A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 67

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Chapter 67


A Gift of Local Products Makes

Daiyu Homesick

Xifeng Questions a Page Boy

and Hatches a Plot

After Third Sister’s suicide, it goes without saying, old Mrs. You, Second Sister and Jia Lian were overcome with grief, as were Jia Zhen, his wife and Jia Rong as soon as they learned of it. They at once pre­pared to bury her in style.

As for Liu Xianglian, Third Sister’s death had filled him with remorse and inspired him with foolish passion, till a few words from the Taoist priest freed him from his delusions. Thereupon he cut off his hair and renounced the world to go off with the priest, none knew where. But no more of this.

Aunt Xue had been so delighted to hear of Xianglian’s betrothal to Third Sister that she had decided to buy and furnish a house for him, prepare the bride’s trousseau and then choose an auspicious day for the wedding to express her gratitude to him for saving her son’s life. Now, hearing from one of their servant boys that Third Sister had taken her own life and Xianglian had gone off with a priest, she was overwhelmed by distress and bewilderment. And just then Baochai came over from the Garden.

‘Have you heard the news, child?’ her mother asked. ‘Wasn’t Third Sister You, the younger sister of your Cousin Zhen’s wife, engaged and a very good match it would have been too to your brother’s sworn brother Liu Xianglian? But for some unknown reason she’s cut her throat and he’s renounced the world. Isn’t it amazing? A real bolt from the blue!’

Baochai, however, did not take it to heart.

‘As the proverb says,’ she replied, ‘‘Sudden storms spring up in nature, and the fortunes of men may change overnight.’ They can’t have been predestined to be husband and wife. You’re upset, mother, because he rescued my brother, and if all had gone well between them of course it would have been only right for you to help with the wedding. Now that one of them is dead and the other’s gone, it seems to me you’d better let things be. Don’t grieve so much for them that you injure your health.

‘Now quite a time’s passed since brother came back from the south, and all the goods he brought ought to be disposed of. The assistants who went with him worked hard for several months. Why not talk it over with brother, and invite them to a meal to express our gratitude? Otherwise they may think we’re lacking in manners.’

In came Xue Pan then, tears still in his eyes. As he stepped through the door he clapped his hands together.

‘Mother,’ he blurted out, ‘have you heard about Brother Liu and Third Sister You?’

‘I heard talk of it in the Garden, and your sister and I were speaking about it just now.’

‘Isn’t it extraordinary?’

‘It certainly is. Why should a smart young man like Master Liu sud­denly do such a foolish thing, going off with a Taoist priest? I suppose it’s because he was pre-ordained in some former existence to become a saint that he was so ready to listen to the priest. As you were such good friends and he lived all alone here, with no parents or brothers, you ought to make a thorough search for him. How could that lame and crazy priest go very far? He must be hiding in one of the temples near by.’

‘That’s exactly what I thought,’ replied Xue Pan. ‘As soon as I got this news I took my servants out to search high and low, but not a trace of him could we find. And everyone we asked said they hadn’t seen them. I was so frantic that, before coming back, I faced northwest and burst out howling.’ As he said this his eyes brimmed with tears again.

‘If you’ve made a search and failed to find him, you’ve done your duty as a friend,’ said his mother. ‘After all, his renouncing the world may not be a bad thing. You’d better not worry too much. For one thing, you’ve your business to attend to; and then you should make prepara­tions in good time for your own wedding. Our family’s short-handed and, as the proverb says, ‘A slow sparrow should make an early start.’ We don’t want to find, when the time comes, that we’ve forgotten this, that and the other, so that people laugh at us.

‘Another thing, your sister says you’ve been home nearly a month now, so presumably those goods are all disposed of. You ought to enter­tain the assistants who went on the trip with you to a feast, to thank them for their hard work. Of course, they’re our employees and we pay them; still, they’re our proteges too. And, after all, they accompanied you on a journey of one or two thousand ii, working hard for four or five months and sharing your hardships and dangers on the road.’

‘You’re quite right, mother,’ agreed Xue Pan. ‘Sister thinks of ev­erything. It did occur to me too, but these days I’ve been so busy dis­patching goods, my head’s been in a whirl; and the last few days I’ve been rushing about arranging Brother Liu’s wedding ‘ not that anything’s come of it and that’s held up our own business. Suppose we fix on tomorrow or the day after and send out invitations?’

‘Just decide on any day you please,’ said his mother.

As she was speaking a servant came in to report, ‘Manager Zhang’s assistants have brought two cases. They say these are things the master bought for himself, not included in the bill of goods. They meant to bring them over earlier but couldn’t get at them as they were beneath other cases. Yesterday they finished dispatching the goods; that’s why they’ve only sent them over today.’

Meanwhile two servant-boys had brought in two big palm-fibre cases, crated with spars.

‘Aiya!’ exclaimed Xue Pan. ‘How could I be so muddle-headed! These are things I bought specially for you, mother and sister, but as I forgot to bring them home they’ve had to send them.’

Baochai teased, ‘You say these were bought specially, yet you left them lying there for over a fortnight. If they had been something not specially bought, I suppose you wouldn’t have given them to us until the end of the year. You’re altogether too casual.’

‘I guess those brigands on the road scared the wits out of me, and they haven’t come back to my noddle yet,’ he said, raising a laugh. Then turning to the servants, he ordered, ‘Go and tell the messengers I’ve received these cases and they can go back now.’

Aunt Xue and Baochai now asked, ‘What good things are these, so carefully packed and crated?’

Xue Pan called servants to unfasten the ropes and remove the spars, then he unlocked the cases. They saw that one was filled with silks, satins, brocades, foreign imports and articles of daily use. The other, meant for Baochai, in addition to writing-brushes, ink-tablets, inkstones, statio­nery, perfume-sachets, scented beads, fans, fan-sheaths, powder, rouge and pomade, had in it all sorts of toys from Huqiu in Soochow. Among them were figurines with movable limbs, lots for drinking-games, toy tum­blers weighted with quicksilver, earthenware lanterns, whole sets of clay opera figures in blue gauze boxes, and even a clay sculpture of Xue Pan done to the life by one of the Huqiu craftsmen.

Baochai was not interested in the other things, but she picked up the figurine of Xue Pan to examine it carefully; and comparing it with her brother, she burst out laughing.

She told her maids, ‘Take this case to the Garden, so that it’ll be easier to distribute these presents to the different apartments there.’

With that she stood up to ask leave from her mother, then went back to the Garden.

Aunt Xue, for her part, when she had unpacked her case, divided the things into different lots which she told her young maid Tongxi to take to the Lady Dowager, Lady Wang and others.

Baochai, who had followed her case back to her own rooms, looked through the things in it one by one. Some she kept for herself; the rest she divided into appropriate lots. To some people she would just give toys; to others, stationery; or sachets, fans and pendants; rouge and pomade. She gave careful thought to what was a fair share for each, only making an exception in Daiyu’s case she was to have twice as much as anyone else. After she had allotted all the shares, she sent Yinger with an old maid-servant to deliver them to the different apartments.

Li Wan, Baoyu and the rest, on receiving these presents, tipped the messengers and told them that they would thank Baochai when next they saw her. Only Daiyu was grief-stricken at the sight of these toys from her home in the south which reminded her of her parents. Gazing at them through tears she sighed:

‘I come from south of the Yangzi, but my parents are dead and I’m all on my own, with no brothers; so I have to put up in my grandmother’s house. My health is poor too, and though I’m well looked after by my grandmother, aunt and cousins, none of the Lin family ever calls to see me or brings me local products which I could gain face by distributing as presents. This shows how lonely it is, how utterly wretched, to have no family of one’s own.’ These reflections made her feel her heart would break.

Zijuan, having waited on Daiyu for so long, knew just how her mind worked and that it was the sight of these gifts from her old home in the south that had upset her, making her feel homesick. But not daring to say so outright, she just tried to comfort her.

‘You’re so delicate, miss,’ she said, ‘that you’re always taking medi­cine. These last few days you’ve just begun to recover your appetite and have a little more energy; but you’re not completely well yet. Miss Baochai’s gift of these things today shows how fond she is of you. They ought to make you happy instead of upsetting you. Doesn’t it look as if her presents, which she hoped would please you, have vexed you in­stead? Wouldn’t she feel bad if she knew this?

‘And just think, miss, Their Ladyships are doing all they can to find good doctors to diagnose your illness and prescribe medicine, so that you’ll be cured as soon as possible. You’ve just taken a turn for the better, but by weeping again like this aren’t you yourself injuring your health? Don’t you want to please the old lady? You fell ill, didn’t you, because you undermined your strength by worrying too much? Your health’s as precious as gold, miss. Don’t treat it so lightly!’

As Zijuan was pleading like this with Daiyu, a young maid in the court­yard announced, ‘Master Bao has come.’

‘Show him in at once,’ called Zijuan.

Even as she was speaking Baoyu walked in, and Daiyu invited him to take a seat.

Seeing the tear-stains on her face he asked, ‘Who’s been offending you again, cousin? Your eyes are red from weeping.’

Daiyu said nothing. Zijuan, standing to one side, jerked her chin to­wards the bed, and Baoyu taking the hint walked over to have a look. When he saw all the things piled up there he knew that these were pre­sents from Baochai. ‘What nice things!’ he exclaimed. ‘Are you start­ing a shop? Or why display them like this?’

Still Daiyu ignored him.

‘Don’t mention them, Second Master,’ said Zijuan. ‘They were sent by Miss Baochai, but at sight of them our young lady got upset and started weeping. I’ve been trying hard to console her, but it’s no use. And she’s missed a meal again. If she wears herself out with crying so that her illness comes back, the old lady’s going to give us a fearful scolding. It’s lucky you’ve come. Do talk her round for us.’

Baoyu was intelligent, and having always paid more attention to Daiyu than anyone else he knew just how narrow-minded and hyper-sensitive she was, how eager to outshine others in every way. When she saw that Baochai’s brother had brought all these things from the south, from her old home, to give away as presents, she must have been painfully re­minded of her own loss and other causes for grief. But though he knew the real reason for her distress he refrained from speaking of it, for fear of making her feel worse.

‘I know why your young lady cried,’ he said with a smile. ‘She’s angry and upset because Miss Baochai didn’t send her more things. Don’t worry, cousin, next year when I go south I’ll bring you back two boat­loads of things to stop you crying all the time.’

Daiyu couldn’t help chuckling at this.

But at once she protested, ‘However little I’ve seen of the world, I’m not such a fool as to get provoked because a present’s too little. What do you take me for, a two-year-old? You really have too low an opinion of other people. I have my own reasons which you know nothing about.’ With that she started shedding tears again.

Baoyu at once went to sit down on the bed beside her. He picked up the gifts one by one to examine them.

‘What’s this?’ he asked. ‘What’s it called? What’s that cute thing made of? And this one, what’s it used for? Look, cousin, you could put this one as an ornament on your bookcase or on your cabinet as a curio.’ In the hope of distracting her he kept up this idle chatter for a while.

Seeing Baoyu clowning like this to amuse her and asking all sorts of inconsequential questions, Daiyu was mollified and cheered up a little.

Noticing this, he suggested, ‘Don’t you think we should call on Baochai to thank her? Will you come with me?’

Daiyu had not intended to make a special trip to thank Baochai that could wait until next they met. But as Baoyu’s proposal was right she could hardly refuse, so she went off with him.

To return to Xue Pan. On his mother’s advice he lost no time in sending out invitations and making preparations for feast, which kept him busy all day.

The next day the three or four assistants invited arrived. After some talk about the dispatching of goods and the accounts, they were ushered to their seats. Xue Pan poured drinks for each in turn to thank them for their work, and Aunt Xue sent a maid out from the inner room to express her thanks as well.

One of the men asked, ‘Why isn’t Brother Liu here today? Did you forget to invite him, sir?’

Xue Pan knitted his brows.

‘Don’t bring up his name,’ he sighed. ‘None of you know, I sup­pose, what’s happened to him. It’s really tragic. Two days ago, out of the blue, some crazy Taoist priest persuaded him to renounce the world, and he went away with the priest. Don’t you call that extraordinary?’

One of them answered, ‘In the shop we did hear a great hubbub outside about some Taoist priest, who with just a few words persuaded a young man to go away with him. Some said they disappeared in a gust of wind, others that they rode off on rainbow-coloured clouds ‘ there were different accounts. But we were too busy dispatching goods to pay much attention, so we didn’t make further inquiries. Besides, we were rather sceptical about it. Now you tell us that the convert was our Brother Liu. If we’d known that, we ought to have dissuaded him and never allowed him to leave. It’s really too bad to have lost such an entertaining friend. No wonder you feel upset, sir.

‘But would such an intelligent man really go off with the priest? Brother Liu can use arms, he’s strong. He may have seen through the priest’s black magic and just pretended to be taken in, so that he could do for the fellow somewhere else.’

‘One never knows,’ said Xue Pan. ‘If that’s what happened, fine: there’ll be one less sorcerer casting spells on people.’

‘But when you heard about it, didn’t you go to make a search?’ they asked.

‘We searched high and low, inside and outside the city, but couldn’t find him. And when I saw no sign of him ‘ you may think me a fool for this ‘ I broke down and blubbed.’

As he kept sighing and looked very downcast, not urging them to drink in his usual cheerful way, though it was a sumptuous feast with chicken, duck, fish, meat and other delicacies of land and sea, in view of their host’s low spirits the guests did not like to stay too long. After finishing a few cups of wine and a little food they left.

Meantime Baoyu had taken Daiyu to Baochai’s place to thank her. After the usual exchange of civilities, Daiyu said to Baochai:

‘Your brother must have been to a lot of trouble bringing back all those things. Now you’ve given so many to us, you can’t have anything left for yourself.’

‘Exactly. Why didn’t you keep them?’ asked Baoyu.

‘They weren’t anything good,’ said Baochai, ‘just some local prod­ucts from far away, some novelties to amuse us. Whether I keep any or not doesn’t matter. If there’s anything I fancy, next year when my brother makes another trip I can ask him to bring more; it’s no trouble at all.’

At once Baoyu chuckled, ‘If he does, we’ll expect you to give us some. You mustn’t forget us.’

‘Speak for yourself,’ said Daiyu. ‘Don’t drag me in.’ Turning to Baochai she added, ‘You see he’s not come to thank you, but to order things for next year.’

Baoyu laughed.

‘If I get some, of course you’ll get a share too. So you ought to back me up instead of making such sarcastic remarks.’

Daiyu just smiled.

‘How did you two happen to arrive here at the same time?’ Baochai asked. ‘Did one of you fetch the other?’

‘Well, when you sent me these things, I knew Cousin Lin must have her share too,’ explained B’oyu. ‘So if I wanted to thank you, so would she. I called to pick her up and come here together, but found her upset and in tears. I can’t understand why she’s so fond of crying.’

Daiyu shot him a repressive look.

Taking the hint he changed his tune and said, ‘Cousin [in hasn’t felt too well these last few days. She was crying for fear her illness might come back. I tried to comfort her for a while and then we came, partly to thank you, partly because she’d feel low sitting all alone in her room.’

‘It’s only right to worry about one’s health,’ replied Baochai. ‘But all one need do is to take extra care about food and sufficient rest, and wearing suitable clothes for different weather. Why should one feel up­set? Don’t you know, cousin, that grieving saps your spirits and energy? If you do yourself such serious harm you’ll fall ill. Do remember that.’

‘You’re quite right, cousin,’ agreed Daiyu. ‘Of course I know that. But you’ve seen how it’s been with me these last few years. Not one year’s gone by without my falling ill once or twice; that’s what unnerves me. The very sight of medicine, whether it does me any good or not, gives me a headache, and the smell nauseates me. How can I help being afraid of a relapse?’

‘Even so, you shouldn’t get too upset,’ urged Baochai. ‘Instead, whenever you don’t feel too well you should make an effort to come out and stroll about to cheer yourself up. That would be better than sitting moping at home. Depression just makes your health worse, that’s the trouble with it. A couple of days ago I felt so lazy and limp I longed to lie down, but knowing this is a treacherous time of the year I was afraid I might fall ill, so I forced myself to find something to do, and that way I got over it. You mustn’t mind me saying this, cousin, but ‘the more afraid you are the more likely the devil is to come.

‘What devil, cousin? From where?’ demanded Baoyu. ‘Why have I never seen one?’

Everyone laughed.

‘Silly lordling!’ mocked Baochai. ‘That’s just a figure of speech. There are no such things as devils. If there were, you’d be crying for fright.’

‘Well said, cousin,’ approved Daiyu with a smile. ‘You’re right to tick him off for blurting out whatever comes into his head.’

‘So you’re pleased whenever people snub me,’ said Baoyu. ‘Well, now that you’ve stopped feeling sad we’d better be going.’

After a little further chat they said goodbye to Baochai and left, Baoyu seeing Daiyu to Bamboo Lodge before going home himself.

Now when Concubine Zhao saw the presents sent to Huan, she seized on them gleefully, loud in her praise of Baochai.

‘Everyone speaks of Miss Baochai’s good manners and generosity,’ she gushed, ‘and sure enough here’s an example today. How much stuff could her brother bring back? Yet she sends some to every house­hold, not missing one out or making any distinctions, even thinking of us who don’t count for anything here. This really does her credit! Miss [in, now, she’s quite different. Of course nobody brings her anything; but even if they did, she’d only send presents to those who have power and big face. Would she ever think of me or of my son? This shows that good breeding is really exceptional.’

As Concubine Zhao gloated over these presents for Huan, picking them up to play with and examine, it occurred to her that as Baochia was Lady Wang’s niece this was a good opportunity to go and make up to her mistress. So she hurried over with the presents to Lady Wang’s room.

Standing to one side there she said, ‘These are things Miss Baochai just gave Huan, things brought her by her brother. She’s so young yet she thinks of everybody! I gave the maid who brought them two hundred cash. I heard that Aunt Xue sent you some gifts too, madam. I wonder what they are? So their family’s sending us two lots of presents! How many things could they have got? Not wonder the old lady and you both praise Miss Baochai and make such a favourite of her. She’s really most lovable.’

While saying this she held out the things she had brought. But Lady Wang neither looked up nor reached out her hand.

‘Good, let Huan play with them,’ was all she said, without so much as glancing at the toys.

Annoyed by this snub, the concubine trailed back dejectedly to her room where she threw the toys aside and started grumbling, scolding and complaining. As no one asked her what the matter was, she sat there muttering to herself, showing how petty-minded and stupid she was. Even when good things came her way, she would make so many tactless and irritating remarks that Tanchun can hardly be blamed for being exasper­ated with her mother and despising her.

When the maid delivering the presents for Baochai returned, she re­ported how some of the recipients had thanked her and some had given her tips; only she had brought back the share for little Qiaojie.

‘Didn’t you take it or wouldn’t she accept it?’ asked Baochai in surprise.

‘When I took the things to Master Huan,’ Yinger explained, ‘I saw Madam [ian going to the old lady’s place. As she wouldn’t be at home, I didn’t know to whom to give Qiaojie’s share, so I didn’t go there.’

‘How silly of you,’ scolded Baochai. ‘Even if she were out, Pinger and Fenger would hardly be out as well. You could have given it to them, and they’d have told Madam Lian when she came back. Do you have to deliver it to her in person?’

So Yinger took the things out of the Garden again. On the way to Xifeng’s quarters she told the old maid-servant carrying them for her:

‘If I’d known that would be all right, I could have saved this trip.’

‘We’ve nothing to do at home, so this is a good chance for a stroll,’ said the old woman. ‘Only you’re not used to much walking, and after going to so many places today I daresay you’re tired out, miss. Still, after delivering this we shall be through, and then you can have a rest.’

Still chatting they reached Xifeng’s place and delivered the gift.

On their return, Baochai asked, ‘Did you see Madam [ian?’

‘No, we didn’t,’ Yinger answered.

‘I suppose she wasn’t back then?’

‘She was back, but Fenger told me, ‘Since coming back from the old lady’s place she hasn’t looked her usual cheerful self her face is black as thunder. She called Pinger in for a whispered consultation which the rest of us weren’t allowed to hear she even sent me out. So you’d better not go in. I’ll report that you’ve come.’ Then Fenger took the present in. When she came out again she said, ‘Our mistress sends

her thanks to your young lady.’ And she gave us a string of cash. Then we came back.’

Baochai was puzzled by this account, unable to think why Xifeng should be so angry.

But let us return to Baoyu. When Xiren saw him come home she asked:

‘Why didn’t you amuse yourself outside a bit longer? You said you were going with Miss [in to thank Miss Baochai. Did you do that?’

‘Of course that’s what I intended to do,’ said Baoyu, ‘but when I got there I found her in her room weeping over those things. I understood the reason, but I couldn’t very well ask her about it or scold her, so I pretended not to understand and chatted for a while about this and that so as to cheer her up; and as soon as she felt better I took her with me to thank Cousin Baochai. We chatted there for a bit, then I saw Daiyu back before coming home myself.’

‘Did you notice,’ asked Xiren, ‘whether Miss [in got more things than we did or the same amount?’

‘Her share was two or three times bigger.’

‘That shows real understanding and tact,’ approved Xiren. ‘Miss Baochai knows that all her other cousins have close relatives at hand to send them presents; besides, she and Miss [in aren’t simply relatives but half-sisters too, for, as you know, last year Miss [in became Aunt Xue’s god-daughter. So it was only right to give her a bigger share.’

Baoyu chuckled, ‘You sound like an old judge reviewing a case.’ He called a young maid then to fetch him a pillow as he wanted to lie down for a while.

‘If you’re not going out,’ said Xiren, ‘there’s something I want to ask you.’

‘Well, what is it?’

‘You know how good Madam Lian’s always been to me. Now she’s just getting over a serious illness and for some time I’ve been meaning to call on her, but it wasn’t convenient while Master [ian was at home, so I never went. Now I hear he’s out and you’re not going over there today; besides, this early autumn weather is neither too hot nor too cold; so I’d like to go and pay my meet. And this is a good excuse to take a stroll while you and the other girls keep an eye on things here. I shan’t be going long.

‘Yes, that’s what you should do,’ agreed Qingwen, ‘as you happen to be free now.

‘I was just saying what a good judge she was in her appraisal of Miss Baochai,’ Baoyu remarked. ‘Now in this case she’s showing real thought­fulness too.’

‘There’s no need to heap praise on me, my good young master,’ replied Xiren with a smile. ‘Just amuse yourself with them here, but whatever happens don’t go to sleep and catch a chill, or the blame will fall on me again.’

‘I know,’ he said. ‘You can go.’

Xiren went to her room to change into new clothes, then picked up the mirror to tidy her hair and dust her face with powder. Coming out, she gave Qingwen and Sheyue some further instructions before leaving Happy Red Court.

At Seeping Fragrance Bridge, she paused to look round and enjoy the early autumn scene. Cicadas were shrilling in the trees, insects chirping in the undergrowth; the pomegranate flowers were fading, the lotus leaves withering, but the hibiscus on the river bank had put out clusters of red buds which looked enchanting against the vivid green leaves. Crossing the bridge then she soon saw Li Wan’s maid Suyun approaching, fol­lowed by an old serving-woman with a lacquer hamper. Xiren asked where they were taking the hamper and what was in it.

‘These are caltrops and lotus seeds our mistress is sending Miss Tanchun,’ Suyun told her.

‘Were they picked in the stream in our Garden or bought outside?’

‘Mother Liu who works in our house asked leave to go and visit some relatives, then brought these back as a present for our mistress, and Miss Tanchun saw them as she happened to be in our place. Our mistress had some peeled for her to taste, but she refused as she’d just been drinking hot tea and said she’d try some later. So now we’re taking these to her house.’

Then they went their different ways. In the distance Xiren now saw someone flicking a whisk under a trellis of grapes, but as the sun was in her eyes she could not make out who it was. Drawing nearer she discov­ered it was old Mrs. Zhu, who came forward, beaming, to greet her.

‘How is it you have time to come out for a stroll today, miss?’ she asked. ‘Where are you going?’

‘I’ve no time to stroll about, I’m on my way to call on Madam [ian. What are you doing here?’

‘I’m chasing away the wasps. This has been such a dry summer, all the trees are infested by insects who’ve been boring into the fruit so that lots of it has dropped ‘ what a wretched waste! Look at the grapes, just forming such pretty clusters, but the wasps and bees keeping swarming round to bite them. Worse still, magpies and sparrows come to steal grapes too. The trouble is that once a sparrow or insect has made a hole in three of four grapes in one cluster, the juice dripping on to the good ones rots them too. These sparrows and wasps are such a pest, I’m here to shoo them away. Just look, miss, because I stopped for one minute to talk, another swarm of wasps has come.’

‘Even if you keep waving that whisk you’ll never keep them all away. As soon as you drive one lot away from here, another will come over there. Better tell the purveyors to have a whole lot of small gauze bags made. If you put one bag over each cluster of grapes, the birds and insects won’t be able to spoil them; and as gauze lets through the air, that won’t hurt the grapes.

‘That’s a good idea,’ agreed the old woman. ‘This is my first year at this job, so I don’t know these clever dodges.’

‘We have many different kinds of fruit in the Garden,’ remarked Xiren. ‘Which kind ripens first?’

‘This is the start of the seventh month. The grapes are only just turn­ing red. They won’t be really ripe and good to eat until the end of the month. If you don’t believe me, miss’ I’ll pick one for you to taste.’

‘Even if they were ripe, the first fruits have to be sacrificed to Bud­dha and the next sent to the mistresses. How can we taste them first? As an old hand here, surely you know this rule?’

The old woman smiled sheepishly.

‘You’re right, miss. I only said that because of the question you asked.’ But while saying this she was thinking, ‘Drat it all! It’s lucky I was chasing wasps just now. If I’d happened to pick a grape to taste and been spotted, what a to-do there’d have been!’

‘Put in a request to Madam Lian for those bags I told you about,’ Xiren advised her. ‘She’ll get the stewards to have them made.’

This said she left by the Garden gate and went straight to Xifeng’s place.

Xifeng and Pinger were discussing Jia Lian’s secret marriage. As Xiren was a rare visitor and they did not know her errand, they broke off their conversation on her arrival.

With a forced smile Xifeng asked, ‘What wind’s blown such a noble visitor to our humble place?’

Xiren replied with a smile, ‘I knew you’d tease me when I came, madam, but never mind. While you were unwell I kept wanting to come and pay my respects, but when Master Lian was at home it wasn’t convenient, and I didn’t like to disturb you while you were ill, so I didn’t venture to come. As you’ve always been so kind to me, I knew you’d overlook it and not be offended.’

‘Cousin Bao has plenty of maids in his place, but you’re the only responsible one,’ said Xifeng. ‘Of course you couldn’t get away. Pinger often told me that you were thinking of me and asking after my health, so I felt very pleased. Now that you’re here it’s I who should be thanking you for your concern. How could I tease you, my dear Miss Xiren?’

‘If you put it like that, my dear madam, you’re really too kind.’

Xifeng took Xiren’s hand and urged her to sit on the kang, but only after declining several times did she take a seat on a stool by it, while Pinger herself fetched in tea.

‘Let the young maids attend to that,’ urged Xiren. ‘I don’t like to trouble you, miss.’

As she stood up to take the tea, turning her head she noticed in a needlework basket on one side of the kang a small crimson apron of imported satin.

‘Busy as you are every day, madam, do you still have time to do needlework?’ she asked.

‘I’m no needlewoman,’ said Xifeng. ‘And now that I’ve just got

over my illness there are so many family affairs to see to I’ve naturally no time for such things ‘ I’ve even given up doing what’s most urgent. But when I went to pay my respects to the old lady, I saw the gay mate­rials Aunt Xue had sent her, which would look cute made into little clothes for children; so I asked the old lady for some. That provoked our Old Ancestress into baiting me. She declared I was the bane of her life, the way I demanded and grabbed everything I saw in her place. She had everyone laughing at me. You know I’m too thick-skinned to mind being scolded, so I just let our Old Ancestress rattle on and pretended not to hear. I’ve given that material to Pinger to first make a small apron for Qiaojie. With what’s left, when I’ve time, I’ll make some other things.’

‘You’re indeed the only one, madam, who can keep the old lady happy,’ rejoined Xiren laughingly. She picked up the sewing to examine it, then commented admiringly, ‘It’s really pretty with all these different colours. A good material needs someone with skilful fingers like this to embroider it. Especially for Qiaojie. Why, when she’s carried out wear­ing this, people won’t be able to take their eyes off her. Where is Qiaojie?’ she added. ‘Why haven’t I seen her all this time?’

Pinger told her, ‘Just now Miss Baochai sent over some toys, and she was so tickled with them that she went on playing with them till her wet-nurse carried her off. She must have gone to sleep now, tired out.’

‘Qiaojie must be growing more and more of a romp.

‘Her plump little face is like a round silver plate. She smile at every­body she sees and never offends anyone. She’s truly a little darling who keeps our mistress amused.’

‘What is Cousin Bao doing at home?’ Xifeng inquired.

‘I begged him to keep an eye on things there with Qingwen and the others, so that I could ask leave and come out,’ Xiren told her. ‘But I’ve been so engrossed in talking, a long time’s slipped by and I must be getting back now. I don’t want to have him complaining that I’m so lazy, wherever I go I stay sitting there and won’t move.’ With that she got up, took her leave of them, and went back to Happy Red Court.

After Pinger had seen Xiren out, Xifeng called her back to cross­examine her further. The more she heard, the more furious she became.

‘You say you heard from the pages at the inner gate that your Second Master had secretly married another wife outside. Who told you that?’

‘Lai Wang.’

At once Xifeng sent for him.

‘Did you know that your Second Master had bought a house and married a concubine outside?’ she demanded.

‘I’m on duty all day long at the inner gate,’ stammered Lai Wang. ‘How could I know about the Second Master’s business? I heard this from Xinger.’

‘When did Xinger tell you?’

‘Before the master left on that trip.’

‘Where is Xinger now?’

‘He’s working in the new mistress’ house.’

In a furious temper Xifeng spat at him.

‘You contemptible son of an ape,’ she swore. ‘Who are you to talk about a new mistress or an old mistress? How dare you confer the title of mistress on her. The nonsense you talk, you deserve to be slapped.’ Then she asked, ‘Isn’t Xinger supposed to wait on the Second Master? Why didn’t he go with him?’

‘He was specially left here to look after Second Sister You; that’s why.’

Xifeng at once ordered him to fetch Xinger.

[ai Wang rushed off on this errand and, when he found Xinger fooling about with some other pages outside he simply told him that Xifeng wanted him. When Xinger heard this, without asking why he was wanted, he hurried with Lai Wang to the inner gate, where he announced his busi­ness and was admitted. Having bowed to Xifeng he stood respectfully to one side. At sight of him she glared.

‘What fine goings-on have you, master and slave, been up to out­side?’ she snapped. ‘Did you take me for a fool who wouldn’t know? As Second Master’s personal attendant, you must know the whole story. I want the true facts from you. Any attempt to cover up or lie, and I’ll have you beaten till your legs are broken!’

Xinger fell on his knees to kowtow.

‘What goings-on are these, madam, that you’re asking about?’

‘How dare you stall, you little bastard! I’m asking how your master fixed things up outside with Second Sister You. How did he buy the house and furnish it? How did the marriage take place? Tell me all these things clearly, you dog, and I may spare your life.’

Hearing these explicit questions Xinger reflected: Both mansions know about this business; the only ones kept in the dark were the old lady, Lord She, Lady Xing and Madam Lian. As the truth’s bound to come out in the end, why should I try to cover it up? I may as well come clean to get off a beating and worse punishment. For one thing, I’m too young to be expected to know how serious this was; for another, I’ve always known that Madam’s such a firebrand that even Master [ian’s half afraid of her; and, besides, this business was arranged by Master Lian, Lord Zhen and Master Rong between them ‘ it had nothing to do with me.

His mind made up, he screwed up his courage.

‘Have mercy on me, madam!’ he begged on his knees. ‘I’ll tell you everything. It started during our mourning for the Elder Master of the East Mansion. Second Master happened to meet Second Sister You there a few times, and I suppose he took a fancy to her and wanted to make her his concubine. So he first discussed it with Master Rong, asking him to act as go-between and arrange the match, and promising him presents if he pulled it off. Master Rong agreed readily and told Lord Zhen, who broached it to Madam You and old Mrs. You.

‘Old Mrs. You was quite willing but she said, ‘Second Sister was engaged as a child to the son of the Zhang family; so how can I marry her to Master Lian? If the Zhangs hear of it there may be trouble.

‘‘That’s nothing serious,’ said Lord Zhen. ‘Leave it to me. That fellow Zhang’s family has been beggared. If we just give him a few extra taels of silver, we can make him write a document cancelling the engagement and there’ll be no further trouble.

‘Later they did fetch that man Zhang and put it to him. When he’d written the document they paid him and off he went. Then Second Mas­ter felt safe enough to go boldly ahead. Only, for fear lest this came to your ears, madam, and you stopped him, he bought and furnished a small house outside at the back, then took her over. And Lord Zhen gave him a married couple to work there.

‘Often, when he says he has business to attend to for Lord She or Lord Zhen, that’s a lie ‘ an excuse for him to stay outside there.

‘Originally the mother and the two sisters lived there, and they wanted to arrange a match for Third Sister You too, promising to give her a handsome dowry; but now Third Sister You’s dead, so there’s only old Mrs. You keeping Second Sister You company.

‘All this is the truth, I haven’t dared hide a thing.’ With that he kow­towed again.

This account had left Xifeng transfixed with rage, her face livid, her almond eyes squinting. For a while she trembled convulsively, unable to get a word out for stupefaction. Then, looking down suddenly, she saw that Xinger was still kneeling there.

‘You’re not the one most to blame for this,’ she said. ‘But when Second Master carried on like that outside you ought to have told me about it earlier. For not doing that you fully deserve a beating. Still, since you’ve told me honestly now, without lying, I’ll let you off this time.’

‘I deserve death, madam, for not telling you before.’ Again he thumped his head hard on the ground.

‘Be off now.’

As he rose to leave she added, ‘Next time I send for you, mind you come at once. Don’t go far away.

Assenting repeatedly, Xinger withdrew. Once outside he stuck out his tongue in dismay.

‘That was touch and go!’ he exclaimed. ‘I only just escaped a good beating.’ He regretted having passed on the news to Lai Wang, and was scared stiff for worrying what to say when Jia Jian returned. But no more of this.

After the page had left, Xifeng turned to Pinger and asked, ‘Did you hear what Xinger said?’

‘Yes, I heard it all.’

‘How can there be such a shameless man in the world? Guzzling what’s in the bowl, he has his eyes on what’s in the pan. He wants every woman he sees, the greedy dog. Talk about off with the old love and on with the new! It’s a pity to give a lecher like him the insignia of the fifth or sixth rank. He may believe in the saying that the flowers at home aren’t as sweet as flowers growing wild; but if he thinks that, he’s making a big mistake. Sooner or later he’ll cause such a scandal outside, he won’t be able to face relatives and friends; and then only will he give up.

To mollify her Pinger said, ‘Of course you’re right to be angry; but you’ve only just got over your illness, madam, you shouldn’t let yourself be carried away. After that affair with Bao Er’s wife, the master seemed to be restraining himself and behaving much better. So why is he having affairs of this sort again? It must be Lord Zhen’s fault.’

‘Of course Lord Zhen’s to blame too. Still, it’s because our master is so debauched that it’s easy for people to tempt him. As the proverb says, ‘If an ox doesn’t want to drink, you can’t force it to.

‘Lord Zhen’s wife ought to have stopped him from doing such a thing.’

‘Exactly. How could Madam You let her sister be betrothed to two different families? First the Zhangs, then the Jias. Have all the other men in the world died out? Must all girls marry into our Jia family? Are we so well off, or what? It’s lucky that slut Third Sister You had sense enough to kill herself first; otherwise they’d have married her to Baoyu or Huan.

‘Madam You doesn’t seem to have cared about saving her sister’s face ‘ how could she ever have held up her head in future? But she wouldn’t worry about that, as after all Second Sister was only her half-sister and, by all accounts, a loose living, shameless bitch. But Cousin Zhen’s wife is a lady of rank; shouldn’t she feel ashamed of having such a flighty sister at home? Yet instead of trying to keep her away she bla­tantly brings her here to carry on in that shocking way, not caring if people laugh.

‘Besides, Lord Zhen’s an official. He may not know all the rules of propriety, but surely he knows that it’s taboo for a man in mourning to marry, or to spurn his wife and take another woman. What I’m wonder­ing is this: did he fix this up as a favour for his cousin or to harm him?’

‘Yes, Lord Zhen is too short-sighted,’ said Pinger. ‘He just wanted to please his cousin without worrying about the consequences.

‘Please his cousin?’ Xifeng snorted sarcastically. ‘No, this was giv­ing him poison. Of all our cousins, he’s the oldest and most experienced; but instead of setting the others a good example he teaches them bad ways to spoil their reputation. And when there’s a public scandal he’ll just stand aside watching the fun. Honestly, I can’t find words strong enough to damn him. The scandalous goings-on in that East Mansion of his don’t bear speaking of. And to cover up his own debauchery he must needs make his cousin follow his example. Is this the way an elder brother should behave? He should have drowned himself in his own piss and died in place of his father, for what’s his life worth? Look how virtuous Lord Jing of the East Mansion was, fasting, chanting sutras and doing so many good deeds. How could he beget a son and grandson like these? I sup­pose all the family’s good luck, generated by the auspicious geornancy of the ancestral tombs, was used up by the old man.’

‘That does seem to be the case. How else could they be so lacking in decency?’

‘It’s lucky the old lady, Lord She and Lady Xing haven’t heard of it. If it came to their ears, not only would our good-for-nothing master get beaten and cursed, even Lord Zhen and Madam You would certainly be made to smart for it.’

Xifeng went on cursing and raging, refusing to go over for lunch on the excuse that her head ached. Seeing that she was working herself up into a greater fury, Pinger urged:

‘You’d better calm down, madam. The thing’s done, so there’s no hurry. There’ll be plenty of time to talk it over again after Second Master’s return.’

Xifeng gave a couple of snorts.

‘After his return? No, that would be too late.’

Pinger knelt down to reason with her and comfort her, till at length Xifeng calmed down enough to sip some tea. Then, after taking some deep breaths, she asked for her pillow and lay down on the bed, her eyes closed as she considered what to do. When Pinger saw that she was resting, she withdrew. And when some people ignorant of what had hap­pened arrived to report on their business, they were sent packing by Fenger. Then Manao was sent by the Lady Dowager to ask:

‘Why hasn’t the Second Mistress gone over for lunch? The old lady’s worried and sent me to see what’s wrong.’

As it was the Lady Dowager who had sent to inquire, Xifeng forced herself to get up.

‘I’ve a bit of a headache, nothing serious,’ she said. ‘Tell the old lady not to worry. After lying down for a while I’m feeling better.’ With that she sent the maid back.

She then thought the whole business over carefully once more, and hit on a cunning plan to kill several birds with one stone, working out the safest measures to achieve this. This done, instead of disclosing her plan to Pinger, she behaved as cheerfully as if nothing had happened, giving no sign of her fury and jealousy. She sent a maid to fetch Lai Wang and ordered him to bring workers the next day to clean up, repaper and fur­nish the eastern rooms in their compound. Pinger and the others were nonplussed by this.

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

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