A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 36


Chapter 36

A Dream During the Embroidering of Mandarin

Ducks in Red Rue Studio Foretells the Future

Baoyu Learns in Pear Fragrance Court

That Each Has His Share of Love

The Lady Dowager went back from Lady Wang’s rooms to her own quarters very pleased by Baoyu’s steady recovery. To forestall any fur­ther summons from his father, she sent for Jia Zheng’s chief page and gave him these orders:

“Next time your master wants Baoyu to meet or entertain guests, you can tell him without reporting it to me that I’ve forbidden the boy to set foot outside the second gate until after the eighth month. For one thing, it will be several months before he can walk again after that terrible beating. For another, just now his stars are unpropitious, and he mustn’t meet any outsiders while sacrifices are being made to the stars.”

When the page had assented and left, Nanny Li and Xiren were sum­moned and instructed to tell Baoyu this to reassure him.

Baoyu had an inveterate dislike of entertaining literati or men in gen­eral. He hated putting on ceremonial dress to pay calls, return visits or offer congratulations or condolences. Delighted by his grandmother’s decision, he not only stopped seeing most relatives and friends but even grew lax about asking after the health of his seniors each morning and evening. After paying his respects early in the morning to his grand­mother and mother he spent the rest of the day amusing himself in the Garden, often glad to idle away his time by offering his services to the maids. When Baochai or any of the others advised against this it only angered him.

“Imagine a pure, innocent girl joining the ranks of time-servers and place-seekers, who set such store by reputation!” he would fume. “This is all the fault of the ancients who had nothing better to do than coin maxims and codes to control stupid, uncouth men. It’s too bad that in our time even those in refined ladies’ chambers have been contaminated. This is an offence against Heaven and Earth which endowed them with the finest qualities.”

Going further in his anger against the ancients, he burned all the Con­fucian classics in his possession except the Four Books. His wild ways discouraged people from talking to him about serious matters. And the only person he really admired was Daiyu precisely because she alone had never urged him to seek an official career or fame for himself.

But now let us return to Xifeng. After Jinchuan’s death several ser­vants suddenly started bringing her gifts and coming to pay their respects or flatter her. She became at a loss to account for the stream of presents sent her. One evening, when no one else was about, she remarked to Pinger:

“These families never had much to do with me before. Why are they making up to me now like this?”

“Isn’t it obvious, madam?” Pinger smiled. “I fancy their daughters are working for Lady Wang. Her four chief maids get one tael of silver a month, the others only a few hundred cash apiece. Now that Jinchuan’s dead they’re all hoping to land this cushy one-tael job.”

“Of course.” Xifeng laughed. “Good for you. There’s no satisfying some people. They’ve squeezed enough and no hard work ever comes their way. You’d think they’d be contented with getting their daughters off their hands, but no, they want something better. Well, it’s not often they spend their money on me. Since they’re doing this of their own free will I’ll accept whatever they bring, but it won’t make any difference to my decision.”

So she waited until enough gifts had been sent before taking the mat­ter up with Lady Wang.

Her chance came at noon one day when Aunt Xue, Baochai and Daiyu were eating water-melons in Lady Wang’s apartments.

“Since Yuchuan’s sister died you’ve been one maid short, madam,” observed Xifeng. “If there’s any girl you fancy, just tell me, and next month we can issue her allowance.”

Lady Wang thought this over.

“I don’t see why we must have a fixed number of maids,” she said. “I’ve all I need, why not let it go at that?”

“What you say makes good sense, of course, madam,” answered Xifeng. “This just happens to be the tradition. If even the concubines have two maids apiece, why shouldn’t you have your full quota? It’s only saving one tael in any case.”

“Very well,” said Lady Wang on second thoughts. “You can issue the allowance but don’t assign me another maid. We’ll give this tael to Yuchuan. Jinchuan waited on me all that time before coming to such a sad end, it’s only fair this double pay should go to her sister.”

Xifeng turned to look at Yuchuan.

“Congratulations!” she called with a smile.

Then Yuchuan stepped forward to kowtow her thanks.

“That reminds me,” said Lady Wang. “How much are the concu­bines Zhao and Zhou allowed a month?”

“The regular two taels each. Concubine Zhao gets another two for Huan, making four taels and an extra four strings of cash.”

“Are they paid in full every month?”

“Of course they are,” declared Xifeng in surprise.

“The other day I seem to have heard someone complaining that she was one string short. Why was that?”

Xifeng replied readily, “The allowance for the concubines’ maids used to be one string a month, but last year the gentlemen in the treasury decided to reduce it by half – to five hundred cash for each. As each of them has two maids, that makes one string less. They can’t complain this was my doing. I’d like to give them the usual amount; but since the gentlemen cut it, how can I make good the cut? I’m only the intermedi­ary, I’ve no say in the matter. I merely hand out what I’m given. Several times in fact I’ve suggested restoring their original pay, only to be told, ‘This is the quota.’ I can’t do more. At least I pay them on the dot each month, whereas in the past those people in the treasury always kept them waiting. They were never paid so regularly before.”

A short silence followed.

Then Lady Wang asked again, “Row many of the old lady’s maids get one tael?”

“Eight before, now seven. The other one is Xiren.”

“That’s right, Baoyu has no maids in the one-tael class, but Xiren’s still counted as in the old lady’s service.”

“Yes, Xiren still belongs to the old lady and is simply on loan to Cousin Bao, so her money comes out of the allowance for the old lady’s maids. It would certainly be wrong to reduce Xiren’s one-tael allowance be­cause she’s waiting on Baoyu, unless we gave the old lady another maid. And in that case, if Xiren’s pay isn’t cut Cousin Huan ought to have a maid with the same pay as well, to be fair. As for Qingwen, Sheyue and the other five of them, they get one string of cash apiece, while the eight younger girls like Jiahui get half a string. This is all according to the old lady’s instructions, so it’s no use anyone cutting up rough about it.”

“Just listen to her,” cried Aunt Xue with a laugh, “She rattles on like walnuts tipped out of a cart. But how clearly and fairly she puts every-thing.”

“Did I say anything wrong, aunt?” asked Xifeng.

“Of course not. But you’d save breath by speaking slower.”

Suppressing a smile, Xifeng waited for further instructions. Lady Wang thought for a while.

“Now,” she announced, “you must choose the old lady a good maid in Xiren’s place and stop Xiren’s pay, but give her two taels and one string of cash from the twenty taels I get every month. In future she’s to have the same treatment as Concubine Zhao, only her share is to come from my allowance, not from the general fund.”

Having agreed to this, Xifeng nudged Aunt Xue, “Did you hear that, aunt?” She asked. “What did I tell you?”

“This should have been done long ago,” was Aunt Xue’s comment. “Quite apart from the girl’s looks where would you find another with such ladylike manners, so polite and yet so firm and principled? She really is a treasure.”

“You don’t know half her fine qualities.” There were tears in Lady Wang’s eyes. “She’s ten times as good as my Baoyu. I ask no better luck for him than to have her looking after him all his life.”

“In that case,” suggested Xifeng, “Why not go through the usual ceremonies and make her his concubine openly?”

“No, that wouldn’t do. For one thing, they’re both too young. For another, his father would never agree. Besides, when he behaves wildly, so long as Xiren’s his maid he listens to her; but if she were made his concubine now she wouldn’t dare remonstrate strongly. Better let things stand as they are for a few more years.

After Lady Wang had finished, as she had no further instructions Xifeng withdrew. As soon as she reached the corridor she found some stew­ards’ wives waiting for her there.

“What business has kept you so long today, madam?” they asked her gaily. “You must be feeling the heat.”

Xifeng tucked up her sleeves and stood on the doorstep.

“It’s pleasant here with the through draught, I’ll cool off a bit before going on,” she remarked. “It’s not my fault if I’ve been a long time. Her Ladyship has been raking up ancient history, and I had to answer her questions one by one.

With a grim smile she added, “Well, from today on, I mean to show how ruthless I can be, and I don’t care if they complain to Her Ladyship either. Rot those stupid, foul-mouthed bitches! They’ll come to no good end. How puffed up they are with their own consequence! But they’ll lose the lot, and sooner than they think. Blaming us, indeed, because their maids’ pay is cut. Who do they think they are? Do they deserve maids?”

Still pouring out abuse, she went off to select a new maid for the Lady Dowager.

Meanwhile Lady Wang and the others had finished their melons, and after some further talk the party broke up, the girls returning to the Gar­den. Daiyu, on the grounds that she must have a bath, turned down a suggestion by Baochai to call on Xichun. And after the two girls had parted, Baochai walked on alone to Happy Red Court, hoping that a chat with Baoyu would overcome the drowsiness induced by the mid-day heat.

To her surprise, his courtyard was utterly quiet. Even the two storks were sleeping under the plantain. Walking along the verandah into the outer room, she found his maids sprawled on their beds having a nap. She passed the curio cabinet into Baoyu’s room and discovered him sleeping too. Xiren seated by him was sewing, a white whisk beside her.

Baochai tiptoed up to her.

“You’re overdoing it, surely!” she said with a soft laugh. “You’ve no flies or mosquitoes here, so why the whisk?”

Xiren raised her head in surprise, then hastily put down her work and rose to her feet.

“So it’s you, miss,” she whispered. “You gave me quite a start. We’ve no flies or mosquitoes, I know. But there’s a kind of midge, so small you can hardly see it, which can get through the gauze and bite anyone who’s sleeping. It’s like being stung by an ant.”

“That’s true. You’ve not much open space behind the house, but you’ve fragrant flowers all around and this room is scented too. These insects which live on the pollen of flowers are attracted to anything fragrant.”

While saying this Baochai had been examining the work in Xiren’s hand. It was a white silk stomacher lined with red, which she was em­broidering with mandarin ducks at play among some lotus. The lotus flowers were pink, the leaves green, and the ducks a medley of colours.

“How charming!” exclaimed Baochai. “Whose is it, to be worth so much effort?”

Xiren motioned with her lips towards the bed.

“Isn’t he too big to wear such things?” asked Baochai.

Xiren smiled.

“That’s what he thinks. So to tempt him, I make them specially handsome. In this heat he’s careless about covering himself; but if I get him to wear one of these it doesn’t matter if he kicks off his bedding at night. If you think I’ve put a lot of work into this, you should see the one he has on.

“It’s a good thing you have the patience.”

“My neck aches from bending over so long today. Do you mind sitting here for a minute, miss, while I take a turn outside?”

With that Xiren left the room.

Baochai was so interested in the stomacher that she sat down without thinking in Xiren’s place, unable to resist picking up the needle and going on embroidering the charming design.

Meanwhile Daiyu had run into Xiangyun and suggested they go to­gether to congratulate Xiren. When they found the courtyard so quiet Xiangyun walked towards the servants’ quarters in search of Xiren, but Daiyu peeped through the gauze of Baoyu’s window. She saw him lying fast asleep in a pink linen shirt while Baochai sat next to him sewing, a whisk beside her. Seeing this Daiyu ducked out of sight and clapped one hand over her mouth to stifle her giggles, beckoning Xiangyun with the other hand. Her cousin ran over to see what was so amusing. She too was tempted to laugh, but restrained herself at the thought of how good Baochai had always been to her.

“Come on,” she said, dragging Daiyu away before she could make any cutting remarks. “I remember now, Xiren said she was going to the pool at noon to wash some clothes. Let’s go and look for her there.”

Daiyu saw through this ruse and snorted, but let Xiangyun lead her away.

Baochai inside had embroidered two or three petals when Baoyu started calling out in his sleep:

“Who believes what those bonzes and Taoists say? A match between gold and jade? Nonsense! Between wood and stone more likely, I’d say.”

Baochai was stunned by this when Xiren returned.

“Still not awake?” the maid asked.

Baochai simply shook her head.

“I just met Miss Lin and Miss Shi. Did they come in?”

“No, I didn’t see them. Hadn’t they something to tell you?”

“Some nonsense,” Xiren said. “They were just having one of their jokes.”

“They weren’t joking this time, I assure you.” Baochai smiled. “I was just going to tell you myself when you hurried off.”

She was interrupted by one of Xifeng’s maids who arrived with a summons for Xiren.

“There you are!” Baochai chuckled.

Then Xiren woke two of the other girls and left Happy Red Court with Baochai, going on alone to Xifeng’s quarters. There she was indeed informed of her promotion and told to go and kowtow to Lady Wang, but not to trouble the Lady Dowager. Xiren was quite overwhelmed.

On her hasty return from thanking Lady Wang, Baoyu was awake and asked where she had been. She gave an evasive answer. Only that night when they were alone did she tell him the truth, at which he was overjoyed.

“I don’t see you going home now,” he gloated. “After your last visit home you tried to frighten me with heartless talk, saying your brother meant to redeem you and you’d no future here. Now we’ll see who dares fetch you away.

“You’ve no call to talk like that.” She gave an ironic smile. “From now on I belong to Her Ladyship. I can leave without so much as a word to you, just by getting permission from her.”

“Well, suppose I behaved so badly that you got leave from her and left, people hearing of it would put the blame on me. Wouldn’t you feel bad about that?”

Xiren laughed.

“Why should I? If you turn bandit, should I have to go along with you? Anyhow, there is always death as a way out. All of us must die in the end, even if we live to be a hundred. Once I’ve breathed my last and can’t see or hear any more I’ll be through with you, won’t I?”

Baoyu hastily put his hand over her mouth.

“All right, all right. Don’t say such things.”

Xiren knew all his foibles. Whereas hypocritical compliments disgusted him, true sentiments of this kind distressed him too. Regretting her tact­lessness she hastily turned to subjects more to his taste: the spring breeze and autumn moon; powder and rouge; and, finally, the good qualities of girls. When this led inadvertently to talk of girls’ dying, she hastily broke off.

Baoyu had been joining in with the greatest of pleasure, and when she stopped he responded cheerfully:

“All men must die. The thing is to die for good reasons. Those vulgar sods believe that ministers who die for remonstrating with the Emperor and generals who die in battle win immortal fame as fine, upright men — but wouldn’t it be better if they didn’t die? After all, there has to be a despot on the throne before ministers can remonstrate; but they court death in their eagerness to make a name, with a complete disregard for their sovereign. In the same way, there has to be a war before generals can die in battle; so they fight recklessly and try to win glory by dying, with no thought of the country’s welfare. That’s why I say these aren’t worthy deaths.”

“Loyal ministers and good generals only die when it’s necessary, countered Xiren.

“If a foolhardy general has no idea of strategy and gets killed through incompetence, is that necessary? Civil officials are even worse. They learn by heart a few passages from books and if the government has the slightest fault they remonstrate at random, in the hope of winning fame as loyal men. If they court death in a fit of temper, is that necessary too? They should know that the sovereign receives his mandate from Heaven. Heaven wouldn’t entrust such an onerous task to anyone but a benevo­lent sage. So, you see, they die to win a reputation, not for the sake of noble principles.

“In my own case, if I had any luck I should die now with all of you around me; still better if your tears for me were to become a great stream and float my corpse away to some quiet spot deserted even by crows or any other birds, to vanish with the wind, never again to be born as a human being. That’s how I should like to die.”

To cut short such wild talk Xiren said she was tired and gave up answering him. Then Baoyu closed his own eyes and went to sleep. Nor did he revert to the subject the next day.

That day, bored with the Garden, Baoyu recalled some songs in The Peony Pavilion and read through the libretto twice. Still not satisfied, he decided to look for Lingguan who played the part of young ladies and was said to be the best singer among the twelve young actresses in Pear Fragrance Court. So he went out through the side gate in search of her. Baoguan and Yuguan, whom he found in the courtyard there, greeted him pleasantly and invited him in.

“Where is Lingguan?” he asked.

“In her room,” they told him.

He hurried in and found her lying alone on her bed, and she did not move when she saw him. Used as he was to playing about with girls, he imagined Lingguan would respond like all the others; so he sat down beside her and with a coaxing smile begged her to get up and sing for him the passage describing the visit to the garden.

To his surprise she sat up and moved away.

“I’ve strained my voice,” she said gravely. “I didn’t even sing the last time Her Imperial Highness sent for us.

Now that she had sat up, Baoyu saw she was the girl who had written Qiang at the foot of the rose trellis. Never before had he been snubbed like this. His cheeks burning, he left the room. And when Baoguan and the others asked what the matter was, he told them.

“Just wait a bit till Master Qiang comes,” advised Baoguan. “If he asks her to sing, she will.”

“Where is he?” asked Baoyu, rather puzzled by this.

“He’s just gone out. Lingguan must have taken a fancy to something and he’s out trying to procure it for her.”

Baoyu waited, mystified, until Jia Qiang arrived with a bird-cage con­taining a bird and a miniature stage. He strode in cheerfully, eager to see Lingguan, but halted at sight of his uncle.

“What sort of bird is that,” inquired Baoyu, “able to hold a flag in its beak and walk round the stage?”

“It’s a jade-crested oriole,” Jia Qiang told him.

“How much did you give for it?”

“One tael, eighty cents.”

Urging Baoyu to sit a while, he went in to see Lingguan. By now Baoyu no longer wanted to hear her sing but was curious to know her relationship to Jia Qiang, who had walked in gaily calling out: “Get up and look at this!”

“What is it?” Lingguan raised herself on one elbow.

“I’ve brought you a bird to stop you feeling so bored. Let me show you how to put it through its tricks.”

Holding out a few seeds, he coaxed the bird to pick up a mask and flag and strut round the stage. All the other girls laughed, exclaiming “How amusing!”, but Lingguan gave a couple of snorts and lay down again in disgust.

“Like it?” Jia Qiang asked with a smile.

“It’s bad enough your family cooping us up here to learn that old trash,” she retorted. “And now you get a bird to do the same. You’ve obviously bought it to make fun of us, yet you ask whether I like it.”

Jia Qiang was disconcerted and swore that he had never meant to hurt her.

“What a fool I am!” he cried. “I gave a couple of taels for this in the hope that it would amuse you, never dreaming that you’d feel this way about it. All right, I’ll set it free — to make you feel better.”

With that he let the bird out and smashed the cage.

“That bird may not be human,” said Lingguan, “but it has a mother bird in its nest. How heartless you are, bringing it here to play with. I coughed blood twice today, and Her Ladyship said that a doctor should be sent to examine me. But you — you bring this here to make fun of me. How unlucky I am, ill, with no one to care for me.

She started sobbing again.

“I spoke to the doctor last night,” Jia Qiang replied hastily. “He said it was nothing serious and he’d come to examine you again after you’d taken a dose or two of the medicine prescribed. I’d no idea you’d coughed blood again. I’ll go and get him at once.

He started off, but Lingguan called him back.

“The sun’s scorching just now,” she said. “If you go off in a huff to fetch him, I won’t see him.”

So the young man had to remain where he was.

Meanwhile Baoyu was lost in wonder as the significance of all those chiangs written on the ground dawned on him. And feeling superfluous there he took his leave. Jia Qiang being too absorbed in Lingguan to notice, it was left to the other girls to see him out.

Turning this discovery over in his mind, Baoyu walked back in a daze to Happy Red Court where he found Daiyu sitting and talking to Xiren. Baoyu went straight up to Xiren.

“What I said last night was wrong,” he told her with a sigh. “No wonder my father complains that I’m ‘benighted.’ It was wrong to say you’d all weep over my death. Now I know not all your tears would be for me everyone will have his share.”

Xiren had forgotten those words spoken lightly the previous evening, and was surprised when he brought them up again.

“You really are crazy,” she told him teasingly.

Baoyu made no reply. Convinced now that all love was predestined, each having his allotted share, he was wondering wistfully who would shed tears for him when he was gone. But we need not attempt to guess all his inmost thoughts.

When Daiyu saw the distracted state he was in she refrained from asking any questions, knowing that he must have been affected by some­thing somewhere.

“I’ve just come from auntie,” she told him. “Tomorrow is Aunt Xue’s birthday, and auntie wants to know whether you’ll go over or not. You’d better send someone to tell her.”

“I didn’t even go on my uncle’s birthday,” he said. “What if I were to meet someone there tomorrow? I’d rather steer clear of both birth­days. Besides, it’s too hot for ceremonial dress. I’m sure Aunt Xue won’t mind if I don’t show up.

“The idea!” exclaimed Xiren. “She’s on quite a different footing from His Lordship. You live close by, and she’s a relative. If you don’t go, she’ll wonder why. If it’s the heat you’re afraid of, why not go first thing to kowtow and come back again after a cup of tea. Wouldn’t that look better?”

Before Baoyu could answer, Daiyu teased, “You should go anyway for the sake of the one who kept away the mosquitoes.”

“What’s this about mosquitoes?” he demanded.

Xiren explained how Baochai had sat with him during his siesta the previous day, when there was nobody to wait on him.

“That’s too bad,” he cried. “How rude of me to sleep all through her visit. Well then, I must go tomorrow.”

Just then Xiangyun appeared in formal dress. Her family had sent for her and she had come to say goodbye. At once they rose and asked her to be seated, but she could not stay and they had to see her out. Although her eyes were brimming with tears, she dared not complain in front of her family servants; but Baochai’s arrival presently increased her reluctance to leave.

Baochai knew that if the servants reported this on their return to her aunt, Xiangyun might suffer for it. Accordingly she urged her to make a start. They saw her to the second gate, and Baoyu would have gone further but Xiangyun stopped him. She turned back, however, and beck­oned him to her side.

“If the old lady forgets me,” she whispered, “do remind her to send someone to send me back.”

Baoyu promised to do this for her.

They followed her with their eyes while she went to her carriage, and then retraced their steps. If you want to know what happened next, read on.

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