China Boat

Chapter 26

Sunday, April 25th, 1937
9:06 a.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea






I had not expected Jack's wire for another day, at the very best; or more likely, two or three.

It could not have come at a better time. I was very low; and words from Jack — recent words; written just hours ago — made all the difference in the world to me. Even his brother Tony's good wishes hit me with an unexpected poignancy; they took me back to the last time we'd all been together, before Christmas, at Jack's house … 

It was amazing, how such a short and simple message, typed out on a flimsy message-form, could evoke a whole different world. A world I desperately missed.


Of course, the wire was not all positive. The news that Imperial Mining and Metals, Limited, Mister Grey's firm, was a shell or sham — well. It gave me a chill.

I did not fully understand — or maybe even partly understand — what had happened, in that lunchtime conversation; but I did know that a number of games had been played out, right before my eyes. Mister Nieuwenhuis certainly had been playing a game of sorts, rather openly; he'd barely bothered to hide it. Lieutenant Dunleavy had clearly said, that the conversation — the offer of intelligence? — would be reported to his commanding officer.

And Mister Grey's droll commentary to me, as much openly admitted that he, himself, was involved in the very same games … 

I wondered at that.

Was it, I thought, just more of his cat-and-mouse flirtation with me? Sharing confidences with a fellow homosexual, as if to emphasize the secrets we both shared, the attraction we shared, that the others did not — ?

Or, perhaps, to him the whole interplay of agendas and games — including his own — had become so obvious, that pretending otherwise had just grown too tedious? Too boring to be worth the effort?

Or was it something else, entirely? Was it another move in whatever game he himself was playing … involving me, and Father, both? A game within a game? A chess-move, to see how we reacted?

I did not know.

I wished I understood the rules, by which they were all playing. By which we were all playing.

I did have one, enormous, consolation. I had the flimsy piece of paper in my hand, telling me something about Mister Grey that he didn't know that I knew. And it had come from Jack.

My Jack.


After early Services, Tom took me to the First Class Library.

He and I had researched Japanese history together, of course; from the days of the Shoguns, to the Meiji Restoration, and on to more recent times, to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, in fact … Port Arthur, and Tsushima, in particular.

The previous day's luncheon conversation had left him deeply worried.

"Here … " he said; coming back to the table with a book he'd picked out of the shelves, straightaway.

It was a large book, twice or more as wide as it was tall, with a blue cover. Tom sat beside me, and opened it up.

"That man at lunch, who said the things about Japanese ships — ?" He looked at me.

"Lieutenant Allison. He's an Army officer," I said.

"Well, he doesn't know what he's talking about. Here, look at this — " He flipped through whole sections of the big book, with a practiced hand.

"Wait a moment … What is this, anyway — ?" I lifted the front cover, a little, to peer at it.

Tom looked at me, impatiently.

"It's 'Jane's Fighting Ships'; it's got information about every ship in every navy, in the whole world." He showed me the front cover. "This one's from 1935; I bet it used to be on the bridge, here. I bet they have this year's edition on the bridge, now." He looked more closely on the front cover, and then the title page. "See? There's water stains; there, and there."

I had to admit, the book's condition resembled that of my poor school atlas.

"And how — ?" I began to ask him. He cut me off.

"The Library back home has one. It's got the current one, 1937; I've seen it."

"All right."

"Honest; this is the book to look at, if you want to know anything at all about ships. Warships, anyway."

"I believe it." I tried not to smile; at that moment, he reminded me very much of Jack … when it came to airplanes.

Tom flipped back to the section he'd found earlier.

"So … what this Lieutenant Allison was saying about the Japanese ships … it's all wrong." He looked up, and gave me a worried look. "Their Fleet is really strong, in some ways it's almost as strong as ours, and their ships are really powerful … Here; look at this." He hitched his chair closer to mine.


What followed next, was a rather bewildering plunge into the world of modern naval architecture.

The book, 'Jane's Fighting Ships', 1935 edition, had photographs and diagrams, seemingly, of every major warship in the world … I was treated to a crash-course in such things as the differences between side-belt armor, and upper-belt armor; between turret-face thicknesses, and barbette-armor thickness — 

And then there were the guns. Twelve-inch guns — meaning, huge cannons, mounted in turrets, capable of firing shells measuring a full foot in diameter — to, fourteen-inch guns, and then to sixteen-inch guns — 

I remembered a small town Father and I had visited in France, which had a pair of such enormous shells, tall as I was then, as part of the Great War memorial in the town square. I remembered the names of the dead, inscribed on the marble; I remembered the maimed and disfigured poilus, at the battlefield cemeteries in Belgium … and I tried not to shudder.

"What happens when a shell that size, hits a ship — ?" I asked Tom.

He looked at me. "That's what the armor's for," he said. "Look at the main belt on … " He flipped back to the American, fleet; we'd been comparing sides — "the 'West Virginia'; it's sixteen inches thick! It's designed to keep out shells like that!"

I looked down at the diagram. The main belt was depicted as a black rectangle, covering just the central part of the water-line.

"What happens to the sailors who aren't behind the main belt — ?"

He looked stumped, for a moment. I wondered if he'd ever thought about it, before.

"I don't know … I think most of them are supposed to be below an armored deck … "

Silence, for a long moment.

"Okay," from me — 

"Anyway," from Tom; impatient, again. "Remember what he said about their ships being top-heavy?" He flipped back to the Japanese section, and flipped to a specific page; the photograph was of a battleship, with a very tall foremast, or superstructure, or whatever it might properly be called.

"It does seem rather — um, high, — up front."

Tom looked at me. "See that thing on top, with two arms sticking out?" He pointed at it, with his finger.

"Yes … "

"That's a main-battery rangefinder; it's what they use to aim their main turret guns. And, the higher up it is, the more effective it is; they can use it to shoot farther, and earlier … it has nothing to do with 'fierce faces'." He looked worried, all over again. "You don't think our military people really believe that kind of thing, do you — ?"

I gave him a dry look. "Lieutenant Allison is an Army officer."

"Yeah," from Tom; "Yeah … but he heard it from a Navy friend, he said … and then, there was that stuff about the Japanese all needing glasses, because of their diet — ?"

I winced, at that.

"That was embarrassing; yes. It's just racism … But, if it's any comfort, that's nothing compared to what you read in German newspapers, these days."

It was very cold comfort, at best.

Tom looked at me; and at that moment, he was an odd mixture of a young boy, looking for reassurance — and of someone who was very smart, and knowledgable beyond his years, especially in this one particular field.

"There's another thing that worries me … their ships are a lot faster than ours."

"They are — ?"

"Yeah … look. Our ships — our battleships — are all rated at twenty-one knots. That's about as fast as we're going, right now. On this ship." He flipped the glossy, heavy pages back to the Japanese section. "Their ships all do twenty-three knots, at least … and they've got six battleships that can do twenty-six knots; these four of the 'Fuso' class — and these two, 'Nagato' and 'Mutsu'." He looked at me, again. "In the most recent 'Jane's', it says they increased the speed of these two, when they were reconstructed. But they kept it a secret."

"Oh … " I looked down at the photos, and the line-drawings. It didn't sound like much. "Does that make a big difference — ?"

An impatient look from Tom.

"Yeah … yeah, it does. It means they can stay out of range of our guns, when they want to. It means they can outmaneuver our ships, with enough time. And, it makes it easier for them to choose when and where to engage us." He looked at me, again. "Remember reading about the Battle of Tsushima?"

I did. It must have showed on my face; he went on, without waiting for me to answer.

"The Russians were coming, from thousands of miles away … and the Japanese were able to pick just the right spot, to intercept them, in their own home waters." He paused, for a moment. "The Japanese had better ships, faster ships, and better gunnery … and the Russians totally underestimated them, because they were Asian. Because they weren't white." He paused, again; and his expression grew even more serious. "It's like Mister Grey said, at lunch; it all sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it — ?"

A long silence, then.

"You know," I said, at last — "This is all just speculation. It's 1937, not 1904; and the Japanese were our allies, in the Great War. Nobody's starting another war, very soon."

"Maybe," from Tom. He looked dubious. "But we drew up this Plan Orange … and the Japanese have taken over a big chunk of China … " He looked at me as if he were asking me to tell him he was wrong. "And Mister, Mister, Nieu … " He stumbled over the name, just as Father had.

"Nieuwenhuis", I supplied.

"He thinks some kind of war is coming. Doesn't he — ?"

Another long pause.

I thought about Mister Nieuwenhuis, and all of his insights into Japan … I thought of his telling us all, that he was moving his family, his whole, extended family, out of the Dutch East Indies — 

But not to the Netherlands. Not to Europe.

I thought about the Civil War in Spain … and about the atmosphere in Europe, in France, and most especially in Germany. I thought about the things in Germany I'd seen, with my own eyes — 

"Yes," I said; not looking at Tom. "Yes, he does."

But I didn't say which war, or wars, Mister Nieuwenhuis might have in mind.

* * *

As I said — I was very low, right then. I missed Jack, terribly. I missed my grandparents … 

Father and I were — somewhat estranged. We were, in fact, barely speaking to one another, in any familiar sense.

That we had come to this was not all — or even, not mostly — my doing. It had been building, I realized, since we'd left New York, weeks and weeks ago.

It fit Father's pattern. And as usual, I had come upon the realization, late.

It had happened before. It had happened when he had accepted the position in Europe, and we left on the Aquitania … but I had been too young, then, to understand. It had happened a few times, since … 

Father has a capacity to withdraw himself, emotionally; under stress. When we'd gone to Europe he'd been under considerable stress from the outset; which had only grown, as he managed the complicated banking conditions prevailing, in the boom leading up to the subsequent crash, of the Great Depression — 

Father had responded by growing an ulcer; and, by withdrawing himself, emotionally, from me, and from everyone else.

It had been by luck, and my grandparents' intervention, that we had gotten each other back. And now, I could see the pattern repeating.

After the eye-opening luncheon yesterday, Father had — with a spare economy of words — announced that we would each draw up our own notes on what had just happened; and we would then meet to compare them. It was the process he'd outlined in the Headmaster's office, weeks before. This we had done; and then Father had retired to our common sitting-room, to draft a cable to the Bank — 

Or so he had said.

In any event, I could feel an icy kind of fog settle in, between us, in our relations. The entire interchange between us had been almost formal. Had we been speaking in French for some reason, I felt sure he would have addressed me in the formal vous, instead of the family tu … 

It did not help, that he'd informed me, rather shortly, that I would help code the resulting cable today, this afternoon. Which meant that it would be a long cable, a double-encrypted five-letter-code-group cable, going to Geneva, rather one of the shorter, seven-letter-code-group cables addressed to the Bank in New York.

I wondered very much, what Father had gotten himself into.

* * *

For my own part — I had decidedly mixed feelings towards Father, just at the moment.

My mood was bleak.

My fury towards Father of yesterday was largely gone. I had, as I said, been trying to reason with myself; to talk myself out of my rage.

What was left, was a considerable fund of latent resentment — 

And an overwhelming awareness of the need for caution, in dealing with him, for the remainder of this trip. Perhaps for the whole remainder of my minority; until my twenty-first birthday.

But at the same time, I'd also decided I'd been too passive, in my relations with Father, since leaving School; since leaving New York. It was time, and past time, to start pressing my own case; it was time to stop being a helpless pawn. If I ever wanted to get home, it was time to act. I felt it, very urgently.

So, I had spent that afternoon considering, and planning … and then, just before dinner, I made my first move.


"Father — ?"

A long pause, before he looked up.

"Yes — ?"

It was just before six p.m.; we were in our shared sitting-room. Father was smoking his pipe, and reading one of the uncoded Bank telegrams — he still received some everyday business cables, in the clear — which I had just brought him.

He looked tired. I could sympathize; I was, too. Coding a long message is very tiring, and tedious, work.

"Father, I've been thinking … and I wanted you to know, that when the time comes for me to go home for school in September — I am perfectly comfortable going by myself, if need be. Although," I added, "I would prefer traveling back with you, of course."

I'd kept my face perfectly composed, as I spoke. I'd made my tone light, and thoughtful.

A long silence, as he looked at me.

As one of my campaigns went, one of what Jack calls my 'Dad Management' campaigns, the opening lacked subtlety. But there was no real choice. The subject had to be broached.

He took his pipe from his mouth.

"And what," he asked, "brought this on — ?"

He did not mention my choice of words; 'When', not 'If', as regards my returning home in September.

"Your conversation with Mister Benjamin at breakfast yesterday, sir," I answered; honestly enough. "It seemed to me that you are thinking of staying in Shanghai for some time."

His eyes flicked back downward, to his telegram.

"Well, your concern is premature. I do not know how long we will be in Shanghai; we haven't even arrived, yet. I don't know that we won't be called to Hong Kong, or Singapore, or Mister Nieuwenhuis' Batavia, for that matter."

A puff from his pipe.

"And in any event — I have barely begun to need your services as Confidential Secretary. Luncheon, yesterday — and the resulting notes we drew up together — was just the beginning."

I said nothing, keeping my face very still … 

And then Father made the fatal mistake, that I'd counted on him making. He engaged my proposition on its merits.

"In any case, Rhys — I hardly think that allowing a sixteen-year-old — "

He peered at me, for a moment; Father can forget my precise age, at times. When I did not correct him, he went on.

" — allowing a sixteen-year-old to travel across the Pacific unaccompanied, is an appropriate thing to do."

I kept my face very still; my tone mild.

"Perhaps, sir … Although, I do have two classmates who have crossed the Atlantic, unaccompanied; all it requires, apparently, is a letter of authorization to the steamship-company."

"Indeed — ?"

I could see the impatience growing, in his expression.

"Yes, sir … Forrest travels every summer, to visit his father; he is a professor at Oxford University, in Christ Church, actually. And my friend Sims' family lives part of the year in France, in the Loire … he heads over every year, directly, at the end of the Spring term. Then, they all come back, together, in August."

The unnecessary and inane amount of detail was just filler; designed to prevent him from shutting down the conversation immediately. Of course.

Father cleared his throat.

"An Atlantic crossing is five days, or at the most seven," Father said; with a trace of irritation. "Without stops. The cases are not comparable." He laid his pipe in the ash-tray. "And in any event, I repeat, this conversation is premature. It is April; and we have not yet even reached Shanghai. We will discuss this matter later."

He reached for the next telegram, on the table beside him — 

And I closed the trap, which I'd prepared in advance.

"Yes, sir … Of course, there is another way for me to get home, which might meet your objections … "

A quick look up, from him; more of surprise, than of irritation.

I went on; mildly, evenly, remorselessly.

"I could, sir, take the Clipper, from Manila. That would get me to San Francisco in five days. All the overnight accommodations, along the way, are provided by the Line, of course; all of the passengers stay together." I looked at him, blandly. "And I'm sure we could arrange for someone to meet me at the seaplane-dock, and escort me to the train station. Or to the airport. If you think it necessary."

I know Father. I watched, as his thoughts played out, on his face.

Irritation, of course, won out. Eventually.

"As I keep saying, this topic is entirely speculative, and our discussion of it is premature. We will address this matter later." He took a breath. "The subject is closed."

A careful pause, from me.

"Yes, Father."

* * *

In the end, I'd gotten what I'd wanted. I'd done what I'd set out to do.

The Subject was Closed; but the subject had been raised. It could not be un-raised.

I'd told Father, in the clearest terms, that I strongly wished to be home by September at the latest; and that I was prepared to travel alone, if need be. That fact would hang between us, whether it was discussed or not.


Father had not liked it.


There were other goals achieved, too; of course.

I'd reminded him that I was no longer eight years old, or even twelve … It is a thing I need to reinforce, with him, from time to time. Perhaps that is true for most children, and parents; I don't know. . .


Much more importantly; I had set my will against his.


He had tried, once, to shut down the conversation; and I had said, 'Yes, sir' — and I had politely continued pressing my point.

This was new.

Usually when we have a disagreement, a contest of wills — I wind up saying 'Yes, sir', and I go quiet … and then I manage to get my way, by going around him, or by allowing him to forget the whole issue, or by discreetly ignoring his injunctions. It is very convenient, for the both of us.

That was impossible in this instance, of course. So I had politely, calmly, set my will against his. I had gone on pressing my case.


Father had not liked this, either.


But it was the nature of this last point, in my argument, which had disturbed him the most. I had raised the subject of the Clipper, the flying-boat service to America.

It was a perfectly valid point to raise, of course. As it was a perfectly valid way for me to travel.

The thing is, however, that Clipper tickets are just colossally expensive — I knew that much, from Jack. Steamship-tickets are a rare bargain, by comparison. Only people with real money, or very deep expense accounts, can afford the Clipper.

And by raising it as a possibility with Father, I had very gently, and very indirectly, pointed out … that I, in fact, had that kind of money.

And, by remorseless extension, I had reminded him that I was not, in fact, financially dependent upon him. Not for food, not for shelter; not for living expenses, not for tuition. I owed him a son's deference to his father … but I was not dependent upon him.

The shot had hit home. I had seen it, in his face.

I was not sorry, for delivering it. I was not sorry, for starting my campaign. It was necessary, if I wanted to get home, anytime soon. Home, to Jack.

I could wish, though, that the whole thing had left me feeling less miserable. Less wretched.

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