

I glanced sideways at him, as we walked; and gave him a crooked smile.

"Sure. And, he was also married … he had a son that he loved very much, who died when he was still a boy." I paused a moment, to let it sink in. Then I lowered my voice again. "Many of us have been married. Some of us can love both other men, and women … those are the luckiest of us, I think. Still; Shakespeare wrote his most passionate love poems to a young man; he was that young man's lover; that makes him one of us. As far as I'm concerned."

A long moment of silence, as our shoes clacked on the teak deck. I glanced at him, sideways, again; he was blinking, quickly, and coloring.

"That won't be me … getting married, I mean." A pause. "Loving … a woman. Or a girl … " Another pause; and I could see him swallow. "I … that's just not part of me … you know — ? I, I … just can't … "

"That's all right," I said, quickly, as we walked. "That's okay — "

"I just can't," he said, again. "It's … I only like boys … " This, in a whisper — 

His face was a mask of misery; he was close to crying.

"It's all right," I said again; and I reached out, and squeezed his shoulder. "It's all right … "

Oh, God.

And I felt such a profound stab of pity, and of empathy, and a whole jumble of other feelings … and at the same time, I cursed myself. I would never want to make Tom cry — ! I couldn't stand, to make him cry … 

"I am that way too," I went on; quietly, but firmly. "I am exactly that way … There are many, many of us … there always have been. And there is nothing wrong with us, I swear it — "

At that exact moment, we passed beyond the protection of the forward Promenade Deck windows; the world of rain was suddenly upon us, making the deck wet, blowing in from the open side windows, the wind wet on our cheeks. We hurried on, as far away from the railing and the open windows as we could get; not saying anything, for a moment.

Around two corners, hurrying, and then back forward. Back to the protections of the windows. Back to relative calm.

I took a breath; and I went on.

"There have been people like us … like you, and me, and Jack … throughout history. Some of us have been famous; some of us have been highly honored … Do you know about Greece; about Ancient Greece, I mean — ?"

He didn't quite look on the verge of crying, anymore; but his expression was bleak.

"I guess so … we covered it, a little, in Western Civ." He paused, for a few steps. "The architecture … Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian … and, it was the birthplace of democracy." He paused again, and frowned. "I remember, they had a lot of wars … I don't think it ended really well, for them."

It was about as good of a quick summing-up, as I could imagine.

"All true … but did you know, they celebrated homosexual love — ? Love between men and teenage boys, anyway; but also, love between men, and other men — ?"

I glanced at him. He was looking at me, his eyes wide; I gave him back another crooked smile.

"It is amazing, how much modern historians manage to leave out of our textbooks … It is absolutely true. Love between males was a hugely important part of their whole society; it was part of their myths, their religion; there were whole plays written on the subject, and philosophical essays that praised love between males, and there were paintings, and sculptures … "

There were also brothels in which boys were the prostitutes; and slavery, and horrible treatment of women; and the endless warfare that Tom had mentioned. But for the moment, I preferred to dwell on the positive.

"Is that true — ?" It came from him, in an almost-whisper. We had stopped in our tracks, for a moment.

"Yes." I said it firmly, because it was. "You've heard of the Trojan War, haven't you? And of the hero Achilles, who is the central character in the Iliad — ?"

"Yeah." He said it, a little cautiously.

"Well … he, Achilles, is a mythical character … at least, he probably is; the Iliad might be based on a real war … Anyway. The people of Pericles' time — he was the leader of ancient Athens, at the height of their Golden Age — the people of his time assumed that Achilles and his friend Patroclus were lovers; that they shared a bed, that they proclaimed their love for one another, that their love was acknowledged by all … and Achilles was the greatest hero in their whole world, the central figure in their whole mythos … You can't imagine how important Achilles was, to the Greeks."

I stopped a little short; slightly embarrassed. Jack had heard this all before, of course; and so had Charles. And a select few of our other friends, had heard fragments … But I can get a little carried away, on the subject.

Tom did not seem bored.

"Wow … " He blinked at me; his mouth was a little open.

I shrugged; and we began walking, more slowly, now.

"There's more … you mentioned democracy, in ancient Athens — ?"

"Yeah … "

I liked this story better; because it seemed to be historical truth. There were a number of written sources.

"There were two lovers, named Harmodius and Aristogeiton, in Athens … one was a younger man, well, maybe my age; and the other, Aristogeiton, a little older … They are credited with bringing democracy to Athens. Their statues were in the Parthenon, for centuries; they were revered, throughout Ancient Greece."

"They were — ?"

He was obviously still at the stage of trying to take it all in.

"Yes; they were very famous. As lovers."

Another pause. The bored deck-steward did not glance at us, as we walked past. Out the forward Promenade Deck windows, the seas were still spattered with driving rain.

"What happened was, that in very old Athens — before democracy, but after their kings — there was a ruler, a Tyrant, named Hipparchus. 'Tyrant', back then, just meant a kind of dictator."

"Okay … "

More steps. The motion of the ship was increasing; the swells were perhaps getting higher.

"Anyway. The Tyrant's brother, Hippias, wanted the younger man, Harmodius, for himself — "

Another wide-eyed silence, from Tom. That males, men and boys, could love one another — but also compete for one another — ? Openly — ?

"But Harmodius wouldn't have him … Which led to a deadly insult to Harmodius' family, the kind of thing that started whole wars, back then … Which led to the two of them, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, leading an open revolt against the Tyrant. Well, it was an assassination plot, really … and they only succeeded in killing Hippias, the Tyrant's brother. But they knew they'd be killed, in the act; and they did it in the name of freedom, and of democracy, and they did it, willingly."

I paused a moment, as we walked along.

"It took a few more years … but the people of Athens finally overthrew the Tyranny, and set up a Democracy … which was a very radical thing to do. And they never forgot Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Even after the Persians sacked Athens, and took the statues of the two of them as loot, the Athenians made two more statues of them, and set them back up in the rebuilt Parthenon. After the statue of Athena, they were considered the most important things there … "

"How do you know all this — ?" from Tom. Not in disbelief; in more like, open awe. That, and, perhaps, wanting desperately, to believe.

I gave him a dry look.

"They taught us to read Classical Greek in my school in Switzerland." I paused for a second, and I shrugged. "And as a rule, nobody censors the original Greek texts … There is very much more; oh, there is so much more, than I can even remember — " I had a sudden thought. "Um. Do you know the Greek Myths — ? Have you heard of Ganymede, the Cup-Bearer to Zeus — ?"

"No … I mean, yeah, I've heard of Ganymede, the moon of Jupiter … and I guess I kind of know about the myth. Sort of — ?" He made a face; and then he looked at me, and went on, in a lower voice. "But I really meant — how did you know, to even look, for any of this — ?" His eyes were wide; a Midwestern boy, just finding out about this most important part of himself, his tribe, for the first time … 

"Oh. Well, that's easy." I smiled; almost laughing. "It's a story, actually — "

"Oh! Hello there, Rhys; good morning."

It was Mister Grey, standing more-or-less right in our path; he was wearing a charcoal, pin-stripe suit, and a nice hat; his tie was tied with a full-Windsor knot, I couldn't help noticing.

He seemed rather pleased with himself.

"Oh. Good morning, Mister Grey … " Tom and I came to a stop.

"It's nice to see you down here with us lowly pedestrians. I was just about to take a few turns around the deck, before luncheon … " He looked briefly around us, at the rain, and the sea. "Will you both join me — ?"

It would have been colossally rude to refuse. "Of course, sir."

"Please — call me Ian — ?" An entreating, sideways-smile from him.

"Yes, sir."

A smile and a shrug, from him; and we fell in beside him, the three of us strolling slowly. He glanced over at me; and then, towards Tom, on my far side, and he cleared his throat. "Hello; I don't believe we've been introduced — ?"

"Oh," from me; blinking. Then, "Excuse me. Mister Ian Grey, Tom Fletcher. Tom Fletcher, Mister Ian Grey."

Mister Grey's arm came shooting out enthusiastically in front of me, and they shook hands, energetically. "Pleased to meet you, pleased to meet you," from Mister Grey, earnestly; and then we were walking on, again. "Say, I hope I'm not interrupting anything — ? You seemed to be in a very deep conversation, right now … "

Tom was still obviously flustered, by what I'd been telling him. By all I'd been telling him. I spoke up, in a hurry.

"Oh, no, not at all, sir … it was nothing important. We were talking about the Iliad, and Greek myths."

As soon as I said it, I knew it was a mistake. What was I thinking — ?

I saw Mister Grey's mouth turn up in a smile, on one side.

"Greek myths — ? Well, that's certainly appropriate … Do you know, you two have acquired quite a reputation for your running, up on the Sun Deck? Our very own Hermes and Hylas, I have heard you called."

I said nothing. This was a little much; Hylas was a beautiful boy, beloved by, and lover to, Herakles — Hercules, I mean — 

"I was even told, that the two of you run barefoot." He paused, for a moment. "Which is very much in keeping with the Greek tradition. Did you know, that the ancient Greeks ran their footraces barefoot, too — ?"

The ancient Greeks ran their footraces in the nude; which he knew perfectly well, as did I.

"Well, we're back in our running shoes now, sir. It's easier on the feet."

I may have said it, a little shortly. Beside me, Tom stayed silent; I wondered what he was thinking … 

"Ah," from Mister Grey.

Silence, for a few more steps; then he stopped, and half-turned his head, towards mine.

"You know" he said, in a lower, completely different tone of voice — "It is true, about the Hermes and Hylas remark; I didn't make it up, I swear it."

I blinked.

"Sir — ?"

"It was Mrs. Lassiter; a delightful older person, who likes to read in a deck-chair, on the Sun Deck. She is quite an admirer of you both; and she is obviously of a rather Classical bent."

He looked contrite; and for a moment, he was completely out of character. It was actually an apology, of sorts.

"Oh … I see, sir." It came out, awkwardly; I didn't know what else to say.

A very slight, but warm, eye-wrinkling smile from Mister Grey; then he looked past me, towards Tom.

"And so, Mister Fletcher … " he said, as we resumed our strolling. "May one ask, are you stopping with us in Shanghai? Or are you, perhaps, going on to Hong Kong, or Manila — ? Or," he said, raising his eyebrows — "perhaps you're leaving us in Kobe, or Yokohama — ?"

I believe Tom blushed, a little. He has a capacity for shyness, of his own.

"We're going to Shanghai, sir … My father works for the Department of Agriculture; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I mean. We'll be stationed there for two years."

"Two years — ? How splendid for you; and, what an adventure — ! I'm quite envious. As for me, I don't get to stay anywhere for more than two months at a time, and usually it's less … and of course, I spend all my time looking at rocks. It's rather depressing, really … "

A look of rueful, self-mocking woe, crossed his face. His moment of candor and contrition was clearly over.

"Mister Grey is a geologist; with Imperial Mining and Metals," I said. "Limited."

Perhaps, I thought.

A quick flash from Mister Grey's eyes. "You remembered — ? I'm touched … Yes, I get sent around, to look at mineral deposits, and to assay rocks … it's all very boring, actually. But; may I ask, Mister Fletcher — do you and your family actually stay in Shanghai itself — ?"

"Yes, sir," from Tom; looking down, as we walked. "We — "

And with that, once again, we passed out of the shelter of the Promenade Deck windows, to where the windows were open; Mister Grey clutched at his hat in a sudden gust of the breeze, with a little exaggerated dismay; and by consensus, we hurried around the after part of the Promenade Deck, and up forward again, to where it was drier.

"Well. Goodness," from Mister Grey. He looked back at the part of the Promenade Deck to the stern of us, where it was open; the teak decking was wet from the side-driven rain. "Goodness. You were saying, Mister Fletcher — ?"

"Oh. Just, that we'll be staying in the American Consulate, in the International Settlement … "

"Ah. Well, that seems comfortable. And you, and your father, Rhys — ?"

I wished I could change the subject. "Ummm … we're booked at the Cathay Hotel, on the Bund — "

"The Cathay — ? How delightful! That is where the Front Office decided to stow me, as well."

"Really, sir — ?" I felt a sinking feeling. I'd been afraid of the possibility.

"I'm sure we'll be seeing a great deal of each other, once we're in Shanghai … And, I assume the two of you have made plans to spend time together, as well — ? Let's see:" He screwed his face up a little, as we walked; and then he declaimed a line, formally, as if he were reciting in class.

Tom looked blank.

"It's Greek," I said. "A famous line from the Iliad, about friendship. And, yes, sir, we had thought to get together in Shanghai — as time permits."

I was back to being short. The line was; 'Two friends, two bodies, with one soul inspired'. It was insinuating, under the circumstances, and I did not like it.

Mister Grey did not look contrite, this time; he seemed pleased. "How splendid! Perhaps the three of us can explore Shanghai together, a little bit … after all, I'll be by myself. I would certainly enjoy the company — ?" He looked at us, a little mock-plaintively.

"That would be very good of you, sir," I began, carefully. "But I'm not at all sure I'll have the time … I've promised my father to run a few errands for him, and to help him with a few things — "

"Rhys is his father's — what is it? 'Confidential Secretary'," from Tom, eagerly.

I tried not to wince.

It was not Tom's fault; he was just trying to help. He must have seen that I was somewhat uncomfortable, with Mister Grey.

"Really — ?" from Mister Grey; and glancing sideways, I thought I saw him trying not to smile. "Really," he went on, more thoughtfully. "Well. The Chinese will certainly appreciate that; they prefer to keep business within families."

"I thought you hadn't been to China before, sir — ?"

I couldn't help saying it; and then, I berated myself. It was one thing to be suspicious, of another person; it was another thing, to reveal it.

"I haven't been to Shanghai, before," he said; with a hint of amusement. "But I've knocked around in Asia for long enough, to know a few things about the Chinese way … Still. In spite of your — duties — may one hope, that the three of us might yet perhaps find an opportunity for at least an expedition or two, once we reach Shanghai — ?"

Not if I could help it. "I'd like that very much, sir," I said, instead.

"Good! That's settled, then. You know, I … Oh."

Ahead of us, Mister Sayles was just emerging from the lobby door, with a man I didn't yet know … Mister Sayles was wearing a powder-blue suit, over a very large waistcoat, and he had on a white Panama hat; the other man was younger, slender, and in tweeds.

We slowed, as we approached them.

"Good morning, Sayles!" from Mister Grey, cheerfully. "Good morning, Mister — Podgorski, I believe — ?"

"Good morning. Yes," from the younger man, in a heavy accent. He nodded politely.

"Good morning, Rhys," from Mister Sayles; then, "Good morning, young man," to Tom. A definite pause, as he regarded Mister Grey, with a distinctly chilly look. "Grey," he said at last, grudgingly; and with a motion of his head, he and the younger man turned and walked away, without another word.

"Oh, dear," from Mister Grey, as we stood and watched them leave. "Oh, dear; I'm afraid that might be my fault." The amusement was open, on his face; he actually seemed on the verge of laughter.

"Sir — ?" from me.

"Well, you know." He flicked his eyes to Tom and me, in turn, the little laughter-lines crinkling up at their edges. "Sayles is based in Hong Kong … and at breakfast this morning, I might have spoken my mind, just a little intemperately, about Hong Kong."

"You did, sir — ?"

"I might have done." We started strolling again, slowly, in the opposite direction from Mister Sayles. "I believe I offered the opinion that we, the British, I mean, would likely be giving Hong Kong back to the Chinese, one of these fine days … I mean, it makes sense; doesn't it? The New Territories are only on a ninety-nine year lease; and Hong Kong Island, and Kowloon, together, without the New Territories, just isn't terribly practical as a going concern … And then, there's the very minor detail that Hong Kong is basically a little dot on the map, surrounded by hundreds of millions of Chinese." Mister Grey sighed, with a little smile. "I'm afraid he didn't take the idea at all well."


I blinked.

Inside, I was wondering at my idea, of Mister Grey and Mister Sayles being in collusion … the look Mister Sayles had given Mister Grey hand been distinctly unfriendly, and seemed honestly so.

"Well, it's just a silly notion, on my part … Do you know, for a loyal indentured servant — that is, employee — of Imperial Mining and Metals, Limited, I'm a rotten Imperialist."

Mister Grey still seemed on the verge of laughter … 

And at that moment, I had to admit to myself, that it was an attractive look, for him.

He turned, to catch my eye. I managed to be looking elsewhere, when he did.

"Well," he said; after a pause. "I must say, all of this walking has made me a little thirsty — and it must be after eleven by now. Mustn't it — ? Would you two permit me to buy you a drink — ?" Another, short pause; and he looked at the two of, smiling; and then, he declaimed yet another, longer, line of Classical Greek.

I looked at him, and blinked.

"Did you get that — ?" he asked; a little anxiously.

"I understood you, sir. But I don't know the reference."

"Ah. It's Aristophanes; of course. 'Someone bring me a, a … '"

"'Jar'?" I suggested.

"Yes, that's good. 'Someone bring me a jar of wine, so that I might whet my mind, and find something witty to say.'" He looked at me, a little plaintively. "But did I get the pronunciation right — ? And the syntax — ?"

"Yes, sir; perfectly."

"Wonderful!" he said, delighted. "How wonderful! You know, I've been using that line for years, and you're the first one since University who's actually understood it … That certainly deserves a, what, a Coke, doesn't it — ?"

"Well, thank you, sir … Is that all right, Tom?" I asked him, a little quietly.

Tom had been watching us, silently, but very intently. "Okay," he said. Then, "Sure."

"As long as you don't mind, if I have something just a little bit stronger than a Coke — ? Ah; good." He led the way towards the lobby doors, and then in turn into the Continental Lounge. He actually held the doors for us, as we went in; then he followed us.

"Poor Sayles," he said, as the Lounge doors closed behind us. "Still; he'll have his chance to forgive me. Do you know, Rhys, he'll be at the Cathay with us for a few weeks? He evidently has some business to attend to, in Shanghai, on his way home … " He said it casually, and breezily.

I felt a chill.

And I was somehow not surprised.

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