A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 65

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Chapter 65


A Hen-Pecked Young Profligate Takes

a Concubine in Secret

A Wanton Girl Mends Her Ways and Picks

Herself a Husband

Jia Lian, Jia Zhen and Jia Rong, consulting together, soon had every­thing satisfactorily arranged. On the second of the month, old Mrs. You and Third Sister were escorted first to the new house. Old Mrs. You saw at a glance that it was not as grand as Jia Rong had claimed; still, it appeared quite respectable, and she and her daughter were both satis­fied. Bao Er and his wife gave them an effusive welcome, assiduously addressing old Mrs. You as ‘Old Madam’ or ‘Old Lady’ and Third Sister as ‘Third Aunt’ or ‘Third Young Mistress.’

The next day at dawn when Second Sister was brought over in a white sedan-chair, all the incense, candles and sacrificial paper as well as fine bedding, wine and food were ready. Presently Jia Lian, dressed in mourning, arrived in a small sedan-chair, after which they bowed to Heaven and Earth and burned sacrificial paper. And old Mrs. You was most grati­fied to see Second Sister’s new finery, so unlike the trinkets and clothes she had worn at home. The bride was helped into the bridal chamber, where that night she and Jia Lian enjoyed the transports of love.

Jia Lian, more enamoured than ever of his new bride, did all in his power to please her in every way. He forbade Bao Er and the other servants to refer to her as ‘Second Mistress.’ They must all call her the mistress just as he did, as if Xifeng had been blotted out of existence. Whenever he went home he merely claimed to have been detained by business in the East Mansion; and Xifeng, knowing how close he and Jia Zhen were, thought it natural for them to talk things over together and never suspected the truth. As for the domestics, they never interfered in affairs of this kind. In fact, the idlers among them who made a point of learning all the gossip tried to profit by the situation, seizing this chance to make up to Jia Lian; thus none of them was willing to expose him. So Jia Lian’s gratitude to Jia Zhen knew no bounds.

Every month Jia Lian paid five taels of silver to defray the daily ex­penses of this new establishment. In his absence, the mother and two daughters ate together; if he came, husband and wife had their meal alone while old Mrs. You and Third Sister retired to their own room to eat. Jia Lian also made over to Second Sister the savings he had put aside in the last few years, and when in bed told her freely all about Xifeng and her behaviour, promising to take her into the family as soon as Xifeng died. This, of course, was what Second Sister hoped for. So their house­hold of a dozen or so people managed very comfortably.

Two months passed in a flash. One evening when Jia Zhen came home from Iron Threshold Temple, he decided to pay a visit to the two sisters whom he had not seen for so long. First he sent a page to find out whether Jia Lian was there, and was delighted when the boy reported that he was not. Having dismissed his attendants except for two trusted boys to lead his horse, he went straight to the new house. It was already lighting up time when he slipped quietly in. The two pages tethered the horse in the stable, then went to the servants’ quarters to await further orders.

When Jia Zhen entered the house the lamps had just been lit. He first met old Mrs. You and Third Sister; then Second Sister came out to greet him, and he addressed her as before as Second Cousin. They sipped tea together and chatted.

‘Well, how is the marriage I arranged for you?’ asked Jia Zhen with a smile. ‘If you’d missed this chance, you couldn’t have found another such man, not even if you’d searched with a lantern! Your elder sister will be coming to call one of these days with presents.’

Second Sister ordered wine and food to be prepared. And as they were members of one family now they closed the door and chatted with­out constraint until Bao Er came in to pay his respects.

Jia Zhen told him, ‘It’s because you’re an honest fellow that I sent you here to work. In future I shall give you more important jobs. Don’t get drunk outside or make trouble, and I shall reward you well. Your Second Master Lian is busy and there are all sorts of people about in his place, so if you’re short of anything here just let me know. After all, we’re cousins ‘ it’s not as if I were an outsider.’

‘Yes, sir, I understand,’ answered Bao Er. ‘If I don’t do my best, you can cut off my head.’ Jia Zhen nodded.

‘I just want you to understand.’

The four of them drank together until Second Sister, sizing up the situation, said to her mother, ‘I’m afraid to go out alone. Will you come with me?’

Old Mrs. You took the hint and withdrew with her, leaving only two young maids there. Then Jia Zhen and Third Sister nestled up to each other and flirted so outrageously that the maids were shocked and slipped out, leaving them to amuse themselves however they pleased.

Jia Zhen’s pages were drinking in the kitchen with Bao Er, while his wife attended to the cooking, when the two maids burst in, giggling, and asked for drinks.

‘Why aren’t you waiting on them, sisters?’ asked Bao Er. ‘Why leave your post and come here? If they want something and nobody’s at hand, there’s bound to be more trouble.’

‘You stupid, befuddled turtle!’ scolded his wife. ‘Why not drink your­self silly and pass out? Just keep your balls between your thighs and stretch your carcass out. Whether they call or whether they don’t, it’s nothing to do with you. I’ll see to all that. Anyway no drop of rain will spatter your head.’

Now Bao Er owed all his good fortune to his wife, and his recent good luck was even more thanks to her, for in this cushy job he had nothing to do but make money and get drunk, yet Jia Lian and the rest never repri­manded him. He therefore obeyed her implicitly, as if she were his mother. And so having drunk enough, he went to bed. His wife kept the maids and pages company drinking, and made up to them in the hope that they would speak well of her to Jia Zhen. But as they were enjoying them­selves they heard a sudden knocking on the gate; and when Bao Er’s wife hurried out to open it, she saw Jia Lian dismounting from his horse. He asked if all was well.

She quietly told him, ‘The Elder Master is here, in the west court­yard.’

When Jia Lian heard that he went to his bedroom and found Second Sister there with her mother. At sight of him, they looked a little put out, but he pretended not to notice.

‘Bring some wine, quick,’ he ordered. ‘After a couple of drinks we can go to bed. I’m tired out.’

Second Sister at once stepped forward with a smile to take his outer garments and offer him tea, then asked about this and that. Jia Lian was so pleased that he itched to make love to her. Soon Bao Fr’s wife brought in wine which the two of them drank, while his mother-in-law went back to her room, sending one of the young maids to wait on them.

When Jia Lian’s trusted page Longer went to stable the horse he discovered another there and, looking closely, recognized it as Jia Zhen’s. Understanding the situation, he too went to the kitchen where he found Xier and Shouer sitting drinking. At sight of him, they exchanged know­ing glances.

‘You’ve come just at the right time,’ they chortled. ‘We couldn’t overtake the master’s horse, and as we were afraid of being caught out after curfew, we come here to spend the night.’

Longer chuckled, ‘Well, there’s plenty of room on the kang, just lie down as you like. Second Master sent me to bring the monthly allowance to the mistress, so I shan’t be going back either.’

‘We’ve drunk too much,’ said Xier. ‘You must have a cup now.

But as Longer sat down and raised his cup, they heard a sudden com­motion in the stable where the two horses, unwilling to be tethered to­gether, had started kicking each other. Longer hastily put down his cup and rushed out to soothe them, coming back after he had managed to tie Jia Lian’s horse up elsewhere.

‘You three stay here,’ Bao Er’s wife told them. ‘There’s tea ready made for you. I must leave you now.’ With that she left, closing the door behind her.

Xier after a few cups was already glassy-eyed. By the time Longer and Shouer had locked the door they saw that he had passed out on the kang. They gave him a shove.

‘Get up and move over, good brother,’ they urged. ‘If you hog all the space, where are we to sleep?’

‘Must play fair tonight, each get a good fuck,’ Xier mumbled. ‘Any­one who poses as proper I’ll fuck his mother.’

The other two seeing that he was drunk ignored him, simply putting out the light, then lying down to sleep as best they could.

The commotion made by the horses had alarmed Second Sister, who tried to distract Jia Lian with conversation. After a few cups, feeling randy, he ordered the maids to clear away the wine and dishes, then closed the door to undress. Second Sister was wearing nothing but a scarlet jacket. With her hair hanging loose, her cheeks flushed, she looked even lovelier than in the daytime.

Throwing his arms around her, Jia Lian declared, ‘Everyone calls that shrew of mine good-looking, but to me she isn’t fit even to pick up your shoes.’

‘I may have good looks but I’ve got a bad name,’ she answered. ‘So it seems not to be good-looking would be better.’

‘Why do you say that?’ he asked. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘You all think me silly,’ she told him, shedding tears. ‘But I have my wits about me. Now I’ve been your wife for two months, and already in that short time I’ve learned that you’re no fool either. I’ll be yours dead or alive. Being married to you, I’ll depend on you all my life, so of course I won’t keep any secrets from you. I’m provided for, but what about my sister? Seems to me things can’t go on the way they are now. We must think of some long-term plan.’

‘Don’t worry,’ chuckled Jia Lian. ‘I’m not the jealous type. I know all that happened in the past, you don’t have to be afraid. As your brother-in-law is my cousin, you naturally don’t like to broach the subject. It would be better for me to make the proposal.’

So he went to the west courtyard and saw through the window that the room was brightly lit and Jia Zhen and Third Sister were drinking and enjoying themselves inside, Jia Lian opened the door and went in.

‘So you’re here, sir,’ he said with a smile. ‘I’ve come to pay my respects .’

Jia Zhen, too embarrassed to speak, simply stood up and waved him to a seat.

Jia Lian laughed. ‘Why look so worried? As cousins we’ve always been on the closest terms. I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for me. If you take offence now, I shall be most upset. Please behave just as you did before. Otherwise I shall never dare come here again, not even if it means having no son.’ He made as if to kneel down.

Jia Zhen hastily raised him.

‘I’ll do whatever you say, cousin,’ he assured him.

Then Jia Lian called for wine, saying, ‘I’ll have a couple of drinks with Elder Cousin.’ Taking Third Sister by the hand he added, ‘Come and drink a cup with me too.’

Jia Zhen laughed.

‘What a character you are! I shall have to empty this cup.’ And he tossed it off.

Third Sister jumped on to the kang then and pointed at Jia Lian.

‘Don’t try to get round me with your glib tongue!’ she cried. ‘We’d better keep clear of each other. I’ve seen plenty of shadow-plays in my time; anyway don’t tear the screen to show what’s behind the scenes. You must be befuddled if you think we don’t know what goes on in your house. Now after spending a bit of your stinking money, you two figure you can amuse yourselves with us as if we were prostitutes! Well, you’re out in your calculations.

‘I know your wife’s such a termagant that you tricked my sister into coming here to be your second wife; but you can’t beat a stolen gong. And I’ve a good mind to call on this Madam Xifeng, to see what sort of prodigy she is. If everyone treats us right we can all live at peace. But if anyone takes the least guts, then fighting it out with that shrew. If I don’t, I’m not Third Mistress You! Who’s afraid of drinking? Let’s go ahead and drink.’

She picked up the wine-pot to fill a cup and drank half of this herself, then throwing one arm round Jia Lian’s neck started pouring the rest down his throat.’

‘I’ve already drunk with your cousin,’ she said. ‘Now let us play at being sweethearts.’

This gave Jia Lian such a scare that he sobered up. Jia Zhen, for his part, had never dreamed that Third Sister could act so brazenly. The two cousins, for all their experience of loose women, now found themselves struck dumb by this chit of a girl.

Then Third Sister cried out, ‘Ask my sister in! If you want fun, let’s all four of us have fun together. As the saying goes, ‘Perks should be kept inside the family.’ You’re cousins, we’re sisters; none of us are outsiders come on!’

Second Sister who had joined them began to feel embarrassed, and Jia Zhen wanted to sneak away, but Third Sister would not let him. By now Jia Zhen regretted having come. He had had no idea that Third Sister would behave like this, making it impossible for him and Jia Lian to have their way with her.

Now Third Sister wound her hair in a loose knot, her scarlet jacket, half unbuttoned, disclosing her leek-green bodice and snow-white skin. Below she was wearing green trousers and red slippers, and she now kicked her dainty feet against each other, now stretched them out side by side ‘ never still for a moment while her pendant eardrops swung this way and that. Under the lamplight her willowy eyebrows curved enticingly, her fragrant lips glowed red as cinnabar, and her eyes, bright as autumn pools, sparkled even more seductively after drinking. To Jia Zhen and Jia Lian it seemed that not only did she surpass her elder sister but that none of the girls they had ever seen, whether high or low, noble or humble, had possessed such bewitching charm. Both were too dazed and too intoxicated even to lift a finger. Her wanton coquetting had de­prived them of speech.

Gesticulating and making eyes at them, Third Sister You had not put herself out to excite them, yet already the two men were at a loss to know which way to look, and had not so much as a word to say for themselves, so befuddled were they both by wine and lust. Holding forth loudly and freely, she heaped abuse on them, taunting and teasing them just as she pleased, as if they were prostitutes called in by her instead of men who had wanted to seduce her. Finally, sated with wine, having worked off her high spirits she drove them out, closed the door behind them, and retired to bed.

After this, whenever the maids were remiss in any way, Third Sister would loose a flood of abuse against Jia Zhen, Jia Lian and Jia Rong, accusing them of cheating a widow and her two fatherless daughters. Thereafter, Jia Zhen hardly dared to come back unless Third Sister hap­pened to be in the mood to send a page boy secretly to fetch him. And when he arrived he had to let her have her way.

Third Sister was in fact a born eccentric. Being good-looking and romantic, she liked to dress strikingly and behave more lasciviously and seductively than all other girls to infatuate men until they were fairly drooling, unable either to approach her or stay away. She delighted in keeping them on a string like this. Her mother and sister tried in vain to dissuade her.

‘How silly you are, sister,’ she would retort. ‘Why let those two reincarnated apes defile our precious bodies? Why act so helpless? Be­sides, that wife of his is a real terror. As long as this is kept from her, we’re all right. If she comes to hear of it one day, she won’t take it lying down and there’s bound to be a big row. Who knows which of you will survive? If I don’t have some fun now treating them like dirt, by the time this breaks it’ll be too late to regret it ‘ I’ll be left with nothing then but a bad name.’

They realized then it was no use trying to persuade her, and gave up.

And now Third Sister started demanding the best of everything whether food or clothing. When silver trinkets were made for her she wanted gold as well; when pearls were given her she asked for gems; if a fat goose was served her she demanded duck, and unless humoured would over­turn the table. If her clothes were not just as she wanted, regardless of whether they were silk or satin, new or old, she would cut them up, swear­ing as she tore them to shreds. So not for a day did Jia Zhen have any satisfaction. Instead, he squandered large sums of money for nothing.

Jia Lian when he went there just stayed in Second Sister’s rooms, and he was beginning to regret this set-up. But Second Sister had an affectionate disposition. To her, Jia Lian was her lord and master for life, she doted on him. As regards gentleness and obedience, she was ten times better than Xifeng, for she would consult him on everything and never dared make any decisions herself or trust to her own better judge­ment. As regards her looks, conversation and behaviour, she was supe­rior too. Yet although she had now reformed, because of her previous slip-ups she had been labelled a wanton, and so her other good qualities counted for nothing.

However, Jia Lian said, ‘Who’s perfect? If you recognize your mis­takes and correct them, that’s all right.’ Thus he never mentioned her loose living in the past, content to dwell on her present goodness. And he stuck to her like glue, like a fish to water, vowing from his heart to be true to her his whole life long, having lost all interest in Xifeng and Pinger.

When they shared the same pillow and quilt, Second Sister often urged him, ‘Why not talk it over with your cousin Zhen, and choose some man you know to marry my sister? It’s no good keeping her here indefinitely, because sooner or later there’s bound to be trouble, and then what shall we do?’

‘I did mention this to him the other day,’ said Jia Lian. ‘But he can’t bear the idea of giving her up. I pointed out, ‘What’s the good of fat mutton if it’s too hot to eat? The rose is lovely but prickly. How can we control her? We’d better find someone and marry her off.’ He just hemmed and hawed, then changed the subject. So what do you expect me to do?’

‘Don’t worry,’ said Second Sister. ‘Tomorrow we’ll first tackle my sister. If she’s willing, we’ll let her go on making rows until he has no choice but to marry her off.’

‘That’s the idea,’ agreed Jia Lian.

The next day Second Sister prepared a feast and Jia Lian stayed in. At noon, they invited Third Sister and her mother over and made them take the seats of honour. Third Sister guessed their intention, and when their cups had been filled three times, without waiting for her sister to speak she said tearfully:

‘You must have invited me today, sister, for some important reason. I’m no fool, and there’s no need to harp on my shameful conduct in the past. I’m aware of it; it’s no use talking about it. You’ve found yourself a good niche now, and so has mother, and it’s only right and proper that I should look for a home of my own too. But marriage is a serious busi­ness; it’s for life, not a joking matter. I’ve had a change of heart and mean to turn over a new leaf, but I must find someone congenial before I’ll marry. If your choice, no matter how rich, talented and handsome, wasn’t a man after my own heart then my whole life would be wasted.’

‘That’s no problem,’ said Jia Lian. ‘You can make your own choice. And we’ll provide the whole dowry, so that mother needn’t worry about that either.’

‘Sister knows who I mean,’ sobbed Third Sister. ‘I don’t have to name him.’

‘Who is he?’ Jia Lian asked Second Sister, but she could not think who it could be.

While the others were wondering, Jia Lian, sure that he had guessed, clapped his hands.

‘I know who it is! He’s certainly not bad. You’ve made a good choice.’

‘Who is it?’ asked Second Sister.

‘It must be Baoyu,’ he chuckled. ‘No one else would do for her.’

Second Sister and old Mrs. You thought he had guessed right, but Third Sister spat in disgust.

‘If there were ten of us sisters, would we all have to marry your brothers and cousins?’ she asked. ‘Are there no men outside your fam­ily?’

This puzzled them all. Who else could it be? They wondered.

‘Forget about the present, sister,’ said Third Sister. ‘Just think back five years and you’ll know.’

As they were talking, Jia Lian’s trusted page Xinger came in to re­port, ‘The old master wants you to go over at once, sir. I told him you’d gone to see your uncle, then came straight to fetch you.

‘Did they ask about me at home yesterday?’ demanded Jia Lian hastily.

‘I told Madam that you were at the family temple making plans for the hundredth day sacrifice with Lord Zhen, so you probably couldn’t come home.

Jia Lian promptly called for his horse and rode off, accompanied by Longer, leaving Xinger behind to attend to other things. Second Sister ordered two dishes and made him drink a goblet of wine as he squatted by the kang while she questioned him about the Jia family. How old was Madam Lian? Was she really a terror? How old were the old lady and Lady Wang? How many girls were there in the household? Beaming as he ate and drank beside the kang, Xinger regaled old Mrs. You and her daughters with a detailed account of the Rong Mansion.

‘I keep watch at the inner gate,’ he said. ‘We have two shifts, four men in each, eight altogether. Some of us are trusted by Madam, some by the master. We’re careful not to annoy her men, but they’re always provoking us.

‘You ask about our mistress. Well, I shouldn’t really be telling you this, madam, but she’s crafty and vicious with a sharp, quick tongue. Second Master is all right, but he’s under her thumb. Still Miss Pinger in their apartments is good-natured; even though she’s on Madam Lian’s side, behind her back she often does people good turns. If we do anything wrong, Madam won’t let us off; but if we beg Pinger for help she smoothes things over.

‘There’s no one now in the whole household, barring Their Ladyships, who doesn’t hate her. We just make a show of liking her out of fear. That’s because she looks down on everyone and just sucks up to the old lady and mistress. Whatever she says goes, and no one dares stop her. She tries to save up piles of silver so that Their Ladyships will praise her for being a good manager; but of course we servants are the ones to suffer, while she takes all the credit.

‘If anything good happens, she rushes to take the credit before any­one else can report it. If anything bad happens, or if she herself makes some mistake, she ducks and shifts the blame on to other people, stirring up more trouble too on the side. Now even her own mother-in-law, the Elder Mistress, can’t stand her, calling her a fair-weather sparrow, or a black hen that neglects her own nest but keeps butting in everywhere else. If not for the old lady’s backing, her mother-in-law would have fetched her back long ago.’

Second Sister smiled.

‘The way you’re talking behind her back makes me wonder what you’ll say about me in future. As I’m lower in status you can lay it on even thicker!’

Xinger hastily fell on his knees.

‘If I do, may a thunderbolt strike me dead!’ he swore. ‘If we’d had the luck from the start to have a mistress like you, we wouldn’t have had to put up with so many beatings and cursings or to live in fear and trem­bling all the time. Why, all our master’s servants keep praising you, be­hind your back as well, for your goodness and kindness to us. We’ve been talking of asking our master to let us come here to wait on you, madam.’

‘You monkey!’ she laughed. ‘Get up quickly. I was only joking ‘you needn’t be afraid. Why should you all come here? I’ve been mean­ing, actually, to call on your mistress.’

Xinger threw up his hands in dismay. ‘On no account do that, madam. Take my word for it, it will be best for you never to meet her all your life. She’ll give you sweet talk when there’s hatred in her heart, she’s so double-faced and tricky. All the time she’s smiling she tries to trip you up, making a show of great warmth while she stabs you in the back. That’s the way she is. I’m afraid not even Third Aunt could outtalk her, so how could a gentle, kindly lady like you be a match for her?’

‘If I treat her politely what can she do to me?’

‘It’s not that I’m talking wildly because I’m drinking. Even if you treated her with respect, once she saw you were better looking and more popular with people, how could she let you off? If other women are jeal­ous, she’s a hundred times so. If the master happens to cast a second glance at any maid, she’s liable to make a row then and there. Though Miss Pinger’s part of their household, and the master may be allowed to sleep with her once a year, or once in two years, she keeps nagging until Pinger loses her temper and makes a scene. ‘I didn’t ask to be his concubine,’ she says. ‘When I was unwilling you called me disobedient. You forced me into it, yet now you treat me like this!’ Then, generally, she pipes down and even asks Miss Pinger’s pardon.’

‘There you’re lying,’ said Second Sister with a laugh. ‘How could a hellion like that be afraid of a concubine?’

‘As the proverb says,’ he retorted, ‘‘everyone has to listen to rea­son.’ Miss Pinger has been her maid since she was a girl, being one of the four she brought here at the time of her marriage. The rest got mar­ried or died, leaving only this favourite maid, so she decided to make her a concubine. That was so as to show how broad-minded she was and also to stop the master from chasing after loose women outside.

‘There’s another reason too. It’s a rule in our family that when the young gentlemen reach teenage, before they’re married, two girls are always assigned to wait on them. Second Master had two, but within half a year of her arrival she picked fault with them and sent them both pack­ing. Although no one could very well say anything, she knew it didn’t look good, so she forced Pinger to become his concubine. Pinger’s really a good sort. Instead of holding this against her or stirring up trouble be­tween husband and wife, she’s completely loyal to her mistress ‘ that’s why she’s kept on.’

‘So that’s the way it is,’ remarked Second Sister. ‘But I hear you’ve another mistress who’s a widow, and several young ladies too. Why do they put up with her if she’s such a shrew?’

Xinger clapped his hands.

‘You don’t understand, I see. That widow, Madam Zhu, is such a kindly soul that she’s nicknamed Great Bodhisattva. Besides, the rule in our family is so strict that widows never attend to affairs: all that’s ex­pected of them is to live quietly and chastely. But as there happen to be so many young ladies, they’ve been put in her charge and it’s her job to superintend their studies and teach them needlework and moral principles. She doesn’t have to bother about anything else. It’s only because of Madam Lian’s recent illness and because there’s so much to be done that Madam Zhu’s helping out for a few days. Still, there isn’t much she can do, she simply sticks to the old ways, not throwing her weight about like Madam Lian to show how smart she is.

‘As for our eldest young lady, it goes without saying, if she wasn’t so fine in every way she wouldn’t have been blessed with her present good fortune. Our second young lady, the one we call Dumbbell, won’t let out a peep even if she’s pricked with a needle. The third has the nickname Rose.’

‘Why’s that?’ asked the two You sisters.

Xinger chuckled.

‘Everyone loves roses, they’re so red and fragrant. But they’re prickly too. And she’s wonderfully clever. The pity is she’s not Lady Wang’s own child but ‘a phoenix from a crow’s nest.’ The fourth, who’s still young, is actually Lord Zhen’s younger sister; but because she lost her mother when she was a child, the old lady made Lady Wang adopt her and bring her up; and she never bothers about family affairs either.

‘Then, you may not know, madam, apart from our own young ladies we have two others, the likes of whom are seldom seen on earth or in heaven. One’s Lin Daiyu ‘ her mother was the old lady’s daughter. In looks and figure she’s just as lovely as Third Aunt, with a bellyful of book learning besides; but she’s always falling ill. Even in hot weather like this she wears lined clothes, and a puff of wind can blow her over. Being a disrespectful lot, behind her back we all call her the Sick Beauty.

‘Then there’s Aunt Xue’s daughter Baochai, with a skin so white she looks as if made of snow. Whenever we catch a glimpse of them coming out of the gate or getting into a carriage, or in the courtyard, we all seem to be possessed by ghosts or gods! The sight of either of them takes our breath away.

Second Sister laughed.

‘A big family like yours has strict rules. Even though you were taken into service there as children, when you happen to meet any of the young ladies you ought to make yourselves scarce.

Xinger brushed this aside.

‘It’s not that. If you talk about the proper etiquette, it goes without saying we should keep out of the way. But even when we do we still hold our breath because, if we let out a gasp, it might blow Miss Lin over; or being warm, might melt Miss Xue.’

Everybody in the room burst out laughing at this. To know what fol­lowed read the next chapter.

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