China Boat

Chapter 58


Wednesday, May 26th, 1937





Thursday, May 27th, 1937





In a way, writing the letter was agony. There was so very much I wanted to tell him, and could not possibly tell him … 

And then, there was the additional uncertainty of when he would get it. Airmail took a bare minimum of a week's time, and scheduling, and weather, could make it take much longer. And the Term was coming to an end; a letter addressed to Jack at school might wind up chasing him around for days.

Still. I knew the Clipper schedule by heart, and the overland, airmail-line schedules too, by heart, now; I thought my letter would reach him at school.

And very soon, now, I could use the private mail-drop he'd arranged. With all the luxury, of comparative privacy … 


. . . looking up, here; in fact, they are looking up quite a bit.

Just so you know, I was obliged to tell Father about the business favor Tony did for us; Father was very grateful, and very glad to have the information. I know I keep sending you my thanks to the both of you; but I'll do it one more time. And I look forward to doing so, to you and Tony, in person.

In person … 

You know, old man I still haven't quite wrapped my mind around the idea. Maybe it's because we don't have a definite departure date, yet, and we don't have steamship tickets, yet. Still; Father says the sooner we can start for home, the better, for his business reasons; and I believe him. He would like to leave in two weeks.

It's entirely possible — likely, I hope — that by the time you're reading this, I will already have cabled you with our itinerary. In which case, I know, you'll be laughing out loud, right now, as you read this, and our friends will be looking at you oddly … (Am I right? Am I right?)

Still. As I write this — I know I won't really rest easy, I won't be able to relax, until we have the steamer tickets.

Actually, no. To be completely honest, I won't really rest easy until we're on the boat, and undocked, and on our way out to sea. It's silly, and not entirely rational, but I can't help it; it's how I feel … 

* * *



My feelings were in a certain degree of turmoil, right then. In several respects. In several contradictory respects.


First and foremost, of course, there was Father … 


I had, in short order, gone from thinking him oddly and mysteriously obsessed by business, to thinking him involved in some shady, blackmail-worthy endeavor, to thinking him engaged in something disloyal to our country, and criminal — 

To finding that he was actually performing a service to his country. At the President's request. All at considerable personal cost, and risk; including risk to his position at the Bank, which was central to who he was, to his entire being. There was something inherently, inevitably tragic about the conflict, and I could feel that it would not end well for him, and in one way I almost ached in sympathy, for him … 


He had not exactly used me, well.

In my grief and anger at being peremptorily separated from Jack, for God-knew how long, and almost without notice, I'd told myself I was being treated as a steamer-trunk; a thing to be brought out, dusted off, and used, as needed.

I'd been right.

Oh, the cause was important enough. The cause was much more than important enough; and I was very glad to be able to help Father help his country, in my own very small way.

But Father had treated me poorly. And then, under the pressure of his assignment, he had withdrawn into himself, shutting himself off from me, and everyone else … 

He had not trusted me.

I love Father, very much. And I have looked up to him — literally, and figuratively — for my entire life. Much of what I am, of who I am, is modeled on him.

Some of what I am is deliberately modeled to be different from him.

Perhaps that is true of most sons, and their fathers. I know it is true, in some respects, for Tom and his father. I had seen it play out between them, up close, and in detail.

All I really know, is that I will not shut myself away from the people I love; not ever, not if I can help it.

I will consider their feelings; I will be conscious of their feelings, I will always, always consider their feelings, and I will show them my love.


The people I love.




"That's really great news, for you. I'm really glad for you."

He did not look me in the eye. His face was a mask of concealed devastation.

Oh, Tom.

"It may be some weeks away. We don't have our steamship tickets, yet."

He still would not look at me directly.

"Yeah … okay."

I'd waited two days, to tell him … I'd wanted to be sure. But Father had just asked me, absent-mindedly, to bring back a timetable for Dollar Line sailings for San Francisco and the West Coast; so I knew I had to say something.

"You will be the only thing I'll miss about Shanghai," I'd started, bluntly — then I'd winced. It was true enough; but Shanghai was supposed to be Tom's Grand Adventure, his exotic experience of a lifetime … 

I'd hurried on.

"But I won't really be missing you, not completely; because we're going to stay in close contact. Aren't we — ? I will write you, very often; and you'll write me, and share your experiences in Shanghai with me, just as I have been doing with Jack … " I'd swallowed. "We are friends, now; and that won't change."

A pause.

"Yeah." Then, "Yeah. Yes."

I could see, then, that he didn't believe me. I could see in him, a lifetime's experience of others' promises, of adults' promises, that somehow never came true.

I'd blinked at that, repeatedly. And I'd had to look away, myself.

I would have to prove it to him.

I swore, to myself, that I would.


The Cathay's doctor was very reassuring, very kind, and very used to dealing with powerful and strong-willed patients.

"Based upon your presentation, Mister Williamson, and your prior history, I would say it is likely that you are suffering a recurrence of peptic ulcer. However, I would very much like for you to undergo a fluoroscopy at the Hospital, to rule out anything more serious. Not," he added, gently, "that a peptic ulcer is not serious."

We were seated in the doctor's study, a wood-paneled, book-lined room, that looked like a gentleman's library. Father was fully dressed again, down to the folded handkerchief in his breast pocket, and the neat Windsor knot in his tie.

"Thank you, sir; I will certainly do so, at my first opportunity."

I could feel him carefully avoiding my eyes; and I anticipated another contest of wills.

"In the meantime," the doctor went on, "we will compound a solution of Milk of Magnesia, for you — "

I could sense Father trying not to flinch. He'd taken gallons and gallons of the stuff, during our time in Switzerland; and I knew he hated it. Or, rather, he hated the side-effects — 

" — and, we will provide you with charcoal pills; they are quite effective, at controlling stomach acid, between meal-times … "


And then, there was Mister Grey.


"Why, hello, Rhys!" He lifted his immaculate, white-straw Panama hat a polite inch, holding it by the crown; then replaced it. "I was just going out for a bit of a walk … " He smiled, ingratiatingly.

Of course you were, I thought, but didn't say. I wondered how long he'd been loitering, here in the Cathay lobby, waiting for me.

"I was, too, sir," I said. "Just up and down the Bund, a ways … would you care for some company?"

"Splendid idea! I could use some air … " Another easy smile, from him, as we left the cool, air-conditioned lobby, and walked into the humid, pungent heat of the later afternoon.


In truth, I'd been intending to take a few photographs, along the Bund … Different photographs. Ones taken for me; and for Jack, of course, but primarily for me, as keepsakes, as remembrances. Now that I knew Shanghai wasn't a kind of prison, a multi-year prison, for me, I'd begun to see it in a slightly different light.

Shanghai had its appeal.

And also in truth, Mister Grey's company was not entirely unwelcome. Especially since the incident at the night-club, at the Lotus Land Lounge … 

Oh, it was still a little like walking beside some sleek, and dangerous, predatory animal. But now that I knew Father's business — 

Or most of it, anyway, I reminded myself.


Now that I knew that Father hadn't done anything criminal — except, perhaps, in service to the United States Government — I felt easier with Mister Grey. I felt far more well-disposed, towards him.

Which didn't mean I wouldn't still be thoroughly on my guard, in his presence. Completely on my guard.


We crossed the Bund in front of the hotel, a gigantic Sikh policeman stopping traffic for the gathered pedestrians; and we fell into an easy pace, walking along the Whangpoo. There was very little breeze; the flags on the warships, anchored out in the river, hung down limply.

Mister Grey followed my gaze.

"Do you know, one must admit that there is a certain beauty to the things … menacing as they are. I suppose our Tom could tell us everything there is to know, about each of them — ?" He offered it, casually and idly.

"I'm sure he could, sir."

"Call me Ian — ?" A quick, ironic sideways-smile at me. "After all, we are Traveling Companions." I could hear the capitalization, in the way he said it.

"Of course, sir."

Another slight smile, as he looked back out at the ships. I could see the little laughter-lines crinkling, slightly, at the corners of his eyes.

"They do look rather peaceful out there … but I wonder, do they have all the bearings and ranges, and whatnot, all set, for their opposite numbers — ? Take that Japanese ship, the one that is parked on the other side of the Garden Bridge. Do you suppose it could, one day, just let fly at the American and British ships, out here in the river — ?"

I didn't care for the thought.

"I expect it could happen, someday, sir. I hope not. But still, that would be better than firing on the shore."

A drily amused glance, from Mister Grey.

"Oh, that would never happen … not in a neighborhood as expensive as this one. No; when it comes, they'll use airplanes, just like Guernica, and it will be the Chapei district that is hit, yet again. There is a certain pattern to such things. Don't you think?"

I was taken off-guard. There was a degree of brittleness, in his smooth, light cynicism. He had let me see just a little glimpse of his true feelings; again.


I wondered what it would feel like, to lose a brother, in a war.


Mister Grey revealed the real purpose of our interview, soon enough.

"Ah, the Customs House … " He glanced at it, briefly, as we navigated past the corresponding clutter on the sidewalk, and the Examination Shed, and the jetty on the riverside. "Say, you know, Rhys, I just happened to see you and your father leaving here, a couple of days ago … " He said it, brightly, with a brief smile in my direction. "It was in the afternoon, I think."

"Did you, sir?"

He had done no such thing, of course; not with his own eyes, not unless he'd been extremely well concealed. I'd been very upset, and fearful, and I'd kept a close look-out, for anything or anyone even remotely suspicious.

"Yes. I believe it was — Tuesday? I must say, I remember the two of you looked awfully grim; I'd been about to approach you, and invite you both to join me at the Shanghai Club, but your expressions made me think the better of it. I do hope there wasn't anything seriously the matter — ?" Another light, self-deprecating smile, as we strolled. "Particularly, anything which might affect the comfort or security of the odd Traveling Companion, as he motors, forlorn and lonely, through the countryside — ?"

His eyes met mine.

And once again, I had the feeling of barely-suppressed mirth, beneath his words, beneath his manner; that he was just obviously going through his paces, performing his duty, and that he didn't take it seriously, and didn't expect me to do so, either.

It was a very attractive look, and manner.

I glanced away from him, out over the water. The westering sun cast the buildings on Pootung Point into bright relief. There was a very industrial-looking motor-works dock, opposite the Customs House; it looked like a modernist painting, almost Cubist, in the light.

"Oh, I don't know, sir," I said, still looking past him, across the river. "I expect you just noticed the boredom. We were at a meeting about international, inter-bank settlements; I know very little, on the subject. But, no, there was nothing that was discussed, pertinent to — the countryside."

It was a new experience, concealing Father's business from Mister Grey. Until Tuesday night, I hadn't known Father's business. Not really.

"Ah. Well, no news is good news, I suppose," from him, easily, as we strolled. He shrugged. "I've heard nothing of importance on my end, either — pertaining to the countryside, I mean. Everything else is just the usual sort of thing one picks up at the Shanghai Club; 'and ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars'. Quite depressing, really … "

I did not rise to the bait; and so we walked on, in momentary silence.

A motorized sampan chugged past us, close to the bank; stirring up the brownish water, and making the moored boats bob in its wake. The air, too, stirred a little, as it passed.

It occurred to me, suddenly, to wonder what Mister Grey knew, or thought he knew, about Father. Did he think Father a potential traitor, dealing to betray his own country — ? Or did he know something of Father's true business — ?

The thought of him believing Father a traitor, bothered me very much. Surprisingly so. It made me want to reveal the truth to Mister Grey — 

Which of course, was impossible. Unthinkable.

I hurried to fill the silence.

"So, sir; may I ask … will you be going out into the countryside, anytime soon — ? I mean, it has been a few weeks, now … "

I didn't realize what a leading question it was, until it was out of my mouth.

Mister Grey turned to me, and smiled, his blue eyes twinkling under the brim of his straw Panama hat.

"Yes, it has been rather a long time, hasn't it — ? Still; if the Front Office haven't sent me out, yet, who am I to question, or complain — ? I'm sure they have their reasons — "

Again, that impression of barely-concealed mirth; the feeling that he was sharing the joke of it all, of his real identity, with me — 

"But you know, they really will send me out, eventually. They always do." A startling, momentary glimpse of candor, in his expression. "It is the business we're in, after all. And can you believe, we actually turn a small profit — ?"

"Sir," from me. I didn't know what else to say.

A pause, and a calculating look; and then a half-smile, from him.

"In the meantime, I've made my working team, and trucks, available to our friend Fletcher, starting with his next trip." That slight up-curl of a smile at the corner of his mouth, deepening, as he looked away, out over the water. "After all, we're — my Front Office, I mean — we're paying them; so we might as well get some use out of them. No — ?"

I was floored.

"Really — ? That is … extremely good of you, sir … " I groped for the words.

Another smile, and a shrug, from Mister Grey.

"Anything for a Traveling Companion … although, I must admit, in all honesty, the motive is not exclusively altruistic. My people will report back to me, on conditions as they find them in the countryside. And, perhaps, more cogently — the American Consul-General will owe me a favor." The little laughter-lines crinkled, at the corner of his eye. "In my business, it is always — useful — to be owed favors, by important people. Particularly, by individuals in the diplomatic services."

I thought he was, perhaps, protesting a bit too much. But I did not press it.

"Your business?" I said, instead. "You mean, mining, sir — ?" I said it with feigned innocence.

This earned me an amused, and silent, sideways-look.


We kept on strolling, deep into the French Concession, along the Quai de France; so much more of a working waterfront than the Bund. Ships docked, loading and unloading; pallets being swung around by ships' derricks, the hiss of steam, coils of thick ropes — hawsers, Tom had called them, or also lines; I didn't understand the duality of the terms — and always, the cargos piled up next to them. Stacks of wooden crates, labeled with the names of exotic ports, and companies; nets-full of canvas bags, filled with god-knew-what; lashed bundles of odd vegetable-looking material, which could be tree bark, or coconut-husk, for all I knew — 

And the people. The crowds, ever-present. Ships' work-crews, sweating, and swearing in multiple languages, only a few of which I understood. Longshoremen, more reliably swearing in Shanghainese. And then, the ordinary people, just hurrying along the Quai, of every race, and every style of dress — 


It is easier to appreciate the exotic color of a place, once one no longer considers it a prison.


I dared to haul out my Leica, and take some exposures — for the first time, in Mister Grey's company; he had seen me use it, on board ship, but only at a distance. But he made no mention of it, just waiting patiently as I consulted the light meter, and adjusted the f-stop and shutter-speed; sometimes in comfortable silence, sometimes in a cheerful, inconsequential prattle … 

Eventually, we made our way back down the Quai, to the intersection with Avenue Edward VII, and the beginning of the true Bund — 

And I was struck by an idea.


"Sir — ?"



I wondered how to put my request. Is there a protocol, for asking permission to take a spy's photograph — ?


"I was just thinking … would you mind, if I took a photo of you — ? Purely for myself, I mean; as a keepsake." I added this last part, a little hastily.

I half-expected him to turn me down, perhaps with a graceful joke. Instead, a slow smiled bloomed on his face, beneath his Panama hat.

"Why, I would be flattered … on one condition." A mischievous dimple formed at the corner of his mouth.

"Sir — ?"

"That you permit me to take a photograph of you … and, that you give me a print. As a keepsake," he added, smiling.

A keepsake for you, and perhaps a filing-cabinet in London, I thought … Still; fair was fair; and in all honesty, there had been no lack of opportunities, for the taking of candid photos of me. In fact, my picture had even appeared in the newspaper, the day we landed, albeit without my name attached to it … 

"Done, sir."


I set him up first, near the Victory Monument, with the river on his left, and the grand sweep of the Bund curving behind him … 

We abandoned that spot quickly, though. The locals used the Monument's base as something of an open-air urinal; it was — unpleasant — on a hot afternoon.

I set him up again, a few yards further down the Bund. This location was even better; the familiar buildings of the Bund showed even more clearly, the Cathay, the Honk Kong Shanghai Bank, Jardines … Mister Grey obediently removed his hat; he squinted, just a little, in the late afternoon sunlight, his fair hair pale, his bearing utterly poised — 


His smile was easy, amused, conspiratorial, and aimed directly at me.


I took three exposures, with slightly different settings, as one does in such circumstances; and then I surrendered my camera to Mister Grey. It was an odd feeling; Jack was the only other person who'd ever really handled it, much.

"Do you know how to work this, sir — ? The shutter release is this button, here — "

"Oh … oh, yes, yes, I see … " A pause, and then another smile, at me. "You know, a rudimentary course in photography has been part of my rather disreputable education … "

He said it in a low, light, apologetic tone; and I was suddenly very aware of the nearness of him, of his hands on my camera, so close to mine, of the scent of him — 

"Umm … yes, sir."


In the end, he posed me much as I had posed him; the angles, and the background, would be the same. Deliberately, I thought. Well; they would make interesting prints, side-by-side … 

And, like me, he took three exposures; making minute adjustments of the shutter speed and the aperture with a telling familiarity, and taking his time with the focus.

I considered giving him one of my sunny, insincere, public smiles; but it the end, I opted to try to look, well normal; like me. God knew, I thought to myself, how the final prints would turn out.

As he wound the knob to advance the film for the second exposure, he spoke; still peering down at the counter-dial.

"Oh, by the way … did you know that our shipmate, Sayles, has left us — ? He started back for Hong Kong, this morning."

I blinked at him.

"No, sir, I didn't know … "

An amused upward glance from him, my Leica cradled in his hands. "Could you move just a little to your left — ? … Yes, yes; now hold still … " The camera came up to his face, and the focusing began. "Yes; I had drinks with him last night, and I'm sure he would have sent you his very best wishes, if it had occurred to him … Now, smile, or not — "

The snap of the shutter, and then the film-winding process began again.

"Poor old Sayles," Mister Grey went on, cheerfully, as he twisted the knob. "I had the distinct impression that his front office was unhappy with him; something done, or left undone, 'but Thou, oh Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders … ' You know how it is."

His eyes met mine, in an instant of candor; and I knew he'd done it, he'd had Sayles recalled.

I blinked again.

To my left, another sampan chugged by, leaving a cloud of exhaust in its wake. Two crewmen called to each other in loud, piercing, Shanghainese tones.

Eventually, I found my voice.

"I didn't know that Mister Sayles even had a front office," I said, a little stupidly; to cover my surprise. "I thought … he was an independent businessman … "

I winced, at the banality of the words.

Another easy smile from Mister Grey, as he made a minute adjustment to the f-stop on my camera.

"Oh, I don't know … I think we all have Front Offices of one kind or another, don't we — ? Now; last shot, hold still — "

I believe I managed to close my mouth, before the shutter clicked.

Mister Grey proceeded to courteously wind the film to the next exposure for me, turning the knob, and peering down at the counter-ring.

"You know, Rhys," he said, as he worked the knob. "If you will pardon me for the unpardonable sin of being serious, just for a moment … I wanted to say, that I have very much enjoyed our repartee of the last weeks. Partly because I'm aware that the attraction between us is mutual; and partly because I know that you would never act upon it. Of course, of much more importance, is the fact that I simply enjoy your company … "

I gaped at him, openly.

"Let's see … yes, that's it. Here you are." He carefully handed my Leica back to me.

"Thank you, sir," I managed.

"Of course," he went on, "I don't need to tell you, that it is a dangerous and unforgiving world out there for those of our nature." He spoke quietly, his customary flippancy gone. He regarded me, with some seriousness.

A pause.

"Unfortunately, it is very much more dangerous, still, for those of our kind who touch upon — well, my line of business."

I said nothing. I had no idea, what to say.

I looked away, a moment; and then I met his eyes.

"I wanted to tell you, that if you ever find yourself in a difficult situation, in which I might be of any small kind of service, any kind of service at all — and do know, that my organization can indeed provide some small services, and favors, at need — if you ever find yourself in such a situation, I hope that you won't hesitate to contact me. A message addressed to me, with your contact details, care of Imperial Mining and Metals, Limited, will reach me very quickly; and I, or someone I trust, will respond directly." A pause, and a quirk of an eyebrow. "But for Heaven's sake, don't include any personal content; such a message would be read, and re-read, by any number of people along the way. Legions of people. One shudders."

A long silence, between us. The noise of the street traffic, and the trams, and the river, as background.

"Would you promise me, to at least keep the idea in mind — ?" He asked it, gently.

"I … Yes, sir." I swallowed.

Another pause.

"Thank you, sir … Addressed to you, care of your company. Imperial Mining and Metals, Limited. In London."

My head was all but spinning. Partly at the magnanimity of the offer; partly at the implication, that I might ever need to take advantage of it … 

Mister Grey's face, under the brim of his straw Panama, relaxed a bit; and I watched a little of his customary humor return to his expression.

"Excellent … But should you ever need or wish to contact me, it isn't necessary to go through our London office. Just leave your message with the Passport Control Officer at any British Embassy or Consulate; it will get to me, about as fast as a direct cable."

I blinked, at that. Still feeling the shock of Mister Grey's offer; this latest, in a series of recent shocks.

I looked at him, a little sideways.

"The Passport Control Officer — ?" I said at last. "Any Passport Control Officer, in any Embassy or Consulate — ?"

A look of faint, mock-resignation, on his face; the little laughter-lines crinkled, at the corners of his eyes, yet again.

"Oh, yes; yes, I'm afraid so. It is rather lamentably unimaginative, isn't it — ? It's also a bit of an open joke, in the business … But, look!" he went on, brightly; ostentatiously changing the subject. "We seem to have managed to wind up just outside of the Shanghai Club. How clever of us! And, it is a respectable hour … Would you permit me to buy you the undoubtedly-wholesome drink of your choice, at the Long Bar — ?" He gave me a beseeching smile. "Not that I promise to match your choice of beverage … "

A short pause.

"Of course, sir. I would like that, very much." Another short pause, on my part; then, "Thank you."

I said it quietly; but I put feeling, into the words.

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