Bill Todd -- DANDERTON: A Novel of the Thirties and Forties
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 Chapter 3


Tso Yo-wen had her legs out of the third floor window of the Ryder School's Hoxworth Hall, feeling for the ledge. Miss Tso, aged seventeen, was lying with her stomach on the sill when she found her footing. She then moved easily along to an auxiliary roof, which she crossed to a tree with an overhanging branch.

Yo-wen, whose American name was Elizabeth, was one of the younger of the many children of a warlord in China. General Tso was taking part in a multi-cornered war between the Kuomintang forces of Chaing Kai-shek, the communists, the Japanese, and other warlords. He changed sides frequently, but, even so, the prospects of final victory were always uncertain. Having gotten most of his considerable fortune into a numbered account in a Swiss bank, he had then sent his favorite daughter to an elite American boarding school. She would there be perfectly safe.

Yo-wen had more military experience than most young ladies of her age. Their home provice and city had been attacked by a superior force two years previously, and, since it was much safer to be in an army than to be a girl in a city taken by a rival warlord, she became an aide to her father. However, in the chaotic guerilla attacks and ambushes with which he countered the invasion, it was more dangerous to be at his side than anywhere else on the battlefield. She had seen men close to her killed, and she had a few notches on her own German-made machine pistol. Indeed, she had proved to be a better warrior than her older brothers, and had continued to campaign until quite recently.

Like most people in Asia, and even in Europe, Yo-wen's picture of America had been constructed largely on the basis of wild west movies. It was hard to find anyone in China who didn't think that railway passengers in America risked being attacked by masked bandits on horseback. And, of course, it hadn't been so very long since the English explorer, Stanley, moving from deepest Africa to the American west, reported that Americans shot one another at table.

On her arrival in Boston six weeks earlier, Yo-wen hadn't seen any masked men at all. Moreover, the few horses all seemed to be pulling the junk wagons of so-called 'rag men.' But she did realize that she was in the east rather than the west, and that the violence would take other forms. Indeed, on her second day in the United States, a man had rushed past her on a bicycle and crashed into a lilac bush. They seemed to use bicycles rather than horses in the east, and Yo-wen, first supposing that he had been stabbed by another bicyclist, was pleased to discover that it was only an accident.

Since then, Yo-wen had seldom been off the school grounds. Moreover, while her spoken English was quite good, she had access only to the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. The other papers were deemed by the headmistress to be too emotional and insufficiently objective.

Both the Times and the Monitor contained long and difficult sentences which often remained obscure despite Yo- wen's efforts. Quite apart from that, they concerned themselves with international developments, national politics, and the sciences. They said nothing about the battles being fought in the Boston area, and there was only one offhand mention of the local warlord. That gentleman, Mayor James Michael Curley, was oddly referred to as "the Irish Shamrock."

Whatever her uncertainties about the country and the local environment, Yo-wen felt quite comfortable as she moved deftly along the branch to the trunk of the tree. It was nothing to her to come quietly down a tree and kill a man standing unaware at the bottom. In this case, Mr. Sam Danderton, waiting at the base of the tree, wasn't attacked.

In the original bicycle accident which had occasioned their meeting, Yo-wen, who had often doubled as a nurse, was able to bring Mr. Danderton some comfort. Her technique, as usual, was to grab one foot and yank it hard while turning the toes outward. She had then looked with interest at the very tall and exotically handsome young man who had been flung at her on a day deemed especially propituous by the Book of Changes. The fact that he spoke some Chinese could hardly have been an accident, and suggested the workings of Heaven. Besides, she was ready for some excitement.

As nearly as Yo-wen was able to make out, through the medium of their partially shared Chinese dialect, Sam was a member of a paramilitary group. That was familiar ground to her. Indeed, her father employed peasants who suddenly dropped their hoes, picked up weapons, and became fearsome fighters. They, like Sam's group, were often cheered in the villages they liberated.

Again like Sam's group, General Tso's operators sometimes referred to themselves as tigers, or other predators. The group Sam fought in Boston, the Braves, were descended from the aboriginal warriors of the region. Sam himself belonged to the Phillies, a group named for the wild female horses who roamed the west. It was odd only that a group with such a name seemed to contain no women. Yo-wen was awaiting an invitation to join.

Since it wasn't yet midnight, Yo-wen and Sam made their way carefully through the school grounds. One of the resident teachers was known to have trouble sleeping, and had even been seen roaming the grounds in her dressing gown. However, there was a service drive leading to the garbage area that was shrouded by trees. A sleepless middle-aged woman would be attracted to the more romantic parts of the school grounds, and Yo-wen, leading, took advantage of that fact.

Sam, as ill became a guerilla fighter, had little tendency to take advantage of natural cover. Nor did he move with the swift silence of Yo-wen herself. She had told Sam, not so jokingly, that, if he stood in the middle of an open field on a clear night, she'd be able to approach him unseen and stab him in the back. But, then, what could one expect of a man who rode his bicycle straight into a bush? When General Tso discovered such a man in his forces, he shot him on the spot so that he wouldn't endanger others in battle. Yo-wen, however, was inclined to treat Sam gently.

When they left the school and reached Sam's rented car, he held the door for her. She appreciated such gestures even though, as now, they made her giggle. When he went around the car to his door, she crouched low on the front bench seat. Then, when he opened the door, she sprang at him with her battle cry. The result was so funny that Yo-wen laughed hard enough to give herself hiccoughs. They then stood there in the night, Sam massaging her back, until the hiccoughs went away. He said,

"Schools like this are supposed to civilize young ladies like you. I'm not sure it's working."

"I'm much more civilized than I used to be. The change is really quite extraordinary."

"Your British accent and manner of speech creates an unduly favorable impression. It must confuse the people at the school."

"I explained it to Miss Allen, the headmistress. I was given a traditional Chinese education for a well-born girl. That hasn't changed much since the time of K'ung Fu-tzu. But we children also had English tutors. My last one was a young Oxford graduate."

In fact, the English tutors had done their work so well that Yo-wen and Sam seldom tried to communicate in Chinese any more. But she was still happy that he knew something of her native language. He now asked, in English,

"What did the tutor do when you went on campaigns?"

"He came with us. He was amusing at times, rather like you. Once, in the middle of a battle, we were lying side by side under a bush and he said to me, 'This is actually quite marvellous.'"

"Englishmen of that sort used to go on grand tours after college. I can see that this young man was having a somewhat modified tour. He may also have liked lying next to you."

"Ah Sam, you think always of sex. Perhaps you're not so very civilized yourself."

"You like it, too. Anyhow, I've brought your outfit in the suitcase in back."

Yo-wen, on arriving in America, had discovered many things to her liking. One was western dancing, and the other was the clothing that American women wore. She had quickly become expert at the former, and the ladies at the school, shocked by the extent to which a traditional shi-po exposed the legs, had helped her acquire suitable clothing for a girl her age.

The only trouble was that, if she were arrayed in one of her school girl outfits, she probably wouldn't be admitted to the night-club where she and Sam danced. She therefore reached for the suitcase in the back seat and began putting on the silk stockings. At one point Sam swerved and almost hit a tree.

There were a few things about American women that still baffled Yo-wen. Unlike herself, they were ashamed of nakedness. But they also liked to have bits of themselves show momentarily. That was, indeed, the way in which they attracted men. Yo-wen was determined to learn these things, hopefully without causing Sam to repeat his bicycle accident on a larger scale with an automobile containing herself.

They stopped a few miles down the road, at a closed gas station, so that she could complete her arrangements. In the reflection of the glass front of the station, she fussed with her hair, make-up and lipstick until she was confident that everything was just right. Already very tall for a Chinese girl, her high heels brought her up to a reasonable height for Sam. With a severe expression on her face, she looked at least twenty-one. When they approached the night-club entrance, she would imagine that she was considering whether to behead the prisoners they had just taken.

Once again, it worked. As they were led to their table, Yo-wen, her keen hearing always ready for the faint sounds of danger, heard a woman say, "Look at that exquisite Chinese girl!" Such comments were quite gratifying, and she gave Sam a dazzling smile.

Sam was an excellent dancer who could spin and even lift Yo-wen in all sorts of interesting ways. He was really very strong, quick, and agile, just not very well trained for war. After dancing for more than an hour, they sat and ordered supper. Sam, as usual, was curious about her experiences. This night, the questions were military.

Yo-wen wound up drawing maps on the paper napkins and arranging silverware to illustrate formations. Since General Tso's staff officers did their best to follow him with maps and folding tables, Yo-wen had always had reasonable access to the larger picture.

Sam was the sort of man who could re-construct the Battle of Gettysburg, or that of Waterloo, hour by hour. Amid all the noise and laughter, not to mention the frantic movements of some of the dancers, Yo-wen said to Sam,

"We must look as if we're planning the robbery of a bank."

Sam laughed, and they danced again.

Later, when the club closed, they drove to a town, Waltham, which was near the school. They there approached a little area of rough ground between a junk yard and the main line of the Boston and Maine Railroad. As they moved into it, Sam turned off the lights and let the car rumble slowly over the deep ruts in the ground. Yo-wen, who insisted on being called Elizabeth in her American evening gown, had learned American ways sufficiently to pretend not to know why they had come there. Sam announced,

"Wonderful trains, bigger than any you've ever seen, will come by here, right beside us. The B & M runs its heavy freight trains at night."

Sam then wanted Elizabeth to remove her dress, and seemed ready to help. She had intended to in any case, but her careful conversations with other girls on such subjects caused her to refuse vociferously to do any such thing. It happened only slowly by tiny degrees.

When whe was out of her dress, but still had everything else on, she declared herself to be Yo-Beth, a beautiful Eurasian woman who spied on railways. There was then a distant sound, a cross between the whoo-whooing of an owl and the hoarse cry of an old man afflicted with bad bronchitis. Sam identified it as a locomotive whistle, but they at first weren't sure whether it was on their line. However, as the train passed a grade crossing every half mile or so, the sound grew louder and more sharply defined. Yo-Beth, used to the "toot-toot" of trains in China, was puzzled. Sam explained,

"Everything about an American train, even the whistle, is much bigger and more powerful."

Yo-Beth popped out of the car to see better. She was aware that her white slip made her easily visible, but there didn't seem to be many snipers in America. Sam immediately got out and stood next to her, his warmth feeling good in the cool night.

A brisk, indeed very fast, chugging could be heard next, evidently coming from around the bend. Then, a minute later, there was a tower of flame showing clearly in the night. Yo- Beth wondered if the train was on fire, but was assured that it was the normal exhaust of the engine. Sam then suggested,

"We might get back a bit. The engine's working hard, and there may be a scattering of hot cinders."

Yo-Beth, now seeing the big black engine under the flame, allowed herself to be eased back a few feet. She could see steam and smoke as well as flame, the whole affair being blasted a hundred feet in the air by the violence of the great roaring engine.

Things then happened fast. Suddenly caught in the beam of the headlight, Yo-Beth could hardly see at all as hundreds of tons of hot black steel seemed about to land on top of her. She clutched Sam as it hurtled by with a great whoosh. There was then a caterwauling pandemonium as the freight cars were dragged screeching and squealing along, their wheels sometimes bouncing above the rails. When the train was gone, Sam said,

"The engineer whistled when he saw you. This isn't a grade crossing."

"Did he whistle because I was too close or because he thought I was pretty?"

"Probably both."

Back in the car, Sam started the engine and turned on the heater.

Yo-wen had somewhat mixed attitudes about sex. There was the view of her parents (nothing until an appropriate marriage has been arranged and taken place), the American view (use sex as a bargaining tool to get what you want), and her own inclination (try anything that looks interesting and exciting). However, she knew very well how babies were made, and was sure she didn't want one. Fortunately Sam didn't seem at all inclined to press the issue. But he liked to talk when they were closely intertwined, and could whisper in one another's ears.

Sam usually asked Yo-wen about herself, telling her very little about himself in return. On this occasion, she asked him what his father was like. Was he, for example, like General Tso?

Yo-wen could feel Sam laugh with his whole body. No, his father wasn't like that. But he had made a lot of money in oil and aluminum with his own holding company. Yo-wen imagined thousands of oil tanks and vast fields piled high with ingots of aluminum. She asked,

"Does he expect you to help him run this company?"

"No. It's my older brother who's gone in with him. When Father dies, Ezra will either take it over or sell it."

"That's how it is with my oldest brother. But my father finds fault with everything he does."

"It's not easy for Ezra either. These self-made men are hard to please."

"Would your help in running the company be accepted if you offered it?"

"Up to a point. But I'm not really trusted."

"Do your father and brother think you'd steal money?"

"No. They think I don't care enough about money. But they think I'm unreliable in other ways."

Yo-wen didn't think it tactful to ask what those other ways were, and she instead asked,

"Will you get a share of the money from this company?"

"I imagine that my sister and I will be looked out for, but I don't know to what extent. I'm certainly not doing what Father wants."

Yo-wen, guiding Sam's mouth to her newly bared breast, giggled and said,

"Neither am I."

Bill Todd -- DANDERTON: A Novel of the Thirties and Forties
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