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.
Tuesday, 19th October 1920
I shouldn’t have gone. Why did I go? Curse this restless thirst for excitement! You would think living on one’s own miles from home in the most thrilling city in the world ought to be enough, but no. I’ve got to rush off to see married authors in clandestine circumstances.
Sebastian Hardie is married! I suppose I ought to have known that, but he isn’t quite posh enough to be in Debrett’s, and he certainly didn’t mention it in his letter. What a lot of nonsense he spouted about it in person–but I am getting ahead of myself.
It was a whole week before he wrote. I’d almost persuaded myself that he wouldn’t when I received the letter. It was rather warm in its sentiments, considering we’d only met the once. But I must confess something shocking: I wasn’t shocked.
The problem is that I have never had the chance to be naughty. When I was little I was too busy reading books for it to occur to me. When I was older there was never any opportunity–everybody I knew was so well-behaved, and it’s no fun being bad on your own. Now I am living on my own in London and ignoring pleas to return home, which I suppose is badness enough.
But I want a chance to be properly bad. So far all I have done as an unaccompanied maiden in London is read and write and cook. This is hardly tasting the delights of debauchery in the immoral West.
Of course, I didn’t go to see Hardie with the idea of debauching–or being debauched, I suppose, since I imagine any bauch he ever had has long been removed. (Certainly his letter gives this impression. I had to look up most of the words.) I just wanted to see what would happen.
This time the butler knew me. He ushered me in when I’d scarcely even given my name. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I certainly didn’t think to find the family sat down to tea.
There was Hardie, looking like a statue with a mind too grand for pigeons to disturb, and a queenly woman with lovely red hair, and two little boys. It was the little boys that made me stop. The letter burned in my pocket.
“Oh,” I said. “Is this not Hardy’s house? I’m sure the man outside told me Thomas Hardy lived here. I read Jude the Obscure and thought I should come to England and tell Mr. Hardy how I admired it. I must go and give that man outside a piece of my mind. I’m so sorry to have bothered you–”
“Do sit down, my dear,” said the lovely red-haired one. “We’ve been expecting you. Sebastian’s told me all about you.”
“I hope you don’t mind that we’ve begun without you,” said Hardie. “Julian and Clive were ravening for their tea, and we don’t stand on ceremony in this house. This is my wife Diana.”
There seemed nothing to do but to sit down.
“That’s all right,” I said. “Tea is a made-up meal to me anyway.”
“Do you not have tea in China?” said Diana.
The British are a peculiar race. My grandfather was transported to Malaya because they needed tin, and yet I’ve never once met a Briton to whom the thought had occurred that perhaps I spoke English because I am from one of their colonies. It is as if I were a piece of chess in a game played by people who never looked down at their fingers.
“We have the beverage, but not the buns,” I said, to avoid tiresome explanation.
“I am glad to be English, then. I should miss the buns,” said Diana. “And you were the one who wrote about the terrible Mimnaugh, if I recall correctly.”
“That’s right,” I said.
“Dear Ravi, what magnificent risks he takes,” said Diana, smiling.
“One loves him for his purity,” said Hardie. “He’s quite unspoilt, despite Cambridge and all this unhealthy mingling with lesser specimens of the Bloomsbury genus.”
“Yes. Ravi,” I said, “is more like a mountain view than a human being, really.”
They laughed, though I am not sure that we were all amused at the same thing. The conversation was like walking along a narrow cliff path in the dark, never knowing whether the next step would take you over the edge. And yet one was drawn in despite oneself.
I think Hardie could sense I was cross, because he said:
“Ravi certainly has a genius for seeking out the genuine. I do not know anyone with such an unerring eye.”
“Your essay bears out that truth,” said Diana, nodding at me. “But Sebastian, we were discussing Mrs. Woolf’s novel. You did not like it?”
Hardie shrugged. “I did not think there was anything to like, or dislike for that matter. There is nothing there. It is all surface.”
“Sebastian is really a thwarted reactionary,” said Diana to me. “He hates to see anyone do anything new with a book, or for anyone new to do it.”
“Calumny!” cried Hardie.
“I must say I share Hardie’s feelings in this,” I said, thinking of The Duke’s Folly.
We spoke of literature, or rather Hardie and Mrs. Hardie did, until the buns were consumed. Then Hardie got up:
“Our visitor shall decide. If you will come to the library with me, I’ll dig up the book for you and we shall see what you think of it. I shall be deeply injured if you think it no worse than Mimnaugh.”
“Go on, my dear,” said Diana, looking up from the table. “Julian takes ever so long over his tea.”
I trotted obediently out of that sun-drenched familial scene into the dusty seclusion of the library. Hardie shut the door behind me, swept me into his arms, and kissed me.
His chin was rough and he smelt of tobacco. I hit him in the chest and shrieked.
“Please, there’s no need to be distressed,” he gasped. “You looked so beautiful in the light–I couldn’t contain myself. I thought you wouldn’t mind.”
There was a sturdy-looking desk. I planted myself behind it.
“By what byzantine chain of logic did you arrive at that conclusion?” I demanded.
“Did you not read my letter?”
“This letter?” I took the letter out of my pocket and waved it at him. “This letter? Is this a letter for a married man to write?”
Hardie stopped looking foolish. His face softened. His eyes went kind.
“Is that the problem?” he said. “Dear girl–dear innocent girl. I shall explain all.”
“Not with two minors in the house, you won’t,” I said.
“I love Diana. She is my mate in the purest, truest sense of the word,” he said. “But the glory of a love such as ours is that it is subject to no limits. The wellspring of an eternal love does not run dry. Diana knows this as well as I. We are as one in this, as in everything. We promised each other at the very beginning that we should never allow any appalling Victorian archaism to be a restriction on us. I am allowed my passions–for literature, for art, for beauty in all its forms.”
He was coming closer. He was so dreadfully good-looking! I am not used to good-looking gentlemen leaning very close and speaking in low tender tones. Girls ought to be given training in their youth, to be prepared for such an eventuality.
“And Diana’s passions?” I said.
The light in Hardie’s eyes dimmed.
“The conjugal act gives her little pleasure,” he said. “But she knows all of my heart and mind–she has joy in that, and in our children, and the garden. She has her own friends. She paints–she will never be great, but it gives her pleasure.”
“Quite the perfect marriage,” I said.
I had thought the position behind the desk the most secure, because with the wide rampart of the desk before me, I would only have to defend a limited space. It now became apparent that there was a flaw in my thinking. Having a limited space to defend also meant there was limited space for escape–space that could all too easily be filled up by the determined bulk of a man.
Hardie is surprisingly tall for a sensitive poet type.
“With such ideal domestic arrangements, I can scarcely see why you would need me,” I said.
Perhaps I could scramble over the desk? Oh dear.
He smelt really very nice.
“Can you not?” Hardie whispered. He kissed me again.
I’m afraid I melted against him a bit. No one had touched me in months and months. Mine was an affectionate family and I missed human contact. And I have never been touched by a man, so of course that was exciting.
Hardie was doing quite uncivil things with his mouth. It was a trifle wet, but warm and strangely pleasant.
A pigeon took off from the window. The sound of its wings woke me out of my stupor. I broke away and said to Hardie,
“I am going home now.”
“Will you come and see me again?” said Hardie.
I know what he means by “see me”! I am not so innocent as all that! And he can’t have thought me so very innocent, considering the letter he wrote me. Anyone who wanted to stay innocent would have been scared away by that.
Perhaps that was the point.
That was quite a lot badder than I meant to be.
I do not know what to think. I have been restless all day.