A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 20

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A Dream of Red Mansions020

Chapter 20

Xifeng Reproves a Jealous Woman

Daiyu Mocks a Prattling Girl

Baoyu, as we saw, was in Daiyu’s room telling her the story about the rat spirits when Baochai burst in and teased him for forgetting the “green wax” allusion on the night of the Feast of Lanterns. Baoyu felt relieved as they laughed and made fun of each other, for he had feared that sleep­ing after lunch might give Daiyu indigestion or insomnia that night, and so injure her health. Luckily Baochai’s arrival and the lively conversation that followed it had woken Daiyu up.

Just then, a commotion broke out in Baoyu’s apartments and the three of them pricked up their ears.

“It’s your nanny scolding Xiren,” announced Daiyu. “There’s noth­ing wrong with Xiren, yet your nanny is for ever nagging at her. Old age has befuddled her.”

Baoyu wanted to rush straight over, but Baochai laid a restraining hand on his arm. “Don’t quarrel with your nurse now.” She warned him. “She’s a silly old thing, but you should bear with her.”

“I know,” said Baoyu, and dashed off.

Back in his apartments he found Nanny Li leaning on her cane in the middle of his room and roundly abusing Xiren.

“Ungrateful slut!” she scolded. “You owe your position to me, yet there you lie giving yourself such airs on the kang, and won’t even look at me when I come in. All you think about is making up to Baoyu, so that he pays no attention to me but does everything you say. A slave girl bought for a few taels of stinking silver, you’ve turned everything here topsyturvy. If you don’t behave, you’ll be dragged out and married off. We’ll see whether you can still bewitch Baoyu then.”

Imagining that Nanny Li was angry with her for lying in bed, Xiren at first explained, “I’m ill and just starting to perspire, so I’d covered up my

head and didn’t see you, granny.”

But when the old woman accused her of vamping Baoyu and threatened to have her married off, the injustice of these taunts reduced her to tears.

Baoyu overheard this tirade, but there was not much he could do except explain that Xiren was unwell and had just taken medicine.

“If you don’t believe me,” he added, “ask any of the maids.”

This only added fuel to the fire.

“That’s right. Stick up for those vixens of yours. Who am I, after all?” his nurse stormed. “Which of them am I supposed to ask? They’ll all take your side. They’re all under Xiren’s thumb. I know everything that goes on here. I’m going to have this out with you in the presence of the old lady and Lady Wang. I suckled you, I raised you; but now that you don’t need my milk any more, you push me aside and let your maids insult me.” She was weeping with rage.

By this time Daiyu and Baochai had come over too and they set to work to soothe her.

“Make some allowances for them, nanny,” they urged. “Let it blow over.”

The old woman seized on them to pour out her complaints: Qianxue’s dismissal for drinking a cup of tea, and the business of the junket the previous day…. It was hard to make head or tail of her maundering.

Xifeng happened just then to be in the Lady Dowager’s apartments totting up the scores after a game. When she heard angry voices she knew that Nanny Li was on the rampage again, working off on Baoyu’s maids her annoyance over her gambling losses today. She hurried across and pulled the nurse aside.

“Don’t be angry, nanny dear,” she said with a smile. “It’s just after the festival and the old lady’s had a happy day. At your age you ought to stop other people from brawling. Don’t forget yourself and start a rum­pus here which may upset the old lady. Tell me who’s been annoying you and I’ll have her beaten for you. Now I’ve a broiled pheasant in my room, piping hot. Come along and have a drink with me, quick!”

With these words she tugged the nurse out, calling over her shoulder to her maid, “Fenger, bring Nanny Li’s cane for her, and a handkerchief to dry her tears.

Unable to hold her ground Nanny Li was borne off, lamenting as she

went, “I’m old enough to die and have done with it. But I’d sooner forget myself and lose face making a scene like this than put up with the insolence of that dirty bitch.”

Baochai and Daiyu in the background had been watching how Xifeng handled the situation. Now they laughed and clapped their hands.

“How lucky that this hurricane sprang up and carried the old creature off!”

Baoyu nodded and sighed. “Goodness only knows how this started. She keeps picking on people who can’t defend themselves. I suppose one of the other girls annoyed her yesterday, and she tried to settle scores like this….”

The words were scarcely out of his mouth when Qingwen gave a laugh.

“We’re not off our heads,” she said. “Why should we annoy her? And even if we had, we’d have taken the blame ourselves, not shift it to somebody else.”

Xiren caught hold of Baoyu’s hand and sobbed, “First you offend your old nurse because of me, and now because of me you’re offending everyone here. Haven’t I enough to put up with, without dragging them in as well?”

Because she was ill and upset Baoyu had to be patient. He urged her to lie down again and perspire. She was burning with fever and stretching out beside her he tried to soothe her.

“Just think of your health. Don’t upset yourself over such trifles.”

Xiren smiled bitterly.

“If I got upset easily, how could I stay a single minute in this room? But when it goes on like this day after day, what do you expect us to do? I’m always urging you to stop offending people on our account. You’re just out to stick up for us on the spur of the moment, but they remember it, and the next chance they have at the very least they say something unpleasant. Think how difficult you make it for us all.” She could not help crying as she spoke, but for fear of upsetting Baoyu she fought back her tears.

Presently the odd-job woman brought in the second dose of medicine. Baoyu would not let Xiren get up since she seemed on the point of perspiring. Instead he carried the medicine to her and raised her on the pillow to drink it. Then he told some of the younger maids to prepare his kang.

“Whether you mean to eat there or not, you’d better go and sit with the old lady and Lady Wang for a while,” suggested Xiren. “Then keep the young ladies company for a bit before coming back. I shall be all right after a quiet nap here.”

Hearing this, Baoyu removed her hairpins and bracelets for her and settled her for the night before going to dine in the Lady Dowager’s quarters.

After dinner his grandmother felt disposed to play cards with some of the old stewardesses. Baoyu, still worried about Xiren, went back to find her dozing. It was still early for him to go to bed, but Qingwen, Yixian, Qiuwen and Bihen had gone off to have some fun with Yuanyang and Hupo, leaving only Sheyue playing solitaire by the lamp in the outer room.

With a smile Baoyu asked, “Why didn’t you go with the others?”

“I haven’t any money.

“There’s a pile stacked under the bed. Isn’t that enough for you to lose?”

“If we all went off to play, who’d mind this place, with her lying ill here too? There are lamps above and stoves below everywhere. Those old women deserve a rest after waiting on you all day, and the girls ought to have some fun too after a day’s work. So I let them all go while I keep an eye on things here.”

Why, she’s another Xiren, thought Baoyu and smiled.

“I’ll be here,” he told her. “Don’t worry. You can go.”

“If you’re here there’s even less reason for me to go. Why don’t we both sit here and talk?”

“Just the two of us sounds rather dull. What can we do? I know! You were saying this morning that your head felt itchy. Since we’ve nothing to do, let me comb your hair for you.”

“If you like.”

Sheyue fetched her dressing-case and mirror, then pulled out her hair­pins and let down her hair. Baoyu had just started combing it with a fine comb when Qingwen hurried in to fetch some money. She laughed mockingly at the sight of them.

“Fancy! You haven’t yet drunk the bridal cup but already you’re doing her hair.”

Baoyu grinned.

“Come, I’ll comb yours too if you like.”

“I’m not destined for such good fortune.”

Qingwen went off with the money, slamming the portière behind her.

Baoyu was standing just behind Sheyue, who was seated in front of

the mirror. They exchanged glances in it and Baoyu smiled.

“She’s got the sharpest tongue of you all,” he remarked.

Sheyue wagged a warning finger, but it was too late. With another clack of the portière, Qingwen ran in again.

“Just what did you mean by that? We must have this out.”

“Run along!” Sheyue giggled. “Why take it up?”

“You’re covering up for him again. I know all your sly tricks. We must have this out after I’ve won back my money.

With that she went straight out.

When Baoyu had finished combing Sheyue’s hair he asked her to help him quietly to bed without disturbing Xiren.

The rest of the night passed without incident.

The next morning Xiren was better, having perspired, and after taking some gruel she lay back to rest. After breakfast Baoyu felt easy enough in his mind to go and call on Aunt Xue.

Because it was the first month when the schools were on holiday and needlework was taboo for the womenfolk, everyone was free. And Jia Huan, going there to play, had found Baochai, Xiangling and Yinger en­joying a game of dice. He asked to join in.

Baochai, who always treated Jia Huan exactly like Baoyu, made him sit down beside them. They were staking ten cash on each throw, and Jia Huan gloated when he won the first round; but then he lost several times running and started to fret.

The next time it came to his turn he stood to win if he threw more than six, while Yinger needed only three to win. Jia Huan shook the two dice from the pot as hard as he could. One turned up five, the other rolled over and over. Yinger clapped her hands and cried, “One!” while Jia Huan, his eyes glued to the dice, yelled at random, “Six, seven, eight!” Finally, however, the dice came to rest at one. In exasperation he snatched up both dice and grabbed the stakes, insisting that he had thrown six.

“Anyone could see it was one,” protested Yinger.

Observing how upset Jia Huan was, Baochai shot her a reproving glance.

“You’re getting above yourself,” she said. “Is it likely that one of the young masters would cheat you? Hurry up and put down your stake.”

The unfairness of this made Yinger fume, but she dared not answer back. As she slapped down some cash she muttered under her breath: “Fancy a young gentleman cheating! Even I wouldn’t make such a fuss over a few cash. Last time we played with Baoyu he lost a whole packet, yet he didn’t mind. Even when the girls grabbed all he had left, he only laughed.”

She would have gone on in this vein, but Baochai told her sharply to hold her tongue.

“How can I compare with Baoyu?” whined Jia Huan. “You keep in with him because you’re afraid of him, but you bully me because I’m a concubine’s son.” He started to snivel.

“Don’t talk like that, dear cousin, or people will laugh at you,” Baochai advised him.

She was scolding Yinger again when Baoyu walked in and, seeing this state of affairs, asked them what had happened. Jia Huan lacked the courage to tell him.

Baochai knew the Jia family’s rule: a younger brother must show respect to an elder. What she did not realize was that Baoyu did not want anyone to be afraid of him. He reasoned: We all have our parents to train us. Why should I butt in and strain relations with the younger ones? As I’m the wife’s son and he’s a concubine’s son, people will gossip even if I do nothing, much more so if I now try to control him.

He had an even more fantastic idea — do you know what it was, Reader? As a result of being brought up among girls — his sisters Yuanchun and Tanchun, his cousins Yingchun and Xichun of the Jia house, and his distaff-cousins Shi Xiangyun, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai — he had come to the conclusion that while human beings were the highest form of creation, the finest essences of Nature were embodied in girls, men being nothing but the dregs and scum. To him, therefore, all men were filthy clods who might just as well not have existed. Only deference to Confucius, the greatest sage of all time who taught that fathers, uncles and brothers should be respected, made him keep on a fairly good footing with his brothers and boy cousins. It never entered his head that he as a man should set the younger boys a good example. This is why Jia Huan and the others were not afraid of him, only yielding to him to some extent for fear of the Lady Dowager.

To prevent Baoyu from scolding Jia Huan, which would only have made matters worse, Baochai covered up for him as best she could.

“The first month is no time for snivelling,” said Baoyu. “If you don’t like it here, find somewhere else to play. All that studying every day seems to have made you even more muddle-headed. Suppose you find one thing no good and another good, just drop the first and go for the second. Can you improve on something you dislike by sticking to it and crying over it? You came here to have a good time. Since you don’t feel happy, go somewhere else to enjoy yourself. Why vex yourself so? Bet­ter take yourself off, quick.”

Jia Huan went back to his mother, the concubine Zhao.

At sight of his dejected face she asked, “Who’s been treating you as a doormat this time?” When he did not answer, she repeated the ques­tion.

“I was playing with Cousin Baochai. Yinger was mean to me and cheated me. Then Brother Baoyu turned me out.”

His mother spat in disgust.

“Shameless little brat! Who told you to put yourself forward? Is there nowhere else for you to play? Why go looking for trouble?”

Xifeng, who was passing outside, overheard this exchange and called back through the window:

“What’s this rumpus in the middle of the first month? Huan’s only a child. If he makes some small mistake you can set him right. Why carry on at him like that? No matter where he goes, the master and Her Lady­ship are there to keep him in order. Imagine spitting at him! He’s one of the young masters, and if he does misbehave there are people to correct

him — what business is it of yours? Come on, Brother Huan, come out and play with me.”

Jia Huan stood in even greater awe of Xifeng than of Lady Wang. He made haste, therefore, to obey and his mother dared raise no objection.

“You’re too spineless,” Xifeng scolded. “I’ve told you time and again that you’re free to eat or drink whatever you like and to play with any of the girls or boys. But instead of doing as I say, you let other people warp your mind and teach you these sneaky ways. You’ve no self-respect but will lower yourself. You behave spitefully yourself and then complain that every­body else is unfair! How much did you lose to make you take on like this?”

“A couple of hundred cash,” he told her meekly.

“All this fuss over a couple of hundred cash! And you one of the young wasters!” She turned to Fenger. “Go and fetch a string of cash. Then take him to the back where the girls are playing. If you do anything so mean and sneaky again, Huan, first I’ll give you a good spanking and then send some one to tell your teacher about it — he’ll flay you alive for it. Your total lack of self-respect has got Cousin Lian gnashing his teeth. He’d have ripped out your guts before now if I hadn’t stopped him. Now be off with you!”

“Yes,” said Jia Huan and trotted off with Fenger, taking the string of cash. He then joined Yingchun and the others at their game. And there we can leave him.

Let us return to Baoyu. He was joking with Baochai when someone announced, “Miss Shi has arrived.”

He started up at once to go and see her.

“Wait,” said Baochai. “Let’s go together.”

She got down from the kang and went with Baoyu to the Lady Dowager’s apartments, where they found Shi Xiangyun laughing and chattering away. After they had greeted each other, Daiyu, who was also there, asked Baoyu where he had been.

“With Cousin Baochai.”

“I thought so,” said Daiyu tartly. “Thank goodness there was some­one to keep you there, or you’d have flown here long ago.”

“Are you the only one I’m allowed to play with or to amuse?” he answered with a smile. “I happen to drop in on her once and you make such an issue of it.”

“Nonsense. What do I care if you go to see her or not? I’ve never asked you to amuse me either. You can leave me alone in future.”

With that she retired angrily to her room.

Baoyu promptly followed her there.

“Why lose your temper for no reason at all?” he protested. “Even if I said something wrong, you might at least sit there and chat with the others for a bit, instead of sulking alone.”

“What I do is none of your business.”

“Of course not, but I can’t bear to see you ruining your health.”

“If I ruin my health and die, that’s my affair. Nothing to do with you.”

“Why talk about ‘dying’ or ‘living’ just after the New Year?”

“I shall, so there! I’m ready to die any minute. If you’re so afraid of death, you can live to be a hundred — how about that?”

“If you just carry on like this all the time I’m not afraid.” He smiled. “Death would be better.”

“Exactly!” she retorted swiftly. “If you carry on like this it would be better for me to die.”

“I meant better for me to be dead. How you twist my words!”

As they were bickering, Baochai slipped in.

“Cousin Shi is waiting for you.”

She propelled Baoyu out.

More wretched than ever, Daiyu sat down by her window and shed tears of rage.

But in less time than it takes to drink two cups of tea Baoyu was back again. The sight of him made her sob convulsively. He knew it would be hard to pacify her and was prepared to coax her with all sorts of blan­dishments and kind words. But she forestalled him by asking:

“What have you come back for? You’ve got a new playmate now, someone better than I am at reading, writing and versifying, better at talking and laughing with you too. Someone who dragged you away for fear you might lose your temper. So why come back? Why not leave me to die in peace?”

Baoyu stepped to her side and said softly, “Someone of your intelli­gence should know that distant relatives can’t come between close ones, and new friends can’t take the place of old. Dense as I am, I know that. Look, you’re the daughter of my father’s sister, while Baochai’s a cousin on my mother’s side — you’re more closely related to me than she is. Besides, you came here first, we’ve eaten at the same table, slept in the same bed and grown up together, while she has only recently arrived. How could I be less close to you because of her?”

“Do I want you to be less close to her? What do you take me for? It’s just that my feelings are hurt.”

“And it’s your feelings that concern me. Do you only know your own heart and not mine?”

Daiyu lowered her head and was silent. After a pause she said:

“You blame other people for finding fault with you, without realizing how provoking you can be. Take today, for example. Why leave off your fox-fur cape when it’s turned so cold?”

Baoyu laughed.

“I was wearing it till you grew angry. Then I got so hot and bothered that I took it off.”

‘‘Well,” she sighed, ‘‘if you catch cold there’ll be the devil to pay.”

They were interrupted by Xiangyun’s arrival.

“Why, Ai Brother and Sister Lin!” she cried cheerfully. “You can be together every day, but it’s rarely I have a chance to visit you; yet you pay no attention to poor little me.”

“The lisper loves to rattle away,” said Daiyu with a laugh. “Fancy saying ai instead of er1 like that. I suppose, when we start dicing, you’ll be shouting one, love, three, four, five….”

“If you copy her long enough, you’ll soon be talking the same way,” Baoyu teased.

“How you do pick on one!” cried Xiangyun. “Always finding fault! Even if you are better than all the rest of us, there’s no need to go making fun of everyone else. But I know someone you’d never dare find fault with. If you do, I’ll really respect you.”

“Who’s that?” Daiyu promptly asked.

“Dare you pick fault with Cousin Baochai? If so, good for you. I may

not be up to you, but you’ve met your match in her.”

“Oh, her.” Daiyu snorted. “I wondered whom you meant. How could I ever presume to find fault with her?”

Baoyu tried to stop them, but Xiangyun rattled on:

“Naturally I’ll never come up to you in this lifetime. I just pray that you’ll marry a husband who talks like me, so that you hear nothing but ‘love’ the whole day long. Amida Buddha! May I live to see that day!”

That set everyone laughing, and Xiangyun turned and ran out.

To know the sequel, you must read the next chapter.

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