The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 116

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CHAPTER 116


Human destinies are revealed in a fairy realm,
and the Stone is restored to its rightful owner
Mortal remains are transported to their terrestrial home,
and duty is discharged by a filial son

Musk’s untimely reference to a sensitive episode from the past sent Bao-yu into a sudden swoon and he slumped back onto his bed once more. Lady Wang and the assembled family broke into a fresh bout of wailing and weeping, while Musk herself, realizing that her thoughtlessness was to blame for this terrible turn (though Lady Wang had not yet had time to scold her), began to weep and at the same time made a desperate resolution:
‘If Bao-yu dies, I shall take my own life and die with him!’
Lady Wang could see that this time none of their efforts to rouse Bao-yu was having any effect, and sent an urgent message to the monk, begging him to come to the rescue again. But the monk was nowhere to be seen. Jia Zheng had returned earlier to the hall, only to find that his eccentric guest had vanished into thin air. This fresh outcry from the inner apartment now reached Jia Zheng’s ears and he hurried back, to find Bao-yu unconscious again, teeth clenched and with no trace of a pulse. He felt his chest, and finding it still quite warm, sent in desperation for a doctor, to attempt resuscitation by forcing down a draught of some kind.
But Bao-yu’s spirit had already quit its mortal frame. Then that means he was dead, you say? The exact situation, dear Reader, was as follows: the spirit had flitted in its incorporeal fashion out to the reception hall, where it saw the jade-bearing monk and saluted him with a bow. The monk hurriedly rose to his feet, grasped the spirit by the hand and set off. Bao-yu (spirit) followed, light as a leaf drifting in the breeze. They made their way out not by the main entrance but by a route he failed to recognize, and presently they reached an open space, a wilderness, whence in the far distance he spied a strangely familiar monumental archway. He was on the point of asking the monk what it was, when a misty female form came gliding towards him.
‘What is a beautiful creature like that doing in such a desolate place as this?’ Bao-yu asked himself. ‘She must be some goddess come to earth.’
He approached her and looked more closely. Her face was as familiar as the archway had been, but somehow he was unable to remember exactly who she was. She greeted the monk, and then in an instant vanished from view. In that same instant Bao-yu knew who it was that she resembled: You San-jie. More puzzled than ever (for what could she be doing here?), he wanted to question the monk. But before he could do so, the monk was leading him by the hand on through the archway. On the lintel of the arch were inscribed in large characters the words:

THE PARADISE OF TRUTH

A couplet in smaller characters ran down on either side:

When Fiction departs and Truth appears,
Truth prevails;
Though Not-real was once Real, the Real
is never unreal.

Having negotiated the archway, they presently came to the gate of a palace, above which ran a horizontal inscription:

Blessing for the Virtuous; Misfortune for the Wicked

whilst the following words were inscribed vertically on the two sides:

Human Wit can ne’er unveil the Mysteries of Time,
Nor closest Kin defy the Stern Decrees of Fate.

‘So …’ thought Bao-yu to himself. ‘It is time I began to learn more about the operation of fate.’ Even as this thought was passing through his mind, he saw (of all people) Faithful standing a little way off, beckoning and calling to him.
‘All this time and I’m still at home in the Garden!’ he reflected in astonishment. ‘But why is it so changed?’
He hurried forward to speak to Faithiul, but a second later she too had vanished and he was left standing there, more perplexed than ever. He continued to advance towards the place where Faithful had been, and as he did so he observed a range of buildings on either side of him, and above the entrance to each building a board proclaiming its name. He felt no great inclination to inspect any of these buildings closely, but hurried on in quest of Faithful. The entrance beyond the spot where she had stood was ajar, but he did not dare to enter, thinking he should consult his guide first. And yet when he turned to find him, the monk had vanished. The buildings all around him suddenly seemed very grand, and it began to occur to Bao-yu that perhaps this was not Prospect Garden after all. He stood still and raised his head to read the words above the doorway immediately in front of him:

AWAKEN FROM LOVE’S FOLLY

The couplet on either side ran:

Smiles of gladness, tears of woe, all are false;
Every lust and every longing stems from folly.

Bao-yu nodded his head and sighed. He still wanted to enter the doorway and go in search of Faithful, to ask her what this place was that he had come to. He felt a growing certainty that he had been here on some previous occasion. Finally he plucked up the courage to push the door open, and went in. There was no sign whatsoever of Faithful. It was pitch dark inside and he was about to give in to fear and retrace his steps when his eyes discerned, looming in the darkness, the shapes of a dozen large cupboards, their doors appar?ently pushed to but unlocked. A sudden realization swept over him:
‘I know I’ve been somewhere like this before. I remember it now. It was in a dream. What a blessing this is, to return to the scene of my childhood dream!’
Somehow in his confusion his original intention of finding Faithful had gone, giving way to a new and more generalized curiosity about what lay before him. He plucked up his courage again and opened the door of the first cupboard. Within it he saw a number of albums, and a thrill of excited delight ran through him.
‘People always say that dreams are false,’ he thought to himself. ‘But it seems that this one was real! How often I’ve wished I could dream that dream of mine again! And now here I am, and my wish is coming true. I wonder if these are the very albums I saw?’
Stretching out his hand he took the top one, and held it in his hand. It bore the label ‘Jinling, Twelve Beauties of, Main Register.
‘I do remember seeing this,’ he thought to himself. ‘I think I do… If only I could remember more clearly!’
He opened it at the first page, and found himself looking at a picture, but one that was so blurred he could hardly tell what it represented. There followed a few rows of characters, written in an almost indecipherable hand, among which he could faintly trace the forms of ‘jade belt’ (dai yu) and ‘greenwood’ (lin).
‘Surely that must be a riddle for Cousin Lin?’ he thought to himself, and read on in earnest. The next line contained the words ‘the gold pin beneath the snow (xue)’.
‘Why that’s Bao-chai’s surname!’ he exclaimed aloud.
He read to the end of the fourth and last line.
‘It doesn’t seem to say very much. It’s just a series of riddles on the names Lin Dai-yu and Xue Bao-chai. There’s nothing very ex?ceptional about that. But some of the phrases sound rather ominous. I wonder what it’s all supposed to mean?
‘Silly me! I’m not really supposed to be here at all,’ he rebuked himself. ‘If I spend my time daydreaming like this and someone comes, I’ll have wasted my chance to look through the rest.’
He continued his inspection of the albums. He did not allow himself time to linger over the next picture, but went straight to the poem, which ended with the words:

When hare meets tiger, your great dream shall end.

They brought a sudden burst of illumination:
‘What a brilliant prediction! It must refer to the death of my eldest sister. If they are all as clear as this, I should copy them down and study them carefully. That way I can find out everything about my sisters and cousins, how long they’re going to live, whether they will fail or succeed in life, be wealthy or poor. At home I shall have to keep my knowledge a secret of course. But my inside information will at least save me a lot of unnecessary worrying ..’
He looked everywhere for writing implements, but could see neither brush nor inkstone, and fearing that someone might surprise him, he hurriedly scanned through the rest of the album. The next leaf bore an impressionistic representation of a figure flying a kite. He did not feel in the mood to dwell on the pictures but quickly read the remaining poems in the set of twelve. In some cases he was able to grasp the hidden meaning at a first reading, others required a moment’s reflection, while some remained obstinately unintelligible. He committed all of them carefully to memory none the less. With a sigh he took out the next album, labelled ‘Supplementary Register No. 1’, and began to read. He stopped at the lines:

You chose the player fortune favoured,
Unmindful of your master’s doom.

At first they meant nothing to him. Then he studied the accompanying picture, a bunch of flowers and a mat painted in the same im?pressionistic style as the kite-flying girl. Suddenly he burst into tears.(* See Volume I, Appendix.)
He was about to read further, when he heard a voice saying:
‘Daydreaming again! Come now, Cousin Lin wants to see you.’
The voice was very like Faithful’s, but when he turned to look, to his great bewilderment there was no one there. Then suddenly he saw Faithful again, standing outside the doorway and beckoning to him. He ran out after her in delight, but her shadowy form drifted constantly ahead of him and he was unable to overtake her.
‘Dear Faithful! Please wait for me!’ he cried.
She took no notice but hurried on ahead, while he ran panting after her. Suddenly another vista loomed in front of him, of high buildings and intricately carved roofs, among which he could dimly perceive the figures of palace ladies. In his eagerness to explore this new realm Bao-yu forgot Faithful completely. Wandering in through one of the gateways, he found himself among all sorts of strange and exotic plants and flowers, none of which he could identify. One in particular caught his eye, a herbaceous plant surrounded by a marble balustrade, the tips of its leaves tinged a faint red.
‘What rare plant can that be,’ he wondered, ‘to be accorded such a place of honour?’
A gentle breeze had arisen and the plant fluttered its leaves with a long drawn-out trembling motion. It was small and flowerless, but its delicate charm held Bao-yu’s heart spellbound and enraptured his soul. He was still staring at it dumbfounded when a voice beside him spoke:
‘Where are you from, you great booby? And what do you think you’re doing peeping at our Fairy Plant?’
Startled from his reverie, Bao-yu turned to see a fairy maiden standing at his side. He bowed and said in reply to her questions:
‘I came here to find Faithful. Excuse me if I have clumsily tres?passed on your fairy domain. Please can you tell me, Sister Fairy, what this place is, and why Faithful said that Cousin Lin wanted to see me? Please will you explain?’
‘Sister this, Cousin that! Such names mean nothing to me!’ replied the fairy. ‘All I know is that this Fairy Plant is my responsibility, and that it is strictly forbidden for mortals like you to loiter here. You must leave at once.’
Bao-yu could not bring himself to obey the fairy’s command.
‘Sister Fairy!’ he pleaded once more. ‘If you are in charge of a Fairy Plant, then you must be a Flower Fairy yourself. Can you tell me: what is so special about this particular plant?’
‘That’s a very long story,’ replied the fairy. ‘Once it grew by the banks of the Magic River and then it was called the Crimson Pearl Flower. It wilted and began to die, but was revived and given im?mortal life through the intervention of the Divine Luminescent Page-in-waiting, who generously watered it with sweet dew. Afterwards it descended into the world of men to repay its debt with the tears of a lifetime, and now that this has been done it has returned to its true abode. Fairy Disenchantment has given me instructions to tend it and to stop the bees and butterflies from molesting it …
Bao-yu still did not understand. He had a growing conviction that this really must be a Flower Fairy that he had met, and was deter?mined not to let such a rare opportunity slip through his hands. He asked her politely:
‘So you, Sister Fairy, are in charge of this plant. But each of the many other fine flowers must have its own fairy-in-attendance. I hate to bother you, but I wonder if you could tell me which fairy is in charge of the Hibiscus?’
‘I don’t know. You’ll have to ask my mistress about that.’
‘Who is your mistress, pray?’
‘My mistress is the River Queen.’
‘I knew it!’ exclaimed Bao-yu. ‘That’s my cousin Lin Dai-yu!’
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ retorted the by now highly exasperated fairy. ‘May I remind you again that this is a heavenly realm and the abode of fairies. My mistress may be called the River Queen, but she is nothing like your earthly queens and consorts. How could she possibly be related to a mortal? Stop talking such utter nonsense or I shall have you beaten and thrown out by one of our guards.’
Bao-yu was struck dumb by the fairy’s words and became painfully conscious of his own uncleanliness. He was taking his leave when he heard someone hurrying towards them, calling:
‘They’re asking for the Divine Luminescent Page-in-waiting!’
‘I know,’ replied the fairy. ‘I was told to look out for him. That’s why I’ve been waiting here all this time. But I haven’t seen any such Page go by. So what am I to do?’
‘Surely that was him – the one who left just now!’ cried the messenger with a laugh, and rushed out to waylay Bao-yu.
‘Will it please the Divine Luminescent Page-in-waiting to return?’
Bao-yu thought she must be addressing someone else. He was afraid of being overtaken and caught, and continued stumbling forwards, in an effort to make good his escape. When he looked up, he saw before him a formidable figure barring his way with a large sword:
‘Where are you going?’
Bao-yu was frightened out of his wits, but managed to pluck up enough courage to take another look. He was astonished, and then somewhat reassured, to find himself face to face with You San-jie.
‘Oh Cousin!’ he begged her. ‘Why are you after me too?’
‘You men, you’re all the same!’ was her reply. ‘There’s not a good one in your entire family. You ruin a girl’s reputation, then you destroy her marriage. Well I’ve got you now, and you won’t escape me!’
Bao-yu could tell that she was in deadly earnest and was beginning to panic when he heard another voice behind him saying:
‘Sister! Stop that man at once! He must not be allowed to leave!’
‘I have my orders from the River Queen,’ replied San-jie, ‘and I’ve been waiting a long while for something like this. Now you’re in my grasp, and with one blow of my sword I shall sever the ties that bind you to the mortal world.’
Bao-yu was terrified. He could not understand what she was saying, and turned and fled, only to see that the face from which the voice behind him had issued was that of Skybright. Joy and sorrow mingled in his heart.
‘I’m lost!’ he cried pathetically. ‘I’m all on my own and I seem to have run into the arms of the enemy. I wanted to escape and go home, but I couldn’t find any of you to take me back. Now I shall be safe! Dear Skybright, please will you take me home now?’
‘You must not lose heart,’ replied the maiden. ‘I am not Skybright. I have been specially commissioned by our Queen to escort you into her presence. I will not do you any harm.’
Bao-yu was now utterly bewildered:
‘You say your Queen sent you; but who is your Queen?’
‘Don’t ask now,’ replied Skybright. ‘Soon you will see for yourself.’
Helplessly Bao-yu followed her, and as they walked he studied her more closely. She resembled Skybright in every detail.
‘Her face, her eyes, her voice are all Skybright’s!’ he reflected to himself. ‘How can she say she isn’t Skybright? Oh dear, I’m in such a muddle. I’d better take no notice of what she says. Whatever it is that I’ve done wrong, when I am admitted into the presence of her Queen, I can ask her to help. Women have kind hearts, after all. She will surely forgive me.’
They had now reached a magnificent palace, lavishly and brilliantly appointed in every respect. In the courtyard before them grew a clump of bright green bamboo, while by the main doorway stood a row of dark pine-trees. There were several ladies-in-waiting standing under the eaves, dressed in fine palace robes, and when they saw Bao-yu come in they began whispering among themselves:
‘Is that the Divine Luminescent Page?’
Bao-yu’s attendant informed them:
‘It is, so you’d better hurry in and announce his arrival.’
One of the ladies beckoned to Bao-yu with a smile, and he followed her in through several apartments, till finally they arrived at what seemed to be the entrance to the main hall of the palace. It was hung with a pearl blind. Stopping before this blind, the lady-in-waiting turned to Bao-yu and said:
‘Wait here for your instructions from Her Majesty.’
Bao-yu did not dare breathe a word, but waited obediently outside the doorway. Presently the lady-in-waiting returned and announced:
‘Will the Page please enter now for his audience?’
Another attendant began to roll up the pearl blind, and as she did so Bao-yu caught sight of a regal figure seated within, dressed in richly embroidered robes and wearing a crown of flowers on her head. Raising his head a fraction to look more closely, he saw that the Queen did indeed resemble Dai-yu and cried out impulsively:
‘Here you are at last, Coz! Oh how I’ve missed you!’
The lady-in-waiting outside the blind whispered in a shocked tone:
‘Ill-mannered Page! Out with you at once!’
She had barely said this when the other attendant lowered blind again. Bao-yu was too scared to go in, and yet the thought of leaving was inconceivable. He wanted to ask one of the other ladies-in-waiting for an explanation, but when he looked round he realized that they were all of them strangers. They were forcing him out now and he had no choice but to leave. He thought as a last resort of trying to ask ‘Skybright’, but when he looked for her she was nowhere to be seen. A deep feeling of confusion and foreboding descended on him and he dragged himself dejectedly away, this time without a guide. There was no trace of the way by which he had come and he was beginning to wonder if he would ever be able to find his way hack, when to his delight he saw the figure of Xi-feng beckoning to him from beneath the eaves of another building.
‘Thank goodness! I’m home again! How could I have lost my bearings so quickly?’
He rushed up to her:
‘Here you are! They’ve all been so cruel to me, and Cousin Lin wouldn’t see me. I don’t know why!’
He was standing right next to Xi-feng. But on closer inspection it turned out not to be Xi-feng at all but Jia Rong’s first wife, Qin Ke-qing. He hesitated for a moment and then asked her where Xi-feng had gone. But the lady made no reply and presently turned and went inside.
Bao-yu stood there in a daze, not daring to follow her in, but staring blankly before him.
‘What have I done wrong today,’ he sighed, ‘that I should be spurned like this wherever I turn?’
Just as he was bursting into tears, a cohort of guards in yellow turbans with whips in their hands descended upon him.
‘Where are you from, and who do you think you are to come sneaking into this fairy realm? Off with you! Be gone!’
Bao-yu did not dare say a word, but continued to search for a way out of the place. In the far distance he spied a crowd of ladies laughing and walking in his direction, and thought to his relief that he could recognize among them Ying-chun and some of his other cousins.
‘Help!’ he cried. ‘I’m lost! Save me!’
Even as he shouted, the guards continued relentlessly to push him on from behind, and he stumbled helplessly forward. Then to his horror he saw that his ‘cousins’ had been transformed into strange ghoulish monsters and were pursuing him too. His nerves were at breaking point. Suddenly the monk appeared before him, and shone a mirror in his face:
‘By the order of Her Grace the Imperial Jia Concubine I have come to save you!’
In a trice the monsters vanished, and Bao-yu was spirited back to the bleak stretch of wilderness from which he had first entered the fairy domain. He grasped the monk’s hand:
‘You brought me here – that I can remember; and then the next thing I knew you had vanished and I saw some of my family but they would have nothing to do with me and in the end they turned into monsters! Was it all a dream, or was it real? Please, Master, I beg you to tell me the truth.’
‘When you first entered this place,’ said the monk, ‘did you steal a look at anything in particular?’
Bao-yu thought for a moment:
‘If he can whisk me off to a fairy paradise, he must be an Adept himself, so it’s no use trying to fool him. Besides, I want to know more.’
He confessed to the monk that he had seen several registers.
‘Hark at you!’ exclaimed the monk. ‘You have seen the Registers themselves and are still blind! Now listen to me carefully: predestined attachments of the human heart are all of them mere illusion, they are obstacles blocking our spiritual path. Ponder deeply on what you have experienced. I shall explain it to you further when we meet again.’
With that he gave Bao-yu a hefty shove.
‘Back you go!’ he cried.
Bao-yu missed his footing and stumbled forward, calling out in alarm.
The family were standing by his bedside when suddenly he began to show these unmistakable signs of life. They called his name, and he opened his eyes, to find himself lying on his old kang. Before him were Lady Wang, Bao-chai and other members of his family, their eyes red and swollen with tears. He reflected for a moment and tried to compose himself.
‘So!’ he said to himself. ‘I have visited the land of death, and now I have returned once more to the living!’
He lay pondering one by one the experiences of his wandering soul, and as he did so a glazed look came over his eyes. To his great delight, he found that he could still remember every detail of his dream, and he chuckled aloud with satisfaction:
‘So! So!’
Lady Wang suspected a recurrence of his old fit and decided that the doctor had better be summoned again at once. She sent a maid and one of the serving-women to inform Sir Zheng that Bao-yu had recovered consciousness and that his previous (and apparently fatal) crisis had only been a temporary mental affliction from which he now seemed to have recovered. Since he was now obviously on mend, and was even able to utter a few words, they could safely suspend the funeral arrangements. Jia Zheng came hurrying in to verify this news for himself.
‘Luckless creature,’ he exclaimed. ‘Do you want to frighten us to death?’
He was weeping despite himself. Heaving a few gusty sighs, went out again and sent for a doctor to take Bao-yu’s pulses and prescribe a medicine for him.
Musk, it will be remembered, had only recently been contemplating suicide; but now that Bao-yu was recovered she set her mind at rest. Lady Wang ordered some longan soup, and told Bao-yu to drink a few mouthfuls. She was greatly relieved to see him gradually revive and regain his composure and she did not even scold Musk for her original blunder, but merely told one of the maids to give the newly recovered jade to Bao-chai, who was to hang it once more round Bao-yu’s neck.
‘I wonder where the monk found it?’ she asked out loud. ‘It seems so strange. One minute he was demanding his money, the next minute he had disappeared. Do you imagine he was some sort of Immortal?’
‘To judge by the “mysterious” way he came,’ said Bao-chai, ‘and the equally “mysterious” way in which he left, I should say he never found it at all, but that it was he who took it in the first place.’
‘How could he have taken it from under our very eyes?’ asked Lady Wang.
‘If he could bring it back, then he could take it,’ persisted Bao-chai.
‘When the jade was lost,’ put in Aroma and Musk, ‘Steward Lin consulted a word-diviner – we told you about it ma’am, soon after the wedding. The character he divined was shang meaning “reward”. Do you remember, ma’am?’
‘Yes, you’re right,’ said Bao-chai. ‘You said it had something to do with a pawnshop. But now I can see it was really pointing to the word “monk”, which is contained in the upper part of the character shang. We were being told by the word-diviner that a monk had taken it!’
‘The monk was a strange enough creature,’ said Lady Wang. ‘When Bao-yu was ill before, another monk came, I remember, and told us that Bao-yu had a precious object of his own at home that could cure him. He was referring to the jade. He too must have known all about its magical properties. It is extraordinary that Bao?-yu came into the world with the Stone in his mouth! Have you ever heard of such a thing happening, in the whole of history? Who knows what will become of the Stone in the end? And who knows what will become of him! It seems to be an inseparable part of his life, in sickness and health, at his birth and …’
She stopped short suddenly and tears started to her eyes. Bao-yu felt in his own mind that he now knew the answer to her questions only too well. Thinking back, he understood more clearly the signifi?cance of his visit to the ‘other world’. But he said nothing, and stored these thoughts silently in his mind.
It was Xi-chun who spoke next:
‘When the jade was lost, we asked Adamantina to consult the planchette on our behalf. The reply she received from the spirit contained the lines:

Gone to Greensickness Peak, to lie
At the foot of an age-old pine.

It ended with:

Follow me and laugh to see
Your journey at an end!

There’s much food for thought contained in those two words “follow me”. The gate of the Dharma is certainly wide and all-embracing, but somehow I doubt if Cousin Bao could squeeze through it, whoever he happened to be “following”…’
Bao-yu sniffed scornfully. Bao-chai noted this reaction of his, and involuntarily she frowned and stared abstractedly into space.
‘Trust you to drag the Buddha into it!’ snapped You-shi. ‘Are you still pining for your nunnery?’
Xi-chun smiled caustically.
‘Actually, sister-in-law, I have already taken the first step. Long ago I vowed that meat should never touch my lips again.’
‘My child!’ said Lady Wang. ‘In the name of Lord Buddha himself! You must abandon this foolish idea!’
Xi-chun was silent.
During this exchange Bao-yu recalled two lines from one of albums he had seen:

Alas, that daughter of so great a house
By Buddha’s altar lamp should sleep alone.

He could not refrain from uttering a few sighs. Then he remembered the bunch of flowers and the mat, and glanced at Aroma. Tears started to his eyes. When the family saw him behaving in this strange fashion, laughing one minute and crying the next, they could only think it a symptom of his old fit. None of them knew that their conversation had sparked off a flash of illumination in Bao-yu’s mind, with the result that he could now remember word for word every poem from the registers in his dream. Although he said nothing, in his mind a new resolve was already formed. But we anticipate.

*

After Bao-yu’s sudden recovery, his spirits improved daily, and with the regular administration of medicine he continued to make steady progress. Now that his son was out of danger, Jia Zheng was anxious to proceed with the interment of Lady Jia’s coffin, which had been resting for a long while in the temple. He himself was still in mourning and therefore free from official obligations. There was no telling when (or if) Jia She would be pardoned, so Jia Zheng decided to act on his own initiative and arrange for his mother’s mortal remains to be transported to the South and given proper burial there. He sent for Jia Lian to discuss the matter.
‘Your proposal is an excellent one, Uncle,’ said Jia Lian. ‘It would be best to proceed with this important task now. Once the mouning period is over, it may be harder for you to find the necessary time. Father is not at home, and it would be presumptuous of me to undertake a task of this nature. My one concern is the cost. You will require several thousand taels. Our stolen property must I am afraid be written off as an irretrievable loss.’
‘My mind is made up to do this,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘In your father’s absence I sent for you merely to discuss the best ways and means. You cannot go, since that would leave no one at home. I am proposing to go myself, and to take several coffins simultaneously. I will need some assistance, and am thinking of taking young Rong with me. There will be three coffins altogether, including your wife’s and your cousin Lin’s. It was your grandmother’s wish that her granddaughter should be buried with her in the South. As for the money, we shall simply have to borrow a few thousand taels from some?where.’
‘There is little generosity left in the world these days,’ commented Jia Lian bitterly. ‘You are in mourning, Uncle, and Father is in exile. I fear that it may prove impossible to borrow the money. We shall be obliged to mortgage some of our property.’
‘But our residence was granted us by Imperial decree,’ objected Jia Zheng. ‘We are not free to dispose of it in this way.’
‘That is true,’ said Jia Lian. ‘But we have other properties available for mortgage. They can be redeemed after your period of mourning, and after Father’s return – all the more so if he is reinstated. Our chief concern is that you may overtax yourself, embarking on such a strenuous journey at your age.’
‘It is a duty I owe your grandmother,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘While I am away, I am counting on you to be diligent here at home, and keep things firmly under control.’
‘You can set your mind at ease on that score,’ said Jia Lian. ‘I shall do my utmost. As you will be taking several servants with you, that will mean fewer mouths to feed here, so we should be able to save a little. If you need any help along the way, you will be travelling close by the official residence of Lai Shang-rong, Steward Lai’s son, so you can always call on him for assistance.’
‘This affair is my responsibility,’ commented Jia Zheng drily. ‘Why should I need his or anyone else’s assistance?’
‘Of course,’ Jia Lian hastily concurred, and withdrew to make his Own financial calculations.
Jia Zheng informed Lady Wang of his plans, exhorted her to keep a careful eye on the household, and selected a day in the almanac auspicious for setting out on his long journey. Then he made his preparations to leave.
Bao-yu was now completely restored to health, and Jia Huan an Jia Lan were earnestly engaged in their studies. Jia Zheng entrusted them all to Jia Lian, reminding him:
‘The state examinations will be held this year. Huan will not be able to compete because he will still be in mourning for his mother. There is nothing to prevent Lan from doing so, however, since his mourning period is shorter and will be over by then. He and Bao-yu should attend together. If they can pass the examination and become Provincial Graduates, it will help to redeem the family from its present disgrace.’
Jia Lian hastened to assure him that he would carry out these instructions. Jia Zheng then addressed the domestics at some length, took ceremonial leave at the ancestral shrine, and after a few days spent outside the city attending religious services at the temple, was finally ready to board his barge and set off. Steward Lin and handful of servants were travelling with him, and a few members of the family came some of the way to bid him farewell and see him on his way. He did not trouble any other relatives or friends.
Now that Bao-yu had been given his orders to attend the next Civil Service examinations, Lady Wang began to apply more pressure and came constantly to see how his work was progressing, while Bao-chai and Aroma added their support in the form of periodic lectures. They observed the daily improvement in his spirits, b remained quite unaware that a great inner change had been wrought within him, drawing him in an unprecedented (indeed for him almost perverse) direction. In addition to his inveterate contempt for worldly success and advancement, he had of late begun to adopt an attitude of indifference towards the whole gamut of romantic attachment—in a word, towards love itself. But this radically new departure was hardly noticed by those around him, and he himself said nothing enlighten them.
Nightingale was one of the few to detect the early symptoms this inner change, and she drew her own conclusions. She had just returned from accompanying Dai-yu’s coffin to the landing-stage, and was sitting in her room brooding and weeping to herself.
‘How cold-hearted Bao-yu is! It doesn’t seem to have upset him in the slightest to see Miss Lin’s coffin taken away. He didn’t so much as shed a single tear. He could see me crying my eyes out, and didn’t even try to comfort me, but just stared at me and smiled. What a deceiver! All those fine things he used to say to us in the past were just meant to fool us. Thank goodness I’d seen through him the other evening and didn’t fall for it again! But there’s still one thing I don’t understand. He even seems to have become cold towards Aroma. I know Mrs Bao has never been a very warm or close person by nature – so she probably doesn’t mind his change of heart. But what about Musk and the others, don’t they feel hard done by? They’ve let their feelings make fools of them and have wasted half their lives over him, only to be forsaken like this!’
As she was brooding, she saw Fivey coming towards her.
‘You’re not still weeping for Miss Lin, are you?’ asked Fivey, seeing Nightingale’s tear-stained face. ‘If you want my opinion of Mr Bao, I think it’s high time we forgot about his reputation, and looked at what he really is. I was always being told how kind he was, especially towards girls. That’s why my mother tried so hard to get me into service with him. Since then I’ve waited on him from the beginning of this illness of his. But now that he’s better, I haven’t had so much as a kind word from him! In fact he won’t even acknowledge my existence!’
Nightingale burst out laughing at this comical tale of woe.
‘Pshh! Why, hark at you, you little vixen!’ she exclaimed. ‘How do you want Mr Bao to treat you? Really, you should be ashamed of yourself! When he’s not even interested in the maids that are closest to him, do you expect him to find time for you?’
She laughed again and drew a reproving finger across Fivey’s face.
‘What kind of a niche are you carving out for yourself in Bao-yu’s affections?’
Fivey blushed at her own foolishness. She was on the point of explaining that it wasn’t so much her own treatment at Bao-yu’s hands that was worrying her as his whole attitude towards the maids, when they heard someone calling from outside:
‘The monk is back! And he’s demanding his ten thousand taels! Her Ladyship doesn’t know what to do and wanted Mr Lian to go and talk with him, but Mr Lian’s not at home! The monk is outside, ranting and raving. Her Ladyship wants Mrs Bao to go over and consult with her.’
To learn how they placated the monk, please read the next chapter.

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