The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 19

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CHAPTER 19

A very earnest young woman offers
counsel by night
And a very endearing one is found to
be a source of fragrance by day

On the day following the Imperial Concubine’s return to the Palace, she called on the Emperor to offer thanks and gave him a full account of her Visitation. The Emperor was visibly pleased by her report and commanded that bounties of gold, silver and silks should be issued to Jia Zheng and the other fathers of visiting ladies by the Inner Treasury.
But there is no need for us to pursue these matters in further detail.

*

The events of the last few days had taxed the energies of all the inmates of the Ning-guo and Rong-guo mansions to the utmost, and by now all of them were feeling both physically and mentally exhausted. Even so, Xi-feng forced herself to supervise the taking down and storing away of all the decora?tions and other movables from the garden—an operation which took another two or three days to accomplish.
Xi-feng’s duties and responsibilities were so many that she could not evade them and seek recuperation in rest and quiet as the others did. At the same time, however, the anxiety to be thought well of and the shrinking fear of criticism that were a part of her nature made her take pains, even when she was at her busiest, to appear outwardly as idle and unoccupied as the rest.
Of those idle and unoccupied rest, the idlest and most un?occupied was Bao-yu. On this particular morning, Aroma’s mother had been round first thing to report to Grandmother Jia that she was taking her daughter home for a New Year’s party and would not be bringing her back until late that even?ing. After her departure Bao-yu played ‘Racing Go’ with the other maids. This was a game in which you moved your Go-?piece across the board in accordance with the throw of dice, the object being to reach the opposite side before everyone else and pocket all the stakes.
He was already tired of sitting indoors and was beginning to find the game boring, when one of the maids told him that someone had just been round from Cousin Zhen’s inviting him over to the other house to see their New Year lanterns and to join them in watching some plays. Bao-yu told the maids to fetch his going-out clothes and help him change. As he was on the point of leaving, someone arrived with a present of sweetened koumiss from the Imperial Concubine. He re?membered how much Aroma had enjoyed this drink last time they had had some, and asked them to put it by for her. Then, having first called on Grandmother Jia to tell her he was leav?ing, he went over to the other house to watch the players.
The plays they were performing turned out to be very noisy ones: Ding-lang Finds His Father, Huang Bo-yang and the Ghostly Army, Monkey Makes War in Heaven and The Investiture of the Gods. All of them, but especially the last two, seemed to involve much rushing in and out of supernatural beings, and the sound of drums and cymbals and blood-curdling battle-cries, as they whirled into combat across the stage with banners flying and weapons flashing or invoked the names of the Buddha with waving of burning joss-sticks, was positively deafening. It carried into the street outside, where the passers-by smiled appreciatively and told each other that only a family like the Jias could afford theatricals that produced so satisfying a volume of noise.
To Bao-yu, however, a little of this kind of thing was more than enough, and after sitting for a short while with the rest, he drifted off to seek his amusement elsewhere. To begin with he went inside and spent some time in bantering conver?sation with You-shi and the maids and concubines in the women’s quarters. When he went off once more through the inner gate, the women assumed that he was going back to the play and made no attempt to detain him. The menfolk —Cousin Zhen, Jia Lian, Xue Pan and the rest—were engrossed in games of guess-fingers and other convivial aids to drunkenness, and if they noticed his absence at all, assumed that he was inside with the ladies and did not comment on it.
As for the pages who had accompanied him: the older ones, estimating that he had almost certainly come over for the day, gave themselves time off to gamble and drink with their cronies of to visit friends and relations outside, confident that if they returned in the evening they would be in time for Bao-yu’s departure. The younger ones wormed their way into the green-room to watch the excitement and get in the way of the actors. Bao-yu was left without a single one of them in attendance.
Finding himself alone, he began thinking about a certain painting he remembered having seen in Cousin Zhen’s ‘smaller study’. It was a very life-like portrait of a beautiful woman. While everyone was celebrating, he reflected, she was sure to have been left on her own and would perhaps be feeling lonely. He would go and have a look at her and cheer her up.
But as he approached the study, he experienced a sudden thrill of fright. A gentle moaning could be heard coming from inside it.
‘Good gracious!’ he thought. ‘Can the woman in the painting really have come to life?’
He made a tiny hole in the paper window with his tongue and peeped through. It was no painted lady he saw, stepped down from her hanging scroll upon the wall, but Tealeaf, pressed upon the body of a girl and evidently engaged in those exercises in which Bao-yu had once been instructed by the firry Disenchantment.
‘Good lord!’
He cried out involuntarily, and kicking open the door, strode into the study, so startling the two inside that they shook in their clothes. Seeing that it was Bao-yu, Tealeaf at once fell upon his knees and begged for mercy.
‘In broad daylight!’ said Bao-yu. ‘What do you think you’re at? If Mr Zhen got to hear of this, it would be more than your life is worth.’
As he spoke, his eye fell upon the girl. She had a soft, white skin, to whose charms he could not be insensible. At the moment she was red to the very tips of her ears and stood there in silence, hanging her head with shame. Bao-yu stamped his foot impatiently:
‘Why don’t you go?’
The words seemed to bring her to herself, for she turned and fled immediately. Bao-yu ran after her, shouting.
‘Don’t be afraid! I won’t tell anyone!’
Tealeaf, running out behind him, was frantic:
‘My dear little grandfather, that’s exactly what you are doing!’
‘How old is she?’ Bao-yu asked him.
‘Not more than fifteen or so,’ said Tealeaf.
‘You don’t even know her age!’ said Bao-yu. ‘You can do this to her without even knowing her age! She’s wasted on you, that’s evident. Poor girl! What’s her name?’
‘Ah now, that’s quite a story,’ said Tealeaf with a broad smile. ‘She says that just before she was born her mother dreamed she saw a beautiful piece of brocade, woven in all the colours of the rainbow, with a pattern of lucky swastikas all over it. So when she was born, she gave her the name “Swastika”.’
Bao-yu smiled back.
‘She ought to have a lucky future ahead of her, then. shall I ask them tomorrow if you can have her for your wife?’
Tealeaf thought this was a huge joke.
‘Why aren’t you watching the plays, Master Bao?’ he asked. ‘They’re ever so good!’
‘I did watch for quite a while,’ said Bao-yu, ‘but I got rather deafened and came out to walk around for a bit. That’s how I found you here. But what are we going to do now?’
Tealeaf gave a sly little smile:
‘What about going for a ride outside the city? If we slipped off quietly we could get there and back without anyone knowing.’
‘Too risky,’ said Bao-yu. ‘We might get kidnapped or something. Besides, there would be terrible trouble if they found out. It’d better be somewhere nearer, so that we can get back quickly.’
‘Who do we know near here that we could call on?’ said Tealeaf. ‘I can’t think of anyone.’
‘I know,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Why don’t we go round to the Huas’ house and see what Aroma is up to?’
‘All right. But I’ve forgotten where they live,’ said Tealeaf untruthfully. ‘And suppose they do find out you’ve been gadding around outside’ (he added the real reason for his hesitation) ‘they’ll say I put you up to it, and I shall get a beating.’
‘I’ll see you don’t get into trouble,’ said Bao-yu.
Reassured, Tealeaf fetched the horse, and the two of them slipped out by the back entrance.
Luckily the Huas’ house was only a few hundred yards from the Ning-guo mansion, and in no time at all they had reached its gate. Tealeaf entered first and called out the name of Aroma’s elder brother, Hua Zi-fang.
Aroma’s mother was not long back from collecting the various nieces, on both her own and her late husband’s side of the family, who had had to be fetched after she had been to call for Aroma, and the family had only just settled down to their tea when they heard this voice outside calling for Hua Zi-fang. To the latter’s considerable surprise and mystification he found, on going outside to look, his sister’s young master waiting at the gate with a servant. Having first lifted Bao-yu off his horse, he went back into the courtyard and bawled to the rest inside:
‘It’s Master Bao!’
Aroma was dumbfounded and came running out to discover the cause of this unaccountable visit. As soon as she saw him she clung to him anxiously:
‘What is it? Are you all right?’
Bao-yu laughed carelessly.
‘I was just feeling bored, so I came over to see what you were up to.’
‘Stupid!’ said Aroma, relieved to find that nothing was amiss. ‘What did you think I would be up to?’
She turned to Tealeaf.
‘Who else is with you?’
‘Nobody,’ said Tealeaf with a grin. ‘Nobody else knows we’re here.’
At this Aroma became alarmed once more.
‘That’s terrible! Suppose you were to run into someone? Suppose you were to meet the Master?’ She glanced at Bao-yu fearfully. ‘In any case, the streets are so crowded now. You could easily get ridden down or something. It would be no joke if you were to have an accident. You two certainly have a nerve!’ She turned to Tealeaf again. ‘You put him up to this, didn’t you? Wait till I get back: I’ll tell his nannies about you. They’ll have you flogged like a felon, see if they don’t!’
Tealeaf pulled a face.
‘Don’t go trying to pin the blame on me! Master Bao was cursing and swearing at me to make me go with him. I kept telling him not to come. Anyway, we’d better be going back now, if that’s the way you feel!’
‘You might as well stay, now you’re here,’ said Hua Zi-fang in a conciliatory manner. ‘There’s no point in quarrelling about it. The only trouble is, this is not much of a place we live in here: poor and cramped and not too clean and that. Hardly a fit place for the likes of Master Bao, I’m thinking.’
By this time Aroma’s mother had joined them outside to welcome the visitors. Aroma took Bao-yu by the hand and led him in. He saw four or five girls sitting down inside who hung their heads and blushed when he entered. Despite their blushes, Hua Zi-fang and his mother insisted that Bao-yu should get up on the kang with them, as they were afraid that he would find their house cold. Having installed him on the kang, they bustled to and fro fetching things to eat and pour?ing tea.
‘Now don’t you two rush about, Mother,’ said Aroma. ‘I know how to look after him. There’s no point in your giving him a lot of things he won’t be able to eat.’
As she said this, she took her own cushion that she had been sitting on, put it on top of a little short-legged kang table, and made Bao-yu sit on it with his feet on her metal foot-warmer. Then she took a couple of rose-shaped perfume lozenges from a little purse she was wearing, opened up her hand-warmer, popped the lozenges onto the burning charcoal, and closing it up again, stuffed it into the front of his gown. Having at last got him settled comfortably and to her own satisfaction, she served him with tea which she poured out for him into her own cup.
Hua Zi-fang and his mother had by now finished laying an elaborate tea. The cakes, nuts and dried fruits were arranged on their plates, and the plates themselves on the table, with painstaking attention to symmetry and design. Aroma could tell at a glance that there was nothing there which Bao-yu could possibly be expected to eat. But her family must not be offended.
‘Since you’ve decided to come,’ she said to Bao-yu with a smile. ‘we can’t let you go without having tasted something of ours. You’ll have to try something, just to be able to say that you have been our guest!’
She took a handful of pine nuts from one of the dishes on the table, and blowing away the skins, handed them to him on her handkerchief.
Bao-yu noticed that Aroma’s eyes were slightly red and that there were recent tear-stains on her powdered cheeks.
‘Why have you been crying?’ He spoke the words in an undertone as she handed him the pine nuts.
‘Who’s been crying?’ said Aroma with a feigned laugh. ‘I’ve lust been rubbing my eyes.’
Her little fiction was successful, for he made no further comment.
Bao-yu was wearing his dark-red gown with the pattern of golden dragons and white fox-fur lining, and a sable-lined slate-blue jacket with fringed edges.
‘Fancy!’ said Aroma, ‘you got yourself all dressed up lust to come and see us. Didn’t anyone ask you where you were going?’
‘No,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Actually I changed because I was going to Cousin Zhen’s. He invited me over to watch the players.’
Aroma nodded.
‘You’d better go back after you’ve sat a bit longer,’ she said. ‘This is really no place for you here.’
‘You shouldn’t be too long, either,’ said Bao-yu with a smile. ‘I’ve got something nice waiting for you when you get back.’
‘Sh!’ said Aroma. ‘Do you want them all to hear you?’
As she said this, she reached out and took the Magic Jade from his neck.
‘Here’s something that will interest you all,’ she said, holding it out to the others. ‘You know how often you’ve spoken about that wonderful lade of Master Bao’s and said how much you’d give for a look at it? Well, here it is! Now you can look to your heart’s content. There you are, that’s all it is! Not so wonderful, really, is it?’
They passed it from hand to hand, and when it had gone full circle and all had examined it, she hung it once more round his neck.
Aroma told her elder brother to go out and hire the cleanest, smartest-looking cab he could find to take Bao-yu home in.
‘I can see him safely back,’ said Hua Zi-fang. ‘He won’t come to any harm on horseback.’
‘It’s not a question of whether he’ll come to any harm or not,’ said Aroma ‘I’m afraid someone might see him.’
Hua Zi-fang hurried out to hire a cab. The rest of the com?pany, realizing that Bao-yu had no real business to be there, made no effort to detain him and rose to see him off. Aroma snatched up a handful of sweetmeats for Tealeaf. She also gave him a few coppers to buy fireworks with.
‘Mind you don’t tell anyone about this visit!’ she said. ‘You’ll be in trouble yourself if they find out about it.
She escorted Bao-yu to the gate and saw him into the cab, pulling the blind down on him as soon as he was inside. Tealeaf and her brother followed behind it with the horse. When they arrived outside the Ning-guo mansion, Tealeaf told the cabbie to stop.
‘We’d better go in here for a bit before going home,’ he explained to Aroma’s brother. ‘Otherwise they might get suspicious.’
Hua Zi-fang acknowledged the sense of this precaution, and lifting Bao-yu from the cab, helped him up on to his horse.
‘Thank you for your trouble,’ said Bao-yu with a winning smile as he rode into the rear gate of the Ning-guo mansion.
And there, for the time being, we shall leave him.

*

When Bao-yu left his room for the other mansion, his maids were free to do exactly as they liked and threw themselves into their amusements with great abandon. Some played at Racing Go, some at Dice and Dominoes. Everywhere a litter of the spat-out skins of melon-seeds bore silent testimony to their indulgence.
It was unfortunate that Nannie Li should have chosen such a moment to come stomping in, stick in hand, to call on Bao-yu and to inquire how he was getting on. She could see that Bao-yu was out, and the uproar created in his absence by the maids was deeply offensive to her.
‘Now that I’ve left service and don’t come in very often,’ she said with a sigh, ‘you girls have got worse than ever. The other nannies can do nothing with you. And as for Bao-yu: he’s like a six-foot lamp stand that lights up others but stays dark itself; for he’s always on about how dirty other people are, but look at the mess he allows you to make of his own room! It’s a disgrace!’
Now the maids all knew that Bao-yu did not care about such matters. They also knew that Nannie Li was pensioned off now and had no more power over them. They therefore con?tinued with their fun and took no notice of her. But Nannie Li was not to be ignored. ‘How is Bao-yu eating nowadays?’ ‘what time does he go to bed?’ She plied the maids with questions which they answered either cheekily or not at all. One of them even said, quite audibly and in her hearing, ‘Old nuisance!’
‘What’s in this covered bowl?’ Nannie Li went on. ‘It’s junket, isn’t it? Why don’t you offer it to me?’ She picked up the gift of koumiss and began to drink it.
‘Don’t you touch that!’ said one of the maids. ‘He was keeping that for Aroma. He’ll be angry when he gets back and finds out about that. You’d better tell him yourself you took it. We don’t want you getting us into trouble!’
Nannie Li was angry and embarrassed at one and the same time.
‘I won’t believe it of him,’ she said. ‘I won’t believe he would be so wicked as to grudge his old Nannie a bowl of milk. Why, he owes it to me. And not only a bowl of milk, either. Much more precious things than that. Do you mean to tell me that Aroma counts for more with him than I do? He ought to stop and ask himself how he grew up to be the big boy he is today. It’s my milk he sucked, that came from my own heart’s blood: that’s what he grew up on. And you mean to tell me that now, if I drink one little bowlful of his milk—cow’s milk—he’s going to be angry with me? Well, I will drink it, so there! He can do what he likes about it. And as for that Aroma. I don’t know what sort of a wonderful creature you think she is — a little bit of a girl I picked out myself and trained with my own hand!’
Defiantly she applied the koumiss once more to her lip and downed it to the last gulp.
One of the maids, politer than the rest, attempted to placate her:
‘They shouldn’t talk to you like that, Nannie! I’m not surprised you are cross. Of course Bao-yu isn’t going to upset himself over a little thing like that. He’s much more likely to send something nice round to you when he hears that you’ve been to see him.’
‘Don’t you try wheedling me with your airs and graces, young woman!’ said Nannie Li implacably. ‘You think I don’t know about Snowpink being dismissed that time over the tea? You needn’t worry. If he makes a fuss about it tomorrow, I shall take the blame.’
She went off in dudgeon.
Presently Bao-yu returned and sent someone off to fetch Aroma. He noticed Skybright lying motionless on the daybed.
‘What’s the matter with her?’ he asked. ‘Is she ill? Or has she lost the game?’
‘She was winning,’ said Ripple. ‘Then Nannie Li came along and put her off her stroke and she started losing. She got so cross that she had to go and lie down.’
‘You shouldn’t all take the old girl so seriously,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Just leave her to do as she likes and take no notice!’
Just at that moment Aroma arrived and said ‘hullo’ to everyone. She asked Bao-yu where he had eaten and what time he had got back. She also gave her mother’s regards to the other maids. When she had finished changing out of her holiday attire and taken the ‘going-out’ ornaments from her hair, Bao-yu asked someone to fetch the koumiss. There was a chorus of replies from the maids:
‘Nannie Li drank it!’
Bao-yu was about to say something when Aroma cut in with a smile:
‘So that’s what you were saving for me! It was a very kind thought; but last time I had some of that stuff I took too much, being so fond of it, and gave myself a terrible stomachache. It didn’t go away until I’d brought it all up again, and it’s put me off it ever since. It’s a good job really that she did drink it. It would only have got left around and gone bad. Now what I’d really fancy are some dried chestnuts, if you’d like to be peeling them for me while I make up your bed on the king.’
Bao-yu was completely taken in by this little ruse, and forgetting all about the koumiss, went off for some chestnuts and sat down by the lamp to peel them. He and Aroma were flow alone in the room together. Glancing up with a smile from his peeling he said,
‘What relation of yours was that girl in the red dress today?’
‘That’s my mother’s sister’s child.’
Bao-yu made appreciative noises.
‘What are you “oo-ing” and “ah-ing” about?’ said Aroma. ‘No, don’t tell me! I know how your mind works. You think she’s not good enough to wear red.’
‘No. On the contrary,’ said Bao-yu. ‘If she’s not good enough to wear red, I shouldn’t think anyone is. No, I was merely thinking what a beautiful girl she is and how nice it would be if we could have her to live with us here.’
‘Because I have the misfortune to be a slave,’ Aroma said bitterly, ‘does that mean that all my relations ought to be slaves too? I suppose you think every pretty girl you see is just waiting to be bought so that she can be a servant in your house?hold!’
‘How touchy you are!’ said Bao-yu. ‘Having her to live with us doesn’t have to mean as a servant, does it? It could mean as a bride.’
‘Thank you, I’m sure!’ said Aroma. ‘But my folk are not quite grand enough for that!’
Bao-yu was unwilling to pursue a conversation that had become so unpleasant and went on peeling in silence.
‘Why don’t you say something?’ said Aroma. ‘I suppose I’ve upset you now. Well, never mind! Tomorrow you can go out and buy the lot of them, just to spite me!’
‘I don’t see what answer I can give when you say things like that,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I only said what a nice girl she was. I think she is exactly suited to live in a big, wealthy household like ours. Much more so than some of the lumbering idiots who do live here.’
‘She may not have that much good fortune,’ said Aroma; ‘but for all that she has been very delicately brought up — the apple of my aunt’s and uncle’s eye. She was seventeen this holidays, and her trousseau is all ready for her to be married next year.’
‘Hai!’
An involuntary expression of regret broke from him when he heard that the girl in red was to be married. Already Aroma’s words had made him uneasy; but worse was to follow.
‘I haven’t been able to see much of my cousins during these last few years,’ she said with a sigh, ‘and now it looks as if they will all have left home when I do go back.’
There was obviously a good deal more that lay behind this remark. Startled, he threw down the chestnut he was peeling and asked her:
‘How do you mean, “when you do go back”?’
‘Today I heard my mother discussing it with my elder brother. They want me to hold out this one year more, then next year they will see about buying me out of service.,
Bao-yu was becoming more and more alarmed.
‘Why should they want to buy you out of service?’
‘Well upon my word, that’s a funny question to ask!’ said Aroma. ‘I’m not one of your house-born slaves, my family lives elsewhere. I’m the only member of my family away from home. There’s no future for me here. Naturally I want to rejoin them.’
‘You can’t if I won’t let you,’ said Bao-yu.
‘I never heard of such a thing!’ said Aroma:

‘Even in palace hall
Law is the lord of all.

A bond is a bond. When their term of service has ended, you have to let people go. You can’t force them to stay in service for ever and ever — especially a household like yours.’
Bao-yu thought a bit. What she said seemed reasonable enough.
‘But suppose Grandmother won’t let you?’
‘Why shouldn’t she?’ said Aroma. ‘If I were a very excep?tional sort of person, it’s quite possible that she and Her Ladyship might feel upset at the idea of losing me and offer my family money to let me stay on. But as it is I’m only a very ordinary sort of maid. There are any number much better than me. I started off with Her Old Ladyship and served Miss Shi for a few years. Then I was transferred to you, and I’ve already been quite a few years with you. They would think it quite natural that my family should want to buy me out now. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they let me go as a kindness without even asking for the money. If you think they wouldn’t let me go because I’ve served you so well, that’s just ridiculous. Serving you well is no more nor less than what I’m supposed to do. It’s my job. There’s nothing remarkable about that. There’ll be plenty of other good ones to take my place when I’m gone. I’m not irreplaceable.’
Everything Aroma said pointed to the reasonableness of her going and the unreasonableness of her staying. A kind of desperateness began to seize him.
‘That may be so,’ he said, ‘but if I’m absolutely determined to keep you, I’m sure Grandmother would speak to your mother about it. If Grandmother had a talk with your mother and offered her a really large sum of money, surely she wouldn’t refuse?’
‘I’m sure my mother would never insist,’ said Aroma. ‘And I don’t only mean if you spoke to her and gave her a lot of money. Even if you didn’t speak to her about it and didn’t give her any money at all, but simply made up your mind to keep me here against my will and say nothing, I’m sure she wouldn’t dare object. But your family has never gone in for throwing its weight about like that in the past, and I don’t believe it is going to start doing so now. It would be different if I were just an object you’d taken a fancy to and they could get it for you without any danger of upsetting the owner by simply offering him ten times the price. But I’m not an object. If you were to keep me here without rhyme or reason against my will, you’d not only be doing yourselves no good, you’d be breaking up someone else’s family; and that’s something I’m quite sure Her Old Ladyship and Her Ladyship would never be willing to do.’
For some time Bao-yu reflected in silence. At last he spoke:
‘The long and short of all this is that you are definitely going, is that right?’
‘Definitely.’
‘Who would have believed that so sweet a person could be so faithless and unfeeling?’ he thought to himself. But all he said was:
‘If I had known all along that in the end you would go away and leave me on my own, I should never have let you work for me in the first place.’
And with those words he took himself off to bed in a thoroughly bad humour and composed himself for sleep.
Now Aroma’s mother and elder brother had spoken earlier that day about their intention of buying her out of service, but Aroma had at once stated that she would never go back home as long as she lived.
‘When you sold me in the first place,’ she said, ‘it was because you had nothing to eat and I was the only thing you had left in the house which was worth a bit of money. I couldn’t have refused to go and watched my own mother and father starve. But now, fortunately, I’ve got a good situation—one in which I’m not beaten and sworn at all day long and where I’m fed and clothed as well as the masters themselves—and the rest of you, inspire of losing Father, have managed to get in the clear again and are as well off now as you’ve ever been. If you were still hard up and wanted to buy me out so that you could raise a bit of money by reselling me, there would be some point in it. But you’re not. What do you want to buy me out for? Why don’t you just pretend that I’m dead, then you won’t need to think about buying me out any mote?’
And after that she had had a little cry.
Seeing her so adamant, her mother and brother had natur?ally resigned themselves to her continuing in service. They did so the more readily as Aroma’s contract was, in point of fact, for life. In seeking to redeem her they would have had to rely on the customary generosity of the Jia’s, who, as soon as they were approached on the subject, would in all probability restore not only the person of Aroma but also the body-price offered for her, but who were certainly not under any obliga?tion to do so.
Another consideration which predisposed them to let her stay was the well-known fact— already mentioned by Aroma—that the Jia household did not ill-treat its servants and relied more on kindness than coercion in its dealings with them. Indeed, the ‘inside maids’—those who, like Aroma, were m personal attendance on members of the family (and this was true of all of them, no matter in whose apartment they were employed) were the crême de la crême of the household staff and were even regarded as a cut above the free daughters of poorer households outside.
Later, when Bao-yu unexpectedly arrived on the scene and they saw how it was between him and Aroma, the reason for her reluctance to leave service at once became apparent. It was a factor they had not foreseen; but now they recognized it, it is a great weight off their minds, and it was not without feel?ings of relief that they abandoned all further thought of attempting to purchase her freedom.
But to return to our story.
Since early youth Aroma had always been aware that Bao-yu’s character was peculiar. His naughtiness and intract?ability exceeded those of normal boys, and in addition he had a number of extraordinary eccentricities of his own which she could scarcely even have put a name to. Recently he had taken advantage of the comparative immunity from parental control, afforded him by the all-encompassing protection of his doting grandmother, to become even more wild and self-indulgent and even more confirmed in his aversion to serious pursuits than in previous years, and all her attempts to remonstrate with him met with the same obstinate unwilling?ness to hear. Today’s talk about buying her out of service turned out to be providential. By employing only a minimum of deceit, she could use it as a means of ascertaining his real feelings towards her and of humbling his spirit a little, so that he might be in a suitably chastened frame of mind for the lecture with which she was preparing to admonish him. She judged from his going off silently to bed that he was shaken and a little unsure of himself. Evidently she had succeeded in the first part of her plan.
Aroma had not really wanted the chestnuts. She had pre?tended to do so because she was afraid that the matter of the koumiss might blow up into an incident like the earlier one in?volving Snowpink and the tea. By pretending to want chest?nuts she had deflected him from pursuing it further. She now told the younger maids to take them away and eat them themselves, while she went over to rouse up Bao-yu. The face that he lifted from the pillow was wet with tears.
‘Now what do you want to go upsetting yourself like that for?’ she said with a smile. ‘If you really want me to stay, of course I won’t go.’
Bao-yu at once brightened up.
‘Tell me!’ he said. ‘Tell me what I must do to prove to you how much I want you to stay, since nothing I say myself seems any good!’
‘I know we’re both fond of each other,’ said Aroma. ‘That doesn’t need any proving. But if you want to be sure of my staying here, it mustn’t only be because of that. There are three other things I want to talk to you about. If you will promise to obey me in all of them, I shall know that you really and truly want me to stay; then nothing – not even a knife at my throat – will ever make me leave you!’
‘Tell me what they are!’ he said impetuously. ‘I promise to obey you. Dearest Aroma! Sweetest Aroma! Never mind two or three: I would promise if it were two or three hundred! All I ask is that you shouldn’t leave me. If the day ever comes when nothing remains of me but floating particles of ash – no, not ash. Ash has form and substance and perhaps consciousness too. Say smoke. A puff of thin smoke dissolved upon the wind. When that is all that remains of me, and you can no longer fuss over me because there is nothing left to fuss over, and I can no longer pay attention to you because there is nothing left to pay attention with – when that time comes, you may go or stay as you please!’
‘My dear young gentleman,’ said Aroma exasperatedly, dapping her hand over his mouth to prevent him saying any more, ‘it’s precisely this way of carrying on that I was going to talk to you about, and here you go, ranting away worse than ever!’
‘Right,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Right. I promise never to talk that way again.’
‘That was the first thing I wanted you to reform.’
‘I’ve reformed already,’ said Bao-yu. ‘If I ever talk that way again, you can pinch my lips! Then what?’
‘The second thing is this,’ said Aroma. ‘I don’t care whether you really like studying or not, but even if you don’t, I’d like you at least to pretend that you do when you’re with the Master or any other gentlemen, and not always be making sarcastic remarks about it. If you could only put on an appear?ance of liking it, he would have less cause to be angry with you, and could even take a bit of pride in you when he was talk?ing to his friends. Look at it from his point of view. Every generation of your family up to now have been scholars. Then suddenly you come along. Not only do you hate studying –that’s already enough to make him feel angry and upset — but on top of that you have to be forever making rude remarks about it — and not only behind his back but even when he’s there. According to you anyone who studies and tries to im?prove himself is a “career worm”. According to you the Illumi?nation of Clear Virtue or whatever it’s called is the only genuine book ever written and all the rest are forgeries. No wonder the Master gets so angry with you. No wonder he’s every minute of the day wishing he could lay his hands on you and give you a thrashing.’
Bao-yu laughed.
‘All right. I won’t say such things any more. In any case, these are all things I used to say when I was younger and didn’t know any better. I don’t say things like that nowadays. What else?’
‘You must leave off forever going on about people’s appearance and interfering with their make-up—and you must give up that filthy habit of stealing people’s lipstick and eating it on the sly. That’s most important!’
‘I’ll reform! I’ll reform! Is there anything else, now?’
‘Nothing else, really. Just to be a bit more careful about things in general and not always letting yourself get carried away by your whims and fancies. But if you will really keep your promise about these three things I’ve mentioned, I will promise never to leave you – even if they send a bridal chair and eight strong bearers to carry me away!’
‘Oh, come now! Isn’t that stretching it a bit?’ said Bao-yu with a laugh. ‘For eight bearers and a handsome husband I bet you’d go!’
‘It wouldn’t interest me in the least,’ said Aroma haughtily. ‘“Kind sir, for such blessing I am not willing.” Even if I did go, I should take no pleasure in it.’
Their dialogue was interrupted by Ripple, who just at that moment entered the room.
‘It’s nearly midnight, you two. You ought to be in bed. Her Old Ladyship just now sent one of the nannies round to ask about you and I told her you were asleep.’
Bao-yu asked for his watch and looked. The hand was pointing to half past eleven. He washed and cleaned his teeth all over again, and taking off his outer clothes, settled down once more to sleep.

*

When Aroma got up first thing next morning she felt heavy and unwell. Her head ached, her eyelids were puffy and her whole body was afire. At first she dragged herself round per?forming her usual tasks, but eventually she could hold out no longer and had to lie down fully clothed on the kang. Bao-yu at once informed Grandmother Jia, who called in a doctor. Having taken Aroma’s pulses, the doctor informed them that she had ‘merely contracted a severe chill and would be all right after taking a few doses of medicine to relieve the congestion,’ and left after writing a prescription. Bao-yu sent out for the materials prescribed, and when they had been duly boiled up and the first draught taken, made her cover herself with a quilt to bring on a perspiration. Then he went off to see Dai-yu.
Dai-yu was at that moment taking a midday nap. Her maids had all gone off about their own affairs. Not a sound could be heard from the inside room As Bao-yu lifted the embroidered door-curtain and entered, he could see her lying asleep inside and hurried over to rouse her:
‘Sleeping after you’ve just eaten, coz? That’s bad! Wake up!’
His voice woke her. She opened her eyes and saw that it was Bao-yu.
‘Do go away and play for a bit! I’m so dreadfully tired. I didn’t get any sleep last night and I haven’t been able to rest until now.’
‘Never mind how tired you are,’ said Bao-yu. ‘You’ll do yourself much more harm by sleeping after a meal. I’ll’ stay and amuse you to keep you awake if you feel sleepy.’
‘I’m not sleepy, I’m tired. I want to rest for a bit. Can’t you go and amuse yourself somewhere else for a few minutes and come back later?’
Bao-yu gave her another shake.
‘Where else can I go?’ he said. ‘I’m so bored with everyone else.’
‘Chee-ee-ee!’ Dai-yu exploded in a little laugh. ‘All right. I suppose now you are here you may as well stay. You can sit very, very quietly over there and we will talk.’
‘I should prefer to lie down,’ said Bao-yu.
‘All right, lie down then!’
‘There isn’t a pillow. We shall have to share yours.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ said Dai-yu. ‘Look at all those pillows in the next room. Why don’t you get yourself one of them?’
Bao-yu went into the outer room for a look but came back empty-handed.
‘I don’t want any of them,’ he said genially. ‘How do I know some dirty old woman hasn’t been sleeping on them?’
Dai-yu opened her eyes very wide.
‘You really are the bane of my life!’ she said. ‘Here, take this!’ She pushed the pillow she had been lying on towards him and got up to fetch another one of her own to replace it with. The two of them then reclined, facing each other, at opposite ends of the bed.
Glancing up from her recumbent position, Dai-yu noticed that there was a blood-spot about the size of a small button on Bao-yu’s left cheek. She bent over him to examine it more closely and touched it lightly with her finger.
‘Whose nails was it this time?’
Bao-yu lay back to avoid her scrutiny and laughed.
‘It isn’t a scratch. I’ve just been helping them make rouge. A little of it must have splashed on to my face.’ He rum?maged for a handkerchief to wipe it off with.
Dai-yu wiped it off with her own, clicking her tongue censoriously as she did so.
‘So you’re up to those tricks again? You might at least refrain from advertising the fact! Even if Uncle doesn’t see you himself, someone else might who thought it an amusing story to go around gossiping about. He could easily get to hear about it in that way, and that would make it unpleasant for all of us.’
But her words were lost on Bao-yu. He was preoccupied with a subtle fragrance which seemed to emanate from Dai-?yu’s sleeve – a fragrance that intoxicated the senses and caused one to feel rather limp. He seized hold of the sleeve and demanded to know what perfume she was wearing.
‘Perfume? At this season?’ said Dai-yu with a laugh. ‘I’m not wearing any. “In the cold winter none smells sweet”!’
‘Well, where does it come from, then?’
‘I don’t know myself where it comes from,’ said Dai-yu. ‘I suppose it might have come from the wardrobe.’
Bao-yu shook his head.
‘I doubt it. It’s a very unusual scent. Not the kind you would get from a scent-cake or a perfume-ball or sachet.’
‘I hope you don’t imagine it’s some exotic perfume given me by the Immortals of the Isles. Even if I had the recipe, I have no kind elder brother to get together all those flowers and stamens and things and make it up for me. I have got only the ordinary, vulgar sorts of perfume!’
‘Whatever I say, you are always dragging in things like that,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Very well, You will have to be taught a lesson. From now on, no mercy!’
Half rising, he pretended to spit on his hands, then stretch?ing them out before him, began to waggle his fingers up and down in the region of her ribs and armpits. Dai-yu had always been the most ticklish of mortals, and the mere sight of his waggling fingers sent her off into shrieks of laughter which soon ended in breathlessness:
‘Oh! Oh! Bao-yu! No! Stop! I’ll be angry!’
‘Will you say things like that any more?’
‘No,’ said Dai-yu, laughing weakly, ‘I promise.’
She proceeded to pat her hair into place, smilingly com?placently:
‘So I’ve got an unusual fragrance, have I? Have you got a warm fragrance?’
For the moment Bao-yu was puzzled:
‘Warm fragrance?’
Dai-yu shook her head pityingly.
‘Don’t be so dense! You have your jade. Somebody has a gold thing to match. Somebody has Cold Fragrance, ergo you must have Warm Fragrance to go with it!’
‘I’ve only just let you off,’ said Bao-yu, ‘and here you go again, worse than ever!’
Once more he stretched out the threatening fingers and Dai-yu again began to shriek.
‘No! Bao-yu! Please! I promise!’
‘All right, I forgive you. But you must let me smell your sleeve.’
He wrapped the free end of that garment over his face and abandoned himself to long and prodigious sniffs.
Dai-yu jerked away her arm.
‘I really think you ought to go.’
‘Couldn’t go if I wanted to. Let’s lie down very quietly and genteelly and have a conversation.’ And he stretched himself out again.
Dai-yu lay down too, and covered her face with a handker?chief.
He tried to arouse her interest with desultory chat—talking for the sake of talking. Dai-yu took no notice. He tried asking questions. How old was she when she first came to the Capital? What had the scenery been like on the journey? What places of historical interest were there in Yangchow? What were its inhabitants like? What were its local customs? Dai-yu made no reply. Still concerned that she might fail asleep and injure her health, he tried a ruse.
‘Why, yes!’ he said, as if suddenly remembering something. ‘There’s a famous story that took place near Yangchow. I wonder if you know about it.’
This was delivered with so straight a face and in so serious a tone of voice that Dai-yu was quite taken in.
‘Oh? What?’
Mastering a strong inclination to laugh, he began to extemporize with whatever came into his head.
‘Near the city of Yangchow there is a mountain called Mt Yu-dai, in the side of which is a cavern called the Cave of Lin.’
‘That’s false, for a start,’ said Dai-yu. ‘I’ve never heard of a mountain of that name.’
‘There are a great many mountains in this world,’ said Bao-yu. ‘You could hardly be expected to know all of them. Leave your criticisms until I have finished my story.’
‘Carry on,’ said Dai-yu.
‘Now in the Cave of Lin there lived a tribe of magic mice, and one year, on the seventh day of the last month, the Oldest Mouse climbed up on to his throne and sat in council with the rest of the tribe.
‘“Tomorrow is Nibbansday,” he said, “and everywhere in the world of men they will be cooking frumenty. Since our cave is at present short of dry provender, we should take this opportunity of replenishing our stores by raiding theirs.” He took a ceremonial arrow from the receptacle in front of him and handing it to an able younger mouse, instructed him to carry out a reconnaissance. In due course the Able Younger Mouse came back and reported that, though he had looked positively everywhere, there were nowhere more plentiful stores to be found than in the temple at the foot of the mountain.
“‘How many kinds of grain have they got there, and how many sorts of dried fruits?” the Oldest Mouse asked him.
‘“There is a whole granary full of rice and beans,” replied the Able Younger Mouse, “but only five kinds of dried fruits:
the first, red dates
the second, chestnut
the third, peanuts
the fourth, caltrops
the fifth, sweet potatoes
‘The Oldest Mouse was highly delighted, and picked up another arrow, he said,
“Who will go to steal rice?”
‘A mouse at once took the arrow and went off to steal rice.’
“Who will go to steal beans?” he asked, picking up another arrow.
‘Another mouse took the arrow and went off to steal beans.’ One by one they departed on their missions until only the sweet potatoes had still to be arranged for.
‘The Oldest Mouse took up another arrow.’
‘“Who will go to steal sweet potatoes?”
‘A little puny, weak mouse replied,
‘ “I will!”

‘Seeing how young and puny he was, the Oldest Mouse and the other members of the mousey tribe feared that he would be too lacking in training and experience and too timid and weak to carry out the task, and refused to let him go. But the little mouse said,
“‘Although I am young in years and weak in body, I am eloquent and resourceful and possess unlimited magic powers. I can guarantee to carry out this mission even more ex?peditiously than the rest.”
“‘How will you do that?” asked the other mice.
“‘I shan’t rush at the job head-on like the others,” said the little mouse. “By just giving my body a couple of shakes I shall change myself into a sweet potato; I shall roll myself into the pile of sweet potatoes without anyone seeing me; then –very, very gently I shall roll the sweet potatoes away, one by one, until there aren’t any more left. Isn’t that a more ex?peditious way of doing it than the crude and headlong approach which the others have adopted?”
“That’s all very well,” said the other mice, “but what about this transformation business? Let’s see you do it first!”
‘“Nothing easier!” said the little mouse with a confident smile. “Watch!”
‘He gave his body a couple of shakes.
‘“Hey presto!”
‘And at once he turned into the most exquisitely beautiful young lady.
‘The other mice all laughed.
‘“No, no, no, you’ve made a mistake! That’s not a sweet potato, that’s a young lady you’ve turned into!”
‘The little mouse resumed his own shape and smiled at them pityingly.
‘“It is you who are mistaken. You have seen too little of the world to understand. The vegetable tuber is not the only kind of sweet potato. The daughter of our respected Salt Commis?sioner Lin is also a sweet potato. She is the sweetest sweet potato of them all.”’
Dai-yu got up on her knees and, crawling over, planted herself on top of Bao-yu.
‘I’ll teach you to make fun of me, you hateful creature! I’ll teach you!’
She seized his lips between thumb and finger and began to pinch and shake them.
‘Help!’ cried Bao-yu. ‘Mercy! I won’t do it again! It was smelling your beautiful perfume that put me in mind of the allusion.’
‘Allusion?’ said Dai-yu. ‘You vilify someone else and then call it an allusion?’
Just at that moment Bao-chai walked in.
‘Who’s this talking about allusions? I must hear this!’
Dai-yu invited her to sit down.
‘Look! Who else would you expect it to be? He says a lot of horrid things about me and then tells me it’s an allusion!’
‘Oh,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Cousin Bao I’m not surprised, then. He is full of allusions. The only trouble is that he tends to forget them at the very moment when they are most needed. If he can remember allusions today, he ought to have been able to remember that allusion about the plantain the other night. But no, it just wouldn’t come, and though everyone else was dying of cold, he was perspiring! Yet now his memory has come back again. Strange!’
‘Now praised be!’ said Dai-yu. ‘I have a nice, kind cousin to stick up for me. You’ve met your match now,’ she said to Bao-yu. ‘Now you are going to get as good as you give! Now we shall see you paid in your own coin!’
Their conversation was interrupted by a burst of angry shouting from the direction of Bao-yu’s room.
The occasion of it will be discussed in the following chapter.

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