China Boat

Chapter 67

. . . and so, Rhys, will you promise me, will you please, please promise me, that you will wire me from the boat? As soon as you can?

Partly it's for the reassurance that you've actually, finally, started home; I've waited for it, long enough, that I really want to know it's true. At last. It will be such a relief.

But I have another reason to ask it. I'm working on a scheme — a plot, actually — that probably won't work out; but if it does, it will be a wonderful surprise.

I don't want to say too much about it, yet … except, that it's complicated, and devious, and it might actually be almost, almost worthy of you. And that's saying a lot. In the best possible way, as you know I mean it. I am learning from you, Rhys; as you always say, you are learning from me.


And now we come to the real purpose of this letter.

I'm sure, as soon as you saw the envelope-within-the-envelope marked 'Personal and Confidential', that you said or thought, 'Oh, no, the idiot's done it again'.

Well, guilty as charged, old man. But this will be my last letter to reach you in Shanghai; and I couldn't let you start back home, without telling you a little about how I feel, how I've been feeling, all these weeks. I just couldn't.

I am more happy than words can possibly express, that you're on your way back to me. I can actually feel it, as a physical sensation, in my heart. Knowing that you're on your way back, changes my whole world. Oh, Rhys; I cannot wait to see you, to be with you, again.

It has been a rough time, without you. Rougher than I even thought it would be.

You know me, better than anyone else in the world. I am an optimist; I tried to convince myself, that you'd come back soon. I tried to tell myself, that it would be just like our summer vacations, when we have to spend weeks apart at a time, but always get back together in the end.

But in truth, old man, I was very low. I was terrified, that we would be apart for months and months, or perhaps even longer.

Oh, I was — still am — prepared to go off to anywhere in the world, to meet up with you. I've done what I could, to get ready, although I'm sure it isn't a fraction of what you've done on your side.

But deep down, I was just petrified that I wouldn't be able to pull it off! That I'd bungle something, and get caught immediately; and then we'd be separated, for good and all.

And I was even more petrified, at the idea of you loose all by yourself in Shanghai or Asia or the Pacific or wherever, in God-knows what kind of danger. Without me there, to help. Without me even knowing where you were.

The thing is, old man, that when we've talked about going on the run — I always thought of it, as being something we'd do, together; as a team. Between my ability to fast-talk my way in and out of situations, and your deviousness, and especially your experience, I figured we could go anywhere. I still do. But I'm not at all confident, when I'm all by myself.

Do you know what scared me the most, Rhys?

It was the idea of losing touch with you. The idea of not being able to reach you, by letter or cable, when I had to. The idea of not knowing where you were. It terrified me. How could I find you, how could I come looking for you, if I didn't know where you were?

I think, old man, that we have to, we really have to, have some sort of way to reach each other, in a final emergency. I don't know what it is; a shared cable-address, probably. My mailbox in the village (and you should get something like it, too). Maybe even General Delivery. But I don't want to ever feel that kind of fear, again.


But, look at me, Rhys. Talking only about my own loneliness, and my fears, and my poor, poor little self … when in fact, skyrockets are just about going off in my head, at the idea of you coming home. If you're not furious at me — (and please, as I said, please don't stay angry with me too long?) — you must be laughing at me. And I wouldn't blame you, if you were both.

Safe travels, old man. Remember to wire me, from the boat? And I promise to wire you, one way or the other. With whatever happens with my plot, I mean. (Oh, and of course you'll get another avalanche of mail in Hawaii. And I promise not to send you anything, that you'll need to burn. I'll be good.)

(Do you know, in a way, I think writing to each other the way we've been doing, has drawn us closer? I say things in writing, that I wouldn't necessarily say out loud. And it helps one to concentrate; it focuses one's thoughts, which is always a good thing, for me.) (I can just see the two of us, back at school, sitting side by side in the Common Room, scribbling away furiously in letters to each other, and not saying a word! Maybe we could do it one day, as a joke on our friends — ?)

Your loving,

and impatient,

and loving


* * *

Wednesday, June 23rd, 1937
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China

Dear Jack:

This will have to be a short one. We board the ship at two this afternoon; and there will be some friends coming, to see us off.

Oh, Jack. How could you possibly think that I could be angry with you? Or stay angry with you, even if I were?

I feel the pull of it, of writing you honestly, very strongly; all the more so, since the Term ended, and we started using your private mail drop. I couldn't do it, writing you at school, and believe me that was so frustrating … But it is so tempting, now.

It is a risk, though. Remember poor old Pettit and Cray?

And remember, especially, the blackmail-scare, aboard ship. It worked out all right, in the end; but oh, it might not have … 




Maybe I'm just picking up on the tone of your last, wonderful letter; but 'scare' has been the theme around here, too; especially this last month. I don't want to worry you — it's all in the past, now — but I have been very scared, at times, this past three weeks or so … and something did happen, something about on the order of, well, what happened to me in Berlin.

I haven't been able to write you all about it, and I'm sorry; you'll understand why, when we're actually together, and I tell everything to you. And I will tell absolutely everything to you, I'll hold nothing back, I promise.

But when I was scared, especially at the worst moments, please know that I was thinking of you, Jack. Constantly. You were with me, old man.

But also know, that I was so, so worried for you, then; for exactly the reasons you said in your letter, that you would never know what happened to me, or where I was. So, I agree with you, with all my heart. Yes; we do need to arrange ways to keep in contact with each other, to leave private words for each other, if we become separated, in whatever emergency. Come what may. I have some ideas … I think the Vigenère cypher might come in handy, going forward … 

Not that I ever want to leave your side again. I do not. Oh, Jack, I have missed you, and still miss you, with a pain and a longing that is more than words can express. That I'll see you in a month or so, is comfort beyond price.

You said in your first letter to me, that your soul was traveling with me. Well, mine stayed there, with you; and I've wanted to tell that to you, for almost three months. It is true.

Do you remember the first thing I wrote down, when we had that little fire, in the woods? 'Rhys L. Williamson loves John J. P. B. Van Doern.' It was so, then; and it is even more so, if possible, now.

Your, loving,



P.S. — Of course, you have to burn this. Please, please burn this. Please?

P.P.S — I will have already wired you from the boat, long since. I will bombard you with postcards and letters and menus and newsletters and ephemera, from Hawaii, and from San Francisco and points East. Be prepared.

P.P.P.S. — You really have to burn this. For both our sakes. Please?

* * *

The trip back across the Pacific seemed to pass quickly.

It also seemed to pass, with agonizing slowness.

It actually was a slower trip. Our ship, the President Taft, was slower than the President Hoover; which added two days to the entire journey. It also was smaller, older, and less luxurious.

I did not care. The voyage out had been painful, almost torture; each hour, each day taking me farther from where I wanted to be, with an uncertain future ahead. Now, I was headed back in the right direction, with Jack waiting at the end of the line, at home. The feeling of relief, of anticipation, of yearning, colored all of my days. I only, deeply wished the ship could go faster.

Although … at the same time, I was very much aware, of who I was leaving behind. Of the miles of distance, growing between us … And that colored my days, too.

* * *

Father and I fell into the habit of taking long walks together, after luncheon and dinner — the ship's doctor had recommended it, as an aid to his digestion — and so we made circuit after circuit of the Promenade Deck, in companionable silence.

Slowly — very slowly — we began reaching out to one another.

One night after dining, we'd paused for a moment at the leeward railing, while Father filled his pipe, and lit it. I looked out, at the sea, and the clouds just beginning to redden with the setting sun — and I took a deep breath.

"I wish you could have seen more of Shanghai, sir," I said, quietly. "It's a shame you did not have the chance."

I said it in French.

There was a pause. He puffed on his pipe, getting it going; I could feel him looking at me, sideways.

"It was not that kind of a trip," he said, at last. "And under the circumstances, I would hardly have enjoyed it."

He said it in German.

It was a peace offering, from both of us. We both knew it.

Another few puffs, on his pipe. The sound of the water against the hull; the slight heave of the ship, in the gentle waves.

"However," he went on, eventually — still in German — and there was a certain, ironic, tone in his voice, now — "I believe that you may possibly have seen enough of Shanghai, for the both of us … I understand that you visited a rather, shall we say, disreputable night-club, with Miss Lloyd, and Doctor Yang — ? And that several of the acts were of a rather exotic nature — ?"

I looked out over the water, and tried not to smile.

"That is true, sir. Although, there were a number of other people from Miss Lloyd's studio present as well. She was doing research into her film role."

A short silence, between us. Left unsaid, was that I had not asked his permission to go. I had reckoned that I was old enough; and in any case, we both knew that we had not really been on speaking terms, at the time.

"Research," he said, at last. "Ah." He puffed on his pipe again, and exhaled the fragrant smoke. Another, slight pause. "And how, may I ask, did the caliber of the performances compare to those of the burlesque houses of New York City — ?"

I looked at him, sideways; still playing it straight. Still keeping the smile from my face. Enjoying this.

"Actually, sir, I have not been in any of the burlesque clubs in New York … yet. But I do confess, that a friend and I once managed to visit a certain club in the Place Pigalle, in Paris — "

'Managed to visit' was hardly the right expression. The touts and doormen of the exotic theaters in the Place Pigalle sweep in as many paying, male customers as humanly possible; and it being France, nobody much cares about the customers' ages. The real trick is to get away from them, once they latch on to you.

" — and I must say, they do things a little more, well, professionally, there … "

Father had said nothing, but there had been a slight upwards curl at the corner of his mouth, as he looked out to sea, and puffed his pipe; and I felt just a touch, a touch of the kind of closeness we'd had, touring Europe by car, all those times — 

* * *

My nightmares did not come into full blossom, until a few days after we'd left Yokohama.

Why there should have been such a delay, I do not know. Perhaps my subconscious mind had kept them largely at bay, in Shanghai, because it had thought I was still in some real danger … and, now that we had left Shanghai, and Asia, behind, I was free to suffer them in peace.

How thoughtful of my subconscious mind.

As nightmares go, there was nothing subtle about them. Nothing that would interest a psychotherapist. They were all quite straightforward.

The Berlin nightmares came back, with a vengeance … In my dreams, I relived the beating death of the blond boy, in horrifying, exquisite detail; except, with even more blood, than had actually spilled. Much more. And a good deal of that excess blood, somehow spilled on me. But worse, was the look of evil, the absolute profundity of the evil, on the face of the hatchet-faced stormtrooper leader, as he looked at me; and, somehow, that evil paralyzed me, made me incapable of moving, as he slowly approached me — 


Nothing new, here; except for the frequency of their reoccurrence. I was used to them.


The Shanghai nightmares, however, were new. Predictable, perhaps, under the circumstances. That theoretical psychotherapist would probably have been actively bored by them.

I wished I could have found them boring.

The most common ones involved running, endless running, fleeing from a relentless, faceless pursuit … of course. Of course.

Sometimes, the pursuers were mere, faceless men, unseen humans, and the experience was not unlike what had really happened to us, to me — 

Sometimes, it was a singular Pursuer. Some, thing; some animal, perhaps, or worse. Unseen, of course, and all the more terrifying for that … but, somehow, tireless, deadly, wholly evil, and getting ever closer, as I ran, and twisted, and dodged around corners — 


These were the easy nightmares. They did not usually wake me up.


The ones involving Monsieur Simonov, or at any rate his body, did.


In these other dreams, I would be creeping through the dark, deserted streets, alone — sometimes, in the Neighborhood of Perpetual Prosperity; sometimes, in and around our place on Park Avenue, of all things, as if Manhattan could ever be dark, and deserted — and, in those dreams, I would enter Monsieur Simonov's house, and I would discover his mutilated, violated body, all over again — 

And I would know he was dead, dead and ruined, amid all the stink, and the blood, and the wreckage — 

But then he would try to speak.

And the horrible thing was, that he would try to use the gaping wound in his throat as a kind of mouth; I would see the edges of it, working, and the severed arteries and muscles and whatever, twitching, and a sound would issue out … but he could not form understandable words, and the sound was horrible, and his eyes were dead, I knew he was dead, and ruined, in my dream, and what was trying to make the sound was, was, a thing, but was still, somehow, Monsieur Simonov, and I felt pity for it, but also horror — 


Sometimes, the dead thing wasn't Monsieur Simonov.


Once, it had been Tom … Once, against all logic or reason, it had been the history teacher at my school, Doctor Hewitt. And then, it had been Tom, again … 


Once, it had been Jack.


With these nightmares, I made noises, when I woke up. I knew it; I could feel myself making the noises, trying to form words of my own, as I jerked to consciousness … 

Not screams; not loud noises. Something more along the lines of, 'Noooo', or a more inchoate, 'Uhhhhhh — !'


These nightmares became persistent companions, as we headed East, back towards Honolulu.


I worried, about making the noises. I worried whether I would make them, once I got back home.

Jack would understand, once I told him everything. He would sympathize; and find ways to show his concern, and love.

But, I did not want to mark those rare and utterly precious summertime occasions when we got to actually sleep together, in the same bed, with my outcries … and the thrashing about, which I was pretty sure accompanied them. I also did not want to wake up my dormitory-mates at school, night after night, once the new term started.

Just possibly, I thought — just possibly, the dreams will moderate, once I get back to the States. I devoutly hoped so.

* * *

I did not mention my nightmares, in my first letter to Tom.

I considered it. I wondered if he was suffering from nightmares of his own; and if so, I thought I might at least provide a little comfort, by telling him that he wasn't alone … 

But, in the end, I couldn't bear to write about something so dark, in my first letter to him; I just couldn't. I would find a way to mention it, obliquely, later. 'Obliquely', in case his parents might read his mail. I had no way of knowing.


Wednesday, June 30th, 1937
Aboard the S.S. President Taft
at sea

Dear Tom:

Greetings, from the middle of the Pacific!

Of course, I can't mail this, until we get to Hawaii. When we do, I'm going to go ashore, and go to the same Honolulu post office that you and I visited, and I will think about you, all the more. It will be nice, knowing that you've seen it, and know exactly where it is, and what it is like … 

I'll certainly always remember our expedition, in Honolulu. Especially our walk down and around Hotel Street.

It's a little bit lonely on this trip, and I wish I had my shipmate with me.

Our fellow-passengers are interesting enough, though. As it turns out, the President Taft is finishing up one of the Dollar Line's around-the-world cruises; so, many of our fellow-passengers have already been across the Atlantic, down through the Mediterranean, and through the Suez Canal: and then, across the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, and around Siam and Burma, and then all the way up to Hong Kong and Shanghai; stopping at lots of ports, along the way. They've seen an awful lot of the world that I've never seen, in the Levant, and North Africa, and India, and Asia … and they have some interesting, interesting stories. I wish you could hear them.

The President Taft is nice enough; although, as you know from your going-away visit, it isn't anything like the President Hoover.

She is — (and here, I will confess; I have already had a ship's tour, at which you would have drooled; I took notes) — 535 feet on the waterline overall; with a beam of 72 feet; and she displaces 14,124 tons. She was built in 1921 (the year after I was born!), and has twin screws, geared turbine engines (sorry, I don't know which maker), and a speed of 17 and a half knots … 

She does not, however, have a built-in swimming pool. Instead, she has two 'tanks' — canvas-walled water-tanks, erected over the forward and aft cargo hatches, after we left Yokohama — where one can go swimming.

I don't think I'll participate in the swimming. It wouldn't really be the same.

Remember that wonderful, airy feeling we experienced, that one night, going between the President Hoover's gymnasium, and the pool? And the feeling of the warm salt water of the pool, on our skin — ?

It's one of my favorite memories, and I'll never forget it … 

* * *

A week out from Yokohama, we learned the news about Miss Amelia Earhart, the famous aviatrix. She was lost in the Pacific, down somewhere near Howland Island, on one of the last legs of her around-the-world flight.

By coincidence, we were then at nearly the same longitude as Howland Island; we were almost directly north of it. There was some excited speculation among the passengers about the President Taft being diverted to join the search; but a look at my battered school atlas told me how unlikely that would be.

I was right.

The Captain came on the loud-speaker system, to explain. We were much too far to the north, he said; it would take four days' steady steaming to even get to the general vicinity. And in any case, the Navy and Coast Guard had a number of ships already in the area, joining the hunt; and the Navy had airplanes looking, too.

And then he added that he'd volunteered our services regardless, and been turned down.

Miss Earhart's disappearance was a blow.

Miss Earhart was very famous, as I said; we'd all seen her in newsreels, and newspaper and magazine stories. It was as if we all knew her. And apart from her exploits and records, she is the author of several popular books on flying, which Jack had of course devoured.

Jack had mentioned in one of his letters that he was following her progress, closely.

I hoped against hope, that she and Mister Noonan, her navigator, would somehow be found alive … but the prospects seemed bleak.

It wasn't quite as heavy a blow, as spectacular a blow, as the loss of the Hindenburg. No civilian passengers were lost; and an around-the-world flight, over water, is inherently risky. But as I said, Jack had simply devoured her books … 

I drafted another loving and sympathetic cable to him, with a heavy heart.

* * *

The very next day, news came on the BBC Empire Service of a clash between Chinese and Japanese military forces, at a roadway bridge near Peking. The announcement came after the several minutes of coverage devoted to the search for Miss Earhart.

I felt a sick feeling in my stomach. I was only glad that Peking was so very far away from Shanghai, and Tom, and his family.

Father and I listened very attentively to the next few broadcasts; and, to our surprise, however, it began to seem as though a negotiated settlement had taken effect, and that perhaps this Incident wouldn't be the trigger for another war, after all.


* * *

The daily, and nightly, ritual of walking the decks with Father, continued.

We continued to open up, to one another; in surprising ways.

Actually, the opening-up was far more on his part, than on mine. He surprised me, more than once. He told me things he had never told me before; and I do not know why, except perhaps that he now realized that I was no longer a child … Not, perhaps, a full-grown man, yet; but no longer a child.

He started by telling me, about his future plans. That he was considering staying involved with the Bank, if his nomination as Director was not withdrawn by the full Board.

"You would do that, sir? After — all this — ?"

'All this', being, his secret charge to negotiate a pact with the Japanese Government to subvert U.S. financial sanctions on the Japanese Empire. And the revealing of that charge, to the United States Government.

He'd looked at me, dryly, as we paced along.

"I would hardly be popular with the Bank's senior management … but. I am aware of several potential allies whom I could approach, on the current Board. And in any event, the Bank needs oversight; and that is the role of a Director. You do understand that, do you not?"

He peered over at me.

"Election as a Director essentially signifies retirement, for me. Directors do not do the Bank's work; they oversee. They audit. They assume responsibility — and personal liability — for the Bank's activities. And, given enough votes, the Board can change management policy, and even oust senior managers." A thin smile, from him, as he looked out over the water.

I had the distinct impression, that he would relish the task. The Bank meant a great deal, to Father. And at the same time, and very much more profoundly, Father was fiercely loyal to his country.

I would not like to be one of the senior managers, who incurred his displeasure.

"Your grandfather serves as Director, on the Boards of several different companies," he went on, as we strolled. He looked sideways, at me. "It is very likely, that you will be asked to to do the same, someday. It would be as well if you started to pay attention to such things sooner, rather than later … "

I'd swallowed. I'd absorbed the mild rebuke. And I dreaded the thought.

"Yes, sir."


Later that same night, another revelation.

"No. I do not believe that the negotiations were sincere, on the Viscount's side. Any more than they were, on mine."


I'd turned to look at him. "Sir?"


He'd glanced at me, expressionlessly.

"As I said; he and I have known of each other, for years." Father puffed, once, on his pipe. "He is a Viscount, from one of the oldest noble families in Japan. For such individuals, honor is more than a code of personal conduct; it is, rather, the organizing principle of life, and far more precious than life itself."

I'd blinked at him. He had never given any indication of being familiar with Japanese culture, before. But then, he had hidden a great many things from me, during this trip.

"Meaning, sir — ?"

"Meaning, that Viscount Kō would never have consented to speak to me, if he'd thought I was truly prepared to betray my country. And he certainly would never have spoken to us in such a candid fashion, about his country's intentions … No. I am sure, that his true purpose was sub rosa communication with Washington. And that is how I have reported it, to Washington." He'd paused then, to take another puff on his pipe; and his face grew a little bleak. "It was nevertheless galling to me, to even play the part of a potential collaborator. Particularly in front of him."

I'd digested this, for a long moment, as we walked.

"Sir … By telling us of his country's intentions … was he not, in a way, betraying his country?"

Father had given me a dry look.

"The Viscount is of the faction desiring peace. He was educated in the West, he went to school at the Sorbonne; he knows that war with the United States would be suicidal, perhaps literally, for the Japanese Empire. We are a continental power, with far, far greater resources, in every sense, than they; the ultimate outcome could hardly be in doubt … No. I believe that by passing on his candid information, he hopes to goad Washington to measures that would prevent a war, and so perhaps avert disaster for his country."

We walked on in silence, for just another moment; the only sounds, the clip of our shoes on the teak decking, the creaking of the ship, and the sound of the water.

"Father … " I started; and then I hesitated, before going on. I glanced over at him. "The Viscount said, that he expected to be assassinated. Soon. Do you think that is true — ?"

I could only imagine the horror of knowing it was coming, but not knowing precisely when. Or where. Or how. The running pursuers, in my nightmares … 

Father's expression became remote, and somewhat bleak, again.

"He said it, so you can be sure that it is true." Another puff, on his pipe. A long pause. "And when that day comes, I shall mourn."

* * *

Jack's wire came when we were four days out from docking in Honolulu. At first, I just stared at it, reading it over and over again. And I'm not ashamed to admit, that it made so happy, that I actually cried, a little.





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