A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 61

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Chapter 61

Baoyu Covers Up a Girl’s Theft to

Protect His Sister

Pinger Wields Authority

to Right a Wrong

‘You monkey!’ chuckled Mrs. Liu. ‘If your aunt goes to find a lover that means one more uncle for you what’s wrong with that? Don’t make me tear out that tuft of mangy hair stuck on your head like the lid of chamberpot. Hurry up! Open the gate and let me in.’

Instead of doing so, the young rascal went on teasing.

‘When you go in, auntie, do filch a few apricots for me. I’ll wait for you here. If you forget, don’t expect me to open the gate for you in future, when you want to buy wine or oil in the middle of the night. I won’t even answer you, just leave you to shout yourself hoarse.’

Mrs. Liu spat.

‘You’re crazy!’ she scoffed. ‘This year’s not like the old days. Everything here has been put in the care of different women, every single one of them spoiling for a fight. Just walk under a tree, and they glare like broody hens. How can you touch their fruit?’

‘The other day I was walking under a plum tree when a bee brushed past my face, and just as I flapped it away that aunt of yours spotted me. She was too far away to see what I was doing and thought I was picking plums, so she let out a screech, then started squawking at the top of her voice that this fruit hadn’t yet been offered to Buddha, that Their Ladyships being away hadn’t tasted it yet, and that after the best had been sent to the mistress the rest of us would get our share, carrying on as if I were dying for her plums! I didn’t take it too kindly, sol gave her tit for tat.

‘But you have several aunts in charge of things here. Why not ask them for what you want? Why apply to me? This is like the rat in the barn who asked a crow for grain, as if a bird on the wing had some while the rat living in the barn had none.

‘Aiyaya!’ chortled the boy. ‘If you can’t help, you can’t. Why all this palaver? Think you won’t need me in future? If your daughter does get a good post, seems to me she’ll be wanting our help even more often, and only if we give it will she do all right.’

‘So you’re up to monkey tricks again, little wretch! What good post is my daughter going to get?’

The boy laughed.

‘Don’t try to fool me. I know all about it. Think you’re the only ones with connections inside? We have ours too. Though my own post’s out here, I have a couple of sisters who count for something in the Garden too. So, how can any secret be kept from us?’

Just then another old woman inside called out, ‘Hurry up, you young rascals, and go and fetch your Aunt Liu before it’s too late.’

Not stopping to bandy any more words with the boy, Mrs. Liu hastily opened the gate and went in, saying:

‘Don’t worry, I’m coming.’

She headed straight for the kitchen, where some other cooks shirking responsibility had been waiting for her to decide what dishes to send to the different apartments.

‘Where’s Wuer?’ Mrs. Liu asked.

‘She’s just gone to the boiler-house to look for the other girls,’ they told her.

Mrs. Liu, having put the pachyma flour away, was busy allotting the dishes for different quarters when Yingchun’s little maid Lianhua came in.

‘Sister Siqi says she wants a bowl of beaten eggs very lightly steamed,’ she announced.

‘You would ask for a rarity!’ remarked Mrs. Liu. ‘There’s such a shortage of eggs this year, goodness knows why, they cost ten cash each, and even at that price they’re hard to get. Yesterday the order came down to send food to the families of relatives, and several purveyors went out yet only managed to get two thousand eggs. So where am Ito find eggs? Go and tell her she can have them some other time.’

‘The other day when she asked for beancurd, you sent over some which was rancid,’ protested Lianhua. ‘She gave me a scolding for that. Now she wants eggs and you say you haven’t any. What’s so precious about eggs? I don’t believe you haven’t even got eggs, I’ll have a look.’

She marched over to open the chest containing provisions, and sure enough found a dozen eggs in it.

‘There you are!’ she cried. ‘Why should you be so tightfisted? What we eat is the share given us by our mistresses; why should it worry you? You didn’t lay those eggs. Why take on so if people eat them?’

Mrs. Liu at once put down what she was holding and went over to confront her.

‘Stop talking rubbish!’ she cried. ‘Your mother’s the one who lays eggs! These few are all we’ve got left for making sauce with. They’re for emergencies. Unless the young ladies ask for some, I won’t use them. If you’ve eaten them all up, there’ll be a fine to do!

‘You girls living shut away in the inner compounds take everything for granted. You may think eggs are easily come by, knowing nothing about conditions outside in the market. Not to say eggs, there are some days when there’s not so much as a blade of grass to be had. Take my advice and be satisfied with the fine rice, fat hens and big ducks you get every day. You’re so sated with all that rich food, though, that you pester us all the time for something different: eggs and beancurd, or gluten of wheat and salted turnips. You certainly know how to vary your menu! But it’s not my job to cater specially for you. If each place asks for a different dish, that comes to over ten dishes. I’d better stop looking after our first-grade mistresses so as to devote myself to you second-grade mistresses.’

‘Who’s been asking for new dishes every day?’ shouted Lianhua, her face scarlet. ‘Are you never going to stop ranting? If we get you a job here, of course we expect a little consideration. The other day when Xiaoyan told you that Sister Qingwen would like some artemisia, you immediately asked whether she wanted it fried with pork or with chicken. Xiaoyan said anything with meat was no good; what was why she asked for artemisia fried with gluten of wheat with as little oil as possible. At once you cursed yourself for being so dense and hastily washed your hands to cook the dish, taking it there yourself like a dog wagging its tail. Yet today you pick on me in front of all these people!’

‘Gracious Buddha!’ cried Mrs. Liu. ‘All those here can bear wit­ness. Not to say the other day, but ever since this kitchen was set up last year, any apartment wanting something extra has always brought money to buy it. Sometimes we had what was wanted, sometimes we didn’t. It may sound as if I’ve got a cushy job, with perks too, just catering for the young mistresses. Just work it out, though, and it’s really sickening. The young ladies plus their maids come to forty or fifty people, yet each day we get only a couple of hens, a couple of ducks, some dozen catties of meat and one string of cash worth of vegetables. Figure it out for your­selves: how far will that go. It’s not even enough for the two fixed meals, so how can it be stretched to cover extras ordered by you girls? And you won’t take what we’ve bought but want us to go out and buy other things.

‘The way things are, we’d better ask the mistress for more money so that we can do as they do in the big kitchen catering for the old lady: put down all the known dishes on the menu, prepare different dishes every day, and settle the accounts at the end of each month.

‘The other day Miss Tanchun and Miss Baochai took it into their heads to have some fried wolfberry sprouts, and sent over a maid with five hundred cash. I couldn’t help laughing and told her, ‘Even if the two young ladies had bellies as big as a Buddha, they couldn’t eat five hun­dred cash worth. It’ll only cost twenty to thirty cash and that we can afford.

‘So I sent the money back, but they wouldn’t take it, giving it to me as a tip to buy wine with. And they said, ‘Now that the kitchen’s inside the Garden, some of our people may go and pester you for things like salt or bean-sauce, all of which cost money. You can hardly refuse them; but if you give them what they want you’ll lose out. So take this money to make good the arrears they’ve let you in for.

‘They’re such considerate, understanding young ladies, those two, we can only pray to Buddha in our hearts to bless such kind mistresses. But when Concubine Zhao heard of this, she flew into a rage and fumed that I was getting too many perks. In less than ten days she kept sending over a maid to ask for this, that and the other. I laughed to myself: So you think this gives you the excuse to demand one thing after another. How can I afford so much?’

As they were arguing, Siqi sent someone over to find Lianhua. ‘Is she dead that she hasn’t come back yet?’ she asked.

Lianhua went back then in a huff to tell Siqi all that had been said, embroidering her account too. The result was that Siqi flared up. As soon as she had finished serving Yingchun’s meal she took the young maids with her to the kitchen, where they found the kitchen-maids having their own meal. When Siqi stormed in, the women stood up and asked her to take a seat, but she ordered the younger maids to ransack the place.

‘Just throw all the eatables in their chests and cupboards to the dogs,’ she cried, ‘so that no one gets any perks.’

At the word of command, the young maids crowded forward and started turning the whole place upside down. The kitchen-maids tried frantically to stop them.

‘Don’t believe what those children say, miss,’ they begged Siqi. ‘Even if Mrs. Liu had nine lives she’d never dare offend you. Honestly, eggs are hard to buy this year. We’ve just been scolding her for being so stupid: whatever she’s asked for, she ought to make shift to get it. Now she’s realized her mistake and steamed the eggs. If you don’t believe us, look on the stove.’

This soft talk gradually mollified Siqi, and the young maids were led away before they could smash everything. Having continued to make a scene for a while, Siqi finally let herself be persuaded to leave. Mrs. Liu could only clatter bowls and dishes as she grumbled to herself; but when the bowl of eggs was steamed and sent over, Siqi emptied it on the ground. However, the maid who had taken it kept silent about this on her return, for fear of causing fresh trouble.

Mrs. Liu now gave her daughter some soup and half a bowl of por­ridge, then explained to her about the pachyma flour. Wuer decided to share the gift with Fangguan; so she wrapped up half of it in a piece of paper and as it was now growing dark, with few people about, slipped through the flowers and willows to find her friend. Luckily she was chal­lenged by no one on her way to Happy Red Court. Once there, however, she was afraid to go in. She stood waiting in front of a rose bush some distance away until, after the time it would take for a cup of tea, Xiaoyan happened to come out. Wuer ran forward to call her. Xiaoyan did not recognize who it was until Wuer came closer.

‘What are you doing here?’ she asked.

‘Ask Fangguan to come out,’ urged Wuer. ‘I’ve something to tell her.’

‘You’re too impatient, sister,’ Xiaoyan whispered. ‘Just another ten days and you’ll be here. Why keep on looking for her? She was sent off on an errand to the front just now. You can either wait for her, or let me pass on your message if you’re in a hurry. The Garden gate may be closed soon.’

Wuer handed her the pachyma flour then, telling her how it should be taken and what it was good for.

‘I’m just giving her part of some that was given to me,’ she ex­plained. ‘Please be good enough to let her have it.’

With that she took her leave and started back. She had just reached Smartweed Bank when along came Lin Zhixiao’s wife with a few serv­ing-women. Having no time to hide, Wuer had to step forward to greet them.

‘I heard you were ill,’ said Mrs. Lin. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘The last couple of days I’ve felt better, so I came here with my mother for a little change. Just now she sent me to Happy Red Court to deliver something.’

‘I don’t believe it,’ replied Mrs. Lin. ‘I just saw your mother go out, so I locked the gate. If she’d sent you on an errand, why didn’t she tell me you were here? Why should she let me lock the gate? I really can’t understand this. You must be lying.’

Wuer had nothing to say to that, so she faltered, ‘My mother told me to send those things this morning, but I forgot and only just remembered. I suppose she imagined I’d already left; that’s why she didn’t tell you.’

Mrs. Lin saw how flustered and guilty she looked, and remembered Yuchuan telling her recently that things had disappeared from Lady Wang’s rooms but the young maids there claimed to know nothing about it, and the culprit hadn’t been found. All this made her suspicious. And just at this moment Chanjie and Lianhua arrived with several serving-women. When they understood the situation, they said:

‘You’d better cross-examine her, Mrs. Lin. She’s been creeping in here the last couple of days in a very sneaky way. Goodness knows what she’s up to.’

‘That’s right,’ added Chanjie. ‘Yesterday Sister Yuchuan told me that cupboard in the mistress’ annex had been opened and quite a few odd things were missing. And when Madam Lian sent Pinger to get some rose flavoured juice from Yuchuan, there was one bottle short. They wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t been looking for it.’

‘I didn’t hear about that,’ put in Lianhua. ‘But today I saw a bottle of juice.’

Since Xifeng had been sending Pinger every day to press Mrs. Lin to track down the thief, as soon as she heard this she asked:

‘Where did you see it?’

‘In their kitchen,’ was Lianhua’s answer.

At once Mrs. Lin told them to light the lantern and set off at their head to make a search.

In desperation then Wuer confessed, ‘That was given me by Fangguan in Master Bao’s place.’

‘I don’t care who gave it you,’ snapped Mrs. Lin. ‘Now that we have evidence of the theft, I shall report it and you can explain it to the mistresses.’

By this time they had entered the kitchen where Lianhua showed her the bottle. Suspecting there might be other stolen goods there, they made a thorough search and found a packet of pachyma flour as well. Picking up these things and taking Wuer with them, they went to report the busi­ness to Li Wan and Tanchun.

As Li Wan’s son Lan was ill, she had stopped attending to household affairs and told them to go and see Tanchun. The latter had returned to her quarters, where she was washing in her room while her maids rested in the courtyard. Shishu went in alone to report, coming out again after some time to say:

‘I’ve told the young mistress. She wants you to get Pinger to report this to Madam Lian.’

Mrs. Lin had to lead them all off then to Xifeng’s quarters. First she found Pinger, who went in to report the business to her mistress. Xifeng had just retired for the night. Upon hearing this news she ordered:

‘Give Wuer’s mother forty strokes with the cane and throw her out. She’s never to set foot inside the inner gate again. Give Wuer forty strokes too, and pack her off at once to the manor to be sold or married off.’

When Pinger came out and passed on these instructions to Mrs. Lin, Wuer burst out weeping for tenor. Kneeling to Pinger she told her all that she and Fangguan had done.

‘That’s easily checked on,’ said Pinger. ‘We shall find out whether she’s telling the truth or not by questioning Fangguan tomorrow. But this pachyma flour was sent in as a present only the other day, and it shouldn’t have been unpacked until after Their Ladyships had come back and in­spected it. You shouldn’t have stolen it.’

Wuer hastily explained how the pachyma flour had been given them by her uncle.

‘If that’s the case,’ said Pinger with a smile, ‘then you’ve done nothing wrong but are being used as a scapegoat. Well, it’s late now and my mistress has just taken her medicine and gone to bed; we mustn’t disturb her again over such a trifle. Let the night-watchers keep an eye on Wuer tonight, and tomorrow after I’ve told my mistress this we’ll decide what to do.’

Not daring to object, Mrs. Lin took Wuer out and handed her over to the women keeping watch that night, after which she went home.

Wuer, kept under guard, did not dare to stir hand or foot. Some of the women on duty berated her for her bad conduct. Others complained:

‘It’s bad enough having to keep watch at night without having to guard a thief too; if she should kill herself or escape while we weren’t looking, we’d get into trouble.’

Other women who were on bad terms with Mrs. Liu were delighted by this development, and they came to jeer at the girl too. Wuer who had always been delicate, having no water to drink and nowhere to sleep that night, felt angry at being so unfairly treated, but there was nobody to whom to complain. She sobbed the whole night through. All those women who had it in for her and her mother were longing to have them thrown out straight away, for fear the decision might be changed the next day. They got up early and went secretly to try to win Pinger over to their side, taking her presents, complimenting her on her competence and good judge­ment, and telling her all kinds of tales about Mrs. Liu. Pinger heard them out in turn and sent them away. Then she slipped over to see Xiren and find out whether it was true that Fangguan had given Wuer the rose flavoured juice.

‘I did give Fangguan some,’ said Xiren, ‘but I don’t know what she did with it.’ Fangguan, when questioned, was startled into admitting that she had indeed given it to Wuer. Then Fangguan told Baoyu, and he was worried too.

‘Though the rose juice business is cleared up,’ he said, ‘if the pachyma flour is brought into it she’ll have to own up; and when they know that her uncle got it at the gate he’ll be blamed. They meant well, but we’ll be getting them into trouble.’

He lost no time in talking it over with Pinger.

‘The rose juice business is cleared up,’ he told her. ‘But they’re still in the wrong over the pachyma flour. Why not just say, good sister, that this was given her by Fangguan too? Then it will be all right.’

‘That’s all very well,’ smiled Pinger. ‘But yesterday evening Wuer already admitted that it was a gift from her uncle; so how can she say now that it was from you? Besides, before the thief who stole the juice has been found, how can we let off the one caught with evidence and go looking for other culprits? Who would own up? People wouldn’t be con­vinced either.’

Qingwen joined in at this )oint, saying. ‘That rose juice from the mis­tress’ place must obviously have been taken by Caiyun no one else could have stolen it to give Master Huan. So stop making all these wild guesses.

Pinger chuckled, ‘Of course, we know that’s the case. But now Yuchuan’s so frantic, she’s crying. If we asked Caiyun in confidence and she owned up, Yuchuan could stop worrying and everybody would forget about it. Who wants to stir up trouble anyway? But that wretch Caiyun not only won’t admit it, she’s accused Yuchuan of the theft. Because of their back-biting and bickering the whole mansion’s heard of this business. So how can we pretend that nothing’s happened? We shall have to make investigations. We all know that the one who reported the theft is the thief herself, but as there’s no evidence how can we accuse her?’

‘Never mind,’ said Baoyu. ‘I’ll take the blame for that too. I’ll say I filched it on the sly from my mother’s place to frighten them for fun. Then both matters will be settled.’

Xiren commented, ‘Of course that would be a kind deed, clearing their reputations. When the mistress hears about it, though, she’ll scold you again for having no sense and acting so childishly.’

‘That doesn’t matter so much,’ said Pinger with a smile. ‘Actually, I could easily find the evidence in Concubine Zhao’s rooms, but I was afraid that would make another good person lose face. Other people wouldn’t mind, but she’d certainly be angry. It was her I was thinking of. I didn’t want to smash a jade vase to catch a rat.’ While saying this she held out three fingers to indicate to Xiren and the others that it was the third young mistress, Tanchun, whom she had in mind.

‘Quite right,’ they said. ‘Better put the blame on us here.’

‘Even so,’ proposed Pinger, ‘we must call those two trouble-makers Caiyun and Yuchuan over, and get them to agree to this arrangement. Otherwise they’ll get off unscathed without knowing the reason, thinking instead that because I hadn’t the gumption to get at the truth, I had to beg you people here to cover up the theft. That would encourage one of them to go on stealing with impunity, the other to let things drift.’

‘That’s true,’ agreed Xiren and the rest. ‘You must make it clear where we stand.’

A messenger was sent by Pinger to fetch the two girls.

‘You don’t have to worry,’ they were told. ‘We’re found the cul­prit.’

‘Where?’ asked Yuchuan.

‘In Madam Lian’s place,’ Pinger told her. ‘She admits to every­thing, but I know quite well that she didn’t steal those things; the poor creature’s confessed to it because she’s frightened. Master Bao here is sorry for her and means to take half the blame. I could, of course, name the real thief, but it so happens that she’s a good friend of mine. I don’t care much what happens to the receiver of the stolen goods, only this would damage a good person’s reputation too; so being in a quandary I’m going to ask Master Bao to take the blame, so as to keep the rest of us out of trouble.

‘Now I want to know what you intend to do. If you both agree to be more careful in future, so that nobody loses face, I’ll ask Master Bao to take the blame. If not, I’ll report the truth to Madam Lian rather than wrong an innocent person.’

Caiyun, at this, blushed with shame.

‘Don’t worry, sister,’ she said. ‘There’s no need to wrong an inno­cent person, or to make a young lady who wasn’t involved lose face. It was Concubine Zhao who kept begging me to filch things, and I gave some of them to Master Huan that’s the truth. Even when the mis­tress is at home, we often take this or that to give to friends. I thought after a couple of days this storm would blow over; but I can’t stand seeing an innocent person accused. You’d better take me to the Second Mistress, and I’ll make a clean breast of everything to her.’

The others hearing this were impressed by her courage.

‘That’s very decent of Sister Caiyun,’ said Baoyu. ‘But there’s no need for you to admit it; I’ll just say that I took it in secret to tease you all, and now that trouble’s come of it I should own up. I simply ask you sisters to make less trouble in future. That would be best for us all.’

‘Why should you own up to something I did?’ asked Caiyun. ‘I’m the one, if anyone, who deserves to be punished.’

‘That’s not the way to look at it,’ interposed Pinger and Xiren. ‘If you were to admit it you’d have to let on about Concubine Zhao, and when Miss Tanchun heard of it she’d feel bad again. Better let Master Bao take the blame to keep us all out of trouble. Apart from the few of us here, no one else need know about it isn’t that much neater? In future, though, we must all of us be more careful. If you want to take anything, at least wait till the mistress is back; then even if you give the whole house away, it’ll be no concern of ours.’

Caiyun lowered her head in thought and then agreed. After their plans were laid, Pinger took the two of them with Fangguan to the front where women kept watch at night and, having summoned Wuer, gave her secret instructions to say that the pachyma flour had also been a present from Fangguan. After Wuer had poured out her thanks Pinger took them to

her own quarters, where Mrs. Lin and some other serving-women had long been waiting, holding Mrs. Liu.

Mrs. Lin told Pinger, ‘I brought her here first thing this morning. For fear nobody would see to the young ladies’ morning meal, I sent Qin Xian’s wife to the Garden to take charge for the time being. Why not suggest to the Second Mistress that Mrs. Qin, being clean and painstak­ing, might as well be assigned the job for keeps?’

‘Who is Qin Xian’s wife?’ asked Pinger. ‘I don’t seem to know her.’

‘She’s one of those who keep watch at night at the south gate of the Garden,’ Mrs. Lin answered. ‘She has nothing to do in the day time; that’s why you don’t know her. She has high cheekbones and big eyes, and is very clean and spry.’

‘That’s right,’ put in Yuchuan. ‘How could you forget, sister? She’s the aunt of Siqi who serves Miss Yingchun. Though Siqi’s parents belong to the Elder Master’s household, her uncle works here.’

Pinger recollected the woman then and smiled.

‘Ah, if you’d said that before I’d have known,’ she said. ‘Still, you’re in too much of a hurry to give her a job. The fact is, this business is more or less solved; we’ve even found out as well who took the things missing from the mistress’ place the other day. It was Baoyu who went over there and asked those two wretched girls for something. To tease him they said they dared not take anything with the mistress away; so when they weren’t looking he went in and took the things. Those silly crea­tures didn’t know, that’s why they got scared. Now that Baoyu knows this has involved other people, he’s told me the whole story and shown me the things he took there’s nothing missing. He got that pachyma flour outside as well, and shared it out to a whole lot of people, not just the girls in the Garden. Even the nannies got some to take out for their rela­tives, some of whom passed it on to other people. Xiren gave some to Fangguan and others too. This was just doing friends a favour, nothing unusual. As for those two baskets brought the other day, they’re still in the hall and the seals on them haven’t been broken; so how can we accuse people of pilfering them? Wait till I’ve reported this to my mis­tress and then we’ll see.’

She went into the bedroom to tell Xifeng the same story.

‘That’s all very well,’ said Xifeng, ‘but we know Baoyu. He sticks up for those girls even if they’re in the wrong. And if people appeal to him or flatter him crowning him with a charcoal basket he’ll agree to anything. If we take his word for it and there’s worse trouble of this kind in future, how are we to control these servants? We must go on making detailed investigations. My plan is to fetch all the maids from the mistress’ house here. No need to torture or beat them; we can just make them kneel in the sun on shards of porcelain with nothing to eat or drink. If they don’t come clean, they’ll have to kneel all day. Then even if they’re made of iron, in a day they’re bound to confess.’

She added, ‘Flies go for cracked eggs. Even if this Liu woman didn’t steal anything, she must have been up to something or people wouldn’t have accused her. Even if we don’t punish her, we should dismiss her; that’s the usual court procedure. It wouldn’t be doing her an injustice.’

‘Why trouble yourself over this?’ countered Pinger. ‘We should be lenient whenever we can. This isn’t anything so important that you can’t overlook it. What I feel is this: however hard you work over here, you’ll be going back eventually to the other house; so why make enemies of the servants here, making them bear you a grudge? It’s not as if you haven’t troubles enough of your own. You managed after years to conceive a son but lost him in the seventh month through a miscarriage brought on, for all we know, by overworking and getting too upset and worked up over things. Wouldn’t it be better, while it’s not too late, to shut your eyes to half of what’s going on?’

This advice made Xifeng smile.

‘All right, you little bitch,’ she said. ‘Do whatever you like. I’m just feeling slightly better; I don’t want to lose my temper.’

‘That’s the right way to talk!’ chuckled Pinger.

With that she went out to deal with the women outside one by one. To know what happened later, read the next chapter.

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