China Boat

Chapter 46

" … Leaving Shanghai

WHERE next?

To the traveller, Shanghai offers a unique advantage; the entire world, literally, is open for his selection. He can go to Europe by going West, or he can go to Europe by going East, with distances, time, and cost showing but slight variation. It may be an exaggeration to call Shanghai the "centre of the world" but it looks very much like it on a travel map.

Most Occidentals will recall a youthful legend: "Dig a hole through the earth and you will come out in China." With equal aptness it may be said, "Start out from China and go anywhere you like, in almost any direction." Transportation facilities to any other place in the world are readily available in Shanghai … "


-'All About Shanghai'
(Author Unknown)
The University Press, Publishers

* * *

Monday, May 10th, 1937
9:15 p.m.
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China


Running was very much on my mind.


In several senses of the word.


I had sent a note to Father's room, saying that I was feeling a little ill, and would be dining alone in my room tonight. I received no answer. I had expected none.

In truth, I had had enough time with Father for one day; first at the meeting with the Japanese bankers — if bankers they were, which I doubted — and then, at the excruciating comparison-of-notes meeting that had followed. We had gone over every detail — including Mister Hashiwara's assertion that Father's bank's leaders were unusually sympathetic to Signor Mussolini's Fascists, and Chancellor Hitler's National Socialists — without a word of protest, or of explanation, from him … He'd merely told me to be prepared to help encode one of his messages, tomorrow — 


I dined alone in my room; glad of the solitude.


Tom had gone straight back to the American Consulate, after our run. He hadn't really needed to; his parents had hired a full-time Amah, or nursemaid, for Mickey — 

Still. It was the first night of his father's first trip out in the countryside, and Tom clearly did not want to leave his mother alone. I thought he wouldn't even have left for our brief run, except that we so obviously had needed to talk … 


I looked down at my empty plate, and empty soup-bowl. Then I looked up, around me, at the opulent, wood-paneled, crystal-lit walls of my room; and at the darkness, outside the windows.


It would be foolishness, to go out again, in the darkness; especially now that my connection to my grandparents was known.


I sat still for perhaps another full minute; and then I grabbed my coat, and my cap, and left my room, headed for the elevators. I needed to think; I needed movement; and above all else, I refused to let myself become a hostage, to my identity. I refused to let myself become a hostage.


It was almost full-on dark, outside. There was just the barest hint of a blue glow in the sky to the West, over the Chapei district.


The Whangpoo was completely black, of course; except for the glittering reflections of the lights of the warships anchored out in midstream. I guessed it was a rising tide; the river smelled more like the sea, than, well, the sewers. A slight breeze had come up, blowing in from the sea, and I welcomed it, gladly.

I was not completely stupid, in walking like this. The Bund was well-lit; and the Sikh policemen — what had Monsieur Simonov called them? 'Turbaned Number Threes', that was it — the Sikh policemen were everywhere, and I kept one in sight, at all times … Plus, I walked fast; I walked fast, I avoided people, and I was aware of my surroundings, ready to dodge, or to run, or to lose myself, as needs be, anytime. I am a New Yorker, after all.

And as I went, I tried to make sense of the turmoil in my thoughts; the turmoil of my emotions. My mind, jumping around, upset, confused, unsettled; going from point to point, idea to idea. Staccato-thinking.


I considered Father.


The news that Father's bank was — unusually friendly — to the Italian and German regimes … 

Well. It had come as a shock. A bad one.

I suppose it should not have done. There is no shortage of people in Society who are open admirers of Signor Mussolini and Herr Hitler … and who express the opinion, that our democratic system, in the United States, is rotten, and ripe for replacement. That democracies in general are old and weak, and that Fascist states are new and vibrant; the wave of the future.

Grandfather is not among them, thank God. Once, at a dinner at their place in Newport, I had heard one of the dinner-guests expressing the opinion that 'What this country needs is a dose of discipline; a military dictatorship would do us a world of good!' The same gentleman had gone on to say, that our current President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was 'a traitor to his class'.

"Better a traitor to his class, than a traitor to his country," Grandfather had replied. Quietly, but stonily; with great poise. Grandmother had then gracefully inserted herself into the conversation, and smilingly steered it away from politics … 

And I had never been prouder of Grandfather, than at that moment.

But I was not at all sure, that his view was shared by the majority of men, in Society. By the kind of men who comprised the Officers and Directors of Father's Bank, in particular … 




I could not — I could not — believe that Father was a sympathizer of the Fascist or National Socialist regimes. Not for a moment.

We had seen both regimes, up close, and in vivid detail. We had experienced them, traveling in Europe; the thuggish buffoonery of the Italian Blackshirts, and then the far more sinister horrors of the German Nazis, culminating in that terrible incident in Berlin — 

I pushed away the memories of Berlin, with an effort.

No. The point was, that I'd been with Father, in Italy, and Austria, and in Germany. We'd seen those regimes, those systems; I'd seen his reactions to them. He was not, in any sense, a sympathizer to Fascism or National Socialism. Father was, in fact, a close friend of Henry Morgenthau Junior, our Treasury Secretary, who was a Jew.


And yet, a traitor part of my mind whispered to me. And yet.


I walked along briskly, under the streetlights. The building facades to my right were enormous, walls of stone and light, facing the darkness of the river. I passed the Hong Kong And Shanghai Bank building … 

Father … lives for his job. Father lives for banking, in general; and he lives for his position, at his bank. I have known, for a very long time, that this is so.

He does not need to work, after all, not for an income. He has more than enough money in his own name, even without any recourse to Mother's legacy to him, or to my grandparents' money. Rather, work gives his life structure, and meaning. It is his duty.

Could Father's position at his bank — his responsibility, as he would see it, to Senior Management, and to the Directors — could it all really have lead him to involvement in something … untoward? Something worthy of blackmail, even, should it become widely known — ?


I kept on walking, along the familiar way. Past the Shanghai Club; past the War Memorial; onto the Quai de France — and then I stopped.

On the Quai de France, a ship was clearly about to sail; by the oily smoke rising from the smokestack, she had her steam up, and she was well-lit-up, all over, and a tug was standing by. She was a smaller freighter; the Berenice, of Liverpool.

I knew her name; she'd been loading cargo for days, now, and Tom and I had often stopped to watch, as the ship's booms had hoisted the cargo-nets and pallets up, from the wharf-side, and then lowered them down into her holds, over and over again.

The Berenice was a tramp steamer. At first I'd thought the term was derogatory, related to the ship's appearance; now I knew it only meant, that she wasn't on a fixed, regular route; rather, she picked up cargo where she could, where her company's agents could find it, and then delivered it to whatever port the customer desired. In this particular case, that port was Bombay.


I knew it was Bombay, because I followed the shipping news. I'd begun following the shipping news, quite closely.

For good reason.


I had started, of course, by collecting brochures and sailing-schedules from the regular passenger-line steamship companies that call in Shanghai; the Blue Funnel Line, the Canadian Pacific Line, the French Mail Line — there are quite a few of them.

Of course, each steamship-company office had wanted my name and address. I had cheerfully left a variety of them. Philip Bradford; John Philips; Brad Jay — all of them, variations and re-workings of Jack's given names. And, oh, the places I lived! Astor House; a compound in the French Concession; the massive Broadway Mansions apartments — goodness, I got around.

Naturally, I made the same inquiries with Pan American Airways. And with CNAC, the China National Airways Corporation … with its flights from Shanghai to Manila, and to Hong Kong. Both of which were departure points for the Pan American Clipper to America.


'Hhhhhmmm — !' from the Berenice's whistle; it sounded thin, and high-pitched, after the President Hoover's deep-throated roar.

In the glare of the Berenice's work-lights, I could see men on the shore beginning to cast off some of the lines connecting the ship to the dock. I tried to remember the names Tom had called them, and how they worked … there were spring-lines, I knew, and bow-lines … 

The intensity of my longing to be on board, surprised me.

It shouldn't have, I supposed. A ship like this, was one of my options for escaping Shanghai, and starting the journey back to Jack, after all. It would be far from my best option, or my preferred option; but an option, regardless.

'Hhhhhmmmmmmm — !' again; longer, this time.


I considered those options. I considered my future.


Of course, going home would be easiest, with Father's co-operation. With his permission. In his company, even. Of course it would.

Getting his permission … was the challenge.

I now realized, since the afternoon's revelations with Tom, that I really and truly did not know where I stood, with Father.

If I were honest with myself, I'd have to admit that his behavior had been getting increasingly bizarre. Progressively bizarre. There was his near-total withdrawal from me; the coded telegrams, whose clear texts I never saw; the strange, and even sinister, business meetings, in which I was expected to act as something like a cross between a court reporter and a human Dictaphone machine, meetings about which I was told next to nothing — and which I had finally realized, might well be blackmail-worthy … 

But above and beyond all else, there was my courier-service duty to Monsieur Simonov. Father had told me just that morning, that I could expect to make another trip to Monsieur Simonov, in the next few days.

Monsieur Simonov; a Bolshevik Russian refugee, who had warned me to visit by circuitous routes, dressed in what amounted to disguise.

Well, I thought. At least I'll get my linen suits, out of the deal.


What were the chances of Father letting me go home by September, the start of the next school year — ?


What were the chances of Father letting me go home, a year from September, when Jack and I were due to enter college together — ?


And, what the hell was Father mixed up in, here? Was he indeed being blackmailed? Were we, my grandparents and Father, and me, all being blackmailed, by extension?


All was unknowable. All was unknown, to me.


But I did know, that the thought of being away from Jack, apart from Jack, for more than a year — 

It was unbearable. Unthinkable.

And if Father meant to keep me longer than that, still — ?


'Hhhhmmm — hhmmm!' from the Berenice; two short blasts. The single tugboat answered, with two, higher-pitched whistle-blasts. On the dockside, the last lines were cast off; I watched as crewmen onboard hauled them up, out of the water, dripping, and started arranging them on deck.

I did a quick, sweeping scan around me, automatically. Two rickshaws, with fares, moving down the Quai; a handful of gawkers, like me, watching the Berenice's departure; scattered figures, in the distance. Two Sikh policemen stood, conspicuously, in the light of a nearby streetlamp … Nothing threatening. My New York sensibilities, relaxed … 


I could go home without Father's permission.


I had given the matter a great deal of thought. It was why I'd brought so much money with me, after all. It was why I'd taken the time and effort to check sailing and airline schedules. And I reckoned I could do it … with luck. And at great expense.

Not expense in the monetary sense of the word, though. Unfortunately.


I saw three clear ways to do it.


The first was easiest; I could even travel on my own passport. All I needed was a head start.

If Father were to, say, be called away to Singapore, or to Hong Kong, or to Batavia for a few weeks — 

Well. It all came down to the Clipper schedule, really. If I were apart from Father for as little as ten days, under the best circumstances — I could buy an airplane ticket to Manila, and from there, catch the Clipper back to San Francisco … 

Three weeks would be better. Three weeks would be ideal. I could get all the way back to New York, to Grandfather and Grandmother, before any alarm went out, even … 

I would need a letter from Father, authorizing me to travel alone. I could provide that easily enough. I am an excellent forger, particularly when it comes to Father's signature; it is a skill which has come in handy, during my school career. I have even used my forger's skills on behalf of friends, for little things like a parent's signature on a bursar's bill, or on a permission-slip for an overnight leave … 

The trick would be, to be left behind.

Well; illnesses happen. And there are such things as emetics, to provoke vomiting, and laxatives to provoke diarrhea … and any schoolboy knows ways to fake having an elevated temperature … 


It could happen. In theory.


I would live with Grandfather and Grandmother, of course, until school started. They would take me in … I'd give them some sort of toned-down, expurgated version of how things were between Father and me, and say how I couldn't stand the prospect of being away from them both for years and years; which was true. And Grandfather, in particular, might be somewhat disappointed in me, for being weak and self-indulgent — but, they would take me in.

I might even live long enough to be on speaking terms with Father, again. Someday.


And how long have you both got?, that traitor part of my mind whispered.


Father's ulcer was back. I was sure of it. And what if, that voice whispered to me, he fell really, seriously ill, because of it — ? What if he needed an operation, here in Shanghai, and you were back in New York — ?


Out on the river, a froth of water appeared from astern of the Berenice; it was the tug, pulling her away from the Quai de France. I watched, as the distance slowly, slowly opened up, between us. I could smell the stirred-up water; I felt the beat of the engines.


The second option for getting home without Father was the most dangerous; the most fraught. It might as well live in a box behind a glass pane, with a hammer on a chain next to it, and a sign in bold letters; Do Not Use Except In Case Of Emergency.


Jack and I had talked about running, about Lighting Out For The Territory, from the beginning of our partnership.

In the beginning, it was a wistful kind of talk; a fantasy, about going off alone together, away from our families, away from the expectations of Society, away from the expectations of the whole world. And we'd both understood it was something to do after we'd turned twenty-one, and left college … as impossibly-old, as impossibly far-off, as twenty-one seemed.

And then Pettit and Cray had been discovered; discovered, sent down, and separated for good.

Jack and I had been profoundly shocked.

They had been rather obviously a couple, and affectionate with one another … but not really more so than Jack and I had been. It seemed their downfall had been primarily due to luck; and to having left evidence of their love for one another in writing.

I had been keeping a journal, up to that point; and even though I hadn't been really explicit in my entries, I'd burned it. Among other sins, I'd written out Jack's six initials, in flowing script, a few too many times for comfort. Jack, as it turned out, had written two sonnets which mentioned me by name, and which were quite clear in their love for me — 

At least I'd gotten to read them, before he burned them. They had made me cry.

From that day forward, we'd been careful to the point of paranoia, in our relationship. We'd committed nothing scandalous to writing — well, until the pressures of this trip, anyway. We'd been careful not to be entirely exclusive to one another in our sexual play, although we would have strongly preferred it. Charles had come to us in the nick of time, to help us preserve our front of being Just Best Friends — as well as to give us the priceless benefit of his inner beauty, and of his loyalty, and affection — 

And throughout it all, we knew we could lose everything, in an afternoon. We could lose each other, in an afternoon.


We knew Pettit was safe, and in England. We knew nothing of Cray.

But we did know — I knew, after research at the New York Public Library — what could potentially have befallen him … Hospitalization; shock treatments; hormone therapy; even, potentially, a lobotomy. There are precedents, in the literature — particularly in prominent families in Society, who could afford it all — 


I could not imagine Jack's family doing such things to him. I could not imagine Father doing such things to me; neither could I imagine Grandfather and Grandmother permitting it.




Ever since Pettit and Cray, we have been prepared to go on the run. We've reconciled ourselves to the possibility; we've given it thought.


I could make this, the Run for all time.


I might have to. It might not come down to a matter of choice.


'Hhhhhmmmm — !' from the Berenice, again.

The froth of water stopped. Figures moved about on deck, on the side away from me; they were rather clearly casting off from the tug.


There were hundreds of details to take into consideration, there were a thousand details to take into consideration.


I would need documents. I would need a passport — a fake passport — under another name, another nationality. Two different fake passports would be better, and the visas to go with them … although I might be able to get the visas honestly, once I had the passports. But probably not.

I was sure it could all be arranged. At least, in theory.

If Shanghai's reputation was even remotely true, there were probably whole neighborhoods, whole industries devoted to turning out false passports; I imagined vast buildings, filled with printing presses and binderies, turning out such things by the gross … 

But I did not know how to go about getting such things. And I was sixteen; hanging around in dark bars, drinking and smoking and dropping hints and a little money to bartenders, now and then, was not an option — 


As I said, I'd given the the problem a great deal of thought. And if I had to do it today, there were two people I could approach, to ask about obtaining documents.

In both cases, the prospect frightened me deeply. One in particular could lead to disaster … 

I pushed the issue away, for a moment. As I keep telling Jack; 'If you have a complicated problem, do the parts you can solve, first. Come back and do the hard parts, later.'


The next question was easier. Once I bolted — where should I go — ?


Back East across the Pacific was the most direct route to the United States; of course. It was also the quickest route in terms of time. Flying back in the Clipper would be almost absurdly quick.

But there was only one airline flying that route. And there were only a few steamship-companies crossing the whole Pacific, regularly. And if I were truly on the run, a scheduled liner was the last place I wanted to be, false papers or not.

I could try for an eastbound tramp steamer, headed to Seattle, or San Francisco, or Los Angeles — 

Even that was not so good. There are only a few ports on the West Coast; if I were being looked-for, those ports would, I thought, be closely-watched.


That left, west-bound. The other direction


If I wanted to lose myself, west-bound was clearly the best choice. I could take the journey in shorter stages, on different ships; I could go to Singapore, for instance, and stay for a day, or five days, before going on to Bombay … 

Bombay would be a good place in which to get lost; I thought. Perhaps even better than Shanghai.

And from there, it would be across the Arabian Sea, up through the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal, to the Mediterranean, likely to Alexandria — 

If I could just make it across the Mediterranean to Marseille — and make it past passport control — I was almost home free. It would just be a simple matter to take a train, or trains — several trains would be safer — to Paris.




I know Paris, I thought to myself, better than any place except New York; I'd spent large parts of six summers, and many other holidays, there. I know Paris; I know the neighborhoods, the people, the cafés, I know how to talk, how to act, how to be. Thanks to a few rather raffish friends, I know where to to go, to find a fifth-floor walkup room I could rent, even at my age, no questions asked, as long as it was cash in advance, paid on time, to the skeptical Madame — 

Paris is like home, to me. And no, I'd never pass as a native Parisian, any more than I'd pass as a native Brooklynite … but it didn't matter. Paris, like New York, is home to immigrants, to refugees, to people from all parts of France and the French-speaking world, and beyond — Paris doesn't care.

I could hole-up in Paris, and plan my next move; back across the Atlantic to New York, and Jack — 


The thought had occurred to me. Perhaps — especially if the two of us were on the run, from a threat of blackmail, or separation — 


Perhaps I could get Jack to Paris.


Oh, it wouldn't be easy … He'd need his own documents, his own false passport. It would have to be an American one; Jack couldn't pass as a foreign national, not even a Canadian, I've tried to teach him the subtle differences in the way they pronounce certain words, but it's as though his ear just can't hear it — 


A thousand details.


Perhaps, I thought, I can get Jack to send me some passport-sized, and visa-sized photographs — ? And then, when — if — no; when — I arranged for my own false-flag documents, perhaps I could arrange a set, or sets, for him, too — ?


At that moment, on the darkened Bund, I wanted Paris, and Jack, with an indecent, violent intensity. Paris, and Jack; together. Oh, God, how I wanted it … I felt it, so. God, how I wanted it … 


'Hhhhhmmmm — !' from the Berenice. For the final time.

The tugboat slowly pulled free, on the ship's opposite side. From the Berenice's stern, there came more roiling, dirty-looking, dirty-smelling river water; there was also a flicker of motion, and I realized I could actually see the tips of her propeller-blades, just breaking the surface. I wondered, distantly, what Tom could tell me about that … 


And what do you think your chances are? that traitor voice in my mind whispered.

What do you think your chances are, of actually getting all the way to Paris — ? Without getting detained, arrested, sent back to Shanghai in disgrace — or worse — ?


The dirty water continued to churn. I could hear the chug-chug-chug of the ship's engine, now; it was far deeper, and slower, and more powerful-sounding, than the tug's.

I looked at the rust, streaking the hull, dripping down the superstructure.


About even, I thought to myself, at last. One chance in two.

Maybe one in three.


The problem was, I would be sixteen and looking younger, and traveling alone. The best documents in the world, with the most carefully-memorized and carefully-rehearsed cover stories, the faked personal letters from cher papa and chère maman, — all of it would only get me so far.

If only, I thought, despairingly, if only I were more like Harris … Harris could pass for twenty-one, at a stretch, he even had to shave, almost daily — 

No, I thought to myself. No.

Harris might look closer to twenty-one … but he had never lived abroad, as I had, and he hadn't traveled at all — 

And Harris lacked my capacity for guile. Harris was forthright, and honest, and good-hearted, and trusting, and he couldn't tell a convincing lie to save his own life — 

Harris wouldn't last a week.

Of all of our friends, of all of the people I knew — I had the best skills, the best background, the best temperament — in short, the best prospects, for making it to Paris, on the run. By far.


Maybe one chance in two. Maybe.


The Berenice finally, slowly began to visibly move; headed downriver, on her escape to Bombay. I took one pace, then two, then more, keeping abreast of her as she went. To my left, a rickshaw passed, with an older Chinese man in the seat, shouting what sounded like imprecations at the puller … 


Well. I would start the process. I would work the pieces of the problem, that I could.


I'd need to start a real campaign with Father, to get him to send me back to the States. I would need to set my will against his. It would be very unpleasant. It might worsen his ulcer. I saw no alternative.

I could arrange to have passport-photos, and visa-photos, taken. I'd choose different photographers, and wear different clothes to each sitting, and pay in cash, and try not to leave a name.

The money could be left until next-to-last, I thought. I'd launder it; I'd open a new bank account in a new bank, under my new, false-passport name. Then I would exercise my Letter of Credit for cash at one bank, walk across the street, and deposit the cash into my new account … and perhaps arrange for a new Letter of Credit, under my new false name, to draw upon as I traveled … 


And I would consider how I might go about obtaining those false documents. I would consider the two people I could possibly approach in the matter; I would think about who would be the least bad choice. The least dangerous choice.


I kept pace easily with the Berenice, as she chugged slowly down the river, headed for the Yangtze and the East China Sea. On the bridge wing nearest me, I thought I could see one of the officers watching me, as I walked along. He did not wave. Neither did I.


One way or another, for one reason or another, I would not be in Shanghai forever. One way or another, I would not be in Shanghai for all that long.

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