A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 62

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Chapter 62

Sweet Xiangyun Sleep Tipsily

Among Peonies

Silly Xiangling Coyly Takes Off

Her Pomegranate Skirt

Pinger, going out as we saw, told Lin Zhixiao’s wife, ‘A prosperous family ought to minimize big scandals and overlook minor ones. It wouldn’t look good if we were to ring bells, beat drums and raise a rumpus over a trifle. So take mother and daughter back now: they’re to keep their jobs. And send Qin Xian’s wife back as well. There’s no need to say any more about this business. Just make a careful inspection every day.’ With that she left.

Mrs. Liu and Wuer hastily stepped forward to kowtow their thanks, after which Mrs. Lin took them back to the Garden and reported the matter to Li Wan and Tanchun, both of whom approved of the way it had been settled.

So Siqi and the rest had worked themselves up for nothing. And Qin Xian’s wife, after this stroke of luck came her way, was able to gloat for no more than half a day. She had busily taken over and checked up on the utensils, rice, grain, charcoal and so forth in the kitchen, where she dis­covered serious shortages.

‘There’s two piculs of good rice short,’ she observed. ‘An extra month’s supply of ordinary rice has been drawn in advance, and there’s charcoal missing as well.’

At the same time she prepared presents for Mrs. Lin, secretly getting ready a load of charcoal, five hundred catties of firewood and one picul of good rice outside the Garden for her nephew to take to the Lins’ house. In addition, she prepared gifts to send the accountants and some dishes to treat her new colleagues. ‘My coming here is all thanks to your help,’ she told them. ‘In future we shall be one family. If I overlook anything, please see to it for me.

As she was bustling frantically about, a messenger suddenly arrived to announce: ‘You’re to leave after serving the morning meal. Mrs. Liu has been cleared and the job given back to her.’

Thunderstruck and utterly cast down by this news, Qin Xian’s wife made haste to pack up and beat a retreat. She was badly out of pocket over the presents, and now she had to make good that sum herself. Siqi too was completely taken aback, but fume as she might there was noth­ing she could do.

As for Concubine Zhao, because Caiyun had given her so many things on the sly and Yuchuan had raised such a fuss, she was afraid others would find out the truth. This kept her in a constant cold sweat as she waited to hear the upshot. When Caiyun assured her that there would be no further trouble as Baoyu had taken the blame, this took a great load off her mind. It only made ha Huan more suspicious, however. He fetched out all Caiyun’s secret gifts to him and threw them at her face.

‘Sneaky double-crosser!’ he swore. ‘I don’t want this trash of yours. If you weren’t on good terms with Baoyu, why should he cover up for you? If you had any guts, you wouldn’t have let a single person know you’d given me these things. Now that you’ve blabbed about it I’d lose face if I kept them.’

Caiyun frantically assured him that she was not on friendly terms with Baoyu, nor had she told anyone. Sobbingly she tried in all sorts of ways to convince him, but ha Huan stubbornly refused to believe her.

‘If not for our past friendship,’ he cried, ‘I’d go and tell sister-in-law Xifeng that you stole these things and offered them to me, but I dared not take them. Just think what would happen then!’ With that he stormed out.

By this time Concubine Zhao was frantic too.

‘Ungrateful brat!’ she cursed. ‘Misbegotten monster!’

Caiyun, weeping her eyes out, looked quite heart-broken no matter how the concubine tried to comfort her.

‘Good child, how ungrateful he is, after all your kindness!’ she said. ‘But I know how it is. Let me put these things away, and in a couple of days he’ll come to his senses again.’

She wanted to take the things, but Caiyun in a fit of pique bundled them up together, and when no one was watching slipped into the Garden and threw them all into the stream, where some sank and some floated away. That night, under her quilt, she secretly wept with rage.

By now Baoyu’s birthday had come round again, and they found that Baoqin’s birthday happened to fall on the identical day. As Lady Wang was away from home, however, it was not as lively as in previous years. Still, the Taoist priest Zhang sent over four gifts and a new charm with the boy’s Buddhist name on it; then some monks and nuns from various abbeys, nunneries and temples brought sacrificial offerings of food, pic­tures of the God of Longevity, sacrificial paper for burning, the name of his own star god, the name of the star god presiding over that year, and lock-charms to safeguard Baoyu throughout the year. Men and women story-tellers who frequented the house came to offer congratulations.

Wang Ziteng sent his nephew his usual gifts: a pair of shoes and socks, a suit of clothes, a hundred longevity cakes in the shape of peaches, and a hundred bundles of ‘silver-silk’ noodles of the kind used in the Palace. From Aunt Xue the boy received half this amount, appropriate to her status. As for the rest of the family, Madam You gave him her usual gift of a pair of shoes and socks, and Xifeng a pouch symbolizing harmony embroidered in the Palace, in which were a golden God of Longevity, as well as a toy from Persia. Alms and gifts were dispatched to various temples, and there were presents for Baoqin as we’l, but we need not enumerate these. The girls just sent whatever they pleased a fan, some calligraphy, a painting or a poem to mark the occasion.

Baoyu got up early that morning and as soon as his toilet was finished put on ceremonial dress and went to the front court. There Li Kui and four other stewards had set ready the incense and candles for the sacri­fices to heaven and earth. Baoyu lit the incense, bowed, poured libations and burned sacrificial paper, then went to do obeisance in the clan temple and the ancestral hall in the Ning Mansion. This done, he came out to the terrace of the ancestral hail to bow in the direction of the Lady Dowager and his parents. Next he called on Madam You to pay his respects, and after sitting there for a while returned to the Rong Mansion.

Here, he called first on Aunt Xue, who held him in her arms to prevent.

courtesies went into the Garden attended by Qingwen, Sheyue and a small maid carrying a rug. He called to pay his respects in turn to all his seniors starting with Li Wan, and then went out of the inner gate to the outer courtyard to see his four old nannies Li, Zhao, Zhang and Wang. On his return, everyone wanted to kowtow their congratulations, but he would not let them do so.

On his return to his quarters, Xiren and the other maids simply offered him verbal congratulations, for Lady Wang had forbidden the young people to let others bow to them for fear of spoiling their luck; hence none of the maid-servants kowtowed to him. And when presently Jia Huan, Jia Lan and others called, Xiren promptly stopped them from bowing and made them sit down for a while before they left.

‘I’m tired after walking,’ remarked Baoyu now.

He curled up on the bed and had just drunk half a cup of tea when gay chattering sounded outside and along came a troop of eight or nine laugh­ing maids: Xiaoluo, Cuimo, Cuilu, Ruhua and Xiuyan’s maid Zhuaner, as well as a nurse carrying little Qiaojie, and Cailuan and Xiuluan, each of whom had brought a red rug. They cried out merrily, ‘We’ve gate-crashed to offer our congratulations. Hurry up and bring us some of the birthday noodles!’

The next moment Tanchun, Xiangyun, Baoqin, Xiuyan and Xichun arrived too. Baoyu hurried out to meet his cousins, beaming.

‘Thank you for coming!’ he said. ‘Brew some good tea, quick!’

Once inside they deferred to each other, then all took seats. Xiren and some other maids handed round tea, and barely had they sipped it when Pinger approached, freshly made up and as pretty as a flower. Baoyu hastily went out to greet her with the words:

‘I went just now to Cousin Xifeng’s place, but was told she wasn’t free to see me; so then I sent someone in to ask after you.’

‘I was helping your cousin do her hair,’ Pinger explained. ‘That’s why I couldn’t come out to speak to you. When I heard you’d asked after me I felt so honoured that I’ve come specially now to kowtow to you!’

‘That would be doing me too much honour!’ he chuckled.

By now Xiren had placed a seat in the outer room for Pinger. The latter curtseyed to Baoyu, who hastily bowed to her in return. Then Pinger knelt down and he at once followed suit. Pinger curtseyed again, and once again Baoyu bowed.

‘Make another bow,’ prompted Xiren, nudging him.

‘Why another? I’ve bowed already.’

‘She came to congratulate you,’ Xiren said, ‘but today is her birth­day too. So it’s up to you to congratulate her as well.’

Baoyu bowed again in his delight and exclaimed, ‘So it’s your birth­day too, sister!’

As Pinger hastily curtseyed in return, Xiangyun took Baoqin and Xiuyan by the arm.

‘You four had better spend the whole day bowing and curtseying to each other,’ she cried.

‘Is it Cousin Xiuyan’s birthday too?’ asked Tanchun. ‘How could I have forgotten?’ She ordered a maid, ‘Go and tell Madam Lian, and have another set of presents like Miss Baoqin’s sent at once to Miss Yingchun’s apartments.’

When the maid had gone off on this errand Xiuyan, now that Xiangyun had disclosed that it was her birthday, had to make a round of courtesy calls too.

‘This is rather intriguing,’ remarked Tanchun. ‘There are twelve months in a year with several birthdays in each. On account of there being so many people here some birthdays coincide with two or three of them falling on the same day. Even on New Year’s Day we celebrate one ‘ that’s Elder Sister’s birthday. No wonder she’s had such good fortune, with her birthday coming before anyone else’s. It was great-great-grand-father’s birthday too. Then comes the birthday of the old lady and cousin Baochai; there’s one coincidence for you. The first of the third month is the mistress’ birthday; the ninth is Cousin Jia Lian’s. There’ s none in the second month….’

‘The twelfth of the second month is Miss Lin’s birthday,’ put in Xiren. ‘Only she isn’t one of our family.’

‘Of course!’ chuckled Tanchun. ‘What’s wrong with my memory?’

Baoyu pointed at Xiren.

‘She and Cousin Daiyu have the same birthday, that’s why she re­members it.’

‘The same birthday, do they?’ cried Tanchun. ‘But you’ve never even kowtowed to us each year. We didn’t know when Pinger’s birth­day was either. We’ve only just now learned it.’

‘We’re nobodies,’ rejoined Pinger. ‘We haven’t the luck to be con­gratulated on our birthdays or the rank to receive presents, so why trum­pet the day abroad? Naturally we keep quiet about it. Now that she’s given me away, I shall call on you young ladies later to pay my respects.’

‘We mustn’t put you to such trouble,’ Tanchun demurred. ‘Instead we must celebrate your birthday too today, so as to make me feel better.’

Baoyu, Xiangyun and the rest approving this, Tanchun sent a maid to report to Xifeng, ‘We’ve decided not to let Pinger go today, as we’re all chipping in to celebrate her birthday.’

The maid went off smiling, returning after some time with Xifeng’s reply.

‘Madam Lian thanks you young ladies for doing her such an honour. She wants to know what birthday treat you’ll be giving Pinger, and says if you promise not to leave her out she won’t come to plague her.’

All laughed at this.

Tanchun said, ‘As it happens, our meals today aren’t being prepared by the kitchen in the Garden. We’re having noodles and dishes cooked outside. So we can whip round for the money, and get Mrs. Liu to take charge and prepare something here.’

The others all agreed to this.

Tanchun then sent to invite Li Wan, Baochai and Daiyu, while another maid summoned Mrs. Liu who was instructed to lose no time in preparing in her kitchen a feast for two tables. Mrs. Liu was puzzled by this.

‘The outside kitchen’s got everything ready,’ she said.

‘You don’t understand,’ Tanchun told her. ‘Today is Miss Pinger’s birthday. The meal prepared outside is provided by the chief accountant’s office. Now we’ve raised the money ourselves for a special party for Pinger. You just choose and make some new appetizing dishes, and bring the bill to me later.’

Mrs. Liu laughed.

‘So it’s Miss Pinger’s birthday too, eh? I didn’t know that.’ She

approached Pinger to kowtow to her, and when Pinger stopped her went off to prepare the feast.

Tanchun had already invited Baoyu to have his noodles with them in the Council Hall; so as soon as Li Wan and Baochai had arrived, maids were sent to invite Aunt Xue and Daiyu over. As the day was mild and Daiyu was feeling better, she accepted the invitation. The hall was packed with people, gay with flowers and silks. But now Xue Ke sent Baoyu four birthday presents ‘ a scarf, a fan, some scent and silk so Baoyu went over to eat noodles with him. Both families had prepared feasts and exchanged gifts. At noon Baoyu drank a few cups of wine with Xue Ke, and Baochai took Baoqin to pay her respects to him too. After toasting Xue Ke, Baochai told him:

‘There’s no need to send a feast to the other house. Better dispense with those formalities and just invite the shop assistants to a meal. We’re going to the Garden now with Cousin Baoyu, as we have others to look after; so we can’t keep you company.

‘Don’t let me keep you, cousins,’ replied Xue Ke. ‘The shop assis­tants will be here any time.’

Then Baoyu asked to be excused and left with the girls.

When they entered the side gate, Baochai ordered the women in charge there to lock it, and took the key herself.

‘Why lock this gate?’ asked Baoyu. ‘Hardly anyone uses it; but now auntie and you two are inside and it will be awkward if you want some­thing fetched from your home.’

‘One can never be too careful,’ was Baochai’s reply. ‘There’s been all sorts of trouble in your house these last few days, but our household wasn’t involved: that shows the advantage of keeping the gate shut. If it were left open, people might take a short cut through here, and then which of them should we stop? Better lock it, even if that’s less conve­nient for mother and me. Don’t let anyone through. Then whatever trouble there may be, our household won’t be implicated.’

‘So you knew we’d lost some things recently,’ remarked Baoyu with a smile.

‘You only heard about the rose flavoured juice and pachyma flour because of the girls involved,’ retorted Baochai. ‘If not for them, you wouldn’t even have known of those two things. Actually there have been losses more serious than that. If it isn’t noised abroad, so much the better for everyone; otherwise, goodness knows how many people in the Garden would be implicated. I’m telling you this because you pay no attention to what goes on. I told Pinger the other day, too, because she’s an intelligent person and as her mistress isn’t here I wanted her to know. if word doesn’t get out, we may as well do nothing; if there’s a scandal, she’ll have been forewarned and know what it’s all about, then she won’t wrong innocent people. Take my advice and be more careful in future. And don’t repeat what I’ve told you to anyone else.’

They now reached Seeping Fragrance Pavilion where a dozen or so girls were amusing themselves by watching the fish. Among them were Xiren, Xianhing, Shishu, Suyun, Qingwen, Sheyue, Fangguan, Ouguan and Ruiguan. When they saw them approaching they said:

‘Everything’s ready in Peony Bower. Hurry up and go to the feast.’

Baochai went with them to Peony Bower, a small three-frame hail in Red Fragrance Farm, where all the ladies of the house including even Madam You had assembled. Only Pinger was missing.

Pinger had gone out, as it happened, because the families of Lai Da, Lin Zhixiao and the other stewards had been sending presents over in turn, and many of the servants of the first, second and third rank had also come one after another with gifts to offer their congratulations. Pinger was kept busy dispatching the messengers with tips and thanks, and she also had to report each case to Xifeng. Only a few of the gifts did she keep for herself; some she declined, and the rest she immediately made over to others. After occupying herself in this way for a while, she waited on Xifeng while she had her noodles, then changed her clothes and went back to the Garden. As soon as she entered it, she was met by several maids who had come to fetch her. They escorted her to Red Fragrance Farm where a sumptuous feast had been spread.

‘Now all the birthday stars are here,’ cried the others laughingly. They insisted that these four must take the seats of honour, but this they declined to do.

Aunt Xue declared, ‘I’m too old to mix in your crowd, and I feel very boxed up here too, I’d rather lie down in comfort in the Council Hall. I can’t eat anything or drink much either, so I’ll leave my place to them and that will suit everybody.’

At first Madam You and the rest would not hear of this, but Baochai said, ‘That’s all right. Why not let mother lie down in the hall where she can relax? We can send over any dishes she likes. She’ll feel freer. Besides, there’s nobody in front today, and she can keep an eye on things.’

‘In that case,’ agreed Tanchun, ‘we’d better do as she asks instead of standing on ceremony.

So they saw Aunt Xue to the hall, told the young maids to spread a silk mattress, back-rest and pillows for her, and instructed them:

‘Mind you look after Madam Xue well. Massage her legs, serve her tea and don’t shirk your work. We’ll be sending food over later, and after she’s eaten you can have what’s left. But you mustn’t leave this place.’

The young maids promised to carry out these orders.

Then Tanchun and the others went back. Finally they made Baoqin and Xiuyan take the top seats at the first table with Pinger facing west and Baoyu facing east, while Tanchun got Yuanyang to join her at the lower side of the table. At the table on the west side sat Baochai, Daiyu, Xiangyun, Yingchun and Xiehun in the same order, with Xiangling and Yuchuan on the fourth side. Madam You and Li Wan shared a third table with Xiren and Caiyun. At a fourth sat Zijuan, Yinger, Qingwen, Xiaoluo and Siqi.

When all were in place, Tanchun wanted to offer toasts, but Baoqin and the other three declined.

‘If you start that,’ they objected, ‘we’ll be standing here all day toasting again and again ‘ and still never finish.’

At that she did not insist. Then two women story-tellers offered to perform a ballad for the occasion.

‘No one here wants to hear your wild talk,’ everyone said. ‘Go to the hall to amuse Madam Xue.’ They picked various dishes and had them sent to her.

‘Just feasting quietly is no fun. Let’s play some drinking games,’ Baoyu proposed.

All the rest agreed, and suggested different games.

‘Let’s write down the names of all sorts of games and draw lots to decide which one to play,’ said Daiyu.

This met with general approval and writing-brush, inkstone and fancy note-paper were sent for.

Now XiangLing had been learning to write poetry and practising her calligraphy every day. When the brush and inkstone arrived, she could not resist getting up at once and offering to act as amanuensis. As the others thought of and called out the names of a dozen games, she put them down on separate slips of paper, which were roiled into spills and put in a vase. Then Tanchun told Pinger to take one. Pinger stepped forward to mix the lots and picked one out with her chopsticks. When she unfolded it, she found written there ‘She -fu conundrums.’

‘You’ve picked the ancestor of all drinking games,’ chuckled Baochai. ‘It was played in ancient times, but the original rules have been lost now. What we have is a later version, more difficult than all other drinking games. Half of us here wouldn’t be able to play it. Better scrap this and pick one to suit all tastes.’

‘As this has already been picked,’ Tanchun objected, ‘how can we scrap it? Pick another as well, and if that one’s more popular let the others play that while we play this first one.

She told Xiren to draw another lot, and this proved to be the finger-guessing game.

‘This is simple and quick, it suits me!’ chortled Xiangyun. ‘I shan’t play conundrums; that’s too boring and depressing. I shall guess fin­gers.

‘She’s broken the rules,’ cried Tanchun. ‘Quick, Cousin Baochai, make her drink a cup as a forfeit.’

Baochai laughingly forced Xiangyun to drain a cup.

‘I’m taking charge so I’ll drink a cup too,’ said Tanchun. ‘There’s no need for any announcement, just do as I say. Fetch a dice-bowl and throw the dice in turn, starting with Baoqin. When two people throw the same number they must play conundrums.’

Baoqin cast a ‘three’; Xiuyan and Baoyu threw different numbers; and Xiangling when it came to her turn threw another ‘three.’

‘We must stick to objects in this room,’ said Baoqin. ‘If things out-

side were chosen, we wouldn’t have a clue.’

‘Right,’ agreed Tanchun. ‘Anyone who makes three wrong guesses must drink a cup. Now give her a conundrum to guess.

Baoqin thought for a moment then said, ‘Old.’

Xiangling, who was unfamiliar with this game, looked round the room and feasters but could see nothing fitting a classical allusion containing the word ‘old.’ But Xiangyun on hearing the clue had started staring around too. Catching sight of the name Red Fragrance Farm over the door, she realized that Baoqin had in mind the line ‘I am not as good as the old gardener.’ As Xiangling could not guess the answer and they were beating the drum to hurry her, she quietly tugged at her sleeve.

‘Say ‘peony’,’ ‘‘ she whispered.

Daiyu saw this and cried, ‘Quick, punish her! She’s cheating.’

That gave the game away and Xiangyun, forced to drink a cup of wine, in a huff rapped Daiyu’s knuckles with her chopsticks. Then Xiangling had to drink a cup as a forfeit too.

Now Baochai and Tanchun threw the same number, and Tanchun gave the word ‘‘man’.’

‘That’s too general,’ protested Baochai.

‘I’ll add another word then,’ said Tanchun. ‘Two clues for one co­nundrum can’t be considered too vague.’ This time she gave the word ‘window.’

Baochai thought this over and, seeing chicken on the table, remem­bered the allusions ‘cock-window’ and ‘cock-man,’ so she answered with the word ‘roost.’ Tanchun knew that Baochai had guessed right and had in mind the allusion ‘Chickens come home to roost.’ Smiling at each other both girls took a sip of wine.

Meanwhile Xiangyun, too impatient to wait, had started playing the finger-guessing game with Baoyu, shouting ‘three’ or ‘five’ at random. Madam You and Yuanyang, facing each other across the table to play the same game, were shouting now ‘seven’ now ‘eight.’ Pinger and Xiren had paired off together too, and were indicating the numbers they guessed with their fingers, which set their bracelets tinkling. Xiangyun, beating Baoyu, was entitled to make him pay forfeits before and after drinking.

She announced, ‘Before drinking, the loser must quote one line from a classical essay, one from an old poem, one domino’s name, one name of a melody, and one line from the almanac. All these together must make up a sentence. The forfeit after drinking is to name some sweet­meat or dish and link it with human affairs.’

The others hearing this laughed.

‘Her forfeits are always more pernickety than other people’s; still, they’re fun,’ they remarked, then urged Baoyu to speak up quickly.

‘We’ve never done this before. Give me a chance to think first,’ he begged.

Daiyu offered, ‘Drink an extra cup and I’ll do it for you.’

So Baoyu drank while Daiyu recited:

‘Sunset clouds float with the lone wild duck,

The wild goose cries through the sky above wind-swept river;

A wild goose with a broken leg,

Its crying fills all hearts with sorrow.

Such is the wild goose’s return.’

Amid general laughter the others commented, ‘Stringing lines together like this is rather fun.’

Then Daiyu picked up a hazel-nut to pay the after-drinking forfeit and said:

‘Hazel-nuts having nothing to do with neighbourhood washing-blocks,

Why with them comes the sound of clothes beaten by ten thousand households?’

After these forfeits had been paid, Yuanyang and Xiren who had also lost each recited a proverb alluding to ‘long life,’ which we need not repeat.

They went on playing the finger-guessing game for some time, Xiangyun pairing off with Baoqin. Then Li Wan and Xiuyan, casting dice, threw the same number. Li Wan gave the clue ‘gourd,’ which Xiuyan answered with ‘green,’ and as she had guessed correctly each took a sip of wine. By now Xiangyun had lost the finger-game and had to pay a forfeit.

Baoqin quipped, ‘Please get into the jar, sir!’2

The rest laughed and cried, ‘Very apt!’ Then Xiangyun declaimed:

‘Leaping and rushing,

The river’s waves surge towards the sky;

An iron chain is needed to fasten the lonely boat,

Because there is wind on the river

It is not expedient to make a journey.’

Roaring with laughter the rest said, ‘How side-splitting! No wonder she made up this forfeit. It was so as to make us laugh.’

They waited then to hear her final line; but having tossed off her wine Xiangyun helped herself to a piece of duck, noticing as she did so that there was half a duck’s head in the bowl. She picked this out and started eating the brain.

‘Don’t just eat,’ they scolded. ‘Finish your forfeit first.’

Then holding up her chopsticks Xiangyun said,

‘This duck’s head is not that serving-maid, 2

How can its head be smeared with oil of osmanthus?’

At that the rest laughed even louder, while Qingwen, Xiaoluo, Yinger and the other maids came over to protest:

‘Miss Xiangyun, you’ve making fun of us. You must drink a cup by way of penalty. Why should we be smeared with osmanthus oil? You’d better give us each a bottle of it.’

Daiyu chuckled, ‘She wouldn’t mind giving you a bottle, if it weren’t for fear of being suspected of theft!’

Most of the company paid no attention; but Baoyu, understanding, lowered his head while Caiyun, having a guilty conscience, blushed. Baochai shot Daiyu a warning glance, making her regret her indiscretion; for in her eagerness to tease Baoyu she had forgotten until it was too late how sensitive Caiyun was. Dropping the subject then, they went on with their games.

Presently Baoyu and Baochai threw dice with the same number. Baochai gave the clue ‘precious’ and Baoyu after a little thought knew that this was a playful reference to his magic jade.

‘You’re making fun of me, cousin, and I’ve guessed the answer,’ he told her with a smile. ‘Don’t be annoyed if I break your taboo by saying

your own name chai ‘ ‘hairpin.’’

Asked what he meant he explained, ‘When she said ‘precious’ she naturally meant ‘jade’; so I answered ‘hairpin.’ An old poem has the line ‘The jade hairpin is broken, the red candle cold.’ Isn’t that the answer?’

‘You’re not allowed topical references,’ Xiangyun cried. ‘Both of you should pay a forfeit.’

‘It’s not just topical,’ objected Xiangling. ‘There are classical sources too.’

‘Not for ‘precious jade,’’ retorted Xiangyun. ‘Only New Year con­gratulatory couplets pasted on gates may use it, but you won’t find it in any classical records. This conundrum won’t do.’

Xiangling insisted, ‘The other day reading Cen Shen’s poems I found the line ‘There is much precious jade in these parts.’ How could you have forgotten that? And then in one of Li Shangyin’s poems I found another line, ‘The precious hairpin daily gathers dust.’ I remarked at the time that apparently both their names appeared in Tang poetry.’

‘This will silence her!’ the others laughed. ‘Drink up, quick!’

Xiangyun having no more to say had to drain her cup.

So they went on dicing and playing finger-guessing games. And as there was nobody to control them in the absence of the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang, they enjoyed themselves just as they pleased, shouting different numbers, the hall a scene of wild merriment filled as it was with the fluttering of red and green silk, the flashing of jade and pearl trinkets.

When at last the feast ended and they prepared to leave, they sud­denly discovered that Xiangyun was missing. Thinking she had gone out to relieve herself and would soon be back, they waited and waited, but there was no sign of her. A general search was made, but she could not be found.

Presently the wife of Lin Zhixiao arrived with several old nannies. For fearing that the young ladies might want something, and that in the ab­sence of Lady Wang the young maids might get out of hand or become tipsy and obstreperous, they had come to ask if they were needed. Tanchun realized the reason for their coming.

‘So you’ve come to check up on us, being worried again!’ she chuckled. ‘We haven’t drunk much; we were just having fun together on the pretext of drinking. You nannies can set your minds at rest.’

Li Wan and Madam You also said, ‘Go and rest. We wouldn’t dream of letting them drink too much.’

‘We know that,’ answered Mrs. Lin and the others. ‘Even when the old lady wants them to drink they won’t, much less so now that the mistress is away; of course this is just in fun. We came to find out if you need anything. The days are long now, and after amusing themselves all this time the young ladies ought to have some extra snack. Thay don’t usually eat between meals, but unless they have something after a few cups of wine it may not be good for them.’

Tanchun smiled.

‘You’re quite right. We were thinking of asking for something.’

She turned to order some cakes. The maids standing on both sides assented and went off quickly to fetch them, while Tanchun urged the old women, ‘Go and rest or have a chat with Madam Xue. We’ll send you some wine.’

Mrs. Lin and the others politely declined and after a while withdrew.

As soon as they had gone Pinger felt her cheeks.

‘My face is so hot I didn’t like to let them see me,’ she said. ‘I suggest we wind up now to stop them from coming again ‘ that would be awkward.’

‘Never mind,’ said Tanchun. ‘It’s all right as long as we don’t get really drunk.’

As she was speaking a young maid came in, smiling.

‘Go and have a look quick, miss, at Miss Xiangyun,’ she cried. ‘She’s drunk, and she’s picked a cool spot on a stone bench behind the rockery to sleep it off.’

The rest laughed to hear this.

‘Let’s not make a noise,’ they said.

With that they went out to look, and sure enough found Xiangyun lying on a stone bench in a quiet spot behind an artificial mountain. She was sound asleep and covered with peony petals, which had floated over from all sides to scatter, red and fragrant, over her face and clothes. Her fan, dropped to the ground, was half buried in fallen blossoms too, while bees and butterflies were buzzing and flitting around her. And she had wrapped up some peony petals in her handkerchief to serve as a pillow. They all thought she looked both sweet and comical. As they crowded round to wake her, Xiangyun was still mumbling lines for forfeits in her sleep:

‘Sweet the fountain, cold the wine

Gleaming like amber in a cup ofjade;

The drinking lasts till the moon rises over the plum trees,

Then the drunkards help each other back ‘An appropriate time to meet relatives and friends.’

Laughing, they nudged her.

‘Hurry up and wake up! We’re going to eat. You’ll make yourself ill if you sleep on this damp bench.’

Xiangyun slowly opened her eyes then and saw them all, then looked down at herself and realized she was tipsy. She had come here in search of coolness and quiet, but as she had drunk so much wine by way of forfeits, overcome by dreamy inertia she had dozed off. Rather sheep­ishly, she hastily sat up, straightened her clothes and went back with the others to Red Fragrance Farm. There she had a wash and two cups of strong tea, and Tanchun sent for the ‘pebble to sober drunkards’ for her to suck. Presently she made her drink some vinegar soup too, after which Xiangyun felt better.

Now they picked some sweetmeats and dishes to send to Xifeng, who sent them some food in return. After Baochai and the others had eaten some cakes, some of them sat or stood about in the hall while others went outside to enjoy the flowers or lean over the balustrade to watch the fish, laughing and chatting or doing whatever each pleased. Tanchun and Baoqin played draughts, with Baochai and Xiuyan looking on, while Daiyu and Baoyu engaged in a conversation under a flowering tree.

Then Lin Zhixiao’s wife and some other matrons brought in another woman looking most upset, who would not venture to enter the hall but knelt down at the foot of the steps to kowtow.

Now one of Tanchun’s positions on the draught-board had been threat­ened, and although after putting up a struggle she had managed to win two spaces she was still losing the game. Her eyes intent on the board, she was thinking hard, toying with one hand with the draughtsmen in the box. When she finally turned her head to ask for tea and noticed Mrs. Lin, the latter had been standing there a long time. Asked her business, Mrs. Lin pointed at the woman.

‘This is the mother of young Caier who works for Miss Xichun,’ she reported. ‘She’s one of those looking after the Garden, and a fearful gossip. Just now I overheard her saying something which I dare not re­peat to you, miss. She ought to be dismissed.’

‘Why no report this to Madam Zhu?’ asked Tanchun.

‘I met her just now on her way to the Council Hall to see Madam Xue, and told her about it. She sent me to tell you.’

‘Why not go to Madam Lian?’

‘There’s no need for that,’ interposed Pinger. ‘I’ll just tell her when I go back.’

Tanchun nodded.

‘In that case, dismiss her now and wait until the mistress comes back to make a final decision.’ This said, she went on with her game, while Mrs. Lin took the woman away.

Daiyu and Baoyu standing under the blossoms had watched this from a distance.

‘Your third sister’s rather smart,’ remarked Daiyu. ‘Although she’s been put in charge of things, she never oversteps her authority. Most people would have given themselves big airs long ago.

‘You don’t know that while you were unwell she did quite a few things, putting different people in charge of various parts of the Garden, so that now you can’t pick one extra blade of grass. She scrapped a few things too, taking me and Xifeng as her main targets. She’s very calcu­lating, not simply smart.’

‘So much the better,’ said Daiyu. ‘This household of ours is too extravagant. Though I’m not in charge, when I’ve nothing to do and reckon things up I can see that the expenditure here exceeds the income. If expenses aren’t cut down now, a time will come when there’ll be nothing left.’

Baoyu chuckled. ‘Never mind. Whatever happens, the two of us won’t go short.’

Daiyu hearing this turned and went to the hall to join Baochai.

Baoyu was about to leave too when Xiren came along carrying a small carved, double-circle foreign lacquer tray on which were two cups of newly brewed tea.

‘Where has she gone?’ she asked. ‘I noticed that the two of you had had no tea for a long time, so I specially brought you two cups ‘ only to find her gone.

‘She’s over there; take it to her.’

With that he took one of the cups. Xiren, going off with the other, found Daiyu with Baochai.

‘I’ve only the one cup of tea,’ she said. ‘Which ever of you is thirsty can drink this first, and I’ll go to fetch another.’

‘I’m not thirsty,’ answered Baochai. ‘I’ll just take a sip.’

She took the cup and drank one mouthful, leaving half a cup which she handed to Daiyu.

‘I’ll get you some more.’ Xiren offered.

But Daiyu said, ‘You know the doctor won’t let me drink too much tea on account of my illness, so this half cup is plenty. Thank you for bringing it.’

She drained the cup and put it down, after which Xiren went to collect Baoyu’s cup.

He asked her, ‘Where’s Fangguan? I haven’t seen her all this time.’

Xiren looked around as she answered, ‘She was here a moment ago. A few of them were playing the ‘matching-herbs’ game, but I don’t see her now.’

Then Baoyu hurried back to his compound and found Fangguan lying on the bed with her face to the wall.

‘Don’t go to sleep,’ he said nudging her. ‘Let’s amuse ourselves outside. It’ll soon be time for dinner.’

‘You were all drinking and ignoring me; so having nothing to do all that time naturally I came to lie down,’ Fangguan retorted.

Baoyu pulled her up.

‘We’ll have another drink later at home, and I’ll tell Sister Xiren to bring you to the dinner table. How’s that?’

‘If Ouguan and Ruiguan aren’t there, only me, that’s no good. Be­sides, I don’t like noodles. I didn’t have a proper meal this morning and I’m hungry, so I’ve told Mrs. Liu to prepare me a bowl of soup and half a bowl of rice and send them here. I’ll eat here. If we’re drinking tonight you mustn’t let anyone stop me ‘ I mean to drink my fill. At home, in the old days, I used to be able to drink two or three catties of good Huiquan wine; but after I learned this wretched singing they said drinking might spoil my voice, so for the last few years I haven’t so much as smelt a whiff of wine. I shall take the chance today to break my fast.’

‘That’s simple,’ he said.

Now a maid arrived with a hamper from Mrs. Liu. Xiaoyan took it and opened it, then put on the table one bowl of chickenskin soup with shrimp balls, one bowl of steamed duck with wine sauce, one of salted goose and another of four pine-kernel cream puffs, as well as a big bowl of hot green rice. She then fetched pickles, bowls and chopsticks, and filled one small bowl with rice.

‘Who wants such greasy stuff?’ complained Fangguan, just ladling some soup on the rice and eating a bowlful with two pieces of goose.

To Baoyu, the food smelled more appetizing than his usual fare, so first he ate one cream puff, then asked Xiaoyan for half a bowl of rice which he ate with soup and found delicious, exactly to his taste, much to the two girls’ amusement. After he had finished, Xiaoyan prepared to take back what was left.

‘You may as well finish it off,’ proposed Baoyu. ‘If it’s not enough ask for some more.’

‘There’s no need for that; this is plenty for me,’ she answered. ‘Just now Sister Sheyue brought us two plates of cakes. After eating this I’ll have had enough and shan’t need any more.’ So standing there by the table she finished all the food except two cream puffs, saying, ‘I’ll keep these for my mother. If you’re drinking tonight, give me a couple of bowls.’

‘So you like wine too?’ exclaimed Baoyu. ‘Wait till this evening then, and we’ll have a good bout of drinking. Your sisters Xiren and Qingwen have a good capacity and enjoy drinking too, only normally they don’t feel they should. Well, today everyone can break her fast. There’s an­other thing I meant to tell you which I’ve only just remembered. In future you must take good care of Fangguan, and tell her if she does anything wrong. Xiren hasn’t time to look after so many girls.’

‘I know all that,’ said Xiaoyan. ‘You don’t have to worry. But what about Wuer?’

‘Tell Mrs. Liu to send her here tomorrow. I’ll inform them about it later and that will be that.’

Fangguan hearing this exclaimed, ‘Now that’s something really im­portant!’

Xiaoyan called in two young maids then to wait on them while they washed their hands and to pour them tea while she herself cleared the table, gave the dishes to a serving-woman, washed her hands and went to see Mrs. Liu.

Baoyu started back then to Red Fragrance Farm to rejoin the girls, followed by Fangguan carrying his handkerchief and fan. As they went out of the gate they met Xiren and Qingwen, coming back hand in hand.

‘What are you two doing?’ Baoyu asked them.

‘The meal’s on the table waiting for you,’ Xiren said.

Smiling, Baoyu told them what he had just eaten.

‘I always say you’re as bad as a cat,’ Xiren laughed. ‘Whatever you smell takes your fancy. Other people’s food tastes better to you than your own. Still, you’d better go and keep them company and make a show of eating.’

Qingwen stabbed at Fangguan’s forehead with her finger.

‘You vamp!’ she cried. ‘When did you sneak off to have a meal? How did you two arrange it? Why didn’t you let us know?’

‘They just happened to meet,’ said Xiren soothingly. ‘They certainly didn’t arrange it in advance.’

‘If that’s how it is, he doesn’t need us,’ said Qingwen. ‘Tomorrow we’ll all clear out, leaving just Fangguan here to wait on him.’

Xiren chuckled, ‘All the rest of us can go, but not you.’

Qingwen retorted, ‘I should be the first to go, lazy, stupid, bad-tem­pered and useless as I am.’

‘Supposing that peacock-feather cape gets burned again, who can mend it if you’re gone?’ asked Xiren. ‘Don’t give me that silly talk. When I ask you to do anything, you’re too lazy to thread a needle. And I never trouble you with sewing for me, only with things for him, yet you still refuse. How come then that when I was away for a few days and you were laid up, practically at death’s door, you mended that cape for him with no thought of your health? What made you do that? Come on, speak up! Don’t pretend not to understand and just keep on smiling.’

While talking together they had reached the hall. Aunt Xue had al­ready come, so all took their seats and started the meal, Baoyu just eating half a bowl of rice steeped in tea to keep them company. Afterwards they sipped tea and chatted or amused themselves as they pleased.

Xiaoluo, Xiangling, Fangguan, Ruiguan, Ouguan and Douguan had been romping all over the Garden and picking flowers and herbs. Now they sat down on the grass holding these on their laps to play the game ‘matching herbs.’

One said, ‘I’ve bodhisattva-willow.’

This was capped by ‘I’ve arhat-pine.’

Another said, ‘I’ve gentleman-bamboo.’

Yet another answered, ‘I’ve lovely-lady plantain.’

‘I’ve starry-green.’

‘I’ve monthly-crimson.’

‘I’ve the peony of Peony Pavilion.’

‘I’ve the loquat of the Romance of the Lute.’

Then Douguan said, ‘I’ve a sister-flower,’ and nobody could match that until Xiangling said:

‘I’ve a husband-and-wife orchid.’

‘I’ve never heard of such an orchid,’ Douguan protested.

‘A stem bearing one flower is the lan orchid, and a stem bearing several flowers is the hui orchid,’ Xiangling told them. ‘When there are flowers above and below that’s brothers-orchid; when two flowers bloom side by side that’s a husband-and-wife orchid. This one of mine is like that, with two flowers side by side. How can you deny it?’

Unable to refute her, Douguan rose to her feet and teased, ‘In that case, if one flower is large, the other small, it should be a father-and-son orchid. Two flowers confronting each other should be an enemy orchid. Your husband’s been away for nearly a year and you’re longing for him, so you dream up a husband-and-wife orchid. For shame!’

Blushing, Xiangling got ready to spring up to pinch her.

‘You foul-mouthed bitch!’ she swore, laughing. ‘What drivel you talk!’

Seeing she was about to spring up, Douguan promptly stooped to hold her down, turning to appeal to Ruiguan and the rest:

‘Come and help me pinch her foul mouth!’

The two of them rolled over on the grass while the others laughed and clapped.

‘Look out!’ cried one. ‘There’s a puddle there. It would be a pity to dirty her new skirt.’

Douguan turned and saw just beside them a puddle of rain water which had already muddied half Xiangling’s skirt. Disconcerted, she let go of her and ran off. The others could not help laughing, but afraid Xiangling might vent her annoyance on them they too scampered away giggling.

Xiangling got up now and started cursing when she looked down and saw water dripping from her skirt. Just at this moment, along came Baoyu with some herbs and flowers he had picked, intending to join in their game. He saw the rest running away leaving Xiangling there, her head lowered, fingering her skirt.

‘Why have they all gone?’ he asked.

‘I had a husband-and-wife orchid,’ she told him. ‘They’d never heard of it and said instead I was cheating, so we started squabbling and I’ve spolit my new skirt.’

‘You have a husband-and-wife orchid and I’ve a neck-to-neck cal­trop flower here,’ he answered, showing her the caltrop and taking the orchid from her.

‘Never mind about husband-and-wife or neck-to-neck,’ she grumbled. ‘Look at my skirt.’

Baoyu bent to look, then exclaimed, ‘Aiya! How did you get it in the mud? It’s too bad, this pomegranate-red silk shows the dirt so.’

‘This silk was brought the other day by Miss Baoqin. Miss Baochai made one skirt and I made another, which I put on today for the first time.’

Baoyu stamped his foot.

‘Your family can well afford to spoil a hundred skirts like that each day. Only this was given you by Miss Baoqin, and you and Cousin Baochai both have one; if hers is still all right while yours gets dirtied first, that looks ungrateful. Besides, dear old Auntie’s a fuss-pot. Even when you’re careful, I’ve often heard her complaining that you’re a poor manager and don’t know how to save but just waste things all the time. If she sees this, you’ll never hear the end of it.’

Xiangling was pleased and struck by his understanding.

‘That’s just it,’ she replied. ‘I have several new skirts, but none like this. If I had, I’d change it quickly and things would be all right for the time being.’

‘Better not move,’ Baoyu warned her. ‘Just stay put, otherwise you’ll muddy your underclothes and shoes as well. I have an idea. Last month Xiren made a skirt exactly like this. As she’s still in mourning she isn’t wearing it. How about letting her give you hers instead?’

Xiangling smiled and shook her head.

‘No, if others heard about it, that would be worse.

‘What would it matter? After her mourning ends, if she fancies some­thing you can surely give it her, can’t you? The way you’re behaving isn’t like your usual self. Besides, this isn’t anything that need be kept secret; you can tell Cousin Baochai about it. We just don’t want to vex dear old Auntie.’

Xiangling thought this made good sense.

Nodding she said, ‘All right then. To show how grateful I am to you I’ll wait here. But be sure you get her to bring it here herself.’

Baoyu was delighted and agreed to this, musing as he hurried back with lowered head, ‘Poor girl, with no parents, not even knowing her family name after being kidnapped and sold to this Tyrant King.’ Then he thought, ‘What I did for Pinger last time was unexpected; now this is even more of a pleasant surprise.’ His thoughts wandering in this foolish way, he went back to his room and got hold of Xiren to explain the situa­tion. As Xiangling was a general favourite and open-handed Xiren was a good friend of hers, as soon as she knew what had happened she opened her case, took the skirt out and folded it, then went off with Baoyu to find Xiangling still standing in the same spot.

‘I always said you were naughty,’ teased Xiren. ‘Now see what a mess you’ve landed yourself in.’

Xiangling blushed and said, ‘Thank you, sister. I never thought those mischievous imps would play such a dirty trick on me.’ When she took the skirt and unfolded it, she found it was just like her own. She made Baoyu look the other way and, turning her back on him, took off her skirt and slipped into the clean one.

‘Give me the dirty one to take back,’ said Xiren. ‘I’ll have it cleaned, then return it. If you take it back, they may see it and ask questions.’

‘You take it and give it to one of the girls. Now that I’ve got this one, I don’t need it any more.

‘That’s very generous of you,’ said Xiren.

‘Then Xiangling curtseyed her thanks, and Xiren went off with the soiled skirt.

Now Xiangling saw that Baoyu was squatting on the ground using a twig to scrape a little pit in which to bury her orchid and his caltrop flower together. First he lined the bottom of the pit with fallen blossoms then laid the flowers in it, strewed them with more blossoms, then filled in the pit with earth.

Xiangling pulled him by the hand saying, ‘What’s the idea? No won­der people say you’re always up to underhand tricks. Look, your hands are all muddy and filthy. Go and wash them, quick.’

Baoyu got up smiling and set off to wash his hands while Xiangling walked away too. They had neither of them gone far when she turned back and called him to stop. Not knowing the reason, Baoyu turned back grinning, holding his muddy hands away from himself.

‘What is it?’ he asked.

But Xiangling simply giggled. Just then her young maid Zhener ap­peared.

‘Miss Baoqin wants you,’ she said.

Xiangling urged Baoyu then, ‘Just don’t say anything about the skirt to your Cousin Pan. That’s all.’ With that she turned and went off.

Baoyu called laughingly after her, ‘Think I’m crazy? Why should I put my head in a tiger’s mouth?’ Then he went home to wash.

To know what happened later, read the next chapter.

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