The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 104

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CHAPTER 104


Drunken Dime at large again –
a small fish whips up a mighty storm
Our Besotted Hero in agony once more –
a chance thrust quickens a numbed heart

‘The temple you visited has just caught fire, sir!’
Jia Yu-cun turned round, to see flames leaping from the ground and a cloud of whirling ashes darkening the sky.
‘How extraordinary!’ he thought to himself. ‘I left the place only minutes ago, and have walked but this little distance. How could such a fire have started? What if old Mr Zhen has perished in it?’
To return and investigate would almost certainly make him late for the ferry. On the other hand he felt a little uneasy about not going back at all. After a moment’s thought, he asked the man:
‘Did you notice whether the old Taoist managed to escape or not?’
‘I was not far behind you, sir. I had a stomach-ache, and went for a bit of a stroll. That was when I looked back. When I saw the blaze and realized it was the temple that was on fire, I came here as fast as I could to let you know. I certainly didn’t see anyone coming out of the flames.’
His twinge of conscience notwithstanding, Yu-cun was at heart a man who put his career first, and he felt insufficient concern to involve (and inconvenience) himself any further.
‘Wait here until the fire has died down,’ he told the servant. ‘Then go back and see if you can find any trace of the old man. Report to me directly.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Reluctantly the man stayed behind to carry out these instructions.
Jia Yu-cun crossed the river and continued his tour of inspection, putting up for the night, a few stops later, at the official lodgings provided. Next morning, his duties were completed and he was greeted at one of the city gates by the usual throng of runners, who then escorted him through the streets with a great deal of noise and pomp. On the way, he heard from within his sedan one of the criers having some kind of altercation in the street, and asked what the trouble was. A man was dragged forward and deposited kneeling at the foot of the sedan. The crier himself then fell to his knees and gave the following account of the incident:
‘This drunkard, instead of keeping out of Your Honour’s way, came lurching right in front of your chair, sir. I told him to get off the road, but he answered back in a drunken and insolent manner, threw himself down on the ground in the middle of the street, and accused me of hitting him.’
Jia Yu-cun addressed the offender directly:
‘This entire district, as you know, is in my charge, and every one of its residents falls under my jurisdiction. You, sir, must have known this only too well, and must also have been aware of my presence in these parts. In your drunken state the very least you could have done was to keep out of my way. But instead you have polluted the highway with your obnoxious person, and have then had the effrontery to slander one of my men! Explain yourself!’
‘Paid fir the wine meself, din I?’ grumbled the man. ‘An’ the ground’s ‘is Majesty’s, innit? ‘is Majesty never said I couldn’t sleep on it if I’d adda few! Can’t see what it’s gorra do with you, yerroner!’
‘Why, this fellow seems to consider himself completely above the law!’ snapped Jia Yu-cun angrily. ‘What’s his name?’
‘Ni Er,’ replied the man. ‘But they calls me the Drunken Dia?mond.’
Jia Yu-cun was not amused.
‘Give this precious rogue a good thrashing,’ he ordered grimly, adding by way of a vicious pun: ‘That should soon cut him down to size!’
His attendants pinned Ni Er to the ground and administered a few hefty cracks of the whip. The pain soon cleared Dime’s head, and he began begging abjectly for mercy. Yu-cun laughed loudly at him from his chair:
‘Diamond, indeed! All right, leave him alone for the present. Take him back to the yamen. We can question him at leisure there.’
There was a cry from the runners, who immediately bound Dime and dragged him along behind the chair, ignoring his continued pleas for mercy.
Yu-cun went first to the Palace to report on his tour, and then returned to his yamen, where daily business soon engulfed him. He was too busy to give Dime another thought. But the bystanders who had witnessed the flogging in the street lost no time in telling the story to their friends, and the news soon spread that Ni Er the swank, Ni Er the drunken bully, had fallen foul of Mayor Jia and landed himself in deep water. Rumour of it eventually reached the ears of his wife and daughter, and that night when he failed to come home his daughter, fearing the worst, went to all the gambling-dens in search of him. His cronies only confirmed the story, and Dime’s daughter was reduced to tears at the thought of what might have happened to her father.
‘Don’t take it to heart so, miss!’ they said. ‘That Mayor Jia’s related to the Rong-guo Jias. And isn’t young Jia Yun a buddy of your dad’s? Why don’t you and your mum go and ask him to put in a word for Dime? That should fix it.’
Dime’s daughter thought this over to herself:
‘They’re right. Father has often said how friendly he is with young Mr Jia Yun next door. Perhaps I should go and see him.’
She hurried home and told her mother, and the following morning the two of them went to call on Jia Yun. He happened to be at home that day, and invited them both in, while his mother told the little maid to serve them tea. They related the story of Dime’s arrest, and begged Jia Yun to help them secure his release.
‘Of course!’ agreed Jia Yun without the slightest hesitation. ‘No trouble at all. I’ll drop in at Rong-guo House, mention it to them, and the matter will soon be settled. This Mayor Jia owes everything to his connection with the Rong-guo Jias. One word from them and Dime will be a free man again!’
Dime’s wife and daughter returned home in high spirits and with great expectations. They went to visit Dime in the yamen where he was being held prisoner, and told him the good news, that thanks to the intervention of Jia Yun and the Jia family he would shortly be set free. Dime was greatly relieved.
Unfortunately Jia Yun, having had his previous overtures rebuffed by Xi-feng, had been too cowed to visit her again, and since that day had hardly set foot inside Rong-guo House. The men on the Rong?guo gate treated callers strictly according to their standing with the family. If the family were known to have received a person with cordiality and respect, that person was welcomed and announced immediately; if, on the other hand, a person had once been cold- shouldered, the servants were quick to take their cue. If such a person called again, even if he were a relative, they would refuse to report his arrival and would send him away without more ado. So, when Jia Yun turned up and asked to pay his respects to Jia Lian, he got a very cool reception at the gate:
‘Mr Lian is not in. When he comes home, we will inform him that you called.’
Jia Yun would have persisted and asked to see Mrs Lian, but he was afraid to provoke the gatemen any further, and with some reluct?ance turned about and went home. He had to face renewed im?portuning from Dime’s wife and daughter the next day:
‘But Mr Yun! We thought you said the Jias could get anything they wanted out of anyone! You’re one of the family, and this isn’t a big thing to ask. You can’t have failed! You can’t let us down like this!’
Jia Yun felt thoroughly humiliated, and tried to bluff his way out:
‘Yesterday my relatives were too busy to send anyone. But I’m sure they will do something about it today, and then Dime will be set free. There’s really no need to worry.’
Dime’s wife and daughter waited to see how things would turn out. Jia Yun, having failed to gain access by the front entrance of Rong-guo House, now tried the back, thinking he might be able to get in touch with Bao-yu in the Garden. To his surprise he found the garden gate locked, and was obliged to return home once more, dejected and crestfallen.
‘It was only a few years ago that Dime lent me that money,’ he thought to himself. ‘I used it to buy Mrs Lian a present of camphor and musk, and as a result she gave me the tree-planting job. But this time, just because I can’t afford presents, I get the brush-off. She’s got nothing to be proud of, lending out money- money that’s been handed down in the family- while poor householders like us can’t even borrow a tael when we need it. I suppose she thinks she’s being clever, that this is a nice little nest-egg, a clever way to protect her own future. She doesn’t know what a stinking reputation she’s earned for herself. If I keep my mouth shut, well and good; but if I tell people what I know, she’ll have more than one life to answer for in court!’
He found Dime’s wife and daughter waiting for him when he got back, and this time he had to admit, albeit in a modified form, that his mission had not borne fruit:
‘The Jias did send someone to put in a word for Dime, but I’m afraid Mayor Jia won’t set him free. You might have more luck if you try Mr Leng Zi-xing. He’s related to Mrs Zhou, and she works for the Jias.’
‘What earthly good will a servant be,’ complained Dime’s family, ‘when a respectable member of the family such as yourself can do nothing for us!’
Jia Yun found this highly mortifying. ‘What you don’t seem to realize,’ he protested indignantly, ‘is that nowadays servants can have more pull than their masters!’
Dime’s wife and daughter could see that they were wasting their time with him.
‘We’re much obliged to you for all the trouble you’ve gone to, Mr Yun,’ they muttered sarcastically. ‘When Father gets out he’s sure to want to thank you himself…’
They went their way. Eventually they found somebody else to assist in the extrication of Dime, who was duly acquitted and released, having suffered no more by way of punishment than a few strokes of the rod.
Upon his return to the family hearth, his womenfolk related to Dime how the Jias had failed to intervene on his behalf. Dime had already broached his first bottle, and angrily announced his intention of seeking out Jia Yun and teaching him a lesson:
‘Lousy bastard! Ungrateful, sneaky little sod! When he had an empty belly and needed a job, who did it, who gave him a helping hand? Right first time: yours truly. ‘Course, now I’m in a bit of a spot meseff, he doesn’t want to know, does he! Bloody marvellous I call it! I’m tellin’ you, if I want to, I can take those Jias and rub their snotty little noses in the mud where they belong!’
The women tried anxiously to forestall any more of his grandiose threats:
‘Drunk again, Dad! You’re out of your mind! The bottle was your undoing a couple of days ago, and you got a good hiding for it. And now hark at you! At it again, before your bruises have even had a chance to heal!’
‘Think a licking’s going to scare me, do you?’ bragged Dime. ‘All I needed was a lead. It was all I needed. And now I’ve got one. Now I can nail’em! Oh yes, I got pally with some fellers while I was inside, and I learnt a thing or two. Accordin’ to them, this country’s crawling with Jias of one breed or another, and a few days back there was a fair number of Jia servants taken in. I was pretty surprised to hear that. I mean, I knew the younger Jias and their servants were a bad lot, but I’d always thought the older ones were all right. How come they’d got into trouble?
‘In the end, turns out that these Jias they were talking about were all from out of town – course, they’re still related to the ones in town. Anyway, there’s been some sort of hoo-ha, so these servants have been sent here for trying. So now I’ve got my lead! I’m laughing! That little Yun’s an ungrateful beggar, that’s what he is! My mates and I can spread the word on his family’s carry-on, the cheating and bullying, the lending money at wicked rates, the wife-snatching … Oh, if that gets to the top, some heads’ll roll all right then! That’ll learn ‘em who Dime is!’
‘Go to sleep, you drunken old pisspot!’ cried Dime’s missus. ‘Snatch?ing whose wife, in the name of heaven? I never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life!’
‘Fat lot you’d know, stuck at home all day!’ retorted Dime. ‘Coupla years back, I was having a throw in one of the dens, met this young feller, name of Zhang, and he told me how his woman was taken off of him by the Jias. Asked me for some advice. I just told him to forget it. Dunno where he is now, haven’t seen him these two or three years. Next time I bump into that Zhang feller, I’ll know what to tell him. Roast that little Yun alive! Make him crawl on his knees! Got my lead now…’
Dime promptly collapsed onto his bed in a stupor, mumbling incoherently to himself, and was soon soundly asleep. His wife and daughter dismissed his threats as the ravings of a drunkard, and early the next morning Dime set off once more for his gambling haunts, where we must leave him.

*

We return to Jia Yu-cun: the morning after his return home, refreshed by a good night’s sleep, he told his wife (who, it will be remembered, had once been in service with the Zhen family in Soochow) of his encounter with Zhen Shi-yin. She reproached him for his heart?lessness:
‘Why did you not go back to look for him? If he has been burnt to death, we will be guilty forever of having done him a great wrong!’
She began to weep, and Jia Yu-cun tried to justify himself:
‘How could I have intervened? A being like that lives on a different plane from people like us. He would only have resented the inter?ference.’
At that moment a message was brought in for Yu-cun:
‘The runner sent by Your Honour yesterday to investigate the fire at the temple has come to deliver his report.’
Yu-cun strolled out to receive the runner, who dropped one knee to the ground and said:
‘I went back as you told me to, sir. I braved the flames and went into the temple to see if I could find the Taoist. His hut was com?pletely razed to the ground, even the wall behind it had collapsed, and there was no trace of the old man. He must have been roasted alive…… All that was left was his prayer-mat, and drinking-gourd; somehow they both seemed to have survived intact. I looked all over the place for any human remains, but there was not so much as a bone to be seen. I was going to bring you the prayer-mat and gourd, to show you, in case you didn’t believe me, sir; but when I picked them up they just turned to ashes in my hands.’
Yu-cun deduced from this account that Zhen Shi-yin’s departure from the scene of the fire had been no ordinary death, but rather some miraculous process of etherealization. He dismissed the runner, and went in again to his private apartment, where he made no mention to his wife of Shi-yin’s metamorphosis by fire, thinking she would fail to understand and would only be distressed; instead he simply told her that no trace of the old man had been found, and that he had most probably escaped alive.
Leaving his private apartment, Yu-cun went to his study, and was sitting there pondering the few words Zhen Shi-yin had spoken during their brief encounter, when one of his attendants came in to convey an Imperial summons to the Palace, to peruse certain state papers. Yu-cun hurriedly took a sedan-chair to the Palace. As he arrived he overheard someone say:
‘The Kiangsi Grain Intendant, Jia Zheng, has been impeached, and is at court to plead for clemency!’
Yu-cun pressed on into the Cabinet Office and greeted the various Ministers of State gathered there. He first performed his duty and glanced through the state papers (which spelled out His Majesty’s displeasure with the state of the coastal defences), and then left the Cabinet Office at once to find Jia Zheng and to commiserate with him on his impeachment, expressing his relief that it was not too serious a charge, and asking if his journey to the capital had been a comfortable one. Jia Zheng replied with a detailed account of his misfortunes.
‘Has your plea for clemency been presented to the throne yet?’ asked Yu-cun.
‘It has,’ replied Jia Zheng. ‘I am expecting to receive the Rescript when His Majesty returns from lunch.’
Even as they were speaking, Jia Zheng was summoned to the Imperial presence, and hurried in. Those senior ministers who were connected with him waited anxiously in one of the antechambers; and when, after a lengthy audience, he finally emerged again, his face beaded with sweat, they all pressed forward to greet him.
‘Well?’ they asked. ‘How did it go?’
‘Frightened the life out of me!’ gasped Jia Zheng, his tongue popping out of his mouth. ‘I must thank you all, gentlemen, for your concern. I am relieved to inform you that I have come out of this business relatively unscathed.’
‘On what subjects did His Majesty question you?’
‘His first question concerned the smuggling of firearms in Yunnan Province. The original memorial on the case identified the ringleader as a member of the household of Jia Hua, the former Grand Pre?ceptor. His Majesty thought he remembered the name as that of my father’s cousin, and asked me if it was indeed the same man. I kowtowed at once and reminded him that my father’s cousin was Jia Dai-hua. His Majesty laughed. Then he went on to ask me if there was not another relative of mine named Jia Hua, who had once been President of the Board of War, but had subsequently been demoted and then appointed Mayor.’
Jia Yu-cun was among those present. His more formal personal name was indeed Hua, Yu-cun being merely a commonly used sobriquet, and he nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard this.
‘And how did you reply to this, sir?’ he asked Jia Zheng.
‘I replied most deliberately that the former Grand Preceptor Jia Hua hailed from Yunnan, whereas the Jia who was at present Mayor of the Metropolitan Prefecture was a Chekiang man.
‘His Majesty’s second question concerned the Jia Fan recently impeached by the Soochow censor. He asked me if this man also belonged to my family. I kowtowed and replied that he did. A cloud seemed to pass over His Majesty’s countenance, and he said: “A disgraceful affair, for a man to let his own household servants run riot and lay their hands on the wives of innocent citizens!” I did not dare utter a word. “What relation of yours is this Jia Fan?” “A distant one, Your Majesty,” I hastily replied. His Majesty gave a sound of disapproval and told me to withdraw. Altogether, I think you will agree, a most alarming experience!’
‘Certainly an astonishing coincidence that these two other cases should have come up at the same time as yours,’ concurred the others.
‘The cases in themselves are not so very remarkable,’ replied Jia Zheng. ‘But the fact that both the gentlemen concerned belong to the Jia clan certainly bodes ill for us. I suppose in a way it’s only to be expected: our clan is, after all, a large one, and over the centuries has spread itself throughout the entire Empire.
‘There may be no scandal at present involving our branch of the family directly, but I fear that after this the name Jia will be very much in the forefront of His Majesty’s mind. Not a prospect I view with relish, I must say.
‘Come, you have nothing to fear,’ the others reassured him. ‘Remember, the truth will always prevail.’
‘I should dearly like to retire from public life altogether,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘But alas, I can hardly plead old age, and the hereditary family titles are an obligation that neither branch of the family can relinquish.’
‘Now that you are reinstated at the Board of Works, sir,’ put in Jia Yu-cun, ‘I think you will find life a great deal less fraught with difficulty.’
‘Metropolitan posts may be less troublesome in principle,’ replied Jia Zheng, ‘but since I have now served twice in the provinces, there’s no saying what unpleasantness may still lie in store for me.’
‘We all hold your integrity in the highest esteem,’ the others reassured him again. ‘And your brother’s character is beyond re?proach. However, you could perhaps be a little stricter with your nephew and the younger generation.’
‘It is true, I have spent far too little time at home,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘And I have not kept a sufficiently careful watch on my nephew’s behaviour. It is something I have been uneasy about myself. Since you have raised this issue, and since I know you to be well disposed towards my family, I would be obliged if you could be a little more specific. Tell me, for example, have you heard of any irregularities in my nephew Zhen’s family at Ning-guo House?’
‘We have only heard,’ they replied, ‘that he has somehow managed to fall foul of several Vice-Presidents, not to mention a few eunuch chamberlains at the Palace. It is nothing to worry about unduly as yet, but you should perhaps warn him to he a little more circumspect in future.’
When the conversation was over, the ministers saluted Jia Zheng and took their leave. Jia Zheng returned home, and was welcomed at the main gate by a full turn-out of the younger male Jias. He enquired first after Grandmother Jia, and then they each greeted him in turn, dropping one knee to the ground, and followed him into the mansion. Lady Wang and the other ladies had assembled for a formal welcome in the Hall of Exalted Felicity, after which Jia Zheng went to pay his respects to Grandmother Jia in her private apartment. He told her all his news, and when she asked about Tan-chun, gave her a detailed account of the wedding.
‘I had to leave at short notice, and was unable to celebrate the Double Ninth festival with her. But although I did not see her then myself, some of her husband’s family came to visit me and told me that she was getting on very well there. Her father-in-law and mother-?in-law both send you their regards. They said that they might be moving to the capital this winter or next spring, which would cer?tainly be most welcome. But since these recent coastal disturbances, I very much doubt if they will be able to move so soon.’
Grandmother Jia had at first been most upset by the news of Jia Zheng’s demotion and return to the capital: apart from anything else it would mean that Tan-chun, who was living so far away from home, would be even more isolated from the family. But when Jia Zheng explained the favourable outcome of his audience with the Emperor, and set her mind at rest about Tan-chun, she cheered up considerably, and a smile could be seen on her face when she told him he could leave. Jia Zheng went next to see his brother, and then the younger men, and it was agreed that they would worship at the family ancestral shrine first thing the following day.
These duties performed, Jia Zheng retreated to his private apart?ment, where he spoke with Lady Wang and his other womenfolk, and then with Bao-yu, Jia Lan and Jia Huan. To his relief he observed a considerable improvement in Bao-yu, who seemed plumper and healthier than at the time of his departure for Kiangsi. He still knew nothing of the boy’s mental derangement, and this discernible outward improvement was a source of some satisfaction to him and a welcome antidote to his own anxieties. He dismissed any reservations he still had about the way in which Grandmother Jia had handled the wedding. Bao-chai too, he noticed, seemed more mature and poised than ever, while young Lan was growing into a fine, cultured young man. Jia Zheng was visibly pleased by what he saw. The only blot on the landscape was Jia Huan. He did not seem to have changed in the slightest, and still failed to arouse in his father any flicker of paternal affection or pride.
After a silence lasting several minutes Jia Zheng suddenly seemed to think of something.
‘There seems to be one person missing.’
Lady Wang knew he must be thinking of Dai-yu, whose death she had refrained from mentionmg in any of her letters; and as she did not wish to spoil the pleasure of his homecoming by breaking the news to him now, she replied that illness had prevented Dai-yu from being present. This act of deception cut Bao-yu to the quick, but he did his utmost to appear composed, out of respect for his father.
Lady Wang invited all the children and grandchildren to the welcoming feast, and they drank to the Master’s return. Xi-feng, although she was strictly the daughter-in-law of Jia She and Lady Xing, was also present by virtue of her role as manageress of the household, helping Bao-chai to pour the wine. Jia Zheng cut the party short, saying that after one more round they should all retire. The servants were also dismissed, with instructions to call on him the next day, after the ancestral sacrifice.
Jia Zheng and Lady Wang were at last alone and able to talk together. Lady Wang was still reluctant to broach any serious topic; when Jia Zheng referred to her brother Wang Zi-teng’s death, she did her best not to appear too distressed; and when he mentioned Xue Pan’s fresh calamities, her only comment was that he had brought them upon himself. At an opportune moment however she broke the news of Dai-yu’s death, which seemed to come as a great shock to Jia Zheng, and to affect him deeply. Tears stole down his cheeks, and he sighed several times. Lady Wang herself could no longer contain her tears. Suncloud and her other maids who were standing close by gave her dress a discreet tug, and she quickly composed herself and steered the conversation towards a more cheerful subject. Soon afterwards they went to bed.
Early next morning, a ceremony was performed in the ancestral shrine, in the presence of all the young male members of the family, and afterwards Jia Zheng received Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian in the gallery at the side of the shrine, where he asked them for a report of the household accounts, which Cousin Zhen supplied, albeit in a highly selective form.
‘As I have only just returned home,’ commented Jia Zheng, ‘I do not intend to subject you to an inquisition now, Zhen. But let me say this: while I have been away, I have heard it said that you have been allowing standards to slip. You must exercise the utmost diligence and caution. You are older than the other members of your genera?tion, and should set an example to the younger ones. There must be no offence caused to people outside. And that applies to you too, Lian. This is no routine homecoming homily. I have my reasons for warning you. There are things I have heard. I repeat: you must both be more careful in future.’
Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian were by now bright red in the face, and all they could muster was a feeble, ‘Yes, sir.’ Jia Zheng did not pursue the matter any further, but went in to his own reception hall, where all the menservants were waiting for him; thence he proceeded to the inner apartments, to be welcomed by all the maids and serving-women. But we will not describe these events in any great detail.

*

Our story returns to Bao-yu, and to the occasion on the previous day when he had been secretly so upset to hear Lady Wang speak of Dai-?yu’s ‘illness’. Jia Zheng had finally granted him permission to leave the family gathering, and he returned to his apartment. He arrived, having cried most of the way there, to find Bao-chai and Aroma chatting together, and went off at once into an outer room to be on his own and nurse his grief in private. Bao-chai told Aroma to take him some tea, and then decided to go out herself and join him, surmising that he was nervous of an impending confrontation with his father, when his failure to make any progress in his studies would be discovered (and no doubt punished). It was therefore her duty to offer him some comfort. Bao-yu turned the misunderstanding to his advantage:
‘It’s all right. You can go to bed. I just need some time to concen?trate and collect my thoughts. Lately my memory has been so poor, and there will be trouble if I make a fool of myself in front of Father. You go to sleep. Aroma can sit up and keep me company for a bit.’
Bao-chai thought it advisable to humour him, and nodded her assent. As soon as she was out of the way, Bao-yu went to find Aroma, and whispered in her ear:
‘Please will you ask Nightingale to come and see me? There’s something I need to speak to her about. You must explain to her how things really are. Maybe then she’ll stop being so angry with me.’
Aroma: ‘I thought I heard you say you wanted time to concentrate and collect your thoughts. But now look at you! What kind of concentration is this? Whatever you want to ask her can wait till tomorrow, surely?’
Bao-yu: ‘But I have this evening free. Tomorrow who knows what may happen? I may be sent for by Father, and then I won’t have a moment to myself. Dear Aroma! Go and do as I say, please!’
Aroma: ‘You know perfectly well she won’t come unless Mrs Bao sends for her.’
Bao-yu: ‘She might do, if you were to explain things to her first.’
Aroma: ‘But what do you want me to say?’
Bao-yu: ‘Surely by now you know what my feelings are, and why Nightingale has turned against me. It’s all because of Dai-yu. It’s all a big misunderstanding. You must convince Nightingale that I’m not the faithless monster she takes me for, that it’s you and the others who have made me seem like one to her!’
As he said this, he glanced towards the inner room, and pointing in that direction, continued:
‘I never wanted to marry her. It was forced on me by Grandmother and the rest. It was all a trick. It was they who drove Dai-yu to her death. They were to blame. If only I could have seen her once before she died and been able to tell her the truth! Instead, she died thinking that I had betrayed her! You heard yourself what Cousin Tan said; with her dying breath Dai-yu spoke of me with bitterness and re?sentment. That’s why Nightingale has set herself so violently against me – out of loyalty to her mistress.
‘Do you think I’m heartless? Think back to Skybright’s death. Skybright was only my maid, and not as dear to me as Dai-yu; but even so, when she died I wrote a funeral ode for her and made an offering to her spirit – there’s no need to keep it a secret from you any longer. Dai-yu witnessed it with her own eyes. Now she herself is dead; and is she to be ranked lower than Skybright? But I haven’t been able to make her an offering of any kind. Won’t her spirit see this as further proof of my heartlessness? Won’t she feel greater bitterness towards me than ever?’
Aroma: ‘I don’t understand. If you want to write an ode and make an offering, then go ahead. Who’s stopping you?’
Bao-yu: ‘I’ve wanted to ever since I’ve been better. But somehow I seem to have lost all inspiration. For another person I might have been content with something uninspired. But for Dai-yu nothing but the very purest and the very best will do. That’s why I must see Nightingale. I want to ask her what she can tell me of her mistress’s feelings; I want to find out exactly how she came by that knowledge. I can remember what it was like before I fell ill. I can remember Dai?yu’s feelings towards me then. But from that time onwards, every?thing becomes a blur in my mind. Didn’t you tell me that her health had improved? Then why did death come so quickly? What did she say when I didn’t visit her, while she was still well? And then when I fell ill, did she ever say why she never came to see me? I managed to get her belongings brought over here, but Mrs Bao won’t let me touch them. I don’t understand why.’
Aroma: ‘Because she’s afraid it will only upset you. Why else?’
Bao-yu: ‘I don’t believe that. There must be more to it. Then again, if Dai-yu cared about me, or missed me, why did she burn her poems before she died? Surely she would have left them for me as a memento? It’s all so confusing. And what about the music that was heard in the air when she died? She must have become a fairy, or risen to heaven in the form of an immortal. If it comes to that, I don’t even know if she’s really dead. I’ve only seen the coffin; how can I be sure that she is still inside it?’
Aroma: ‘Honestly! You get more ridiculous with every word! Are you trying to suggest that she could have been put in the coffin while she was still alive, and then somehow climbed out of it?’
Bao-yu: ‘No. I meant something quite different. You see, if humans achieve immortality, there are two ways in which they can depart from this world: either they go in the flesh, in their earthly form, or they may discard their bodies, and their etheric body is then magically transported to another realm. Oh, Aroma, please help me! Tell Nightingale to come!’
Aroma: ‘You’ll have to wait till I’ve had a chance to explain all this to her properly. Then, if she agrees to come, well and good. If not, I can see I shall have to try again and have another long talk with her, and even after that, supposing she does come, she probably won’t be prepared to say much to you. If you want my advice, you should at least wait till tomorrow. In the morning when Mrs Bao goes in to see Her Old Ladyship I’ll have a word with Nightingale. We might get somewhere that way. I’ll come back as soon as I’ve spoken to her and tell you how it went.’
Bao-yu: ‘I suppose you’re right. But you don’t know how im?patient I feel.’
At this point, Musk appeared:
‘Mrs Bao says, it’s already well past midnight, and will you go in to bed now, Mr Bao. Aroma must have got carried away chatting to you, and forgotten the time…
‘Goodness, it is late!’ exclaimed Aroma. ‘Time to go to sleep. If there’s anything else, it can wait till the morning.’
Bao-yu rose reluctantly to go in to the bedroom, whispering in Aroma’s ear as he passed by:
‘Be sure not to forget tomorrow, whatever you do!’
‘Of course I won’t!’ said Aroma with a smile.
‘You two at it again!’ said Musk, touching her cheek at Aroma in a saucy fashion. Then, to Bao-yu: ‘Why don’t you just go straight to Mrs Bao and tell her that you’d like to sleep with Aroma? Then the two of you can carry on “talking” till dawn. None of us will interfere, you needn’t worry.’
Bao-yu raised his hand:
‘That is quite uncalled for, Musk!’
‘Little hussy!’ said Aroma heatedly. ‘Always having your little dig! You’d better look out! One of these days I’ll rip that nasty little tongue of yours out of your mouth for good!’ Turning to Bao-yu, she continued:
‘Now see what you’ve done! This is all your fault. Keeping me up talking like this till one o’clock in the morning…’
She escorted him into his room and then went her separate way to bed.
Bao-yu was unable to sleep that night, and in the morning was still preoccupied with the same gloomy thoughts.
The new day began with an announcement from outside:
‘The Master’s family and friends have expressed a wish to hold a theatre-party to welcome him home. The Master however is insistent that plays would be inappropriate on this occasion; instead he will give a simple party at home, to which all family and friends are invited. The date has been set for the day after tomorrow. This is the preliminary announcement.’
To learn who was invited, please read the next chapter.

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