China Boat

Chapter 30

The Captain presents his compliments, and he has asked me to remind all passengers of the forthcoming restrictions on taking photographs from on-deck.

The Japanese Government considers both Yokohama Harbor and Kobe Harbor as having military significance. The taking of photographs in either place is discouraged by them, and may result in the authorities delaying our sailing.

It is Dollar Line policy, therefore, that photography not be permitted on-deck while in either harbor. The Crew has been instructed to temporarily confiscate any cameras brought on deck during these times.

Passengers are additionally requested to please use common sense, when taking photographs from within their cabins. Cameras are not to be aimed out of portholes at any time while in harbor.

Postcards and souvenir photographs of Yokohama and Kobe are, of course, available for purchase in the ship's Novelty Shop.

Your cooperation is appreciated, and will help us maintain our sailing schedule.

Thank you.

M. Bennett, Purser.

* * *

Tuesday, April 27th, 1937
10:00 a.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea


I was, I figured, 8,063 miles away from Jack; just at that moment.


Oh, it was a rough estimate, of course. I'd used my battered School Atlas to come up with the distance from New York to San Francisco … but that was a direct figure, not the miles one would travel by train. Or even by airplane; an airplane, even a very modern one, would need to hopscotch from airport to airport, to refuel along the way.

For the rest of the way, though, I was on much firmer ground … so to speak. The distance the ship had traveled, from San Francisco and Honolulu, was posted every day at noon in the Continental Lounge. All I had to do, was convert the number from Nautical Miles to Statute Miles, using a simple formula — 

Oh. And for any given morning, I had to guess how far we'd come since the previous day's noon-day posting. How many hours, at twenty knots — nautical miles-per-hour — and then, tack that on to the total.

It was an enormous number of miles. A prodigiously-depressing, hateful number of miles.


"Father — ?"

"Hm — ?"

"May I be excused — ? I thought I'd go see if there any cables, this morning."

We were at table, in the Dining Salon. Father was engrossed in his own thoughts; it was as though he was thousands of miles away, himself.

"Hmm … Of course; of course. I don't believe we're expecting anything, however."

"No, sir." I slid my chair back, and stood up, balancing against the motion of the ship. "Will you be going back to the suite, sir?"

"No … no. I have quite a bit of reading to do … You can find me in the Library, for the rest of the morning."

"Yes, sir. I believe I'll be going for a run, if I'm not needed."

"Very well." He turned back to his breakfast steak, and his own thoughts; it was as though I'd been dismissed. I blinked down at him a moment; and then I made my way to the staircase.


The fresh air above deck felt good. It was cool, fresh air, actually; the days had slowly been getting cooler since we'd left Hawaii. The sky was clear, apart from some wispy clouds; the seas were running higher, with whitecaps on their green crests. We were a little more than a day's sailing from Yokohama, our first port in Asia.

I went up the stairs to the Boat Deck, reluctantly.

I checked the Radio Office for cables every day, of course; more than once a day, if Father was expecting an important wire.

My real mission, though — my mission today — was to talk to Mister Molloy.

It would be awkward.

Oh, I'd tried, several times, before now … but each time I'd come by while he was on watch, he'd been on receiving duty, seated with headphones on, pounding away on a typewriter.

I wished there was another way; but the barrier between passengers and crew was insurmountable.


Well, for most of us.


"Why, hello Rhys!" Mister Grey smiled at me in the outdoor morning-light, as he closed the Radio Office door behind him. "Good morning! I suppose you've come to see our Mister Molloy, too — ?"

I tried not to gape at him. He couldn't possibly — 

"Sir — ?"

"Well, he is the best transmitter — is that the right term? — on the staff. You know, the very first cable I sent back to the Front Office, from on board, was a disaster; it went through another operator, and the Front Office wired back, saying that it all turned to mush after the first dozen code groups. It was a transmission error on this end, of course … but I've never had any problems, working through Mister Molloy." Another smile at me. "He is quite a pleasant young man, as well; he's quite my favorite crewman."

I relaxed, just very slightly.

"Yes, sir."

"Call me Ian — ? Oh, and by the way, if you'll forgive me the impertinence — " He paused, and looked at me, in a considering way.

"Sir — ?"

"Well. I confess; I couldn't help noticing, you and your young friend Tom were playing chess last night, in the Smoking Room … " A quick half-smile, from him. "I enjoy chess very much, as it happens, although I'm really rather atrociously bad at it; it's shocking, I'm afraid. But, still. I was wondering. Would you care to play a game with me, sometime — ?"

I couldn't resist. It was, after all, the first time we'd exchanged words, without a witness.

"I thought we already were, sir." It came out dryly.

A quick smile bloomed on Mister Grey's face, and the little laugh-lines crinkled at the corners of his eyes; and then I saw him trying to dampen his mirth, and to appear contrite.

"Ah. Well," he started; and he tilted his head, just slightly. "I could, perhaps, promise to be on my best behavior — ? Hands above the table at all times, and an absolute, irreducible minimum of innuendo — ?" His expression turned mock-beseeching.

"Well … "

"Oh, do say yes? And, besides; it might give me an opportunity to pass on a few tips, on living in a Chinese-speaking country … I could, for instance, impart my hard-earned knowledge, on how to avoid walking into the Ladies' Toilet, by mistake. You have no idea how often I did that, until I learned the right ideogram … "

I tried not to smile — 

And at the same time, a part of me was thinking, it might be safer to keep talking to him — in public — than to continue to avoid him.

"All right, sir. I'd like that, very much, actually."

I watched the smile bloom on his face, again; and I wondered, again, if Jack would grow to resemble him, in certain ways, as he got older … 

"Splendid! Just, splendid! You can find me in the Smoking Room, after the Empire Service news broadcast, of course; I know we both listen to that … Say," he went on, with a look of concern. "I wasn't joking, about being bad at chess; I'm rotten at it. I hope you won't mind — ?"

"Not at all, sir. I'm sure you're better at it than I am."

It would be interesting to see if he threw the game, I thought; as he made his way below-decks, after we shook hands on the deal. I'd thrown chess games, playing with Jack, and Charles, before; and to do so really convincingly, is harder than it looks.


I held my breath, as I opened the door, and entered the Radio Office.

It was the same as always; the smell of hot electrical circuits, the whir of the cooling fans in their little cages, up in the corners, and the clack-clack-clack of the typewriter — 

This time, Mister Molloy was at the front desk. He looked up as I came in; and then a deep, deep flush washed over his face, and he looked down.

"Oh … hello, Mister Williamson."

"Hello." I managed it, a little unsteadily.

He swiveled around in his wooden chair, and made a show of checking the wooden cubby-holes behind him; and then he turned to face me, again. Not quite meeting my eyes.

"Ummm … no new radiograms for you, this morning."

"Okay … okay." I looked over at his watch-partner; he was a slightly older man, wearing headphones, and frowning in concentration, as he clacked away at his typewriter. "And, no outgoing messages from my father, this morning, either … "

Mister Molloy said nothing. He still wasn't meeting my eyes.

I lowered my voice, for no good reason.

"Uh … I really came by to thank you, for not reporting us, that other night … Thank you. You saved our lives; my friend Tom, and I … and, well, thanks."

It came out awkwardly, and it was wholly inadequate; but I had to say it. I meant it, deeply.

Mister Molloy's head came up, and he met my eyes, at last. And in his expression, I saw embarrassment … and some of the same longing, and loneliness, that I'd seen two nights before. I hadn't imagined it.

"That's all right … I mean, I'm glad. Glad to help."

Clack-clack-clack, from his watch-mate's typewriter.

I drew a breath.

"And, I wanted to say … we won't be using the pool at night, anymore … and I know it would be impossible, anyway … "

I paused.

"But if it weren't impossible — I wish you could come swimming, with us … "

I'd meant it as a true statement, one of wistful regret … but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized it could be taken as — well, as an invitation. A salacious one.

Now it was both of us, blushing. Me, ferociously.

Clack-clack-clack, from the typewriter; then a whirring sound, and a 'thunk', as the carriage returned; then, clack-clack-clack, again.

"Mister Williamson — "

"Rhys," I said; and then I thought of Mister Grey's efforts to have me call him by his Christian name — and I thrust the thought away, forcefully.

"Bill," he said, quietly. "I'm Bill." He looked at me directly … and there were depths of sadness, in his brown eyes. "I could never risk it … " He was almost whispering, now. "I'm the only real income my family has; and I'm trying really hard to get my brother to finish high school, I really, really want him to finish high school… "

Clack-clack-clack, from the typewriter.

"But I wish I could," he went on; very softly. Another pause. "I really, really wish I could … and not just because of, well — you know … "

His head went down, again; and he blushed again, deeply.

A helpless pause. The whirring of the fans, in their cages.

"Me, too," I said; equally softly. Feeling my own face burn, again.

Clack-clack-clack; then, clack-clack-clack, and 'ding', from the typewriter. Silence between us, Mister Molloy and myself, for heartbeat after heartbeat.

"If there's … ever anything I can do for you," I started; because I so wished there was something I could do for him, at that moment, my heart was full of feeling for him, my heart just ached for him — 

He looked back up at me; and he gave me a smile full of warmth, even if it wasn't a happy smile.

Clack-clack-clack; pause, and then clack-clack-clack. The whirring-thud sound of the carriage return, again.

"You need to watch out for old Albert," from Mister Molloy, at last. "Mister Spivney, I mean; your cabin steward … He likes to talk, about his passengers." A pause, for a second. "He doesn't mean any harm … but he's already talked about you and your friend, spending nights together. He calls you David and Jonathan."

Another pause. We both knew where that could go.

"Thanks … thanks."

"Like I said, he doesn't mean any harm … he likes you." A slightly crooked smile, from him. "It's just gossip."

"Okay … "

More clacking, from the typewriter; another long silence, between us. And then, Mister Molloy gave a little, helpless, shrug, and looked down at the message-log, lying on the desk in front of him; and then, back up at me.

I felt so sad for him.

"Well … I'd better be going … " I glanced at his watch-partner, typing away, again. "I'll be checking back for messages tomorrow, I guess."

Another crooked, sad smile, from him.

"That's what we're here for," he said.

* * *

I was exhausted, by the time I came back from my run.

I had run alone — Tom was looking after his brother, again, while their mother slept — and I had pressed myself hard, running at a fast pace, for a considerable time. It had felt good; but now I knew I was going to pay. I could feel some trembling in my calves, from all the tight turns I'd made.

My wet running-clothes were wrapped in my towel, as usual; I left them in the laundry-bag for Mister Spivney, as usual.

I wondered, briefly, if he'd mention to his shipmates, that I'd run alone.

And that line of thought led me back to poor Mister Molloy — Bill — and his hopeless loneliness — 


I decided I did not want to stay in the cabin, right then.


No; I'd much rather work on my marathon letter to Jack … and, in fact, a couple-or-more postcards to him, to be mailed from Yokohama the next evening, and from Kobe the evening after that. Just the fact that we'd be seeing dry land again, after so many days at sea, was exciting; that I could at least try to mail something to Jack again, was a miracle. I could hardly wait.

I picked up my book-bag and my cap; and since I thought I'd go to the Promenade Deck, given that Father was in the Library, I added my School Atlas to use as a writing surface … 

And then, a thought struck me.

I pulled out my key-wallet, and from it I pulled out the small key to the drawer of the bed-stand beside my bed; the drawer in which I kept Jack's letters. I unlocked the drawer, slid it open, and reached for the letter I wanted — 


And then I stopped, still.


I kept Jack's letters lined up in date order, earliest to latest — 

All except the last. The last one in the bunch was always the one I'd been reading the night before; I always — except when Tom was in the other bed, of course — I always re-read one of Jack's letters, before going to sleep. This was the one I'd wanted; I'd wanted to quote it back to him, in my letter, as part of a point — 

It wasn't there.

I sorted through the letters, quickly … and I found it, improperly filed, in date order. It was the one postmarked April 7th.

I felt a clenching sensation in my gut; like an icy grip.

I knew, I knew for an absolute certainty, that I'd left that letter apart, at the back of the stack … I would stake my life on it.

Someone had been at Jack's letters.

The first reaction was almost like nausea; and then, cold fear sank in.

We hadn't been totally indiscreet in our letters, there wasn't anything that could get us expelled from school, or convicted of a crime — 


They were intimate letters … particularly, Jack's, to me. They were intimate; and any outsider who read them — who read them all, or even most of them — would have little enough doubt about our true relationship. Our feelings for each other.

"Oh, Christ," I breathed to myself. The feeling of almost-nausea, came back. I sank down on my bed, and took off my cap, and tried to think … 

How?, was my first thought. The drawer was locked; I always kept it locked. And I kept the key with me.

I pulled the key out of the lock; and I looked at it.

It was a laughably-simple thing, old-fashioned, with only a few wards … the whole lock-and-key assembly was more meant as a latch, I thought, than a real lock — 

I wished I'd noticed, before. The thought came with a bitter taste.


And then, the next shocking thought, the next sickening possibility, hit me.


I was up off the bed in a flash, and over to my trunk-full of books.

I tested the lock on that, first; it seemed unmolested, the lid was still firmly closed. There were no signs of jimmying, of lock-picking, that I could see … 

I fumbled the correct key out, and opened the lid. I stopped, and looked at the books, for a long moment — 

As Jack would attest — I have a special relationship, with books. I have a special memory, for where my books are. If I want a particular book, I can usually put my hands on it in a few seconds; even if it's buried in a mountain of other books. He teases me, about it … 

No; no. As far as I could tell — the books were arranged as I'd left them.

A moment's quick prick of relief; and then I began lifting books out of the trunk, in twos and threes, digging towards the bottom — 

I found it where I'd left it; my old, oversized 'History of the Peloponnesian War' by Thucydides, with the loose front-cover binding. And inside the front cover was my Letter of Credit, in its protective folder, all unmolested, intact.

The relief was a flood, this time. The Letter of Credit was my escape hatch, my last-resort way home to Jack — 

Along with the portions of the currency notes which I hadn't deposited in the Purser's Office. I moved more books around … and found the volumes in which I'd hidden some loose bills, a fifty-dollar bill here, some one-hundred-dollar bills there … More than enough, right before me, to get me home. Or to wherever Jack and I arranged to meet.

I sat back and breathed, for some moments; feeling my heart pounding. Looking down at my books, my familiar books, laid out in this strange ship's cabin — 

And then, carefully and slowly, I began putting them all back in the steamer-trunk; marking their positions and order in my mind's eye, the way that I do.

Beginning to think, again, with the portion of my mind, which wasn't occupied by my task … 


What had happened — ? And, why — ?


A sudden thought struck me.

I finished loading up my book-trunk, and I closed the lid, and locked it — 

And I noticed that the lock was modern, and strong; a cylinder-lock. Was that why it hadn't been opened — ?

If indeed it hadn't been opened … 

And then, after locking my trunk, I made a careful examination of the cabin; as careful a one as I could. I went through the little built-in wardrobe … as far as I could tell, nothing was out of place. Then, a quick inventory of the bath-room, with my shower things, along with some of Tom's; with the same result. Then, back out to my sleeping quarters, with the two beds, and the small, glass-doored bookshelf, and the books I'd kept close to hand — 

Everything seemed in order.

It proved nothing.

In the end, I went back to Jack's letters; and I examined them, as closely as I could. I started with the earliest — well, the earliest one to survive; I'd torn up the very first, in front of Tom — and I worked my way along — 

When I came to the letter postmarked April 8th, I felt another shock; the hair on the back of my neck, prickled.

Yes; yes. Someone had definitely been through them. Two 'New Yorker' cartoons, which had been sent between two different sheets of his letter — the placement was part of a joke, in the letter — were instead together, between the second and third sheets … 

The feeling of nausea, returned for a moment. Then I forced myself to go through the very last letter, as methodically as I could … 

And then, I sat back; and I thought.


It didn't make sense. Nothing made sense.


Someone had gone to the trouble — someone had gone to a great deal of trouble — to open a locked drawer, and to read Jack's very private correspondence to me … but, why — ?

Taken as a whole, the letters were a major embarrassment; to Jack and me, anyway. Even if there wasn't enough scandalous material to get us arrested or sent down from school, as I said — the feelings showed through. When taken as a whole. They were the kind of letters, I thought, that a wealthy family might well pay to have returned …

But they hadn't been taken. They'd only been read. Why — ?

How could I — we — be blackmailed, if I still had all of the letters — ? And I did, I was dead certain of it.


More questions boiled up, in my mind.


Apart from why — who could have done it — ?


Mister Grey came to mind, immediately, of course … even before Jack's telegram, I'd known he wasn't what he seemed — he, and I suspected, Mister Sayles. His cat-and-mouse flirtation with me was pretty clearly just a sideline to whatever was really going on … 

But what was that? And why would it involve searching my cabin — ?

I couldn't believe it would involve blackmail. Mister Grey seemed to have plenty of money of his own … and no-one on board, besides Father, and possibly the Purser, knew my true financial circumstances; Father and I are very careful about that.

Neither could I believe that Mister Grey would attempt blackmail, as a way to get me into his bed. The idea was absurd. No; even if his flirtation were serious — well. He knew I was attracted to him. He must know, he'd have much, much better chances, by trying to honestly seduce me … 

And besides. I still had the letters.

It all made no sense. Nothing else fit; nobody fit. Mister Sayles — ? Mister Spivney, the cabin-steward — ? He certainly had the cabin door key, and probably, likely, the key to the bed-stead drawer, as well — 

I remembered, in a crash, that I'd been leaving the cabin door unlocked at night, when Tom and I had crept out for our assignations; to avoid waking Father.

In how many ways, I wondered, miserably, can one person be such a fool — ?


My mind went on churning; fearfully, and not-very productively.

In the end, I decided, it came down to one thing, one central fact; I still had Jack's letters. My cabin had been searched, and Jack's letters had been read — but I still had them.

It couldn't be blackmail, then.

But if not blackmail — what — ?


In spite of my overwhelming fear, I made a real effort to think it all through — 

And I came, belatedly, again, to the wry conclusion; that perhaps I am not The Center Of The Universe. It is a conclusion that I seem to need to re-learn, more and more often, as I get older.

Perhaps the search wasn't about me — ? Perhaps someone on board had learned of the gold we were accompanying to Shanghai; perhaps someone had learned of Father's true business dealings — whatever those might really be — ? Or — 




The sudden, sharp thought struck me like a thunder-clap; I could feel the blood drain from my face.

Who had access to my cabin? Who might be interested in reading my mail … but uninterested in blackmail — ? Of the traditional variety, anyway?

Oh, Christ, let it not be so. Please.

I could feel my stomach clenching, harder than ever. I felt physically ill, again.

I could also feel the pieces clicking into place, in my mind.

Ordinarily, as I've said, Father respects my privacy, scrupulously — it is a form of self-respect, on his part, I've always felt; as well as a way of forcing me to take responsibility upon myself — 

But Father had been acting very strangely, since we'd left New York. Since he'd come to our School to announce the trip, actually.

Could he — ?

I looked down at Jack's letters, on the bedspread; and I looked at the pathetic, simple key, protruding from my key-wallet. And I thought of an experiment, which I did not want to make … 

I took my key-wallet, and I slid open the door to our common sitting-room, empty for the moment, and smelling of Father's pipe; and then, I slid open the door to Father's sleeping cabin — 

The two beds were larger, and there was no writing-desk. But there was a bed-stand, between the beds, which looked exactly like mine — 

I tugged on the drawer-pull. It was locked.

I then inserted my own key, holding my breath; and I turned it gently — 

It opened, with a 'click'.

Just to be sure, I tugged on the drawer-pull, again. The drawer slid open, to reveal the butt of Father's pistol, gleaming dully, nestled in its leather holster. I closed the drawer, hurriedly, and re-locked it; then I left Father's sleeping-cabin, sliding the door closed behind me, feeling a swirl of emotions — 

It still proved nothing. The lock was a simple one; I could have picked it myself, with a piece of stiff wire. It was a skill I'd acquired at The School In The Sky in Switzerland, as an aid to sneaking out at night; the locks were old, and simple, there —

I went back to my own quarters, and settled back down on my bed; and I forced myself to think, and to think logically, and calmly.

For some minutes.

The great fear now, of course, was that Father had read the letters. In detail. And, as a result, that he had some idea, anyway, of our relationship, Jack's and mine —

The thought came to me. Perhaps that was why I was here? Perhaps he'd suspected, for awhile. Perhaps he'd taken me away to Shanghai, as an excuse to break us up, to keep us apart — ?

The idea was horrible. It made me want to panic, to run, to run away, now — 


But in the end, the more I thought about it — the less I believed it.


For one thing — it was all wrong, for Father. Father is — direct. Unlike me, he is not devious. If Father thought there was anything — inappropriate — in my friendship with Jack, he would say so, to me. He might tell me, directly, to stop seeing Jack, outside of school: he might, as an extreme measure, ship me off to school in England, or the Continent, to keep us apart, as had happened to poor old Pettit, of Pettit and Cray — 

But he would not hatch an elaborate, indirect, baroque scheme, to separate us. He would not.


There was one other major objection.


My cabin had been searched, Jack's letters had been read — 

But Father had no way of knowing that Jack's letters even existed. I had mentioned writing to Jack exactly once, and that only because I thought it would seem odd, if I didn't. Father didn't know about the two letters I'd received from Jack in San Francisco; I'd hidden all that from him. He didn't know about the telegrams. He didn't know about the batch of letters I'd received from Jack in Hawaii; I'd lavishly tipped — bribed, really — Mister Spivney to pass them directly to me, and not mention them to Father — 

Mister Spivney knew of the letters. Mister Spivney, who 'means no harm', but who 'likes to talk' — to his crew-mates, anyway — 


I groaned; and I buried my face in my hands.


Nothing made sense; and I was going in circles. I wished, intensely, passionately, that Jack were with me, to help me make sense of it all …

And after another moment — that helped. Thinking of Jack; thinking of our teamwork.

When Jack takes on too big of a problem, or tries to solve solve something too fast, or write something too quickly — well. I am the one who tells him to slow down; to slow down, and to solve the pieces of the problem he can solve, or write the first page of the essay that he can write, first.

I had a simple problem to solve, a simple choice to make, immediately. What was I going to do with Jack's letters? And what should I do about my Letter of Credit, and the cash, hidden in my book-trunk — ?

I thought for a second; and I shrugged, to myself.

Well; I thought. The choices are actually fairly clear.

I can load everything — the Letter of Credit, the currency, and Jack's letters — into a couple of oversized Manila envelopes, and see them deposited in the Purser's safe — 

And hope Father wasn't the one who had searched my cabin, and read the letters. Hope that he wouldn't exercise a hypothetical parent's prerogative, to examine or confiscate whatever I might have deposited with the Purser. With, or without informing me of the fact … 

Or, I could just hide Jack's letters in my book-trunk, and trust to the tender mercies of my modern cylinder-lock.

I gathered up Jack's letters; and I sighed, as I scooped up my keys, and headed back to my book-trunk.

I'd already guessed, that there was some kind of game going on, on this voyage; and that I did not know the rules.

Right now, I thought, I'd settle for knowing who the players are.

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