A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 89

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Chapter 89

A Memento of a Dead Maid Leads Baoyu

to Write a Poem

A False Suspicion Makes Daiyu

Abstain from Food

Xifeng, in low spirits that morning, was shocked by the young maid’s announcement.

“Official business!” she exclaimed, “What is it?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. Just now a page from the inner gate reported that urgent business has come up at His Lordship’s ministry, so Her Ladyship sent me to ask Master Lian to go over.”

Relieved to know that the matter concerned the Ministry of Works, Xifeng told her, “Go and tell Her Ladyship that Master Lian left town on business last night, and hasn’t yet returned. But first send someone to let Master Zhen know.”

The maid assented and left.

Before long, Jia Zhen came over to question the messenger from the ministry. Then he went in to inform Lady Wang, “Word has come from the Ministry of Works that yesterday they heard from the Yellow River Commission that the dyke in Henan has been breached, flooding several prefectures and districts. State funds have been allocated for repair work, and this will be keeping the whole ministry busy. So they sent specially to report this to His Lordship.” This said he withdrew, and on Jia Zheng’s return relayed this message to him.

From then on right up till winter, as Jia Zheng was busy every day and constantly in his yamen, Baoyu grew more slack in his studies, although for fear of his father he still attended school. He dared not call on Daiyu too often either.

One morning in the middle of the tenth month, a sudden drop in the temperature made Xiren prepare a bundle of warm clothes for him be­fore he set off to school.

“It’s so cold today,” she said, “you must dress more warmly first thing and in the evening.”

She took out a coat for him to wear, and wrapped up a cape for a young maid to give Beiming with the message, “Now that it’s cold, you must keep this ready for Master Bao.”

The page assented, took the bundle, and followed Baoyu to school.

Baoyu was doing his lessons when a wind sprang up, buffeting the window paper.

“The weather is changing,” remarked Dairu and, opening the win­dow, he saw that tiers of black clouds in the northwest were bearing slowly southeast.

Beiming now came in. “Master Bao, it’s getting colder; better put on more clothes,” he advised.

When Baoyu nodded, Beiming brought in a cape. At sight of it Baoyu became lost in thought. All the other boys stared at it too. For it was the peacock-feather cape which Qingwen had mended.

“Why bring this?” demanded Baoyu. “Who gave it to you?”

“The girls in your place brought it out in a wrapper,” said Beiming.

“I’m not too cold; I won’t wear it. Wrap it up.”

Dairu imagined that Baoyu thought the cape too good to wear, and was pleased by this evidence of frugality.

But Beiming urged, “Do put it on, Master Bao. If you catch cold, I’ll be the one who’s blamed. Please wear it for my sake!”

Baoyu had to comply then. He sat staring at his book in a dazed fash­ion; but the tutor paid no attention, thinking he was studying.

That evening, when the class was dismissed, Baoyu asked for a day’s sick leave. And as old Dairu simply coached these boys to while away the time when he himself was not ailing, as often happened, he was glad to have one less to worry about the next day. Knowing, moreover, that ha Zheng was busy and that Baoyu’s grandmother doted on the boy, he nodded his consent.

Baoyu on his return reported this to his grandmother and mother, who naturally believed him. After sitting there for a while he went back to the Garden to join Xiren and the others. He was not his usual cheerful and talkative self, however, for he lay down, still wearing the cape, on the kang.

“Supper’s ready,” Xiren announced. “Would you like it now, or a bit later?”

“I don’t want any, I’m not feeling well,” he answered. “You go ahead and have yours.

“In that case, you’d better take your cape off. You’ll spoil it if you crumple it like that.”

“Never mind.”

“It’s not just that it’s flimsy, but look at that stitching on it you shouldn’t spoil it.”

Touched to the quick by this he sighed, “All right then, wrap it up carefully for me and put it away. I’ll never wear it again!”

He stood up to take off the cape and folded it up himself before Xiren could take it.

“Well, Master Bao!” she exclaimed. “Why are you putting yourself out like this today?”

Instead of answering he asked, “Where is the wrapper?”

Sheyue quickly passed it to him and while he wrapped the cape up turned to wink at Xiren.

Baoyu sat down by himself then, in low spirits, ignoring them. When the clock on the shelf struck, he looked down at his watch and saw it was half past five. By and by a young maid came in to light the lamp.

“If you don’t want supper,” said Xiren, “at least have half a bowl of hot congee. If you go without food that may arouse hot humours; then we shall have more trouble.”

He shook his head. “I’m not hungry. If I force myself to eat, I shall feel worse.”

“Then you’d better go to bed early.”

She and Sheyue prepared the bed, and Baoyu lay down. He tossed and turned but could not sleep, only dozing off when it was nearly dawn. But after no more than the time it takes for a meal, he was awake again.

By now Xiren and Sheyue were up.

Xiren said, “I heard you tossing about last night till the fifth watch, but I didn’t like to disturb you. And then I dropped off myself. Did you get any sleep or not?”

“A little, but then somehow I woke up again.”

“Aren’t you feeling well?”

“I’m all right, just rather edgy.”

“Are you going to school today?”

“No, yesterday I asked for a day’s leave. I’d like to amuse myself in the Garden today, but just now I feel cold. Get them to clean up a room for me, and put ready some incense, paper, ink and a brush; then you can get on with your work while I sit there quietly for a bit. I don’t want to be disturbed.”

“If you want to study quietly,” Sheyue said, “who’d dream of dis­turbing you?”

“That’s a good idea,” agreed Xiren. “You won’t catch cold, and sitting quietly by yourself you won’t be distracted either. But what will you eat today, if you’ve lost your appetite? Let us know in good time so that we can tell the kitchen.”

“Anything will do; don’t fuss. But I’d like some fruit put in that room to scent it.”

“Which room would be best?” Xiren wondered. “The only clean one, really, is Qingwen’s old room. As no one goes there nowadays, it’s quite tidy. Only it may be chilly.”

“That’s all right,” he said. “Just put a brazier in there.”

She readily agreed to this.

While they were talking a young maid had brought in a saucer, bowl and pair of chopsticks, which she handed to Sheyue saying:

“Just now Miss Xiren asked for these, and the old woman from the kitchen has brought them.”

Sheyue saw that it was a bowl of bird’s-nest soup.

“Did you order this?” she asked Xiren.

“He had no supper yesterday evening and passed a sleepless night,” Xiren explained. “I thought he must be feeling hollow inside this morning; so I got the girls to ask the kitchen for this.”

She told the younger maids to bring a table, and Sheyue waited on Baoyu while he finished the soup and rinsed his mouth. Then Qiuwen came in.

“The room’s been tidied,” she said. “But Master Bao had better wait till the charcoal is red before going there.”

Baoyu nodded, too preoccupied by his own thoughts to talk.

Soon a young maid came to announce, “The writing things have been put ready.”

“Good,” he said.

Yet another girl announced, “Breakfast is ready. Where will you have it, sir?”

“Just bring it here; that’s simplest.”

She assented and went out to fetch the food.

Baoyu remarked with a smile to Xiren and Sheyue, “I’m feeling so depressed, I doubt if I can eat anything alone. Why don’t you have break­fast with me? If I see you enjoying it, I may eat more.”

“You may like the idea, Master Bao,” chuckled Sheyue. “But that would never do!”

“Actually it doesn’t matter,” countered Xiren. “We’ve drunk together more than once before. But we can only do this occasionally to cheer you up, young master. If it wasn’t in fun, that would be against all the rules of propriety!”

So the three of them sat down, Baoyu in the top place, the two girls on either side. After they had finished the meal, a young maid brought them tea to rinse their mouths and they had the table removed.

Baoyu holding his cup sat silent, lost in thought.

“Is that room ready?” he asked presently.

“We told you it was,” said Sheyue. “Why ask again?”

After a while he went to Qingwen’s old room, lit a stick of incense and set out some fruit. Then he sent the others away and closed the door. Xiren and the other girls outside took care to keep very quiet.

Baoyu chose a sheet of pink paper with a gilded border and floral designs on one of the top and bottom corners.

After a short invocation he picked up his brush and wrote:

The Master of Happy Red Court bums incense to Sister Qingwen, and presents tea with a sweet fragrance. Pray come to the sacrifice!

He then penned the verse:

My close companion, you alone

My inmost thoughts could share;

A sudden storm out of the blue

Cut short your life of care.

Who is there now to speak so sweet and low?

Streams flowing east can no more westward flow.

I long for you, but have no herb’

To bring you back again.

Glimpsing the cape—a turquoise cloud—

Fills me with endless pain.

This written, using the incense stick as a taper, he burned his poem to ashes, then sat quietly till the incense was burnt up, whereupon he left the room.

“Why are you coming out?” Xiren asked. “Were you feeling bored again?”

“I was in the dumps and wanted a quiet place where I could sit for a bit,” he prevaricated, smiling. “Now that I’ve got over it, I’m going to have a stroll outside.”

He went out, making straight for Bamboo Lodge, and on reaching the courtyard called, “Is Cousin Lin in?”

“Who is it?” asked Zijuan, raising the portiere. “Oh, Master Bao. She’s in her room. Please come in.”

As Baoyu followed her in, Daiyu called from the inner room, “Zijuan, bring Master Bao in here.”

Flanking the door of her room, Baoyu saw a newly written couplet on purple paper with gilded cloud-dragon designs. It read:

Green casement and bright moon remain,

But the men of old annals are gone.

He smiled and walked in, asking, “What are you doing, cousin?”

She rose to meet him and said with a smile, “Sit down. I’m copying a sutra, and have only two lines left. Let me finish it and then we can talk.” She told Xueyan to bring tea.

“Don’t trouble,” said Baoyu. “Just go on with your copying.

He noticed in the middle of the wall a scroll painting of the Moon Goddess Change and another goddess, each with an attendant, the sec­ond one carrying what looked like a long clothing bag. There were only a few clouds surrounding them, with no other decorations. It was done in the style of Li Longmian’s2 outline drawings. The inscription “Contend­ing in the Cold” was written in the old official script.

“Have you just put this painting up, cousin?” he asked.

“That’s right,” said Daiyu. “Yesterday when they were tidying up, I thought of it and took it out for them to hang.”

“What’s its story?”

“Surely everybody knows it,” she said with a smile, “Why ask?”

“I can’t for the moment remember. Do tell me, cousin.”

“You must know the lines:

The Green Nymph and Change, both able to stand cold,

Are vying in beauty in the frosty moon.”3

“Of course!” he exclaimed. “How original and cultured! And this is the right season, too, to hang this up.”

He strolled around looking at this and that till Xueyan brought him some tea. And soon Daiyu, her copying finished, stood up.

“Excuse me for neglecting you,” she said.

“Always so polite, cousin!” he chuckled.

He noticed now that Daiyu was wearing a pale-blue embroidered fur-lined jacket under a short white squirrel tunic, and a pink embroidered silk padded skirt of the kind worn by Lady Yang. With no flowers in her cloudy tresses, which were loosely knotted and clasped with a flat gold pin, she was truly like:

A jade tree standing gracefully in the breeze.

Or sweet dewy lotus in bloom.

“Have you been playing the lute these days, cousin?” he asked.

“Not for the last two days, because I found copying made my fingers too cold.”

“It’s just as well not to play. Though the lute is a refined instrument, I don’t think much of it. No one ever won wealth, nobility or long life from playing it, only grief and longing. Besides, to play, you have to memorize the score which is rather an effort. As you’re so delicate, cousin, it seems to me you shouldn’t waste energy on it.”

Daiyu simply smiled and said nothing.

Then, pointing at a lute on the wall, he asked, “Is this yours? Why is it so short?”

“Because when I first learned to play, being small I couldn’t reach the strings of regular lutes, so this was specially made for me. Though it’s not anything exceptional, its parts are well fitted and it’s well propor­tioned. See the grain of the wood. Isn’t it as fine as yak hair? So it has quite a clear timbre.”

“Have you written any poems these days?”

“Hardly any since the last poetry club.”

Baoyu smiled and said, “Don’t try to hide it from me! I heard you chanting something like ‘Why repine? Would that my heart were pure as the moon in the sky.’ You accompanied it on the lute, and the sound seemed exceptionally clear. Can you deny that?”

“How did you happen to hear?”

“I heard it the other day on my way back from Smartweed Breeze Cot, and not wanting to disturb you I just listened quietly then went away. I’ve been meaning to ask you: Why did you start with level rhymes, then at the end change suddenly to an oblique one?4 What was the reason for that?”

“Music comes naturally from the heart,” she answered. “There are no set rules you just play as you feel.”

“So that’s the reason. It’s too bad I don’t understand music and so it was wasted on me.”

“How many understanding people have there been since of old?” she replied.

At that, Baoyu realized that he had been tactless, and feared he had hurt her feelings. He sat there with so much he longed to say, yet not knowing how to word it. Daiyu also felt that her last remark had been thoughtless, and must have sounded cold; so she too was silent. This convinced Baoyu that she took this personally, and he rose sheepishly to say:

“I’ll leave you to rest now, cousin. I’m off to see Tanchun.”

“When you see her, give her my regards.”

He agreed to this and went out.

After seeing him off, Daiyu came back and sat down dejectedly.

“Nowadays Baoyu talks in such an ambiguous way, blowing hot and cold by turns, I can’t tell what he means,” she thought.

Just then Zijuan came in to ask, “Have you finished copying, miss? Shall I put away the brush and ink-stone?”

“Yes, you can. I shan’t be doing any more.”

She went into the inner room then to lie down, turning the problem over in her mind.

Zijuan came in again to ask if she would like some tea.

“No, I just want to rest a bit. You needn’t stay here.”

Zijuan going out found Xueyan all alone in a brown study.

“What’s worrying you?” she asked, going up to her.

Xueyan gave a start, then said, “Don’t make such a noise! Today I heard something very strange. I don’t mind telling you, but you mustn’t pass it on!” She signed towards the inner room, then started out, beckon­ing Zijuan to follow. At the foot of the steps she said softly, “Did you know, sister, that Baoyu is engaged?”

Zijuan was flabbergasted.

“Who says so?” she demanded. “Surely not!”

“It’s true, I assure you. Most likely, apart from us, all the others know.”

“Where did you hear this?”

“From Daishu. She says the girl’s father is a prefect. It’s a wealthy family, and she’s good-looking too.”

Just then Zijuan heard Daiyu coughing as if she had got up. Afraid she had come to the outer room and overheard them, she caught hold of Xueyan and signed to her to keep quiet. But when she looked into the room there was no one there.

She whispered to Xueyan, “What exactly did she say?”

“The other day wasn’t I sent to Miss Tanchun’s place to thank her?” said Xueyan. “She wasn’t in. Daishu was the only one there. As we sat chatting we happened to speak of Master Bao’s mischievous ways. ‘He’s really a problem!’ she said. ‘Just playing about, not at all like a grown man. Already engaged, yet still so muddle-headed!’

“‘Is it settled?’ I asked.”

“She said, ‘Yes. Some Mr. Wang was the go-between—he’s re­lated to the East Mansion; so without making further inquiries they ac­cepted out of hand.’”

Zijuan cocked her head, thinking this extremely strange.

“Why has nobody in the house mentioned it?” she pressed.

“Daishu explained that too. It was the old lady’s idea. She was afraid that if Baoyu knew about it he’d start running wild. That’s why it’s never mentioned. And after telling me this Daishu told me on no account to pass it on she said that I like to blab.” She pointed at the house. “That’s why I didn’t tell her a word about this. Since you asked me today, I couldn’t hide it from you.”

At this point they heard the cockatoo, which had learned this from them, call out, “The young lady’s back! Bring tea! Quick.”

Startled, they turned to look, and seeing no one there they scolded the bird. Going back inside, they discovered Daiyu just about to sit down on a chair, panting for breath. Zijuan asked in confusion if she wanted a drink.

“Where have you two been?” gasped Daiyu. “I called but nobody came.”

She went back to the kang and sank down with her face to the wall, telling them to let down the curtain. Having done this, the two maids went out, each wondering whether she had overheard them, but neither liking to express her misgiving.

Now Daiyu had been brooding anxiously, then eavesdropped on her two maids’ conversation. Though she did not hear everything, she caught the main gist and felt as if plunged into a raging sea. Thinking it over, it bore out the ominous dream she had so recently had. Frustration and grief filled her heart. Die and be done with it, she thought, rather than have a blow like this sprung upon her. She also reflected bitterly that she had no parents to turn to. Well then, she would let her health run down, and in half a year or so leave this sea of troubles. Having reached this resolve, she closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep, without covering herself with the quilt or putting on more clothes.

Zijuan and Xueyan came in several times to see if she needed any­thing, but as she lay motionless they did not like to call her. She went without supper that evening. After the lamps were lit, Zijuan raised the curtain and found her asleep, her quilt kicked to the bottom of the bed. She covered her gently to stop her from catching cold, and Daiyu did not move; but as soon as the maid had left she kicked off the bedding again.

Zijuan felt constrained to ask Xueyan, “Was it really true what you told me earlier on?”

“Of course it was.”

“How did Daishu get to know?”

“She heard it from Hongyu.”

Then Zijuan confided, “I’m afraid our young lady overheard us. Look at the state she was in just now; that must be the reason for it. We mustn’t ever mention it again.”

They got ready to go to bed then. But first Zijuan went in to have another look at their young mistress, and found that she had kicked off her bedding again. Once more she gently tucked the quilt around her. But no more about that night.

The next day Daiyu rose early, and instead of calling her maids sat there alone lost in thought. When Zijuan woke and saw her already up, she exclaimed in surprise:

“You’re up very early, miss!”

“I know,” said Daiyu. “I went to bed early, that’s why I woke early.”

Zijuan hastily got up and roused Xueyan to help Daiyu with her toilet. She just stared blankly, however, at the mirror and soon was weeping so copiously that her silk handkerchief was drenched. Truly:

Gazing into the mirror at her emaciated face,

Both she and her reflection pitied each other!

Zijuan refrained from trying to comfort her, for fear of making mat­ters worse. Some time passed before Daiyu set about her toilet, but list­lessly, her tears still flowing. She then sat there a little longer.

“Light a stick of that Tibetan incense,” she told Zijuan presently.

“You had hardly any sleep, miss. What do you want incense for? To copy more sutras?”

Daiyu nodded.

“You woke up too early, miss,” protested Zijuan. “If you copy sutras now, I’m afraid you’ll wear yourself out.”

“Don’t worry. The sooner I finish the better. Besides, it’s not the sutra I’m thinking about, but writing will help distract me. And later, when you see my calligraphy, it’ll be like seeing me again,” She shed tears anew.

Knowing that it was useless to reason with her, Zijuan could not hold back her own tears.

Now that Daiyu had made up her mind to ruin her health, she wanted no nourishment and ate less every day. Baoyu often made time to visit her after school; but although she had so much she longed to tell him, now that they were no longer children she could hardly tease him playfully as before or express her pent-up feelings. He, too, wanted to bare his heart to her to console her, yet he feared this might offend her and make her illness worse. So when they met they could only express their concern in the most superficial way. Truly, theirs was a case of “devotion leading to alienation.”

The Lady Dowager and Lady Wang, fond as they were of Daiyu, simply called in doctors to attend her as she was so often ill, with no inkling that she was wasting away for love. And though Zijuan knew the truth, she dared not reveal it. So for a fortnight Daiyu ate daily less, till her appetite had so diminished that she could not even swallow a mouth­ful of congee. Any talk she heard she suspected concerned Baoyu’s marriage. Anyone from Happy Red Court, whether master or maid, made her think of his impending marriage too. When Aunt Xue called on her without Baochai, this made her still more suspicious. She even wished everyone would keep away, and refused to take any medicine in the hope of hastening her death. In her dreams, she kept hearing people refer to “Madam Bao.” Suspicion poisoned her mind. And at last the day came when, refusing both rice and congee, she was at her last gasp, at death’s door.

To know what became of her, read the chapter which follows.

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