A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 21

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Chapter 21

Prudent Xiren Gently Takes

Baoyu to Task

Pretty Pinger Quietly Comes to

Jia Lian’s Rescue

As Xiangyun ran out of the room to escape Daiyu, Baoyu called after her, “Mind you don’t fall! She can’t catch you.” He barred Daiyu’s way at the door and urged with a chuckle, “Do let her off this time!”

“I’ll kill myself first,” she cried, tugging at his arm.

Seeing Baoyu blocking the doorway and Daiyu unable to get past, Xiangyun stopped and called with a laugh, “Let me off, dear cousin, please! Just this once!”

Baochai who had come up behind her chimed in, “Do make it up, both of you, for Baoyu’s sake.”

“Not I!” cried Daiyu, “Are you all ganging up to make fun of me?”

“Who dares make fun of you?” countered Baoyu, “She wouldn’t if you hadn’t teased her first.”

The four of them were still at loggerheads when a summons to dinner arrived and they went through the dusk to the Lady Dowager’s quarters where Lady Wang, Li Wan, Xifeng and the three Jia girls had already assembled. After dinner they chatted for a while before retiring for the night, and Xiangyun went back to Daiyu’s rooms, with Baoyu escorting them there. It was after the second watch and Xiren had to hurry him several times before he would return to his own room to sleep.

As soon as it was light next morning he scrambled into his clothes and hurried over in his slippers to Daiyu’s quarters. Zijuan and Cuilu were nowhere to be seen, and his two cousins were still sleeping. Daiyu lay peacefully with closed eyes, snugly wrapped in an apricot-red silk quilt, while Xiangyun’s black hair had tumbled all over the pillow, her quilt barely reached her shoulders, and she had flung one white arm adorned with two gold bracelets outside the covers.

“She fidgets even in her sleep,” he sighed. “If there’s a draught she’ll be complaining of a stiff neck again.” He gently pulled up the covers.

Daiyu, awake now, had sensed someone’s presence and guessed that it was Baoyu. Looking round to make sure she asked:

“What are you doing here so early?”

“Early? Get up and see what time it is.”

“You’d better go outside if you want us to get up.

Baoyu withdrew to the sitting-room while Daiyu roused Xiangyun. As soon as they were up and dressed he rejoined them and sat by the dress­ing-table watching as Zijuan and Xueyan helped them with their toilet. When Xiangyun finished washing. Cuilu picked up the basin to empty it.

“Wait!” cried Baoyu, “I may as well wash here to save the trouble of going back to my room.

He went over and leant down to wash his face but declined Zijuan’s offer of soap, explaining, “There’s plenty in here, I don’t need any more.” After dabbling for a while he asked for a towel.

“Still up to your old tricks,” teased Cuilu, “Will you never grow up?”

Ignoring this, Baoyu called for salt to brush his teeth and rinse his mouth. This done, he saw that Xiangyun had finished doing her hair, so he went over and begged her:

“Good cousin, do my hair for me, will you?”

“I can’t,” she said.

“Dear cousin, you did before,” he coaxed with a smile.

“Well, now I’ve forgotten how to.”

“I’m not going out today anyway, and I’m not going to wear a cap, he persisted. “Just plait it anyhow.”

He coaxed and wheedled her with endless terms of endearment until Xiangyun took hold of his head and combed his hair. Since he wore no cap at home, she simply plaited the short hairs round his head and looped them together on top in one big queue tied with a crimson braid. This braid was decorated with four pearls and had a golden pendant at the end.

“There are only three of these pearls left,” she commented. “This fourth one doesn’t belong to the set. I remember they used to match. Why is one missing?”

“I lost it.”

“You must have dropped it when you were out. How lucky for who­ever picked it up!”

Daiyu washing her hands near by smiled ironically. “Who knows whether it was lost or given to someone to mounted in a trinket?”

Instead of answering, Baoyu started playing with the toilet articles on the dressing-table by the mirror, absent-mindedly picking up some rouge. He was wondering if he could taste it without Xiangyun noticing when she reached out from behind him and, holding his queue with one hand, with the other knocked the rouge out of his grasp.

“Are you never going to change your silly ways?” she demanded.

Just then Xiren entered the room, but withdrew on seeing that Baoyu had obviously finished his toilet. She went back and was attending to her own when in came Baochai and asked her where he was.

“He’s hardly ever at home nowadays,” replied Xiren bitterly.

Baochai understood.

The maid went on with a sigh, “It’s all right to be fond of cousins, but still there’s a limit. They shouldn’t play about together day and night. But it’s no use our talking, we just waste our breath.”

Why, thought Baochai, judging by what she says this maid shows ex­cellent sense.

She sat down on the kang to ask Xiren her age and where she came from, carefully sounding her out on various subjects and receiving a most favourable impression. But soon Baoyu returned, and then she took her leave.

“You two seemed to be having a good chat,” said Baoyu to Xiren. “Why did Cousin Baochai leave when I came in?”

Xiren did not answer till he repeated the question.

“Why ask me?” she retorted then, “Do I know what goes on be­tween you?”

Baoyu saw she was not her usual self. “What’s made you so cross?” he asked gently.

“Who am I to be cross?” Xiren smiled sarcastically. “But you’d bet­ter keep away from here. There are others who’ll look after you, so don’t bother me. I shall go back to wait on the old lady.” She lay down on the kang and closed her eyes.

In dismay Baoyu hurried to her side to soothe her, but she kept her eyes shut and paid no attention to him. He was puzzling over this when in came Sheyue.

“What’s the matter with her?” he asked.

“How should I know? Better ask yourself.”

This took Baoyu so aback that he said nothing. Then, sitting up, he sighed, “All right. If you’re going to ignore me I’ll go to sleep too.”

He left the kang and went over to his own bed. When he had been quiet for some time and his regular breathing made Xiren sure he was sleeping, she got up to put a cape over him. The next moment she heard a soft thud. With closed eyes, still shamming sleep, he had thrown it off. Xiren smiled knowingly and nodded.

“You needn’t lose your temper. From now on I’ll play dumb and not say one word against you — how about that?”

This goaded Baoyu into sitting up.

“What have I done now?” he demanded. “Why do you keep on at me? I don’t mind your scolding, but you didn’t scold just now. When I came in you ignored me and lay down in a huff — I’ve no idea why. Now you accuse me of temper, but I haven’t heard you say anything against me yet.”

“You know perfectly well without my telling you.”

This tiff was cut short by a summons from the Lady Dowager. Baoyu joined her for a meal and managed to swallow half a bowl of rice before going back to his quarters. He found Xiren asleep on the kang in the outer room with Sheyue playing solitaire beside her. Knowing that the two girls were good friends he ignored her too and raising the door cur­tain went into his bedroom. When Sheyue followed him he pushed her out.

‘‘I wouldn’t think of troubling you.”

She withdrew with a smile and sent in two younger maids. Baoyu curled up with a book until, wanting some tea, he raised his head and saw the two girls standing there. The elder of the two had a certain delicate charm.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“Huixiang.”

“Who gave you that name?”

“My name used to be Yunxiang, but Sister Hua changed it to Huixiang.”

“You should be called Huiqi, not Huixiang. How many girls are there in your family?”

“Four.”

“And where do you come?”

“I’m the youngest.”

“Then we’ll call you Sier, Number Four, and drop this business of fragrance and of orchids. Which of you can compare with such flowers? It’s an insult to them, calling you by their lovely names.”

Thereupon he ordered tea. Xiren and Sheyue, listening outside, com­pressed their lips to check their laughter.

That whole day Baoyu stayed indoors moping, not playing about with the girls of the house or his maids, just reading or writing to while away the time. And instead of calling for any other attendants he gave all his orders to Sier, who being a clever minx made full use of this chance and put herself out to please him.

After dinner, flushed by a few cups of wine, Baoyu would normally have amused himself with Xiren and the others; but this evening he sat all alone, disconsolate, by the lamp. Although tempted to join the girls, he was afraid that would make them gloat and give him even more talkings-­to in future, while if he threw his weight about as the young master that would be too unkind.

“I’ll pretend they’re dead,” he resolved, “and I have to fend for myself. That’ll leave me free to amuse myself as I please.”

Then he read the chapter “The House-Breaker” in Zhuangzi till he came to the following passage:

“Do away with sages and wise men, and great robbers will disappear. Destroy jade and pearls, and no petty thieves will arise. Bum tallies and smash seals, and the people will revert to their natural simplicity. Break measures and scales, and they will no longer quarrel. Abolish all the sacred laws of the world and the people will discuss things freely.

“Confuse the musical scales, break harps and lutes, stop the ears of good musicians, and all men under heaven will learn to hear for themselves. Dispense with ornaments and coloured patterns, glue up the eyes of the keen-sighted, and all men under heaven will learn to see for them­selves. Destroy quadrants and yard-measures, throw away compasses and squares, cut off the fingers of deft artisans, and all men under heaven will learn skill for themselves.”

Baoyu was so delighted with this passage that, stimulated as he was by wine, he picked up his brush and continued in the same vein:

“Burn the flower (Xiren), get rid of the musk (Sheyue), and those in the inner apartments will keep their advice to themselves. Spoil the beauty of the precious trinket (Baochai), dull the intelligence of the black jade (Daiyu), do away with affection, and in the inner chambers fair and foul will then be on an equal footing. Advice kept to oneself does away with the danger of discord; beauty marred obviates affection; intelligence dulled cuts out admiration for talents. For trinket, jade, flower and musk are alike spreading nets and laying traps to ensnare and bewitch all men under heaven….”

This written he threw down his brush and went to bed, falling into a dreamless sleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.

He did not awake till the morning, when he turned and saw Xiren lying fully dressed on the cover at his side. Yesterday’s grievance forgotten, he nudged her gently.

“Get up and sleep properly. You’ll catch cold like that.”

Now the wild way Baoyu played around with his cousins at all hours of the day and night had convinced Xiren that he would be impervious to advice, and so she had decided to teach him a lesson by disclosing her own feelings, expecting that he would soon get over it. When he sulked for a whole day it was her turn to be at a loss, and she passed a sleepless night. Seeing that he was obviously feeling better today, she deliberately ignored him. When he tried to take off her jacket, undoing a button, she pushed his hand away and buttoned it up again.

Baoyu caught hold of her hand then and asked softly:

“What’s really the matter?”

He had to repeat his question several times before Xiren opened her eyes.

“Nothing,” she said. “If you’re awake, go over there to wash before it’s too late.”

“Where am I to go?”

“How should I know?” Xiren snorted. “Go wherever you like. We may as well part company from now on, to stop people laughing at our rows and rumpuses. Besides, if you get tired of them over there you’ve a Sier and Wuer here to look after you. The rest of us are just a disgrace to our lovely names.”

Baoyu chuckled. “So you still remember that?”

“I’ll remember it if I live to be a hundred. I’m not like you, letting what I say go in at one ear and out at the other, forgetting what’s said at night by the next morning.”

Touched by the cloud on her pretty face, Baoyu took a jade hairpin from beside the pillow and threw it on the floor, breaking it in two.

“May the same thing happen to me if I don’t listen to you in future,” he cried.

“What a way to talk! First thing in the morning too.” Xiren hastily picked up the pieces. “It doesn’t really matter whether you listen to me or not, but why carry on like that?”

“You don’t know how bad I feel.”

“So you can feel bad too?” She smiled. “Then how do you think I feel? Hurry up and get dressed now.”

They both got up then and began their toilet.

Baoyu had gone to pay his respects to his grandmother when Daiyu came to his room. Finding him out, she looked through the books on his desk and discovered the passage in Zhuang zi which he had been read­ing the previous evening. Amused as well as provoked by the lines he had added, she picked up a brush and appended a quatrain herself:

Who can the scurrile writer be

Who makes of Zhuangzi such a travesty

And, blind to his own incapacity,

Heaps such abuse on others?

This done, she went to pay her respects to the Lady Dowager and then Lady Wang.

It so happened that Xifeng’s daughter Dajie was ill, so the household was upside down. A doctor had just been summoned and after examining the child he announced:

“I am happy to inform Her Ladyship and Madam Lian that the little girl’s fever is simply due to smallpox.”

At once Lady Wang and Xifeng sent to ask whether the small patient was in any danger.

The answer was: “Although this is a serious illness, it is taking its natural course. There is no need to worry. But you must prepare loranthus and sanguis caudae or hog-tail’s blood.”

Xifeng lost no time in having a room cleared out for sacrifice to the God­dess of Smallpox. At the same time she directed that no fried food should be served in her quarters, ordered Pinger to take some bedding and clothes to a different room for Jia Lian, and issued red cloth to her nurses, maids and other attendants for clothes. Clean rooms were also prepared for the two doctors who would take it in turn to attend the child and make out prescrip­tions for her, remaining there in residence for twelve days.

So Jia Lian had to move to his study in the outer compound, while Xifeng and Pinger joined Lady Wang in daily sacrifice to the Goddess of Smallpox.

Jia Lian was the sort of man who once away from his wife was bound to get into mischief. Two nights alone were more than he could bear: he vented his ardour on his handsome page boys.

Now in the Rong Mansion was a rascally drunkard of a cook by the name of Duo Guan, a man so useless and cowardly that he was com­monly known as Duo the Muddy Worm. While he was young his parents had found him a wife who was now just about twenty, and whose good looks were the admiration of all. But she was a flighty creature who loved nothing better than to have affairs. The Muddy Worm made no objection, for provided he had wine, meat and money himself he cared for nothing else. So most of the men in the Ning and Rong Mansions had had their fling with her. And because she was such a remarkably good­-looking wanton, everyone called her “Miss Duo.”

Jia Lian was now inflamed by his banishment from his own bedroom. He used to eye Miss Duo avidly but had so far taken no steps to get her for fear of his wife at home and his fancy boys outside.

Miss Duo for her part had been hankering after Jia Lian too, waiting eagerly for her chance. As soon as she heard that he had moved to the study she kept strolling past to flaunt her charms, and Jia Lian rose to the bait like a famished rat. He consulted his trusted pages, who agreed to arrange a secret assignation for him, for not only did he promise them rich rewards — they were all on intimate terms themselves with Miss Duo. So the matter was settled at once.

At the second watch that night, when the household had retired and the Muddy Worm lay on his kang in a drunken stupor, ha Lian slipped into her room. The mere sight of her threw him into such a frenzy that with no prelimi­nary professions of love he flung off his clothes and set to work.

Now this woman was so curiously constituted that the touch of a man seemed to melt her very bones, so that he felt as if bedded in cotton-wool, while in her wanton tricks and amorous cries she outdid any prostitute. No man but was driven to utter frenzy by her. Jia Lian only wished he could melt into her body!

To inflame him further, the woman under him teased, “Your daughter has smallpox and they’re sacrificing in your home to the goddess. You ought to lead a clean life for a couple of days, not dirty yourself for me. Hurry up and get out of here.”

“You’re my goddess,” he panted, going all out. “What do I care for any other goddess?”

The more wanton the woman, the more debauched Jia Lian revealed himself. At the end of this bout they vowed to be true to each other and could hardly bear to part. From that day they became sworn lovers.

But Dajie’s illness spent its course, her pustules gradually healed. After twelve days they “saw off’ the goddess and the whole family sacrificed to Heaven and their ancestors, made offerings, burnt incense, exchanged congratulations and distributed largesse. When these ceremo­nies were at an end, Jia Lian returned to his old quarters and Xifeng. As the proverb says, “Reunion after long separation is better than a wedding night.” We need not dwell on the transports of their love.

The next morning when Xifeng had gone to pay her respects to the senior ladies, Pinger brought back the clothes and bedding Jia Lian had used outside. To her surprise a long strand of hair fell out of the pillow­case. The knowing maid quickly tucked it in her sleeve and went into Jia Lian’s room, where she showed him the hair with a smile.

“What’s this?” she demanded.

As Jia Lian tried to grab it, Pinger turned to fly. He caught hold of her and threw her on to the kang, then tried to snatch the hair from her.

“You vixen! Give it to me, or I’ll break your arm.”

“You heartless brute!” she giggled, “I was kind enough to keep this between ourselves, yet you start manhandling me. Wait till she comes back and I tell her. You won’t half catch it!”

At once ha Lian begged with a smile, “Give it me, there’s a good girl, and I won’t use force.”

Just at that moment they heard Xifeng’s voice. Pinger had barely regained her feet when Xifeng came in and told her: “Get the patterns out of that box for the mistress, quick.”

As the maid was doing this, the sight of Jia Lian reminded Xifeng of something else.

“Have you brought back all the things he used outside?”

“Yes, madam.”

“Anything missing?”

“No. I was worried too that there might be, but I’ve checked care­fully and there’s nothing missing.”

“Is anything there that shouldn’t be?”

Pinger laughed.

“Isn’t it enough that nothing’s missing? What else could be there?”

“Who knows what dirty business he’s been up to this last fortnight.” Xifeng smiled coldly. “One of his little friends might have left something:

a ring or sash or pouch. Or even some locks of hair or finger-nails, for all we know. They’re all souvenirs.”

Jia Lian turned pale at this. Behind his wife’s back he sawed at his throat to warn Pinger not to speak. She pretended not to see him, how­ever, and laughed.

“Fancy, exactly the same idea occurred to me, madam. That’s why I searched carefully. But there wasn’t a sign of any monkey business. If you don’t believe me, madam, look for yourself. I haven’t put the things away yet.”

“Silly girl! If he had anything of the sort, would he let us find it?”

She went off again with the patterns.

Pointing at her own nose, Pinger shook her head and laughed.

“How are you going to thank me for that?”

Jia Lian, beaming, rushed to embrace her, pouring out an incoherent flood of endearments.

Dangling the hair in front of him, she teased, “I’ll have this hold over you for the rest of my life. If you’re nice to me, well and good. If not, I’ll let the cat out of the bag.”

“Keep it safely then. Don’t, for goodness’ sake, let her find out.”

As he spoke, catching her off guard, he snatched the hair.

“I don’t trust you with it,” he chortled. “I’d better burn it and be done with it.” He stuffed the hair into his boot.

“You beast!” she cried through clenched teeth. “As soon as the river’s crossed you pull down the bridge. Don’t ever expect me to lie for you again.”

Inflamed by her charming show of temper, Jia Lian threw his arms round her and tried to make love to her. But Pinger slipped from his grasp and ran out of the room, leaving him doubled up in frustration.

“Little flirt!” he swore. “You get a man all worked up then run away.”

From outside the window Pinger laughed. “If I’m a flirt that’s my business. Who told you to get so worked up? If I let you have your way and she got to know, I’d be the one to suffer.”

“Don’t be afraid of her. One of these days when I really lose my temper, I’m going to give that vinegary bitch a good beating to show her who’s master here. She spies on me as if I were a thief. It’s all right for her to talk to other men, but she won’t let me say a word to another woman. If I do, she suspects the worst. Yet she carries on as she pleases, chattering and laughing with any younger brother-in-law or nephew, old or young, quite regardless of my feelings. I’ll forbid her to see anyone in future.”

“She’s right to be jealous of you, but you’re wrong to be jealous of her,” retorted Pinger. “She’s done nothing that’s improper. But you, you’re up to no good. Even I wouldn’t trust you.”

“The two of you are in league. All you two do is right, all I do is wrong. Sooner or later I’ll settle scores with you both.”

While he was fuming Xifeng came back to the courtyard, and seeing Pinger at the window demanded:

“Why not talk inside? Why run out here to shout through the window?

What’s the idea?”

“That’s right!” Jia Lian called from the room. “The way she acts, you’d think there was a tiger here waiting to eat her.”

“Why should I stay there alone with him?” asked Pinger.

“All the better, surely.” Xifeng smiled.

“Is that remark aimed at me?”

“Who else?” Xifeng laughed.

“Don’t make me say things you’ll be sorry for!”

Instead of raising the door curtain for her mistress Pinger swept in ahead of her, swishing the curtain behind her, and passed through the hall into the other room.

Xifeng raised the curtain herself and walked in remarking, “The girl must be out of her mind, trying to get the upper hand of me. You’d better watch out, little bitch!”

Jia Lian had fallen back laughing on the kang.

“I never knew Pinger had it in her,” he crowed, clapping his hands. “She’s gone up in my estimation.”

“It’s you who’ve spoilt her. I hold you responsible.”

“When you two fall out, why put the blame on me? I’d better make myself scarce.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll be back presently.”

“Wait,” said Xifeng. “There’s something I want to discuss with you.” To know what it was, read the next chapter.

Truly:

Virtuous maids have always harboured grief,

And charming wives since of old have known jealousy.

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