China Boat

Chapter 56

Monday, May 24th, 1937
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China

. . . of these are from the Hongkew neighborhood; it is the slightly-wilder district, north of the Garden Bridge, and Soochow Creek. (I've been spending some time there, on Father's business, recently.)

I've actually written the date and location on the back of each photo; you could locate each one on the map I sent you, if you weren't bored to tears at the very idea. They are, for the most part, just ordinary street-scenes; but I'm still dedicated to the idea of showing you what I'm seeing, taking you along for the ride … and, these are all fairly representative of the place.

The tall young gentleman in several of the shots is Mister Chen, my Comprador; I've told you about him, before. He suffered through these portraits, although he does not let himself show it; he usually dresses much more nicely than this! But, apparently, it is wiser to dress down, when bicycling through the Hongkew, just as it is, when traveling through certain parts of New York City … 

I wondered how long it would be, before we were together, and I could tell him about Monsieur Simonov. What I knew about him, that is. And the real reasons for our disguise.

The thought made me feel a little hollow, inside.

Well, by the time this reaches you, old man, it will be about end-of-term.

It is very odd, being so far away, for the event. I miss you, and Charles, and all of our friends, very much. I miss talking about our summertime plans; I miss the excitement, the packing, the feelings of it all — 

(I do not miss the final examinations, though! Far from it. Still; I know you will do — or have done, by the time you read this — just fine. As I said in my wire, that little bit of Greek translation you sent me, was just about perfect … )

Still. I'd even sit for final exams, for the chance to be home, again.

'Home, again; with you', I could not openly write.

As usual, I had to be more constrained in my letters to him, because they would inevitably be passed around among our friends.

But that pointed out one good thing, about the coming end-of-term.

Two good things, actually. First was the prospect of increased privacy, in my ordinary, everyday letters to Jack; I really longed to tell him so much more about my doings, and feelings, especially as they pertained to him … 

And, maybe more importantly, or more practically — Jack had got a mail-drop, in the village by his place in the Hudson Valley. A private one. Reading between the lines of his letter, the business-owner obviously assumed it was for the receiving of illicit love-letters … which, after all, wasn't so far off.

I could send him truly private letters; the kind I could not send, even to his home.

I could stay in touch with him, if I had to run.

It was an enormous weight, off of my mind.

For my own part, J, nothing much has changed. There's no sign of Father wrapping up his business here, terribly soon; but on the other hand, there is no sign of him wanting to settle in for a more protracted stay, and that's a very good thing.

The staff here at the Cathay have gotten to know my tastes, pretty well; in the mornings I get hot, French-style espresso coffee and a croissant, and two newspapers, all delivered to my room, without my asking. And there aren't any morning prayers to sit through, first!

Father and I are getting along, just as well as always … 

Jack would know exactly what that meant; and it would worry him. But there was no helping it.

 … and I am bombarding Grandfather and Grandmother with almost as many photographs, as I am sending you. But they're getting the more conventional ones, of the Old City, and the Bund, and suchlike; rather than the food-stalls on the street, and the scandalous flower-rickshaws, and the exterior of the night-club where we had our adventure. I can hardly wait to tell you the full story, old man; it isn't something that can be safely written down. It was memorable!

But for all that, this rather forlorn, Shanghai Branch of the Colonials, wishes he was back at school, with you. I daydream, often, about walking the pathways of Oakley Commons, with you … 

* * *

Tuesday, May 25th, 1937
2:45 p.m.
The Customs House
The Bund
Shanghai, China

I looked down at my hands, clasped uselessly on top of the blotting-pad.

"The reaction," said the sleekly-elegant Mister Hashiwara, "of your Bank's management … is encouraging. As far as it goes. But I will not hide from you, sir, that we had hoped for somewhat more, shall we say, specificity."

The four of us, again, in the beautifully-paneled and beautifully-painted conference room; Mister Hashiwara, Mister Sato, Father, and me.

Perhaps talking treason. It certainly was skating close to the line.

Father returned Mister Hashiwara's gaze, levelly.

"You will understand, I hope, sir, that they are reacting to the general sense of our previous conversations, as I have transmitted them. A general sense. There are some details to your proposals which are too — sensitive — to transmit, even in code. At least, not without the cryptographic resources available to a national government."

Full stop. A rather fraught stop.

"You might," said Mister Hashiwara, at last, "be surprised … Still. I must say, I find this a rather disappointing development. We are anxious to have an agreement in principle, followed by arrangements made in detail, as soon as feasible. The international situation, particularly in the North of China, is quite tense."

I remembered Father's words, concerning the Japanese troops increasingly tightening their footholds around Peking. I remembered the many Incidents which had come to rule the nature of Sino-Japanese relations.

"That is certainly understandable, on your part," from Father; with, — and I was surprised, at the thought — perhaps the barest hint of irony — ? "In the event," he went on, "I have taken steps to ensure that the appropriate officers of my Bank are briefed thoroughly, verbally, and at the very earliest opportunity."

"Do you return to New York, then, to conduct this briefing — ?" from Mister Hashiwara; politely. Smoothly. Pointedly.

My heart leaped. I could not help it. The words came with an almost physical shock.

"No," from Father. His pale, and rather drawn face, was expressionless. "No, I have arranged for an officer of my Bank — we shall not name him, for obvious reasons — to come here, for consultations. He is flying, on the Clipper; and that in itself is an indication of the seriousness with which we take your proposal. Senior officers of my Bank are not ordinarily permitted to fly. He has already started out; he will arrive in three days."

My heart thudded back to earth. Painfully.

"Three days," from Mister Hashiwara; musingly. "Three days … That is good. That is most impressive. Are we to meet this, unnamed official, then — ?"

"That is at your discretion, sir. I asked for him to come, so that I might brief him myself, and have him return to New York at the earliest opportunity. But it might be — profitable — for you to meet him, while he is here. If you are so inclined, at any rate — "

"I believe we are," interrupted Mister Hashiwara; evenly.

A pause, from Father.

"Very well," from Father. "Very well. May I suggest some time, on or after the second or third of June — ? That would allow my associate a short time to rest, and a short time to become acquainted with the issues in question … "


A discussion of dates, and meeting-times, then. I should have followed. I half-listened.

I thought, instead, about the implications of what I'd just heard. That Father was too central, too important, to whatever was going on, to return to New York anytime soon; not for some weeks, anyway … 

That the arrangements he was negotiating were too sensitive to be written out. Even in the double-code we were using … 

That those 'arrangements' were, or could be, illegal.

In my mind, I touched again the two new false passports I'd gotten from Monsieur Simonov; the passports, the residence cards, and the transit visas. I remembered how I'd felt, looking at them in my hands, touching them, with all the possibilities they represented — 


"If I may say so," from Father, at last; into a short silence. "Your … position … regarding an early resolution, to our arrangements — raises some questions."

He spoke evenly, and smoothly. But he is my father. I could hear a certain — tension — behind his words.

Nothing from the sleek Mister Hashiwara, for a moment. Then — 

"How so, sir — ?"

A pause from Father.

"In our conversations up to this point, we have been speaking cautiously, and somewhat elliptically. You will forgive me, now, if I am somewhat blunt — ?"

A slow nod, from Mister Hashiwara's sleekly-barbered head.

"Very well." Father took a breath. "What you are proposing, is an ongoing business relationship between the Bank I represent, and your country — "

The barest flicker of reaction, on Mister Hashiwara's face. 'Your country … '

" — which needs to be kept strictly confidential. The existence of this relationship will need to be able to withstand the scrutiny of bank examiners in the United States and, most probably, Europe, due to the likelihood of sanctions being levied against Japan, following Japanese military adventures."

Full stop. Dead silence.

At last, Mister Hashiwara nodded, once again. Mister Sato looked scared.

"You correctly note, that my Bank has constructed such relationships in the past."

Father's voice was even, and remorseless.

"However. Were you German, or Austrian, you would know that establishing such things takes time. Time to negotiate with the necessary intermediary banks, and to establish trust; time to lay down a consistent pattern of transactions, sufficient to mask the true nature of the business being conducted … "

Oh, Father, I thought. Oh, Father, no.

I felt a lurching feeling, in the pit of my stomach, as if I was falling.

"So. It becomes necessary to ask — how much time do we have, to effect these arrangements — ? Or to be more blunt still — when do you see the next military Incidents taking place? And, will such Incidents be confined to China, proper?"

Oh, Father.

I looked down at my hands, for a long moment. I could not bear to look sideways at Father. Then I forced myself to look up.

Mister Hashiwara's face was completely still, completely impassive; his head was just slightly tilted, as he regarded Father. Considering his response, at length; as powerful men will do, before saying anything.

At last, he stirred.

"I do not speak for my government," he said, in his excellent French. "At least, not in this time and place."

I saw Father nod, out of the corner of my eye.

"You will understand, that what I am about to tell you is strictly confidential. Were it to become known that I have spoken openly of such matters … Well. I would very likely be assassinated. In very short order. Even sooner, than I expect to be."

A pause. I saw Mister Hashiwara's eyes flick to mine, quickly, before returning to Father's.

"I understand, sir," from Father. Evenly.

"You will be aware, I presume, of the influence of the Army, and of the Navy, in the Cabinet — ? The approval of both Services is constitutionally required for any Government; the withdrawal of support from either the Army or Navy Ministers would immediately bring down the Government, and trigger a crisis. Unrest, at best, would ensue. Conceivably, a coup d'état, promulgated by the Army could take place."

A short silence.

"I had heard … something of the sort, sir."

Mister Nieuwenhuis had said something along those lines, back on the President Hoover. It seemed like a year ago.

Mister Hashiwara regarded Father, with sleek composure.

"I am told, by … friends, in Government … that the Army is in complete, or nearly-complete ascendancy just now, in the Cabinet. By employing threats to resign, they have acquired a great deal of power over foreign policy. Near-total power, is how it has been described. And," he went on, simply, "the Army is bent on war. As a matter of economic necessity; as a fulfillment of national destiny."

Silence, for a long moment.

"In China, I presume — ?" from Father, quietly.

"To begin with."

Still that falling feeling, in the pit of my stomach.

"Are there no — moderating influences — in the Government?"

Astonishingly enough, Mister Hashiwara smiled, very slightly. Without humor, I thought.

"'Moderating influences'? Eh bien, yes, certainly. The civilian Ministers, almost without exception. Their 'influence' is quite limited. The true moderating influence is the Navy; they do not wish for war, as a matter of principle. Or perhaps, it is that they do not wish for war, just yet; or, a combination of the two. The Navy is an inherently more conservative, and Western-looking service; the Army is decidedly, not. In any case," he went on, "the Navy is the only reason why Japan is not at war, today."

A pause, for a moment, then.

"And yet," from Father, "their moderating influence is — insufficient."

Mister Hashiwara regarded Father.

"We currently have over seventy-five thousand troops in Manchukuo, and in China. That number is rising, rapidly. The Army has, virtually, a free hand, in how they are employed … the Navy has very little influence, over dry land." This last, came out with a certain irony. "I will be honest with you, sir; I have expected another Incident, before now. It is the view of … many of us … that renewed conflict is inevitable, before the onset of winter weather."

Silence, for a fraught few seconds.

"I thank you for your honesty, sir … In the same spirit, may I make an observation — ?"

Mister Hashiwara inclined his sleek head, again. It was an aristocratic gesture, that seemed natural to him.

Father went on.

"Briefly put … a new Incident, in China, will produce hard feelings in Washington, and London, and Paris; but the resulting sanctions are liable to be relatively minimal. This, at least, is the view of my Bank."

He paused.

"That … is to be hoped," from Mister Hashiwara.

"And yet, a Japanese adventure in any place outside of Chinese control would, I must tell you, be explosive. An aggression against British, or French, or Dutch, or American territory, or interests, risks regional war with those Powers. Sanctions — in Finance, and in every other sphere of business — would likely come immediately, and be very difficult to circumvent. This, too, is the considered opinion of my Bank. And yet, from your hints, such an adventure does not seem out of the question. Am I mistaken — ?"

I held my breath. This seemed extraordinarily blunt. But at the same time, my feelings were still whirling, blackly — 

Oh, Father; I thought.

Mister Hashiwara looked at Father for some seconds; and for the first time, I thought I could detect some — distaste — in his expression.

"Territories. Interests. Possessions." He paused, and shook his head, slightly. "Tell me, sir. Has it never struck you, as perhaps a little odd, that so many European powers might have territories in places so close to Japan, when the Japanese Empire might have no territories in Europe? Or in North America, for that matter — ?"

"And what do you call Formosa? Or Korea? Or Manchukuo, for that matter — ?" said Father, quietly. "Are they not your possessions — ?"

"I would call them Asian, sir. And perhaps within Japan's natural sphere of influence. Is it really so strange, that Japan might feel it her ultimate destiny to lead Asia into the future — ? It was not so very long ago, after all, that your concept of Manifest Destiny made your country a truly Continental power. Why, there are still some people alive today — very old, admittedly, but still alive — who were born when your California was a province of Mexico."

Mister Hashiwara caught himself, then, for a second; and then, after a pause, he shrugged.

"Still. Ideology aside … there are practical aspects, to our need for expansion. The core of our Empire, the home of our race, is in the Home Islands. We are an island race; and our security, our existence, depends in the end upon our Navy. We have a very fine, a very powerful Navy, the third-most powerful in the world … by some measures, perhaps the second — 

His eyes lingered upon Father's, meaningfully — 

" — and every ton of iron ore, to build it and maintain it, must come from somewhere else. Much worse, every drop of oil to fuel it, must be purchased abroad; usually from other Powers, whose interests may be completely opposed to our own. Our security is absolutely dependent upon the willingness of others, to sell us oil, at a price they set. Can you think of any other Great Power, that would tolerate such a situation — ?"

I thought again of Mister Nieuwenhuis, and his family, in Batavia. I thought of Mister Damkot, who intended to stay with his oil-fields, to the end.

"And yet," from Father, after a moment's pause: "The solution to your dilemma would seem to suggest war with these other Great Powers. Are you indeed prepared to go so far? And, to return to my point, is this the contingency against which we must prepare, now, with our — special — financial arrangements — ?"

Another, fraught, moment. And then, beyond all expectation, Mister Hashiwara's face relaxed. He actually gave out a small puff, of cynical laughter.

"Am I prepared, to go to war — ? Am I prepared? Certainly not. I am of the faction urging peace; I speak out on it, frequently, and I expect to be assassinated for my pains, sooner rather than later. I hope to make it a noteworthy death; I am from a family of soldiers and warriors, and I do not propose to go meekly to my slaughter … But, forgive me. I take the point of your question."

He paused, to regard Father for a moment.

"The answer to your question, is, Japan will not, in my view, launch a war with the West, anytime soon. No. We do not wish to pit our Navy, fine as it is, against the two largest Navies in the world, yours and the British, combined … No." He paused. "We will, instead, wait until a new War breaks out in Europe, another Great War, to distract the European Powers, and the United States. We will wait; and then we will act."

Silence, in the room, for a moment. Mister Sato was white-faced. I felt the hairs standing up, on the back of my neck.

"You are of the faction of peace," from Father; quietly, and perhaps, a little regretfully, I thought. "Is there no avoiding … what is to come — ?"

"Perhaps. If there is no European war … Do you think that, likely — ?"

Father did not answer, for some moments. Then — 

"My country, the United States, has no colonies, no possessions in Asia. We have only the Philippines; but it is a Commonwealth, and it will be a fully sovereign and independent country by 1946. We do not wish to have colonies; only trade." He paused. "Can war not be avoided between our two countries, at least — ? Can the Philippines be spared, at least — ?"

The sleek and powerful man regarded Father in silence, for some seconds.

"1946." He paused. "I do not think we have that long. Do you — ?"

* * *


Don't say a word.


Down, out of the Customs House; then, North along the Bund, the short walk back to the Cathay. The sky, overcast and threatening; the heat, wet and oppressive. The sights, the smells, the sounds all familiar, now; the food-seller with his tiny, portable stall, and his tiny stove, across the Bund, next to the Whangpoo, the cars and trams and rickshaws rushing along, the crowds — 


Don't be an idiot, I told myself. Don't say a word. The important thing, is to get home. You can, perhaps, tell someone, then. Grandfather; he would know what to do … 

And if you don't get home for three more months — ? Five more months — ? If you have to go on the run, to Paris, first — ?


Past the North China Daily News building; the crowds on the sidewalk a mixture of Caucasian Westerners, Chinese in Western clothes, Chinese in silk … 

My shirt, under my coat, was soaked beneath the armpits. And not just due to the heat.

On my last visit to Mister Simonov, I'd wanted to ask him to run up a dozen light shirts for me; but I'd lost my nerve. But then — after he'd handed me my beautifully-manufactured passports, and transit visas, and residence cards — he'd suggested it, calmly, himself. I'd agreed, gratefully; and they should, I knew, be waiting for me, at Mister Chen's relative's store, by now — 


Is it possible to be a collaborator, with a country with which one is not yet at war — ?


Is it possible to commit treason, in peacetime — ?


Oh, Father, I thought.


Through the lobby doors of the Cathay, into the cool air-conditioning, and the cool, echoing marble.

"Good afternoon, Mister Williamson," from the desk-clerk, as he retrieved our room keys. "Mister Williamson," to me, as he slid me mine. Then, a look back at the message-cubbyholes. "No mail, sir," he said to Father. He knew better than to address me; my bribe still held.

Into the elevator. The elevator operators all knew us, by now.

"Good afternoon, sir. Sirs. Your rooms — ?"

"Yes, please."


Don't be a fool, I told myself again.

Don't be an idiot. Don't say a word.


Up, on our floor. Along the crystal-lit opulence, and into Father's room, for his customary parting instructions.

"Please draw up your notes, at once," he said; looking pale and ill. "I shall be dining in my room, tonight; but I would like to meet — "


"Father," I interrupted. "What are we doing, here — ?"


It just came out of me. It was as if I had no control over it. I could hear the thickness, in my voice. The tears, just below the surface.

Father stopped short, and stared at me; mouth a little open, eyes wide, in his pale, sick-man's face.


"Father. What are you doing, here — ?"


Dead silence.

Father stood, frozen, staring back at me.

I thought about all of my preparations. The bundled cash, in my room. The Letter of Credit and the passports — all three of them — in my safe-deposit box, in the Netherlands Savings Trust, downstairs.

I thought about running. Now.


At last, Father broke his gaze. He exhaled, heavily, and looked blankly off into the middle distance — 

And then, after a long moment, without a word, without a single look at me, he set his slender, soft-sided leather attaché-case down, gently, on the desk in front of him; the attaché-case, which was as much a part of him, as my book-bag was to me … 

He opened it, and spread it out, flat. Then he took his pen-knife from his pocket, and opened that; and then, with great care, slowly and deliberately, he began cutting at the stitching of one of the interior panels, cutting stitch, after stitch, after stitch — 

It was my turn to stare. His attaché-case was a gift from Mother; very-much-repaired, and lovingly maintained, over the years. It was like watching him cutting into his own heart.

At last, one side of the panel was free; and Father gently pried it open, and withdrew a very thin packet, a little larger than an unfolded sheet of paper, wrapped in some silken material that looked waterproof. He removed the wrapping. Inside was a portfolio, looking very much like the portfolio housing my own Letter of Credit … 

He opened the portfolio, and glanced at it. Then he closed it, and — wordlessly, expressionlessly — passed it to me.

I gaped at him, for several seconds. He said nothing. He glanced down at the portfolio in my hands.

I opened it, and began reading.

Inside the left-hand leaf, secured with corner-tabs, a letter. It was typed on heavy, watermarked bond. At the top of the letter, an elaborate, raised seal; below that, in raised, embossed letters:

The Department Of State
United States Of America
Office Of The Secretary Of State

March 25, 1937

This letter will introduce Mr. Piers Laurent Williamson, an American citizen, of New York and Connecticut, who will be performing several important and confidential services on behalf of the Secretary of State, and the President of The United States.

All United States Embassies, Legations and Consulates, and all Diplomatic Staff and Foreign Service Officers are hereby requested to afford Mister Williamson and his party all possible aid, assistance, and consideration in the execution of his charge. Mister Williamson has been told that the good offices of the State Department are, for all intents and purposes, at his disposal, for the duration of his undertaking.

The nature of Mister Williamson's services are held to be highly confidential and diplomatically sensitive. Any and all necessary communications regarding his activities are to be sent directly to the Office of the Secretary of State, by sealed diplomatic pouch. In the event of urgent need, cables may be sent to the same address, via use of appropriate diplomatic cipher.

With thanks in advance for your co-operation in this matter,

I remain,

Secretary of State

Shock. A feeling of profound shock.

And then, I turned to the letter on the facing leaf of the portfolio.

This, too, was on heavy, watermarked bond. It lacked the raised seal, at the top of the page; but the embossed words, were enough.


March 26, 1937


1) The bearer of this document, PIERS LAURENT WILLIAMSON, is fulfilling a private commission given to him by the SECRETARY OF STATE and the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

2) The Commanding Officers of all Army and Navy installations in East Asia and all Naval vessels in the Asiatic Fleet are directed to provide Mr. WILLIAMSON and his party with all possible aid and assistance, including but not limited to, accommodation, provision, protection, information, access to intelligence, and assistance with communications.

3) All reasonable and feasible requests for transportation, made by him, are to be honored immediately.

4) This matter is considered to be classified as SECRET.

5) Any communications regarding Mr. WILLIAMSON are to be made in appropriate code or cipher, directly to the office of the Secretary of War or the Secretary of the Navy, as appropriate, AND simultaneously to the Office of the President.


Secretary of War

Secretary of the Navy

President of the United States

cc: Cordell Hull

I goggled at this last signature. It was in blue-black ink; the 't' in 'Roosevelt' was very slightly smudged, from having been too-hurriedly blotted.

It also matched the signature I'd seen in the Christmas card at Jack's home, in 1935. And just the sudden, vivid recollection of that day, a lifetime ago, left me more disoriented than ever.


I looked up at Father. I could feel myself gaping; profoundly, completely shocked. I could find no words.


"I had anticipated the need to exercise these documents, during the course of this trip," he said. "I had not anticipated needing to exercise them with you." He said it, very gently.


I closed my mouth.


Wordlessly, he held out his hand. I gave the letters a long, last look; then, I closed the portfolio, and gave it back to him. My mind, in a turmoil.

Father exhaled; it was a long, weary, heavy, and wordless sigh.

"I expect we should sit down," he said. Then; "We have a great deal to talk about."

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