A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 45

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Chapter 45

Two Girls Pledge Friendship After

a Heart-to-Heart Talk

A Plaintive Poem Is Written One Windy,

Rainy Evening

As Xifeng was comforting Pinger the young people called. They were offered seats and Pinger handed round tea.

‘Well, you’ve come in force,’ chuckled Xifeng. ‘Anyone would think we’d issued invitations.’

‘We’ve come about two things,’ Tanchun announced. ‘One is Xichun’s business; and we’ve also brought you a message from the old lady.’

‘What is it that’s so urgent?’ demanded Xifeng.

‘We’ve started a poetry club,’ Tanchun explained, ‘but not even the first meeting was fully attended all because we’re too soft to keep order. So it occurred to me that we must rope you in too as our supervisor ‘ we need someone strict and impartial. Then Xichun needs more materials of every kind for her painting of the Garden. We told the old lady, and she says there may be some left-over materials in the down­stairs store-room at the back, which we can have if we can find them. If not, we can send out to buy more.’

‘I’m no hand at versifying,’ Xifeng answered. ‘All I can do is come and join in the eating.’

‘You wouldn’t have to write anything,’ said Tanchun. ‘Your job would simply be to watch out for truants or slackers and punish the offenders as you think fit.’

‘Don’t try to fool me.’ Xifeng laughed. ‘I can guess what you’re after. It’s obviously not a supervisor you want but a mint-master to sup­ply you with cash. You must take it in turns to play host in this club of yours, and because your monthly allowances aren’t enough you’ve thought up this scheme to rope me in so that you can milk me. Isn’t that the idea?’

The others laughed.

‘There’s true perspicacity for you!’ cried Li Wan.

‘What an elder sister-in-law you are!’ scolded Xifeng. ‘You’re sup­posed to be in charge of these girls’ studies and of teaching them good manners and needlework. If they do wrong you ought to remonstrate with them. Now they’ve started this poetry club which shouldn’t cost much, but you refuse to take charge. The old lady and Lady Wang have their titled status of course, but your ten taels a month is twice as much as we get, and yet the old lady and mistress still pity you as a poor widow with no means of support. So you get an extra ten taels for your son, which means getting as much as they do, and on top of that you’ve been given land in the Garden farm and are paid rent, apart from the largest share in the annual bonuses. There are less than ten in your household, counting the servants, and your food and clothing still come from the common fund. Your income adds up to four or five hundred taels a year. Then why not use one or two hundred a year to keep these girls amused? After all, it won’t be for long. When they marry, you won’t be the one to provide their dowries. Yet here you are, so afraid of spending a cent, you’ve put them up to coming to pester me. I’ve a good mind not to take the hint but just go and eat up everything you’ve got.’

‘Listen to her!’ cried Li Wan laughingly. ‘I say one word and the crazy thing spews out two cartloads of shameless talk like a real dirty swindler and tight-fisted money-grubber. This creature was lucky enough to be born the daughter of a family of scholar-officials and to marry into a family like that too, yet she still carries on in this way. If she’d been the son of a poor family, there’s no knowing what dirty language she’d have used. She’d have tried to swindle everyone on earth.

‘How could you strike even Pinger yesterday? For shame! You be­haved like a dog drunk on yellow wine. I was so furious, I’d have taken up the cudgels for Pinger if not for the fact that it was the dog’s birthday and I didn’t want to upset the old lady either. But I’m still simmering with indignation. And now you’re challenging me! You aren’t good enough to pick up Pinger’s shoes. The two of you ought to change places.’

The girls burst out laughing.

‘I see,’ Xifeng retorted. ‘You honoured me with this visit, not because of your poetry club or the painting either, but simply to avenge Pinger. I didn’t know she had such a champion. If I’d known, I should never have struck her ‘ not even if some devil were forcing my hand. Here, Miss Pinger, let me apologize to you in front of Madam Zhu and the young ladies for my wild behaviour in my cups.’

The others laughed again.

Li Wan asked Pinger, ‘Well? Didn’t I promise to help you get your own back?’

‘It’s all very well for you ladies to have your fun, but I can’t take it,’ was Pinger’s reply.

‘Nonsense,’ said Li Wan. ‘I’ll back you up. Hurry up and fetch the key now, and ask your mistress to open the storeroom for us.

‘My dear sister-in-law,’ put in Xifeng, ‘do take these girls back to the Garden first. I was just going to check this rice account, and then I’ve got to see Lady Xing who sent for me on some business, and give instructions for the clothes everyone needs for New Year.’

‘Never mind those other things,’ rejoined Li Wan. ‘Just settle my business first so that I can go home and rest and these young ladies will stop bothering me.

‘Give me a little time, dear sister,’ countered Xifeng. ‘Why should you, who are usually so good to me, be so hard on me today just because of Pinger? You used to say, ‘However busy you are, you must take good care of your health and find time to rest.’ Yet now you want to kill me with overwork! Besides, it doesn’t matter if other people’s clothes are late, but you’re responsible for these young ladies’ being ready on time. If they’re not, the old lady will scold you for not seeing to it or at least reminding me. I’d rather take the blame myself than get you into trouble.’

‘Listen, the rest of you, to this fine talk!’ Li Wan smiled. ‘What a clever tongue! Tell me, are you going to take charge of our club or not?’

‘What do you think? If I don’t join your club and fork out some money, I’ll be looked on as a traitor to Grand View Garden. How could I go on living here then? First thing tomorrow I shall proceed to my post, respectfully accept the seal of office, and then straightway give you fifty silver taels to spread over for several months for your club’s refresh­ments. And as I can’t write poems or essays ‘ being just completely

cause of your poetry club or the painting either, but simply to avenge Pinger. I didn’t know she had such a champion. If I’d known, I should never have struck her ‘ not even if some devil were forcing my hand. Here, Miss Pinger, let me apologize to you in front of Madam Zhu and the young ladies for my wild behaviour in my cups.

The others laughed again.

Li Wan asked Pinger, ‘Well? Didn’t I promise to help you get your own back?’

‘It’s all very well for you ladies to have your fun, but I can’t take it,’ was Pinger’s reply.

‘Nonsense,’ said Li Wan. ‘I’ll back you up. Hurry up and fetch the key now, and ask your mistress to open the storeroom for us.

‘My dear sister-in-law,’ put in Xifeng, ‘do take these girls back to the Garden first. I was just going to check this rice account, and then I’ve got to see Lady Xing who sent for me on some business, and give instructions for the clothes everyone needs for New Year.’

‘Never mind those other things,’ rejoined Li Wan. ‘Just settle my business first so that I can go home and rest and these young ladies will stop bothering me.’

‘Give me a little time, dear sister,’ countered Xifeng. ‘Why should you, who are usually so good to me, be so hard on me today just because of Pinger? You used to say, ‘However busy you are, you must take good care of your health and find time to rest.’ Yet now you want to kill me with overwork! Besides, it doesn’t matter if other people’s clothes are late, but you’re responsible for these young ladies’ being ready on time. If they’re not, the old lady will scold you for not seeing to it or at least reminding me. I’d rather take the blame myself than get you into trouble.’

‘Listen, the rest of you, to this fine talk!’ Li Wan smiled. ‘What a clever tongue! Tell me, are you going to take charge of our club or not?’

‘What do you think? If I don’t join your club and fork out some money, I’ll be looked on as a traitor to Grand View Garden. How could I go on living here then? First thing tomorrow I shall proceed to my post, respectfully accept the seal of office, and then straightway give you fifty silver taels to spread over for several months for your club’s refresh­ments. And as I can’t write poems or essays ‘ being just completely

vulgar ‘ whether you call me supervisor or not, a few days after I’ve paid up you can still drive me away.’

Amid general laughter she went on, ‘I’ll open the storeroom pres­ently and tell them to fetch out all the painting materials for your inspec­tion. If there’s anything of use to you, you can have it; and if you’ll make out a list of what’s still missing, I’ll send people to buy it. I’ll supply you with the silk for the painting too. The drawing of the Garden isn’t with the mistress, Lord Zhen still has it. I’m telling you this to save you a trip for nothing. I’ll have it fetched and sent with the silk for the secretaries to work on. How about that?’

Li Wan nodded. ‘Thank you. If you’ll really do that I’ll let bygones be bygones. All right, let’s go. If she doesn’t send the things, we can come and pester her again.’

As she started off with the girls Xifeng remarked, ‘There’s only one person who could have put you up to all this, and that’s Baoyu.’

Li Wan turned back with a smile.

‘Oh yes! I’d forgotten. It was Baoyu we came about. He was the one who didn’t turn up at our first meeting; but we were too soft with him. What should his punishment be?’

After a second’s thought, Xifeng replied, ‘The only thing I can think of is to make him sweep all your floors for you.’

They approved laughingly and were on the point of leaving when Granny Lai came in, leaning on a young maid’s arm.

Xifeng and the others hastily rose, urged her to sit down and offered her congratulations. Seating herself on the edge of the kang she said:

‘Our masters and mistresses are rejoicing over our good fortune, and we owe it all to your kindness. Yesterday when you sent Caiming over with presents too, madam, my grandson kowtowed his thanks at the gate.’

Li Wan asked, ‘When will he be leaving to take up his post?’

Granny Lai sighed. ‘I pay no attention to their affairs, they do just as they please. When he kowtowed to me at home the other day, I gave him apiece of my mind. I said, ‘Child, don’t start throwing your weight about now that you’re an official. You’re thirty this year and, though you were born in bondage, our masters were kind enough to give you your freedom the moment you came out of your mother’s womb. Thanks to the generosity of your masters above as well as your parents below, you were able to study like a young gentleman, cossetted by maids and nurses as if you were a phoenix. Though you’ve reached this age I doubt if you even know how the word ‘slave’ is written. All you know is how to enjoy yourself.’

‘‘It doesn’t occur to you,’ I said, ‘that you owe your present posi­tion to the generations of hardship your grandfather and father had to go through.

‘‘You’ve had one trouble after another since you were a boy, and the money we’ve spent on you would make a silver statue bigger than you are. When you were twenty our masters were kind enough to help you purchase an official post, although plenty of real gentlefolk go hun­gry. You were born a slave, so watch out ‘ don’t tempt fortune too far. After having an easy life of it for ten years you managed somehow — Heaven only know how — to get our masters to have you selected for this post. A district magistrate may not rank too high yet he has a lot of work to do as the father and mother of everyone in the district. If you don’t behave properly as a loyal servant of the state to be worthy of your masters’ kindness, Heaven and Earth will surely condemn you.

‘You worry too much,’ Li Wan and Xifeng told her with a smile. ‘We’re sure he will do all right. He called occasionally some years ago but hasn’t been here for quite a few years now ‘ we only saw his visiting-card at New Year or on birthdays. The other day, though, when he came to kowtow to the old lady and Lady Wang we caught a glimpse of him in the old lady’s compound. He cut quite an impressive figure in his new official robes, and seemed to have put on weight too. You should be pleased by his appointment instead of worrying like this. If he doesn’t do well, that’s his parents’ look-out; you should just concentrate on en­joying yourself. When you’ve time you must come by sedan-chair for a day of card-playing or a chat with the old lady. No one would dream of treating you shabbily. You’ve fine big buildings at home too, where of course everybody must respect you like a lady of quality.’

Pinger brought in tea at this point and at once Granny Lai stood up to take it.

‘You should have let one of the younger girls do this, miss,’ she said. ‘You’re doing me too much honour.’

Sipping the tea she continued, ‘You don’t understand, madam, all children need a firm hand. Even then, the way they still make trouble on the sly causes us endless worry. Those who know us say: Boys will be boys. Those who don’t may talk of our relying on wealth and influence to bully other people, and that would damage even the masters’ reputation. When I get too provoked, I often call in his father and give him a good dressing-down, to make them behave a bit better for a while.’

She pointed then at Baoyu. ‘You won’t like what I’m going to say, but your father isn’t strict enough with you, and the old lady always shields you. Who didn’t see, in the old days, how your grandfather beat your father when he was a boy, though he never ran wild the way you do, fearing neither Heaven nor Earth. And Lord She in the east courtyard, though he was naughty, never buried himself at home the way you do; yet he got beaten every day. As for your cousin Zhen’s grandfather in the East Mansion, he had such a fiery temper he’d flare up at a word, grilling his son as if he were a brigand. From all I’ve seen and heard, Lord Zhen seems to follow his grandfather’s method of disciplining his son, only he’s erratic. And as he doesn’t mind how he behaves himself, you can’t blame his cousins and nephews for not being afraid of him. If you’ve any sense, you should be glad of this warning. If not, you may not like to say anything but I dare say you’re cursing me in your heart.’

Lai Da’s wife came in just then followed by the wives of Zhou Rui and Lin Zhixiao to make their reports.

Xifeng remarked with a smile, ‘The daughter-in-law has come for her mother-in-law.’

‘That’s not why I came,’ said Lai Da’s wife, ‘but to ask if you ladies would honour us with your presence.’

‘How stupid of me to forget what I really came for and just to maun­der on!’ exclaimed Granny Lai. ‘Now that my grandson’s appointed to this post, we’ve got to give a feast at home for all the relatives and friends who want to congratulate him. I didn’t want to invite some people, not others. Besides, I thought, it’s sharing our masters’ good fortune that’s brought us this undreamed-of honour, so I don’t mind even if it bankrupts us. That’s why I told his father to make it a three-day affair. The first day we shall have a few tables of guests and an opera in our humble garden, and invite the old lady, the mistresses, and all you other ladies and young ladies to come and have some fun; at the same time we’ll ask the gentlemen to honour us with their presence at another feast with an opera in the hall outside. On the second day, we’ll entertain relatives and friends; on the third, our fellow servants from these two mansions. This will be a great occasion for us, these three days of excite­ment, and we owe it all to our masters.’

‘When is it to be?’ asked Li Wan and Xifeng. ‘We’ll certainly come, and quite likely the old lady will be happy to come too, but we can’t say for sure.

‘We’ve chosen the fourteenth,’ said Lai Da’s wife promptly, ‘Do give mother face by coming.’

‘I can’t answer for the others, but I promise to come,’ said Xifeng. ‘First let me warn you, though, I’ve no presents or tips to bring, so mind you don’t laugh at me if after eating I just up and leave.’

‘What a thing to say, madam!’ Lai Da’s wife smiled. ‘Why, if you felt like it, you could give us twenty or thirty thousand taels.’

Granny Lai put in, ‘Just now I went to invite the old lady, and she’s promised to come too, so it seems I really have face.’

After pressing the invitations she was rising to leave when the sight of Zhou Rui’s wife reminded her of something.

‘Oh, there’s something else, madam,’ she said to Xifeng. ‘What has Mrs. Zhou’s son done wrong that you want to dismiss him?’

‘Yes, I meant to tell your daughter-in-law, but I was so busy I forgot,’ said Xifeng. ‘When you go home, Mrs. Lai, tell your husband that neither mansion is to keep Zhou Rui’s son. He must go.

While Mrs. Lai had to agree to this, Zhou Rui’s wife fell on her knees to beg her son off.

‘What happened?’ asked Granny Lai. ‘Tell me what he did, and I’ll be judge for you.

‘On my birthday yesterday, he got drunk before the feasting even started,’ said Xifeng. ‘And instead of seeing to the presents my par­ents’ family sent, he sat there swearing and wouldn’t bring them in. Only after the two serving-women delivering the things came in themselves did he at last get some pages to help him carry them in. The boys did all right, but he went and dropped a hamper so that dumplings started rolling all over the courtyard. After the two women had gone, I sent Caiming to tell him off, and he had the nerve to swear at him. How can we keep on such an insolent, lawless young bastard?’

‘Is that all?’ Granny Lai smiled. ‘I thought it was something serious. Take my advice, madam, and if he’s done wrong, beat him, reprimand him and make him mend his ways, but don’t dismiss him ‘ that would never do. He can’t be treated like one of our children, as his mother came here with the mistress at the time of her marriage; so dismissing him would reflect badly on Her Ladyship. Keep him on, I say, madam, and give him a good beating to teach him a lesson. If you’ve no consider­ation for his mother, at least have some for Lady Wang.’

Xifeng turned to Lai Da’s wife. ‘In that case give him forty strokes, and see to it that he doesn’t get drunk again.’

Lai Da’s wife assented and Zhou Rui’s wife kowtowed her thanks. She would have kowtowed to Granny Lai too, but Lai Da’s wife stopped her. Then these three women left and Li Wan and the girls returned to the Garden.

That evening Xifeng was as good as her word. She had servants get out all the painting material in the storeroom and send it to the Garden. Baochai and the rest went through it and found only half what they wanted. They made out a list of the other things they needed for Xifeng to pur­chase. But no more of this.

Soon the silk had been sized with alum outside, and the draft drawing was delivered. Baoyu went to help Xichun every day, while Tanchun, Li Wan, Yingchun and Baochai often forgathered there to watch her paint­ing and to be together.

As the weather was chilly now and the nights were lengthening, Baochai asked her mother for some sewing to do. Every day she paid two courtesy calls on the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang, and could not but keep them company for a while if they seemed so inclined; and from time to time she felt obliged to drop in for a chat with the girls in the Garden; thus her days were so fully occupied that she sewed every night by lamplight, not going to bed till the third watch.

Daiyu, who suffered from a bad cough around every spring and au­tumn solstice, had overtaxed her strength this year by going not more than usual, because of the Lady Dowager’s good spirits, and had recently started coughing again worse than ever. She therefore stayed in her own rooms to rest. Sometimes she grew bored and wished the girls would drop in for a chat to while away the time; yet when Baochai and the rest called to see how she was, a short conversation was enough to exhaust her. Knowing how delicate and hypersensitive she was, they all made allowances for her, overlooking any lack of hospitality and cour­tesy.

Today Baochai came to visit her and turned the conversation to her illness.

‘Though the doctors who come here aren’t bad, their prescriptions don’t seem to be doing you much good,’ said Baochai. ‘Why don’t you ask a real authority to come and examine you and see if he can’t cure you? You can’t go on like this, having trouble every spring and summer. After all, you’re not an old woman or a child.’

‘It’s no use,’ was Daiyu’s reply. ‘I have a hunch I shall never get over this. You know how poorly I am at the best of times, let alone when I’m ill.’

‘That’s true.’ Baochai nodded. ‘The ancients said, ‘Food is life, yet what you normally eat doesn’t give you energy or strength, and that’s a bad sign.’

‘Life and death are determined by fate, rank and riches decreed by Heaven,’ quoted Daiyu with a sigh. ‘It’s beyond the power of man to alter fate. It seems to me my illness is worse this year.’ This short speech had been punctuated by several bouts of coughing.

‘I saw your prescription yesterday,’ said Baochai. ‘It struck me there was too much ginseng and cinnamon in it. Although they stimulate the vital forces, you shouldn’t have anything too hot either. To my mind, the first essential is to calm your liver and improve your digestion. Once the fire in your liver is quelled so that it can’t overcome the ‘earth’ element your digestion will be better and you’ll be able to assimilate your food. When you get up each morning, you should take an ounce of the best quality bird’s-nest boiled into a gruel with half an ounce of crystal sugar in a silver pot. Taken regularly, this is a better tonic than any medicine.’

‘How good you always are to others!’ Daiyu exclaimed with a sigh. ‘I’m so touchy that I used to suspect your motives. I really began to appreciate you that day when you warned me against indiscriminate read­ing and gave me such good advice. I can see now I’d misjudged you all along. My mother died early and I’ve no sisters or brothers so, come to think of it, in all my fifteen years no one ever advised me as you did the other day. No wonder Xiangyun speaks so highly of you. I used to be sceptical when she sang your praises, but not after my own recent expe­rience. For instance, when you said anything I always answered back, but instead of taking offence you offered me good advice. That showed that I’d been wrong. If I hadn’t realized this the other day, I wouldn’t be confiding in you now.

‘You just said I should eat bird’s-nest. Bird’s-nest is easy to buy, but my health is so poor that I fall ill every year and while it’s nothing serious I’ve already caused plenty of trouble, what with sending for doctors and preparing medicine with ginseng and cinnamon. If I started demanding bird’s-nest now, the old lady, Lady Wang and Xifeng wouldn’t say any­thing, but those below would be bound to think me too pernickety. Look how jealous these people are and how much gossip there is here because the old lady favours Baoyu and Xifeng. In my case, they’d resent it even more. After all, I’m not a daughter of the house, I’m here because I’ve nowhere else to go. They resent me enough as it is. If I should push myself forward, they’d all start cursing me.’

‘Well, in that case I’m in the same position as you.

‘How can you compare yourself with me? You have your mother and your brother too; you have shops and land here as well, not to mention all your property at home. You’re just staying here to be close to your rela­tives, not spending a cent of their money on anything, free to leave when­ever you please. But I have nothing. Yet all I eat, wear and use, down to the least blade of grass or sheet of paper, is the same as their own girls get. Naturally those petty-minded people dislike me.’

‘It only means providing one extra dowry in future,’ Baochai chuckled. ‘And it’s too early to worry about that yet.’

Daiyu flushed red. ‘I confide my troubles to you, thinking you’ll take them seriously,’ she said, ‘but instead you make fun of me.’

‘I was only joking, but it’s quite true. Don’t worry. As long as I’m here I shall keep you company. Just tell me any complaints or troubles you have, and I’ll help as far as I can. As for my brother, though, you know what he’s like. My only advantage over you is that I have a mother. Fellow-sufferers can sympathize with each other. Why should an intelli­gent girl like you lament your lack of a brother? Of course, you were right just now in saying that it’s better not to put people to too much trouble. Tomorrow when I go home, I’ll ask my mother for some of the bird’s-nest I fancy we still have, and bring you a few ounces. You can get your maids to prepare some every day. It won’t cost anything and you’ll not be putting anybody out.’

‘It’s a small thing, but I appreciate your kindness,’ said Daiyu grate­fully.

‘It’s not worth mentioning. I’m afraid I’m often lacking in consider­ation. Well, you must be tired, I’ll go now.

‘Do drop in again this evening for a chat.’

Baochai promised to do this and left.

Daiyu sipped two mouthfuls of rice gruel, then lay down to rest again.

The weather changed unexpectedly before sunset and it began to drizzle. Autumn is a capricious season of many showers and as dusk fell it grew very dark, while the rain pattering on the bamboo leaves made the place seem unusually lonely. Knowing that Baochai would not come out in this weather, Daiyu picked up a book at random under the lamp. It was an anthology of Yue-fu, containing lyrics such as Autumn Sorrow in a Girl – Chamber and The Pain of Parting. Daiyu was moved to write a poem about separation herself entitled A Windy; Rainy Evening by the Autumn Window in the style of A Night of Flowers and Moonlight by the Spring River. This was her poem:

Sad the autumn flowers, sear the autumn grass,

Autumn lamps flicker through the long autumn night;

Unendurably desolate by the autumn window,

In the wind and rain autumn seems infinite.

The wind and rain speed autumn on its way,

By the window shattering her autumn dream;

And the girl with autumn in her heart cannot sleep

But trims the candle by her autumn screen.

Guttering on its stick, the candle sheds tears of wax,

Evoking the grief of separation, its pain,

As through each autumn courtyard gusts the wind

And on each autumn window beats the rain.

The autumn wind, through silken quilts strikes chill,

Her water-clock the autumn rain spurs on.

All night the pelting rain and soughing wind

Accompany her tears for one now gone.

Chill mist enwraps the court in loneliness,

Bamboos drip by the lattice without pause;

None can tell when the wind and rain will cease,

But already tears have soaked her window’s gauze.

Having read this through, she had just put down her brush and was about to go to bed when Baoyu was announced. And in he walked, in a large hat of plaited bamboo leaves and a coir cape.

‘Where does this fisherman come from?’ she greet him laughing.

‘Do you feel better today? Have you taken your medicine? How is your appetite?’ As he made these inquiries he took off his cape and hat and picked up the lamp, shading it with one hand, to examine her face intently.

‘You look a little better today,’ was his verdict.

She saw that he was wearing a red silk coat, no longer new, with a green girdle, green silk trousers embroidered with flowers, cotton socks embroidered with gold thread, and slippers with butterfly and flower de­signs.

‘Why did you only protect your head and clothes from the rain, not your footwear?’ she asked. ‘Not that your shoes and socks are dirty either.’

‘I’ve got a complete set of rain-wear,’ he told her gaily. ‘I came here in pyrus-wood pattens, which I left outside on the verandah.’

She noticed then that his cape and hat were not the usual sort sold in the market, but extremely finely made.

‘What plant are they woven of?’ she asked. ‘You don’t look like a hedgehog in that cape, for a wonder.’

‘These three things are all presents from the Prince of Beijing. When it’s raining he wears a similar outfit at home. If you like them, I’ll get you a set. The best thing is the hat as it’s adjustable ‘ the crown can be detached. So men or women alike can wear it in winter in the snow. I’ll get you one for when it snows this winter.’

‘No thank you,’ Daiyu chuckled. ‘If I wore one of those, I should look like the fisherman’s wife in paintings and operas.’

As these words left her lips she remembered with dismay that she had just greeted Baoyu as a fisherman. She flushed scarlet and leaned forward over the table, coughing as if she could never stop. Baoyu, how­ever, appeared not to have noticed. Catching sight of the poem on the table, he picked it up, read it through, and exclaimed in involuntary admi­ration. Daiyu hearing this instantly snatched the paper from him and burned it over the lamp.

‘Too late! I know it by heart,’ he said cheerfully.

‘I’m better now. Thank you for coming so often to see me, even in the rain,’ she said. ‘Now it’s late and I’d like to sleep. Please go now. Come again tomorrow.’

At this he took from his pocket a golden watch the size of a walnut. Its hands, he saw, showed that it was after nine. Replacing the watch he agreed:

‘Yes, it’s time to turn in. I’ve disturbed you too long again.’ He put on the cape and hat and took his leave, turning back at the door to ask, ‘What would you like to eat? Let me know and I’ll tell the old lady first thing in the morning. I’m a better messenger than those old women.’

‘I’ll think about it during the night, and let you know early tomorrow. Listen, how it’s pouring outside. You’d better go quickly. Have you any­one with you?’

Two serving-women answered, ‘Yes, they’re waiting outside with umbrellas and a lantern.’

‘A lantern? In this weather?’ she asked in surprise.

‘That’s all right,’ said Baoyu. ‘It’s a horn lantern, and it’s rain­proof.’

She took an ornate glass lantern from the bookcase, ordered a small candle to be lit in it, and handed it to him.

‘This is brighter, just the thing to use in the rain.’

‘I have one like that too,’ he said. ‘I didn’t bring it for fear they might slip and break it.’

‘Which is more valuable, lamp or man? You’re not used to wearing pattens, so get them to carry the horn lantern in front and take this one yourself, since it’s handy and bright and meant to be used in the rain. Wouldn’t that be better? You can send it back later. And even if you drop it, it won’t matter. What’s come over you suddenly that you want to ‘cut open your stomach to hide a pearl’.’

Baoyu promptly took the lantern. Two serving-women led the way with an umbrella and the horn lantern, while two young maids with um­brellas followed behind. He made one of these hold the glass lantern and rested a hand on her shoulder.

Scarcely had he gone when a woman, also with an umbrella and a lantern, arrived to deliver a big package of the best quality bird’s-nest and a packet of fine plum-petal snow-white sugar from Alpinia Park.

‘This is better than any in the shops,’ she said. ‘Our young lady hopes you will use it, and when it’s finished she’ll send some more.’

Daiyu thanked her and asked her to sit down in the outer room to have some tea.

‘I won’t stay,’ the woman replied. ‘I’ve got other things to do.’

‘I know what keeps you busy,’ rejoined Daiyu laughingly. ‘Now that it’s turning cold and the nights are long, this is the time for evening gam­bling parties.’

‘I’ll confess, miss, my luck has been very good this year,’ said the woman with a smile. ‘There are always a few of us on night duty, and we mustn’t sleep during our watch; so gaming helps to keep us awake and pass the time pleasantly. Tonight it’s my turn to be banker. Now that the Garden gates are closed it’s time to start.’

‘Thank you very much for bringing these things in the rain. I’m sorry if I’ve kept you from making more money.’ She ordered her maids to give the woman a few hundred cash for wine to keep out the chill.

‘Thank you, miss, for treating me again.’ The woman kowtowed and, having gone to the outer room to take the money, went off with her umbrella.

Zijuan put away the packages, moved aside the lamp and lowered the curtains, then helped her mistress to bed.

Daiyu’s thoughts turned to Baochai as she lay on her pillow, and again she envied her for having a mother and a brother. Then she reflected that, good as Baoyu was to her, there was still a certain distance between them. Moreover, the rain drumming steadily down on the bamboos and plantains outside wafted a chill through her curtains and made her shed tears again. Only towards the end of the fourth watch did she finally fall asleep.

If you want to know the sequence, read the next chapter.

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