China Boat

Chapter 34

Friday, April 30th, 1937
10:17 p.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea

The wheelhouse looked very different, by night.

There was the glow of the binnacle-light on the helmsman's face; and another glow from the Sperry gyro-compass, and a few lighted switches and dials, and a very dim, green-shaded lamp illuminating a chart-desk. All else was dark.

"Mister Williamson — ?"

The Captain's presence made a difference, as well.

"Yes, sir."

The Captain was a broad man, white-haired and stern-looking. He stood before us, his hands behind his back; he did not offer to shake hands.

The Captain shifted his gaze, silently, expressively, to me.

"This is my son, Rhys," from Father. "You have been previously introduced." It came out a little drily. "On this trip, he is functioning in the capacity of my Confidential Secretary; anything you have to say to me, can be said in front of him."

A measuring look, from the man in the uniform. I had the quick impression, that he did not much like either one of us, father or son.

"Very well," he said, at length. Then; "Follow me."

Turning, he led us out the left-side — the port-side — door of the wheelhouse, onto the same wing of the bridge where Tom and I had shot the sun, during our ship's tour.

Things were very different here, as well.

It was dark; the moon had not yet risen, of course. But the clouds were scattered, and separated by black sky littered with more and brighter stars than I'd ever seen at one time, before; they blazed in the sky. I could actually see star shine on the water, and the starlight lit up the tops and edges of the clouds. Off in the distance, I could see rain slanting into the sea, beneath a band of clouds; it was all strikingly, staggeringly beautiful.

It was also rough. The ship was corkscrewing, now; the wind had risen, and the deck was wet; we'd obviously passed through a rain squall, recently.

The Captain turned to face aft; Father and I followed his gaze. We both held on the railing; the Captain did not bother.

"Look back astern, there, and tell me what you see," he said, a little shortly.

We looked.

At first, I could see nothing, except more clouds, more rain squalls, and the whiteness of our wake, disappearing behind us. I glanced, quickly, closer in, and I was relieved that the back of the Sun Deck was invisible, hidden by the funnels, as I'd thought … and then, I looked out towards the horizon to sternward, again.

This time I saw it immediately, just emerging from cloud-shadow, and rain. Lights; a red light to the right, a green light close by to the left, and a white light higher above the both of them. They were tiny, far off; but distinctly separate.

Father said nothing. I waited for a moment, before speaking up.

"I assume it is another ship, sir."

We were partly sheltered in the lee of the wheelhouse; I could make myself heard, fairly easily.

"You are correct. Do you see it now, Mister Williamson — ?" This to Father, of course.

"I don't … wait; wait. Yes, I believe I do, now … " I watched, as Father gazed aft, another moment; and then, as he turned a quizzical look, towards the Captain.

"We picked him up, shortly after dusk," from the Captain. "We are being shadowed."

His tone was not happy.

There was a pause. An echoing one.

"Indeed — ?" from Father. His own tone was carefully neutral; it was a dangerous tone, a thing which could portend trouble. The Captain's continuing brusqueness had clearly irritated him.

"There is no doubt. We have made two minor course changes, in the past ninety minutes; he has matched us, each time."

I looked aft, at the distant lights; and the hair on the back of my neck, prickled. To be tracked, by an unknown ship, at sea, in the night … 

Silence, then. For a moment, just the rush of the wind, and the sounds of the water.

"Do you have any idea, who it might be — ?" from Father; still in his dangerously-neutral voice.

"Here," said the Captain. He took a step, and opened a metal cabinet, and extracted a pair of large binoculars. These he gave to Father, with a kind of exaggerated courtesy. "Why don't you take a look, and tell me your opinion — ?"

Father gave him a look that portended more danger, still; but he also took the binoculars. He looked astern for some moments, balancing against the movement of the ship, making fine adjustments to the focus-knobs; and then, wordlessly, without asking the Captain's permission, he passed the binoculars to me.

I lost no time, putting them up to my eyes.

I located the lights, easily enough; they danced, crazily, in my field of vision, until I learned to move in time with the rolling and pitching of the ship, and keep what I saw reasonably steady … 

I could not see much. It was a low shape, with a high, complicated mast; I could see white seawater pushed aside, every time the bow plunged — 

And I thought I could see guns. Spiky guns, single barrels, protruding outward.

I lowered the binoculars, after another moment, and handed them back to the Captain. "Sir," I said.

"It appears to be a warship," from Father, in his neutral tone. Stating the obvious.

"Very good," from the Captain; with some irony. He gazed sternward. "He is too far away to be sure; but I expect he is a light cruiser. A destroyer would have trouble keeping up with us, in these seas; and he has more the look of a cruiser, about him, in any case."

"Whose — ?" from Father; drily, and succinctly.

The Captain looked at him, sideways.

"He could be one of ours, American; part of the Asiatic Fleet, headed for duty up-river in Shanghai or Nanking … or he could just possibly be British." The Captain paused for a moment, and looked back sternward. "But in these waters, and shadowing us — ? He is almost certainly Japanese."

A pause. The sound of the wind, and the water, again.

"I see," from Father, neutrally, and drily. He could have been discussing stock futures, or the weather. "Is there some cause for concern, then — ?"

"At sea — ? No. On the contrary, he is escorting us; not that it is necessary. Once we make landfall, though, it is an entirely different matter."

And with that, he turned on Father; there is no other way to describe it. He turned to face Father, and drew himself up to his full size and bulk, and he positively radiated hostility and authority.

"Have you spoken to the Press, or to any of your business associates, about our cargo of gold bullion?"

"Certainly not!" from Father; sharply.

"Did you tell any fellow-passengers, about our cargo?" His tone was no warmer.

"No." Father's tone was flat, and final, and icy.

The Captain's eyes shifted, fractionally, in my direction.

"Neither have I, sir."

And it was true. I hadn't told Tom about the gold. I hadn't even mentioned it to Jack. We had had more important things to talk about, to think about, before I'd left.

The Captain's hostile eyes turned back to Father.

"Has your Bank notified anyone about our cargo — ? Could they have requested an escort from our Navy — ?"

"No!" If anything, Father seemed more offended, than when his own actions were questioned. "No; absolutely not. That would be in complete violation of our normal practice. And if for some reason they felt compelled to do so, they would certainly have notified me."

Another hostile pause. A spatter of raindrops began to hit the deck, and railings, and us; the Captain completely ignored it.

"And yet," he said at length, with a quick, demonstrative jerk of his head, sternward — "word of your gold bullion has clearly gotten out; which puts us in an awkward and potentially dangerous position. How do you suppose that happened, Mister Williamson?"

The man was clearly furious; and I held my breath. No-one — with the possible and very rare exception of Grandfather — talks to Father, that way.

"Members of your crew are aware of our cargo," from Father; sharply, and coldly.

The Captain's eyes widened. I clearly saw him flush, even in the pale light. It occurred to me, that people might not ordinarily talk to him in such a way, either.

"Members of my crew," he said, slowly, and with emphasis, "are not in the habit of sending coded radiograms to foreign listening-posts."

"We have made calls at three ports since leaving San Francisco," from Father; succinctly, and bluntly. He was clearly as furious as the Captain, now.

Another breathless pause. The rain-spatters came more heavily, drops bouncing off the railings. I saw their eyes locked, in confrontation.

Finally, Father exhaled, slightly.

"Our shipment was never a complete secret," he said at last; drops falling from the brim of his cloth hat. "A number of people were aware of it; of necessity."

"Oh?" from the Captain. Still, clearly, in a dangerous temper.

"Yes. There are the Pinkerton guards, of course. Workers at the San Francisco Mint. Members of the Federal Reserve Banks of San Francisco and New York." He paused, and then went on, drily. "The Secretary of the Treasury. And the President."

Another, shorter silence.

"President Roosevelt — ?"

"Oh, yes." I could just detect the sardonic tone, in his voice. "Any shipment of gold overseas, of this magnitude, requires his personal attention, and his signature. It is part of the law his own Administration promulgated." Another slight pause. "I expect he finds it — tedious."

A longer pause. The raindrops lessened, and then ceased. The wind blew; there was the sound of water, against our hull.

The Captain broke his stare with Father, and looked sternward.

"It is just barely possible," he said, at last, "that our shadow is unrelated to the gold."

I had the distinct impression that it was Father's implicit criticism of the President, which had softened the edge of his anger.

"Yes — ?" from Father.

"Possibly. There is a very high-ranking Japanese Admiral, who is a great admirer of Miss Deirdre Lloyd … he might have arranged this escort as a show of respect. Or even for her protection, if his orders are to accompany us all the way to Shanghai."

"A Japanese Admiral, an admirer of Miss Lloyd — ?" Father raised an eyebrow.

"Oh, yes; he is a fan of our movies, and he is very fluent in English. He was their Naval Attaché in Washington, for several years." He paused, a moment. "His name is Yamamoto, and he's a good man; one of their moderates. So of course, he is under constant threat of assassination."

Silence between us, for a few seconds, as we looked back at the lights of our shadowing ship.

"It seems unlikely," from Father; at last.

"Yes. We must assume word of our cargo has leaked — one way, or another." Another heavy, suspicious glance at Father.

It came to me, hard, that my own sleeping-cabin had been searched, and my letters from Jack, read … Could Father's papers have been read, as well — ?

But I could say nothing. I still was not sure, that it wasn't Father who had performed the search.

"You said," from Father, "that we are now in an awkward, and perhaps dangerous, position. May one ask why — ? If that ship is escorting us, are they not doing so to keep us safe — ?"

The Captain's expression darkened, again.

"As I said — we have nothing to fear, at sea. We can outrun anything but a military vessel, and no warship would interfere with us; it would actually be their duty, to protect us." He looked sternward, again; and then he looked back at Father, and frowned, deeply. "But tomorrow morning we make landfall, at the mouth of the Yangtze River. We will need to slow, or stop, to take on the Pilot; and then, we face three or four hours steaming, at very slow speeds, up the Yangtze and Whangpoo Rivers to Shanghai. We will be vulnerable, the entire time."

"Vulnerable — ? To whom — ?"

The Captain scowled.

"To everyone, and everything. It is China; do you not read the newspapers? The Government has very little control over the countryside; there are warlords, mercenaries and bandits to contend with. There is the Communist insurgency of Mao Tze-tung, and Chou En-lai; they would find the gold we carry very useful, regardless of what they think of the theory of money, and they have no lack of agents, on the rivers." He scowled, again. "Under ordinary circumstances, we would be perfectly safe; we're American, and we have a very high freeboard. But this quantity of gold would be extremely tempting, both for its value, and for how very portable it is. I can't help wondering, why you did not just ship a few tons of silver, as is ordinarily done — ?"

"Believe me, sir," said Father, drily, "that would have been my own preference as well … But, still; I do not understand. Is that warship — our shadow — here to escort us, and to protect us, or not? If they are to escort us, what do we have to fear?"

The Captain's look was coldly disdainful.

"It is China, sir. Nothing need be as it appears." He glanced back at our shadow; and then to Father. "We do not know what his orders are; but in any event, we would be fools to trust him. The Japanese are very adept at manufacturing Incidents, to extend their territory and influence in China; a rescue by them of an American vessel, a vessel that had been seized by pirates — or what seemed to be pirates — would embarrass the Chinese, embarrass us, and benefit them."

Silence, then, for a moment; as I took it in, blinking.

There is a very popular comic-strip in American newspapers, called 'Terry and the Pirates'; in it, a young, teenaged orphan boy named Terry, and his young-adult, very muscular, and very handsome — (!) — friend, Pat, roam around in China, battling warlords, mysterious Dragon Ladies, and, well, pirates.

It is ridiculous, of course. Jack and I follow it, regardless; it is very well-drawn. But for the most part, we don't take it seriously, and we laugh with each other, speculating about what the true nature of Pat and Terry's 'friendship' might be … 

And now, here was the Captain of our ship, on a cold, wet Bridge, telling Father and me that warlords and pirates were real, and real concerns, where we were going.

I was not excited. I was not amused.

I felt … uncomfortable; in all honesty, I was scared, and I deeply, deeply wished I was back in New York, or back at school, where I belonged.

If Father felt similarly, he gave no indication of it.

"What do you suggest we do — ?" he asked, in a calm, even voice.

The Captain drew himself up, again, and gave Father a sardonic look.

"Well. I do not propose to allow my decks to be stormed by Japanese Marines. Nor do I propose to be taken over by thieves or pirates, either real or dress-up." He peered at Father, intently. "I believe you have a gun with you — a pistol — ?"

Father's sang-froid held perfectly steady. I was proud of him.

"Yes, sir; an automatic, a .45 calibre; my service sidearm from the War. It is in good working order."

"Good," from the Captain. He rocked on his feet, balancing, hands-free, against the corkscrewing of the ship. "There are four officers on board, with revolvers; myself, the First Officer, the Chief Engineer and the Purser. That brings us to five. And then we have the two Army lieutenants, what are their names — ? Allison is one, and, and — "

"Dunleavy, sir," I supplied. We had all been together, an hour ago.

"Yes." His eyes flicked to mine. "They will have their own service sidearms. That brings us to seven. What I — "

"Excuse me, sir," from Father.

The Captain raised an eyebrow. It occurred to me, that he was not accustomed to being interrupted, either.

"I believe," went on Father, "that Mister Nieuwenhuis — of Royal Dutch Shell — also has a firearm."

I held on to the railing, and stared at Father. How could he possibly know this — ?

"Does he, indeed — ?" from the Captain; with a certain dangerous smoothness. "Does he? Of course, he should have communicated that fact to the Purser … " He paused for a moment, with a slight, grim, inward smile, that I thought boded poorly for Mister Nieuwenhuis.

"I am sorry, sir," from Father. "I had assumed you — you and the Purser — knew."

"Well," said the Captain. He rocked on his feet, again, for a moment. "Nevertheless." He looked at Father. "That brings us to eight of us, with arms. Assuming, of course, that you are willing to lend a hand — ?"

"Of course, sir. I would be honored."

The Captain came close to looking something other than disapproving.

"Very well … Our moment of greatest vulnerability, as I said, will come when we take on the Pilot, tomorrow morning; we will have the leeward accommodation door open for them. If I wanted to take this ship, that is how I would do it; I'd first take over, or buy off, the pilot boat, and use it to get my own armed men aboard." He regarded Father, closely. "I propose to have an — adequate — armed party to meet the Pilot, and anyone else who might board with him. The rest of us, I will post on deck, wherever seems fitting." Another pause. Another close look. "After we take on the Pilot, — assuming there is no trouble — we will then need to stand watch for the time it takes to sail up the Yangtze and the Whangpoo, to the Port of Shanghai."

"Very good, sir."

My feeling of unreality, grew. I looked back at the lights, astern of us; one red, one green, one white.

"You realize," the Captain continued, "that I will need to inform the others about the nature of our cargo."

"Of course. It hardly matters now, in any event."

"No. It doesn't." The Captain rocked on his feet, for another moment, gazing sternward; then he looked back at Father. "Very well. I will send for you at 0400 hours; and I will ask that you muster here on the bridge, at 0500."

"Uh — sir — ?"

The Captain raised a white eyebrow.

I hated to speak up; I knew that I would sound like an adventure-besotted teen, a character in one of my old Boy's Own Stories … I loathed the prospect.

But I had to at least make the offer. I was adult enough; I was my Father's son; and honor demanded no less.

"May I be of any assistance — ? Perhaps as a lookout, or as a runner — ? I'd planned on being on deck at that hour, regardless … "

It sounded an unlikely prospect, even to me.

The Captain's expression turned sardonic.

"Oh, yes, you are quite the runner, aren't you — ?" He rocked back on his heels, arms behind his back, examining me with dark amusement.

I blinked at him. "Sir — ?"

"The Junior Officers' quarters are on the Boat Deck, underneath the running track … I'm told that one or two of them found the sound of your footfalls oddly soothing, and an aid to falling asleep."

Meaning the others had not. I blanched.

"I … I'm sorry, sir. I had no idea."

The Captain's expression held, for just a moment; and then, it might just have softened, very slightly.

"Not at all, young man, not at all; we are a well-built ship, and recreation is part of the service … But. Thank you for your offer, but no; we have lookouts enough, and the ship's telephone exchange." A pause. "Of course, if you happen to see anything out of the ordinary, by all means, please tell any crew member."

"Yes, sir."

As a dismissal, it was more polite than I had expected.

"And now, if you'll follow me — ?"

A last look at the starlight, and the clouds, and the rain in the distance; and we were back in the wheelhouse, which seemed much more brightly-lit than it had before. The Deck Officer, and the younger officer who had brought us, turned to face us.

"Mister O'Brien; my compliments to Lieutenant Allison, Lieutenant Dunleavy, and to Mister — Nieuwenhuis — "

He got the pronunciation fairly well. It came out, 'Knee-Van-Hoose'.

" — and ask them to report to me, here, at once."

It was not intended as a request. It came out, as the command that it was.

And then, against all expectation, the Captain turned to Father, and held out his hand.

"Until 0500, then, sir," he said.

"Yes, sir," from Father; and they shook hands.

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