The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 113

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CHAPTER 113

Xi-feng repents of her former misdeeds, and entrusts
her child to a village dame
Nightingale softens a long-standing animosity,
and warms to her besotted master

After the departure of most of the family from the temple, Aunt Zhao grew more delirious than ever, and those who had remained with her listened aghast. Two serving-women attempted to support her where she knelt on the ground, one minute raving incoherently, the next sobbing her heart out in anguish. Then she grovelled and began begging for mercy:
‘Oh Great Lord Red Beard! You’re killing me! I’ll never be so wicked again!’
She wrung her hands and howled in agony. Her eyes bulged out of their sockets, blood gushed from her mouth, her hair was wildly dishevelled. She was a terrifying sight, and no one now dared go near her.
By evening her voice began to grow hoarse and she sounded more and more like a croaking harpy. None of the women could bear to be in her presence, and they deputed some of the more courageous menfolk to come in and keep watch on her. One minute she seemed to be gone, then she came round again, and so it went on all night. By the next morning she was incapable of speech, her face was horribly contorted and she began rending her clothes and baring her bosom, as if someone else was stripping her naked. She was now totally inarticulate, and the torment she was undergoing was terrible to behold.
She seemed to have reached a final crisis, when the doctor arrived. He would not take her pulse, but gave orders at once for her last things to be made ready and himself prepared to leave without further ado. The servant who had brought him entreated him to stay and take her pulse, so that he could at least return with a satisfactory report to his master, and in the end the doctor relented. He felt her pulse once, and pronounced that there was no sign of life. Hearing this, Jia Huan burst out wailing, and immediately everyone’s atten?tion was turned to him and no one spared another thought for Aunt Zhao, lying dead on the kang, her feet bare, her hair in disarray. Only Aunt Zhou seemed affected.
‘Such is the end of a concubine!’ she thought morbidly to herself. ‘And she even bore the Master a son. Who knows what sort of a death mine will be!’
The servant meanwhile hurried back to inform Jia Zheng, who sent a man to attend to Aunt Zhao’s funeral arrangements and to stay on with Jia Huan at the temple for three days, after which they were both to return. The accepted version of Aunt Zhao’s death was that she had been called before the Infernal Tribunal and tortured to death for her wilful attempt to injure the lives of others. A speedy end was also predicted for Xi-feng, since Aunt Zhao had named her as her own accuser in the Nether World.
When this last piece of gossip reached the ears of Patience, she was most distressed. Her mistress did indeed seem beyond hope of re?covery, and to make matters worse, Jia Lian had recently made it plain that he had no scrap of affection left for his wife. He was now more preoccupied than ever, and appeared completely unconcerned by Xi-feng’s illness. Patience did her best to be cheerful with Xi-?feng; but Ladies Xing and Wang, although they had been back from the temple for several days, had neither of them paid her a personal visit, and had only sent a maid to enquire after her health. Their coldness intensified Xi-feng’s misery, as did the fact that Jia Lian on his return had not so much as a kind word for her.
All Xi-feng wanted now was to die a quick death, and this made her a prey to all manner of evil spirits. On one occasion she saw the figure of You Er-jie slowly approaching her bed from the back of the room.
‘It is so long since we last met, sister!’ said the apparition. ‘I’ve thought a great deal about you, but it’s been impossible for me to come and see you. Now I’ve managed to do so at last, and I find you reduced to this extremity. Lian is too much of a fool to appreciate what you’ve done for him, and instead he complains how mean you are, and says that you’re ruining his career and making him feel thoroughly ashamed. I can’t bear to see you treated so!’
‘I myself have come to regret my own small-mindedness,’ mumbled Xi-feng in reply. ‘Dear sister! It is so kind of you to visit me like this, and to put past grievances behind you!’
Patience was standing at her side and heard her speaking.
‘What was that, ma’am?’ she asked.
Xi-feng suddenly awoke and recalled at once that You Er-jie was dead. This must be her spirit seeking the life of her tormentor in vengeance. Now that Patience had woken her, she felt scared but at the same time reluctant to confess her fear. She tried somewhat shakily to compose herself.
‘I’m just feeling a little unsettled,’ she said to Patience. ‘I think I must have been talking in my sleep. Will you come and give me a rub?’
Patience climbed up onto the kang and had just started pummelling her when a junior maid came in and announced that Grannie Liu had come, and was being brought in by the serving-women to pay her respects to Mrs Lian.
‘Where is she?’ asked Patience, getting down anxiously from the kang.
‘She didn’t presume to come straight in,’ replied the maid. ‘She is waiting for Mrs Lian’s instructions.’
Patience nodded. She thought that Xi-feng would feel too weak to receive visitors, and said to the maid:
‘Mrs Lian needs to have a rest. Tell Grannie Liu to wait a while. Did you ask her what she has come about?’
‘They have already asked her,’ replied the maid, ‘and she said she has come on no particular business. She has only just learned of Her Old Ladyship’s death. She would have come before if she had known sooner.’
Xi-feng had overheard them, and called Patience over:
‘If someone has had the kindness to call, we must not appear rude or unappreciative. Go and ask Grannie Liu to come in. I should like to talk to her.’
Patience reluctantly complied, and went out herself to fetch Grannie Liu. As soon as she left the room, Xi-feng began to drift off to sleep again, and as her eyes closed she saw another apparition -this time a man and a woman walking towards the kang. It seemed they were about to climb up onto it, and she called out in alarm for Patience:
‘There’s a man coming towards me!’
Her cries brought Felicity and Crimson rushing to her bedside.
‘What do you want, ma’am?’
Xi-feng opened her eyes. The figures had vanished. She knew they must be spectres come to haunt her, but again could not bring herself to say so in front of the maids.
‘Where’s that wretched Patience got to?’ she asked.
‘Didn’t you send her to fetch Grannie Liu?’
Xi-feng lay still for a while in silence to recover her spirits. Pres?ently Patience returned with Grannie Liu, who had brought a little girl with her and was asking:
‘And where’s our Mrs Lian?’
Patience led her up to the kang.
‘Good day, ma’am,’ said Grannie Liu.
Xi-feng opened her eyes, and as she looked at the old dame, she felt strangely moved.
‘How are you, Grannie?’ she asked. ‘Why has it been so long since you last came to see us? How big your granddaughter has grown!’
Grannie Liu was most distressed to see the state Xi-feng was in -as thin as a stick, and evidently confused in her mind.
‘Why, Mrs Lian!’ she exclaimed. ‘To think that in the few months since last I was here you could have fallen so ill! I’m a foolish old baggage and deserve to die for not having visited you sooner!’
She told little Qing-er to come up and pay her respects, but the girl only giggled. Xi-feng thought what a sweet child she was, and told Crimson to take charge of her.
‘We country folk never fall ill,’ pronounced Grannie Liu. ‘If happen we should, then we pray to the gods and make our vows. We never take medicines and the like. I’m wondering now if you mightn’t have fallen foul of some evil spirit, to have taken ill like this, ma’am?’
Patience was aware that Grannie Liu’s rustic superstitions were ill-timed, and gave her a meaningful tug from the rear. The old dame interpreted this correctly and fell silent. But her words had in fact found an echo in Xi-feng’s own thoughts.
‘Grannie, dear,’ she said, speaking with a great effort, ‘you’re a lady with years of experience, and what you say is true. Did you know that Aunt Zhao had died too? You met her when you were here, didn’t you?’
‘Holy Name!’ exclaimed the old lady in the greatest surprise. ‘Fancy her dying, just like that! She was such a sturdy body. And she’d a young son if I recall – what will become of him?’
‘He’ll be all right,’ Patience consoled her. ‘He still has the Master and Lady Wang to look after him.’
‘That’s as may be,’ replied Grannie Liu gravely. ‘But can you be so sure, miss? I mean, it’s his own mother – however bad she may have been – as has died. Nobody can ever take a mother’s place.’
This coincided with another of Xi-feng’s keenest anxieties, and she broke down and began sobbing. They all rallied round to comfort her.
When Qiao-jie heard her mother in such distress, she came to the kang, held her hand and burst into tears herself.
‘Have you said hello to Grannie Liu?’ asked Xi-feng tearfully.
‘No, Mama.’
‘She gave you your name, and is like a foster-mother to you. Give her a curtsey now.’
Qiao-jie went across to Grannie Liu and was about to curtsey when Grannie Liu seized her and said:
‘Holy Precious Name! Don’t you go weighing me down with such honours – it’ll carry me to my grave! Miss Qiao-jie, it’s over a year since I last was here; do you still remember me?’
‘Of course I do! That time when I saw you in the Garden I was still a very little girl. But I remember two years ago I asked you to bring me some big crickets. I can see you haven’t brought me any. You must have forgotten.’
‘Oh missie!’ exclaimed Grannie Liu. ‘What a silly old soul I am! If you want crickets we’ve enough and to spare at home. But you never come and visit us. If you came, you could bring home a cartload of crickets if you so wanted.’
‘In that case,’ put in Xi-feng, ‘why not take her home with you for a visit?’
‘How could I possibly, ma’am?’ said Grannie Liu laughing. ‘Such a fine gentle young lady that’s grown up wrapped in silks and satins and used to dainty things to eat – why, what would I give her to play with at home? What would I feed her with? Would you have me die of shame?’
She cackled and went on:
‘Mind you, I could act as a matchmaker for the young lady. Ours may only be a village, but we’ve wealthy folk there all the same, with land that spreads for thousands of acres around and hundreds of cattle and a fair bit of money too. Nothing to compare with the treasure you’ve got here, of course. In fact come to think of it you’d probably not so much as glance at such folk really, ma’am. But to us country people they’re dwellers in heaven!’
‘By all means go ahead and propose the match,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I should be only too pleased to give Qiao-jie in marriage to such a family.’
‘Come, ma’am, you must be joking. Why, I dare say you’d be fussy about some great official family that lived in a big mansion, let alone simple country people. And even if you were willing, I hardly think Their Ladyships would be!’
Qiao-jie found the conversation embarrassing and had gone off somewhere to talk to Qing-er. The two girls were soon chatting away together, and gradually struck up a friendship.
Patience was worried that Grannie Liu’s endless ramblings would wear Xi-feng out, and presently she took her aside and said:
‘Speaking of Her Ladyship, you still haven’t been to call on her. I’ll find someone to take you over there. It would be a great pity not to see her now that you’re here.’
Grannie Liu was about to set off, but Xi-feng called her back:
‘What’s the great hurry? Sit down, I want to talk to you. Tell me how things have been at home.’
Grannie Liu thanked Xi-feng profusely for her kind concern.
‘If it weren’t for your help, ma’am,’ she began, pointing at Qing-er, ‘her ma and pa would have starved to death by now. Life is still hard (how could it be otherwise for country folk?), but they’ve been able to scrape together an acre or two and put down a well and grow some vegetables and fruits and gourds. With the money they get every year for the produce, they manage to keep body and soul together. And what with the clothes and material you’ve been sending us so regularly these past two years, ma’am, we’re thought of as among the more comfortably off in our village. Holy Name! I re?member the day when Qing-er’s father came into town and heard the news that your family had been raided by the Embroidered Jackets, ma’am. When he came home and told me, I nearly died of the shock! Then later someone else told me it wasn’t our side of the family after all – I was so relieved! Afterwards I heard about Sir Zheng being promoted and was so pleased I wanted to come straight here to offer my congratulations. But we had so much to do on the land that I couldn’t get away. And then yesterday I heard that Her Old Ladyship had passed away! I was bringing in the beans, and I was that shocked I couldn’t go on, I just had to sit down on the ground and cry my heart out. I said to my son-in-law: “I don’t care what you say, it may be true or it may just be a rumour, but either way I’m going into town to find out for myself!” They’re not a bad sort, my daughter and her man, and they wet their eyes too when they heard the news. So this morning they saw me off and I left before first light and came here as quick as I could. There was no one to ask on the way and I couldn’t get any news, so I came straight here to the back gate and when I saw the door-gods all pasted over with white I got the shock of my life. I tried finding Mrs Zhou, but there was no sign of her. Then I ran into a young lady who told me Mrs Zhou was in trouble and had been given the sack. I waited for ages before I saw someone I knew and was able to come in. I’d no idea you were so sick too, ma’am!’
Grannie Liu was in tears. The distressing effect she was having on Xi-feng made Patience anxious, and she drew her aside before she could say any more:
‘Now, Grannie, after all this talking your mouth must be awfully dry. How about a nice cup of tea?’
She took her off into one of the maids’ rooms, while Qing-er continued playing in Qiao-jie’s room.
‘I really don’t want any tea,’ protested Grannie Liu. ‘Please, miss, can someone take me over to Her Ladyship’s now? I’d like to pay my respects and mourn for Her Old Ladyship.’
‘There’s no hurry,’ said Patience. ‘It will be too late for you to leave this evening anyway. I was afraid you would upset Mrs Lian with all your talking. That’s why I hurried you out. I hope you won’t take offence.’
‘Holy Name! How very thoughtful of you, miss! But how is Mrs Lian ever going to get better?’
‘Does it look serious to you?’ asked Patience.
‘Maybe I shouldn’t say this,’ replied Grannie Liu, ‘but to me it looks very nasty.’
They heard Xi-feng calling and Patience hurried to her bedside. Xi-feng said nothing further, however, and Patience was just asking Felicity what the trouble was when they were interrupted by the arrival of Jia Lian. He glanced at the kang where Xi-feng lay, then without a word stomped into the inner room, uttered a series of exasperated grunts and sat down. Autumn was the only one to follow him in. She poured his tea and waited on him attentively, whispering something in his ear. Jia Lian summoned Patience and asked her:
‘Isn’t Mrs Lian taking medicine?’
‘What if she isn’t?’
‘Oh, how should I know? Bring me the key to the chest.’
The blackness of his mood was more evident than ever to Patience. She restrained herself from saying anything in reply, but went out and whispered in Xi-feng’s ear. Xi-feng was silent. Patience fetched a casket, placed it by Jia Lian’s side and walked away.
‘Where are you off to in such a damned hurry?’ snapped Jia Lian. ‘Aren’t you going to take the key out for me, now that you’ve dumped the thing there?’
Patience tried not to react. She opened the casket, took out the key and opened the chest with it. Then she asked:
‘What do you want from it?’
‘What have we got in there?’
Patience finally broke down. Half angrily, half tearfully she begged Jia Lan:
‘Please, won’t you tell us what the matter is? It’s not fair to keep us in this dreadful suspense…
‘What is there to say? You’re the ones who caused this trouble in the first place. Now we owe four or five thousand taels for Grand?mother’s funeral, and Uncle Zheng has told me to mortgage some family property to raise the money. Do you imagine we’ve anything left to mortgage? It’s going to look pretty bad if we can’t meet our debts. I never asked to do this. I shall just have to pawn the things Grandmother gave me. Well, what’s the matter with you? Don’t you agree?’
Patience did not say a word, but started taking everything out of the chest. Crimson came up to her:
‘Come quickly! Mrs Lian has been taken bad!’
Patience hurried in, forgetting Jia Lian entirely, and found Xi-?feng waving her arms wildly in the air. She tried to hold her down, calling out to her tearfully. Even Jia Lian now came in to have a look. He stamped his foot and cried:
‘This will be the death of me!’
Tears started to his eyes. Felicity came m:
‘You’re wanted outside, sir.’
Jia Lian checked himself and went out.
Xi-feng was weakening with every minute, and Felicity and the other maids began wailing and sobbing. Qiao-jie heard and came running in, followed by Grandmother Liu, who hurried over to the kang and began muttering prayers to the Buddha and a lot of other mumbo-jumbo, which appeared to rally Xi-feng’s spirits a little. Presently Lady Wang arrived, having heard the news from a maid; by this time Xi-feng was more peaceful; and Lady Wang saw no undue cause for concern. She greeted Grannie Liu and asked her how long she had been at Rong-guo House. Grannie Liu returned the greeting and immediately began talking at some length about Xi-?feng’s illness. After a while Suncloud appeared with a message that her mistress was wanted by Sir Zheng, whereupon Lady Wang gave Patience a few instructions and left.
After her bad spell, Xi-feng’s mind seemed to grow clearer. She saw Grannie Liu in the room once more, and began to feel a growing faith in the efficacy of the old dame’s prayers. She told Felicity and the others to leave them alone and, calling Grannie Liu over to the side of her bed, confided to her that she felt very troubled at heart and was constantly seeing spirits. Grannie Liu replied that in her home village there was a certain miraculous Bodhisattva, and a certain temple where prayers were always answered.
‘I beseech you to pray for me,’ said Xi-feng. ‘If you need money for offerings, I can provide it for you.’
She slipped a golden bracelet off her wrist and gave it to Grannie Liu.
‘There’s no need of that,’ said Grannie Liu. ‘If we country-folk make a vow, we give a few hundred cash when we get better – no need for anything as grand as this. If I go and pray for you, that will be your vow, ma’am, and when you’re better you can go yourself and give what you want.’
Xi-feng knew that Grannie Liu was sincere, and did not try to press the bracelet on her.
‘My life is in your hands, Grannie!’ she said. ‘My little girl also is pursued by countless ailments and afflictions. I entrust her to you as well.’
Grannie Liu readily agreed.
‘I really ought to be going if I’m to catch the gates,’ she said. ‘There’s still just time. In a day or two, when you’re better, you can come and offer thanks.’
Xi-feng’s soul was beleaguered by the spirits of those she had harmed during her lifetime, and she was eager for the old lady to go and pray for her:
‘Do your best for me. If I can only get some peaceful sleep, I shall be so grateful to you. You can leave your granddaughter here.’
‘But she’s only a country lass, and has no manners,’ protested Grannie Lu. ‘I’m afraid she’ll only make trouble here. I’d better take her with me.
‘Don’t you worry. She is one of the family, it will be quite all right. We may be hard up, but I think we can feed one extra mouth.’
Grannie Liu could tell that Xi-feng meant what she said, and for her part she was only too pleased to let Qing-er stay with the Jias a few days and save a little at home. The only problem was that Qing-er herself might not be willing. She decided to call her over and offer her the choice, and soon discovered that the two girls had become firm friends, that Qiao-jie was most reluctant to let Qing-er go, and that Qing-er herself was eager to stay. The old lady gave her grandchild a few parting words of advice, said goodbye to Patience and hurried out, anxious to reach the city gates before they closed. And there our narrative must leave her.

*

Green Bower Hermitage was built on Jia family land, and when Prospect Garden was created for the Visitation, the site of the Hermitage was included within the Garden’s precincts. But as a religious establishment it had always been self-supporting, and had never been dependent on Jia family charity. The nuns in residence had reported Adamantina’s calamity to the authorities and were waiting for them to apprehend the criminals. Meanwhile, since their community belonged to Adamantina, they resolved to stay where they were, and informed the Jias to this effect.
Although the household staff all knew of Adamantina’s disappear?ance, they had not wanted to trouble Jia Zheng with such a matter at a time when he was in mourning and had a great deal else on his mind. In fact Xi-chun was the only one of the family to know about it at first, and was in a state of constant anxiety and suspense on Adamantina’s behalf. Then the story, or rather two versions of it, reached Bao-yu’s ears; according to one she had been kidnapped, according to the other she had succumbed to the temptations of the flesh and eloped of her own free will with a lover. ‘She must have been kidnapped,’ Bao-yu thought to himself in great perplexity. ‘A person like her would never have acquiesced in such a thing. She would rather have died!’ As time went by there was still no news of her whereabouts, however, and every day Bao-yu sighed sadly to himself, reluctant to believe that Adamantina of all people, the self-styled ‘Dweller Beyond the Threshold’ of this world, could have come to so worldly an end. His thoughts ran on to the happier days they had shared in the Garden and the more troubled times that had followed: ‘Since Ying left home, some of my cousins have died, others have been married. Somehow I always thought that if there was one absolutely pure and incorruptible person among us, it was Adamantina. But now this sudden storm of calamity has blown up out of nowhere, and a death stranger than Dai-yu’s has taken her away!’ As he pursued this train of thought to its logical conclusion, a line from Zhuang-zi came into his mind: ‘This life, this insubstantial tissue of vanity, floats like a cloud on the wind!’ With this he burst into tears, and Aroma, who thought it was another of his fits, en?deavoured to comfort him with tender words of affection.
At first Bao-chai could not imagine what had upset him, and she admonished him in her usual fashion. But when he continued depressed despite her efforts and remained in an apparent state of trance for days on end, she became greatly perplexed and eventually, after making persistent enquiries, discovered the truth. She was herself greatly distressed to learn of Adamantina’s disappearance, but her concern for Bao-yu tempered her grief, and she rallied him again briskly:
‘Look at young Lan now: I’ve heard that he’s been hard at work ever since he returned from the funeral! He hasn’t been going to school, but day and night he pores over his books at home on his own. And he’s only Lady Jia’s great-grandson! You’re her grandson; she had such high hopes for you. And Father worries day and night about you. And yet you indulge yourself and ruin your health over some trifle, some silly piece of sentimentality. We depend on you. What will happen to all of us, if you carry on like this?’
There was little Bao-yu could say in answer to this. After a long silence he finally came out with:
‘But it’s not a trifle! It’s a tragedy! It’s the decline of our entire family that I’m lamenting!’
‘Listen to you!’ retorted Bao-chai. ‘The one thing Father and Mother want is that you should do well and be a credit to the family. If you persist in this folly, how can the family fortunes ever hope to improve?’
Her words received a most unsympathetic reception from Bao-yu, who proceeded to lean over the table and doze off. Bao-chai ignored him, and went to bed, telling Musk and the others to wait on him.
Bao-yu soon awoke, and noticed how few people were left in the room with him.
‘I’ve never had a proper talk with Nightingale since she was transferred to our apartment,’ he thought to himself. ‘She probably thinks I’ve been very cold. I feel very bad about it. I can’t treat her like Musk or Ripple – they’re easy to deal with. Nightingale’s differ?ent. I remember how she kept me company all those times I was ill -I still have the little mirror she left. She must have felt something for me then, but somehow whenever we meet now, she’s very distant and cold. Surely it can’t be because of Chai; she and Dai-yu were the closest of friends, and she always treats Nightingale kindly too. When I’m not at home, in fact, she and Nightingale often talk and laugh together. But the moment I walk in, Nightingale leaves the room. It must be because my wedding took place at the very time when Dai-?yu was dying … Oh Nightingale! Nightingale! Surely a clever girl like you can see the anguish that I suffer!’
His thoughts ran on:
‘This is my chance, while they are all asleep or busy sewing, to find Nightingale and have a talk with her. I’ll see what she has to say, and if there’s still some way in which I have caused offence, I can try to make it up with her.’
He stole quietly out of the room and went in search of Night?ingale.
She was living in a maid’s room in the west wing. Bao-yu crept up to one of the windows, and seeing that there was still a light burning inside, used the tip of his tongue to moisten a spy-hole in the window-paper and peep through. He saw her sitting idly on her own by the lamp.
‘Nightingale!’ he whispered. ‘Are you still awake?’
Nightingale was startled and sat there stunned for a few moments before asking:
‘Who’s there?’
‘It’s me!’ replied Bao-yu.
Nightingale thought she recognized Bao-yu’s voice.
‘Is it you, Mr Bao?’
‘Yes!’ whispered Bao-yu, to which Nightingale replied:
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’ve something private to talk to you about. Let me in and we can sit and have a chat.’
After a pause, Nightingale replied:
‘What do you want to talk about? It’s getting late. Please go back to your room now. You can tell me about it in the morning.’
Bao-yu was very disheartened. If he persisted in his efforts, he was afraid Nightingale would bar the door to him; on the other hand, if he went back, how would the emotions that seethed within him find an outlet, emotions that his short exchange with Nightingale had only served to intensify? He made one last attempt to talk her round:
‘I haven’t a great deal to say. Just one question to ask.’
‘Well, if it’s only one question, go ahead.’
Bao-yu, however, now suddenly found himself quite bereft of the power of speech, and a long silence ensued. Nightingale, on her side of the window, began to find his silence worrying. She knew his tendency to have fits, and feared that her brusque manner might have caused one of his relapses. She stood up and after listening carefully for a moment, asked:
‘Have you gone, or are you still standing there gawping? Why don’t you speak your mind instead of spending your time driving people to distraction? You’ve already driven one person to death; do you want to drive another? It’s all so senseless!’
She peeped back at Bao-yu through the spy-hole. There he was, standing, listening to her with a trance-like expression on his face. She felt it advisable to say no more, and walked back and began trimming her lamp. Suddenly she heard Bao-yu sigh:
‘Oh Nightingale! You’ve never been as cold as this before! Why have you not had a single good word for me recently? I know I’m a sorry specimen of humanity, too impure to merit any real respect. But I still wish you’d tell me what it is that I’ve done wrong. Then I could endure being shunned by you for the rest of my life. At least I could die knowing my faults.’
Nightingale sniffed scornfully.
‘Is that all you had to say? Isn’t there anything new? I know all that by heart. I heard enough of that when Miss Lin was alive. But if I’ve done anything wrong, you should take your complaints to Her Ladyship. She’s the one who told me to wait on you. We’re only maids anyway, what do we count for?’
She started sobbing and snivelling. Bao-yu knew that she was suffering too, and he stamped his foot in frustration.
‘How can you talk like that? After being here all these months, surely you must know what’s on my mind? And if none of the others will speak for me, won’t you let me tell you myself? Do you want me to go on bottling it up inside for ever, and choke to death?’
He too began sobbing his heart out, when a voice was heard behind him, Saying:
‘Who, pray, should speak for you? Why drag others into it? You’ve offended her, so you jolly well make it up. It’s up to her to decide whether she’ll forgive you. Why put the blame on nobodies like us?’
Both Bao-yu on the outside of the window and Nightingale on the inside were greatly startled by this intruder – who turned out to be Musk. Bao-yu felt most embarrassed, as Musk continued:
‘What is going on here? One grovelling for forgiveness, the other refusing to take any notice. Come on now, you hurry up and apologize; and as for you, Nightingale, you’re being altogether too cruel! It’s dreadfully cold out here, and he’s been pleading with you for ages and not had so much as a breath of a response!’
She turned to Bao-yu:
‘It’s late, and Mrs Bao’s been wondering where you are. To think that you’ve been here all along, standing out on your own under the eaves! What are you up to?’
‘Honestly!’ protested Nightingale from inside. ‘This is ridiculous! I simply asked him to go away. I told him that whatever he had to talk about could wait till the morning. What’s the sense in all this?’
Bao-yu still wanted to speak to Nightingale, but now that they were no longer alone, he felt too embarrassed to continue. He resigned himself to returning with Musk, saying as he walked away:
‘So be it! I shall never in this lifetime be able to prove my true feelings! Heaven alone will know the truth!’
Tears started suddenly to his eyes and rolled in torrents down his cheeks.
‘Mr Bao!’ said Musk. ‘Take my advice and put the whole thing out of your mind. You’re wasting your tears.’
Bao-yu followed her silently to his room. Bao-chai was lying asleep, or rather, as he judged, feigning sleep, but Aroma greeted him with a rebuke:
‘Couldn’t it have waited till tomorrow? Did you have to go storming out there and work yourself up into another…’
Whatever she had been about to Say, she thought better of it, and after a short pause went on to ask:
‘Are you sure you’re not feeling poorly?’
Bao-yu said nothing, but shook his head. Aroma put him to bed and it goes without saying that he spent a sleepless night.

*

Nightingale was most distressed by Bao-yu’s visit, and she too lay awake the whole of that night, weeping and reflecting deeply to herself:
‘It seems plain that the family conspired together and tricked him into the wedding at a time when he was too ill to understand. Then afterwards, when he knew what he had done, he suffered one of his attacks and that’s why he hasn’t been able to stop weeping and moping ever since. He’s obviously not the heartless, wicked person I took him for. Why, today his devotion was so touching, I felt really sorry for him. What a dreadful pity it is that our Miss Lin never had the fortune to be his bride! Such unions are clearly determined by fate. Until fate reveals itself, men continue to indulge in blind passion and fond imaginings; then, when the die is cast and the truth is known, the fools may remain impervious, but the ones who care deeply, the men of true sentiment, can only weep bitterly at the futility of their romantic attachments, at the tragedy of their earthly plight. She is dead and knows nothing; but he still lives, and there is no end to his suffering and torment. Better by far the destiny of plant or stone, bereft of knowledge and consciousness, but blessed at least with purity and peace of mind!’
These philosophical reflections cooled the feverish turmoil in Nightingale’s mind, and she was tidying up and preparing to go to bed, when she heard a great rumpus break out in the direction of Xi-?feng’s apartment to the east. But to discover what this portended, you must turn to the next chapter.

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