China Boat

Chapter 43

Saturday, May 8th, 1937
10:04 p.m.
The Tower Nightclub
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China

Tom and I stayed by the windows, together, for some time. Neither one of us was enthusiastic about the prospect of rejoining his own father.

We'd drifted over to the western windows, the ones that looked down at the neon-lit Nanking Road, towards the Majestic Hotel, and the Great World amusement center, and the darker bulk of the Recreation Ground; Shanghai glittering before us. And that is where Mister Grey found us.

"Gentlemen!" came his cultured tones. "May I join you — ?" He hovered, politely, a few steps away.

"Of course, sir," from me.

"Call me Ian — ?" That mock-pleading smile, again, as he approached us. For once in our experience, he was not holding a glass.

"Yes, sir," I replied. Evenly. He shrugged, and smiled.

"May I also be so impertinent as to observe, that you both look — splendid — in your dinner jackets — ? The look suits you both. I might even say," — and here he paused a moment, with a look of concentration, before proceeding in an assumed American accent — "'You look swell.'"

"Thank you, sir," from me.

I could have returned the compliment; Mister Grey was sleekly elegant in his evening wear, and obviously very much at home in it. I felt the tug of attraction, yet again, and suppressed it.

"Rhys loaned me this suit," Tom supplied; as if to deny any credit for it. "He had an older spare one, and the hotel tailor made some adjustments … that was really nice of him."

I held my breath.

I'd loaned him the whole rig, actually; including studs, tie and shirt; and it would be a gift, of course, there was no going back to an altered suit, as Mister Grey would know, perfectly well — 

"That was nice of you Rhys," from Mister Grey, mildly; then — "Ah," as a waiter approached, carrying a tray with three drinks on it; two Cokes, and a shorter, clear, frosty glass, adorned with a slice of lime … 

Well, that explained something.

"Thank you, sir," from me; I lifted my Coke to him in a salute and Tom followed my lead, and Mister Grey clinked glasses with both of us.

"The pleasure is all mine," he said, gazing fondly down at his own, full glass. Then, "What are friends for, anyway?" He beamed at us, benevolently.


We talked, inevitably, of Tom's father's expedition; Mister Grey reaffirmed that the nearby countryside, as far as he could tell, was perfectly safe; at least, at the moment.

" … I expect he'll experience nothing more noteworthy than some excellent Chinese home cooking," he said. "Chinese hospitality to distinguished visitors is legendary. I expect Nieuwenhuis would regret missing that, as well."

"I'm not so much worried about this trip, sir," Tom said; soberly. "The next trip, though, he'll be gone for two weeks, still with only a driver. And then, there'll be another trip, after that … "

His voice trailed off.

I watched, as Mister Grey looked down at him, with what I thought was a degree of real sympathy, and perhaps even compassion … 

I looked away, quickly.

"Well," he said, slowly, at last. "Well. I suppose we'll just have to have a degree of faith, that your Consulate knows what it's doing, when it sends your father about … And of course, I'll continue to keep my ear to the ground, as it were. But in the meantime … "

His own voice trailed off, as he looked at Tom, consideringly.

"Sir — ?" from Tom.

"Well. You see, I expect to be getting my own marching orders from the Front Office, any day, now … it's been more than a week, now, after all. They hate to see me hanging about, all idle, you know … And when I do get them, they — it — will consist of a list of places in the relative vicinity, with rocks they want me to poke about at. But the order in which I get to them, is usually left up to me."

"Sir," from Tom, again. Paying very close attention.

"And, well, there are a confounded lot of' 'ifs' involved … But. If I get my instructions, and if you can find out from your father where he intends to go, in advance, and if I'm going anyplace in the general vicinity … Well. Then perhaps on occasion, your father's party and mine can join up — ? For part of the way, anyway. And if your father agrees, of course," he added, hastily. "The more the merrier, you know, and all that."

Tom just gazed at him, a moment. I blinked.

"You travel with a party, sir?" I asked.

"Oh, yes; yes. Four or five men, as a rule; two trucks. I've got that whacking great trunk of tools, and things, you know, which is just a beast to move around. And then, well, the thing is — if you're going to play with rocks, well, sometimes you have to move some of the less-interesting rocks out of the way, first, to get at the more-interesting ones, later. It's very tedious." He gave us a look of comic dismay.

Four or five men. With picks and shovels, at least … 

"Are they armed, sir — ?"

"Well, you know, it does help me sleep a bit more securely, in the field … " His expression changed to one of mild sheepishness.

A pause.

"That's a very generous offer, sir," I said; glancing at Tom.

"Oh, not at all, not at all. There is the part about safety in numbers, of course — and that's another thing we expatriates do for each other, in Asia." A quick, meaningful glance at Tom; reminding him about our arrangement, I thought. "But you know, in the end, it's also about the company. It's very agreeable to have companions to talk to, in English, in the field … Say, I don't suppose either of you could get permission to come along, on one of our little expeditions — ? I've got plenty of room in my tent … "

To his credit, his wistful look was aimed at me, just then, rather than at Tom; and I thought it was somewhat pro-forma, rather than genuinely lascivious. I almost smiled.

"I'll mention this to my father, sir; if that's all right with you — ?" from Tom. His face had that serious, adult expression, older than his years, again.

"Oh, yes, yes, of course … Actually, do you think it would be rude, to go over and interrupt them, now — ?" He turned to gaze over at Tom's father and mother, at their table — and then he looked up, as the dim lighting faded away still further, and the drone of conversation, began to die down — 

"Oops," from Mister Grey, in a murmur. "Perhaps later … "


The piano player finished his piece, gracefully, and the expectant silence intensified. Two figures slipped from the shadows onto the stage next to him; one picked up the bass, and the other seated himself behind the drum-set, and picked up the drumsticks. Finally, a small, bright spotlight was turned on; and into its beam, stepped silver-haired Mister Kaufman, the Manager.

"Your attention, please?" he called out, smiling. Then, "Your attention, please — ?"

The murmur of the patrons died down further; and he continued.

"As most of you know, Sir Victor is off in Bombay this month, on business; he would certainly be here tonight, otherwise. But he did send me the following wire, to read to you."

Mister Kaufman took the cable from his inside jacket pocket, and unfolded it; and then, he made a show of pulling out his reading-glasses, and putting them on.

"'Deeply regret that I am unable to be with you all tonight'," he read; "'particularly because, as a favor to the Cathay, a very special guest has agreed to sing for you. Please give her your warmest welcome, on my behalf.'" Mister Kaufman refolded the cable, and took off his glasses; and went on, simply. "Ladies, gentlemen, friends and guests; please welcome, from Hollywood, by way of Hawaii, Miss Deirdre Lloyd."

A delighted, surprised murmur from the crowd, followed by sustained applause; and from the shadows, Miss Lloyd stepped into the pool of bright light vacated by Mister Kaufman.

The effect was startling.

We had just left her table, after all; we had even exchanged pleasantries. Her grace, her poise, her allure, had been there all along, of course, through dinner, and then in the nightclub — 

Under the spotlight, on the tiny stage, the focus of a roomful of eyes — she was different.

"Thank you," she said, to all of us; then, again, "Thank you." She moved over to the pianist, spoke a word in his ear, and lightly brushed his cheek with her fingertips … and then, she slowly turned, to face us.

The grace, the allure, the poise, were all still there; only — more so … 

The piano started playing again. Miss Lloyd waited, perfectly relaxed, surveying the room, until it was time for her entrance — 

"'Summertime, and the living is easy'
'Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high'
'Your daddy is rich, and your mama's good looking … '"

It was masterful.

Without being in the least bit vulgar, Miss Lloyd seemed to — increase — her allure, to just this side of open sensuality; it was something in the way she moved, something in the way she held her head, her body swaying just slightly in time with the slow, bluesy music … The spotlight glistened on her sheer, strapless silver dress, and turned her exposed skin alabaster … 

Miss Lloyd had told us, that she would be performing in the role of a nightclub singer, rather than actually singing. I realized I was watching a truly masterful performance, live, and just a few feet away from me; and for the thousandth time on the trip to date, I wished with all my heart that Jack was here, to share the experience with me … 


In the end, she sang five numbers, in all; and she held the audience completely rapt.

Her first number, 'Summertime', had come from 'Porgy and Bess', of course. Her last number was 'Can't Help Loving That Man Of Mine', from 'Showboat'; and as she sang it, she turned a quick, secretly-amused glance at Tom and myself — 

She may have included Mister Grey in that glance. I wondered.

And after it was over, and the spotlight was dimmed, and the Lalique houselights were brought back up to their previous comfortable orange glow, she made her way over to us; as we were still applauding.

"Boys, I need to apologize," she said, over the sound of the room's applause. Her beautiful face was concerned, and contrite. Then — "Pardon me for a moment, Mister Grey — ?"

"Of course, Miss Lloyd. Shall I leave — ?"

"No, no, not at all." She turned back to the two of us. "I'm afraid our quiet dinner together didn't come off; after the Ambassador sent the note over … well, it was just impossible. May I make it up to you — ? Perhaps, a quieter dinner, next week, or the week after?"

"There's nothing to apologize for, ma'am," I offered; after a glance at Tom. "I completely understand. But of course, I'd enjoy having dinner with you, again — "

" — and so would I," from Tom — 

" — but next week is the Coronation; and I expect you'll be a little busy … "

It was an understatement, I was sure. The newspapers, the stores, everything was all about the Coronation of George VI; the shops in the Arcade on the street level below were full to bursting with British flag bunting, and the Royal Arms, and the new king's royal cipher. There was to be a huge celebration, with parades and fireworks, on Friday night at the Recreation Ground; Tom and I hoped to go, together.

"Well," she said; "we'll just have to work around it … I'll be in touch. Perhaps a late-night bite, with just the three of us — ?" She said it, a little wistfully.

"That would be wonderful, ma'am," I answered; truthfully enough.

"Beth. Remember, Beth."

"Yes … Beth."

"Good; so it's settled, then." Her eyes slid sideways, to take in Mister Grey, for the first time. "Shall we get back to the table, now — ?"

The little laughter-lines at the corners of Mister Grey's eyes were crinkled, in secret amusement; at my use of Miss Lloyd's given name, I thought.

"By all means," he said. And then — "May I?" He offered her his arm, politely.

"Thank you," from Miss Lloyd, as she accepted it, with a graceful, fluid movement.

* * *

For the adults, the evening was barely beginning; for Tom and myself, it was nearly over. Tom's parents were on the verge of leaving; his father had an early start next morning, after all. Tom was allowed to stay a little later, in deference to Miss Lloyd's invitation; I was to walk him back to the Consulate, in company with a doorman, at eleven p.m. As it was only a block away, even Father could hardly object.

So, Tom and I were nursing our last drinks — his, another Coke; mine, a tonic water — as the conversation washed around us. Both of us, it was fair to say, still worried and glum; for our different reasons.

Local time in Shanghai, I'd discovered, is exactly eleven hours ahead — or thirty-five hours, if you count the International Date Line difference — of New York or Massachusetts, during Daylight Savings Time back home; so it was coming up on noon, Jack's time; on a Friday. Mail was customarily put in our cubbyholes in the mornings, and checked by us at luncheon-time; but I'd paid for direct delivery of my wire, and I thought it possible, maybe even likely, that he'd received it by now, and so knew, right then, right that very minute, that I was thinking of him — 


I missed the mention of my name, at first.


Mister Sayles remedied my oversight.


"Rhys — ? Oh, I say, Rhys — ?"

I blinked, and looked over at him. He was leaning back in his chair, holding a brandy snifter in his pudgy hand; he was obviously in close conversation with Mister Kaufman. From Mister Kaufman's expression, even that man's legendary capacity for warm hospitality was being strained.

"Sir — ?"

I had, in fact, never given him permission to address me by my Christian name; but I hadn't cared enough to make an issue out of it.

"I was just telling Kaufman, here, that you have a doppelgänger, a double, in Shanghai! It's the most extraordinary thing!"

"Sir — ?"

I felt a touch of dread.

"I was in the Nanking Road just the other day, and I happened to see a young man who was the very image of you, walking along with this very tall Chinese boy … "

I felt the hairs prickle, on the back of my neck.

Mister Sayles went on. His voice had become raised, a little, as if he'd been drinking too much; but his eyes, on mine, were sharp with intelligence, in his fleshy face.

" … but the thing is, both your double, and this Chinese boy, were dressed as rather down-at-the-heel office clerks. Haw! Haw!" His laughter boomed out, interrupting other conversations at the table.

"Really, sir — ?" I supplied, distantly; deeply wishing he would change the subject.

"Why, it even occurred to me to wonder, for a moment, if you'd taken on some sort of side-employment, somewhere; a part-time job, I think you'd call it — ? Haw! As if such a thing were conceivable! Eh? Haw!"

His voice was even louder, now. People at adjoining tables could hear him, I was sure.

"As if such a thing were conceivable! Did you know, Kaufman, did you know, Miss Lloyd, that our Rhys, here, is actually a Beresford — ? On his mother's side. He's the sole heir to the Beresford fortune in America, the whole kit and caboodle of it, as the American expression goes." He waved his brandy-snifter lazily, above the bulk of his midriff. "Yes, that Beresford; his grandfather might even give one or two of the Rockefellers a run for the money, or so they say; land everywhere, and rich as Croesus. Haw!" He swirled his brandy, in his snifter. "You'd best watch out, Kaufman; if the boy takes a fancy to this place, he might just buy it away from Sir Victor, once he inherits. Why, in a couple of years' time, you might just find yourself working for Rhys, here! Haw! Haw! Haw!"

I could feel my face turn white. The shock ran through me, like a spike of ice. I glanced up, quickly, and involuntarily, at the faces opposite me; Miss Lloyd, Mister Grey, Mister Kaufman — 

Tom, next to me, had gone rigid — 

Oh, Tom.

I did not need to look at Father; I could feel his gaze, fierce and piercing, through the sudden silence at the table.

A few seconds' pause, then, punctuated by one last 'Haw!' from Mister Sayles — 

And then, as I knew I had to do, I delivered the first adult rebuke, the first adult challenge, of my life.

I looked over at Mister Sayles, a little sideways, and I pitched my voice to reach the rest of the table.

"I have never discussed my family or its affairs with you, Mister Sayles," I said. I paused, deliberately. "And I find your words regarding them, to be remarkable offensive."

Full stop. Dead silence; with the sound of the piano, muted, in the background.

A pause.

"I beg your pardon?" from Mister Sayles; in the tone of a person who feels himself, the aggrieved party. "I beg your pardon — ?" He repeated himself, twice, again; all but gobbling, now. "I beg your pardon — ?"

I did not grant it. I remained as I was, looking at him, a little sideways, a little up-from-below — 


In the end, of course, he apologized.

He had to. Had he not done so, I would have been allowed — compelled, actually — to socially cut him; as in, ignoring his existence, and never speaking to him, again — or worse. Not so many years ago, after all, it would have been a matter of pistols or swords, and seconds, at dawn.

Father, of course, would be under the same constraint; and so, by extension, would be anybody with whom I socialized, at least while I was present.

And I was now viscerally, miserably aware, that such would be the last thing Mister Sayles wanted … 

"Now look here, young man," he said; after he'd finished protesting, and after an awkward silence, filled with a few 'harrumphs'. "Look here; if I have said anything to give you offense, I offer my apologies. I thought you Americans were more informal in discussing such matters, that's all. Well," he said, incompletely; clearing his throat, noisily, and then falling silent.

I held his gaze for just a second; marking him as the open enemy, I now knew him to be.

"Apology accepted, sir," I said at last. Then; "We will say nothing more about it."

The tension at the table dissipated, slowly. I still did not dare look at Father; instead, I started to turn towards Tom, wondering what to say — 

"Excuse me. Rhys — ?" from Sir Hughe, across the table, to my left.

"Sir — ?"

"May I ask — are you Claude and Mary's grandson, then?"

"You know them, sir?" I said, rather stupidly; then I mentally kicked myself. Why I should be surprised that Grandfather and Grandmother would be acquainted with a ranking British diplomat, I don't know. "Yes, sir; they're my grandparents."

Sir Hughe smiled at me. "Yes, I believe I can see the resemblance, now … We have friends in common, in Paris; and last year, we all spent a delightful week in the South of France, together. Didn't we, dear?" he went on, to Lady Hughe.

"We certainly did," she replied, squeezing his arm. "Oh, it is so wonderful to meet you, at last! I do hope they're doing well — ?" Her face was full of genuine affection for my grandparents; and I warmed to Sir Hughe and Lady Hughe, immediately.

"Oh, yes ma'am! I had a letter from Grandmother just yesterday; they're thinking of opening the house in Newport early, this year … "

And even as I said it, I thought about the echoes, I thought about Tom, I thought about the others at the table — 

I couldn't help but look up, briefly, again. Miss Lloyd's face was full of a kind of wicked, admiring amusement; at the joke of it all, I knew, at this ordinary boy she'd dragooned into a publicity shoot, who wasn't really so ordinary, at all … 

* * *

In the end, though, I had more important things to think about.

Much more important.


"I'm sorry," I whispered to Tom. In the darkness, on the street; the smell of the river, in the air. The Cathay doorman, our escort, a pace and a half ahead of us.


Sometimes, not saying enough, can be like a lie.


Nothing from him, for a long moment; he'd barely looked at me, directly, since the scene with Mister Sayles at the table.

Then — 

"That's okay," from him, in an answering whisper; and he actually found my hand in the dark, and he squeezed it, quickly, before letting it go — 

Oh, it made a difference.


And then, in the darkness on the way back, and then through the lobby, and into the elevator, and back up to my room — the realities kept crashing into me, one after another; and then, reforming themselves, and then crashing in again. Remorselessly.


Mister Sayles had not just happened to see us, by chance, on the Nanking Road. No. It beggared the imagination. No; Mister Sayles had followed us — or much more likely, he'd had us followed; I'd been looking around us, I'd have recognized his bulk, if he'd been there … 


It all meant, then, that Mister Sayles was not a cartoonish oaf, a mere blowhard. Neither was he just a run-of-the-mill blackmailer, a chancer.


He was interested in Father's business. Whatever that was.


If there was a crumb of comfort in the situation, it was that we hadn't been followed all the way to Monsieur Simonov's shop. I was fairly certain we hadn't been followed at all, once we'd engaged our rickshaws; I'd been looking out for trouble, all the way through the Hongkew, just based on its reputation, and I'd seen nothing. But even more so, I was dead certain, beyond all doubt, that no-one had followed us through the maze of narrow alleys in Monsieur Simonov's li-long … 


Still. Mister Sayles was interested in Father's business.


He had even expressed that interest, to all of us, deliberately. He hadn't been drunk, or even remotely near drunk. It had been deliberate; an attempt, I thought, to gauge my reaction, or more likely Father's — 

As was, I thought, his intentionally-crude remarks about my family.

Actually … no. No.

Crudity aside — his revealing my family background so publicly was, more likely, a message; a message to Father. But of what kind — ? A potential blackmailer's message, perhaps — ?

It felt like one; I had to admit it. If blackmail was his game, the price had just increased, enormously. It also made it unlikely, I thought, that I'd be visiting Monsieur Simonov again … 

I wondered if I should be happy about that, or otherwise.

Still. All of this was just dancing around the worse revelation of them all.


Because, whatever Mister Sayles' business was — he was not working alone.


When he'd dropped the bombshell about my family, I'd looked up, at the faces across the table from me; I hadn't been able to help myself — 

Miss Lloyd had been astonished; her eyebrows raised, her mouth open … the amusement had come, later.

Mister Kaufman had looked resigned. Well, it's a hotelier's job to know his guests, and Mister Kaufman was possibly the best, the most renowned hotelier in Asia … 

My glance had caught Mister Grey in an unguarded moment.

I'd seen a brief expression of shock on his face … followed by a flash of cold fury; and it was all directed at Mister Sayles. It was a curiously intimate kind of fury; fury, I guessed, at Mister Sayles' having revealed a shared secret, precipitously … 


Mister Sayles and Mister Grey were working together.


Oh, perhaps they weren't working together very well, or very smoothly … but they were working together; there was no possible doubt, any longer. And Mister Sayles had just, all-but-openly declared himself as some kind of opponent, of Father, and of me.


In what cause, and for what reason, I did not know.


Well, I thought to myself, in the darkness of my hotel room. If I did not know what was really going on — at least now I had a slightly better idea of the players, and of the sides … 

Still; I had to admit, that it hurt.

I had never trusted Mister Grey, and I had always assumed that he, too, was nosing about Father's business — 

But I had liked him.

I had liked him, and he had made me laugh, and we had been attracted to one another, and I had thought that he liked me, too. I had always hoped that he'd turn out to be, somehow, harmless … 

I wished we did not have to be enemies.

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