A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 8

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A Dream of Red Mansions008

Chapter 8

Nanny Li Makes a Nuisance of Herself by

Warning Against Drinking

Baoyu Breaks a Teacup and

Flies into a Temper

After Xifeng and Baoyu reached home and had paid their greetings, Baoyu told the Lady Dowager of Qin Zhong’s eagerness to attend their clan school, and the incentive it would be for him to have a friend and companion in his studies. He painted a glowing picture of the other boy’s admirable character and lovable qualities.

Xifeng backed him up, adding, “In a day or two Qin Thong will be coming to pay his respects to our Old Ancestress.” She then took advantage of the old lady’s pleasure at this news to invite her to the opera in two days’ time.

In spite of her age, the Lady Dowager looked forward to any excite­ment. When the day arrived and Madam You came to invite her, she took Lady Wang, Daiyu, Baoyu and others along to watch the performances.

At noon the old lady went home for her siesta. And Lady Wang, who liked peace and quiet, returned too after her mother-in-law’s departure. Then Xifeng moved into the seat of honour and enjoyed herself to the full until the evening.

After Baoyu had seen his grandmother back for her nap, he would have returned to see the show if not for his reluctance to disturb Keqing and the rest. Remembering that he had not gone in person to ask after Baochai’s recent indisposition, he decided to pay her a visit. He feared that if he went past the main apartment something might happen to hold him up, while he dreaded still more the thought of meeting his father. So he decided to go the long way round.

His nurses and maids were waiting to take off his ceremonial clothes, but he went out again without changing. They followed him through the second gate under the impression that he was going back to the other mansion, instead of which he turned northeast round the back of the hall.

There, however, he ran into two of his father’s proteges, Zhan Guang and Shan Pinren, who hurried forward smiling. One threw an arm round him, the other took his hand.

“Little Bodhisattva!” they cried. “We so rarely see you, this is a de­lightful surprise.”

Having paid their respects, asked after his health and chatted for a while, they were moving on when his nurse inquired if they were going to see the master.

They nodded. “His Lordship is sleeping now in his Mengpo Studio. Don’t worry,” they assured Baoyu, moving on.

These words made Baoyu laugh in spite of himself. He then turned north and hurried towards Pear Fragrance Court. Just then the chief treasurer Wu Xindeng and the manager of the granaries Dai Liang emerged from the counting-house with five other stewards. They hurried forward at sight of Baoyu and stood at respectful attention. One of them, Qian Hua, who had not seen Baoyu for some time, stepped forward and fell on one knee. Smiling slightly, Baoyu quickly helped him up, while one of the other men said cheerfully:

“The other day we saw some inscriptions written by you, young mas­ter. Your calligraphy’s even better than before. When will you give us a few samples to put on our walls?”

“Where did you see them?” asked Baoyu.

“In several places,” they answered. “People admire them so much they asked us to get them some.

“They’re not worth having,” protested Baoyu, laughing. “But you can ask my pages for some if you want.”

The whole party waited until he had walked on before going their different ways. But enough of this digression.

On reaching Pear Fragrance Court, Baoyu went first to see Aunt Xue, whom he found distributing sewing to her maids. He paid his re­spects to his aunt, who caught him in her arms and hugged him.

“How good of you to come, dear boy, on a cold day like this.” She beamed. “But get up here quickly on the warm kang.” She ordered hot tea to be served.

“Is Cousin Pan at home?” asked Baoyu.

“Ah, he’s like a horse without a halter,” she sighed. “He’s for ever rushing about outside. Not a day does he spend at home.”

“Is Baochai better?”

“Yes, thank you. It was thoughtful of you to send over to ask how she was the other day. She’s in her room now. Why not go in and see her? It’s warmer there. Go and keep her company and I’ll join you as soon as I’m through here.”

Baoyu promptly slipped off the kang and went to his cousin’s door, before which hung a somewhat worn red silk portière. Lifting this he stepped inside.

Baochai was sewing on the kang. Her glossy black hair was knotted on top of her head. She was wearing a honey-coloured padded jacket, a rose-red sleeveless jacket lined with brown- and snow-weasel fur, and a skirt of leek-yellow silk. There was nothing ostentatious about her cos­tume, which was none too new. Her lips needed no rouge, her blue-black eyebrows no brush; her face seemed a silver disk, her eyes almonds swimming in water. Some might think her reticence a cloak for stupidity; but circumspect as she was she prided herself on her simplicity.

As Baoyu observed her he asked, “Are you better now, cousin?”

Baochai looked up and rose swiftly to her feet, saying, “Ever so much better, thank you for your kind concern.”

She made him sit on the edge of the kang and told Yinger to pour tea. As she asked after the old lady and her aunts and cousins, she took in Baoyu’s costume.

He was wearing a golden filigree coronet studded with gems, a gold chaplet in the form of two dragons fighting for a pearl, a yellowish green archer’s jacket embroidered with serpents and lined with white fox-fur, and a sash embroidered with many-coloured butterflies. From his neck hung a longevity locket, a talisman inscribed with his name, and the pre­cious jade found in his mouth at the time of his birth.

“I’ve heard so much about that jade of yours but I’ve never seen it,” said Baochai edging forward. “Do let me have a good look at it today.”

Baoyu leaned forward too, and taking the stone from his neck laid it in her hand. She held it on her palm. It was the size of a sparrow’s egg, iridescent as clouds at sunrise, smooth as junket, and covered with coloured lines. This was the form taken by the stupid Stone from the foot of Blue Ridge Peak in Great Waste Mountain. A later poet wrote these mocking lines:

Fantastic, Nu Wa’s smelting of the stone,

Now comes fresh fantasy from the Great Waste;

The Stone’s true sphere and spirit lost,

It takes a new form stinking and debased.

Know that when fortune frowns, pure gold is dulled,

And jade, in evil times, will cease to shine;

Heaped high the white bones of the nameless dead,

Who in their day were lords and ladies fine.

The stupid Stone had also recorded its transformation and below we shall reproduce the seal characters engraved on it by the scabby monk.

As the jade was small enough to be held in the mouth of a new-born child, if we were to reproduce the real size of the characters they would be so minute that our readers would find them a troublesome strain on their eyes. We are therefore enlarging them to scale to enable readers to study them by lamplight or even in their cups. This point is made clear so that nobody may sneer, “How big a mouth could an infant in the womb have, to hold this clumsy object!”

The obverse side read:

Precious Jade of Spiritual Understanding

Never Lose, Never Forget,

Eternal Life, Lasting Prosperity.

The reverse side:

1. Expels Evil Spirits.

2. Cures Mysterious Diseases.

3. Foretells Happiness and Misfortune.

After examining both sides Baochai turned the jade over to study the face more closely and read the inscription aloud, not once but twice. Then she turned to ask Yinger:

“Why are you standing gaping there instead of getting us tea?”

Yinger answered with a giggle, “Those two lines seem to match the words on your locket, miss.”

“Why, cousin,” cried Baoyu eagerly, “does that locket of yours have an inscription too? Do let me see it.”

“Don’t listen to her,” replied Baochai. “There aren’t any characters on it.”

“I let you see mine, dear cousin,” he countered coaxingly.

Cornered like this, Baochai answered, “As it happens, there is a lucky inscription on it. Otherwise I wouldn’t wear such a clumsy thing all the time.” She unbuttoned her red jacket and drew out a bright gold necklace studded with glittering pearls and jewels. Baoyu took the locket eagerly and found two inscriptions, one on either side, in the form of eight minute characters.

Never Leave, Never Abandon, Fresh Youth, Eternally Lasting.

Baoyu read this twice, then twice repeated his own.

“Why, cousin, this inscription of yours matches mine exactly,” he de­clared laughingly.

“It was given her by a scabby monk,” explained Yinger. “He said it must be engraved on something made of gold.”

Before she could say more Baochai called her to task for not bringing them some tea. Then she asked Baoyu where he had come from. He was now close enough to her to catch whiffs of some cool, sweet fra­grance which he could not identify.

“What incense do you use to scent your clothes with?” he asked. “I’ve never smelt this perfume before.”

“I don’t like incense perfumes. They just make good clothes reek of smoke.”

“What is that perfume, then?”

Baochai thought for a moment. “I know. It must be the pill I took this morning.”

“What pills smell so good? Won’t you give me one to try?”

“Don’t be silly!” She laughed. “You don’t take medicine for the fun of it.”

Just then a servant outside announced, “Miss Lin is here.” And in came Daiyu.

“Ah!” she exclaimed at sight of Baoyu. “I’ve chosen a bad time to come.”

Baoyu rose with a smile to offer her a seat while Baochai asked cheerfully, “What do you mean?”

“If I’d known he was here, I wouldn’t have come.

“That’s more puzzling than ever,” said Baochai.

“Either everybody comes at once or no one comes,” explained Daiyu mischievously. “If he came one day and I the next, spacing out our visits, you’d have callers every day and would find it neither too lonely nor too distracting. What’s so puzzling about that, cousin?”

Baoyu saw that she was wearing a crimson camlet cloak which but­toned in front. “Is it snowing outside?” he asked.

“It’s been hailing for some time,” replied the maids.

“Have they brought my cape?”

“Wasn’t I right?” cried Daiyu. “As soon as I come, he must go.”

“When did I say a word about going? I just want to be prepared.”

“It’s snowing and it’s getting late now,” put in Nanny Li. “Just amuse yourself here with your cousins. Your aunt’s prepared refreshments in the other room. I’ll send a maid for your cape and tell your pages not to wait.”

As Baoyu agreed to this, his nurse went out and sent the pages away.

Meanwhile Aunt Xue had tea and other good things ready for them. When Baoyu spoke highly of the goose feet and duck tongues served a couple of days before by Madam You, she produced some of her own, pickled with distiller’s grain, for him to try.

“These taste even better with wine,” he hinted, smiling.

His aunt promptly sent for the best wine in the house.

“No wine, please, Madam Xue,” protested Nanny Li.

“Just one cup, dear nanny,” begged Baoyu.

“No, you don’t! If the Lady Dowager or Lady Wang were here I wouldn’t mind your drinking a whole jarful. But I haven’t forgotten the way they scolded me for two days on end just because some irrespon­sible fool who wanted to get on the right side of you gave you a sip of wine behind my back. You’ve no idea what a rascal he is, Madam Xue. And drinking brings out all the worst in him. On days when the old lady’s in a good humour she lets him drink all he wants, but on other days she won’t let him touch a drop. And I’m always the one that gets into trouble.”

“Don’t worry, poor old thing,” said Aunt Xue, laughing. “Go and have a drink yourself. I’ll see that he doesn’t drink too much. If the old lady says anything, I’ll take the blame.” She ordered her maids, “Take the nurses along to drink a few cups now to keep out the cold.” So Nanny Li had to join the other servants to enjoy her drink.

As soon as she had gone Baoyu said, “Don’t bother to heat it. I prefer cold wine.”

“That won’t do,” said his aunt. “Cold wine will make your hand shake when you write.”

“Brother Bao,” put in Baochai teasingly, “you’ve the chance every day to acquire miscellaneous knowledge. How come you don’t realize how heating wine is? Drunk hot, its fumes dissipate quickly; drunk cold, it stays in your system and absorbs heat from your vital organs. That’s bad for you. So do stop drinking cold wine.”

Since this made sense, Baoyu put down the wine and asked to have it warmed. Daiyu had been smiling rather cryptically as she cracked melon-seeds. Now her maid Xueyan brought in her little hand-stove.

“Who told you to bring this?” demanded Daiyu. “Many thanks. Think I was freezing to death here?”

“Zijuan was afraid you might be cold, miss, so she asked me to bring it over.”

Nursing the stove in her arms Daiyu retorted, “So you do whatever she asks, but let whatever I say go in one ear and out the other. You jump to obey her instructions faster than if they were an Imperial edict.”

Although Baoyu knew these remarks were aimed at him, his only reply was to chuckle. And Baochai, aware that this was Daiyu’s way, paid no attention either. Aunt Xue, however, protested:

“You’ve always been delicate and unable to stand the cold. Why should you be displeased when they’re so thoughtful?”

“You don’t understand, aunt,” replied Daiyu with a smile. “It doesn’t matter here, but people anywhere else might well take offence. Sending a hand-stove over from my quarters as if my hosts didn’t possess such a thing! Instead of calling my maids too fussy, people would imagine I al­ways behave in this outrageous fashion.”

“You take such things too seriously,” said Aunt Xue. “Such an idea would never have entered my head.”

By now Baoyu had already drunk three cups, and Nanny Li came in again to remonstrate. But he was enjoying himself so much talking and laughing with his cousins, he refused to stop. “Dear nanny,” he coaxed, “just two more cups— that’s all.”

“You’d better look out,” she warned. “Lord Zheng’s at home today, and he may want to examine you on your lessons.”

With a sinking heart, Baoyu slowly put his cup down and hung his head.

“Don’t be such a spoil-sport,” protested Daiyu. “If Uncle sends for you, cousin, we can say Aunt Xue is keeping you. This nanny of yours has been drinking and is working off the effects of the wine on us.” She nudged Baoyu to embolden him and whispered, “Never mind the old thing. Why shouldn’t we enjoy ourselves?”

“Now, Miss Lin, don’t egg him on,” cried Nanny Li. “You’re the only one whose advice he might listen.”

“Why should I egg him on?” Daiyu gave a little snort. “I can’t be bothered with offering him advice either. You’re too pernickety, nanny. The old lady often gives him wine, so why shouldn’t he have a drop more here with his aunt? Are you suggesting that auntie’s an outsider and he shouldn’t behave like that here?”

Amused yet vexed, Nanny Li expostulated, “Really, every word Miss Lin says cuts sharper than a knife. How can you suggest such a thing?”

Even Baochai couldn’t suppress a smile. She pinched Daiyu’s cheek and cried, “What a tongue the girl has! One doesn’t know whether to be cross or laugh.”

“Don’t be afraid, my child,” said Aunt Xue. “I’ve nothing good to offer you, but I’ll feel bad if you get a fright which gives you indigestion. Just drink as much as you want, I’ll answer for it. You needn’t leave till after supper. And if you do get tipsy you can sleep here.” She ordered more wine to be heated, saying, “I’ll drink a few cups with you and then we’ll have our rice.”

Baoyu’s spirits rose again at this.

His nurse told the maids, “Stay here and keep an eye on him. I’m going home to change, then I’ll come back.” She urged Aunt Xue on the sly: “Madam, don’t let him have it all his own way or drink too much.”

When she had gone the two or three other elderly servants who were left, not being over-conscientious, slipped out to enjoy themselves. There remained only two maids eager to please Baoyu. But by dint of much coaxing and teasing, Aunt Xue kept him from drinking too many cups before the wine was whisked away. Then Baoyu had two bowls of soup made from pickled bamboo-shoots and duck-skin and half a bowl of green­rice porridge. By this time Baochai and Daiyu had finished too and all of them drank some strong tea, after which Aunt Xue felt easier in her mind.

Now Xueyan and three other maids came back from their own meal to wait on them, and Daiyu asked Baoyu:

“Are you ready to go?”

He glanced at her sidewise from under drooping eyelids. “I’ll go whenever you do.”

Daiyu promptly rose to her feet. “We’ve been here nearly all day, it’s time we left. They may be wondering where we are.

As they took their leave their wraps were brought, and Baoyu bent his head for a maid to help him on with his hood. She shook out the crimson hood and started slipping it over his head.

“Stop, stop! Not so roughly, you silly thing,” he protested, stopping her. “Have you never seen anyone put on a hood before? Better let me do it myself.”

“What a commotion!” Daiyu stood up on the kang. “Come here. Let me see to it.”

Baoyu went up to Daiyu, who put her hand gently over his coronet and placed the edge of the hood on his chaplet. Then she made the red velvet pompon, the size of a walnut, bob up in front.

“That’s better,” she said, surveying her handiwork. “Now you can put on your cloak.”

As Baoyu did so his aunt remarked, “None of the nurses who came with you is here. Why not wait a bit?”

“Why should we wait for them?” he asked. “We’ve the maids to go with us. We shall be all right.”

To be on the safe side, however, Aunt Xue told two older servants to accompany them. Then Baoyu and Daiyu thanked their hostess and made their way to the Lady Dowager’s quarters.

The Lady Dowager had not yet dined but was very pleased when she learned where they had been. Observing that Baoyu had been drinking, she packed him straight off to rest, forbidding him to leave his room again that evening. As she gave orders for him to be well looked after, she wondered who was attending him and asked:

“Where’s Nanny Li?”

The maids dared not disclose that she had gone home. “She was here a moment ago,” they said. “She must have gone out on some business.”

Swaying a little, Baoyu called over his shoulder, “She has a better time of it than our old lady. Why ask for her? I wish she’d leave me in peace to live a little longer.”

While saying this he reached his apartment, where his eye fell on the brush and ink on the desk.

Qingwen greeted him with a smile, exclaiming, “A fine one you are! You made me grind that ink for you this morning because you were feeling good; but you only wrote three characters, then threw down your brush and marched off. You’ve kept us waiting for you the whole day. You must set to work quickly now and use up this ink.”

Reminded of that morning’s happenings, Baoyu asked, “Where are the three characters I wrote?”

“This fellow’s drunk!” Qingwen laughed. “Just before you went over to the other house you told me to have them pasted above the door, yet now you ask where they are. Not trusting anyone else to do a good job, I got up on a ladder to paste them up myself. My hands are still numb with cold.”

“I forgot.” Baoyu grinned. “Let me warm your hands for you.” He took Qingwen’s hands in his while they both looked up at the inscription over the lintel.

Just then Daiyu came in and he asked her, “Tell me honestly, dear cousin, which of these three characters is the best written?”

Daiyu raised her head and read the inscription: Red Rue Studio.

“They’re all good. I didn’t know you were such a calligrapher. You must write an inscription for me some time too.”

“You’re making fun of me again.” Baoyu chuckled. “Where’s Xiren?” he asked Qingwen.

Qingwen tilted her head towards the kang in the inner room, where Baoyu saw Xiren lying, fully dressed.

“That’s good,” he said. “But it’s rather early to sleep. At breakfast in the other house this morning there was a plate of beancurd dumplings. Knowing you’d like them, I asked Madam You to let me have them for supper, and they were sent over. Did you get them all right?”

“Don’t ask!” answered Qingwen. “I knew at once they were meant for me, but as I’d just finished my breakfast I left them here. Then Nanny Li came and saw them. ‘Baoyu won’t be wanting these,’ she said. “I’ll take them for my grandson.’ She got somebody to send them home for her.”

At this point Qianxue brought in tea and Baoyu said, “Do have some tea, Cousin Lin.”

The maids burst out giggling. “She’s gone long ago. Yet you offer her tea.”

After drinking half a cup himself he remembered something else and asked Qianxue, “Why did you bring me this tea? This morning we brewed some maple-dew tea, and I told you its flavour doesn’t really come out until after three or four steepings.”

“I did save that other tea,” she replied. “But Nanny Li insisted on trying it and she drank it all.”

This was too much for Baoyu. He dashed the cup to pieces on the floor, spattering the maid’s skirt with tea. Then springing to his feet he stormed:

“Is she your grandmother, that all of you treat her so respectfully? Just because she suckled me for a few days when I was small, she carries on as if she were more important than our own ancestors. I don’t need a wet-nurse any more, why should I keep an ancestress like this? Send her packing and we’ll all have some peace and quiet.”

He wanted to go straight to his grandmother to have the old woman dismissed.

Now Xiren had only been shamming sleep, in the hope that Baoyu would come in to tease her. She hadn’t troubled to get up when he asked about the dumplings; but now that he had smashed a cup and flown into a passion she jumped up and came out to smooth things over, just as a maid arrived from his grandmother to ask the reason for the noise. “I’d just poured out some tea,” said Xiren. “I slipped because of snow on my shoes and the cup was smashed.”

Then she turned to calm Baoyu. “So you’ve decided to dismiss her. Good. We’d all like to leave. Why not take this chance to get rid of the lot of us? That would suit us, and you’d get better attendants too.”

Thus silenced, Baoyu let them help him to the kang and take off his clothes. He was still mumbling to himself but could hardly keep his eyes open, so they put him straight to bed. Xiren took the precious jade off his neck, wrapped it up in her own handkerchief and tucked it under his mattress, so that it should not be cold to the touch when he put it on the next day.

Baoyu fell asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow. Meantime Nanny Li had come in. Hearing that he was drunk she dared not risk further trouble, and having quietly made sure that he was asleep she left easier in her mind.

Upon waking the next morning, Baoyu was told that Jia Rong from the other mansion had brought Qin Zhong over to pay his respects. He hastened to greet his new friend and presented him to the Lady Dowa­ger, who was delighted by his handsome looks and pleasing manner. Con­vinced that he would make an excellent schoolmate for Baoyu, she kept him to tea and a meal, then ordered servants to take him to meet Lady Wang and the rest of the family.

Qin Keqing was a general favourite, and they liked her brother for himself as well. All gave him presents on parting. The Lady Dowager’s gift was a purse containing a small golden effigy of the God of Learning symbolizing literary talent and harmony.

“You live so far away,” she said, “in hot or cold weather you may find the journey too much. You are welcome to stay here and must make yourself at home. Stay with your Uncle Baoyu, and don’t get into mis­chief with those lazy young rascals.”

Qin Zhong agreed readily, then went home to report what had hap­pened. His father Qin Ye, a secretary in the Board of Works, was nearly seventy and had lost his wife early. Having no children of his own he had adopted a son and daughter from an orphanage, but the boy had died leaving only the little girl, Keqing. She grew up to be a graceful, charming young woman. Because Qin was remotely connected with the Jia family, they arranged a match and she became Jia Rong’s wife.

Qin Zhong was born when his father was over fifty. His tutor had died the previous year and Qin Ye had not yet found another; thus the boy had been revising his lessons at home. His father was thinking of approaching the Jias about sending his son to their school in order not to waste the boy’s time, when as luck would have it Qin Zhong met Baoyu.

The old man was also overjoyed to learn that the school was now run by Jia Dairu, a venerable Confucian scholar under whose instruction Qin Zhong was bound to make progress and might even win a name for himself.

Qin Ye was a poor official, but the whole Jia household, high and low alike, thought so much of riches and rank that in the interest of his son’s career he had to pinch and scrape to get together twenty-four taels of silver as a handsome entrance gift. Then he took Qin Zhong to pay his respects to Jia Dairu, after which they waited for Baoyu to fix a day on which both boys could enter school.

Truly:

If one knew that in time to come there would be trouble,

Who would send his son to study today?

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