China Boat

Chapter 38


One day, back on the ship, Tom had asked me; "What do you want to do, when you grow up — ?"


We'd been leaning against the railing, staring out to sea — we'd done an awful lot of that, during the three-week voyage — and Tom, I could see, was immediately embarrassed; he'd turned his face away, and looked down.

I knew why, of course; it was a boy's question, asked of another boy; and at my hugely advanced age of sixteen, it could be taken as insulting. An implication that I wasn't in fact, already, All Grown Up … Tom had been mortified, as soon as he'd asked it.

I wasn't offended by the question, not at all. But I did flinch, inside, the way I'd always flinched, when the question had been asked, at school.

I'd answered carefully, in the usual way.

"Well … I'm not exactly sure," I'd said; leaning on the railing, staring out to sea, and pretending not to notice his discomfort. I'd paused, for a few seconds; time enough for the ship to roll from one side, to the other. "But … I really like history. I like reading about the past … the way people lived, what they thought, what was important to them … I think I would like to be an historian. To do research, and write about history, anyway; maybe even to teach it."

Silent astonishment from him, that anyone close to his own age would ever consider being a teacher, or involved in school, in any way that could be avoided.

He did not notice the conditional, 'would'.

In fact, it would never happen. My future is set; mapped out for me, in all the important details.

* * *

My grandparents, my mother's parents, are — wealthy.

They are considered wealthy, even by the standards of East Coast Society. They have far more than even Jack's family; although it is newer money, which matters. Old Money is highly regarded. But; still.

Mother was an only child; a cherished, deeply loved, only child … and I am her only son.

I am the sole issue, the sole heir, of their bodies.


It was not long after Mother's death, that Father was informed that the bulk of their estate — all of it, for all intents and purposes — would come down to me.


I do not know how the word was delivered; whether it came from Grandfather himself, or whether the news was delivered by Grandfather's attorneys. I wonder, sometimes; I hope it was not delivered by intermediaries … Father had suffered horribly after Mother's death, I know, for a fact, and to have received such life-altering news about me, second hand … 

I do know that after receiving the news, Father's admonitions to me — on the subject of Responsibility — increased in frequency. They became far more urgent.

They became, and have remained, a major theme in my life. In both of our lives.


My grandparents are not old; they are in their sixties, now, but they are very healthy … 

I wish they could live forever. I wish it, desperately; I love them very much, very deeply, and a world without them would be a bleak world, and a cold and lonely one — 

I have even wished, at times, selfishly, that they — and Father — might survive me. If it weren't for Jack, I am not sure that I would feel so deeply tied to this world … But it is a wicked thought, a wicked wish, I know. How they would feel, what it would do to all of them, should I predecease them, is a terrible thing to contemplate … 


There is a great deal, for which I shall ultimately be responsible.

In personal property alone, there is the house — the estate — in Long Island; the place in Newport, and another winter home in Boca Raton — 

There is our flat, Father's and mine, on Park Avenue. Grandfather owns the building. Father insists on paying fair market rent; but of course, the rent ultimately flows to Grandfather … and to the estate, which I will someday inherit … 

I wonder if Father ever thinks of that.

I wonder if the doormen, who smile at me, and laugh with me, and who are indulgent with me and Jack, when we come home late, sometimes, during school holidays — I wonder if they know who I am. If they know I'll own the building, someday.

I hope not. Oh, I hope not.


But there is more to my grandparents' wealth, than their personal East Coast property. I shall be responsible for much more, than a few houses.

There is, for example, a working cattle ranch in Montana. I'm told I visited there, when I was two. There is a flat — again, the entire building, among other properties — in Paris. There is the villa, outside of Paris. And there is yet another, non-working cattle ranch on California's Central Coast, which they maintain as a summer house, and which they seldom visit for fear of being obliged to socialize with William Randolph Hearst, whom they dislike — 


And then, there is the portfolio of properties which Grandfather holds as business investments.


It is a sizable portfolio; and Grandfather always seems to be acquiring more, either under his own name, or in the name of investment companies he controls … The list of his investment properties has addresses in many of the forty-eight states; but the bulk of them are concentrated in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, California.

Quite a few of them are in New York; in Downtown, and Midtown, Manhattan. And more than once, Jack and I have stopped on the sidewalk, to gaze up at an immense, stone-faced building, impossibly solid, just to marvel at the idea that one day, if I lived long enough — I would own it … 

"How is it," he had said to me, once — "How is it, that it was my people who bought this island from the Indians; but it is your people who wound up owning so much of it — ?"


Jack had made the joke. But it had come out, gently, and a little tentatively.

My grandparents' wealth, and what it means to my future — what it means to our future — scares him. It scares him, and worries him, a very great deal, for a specific reason.

It scares me as well; for different reasons.

It is is a burden that I do not want. It is a responsibility that I do not want. And the sheer magnitude of my grandparents' estate can, at times, feel — like a weight. Like a smothering weight, crushing out any possibilities, any choices, from my future … 


Father has told me, that he will help me with the inheritance, when the time comes. He said he'll do everything he can to help; and that is a comfort, an enormous one, and I love him for it.

But he has also emphasized that the burden of responsibility is mine. And in his use of specific examples, to illustrate the point, he is far from comforting.

"Take the cattle ranch in Montana, as a theoretical case," he had told me last year. "Do you know how many men are employed there — ?" He had regarded me closely, intently.

"No, sir," I'd replied. After all, how could I — ?

"Your Grandfather could tell you, without looking it up," he'd said. "There are eleven men; the manager, and ten hands. Do you know how many people depend on the income, of those eleven men?"

I'd blinked. "Do you mean, their families — ?"

"Their dependents; primarily their families." He'd paused. "I have looked into it; there are fifty-two persons, who depend on your Grandfather's wages for their food and shelter. If we take the impact of the ranch on the local community as a whole, the number is far higher. There are storekeepers, blacksmiths, a school, a church — everything that makes up a small town, and the ranch payroll supports most of it, at least indirectly."

Silence, then, for a moment. He'd looked at me.

"Yes, sir," I'd said. Finally.

"Now, consider," he'd continued. "Suppose, for a moment, that there is a prolonged drought, in that part of Montana — as in fact there was, just a year ago. Without a healthy supply of grass, cattle cannot be brought to market … or at least, not without importing hay for feed, at great expense. The ranch, then, operates at a loss." He had looked at me, without expression. "Do you continue to bear the expenses? Do you continue to pay the ranch's employees' salaries — ?"

My stomach lurched. I thought of fifty-two people — more, if Father was correct — depending on their salaries, for food, for clothing — 

"Of course, Father." I'd blinked, and scrambled for a rationale. "If the ranch is inherently profitable, it would only make sense to wait out the drought."

"Ah. But what, then, if the ranch becomes inherently un-profitable — ?" His gaze was remorseless. "You know what has happened to large tracts of land, in the West; the Dust Bowl. The topsoil of entire counties, blown away in the wind; farmland, and rangeland, which may never return to productivity. It may well happen to your Grandfather's ranch in Montana. Other disasters can arise, too; incompetent or dishonest employees, who can ruin a business — or a ranch — in a matter of a few months, or even weeks … Changes in the nature of the market for beef, outside competition, say, which might make your Grandfather's ranch permanently uncompetitive, or unprofitable — So. The question becomes." He'd paused, again, and looked at me closely. "What do you do, under the circumstances — ? How long are you prepared to subsidize the operation — ?" Another pause. "And — what do you think would be in the best interests, of your employees, of their families — ? To hang on, at a failing enterprise, without hope? Or to move elsewhere, and start anew — ?"

I said nothing.

"Your Grandfather," he'd gone on — not without some sympathy, I thought — "makes decisions like this, every day. And someday, it will be your responsibility to do so, as well."

I had, just then, felt like running. I had felt like bolting, the same way I'd wanted to bolt, on the pier in San Francisco, before setting foot on the boat.

* * *

I have one special piece of luck, in the situation I face — 


No; No.

I am fully aware of how fortunate I am, in life. I am fully aware of the bitter irony, of having such wealth, of having the prospects of a far larger fortune, in a world in which too many people have too little to eat, have no roofs over their heads. I am fully, and truly blessed.

It does not feel like a blessing, though.

My future with Jack — our future together — is deeply imperiled, by my prospects. As are my own prospects, for any kind of life I can build for myself, for any meaningful work I could choose to do — 



No; in my situation, I have one particular piece of good luck. My surname does not match Grandfather's; of course.

Actually, Father and my grandparents have been very — careful — to keep my situation, (my 'Great Expectations' I call it, with Jack, sardonically) relatively quiet. My grandparents do not as a rule present me at Society functions; our time together is Family time, and I am deeply grateful for that. Father, too, is discreet in presenting me in public; Williamson is a surname which appears commonly-enough, after all, for all the long history of Father's family; and Grandfather's name is not willingly mentioned, in casual conversation.

Some of this discretion is due to ordinary good manners. More is due to practical considerations. The kidnapping-for-ransom, and murder, of the Lindbergh baby happened when I was in Switzerland, and it scared many people in Society very deeply; none more so than my grandparents … 


My existence is hardly a secret. And now that I am sixteen, as I have said — families with daughters are taking notice; they are sure to be taking notice, it is what families in our social circles, do … 


And that leads to Jack's very special fear.


Jack knows how much I love my grandparents.

He also knows how much it would mean to them — to Grandfather, in particular — to see the family line continued. To see a part of Mother, passed along to a new generation. To see what he has built, passed along, as well.


Jack fears that, some time in the future, the pressures will become too much for me. He fears that someday, the weight of responsibility — that word, again — and of expectations will drive me to give in, and marry; in order to please my grandparents, to please Father, and to produce an heir for both sides of the family.

He'd cried, quietly, when he confessed his fears to me, one dark night last winter. By then, he'd spent enough time with Grandfather, Grandmother and me to see how it is, between us.


His tears about shattered me.


I'd tried to reassure him.

I'd told him that Father was far more concerned with raising me, in the current moment, than in worrying about a future family; and that in any case, if Father has one rock-solid principle, it is to respect my choices … as long as they are responsible ones.

And, as much as it hurt me to say it — it was like cutting my own skin — I'd pointed out, that whatever happened, I was still likely to be relatively young, when both Grandfather and Grandmother passed on to their rewards. They would have the benefit of hope; and, perhaps, of whatever hints, or stories that he and I might devise, as a cover — 


That had been a mistake.


I will never marry. I will never leave Jack. We are together, we were meant to be together, from the beginning.

Somehow — I don't know how, exactly, but somehow — I know Mother would have loved Jack. And I know she would never, ever have wanted me to marry out of convenience, to live a lie; not to please her parents, not to please Father, not to please the Church, not to please anyone.

But the mention of cover stories, of passing, of perhaps finding a safe girl to pretend to date — it had all had an impact on Jack.

And although he almost never raises the subject — even as one of his usual jokes — I know the fear stays with him. And I do my best to assuage it, when I can.

And it hurts me, that I have caused him that pain. That I am causing him, that pain.

It is the greatest burden that comes with my state.

Comments are always welcome, at dlgrantsf (at) yahoo (dot) com.

And, please consider donating to Awesomedude, by clicking on the yellow button on the main page? Even the smallest contributions are very welcome, and will help keep this priceless resource online.