China Boat

Chapter 66

Tuesday, June 22nd, 1937
5:45 p.m.
The Terrace Lounge
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China

A companionable silence, then, between Mister Grey and myself; for several minutes. The comfortable sounds of the Lounge, as a backdrop; both of us, looking out over the Nanking Road, over the Chapei, and beyond.

The sun slipped lower in the sky; and its rays shone full-on into the lounge, now. Mister Grey's face was outlined in partial profile, and I could see every faint line, the fine blond hairs at his temples, at the back of his neck — 

A white-coated waiter glided by, with an empty tray; and I saw my chance. With a gesture I'd shamelessly and deliberately copied from Mister Grey, I managed to get his attention.

"Sir — ?" from him, as he came up.

"Two gin-and-tonics, please. On ice; with lime. Any particular label of gin, sir — ?" I asked Mister Grey, innocently.

The smile on his face was open, amused, and admiring. "Oh, no. The house pour here is better than the stuff I get in London."

"Very well," from me. "And please, charge it to my room — ?" I supplied the number, before Mister Grey could object.

"Very good, sir." The waiter nodded, and slipped away.

I took a breath; and I looked over at Mister Grey.

"It was an experiment; and you were right. A boy my age really can order drinks in Shanghai, even here."

Mister Grey shook his head, in admiration.

"You are," he said, "a pearl beyond price. And, aware of the quality of mercy … " He gently pushed his champagne-flute a little farther away from him.


The drinks arrived in due course. We clicked glasses, and I cautiously sipped from mine — 

I hadn't expected much; but I was still surprised at how foul it tasted. I tried not to wince as I set the squat glass back down on the table.

Mister Grey's eyes on mine were knowing, and ironic; and then he took his own sip, and it was my turn to smile, as I watched him try to keep the look of honest bliss, from his face. Bliss, mixed with something like relief … 

We spoke casually, then, for a few minutes; both of us looking out, over the city. The Terrace Lounge began to fill up, even more; a piano player arrived, and after arranging a copious store of sheet music, he began to play, softly. The effect was to give us more privacy, in our conversation.


At last, Mister Grey paused; he took out another cigaret, and lit it. He exhaled the smoke, slowly; and then he turned to me. His face, in the slanting sunlight, was solemn.


"Do you know, Rhys … I have very much enjoyed our conversation, up to this point? Peaching, and telling tales has, indeed, been fun — "

A quick, self-mocking smile, from him, that was replaced almost immediately, by his unusual seriousness.

"But. That is not why I invited you, here."

A look, from him.

"Sir — ?"

"I said before, that you've gotten yourself into some rather deep waters; and I doubt if you fully appreciate your position, just yet … See here. Am I correct in assuming, that you believe that your involvement in — well, this kind of business; clandestine affairs of this nature — is over and done?"

I blinked at him.

"We're sailing tomorrow, sir."

In truth, I'd thought my involvement with Father's task was already over and done. Now, of course, I would have to report Mister Grey's oblique revelations back to Father, so he could pass them on to the right figures in Washington; but that was a minor matter.

Mister Grey looked across the table at me; and I saw concern in his expression, and perhaps even a touch of — sadness?

"For your sake, dear Rhys, I very much hope that you are right. But you should be aware of the chance, that you are wrong." He drew on his cigaret again, and blew out the smoke, slowly; and he tapped the ash delicately into the ashtray. "You see, getting involved in this kind of work, is a little bit like falling into Alice's rabbit-hole. 'Down, down, down; would the fall never come to an end?' Once one becomes tangled up in intelligence work, even peripherally, it is very difficult to fall back up the rabbit-hole, again. I am very far from the first, to find this out, through personal experience."

I stared at him, for a moment. Then I shook my head.

"No … no, sir. I want nothing to do with any of this. I won't have anything to do with, with, this kind of business, again."

I had been manipulated and lied to, by my father, albeit for the best of reasons; and as a result, we'd almost lost each other. I'd almost been killed; and what that would have done to Jack, I didn't want to even try to imagine. And, much, much worse, still, I'd almost gotten Tom killed.

"Believe me," said Mister Grey, with a candid expression, "I appreciate the sentiments. I shared them, once. Quite sincerely. It didn't work out quite the way I'd imagined … "

I looked over at him, for just a moment. The muted sound of the piano, in the background.

"May one ask, what happened to you, sir — ?" I asked it quietly. I dreaded the answer.

He shrugged, and gave me a very faint smile.

"Oh, it's a long story. But perhaps I can Bowdlerise it — ? Let us just say that, once, while I was still in University, but doing work abroad — once, I did a favor, for a friend … "

Another, faint and humorless smile.

"Oh, it wasn't much, believe me. But it went well." He hesitated for just a moment; choosing his words, I thought.

"And as a result," he went on, at last, "I was, shall we say — noticed. I believe my name, and particulars, were carefully written down in a ledger in Whitehall, somewhere, a ledger kept locked up in a safe, to be saved against future need … "

A direct look, from him; then, he looked away, again.

"And, eventually," he went on slowly, "in due course — that need, arose. And I was asked, again, to do my little bit for King and Country. I will say, they were quite persuasive … " He shrugged, and smiled again; laughing at himself, a little, I thought. "And that led to another engagement, and yet another, and then, it became, well, something of a full-time job … " He regarded me, and spread his hands just slightly, as if to say, 'As here we see'.

A long pause.

"Sir," I managed to say. I felt a little chilled.

Mister Grey looked at me, again.

"You can see where this is going, of course. I'm afraid, dear Rhys, that my government is not the only one to keep names on file, ledgers of names of people who have been vetted, who can possibly be of service, in the future … I am quite sure that your own name — not just your father's name, but your name, specifically — has already been recorded. That there are people in fairly high places in your government who are quite aware of who you are, and of what you, yourself, have done here. That those people are considering the ways, in which to make use of your services, in the future." He paused, and looked at me, closely. "I am sorry. But I thought you should know." He said it, gently.

A rather thunderous silence, between us, then. I blinked, as I tried to take it in.

"No. Oh, no. That's … impossible." I looked over at him, helplessly. "I am underage. I am sixteen."

An ironic expression, from him.

"You will not be sixteen, for long. And to the men who run these operations, the four or five years until you reach your majority is a short time; to them, it is like a month seems to you, now … they will not forget. And, in any case, youth is hardly an absolute barrier to service in this business. In fact, for some of the less-savory operations, youth is a positive asset. Unfortunately." A knowing flash of his eyes; and then he took another drag from his cigaret, and blew out the smoke.

I thought about the implications of that, for a second.

"I still can't believe it. Why me? I am — ordinary. I'm certainly not special." I groped, for the words.

A pause, from him.

"Are you not?" A move of his head, and a touch of a smile. "I think, you are perhaps a little unwilling to face the truth … Look at yourself, Rhys."

"Sir — ?"

"Look at yourself. You speak three languages — in addition to Classical Greek, and Latin — very fluently, and you get by in three more. Much more importantly, you picked up those foreign languages while living in Europe, as a child; that gives you a fluency, and a familiarity with other countries, with other peoples and cultures, that cannot be acquired any other way … but there is more. Shall I go on?"

I just looked at him.

"You fit a certain profile," he said, gently, after a moment. "You are from the right segment of your East Coast society … you are from the right sort of family, or right families, rather, on both sides; you are from the right school, even. You have plenty of family money, which is essential; but, despite your grandparents' name, or because of your family's discretion, you do not present too high a profile … Dear Rhys. Even if you were not recruited directly for intelligence work, you would certainly be ardently, ardently recruited by your own Foreign Service. It is practically tattooed across your forehead. Have you never thought of that — ?"

In fact, I had; our school has produced many Foreign Service officers, it is almost our specialty. But I had always kept that knowledge locked up in a box labelled, 'The Unknown Future'. Or perhaps, 'Things I Do Not Want To Think About, Yet'.

Mister Grey looked at me, sympathetically.

"And, once in your country's diplomatic corps — I'm afraid your fate would be rather sealed. My occupation gives me an excuse to travel; yours would, as well. It would be completely normal, then, for your diplomatic status to give you the necessary cover for your, shall we say, real, work."

Another thundering silence. It seemed plausible. It made a great deal of sense.

I did not want to do it. I did not want to deal with lying; with subterfuge, with clandestine meetings, with fear, and uncertainty … and I certainly did not want to have anything to do with violence.

I did not want to be separated from Jack; not again, not ever. Not ever.

"I will just tell them, no, then."

Another look, from him.

"I thought I would, too. I tried to; several times. But in the end, when your country calls, and says it needs you, quite seriously … well. How do you think you will react — ?"

I looked at him, rather defiantly, now.

"I will tell them I'm a homosexual." I didn't even lower my voice, as I said it.

"Oh, yes, do," he said, smoothly and casually; flicking some cigaret-ash into the ashtray. "If they are any good at all, they will already know it; but by telling them straight off, you will remove some of the leverage, from their side of the equation … Dear Rhys. You don't really suppose that being homosexual would disqualify you, from this kind of work — ?"

I didn't say anything in response.

"It is rather to the contrary, actually. Our kind is everywhere, of course; but we are actively and disproportionately recruited for this business. We are thought to be well-suited to it. It was explained to me, once, by a senior civil servant, that it is because we are so accustomed to hiding our true natures, and so accustomed to the necessity of discretion … " Mister Grey shrugged. "I thought he had something, there."

I felt chilled, all over again.

"There is, however, a less pleasant side to it. I mentioned, that I got into this business, by doing a favor for a friend — ?"


He gave me the faintest of smiles, then. "Well. He was a very good friend. To be blunt — we were, in those days, sharing a bed."

He reached over, and stubbed out his cigaret in the crystal ashtray, as that sank in.

"I was, incidentally, all of nineteen years old, at the time … " He gave me a meaningful look. "Anyway. The point is, the next time I was asked to do a favor for His Majesty — I was rather acutely aware that the individual making the request, knew how things were, between my friend and myself. That he knew that we were both homosexual … "

Oh, no, I thought.

Mister Grey, watching my face, nodded.

"Yes. I spoke of leverage, in the equation between one's self, and one's employer. In fact, no-one has ever been so crude as to say anything, openly … but. Given the legal implications, the legal liabilities — it was, shall we say, just a little bit harder, to say, 'no' — ? Both for my sake, and more importantly to me, for my friend's sake. And I believe, that the Firm were aware of that … "

A very fraught silence, for a moment. I thought of Jack; of course. I thought of Tom; and I thought of Charles.

"Was there — proof of some kind, sir? Letters — ?" I asked it, a little desperately. I had reason to.

"Proof — ? Well, not really; except that we were sharing a small apartment, with one, rather smallish bed … but proof was hardly necessary." He looked at me, sympathetically. "Our situations, yours and mine, are not entirely analogous. In certain circles in Britain, in London, certainly down in Oxford, one can be — very, very discreetly — open about one's affections; within limits, at least. Think of Lytton Strachey. If one is not too public, the authorities will not act … After all, if everyone suspected of homosexuality were haled in to court, a substantial part of the population would disappear overnight. No." He twisted his cocktail-glass in his long fingers, for a moment. "And that is how it was, with my friend, and myself … But. If the authorities take official notice of you — as they did with Oscar Wilde, although that was very long ago — well."

He did not have to go further. Oscar Wilde had served prison time, at hard labor.

"I believe," said Mister Grey, "that you Americans demand a higher burden of proof, in such matters, than we do." He said this, gently, and kindly, as well.

I said nothing, as the implications — for me, for us — sank in. Unwillingly.

"I have, by the way, not included your friend Jack's name, or any mention of him, in any of my reports," said Mister Grey. Quietly. "And when I have mentioned Tom, I have done so only in connection to his parents."

I looked over at him.

"And Mister Sayles — ?"

"I said nothing to him about either of your friends. I doubt he noticed anything, between you and Tom; he is not built that way. And he does not currently have much credibility with the Firm."

A long, silent pause, from me.

"Thank you, sir." I said it, quietly; and I tried to show my gratitude, with my eyes.

"It is what friends are for," from him, simply; with another, brief smile. He lifted up his squat glass, and took a sip.

I hesitated.

"May one ask, sir … whether anything ever happened, to you and your friend — ? Anything, as in — consequences — ?" I asked it, very tentatively.

An ironic expression, from Mister Grey, this time.

"Oh, no. Not at all. In fact, he was promoted to a desk job, within the Firm. He has since made an appropriate and respectable and very safe match, and settled down; they have two children, one of whom is named Ian, which I find really quite flattering … "

His tone was light, and dry, and I took it as a warning not to pursue the subject.

" … and we still exchange notes, on occasion. Which just serves to show, Rhys — "

His expression went back to being serious — 

" — that nothing that I have just told you is necessarily or entirely predictive. It is what I suspect might be in store for you. I would urge you to be prepared to face such pressures … But. Perhaps you will be luckier than I was, or perhaps you will be better at saying, 'no', when the time comes … "

I remembered his expression; that getting involved in the world of intelligence, of espionage, was like falling down Alice's rabbit-hole; and that one does not fall, up. I was still chilled.

"And, who knows," he went on, drily. "Perhaps the world scene will brighten. Maybe a few rulers, a few Governments, will come to their senses. Perhaps peace will break out, all over, and another Great War will be averted, and the League of Nations will turn over a new leaf and suddenly become effective, and the services of disreputable people such as myself will no longer required … A consummation devoutly to be wished, by all sane people, everywhere. Shall we drink to the possibility — ?"

He lifted his glass. His expression showed what he thought of the chances.

"To peace, sir. However unlikely." We clicked our glasses together.

* * *

Having delivered his warning — for that is what it was — we were silent, with each other, for several minutes. The piano played discreetly in the background; the white-coated waiters circulated, the glassware clinked, and the soft murmur of conversations surrounded us.

And then, in a lighter vein, Mister Grey resumed his telling-of-tales; his peaching, as he put it.

He rather elliptically described what it was like, to do his kind of work; he described it as both tedious and irritating. 'A high tolerance for boredom is an essential skill; as is a willingness to suffer fools, gladly', as he put it.

He also surprised me, by saying the line between amateur and professional was fluid, in both of our countries.

"We have a joke, in my organization," he said; the golden light highlighting the little laughter-lines, at the corners of his eyes. "'The Americans claim they have no professional intelligence service. We claim we do.'"

I blinked at him. "Sir — ?"

"The official intelligence service in my country is moribund, and hopelessly compromised and penetrated. Remember what I said, about the passport control officers, in any British consulate or embassy — ?"

"I do, sir."

"That is the official service. They are fit for passing along messages at need, but not much else. By the way, you will remember what I said, about contacting me?" He regarded me, closely.

"Yes, sir. And I deeply appreciate it, sir." The offer made much more sense, in light of his warning.

Another quick smile; and then he continued.

"My own organization was formed in response to this situation, and operates — or attempts to operate — in greater secrecy. We are technically civilians. I myself am not in the military, or even the Civil Service. Yet, Whitehall, the Government, has come to see us and to use us as the real Service, for all practical purposes … it is really quite confusing. We hope it is equally confusing to others." He smiled openly at me, before extracting and lighting another cigaret, with his usual grace.

He went on.

I was reassured to learn, that he had never carried a gun, except occasionally as part of his field geology work … which apparently was quite real, too, if hardly full-time. He allowed that the only violence in which he'd taken part was a bar fight in Hong Kong, which was caused by a spilled drink, and not related to his intelligence work. I learned that there were other companies besides Imperial Mining and Metals, Limited, that were part of his organization … although he did not name them.


And then he told me about the seamier aspects of the trade.


How blackmail was a standard tool, in any country's intelligence service. Illicit love letters were highly prized — 

I tried not to squirm, at this.

- but photographs, particularly intimate photographs taken from hidden cameras, were also extremely useful — 

And here, he grew a little more serious, again. He lowered his voice, and looked at me directly.

"You know, Rhys … if you do get sucked into this line of work, as I hope you do not — you should be aware, that you might, someday, be asked to 'befriend', a targeted individual — ?" He inhaled cigaret-smoke, and blew it out. "There is nothing quite like having a photograph of an important man, in bed — or shall we say, on top of a bed; that is much better — in sexual congress with a boy. The younger-looking the boy, the better."

Oh, God. I believe I turned pale.

"But then there is also the possibility, that such a boy, or young man, might instead be asked to gain such a man's confidence, over time; to become his friend and companion, and to report back his intimate conversations, his pillow-talk, shall we say … "

I swallowed.

"There are times," he went on, gently, with a grave look, "when one can say, 'no', and more easily get away with it. That kind of thing is considered duty above and beyond, in the world I inhabit … but." He paused, for another drag on his cigaret, before resuming. "If you were to accede to such a request — I will tell you, that keeping your heart your own, and not allowing yourself to become overly fond of the person in question, is vitally important. It is also a sore trial … There. I think I have said enough."

He did not meet my eyes. Instead, he looked away from me, out over the Shanghai building-tops; his expression was unreadable … 

He had indeed said enough. That he spoke from personal experience, was beyond doubt.

I said nothing, for several seconds.

"I don't think I could do that, sir," I said at last, quietly; looking down at my glass. "Be regularly intimate with someone, I mean; without developing feelings for him."

"Good," from Mister Grey, softly. "Good. I would expect no less, from you."


Perhaps another full minute passed in silence; while I made up my mind. At last, I plunged ahead, recklessly.


"Since you raise the subject, sir … there is something you should know."

"You do not have to tell me anything," he said; shaking his head, a little. "That is not why I asked you here." He looked over at me, with a serious expression.

"But I would like you to know this," I went on; and I smiled up at him. "You once said, that you enjoyed our repartee, because we were both aware of our attraction to one another, but you knew that I would never act upon it." I took a deep breath. "You should know, that if things had been just a little different — "

If it hadn't been for Jack; if it hadn't been for Tom — 

" — I would have acted upon that attraction, in a heartbeat. And our voyage here, and our stay, here in the Cathay, would have been … interesting." I smiled over, and up at him, again.

I felt a rush of blood, as I said the words. I had never been so sexually daring, in words, so wanton, with anyone other than Jack.

I was rewarded by seeing Mister Grey flush, actually quite brightly; he lowered his head, and shook it, as a slow smile spread over his face.

"Oh, that is low," he said, at last; admiringly. "Oh my word, that is low." He looked at me, sidelong. "Do you have the slightest idea how this is going to disturb my sleep, for the next few days, and weeks?" The laughter-lines were much in evidence, now.

"Perhaps, sir. But only because you know it is true." I gave him a slightly different kind of smile. "And for my part, I will always wonder, what you might have taught me, what I might have learned from you, over those weeks … "

I meant it in the explicitly sexual sense. And that was true, too.

Another flush on his face; an even deeper one, this time, as he lowered his head, still smiling — 

I thought, then — no, I realized — that he had been wondering the same thing; picturing it, even, perhaps. Perhaps, for some time, now. I realized, then, that I was flushing at least as brightly as him … 


The sun continued its slow, summertime descent. The light on the Terrace grew more golden. It was time for me to go, and dine with Father, and report about our preparations to sail the next day.

Mister Grey, as polite as always, observed that I must have pressing tasks, to which I should attend. I agreed. He thanked me for the drinks; he had finished my gin and tonic. I thanked him, for the drinks; he had ordered a Coke for me.

We stood up.

"Well, goodbye then, Rhys." He held out his hand. "For your sake, I hope that we do not meet again, at least professionally; but I must say, I would regret not ever seeing you again, very much." He said this last, slowly, and softly. His face was back to looking a little sad, and wistful.

I took his hand, and shook it.

"Goodbye, sir." I didn't trust myself to say anything more.

"One last thing," he said, releasing my hand. He regarded me, gravely. "Should we indeed meet again — will you forgive me, if I dread to see the look of disappointment, cross your face?"

He was entirely serious.

"If we meet again, sir," I started, choosing my words, carefully — "in whatever capacity — it won't be disappointment you see, in my expression. I promise it."

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