A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 94

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Chapter 94

The Lady Dowager Gives a Feast to Celebrate

the Strange Blossoming of the Crab-Apple Trees

The Loss of Baoyu’s Jade of Spiritual

Understanding Heralds Trouble

After Lai Da had taken Jia Qin off, the night passed without incident as they waited for Jia Zheng’s return. The novices, overjoyed to be back in the Garden, hoped to have a good look round before going to the Pal­ace the next day. However, Lai Da ordered the matrons and pages there to keep watch and to supply them with food but not allow them to stir a single step. So the girls, although puzzled by this, had to stay there quietly until it was light. The maids in the different lodges in the Garden had heard of their arrival and summons to the Palace, but did not know the real facts of the case.

The next morning, Jia Zheng was about to leave his office when the minister sent him estimates of the costs for public works in two prov­inces, which he had to check at once before going home. He therefore sent Jia Lian instructions not to wait for his return but to make a thorough investigation as soon as Lai Da was back, and then to take what action he thought fit.

This message pleased Jia Lian on Qin’s account. He reflected, “If I hush up this business completely, uncle may smell a rat. I’d better report it to Her Ladyship and do as she suggests; for then even if it’s not what he would have done he can’t hold me to blame.” Thus resolved, he went in to see Lady Wang.

“Yesterday the master was angry over that lampoon,” he announced, explaining its contents. “He had Qin and the novices brought here for an investigation. Today, as he has no time to look into this scandal, he’s told me to report it to you, madam, to do as you think fit. So I’ve come to ask you how we should deal with this.”

“How disgraceful!” exclaimed Lady Wang, very shocked. “If Qin really carried on like that, our family should disown him. But what a scoundrel that lampoonist must be! How could he sling mud like that? Have you asked Qin whether there’s any truth in it?”

“I did ask him just now. But think, madam, who would admit to any­thing so shameless even if he’d really done it? Still, I don’t believe Qin would dare, for fear of the consequences, knowing that Her highness might send for these girls any time. To my mind, it shouldn’t be hard to find out the truth. But suppose it is true, madam, what will you do?”

“Where are those girls now?”

“All locked up in the Garden.”

“Do the young ladies know about this?”

“I expect they’ve all heard of their summons to the Palace. There hasn’t been any other gossip outside.”

“That’s good. These creatures mustn’t be kept here a moment longer. I was in favour of packing them off before, but the rest of you insisted on keeping them and now see what’s come of it! Tell Lai Da to take them away and carefully trace their families, if they have any. Then let him get out the bonds of those whose families can be found and draw a few dozen taels to hire a boat and send them back, with a reliable escort, to where they came from. When they’ve all been manumitted that will be the end of that. If we were to force them all to go back to secular life just because one or two of them have gone to the bad, that would be too heartless. And if we made them over to official brokers here, even though we didn’t ask for any money they’d still sell them, not caring at all whether they lived or died.

“As for Qin, you must give him a good talking to. He’s not to show his face here any more, except for sacrifices and celebrations. And he’d better be careful to steer clear of the master if he’s in one of his tempers, or else he’ll settle Qin’s hash! Another thing: tell the accountants’ of­fice to cancel this allowance. And send word to Water Moon Convent that, on the master’s orders, they’re not to receive young gentlemen from our house except when they go to sacrifice at one of the graves there. If there’s any more talk we’ll drive away the whole lot, including the old abbess.”

Jia Lian assented and withdrew to notify Lai Da.

“This is how Her Ladyship wants you to handle this business,” he informed him. “When it’s done, let me know so that I can report to her. And better see to it quickly; then when the master comes back you can report to him that these were her instructions.”

“Our mistress is really a saintly soul!“ was Lai Da’s comment. “Fancy sending those creatures home, with an escort too! Well, as she’s so kind­hearted, I shall have to find some reliable man. As for Master Qin, I’ll leave you to deal with him. And I’ll try to track down that lampoonist so that we can crack down on him.”

Jia Lian nodded and said, “Right.”

He lost no time then in dismissing ha Qin, while Lai Da made haste to take the novices away and deal with them according to his instructions.

That evening when Jia Zheng came back, they reported this to him; and as Jia Zheng disliked trouble, on hearing this he let the matter drop. Of course rogues outside, when they heard that twenty-four girls had been dismissed from the Jia Mansion, all wanted to get their hands on them; so whether they ever reached home or not is uncertain, and we have no means of guessing.

Now that Daiyu’s health was improving, Zijuan had time on her hands, and being puzzled by the report that the novices had been summoned to the Palace she went to the old lady’s place for news. She happened to find Yuanyang free too, and sitting down to chat she asked her about the nuns.

“This is news to me,” said Yuanyang in surprise. “I’ll find out later on from Madam Lian.”

As they were talking, two serving-women from Fu Shi’s family ar­rived to pay their respects to the Lady Dowager. Yuanyang was taking them there when they heard that the old lady was having a nap, so the women delivered their message to her and left.

“Where are they from?” asked Zijuan.

“They’re perfect pests!” Yuanyang told her. “The Fus have a daughter who is not bad-looking, so they keep coming to praise her to the old lady for her good looks, good heart and good manners. They say she’s no chatter-box but a skilled needlewoman, who can write and keep accounts too, most dutiful to her elders and kind to the servants. Each time they come they reel all this off, as if offering the old lady some rare treasure. I can’t bear listening to them! But although they’re such a nuisance, our old lady loves that kind of talk. She isn’t the only one either. Even Baoyu who can’t abide most old women doesn’t mind these from the Fu family. Odd, isn’t it? Only the other day they came to say that lots of people are asking for their young lady, but her father won’t give his consent hinting that only a family like ours would be good enough for her. All their praise and flattery are having some effect on the old lady.”

Though taken aback, Zijuan asked with a show of indifference, “If she thinks it a good match for Baoyu, then why not fix it up?”

Before Yuanyang could explain someone inside called Out, “The old lady’s woken!”

Yuanyang hurried in then and Zijuan got up to leave. On her way back to the Garden she ruminated, “Is there only one Baoyu in the world that everybody should want him? And our young lady’s the one who dotes on him most. You can see by the way she behaves that she’s set her heart on him: why else should she keep falling ill? There’s confusion enough here already, what with gold unicorns and gold lockets, without foisting another Miss Fu on us too! I think it’s our young lady that Baoyu fancies; but judging by what Yuanyang says, he falls in love with every girl he meets. If so, our young lady’s eating her heart out for nothing.”

From thinking of Daiyu she went on to wonder what she herself should do, until she felt quite distracted. Though tempted to advise Daiyu to stop caring so much for Baoyu, she was afraid this would upset her; yet see­ing her like this made her heart bleed. The more she brooded the more anxious she grew.

“Why worry about someone else?” she scolded herself. “Even if she really marries Baoyu, the way she is it won’t be easy to please her; and Baoyu, for all he’s good-natured, is too much of a flirt. But here I am hoping she’ll stop worrying yet worrying myself for nothing! From now on I’ll look after her as best I can and not care about anything else.”

This conclusion helped to calm her down by the time she reached Bamboo Lodge, where she found Daiyu sitting all by herself on the kang sorting out her old poems and essays. She looked up when Zijuan came in.

“Where have you been?” she asked.

“To call on some other girls.”

“Did you see Sister Xiren?”

“Why should I go to see her?”

Daiyu wondered how she had come to blurt out such a question, and in embarrassment she answered curtly, “I don’t care where you go. Fetch me some tea.”

Laughing up her sleeve, Zijuan went out to do this and heard a clamour of voices in the Garden. As she poured the tea she sent someone to find out what had happened.

The girl came back and told her, “Some crab-apple trees in Happy Red Court had withered, and nobody watered them; but yesterday when Baoyu had a look he claimed he saw buds on the branches. No one believed him or paid any attention. Today, all of a sudden, they burst into bloom with lovely crab-apple flowers! People were so amazed that they rushed over there to look, It’s caused such a sensation that even the old lady and Her Ladyship are coming to see the flowers. So Madam Zhu’s given orders to have the leaves in the Garden swept up, and they were calling servants just now to do this.”

Daiyu, overhearing that the old lady was coming, at once changed her clothes and sent Xueyan out to keep watch.

“Tell me as soon as the old lady comes,” she said.

It was not long before Xueyan came running back. “The old lady and the mistress have come with quite a party,” she announced.” You’d bet­ter go right away, miss.”

Daiyu glanced at herself in the mirror and smoothed her hair, then took Zijuan’s arm to go to Happy Red Court, where she found the Lady Dowager seated on Baoyu’s couch. Daiyu paid her respects to her, then to Lady Xing and Lady Wang, after which she greeted Li Wan, Tanchun, Xichun and Xiuyan. The only ones absent were Xifeng, who was unwell; Xiangyun, who had been fetched home now that her uncle had a post in the capital; Baoqin,. who was staying with Baochai; and the two Li sis­ters, who had moved out to live with Aunt Li on account of all the troubles in the Garden. So Daiyu saw only a few of the girls.

For a while they discussed this strange phenomenon of blossom out of season.

“Crab-apple should blossom in the third month,” said the old lady. “Although it’s now the eleventh, because the solar seasons are late this year it’s actually like the tenth, and we’re having an Indian summer which makes it warm enough for trees to blossom.”

“You’ve seen so much, madam, you must be right,” Lady Wang con­curred. “It’s not all that remarkable.”

“I heard this plant had withered for a whole year,” said Lady Xing. “Why is it blossoming now? There must be some reason.

“I’m sure the old lady and mistress are right,” put in Li Wan with a smile. “In my foolish opinion, this blossoming shows that something good is coming Baoyu’s way.”

Tanchun remained silent, thinking, “It can’t be a good omen. All liv­ing things which obey Heaven’s will must prosper, while all which flout it must die even plants know that. So unseasonable blossom must be an evil omen.” She could not say this, however.

Daiyu, elated by this talk of good luck for Baoyu, said gaily, “The Tian family of old had a red-bud tree which withered when the three brothers split up the property. That made them go back in remorse to live together, and then the tree blossomed again. This shows that plants change in accordance with human beings. Now Cousin Bao is studying hard and uncle is pleased with him, so these crab-apples have blossomed again.”

The old lady and Lady Wang were delighted with this explanation. “Daiyu’s made an.apt comparison,” they said. “Most interesting!”

As they were talking, Jia She and Jia Zheng arrived with Huan and Lan to look at the flowers.

“If I were you, I’d cut them down,” said Jia She. “It must be some flower-monster making trouble.”

Jia Zheng retorted, “‘Ignore a monster and it will destroy itself. Just let it be. There’s no need to cut it down.”

“What nonsense are you talking?” his mother protested. “This is some­thing auspicious and good; there’s no monster here. If good comes of this, you can enjoy it. If bad comes of it, I’ll take all the consequences. But 1 won’t have you talking such rubbish!”

Thus silenced, Jia Zheng withdrew sheepishly with ha She.

Then the old lady in high spirits told them to order the kitchen to pre­pare a feast at once, so that they could enjoy the flowers.

“Baoyu, Huan and Lan must each write a poem to commemorate this happy event,” she decreed. “Daiyu’s just over her illness, so we mustn’t trouble her to write; but if she’s in the mood she can polish your lines.” She told Li Wan, “All of you must drink with me.”

Li Wan agreed to this, then said teasingly to Tanchun, “This is all your fault.”

“We’ve not even been allowed to write poems,” retorted Tanchun. “So surely this has nothing to do with us?”

“Didn’t you start the Begonia Society? Now these crab-apples’ want to join your club too.”

At that everybody laughed.

Presently wine and dishes were served. And as they drank they all tried to please the old lady by cheerful talk. Baoyu poured wine for the others, then made tip and wrote out a quatrain which he read to his grand­mother. It was as follows:

What made the crab-apple wither away?

And today why have fresh blossoms come?

To foretell a long life for our Old Ancestress

It is flowering anew, ahead of the plum.

Huan also wrote and read out this poem:

Crab-apples should burgeon in the spring,

But ours were bare this year.

The world is full of strange phenomena,

Yet only here do winter blooms appear.

Lan wrote out his verse neatly and presented it to the old lady, who made Li Wan read it out as follows:

Its misty charm had faded by last spring,

But after snow and frost pink blooms unfold.

Do not accuse this flower of ignorance—

Good fortune at this feast it has foretold.

The old lady said, “I don’t know much about poetry, but I think Lan’s is the best. Huan’s is no good. Now come and eat, everyone.”

Baoyu was pleased to see her in a good mood until it occurred to him, “The crab-apple died at the same time as Qingwen. Now that it’s blos­soming again, of course that augurs well for us in this compound, but it can’t bring Qingwen back to life like this flower.” At once his joy turned to sadness, till he remembered Qiaojie telling him that Xifeng would be sending Wuer to take Hongyu’s place. “This flower may be blossoming for her,” he thought, and his spirits rising again he chatted with the rest of them as before.

After some time the old lady left, leaning on Zhenzhu’s arm and ac­companied by Lady Wang and the others. On their way back Pinger accosted them.

“Our mistress heard that the old lady was enjoying the flowers here,” she said with a smile. “As she couldn’t come herself, she’s sent me to help wait on Your Ladyships. Here are two rolls of red silk too, a con­gratulatory gift for Master .Bao to drape over the trees.”

Xiren took the silk and showed it to the old lady, who commented laughingly, “Whatever Xifeng does is in good form, besides being origi­nal and great fun!”

Xiren told Pinger, “When you go back please thank Madam Lian for Master Bao. If we’re to have good fortune, we’ll all share it.”

“Aha!” chuckled the old lady. “I forgot that. Though Xifeng is unwell she’s still so thoughtful. This was just the present to give.”

She went on then and the others followed her, while Pinger confided to Xiren, “Our mistress says this blossoming now is odd; so she wants you to cut strips of that red silk and hang them over the trees to bring good luck. And don’t let anyone spread foolish talk about this being a miracle.”

Xiren nodded agreement and then saw her off.

.Baoyu had been resting at home that day, wearing a fur-lined gown, when he noticed that the crab-apples had blossomed and went out to look atthem, sighing with admiration. So enchanted with them was he that he became quite wrapped up in their flowers, which evoked in him mixed feelings of grief and joy. At the sudden news that the old lady was com­ing, he changed into a fox-fur archer’s jacket and black fox-fur coat, then went out so hurriedly to welcome her that he omitted to put on his Precious Jade of Spiritual Understanding. Not till the old lady had left and he had changed back into a gown did Xiren see that the pendant which usually hung around his neck was missing.

“Where is your jade?” she asked.

“When I changed just now in such a hurry, I took it off and put it on the small table on the kang instead of wearing it.”

Xiren could not see it on the small table. She searched the whole room, but there was no trace of it. Dismay made her break out into a cold sweat.

“Don’t worry,” said Baoyu. “It’s bound to be somewhere here. Ask the others. They must know.”

It occurred to Xiren that one of the other girls must have hidden it to tease her. “You bitches!” she said playfully to Sheyue and the rest. “What sort of joke is this to play? Where have you hidden it? If it really got lost, that would be the end of us all!”

“What are you talking about?” they answered seriously. “Joking is all very well, but this is no joking matter. Don’t talk nonsense. You must be crazy! Better think back to where you put it instead of accusing us.”

“Heavens!” cried Xiren anxiously, seeing them so much in earnest. “Where exactly did you put it, Master Bao?”

“I remember quite clearly putting it on that table,” he assured her. “Make a good search for it.”

Not daring to let outsiders know, Xiren, Sheyue, Qiuwen and the other girls quietly searched the whole place. They hunted around for hours, even turning out cases and crates — but all in vain. When the jade was nowhere to be found, they wondered if one of their visitors that day could have taken it.

But Xiren said, “All of them know how precious this jade is. Who’d dare take it? You mustn’t, for goodness’ sake, let word of this get out, but go and make inquiries at different households. If one of the other girls took it to play a trick on us, kowtow to her and beg her to return it. And if you find out that one of the little maids stole it, don’t report it to the mistresses but give her something in exchange for it. This isn’t just any­thing! If it’s really lost, that’s more serious than losing Master Bao!”

As Sheyue and Qiuwen were leaving, she hurried after them with a final warning: “Don’t start by asking those who came to the feast. Be­cause then, if you can’t find it, that will cause more trouble and make matters worse.

Sheyue and Qiuwen agreed and went off separately to make inquir­ies; but nobody had seen the jade, and they were all alarmed. The two of them hurried back to eye each other blankly in consternation. By now Baoyu was alarmed too, while Xiren could only sob in desperation. The jade had vanished, and they dared not report it. All the inmates of Happy Red Court were petrified.

While they were in this state of stupefaction, along came some people who had heard of their loss. Tanchun ordered the Garden gate to be closed and sent an old serving-woman with two young maids to make another comprehensive search, promising a handsome reward to anyone who found the jade. Eagerness to clear themselves and receive a reward made everyone search frantically high and low — they even scoured the privies. But it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. They searched all day in vain.

“This is no laughing matter,” said Li Wan in desperation. “I’ve a blunt proposal to make.”

“What is it?” the others asked.

“Things have come to such a pass, we can’t be too nice. Now apart from Baoyu all the others in the Garden are women. I’m going to ask all you girls, as well as the maids you brought with you, to take off your clothes to be searched. If the jade isn’t found, we’ll tell the maids to search the serving-women and the maids doing the rough work. What do you say?”

“That’s an idea,” they agreed. “With such a crowd of us here we’re a mixed lot, and this would be a way to clear ourselves.”

Only Tanchun made no comment.

As the maids also wanted to clear themselves of suspicion, Pinger volunteered to be the first to be searched. Then the others stripped too, and Li Wan searched them in turn.

“Sister-in-law!” snapped Tanchun. “Where did you learn to behave in this scandalous way? If anyone stole it she wouldn’t keep it on her, would she? Besides, this jade may be treasured here but to outsiders not in the know it’s quite useless, so why should anyone steal it? I’m sure that someone is up to monkey tricks.”

When they heard this and noticed Huan’s absence — though earlier on he had been running all over the place — they suspected him but were unwilling to say so.

“Huan’s the only one who’d play such a trick,” Tanchun continued. “Send somebody to fetch him quietly and persuade him to return it; then give him a scare to make him keep his mouth shut, and that will be that.”

The others nodded approval.

Li Wan told .Pinger, “You’re the only one who can get the truth out of him.”

Pinger agreed to try and hurried off, coming back before long with ha Huan. The rest pretended that nothing was amiss and told maids to serve him tea in the inner room. Then they excused themselves, leaving him to Pinger.

“Your Brother Bao has lost his jade,” she told him with a smile. “Have you seen it?”

Jia Huan flushed scarlet and glared.

“When he loses something, why suspect me?” he protested. “Am I a convicted thief?”

He looked so worked up that Pinger dared not press him. “I didn’t mean that,”

She explained with a smile. “I thought you might have taken it to scare them; that’s why I simply asked if you’d seen it or not, to help them find it.”

“He was the one wearing the jade, so he’s the one you should ask instead of me. You all make so much of him! When there’s something good going, you don’t ask me to share it; but when anything’s lost, I’m the one you ask about it!” He got up and marched out, and they could not stop him.

“All this trouble’s due to that silly thing!” burst out Baoyu. “I don’t want it, so you needn’t make such a fuss. When Huan gets back he’s bound to tell everyone and raise a fearful rumpus.”

Weeping in desperation Xiren said, “You may not care that the jade’s lost, Little Ancestor, but if this comes to the mistresses’ ears it’ll be the death of us!” She broke down and sobbed.

Now that it was clear that this could not be hushed up, feeling even more worried they discussed how best to report it to the old lady and other mistresses.

“There’s no need to discuss it,” expostulated Baoyu. “Just say I’ve smashed it.”

“How casually you’re taking it, sir!” rejoined Pinger. “Suppose they ask why you smashed it? These girls will still be the ones to take the blame. And suppose they ask to see the broken bits?”

“Well then, say I lost it outside.”

That sounded more plausible, until they remembered that Baoyu had not been to school for a couple of days or paid any visits outside. They pointed this out.

“That’s not true,” he remonstrated. “Three days ago I went to see the opera in the Duke of Linan’s mansion. Just say I lost it that day.”

“That won’t do,” countered Tanchun. “If you lost it then, why didn’t you report it at the time?”

They were racking their brains to think up some good story when they heard sobbing and wailing — it was Concubine Zhao approaching.

“You lose something, yet instead of looking for it you torture my Huan behind my back!” she screamed. “I’ve brought him here to hand him over to you arse-lickers. You can kill him or slice him to pieces just as you please!” With that she shoved Huan forward. “You’re a thief!” she cried. “Own up, quick.”

Then Huan started crying too from mortification.

Before Li Wan could placate them a maid announced, “Here comes the mistress!”

Xiren and the other maids wished the earth would swallow them up, but they had to hurry out with Baoyu to meet her. Concubine Zhao went with them, afraid to say any more for the time being. And when Lady Wang saw the panic they were in, she realized that the news she had heard was true.

“Is the jade really lost?” she demanded.

No one dared answer.

Lady Wang went inside and sat down, then called for Xiren who fell on her knees in confusion, tears in her eyes, preparing to make her re­port.

“Get up,” ordered Lady Wang, “Have another careful search made. It’s no use losing your heads.”

Xiren sobbed, unable to speak.

For fear she might tell the truth Baoyu put in. “This has nothing to do with Xiren, madam. I lost it on the road the other day when I went to the duke’s mansion to see the opera.

“Why didn’t you look for it then?”

“I was afraid to let on, so I didn’t tell them. Instead I asked Beiming and the rest to hunt for it outside.”

“Nonsense!” his mother exclaimed. “Don’t Xiren and the other girls help you off with your clothes? Whenever you come back from outside, if so much as a handkerchief or pouch is missing they have to look into it, not to mention that jade! They would certainly have asked about it.”

This silenced Baoyu but pleased Concubine Zhao.

“If he lost it outside why should they accuse Huan… “ she began.

Before she could finish Lady Wang rapped out, “We’re talking about the jade. Stop drivelling!”

With Concubine Zhao crushed, Li Wan and Tanchun told Lady Wang all that had happened, making her shed tears in dismay. She decided to report this to the old lady so that she could send people to question those members of Lady Xing’s household who had come with her to Happy Red Court that morning.

Just then, however, along came Xifeng, having heard about the loss of Baoyu’s jade and Lady Wang’s visit to the Garden. Although still an invalid, feeling unable to hold aloof she now arrived leaning on Fenger’s arm, just as Lady Wang was about to leave.

“How are you madam?” she faltered.

Baoyu and the others went over and greeted her.

“So you’ve heard too?” said Lady Wang. “Isn’t it odd? ft just van­ished all of a sudden and can’t be found. Think now: which of the maids from the old lady’s place down to your Pinger is unreliable and a mis­chief-maker? I shall have to report this to the old lady and organize a thorough-going search. Otherwise, Baoyu’s life may be cut short!”

“Our household’s so big, it’s a mixed lot,” Xifeng answered. “As the proverb says, you can’t judge by appearances, madam. Who can guar­antee that everyone here is honest? But if we raise a hue and cry so that this becomes public knowledge, the thief will realize that if you find him out — or her, as the case may be — he will have to pay for it with his life, and in desperation he may smash the jade to destroy the evidence. Then what shall we do? In my foolish opinion, we’d better say that Baoyu never liked it and its loss is of no consequence, so long as we all keep this secret and don’t let the old lady and the master know. At the same time, we can secretly send people to search high and low and trick the thief into producing it. Once we have the jade back, we can punish the culprit. What do you think of this, madam?”

After some thought Lady Wang answered, “You’re right of course, but how are we to keep this from the master?” She called Huan over and told him, “Your brother’s jade is lost. Why should you raise such a row when simply asked a question? If you spread the news and the thief smashes the jade, I can’t see you living it down!”

In his terror Huan sobbed, “I won’t breathe a word about it!”

And Concubine Zhao was too cowed to say any more.

Lady Wang now told the others, “There must be places you haven’t searched. It was here all right, so how could it fly away? But the thing is to keep this quiet. I give you three days, Xiren, to find it for me. If you still haven’t recovered it by then, I’m afraid we shan’t be able to hush it up and there will be no peace for anyone!” She told Xifeng to go with her to Lady Xing’s house to discuss plans for a search.

Li Wan and the others talked it over again, then summoned the ser­vants in charge of the Garden and made them lock the gates. Next they sent for Lin Zhixiao’s wife and told her to order the gatekeepers both at the front and the back not to let out any domestics, whether male or female, for the next three days. All were to remain in the Garden until something missing had been found again.

“Very well,” said Mrs. Lin, adding, “the other day we lost something at home of no great value. But to trace it my husband went out to consult a fortune-teller, a man called Iron-Mouth Liu, who cleared up the prob­lem for us by analysing a character. And sure enough, when Zhixiao came back and looked where he suggested, we found the thing at once.”

“Good Mrs. Lin,” Xiren begged her,” do go and get your husband to consult that fortune-teller for us now.”

Mrs. Lin agreed readily to this and left.

“Actually those fortune-tellers and diviners outside are no use,” said Xiuyan. “When I was down south, I heard that Miaoyu was able to di­vine by writing on sand. Why don’t we consult her? Besides, this jade is said to be supernatural, so the oracle should disclose its whereabouts.”

The others rejoined in surprise, “We often see her but never heard tell of this.”

“I doubt if she’ll agree if we others ask her, miss,” said Sheyue to Xiuyan. “So let me kowtow to you .and beg you to take this errand on yourself. If she clears up this mystery, we shall never forget your kind­ness as long as we live!”

She knelt down to kowtow but Xiuyan stopped her, while Daiyu and the other girls also urged her to go straight to Green Lattice Nunnery.

Just then, however, Mrs. Lin came back. “Good news, young ladies!” she cried. “My husband’s been to see the fortune-teller and he says the jade can’t be lost: someone is bound to return it.”

Most of them found this hard to believe, but Xiren and Sheyue were overjoyed.

“What character did he analyze?” Tanchun asked.

“He said a whole lot, too much for me to repeat,” answered Mrs. Lin. “I remember that the character he picked was shang meaning ‘gift.’ Then, without asking any questions, that Iron Mouth Liu said, ‘You’ve lost something, I take it.

“A good guess!” exclaimed Li Wan.

Mrs. Lin continued, “Then he said the upper part of the character is the xiao for ‘small’ with the kou for ‘mouth’ below; so the thing should be small enough to put in the mouth and must be some sort of jewel.”

“That’s really miraculous!” they cried. “What else did he say?”

“The lower half of the character was a stroke or two short of jian meaning ‘see,’ so the object must have disappeared from sight. And as the top half was the same as in dang for ‘pawn,’ we should look for the missing object in a pawnshop. When we add ren, a ‘man,’ to shang, it gives chang meaning to ‘redeem.’2 So once we hit on the right pawn­shop, we’ll find whoever pawned it and then we can redeem it.”

“In that case,” said the others, “let’s first look near by. If we search the neighbourhood pawnshops we’re bound to find it. Once we have the jade, it’ll be easy to question the thief.”

“Provided we get the jade back, it doesn’t matter whether we ques­tion the thief or not,” was Li Wan’s opinion. “Please go right away, Mrs. Lin, to tell Madam Lian what the fortune-teller says, and report it to Her Ladyship too so that she can stop worrying. Then ask Madam Lian to send men to investigate.”

Mrs. Lin went off on this errand.

Feeling a little more reassured, they were waiting blankly for Xiuyan’s return when they saw Baoyu’s page Beiming beckoning outside the door to a young maid. The girl at once went out.

“Wonderful news!” he told her. “Hurry up and tell our Master Bao and all the ladies inside.”

“Tell me what it is, quick!” she retorted. “Don’t drag it out.”

Beiming clapped his hands, chuckling. “When I’ve told you, miss, and you go in and pass on the news, we’ll both of us get tipped. Can you guess what’s happened? I’ve got definite news about Master Bao’s jade.”

If you want to know the upshot, read the next chapter.

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