A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 91

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Chapter 91

Wanton Baochan Lays a Cunning Plot

Baoyu Makes Extravagant Answers

When Catechized

Xue Ke was in a quandary when giggling outside the window made him start. “That must be Baochan or Jingui,” he thought. “I’ll pay no attention and just see what they can do.”

He listened for some time. When there was no further sound, not venturing to eat any sweetmeats or drink the wine, he bolted the door and set about undressing. Then the window paper rustled. By now he was so flustered by Baochan’s tricks that he did not know what to do. He peered at the window but could see nothing stirring and suspected that he had been imagining things. Fastening his clothes again he sat down by the lamp to think hard, then picked up a sweetmeat and scrutinized it intently. Turning his head abruptly, he saw that a patch of the window paper was wet. He went over to have a look, and jumped for fright when suddenly someone outside blew into his face. This was followed by more giggling. Xue Ke hastily put out the lamp and, with bated breath, lay down.

“Why don’t you have some wine and a snack before turning in, Mas­ter Ke?” called the person outside.

He recognized Baochan’s voice but made no sound, pretending to be asleep.

“How on earth could anyone be such a fool!” someone sneered after another couple of minutes.

He could not tell whether this was said by Baochan or Jingui, but it convinced him that they were up to no good. He tossed and turned and did not fall asleep until after the fifth watch.

At daybreak, somebody knocked at his door.

“Who’s there?” he called.

When there was no response, he had to get up and open the door. He found it was Baochan again, her hair dishevelled, her clothes loose. She had on a tight-fitting bodice with a gold border and rows of long buttons and loops in front, over which she had tied a none too new dark green sash. As she was not wearing a skirt, he could see her pomegranate-red trousers with floral designs and her new embroidered red slippers. She had evidently not yet made her toilet but come early to fetch the hamper to avoid being seen.

Her appearance in such a costume dismayed Xue Ke.

“You are up early,” he faltered, forcing a smile.

She blushed but did not answer, simply putting the sweetmeats back into the hamper, which she then took away. Supposing that she was vexed by his behaviour the previous night, he thought, “Just as well. If they’re annoyed, they’ll give up and leave me in peace.”

Feeling easier in his mind he called for water to wash in and decided to stay quietly at home for a couple of days, partly to rest, partly to avoid outside contacts. For Xue Pan’s old associates were trying to cash in on the situation, now that there was only young Xue Ke to manage the family’s affairs. Some officiously offered to run errands for him; others who could write legal plaints or knew a few clerks in government offices proffered their services to bribe the court; yet others urged him to appropriate fam­ily funds or tried to blackmail him. Each used a different approach. He steered clear of these hangers-on as far as he could, but dared not refuse them outright for fear of future trouble. So he felt constrained to lie low at home till orders came down from above. But no more of this.

Let us revert to Jingui, who had sent Baochan with refreshments to sound out Xue Ke. Baochan on her return reported in full what had hap­pened. As the young man had not risen to the bait, Jingui feared Baochan might despise her for this fiasco and therefore tried to cover up, changing her tune. However, not wanting to relinquish Xue Ke, she sat there in silence wondering what to do.

Baochan did not expect Xue Pan back and was casting about for a lover, but had not disclosed this to Jingui for fear of the consequences. Now that her mistress had made the first move, she saw it as a good chance to pre-empt Xue Ke herself, for then Jingui could hardly raise any objection. That was why she had spoken provocatively to him. When he seemed neither entirely unresponsive nor very forthcoming either, she had hesitated to do anything more rash. Later, when he blew out the light and lay down to sleep, she went back, very disappointed, to tell Jingui and see what she would do. Now that her mistress kept silent as if at a loss, she had to help her to bed and retire herself. But that night how could she sleep? She tossed and turned until she hit on a plan. She would get up first thing the next morning to fetch the hamper, alluringly dressed and with her hair uncombed to reveal her drowsy charms. While watching Xue Ke’s reaction she would put on a show of anger and ignore him; but if he showed regret, naturally she would smooth his way and then she could get him first she was sure of that. Such was her plan. However, when she tried to execute it, he behaved just as properly as the previous night. All she could do was act as if really affronted and take the dishes back. She deliberately left the wine-pot, though, to provide an excuse for returning.

Jingui asked her, “Did anyone see you fetch those things?”

“No, madam.”

“Did Master Ke ask you anything?”

‘‘No.”

Since Jingui had lain awake all night unable to think of a plan she now decided, “If I go ahead with this affair, I may be able to keep it a secret from others, but how can I hide it from her? I’d better go shares with her, to keep her quiet. Besides, I can’t seek out Xue Ke myself, I’ll need her as go-between. So I may as well work out a sound plan with her.”

She therefore asked with a smile, “What is your honest opinion of Master Ke?”

“He strikes me as a fool.”

Jingui laughed. “How can you run down a gentleman like that?”

“His ingratitude for your kindness gives me the right to, madam,” Baoehan sniggered.

“His ingratitude? What do you mean?”

“You sent him goodies but he didn’t eat them. Wasn’t that ungrate­ful?” She winked with a knowing smile.

“Don’t go imagining things,” scolded Jingui. “I sent him those things to express my appreciation for all he’s done for the master. And I asked if anyone saw you because I was afraid there might be talk. So I don’t understand what you mean, speaking like that.”

“Don’t get me wrong, madam,” said Baochan with a smile. “I’m your maid; how could I be disloyal to you? But you must keep this secret. If word got out, it would be no joke.”

“You dirty-minded creature!” Jingui flushed. “I suppose you’ve taken a fancy to him, but want to use me as your go-between, is that it?”

“Think whatever you want, madam, but I honestly feel for you. And if you really like him, I have a plan. Just think, what rat won’t steal oil? All he’s afraid of is the trouble there’d be if the secret got out, making him lose face. Take my advice, madam, and don’t be impatient but do him certain favours from time to time. He’s Master Pan’s younger cousin and not yet married. If you show more concern and are friendly with him, how can anyone find fault? Before long, he’ll naturally want to thank you. Then you can prepare some refreshments in our room, and when I’ve helped you to get him drunk, how can he run away. If he refuses, we’ll make a scene and accuse him of trying to seduce you. Then of course, out of fright, he’ll have to do as we want. If he still refuses, we can discredit him without spoiling our own reputation. What do you think of this, madam?”

Jingui, blushing crimson, cursed her laughingly, “Little bitch! You seem an old hand at seduction! No wonder Master Pan, when he was home, couldn’t bear to leave your side.”

Baochan pouted then giggled, “Here I am trying to help you, yet you call me such names!”

After that, Jingui was so intent on inveigling Xue Ke that she lost interest in making scenes, and there was more peace in the household.

That day when Baochan went back to fetch the wine-pot, she acted most demurely and decorously. Stealing a glance at her, Xue Ke regret­ted his suspicions and wondered, “Could I, perhaps, have misjudged them? If so, that was a poor return for their kindness, and I’ve only myself to blame if they turn against me in future.”

A couple of days passed very peacefully. Whenever Xue Ke met Baochan, she would walk past with lowered head, not even lifting her eyes. When he met Jingui, she would greet him very warmly. This made the young man feel rather ashamed of himself. But enough of this.

Baochai and her mother, for their part, were most astonished by Jingui’s new sedateness and sudden cordiality to others. Aunt Xue thought hap­pily, “When Pan married her, they must have transgressed somehow, which brought on all the trouble we’ve had these years. Now he’s in a bad way but luckily we have money and, with the Jia family helping, there’s still some hope. His wife’s sudden change for the better may mean that his luck will change too.”

Considering this, indeed, quite a miracle, one day after lunch, leaning on Tonggui’s arm, she went to call on Jingui. When they entered the courtyard they heard her talking with a man.

Tonggui was smart enough to call out, “Madam, here’s the old lady to see you!”

By now they had reached the door. The sight of a figure flitting behind it made Aunt Xue step back in alarm.

“Please come in, madam!” called Jingui. “This is no stranger here but my stepbrother. He’s a villager, unused to company. As he has never called on you yet, he came today meaning to pay his respects.”

“If it’s your brother,” said Aunt Xue, “ask him to join us.”

Jingui told the young man, whose name was Xia San, to come out to meet her mother-in-law, and he raised clasped hands to greet her. She returned his greetings and they sat down to talk.

“How long have you been in the capital?” asked Aunt Xue.

“My stepmother adopted me a couple of months ago, as she had no man in the house to see to things. I only came to the capital the day before yesterday; so I called on my sister today.”

As he looked rather embarrassed, after sitting there for a while Aunt Xue got up. “Do stay longer,” she urged, then turned to tell Jingui, “since this is your brother’s first visit here, you must keep him for a meal.”

Jingui assented to this and Aunt Xue left.

As soon as she had gone Jingui told Xia San, “Sit down. Now we’re above-board, so Master Ke won’t have to pry into our affairs. I want you to buy something for me today, but don’t let anyone see it.”

“Just leave it to me. Provided you have the money, I can get what­ever you want.”

“Don’t boast! If you get overcharged I’m not having it.”

When they had exchanged some more banter, Jingui kept Xia San to dinner, then gave him her commission and some instructions, after which he left.

Subsequently, Xia San was a frequent visitor. And the old gatekeeper, having heard that this was Jingui’s brother, usually neglected to report his arrival. This led to endless trouble later on, but we need not go into that now.

One day a letter arrived from Xue Pan. His mother opened it and told Baochai to read it. He had written:

…I am doing all right in the county jail, so mother needn’t worry. Yesterday a clerk in the county yamen told me that though the prefectural court has approved our plea — I suppose you must have squared them—the provincial court has rejected it. The chief secretary in the county was decent enough to write at once requesting a remission; but the pro­vincial governor has reprimanded the county magistrate. Now the gover­nor wants to try the case himself, and if that happens I’ll be for it again. You can’t have bought over the provincial court. So as soon as you get this, mother, ask someone to put in a word at once with the governor; and get Xue Ke to come quickly. Otherwise I shall be transferred to the pro­vincial court. Don’t stint silver! This is desperately urgent!

This reduced Aunt Xue once more to tears. Baochai and Xue Ke while consoling her warned:

“There’s no time to be lost!”

She had to send Xue Ke to smooth matters over with the county court. Servants were ordered to pack his luggage and weigh out silver at once so that he could set out that same night, as Li Xiang was already in the county, one of the pawnshop assistants was sent to accompany Xue Ke there. In the bustle and confusion, Baochai helped with the packing herself in case the domestics should overlook anything, not lying down to rest till nearly dawn. Being a cosseted girl from a wealthy family, the anxiety on top of her night-long exertions brought on a fever, she was unable to eat or even drink water. Yinger hastily reported this to her mother.

Hurrying to Baochai’s side, Aunt Xue found her fearfully flushed, burning with fever and unable to speak. She lost her head then and wept till she nearly fainted away. Baoqin supported her and tried to console her while Xiangling’s tears flowed like a fountain too as she called Baochai’s name to awaken her. For she was speechless, as if paralyzed, her eyes sunken, her nose blocked. Doctors were called in to attend her and gradu­ally, to their great relief, she recovered consciousness.

This news had alarmed both the Ning and the Rong Mansions. First Xifeng sent over a maid with some Ten-Spices Restorative Pills; then Lady Wang sent some Wonder-Working Powder. The old lady, Lady Xing, Lady Wang and Madam You all sent maids to ask after Baochai; but none of them let Baoyu know of this. For seven or eight days she took medicine with very little effect, until bethinking herself of her Cool Fra­grance Pills she took three of these and finally recovered. When some time later Baoyu heard of her illness, as she was already better he did not call to see her.

And now a letter came from Xue Ke which Aunt Xue had read to her. Instead of telling Baochai, for fear of worrying her, she went to enlist Lady Wang’s help, then described her daughter’s illness. After she had gone, Lady Wang passed on her request to her husband.

“We can ask the ministry to help, but not the provincial authorities,” said Jia Zheng. “The only way is to spend money.

“That child Baochai is having a hard time,” continued Lady Wang. “As she’s betrothed to our family, I think we should fix up the wedding soon, before she ruins her health.”

“I agree,” he replied. “But her family’s in too much of a commotion now; and as winter is nearly over, with the New Year in the offing, we have a good many affairs to attend to ourselves. Suppose we send the betrothal gifts this winter and the wedding gifts next spring — fix the date for the wedding after the old lady’s birthday. You can tell Aunt Xue this first.”

The next day, Lady Wang let her sister know this proposal, and Aunt Xue agreed to it. After lunch, the two of them called on the Lady Dowa­ger. When they had taken seats she asked Aunt Xue:

“Have you just come over?”

“Actually I came yesterday,” replied Aunt Xue. “But it was too late then to pay my respects.”

Then Lady Wang repeated her husband’s proposal, and the old lady thoroughly approved. As Baoyu happened to come in just then, she asked him whether he had had his lunch.

“I had it as soon as I got back just now,” he said. “As I’m off to school again now, I wanted to call on you first. Besides, hearing that aunty was here, I wanted to pay my respects to her as well.” He asked Aunt Xue, “Is Cousin Baochai better?”

“Yes, she is,” was the answer.

As their conversation had stopped at his arrival, and as Aunt Xue seemed less cordial to him than before, Baoyu felt mystified.

“Even if she’s upset, why should they all keep so quiet?” he asked himself as he went back to school.

On his return that evening, having paid his respects to his elders, he went straight to Bamboo Lodge. But when he raised the portière and went in there was only Zijuan there — the inner room was empty.

“Where is your mistress?” he asked.

“With the old lady,” said Zijuan. “When she heard that Madam Xue had called, she went over to pay her respects. Didn’t you go too, Master Bao?”

“I did, but I didn’t see your young lady there.”

“She wasn’t there?”

“No. Where else could she have gone?”

“That’s hard to say.

He was on the point of leaving when Daiyu returned with Xueyan.

“So you’re back, cousin!” He turned to follow her in.

Daiyu invited him into the inner room and, when Zijuan had brought her a housecoat into which to change, she sat down.

“Did you see aunty?” she asked.

“Yes, I did.”

“Did she mention me?”

“No. And not only that, she didn’t treat me as warmly as she used to. When I asked after Baochai’s illness, she simply smiled and said nothing. Could she be annoyed because recently I haven’t called to see her?”

Daiyu smiled. “You haven’t been?”

“I knew nothing about it at first. A couple of days ago I heard; but I didn’t go.”

“What do you expect then?”

“But, honestly,” he protested, “the old lady, my mother and my father all told me not to. I could hardly defy them could I? If this were like the old days when we could slip through the small gate, I could easily call on her ten times a day; but now that gate’s closed and going round from the front is inconvenient.”

“I don’t suppose that occurred to her,” said Daiyu.

“But I’ve always found Baochai most understanding.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. She’d be the last one to excuse you. Espe­cially as she was the invalid, not aunty. Think how jolly it used to be before, when we wrote poems, enjoyed the flowers and drank in the Garden together. Now she’s cut off and her family’s in trouble, yet when she falls so badly ill you behave as if nothing had happened! How could she help being annoyed?”

“Does that mean we won’t be on speaking-terms any more?”

“How am Ito know on what terms you’ll be? I was just talking about natural reactions.”

Baoyu started thinking this over, glassy-eyed, whereupon Daiyu ig­nored him, just telling one of her maids to add a fresh slab of incense to the brazier while she picked up a book to read. After a while Baoyu frowned and stamped his foot.

“Why was I born?” he exclaimed. “The world would be a better place without me!”

She commented, “When ‘I’ exists, so do others; and where there are people you’ll have no end of worries, fears, fancies and dreams, not to mention all sorts of entanglements. I was only joking just now. Simply seeing aunty in low spirits shouldn’t make you start suspecting Baochai, should it? Aunty called, not to entertain you, but because that lawsuit is weighing on her mind. But by letting your fancy run away with you, you end up thinking the worst.”

Baoyu laughed suddenly, as if seeing the light.

“Quite right, quite right,” he cried. “You are much more perspica­cious than I am. No wonder the other year when I was angry you put me through that Buddhist catechism, and I was stumped. If ever I become a real Buddha, I shall still need your guidance.”

She took this chance to sound him out. “Then let me ask you some­thing, and see how you answer.”

Baoyu crossed his legs and folded his hands as if in prayer, his eyes closed, his face solemn.

“Go on,” he said.

“Suppose Cousin Baochai befriended you? Suppose she cold-shoul­dered you? Suppose she befriended you first but not later? Suppose she befriends you now but not in future? Suppose you befriend her but she cold-shoulders you? Suppose you cold-shoulder her but she befriends you? What would you do in all those different cases?”

Baoyu thought for a while, then burst out laughing.

“However much water there is in the stream, one gourdful will suf­fice me,” was his reply — indicating that, for him, she alone counted.

“What if your gourd is drifted off by the water?”

“No, the gourd is not drifted off by the water. The water flows where it wills and the gourd drifts of its own accord.”

“What if the stream runs dry and the pearl is lost?”

“My heart is a willow-catkin caught in the mud; how can it dance like a partridge in the spring wind?” he answered — affirming that he would be true to her.

“The first Buddhist commandment is not to lie,” she warned.

“The Buddhist Trinity will bear me witness!”

Daiyu lowered her head and was silent. Then, outside the eaves, they heard a crow caw before winging off southeast.

“Is that a good omen or a bad one?” wondered Baoyu.

“‘Good fortune or bad in the affairs of men does not depend on a bird’s cry,”’ she quoted.

They were interrupted by Qiuwen who came in to say, “Please go back, sir. His Lordship sent to ask whether you’re back from school, and Sister Xiren said you were. You’d better go quickly.”

Baoyu sprang up in alarm and hurried out, and Daiyu did not venture to detain him. To know what the upshot was, read the next chapter.

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