WELCOME TO SHANGHAI OLD MAN.
LETTERS MAILED TO YOU CARE OF CATHAY HOTEL LATEST SHOLD BE DATED APRIL 23. MORE ENROUTE. WIRE ME WHEN YOU GET IN PLEASE? WISH I WERE THERE. MOC ALL OVER AGAIN.
ARRIVED SAFELY SHANGHAI TODAY. SO WONDERFUL TO SEE YOUR WIRE WAITING FOR ME. YOUR LETTERS RECEIVED MINE MAILED NOW TOO. WILL WRITE MORE TONIGHT. WISH YOU WERE HERE. MOC VRAIMENT.
* * *
There had been an awkward moment at the front desk, when the hotel manager himself, Mister Kaufman, had retrieved our mail for us. Father had two telegrams and a personal letter waiting for him; I had an avalanche of mail, fifteen letters and postcards in all. I'd taken them up, hurriedly, as he raised an eyebrow.
" … Oh," I'd said; glancing at the superscriptions. "Oh; some of my classmates have written me … it's good of them to have taken the trouble. I'll have to write them back."
The use of the plural hadn't exactly been a lie; I'd spotted one envelope addressed in Charles' hand. But the rest were from Jack, of course. The wonderful, profligate fool, to have mailed them all under separate covers …
* * *
Friday, April 23rd, 1937
The ______ School
… Well, old man, if I'm right, this will be the latest letter you'll have from me, when you get in to Shanghai; barring storms, or breakdowns, of course. (Storms or breakdowns that might affect the airmail ships, I mean! Heaven forbid, you should have anything similar on your President Hoover.) ('President Hoover', the ship; God knows, he's not your President any more, nor mine.)
All's well here at school, R; except for the imminent peril of death by tedium. But I'll go into the gruesome details of that, later.
First things, first; I've spent some time, studying the Clipper schedules, and the transcontinental airline routes; and I figure, at best it will take eight days to get a letter from me to you, and visa versa. Sometimes it will take longer; Pan American only has three ships flying the San Francisco-to-Hong Kong route, and at any given time they have one ship in the hangar for maintenance. So, don't be surprised if there are gaps, in my letters to you. But do know, I've been writing you every day, and I'll go on writing you every day.
(Of course, people have figured out, that's what we're doing, for each other; and they laugh at me, a little, when I hole up after dinner to scribble something to you. But I just laugh back at them. Our friends understand.) (And, by the way, your photos of San Francisco were a great hit, everyone had to look at them at least twice … and I so desperately want to see it with you! Even more than Chicago; it does seem like more of a Territory, doesn't it? I think I might be able to talk Elliott into taking us both, sometime this summer, after you're back … I hope so, anyway. I'll tell you why, later.)
The letter was pure Jack, Jack at his finest; written in his quick, slanting script, the words tumbling out of him and going down on paper as soon as they came to him, his mind, as usual, running a mile a minute. Just reading it made him seem achingly near.
So, yes, old man; you're eight, regular days away, by airmail. But that's so much better than your being trapped on a boat for three weeks. I think that now, maybe, we can have more of a proper conversation. And that's something I've missed more and more, since the day you left …
* * *
Saturday, May 1st, 1937
The Cathay Hotel
Greetings from China, old man. (And that's a line I never in my life expected to be writing, believe me.)
Not that I've seen any of China, yet, really. It's night-time here; dinner's over, and I've just come up to the room, after cabling you, and arranging for my batch of letters to be mailed. I'm told they'll be on the plane to Hong Kong in the morning; but I don't know when they'll reach you, since I don't know the Clipper schedule, myself, just yet. I will, though.
I can't begin to express how wonderful it was, to have your letters and your wire waiting for me, when I arrived. Thank you, J. Thank you.
Well, the Great Exploration commences tomorrow, apparently. Father is going in to the Shanghai business office, in the morning — even though it is Sunday — and my services will not be immediately required. So, before leaving the ship today, I arranged to meet my young shipmate Tom at the American Consulate on Kiangse Road — it's where his family is staying, and it is very close to the Cathay — at nine a.m., and we'll begin scouting around. Tom has a guide-book already; although it's a little old. His family had longer to prepare, than Father and I.
I'll have my Leica with me; so you can expect photographs, as soon as I can find a place to develop the film, and make the prints.
I doubt that will be a problem, old man. My first impression; just from landing and getting to the hotel — ? This is a big city. Perhaps the buildings are not as tall as they are in Manhattan — but the comparison seems apt.
I wish you were here to share it all with me, J.
One of my missions for tomorrow is to buy a map; and it will go into tomorrow's letter to you.
Oh, and as for our landing, our getting off the boat — ? I have an amusing story, on that. But first I want to see tomorrow's newspapers. I might have an article to send you, by way of illustration …
* * *
The best-laid plans.
"So, here we are, leaving France, and about to enter England," said Mister Grey, cheerfully. He was resplendent in a dazzling white Panama hat, of closely-woven straw, and a light-gray suit of very thin cotton. "How convenient it is, not to need the services of the Channel ferry!"
We — the three of us; Mister Grey, Tom, and I — were standing on the Quai de France, at the intersection of Avenue Edward VII; it was the northern end of the French Concession. Before us stretched the Bund, and the International Settlement proper. And that, of course, is primarily a British-run enclave.
I say 'of course', because everyone knows it. But I hadn't known it. And in spite of my discomfort in Mister Grey's unexpected company — I had to admit, I was learning from him.
"My goodness," from Mister Grey, as he contemplated the stretch of the river-front before us. He looked back at the Quai, for a moment; then, forward, again. "This is rather more impressive, isn't it — ? One can see it so much more easily, from this perspective."
Father and I had run into Mister Grey at breakfast. When he had learned of my plans, he'd volunteered to accompany us. It had been impossible to refuse, without extreme rudeness.
I shook my head; and I took in the view of the broad river, the solid, stone-faced buildings fronting it, the roadway and pedestrian-way running alongside the river, complete with a stone balustrade … and something clicked, in my memory. I blinked.
"What — ?" from Tom, at my side. The side farthest from Mister Grey.
He had been as unenthusiastic at Mister Grey's presence, as I. We had both wanted to explore Shanghai together, unaccompanied, this first day.
"Oh, nothing … except, before, I thought this — the Bund, I mean — reminded me of Manhattan. But right here, this reminds me of London." I paused a moment, as I gazed at the scene. "Of the Embankment, actually."
I glanced at Mister Grey, and I had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes go a little wide.
"Do you know," he said after a moment — "you're right." He looked back, quickly; then around, to the sides, and then to the scene in front of us, again. "You're absolutely right; the way the river curves to the right, up ahead, the building styles, the stonework … it really does remind one of Victoria Embankment. We could almost be standing on Westminster Pier — " He looked up, over his right shoulder, and then back down, and the side of his mouth quirked up in a smile. "They even have a Cenotaph … although it's in the wrong place."
The Shanghai version of the Cenotaph had a winged angel on top of a column, rather than a stark slab topped by an empty coffin; but it was still a monument to the War.
"It's almost enough to make one homesick … Why, they've even been considerate enough to fill the sky with smoke. Very thoughtful of them. I do hope they don't supply us with the accompanying fog, though."
He was certainly right about the smoke. Trails and ribbons of it rose from a hundred places, both buildings on land, and ships and boats on the water; mostly coal smoke, I could tell by the unmistakable odor. The smoke made the sky hazy; it was a warm day, with very little wind.
We looked on in silence, for another moment. There were solid-looking buildings on the Bund; banks, insurance companies, shipping companies; all very conservative, and respectable-looking, and Western. In the middle distance was our hotel, the Cathay; it was one of the tallest of the lot, with a distinctive green, tapering roof-spire. Next to that in turn was a massive building, which was still under construction; the Bank of China building. Scaffolding still surrounded the whole frame.
None of it was the China I had — perhaps subconsciously — been expecting.
"Of course," Mister Grey continued thoughtfully, "the Embankment is not nearly as wide as this … and the Embankment doesn't have automobile parking in the center strip!" He smiled.
"Neither does London have rickshaws," I said, looking around. There were rickshaws and their pullers, everywhere; some of the rickshaws were neat ones, in black, some were battered-looking, in yellow. They were the only things in the immediate vicinity that seemed Chinese, to me.
"Hm — ? Oh; oh, I suppose not." He shrugged, a little. "Rickshaws are everywhere, in China; one stops noticing them, after a time, unless one needs to hire one."
"You've … taken rickshaws, before, sir?" To me, they seemed like barbaric devices, a step away from sedan chairs carried by slaves.
Mister Grey read my expression, and my tone, and smiled, a little.
"Yes, yes … I think you'll find there are many places in a typical Chinese city where a taxicab will not fit; and there is the added advantage, that crowds will get out of a rickshaw-puller's way, when they won't budge for a cab." His expression grew bland. "Besides, they really aren't all that hard to pull; they have pneumatic tires and wheels on bearings, these days. I've tried pulling them, myself."
"You have, sir — ?" I tried to keep the astonishment out of my tone.
"Oh, yes … it is very amusing, to engage a driver, and then pay extra to convince him to sit in the seat, while one pulls." The small lines at the corners of his eyes crinkled, a little. "The trick is to actually get one going; and then, to stop it, of course. The damn things just do not want to stop, especially when one is going downhill."
Silence, then, for a second, as Tom and I digested that.
"Quite seriously, though," he continued, after a glance at our faces — "I'm quite aware of the larger ethical questions. And I'm sensitive to appearances; I'm an Englishman in China, after all … And, I can see both sides. It does seem a demeaning industry to patronize, doesn't it — ? But then, there is the fact that a rickshaw-puller who does not get enough fares, does not get enough to eat … and that, in turn, can make him sick, and unable to earn enough money for any food at all … " His voice trailed off, for a moment. "I believe they are trying to set up a Benevolent Association for rickshaw-pullers, here. I hope they succeed."
None of us said anything, for a moment. Mister Grey's expression was actually — serious. And then he shook his head, a little, and a slight smile reached the corners of his mouth.
"But listen to me … Shall we go on with our exploration — ?" He gestured ahead of us.
"Yes, sir," from me; and we continued our stroll.
North, from the Avenue Edward VII; past a neoclassical building with 'McBain' on the facade, and in discreet letters on a brass plaque, 'Royal Dutch Shell' — I blinked at that, and Mister Grey smiled — and then, a lower building, with 'The Shanghai Club', on another plaque —
Mister Grey stopped at that, and looked at it longingly, for a moment.
"Well," he said, at last. "It is before eleven … " He turned away, instead, and glanced at the Whangpoo, glittering almost painfully in the sunlight. "You know — that is quite the navy we have, out there. Only I have no idea whose they are. I think, Tom, that you are the resident expert on ships, in our group — ?"
A prickling silence, for a moment. How he'd learned such a thing, I did not know; I had never discussed Tom with Mister Grey, and Tom had not, to my knowledge, demonstrated his expertise to him, either —
Mister Grey looked amused; as if by asking, he was indulging a child's hobby.
"Well … sir," Tom said, at length — he'd taken up my mode of addressing Mister Grey —
He paused, and took a breath, and glanced at me.
"That one, closest to us — ?" He gestured to the last of the line of long, gray warships, tied to buoys in the middle of the river, pointing upstream. "That one is one of yours; British, I mean. She's a 'County' class heavy cruiser; eight, eight-inch guns, armored deck, no belt armor."
I glanced at Tom, sideways. Under the smooth words, he was radiating a kind of polite hostility. I hadn't known he was capable of it.
"Is it, really?" from Mister Grey; still amused. His amusement may have seemed a little — patronizing.
A short, tense pause.
"Yes, sir. Three raked stacks, high freeboard … I can't tell which one it is, exactly, from here; you've got a lot of them. Of that particular class, I mean." There was a certain irony, in his tone.
"Ah … Well, then. What about the next ship up — ? I think I can see an American flag, at the stern … " It was his own turn at irony; the flag at the ship's stern was large, and unmistakable.
Tom barely glanced at it.
"Northampton class, sir. Also a heavy cruiser; nine, eight-inch guns, three inch belt armor." He paused, for a moment. "There are six ships in the class; but that one is either the Chicago, the Houston, or the Augusta."
"Yes — ? How can you tell?"
"Do you see that flag on the mainmast, sir? That's a rear admiral's flag. And do you see the way the forecastle deck — that's the highest deck, forward — do you see how it's extended aft, to the base of the aircraft catapults — ? That means she's fitted as a flagship. And that means she is Chicago, Houston, or Augusta, and not Northampton, Chester, or Louisville. I could tell you a lot more about her, if you'd like."
It was a rather defiantly impressive performance, in response to Mister Grey's indulgent amusement. I was proud of Tom.
"No … no, thank you, it would all be lost on me." It came out a little apologetically, as we continued to stroll, slowly. He glanced sideways at Tom, with a smile. "May one ask, how you happen to know all this — ? Is this a subject taught in school, in — " He paused for a moment, obviously searching his memory.
"Council Bluffs, Iowa … sir. No, it's not. But Council Bluffs is on the Missouri River, and my family goes to the Great Lakes sometimes … and I've always been interested in boats, and ships."
"Ah … " Another glance from Mister Grey, at Tom. "May one ask … what school you're in, in Council Bluffs — ? Not that it's any of my business, of course," he added, apologetically.
Tom glanced at me, quickly and covertly; and then down.
"I was in Washington Middle School before we left," he said, after a pause. "In Grade Nine. When we get back, I'll be going to Grenville Dodge High School." All this, with a certain defiant pride.
"Are they boarding schools — ?" Mister Grey asked it politely, and carelessly.
"No … sir."
"Ah. An O.S., then … much more comfortable, and convenient. And you, Rhys — ? No," he said, with a quick smile at me; "let me guess … " He proceeded to name three of the most prominent boys' preparatory schools on the East Coast; mine, and Jack's, was the second.
I'd been waiting for it.
If he'd read Jack's letters to me, as I suspected, he knew already. Our school's name was written clearly on the back of each envelope, and on the heading of each front page, in Jack's handwriting.
I looked directly at him. "Do you really need to guess, sir — ?" I asked, with one of my sunnier smiles.
He had the grace, if grace it was, to blink at that; he actually seemed taken aback, and all of a sudden, I was slightly less sure of my suspicions …
I let my gaze slip past him, to the gray warships anchored out in the river. I took a few breaths. I decided to let my non-answer, stand.
"Do you know," I said into the slightly-awkward, moment's silence — "There really are a lot of warships here. And I can't help wondering, why? I mean, what are they for — ?"
Another moment's silence.
"Oh. Well," from Mister Grey, as we continued strolling. His face resumed its customary look of mild amusement. "They are here, I presume, to protect our National Interests." His tone was ironic. "Fifty-odd years ago, I believe that chiefly meant keeping the Port of Shanghai open to the opium trade … at least, that was my country's primary goal."
"Opium comes from here — ?" asked Tom. "From China, I mean — ?" He seemed startled by the idea.
"Oh, my goodness, no. Or at least, not then. Opium chiefly comes from India, and Afghanistan. It was, and is, imported and sold here, at great profit." He paused, for a few steps. "The then-Chinese Government objected; and we fought a nice little war, in order to keep the market open, and to keep the profits flowing back to Imperial India, and back home … " A small smile, and a shrug, from him. "In our defense, the drug was quite legal back then. And Prohibition of alcohol didn't really work out so terribly well, for you Americans, did it — ?"
Another brief silence.
"All right," I said; still looking at the gray warships in the river. "Okay … But that was then."
"Ah, yes," from Mister Grey. He looked at the river, and the lined-up warships. "Yes. Well, the profits from the opium trade made Shanghai into the financial and banking center of China, of all of Asia, actually … and now, our warships are stationed here to protect all that wealth; to discourage piracy, and warlords, and to keep order." Another slight, ironic shrug, and smile. "But of course they're really here to discourage the Japanese from rolling in and taking over the whole city."
Another brief pause, as we took that in.
"Could they really do that, sir?"
"Oh, yes. In fact, they almost did, a few years back, in '32." He smiled down at the ground, very slightly, as we strolled. "I met a chap in Hong Kong, once — a very amusing chap — who was here, then. He said the fighting — it was the Japanese, against the Chinese Army — he said the fighting came right up to the borders of the International Settlement, in the Chapei district. Apparently, it was the Thing To Do, to go up on the roof of one's hotel, with a cocktail, to watch. It is not at all far away."
I glanced at the Cathay, ahead of us. I knew it had a rooftop Garden, and Lounge … I felt a little hollow, inside.
"I read about that," said Tom, quietly. "It's called 'The January 28th Incident'."
I should have looked it up, myself. I was angry with myself, for not having done so.
"Just so," agreed Mister Grey. "It was the League of Nations who arranged the cease-fire; one of their lamentably-few successes." Another slight smile, and a shrug, from him. "You wouldn't have caught me anywhere out in the open, with guns going off … Still. If it is one's time, I suppose there are worse ways to go, than with a cocktail glass in one's hand."
We walked on, past a landing-stage jutting out in the river water, over the muddy shingle of the bank. There were four boats tied up to the floating platform at the end; two were Western-looking launches, and two were thoroughly Chinese; junks or sampans, I had no idea what the name for them would be. Their crews wore rough, Western-style work-clothes.
"What would you think is the likelihood of something like that — Incident — happening again, sir? If I might ask — ?"
I was thinking more of Tom's father, than of Tom, or of Father, or myself.
"Hm — ? Oh, here you mean — ? Oh very slight, very slight," he said, cheerfully. He gazed out over the water. "At least, for the moment. There would have to be a Chinese army in the neighborhood, for the Japanese to fight, for there to be another Incident; and there isn't one, Chiang Kai-shek has them all up North hunting for Communist insurgents … where, I might add, they seem to be going over and joining the Communist side with amusing regularity." He smiled again, slightly. "My friend in Hong Kong said the Shanghai Municipal Council is much more afraid of the Chinese troops than they are of the Japanese. You see, one is never quite sure for whom the Chinese troops are working; Chiang himself, or one of the local warlords, or Mao. Or, for that matter," he added, thoughtfully, "themselves … "
"How do you know all this — ? About Shanghai, I mean — ?" Tom's question was — abrupt.
I was not, clearly, the only one thinking of Mister Fletcher's safety.
"I ask questions," from Mister Grey; simply. "A lot of them. Wherever I go, I try to find people who know the area." A slight shrug, and a small smile, as we strolled. "I cultivate sources … You see, I have a very well-developed sense of self-preservation. As long as my occupation requires me to go out to odd places in the countryside to play with rocks, well, I prefer to know what's really going on, out there. If there are armies, or warlords, or bandits, anywhere in the vicinity … I would very strongly prefer to go where they're, not."
Silence at that, for a few steps.
"And where do you find these — sources — sir?" from me. "If I may ask," I added, hastily. I was fascinated, on top of the suspicion I felt.
A sideways-smile from him, from underneath his straw fedora.
"Oh, that's easy enough. I talked to people on the boat — our old friend Nieuwenhuis was a treasure trove, you know, but so was the Purser, Mister Bennett … And, sometime later today, or tomorrow, I'll drop by the Consulate, the British Consulate, for whatever good that's worth." He glanced out at the water, and then back at me. "But, as it happens, we just walked by the best source of information in all of Shanghai; the very place to go, if one wants to know what's truly happening, in all of North-Coastal China."
"You mean the newspaper, sir — ?" We'd passed an impressive building, the headquarters of the North China Daily News, a moment before.
"Oh, goodness, no. I meant the Shanghai Club. If you're looking for real information, it's always best to go to the local watering-holes; and the Shanghai Club is the most famous watering-hole in these parts, all the Shanghailanders of quality go there … Well; all the white British ones, anyway."
He smiled a little, at my expression; the little lines at the corners of his eyes crinkled.
"I see, sir."
"It's quite true, actually; it's amazing how efficient alcohol is, as a lubricant of tongues … But you know what works, even better — ?"
"Sir — ?"
"Listening. Just listening." The smile quirked up, at the side of his mouth. "Most poor souls in our poor world are just dying to be listened to, to have at least one person in the room listen to them, and seem to take them seriously. There is nothing quite like paying attention, and curbing one's own tongue, to keep the other chap rattling on and on … "
I had the odd sense, that the conversation had subtly shifted. That I was receiving something like, well, a lesson, of sorts. I blinked.
"Will you be able to get into the Shanghai Club, sir? I assume, well, that you're not a member — ?"
A shrug, and a slight wave of his hand.
"I have a name that will get me in … you know how it is. Floriat Etona, and all that." He gave me a wry, meaningful look.
Floriat Etona. Let Eton Flourish.
Well, that was hardly a surprise. But if he was willing to tell me about his Old School — I was still unwilling to tell him about my present one.
Assuming that he didn't already know.
"And here we are at our hotel," from Mister Grey, cheerfully, as we drew abreast of Sassoon House, and the Cathay. "And I believe, Mister Fletcher, that the American Consulate is just a block or two inland — ?"
"Yes … sir," from Tom.
"And I believe your father is also going to be venturing out into the countryside, isn't he — ?" He said it, thoughtfully.
"Yes, sir. He'll be going out to local villages, as part of his work." Tom's expression was unreadable; his face, closed.
"Well, we have that much in common, anyway. Rural China is simply covered with little villages, they're everywhere … I'm sure your Consulate will provide him with excellent information, and take very good care of him."
A pause, as we all gazed up at the Cathay, together.
"What do you say we go take a look at the Public Garden, up ahead at the British Consulate — ? It is quite famous — or infamous, rather. Up until a few years ago, it was reserved for foreigners only. Can you imagine, a park in China, in which the Chinese are not allowed — ?" He shook his head, with well-bred amusement. "And then, perhaps, you'll permit me to buy you both lunch, somewhere — ?"
I had hoped to escape, with Tom, before luncheon; but I couldn't think of an excuse quickly enough. Mister Grey knew I was unengaged, for the day.
Tom look at me, silently.
"Um … " I started. "Thank you, sir; but I couldn't permit — "
"Oh, no, no, it's quite all right; I have an expense account, you see. Imperial Mining and Metals, Limited, shall be the Founders of the Feast. Say you'll come — ?" This, with a little bit of his old, mock-pleading look.
I felt trapped. But I couldn't abandon Tom.
"Well … if you're sure it's all right, sir — ?"
"Of course it is. In fact," he went on, cheerfully, "you'll be doing me a favor. Expense accounts are a little like muscles; if they're not exercised regularly, they tend to shrink … Shall we — ?"
"Yes, sir." I looked at Tom.
"Thank you, sir," he said, soberly.
We walked on, a few paces more, just past the scaffolded Bank of China building, when Mister Grey stopped, suddenly. He tilted his head, looking out over the water …
"Hm," he said; and then, he looked sideways, at Tom and myself.
"Sir — ?" from me.
"Hm," he said again; then, "Do you know, I have an idea … "
"Sir," from me, again; politely.
A quick pause, as he looked at us with a kind of calculation, I thought.
"It seems to me, Tom, that you and I are perhaps in the market for the same commodity; news about goings-on in the countryside, that might help keep us — well, your father and myself, at any rate — a little more safe. You can never have too much information, when it comes to careening around in the bush, after all."
He peered at us intently, blue eyes under the white straw of his hat-brim.
Uh-oh, I thought to myself.
"So, what do you say, that the three of us pool our resources — ? I'll be happy to pass along anything I learn about armies, or warlords, or bandits, or rural flea-infestations, or whatnot, to you, Tom, of course; and perhaps in return, if you pick up anything similar at your Consulate, you could pass it along to me — ? Believe me, I would be most grateful … And you, Rhys — ?"
"Sir — ?" I blinked at him.
"I believe you are acting as your father's confidential secretary … is that right?"
A long pause.
"Yes, sir … " from me, cautiously.
"You know — I have to ask. What is it that a confidential secretary does, anyway — ? I've never had one, and I've never been one." He looked at me, closely.
I chose my next words very carefully
"I believe that I am to attend meetings, sir, and that I am to draft notes."
I stopped at that, and I did not elaborate.
"Ah!" from Mister Grey, with a broad smile. "Just as I hoped … Well, for your part, Rhys, perhaps you could pass along any pertinent news you might glean from those doings of yours, to Tom and myself — ? The more news the merrier, and the safer, all the way around … I would appreciate it, and I'm sure Tom, here, would as well."
"Um, sir — my father is in banking; the meetings I'll be attending will be purely about business matters — "
"Oh, come now; if I've learned anything in China, it's that one cannot talk business, without talking about the Japanese; it's simply inescapable. Well, the Japanese, and Chiang's forces, the Maoists, and the warlords … Why, you may pick up information I won't even get in the Shanghai Club!" He seemed to marvel at the concept.
I regarded him, a little stonily.
"I could not violate any confidences, sir." I said it firmly and finally.
"Oh, naturally not … and we know, you are certainly privy to secrets, and accomplished at keeping them — "
It was a reference to the gold shipment, of course; news of it had passed through the ship like wildfire, after the events of our last morning at the mouth of the Yangtze.
But it was also, I thought a subtle reference to what the three of us had in common; our homosexuality. Our status as inverts and outlaws. It was a rather chilling reference.
" — but we needn't be talking about passing around real secrets, here; just, rather, rumor, or gossip, any odd tidbits that might be of service to Tom's father — and or course, to your humble servant, standing before you — "
He put his hand to the crest of his straw fedora, and he raised it, slightly, with a winning smile.
"What do you say — ? Shall we form a partnership — ? All for one and one for all, in the interest of preserving my poor, easily-bruised skin — ? And Mister Fletcher's, as well, of course," he added, hastily and apologetically.
A hundred thoughts rushed through my head; far too rapidly for me to put them into words, but they were clear and vivid, nevertheless.
My first thought was, that it was as neat a trap as I'd ever seen employed on a chessboard. I was pinned.
Of course Tom would say yes. How could he not? Any chance to help his father, and perhaps keep him safer … How could he pass that up?
Mister Fletcher was a robust sort; I did not think he would take his own personal safety in the countryside too seriously. And Tom would know that, far, far better than I —
Of course, Tom would say yes.
And by making the proposed arrangement three-cornered, Mister Grey ensured that I would have to agree, too. For Tom's sake; for Tom's father's sake. Whatever Mister Grey knew or did not know of our nighttime activities on the Hoover, he certainly knew we were close. My affection for Tom meant I had to agree. I was pinned.
My second thought was, that once I agreed — I would have to bring him something. Some information. Some goods.
Oh, it needn't be much; and I certainly doubted that Mister Grey would be revealing much of value, himself … But I would have to bring him something I overheard. I couldn't just make something up.
And as I knew full well from my own life experience — dealing in secrets can be a slippery, slippery slope. A very dangerous thing. One secret, revealed, leads to another … And which one is truly valuable? And, where does it end — ?
My third thought was a suspicion. A strong suspicion, that Mister Grey's proposal was aimed primarily at Father and myself. Or at Father's business, more accurately … his business dealings, whatever they were to be.
Why, I did not know. But the clenching in my gut told me I was right. It would be entirely in keeping with my — our? — cabin on the Hoover, having been searched …
"What about it, Tom — ?" from Mister Grey; cheerfully. "It is the sort of thing we ex-patriates do for one another, in Asia, you know. Just informally, you understand … there's no reason to broadcast our partnership. It'll be our secret, eh — ?"
My final realization was, that once I'd brought Mister Grey some information — once Tom had brought Mister Grey any information — he'd have something over us. Both of us. Perhaps the fact of our collaboration wouldn't be blackmail-worthy —
Perhaps it would.
"I agree, sir," from Tom.
He looked older, and bleaker, than his fourteen years.
"Splendid — !" from Mister Grey. "Good lad!" He turned his beaming countenance towards me. "And you, Rhys? What say ye, Members of the Jury — ?"
I swore to myself, in that split-second, that if Mister Grey brought any harm to Tom from this — any harm at all — I would in turn bring the Wrath of God down upon his head. I would go to the Shanghai Municipal Police and charge him with making lewd advances towards me, and hang all the mortal danger and scrutiny that would result. And I'd make the charge as public as possible, by repeating it to the Cathay's management. At the very least, it would embarrass him severely; and if he had any scandal in his background — and I'd be surprised if he didn't — it might even ruin him, in British East Asia. I swore to myself, I would do it.
For the second time that morning, I summoned up my sunniest smile, and I thrust out my hand, enthusiastically.
"It's a deal, sir!"
"Excellent! Splendid!" He shook my hand, vigorously; then, with a comic expression, he held out his left hand, for Tom to shake. "You know, I'm sure we're all going to be even better friends, now, than we were on the President Hoover!"
"Yes, sir," from me.
"Call me Ian — ?" he asked, with an entreating smile, still shaking our hands.
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