A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 77

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Chapter 77

A Pretty Maid Wrongly Accused

Dies an Untimely Death

Lovely Actresses Sever Worldly Ties

and Join a Nunnery

After the Moon Festival, as Xifeng though well enough to leave her bed was not yet fully recovered, Lady Wang continued to summon the doctor to attend her every day as before. The fortifying pills he pre­scribed required, among other ingredients, two ounces of the best gin­seng. Lady Wang sent for some. But after a long search, all her maids could find was a small box of roots no thicker than hairpins, of such poor quality that she made them look again. Presently they came back with a packet of ginseng rootlets.

“When we don’t want it there’s plenty; when we do there’s none,” she exclaimed in exasperation. “Time and again I’ve told you to make sure to put things back in the right place, but you never listen, just dump­ing them anywhere. You don’t know the value of ginseng. When we need it we have to pay through the nose, and what’s bought outside may not be efficacious.”

Caiyun explained, “This seems to be all we have. Last time Lady Xing came to ask for some, you gave her our whole stock.”

“Nonsense. Go and make a more careful search.”

This time Caiyun brought back a few packets of herbs.

“What these are I don’t know,” she said. “Please have a look, madam. There isn’t anything else.”

Lady Wang opened the packets but could not recall what they were, and there was no ginseng among them. She sent to ask Xifeng whether she had any. A few rootlets only, was the reply, not of the best quality either, and she needed these for her medicine every day. Lady Wang then applied to Lady Xing, who said it was because she had run out that she had asked her for ginseng the other day.

Then Lady Wang had no other recourse but to apply in person to the

old lady. The latter at once ordered Yuanyang to fetch all she had, and this proved to be quite a large packet of ginseng roots each as thick as a man’s finger. Yuanyang weighed out two ounces. Lady Wang gave these to Zhou Rui’s wife, instructing her to send them to the doctor along with the herbs which they could not identify, and get him to label these.

Before long Mrs. Zhou brought them back.

“All the herbs have been properly wrapped up and labelled,” she said. “But as for this ginseng, madam, although it’s of the best quality and costs more than thirty taels of silver an ounce now, it’s too old. Ginseng isn’t like other medicines. No matter how fine the roots, after a hundred years they turn to ashes. There haven’t turned to ashes yet ,but they have dried up and lost their potency. So the doctor hopes you’ll take this back and get him some fresher, whatever the quality.”

Lady Wang lowered her head in thought.

“There’s nothing for it then,” she concluded at last, “but to go and buy two ounces.” Not interested in examining the other packets she had them put away, then told Zhou Rui’s wife, “Get the servants outside to buy two ounces of good ginseng. If the old lady happens to ask just tell her we used hers no need to say any more.

Baochai who was present put in, “One moment, aunt. There’s no good ginseng to be bought outside. Whenever they get a whole root they cut it into two or three pieces and graft other rootlets on to these to be sold, with others, as if they were whole roots; so the size is nothing to go by. Our shop often does business with those ginseng dealers. I can easily ask mother to get my brother to send an assistant to approach one of them and buy two ounces of good whole roots. It’s worth spending a few taels extra to get the best.”

“That’s a splendid idea!” exclaimed Lady Wang. “It’s good of you to take the trouble.”

Baochai came back some time later to report that someone had been sent, and they should have the ginseng that evening in time to prepare the medicine the next morning. Lady Wang was greatly relieved.

“This is like the proverb: ‘The pomade-vendor uses water for her own hair,”’ she sighed. “Goodness knows how much we’ve given away, but when we need any ourselves we have to ask for help right and left!”

“Ginseng’s expensive,” rejoined Baochai with a smile. “After all, it’s only medicine, and such things should be given away to help others. We shouldn’t hoard them the way vulgar people do.”

Lady Wang nodded.

“Quite right.”

Baochai left then, and as no one else was about Lady Wang sum­moned Zhou Rui’s wife to ask the result of their recent search of the Garden. Mrs. Zhou had discussed this with Xifeng and agreed to keep nothing back. Her description of all that had happened shocked and en­raged Lady Wang. But she was in a quandary too, as Siqi was Yingchun’s maid and both of them belonged to Lady Xing’s house. She proposed reporting the matter to her.

Mrs. Zhou demurred, “The other day she scolded Wang Shanbao’s wife and boxed her ears for being too officious. So now Mrs. Wang’s shamming ill and won’t leave home — especially as Siqi’s her grand­daughter and she fell into her own trap. All she can do now is pretend it never happened and hope things will quiet down. If we report this to Her Ladyship, she may suspect us of trying to stir up more trouble. Better take Siqi to her with the evidence, and after seeing it they’ll at most give her a beating and assign a different maid here. Wouldn’t that be simpler?

“If instead of that we just report it, Lady Xing may make excuses in order to shift the responsibility. ‘Why doesn’t your mistress deal with it, then?’ she may ask. ‘Why report it to me?’ That would cause delay. And if Siqi took this chance to kill herself, that would make matters worse. The women who’ve been watching over her the last few days are liable to grow slack. Suppose they do, and something happens — what then?”

After some thought Lady Wang decided, “You’re right. We must hurry up and see to this before dealing with those vixens in our own house.”

Thereupon Mrs. Zhou called together some of her colleagues and led them to Yingchun’s compound.

She told Yingchun, “The mistress says Siqi has grown up and her mother keeps coming to ask to have her back, so Her Ladyship’s giving her back to be married off. She’s to leave today. Another good maid will be chosen to wait on you, miss.

She ordered Siqi to pack up her things and leave.

Yingchun’s eyes filled with tears, for she hated to part with the girl. But as other maids had told her in confidence about the events of that evening, fond as she was of Siqi there was nothing she could do where the question of morality was concerned. Siqi had begged her to intervene on her behalf and let her stay on; however, Yingchun did not have a ready tongue and was too weak to reach a decision.

“How cruel you are, miss!” sobbed Siqi, seeing that her fate was sealed. “You’ve kept me hoping the last two days, yet won’t say a good word for me now.”

Zhou Rui’s wife demanded, “You don’t expect the young lady to keep you, do you? Even if she did, how could you face the others in the Garden? Take my advice and pack up quickly to slip away without any­one noticing. That’ll look better for us all.”

Yingchun said tearfully, “I don’t know what wicked thing you’ve done, but asking to keep you would spoil my reputation too. Just look at Ruhua: she was here for some years as well, but she left when she was told to. And you’re not the only two. All the girls in the Garden will have to leave, I suppose, when they’re grown up. Since we have to part sooner or later, you may as well go now.

“After all, the young lady sees things more clearly,” agreed Mrs. Zhou. “Others will be sent away later, don’t you worry.

Siqi had no alternative but to kowtow to Yingchun and take her leave of the other maids.

In tears she whispered, “If you hear that I’m in bad trouble, miss, do put in a good word for me for old time’s sake.”

Yingchun with tears in her own eyes promised, “I will.”

Then Zhou Rui’s wife and her colleagues led Siqi out, instructing two serving-women to carry away all her things. They had not gone far when Xiuju overtook them and, wiping her tears, handed Siqi a silk package.

“This is from our young lady,” she said. “Now that mistress and maid are parting, she wants you to have this keepsake.”

This gift reduced Siqi to tears again. She and Xiuju wept together until Mrs. Zhou lost patience and insisted that tl~ey must be on their way.

“Please be kind and wait a little, aunties,” Siqi sobbed. “Let me say

goodbye to the others here who’ve been like sisters to me all these years.” Mrs. Zhou and the rest had business of their own to attend to and felt

this task an extra imposition, in addition to which they bitterly resented the airs these maids put on. Naturally they had no patience with such talk.

“Get a move on and stop dilly-dallying,” they scoffed. “We’ve more important things to see to. Are you one flesh and blood that you have to say goodbye? They’d only laugh at you. Shilly-shallying won’t get you anywhere. So come along.”

With that they marched straight on to the back side gate, and Siqi afraid to say more had no choice but to follow.

It so happened that Baoyu came back just then from outside. When he saw Siqi being led off, followed by women carrying things, he guessed that she had been dismissed for good. He had heard of the commotion that night and the happenings earlier in the day which had led to Qingwen’s relapse; but though carefully questioned, she herself could not tell what had given rise to it all. The day before he had seen Ruhua leave, and now it was Siqi’s turn. In consternation he barred the way and asked where they were going. The stewards’ wives knew Baoyu’s quirky ways and did not want him to pester and delay them.

“This is none of your business,” said Mrs. Zhou with a smile. “Get back to your books.”

“Good sisters, please wait a moment,” he begged. “I have something to say.

“The mistress ordereu us not to lose any time. And what can you have to say? We are just carrying out Her Ladyship’s orders. That’s our only concern.”

Siqi caught hold of his sleeve.

“They can’t disobey orders,” she sobbed. “But please go and beg Her Ladyship to let me off.”

Baoyu’s heart bled for her. Tears started to his eyes.

“I don’t know what dreadful thing you’ve done,” he cried. “Qingwen’s fallen ill with anger, and now you’re leaving. All of you are leaving! What’s to become of me?”

At this Mrs. Zhou scolded Siqi, “You’re no longer a deputy young

mistress now. I’ll beat you if you don’t do as you’re told. Don’t think you still have your young mistress to protect you and can go on making any trouble you please. So come along quietly instead of tugging at Mas­ter Bao. What way is that to behave?”

They dragged Siqi off before she could say any more; and Baoyu, afraid they might report this, could only glare after them. When they had gone some distance he shook a finger at them and swore:

“How strange! How is it that once girls marry they get contaminated by men and become so obnoxious — even worse than men!”

The matrons on duty at the gate burst out laughing.

“Whatever is Master Bao talking about?” they cried. “Goodness knows where he gets hold of such nonsense.” To tease him they asked, “Do you mean that all girls are good and all married women bad?”

“That’s right.” Baoyu nodded. “Of course.”

“We’re so stupid,” they chuckled, “there’s something else we’d like you to explain….”

Before they could finish some nurses came along.

“Watch out!” they cried. “Mind you gather together all those on duty and stay at your posts. Her Ladyship’s come to the Garden on a tour of inspection. She may very well come here….

Then one of them ordered someone to fetch the relatives of that girl Qingwen in Happy Red Court and wait here to take her away.

“Buddha be praised!” they chortled. “At last Heaven has opened its eyes. Once this pest is gone we shall have a little peace.”

Baoyu, as soon as he heard that his mother was coming to make a check-up, guessed that it boded trouble for Qingwen. So he dashed off too soon to hear the nurses’ jubilation.

He found Happy Red Court packed with people. His mother, sitting there with a face like thunder, ignored him.

Qingwen was wasting away, having touched no food for four or five days; but now with dishevelled hair she was dragged from the kang and two women carried her off.

“She’s only to take the clothes she has on,” ordered Lady Wang. “The finer ones are to be kept for better maids.”

She then summoned all the maids for her inspection.

This was because Wang Shanbao’s wife had taken advantage of Lady Wang’s anger a few days previously to slander Qingwen, as well as others in the Garden whom she disliked. And Lady Wang had taken all this to heart. As she was busy during the festival she let things slide for a couple of days, but now she had come to inspect all the maids in the Garden, not only to dismiss Qingwen, but also because it had reached her ears that as Baoyu was growing up, his maids who were hussies were teaching him bad ways. As this was more serious than Qingwen’s case, Lady Wang meant to examine all the maids from Xiren down to the girls assigned rough work.

“Which is the one,” she asked, “born on the same day as Baoyu?”

Since the girl in question dared not answer, an old nurse pointed her out.

“Huixiang here, also called Sier.”

Lady Wang looked at her closely. She saw that this maid, while by no means half as pretty as Qingwen, was not unattractive and looked intel­ligent. She dressed rather conspicuously too. Lady Wang smiled scorn­fully.

“Another shameless slut! She said in secret that a boy and girl born on the same day, at the same hour, are destined to marry. It was you who told him that. Do you think because we live apart I don’t know? Though I don’t often come to the Garden, I keep a close watch on what you’re up to here. Baoyu is my only son. How can I allow hussies like you to lead him astray?”

At mention of what she had said in confidence to Baoyu, Sier blushed and hung her head, weeping.

Having ordered her to be fetched away by her parents and married off, Lady Wang asked:

“Which is the creature called Ye1U Xiongnu?”

The nurses pointed out Fangguan.

“Oh, an actress? No wonder she’s a vamp. When we offered last time to release you, you wouldn’t go. Well then, you should have be­haved yourself, instead of making mischief and getting Baoyu to carry on so wildly.”

“I’d never dare!” pleaded Fangguan with a smile.

“So you’re talking back! Tell me this: The year before last when we went to the Imperial Sepulchre, who coaxed Baoyu to bring that girl Liu Wuer here? Luckily she died a premature death; otherwise, if you’d got her in, you’d have ganged up to make more trouble in the Garden. You even bully your own foster-mother, to say nothing of other people.”

She sent for this woman to take Fangguan away and find her a hus­band outside, saying she could keep all her things. She also ordered all the young actresses assigned to the different girls’ quarters the previous year to clear out of the Garden, be fetched away and married off. This naturally delighted their foster-mothers, who came to kowtow their thanks.

Then Lady Wang had the whole house searched. Any of Baoyu’s things which looked suspicious were to be confiscated and taken to her quarters.

“This will clean things up,” she said, “and save gossip in future.” She also warned Xiren and Sheyue, “Be careful now. If you overstep the mark I shan’t let you off either.”

She had them look up an almanac, which indicated that it would be inauspicious to move that year. So Baoyu had to stay in the Garden for the time being.

“Next year we’ll move him out,” declared Lady Wang. “That will stop further trouble.”

This said, she led her attendants off to inspect other compounds, not even waiting for tea.

But to revert to Baoyu: He had expected nothing more than a per­functory check-up, little dreaming that his mother would come down on them like a thunderbolt, taking them to task for things they had said in secret — which she had got word for word. He knew there was no saving the situation and wished he could die then and there; but as she was in such a rage he dared not make a false move or utter a word. He followed her to Seeping Fragrance Pavilion, where she told him:

“Go back and apply yourself to your books. You may be questioned tomorrow. Your father was fuming just now.

On his way back he wondered who had been telling tales. No outsid­ers knew what went on in his house, so how could his mother be so well informed? In a quandary, he returned to his room and found Xiren weep-

ing there. Distressed by the less of his favourite maid, he threw himself on the bed to start weeping too.

Xiren knew that Qingwen’s dismissal was the only thing that really mattered to him. She nudged him.

“It’s no use crying. Get up and listen to me. Qingwen’s on the mend, and going home like this she’ll be able to rest quietly for a few days. If you really don’t want to let her go, wait till your mother has got over her anger then go and beg the old lady to recall her. That shouldn’t be diffi­cult. The mistress did this in a fit of anger, just because she was taken in by some spiteful talk.”

“I can’t imagine what her crime was,” he sobbed.

“The mistress just feels that someone with her good looks is bound to be rather flighty, and there can’t be any peace with such a beauty here

— that’s why she dislikes her. She prefers plain, ungainly girls like us.”

“Even so, how could she know our secret jokes? No outsiders could have passed them on. That’s what’s so odd.”

“Have you ever shown any discretion? When you get worked up you don’t care who’s about. Many’s the time I’ve tipped you a wink or signalled to you on the sly, but before you took the hint others had already noticed.”

“How is it my mother knows all the faults of the other girls but not those of you, Sheyue and Qiuwen?”

Touched on the raw Xiren lowered her head for a while, at a loss for an answer.

“Yes, that’s odd,” she agreed presently. “We three have spoken care­lessly in fun too, but the mistress seems to have forgotten that. Maybe she has other things on her mind and won’t send us away until she’s dealt with them.’’

“You’re known as a paragon of virtue,” he retorted. “And those two are influenced by you. So how could you slip up so as to deserve punish­ment? Fangguan now, being so young and a bit too smart, can’t help bullying people and offending them. In Sier’s case, it’s my fault. It started that day when I quarrelled with you and called her in to wait on me. That made her uppish and led to this trouble today.

“But Qingwen’s like you , she was transferred here as a child from

the old lady’s quarters. She may be better-looking, but what does that

– matter? And though she’s outspoken and has a sharp tongue she’s never done you any harm. I suppose it’s her good looks that were her undo­ing.” He burst into tears again.

Inferring from this that Baoyu suspected her of telling tales, Xiren did not like to pursue the subject further.

“Only Heaven knows the truth,” she sighed. “We can’t find out now who told, so it’s no use crying. Take it easy till the old lady’s in a good mood, then you can tell her about it and ask to have Qingwen back.”

“Don’t hold out false hopes,” he snorted. “If I wait till my mother calms down it’ll be too late, because Qingwen’s illness won’t wait. She’s always lived in comfort, never had to put up with a single day’s bad treatment. Even I, who know her so well, often offended her. Dismissing her now,” he went on more bitterly, “seriously ill as she is and with all that resentment bottled up inside her, is like throwing a delicate orchid just coming into bloom into a pigsty. Besides, she has no parents, only an elder cousin who’s a drunkard. How can she stand it there? How can you talk of waiting for a few days? Who knows whether I’ll ever see her again or not?”

Xiren laughed.

“You’re like ‘the magistrate who goes in for arson but won’t allow common people to light a lamp.’ If we let slip some tactless remark you say it’s unlucky, but it’s all right for you to talk about her dying. She may be extra delicate, still it shouldn’t come to that.”

“I didn’t speak at random. There was an omen this spring.”

“What omen?”

“That begonia at the foot of the steps was thriving, but then for no reason half its branches withered. I knew that was a portent, and now see what’s happened to her.”

Xiren laughed again.

“I shouldn’t say this, but I must, you’re a regular old woman. How can an educated young gentleman talk that way? What have plants to do with human fate? If you’re not an old woman you really are a fool.”

“You don’t understand,” Baoyu sighed. “Not only plants and trees but all things in the world are just as sentient and rational as human be-

ings. When in rapport with someone, they’re specially sensitive. Some outstanding examples are the juniper tree before Confucius’ temple and the yarrow before his tomb, as well as the cypress before Zhuge Liang’s1 temple and the pine before Yue Fei’s2 tomb. All these stately plants em­bodying these men’s fine spirit have endured for centuries, withering when the world is in confusion and flourishing again when it is well gov­erned. They have withered and revived again several times in all these thousands of years. Aren’t they sure signs?

“Minor examples are the peony before Lady Yang’s Scented Pavil­ion, the tree of longing before her Upright Tower, or the grass on Wang Zhaojun’s tomb. They all had divine sensibility, didn’t they? It’s because she’s going to die that half the begonia withered.”

Hearing this senseless talk, Xiren did not know whether to laugh or cry.

“You’re getting more and more outrageous,” she protested. “How can you rack your brains to compare Qingwen, a mere nobody, with those great figures? Besides, however good she may be, she’s lower in status than I am. You should compare me, not her with the begonia. I suppose this means I’m going to die very soon.

Baoyu clapped a hand over her mouth.

“What a thing to say! Before one death’s taken place you’re talking of another. All right, let’s drop the subject. I’ve already lost three of you, I don’t want to lose one more.

Secretly pleased, Xiren told herself: If they hadn’t gone, how far would you have let yourself go?

“From now on,” he continued, “let’s say no more about it, just con­sider the three of them as dead and gone. Others have died before with­out it mattering much to me anyway. It’s all the same. But let’s talk about practical matters. We must secretly send her things to her without letting the mistresses know, as well as a few strings of cash from our savings to help cure her illness. We owe her that for old times’ sake.”

“How heartless and stingy you think us!” Xiren exclaimed. “We don’t need a reminder from you. I’ve already sorted out all her clothes and things and put them aside. In the daytime there are too many busybodies around, all eager to make trouble; but as soon as it’s dark we’ll quietly

get Mrs. Song to take them over. I’ve saved a few strings of cash too, which I’m giving her.”

Baoyu expressed grateful thanks.

“I’m already known as ‘a paragon of virtue’,” she said sarcasti­cally. “Surely this is a cheap way to add to my reputation.”

At once he apologized and tried to mollify her.

That evening, in strict confidence, they sent Mrs. Song off on this errand. And after settling his maids down, Baoyu slipped out of the back gate alone and begged an old woman to take him to see Qingwen. At first she most resolutely refused, saying that if it was found out and reported to the mistress she’d lose her job; but after he pleaded hard and prom­ised her a tip she finally took him.

Now Qingwen had been sold into bondage to Lai Da’s family at the age of ten, before she had grown her hair. Old Mrs. Lai used to take her to the Rong Mansion, and the Lady Dowager took a fancy to her be­cause of her intelligence and good looks, where upon Mrs. Lai presented her to the old lady, and that was how she had later become Baoyu’s maid. Having come here as a child, she had no recollection of her old home and parents. Her only relative was a cousin on her father’s side, a good cook but without any steady employment. She had asked Mrs. Lai to take him into service in the Rong Mansion. By that time Qingwen was waiting on the old lady and had turned out a smart, sharp-tongued girl with a hot temper; but touched by her remembering her kinsman, Mrs. Lai bought him too and gave him one of the bondm aids as his wife.

However, once living in comfort, the fellow forgot his hard life as a vagrant and took to drinking heavily, paying no attention to his wife who happened to be a good-looking, amorous woman. When he drank so reck­lessly, ignoring her, she felt as disconsolate as a piece of jade tossed among brambles or a beauty immured in solitude. Then, finding him so easygoing that he was never jealous, she started dispensing her favours to all the stout fellows and men of parts in the mansion until soon she had tried out half the men, masters as well as servants. If, Reader, you wish to know her name, she was that “Miss Deng,” the wife of “To the Muddy Worm” with whom ha Lian had once had an affair.

As these were Qingwen’s only relatives, she had to stay with them.

Her cousin was away at this time and Miss Deng had gone out after supper to call on friends, leaving Qingwen lying alone in the outer room. Baoyu told the old woman to keep watch in the courtyard, then lifted the matting portiere and went in. There was Qingwen on an earthen kang covered with a coarse mat, although at least she had her own pillow and bedding. Not knowing what to do, he approached her with tears in his eyes and gently took her hand, softly calling her name.

Qingwen had caught a chill and this, combined with her relatives’ reproaches, had made her illness worse. After coughing for a whole day she had just dozed off, but hearing her name called she opened her eyes with an effort. When she saw it was Baoyu, she was so overwhelmed with pleased surprise mingled with grief and anguish that she promptly burst out sobbing. Grasping his hand with all her might, she managed at last to gasp between fits of coughing:

“I never thought to see you again….”

Baoyu too could only weep.

“Merciful Buddha!” cried Qingwen. “You’ve come just in time. Pour me half a cup of tea. I’ve been parched all this time, but when I call no one comes.

“Where is the tea?” he asked, wiping his eyes.

“On the stove.”

Baoyu saw a black earthenware pot which he would never have rec­ognized as a teapot. He took from the table a bowl, so large and coarse that it bore no resemblance to a teacup either and when he had it in his hand it smelled of rancid oil. He washed and rinsed it several times, after which he picked up the pot and poured out half a bowl. The dark red brew was unlike any tea he had seen.

Qingwen leaning on her pillow urged, “Pass it over, quick, for me to take a sip. You can’t expect them here to have the kind of tea we’re used to.”

Baoyu first took a sip himself. The brew had no fragrance, only a bitter taste slightly reminiscent of tea. But when he passed her the bowl she gulped it all down as if it were sweet dew. He reflected: In the past the best tea couldn’t satisfy her, yet now she likes this! It shows the truth of the old saying: “The well-fed turn away from cooked meats, while the

famished enjoy dregs of wine and husks of rice.”And again: “One glut­ted with rice prefers thin gruel.”

Shedding tears he asked, “Have you anything to tell me while nobody’s about?”

“What is there to say?” she sobbed. “I’m just dragging on from day to day, from hour to hour. I shall be gone in a few days at most, I know. But I can’t die content. I may have been born with more than my share of good looks, but there’s been no secret understanding between us and I’ve never tried to lead you astray, yet they insist I’m a vamp. That I do resent! Now I’ve got this bad name for nothing and I’m dying. If only I’d known how things would end I’d have acted differently; but I was fool enough to think we’d always be together. How could I guess there’d be this sudden scandal and I’d have nowhere to plead my innocence?” She burst into tears again.

Baoyu took her hand. On her wrists, thin as sticks, were for silver bracelets.

“Better take these off,” he advised. “You can wear them when you’re better.” As he drew off the bracelets and put them under her pillow he remarked, “You took such care to grow those finger-nails two inches long; now your illness is going to spoil them.”

Qingwen dried her tears and reached for a pair of scissors to cut off the tapering nails of the last two fingers of her left hand. Then, under the quilt, she took off her worn red silk bodice and gave this to him together with the nails.

“Take these keepsakes to remind you of me,” she said. “And now take off your inner jacket and help me put it on, so that lying in my coffin I shall feel as if I were still in Happy Red Court. I shouldn’t do such a thing, of course, but as I’ve already got a bad name — why not?”

At once Baoyu took off his inner jacket, put on her bodice, and con­cealed the finger-nails.

“If they see these when you go back and question you,” she sobbed, “there’s no need to lie. Just tell them these are mine. Since I’ve been falsely accused, why shouldn’t I at least have this satisfaction?”

While she was still speaking her cousin’s wife lifted the portiere and burst in, smirking.

“Fine, I heard all you two said!” She turned to Baoyu. “What is a young master doing in a servant’s room? Have you come to seduce me, thinking me young and pretty?”

“Hush, good sister! Not so loud!” he begged. “She’s worked for me all these years, so I slipped in to see her.”

Miss Deng hustled him into the inner room.

“You don’t want me to shout,” she chortled. “All right — if you’ll be nice to me.

She plumped down on the edge of the kang hugging Baoyu to her. He had never seen such behaviour as this before. His heart beating fast he blushed all over his face.

“Good sister, don’t tease me!” he pleaded.

Miss Deng laughed tipsily.

“Bah! I’ve always heard that you were a lady’s man. What makes you so bashful today?”

Flushing crimson he implored, “Do let go of me, then we can talk properly. If the old woman outside hears — how awful !“

“I came back long ago and sent her to wait for you at the Garden gate,” she laughed. “I’ve been waiting and waiting for a chance like this, but now that you’re here I’ve discovered you’re a fraud. For all you’re so handsome, you’re nothing but a fire-cracker without powder — good only for show. Why, you’re much shyer than I am. This shows it’s no use listening to gossip. For instance, when my cousin came home I was sure you two must have been up to some monkey business; that’s why I came back to listen outside the window. If there’s been some goings-on between you, as you were alone you would have talked about it; but to my surprise there’d been nothing of the sort. So it’s clear lots of people get wrongly accused in this world. I’m sorry I misjudged you. Well, as this is the case, you’ve nothing to worry about. You can come whenever you like and I won’t pester you.

Feeling very relieved he got up and straightened his clothes.

“Good sister, please take good care of her for a couple of days,” he urged her. “I must be off now.

He went out then to say goodbye to Qingwen. Both were reluctant to part, but part they must; and knowing how hard he found it, she covered

her face with the quilt and ignored him until he left.

Baoyu had wanted to call on Fangguan and Sier too, but as it was dark and he had been out for some time he was afraid he would be missed and a search might be made for him, leading to more trouble. He had better return to the Garden and go out again the next day. When he reached the back gate, pages were bringing out bedding while nurses inside were checking up on people. A minute later and he would have been locked out. Luckily he was able to slip in unobserved.

Home again, he simply told Xiren that he had been with Aunt Xue and left it at that. Presently when preparing his bed, she had to ask him how they should sleep that night.

“Any way you like,” was his answer.

Now for the last couple of years, since Xiren got into the good books of Lady Wang, she had begun to stand on her dignity and broken off her intimacy with Baoyu even in private or at night, behaving more distantly than when they were young. And though she had no major business to attend to, all the needlework of the household, as well as the accounts and seeing to the clothing and shoes of Baoyu and the young maids kept her fully occupied. Moreover, though she no longer suffered from flux-ions, when she was tired or caught cold she sometimes coughed blood; and for this reason she had avoided sleeping in the same room as Baoyu. However, he often woke up in the night and being very timid would al­ways call for someone; so Qingwen, who was a light sleeper and soft-footed, had been given the task of pouring him tea and attending him at night and had slept on a bed near his.

Now Xiren had to ask who should sleep on the bed near his, as she considered this work at night more important than any daytime tasks. Told to do as she thought fit, she could only move in her own bedding to sleep in Baoyu’s room as in the old days.

That evening he was lost in thought. Finally she persuaded him to go to bed, but after she and the others had turned in she heard him groaning and tossing about in bed till after midnight, when finally he calmed down and started snoring. In relief she dozed off herself, but in less time than it takes to drink half a cup of tea he called for Qingwen. Xiren woke with a start and asked what he wanted. Some tea, he said. She got up, rinsed

her hands in a basin of water, then poured him half a cup from the warm pot.

After sipping some tea Baoyu said with an apologetic smile, “I’m so used to calling her, I forgot it was you.

“You were used to calling me in your sleep when she first took over. It took you months to get out of the habit. So I knew that though Qingwen’s gone her name would still be on your lips.”

They lay down again. Baoyu tossed and turned for another hour or two, not falling asleep till the fifth watch. Then he saw Qingwen come in, looking her usual self. Having entered the room, she told him with a smile:

“Take good care of yourselves. I must leave you now.” With that she turned and vanished.

Baoyu called her, waking Xiren again. She thought it was another slip of the tongue, but he sobbed:

“Qingwen is dead!”

“What a thing to say! How could you know? Don’t let other people hear you talk such nonsense.”

Baoyu insisted that he was right and could hardly wait till dawn to send to find out. Just at daybreak, however, a young maid sent by Lady Wang came to the Garden and called out asking to have the front side gate opened, as the mistress had instructions to be passed on.

“Baoyu must wash and dress quickly!” she cried. “The master has been invited out to enjoy the autumn scenery and the osmanthus in bloom. He is pleased with Baoyu because he wrote a good poem the other day, so he means to take him along. That’s what Her Ladyship said, so don’t get a word wrong. Hñrry up and tell him to come as fast as he can. The master’s waiting in the principal apartments for the boys to come and have breakfast. Master Huan has already arrived, and someone’s been sent to fetch Master Lan as he’s to go as well.”

As she delivered this message, the serving-woman inside assented sentence by sentence while buttoning her clothes, then opened the gate. Several other maids, hastily dressing themselves, had run to pass on these instructions.

When Xiren heard knocking at the gate, she got up at once and sent to ask what was so pressing. This summons relayed to her, she quickly

called for hot water and urged Baoyu to get up and wash while she fetched his clothes. Since he was going out with his father, instead of choosing his most splendid new clothes she selected a less conspicuous outfit.

Baoyu had.no choice but to go as fast as he could. He found his father drinking tea, obviously in a good humour. Having paid his morning re­spects he was greeted by Jia Huan and Jia Lan in turn, and then Jia Zheng ordered him to sit down to breakfast.

“Baoyu doesn’t study as hard as you,” he told the other boys. “But when it comes to writing inscriptions or capping verses you haven’t got his flair. Today our hosts are bound to make you write poems, and Baoyu must help you both out.”

Lady Wang, who had never heard such praise from him, was both surprised and pleased. After father and sons had left, she was thinking of going over to see the old lady when the foster-mothers of Fangguan, Ouguan and Ruiguan were announced.

“Ever since Your Ladyship kindly allowed Fangguan to come home she’s behaved like a crazy creature,” one of them reported. “She’ll neither eat nor drink. And now the three of them — she’s got Ouguan and Ruiguan to do the same — insist on cutting their hair and becoming nuns. They threaten to kill themselves if we won’t let them. At first I thought the child was just unused to the way we live outside, and would get over this whim in a couple of days. But they’re carrying on worse and worse. We’ve scolded and beaten them, but it’s no use. We’re really at our wits’ end: that’s why we’ve come to beg Your Ladyship’s help. We’ll either have to allow them to become nuns or give them a good talking to and let other families take them. We haven’t the fortune to keep them!”

“Nonsense!” exclaimed Lady Wang. “How can you let them have their own way? How can anyone enter a nunnery for fun? Give them a thrashing and they’ll show more sense.~~

Now as this was just after the mid-autumn sacrifices, nuns from vari­ous nunneries had come to present sacrificial offerings, and Lady Wang had kept Abbess Zhitong of Water Moon Convent and Abbess Yuanxin of Ksitigarbha Nunnery to stay for a couple of days. When they heard

this news, they thought it a chance to get two girls for nothing to work for them.

“After all,” they told Lady Wang, “it’s because your house is a virtu­ous one and you yourself do so many good deeds that these young girls have been influenced in this way. Though the house of Buddha isn’t easy to enter, we should remember that the law of Buddha extends to all alike. Our Buddha’s wish is to save all living creatures, yes, even chickens and dogs; but, alas, those who are deluded are hard to awaken. Anyone who has the root of goodness in her and can attain enlightenment can tran­scend transmigration. Why, even a number of tigers, wolves, snakes and insects have now entered Nirvana.

“These three orphan girls far from their native places lived here amid wealth and splendour but now they remember their early poverty which forced them to take to a despised profession, and they have no idea what will become of them in future. So turning away from this sea of suffer­ings they have decided to renounce the world and cultivate virtue, in the hope of doing better in their next life. This is a good and noble resolve. Please don’t stand in their way, madam.”

Now Lady Wang was fond of doing good deeds. She had not allowed Fangguan and the other girls to have their way because, to her mind, they were only children who had made this proposal in a fit of anger; they might prove unable to stand austerity, leading to more trouble in future. The speech of these two swindlers struck her as reasonable. Besides, she was quite distracted these days with a host of family problems, in addition to which Lady Xing had sent word that she intended to fetch Yingchun back tomorrow for a couple of days so that her prospective in-laws could inspect her, and official go-betweens had also come to pro­pose a match for Tanchun. Unable to give much thought to these minor matters, she consented willingly.

“Well then, since that’s how you feel, why not take these girls away as your acolytes?”

“Merciful Buddha!” the abbesses exclaimed. “how good of you, madam! This is a most virtuous deed.” They forthwith bowed their thanks.

“They’d better be questioned first,” said Lady Wang. “If they are really in earnest they can come and, in my presence, pay their respects

to you now as their Mothers Superior.”

The three foster-mothers fetched the three girls, and Lady Wang sounded them out carefully. As their minds were made up, they kow­towed to the two abbesses and then to Lady Wang by way of farewell. Seeing that they were determined and not to be dissuaded, she could not help feeling a pang of pity and sent for gifts for them as well as for the abbesses. Then Fangguan went off with Zhitong of Water Moon Con­vent, and the other two erstwhile actresses with Yuanxin of Ksitigarbha Nunnery.

To know what followed, read on.

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