A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 74

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Chapter 74

Malicious Talk Makes Lady Wang Have

a Search Made of the Garden

To Guard Her integrity Xichun Breaks with

the Ning Mansion

As Pinger was smiling over Yingchun’s answer they were suddenly joined by Baoyu. It turned out that enemies of Mrs. Liu in charge of the Garden’s kitchen had reported that she had organized gambling parties in her younger sister’s name, and they had divided the winnings equally. Alarmed by the news that Xifeng had decided to have her punished too, Mrs. Liu had hurried to Happy Red Court, being on the best of terms with the maids there, and secretly got Qingwen and Venturina to enlist Baoyu’s help. And as Yingchun’s nurse was also incriminated, he thought it better to go with Yingchun to inter­cede for both women instead of going alone for Mrs. Liu.

When he found so much company there and was asked about his health and why he had come, he replied evasively that he had simply dropped in to see Yingchun. The others accepted this and went on chat­ting. Presently Pinger took her leave to attend to Xifeng’s business, and Mrs. Wang followed her out. ‘Do put in a good word for us, miss,’ she begged. ‘We’re going to redeem the tiara anyhow, I promise you.

‘You’ll have to sooner or later,’ retorted Pinger. ‘So why make such a scene today? You expect us to get you off, don’t you? Well, if you’re truly repentant I haven’t the heart to report this, not if you bring the tiara straight back to me as soon as possible,’

‘I will,’ promised Mrs. Wang, reassured by this. ‘I won’t keep you from your work, miss. I’ll get it out of hock this evening and report to you before returning it,’

‘Mind you do, or you’ll have to take the consequences!’

Then they went their different ways, Pinger rejoining Xifeng who asked her what Tanchun had wanted her for. ‘She was afraid you were an­gry,’ Pinger prevaricated. ‘She urged me to soothe you and asked how your appetite was.’

‘That was kind of her. Just now something else cropped up. It’s been reported to me that Liu Er’s wife and her younger sister ran gambling parties together, but Mrs. Liu was really the one behind it. You’ve al­ways advised me to let things slide whenever possible, to get more rest and keep fit. Because I ignored your advice, I’ve had to pay for it’ to start with, I’ve offended my mother-in-law and ruined my own health. Well, now I know better. Let them raise any rumpus they please; at any rate there are plenty of other people to control them. Why should I worry for nothing, just getting myself disliked by everyone? It’s more important for me to take care of my health. And even after I’m better I mean to take things easy leave all responsibility to them and have a good time myself. So I’m paying no attention, as I said, to that report.’

‘If you take that line madam, so much the better for us,’ Pinger ap­proved.

Just then ha Lian came in. With a clap of his hands he sighed.

‘Here’s fresh trouble out of the blue! How did my mother come to hear of Yuanyang’s loan to me the other day? Just now she sent for me and asked me to raise two hundred taels no matter where for her Moon Festival expenses. When I told her I’d nowhere to raise it she retorted, ‘When you’re short yourself you can get a loan, but when I ask your help you fob me off saying you’ve nowhere to turn. Where did you get stuff the other day to pawn for a thousand taels? You can even spirit away the old lady’s things, yet you boggle now at a mere two hundred taels. It’s lucky for you I haven’t told anyone else.’

‘I can’t believe she’s really short of money. Why should she pick on me like this for nothing?’

‘There were no outsiders here that day. How did the news leak out?’ wondered Xifeng.

Pinger thought back carefully, then cried, ‘I know! That evening the things were brought over, the mother of the old lady’s girl Numskull came to deliver the laundry and stayed chatting for a while in the servants’ quarters. She must have asked what was in the big case, and one of our maids, not knowing any better, told her.’

She called in the maids and asked which of them had blabbed to Numskull’s mother. In fright the girls dropped to their knees, swearing that none of them dared say a word out of turn: whenever questioned about anything they de­nied all knowledge of it, so how could they have let this secret out?

Xifeng saw they were telling the truth.

‘No, they wouldn’t dare,’ she agreed. ‘We mustn’t wrong them. Let’s not worry about this now but find a way to satisfy Her Ladyship. However short we are ourselves, we mustn’t get into her bad books again.’ She told Pinger to pawn her gold necklace for two hundred taels and have the money sent to Lady Xing.

‘Let’s pawn it for four while we’re at it,’ suggested Jia Lian. ‘We need money ourselves as well.’

‘No, I don’t need any,’ she answered. ‘And we don’t know yet how to raise two hundred to redeem it.’

Pinger sent Lai Wang’s wife with the necklace to the pawnshop. And on her return, Jia Lian himself took the money to Lady Xing while Xifeng and Pinger went on trying to guess who had let the cat out of the bag.

‘Her Ladyship knowing doesn’t matter much,’ Xifeng observed. ‘The danger is that her servants may take this chance to gossip and stir up fresh trouble. Those greedy gluttons in the other house, who are al­ways throwing dirt, bear Yuanyang a grudge. If they hear that she’s secretly lent things to Master Lian, they may make a commotion and spread outrageous talk. Master Lian can take it, but Yuanyang’s a good girl and if she’s involved in trouble it will be our fault.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Pinger laughed. ‘Yuanyang lent us those things for your sake, not for our master’s. Though it sounds like a secret favour, in fact she’ll have got the old lady’s permission first. The old lady only pretends not to know because she has so many grandchildren, and if all of them borrow her things to pawn but then make a scene saying that they can’t replace them, how is she to cope? So even if this gets out it won’t hurt Yuanyang.’

‘Even so, we know Yuanyang’s all right, but those who don’t know her are bound to think the worst.’

Just then Lady Wang was announced. Surprised by this unexpected visit, they hurried out to welcome her. They saw that her face was stern and she was accompanied by her confidential maid only. Without a word she went into the inner room and sat down, while Xifeng poured her some tea.

‘You must be in good spirits,’ Xifeng remarked, ‘to stroll over here today, madam.’

Lady Wang sharply ordered Pinger to leave the room. Hastily assent­ing she withdrew with all the other maids, wondering what this fore­boded. Having closed the door behind her, she sat on the steps to stop anyone else going in. Xifeng was flustered too and quite bewildered.

Then Lady Wang with tears in her eyes produced a sachet from her sleeve.

‘Look at this!’

Xifeng took it and saw the indecent embroidery on it. Very shocked she exclaimed, ‘Where did you find this, madam?’

Tears streaming down her cheeks Lady Wang quavered, ‘Are you asking me? I’ve been in the dark all this time. Relying on your discretion, I took things easy. I’d no idea you were just as careless as me. Fancy leaving a thing like this on a rock in the Garden, openly, in broad daylight too! One of the old lady’s maids picked it up. Luckily your mother-in-law found her with it; otherwise she’d have taken it to the old lady. How could you be so thoughtless as to leave this lying around?’

‘What makes you think it’s mine, madam?’ asked Xifeng, changing colour.

‘Whose else could it be?’ Lady Wang sobbed. ‘Just think, you’re the only young couple in our household. What would older women be doing with such a thing? And where could the girls get hold of it? No, it must be that dissolute wretch of a husband of yours who picked it up somewhere. And intimate as you are, it’s natural that you young people keep playthings of this kind in your bedroom. Don’t try to deny it. It’s a mercy that nobody else in the Garden knows. If one of the maids there had found it and your girl cousins saw it, that would have been terrible! Or suppose some little maids picked it up and took it outside, telling people they had found it in the Garden, how could we ever hold up our heads again?’

Red in the face with pique and mortification, Xifeng knelt down by the kang.

‘Of course your reasoning is logical, madam,’ she said tearfully. ‘I daren’t contradict you. Still, do think more carefully, madam.

‘In the first place, this sachet was made by craftsmen outside. See, the belt and tassels are the kind sold in the market. If they’d been made by embroiderers of our house they’d certainly be finer. However young and flighty I may be, I wouldn’t want such trash.

‘In the second place, this isn’t the sort of thing I’d carry around with me. Even if I had one I’d have to keep it indoors, not take it everywhere with me. Besides, when I’m in the Garden with the girls we often scuffle in fun, and think how ashamed I’d feel if it was seen, not only by my cousins but even by the servants! However young and flighty I may be, I wouldn’t be as foolish as all that.

‘In the third place, of all the ladies of our house I’m the only young married woman, but there are plenty of servants’ wives younger than me who are for ever dropping into the Garden then going home again at night. Couldn’t this belong to one of them?

‘Fourthly, I’m not the only visitor to the Garden. Lady Xing of the other house often takes Yanhong, Cuiyun and other young concubines there. They’re all more likely than me to have such things. Cousin Zhen’s wife isn’t too old either, and she often brings along Peifeng and others; so this could equally well belong to them.

‘Fifthly, with so many maids in the Garden, can we guarantee that they all behave properly? Isn’t it possible that one of the older girls, who knows the facts of life, sneaked out unchecked or made some pretext to gossip with the pages at the inner gate, and smuggled this in from outside?

‘This not only isn’t mine, I can assure you that Pinger has never had such a thing either. Please reconsider the matter carefully, madam.’

This made good sense to Lady Wang.

‘Get up,’ she said with a sigh. ‘I should have known that a girl of good family like you couldn’t be so frivolous. I just challenged you be­cause I was so angry. But what’s to be done? Your mother-in-law sent this over just now in a sealed package with word that she got it from Numskull the day before yesterday. I nearly choked with rage!’

‘Don’t be angry, madam. If this gets out, it may come to the old lady’s ears. We must calm down and investigate this on the quiet to get to the bottom of it. And even if we fail to find the culprit, we mustn’t let outsiders know about it but ‘hide our broken arm in our sleeve.’ Now let’s take this gambling as a pretext to dismiss a good few servants. Let’s choose four or five stewardesses like the wives of Zhou Rui and Lai Wang, whose discretion we can count on, and put them in the Garden ostensibly to check up on the gambling.

‘We have too many young maids now. As they grow up they start getting ideas and cause trouble. If we wait till there’s a scandal, we shall regret it too late. Now if we send some of them packing for no reason, it’ll not only vex the girls but will make us seem unreasonable, madam. So let’s take this chance to find fault with some of the older and more obstreperous ones, and send them home to get married. This will prevent any scandals here and save us money too. What do you think, madam?’

Lady Wang sighed again.

‘You are right, of course. But to be fair to your cousins, I pity the poor girls. We needn’t go further back, but just look at Daiyu’s mother ‘how cosseted she was before she married, treasured like gold or jade! She lived in real style like a fine young lady. But our girls today are only slightly better off than other people’s servants, with merely two or three presentable maids apiece and four or five younger ones who look like scarecrows. I haven’t the heart to cut down their attendants, and I doubt if the old lady would agree to it either. Difficult as things are, we’re not all that poor. I never lived in real luxury and style, yet as a girl I was better off than you. I’d sooner skimp a little myself rather than see them go short. If we’re to save money I’m willing to make a start.

‘Now, send for Zhou Rui’s wife and the others and order them in strict confidence, mind to hurry up and get to the bottom of this.’

Xifeng called Pinger in to pass on these orders. And soon the wives of Zhou Rui, Wu Xing, Zheng Hua, Lai Wang and Lai Xi arrived, these being the only five couples here who had accompanied Lady Wang or Xifeng to the Jia mansion at the time of their marriage, the others having gone south on business. Lady Wang was just thinking five too few to make a careful check when they were joined by Lady Xing’s personal maid, wife of the steward Wang Shanbao who had brought over the pouch. As Lady Wang treated Lady Xing’s trusted maids on the same footing as her own, and this woman had come with a great show of concern to ask about this matter, she said to her:

‘Go and tell your mistress I want you to move into the Garden for a while to keep an eye on things there. That would be better than my finding other people.’

Now Wang Shanbao’s wife, disgruntled by the lack of respect shown her by the maids in the Garden, had long been looking unsuccessfully ‘ for some grounds to fault them. To her mind, this pouch provided a handle against them, while Lady Wang’s proposal gave her a welcome chance to settle scores with them.

She promptly answered, ‘That’s easy. If you’ll excuse your slave saying so, discipline should have been tightened up there long ago. You don’t go to the Garden very often, madam. The maids there all behave as if they’d become fine young ladies of noble rank. They turn things upside-down, and nobody dares say a word for fear they’ll work their young mistresses up to accuse people of insulting them. Who’s willing to take such a risk?’

‘Well, that’s only to be expected,’ said Lady Wang. ‘Our young ladies’ maids are a cut above the rest, but you should teach them man­ners. Not to correct the young mistresses would be wrong, how much more so in the case of their maids.’

‘The others aren’t so bad,’ continued Mrs. Wang. ‘But do you know that minx Qingwen in Baoyu’s place, madam? Because she’s prettier than most and has the gift of the gab, she makes herself up every day like Xi Shi and is very pert and forward, jabbering away all the time and showing off. She scolds and carries on in a shocking way on the least provocation. A regular vamp she is ‘ it’s scandalous!’

Thus reminded, Lady Wang remarked to Xifeng, ‘Last time we went for a stroll with the old lady in the Garden, I noticed a girl with a willowy waist, sloping shoulders and eyes and eyebrows rather like Daiyu’s. She was scolding one of the younger maids and I didn’t at all like the wild look of her, but being with the old lady I said nothing. I meant to ask later who she was, but I forgot. She seems to fit this description of Qingwen,’

‘Qingwen’s the prettiest among the maids,’ Xifeng replied. ‘She does act and talk rather flippantly too. Your description sounds like her, but I can’t remember exactly what happened that day.’

‘That’s easily remedied,’ said Wang Shanbao’s wife. ‘Just fetch her now for Your Ladyship to see.

Lady Wang observed, ‘The girls from Baoyu’s place whom I see most often are Xiren and Sheyue. They’re not too smart and that’s all to the good. If she’s there, she naturally wouldn’t dare come. She’s just the sort of girl I’ve always disliked. And now that this has happened, think how dreadful it would be if this bitch were to lead our precious Baoyu astray!’

She told her maid to go to the Garden.

‘Just give them this message: I want Xiren and Sheyue to stay to look after Baoyu, but that clever girl Qingwen is to come here at once. Don’t tell her why I want her.’

The maid assented and went off to Happy Red Court.

Qingwen happened to be unwell that day and had just got up from a nap, feeling out of sorts. She had no choice now but to obey this sum­mons. As all the maids were well aware that Lady Wang disliked finery and pertness. Qingwen had taken care to keep out of her way. Now as she had been unwell for a couple of days and not paid much attention to her toilet, she had no special misgivings. When she entered Xifeng’s room with her hair dishevelled and her costume rumpled, like a frail beauty just aroused from sleep, Lady Wang immediately recognized her as the girl she had seen. This rekindled her anger. And being genuinely outraged and already prejudiced, she was too outspoken to conceal her feelings. She smiled sarcastically.

‘What a beauty!’ she sneered. ‘Really like an ailing Xi Shi. Whom are you trying to vamp, going about like this? Don’t think I’m ignorant of your goings-on. I’ll let you off now, but very soon I’ll have you skinned alive. How is Baoyu today?’

Qingwen knew that someone must have been running her down, but did not venture to express her resentment. And quickly recovering from her surprise she was intelligent enough not to give a truthful answer.

‘I seldom go into Baoyu’s rooms or spend much time with him,’ she lied. ‘So I can’t say just how he is. You’ll have to ask Xiren or Sheyue, madam.’

‘You deserve a slap on your mouth,’ fumed Lady Wang. ‘Are you dead? What are you paid for?’

‘I used to serve the old lady,’ answered Qingwen. ‘Then she said there were too few older maids in the Garden and Baoyu was nervous because it was so empty, so I was to go and keep watch at night in the outer rooms, just to keep an eye on the place. When I said I was too clumsy to wait on the young master, the old lady scolded, ‘I’m not asking you to look after him, you don’t have to be smart.’ So I had to go. It’s only two or three times a month, when Baoyu’s bored, that we all have a game together. His personal needs are attended to by his old nurses and the matrons with Xiren, Sheyue and Qiuwen under them. In my spare time I still do some sewing for the old lady, so I’ve never paid much attention to Baoyu’s affairs. But if you wish, madam, I shall be more attentive in future.’

‘Amida Buddha! Don’t trouble!’ exclaimed Lady Wang, quite taken in by this. ‘The less you have to do with Baoyu, the better. Since you were assigned to him by the old lady, I’ll get her permission tomorrow to have you dismissed.’

She turned and told Wang Shanbao’s wife, ‘You people move into the Garden and keep a good watch on her for a few days. Don’t let her sleep in Baoyu’s quarters. We’ll deal with her after I’ve spoken to the old lady. Get out!’ she rapped at Qingwen. ‘What are you standing there for? I can’t bear the sight of such a vamp. Who let you dress in those gaudy reds and greens?’

Qingwen had to withdraw, so outraged that once out of the door she covered her face with her handkerchief and wept all the way back to the Garden.

Meanwhile Lady Wang was reproaching herself to Xifeng.

‘These last few years I haven’t had the energy to see to things,’ she lamented. ‘I never set eyes on such a fox-fairy! I suppose there are others like her too. Tomorrow I must make a thorough investigation.’

Seeing how enraged she was, and knowing that Wang Shanbao’s wife often told tales to Lady Xing and incited her to make trouble, Xifeng could not defend Qingwen even had she had good reasons for doing so. She just lowered her head and assented.

‘You must look after your health, madam,’ urged Mrs. Wang. ‘Just leave trifling matters like this to your slaves. It should be very easy to find the culprit. This evening after the Garden gates are locked and no news can get in or out, we’ll take them by surprise and have a thorough search made of all the maids’ rooms I’m positive that whoever had that pouch will have other things of the same kind. When we find them we’ll know whose it is.’

‘That’s a good idea,’ approved Lady Wang. ‘We can’t let innocent people take the blame.’ She asked Xifeng her opinion.

‘Of course you’re right, madam,’ Xifeng had to acquiesce. ‘That’s the way to do it.’

‘This is an excellent plan,’ added Lady Wang. ‘Otherwise we could search for a year and still get nowhere.’

So they agreed on it. After supper when the old lady had gone to bed and Baochai and the rest had returned to the Garden, Wang Shanbao’s wife accompanied Xifeng there. They ordered all the gates to be locked and started their search in the rooms of the servants on night duty, but discovered nothing more incriminating than some left-over candles and a jar or two of oil.

‘These count as stolen property too,’ declared Wang Shanbao’s wife. ‘They mustn’t be moved till we’ve made our report to Her Ladyship tomorrow.’

Then they went first to Happy Red Court and had the courtyard gate locked. Baoyu was rather unhappy on Qingwen’s account. When he saw these matrons marching into the maids’ rooms, he asked Xifeng what they were doing.

‘Something important is missing,’ she told him. ‘As people are ac­cusing each other and we think one of the maids may have stolen it, we’re making a general search to clear up suspicion.’

She sat down to sip tea while Mrs. Wang and the others set about searching. They asked whose the different cases were and told the own­ers to open them themselves. Xiren had already guessed from what had happened to Qingwen that something was amiss. Now she was the first to step forward and open her cases and boxes for them to examine. Finding nothing out of the way, the women went on to search the other maids’ cases one by one. When they came to Qingwen’s they asked:

‘Whose is this? Why doesn’t anyone open it for us?’

Xiren was about to open it when Qingwen rushed in, her hair loosely knotted. Crash! She flung the lid back and raised the case bottom up­wards in both hands to empty all its contents on the floor. Wang Shanbao’s wife was disconcerted. She had a look and, finding nothing improper, suggested to Xifeng that they should move on.

‘You’d better make a careful search,’ warned Xifeng. ‘If you fail to find anything, what are we going to say to Her Ladyship?’

The stewardesses assured her, ‘We’ve been through everything care­fully, and there’s nothing that shouldn’t be here except a few objects used by boys; but these must have belonged to Baoyu when he was small. There’s nothing of consequence.’

Xifeng smiled. ‘In that case we can go to another house.’

As they went out she said to Mrs. Wang, ‘I have a suggestion, if you agree to it, and that is to restrict the search to our own family. We mustn’t raid Miss Baochai’s quarters.’

‘Of course not. How can we search our relatives?’

‘Exactly.’

By now they had reached Bamboo Lodge where Daiyu was already in bed. When visitors were announced, not knowing their errand she prepared to get up, but Xifeng came in and made her lie down again.

‘Go back to sleep,’ she said. ‘We won’t stay long,’

She chatted with Daiyu while Mrs. Wang took the others to the maids’quarters and searched their cases and baskets one by one. In Zijuan’s room they discovered two amulets which Baoyu had often worn, two tassels from a boy’s belt, two pouches and a fan in a sheath ‘ all Baoyu’s old belongings. Wang Shanbao’s wife. thought she had made a find and hastily called Xifeng over to have a look.

‘Where do these things come from?’ she asked. Xifeng told her with a smile, ‘B aoyu’s been thick with them ever since he was a child, so naturally these are some of his old things. This is nothing extraordinary. Better put them back and try somewhere else.’

‘Our two apartments’ accounts are so muddled,’ put in Zijuan gaily, ‘I can’t even remember the day, the month or the year when these things were left here.’

In view of what Xifeng had said, Mrs. Wang had to let this pass and they went on to Tanchun’s place. Apparently someone had sent Tanchun word of their coming, and she knew there must be some reason for this indignity. She had ordered her maids to open all the doors and light candles in readiness. When the women arrived she deliberately asked them their business.

‘Something’s missing, and we don’t know who took it,’ Xifeng told her. ‘For fear people may put the blame on these girls, we’re making a general search to disarm suspicion. This seems the best way to clear them.’

Tanchun laughed scornfully. ‘Naturally, all our maids are thieves and I’m their brigand chief. So search my cases first. They’ve given me all their stolen goods for safe-keeping.’

She ordered her maids to open up all her chests as well as her mirror-stand, dressing-case, bedding, wrappers and bundles large and small for Xifeng’s inspection.

‘I’m simply carrying out Her Ladyship’s orders,’ said Xifeng with a mollifying smile. ‘You’ve no call to blame me, cousin. Don’t be angry.’

She told the maids to close the cases at once, and Pinger and Fenger made haste to help Daishu and the rest put the things away.

‘I’ll let you search my things, but not my maids’,’ Tanchun insisted. ‘As a matter of fact, being meaner than all the others, I know everything they’ve got and I’m keeping it for them here. They haven’t so much as a needle or thread themselves. So if search you must, search me. If you don’t agree, go and report to Her Ladyship that I won’t obey her orders, and I’ll accept any punishment she thinks fit.

‘Just you wait though! The day will come when you’re raided too. Weren’t you talking this morning about the Zhen family and how they were doing fine but insisted on ransacking each others’ houses? Now they’ve been raided themselves and their property’s been confiscated. Our turn’s coming too. Now I realize that big families like ours can’t be destroyed in one fell swoop from outside. In the words of the old saying, ‘A centipede even when dead won’t fall to the ground.’ We must start killing each other first before our family can be completely destroyed.’ By now she was shedding tears.

Xifeng looked in silence at the stewardesses.

Taking the hint Zhou Rui’s wife proposed, ‘As all these girl’s things are here, madam, we’d better go elsewhere and leave Miss Tanchun to rest.’

Xifeng got up to take her leave.

But Tanchun cried, ‘Mind you make a thorough search. I won’t have you coming here again tomorrow!’

‘Since all your maids’ things are here, there’s no need to search,’ replied Xifeng with a smile.

Tanchun laughed scornfully.

‘How smart you are! You’ve opened even my bundles of old clothes, yet still pretend you haven’t ransacked the place. Will you accuse me later of shielding my maids and refusing to let you search? Let’s get this clear now. If you want to search again, just go ahead.’

Xifeng knew how difficult Tanchun was and therefore answered sooth­ingly, ‘We’ve made a thorough search, even including your things.’

‘Are you all satisfied?’ Tanchun challenged the others.

Zhou Rui’s wife and the rest assured her that they were.

But Wang Shanbao’s wife was tactless. She had heard that Tanchun was difficult to handle, but thought this was because others were afraid to stand up to her. How could a young girl have her own way like this? Besides, the mere daughter of a concubine would hardly dare cross her, Lady Xing’s personal maid whom even Lady Wang treated with respect, to say nothing of younger members of the household. Tanchun’s behaviour had led her to believe that she was simply annoyed with Xifeng, not with the rest of them. So she decided to assert herself and stepping forward through the crowd she pulled up the girl’s lapel.

‘Yes,’ she sniggered. ‘I’ve searched even the young lady’s person. There’s really nothing.’

‘Let’s go, nurse,’ interposed Xifeng. ‘Stop this fooling.’

Even as she was speaking ‘ slap! Tanchun boxed Mrs. Wang’s ears.

‘Who do you think you are?’ she fumed, pointing one finger at her. ‘How dare you paw me? It’s only for Her Ladyship’s sake and because you’re old that I call you ‘nurse’, but like a dog counting on its master’s backing you’re always making trouble. Today you’ve gone too far. If you think I’m as good-natured as your young mistress, whom you bully just as you please, you’re making a big mistake. I didn’t scold you for coming to raid our place, but you’ve no right to take liberties with me.’

She started taking off her clothes and insisted that, instead of letting a slave maul her, Xifeng must search her carefully herself.

Xifeng and Pinger hurriedly helped to dress her again.

‘A few cups of wine and you play the fool,’ they scolded Mrs. Wang. ‘The other day you offended Her Ladyship too. Be off with you now, and not another word.’

They tried to placate Tanchun.

‘If I’d any pride,’ scoffed Tanchun, ‘I should have dashed my brains out long ago. How can I let a slave search my person for stolen goods? Tomorrow I’ll report this to Their Ladyships, then go to apologize to Lady Xing and accept whatever punishment she thinks fit.’

Wang Shanbao’s wife, thoroughly abashed, started grumbling outside the window, ‘This is too much! I’ve never been struck before in all my life. Tomorrow I’ll ask Her Ladyship’s leave to go home. What’s there left for me to live for?’

‘Hear that?’ Tanchun snapped at her maids. ‘Are you waiting for me to go out and argue with her?’

At once Daishu darted out.

‘If you get leave to go home, that’s our good fortune!’ she cried. ‘We’re only afraid you won’t ask.’

‘Well!’ laughed Xifeng. ‘Here’s truly a case of ‘like mistress like maid’.’

‘We thieves all have ready tongues,’ retorted Tanchun. ‘But she isn’t clever enough to tell tales to her mistress.’

Pinger tried to smooth things over and fetched Daishu back while Zhou Rui’s wife and the others soothed Tanchun. And Xifeng waited till she had gone to bed before leading her search party to Warm Spring Village opposite, for as this lay just between Xichun’s and Tanchun’s quarters it was the next place to visit before Xichun’s. Li Wan, ill in bed, had just taken medicine and gone to sleep, so without disturbing her they searched her maids’ rooms. Not finding anything there they went on to Xichun’s place.

Xichun being little more than a child was frightened, and Xifeng had to soothe her. However, in Ruhua’s case they discovered a big package of thirty to forty gold and silver ingots: so instead of evidence of immoral conduct they had found stolen goods! There was also a set of jade orna­ments for a man’s belt and a bundle containing a man’s sandals and socks. Ruhua turned pale. And asked where these things came from she knelt down and sobbed.

‘They were given my brother by Lord Zhen,’ she faltered. ‘Now that our parents are down south he lives with our uncle. And because my uncle and aunt are fond of drinking and gambling, for fear they’d squan­der anything he gets my brother always gives it to an old nurse to bring to me for safe-keeping.’

Xichun was naturally timid and this disclosure appalled her.

‘I’d no idea!’ she cried. ‘How disgraceful! If you want to have her beaten, sister-in-law, do take her away so that I don’t have to hear it.’

‘If what you say is true, it’s forgivable,’ said Xifeng to Ruhua. ‘But you shouldn’t smuggle things in here in secret. If you had these smuggled in, you can smuggle in other things too; so whoever brought them in here is to blame. If you’re lying and these are stolen goods, don’t expect to get off alive!’

Kneeling before her Ruhua sobbed, ‘I dare not lie to you, madam. You can check with Her Ladyship and His Lordship tomorrow. If they say these weren’t gifts, I won’t complain if you have me and my brother beaten to death.’

‘Naturally I shall check. But even if these were gifts you still did wrong. Who gave you permission to bring things here in secret? Tell me who your intermediary was and I’ll let you off. But mind you never do such a thing again.’

‘Don’t let her off, sister-in-law,’ cried Xichun. ‘We have so many people here, if we don’t make an example of one of them the bigger offenders will get quite out of hand. Even if you’re willing to forgive her, I’m not.’

‘She’s usually quite well behaved, isn’t she? We all make mistakes, and this is her first offence. If she does it again we’ll punish her for both. But I wonder who smuggled the things in for her?’

‘As for that, it must be Mrs. Zhang at the back gate. She’s always whispering with the maids and they all do her little favours.’

Xifeng told the stewardesses to make a note of this name, and the things were entrusted to Zhou Rui’s wife for temporary custody till a check had been made the next day. Then they took their leave of Xichun and went on to Yingchun’s place.

Yingchun was already asleep. They knocked for some time before the gate was opened. Xifeng gave orders not to disturb the young lady and went with the others to the maids’ quarters. As Siqi there was Mrs. Wang’s grand-daughter. Xifeng was curious to know whether or not she was biased by family ties and she therefore paid special attention to this search. Mrs. Wang started with the other girls’ cases and, finding noth­ing exceptionable, went on to open Siqi’s case. After a perfunctory search she declared there was nothing there and started to close it.

‘Wait!’ cried Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘What’s this?’

She reached to pick out a man’s silk socks and slippers as well as a small bundle. When they opened this, they found inside a love-knot and a letter. These were handed to Xifeng for her inspection, for as she was in charge of the household and had to read letters and go through accounts, she knew quite a few characters. Xifeng saw that this stationery was red with double happy-life designs. On it was written:

After your visit home last month my parents found out about our understanding, but we can’t have our wish until after your young lady’s marriage, if it’s possible to meet in the Garden, get Mrs. Zhang to send me word. That would be more convenient than your coming here. Do, do arrange it! Also, I’ve received the two pouches you sent me, and I’m sending you a string of scented beads as a token of my love. Please. Keep them safely. Your cousin, Pan Youan.

This letter, far from angering Xifeng, amused her. As none of the others could read and Mrs. Wang had no inkling of this romance between her grand-daughter and young Pan, the sight of the slippers and socks had made her uneasy. When Xifeng started laughing at what was written on the red paper she said:

‘I suppose this is some account and you’re amused by their poor writing, madam?’

‘Quite. This account takes some working out. As Siqi’s maternal grandmother, tell me how her cousin comes to have the name Pan in­stead of Wang?’

In some surprise Mrs. Wang stammered, ‘Her paternal aunt married a Pan, so she has a cousin named Pan ‘ the Pan Youan who ran away the other day.’

‘That explains it,’ chuckled Xifeng. I’ll read it for you.’

She read the letter, and everybody was shocked. It had never oc­curred to Wang Shanbao’s wife, so intent had she been on exposing others, that her grand-daughter would be caught out. She was quite over­whelmed by shame and vexation. Zhou Rui’s wife and the other stewardesses asked her, ‘Well, what have you to say to that? How should we deal with her in your opinion?’

Mrs. Wang wished she could sink into the ground, and Xifeng laughed at her. ‘This is just as well,’ she remarked to Mrs. Zhou. ‘She’s saved her granny and everyone trouble by quietly picking a fine young man for herself.’

Zhou Rui’s wife chuckled too and made some caustic comments. Unable to vent her anger on anyone else, Mrs. Wang slapped her own face.

‘You old bitch who’s lived beyond your time!’ she swore. ‘This is retribution for your sins. You brought this on yourself.’

The others burst out laughing, then while making a show of consoling her flung a few taunts at her. Only Siqi stood silent with lowered head, but to Xifeng’s surprise she showed no sign of fear. It was too late to question the girl, but for fear she might do away with herself that night Xifeng detailed two matrons to keep an eye on her. Then she had the evidence they had discovered taken back to her place and retired, mean­ing to settle the matter the next day.

During the night, however, Xifeng had to get up several times and lost a good deal of blood. The next morning she kept to her bed, feeling weak and dizzy. The court physician summoned to examine her reported:

‘The young mistress suffers from lack of vital blood and a hot humour in the spleen caused by worry and undue exertion. This has resulted in listlessness, drowsiness, indigestion and lack of appetite. A tonic to re­store her strength and cool the hot humour is recommended.’

Having made out a prescription including ginseng, angelica, astragalus and the like, he took his leave.

Some old nurses took the prescription to Lady Wang, and this so added to her worries that for the time being she set Siqi’s business aside.

That day Madam You happened to call first on Xifeng and then on Li Wan in the Garden. She was meaning to visit the girls when Xichun sent a maid to invite her over. Xichun told her all that had happened the night before and showed her the ingots found among Ruhua’s things.

‘These really were gifts to her brother from Zhen,’ Madam You confirmed. ‘His giving them was above-board, but she shouldn’t have smuggled them in here on the sly ‘ that’s turned state traffic in salt into contraband.’ She scolded Ruhua for her stupidity, saying eating too much rich food had addled her wits.

‘As master and mistress you weren’t strict enough with your ser­vants, yet now you blame the maid,’ protested Xichun. ‘Of all us girls here I’m the only one to lose face through my maid. How am Ito face people in future? Last night I urged Xifeng to take her away, but she wouldn’t. That’s natural, I suppose, as Ruhua comes from the East Man­sion. But today I meant to take her there myself, so I’m glad you’ve come. Do take her away quickly. You can beat her, kill her or sell her

‘ I shan’t care in the least.’

Ruhua fell on her knees weeping.

‘I won’t do such a thing again. But please, miss, for old time’s sake, let me die here with you!’ she pleaded.

Madam You and the nurses interceded too.

‘This was just a momentary slip-up, and she won’t dare do it again,’ they said. ‘She’s been waiting on you since childhood. You’d better allow her to stay.’

But Xichun although young had a will of her own and was most un­compromising and eccentric. However hard they pleaded, she was ada­mant as she felt the maid had disgraced her.

‘I don’t want Ruhua,’ she insisted. ‘Not only that, now that I’m growing up I think it best not to visit you people over there myself. Espe­cially as these last few days I’ve been hearing a lot of gossip. I don’t want to be mixed up in any scandal.’

‘Who’s been gossipping?’ asked Madam You. ‘What about? Aren’t we all one family? If you hear talk about us, you should ask the gossips why they spread such rumours.’

Xichun smiled scornfully.

‘A fine way to talk! A young girl like me should just steer clear of scan­dals. What sort of creature would I be if instead I sought them out? And at the risk of offending you I must say: Your reputation’s known, so I don’t have to ask what it is. As the ancients said: ‘Where good and evil, life and death are concerned, even fathers and sons are unable to help each other.’ That’s even truer of us. What I care about is my good name, not yours. If you get involved in scandals in future, don’t drag me in.’

Madam You did not know whether to laugh or be angry. She said to the servants, ‘No wonder they all call her young and foolish. I didn’t believe them, but you heard the unreasonable way she talked just now ‘ showing no judgement or sense of proportion at all. It’s childish talk, but it cuts people to the quick.’

‘She’s young, madam,’ the nurses rejoined. ‘You must make allow­ances.

‘I may be young,’ Xichun retorted. ‘All the same I’m speaking from experience. You don’t know enough characters to read, so you’re all so benighted that when I talk sense you call me young and foolish.’

‘You’re the Number One Scholar, the greatest talent of all times,’ quipped Madam You. ‘Stupid people like us don’t have your sense. How’s that?’

‘Even Number One scholars can be foolish. In fact they’re most likely to lack enlightenment.’

‘Fine!’ Madam You crowed. ‘A moment ago you were a talented scholar; now you’ve become a chief monk holding forth on enlightenment.’

‘If I weren’t enlightened, I wouldn’t have the heart to give up Ruhua.’

‘But that proves you heartless and cold.’

‘As the ancients said: ‘One must be ruthless to keep out of trouble.’ I’m pure and spotless. Why should I spoil my integrity by letting you involve me in your affairs?’

Being sensitive on this point, Madam You disliked such talk. She had been mortified to hear that there had been gossip, but had controlled herself in front of Xiehun. This last thrust was more than she could take, however.

‘In what way have we involved you?’ she demanded. ‘Your maid does wrong, and for no reason you round on me. I’ve put up with it for some time, but that’s only emboldened you to keep on like this. If you’re such a fine young lady, we won’t venture to approach you in future for fear of spoiling your good reputation.’ She ordered her servants to take Ruhua away and got up in a temper to leave.

‘If you do stay away that will save us bickering and trouble, and we can all have a quiet life,’ cried Xichun.

Madam You did not answer this but went straight out. To know what happened later, read the next chapter.

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