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.
Friday, 8th October 1920
There’s too much to say about the party. I hardly even know where to start.
I started to regret accepting the invitation the minute a butler the approximate size of a mountain opened the door. He looked at me as if he were wondering why I hadn’t gone to the traders’ entrance. When I had managed to persuade him that I had been invited and was led to the drawing room, it was like being plunged into a jungle full of hornbills and parrots. It was bright and noisy and close and warm, and so horribly crowded with dashing people all of whom knew each other, and none of whom I knew.
A nice Indian servant gave me a drink (I wish I could have spoken to him). I skulked in a corner clutching it and trying as hard as I could to look inscrutable and aloof, but feeling scrutable and loof as anything.
It was one of those London townhouses that have long narrow faces on the outside but turn out to have unexpected dimensions on the inside–they go up and out forever. The rooms were large, and the furnishings were beautiful, but almost pointedly worn, just in case you thought they had been bought new. I expect Hardie’s great-grandfathers themselves obtained them in a looting on some colonial excursion. There were some very bad examples of Chinese porcelain on the mantelpiece.
The people were the sort of people whose grandparents could have had chicken every day if they had wanted it. The men were beautiful and the women looked intelligent. They were a pleasure to gaze at, pretty as a picture and as real, but the whole thing made me wish I read the papers more. At parties it is as it is with gossip: it’s not half as good if you don’t know who the players are.
One of the guests passed me her empty glass, thinking I suppose that I was a servant, and I was just wondering whether I should take it as an opportunity to make a break for the kitchen and thence outside when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Enjoying yourself?” said Ravi, nodding at the two glasses I was holding.
“Oh, thank goodness,” I said. It was such a relief to see a familiar face. I could have hugged him. “Do you know anyone here? I have no idea who anybody is. They really should set up some sort of system. The butler could label people as they came in. Just something discreet–a tag with their names and some indication of their relative notoriety would do. A gold tag for the Queen, silver for a Kipling. That sort of thing.”
“I’m acquainted with some people here,” said Ravi. He looked around. “Of course, almost everyone you’d know by sight or reputation.”
“Are they important?” I said glumly. Ravi smiled.
“It depends on what you mean by important,” he said. “They’re the sort of people who would benefit from being seen at Hardie’s party. And Hardie gains a certain cachet from having them here.”
He was too polite to ask what I was doing there, so I explained:
“I was included because of that blasted review. Hardie sent me an invitation, with a personal note and everything. I thought it would be an experience.”
“How are you finding it so far?” said Ravi.
“I feel a bit of a tomato,” I said. I looked down at my bright red dress.
“Is that the one you bought with the proceeds of ‘The Well-Dressed Woman’?” Ravi remembers the things one has said. It’s a small thing, but it shows what sort of person he is.
“No, it’s an old dress,” I said. “I decided to save the money for my grandchildren.”
“Well,” said Ravi. He seemed about to swallow his words before he said them, but then his mouth went firm and he said, “Old or new, you look beautiful in it.”
I expect I went as red as the dress. I was trying to think of something graceful to say in reply when thankfully Ravi stopped paying attention to me and started looking at something over my shoulder. I turned around to see what it was, and saw Sebastian Hardie.
“I’m very pleased to see you, Ravi,” he said. “I thought you might be too sensible to come.”
“I’m afraid curiosity overcame sense for once,” said Ravi. “One knows there’s always something worth turning up for at your gatherings.” He shook Hardie’s hand. “May I introduce you to my friend?”
“I’m not sure I need an introduction,” said Hardie. “‘The terrible Mimnaugh‘, I presume?”
He wasn’t what I expected at all. I’d seen his picture in Vogue and so had known he was good-looking, in the style of a Romantic poet living in the Lake District. He had a long face with dark hair curling over a white forehead, and wrinkles around his eyes that made him look melancholy when solemn and sweet when he smiled. But he wasn’t at all grand.
The most surprising thing about him in person was that he struck one as being sincere. He had a very grave, intense look that, when directed at one, made one feel one ought to say something interesting to deserve it.
“Hardly anyone calls me that,” I said absurdly. Hardie smiled as if I’d made a joke. He had a nice smile as well–one that quirked the ends of his mouth just slightly, so that it had a quality of distance. He looked like he was smiling in a daydream, or at the sound of children’s laughter.
“It was kind of you to reply to my invitation,” he said. “You must forgive me for my importunacy. I was grateful for the attention you gave Mimnaugh, even if you didn’t find the poor fellow to your liking.”
“Oh,” I said.
He was so good-looking! It is dreadful when people are good-looking and pay attention to you. It rarely happens to me, so I didn’t know what to do with myself.
“I did like some of your other books,” I offered.
“Please don’t apologise,” said Hardie. “I read your review with great interest, if not precisely pleasure–I’m not quite advanced enough for that, I’m afraid. But it would have been churlish to be offended. A really serious reader is a treasure for any author.”
I thought of the novelette on my bedside table. It’s sitting on top of Dream of Red Chamber, which I have been meaning to read for ages, only I’ve misplaced my Chinese dictionary somewhere, so I have been reading other things while waiting for the dictionary to turn up.
Right now my substitute book is The Duke’s Folly. The Duke is searching for the naive yet spirited young governess who has helped him throw off his malaise (dukes are always in terrible danger of lapsing into a malaise; it must be all that fox-hunting and quail). But the heroine has gone to the country and is living with her amusing but embarrassingly middle-class sister. I can’t imagine the sort of face Hardie would make if he came upon The Duke’s Folly on his bedside table, but I love reading it. It’s like sinking into a warm bath, or eating a bowl of congee with thousand-year eggs.
“I take all my reading seriously,” I said.
“I could tell. That is why I wanted to meet you,” said Hardie.
“Yes. I thought the review was written with remarkable insight,” said Ravi. Hardie’s grave interested expression wobbled a bit, but Ravi didn’t seem to notice. He said to me,
“Shall I get you another drink?”
“Yes–no–” But by the time I’d made up my mind he was gone, leaving me alone with Hardie.
“There’s an interesting mind,” said Hardie, looking after Ravi.
“Ravi is a brick,” I said.
Hardie smiled that absent-minded smile. “One does love him. But it remains to be seen whether there is true originality there, or whether it is simply cleverness,” he said. “Now, you are a different matter.”
It was difficult not to be flattered by that, but–
“How do you know?” I said. “You’ve only just met me. And you only read that one article. It was five hundred words and mostly complaining.”
“We’ve met before in a previous life, of course,” said Hardie. His face gleamed with humour. “Probably you were a porcupine then. How did Ravi find you?”
“I found him,” I said. “I went to the doctor’s one day and saw the Oriental Literary Review in the waiting room, and I wrote down the editor’s address and went to see him the next day. I was quite surprised to find he was so young. I thought he would be old and bearded, and wear moon-shaped spectacles.”
“Why did you go?” said Hardie.
“Oh, I fell and scraped my knee,” I said. “It sounds ridiculous but it hurt terribly. Has it ever happened to you? It’s as if your heart has picked itself up out of your chest and moved down to your knee. It sits there and pulses. You feel horribly exposed. And then the knee went filmy and yellow, and started to drip–”
“Thank you, I have a clear enough idea,” said Hardie, grimacing. “I meant to ask why you went to find Ravi.”
I knew that, of course. I suppose the question isn’t that personal in itself, but the answer is something I’d rather not tell strangers. But Hardie’s face was intent and listening. He wasn’t only pretending to be interested. I said,
“I’d already sold a few pieces to–” perhaps I shouldn’t mention my series on five ways to spruce up an old party dress–“to some other magazines, and I thought he might pay me to write things. But the other reason was because I was lonely.”
“Were you?” Hardie looked at me. I thought he was going to say something serious and philosophical about loneliness, but instead he lifted his hand and traced the air just above my cheekbones, almost touching me but not quite.
“It’s a shame I’m no sort of artist,” he said, so low I had to strain to hear him over the noise. “How I should like to paint those lines.”
Now what is one supposed to say to that?
“I’m sure you’d be nice to paint too,” I said, unable to think of anything better.
“Poor Ariel,” he said. “Alone on an incomprehensible island. Has any other mariner heard your whispers, or did they think it just the wind?”
“I’m really more of a Caliban,” I said primly.
Hardie tilted his head.
“Even better,” he said.
At that point, thank goodness, someone called out to him: “Hardie! We need your opinion on a matter of very great importance!” He sounded serious and precise and drunk, so it was probably something silly.
Before I could turn away, Hardie put his hand on my arm.
“Come and see me again,” he said.
That was all. The next moment he had vanished in the crowd, and I fled. I didn’t even say goodbye to Ravi. I hope he didn’t spend too much time searching for me.
I do not like Hardie, it was beastly what he said about Ravi being only clever. And he wrote a foolish book. Being good-looking and interesting and having the heavy-lidded gaze of a romantic tapir does not excuse writing a foolish book.
Perhaps he did not mean it. Probably he did not mean it. If he did not mean it, it is all right. I will wake up tomorrow and water my pansies and write as usual. This will be nothing but a dream.
My red dress smells of alcohol and smoke.