A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 90

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Chapter 90

The Loss of a Padded Jacket Involves

a Poor Girl with a Scold

A Gift of Sweetmeats Perturbs

a Young Gentleman

After Daiyu had resolved on self-destruction she went into a decline, until there came a day when she could eat nothing. For the first fortnight or so, when the old lady and others took it in turn to call, she had still been able to say a few words, but these last two days she remained virtually silent. Sometimes she lay in a coma, sometimes she had lucid spells. Wondering what had brought on this illness, her grandmother questioned her maids a couple of times. But how dared they tell her the truth?

Zijuan wanted to ask Daishu to confirm the report but feared that would only hasten her young lady’s death, and so when she saw Daishu she held her tongue. And Xueyan, as she knew that her tattling was the root of this trouble and only wished she could grow a hundred tongues to deny it, was of course even more afraid to speak out.

The day that Daiyu abstained completely from food, Zijuan felt that the end had come and, for a while, remained weeping at her side.

Then she came out and whispered to Xueyan, “Go in and look after her carefully while I go to tell the mistresses. She’s never been as bad as this before.”

Xueyan agreeing to this, Zijuan went off.

Xueyan stayed watching over Daiyu, now in a coma. Too young to have seen anything like this before, she thought her young mistress was dying and, torn between grief and alarm, longed for Zijuan’s return. Then the frightened girl heard footsteps outside the window. It must be Zijuan, she thought with relief. As she sprang up to raise the portiere for her, the outside portiere swished and in came Daishu, sent by Tanchun to inquire after the invalid.

Seeing Xueyan waiting there Daishu asked, “How is she?”

Xueyan nodded and beckoned her in. Daishu noticed Zijuan’s ab­

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sence, and was terrified by the sight of Daiyu apparently at her last gasp.

“Where’s Sister Zijuan?” she asked.

‘‘Gone to tell the mistresses.”

Under the impression that Daiyu was unconscious, and as Zijuan was away, Xueyan took Daishu’s hand and asked her in a low voice, “Was it true what you told me the other day about some Mr. Wang proposing a match for our Master Bao?”

“Of course it was.”

“When was the engagement fixed?”

“How could it be fixed? What I told you that day was what I heard from Hongyu. Later I went to Madam Lian’s place when she was talk­ing it over with Sister Pinger. She said, ‘This is just a pretext for those protégés to suck up to His Lordship, so that he’ll help them in future. Not to say Lady Xing didn’t approve of the girl, even if she did what does her judgment count for? Besides, unknown to her, the old lady long ago decided on one of the girls in our Garden. She just made a show of con­sulting her because His Lordship mentioned this proposal.

“I also heard Madam Lian say, ‘For Baoyu, the old lady’s bound to choose some relative. No other proposals, no matter from whom, would even be considered. “‘

Xueyan, forgetting herself, blurted out, “Why, then, our young lady’s dying for no reason!”

“What do you mean?”

“You wouldn’t know, but she overheard me telling Sister Zijuan about this the other day. That’s why she’s wasting away.

“Keep your voice down, or she may hear us!”

“She’s already unconscious. Look! She can hardly last more than a day or two now.

Just then Zijuan lifted the portiere and stepped in.

“What’s all this?” she exclaimed softly. “If you want to talk, talk outside instead of here. You’ll be the death of her!”

“This is so extraordinary,” cried Daishu, “I simply can’t believe it!”

“Good sister, don’t take offence,” retorted Zijuan, “but really you have no sense! You should have known better than to spread such gos­sip.”

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As they were talking they heard Daiyu cough. Zijuan ran to the kang to attend to her while the two other girls fell silent.

Bending over Daiyu, Zijuan asked her softly, “Do you want some water, miss?”

“Yes,” was the faint reply.

Xueyan at once poured half a cup of boiled water which Zijuan took from her. Daishu stepped forward too, but Zijuan shook her head to make her keep quiet. They stood there until Daiyu coughed again.

“Do you want some water, miss?” Zijuan asked again.

Once again Daiyu murmured her assent and tried to raise her head, but this was beyond her. Zijuan clambered on to the kang beside her, the cup in her hand. First she made sure that the water was neither too hot nor too cold, then held it to Daiyu’s lips, supporting her head while she sipped. As she looked eager for more, instead of removing the cup Zijuan held it there while she took another sip. Then Daiyu shook her head, declining more, and lay down again with a sigh. After a while, half open­ing her eyes, she asked:

“Was that Daishu talking?”

“Yes, miss,” said Zijuan.

Daishu, who had not yet left, came over to greet her. Daiyu opened her eyes to look at her and nodded.

After a pause she said, “When you go back, give my regards to your mistress.”

Guessing that she wanted to be left in peace, Daishu quietly slipped away.

Now Daiyu though so gravely ill had been clear in her mind. She had caught a sentence here and there of the conversation between Daishu and Xueyan, but she lay as if unconscious, owing partly to sheer weak­ness. From what she overheard she realized that the match proposed had not been agreed to. And then Daishu had quoted Xifeng as saying that the old lady had decided on choosing some relative from the girls in the Garden. Who could this mean if not her? At this thought, her despair gave way to joy and her mind became clearer too. That was why she had drunk some water and why she had wanted to question Daishu.

Just then the old lady arrived with Lady Wang, Li Wan and Xifeng

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who had hurried over after hearing Zijuan’s report. Daiyu, her fears set at rest now, naturally no longer wanted to die. Though still weak and lacking in energy, she managed to answer their inquiries briefly. Seeing this, Xifeng called Zijuan over.

“What do you mean by frightening us like that?” she demanded: “Your young lady’s not in such a bad way after all.”

“She really looked bad,” replied Zijuan. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have presumed to disturb you. Now, coming back, I’m quite amazed to find her so much better.”

“Don’t listen to her. What does she know?” said the old lady with a smile . “When something’s wrong, it shows good sense to report it. I like a girl who’s not too lazy to use her tongue and feet.”

They stayed talking a little longer, then believing Daiyu to be in no danger they left, Truly:

The cure for a broken heart is heartening news;

The knot must be untied by the one who tied it.

So by degrees Daiyu recovered, and her two maids secretly gave thanks to Buddha.

Xueyan remarked to Zijuan, “Thank goodness she’s better now! Her falling ill was odd, and so was her recovery.

“Her falling ill wasn’t odd,” replied Zijuan, “but her recovery is. I suppose she and Baoyu must be destined for each other. As people say, ‘The way to happiness is never smooth’ and ‘Nothing can prevent a match made in Heaven.’ So it seems human wishes are willed by Provi­dence, and they are fated to marry. Another thing: remember that year when I told Baoyu Miss Lin would be going back south? He flew into such a frenzy, he nearly turned the whole household upside down! This time another casual remark nearly cost our young lady her life. What is this if not a case of predestined fate?”

They had a good laugh in secret, after which Xueyan said again, “Well, thank goodness she’s better. We must be careful not to gossip in future. Even if Baoyu marries some other girl and I see the wedding myself, I won’t breathe a word about it.”

“That’s right,” agreed Zijuan, smiling.

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These two were not the only ones to be talking this business over. All the domestics knew of Daiyu’s strange illness and strange recovery, and in twos and threes they canvassed the matter together, till very soon this came to Xifeng’s ears. Lady Xing and Lady Wang also found it puzzling. Only the Lady Dowager had a good inkling of the reason.

One day Their Ladyships and Xifeng, chatting with the old lady in her room, brought up the subject of Daiyu’s illness again.

“I was just going to tell you something,” said the old lady. “Baoyu and Daiyu have been inseparable since they were small, and I didn’t think it mattered as they were children. Since then, though, there’s been all this talk about her sudden illness and sudden recovery — just because they are growing up now. So I don’t think it proper to leave them together all the time. What do you say?”

Taken aback, Lady Wang could only answer, “Daiyu is a bright, intel­ligent girl. As for Baoyu, he’s such a simpleton he may get himself talked about sometimes. On the face of it, though, they’re both of them still children. If we move one of them out of the Garden now, all of a sudden, won’t that give people ideas? As they say: When the time comes do not tarry; boys must wed and girls must marry. Don’t you think it would be better, madam, to lose no time in arranging their marriages?”

Frowning, the old lady said, “Daiyu is over-sensitive, and though that’s not a bad thing in a way it’s also the reason why I don’t want to marry her to Baoyu. Besides, she’s so delicate. I doubt whether she’s long for this world. The most suitable choice is Baochai.”

“We all agree with you there, madam,” said Lady Wang. “But we must arrange a marriage for Daiyu too. A growing girl is bound to get ideas into her head. If she’s really set her heart on Baoyu and hears that he’s engaged to Baochai, we’re going to have a problem on our hands.”

“But we can’t marry her off before Baoyu,” objected the old lady. “Who ever heard of arranging a marriage for someone else’s child be­fore one’s own? Especially as she’s two years younger than he is. Still, there’s truth in what you said, so we’ll just have to see to it that there’s no talk about Baoyu’s engagement.”

At once Xifeng turned to the maids.

“Did you hear that? Mind you don’t gossip about Master Bao’s en-

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gagement. I’ll flay anyone who blabs!”

“Xifeng,” said the old lady, “since that illness of yours you’ve stopped paying much attention to what goes on in the Garden. I want you to keep your eyes open, and not just with regard to this. The way the servants there were drinking and gambling the other year was disgraceful. You have sharper eyes than the rest of us, so we must trouble you to keep them under stricter control. Besides, I think they’re more obedient to you.

Xifeng promised to do her best, and after a little further talk they dispersed.

After that, Xifeng often went to check up in the Garden. One day she had just gone in when she heard an old woman at Purple Caltrop Isle raising a rumpus. As soon as the old woman saw her approaching, she stood at attention and greeted her.

“Why are you making such a noise here?” demanded Xifeng.

“The mistresses put me in charge of the flowers and fruit here, madam. I’ve done nothing wrong, yet Miss Xiuyan’s maid says we’re thieves!”

“Tell me what happened.”

“Yesterday our Heier came here with me to play for a bit. Having no sense, she went to Miss Xiuyan’s place to peek around, and then I sent her home. This morning, her maid told me something was missing. When I asked what it was, she started questioning me!”

“That’s nothing to get so worked up about.”

“Well, this Garden belongs to our mistress’ family, not to theirs. It’s our mistress who put us in charge here; so how dare they call us thieves?”

Xifeng spat in her face. “Don’t give me that talk!” she said sternly. “You’re here to keep an eye on things. When a young lady loses some­thing, you should look into it. How can you maunder in this senseless fashion?”

She ordered her maids to fetch Lin Zhixiao’s wife to drive the woman away. At once Xiuyan came out to greet her with a smile.

“Please don’t,” she said. “It’s of no account — over and done with.”

“That’s not the point, cousin,” said Xifeng. “Quite apart from your losing something, she’s gone too far, forgetting her place like that.”

Seeing that the woman was kneeling to beg for pardon, Xiuyan invited

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Xifeng in to sit down.

“I know these creatures,” Xifeng went on. “I’m the only one of the mistresses they treat with any respect.”

Still Xiuyan begged her to let the woman off, saying her own maid was to blame.

“Well, for Miss Xing’s sake then, I’ll overlook it this time,” conceded Xifeng.

The woman kowtowed her thanks to them both and went off, where­upon they sat down.

“What have you lost?” asked Xifeng with a smile.

“Nothing much, just a red jacket, an old one. When I told them to look for it and they couldn’t find it, I said it didn’t matter. But my maid is so silly she asked that woman about it, and of course that put her back up. It’s all this silly girl’s fault, and I’ve given her a scolding, so that’s that. We may as well forget about it.”

Xifeng looked her up and down and saw that though she had on some fur-lined and padded clothes, they were rather worn and could not be too warm. Her quilts too were on the thin side. But the knick-knacks in the room and on the desk, all provided by the Lady Dowager, were neatly set out and spotless. Impressed by this and drawn to her, Xifeng said:

“Of course a jacket isn’t all that important, but now that it’s cold you need something snug to wear. Naturally you should try to trace it. The insolence of that old slave, talking back!”

After a little more chat Xifeng took her leave, and having paid various other calls she went home. There she told Pinger to fetch a red crepe inner jacket, a deep green satin jacket lined with sheepskin, a sapphire blue embroidered padded skirt and a bright green gown lined with white squirrel. When these had been wrapped up she had them sent to Xiuyan.

Xiuyan was still upset after the old scold’s tirade, even though Xifeng had put a stop to it. She thought, “No one dares to offend any of the other girls here except me. With me, though, they keep making snide remarks— and now Xifeng knows about it.” The more she brooded the more wretched she felt, but there was nobody in whom to confide. She was choking back her sobs when Fenger brought in the clothes sent by Xifeng. Xiuyan most resolutely declined the gift.

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“My mistress says that if you think these too worn, she’ll send new ones later,” said Fenger.

“It’s very kind of your mistress.” Xiuyan smiled. “She’s sent me these because I lost a jacket, but I really can’t accept them. So take them back and be sure to thank her for me. I do appreciate her thoughtfulness.”

She gave Fenger a pouch, and with that the girl had to leave.

Before long, Fenger came back again with Pinger. Xiuyan welcomed them and asked them to sit down.

Pinger told her with a smile, “Our mistress says you’re treating us like strangers.”

“Oh no!” exclaimed Xiuyan. “But I really can’t accept such a hand­some gift.”

“Our mistress says that if you won’t accept, it must be either be­cause you think these clothes too shabby or because you look down on her. Just now our mistress insisted that if I were to bring back the clothes the way Fenger did, she’d be really angry with me.

Blushing, Xiuyan said gratefully, “Well then, I dare not refuse.” Then she urged them to have some tea.

On their way back, Pinger and Fenger were accosted by one of the old women who worked for Aunt Xue.

“Where have you been?” Pinger asked her.

“Our mistress and young lady sent me to give their regards to all the ladies here,” the woman replied. “Just now I asked Madam Lian where you were, and she said you’d gone to the Garden. Have you come from Miss Xing’s place?”

“How did you know?”

“I just heard about it. And, truly, no one can help admiring your mis­tress and you, the way you both behave!”

Pinger laughed and invited her back to rest for a while.

“I have something else to do now,” said the woman. “I’ll call some other day.”

She went off, and Pinger returned to report on her errand to Xifeng. No more of this.

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Now Aunt Xue’s household had been turned upside-down by Jingui. When the woman went back and told them about Xiuyan, Baochai and her mother shed tears.

“It’s all because brother’s away that Xiuyan has to go on putting up with these slights,” said Baochai. “I’m glad Cousin Xifeng is so consid­erate. In future we must see what we can do too as, after all, she’ll be marrying into our family.”

Just then Xue Ke came in.

“The friends Brother Pan has been making these years!” he fumed. “There’s not a single decent sort among the whole foxy lot. They’re a pack of curs! I don’t believe they feel any concern for him. They just come to ferret our news. The last couple of days I’ve sent the whole lot packing. I’ve told the gateman, too, not to admit such scoundrels from now on.

“Are they hang Yuhan’s lot?” asked Aunt Xue.

“No, Jiang Yuhan hasn’t come. These are some others.”

Xue Ke’s outburst had further lowered Aunt Xue’s spirits.

“Though I have a son, it’s as if I had none.” she sighed. “Even if the authorities let him off, he’ll be useless. Though you’re my nephew, and not so close, I can see that you have more sense than Pan and will be my only prop in my old age. It’s up to you to make a success of your life. Especially as the family of your betrothed isn’t as well off as before. It’s hard for a girl to leave home and get married, and all she hopes for is an able husband who will provide for her. If Xiuyan were like that crea­ture….” — she pointed towards the inner rooms — “well, enough said! But Xiuyan is truly modest, sensible too. She can put up with poverty, and wealth wouldn’t spoil her either. Once this trouble blows over we must hurry up and arrange your wedding, and that will be one less thing on my mind.”

“There’s still Sister Baoqin’s marriage which must be on your mind, aunt.” he said. “As for mine, don’t worry about it.”

After some more talk Xue Ke went back to his room for supper. He thought to himself, “Xiuyan’s living in the Jias’ Garden as a dependent, and being a poor relation she must be having a thin time of it. As we travelled here together, I know her character and what she’s like. Heaven

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is really unjust, giving a spoilt bitch like Xia Jingui money while a girl like Xiuyan is so badly off. How does the King of Hell decide these things, I wonder?”

He wanted to write a poem to vent his frustration, but as he had no training in versification he could only pen the following doggerel:

A dragon stranded, a fish high and dry;

Apart we think of each other, you and I.

In mud and slime our bitter days are passed;

When will we find clear water at long last?

This written, he read it through and was tempted to paste it on the wall but diffidently told himself, “I don’t want people seeing it to laugh at me.” After a second reading he thought, “Never mind! I may as well paste it up for my own amusement.” Reading it once more, however, he decided it really was no good and put it between the pages of a book.

“I’m no longer a boy,” he mused, “but now our family’s run into this bad trouble and there’s no knowing when it will blow over. It’s keeping that sweet, gentle girl so sad and lonely!”

His reflections were cut short by the arrival of Baochan with a ham­per which she put on the table, smiling. Xue Ke got up and invited her to be seated.

“Here are four dishes of sweetmeats and one small pot of wine,” she announced archly. “My mistress told me to bring them to you.

“Please thank my sister-in-law. But why didn’t she send a young maid instead of troubling you?”

“That’s all right. We’re one family, so why stand on ceremony? Be­sides, you’ve put yourself out so much over Master Pan’s business, our mistress has long been wanting to show her appreciation, but she was afraid people might suspect her motives. You know how it is in our family — all sweet talk hiding inward disagreement. It shouldn’t matter send­ing you a small present, but it might give rise to a whole lot of gossip. So today she simply prepared a couple of dishes and a pot of wine and told me to bring them to you secretly.” She glanced at him with a meaningful smile and added. “You mustn’t talk in that formal way again, sir, or you’ll embarrass me. I’m only a servant. If I can wait on Master Pan, what’s to stop me from waiting on you, sir?”

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Xue Ke was a simple, honest young fellow. He had never been treated like this by Jingui and Baochan before; yet as the latter said it was to thank him for helping Xue Pan, this seemed to him quite natural.

“Leave the dishes, sister,” he said. “But please take back the wine. I really can’t drink much, just a cup occasionally when I’m forced to, but ordinarily I never drink. Surely your mistress and you knew that?”

“I can use my own discretion in other matters,” she replied, “but I can’t obey you in this. You know what our mistress is like. If I took it back, she wouldn’t think it’s because you don’t drink but because I’d been remiss.”

So Xue Ke had to let her leave the wine. Then Baochan went to the door and peeped outside. Turning back to smile at him, she pointed to­wards the inner rooms.

“I dare say she’ll be coming herself to thank you,” she said.

Not knowing what she meant, he felt rather put out.

“Please thank her for me, sister,” he rejoined. “I don’t want her to catch a chill in this cold weather. Besides, as we’re relatives there’s no need to be so polite.”

Baochan made no answer to this but went away smiling.

At first Xue Ke had believed that Jingui had sent him these things out of gratitude for his services to Xue Pan. But Baochan’s secretive ways and meaning glances made him afraid there was more to it than that.

“But what other designs could she have on me?” he wondered. “Af­ter all, she’s my sister-in-law. Maybe this hussy Baochan, not liking to make advances herself, is using Jingui’s name. Still, she’s Cousin Pan’s concubine too, so how could she….” Then it occurred to him, “Jingui has never shown the least sense of propriety. When the fancy takes her she gets herself up like a vamp, preening herself on her beauty; so for all I know she may have designs on me. Or maybe, because she bears Sister Baoqin some grudge, she’s playing this dirty trick to get me into hot water and give me a bad name — that’s possible too.”

The likelihood of this alarmed him, and he was in a quandary when he heard someone giggling outside his window. Xue Ke gave a start. But to know who it was you must read the following chapter.

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