Posted by Alice Xin Liu on Friday, March 6, 2009 at 12:30 PM
Linda Jaivin, a writer of erotic fiction and an old China hand who is currently working on a bilingual Chinese opera, is author of a new book A Most Immoral Woman.
Based on her findings about the real-life love affair between The Times of London correspondent George Morrison and Mae Ruth Perkins, seductive daughter of a millonaire, the novel fabricates based on fact, and presents China at the beginning of the twentieth century when Japanese and Russian forces were closing in on China's Northeast.
A Most Immoral Womanby Linda Jaivin (excerpt)
The morning’s activities transpired as Morrison had predicted. By early afternoon, the correspondent, the military attaché and the servant stood on the platform at Newchang Station. Morrison’s nose burned with cold and his toes ached numbly inside his thick woollen socks and leather boots. The saturnine sky began to dissolve into snow just as a whistle announced the train’s arrival.
The journey took most of the afternoon. The men read aloud from their notebooks: missionaries were withdrawing their womenfolk from the peninsula; Russian troops had threatened to torch an entire town if the Chinese army, which had arrived to protect the frightened residents, did not leave immediately; two hundred and ninety-eight mines set by Russians and Japanese to blow up one another’s armadas were adrift in open water, threatening shipping.
‘A stupid day,’ Morrison summed up, ‘spent in the accumulation of petty detail.’
Dumas grimaced. ‘What will you focus on in your telegram?’
‘It hardly matters. Whatever I write, those peace lovers in Printing House Square will indubitably temper it before publication.’ Morrison knew that it was not just out of consideration for his health that Bell had given the task of reporting on the war to other correspondents. His editor was wary of his partisanship. Japan might be an ally of Britain, but Britain’s official stance was neutral and Bell was determined to see The Times’s coverage reflect that.
By the time the train pulled into the old garrison town of Mountain-Sea Pass at the eastern terminus of the Great Wall, the men were fatigued into companionable silence and the sun had set on an undulating white landscape.
Outside the station, a row of flickering lanterns indicated the presence of ricksha men. As the train disgorged its passengers, the runners jumped to their feet, shaking out their legs and shouting for custom. A Japanese invention, the ricksha had taken off in China where the press of more than four hundred million people in a parlous economy made men cheaper than horses. Now Kuan was trying to procure three of them for even less still.
At last the three men were bouncing along on the thinly padded seats towards their hotel outside the walls of the Chinese town, rough blankets tucked around their knees for warmth. Morrison glanced over at his companions. The lanterns swinging at their feet illuminated their faces from below like characters from a ghost story and captured his runner’s breath as a long, thin cloud. The runners’ felt boots, bound with rope for traction, slapped the frozen ground. Icicles hung from the curlicue limbs of a scholar tree and a dog barked beside a gloomy farmhouse. Ahead, the full moon was rising over the crenellated parapets of the Great Wall. If Morrison were a different sort of person, he might have remarked that the night seemed full of poetry, mystery and magic. But his mind was filled with more prosaic thoughts of war, dinner and the prospect of a good night’s sleep.
The runners came to a balletic halt on bent knees at the entrance to the Six Kingdoms Hotel, a neat, relatively new, two-storey brick building with a front veranda gaudily painted green, blue, red and gold in the Chinese style.
Dumas raised one eyebrow as he surveyed the façade. ‘Like a marriage of military barracks and Chinese temple.’
‘What I like about it,’ said Morrison, clambering out of the ricksha, ‘is that the exterior exclaims, “You are in the Extreme Orient,” whilst the interior whispers, “You can still relax like a European.” And I, for one, am most assuredly looking forward to that.’
Once they’d checked in, Morrison threw his swag on the bed and made a note of his reluctant tip to the hotel boy as well as the money spent on rickshas. (As the son of a Scottish schoolmaster who’d gone to the Antipodes after what he called ‘a run of bad luck in the mother country’, Morrison had inherited a seemingly unshakeable sense of financial insecurity and the habit of counting pennies.) He then quickly sponged off the dust of the journey and changed into fresh clothes. Collecting Dumas from his room, he strolled with him down to the modest dining room.
As the maître d’ busied himself accommodating a large and fussy party of German engineers, Morrison looked around with mild curiosity and low expectations. The room hummed with polyglot conversation punctuated by the clink of silver on porcelain. A warm fug of wood fire with notes of roast meat and port filled his nostrils. At linen-covered tables set in the Western manner were seated missionaries, military attachés, railway men, traders in arms and supplies, dull men and their bony wives — the usual crowd, with one heart-stopping exception. Now here, Morrison thought, is excitement!
Seated at one of the tables was a young woman of exceptional allure, whose eyes flashed with both mischief and promise, and whose style suggested that she had just stepped off Fifth Avenue or the Champs-Elysées, not some dusty street in north China. Morrison did not know enough of couture to recognise that her outfit was a confection of Worth’s of Paris. But it did not take a student of the fashion plate to observe how stylish were the lines of her dress, how rich were its fabrics and how eloquently they hugged her curvaceous body. Similarly, Morrison was mesmerised by the glitter and grace of her lively hands despite it being lost on him that her rings were fabricated by Lalique. She radiated sex and money. He was drawn, sailor to siren, moth to flame.
Tearing his eyes off her, he turned to Dumas. ‘Who is this?’ he whispered, each syllable a compendium of wonder.
Dumas stroked his moustache and bit his lip. ‘This,’ he stated, ‘is Trouble.’
‘I fear I am much drawn to Trouble.’
‘I think Trouble has noticed. She was just looking at you. Ah, she has looked away again. Perhaps Trouble is not drawn to you, after all.’
‘Trouble is always drawn to me. Women are another thing. Do you know her?’
‘Actually I do.’ Dumas’s answer was slow, cautious. ‘She stays in Tientsin.’
‘Tell me all.’
‘Her name is Miss Mae Ruth Perkins. She’s had all of Tientsin aflutter since her arrival some weeks ago. She is the daughter of the self-made millionaire, shipping magnate and US senator from California, George Clement Perkins, previously governor of that Wild Western State.’
Millionaire? Senator? Be still my beating heart! ‘Pray tell, what is such a precious gem doing so far from its setting?’
‘One rumour is that she has come to China to escape scandal. Others say she has come to create it. The missionaries are hiding their daughters. Young Faith Biddle has reportedly already thrown over the Kingdom of God for the worship of Miss Perkins, causing her parents no end of consternation.’
‘Where does she stay?’
‘With the American consul.’
‘Ragsdale?’ Morrison made a face. ‘That’s like a brass mount for a diamond.’
‘Indeed. But I’m sure you’ve heard that as the publisher of the Sonoma County Daily Republican, Ragsdale obtained his post, and his escape from a howling pack of creditors stretching from Iowa to the west coast, thanks to a Party connection. That connection was apparently Miss Perkins’s father. And so Mrs Ragsdale has the interesting duty of acting as the young lady’s chaperone. That is her now at Miss Perkins’s table.’
‘So it is.’ Morrison had not registered Mrs Ragsdale’s presence. Although not quite fifty, Mrs Ragsdale had the unsexed appearance of a woman who had been married and thence neglected for a span of centuries. Whilst some women would have struggled against such a fate, Effie Ragsdale appeared to embrace it as Destiny.
‘Will you introduce me?’
‘To Mrs Ragsdale? With pleasure,’ Dumas replied dryly.
At their approach, Miss Perkins looked up. ‘The famous Dr Morrison. We meet at last.’
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