I’m posting a section a day of my epistolary romance novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. You can read it online for free here (click on the “Perilous Life of Jade Yeo” category to access the other posts), or you can buy the ebook at Smashwords or Amazon. The ebook contains the complete 23,000-word novella.
Thursday, 3rd February 1921
I told Hardie and Diana today. I did it almost as soon as I had sat down, for fear that I should lose my nerve if I waited. Diana was pouring us tea when I turned to Hardie and said:
“Hardie, you have said to me before that you tell Mrs. Hardie everything, don’t you?”
“My dear,” said Diana. “Call me Diana, please.”
Hardie smiled at her. “Indeed there are no secrets between us.”
Diana put down her teapot and passed me my cup of tea.
“Is this why you don’t come to see us half as often as you should?” she said. “My dear, I know everything–everything. And I can’t say how happy it makes me that Hardie should have found a gem like you.”
“Oh, it’s not that,” I said hastily. “I’ve just been rather busy. It is kind of you to keep inviting me. But I did tell Hardie that I had no intention of disrupting your family routine.”
“She’s had her fill of me and would throw me away like an old toy,” Hardie confided in Diana.
“And it delights me that you are such an obdurate gem,” said Diana to me. “You can’t think how good it is for him. The course of life is altogether too smooth for Sebastian and a good snubbing is tremendously bracing for his constitution. He wakes up in the morning snorting like a bull and dashes to his study and writes three articles before lunchtime.”
I saw I would have to turn the tide of the conversation, or be swept away with it.
“I’m glad he has been so fruitful,” I said. “Because I have been as well. In fact that’s what I wanted to speak to you both about today.”
Hardie was still laughing, but Diana’s elegant dark eyebrows drew together. She is much more intelligent than Hardie. I wonder if anyone else has noticed this?
“I am going to have a child,” I said. “I thought you ought to know. Only mind I’ve already picked out names for it. It shan’t have stupid names like–” I caught myself before I said “Julian, or Clive”. They are stupid names, but presumably Hardie and Diana wouldn’t have given them to their children if they had thought so.
“It shall have a sensible Chinese name, anyway,” I said. “‘Light’ if it is a boy and ‘Valour’ if it is a girl.”
Hardie ran his hand through his hair.
“Ah,” he said.
“Oh my word,” said Diana faintly. She looked at Hardie, who sat hunched in his chair, looking like a schoolboy who has destroyed his great-uncle’s collection of antique erotic figurines.
“It is his, I’m afraid,” I said apologetically. “I haven’t–um–with anyone else. And we’ve never had a case of virgin birth in my family. But you aren’t to worry about it. I didn’t bring it up to be horrible. I shan’t tell anyone, or make a scandal. Only–”
It was dreadful to say it. But if I have learnt anything from my mother it is that one has got to carry out one’s responsibilities, and something as trivial as personal pride can’t be allowed to stand in the way.
“I haven’t got any money, you see,” I said. “I won’t need a great deal, but for a midwife and things–and I suppose school in future–there isn’t anyone else I can ask. My mother and father are far away, and–”
But I’d decided not to talk or think about what my mother and father would say if they knew, because the only thing that could have made the whole thing worse was my bawling like the baby I am going to have. I shut my mouth and looked at them.
Diana had sat there listening with an awful fixed face, her beautiful mouth in a stern line. Now she said, without taking her eyes off me,
“Sebastian, you must go. This is a thing between women.”
Quietly she said it, but Hardie got up and went without a murmur. Anyone would have done. I felt like a fox backed into a corner, with the yelping of the hounds coming closer. But even so I admired her tremendously. Being with Diana must be like living in a beautiful play written by a playwright of the modern school.
When Hardie had left, Diana got up and sat down next to me and took my hands in hers. She has very soft hands, as some women do, smelling of lavender like my mother’s. I looked up from her hands and saw that her eyes were full of tears.
“My dear Jade, to hear you talking like this–every word is a reproach to me. You must think we are absolute dragons. No, you know what Sebastian is–you know he is the dearest man alive–so you must think I am a dragon,” she said. “How can you think that I would attack you now of all times? To speak as if we would quarrel over giving you money for Sebastian’s child! As if we would not take you in as our own–as if we would blame you, when the only sin you have committed was to love, which is no sin.”
I goggled at her. Diana laughed, took out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes.
“Is it so astonishing that I should speak as a human being?” she said. “Did you think I would box you on the ears and throw you out on the street?”
“No,” I said.
But I felt this was very peculiar behaviour for a first wife. I suppose she does have two sons, but all the same one doesn’t expect roses and chocolate for the declaration that one has been made pregnant by someone else’s husband. I said this (though I didn’t mention first wives and sons).
It had the effect of making Diana take my hands again.
“My dear,” she said. “When Sebastian and I promised to marry, we also promised that it should never ever become a shackle on us. And it should have grieved me if Sebastian, who has a heart large enough for the world–,” (heart! More like penis) –“were forced to cage it and let it wither and shrivel and become a dry dusty thing. It should have grieved me far more than his having other loves has done.
“It has not always been easy. I have not liked everyone Sebastian has liked. He is so loving, you know, so childlike in his ready affections. I’m afraid I am much more reserved. But I am happy knowing he is happy. And I liked you the minute I saw you. And even if I did not like you, I could not hate anyone who was bearing Sebastian’s child–Julian and Clive’s little brother or sister.”
“I like you too,” I said. I hesitated. “Do you really not mind?”
Diana smiled. “Never enough to choose to destroy everything that is good and true and whole in my life. Besides, it would be churlish of me to mind when Sebastian allows me the same liberty.”
“Oh, does he?” I said, sounding probably more surprised than I should have. I tried to make up for it by adding quickly: “Har–Sebastian hadn’t mentioned it.”
“Sebastian is wonderful–you know how wonderful–but he doesn’t always understand,” said Diana. “I tell him everything about my friendships. He knows my whole heart. But I suppose, for a man, it is rather difficult to understand how very much a woman may value the company of other women.”
I was frightfully interested. One knows about Oscar Wilde and men like that, but I’d never known a woman who liked women that way.
“Do you have lots of beaus as well, then?” I said.
Diana went pink. With her red hair, it made her look like a very pretty lobster.
“I am not quite as unreserved as Sebastian, by nature,” she said. “But … do you know the painter Colette Lallemant?”
“The one who was at your Christmas party?” I said. I recalled a slim snakey-hipped woman, with bobbed hair and kohl-lined eyes, smoking a cigarette in a long cigarette holder and leaning over to whisper in Diana’s ear–“Oh.”
She squeezed my hand.
“Sebastian is the only man for whom I have felt any passion,” she said. “I think, loving women as I do, it makes it much easier for me to understand his loves. And I hope, my dear, you would never find me less than understanding. I don’t expect you to love me, of course, or even like me, at first, when you hardly know me, and perhaps your feeling for Sebastian makes liking me difficult. But when we have lived together for a while, perhaps we will become friends. And I shall love your child, whether it is Light or Valour. We have not had a baby in the house for years.”
I felt the conversation had moved beyond my capacity for comprehension.
“I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand,” I said. “Why will the baby be in your house?”
“Of course you must come and live with us,” said Diana. “It is nonsense, this talk about money. You have been very noble–Sebastian has told me all about it, how you said you would not come to live with us out of consideration for my feelings. But now you know I am not an ogre, and know how much I should love to have you, you will come, of course.”
This was not how I had expected the meeting to go. I was feeling rather dazed. I imagine I would have felt much the same if I had gone into a lion’s den, thinking I would have my hand bitten off, and instead been kidnapped by a troop of affectionate apes, who took me away to their treetop abode and crowned me as their queen.
It was not that I didn’t appreciate their kindness, but being chimpanzee regent is not any part of my idea of how I wish to live my life.
“Surely there would be talk,” I tried.
Diana waved this away.
“We shall tell people that you were married in China, and have been widowed, and are come to stay with us to teach our children,” she said. “Or you could be Hardie’s assistant–yes, perhaps that would be better. There will be talk, but not by anyone worth our esteem. And once people are used to it they will pay it no mind.”
A widowed secretary or governess is better than a concubine, perhaps. All the same:
“That is very kind of you, Mrs.–Diana,” I said. “I can’t say how much I feel your kindness. You have been so much better to me than I had any right to expect. But I can’t accept your offer. I’m afraid I must repeat my request for financial support–and–and nothing else.”
Diana let go of my hand and sat back.
I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but I didn’t want to hurt her. And I didn’t want her to think ill of me–to think that I was only looking for money, and did not care about the affection and kindness she had offered me.
I could not tell her that I had no intention of being anyone’s Jane Eyre, particularly as Jane Eyre herself declined to be a second wife. (Bronte again. Hardie is too silly to be like Mr. Rochester. But Diana reminds one of Jane’s incandescently good women friends–Helen Burns, and Jane’s Rivers cousins.)
I couldn’t live with her to please her. But I could return her honesty with some of my own. I couldn’t have told anyone else. I did not even like telling Diana, because it was bound to get back to Hardie if I did. But she had given me a piece of her nice heart, and I felt I ought to give her a piece of mine in return.
“I am sorry,” I said, “But I have something rather shocking to tell you. I don’t love Hardie at all. I like him very much, but–well, it was all just a bit of adventure. I had the nicest childhood, but my parents were so affectionate and solicitous they never let one do anything at all. It was so terrifically dull. One sleepwalked through one’s days. So now that I am awake I feel I must do everything I can–see everything–taste everything.”
I looked down at myself, feeling shy.
“This was rather a stupid way to end up,” I said. “But I made my mistake and I intend to own up to it womanfully. I thought of finding a wise woman, you know, to see if I could get rid of it–but it would be awfully painful, and I’ve always liked babies. I shall go and have the baby somewhere quiet, and do my best to bring it up properly, and see that its life isn’t any harder than it’s got to be. But I must do it on my own.
“I really am conventional, you see. I told Hardie so and he didn’t believe me. But it’s true. I couldn’t live the way Hardie does, or even the way you do, with two loves crowding your heart. My heart only has space for one person.”
I meant to tell her who it was, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it, I felt so damnably embarrassed. Instead I said,
“And if I’m not to have the only one I want, I won’t have anyone else. I am sorry.”
Diana was very gracious about it. She called Hardie back in and we discussed the thing civilly, like adults, and when I left she kissed me on the cheek like a sister.
There was just a touch of frost in it, however. I think she was still a trifle offended. I ought to have told her who I meant, but I couldn’t say it.
I am such a coward! I can’t say it now. No, I must. When I have said it I can lay it to rest.
I love Ravi. I didn’t know it until I saw him on Tuesday and my heart twisted in my chest, with a happiness so acute and so sad that it made me feel like crying.
But now I know it, I know I always have loved him, ever since I climbed up those dark creaking stairs to his box of an office, and he looked up and smiled as if he had been waiting for me. And I know I shall always love him, as I shall always hate custard and find dogs charming.
If I love someone like Ravi, someone who is quiet and kind and true, how can I possibly think of living with Hardie and Diana? They are amusing, but they are not real. It would be like forswearing rice, and only eating cake for the rest of my life. I couldn’t do it.
My parents would point out that I should have thought about that before I engaged in an educational liaison with Hardie.
What a mess I have made of things. What a bloody mess.