China Boat

Chapter 35

Saturday, May 1st, 1937
11:35 a.m.
S.S. President Hoover
off the Yangtze River Delta

"Yeah," from Tom. "Yeah, I can see it pretty clearly, now — "

'HMMMMMMMM — !' from the foghorn, above us. The sound was earsplitting, almost painful.

We were on the Sun Deck; looking across at our shadow, the ship that had tracked us through the night.

It was actually rather easy to see, now. The morning light was growing, in a pearly, diffuse sort of way — 

And we were both at anchor.

Tom, of course, had brought 'Jane's Fighting Ships, 1935' up from the Library; it was propped open, on the wide teak railing before us.

"The Captain was right; it's a light cruiser. See — ?" He pointed at a drawing, and a photograph, on the page in front of him. "Four funnels; the first one is taller, the third one is fatter. She's one of the Sendai class … " He stopped short, a moment, to peer down at the book; and then, back up to the ship a few hundred yards to port of us. "But, look at the shape of her bow … See that little protruding part, in front — ? That means, she's either the, the … " He looked down at the book, again. "The Jintsu, or the Naka." A pause, for him to look over at the gray shape, wonderingly. "Oh, gosh … "


I'd told him everything, when we'd met before dawn. I'd told him about the gold bullion; I'd told him about being shadowed, about the Captain's concerns about being boarded, about Father and Lieutenant Allison and Lieutenant Dunleavy and Mister Nieuwenhuis being asked to form an armed guard — 

He'd been impressed — deeply impressed, I could tell — at our having been shadowed by an unknown warship. He'd been less impressed, or surprised, at the threat of piracy, or violence.

"Of course there are still pirates. That's why we have the Coast Guard," he'd told me. "During Prohibition, different gangs used to try to steal each other's liquor shipments all the time, sometimes whole ship-loads of them. It still happens with cigarets. Didn't you know — ?"

I hadn't known, of course; although I suppose I should have. I'd associated pirates with eye-patches and pieces-of-eight, with ruffled neck-cloths and the Queen Anne's Revenge. But I suppose as long as there's money to be made from stealing things afloat, there will always be pirates of one kind or another.

Tom had been — a little bit quieter, a little bit harder to read — on the subject of the gold bullion, which was at the heart of the situation … 

I had the impression, that he was disappointed that I hadn't confided in him, earlier. That he felt, let down.

Well, I couldn't have done, of course; it hadn't been been my secret, to tell. But that he was a little bit hurt by it, made me a little bit sad, in return.

I wished it hadn't happened, on our last day on board, together.


"She's got seven, 5.5 inch guns … she'll do thirty-three knots." He gazed across at the warship, one hand extending beyond his cap-brim, shading his eyes in the opalescent light. His excitement just shone, from him.

"I can see people on deck," I offered. "Dressed in white. They're doing something; what is it — ?"

"Holystoning. They're scrubbing the decks. It's the same in every navy, in the world; every morning." He paused for a moment, still shielding his eyes from the glare, with his hand. "I wish I had binoculars, or a telescope, or something … I wish I could get a better look, at her."

Maybe it's better than you don't; I didn't say.

"You know, the Captain called it, 'he'."

Tom looked at me.

"What — ?"

"When we were on the bridge, last night. He kept calling that cruiser, 'he'. And I noticed, you keep calling it, 'she' … "

"Oh … " He looked back out at the gray warship. A moment's silence. "I've heard of that, before … for some older sailors, only your own ship is a 'she', every other ship is a 'he'." He paused, for a moment, considering. "But I think it's especially true in the Navy, when they're talking about other ships, as targets … A target, or an enemy, is always a 'he'."

His voice had gotten a little smaller, as he'd said the last part.

A quiet pause.

"Oh," from me.


I'd learned quite a bit from Tom, this morning; and it was still early.

The whole morning had been educational, in truth.

It had started with Mister Spivney's light tap on Father's cabin door at four a.m.; he'd been dressed and ready, of course.

As I had been. When I emerged into the corridor to join them, he'd merely raised an eyebrow; although we hadn't discussed the morning's arrangements, at all.

"I'm to meet my friend Tom on deck, before dawn," was all I'd said. And he'd given a slight, wordless shrug.


The education had continued, over coffee and rolls in the First Class Dining Salon.

First was the discovery that the coffee was unusually strong and fresh at four o'clock in the morning; and, that the rolls — mine was a flaky croissant — were still warm from the ovens. It was the best breakfast of the whole voyage, as far as I was concerned.

Second, was seeing Lieutenants Allison and Dunleavy, in their brown Army uniforms; complete with insignia, shiny brass buttons, the Sam Browne belts crossing their chests — 

And their guns, of course. They wore their guns in holsters, at their sides; and they seemed completely comfortable, at-home in both their uniforms and their arms. It was the first time I could really imagine them both as military officers.

They hadn't seemed particularly concerned, as they sipped their coffee, before going up to the bridge.

"Well," Lieutenant Dunleavy had said, glancing my way, a little apologetically, I thought — "It's Asia, you know. It's not like back home in the States."

Lieutenant Allison had chimed in. "There are parts of the Philippines where we don't go, unless we've issued our men live ammunition. There are armed families — tribes, really — that are older than our own country, and they're used to having things their own way." He'd shrugged. "It's all about taking precautions, really."

Father, for his part, had said little.

He wore his gun too, of course; in the same kind of holster, and belt, as Lieutenant Allison and Lieutenant Dunleavy. But rather than a uniform, he wore a tweed shooting-jacket, complete with leather shoulder-patch, where the butt of a shotgun would rest.

Well, I'd thought to myself, blinking a little. After all, what does a well-dressed gentleman wear, over a holstered pistol, carried at the hip — ?

I wondered if the absurdity of it all had struck Father too, as he'd chosen what to wear for the morning … but he'd withdrawn so thoroughly from me, we'd withdrawn so thoroughly from one another, that I knew I could never ask him.

I hated this distance that had grown between us. And the bewildering, frightening thing, was that the cause of it, the fault for it, did not lie entirely with me. It didn't even lie mostly with me. I knew it.


And then, later, at last, came the dawn; and Tom's lessons.

The wind had slackened, and then died, sometime during the night. The seas remained high, and we'd gone on corkscrewing; but then sometime after two in the morning, the swells had seemed to die away, as if by magic. I'd assumed we'd rounded a promontory, or a point, or something, and moved into more sheltered waters.

The Moon was up, and brilliant, when I'd met Tom up on the Sun Deck; just three days past full. It sparkled on the water, as we looked aft at the lights of our shadow, and then looked forward, straining to see a smudge on the horizon, that might be land — 

What we saw instead was a solid, gray wall; the moonlight did not penetrate it.

We sailed right into it.

The foghorn had started, almost at once; the first blast had made both of us jump; it had been loud enough to almost knock me over. We hadn't heard it, since that first day out of San Francisco — weeks ago, now.

And then, the engine-vibration — or as Tom reminded me, again, the propellor-vibration — lessened noticeably; as did our speed through the water.

Dawn, when it came, showed us a world of white; impenetrable whiteness, over a smooth sea, as we barely crept through the water. We could have been alone in the universe — 

Except for the ghostly calls of other ships' foghorns. Many more than one. Tom and I tried counting, and guessing their directions; it was difficult. Obviously we were in a very busy seaway.

The propellor-vibrations lessened still more, and the sound of the ship pushing through the water died away to practically nothing — 

And then came a sound, from the forward part of the ship; a kind of clattering roar. We looked forward.

"We're anchoring — ?" I'd asked, at last; rather stupidly.

"Well, yeah," from Tom. Patiently, I thought. "We're not going anywhere, in fog this thick."

'HMMMMMMMM — !' from our foghorn; and then almost directly after, came a hissing sound, that built up into an explosive, prolonged 'woosh', that drowned out everything else. It came from the sternmost funnel. I guessed we were letting off steam … 

I wondered what it meant for Father and the others, standing guard. Would they be stuck, for hours and hours, waiting for the pilot boat — ? Would they have to take turns, spelling each other — ?

The explosive whooshing sound cut off, finally, at long last; but the rattling roar of the anchor chain being released, did not.

"We must be in awfully deep water," I'd said, eventually. Still wondering about the pilot boat.

Tom had looked at me, a little pityingly.

"Naw. Look at the color of the water."

I'd looked. It seemed — well, rather brownish, actually. Tinged with yellow, perhaps.

"We're in the Yangtze River delta; it's like anchoring in the mouth of the Mississippi, or the Nile. It's just mud, down there; there's nothing to grab on to. So we put out all that anchor chain to weigh us down, so we don't move. Or don't move as much, anyway."


I didn't ask how a boy from Iowa knew such things; he'd probably made a special study of ship-handling, books and books worth, courtesy of the library at his father's University.

And I'd felt a sharp rush of real affection, real feeling, for him. If I had to be in Shanghai, thousands of miles away from home, without Jack — there was no one I'd rather have with me … 

His final lesson of the morning, was not to underestimate him. To cherish him, in fact.


All of that, the dawn, the anchoring — had been hours ago, now.

The light was stronger, now, and I could feel the presence of the sun, above the fog; I could actually feel the warmth of it, on my skin.

Too, the fog had definitely lightened. We could see the Japanese cruiser perfectly clearly, now; although the horizon was still one of pearly white. Still, the whiteness was bright, sun-lit; it was hard not to think the fog would burn away soon.

Still. Our foghorn was still sounding, regularly; and so were other ships', although perhaps fewer than there had been, at first. And we were still anchored.

There had been no sign of a pilot-boat.

"Come on," I said to Tom. "Let's take another turn around the deck."

His shaded eyes were still riveted on the Japanese warship. He turned away, reluctantly.

"Okay," he said.


It was ridiculous; of course.


I knew perfectly well, that it was ridiculous. I was sure that the Captain had enough lookouts posted, more than enough; we could see white-uniformed crew on the foredeck, and on the extreme stern-deck, both of which were off-limits to passengers. There had to be yet more crewmen watching from the bridge, and from the crows-nests, on the masts.

Still. The impulse to look, to see for one's self, was overpowering, ridiculous or not. And, the Sun Deck had the best view a passenger could get. So, we strolled along, slowly, keeping our useless look-out.

"You know," I started, just for the sake of making conversation — "The Captain said something about our running … Well, about me running, anyway."

Tom turned to stare at me.

"He did?"

"Well … yes." I smiled at him, a little; already sorry I'd raised the subject. "He said the officers — the junior officers — have quarters on the Boat Deck, right underneath the running track. Right underneath us, right now, actually. And I guess they can hear it, when we go running … " I smiled at him, again, a little shamefacedly. "I didn't know."

"And they'd have watch schedules at all different hours … they'd be trying to sleep. Oh, gosh … " He looked out at the white fog, for a few steps; and then down.

"It's embarrassing," I admitted.

"More for me, than for you," he said at last. Still looking down. "You run so light … I mean, when you run, I can barely hear your steps … and when I run with you, I just clomp along. I'll bet I was the one who really bothered them … "

I kicked myself, again, for bringing up the subject.

"That's not true!" I said. "It was those boots of yours, before Hawaii, that made all the noise … You ran fine, after we got your running shoes."

"No," he said. "Not like you … I clomp."

Silence, for a few more seconds, as we walked along.

"If we both get the chance … would you, perhaps consider going running with me, in Shanghai — ? Although, I don't know where we could … " I paused. "We'd have to see, if we can run in anything except tight circles, anymore." It was a feeble enough joke.

A quick look upwards, from Tom.

"Yeah," he said. Then; "Yeah, I'd really like that … "

If we both can; I didn't need to say, again.


We turned at the forward end of the Sun Deck, and crossed to the other side, the starboard side. In the process we walked by the engine-room fan intakes; only one of the big fans was working. Then, back down sternward again, going slowly, gazing out at the sunlit fog.

It was Tom who saw it first.

"Wait a minute," he said, stopping at the railing. He stood very still, as I shaded my eyes, and tried to see through the whiteness. "Something's coming," he said.

I heard it, before I saw it; a chugging sound, definitely an engine-noise. It sounded like a steam locomotive.

"There," from Tom. He pointed; and when I sighted along his arm, I saw movement, a shape in the fog.

"Maybe it's the pilot-boat," I said.

I would be glad when the Pilot was aboard, and the moment of vulnerability was passed. I did not like the idea of Father waiting for a potentially-hostile boarding-party, armed with his gun. I did not like the idea, at all.

The moving shape grew darker, in the thinning, opalescent whiteness; and then, with a startling suddenness, it emerged from the fog, and into milky sunshine.

The first thing I saw, was that it seemed to be heading right towards us.

The second thing I saw, was the gun on its bow. A long cannon, in what looked like a turret. It seemed, naturally, to be pointing directly at us.

Tom and I gaped, for a moment.

"I don't think that's the pilot boat," I said, at last.

I began to notice details. Two funnels, side-by-side like a Mississippi steamboat; but smaller, and much shorter. A tall foremast, coming up from what I presumed to be the wheelhouse, with a sizable structure of some kind on top, that I was beginning to associate with military vessels. A low, low hull, but a higher, sharp prow.

"It's a river gunboat," from Tom. "It's got to be … Maybe it's one of ours."

He put his copy of 'Jane's Fighting Ships' down on the teak railing, and began flipping through the pages, frantically.

I said nothing.

The boat, or ship, came closer, slowly; the chug-chug-chug of its engine, came faintly, but clearly, over the calm water. I thought I could see flags, flying; but there was no breeze, so the flags were streaming to their sternward, completely invisible to us.

I looked to our own bow; I could see a deck-officer, and two deckhands, standing and looking at the oncoming ship. I had the impression, that they knew no more than I did.

I was not reassured.

"It's not one of ours," from Tom; looking up from his book, peering across the water at the oncoming shape. He stood still, for a moment. "Maybe it's Japanese — ?"

He bent back over his book, and began flipping pages, rapidly, again.

I was aware, that we were on the other side of the ship, from the Japanese cruiser. That the cruiser could not possibly see the oncoming gunboat.

If that made a difference.

I remembered, or tried to remember, what the Captain had said up on the Bridge, the previous night … That a warship, any true warship, would be obligated to protect us, to defend us — 

Did a river-gunboat qualify as a warship — ?

For that matter — would, could, a Chinese warlord have control of a river-gunboat on his own behalf, outside of any Chinese Government jurisdiction — ?

I did not know.

And, then, there was the Captain's fear of a manufactured Incident provoking increased Japanese influence in Shanghai. An Incident, very likely a violent one, which might involve — us. Our ship. Myself. Father.


"He's not Japanese, either," from Tom; looking back and forth, between his book, and the oncoming river-boat. "I can't tell who he is … " He sounded frustrated; as though his book had betrayed him. He flipped through more pages.

Chug-chug, chug-chug.


I considered my responsibilities.


I could go try to find Father, to warn him of the approaching gunboat … clearly, a pistol, or eight pistols, would be useless in the face of such firepower — 

But the officers on the Bridge had eyes; they had binoculars. I could add nothing to their knowledge of the situation. Much as I wanted to go to Father's side … 

And then, there was Tom.

He was young; he was younger, underaged.

It came to me, that perhaps it was my duty to get Tom, and his family — or certainly he, and his mother, and his brother Mickey — down below decks, to the Infirmary, maybe, out of the way of stray gunfire, anyway … And then I could go back above decks, and try to join Father — 

'HMMMMMMMM — !' from the foghorn, at its usual interval.

More feelings of unreality. Was this really happening, I asked myself — ?

Well. There was all I'd heard, last night. There was a heavily-armed warship, headed right at us.

Another pause.

I was just about to open my mouth, to find the words to suggest that we consider getting Tom's mother and little brother to relative safety — when the bow of the oncoming vessel began to swing; it swung towards our stern, to my right, and it went on swinging, and almost immediately, the ship faded, and was lost, in a bank of fog — 

We stared at the hot-white fog, trying to see through it.

"Which way did he go — ?" from Tom; plaintively.

"Shhh … "

We could not see it; but we could hear it. 'Chug-chug, chug-chug, chug-chug — '

Still close. Getting closer.

"I think it's going around in back of us," I said. "I think, maybe, it's going to come up along side of us, to port."

I felt slightly sick, in the pit of my stomach, as I said it. The open accommodation door was on our port side. Father was likely waiting, there.

"Come on," from Tom. And, holding his book open with a finger as a place-marker, he started across the deck, at a trot.

"Tom — " I started; but he didn't stop. I had no choice, but to follow.

'Chug-chug, chug-chug, chug-chug,' came the engine noise; sure enough, it was rounding our stern, where the white fog was thicker … 

I caught up to Tom at the port-side railing, his book open again, the pages flying. "It's got to be Chinese, then," he muttered — 

Once again, the dark shape in the fog grew darker, and more substantial; and then once again, it burst out into the sunshine, close, now, very close, although not close enough for boarding, yet, perhaps — 

And as Tom was buried in the diagrams and photographs of 'Jane's Fighting Ships, 1935' — I saw it. The flag, which we could not see, before; a red cross on a white background, with the British Union Jack in the upper, inner corner — 

I felt a wash of emotion. Mostly, one of overwhelming relief. For a moment, I felt a little giddy. It was a second or two, before I could speak.

"Try the section for Britain," I said, at last.

Tom stopped; he looked up, and stared, for seconds.

It was, broadside on, an odd-looking thing; almost no hull to speak of, aft, but a — superstructure? Cabin structure? — that looked like a miniature, two-story building. The two diminutive smokestacks; the higher bow, in front, and the menacing-looking turret — 

Just now, the railings of the gunboat on the side facing us were lined with people. All were in uniform, standing at attention; most of them, with rifles at their sides, a few with other implements — 

The gunboat slowed, and settled in close by us. Tom was back to furiously flipping through pages of 'Jane's Fighting Ships' — 

'HMMMMMMMMMMMM — !' from our own ship; the main ship's whistle, blowing a salute in several tones at once. It was even louder than the foghorn. It was painful; and I felt it in my bones.

Tom looked up at me; his face twisted in disbelief.

"The 'Insect' class — ?" he said. He looked over and down at the gunboat opposite us; and then, he looked back down at his book. "The Scarab; the Bee; the Gnat … " He looked up again, at the gunboat; and then back at me. "They name their ships after bugs — ?"

On the gunboat opposite us, one of the uniformed figures raised two arms, dramatically; and then he brought them down. Immediately, a small band — Royal Marines, I guessed — launched into a version of 'The Star Spangled Banner', the sounds coming to us from across the still water. I could see the bandmaster; red-faced, on the portly side, and unmistakably English — 

"Well," I said; still feeling the glorious relief. "I suppose, if you have a lot of ships, you start running out of available names, at some point … "

I did not care, what or how the British named their gunboats. I was just glad to see this one. I guessed that we had an escort — a heavily-armed, heavily-manned, escort — for the rest of the distance up-river to Shanghai.

But as I was relaxing, and breathing freely again, — and applauding; Tom and I, and our fellow-passengers on the Promenade Deck, below, cheered, and applauded the band when 'The Star Spangled Banner' ended — 

As I was relaxing, it occurred to me, to wonder.

Why a British gunboat?

I did not think our Captain had sent for help; he had only learned of our tail, a few hours ago. And would a message of his, have launched a British military force — ?

I looked around the Sun Deck; but I saw neither Mister Grey, nor Mister Sayles. Nor Mister Benjamin, the Consular official, for that matter.

None of which, of course, proved anything. Anything at all.

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