China Boat

Chapter 23

Friday, April 23rd, 1937
8:15 p.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea


Movie Night, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.


TARZAN: "Secret? Jane go — ?"

RITA: "Hold on, Tarzan. This wasn't Jane's idea. There's a paper at home that Eric and I must have signed. Otherwise, we'll lose a lot of money, if Jane doesn't help us … "

TARZAN: (Puzzled.) "Money?"

This week's feature was 'Tarzan Escapes', with Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan. It had been very popular the summer before — Jack and I had seen it, while he was staying with us, in Manhattan — and the Continental Lounge was packed.

There actually weren't enough chairs to go around; so Tom and I, being boys, had volunteered to sit on the floor. It wasn't a hardship; it meant we got to sprawl out on the perfectly-clean carpet, which was much more comfortable than the hard, straight-backed chairs that filled much of the room.

Naturally, I'd looked for Miss Lloyd. But she was not in the film; and neither was she in attendance, now.

TARZAN: "Secret."

JANE: "No, Tarzan. No."

TARZAN: "Jane go — ? Jane people go? Untawa?"

JANE: "Only if you're willing, darling. Not if it causes you the least bit of unhappiness!"

Tom was rapt; lying on his front, head propped up in his hands, gazing at the screen.

I was less happy, for a variety of reasons.

For one thing — the movie did not have positive associations, pleasant memories, for me. The theme, the story, had touched on one of Jack's deepest worries … and, so, had caused me to hurt him.

In the movie, Jane's cousins Rita and Eric track Jane down in the jungle, to tell her that she has inherited a fortune. But of course, there is a catch; she must go to London, to claim it in person.

There are two catches, actually. Rita and Eric's inheritance, in turn, depends on Jane's claiming hers.

Responsibility, again. Family responsibility.

Jack and I had been silent, as we left the theater. The afternoon was dark, and very muggy; a thunderstorm was coming, of the sort that floods streets and stalls traffic. We started walking back to Park Avenue … 

And Jack had turned to me, with a weak smile.

"Me Tarzan, you Rhys — ?"

I'd been waiting for it.

"Stop it! Will you just stop it?" I'd drawn my breath. "I've told you before; I'm not going anywhere. I am not getting married, not for anyone. I'm not leaving you. Why can't you just believe me — ?"

I'd said it shortly, and sharply, with anger … 

Jack has always feared, that family pressure — or just my love for my grandparents — would eventually lead me into marrying someone; to produce an heir, to make my grandparents happy, to keep the family from dying out … 

Three cross-town blocks of a miserable silence between us, then. I'd snapped at him; I felt horrible.

At a red light, I'd put my hand on his shoulder, and squeezed it.

"I'm sorry, Jack." I'd said it, very softly. I'd felt like crying.

And he'd put his hand over mine, and squeezed back; and I'd felt a little better, anyway.

But, still; I'd snapped at him. And whatever I said to him, I knew he still feared for our future, that some family obligation of mine would keep us apart … 


Well. We were about as far apart, now, as two people on Earth could be. Ever. Even it it was only a trip; even if it was only temporary.

And, it was due to a family obligation.

I winced, and turned my attention back to the screen.

TARZAN: "Jane no happy — ?"

JANE: "How shall I tell you, darling. I love Tarzan … But I must help Rita. She is my friend. Friend, as Tarzan was Cheetah's friend … "

As usual, when watching a scene that made me uncomfortable, I looked at the cigaret-smoke instead. Trails of it wreathed and twirled up into the projector-light; they were surreal and silver-grey, and actually quite beautiful, in spite of the way they made the Lounge feel stuffy and close.

Johnny Weismuller, as Tarzan, was quite beautiful, too.

He was very young, and very shapely; and his loincloth covered very little, it was cut quite high on his hips. His bare skin was extremely smooth.

And in spite of the pidgin-English dialogue — he could act. Throughout most of the film, he portrayed a very young man, in love, deeply wounded by his lover's decision to leave, his lover's rejection of him … And in spite of that rejection, as he saw it, he tried to do what was best for her. Even to the point of self-sacrifice.

It was a moving performance. It had moved me, back in New York; even as I'd cringed at the story-line, and anticipated trouble with Jack. And now, watching Tom — I didn't think his close attention to the film was all due to Mister Weismuller's beautifully-exposed physique … 

It was touching; and I felt for him.

The film moved on, to the treachery of Captain Fry, and his plan to capture Tarzan, and to betray Jane, Rita and Eric to the local natives — 

And my thoughts moved on; to the odd events of the day, and to my cable to Jack.

* * *

The oddly disturbing event of the day involved Father. One could almost add, 'Of course,' these days.

An hour or so after breakfast, I'd gone into our shared sitting-room, to see if I was needed, that morning — I had a cable of my own, that I wished to compose, and encode, instead — 

I had found him sitting at the writing-table, under the big porthole, with a gun.

Or rather, with the pieces of a gun. There was a white cloth spread over the writing-desk; and the unmistakable parts of a disassembled handgun, an automatic, were arranged on the cloth with a kind of geometric precision. Father was polishing one of the pieces with another cloth.

"Father, I — " I'd started; then I'd trailed off, as I saw the desk. Then — "What's this — ?" Stupidly.

He had glanced up at me, with a look that made me feel about eight years old, again.

"This is a gun," he'd said, evenly. "I am cleaning it."

A very short pause.

"Yes, sir," from me. Stonily.

He'd relented a little. "This is my service sidearm, from the War; it is a Colt Model 1911, .45 caliber." He'd continued polishing the piece that he had in his hands; I noticed a small can of oil on the desk. I could smell the oil. "Any gun needs to be cleaned regularly; but especially so, at sea. This particular model has a tendency to jam, if the slide is not kept extremely well-polished."

Another, rather pregnant pause, from me.

"I didn't know you even had a gun, Father."

He'd kept polishing, not quite meeting my eyes. "I brought this back with me from France, after the Armistice — "

"You just kept it — ?" It slipped out.

"Certainly not. I was an officer; I purchased it." Another quick, dry look, from him. "I have kept it under lock and key ever since, as all firearms should be. As your grandfather keeps his collection."

I'd waited a long moment, saying nothing.

"I felt it was … appropriate … to bring it, on this trip." He'd put down the part he was working on, and picked up another. "Shanghai is a very safe and civilized city, and the International Settlement has an excellent police force, I am told … but, it is China; it is not New York City."

Jack and I had surreptitiously visited parts of New York City which weren't at all safe, or even particularly civilized; but I held my tongue. There was no need for him to know it.

"In any event, the Purser and the Captain are both aware I have this," he'd gone on, polishing away. "There is nothing — clandestine — about its presence, on board. And now — I believe you were about to say something — ?"

The Subject was obviously Closed.

"I just wanted to see if you'd be needing me this morning, sir?"

Father took the gun-oil can, and applied two small and careful drops to his polishing-cloth.

"No; I don't think so. Of course, if you would check with the Radio Office for any messages, I would be very grateful."

"Of course, sir."

This had become our routine. It had the advantage of allowing me to check for any possible wires from Jack — and, also, to keep tabs on Father's wire traffic.

I had found that Father never asked me to help decode the seven-letter-code-group messages from the Bank, in New York. And that I did not assist in decoding all, or even most, of the five-letter-code-group messages from Geneva.

I still did not know what either of those facts meant.

"Very well," from Father. He'd continued polishing the exposed gun-barrel. "We will see you at Luncheon, I assume — ?"

"Yes, sir."


And so I had escaped.

But I was still disturbed.


* * *

ERIC: "Don't worry, Jane! We can reach the Zambezi River in just a few marches; from there, it's a straight shot down to the steamboat … Why, we can have you all the way to London and back in, what; three months, Captain Fry?"

CAPTAIN FRY: "Oh, I daresay."

I winced. It is always tempting to treat a dramatic play, or motion picture, as an analogy to one's own life … But in this instance, the parallels really were too close for comfort.

Me, Tarzan, You, Rhys; indeed.

I watched the silver cigaret-smoke lace upward in the projector-light; and I took comfort, in the wire I'd prepared and sent to Jack, earlier in the day. I took real comfort, in it; I only hoped he found the privacy to decode it, before too long … 

* * *






"Whoa. You want to charge this to your own account — ?"

I'd watched as the thin, young radio officer's eyes moved to the address, on the message-pad; and then, as he read the first, uncoded line.

"Oh," he'd said, at last.

He had a name, of course; William D. Molloy, as I knew from the receipts he wrote out, for the wires I gave him to transmit. I usually tried to deal with him, when Father had something to send; and I'd made very sure it was Mister Molloy on watch, that afternoon, before coming in with my own wire.

In addition to being very nice — he was very discreet. As far as I could tell, no-one except he and the Purser's Office even knew that I had my own account.

Much more important — no-one seemed to know that Jack and I had cabled one another.

I had had a soft spot in my heart for Mister Molloy, since I'd asked him for his discretion, and he'd blushed.

"You know," he'd said, looking up at me in concern — "This is going to be very expensive. Wires in code cost about four times as much as an ordinary wire; we have to go really slow, and then the other end repeats it back to us, and we both need to check for any errors."

I could believe it. It had taken me all afternoon to encode the message, and check it over, twice. The work was incredibly tedious.

"I understand … Still; it's important. My friend is doing a school project on cryptography; and, well, this is part of it. And … he really needs a good grade."

I felt ridiculous, and guilty, for the lie. I should have found another way to respond.

Mister Molloy smiled, and once again he seemed more like an older classmate, than an officer. "He must be a good friend."

"He's my best friend. His name is Jack."

I felt I owed him that much truth, at least.

Silence, then, for several seconds; in the background, the whirring of the fans, and the clacking of the typewriter, as Mister Molloy's watch-partner transcribed a message, headphones over his ears.

"Well," Mister Molloy had said at last, still looking down at the message-form; "I'd better count this up, and give you a receipt … " Then he'd looked up, again. "I assume we're keeping this — quiet? Like the last one?" His voice was low; and he expression was a mix of sympathy, and embarrassment at having to ask it.

"Yes, please," I'd said; my own embarrassment showing all over my face, I knew. "And if we could do the same for any other messages, between — my friend, and I — ?"

A quick flash of a smile from him, before he looked back down at the message-form, again.

"That won't be a problem, sir. Happy to oblige."

* * *

All through the conversation, the message-form had lain on the counter, between us; and even though it was in code, — and even through the code was almost unbreakable, to anyone but a government, or a gifted mathematician, or a combination of the two — I'd felt as through the message was open, in the clear, staring up at the both of us. I'd felt naked, and exposed.








The key, of course, was 'Memories of Oakley Commons'. Jack would have no trouble coming up with that one. But I had never written it out before, in my letters or in the two wires I'd sent previously; I guessed it was safe, at least this one time.

'Tony' was Jack's oldest brother, Anthony Van Doern, III; he is an attorney who advises firms which buy and sell other firms. He is very well-connected, and very knowledgable. I'd assumed he'd probably have a book at hand — likely, at his desk — with a listing for Mister Grey's employer … 

And although I did want to know if Mister Grey's firm was fictitious, or real — it was all just an excuse, for the rest of the message; the real heart of the message, the real reason I'd sent it.

We'd been apart for less than a month, now — incredible as that seemed. But it felt much longer; and the distance, the sheer weight of the miles between us, was what made it all feel so increasingly oppressive — 

And, we both knew, it was only the beginning.

The real reason for the wire, was to tell him that I loved him.

JANE: "I'm going with you."

RITA: "Jane! Darling — !"

JANE: (Her eyes moist.) "But first I want the day with Tarzan, alone. We need that, for saying goodbye."

Just knowing that Jack would have my cable soon — perhaps, already had it — was a comfort. It truly was.

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