A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 19

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A Dream of Red Mansions019

Chapter 19

An Eloquent Maid Offers Earnest Advice

One Fine Night

A Sweet Girl Shows Deep Feeling

One Quiet Day

The day after her return to the Palace the Imperial Consort appeared before the Emperor to thank him for his kindness, and so pleased him with an account of her visit home that he sent rich gifts of satin, gold and silver from his privy store to Jia Zheng and other fathers of visiting ladies. But no more of this.

The inmates of the Rong and Ning Mansions were completely worn out after their recent exertions, and it took several days to remove and store away all the decorations and other movables from the Garden. The heaviest responsibility devolved upon Xifeng, who, unlike the others, had not a moment’s respite; but she was always so eager to shine, so anxious to give no one a handle against her, that she strove to carry out her many tasks as if they were nothing. Baoyu, on the other hand, was the one with the least to do and the most leisure.

One morning Xiren’s mother came and asked the Lady Dowager’s per­mission to take her daughter home to tea and keep her until the evening. So Baoyu was left to amuse himself with the other maids at dice or draughts. He was feeling rather bored when a girl announced that a message had come from Jia Zhen inviting him over to the Ning Mansion to watch some operas and see their New Year lanterns. While Baoyu was changing his clothes before setting out, a gift of sweetened junket arrived from the Imperial Con­sort. Remembering how Xiren had enjoyed this delicacy the last time they had some, he asked them to keep it for her. Then, having taken his leave of the Lady Dowager, he went over to the other mansion.

He was rather taken aback to find them performing operas like Mas­ter Ding Finds His Father, Huang Boyang Deploys Ghosts in a Battle, Monkey Plays Havoc in Heaven and The Patriarch Jiang Kills Gen­erals and Deifies Them. In all these, especially the two last, gods, ghosts, monsters and ogres took the stage among waving pennants, temple pro­cessions, invocations to Buddha and offerings of incense, while the din of gonging, drumming and shouting carried to the street outside. The passers­by commented appreciatively that no other family but the Jias could af­ford to put on such a lively entertainment. Only Baoyu, disgusted by such rowdy, showy proceedings, soon slipped away to amuse himself else­where.

First he went to the inner rooms to chat with Madam You and tease the maids and concubines there. And when he strolled out of the inner gate they did not see him off, assuming that he was going back to watch the performance. The menfolk — Jia Zhen, Jia Lian, Xue Pan and the rest were having such a good time gaming and drinking that they did not worry about his absence either, taking it for granted that he had gone inside. As for the servants who had come with him, the older ones, not expecting him to leave before dusk, sneaked off to gamble, drink New Year tea with relatives and friends or visit some brothel or tavern, intend­ing to be back by dark. The younger ones, for their part, squeezed into the theatre to watch the fun.

When Baoyu found himself alone he thought, “There’s a marvellously lifelike painting of a beauty in the small study here. In all this excitement today she must be lonely. I’d better go and cheer her up.” He made his way towards the study.

As he neared the window he heard a moaning inside which pulled him up with a start. Could the beauty in the picture have come to life? Screw­ing up his courage, he made a hole in the window-paper with his tongue and peeped through. No, the painted beauty had not come to life, but his page Mingyan was holding down a girl and indulging in the game taught Baoyu by the Goddess of Disenchantment.

“Heavens above!”

As Baoyu charged into the room, the trembling lovers quickly broke apart. And when Mingyan saw who it was, he fell on his knees to beg for mercy.

“A fine way to carry on in broad daylight!” cried Baoyu. “Do you want Lord Jia Zhen to kill you?” Meanwhile he was sizing up the maid, no beauty but a girl with a fair complexion and a certain charm. Red to the ears with shame, she hung her head in silence.

“Are you going to stand there all day?” he stamped his foot.

Coming to her senses, she dashed out like the wind. He rushed after her, shouting:

“Don’t be afraid! I shan’t tell anyone.”

“Holy ancestors!” swore Mingyan behind him. “Aren’t you telling everyone now?”

“How old is that girl?”

“Sixteen or seventeen, I suppose, at most.”

“If you didn’t even ask her age that shows how little you care for her. She’s wasted on you, poor thing. What’s her name?”

“That’s quite a story,” replied Mingyan with a guffaw. “It’s really a case of truth being stranger than fiction. She says that just before she was born her mother dreamed that she had a length of brocade with coloured designs of the lucky swastika. So she called her daughter Swas­tika.”

“That is strange,” agreed Baoyu, chuckling. “Her good fortune may be coming later on.” He looked thoughtful.

Mingyan asked, “Why aren’t you watching those grand operas, Sec­ond Master?”

“I did watch for a while, then got so bored that I came out to wander around. That’s how I discovered the two of you. Well, what shall we do now?”

“No one knows where we are.” Mingyan grinned and stepped closer. “If we slip out of town to amuse ourselves and come back later, they won’t be any the wiser.”

“That won’t do,” replied Baoyu. “We might get kidnapped. Besides, if they did find out what a row there’d be! We’d better go somewhere within easy distance so that it wouldn’t take long to come back.”

“Yes, but where? That’s the question.”

“Why not call on Xiren? Let’s see what she’s up to at home.”

“A fine idea. I’d forgotten her house.” Mingyan chuckled. “But what if they find out and give me a beating for leading you astray?”

“Leave it to me,” said Baoyu.

Then Mingyan brought round his horse, and they left by the back gate.

Luckily, Xiren’s home was only a few hundred yards away, so that in no time at all they reached its gate. Mingyan went in first to call her brother Hua Zifang.

Mrs. Hua, having fetched Xiren home, was enjoying tea and sweet-meats with her daughter and a few nieces when they heard shouts of “Brother Hua!” And Hua Zifang was considerably taken aback when he hurried out and found master and servant there. Helping Baoyu to alight, he called out from the yard:

“Here’s the young master!”

This came as a greater surprise to Xiren than to any of the rest. Run­ning out to meet Baoyu she caught his arm and asked, “How did you come here?”

“I was rather bored,” he told her with a laugh. “I just came to see what you’re doing.”

Reassured, she gave a cry of exasperation. “So you’re up to mis­chief again. Why should you come here?” She turned to Mingyan. “Who else is with you?”

“No-one.” Mingyan grinned. “Nobody knows we’re here.”

This worried Xiren again and she protested, “You’re quite impos­sible. What if you ran into someone? What if Lord Zheng saw you? The streets are jammed with people and carriages, and if your horse bolted you could quite easily have an accident. This is no joke. You two really have a nerve. You’re the one to blame, Mingyan, and when I get back I shall tell the nurses to give you a good hiding.”

Mingyan pulled a face. “Why shove the blame on to me? The young master cursed me and beat me to make me bring him. I told him not to come. Well, we’d better go back.”

“Never mind,” interposed Zifang quickly. “Since you’re here, there’s no point in complaining. It’s just that our shabby place is so cramped and dirty, we don’t know where to ask the young master to sit.”

By now Xiren’s mother had come out to greet him too, and Xiren led Baoyu in. He saw four or five girls inside, who lowered their heads and blushed at his entry. Afraid that the young gentleman might feel cold, Zifang and his mother made him sit on the kang and hastily set out fresh

sweetmeats and brewed some choice tea.

“You’re just wasting your time. I know him.” Xiren smiled. “It’s no use putting out those sweetmeats. He can’t eat just anything.”

She fetched her own cushion and plumped it on the kang for Baoyu to sit on, then put her own foot-stove under his feet. Next she took two slabs of perfumed incense shaped like plum-blossom from her pouch, slipped them into her handstove, put its lid on again and placed it in Baoyu’s lap. This done, she poured him some tea in her own cup.

Meanwhile her mother and brother had carefully set out a whole table of titbits — none of them things he could eat, as Xiren well knew.

“Since you’ve come, you mustn’t go away without tasting some­thing,” she said gaily. “At least try something to show you’ve been to our house.” She picked up a few pine kernels, blew off the skins, and gave them to Baoyu on a handkerchief.

He noticed that her eyes were red and there were traces of tears on her powdered cheeks. “Why have you been crying?” he whispered.

“Who’s been crying?” she retorted cheerfully. “I’ve just been rub­bing my eyes.” In this way she glossed the matter over.

Xiren saw that Baoyu was wearing his red archer’s tunic embroi­dered with golden dragons and lined with fox-fur under a fringed bluish-grey sable coat. “Surely you didn’t change into these new clothes just to come here?” she said. “Did no one ask where you were going?”

“No, I changed to go to Cousin Zhen’s to watch some operas.”

She nodded. “Well, after a short rest you’d better go back. This is no place for you.

“I wish you’d come home now,” coaxed Baoyu. “I’ve kept some­thing good for you.”

“Hush!” she whispered. “What will the others think if they hear?” She reached out to take the magic jade from his neck and turning to her cousins said with a smile, “Look! Here’s the wonderful thing that you’ve heard so much about. You’ve always wanted to see this rarity. Now’s your chance for a really good look. There’s nothing so very special about it, is there?”

After passing the jade around for their inspection she fastened it on Baoyu’s neck again, then asked her brother to hire a sedan-chair or a small carriage and escort Baoyu home.

“I can see him back quite safely on horseback,” said Zifang.

“That’s not the point. I’m afraid of his meeting someone.”

Then Zifang hurried out to hire a sedan-chair, and not daring to detain Baoyu they saw him out. Xiren gave Mingyan some sweetmeats and money to buy firecrackers, warning him that he must keep this visit se­cret if he wanted to steer clear of trouble. She saw Baoyu out of the gate, watched him get into the chair and lowered its curtains. Her brother and Mingyan followed behind with the horse.

When they reached the street where the Ning Mansion stood, Mingyan ordered the chair to stop and told Zifang, “We must look in here for a while before going home, if we don’t want people to suspect anything.”

Since this made good sense, Zifang handed Baoyu out and helped him to mount his horse, while the boy apologized for troubling him. Then they slipped through the back gate, and there we will leave them.

During Baoyu’s absence, the maids in his apartments had amused themselves as they pleased at draughts, dice and cards, until the floor was strewn with melon-seed shells. Nanny Li chose this moment to hobble along with her cane to call on Baoyu and see how he was. She shook her head over the way the maids were carrying on behind his back.

“Since I’ve moved out and don’t come so often, you’ve grown quite out of hand,” she scolded. “The other nurses don’t dare take you to task either. As for Baoyu, he’s like a ten-foot lampstand that sheds light on others but none on itself. He complains that other people are dirty, yet leaves you to turn his own rooms topsyturvy. Disgraceful, I call it.”

The maids knew quite well that Baoyu would not mind, and since Nanny Li had retired and left the house she had no further authority over them. They went on amusing themselves and simply ignored her. Asked how much Baoyu are at each meal and what time he went to bed, they just answered at random.

“What an old pest she is!” one muttered.

“Is that a bowl of junket?” asked Nanny Li. “Why didn’t you send it over to me? I’d better eat it here right now.” She picked up a spoon and started eating it.

“You leave that alone!” cried one girl. “That’s for Xiren. He’ll be annoyed when he comes back, and unless you own up you’ll get all of us into trouble.”

“I can’t believe it of him.” Nanny Li was both indignant and embar­rassed. “What is this, after all, but a bowl of milk? He shouldn’t be­grudge me that — or more costly things either. Does he think more of Xiren than of me? Has he forgotten who brought him up? It’s my milk from my own heart’s blood that he was raised on, so why should he be angry if I have a bowl of his milk? I declare I will, just to see what he’ll do. You seem to think the world of Xiren, but who is she? A low-class girl. I should know, I trained the creature.” With that, in a huff, she fin­ished off the junket.

“They’ve no manners,” said another maid soothingly. “I don’t won­der you’re cross, granny. Baoyu often sends you presents. This isn’t going to upset him.”

“You don’t have to humour me in that sly way,” Nanny Li snorted. “Do you think I don’t know how Qianxue was dismissed, all because of a cup of tea? I’ll come back tomorrow to hear what my punishment’s to be.” She went off then in a temper.

Presently Baoyu came home and sent someone to fetch Xiren. He saw Qingwen lying motionless on her bed.

“Is she ill?” he asked. “Or did she lose some game?”

“She was winning,” Qiuwen told him. “But then Grandame Li came along and raised such a rumpus that she lost the game. She went to bed to sulk.”

“You mustn’t take Nanny Li so seriously.” Baoyu smiled. “Just leave her alone.”

He turned then to welcome Xiren who had only just come in. After asking where he had dined and what time he had reached home, she gave the girls greetings from her mother and cousins. When she had changed out of her visiting clothes, Baoyu called for the junket.

“Granny Li ate the lot,” his maids reported.

Before he could make any comment Xiren interposed with a smile, “So that’s what you kept for me — thank you. The other day I enjoyed it, but it gave me a bad stomachache afterwards until I’d brought it all up. So it’s just as well she’s had it. Otherwise it would have been wasted. What I’d fancy now are some dried chestnuts. Will you peel a few for me while I make your bed?”

Taking this for the truth, Baoyu thought no more of the matter but started peeling chestnuts by the lamp. And since the others had left he asked with a smile, “who was that girl in red this afternoon?”

“My mother’s sister’s child.”

Baoyu heaved a couple of admiring sighs.

“Why are you sighing?” asked Xiren. “I know how your mind works. You think she isn’t good enough to wear red.”

“What an idea! If a girl like that isn’t good enough to wear red, who is? I found her so charming, I thought how nice it would be if we could get her here to live with us.”

“Nice, you call it?” Xiren snorted. “Nice to be a slave here?”

“Don’t be so touchy,” he retorted with a smile. “Living in our house doesn’t have to mean being a slave. Couldn’t she be our relative?”

“We’re too far beneath you for that.”

When Baoyu went on peeling the chestnuts in silence, Xiren laughed. “Why don’t you say anything? Have I offended you? All right, tomor­row you can buy her for a few taels of silver.”

“How do you expect anyone to answer you?” Baoyu grinned. “All I meant was that she looks just the person to live in a mansion like this, much more so than some of us clods who were born here.”

“She may not have your luck but she’s her parents’ darling, the apple of their eye. She’s just turned seventeen and all her dowry is ready. She’ll be married next year.

The word “married” made Baoyu exclaim in dismay and feel put out.

Xiren observed with a sigh, “These last few years, since I came here, I haven’t seen much of my cousins. Soon I’ll be going home, but they’ll all be gone.”

Shocked by the implication of this, he dropped the chestnuts.

“What do you mean — going home?”

“Today I heard my mother discussing it with my brother. They told me to be patient for one more year and then they’d buy me out of ser­vice.

“Why should they do that?” Baoyu was flabbergasted.

“What a strange question! I wasn’t born a slave in your family. I have my own people outside. What future is there for me if I stay on here alone?”

“Suppose I won’t let you go?”

“That wouldn’t be right. Why, even in the Palace they make it a rule to choose new girls every few years. They can’t keep them for ever either, so how can you?”

He decided upon reflection that she was right. None the less he ob­jected, “Suppose, though, the old lady won’t let you go?”

“Why shouldn’t she? ff1 were somebody special or had so won the hearts of the old lady and Lady Wang that they couldn’t do without me, they might give my people a few extra taels so as to keep me. But I’m no one out of the usual: there are plenty much better than me. When I came here as a child I was with the old lady; then I waited on Miss Shi for a couple of years, and now I’ve been waiting on you for quite a time. If my people come to redeem me, your family is bound to let me go. They may even be generous enough not to ask for any money. If you say I look after you well, there’s no merit in that — it’s my job. And my place will be taken by someone else just as good. I’m not indispensable.”

By now it did indeed sound to Baoyu as if she had every reason to leave and none at all to stay. Yet in desperation he argued, “Well, but if I insist the old lady will speak to your mother and pay her so much that she won’t like to take you away.”

“Of course my mother wouldn’t dare refuse. Even if you didn’t talk nicely to her or pay her a cent, so long as you insisted on my staying how could she stand out? But your family has never thrown its weight about like that in the past. This isn’t like offering ten times the usual price for something you happen to like, when the owner finds it worth his while to sell. If you kept me for no reason, it would do you no good and would break up my family. The old lady and Lady Wang wouldn’t dream of such a thing.”

Baoyu remained sunk in thought for several minutes.

“So this means you’ll be going for certain?”

“Yes.”

“How can she be so heartless?” he wondered.

Aloud, he said with a sigh, “If I’d known that you’d be going, I shouldn’t have taken you on in the first place. I shall be left all alone here, a poor forsaken ghost.” And he retired sulkily to bed.

Now it so happened that when Xiren went home and heard her mother and brother talk of buying her out, she had assured them that Baoyu would never let her go so long as he lived.

“When you had nothing to eat and your only way of raising a little money was by selling me, I couldn’t stop you,” she said. “What girl can see her parents starve to death? I was lucky to be sold to this family, where I’m fed and clothed like a daughter of the house, not beaten all day long and scolded all night. Besides, even though father’s dead, you’ve got the family back on its feet and are as well-off again as you ever were. If you were still hard up, there might be some reason for redeem­ing me and re-selling me at a profit. But since there’s no need, why do it? Just pretend I’m dead and stop thinking of buying me back.”

She wept and stormed until her mother and brother realized that she was adamant and would never leave. In any case she had been sold for life and although they thought the Jia family might be generous enough to let her go without asking for any money, they also knew that the servants there were not ill-used but shown more kindness than severity. Indeed, the girls who were personal attendants of members of the family, old or young, were generally treated more handsomely than servants in other jobs. In fact, they were even better off than daughters of ordinary humble households. So Mrs. Hua and her son did not press the point.

Baoyu’s unexpected visit and the apparent intimacy between maid and master opened their eyes to the true situation, leaving them much reassured. In fact, this was something they had not even hoped for. So they abandoned all thought of buying her freedom.

As for Xiren, these years had shown her that Baoyu was no ordinary youth but more high-spirited and wilful than other boys, with some inde­scribably perverse streaks in his character. Of late he had been so in­dulged by his grandmother that his parents were unable to control him strictly and he had now become so reckless and headstrong that he was losing patience with all conventions. She had long wanted to speak to him about this, but was convinced he would not listen to her.

Luckily, by throwing dust in his eyes today, she was able to sound him out and get him into a chastened mood for a good lecture. His silent retreat to bed indicated how upset he was and how wounded.

As for the chestnuts, she had pretended to hanker after them to make him forget the junket, for fear of a repetition of that incident involving maple-dew tea which had landed Qianxue in trouble.

Now she gave the chestnuts to the other maids and, coming back, nudged Baoyu gently. She found his face wet with tears.

“Why take on like this?” she coaxed. “If you really want me here, of course I won’t go.”

Sensing something behind this, Baoyu quickly rejoined, “Go on. Just tell me what else I must do to keep you. I don’t know how to persuade you.”

“We needn’t talk now of how well we get on together. If you want to keep me that’s beside the point. I’ve two or three things to ask you. If you agree to them, I’ll take it that you really and truly want me to stay. Then not even a knife at my throat could make me leave you.”

Baoyu’s face lit up. “Well, what are your conditions? I agree to them all, dear sister, good kind sister. I’d agree to three hundred conditions, let alone three. I only beseech you all to stay and watch over me until the day that I turn into floating ashes — no, not ashes. Ashes have a trace of form and consciousness. Stay until I’ve turned into a puff of smoke and been scattered by the wind. Then you’ll no longer be able to watch over me, and I shall no longer be able to care about you — you can let me go, and I’ll have to let you go wherever you please as well.”

“Steady on!” Xiren frantically clapped her hand over his mouth. “This is just what I wanted to warn you against, yet here you go, talking more wildly than ever.”

“All right,” agreed Baoyu promptly. “I promise not to.”

“This is the first fault you must correct.”

“Done. If I ever talk that way again, you can pinch my lips. What else?”

“The second thing is this. Whether you like studying or not, in front of the old master and other people stop running it down and making sarcas­tic remarks about it. At least pretend to like studying, so as not to provoke your father and give him a chance to speak well of you to his friends. After all, he thinks: The men of our family have been scholars for gen­erations, but this son of mine has let me down — he doesn’t care for books. As if this wasn’t bad enough, you keep saying crazy things in public as well as in private, sneering at those who study hard so as to get on and calling them career-grubbers. You also say that, apart from that classic on ‘manifesting bright virtue,” all the rest are trash produced by fools of old who didn’t understand the Sage. No wonder your father gets so angry with you that he keeps punishing you. What sort of impression does that make on people?”

“All right.” Baoyu laughed. “That was just wild talk when I was too young to know any better. I don’t say such things nowadays. What else?”

“You must stop abusing Buddhist monks and Taoist priests and play­ing about with girls’ cosmetics and powder. Most important of all, you must stop kissing the rouge on girls’ lips and running after everything in red.”

“I promise, I promise. What else is there? Tell me, quick!”

“That’s all. Just be a bit more careful about things in general instead of getting carried away by all your whims and fancies. If you’ll do all I’ve asked, I promise never to leave you, not even if they send a big sedan-chair with eight bearers to fetch me away.

Baoyu chuckled. “If you stay here long enough, you’ll have your sedan-chair and eight bearers some day.”

“I don’t covet such luck.” She smiled disdainfully. “If I’m not en­titled to it what’s the good of riding on one?”

At this point Qiuwen appeared and said, “It’s nearly the third watch: time you were in bed. Just now the old lady sent round a nurse to ask, and I told her you were asleep.”

Baoyu asked her to hand him a watch and saw it was twelve o’clock. He washed and rinsed his mouth all over again, then undressed and lay down to sleep.

When Xiren got up first thing the next morning she felt heavy and out of sorts. Her head ached, her eyes were swollen, her limbs were burning like fire. She tried to carry on as usual at first but soon had to give up and lie down, fully dressed, on the kong. Baoyu at once informed the Lady Dowager, and a doctor was sent to examine her.

“It’s nothing but a cold,” said the doctor. “She will be all right after a couple of doses of medicine to relieve the congestion.”

The doctor left after making out the prescription. The medicine was brought and decocted, and Xiren drank it. Baoyu left her well covered so as to induce perspiration and went off to see Daiyu.

Daiyu was having a siesta, and since all her maids had gone out on their own business the place was unusually quiet. Baoyu raised the embroidered curtain and walked into the inner room, where he found her sleeping.

“Dear cousin!” he called, shaking her gently. “How can you sleep just after a meal?”

When Daiyu woke and saw who it was, she said, “Why don’t you go for a stroll? I haven’t recovered yet from all that excitement the other night. I’m still aching from head to foot.”

“A few aches are nothing, but if you go on sleeping you’ll really fall ill. Let me amuse you to keep you awake and then you’ll be all right.”

“I’m not sleepy.” She closed her eyes. “All I want is a little rest. Run away and play for a while. You can come back later.”

“Where can I go?” He nudged her again. “I find everyone else so boring.”

Daiyu could not suppress a laugh. “All right, if stay you must, go and sit down properly over there and we’ll talk.”

“I want to curl up too.” Seeing that there was no extra pillow, he added, “Why don’t we share that pillow of yours?”

“What nonsense! Aren’t there pillows in the outer room? Just help yourself to one.”

Baoyu went out to have a look, coming back to say, “I don’t want any of them. Who knows what dirty old woman has been using them?”

Daiyu opened her eyes at this and sat up, laughing.

“You really are the bane of my life! All right, have this.” She pushed her pillow towards him and fetched herself another. Then they lay down facing each other. Observing on his left cheek a bloodstain the size of a button, she leaned over to look at it carefully and laid one finger on it.

“Whose nails was it this time?”

Baoyu drew back, grinning. “That’s not a scratch. I may have splashed myself with the lip-salve I’ve just been mixing for the girls.”

As he searched for a handkerchief, Daiyu rubbed the place clean with her own, scolding as she did so, “Isn’t that just like you? And you have to leave traces too. Even if uncle doesn’t see it, that’s the sort of thing people love to gossip about and some may tell on you in order to win favour; and if such stories reach his ears it’ll mean trouble for all of us.”

Baoyu was not listening, however, so intent was he on the fragrance emanating from Daiyu’s sleeve, which he found intoxicating — it seemed to melt the marrow of his bones. He caught hold of her sleeve to see what she had hidden inside.

“Who wears anything fragrant in mid-winter?” she asked.

“Where does that scent come from then?”

“How do I know? Unless it’s some fragrance from my wardrobe that’s clung to my gown.”

Baoyu shook his head. “I doubt it. It’s a very unusual scent. Not the kind you would get from perfumed pastilles, scent-balls or sachets.”

“Do I have a Buddhist arhat to give me scent?” demanded Daiyu archly. “Even if I had some rare recipe, I’ve no kind cousin or brother to concoct it for me with stamens, buds, dew and snow. All I have are common scents.”

“Whenever I say one word, off you go!” Baoyu grinned. “I shall have to teach you a lesson. From now on, I’ll show you no mercy.”

He rose to his knees, blew on his hands, then stretched them out and started tickling her in the ribs and under her armpits.

Daiyu had always been ticklish, and this surprise attack set her gig­gling so much that she very nearly choked.

“Stop it, Baoyu,” she gasped. “Stop, or I’ll be angry.”

He desisted then, demanding with a smile, “Will you talk that way any more?”

“I dare not.” Smoothing her hair she laughed. “You say I’ve an un­usual scent, have you a warm scent?”

“A warm scent?” He looked puzzled.

Daiyu shook her head with a sigh. “How dense you are! You have jade, and someone else has gold to match it. So don’t you have a warm scent to match her cold scent?”

Baoyu caught her meaning then and chuckled. “You were begging for mercy a minute ago, but now you’re worse than ever.” He reached out again.

“Dear cousin, I promise not to tease,” she cried hastily.

“All right, I’ll forgive you if you let me smell your sleeve.”

With that he covered his face with her sleeve and started sniffing as if he would never stop. She pulled away her arm.

“You ought to go now.”

“Go I can’t. Let’s lie down in a civilized way and chat.”

He stretched out again while Daiyu lay down too, covering her face with her handkerchief and paying no attention to his rambling questions. How old had she been when she came to the capital? What fine sights and monuments had she seen on the way? What places of historical interest were there in Yangzhou? What were the local customs and tradi­tions? Daiyu made no reply and to keep her awake — for he feared sleep might give her indigestion — Baoyu played a new trick.

“Aiyal!” he exclaimed. “Do you know the extraordinary thing that happened near your yamen in Yangzhou?”

Taken in by his straight face and earnest manner, Daiyu asked to hear about it. Then Baoyu, suppressing a laugh, started romancing.

“In Yangzhou there’s a hill called Mount Dai, in the side of which is a cavern called Lin Cavern.”

“You’re making this up,” cried Daiyu. “I’ve never heard of such a hill.”

“Do you know all the hills and streams in the world? Let me finish my story before you pull it to pieces.”

“Go on, then.”

Baoyu went on, “In Lin Cavern lived a number of rat spirits. One year on the seventh day of the twelfth moon, the Rat Patriarch ascended his throne to hold a council. He announced, ‘Tomorrow is the Feast of Winter Gruel when all men on earth will be cooking their sweet gruel. Here in our cave we have few fruits or nuts; we must go foraging.’ He handed an arrow of command to an able young rat and ordered him to go out and reconnoitre.

“Soon the young rat returned to report. ‘I have made a thorough search and inquired far and wide. The best store of grain and dried fruits is to be found in the temple at the foot of this hill.”’

“‘How many kinds of grain? How many sorts of dried fruits?’

“‘A whole granary full of rice and beans past counting, and five kinds of dried fruits: dates, chestnuts, peanuts, caltrops and sweet taros.’

“Delighted by this information, the Patriarch promptly detailed rats to go forth. Taking up an arrow of command he asked:

“‘Who will steal rice?’

“One rat took the arrow and went off.

“‘Who will steal beans?’ the Patriarch asked, picking up another arrow.

“Another rat accepted the mission.

“One by one they went off until finally there were only sweet taros left to be stolen.

“The Patriarch, holding an arrow, asked, ‘Who will go and steal sweet taros?’

“A very small, puny mouse volunteered, ‘I’ll go!’

“Seeing how small and weak she was, the Patriarch and the rest of the tribe would not hear of her going, for fear she proved unequal to the task.

“But the little mouse insisted, ‘Young and weak as I am, I have won­derful magic powers and great eloquence and cunning. I swear to man­age better than all the rest.’

“Asked to explain how, she said, ‘I shan’t steal outright like them, but change myself into a sweet taro and mix in a pile of others to escape detection. Then I shall spirit the taros away one by one, until there are none left. Wouldn’t that be more effective than stealing outright?’

“‘It certainly sounds it,’ replied the other rats. ‘But how do you manage the metamorphosis? Do show us.’

“‘That’s easy.’ The little mouse laughed. ‘Just watch.’ She shook herself and changed into a lovely girl with a most bewitching face.

“The other rats laughed. ‘You’ve made a mistake,’ they cried. “You’ve changed into a young lady, not a sweet taro.’

“‘You ignorant lot!’ retorted the little mouse, resuming her original form. ‘You only know what sweet taros are, but don’t know that the daughter of Salt Commissioner Lin is sweeter than any taro.”’2

Daiyu scrambled over and pinned Baoyu down. “You scoundrel!” she cried laughing. “I knew you were making fun of me.

She pinched Baoyu until he begged for mecry. “Dear cousin, let me off. I won’t do it again,” he pleaded. “It was smelling that sweet scent of yours that reminded me of this allusion.”

“You make fun of me and dare pretend it’s an allusion….

Just then in walked Baochai with a radiant face. “Who’s talking about allusions?” she asked. “I must hear this.”

Daiyu hastily offered her a seat. “Can’t you see?” She laughed. “He mocks me, then pretends it’s an allusion.”

“Cousin Bao, is it? No wonder.” Baochai smiled. “He knows so many allusions. The only trouble is that he forgets them just when he needs them most. If his memory is so good today, why didn’t he remem­ber that allusion about the plantain the other night? He actually forgot the most obvious one. Everyone else was freezing, but he was so frantic that he was perspiring. So now his memory has come back again.”

“Amida Buddha!” cried Daiyu laughing outright. “She’s my good sister after all. You’ve met your match now. This just shows that no one can escape retribution.”

At that moment the sound of squabbling and angry shouting broke out in Baoyu’s apartments. What it was will be disclosed in the next chapter.

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