Tuesday, May 11th, 1937
The Cathay Hotel
I had several heart-pounding moments, several bad moments, on reading Jack's wire.
The first shock was due to the obvious urgency of the thing; of course. The bulk of it was in code; and Jack's line about 'Decode in private soonest repeat soonest please' meant that the wire was anything but, 'just for fun'.
And then there was the ending, 'all love'. In total violation of our agreement to be careful …
Something was badly wrong.
But that was as nothing to my reaction to the line, 'Key is caption 459'.
'Caption 459' — ? I looked at the words, for second after second, feeling a rising sense of panic.
I did not know what that meant! It was the key to Jack's urgent message … and I didn't know what it meant! I'd have to wire Jack for an explanation, a clue, and it would take up a whole extra day, maybe two, before I knew what was wrong —
I forced out a shuddering breath, and then another; and I made myself think.
'Caption' was self-explanatory; a caption to a photo, or to an illustration. '459' seemed likely to be a page number.
But to what book — ?! I'd brought several dozens of books with me … Which ones would Jack know about, to which ones would he have access — ?
The answer came to me, in a flash. I'm surprised it wasn't accompanied by the smell of ozone, as if by a circuit sparking. I dove for the book; it is seldom far from my side.
'Bleak House', by Dickens, is an important book to me. It is beautifully-written, and a whole, familiar world for me; and I associate it with Mother.
Last year I'd loaned a copy to Jack; and he'd dropped it, while we were crossing a creek, in one of our out-of-bounds expeditions.
I hadn't minded, and I'd told him so; I'd been very much more concerned about him, he'd slipped and bruised his left hip, and gotten soaked, and he'd almost lost his shoes and socks … but, he'd been mortified. And so, he bought two replacement copies, one for each of us; beautiful, thick, compact, modern editions, with soft leather covers.
Identical copies. He knew I had mine with me; he'd watched me put it into my book-bag, on the night before I left.
I opened it up, and turned to page 459, in a rush.
And there it was; a line-drawing, by Dickens' illustrator 'Phiz', of some Victorian people in a drawing-room, sitting around a fire, complete with an italicized caption:
The young man of the name of Guppy.
I checked the page number, again; and I checked the caption, again. And I looked at Jack's wire, again.
There was no mistake; there was no mistaking. It had to be the key.
I breathed out, and shook my head, a little; looking down at the page, feeling so, so close to Jack, at that moment … Marveling, that he was quick enough, and smart enough to pull such a key-phrase, out of thin air; marveling, that he had enough faith in me, to figure it out …
And then I assembled my materials, the note-paper, the rulers, the Vigenère square, forcing myself to move calmly. I knew from experience, that a coded message of this length would take a couple of hours of careful work, to decode —
In the end, I discovered something new about code-work. I discovered that it is much easier to decode a message into plain text, than it is to decode one coded message into another code; the mistakes one makes are immediately apparent, and immediately fixed. And one only needs go through the process, once.
And, too, I discovered the curious phenomenon that one sees the plain-text message growing, under one's own hand. It might take hours; but the message reveals itself, bit by bit, letter by letter.
As Jack's coded message revealed itself, to me.
Eventually, at last, I was able to sit back in my chair, and read the whole decoded part of his wire, beginning to end.
In fact, I read it and re-read it, many times.
TONY WAS TOLD IN CONFIDENCE IMPERIAL MINING AND METALS LTD FRONT FOR BRITISH GOVT BRITISH FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE SERVICE WAS TOLD VERY DANGEROUS STAY AWAY OH RHYS I LOVE YOU SO MUCH BE CAREFUL COME BACK TO ME PLEASE OR WILL MEET YOU ANYWHERE PLEASE ALL MY LOVE ALWAYS
* * *
Thursday, May 13th, 1937
The British Ambassador's villa
The French Concession
"Excuse me … May I have a glass of milk, please — ?"
The serving-lady behind the table smiled at my request; and then she smiled, again, as she handed me the full glass.
"There you go, love … It's nice to see a young man like you asking for something wholesome. Usually they're pestering me for champagne, or worse." Her voice was unmistakably Irish.
"Thank you, ma'am," I said; and I returned her smile with an honest one of my own.
I left the shade of the canopy, and made my way across the green lawn, threading my way through the knots of expensively-dressed people; holding the glass carefully in front of me. I found him, at last, by the villa's garden portico, listening to a group of other men, men of means, who looked unmistakably, like bankers and important businessmen.
To my eyes, Father looked terrible. His posture was as straight and erect as ever; but his face was pale, and pinched. I did not like the color of his lips.
I walked up, and stood silently next to him, until he noticed my presence. He looked at me.
"Sir," I said; and I handed him the glass of milk.
A piercing look, from him; a moment of silent, eloquent communication, between us.
He had not asked for the milk. He had not said a word to me, about his health, about his renewed ulcer.
"Thank you, son," from him; finally. He carefully took the milk from me; and then, he passed me the champagne-flute he'd been holding, full and flat and and untouched in the midday warmth. "Would you take this away for me, please — ?"
It was a dismissal.
"Yes, sir," I said. I began to turn, to go —
"Thank you, Rhys," from him; quietly.
And then he turned back to the group of well-dressed businessmen, engrossed in their conversation, with the sounds of a string quartet playing Vivaldi concertos floating over from the colonnade as a backdrop …
I had been to my share of garden-parties, growing up. I could not remember one quite so glittering, as this one.
Well, it made sense, I supposed. It was the British Ambassador's private garden-party, in honor of the Coronation.
'Private', of course, was a relative word. It was private, compared to the main celebrations, to be held at the Recreation Ground, the racetrack, later in the evening. That event would have massed bands, and fireworks, and parades; they'd even built a massive, stage-work castle in the middle of the infield, as part of the spectacle … All of Shanghai, or all of Shanghai that could fit in, would be there.
Tom and I would be there; guided, and chaperoned, by Mister Chen.
Tom had special permission to spend the night with me, at the Cathay, afterwards …
I looked back, over the spectacle of the garden party.
'Garden' was one word for it, I thought. The space was immense; a vast lawn, green and smelling of trodden grass, in the sun; with hedges and flower-beds and pathways and trees, lining the edges. The villa looked more like a French palace, than a house; it had a Classical motif, complete with dignified Ionic columns. The sky was filled with puffy, gray-white clouds; the air was very warm …
The party-goers were the ones who glittered. Even I could tell, it was the very upper-crust of Shanghai expatriate, and diplomatic, society. Many were in dress uniform; there was a great deal of gold braid, and a great number of colorful dresses, and improbable hats —
I set Father's full champagne flute on a vacant table, and I went back to ask for another glass of milk. Milk, is, after all, good for growing bones.
"Hello, Rhys! This is a pleasant surprise! It's nice to find a familiar face, at an exalted function such as this."
I hadn't seen Mister Grey's approach. I managed to avoid dropping my milk-glass.
"I haven't seen you, these last few days … Say, I hope you haven't been avoiding us, or anything — ? After that tedious scene with Sayles in the nightclub, I mean."
Well, that had the virtue of being direct.
"Of course I haven't been avoiding you, sir."
Of course I had.
"Good, good … " His pleasant face relaxed into a disarming smile. He was wearing his beautiful straw fedora again, and a spotless white linen suit, with a pale-yellow silk handkerchief in his pocket. Uncharacteristically, his right hand held a champagne flute, rather than his usual gin-and-tonic …
I noticed again, the faint marks of the old scars and burns on his hands. There was no question, that he did indeed work for Imperial Mining and Metals, Limited.
I also noticed again, how attractive his hands were.
"You know, it really was awfully rude of Sayles to spout off like that … I feel as though I should apologize, if only because he is a fellow-countryman." He managed to make his expression slightly-mournful, and ironic, all at the same time. "If it's any comfort, I haven't seen him here, yet; in fact, I'd be downright astonished if he were invited at all … "
I blinked at this. At all the layers of possible meaning, behind the words.
"I wouldn't want to be the cause of any trouble for him, sir."
"You wouldn't — ? Well, he deserves it … but in any case, you know, this is a very exclusive little affair, this. I think I'm only here because I'm a kind of distant relation, several times removed, from Lady Hughe; you know how it is, it would have been awkward for them not to have sent me an invitation … I think you and Tom hadn't arrived, yet, when the introductions were being made." At that he looked around us, at the sea of suits and uniforms and elegant dresses. "Speaking of Tom — was he invited, do you know — ?"
"Yes, sir, his whole family was invited; I believe they should be here soon."
I had not yet told Tom of Mister Grey's real occupation. I did not know if I should. It was a very big thing; and if I told Tom, and if he subsequently told his father — it might well come back to Mister Grey. It might even come back to implicate Jack's brother Tony.
"My," from Mister Grey; "how you Americans rate." This, with a wry smile.
"Oh, I don't know, sir. His father works for the American government, after all; that's probably why they were invited. In fact, I expect most of the people here, work for somebody's government; don't you think so — ?"
It just came out of me; from where, I don't know, but it positively boiled out of me, backed by anger at all the agonizing fear and uncertainty I'd been suffering, ever since my cabin had been searched …
It was a foolish thing to have said, and I regretted it immediately.
A breath of something that might have been silent laughter, from him.
"Well," he said, after a pause. "Well; there are four Ambassadors, here … let me see, is that right — ? Oh, yes; yes. Four Ambassadors, and several Consuls-General, and God-knows how many military attachés … You know, I think you might have it right?"
I thought I could see the faintest twitch at the corner of his mouth, as he said it.
"I was just thinking of taking a little walk-around sir," I said; to cover my embarrassment, and to change the subject, both. "Would you — "
"Why, yes, what a splendid idea! By all means, let's go see what we may see."
I'd been about to ask him to excuse me; but on second thought, this choice might be better. Better, for Father, at any rate; if I could learn more about Mister Grey's interests, and intentions …
Whether I wanted a better outcome for Father any more — at least in his current business dealings — was a whole other question.
It was like taking a walk with an old friend, in a new, and foreign, place.
It was — now that I knew who, and what, he was — like taking a walk with a hungry wolf; or maybe, a sleek and purring panther.
We strolled the grounds, slowly. Mister Grey prattled — there was no better word for it — very amusingly. I listened, as I watched out for Tom —
And I considered my position, with Mister Grey. And with Father.
That Mister Grey was a spy — a British spy — did not mean that he wasn't a blackmailer. On the contrary; I thought. Even a short and limited life's exposure to Society told me, that blackmail of one kind or another in our circles was always a threat, always a way for someone else to get what he wanted; money, position, advantage, whatever. In Mister Grey's case, it just meant that he would be acting for his own government, and that he wouldn't want money for it.
Assuming, of course, that blackmail, for some kind of advantage, was the game. Could he just be fishing for information — ?
I did not know. I knew nothing about the world of spies, or of spy-craft.
But I understood blackmail.
That Mister Grey was British, was not particularly reassuring. I did not think that it reduced the potential threat.
True, we had been close allies in the Great War … although we Americans had been even closer to the French. But, still. All that had been twenty years ago. The British had their vast Empire to maintain; and I had the distinct impression, after listening to Mister Nieuwenhuis and the others on board the boat, that the interests of the British Empire did not necessarily match the interests of the United States. The British were much closer to Japan than we were, for example …
Well. On the other hand — they could hardly be closer to the Japanese Government than Father's Bank appeared to be. Judging by the meetings I'd attended, myself.
Oh, God, I thought.
I wondered what Mister Grey's reaction would be, if I told him everything I knew.
I wondered if I should tell him.
I wondered whose side I should take …
"Oh … d'you mind — ? I won't be a moment."
"Of course not, sir."
He slipped into one of the canopied pavilions, and I followed. I was completely unsurprised to find that it had a full bar; he traded his half-full champagne flute for his usual, lime-decorated, gin-and-tonic. I traded my milk, for soda water; wishing that I liked milk better.
The food being laid out on the tables under the canopy was an odd mix. There were traditional English tea-cakes, and small, triangular egg-and-cress sandwiches, along with scones, and cream and jam; but there was also yet more dim-sum, in bamboo steamers, and there were fried egg rolls, and a dark, fragrant beef noodle soup, kept warm in a silver tureen suspended over a paraffin lamp —
I wondered how one was supposed to eat noodle soup, standing, with chopsticks, without spilling most of it down one's front.
"Ah," from Mister Grey; with a self-mocking air of relief. "That's better … the thing about champagne, even the very best of the stuff, is that it's so sweet … " He cocked a blond eyebrow at me.
"Yes, sir." I smiled to myself.
A pause. We emerged out into the sunlight, onto the fragrant grass.
"Say, you know … " His expression turned serious. "I haven't seen your father, about. I trust he's well, and in attendance — ?"
So I was not the only one who'd seen it.
"He's here, sir. He's in that group, over there by the colonnade." I'd been keeping an eye out for him, as we strolled. Of course.
"Ah." Mister Grey peered out, from under the brim of his fedora. "Yes, yes, I see him. Deep in conversation, naturally." He glanced sideways at me, briefly. "You know, Rhys, if you don't mind my asking — "
I probably do, I wanted to say; but didn't —
" — for someone who is acting as his father's confidential secretary, his homme de confiance — "
He used the French term, as Father had used it, in our first group meeting in Shanghai. It meant much more than 'secretary'; it meant, right-hand-man, or unconditionally trusted, indispensable man —
" — I don't seem to see you together, all that often, these days. I mean, one would think you would be part of that conversation, over there … ?"
I drew a breath; and I considered my response. I considered my responsibilities.
I looked over at Father.
"I'm sorry," from Mister Grey, contritely; after a moment. "Of course, it's none of my business; I was just curious. You both seemed inseparable, on the boat."
"That's all right, sir … The fact is, that Father keeps much of his business confidential, even from me. As is only proper; he is a very important man. And his business has become even more confidential, I gather, since we arrived here … I probably shouldn't say any more."
I breathed out, as we strolled on.
I had, I thought, given myself several possible openings. Several possible chess-moves.
I'd implied a breach — or the beginnings of a breach — between myself and Father. Which was real enough; but.
If, in the end, I discovered that Father — or his bank — was working too closely in concert with the German and Italian Fascists, and/or the Japanese, working too closely for my conscience to bear … Well. I'd laid the groundwork for revealing what I knew to Mister Grey. And by extension, to the British government.
I did not trust Mister Grey, or the British government … but I trusted them far more than I did Father's bank. I did not at all like what I'd heard in our meetings, at the Customs House.
But if, in the end, I found that Father's dealings were on the up-and-up, if I found that Father wasn't actually working against our country's interests … If that were the case, then I'd just positioned myself to give Mister Grey information; any information I chose, not just real or invented tidbits from Father's business meetings. Perhaps, even, misinformation, to throw him off-track …
It occurred to me, that I might not know anything about spy-craft; but that I might be picking it up, on the job.
Then it occurred to me, that Mister Grey might have anticipated all this; that he might be — probably was — far more experienced in the theory and practice of spy-craft, than me …
I shook my head.
"Well!" from Mister Grey, cheerfully. We strolled along, on the green grass, in the sunshine. The string quartet near Father launched into the 'Summer' part, of Vivaldi's 'The Four Seasons'. "I must say, your father's loss, in terms of your assistance today, is my gain … You are performing quite the invaluable service for me."
"Sir — ?" I blinked at him.
"Oh, yes … " An easy, sideways-smile, from Mister Grey, as we strolled. "You see, there seems to be an unwritten rule — or perhaps," he went on, looking thoughtful for a moment — "perhaps it is written down somewhere; who knows? Anyway; there seems to be a rule, that at social functions such as this, the hostess will pair up any unaccompanied, apparently-eligible, younger man — such as myself — with whatever apparently-eligible, even-remotely-suitable younger woman, however unwilling, as might be available." Another glance, and another sideways-smile. "And then, one is constrained to be amusing, and witty, and charming, and attentive, for ever so long … It can be quite tiresome; and it can be very difficult to extract one's self, in the end, short of absolute rudeness. No; no. Your welcome company is preserving me from such a dire fate."
It was a moment's glimpse into my own near future.
"I'm happy to oblige, sir."
"That's very kind of you … particularly since I also get to enjoy your presence, and your conversation, in the process. I infinitely prefer spending the time with you."
And with that, the fingers of his free hand brushed the back of mine, very briefly, and very discreetly —
I started. I actually shivered.
Another breathless, and electric, pause between us. It lasted several steps.
I had not found his touch unpleasant.
"Of course, in the larger world, one can call upon other resources, to help navigate such treacherous social waters," from Mister Grey, eventually; with another easy smile. "But that requires a degree of misdirection."
"Sir — ?" I managed to say it, evenly.
"I'm referring to my friend — 'friend' is in quotes, in this instance — Sylvie. Ah, ma petite Sylvie … " He was on the verge of laughter, now, as we strolled along, slowly. "She is very young, and a little wild, and she is very fond of me, indeed … She lives in Paris; a true gamin, a child of the streets. She is completely fictitious, of course."
"Ah. I see, sir."
An amused look from him. "Do you — ? Yes; yes, I expect you've been thinking ahead … Well; I've invested quite a bit of time and energy in Sylvie, believe me. As I said, she is young; she is brown-eyed, and short-haired, and actually a bit boyish; I permit myself that much, at least, although one must be careful in such things … and being French, of course, she is prone to displays of jealousy, and passion." The corner of his mouth quirked up; the smile-crinkles appeared, at the edge of his eye. "When I was living in Town — in London, I mean — ma petite Sylvie was a very convenient excuse for me to go nipping across the Channel, to Paris, at short notice. And for avoiding the odd disagreeable social engagement. And, for avoiding entanglements, in general … I found it all quite convenient."
"I imagine so, sir."
An unreal moment. A surreal moment. Me, having a conversation — however elliptical — about the practical aspects of homosexual life, with an adult man.
"But alas, all good things come to an end, at last … I have been away from home so long, I fear ma petite Sylvie's usefulness as a cover story is close to a natural end … I wonder; should I have her married off to the butcher's son — ? Or, perhaps, tragically, she will return to the disreputable bordello in the Place Pigalle in which — it is rumored — I originally found her — ?"
I'd recovered my poise, by this point.
"Oh, I don't know, sir … You and she could remain together. You could always keep in touch by mail. You could even keep a cache of letters, that she's sent you, available for other people to perhaps accidentally read. Have you given that a thought — ?"
He actually almost broke stride; and his head went down, and the laughter that had been just beneath the surface all along, almost bubbled up. I could tell.
When he recovered, he glanced at me, smiling.
"Do you know — up until this very moment, it had never occurred to me … What a splendid idea!" The laughter-lines crinkled, again, at the edges of his eyes. "But, you know, on second thought … " He changed his expression, to one of comic, exaggerated, reflection — "On second thought, I can see a few practical difficulties, in the execution of such a plan … Yes, yes; just a few. Why, the cost of the stamps alone would be astonishing! And then, one would need to arrange for the postmarks, which would be tedious … Plus, one would need the different inks, the different writing-paper, and all the little extra enclosures that lovers will send each other … "
He at least had the grace to glance away for a moment, with this last — although I could still see the smile on the side of his face —
"No; no. On due consideration, I'm afraid I can't really see it working … And then, there's the fact that my handwriting is simply rotten, so I'd have to hire someone to copy out all the letters for me, in a feminine hand, which would be awkward … But then, of course, all of that pales, next to the biggest problem of them all."
He glanced at me, smiling, expectant.
"Sir — ?"
A pause. More smiling, near-laughter on his part.
"To be worth all the effort — well, someone would have to read the damn things. And in the end, who would be so ungentlemanly, as to read another chap's love-letters, his billets-doux — ? What a low thing to do. Don't you think?" A sideways-cast of his eyes, at me. "Why, it beggars the imagination!"
I just looked at him, as he smiled over at me; laughing at himself, at me, at our whole situation, at the world.
I wondered how long I was supposed to have known, really known, that he was a spy.
I wondered if I was just slow; or if I'd just been out-played, all along, as in a game of chess …
And I couldn't help but wonder, what Father knew. And hadn't told me.
* * *
Our conversation turned more general, then, for awhile, as we wandered the gardens. We veered away from dangerous subjects; at least for the moment.
But the mutual awareness of the game we were playing, remained.
He actually told me a little, about himself, his background. A younger son in a good family, with a distant connection to a minor peerage. His father a Barrister, a K.C., with rooms at Lincoln's Inn, in London; one brother lost in the Great War, another who looked set to follow his father's path, into law. He, himself, something of a black sheep, he implied, as younger sons who will never inherit, so often can be …
I wondered how much of it was true. The important parts, I thought, anyway; Mister Grey moved in social circles, after all, and most of what he told me would have been well-known, and easy to check.
When he'd described his family as 'good people', I'd almost shivered, again. It was exactly the phrase Jack used, about his own family, back home.
I wished, very strongly, that Jack was by my side, right then. With his quickness, and his charm, and his patrician's background, and grace — he'd be much better at handling Mister Grey than I.
I missed Jack, acutely. A month and more away from him, and I still missed him acutely; more, even, I thought, than I had at first. In a way, it was perversely reassuring.
I told Mister Grey the bones of my own story, in return; the parts I hadn't related, on board the ship. I told him about my school — it was no use my being coy about it; he, or Mister Sayles, had read the address in Jack's letters to me, after all — and then, I told him about my old school, the School In The Sky in Switzerland, and as it turned out, he knew someone who'd gone there, before my time …
And that in turn led to a story from him about Eton, about an experience he'd had, there, and it made me laugh …
The Game resumed; soon enough.
"Oh, dear," from Mister Grey, as we rounded a corner of the villa. He stopped short.
"What — ? Oh … "
The day had grown warmer still, although cottony clouds still drifted across the sky, bringing occasional shadows. Along the way, we had acquired small plates, with the little sandwiches, and cakes, and other bites of food. Mister Grey looked quite amusing, standing still and alarmed, with a drink in one hand and a food plate in another …
Directly before us was a group of uniformed bagpipers, complete with kilts and tartans; the sun glittered on their buttons and uniform insignia, and on the metal fittings of their instruments. They were clearly getting ready to play; their instruments were at the ready, and their band-master had his arms in the air. On the bass drum, I could see a design, and the legend, 'Seaforth Highlanders'.
"Perhaps," from Mister Grey, "if we back away very slowly, not allowing them to see the fear in our eyes … "
The band-master brought his arms down, and the preliminary, background-hum of the pipes began. I found it stirring.
I looked sideways at Mister Grey, with a smile. "You don't like the pipes, sir — ?"
"You do?" he asked me, in honest surprise.
The pipers broke into full play, a rousing, complicated piece I didn't recognize; and with a shout from the band-master, they began a perfectly co-ordinated march, up towards our section of the lawn. Many of the guests began to applaud; I would have, if my hands hadn't been full. I thought it was beautiful.
We got out of the way, hastily, and watched the pipers march by, their pipes skirling. When they'd gotten past, Mister Grey looked over at me, quizzically.
"You did enjoy that. May I ask, are you part Scots, at all — ?"
"No, sir." I smiled at the retreating pipers. "But I am Welsh; on my mother's, mother's side, at least. Grandmother's maiden name was Llewelyn."
"Ah," from Mister Grey. "Ah." Looking away at the retreating pipers, he smiled, slightly. "That explains it."
"Sir — ?" I looked at him, sideways.
"Those devastating green eyes of yours, that could break the heart of any sensible man of our kind … " A pause, from him. "Now, now; you're really going to have to do something, about your tendency to blush; especially over things that are true. I'm sure those eyes of yours have broken more hearts than you know. You should be quite careful, how you use them."
That laughter again, just below the surface of his words …
* * *
It was a major relief, when Tom and his family arrived.
"Hello, Grey!" from Mister Fletcher, cheerfully, as they strode up.
"Hello, Fletcher! Mrs. Fletcher," from Mister Grey, with a tip of his hat. Then, with a certain twinkle in his eye; "Tom. And Master Eugene."
"Ta! Ta — Ba!"
Mickey was riding on Tom's shoulders — Tom hanging on to his brother's legs, for dear life — and he was enthusiastically batting his open hands down on the top of Tom's head. His smile was open-mouthed, beaming; evidently he approved of the garden party, or of his mode of transportation, or both.
"Now, now, little one," from Mrs. Castillo — their very large, Filipino amah — and she carefully lifted Mickey up and off of Tom's shoulders, and swung him gently down to the grass, and kissed him —
"Ta! Ta!" from Mickey, in disappointment.
"Maybe later, little brother," from Tom; as he rubbed the top of his head, a little. "If you behave yourself." He put his cap back on.
"Ta — !"
"Hi," from me, to Tom; and our eyes met, and there was a certain electricity between us — he was, as I said, to spend the night with me, after the Coronation celebrations —
"Hi," from Tom, his eyes locked on mine —
"So, Grey," from Mister Fletcher; still cheerfully. "Any word yet, about your next expedition into the countryside — ? I'm scheduled to go off in about another week; although the Consulate hasn't decided exactly where, yet. I just know it's to the south-west."
"Do you know," from Mister Grey, thoughtfully, "I haven't heard a word from the Front Office, not a single word, it's really quite extraordinary … "
The conversation went on. I looked down at Tom, as he leaned down and made a face at Mickey, who laughed, and I knew that Mister Grey's 'Front Office' was actually in Whitehall, the seat of the British Government —
And I was not going to tell Tom.
Secrets, I thought; despairingly. Always secrets.
I shook my head, and tried to return to my happy mood of a moment before.
* * *
Tom's presence made the rest of the afternoon pass much more enjoyably.
We roamed the gardens, together, much as Mister Grey and I had down; but with Tom, I didn't feel the sense of danger, of imminent, hidden danger, as I'd felt with Mister Grey …
Although, in retrospect, I had to admit; Mister Grey had been amusing, and really quite disarming. His story about his imaginary love-interest Sylvie was, I thought, meant to be both funny, and something of a helpful hint, passed along to me, for my benefit …
It was still like walking, side-by-side, with a sleek, and hungry panther.
I would need to think about it all later.
In the meantime Tom and I wandered, just the two of us. We sampled the egg-and-cress sandwiches, and the tea-cakes, and the dumplings together; the sandwiches, I thought all over again, were surprisingly good. We watched the Seaforth Highlanders march by twice more, magnificent in their tartans, their bagpipes wailing; the only song I recognized was, 'Scotland the Brave'. We managed to stay at a fair distance, when Sir Hughe delivered 'a few suitable remarks'; followed by the Chairman of the Shanghai Municipal Council —
The whole time, I kept an eye out for Father. He remained in discussion with his fellow businessmen; I began to wonder if he did so, as a way to more-or-less politely isolate himself from the rest of us.
Finally, eventually, events began moving towards a climax, of sorts. Waiters began circulating through the crowd, with trays upon trays of full champagne-flutes; Tom and I were each given a glass, without a moment's hesitation.
Tom looked at me.
"I expect there's a toast coming up," I said, smiling.
"Oh … "
I was right.
Within just a few more minutes, after the champagne-flutes had all been distributed, a large man in a blue, gold-braided uniform — I had no idea which Service he was from — appeared on the dais, holding a champagne-flute of his own. The crowd grew quiet; there were a few isolated calls of 'Pray silence,' 'Pray silence' …
The man in uniform raised his glass. The quiet became near-total.
"My Lords, and Ladies," he began, in a booming voice; "Excellencies, gentlemen, and distinguished guests, friends from countries throughout the world:"
He paused, and lifted his glass higher still —
"On this, their Coronation Day, I give you the toast of Their Imperial and Royal Majesties, King George and Queen Elizabeth!"
Glasses were lifted, and clinked together, and drunk from; there were a great many calls of, 'The King!', 'The King!'
Tom almost, but didn't quite, choke on his sip of champagne; the bubbles, I knew from experience, will do that, if you're not used to it. Champagne is not like Coca-Cola.
From off to one side of the dais, a second booming voice called out:
"Three cheers for His Majesty! Hip, Hip … "
The cheers were duly, even enthusiastically, given, and the moment the last one died away, the Seaforth Highlanders — now armed with ordinary band-instruments, rather than their pipes — broke into a familiar tune. A large segment of the crowd began to sing:
'God save our gracious King, Long live our noble King, God save the King … '
Tom's eyes snapped to mine.
"That's 'My Country 'Tis of Thee'!" he said, in a low voice.
"Yes," I said; looking out at the crowd, enjoying the spectacle, the warmth, the good-feelings, and perhaps the champagne. I glanced at him, sideways. "We stole the tune." I said it, drily.
Tom looked around, a little uncertainly; he moved his champagne-flute to his left hand, and his right hand made a move, as if to go over his heart —
"I don't know the words — !" from him, in a worried whisper.
"That's all right," I told him, with another smile. "It's not our national anthem, and he's not our King … we just stand respectfully, with our caps off, until it's over. But it's okay to cheer at the end, if you feel like it."
We both did.
* * *
Not so long afterwards, Tom and I were back with our families, at the south end of the garden.
'Families', plural; Father had broken away from his business acquaintances, at last, and was now in conversation with Mister Fletcher; I thought Father looked rather uncomfortable. Tom was carefully swinging Mickey around in wide circles, just off the ground, holding him by his wrists; Mickey was understandably shrieking with delight. Mrs. Fletcher was talking closely with Mrs. Castillo —
Mister Grey was back by my side.
"And so, if one may ask such a dangerous question … How do you find this ostentatious display of Imperial celebration — ? Mind you, I think it's been well-done, here; they haven't stinted on the food, or the drink … "
Perhaps inevitably, he had another short, dew-beaded, lime-garnished glass, in his hand.
"But one always wonders, how such things are perceived by friends, from other countries — ? There's always the danger, I think of being considered — well, I don't know. A bit self-congratulatory, perhaps — ?"
The very physical sense, of his closeness to me; the scent of tobacco, and of after-shave, and of lime. The scent of him.
The memory of the intimacy we'd just shared; the story of his life, the story of my own life … the conundrum of his 'petite Sylvie' …
His smiles. His gestures.
"Taaaa — ah — !" from Mickey, ecstatically; as Tom lowered him gently to the grass. "Taaaaa — ahhhh!"
The knowledge, thanks to Jack, that he was in fact a British spy …
"Oh, I don't know, sir," I said; echoing him. Looking out over the green lawn, the pavilions, the well-dressed guests. "I wouldn't say all of this is self-congratulatory, exactly; I'd have said it's a nice party. I have a feeling, that you — the British, I mean — like to find excuses to have parties."
"That is extremely diplomatic of you," from him, with a smile; "and quite disarmingly accurate, when it comes to Royal occasions … Speaking of which; may I ask, are you planning to go to tonight's festivities, at the Racetrack — ? It is supposed to be quite the show … "
A pause, while I considered my answer.
"I believe Tom and I might go, sir; for a little while. We're to be accompanied by a person from Father's bank."
A silence then; which should have been filled with a polite invitation, from me, for him to join us. I did not extend it.
"Well; perhaps I'll see you there," from him Mister Grey, a little lazily, and I had the impression that he was trying not to laugh. "I promised to accompany old Sayles to the doings … and I sincerely doubt you'd care to spend any time with us, under the circumstances. I wouldn't blame you. But, bless the old thing, he wouldn't miss an opportunity to display his patriotic fervor, not to save his soul … But, say," he said, starting a little, and looking off to the right — "What have we here — ?"
A — disturbance — of sorts, rippled through the crowd, on the lawn.
The disturbance — and it was a very discreet, polite disturbance, of turned heads and muffled exclamations — came closer; and I recognized Miss Deirdre Lloyd, on the arm of Mister Kaufman.
I watched, fascinated, as they made their way towards Sir Hughe and Lady Hughe, and the rest of the official British delegation …
It was an entrance.
Miss Lloyd was dazzlingly dressed, in a light, form-fitting, off-white dress, that she could easily have worn in one of her films; her hat was elegant, and extremely broad-brimmed, and one edge curved gracefully downward over one eye …
But the overall effect was due to far more than just her elegant clothing.
It was, as I said, an entrance.
Miss Lloyd was perfectly, exquisitely poised; every step, every movement was imbued with languid grace … she made the mere act of walking, on a man's arm, a thing of beauty. It was a bravura performance; every man's eyes were on her, and she clearly knew it …
"Oh, my," from Mister Grey, at my side. "Oh, my goodness … she is beautiful." He spoke it in an almost reverent undertone, pitched for my ears, only. "One could almost wish … " he paused, for a long moment, as we watched the procession. "But in the end, one doesn't wish. At least, I don't. Do you — ?" He turned to me, suddenly.
I knew what he was asking. It was the age-old question, for our kind, for the members of our tribe; if you could change, if you could magically become heterosexual — would you — ?
Do you wish you were straight — ?
"That is an extremely personal question, sir." I matched his undertone with my own.
"Yes, it certainly is. Do you — ?" That well-bred, careless amusement, back in his voice.
I watched Miss Lloyd, as she greeted Sir Hughe; he actually bowed over her gloved hand.
She was beautiful; she was the epitome of womanhood, of beauty, and femininity, and desire, all rolled up as one. Harris, back home, would have melted into a warm puddle, just from being even this close to her.
"No sir," I said; very softly. "Not for a splintered second."
Two short puffs from Mister Grey, beside me, breaths of quiet laughter.
"Good lad." The lightest of touches, on my shoulder, making me shiver, very slightly, again …
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