China Boat

Chapter 47

Tuesday, May 11th, 1937
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China

Dear Jack:

Well, old man; I'm going to have to ask you to keep this particular letter a little bit close to your vest. I'm going to be touching on a few family matters — my family matters — which are perhaps somewhat personal; you know how it is.

And, to all of our friends at school — I'm sorry! My next letter will be much more interesting, I promise; with more photographs of Shanghai proper, if you're not all bored to death with them already. I haven't found an actual opium den to photograph, yet; but on the other hand, I haven't stopped looking for one. And there are things, and places, much more exotic than that, here … 

I blotted the first, partially-filled page; and then I drew a fresh sheet of paper in front of me. It was Cathay Hotel stationery, this time, thick and creamy bond paper; expensive to air-mail, but I knew it would add to the mystique of my letters, for all of our friends — 

But what came next was for Jack's eyes, only.

Well, Jack.

I have to say, I've only been in Shanghai for eleven days, now; after having been on the move for more than three weeks. Almost four weeks. But I already feel restless; as though I need a vacation, from this trip.

And of course, I miss my best friend, and partner-in-crime, very much.

Codes, within codes. I would be discreet, even in a letter I asked Jack to keep private. There is a limit to how much stupidity I could commit in the course of one trip, and I felt that I'd more than reached it already.

I could wish that I liked Shanghai better.

It is very different, and quite fascinating, and engrossing, and really very exotic … but sometimes the differences begin to pile up, they begin to seem a little — much.

I might feel better about the place, if you were here to explore it all with me. I expect I would, actually.


(By the way; I've already said it once, in an earlier letter, but I'll say it again. Thank you, thank you, for the photographs from school. I keep them close by, and I look at them often. They mean the world to me. And I do wish I were there with you, now. Rather than here.)


Well, old man. There's been an unfortunate development, on the family front. Word has gotten out, to some people, anyway, of my relation to Grandfather and Grandmother.

I suppose it was inevitable; the Cathay caters to a very well-off clientele, and there was bound to be some friend of theirs stopping by as a guest, someday.

And as it turns out, the British Ambassador to China and his wife, Sir Hughe and Lady Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen — (and honestly, have you ever encountered a more British-sounding name, that that? And yes, that's 'Hughe', with an 'e' at the end of it) — it turns out, they are friends of Grandfather and Grandmother; they have even vacationed in France, together, although I'd never met them, and they didn't know of the family connection, until the word got out. They are very warm, and nice, people, and I am very glad they are here, at the moment — and I think Father and I may have gotten a special invitation from them, because of that connection … But, more on that later.

No. The disturbing thing about the news getting out, is who promulgated it. It was dropped like a bombshell, in public, by a rather fat and — I don't know how else to characterize him — shady man, named Sayles, out of Hong Kong. He is British, and I believe he is an associate of another strange British man here, a Mister Grey, of Imperial Mining and Metals, Ltd, that firm I asked you about — (and would you thank Tony for making those inquiries for me, again? I so appreciate it!)

Miss Lloyd observed to Tom and me, that Mister Sayles has the look of a blackmailer. I think she's right. Both of them have me worried; maybe for my own sake; but honestly old man, and in complete confidence — I think, maybe, even more so for Father's sake … 

It was as much as I could dare put down in an un-encrypted letter, even one I'd asked him to hold close.

And I hated like anything, having to deliver the news. 'Blackmail' is a fraught word, for the both of us; and Jack would understand, immediately, the vulnerability of his own position.

Still. He had to be told.

 … but in any event — I don't see any immediate cause for worry, old man. After all, I haven't done anything blackmail-worthy! You know how pure and innocent I am!

Gallows humor, perhaps; but also written for prying eyes. And, to maybe give a small, coded bit of reassurance to him.

And to give a hint, reinforcing my suspicions about Father … 

I sighed, and I went on. The next part would be harder to write, still.

As for the other family business — well. I wish like anything, that you were here, and that I could talk it all over with you.

Father and I are not getting along; not at all.

We are barely speaking to one another, apart from the business tasks he sets me — and those tasks are eye-opening; I could write a whole other long letter about them, except that they are highly confidential … so confidential, in fact, that I do not understand them, and have been told very little about them.

But, no. Apart from business, we are barely speaking, and we are taking fewer and fewer meals together — 

And the odd thing is, it isn't due to me.

I mean, it isn't because of you-know-why, we haven't quarreled, I haven't — I think — made myself obviously unpleasant … 

Although, I confess, I did make it clear to him, back on board ship, that I wanted and expected to be home by start-of-term in September. By use of my own resources, if necessary. And that did not go down well, believe me; but, he merely shut down the discussion, then, in that way that he has, and he has ignored the subject ever since.

I do need to re-open the conversation; but it's particularly hard, since we're barely speaking … 

In any case.

No; it isn't me. It is something else.

Father is very tense, and I'm convinced he is under some kind of great strain; and I am concerned about his health.

I remember him acting something like this, when we first got to Switzerland. He withdrew from me, then, almost completely, and he began to fall ill at the same time. It was something to do with the stress of his position, and with banking conditions in Europe in the run-up to the Depression … 


It is all very odd, for me, old man. I feel it very much.


On the one hand, I resent him, deeply, still, for bringing me here against my will. On the other hand, I am increasingly worried about him, and his health — 

And on yet another hand, I miss him. Even though we are together, here, in a foreign country; I miss him.

He might not have seemed like the warmest of fathers, during your visits to our place; certainly not compared to your own father. But we are family, we are all that's left of our immediate family — 

And we were so close, once. We were so close, those last years in Europe, driving and traveling around … I wish you could have known him, then. I wish you could have spent time with us, then.

I stopped, and set down my pen; and I blinked, a couple of times, and I read through the last two pages.

Well. It was all true, and heartfelt.

And Jack really should know it, all … And, just writing it all down for him, and knowing that he would be reading the words, made him seem closer than ever.

And it occurred to me, then, all at once, in a flash, that perhaps there are intimacies we exchange in writing, that we would never adequately express, in even the most private conversations … 

It was an interesting thought. A moving thought.

Still. I had perhaps taken things a little too far.

Oh, hell, old man.

I'm sorry. I'm feeling low just now, so I've rambled, and I've burdened you with my mood. And I've also burdened you with too much news about Father. Please, as I said, hold this letter close, or better still, burn it?

And you should know, I won't be taking any surprise vacations, or Lighting Out for the Territory anytime extremely soon, or tremendously soon, except in my dreams. In which we are always traveling along together.

But I won't promise, not to make preparations.

This was as broad a hint as I dared, even in such a private letter.

To drive home the point, I seemingly changed the subject.

So, Jack. Do you remember, we were talking about the possibility of your getting some kind of mail-drop, or post-office-box, for packages of a slightly more private and personal nature? (Yes, I'll say it; for items which might not pass the censorship test, at school or home!)

We'd never discussed any such thing, and he would know it immediately. But he is very quick; he would also realize, we would need such a mail-drop to keep in touch with one another, if I had to run. I could hardly send letters and cables to school, or to his home, if I were on the run.

Actually, Jack is a lot quicker than I am. I'd be surprised if he hadn't already arranged such a mail-drop. Something more private, and reliable, than General Delivery, Main Post Office, New York, New York.

Well, old man, it might not be a bad idea to go ahead, now, and set something like that up … 

* * *

"Whoa … whoa … " from Mister Chen; as he wobbled.

"You're doing fine!" I called out. His bicycle slowed, and he wobbled more perilously still, coming close to falling. "Umm … the faster you go, the easier it is to keep steady — "

"Okay … " He pumped his pedals once, twice, with his long legs, and his trajectory began to smooth out. He wobbled once more, caught himself, and rolled on smoothly, again. He looked at me, briefly, with a delighted and beautiful grin.

"That's the way! Uh — watch out for traffic — " I pedaled after him, eyeing an approaching rickshaw — 

"Oh — oops," he said, adjusting his course, clumsily — 


As it turned out, none of Mister Chen's extended family sold used bicycles — the kind of bicycles that a pair of office clerks, or messengers, might use. But someone in his family knew someone, who in turn knew someone else — 

And so, we had acquired — I had acquired — two slightly-battered bicycles, with wire baskets on the front handlebars, and wire baskets fixed over the rear wheels. And I had insisted that the chains be oiled, and the wheel-bearings greased, which the shop-proprietor had grumbled at doing. And I had purchased two tire-patch kits, and an air-pump, since I had no faith in the state of the tires at all. And then I had brightened the proprietor's day considerably, by paying the full price he quoted me, without haggling or objecting. I had even given him one of my sunnier smiles, in the process.

I believe that part — the lack of haggling — had caused Mister Chen almost physical pain.

Still, the total cost was negligible, and we were out of the shop in a hurry, wheeling our bicycles down the street towards the broad sidewalks of the Bund. And there we began to deal with the next item on our to-do list.

It seemed that Mister Chen had grown up, without learning how to ride a bicycle.

I'd blinked at him, when he told me.

"Didn't you say, that you went to the American School — ? Didn't your classmates all ride bicycles — ?"

He'd shrugged, a little uncomfortably.

"Well, Boss, if they did, they didn't ride to school … And for most of us Shanghainese, riding bikes is something you do for work, if you have that kind of job." He'd looked at me, a little helplessly. "If we want to go somewhere, we drive, or take rickshaws."

"Oh," I'd said. Then, "Okay … "


And so, now we were learning to ride.


We started on the Quai de France, which had fewer pedestrian obstructions … I'd explained the mechanics to Mister Chen, and started him out coasting the bike along, standing on one pedal, showing him how to do it, by example — 

From the Quai, we'd moved inland, into the boulevards of the French Concession. These were broader, tree-lined, and much quieter than the streets in the International Settlement proper. The main theme seemed to be one of spacious villas, behind walls; some of them with, in some of the streets, a slightly-run-down air, which was not entirely unpleasant … 

The day was warm and Spring-like. I'd bundled my coat into the rear wire-rack, as soon as I could; and I'd rolled up my sleeves, high, feeling the delight of soft air on my bare skin.

As time went on, Mister Chen was obviously enjoying himself, more and more.

"This is great, Boss!" he called out, as we pedaled slowly along. He flashed his beautiful smile at me, again; wobbling only a little, in the process. "This is … fun! I had no idea … "

His enthusiasm was genuine. I couldn't help smiling back at him.

"Well, it helps that there aren't any hills. It's less fun, going uphill."

"I wouldn't mind … We're going so fast! It almost feels like we're flying. Look; we're up to the western border of the Concession, already — !"

The French Concession has comparatively little frontage on the Whangpoo; but it runs much further inland, to the West, than the International Settlement does.

Still; it is not that large, and we'd been taking it slow, down the Rue Lafayette, and then over to the Avenue Joffre — 

I supposed it would seem fast, though, to someone who was accustomed to rickshaws.

We eased ourselves to a stop, at the perimeter road, and stood for a moment, breathing.

"Actually," I said, looking around me, "I am the one who should be thanking you. This is the first really good look I've had at the French Concession … " I craned my head around, slowly, taking it all in. The peace of it; the French-ness of it. "I like it."

"Do you — ?" His smile was back; and there was something almost a little shy, about it.

"Of course. It actually does remind me of France, and of Switzerland, a little. Well, especially when it comes to the street names."

A puff of wry laughter from him; and then I could see hesitation, on his beautiful face.

"Ummm — I don't know if you need to get back right away, Boss … but if you don't, I'd be glad to show you around. I could give you a tour — ?"

I held my breath, for a moment.

It was a sincere offer; and Mister Chen might be very important, to my future plans.

"Thank you! I'd like that, very much!"


We made it a leisurely tour, primarily east-to-west, and west-to-east, along the broad avenues — more tree-lined streets, more villas behind walls and gates. The British Ambassador's villa in Shanghai, where Father and I were due to attend a Coronation garden-party on Thursday … the Polish Legation compound; the French Park. The Czechoslovakian Embassy.


The Shanghai American School.


We stopped in front of the American School, and rested, for a few seconds. I looked at it, closely; it was brick-faced, respectable, and utterly Western, in a way that most other buildings in Shanghai, were not.

I noticed three students, boys, sitting on the steps in front of the large front doorway, slouching in the manner of schoolboys, anywhere. I thought they were waiting for rides home. I took dull note of the uniforms they were wearing, their ties, their caps … 

"This is it!" from Mister Chen, happily. "My old school!" He waved at the boys, who were looking at us, curiously. One of them waved back; puzzled, I thought, as to why a Chinese office-clerk would be waving to them. Then, still cheerfully; "Will you be coming here next Fall, Boss — ?"

I didn't answer, for a moment; and then I found my voice.

"I hope I'll be back home in the States, by September." I swallowed. "I'd like to finish school with my friends … "

I felt him looking at me.

"Well, I'm sure you will then, Boss," he said at last; still in a happy tone. "I'm certain of it! Still, this is a great school, I've got a lot of good memories of this place. The best school in Shanghai! Well, the best Western school, anyway … It's too bad you're going to miss it … "


We rode on.


And as we pedaled through the French Concession, and then back to Mister Chen's uncle's store, where we'd left our real clothes, and where we were to park our bicycles — I wrestled with a decision.

There were two people I could possibly approach, in the matter of getting travel documents; meaning, false passports, and the accompanying visas.


Mister Chen was one of them.


On the face of it, he was the perfect choice … a comprador, a fixer, from a family of fixers. I had absolutely no doubt, that he could produce travel documents for me; most likely, manufactured by some member of his extended family. Naturally.


But could I trust him — ?


I could, of course, offer him money, for his discretion. I could offer him a very great deal of money, for his discretion … but in the end, could I trust that word of my request did not get back to Father — ?

I glanced sideways at him as we pedaled along; him, still slightly wobbly, and still with a grin of honest delight on his beautiful face — 


I did not think I could. Trust him, that is.


His own father was the principal comprador for Father's bank in Shanghai. It would be a very important and lucrative relationship, for the entire family … Could I really expect that any amount of money I paid — any bribe I paid, to be honest — would keep him from telling his father of my request — ?

The only realistic answer was, 'no'.


But even after acknowledging that reality — there were other considerations to take into account, as well.


I did not entirely trust Mister Chen, personally.


Oh, he was affable, and easygoing, and very amusing. He was, in short, very likable — 

And, he was very easy to look at.

He was, in fact, conspicuously beautiful … and as if all that were not enough, I had begun to wonder if, just possibly, he might not find me attractive, in turn. His eyes had wandered, just a bit, more than once, as we had changed clothes in his uncle's shop … 

And yet, behind the cheerful demeanor — I sensed a tremendous reserve. A sense that he had a public face, and a private face, and that the private face was never to be shown, at least not to a client … 

For a little while, as we shared the trip to the Hongkew neighborhood, I had thought I was perhaps making a personal connection with him. I had thought so even more today, as we shared the experience of bicycle-riding, of his learning how to ride.

I was actually fairly sure of it. I thought I'd seen his public face open up; just a crack.

But even though we'd taken a tour of the French Concession together, and shared a good time … the reserve held. He had, for instance, managed to avoid pointing out his own family's house, or compound; although we had almost certainly passed by it, at least once … 


No. I would not trust Mister Chen, with the job of acquiring forged documents.


And that left one person; one possible source.

And so, I would convert some more of my U.S. currency to the local currency — or, perhaps to silver; silver might be better — and I would see about passport-photographs, and I would approach that person the next chance I had. It was a risk; but I felt slightly better for having made the decision, and for knowing it was the only one possible.

* * *

"Oh, Mister Williamson — ?"


I had picked up my room-key almost automatically, and started to turn towards the elevators. I knew the Clipper schedule by now; I wasn't expecting any mail for the next two days.

"Yes — ?"

"You have a cable, sir." The desk-clerk — he was a young, dark-haired man, with a distinctive Cockney accent — kept his voice pitched discreetly low, but there was a hint of a smile, at the corners of his mouth. The whole desk-staff knew of my arrangements for receiving my mail privately.

"Oh … thank you, very much!"

I took the envelope from him, adding a large tip, in the process — 

And all the while, my heartbeat was speeding up, and up. Any wire from Jack was cause to get my heart beating faster, in anticipation, of course … 

But this wasn't a response to any wire I'd sent. And there was always the possibility of some kind of trouble, some kind of disaster, of the two of us having been found out — 

I was not much reassured, when I first read the telegram in the privacy of my room.

In fact, I was downright scared.






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