A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 35

0
166

Chapter 35

Yuchuan Tastes Some Lotus-Leaf Broth

Yinger Skilfully Makes

a Plum-Blossom Net

Baochai heard Daiyu’s taunt but walked past without turning her head, so anxious was she to see her mother and brother. Daiyu, standing in the shade of the blossom, went on staring into the distance towards Happy Red Court. She saw Li Wan, Yingchun, Tanchun, Xichun and their maids pay short calls and leave again, but there was no sign of Xifeng.

“Why hasn’t she called to see Baoyu?” she wondered. “Even if she’s busy, you’d think she’d put in an appearance to please the Lady Dowa­ger and Lady Wang. There must be some reason why she hasn’t come.”

But just then, raising her head, she caught sight of a gaily dressed group proceeding in that direction. Looking more closely she could rec­ognize the Lady Dowager on Xifeng’s arm, then Lady Xing and Lady Wang, with the concubine Zhou and some maids bringing up the rear. Together they entered the court. Daiyu nodded and tears ran down her cheeks as she reflected wistfully how good it was to have parents. A little later she saw Baochai enter with Aunt Xue, and then Zijuan came up suddenly behind her.

“Do go and take your medicine, miss, before the boiled water gets cold,” she urged.

“Must you always be hurrying me?” protested Daiyu. “Whether I take it or not is none of your business.”

“You shouldn’t stop taking medicine just because your cough’s be­ginning to be better. Although it’s the fifth month and the weather’s warm, you still ought to be careful. You’ve been standing here in the damp since first thing this morning. It’s time to go back now and rest.”

Daiyu realized then that she was indeed rather tired, and after some hesitation she walked slowly back to Bamboo Lodge on her maid’s arm. As they entered the courtyard, the chequered shade cast by bamboos on the moss reminded her of those lines in The Western Chamber:

Who walks in this secluded spot,

Where dew glimmers white on dark moss?

“Fate was unkind to Cui Yingying,” she told herself with a sigh. “But at least she had a widowed mother and a younger brother, whereas poor Daiyu has nobody at all. The ancients said: All beauties are ill-fated. But I’m no beauty. Why should my fate be so cruel?”

She was walking on lost in thought when the parrot in the covered walk swoped down to squawk at her.

“You pest!” she cried, giving a start. “Smothering my hair with dust.”

Flying back to its perch the parrot screeched, “Raise the curtain, Xueyan. The young lady’s here.”

She stopped, her hand on the perch, to ask whether the parrot’s bird-seed and water had been changed. The bird gave a wheeze much like one of Daiyu’s deep sighs. Then it rattled off the lines:

“Men laugh at my folly in burying fallen flowers,

But who will bury me when dead I lie?

See, when spring draws to a close and flowers fall,

This is the season when beauty must ebb and fade;

The day that spring takes wing and beauty fades

Who will care for the fallen blossom or dead maid?”

The two girls burst out laughing.

“Those are lines you often recite, miss,” giggled Zijuan. “Fancy him getting them by heart!”

Daiyu made her take the perch down and hang it on a hook outside the moon window, then went inside and sat down by the window to take her medicine. The room was flooded with a dim green light, its tables and couches cool in the green shade cast by bamboos through the gauze netting. To while away the time she played with the parrot from inside, teasing it and teaching it some of her favourite poems.

But let us return to Baochai who reached home to find her mother doing her hair.

“What are you doing here so early in the morning?” asked Aunt Xue.

“I came to see how you were, mother. Did he come back after I left yesterday or make any more trouble?”

Baochai sat down beside her mother and burst into tears.

“There, child, don’t take it so to heart,” urged her mother, weeping too. “I’ ll teach the monster a lesson. If anything were to happen to you, on whom could I rely?”

Overhearing this, Xue Pan hurried in.

“Forgive me this once, there’s a good sister,” he begged, making Baochai several bows from left and right. “I had a few drinks yesterday so I stayed out late, then on my way back I knocked into a friend; and that made me arrive home so drunk I’ve no idea what nonsense I may have talked. I don’t blame you for being angry.”

Baochai, who had been hiding her face to weep, looked up at this with a smile.

“Don’t put on that act!” She spat in disgust. “I know what a nui­sance you find us. You’re trying to make us leave you so that you can do as you please.”

“How can you say such a thing, sister, not leaving me a leg to stand on? It’s not like you to be so suspicious and unkind.”

“You accuse her of being unkind,” put in his mother. “Was it kind what you said last night? Really you must have lost your senses.”

“Don’t be angry, mother, and don’t you worry, sister. I promise not to drink or fool about with those fellows any more, how’s that?”

Baochai smiled.

“At last you’re showing some sense.”

“If you can stick to that, why, dragons can lay eggs,” scoffed his mother.

“If you catch me fooling around with them again, sister, you can spit in my face and call me a beast, not a man. I don’t want to be such a trial to you both all the time. Vexing mother is bad enough; if I worry my sister too I’m less than human. Instead of being a filial son and good brother now that father’s gone, I’m only upsetting you both. I’m really worse than a brute!”

While talking, tears gushed from his eyes. Since their mother showed fresh signs of distress at this, Baochai forced herself to interpose.

“You’ve already made trouble enough without reducing mother to tears again.”

Xue Pan dabbed quickly at his eyes and grinned.

“When did I reduce her to tears? All right, that’s enough. Forget it. I’ll get Xiangling to pour you a cup of tea.”

“I don’t want any, thank you. As soon as mother’s ready we’re going to the Garden.”

“Let me have a look at your necklace. Shouldn’t it be gilded again?”

“No need. It’s still a bright gold.

“You ought to make yourself some new clothes too. Just let me know what colours and patterns you fancy.”

“I haven’t yet worn all the clothes I have. Why make new ones?”

By now Aunt Xue had changed, and she led her daughter into the Garden while Xue Pan went out.

When Aunt Xue and Baochai reached Happy Red Court to inquire after Baoyu, they knew from the throng of maids and nurses on the ve­randah that the Lady Dowager and others must be there. Having gone in and exchanged greetings with all the ladies, Aunt Xue asked Baoyu if he were any better. He sat up on his couch to answer: “Yes, thank you, auntie. I’m sorry to have put you and my cousin to such trouble.”

She hastily made him lie down again.

“If there’s anything you want,” she said, ‘lust let me know.”

“Thank you, I will,” he replied gaily.

“What would you like to eat?” his mother asked. “I can have it sent over later.”

“I’m not really hungry, but I’d like some of that broth you once had made with small lotus leaves and lotus seeds.”

“Just listen to him!” Xifeng laughed. “You may not have expensive tastes, but you’re certainly choosy to want something like that.”

“Have it made! Have it made!” the Lady Dowager ordered.

“Don’t be in such a hurry, Old Ancestress,” cried Xifeng. “I must try to remember where the moulds are.”

She sent an old servant to fetch them from the head cook, and after a while the woman came back to report: “The cook says those four moulds were returned, madam.”

Xifeng thought this over.

“Well, I can’t remember to whom I sent them,” she remarked. “They’re in the tea pantry most likely.”

She sent to ask the steward in charge, but he did not have them either. Finally the steward in charge of the gold and silver plate had them sent over.

Aunt Xue took the casket containing the four silver moulds and exam­ined them curiously. More than a foot long and about one inch across, they were inset with more than thirty delicately fashioned shapes no larger than peas — chrysanthemum, plum-blossom, lotus flower, caltrop and the like.

“Your house is really the last word in refinement,” she exclaimed to the old lady and her sister. “So many shapes just for one bowl of soup! I wouldn’t have known what these were for if I hadn’t been told.”

Xifeng interrupted with a smile, “Why, auntie, the cooks preparing the Royal Feast last year thought this up, flavouring the dough shapes with fresh lotus leaves; but what really counts is the quality of the soup. It isn’t anything special after all. Indeed, what family would often have such a soup! We did try it, though, when we first got the moulds; and he’s suddenly remembered it today.” She passed the casket to a maid with the order, “Tell the kitchen to kill a few chickens at once and make enough well-seasoned soup for a dozen people.”

“Why so much?” asked Lady Wang.

“For a good reason.” Xifeng smiled. “This is something we seldom have, and now that Cousin Bao has asked for it, it would be a pity just to make some for him and none for the old lady and Aunt Xue. We may as well all have some while we’re about it — then even I can taste this novelty.”

“You monkey!” exclaimed the Lady Dowager. “Treating people at public expense. ”

“That’s all right,” countered Xifeng quickly amid general laughter. “I can afford this little treat.” She turned to the maid. “Tell them in the kitchen to do their best and charge it to my account.”

As the maid left on this errand Baochai said playfully, “In the few years I’ve been here, careful observation has led me to the conclusion that, however clever Cousin Xifeng may be, she’s no match for the old lady.”

‘I’m old and slow-witted now, child,” said the Lady Dowager. “But at Xifeng’s age I outshone her. Still, even if she’s not up to me she’s way ahead of your aunt. Your aunt, poor thing, has no more to say for herself than a block of wood and can’t show herself to advantage to her elders. They can’t help liking Xifeng for her clever tongue.”

Baoyu chuckled.

“Does that mean you don’t like people who don’t talk much?”

“Oh, they have their merits too, just as those with smooth tongues have faults. It’s better not to have too much to say for yourself.”

“Quite so.” Baoyu laughed. “My sister-in-law never talks much, yet you treat her just as well as Cousin Xifeng. If you merely liked good talkers, the only ones of these girls you could fancy would be Xifeng and Daiyu.”

“Talking about the girls,” observed the old lady. “I’m not saying this as a compliment to Aunt Xue, but the truth is that none of our four girls can stand comparison with Baochai.”

“You’re partial, madam,” disclaimed Aunt Xue with a smile.

“But it’s true,” put in Lady Wang. “The old lady’s often told me privately how good Baochai is.”

Baoyu, angling for compliments for Daiyu, had not expected his grand­mother to praise Baochai instead. He glanced at the latter with a smile, but she had turned away to talk to Xiren.

At this point lunch was announced and the Lady Dowager rose. Rav­ing told Baoyu to rest well and charged the maids to take good care of him, she took Xifeng’s arm and urged Aunt Xue to lead the way. As they left, she asked if the soup was ready or not, and what Aunt Xue and the others fancied to eat.

“If there’s anything special, just tell me,” she said. “I know how to make this minx Xifeng get it for us.”

“How you love to tease her, madam,” replied Aunt Xue, “She’s al­ways offering you good things, but of course you don’t eat very much.”

“Don’t say that auntie,” countered Xifeng. “If our Old Ancestress didn’t think human flesh rancid, she’d have eaten me long ago. ”

That set the whole company laughing. Even Baoyu joined in from his bed.

“What a terrible tongue Madam Lian has!” Xiren commented with a smile.

He reached out to make her sit beside him.

“You must be tired after standing so long.”

“How forgetful I am!” she exclaimed. “Do ask Miss Baochai before she leaves the courtyard to send Yinger over to make a few nets for us.”

“I’m glad you reminded me.”

Baoyu sat up and called to Baochai through the window, “Will you send Yinger over after your meal, cousin? I want her to make me some nets if she has time.”

“Of course,” promised Baochai, turning back. “I’ll send her pres­ently.”

The others who had not understood this exchange stopped to ask Baochai what was wanted. When she had explained the Lady Dowager said: “That’s a good child. Send her to do as he asks. If you need more hands I have plenty of girls sitting idle. You can send for any of them.”

“We can manage without Yinger,” Aunt Xue and Baochai assured her. “She’s nothing to do every day and needs something to keep her out of mischief.”

As they walked on they were greeted by Xiangyun, Pinger and Xiangling, who had been picking balsam by some rocks and now left the Garden with them.

Lady Wang urged her mother-in-law to have a rest in her room, as she feared she must be tired. As the old lady’s legs were aching she agreed. Maids were sent on ahead to see that all was ready; and because the concubine Zhao had excused herself on the grounds of an indisposi­tion, there was only the concubine Zhou to help the serving-women and maids raise the portiére and set out the back-rests and cushions. The Lady Dowager entered on Xifeng’s arm and sat down with Aunt Xue in the places of honour. Baochai and Xiangyun took two lower seats. Lady Wang brought tea herself to her mother-in-law while Li Wan served Aunt Xue.

“Leave serving to the young people,” said the Lady Dowager to Lady

Wang. “You sit down and chat with us.”

Seating herself on a stool, Lady Wang told Xifeng to have the old lady’s meal brought there with some extra portions. Xifeng withdrew and told Lady Wang’s serving-women to pass the order on to those of the Lady Dowager and ask her maids to hurry over, while Lady Wang instructed another serving-woman to fetch the young ladies. This took some time, and only Tanchun and Xichun appeared eventually; for Yingchun had no appetite that day, and no one thought anything of Daiyu’s absence as she never ate more than one meal out of two.

Soon the food arrived and the table was laid.

“Our Old Ancestress and Aunt Xue mustn’t stand on ceremony but do as I say,” declared Xifeng, approaching them with a bundle of ivory chopsticks wrapped in a handkerchief.

“This is how we do things,” the old lady told Aunt Xue, who acqui­esced cheerfully.

Xifeng placed four pairs of chopsticks before the Lady Dowager, Aunt Xue, Baochai and Xiangyun, while Lady Wang and Li Wan superintended the serving of the dishes. Then Xifeng called for clean bowls and chose dishes for Baoyu.

After the lotus broth arrived and the old lady had inspected it, Lady Wang commissioned Yuchuan who was standing behind her to take Baoyu his meal.

“She can’t carry all this single-handed,” remarked Xifeng.

Just then, as it happened, Yinger and Xier arrived. Baochai knew that they had eaten already.

“Master Bao wants you to make some nets for him,” she told Yinger. “You’d better go with Yuchuan.”

As the two maids left on this errand Yinger asked, “How are we to carry this hot soup all that way?”

“Don’t worry.” Yuchuan smiled. “Leave it to me. ”

She made an old nurse put the broth and dishes in a hamper and carry this behind them while they walked empty-handed to Happy Red Court. There Yuchuan took over the hamper and the two girls went in. Xiren, Sheyue and Qiuwen, who were amusing Baoyu, stood up to greet them.

“How did you two happen to arrive together?” they asked, taking the hamper.

Yuchuan promptly sat herself down on a chair, but Yinger would not presume to sit although Xiren hastily fetched a foot-stool for her.

Baoyu was delighted by Yinger’s arrival but distressed and embar­rassed by the sight of Yuchuan, who reminded him of her elder sister Jinchuan. For this reason he addressed himself exclusively to her. This made Xiren afraid that Yinger might feel slighted, and since she refused to be seated she took her to the outer room for some tea and a chat.

Meanwhile Sheyue and the others had fetched Baoyu’s bowl and chopsticks, but instead of starting his lunch he asked Yuchuan: “How is your mother?”

Scowling and refusing to look at him, for a long time she did not an­swer. Then she snapped out:

“All right.”

Silence followed this snub. Then Baoyu tried again.

“Who asked you to bring me my lunch?”

“The madams and the ladies, naturally.”

Well aware that Jinchuan’s death was behind Yuchuan’s displeasure, Baoyu cast about for some means to placate her. Not wanting to humble himself in front of the others, he dismissed them on various pretexts and then put himself out to be pleasant. And tempted though Yuchuan was to cold-shoulder him, she could not but be mollified by the amiable way in which he put up with all her rudeness. It was her turn to feel embar­rassed.

“Do pass me the broth to taste, dear sister,” he begged when he saw her face begin to brighten.

“I’ve never fed anyone. Wait till the others come back.”

“I don’t want you to feed me but I can’t get out of bed,” he said coaxingly. “If you’ll just pass me the bowl, you can report back so much the sooner and have your own meal. I mustn’t keep you here starving. If you can’t be bothered to move I’ll have to fetch the bowl myself, how­ever much it hurts.”

He struggled to get out of bed and could not suppress a groan. At that Yuchuan no longer had the heart to refuse.

“Lie down,” she said, leaving her seat. “What a sight you are, suffering for the sins committed in your previous incarnations.” With a giggle she passed him the bowl.

“If you must be angry, dear sister, be angry here,” advised Baoyu amiably. “Try to keep your temper in front of the old lady and the mis­tress. If you carry on like this with them, you’ll get another scolding.”

“Drink your soup, go on, I’m not taken in by that sweet talk.”

She made him drink a couple of mouthfuls, but Baoyu pretended not to like the flavour and left the rest untouched.

“Gracious Buddha!” she exclaimed. “You’re hard to please.”

“It’s got no taste at all. If you don’t believe me, try it.”

Rising to his bait, Yuchuan took a sip. At once he cried with a laugh:

“Now it must taste delicious!”

Realizing that she had been tricked she said, “First you don’t like it, now you say it’s delicious. Well, I shan’t let you have any more.

Though he smiled and pleaded she was adamant. She called the oth­ers to come to serve him his meal. As the maids came back they heard the unexpected announcement that two nannies sent by Second Master Fu had called to pay their respects.

Baoyu knew that they came from the house of the sub-prefect Fu Shi, one of his father’s former pupils who had prospered thanks to his con­nection with the celebrated Jia family. Jia Zheng treated him better than his other pupils, and Fu Shi was forever sending servants over. Now Baoyu disliked foolish old nurses as much as hulking men-servants, but today he asked these two in for the reason that Fu Shi’s younger sister Qiufang was said to be remarkably talented and good-looking; and al­though he had never seen her, his admiration for such a fine girl made him feel it would be slighting her not to admit them. So he promptly invited them in.

Fu Shi, being an upstart, wanted to consolidate his own position by marrying his pretty, gifted sister into some rich and noble family. Indeed, his requirements were so strict that she was still not engaged yet at twenty-­three; for no proposals had come from the rich and great, who looked down on his poverty and humble origin. Naturally, then, Fu Shi had his own reason for ingratiating himself with the Jia house.

The two nurses sent today happened to be exceptionally stupid. When invited in they paid their respects to Baoyu, and Yuchuan stopped teasing him to listen, bowl in hand, to the conversation. Baoyu went on eating as he talked while both he and Yuchuan kept their eyes on the two visitors. When he reached out suddenly for the bowl and upset it, splashing soup over his hand, Yuchuan started although not hurt herself and gave a cry:

“What are you doing?”

As the other maids rushed forward to take the bowl, Baoyu oblivious of his own pain cried:

“Where did you scald yourself, Yuchuan? Does it hurt?”

Everyone laughed at that.

“You’re the one who got scalded, not me,” she pointed out. Only then did he realize that his own hand was smarting.

No time was lost in mopping up the spilt soup. Baoyu stopped eating, rinsed his fingers and sipped some tea while exchanging a few more remarks with the two nurses, who then took their leave and were seen off to the bridge by Qingwen and some other girls.

As soon as they were alone, the old women started talking as they ambled along.

One of them said with a laugh, “No wonder Baoyu’s called a hand­some fool. Handsome is as handsome does, and anyone can see he’s a bit touched. He scalds his own hand and asks someone else if it hurts what could be more stupid than that?”

“The last time I came here,” the other rejoined, “I heard several of those girls say he’s downright cracked. He got drenched himself in the rain and advised someone else to take shelter. Don’t you call that soft? When there’s no one about he laughs and cries to himself. When he sees a swallow he talks to the swallow, when he sees a fish in the stream he talks to the fish. He sighs or mumbles to the moon and stars, and has so little spirit he even puts up with the tantrums of those pert girls. When he’s in a saving mood he treasures the least scrap of thread, but at other times he doesn’t mind squandering millions.”

Chatting like this they left the Garden and after taking leave of the others went home.

To revert to Xiren, as soon as these visitors had left she brought Yinger in and asked Baoyu what sort of net he wanted.

“I was so busy talking I forgot you,” he told Yinger with an apologetic smile.

“I want to trouble you to make me some nets.”

“Nets for what?”

“Never mind about that. Make a few of each kind.”

“Good gracious!” Yinger clapped her hands and laughed. “That would take ten years and more.”

“You’ve nothing to do anyway, dear sister, so do make them for me.”

“You’re asking the impossible,” protested Xiren with a smile. “Let her first do a couple of the kind you need most.”

“And which are those?” asked Yinger. “Nets to hold fans, scented pouches, or sashes?”

“Yes,” said Baoyu. “One for a sash would be nice.”

“For what colour sash?” asked Yinger.

“Scarlet,” said Baoyu.

“A black or slate-blue net would make a good contrast, then.”

“What would match a light green one?”

“That would go well with peach-pink.”

“All right. Do me one also in peach-pink and another in leek-green.”

“What design would you like?”

“How many do you know?”

“‘Incense-stick,’ ‘ladder,’ ‘lozenge,’ ‘double squares,’ ‘chains,’ ‘plum-blossom’ and ‘willow-catkins. ‘”

“What was that pattern you worked for Miss Tanchun the other day?”

“That was ‘clustered plum-blossom. ‘”

“That would do nicely,” Baoyu said. At the same time he asked Xiren to fetch the thread.

Then a nurse called through the window: “Your lunch is ready, misses!”

“Go and have lunch,” said Baoyu, “and come back as soon as you can.”

“How can we go when we’ve a visitor here?” asked Xiren with a smile.

“Nonsense,” declared Yinger, sorting out the thread. “Run along.”

Then Xiren and all but two of the youngest girls left. Baoyu chatted with Yinger as he watched her work.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Sixteen,” she replied, her fingers busy netting the thread.

“What’s your family name?”

“Huang.”

Baoyu smiled.

“Then you’re aptly named, because you really are a golden oriole.”1

“My name used to be Jinying, but my young lady found that awkward and just called me Yinger instead. Now everyone’s got into the way of it.”

“Cousin Baochai is very fond of you,” he remarked. “When she mar­ries she’s sure to take you along with her.”

Yinger smiled at this and said nothing.

Baoyu went on, “I often tell Xiren he’ll be a lucky man, whoever gets the pair of you, mistress and maid.”

To this she replied, “I don’t think you quite realize that our young lady, apart from her good looks, has some wonderful qualities which you won’t find in anyone else in the world.”

Baoyu was enchanted by Yinger’s charming manner and the sweet, innocent way she spoke of her mistress.

“What wonderful qualities?” he asked. “Do tell me, dear sister.”

“If I do, you mustn’t let her know.”

“Of course not.”

Just then a voice outside asked, “Why are you so quiet?”

Looking round they saw that it was Baochai herself. Baoyu hastily offered her a seat, and having sat down she asked Yinger what kind of net she was making. Examining the net, which was only half done, she remarked: “This isn’t very interesting. Why not make a net for his jade?”

“Of course, cousin!” Baoyu clapped his hands in approval. “I’d for­gotten that. But what colour would be best?”

“Nothing too nondescript would do,” said Baochai. “But crimson would clash, yellow wouldn’t stand out well enough, and black would be too drab. I suggest you get some golden thread and plait it with black-beaded thread to make a net. That would look handsome.”

Baoyu was so delighted with this idea that he immediately called for Xiren to fetch the gold thread. She happened to come in at that moment with two dishes.

“This is odd,” she told him. “Her Ladyship has just sent me these two dishes.”

“There must be such a lot of dishes today that she has sent these for all you girls.”

“No, they said these were specially for me, and I needn’t go over to kowtow my thanks. This seems very strange.”

“If they’re for you, then eat them,” put in Baochai with a smile. “Don’t look so puzzled.”

“But such a thing has never happened before. I feel rather embar­rassed.”

“What’s there to be embarrassed about?” Baochai smiled signifi­cantly. “Some day more embarrassing things than this will happen to you.

Xiren sensed something behind these words, knowing that Baochai was not one to make cutting remarks. Recalling Lady Wang’s hint the previous day, she dropped the subject and simply showed Baoyu the dishes before withdrawing again with the assurance:

“I’ll fetch the thread as soon as I’ve washed my hands.”

After lunch, having rinsed her hands, she brought the gold thread to Yinger and found that Baochai had been summoned by her brother and left. While Baoyu watched Yinger at work, Lady Xing sent two maids with two varieties of fruit for him and the message:

“If you’re fit enough to walk, Her Ladyship hopes you’ll go over tomorrow to have a little distraction. She’s longing to see you.

“If I’m able I’ll certainly come and pay my respects,” he answered. “I’m already feeling much better. Please tell her not to worry.

He made the girls sit down and told Qiuwen to take half the fruit to Miss Lin. She was just leaving to do this when they heard Daiyu’s voice outside, and Baoyu lost no time in inviting her in.

To know what followed, read on.

Previous articleA Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 34
Next articleA Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 36
Discover the wonders of China through studying abroad - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your horizons, immerse yourself in a rich and diverse culture, and gain a world-class education.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here