The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 24

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CHAPTER 24


The Drunken Diamond shows nobility of character
in handling his money
And the Quiet-voiced Girl provides material for
fantasy by losing her handkerchief

As Dai-yu continued to crouch there, a prisoner of her own sorrowful thoughts and emotions, someone suddenly came up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder:
‘What are you doing here all on your own?’
She looked round with a start. It was Caltrop.
‘You silly girl!’ said Dai-yu. ‘You gave me quite a shock, creeping up on me like that. Where have you just come from?’
Caltrop laughed mischievously:
‘I’ve been looking for our young lady, but I can’t find her anywhere. Your Nightingale is looking for you too, by the way. She says Mrs Lian has sent you – I think it’s some kind of tea. Shall I go with you?’
She took her by the hand and accompanied her back to the Naiad’s House. The present from Xi-feng she had mentioned was waiting there when they arrived: two little cylindrical containers of a new tea supplied to the Palace for the Emperor’s own use. The two girls sat down and discussed the relative merits of various pieces of embroidery, played a little Go, and looked at one or two books. Then Caltrop went off again.
Our narrative leaves them at this point and passes to other matters.

*

Recalled to his own apartment by Aroma, Bao1u arrived back to find his grandmother’s maid Faithful reclining on the couch examining Aroma’s needlework.
‘Where have you been?’ she said, as soon as she saw him enter. ‘Her Old Ladyship is waiting for you. She wants you to go next door to see how your Uncle She is getting on. You’d better hurry up and get changed!’
Aroma went into the next room to get his clothes. Bao-yu sat on the edge of the couch and kicked his shoes off. While he was waiting for his boots to come, he turned and scrutinized Faithful. She was wearing a pale strawberry-coloured dress of silk damask, a sleeveless black satin jacket, stockings of eggshell blue, and dark-red embroidered slippers. Her neck, which was towards him as she bent down once more to inspect the needlework, was encircled at its base by a reddish-purple silk scarf. A fascinating neck. He bent down over it to sniff its perfume and stroked it softly with his hand. It was as smooth and white as Aroma’s. With an impish chuckle he threw himself upon her and clung like sticky toffee about her person:
‘Come on, Faithful darling, give us a taste of your lipstick!’
Faithful called out to Aroma in the next room:
‘Aroma, come in and look at this! All the years you’ve been with him now — haven’t you managed to cure him yet?’
Aroma came in with her arms full of clothes.
‘I don’t know what’s the matter with you,’ she said to Bao-?yu. ‘Heaven knows, I’ve tried hard enough to cure you! If you go on much longer like this, you’re just going to make it impossible to go on living here any longer.’
She hurried him on with his dressing. When he was ready, he accompanied Faithful to the front apartment to see Grandmother Jia. Going outside again, he found horse and servants ready waiting and was about to get into the saddle, when he noticed Jia Lian dismounting opposite, having just returned from his visit. The two cousins went up to each other and exchanged a few words. Just at that moment a figure emerged from the side of the courtyard and greeted Bao-yu:
‘Uncle Bao! How are you?’
Bao-yu turned. It was a tall, thin youth of eighteen or nineteen who had spoken, with a thin, handsome face and an air of great natural refinement. Although his face was familiar, Bao-yu could not for the moment remember his name or which part of the clan he belonged to.
‘You look very puzzled!’ said Jia Lian amusedly. ‘Surely you know who this is? This is Jia Yun – Cousin Bu-shi’s boy, who lives in West Lane.’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I can’t think what made me forget! — How’s your mother?’ he asked Jia Yun. ‘What business brings you here today?’
Jia Yun pointed to Jia Lian:
‘I came here to have a word with Uncle Lian.’
‘You’ve grown very good-looking since I saw you last,’ said Bao-yu with a grin. ‘You could almost be my son.’
‘You’ve got a nerve!’ said Jia Lian laughing. ‘Your son? He’s five or six years older than you.’
‘How old are you then?’ Bao-yu asked him.
‘Eighteen.’
Being a sharp-witted young man who knew how to make the most of an opportunity, Jia Yun was quick to turn Bao?-yu’s jest to good account.
‘There’s a saying about “grandsires in cradles and babbies with beards”, you know; and even if I am older than you, “the highest mountain can’t shut out the sun”! I’ve had no one to care for me during these last few years since my father died, and if you don’t mind having so stupid a person for your son, I should certainty be very happy to have you for a father.’
‘You hear that?’ said Jia Lian. ‘Now you’ve got yourself a son! You’ll find that parenthood is no laughing matter, I can tell you!’
He left them and went inside, chuckling to himself.
Bao-yu smiled at his new ‘son’:
‘Next time you’re free, come and see me. Don’t waste your time trying to join in their little intrigues! I’m afraid I’m not free at the moment, but if you will come round to my study tomorrow, we can spend all day together, and I shall be able to show you round the garden.’
With these words he mounted his horse and set off, his pages at his back, for Jia She’s.
Bao-yu found that his uncle was suffering from nothing more serious than a chill. He delivered his grandmother’s message first and then asked after his uncle on his own behalf. Jia She stood up to hear what his mother had to say, and when Bao-yu had finished, ordered a servant to take him to his Aunt Xing’s room. Bao-yu withdrew and followed the servant through the back and across the courtyard to the main reception room. Seeing him enter, Lady Xing rose to her feet to ask after Grandmother Jia, then sat down again to be asked after in turn by Bao-yu. Then she drew him up to sit beside her on the kang and asked him about the others, at the same time giving orders for tea to be served.
While they were still sipping the tea, little Jia Cong, the son of one of Jia She’s concubines, came in to say ‘hullo’ to his Cousin Bao.
‘Where did this little ragamuffin come from?’ Lady Xing scolded. ‘I don’t know what that Nannie of yours can be thinking of to let you get in such a state! I declare, your face is as black as a crow! No one would ever think to look at you that you were an educated little boy and came from a good family!’
While she scolded, Jia Huan and Jia Lan arrived, their duty call on Jia She evidently just completed. Lady Xing made them sit on chairs below the kang. Seeing Bao-yu up on the kang with Lady Xing and sharing her cushion, and observing how she fondled and petted him, Jia Huan soon began to feel uncomfortable and made a sign to Jia Lan indi?cating that they should go. As Jia Huan was his uncle, Jia Lan had to do as he said, so the little boy and the big one rose together to take their leave. Bao-yu said he would go with them, but Lady Xing stopped him with a gracious smile:
‘You sit where you are! I’ve got something else to say to you.’
He was obliged to stay. Lady Xing turned to the other two:
‘When you get back, do each of you give my regards to your mothers. I won’t ask you to stay to dinner because I’ve already got the girls here and they are making so much rumpus that it’s given me a headache.’
Jia Huan and Jia Lan promised to convey her greetings and went out.
‘Where are the girls, then?’ Bao-yu asked after they had gone. ‘I haven’t seen them.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Lady Xing nonchalantly. ‘They only sat here for a few moments, then they went round to the back. They’re round the back somewhere or other.’
‘You said there was something you wanted to talk to me about, Aunt. What was it you wanted to tell me?’
‘Oh, nothing at all!’ said Lady Xing gaily. ‘I only said that because I wanted you to stay and have dinner here with me and the girls. And I’ve got something nice for you to take back with you afterwards.’
Bao-yu and his aunt chatted away, and before long it was time for dinner and the three girls were called in. A table and chairs were arranged, the table was laid, and Lady Xing, her daughter Ying-chun, her two nieces and her nephew sat down to their meal. When it was over, Bao-yu went in to take his leave of Jia She, after which he and the girls returned to their own side of the mansion. There they first went in to see Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang and then returned to their own apartments for the night.
So much for Bao-yu and the girls.
Let us return to Jia Yun who, after his encounter with Bao-?yu, had gone in to see Jia Lian and ask him if there was any prospect of a job.
‘A job turned up only the other day,’ said Jia Lian, ‘but unfortunately your Aunt Feng was very anxious that I should give it to Jia Qin and I’m afraid I let him have it. However, she did mention that there will soon be a lot of planting to do in the garden, and she promised that as soon as that work turns up we shall definitely hand it over to you.’
Jia Yun was silent for some moments, then he said:
‘All right. I’ll just have to go on waiting, then. But would you mind not mentioning this visit to Auntie? I can tell her about it myself, if need be, next time I see her.’
‘I shan’t mention it,’ said Jia Lian. ‘I’ve got better things to do with my time than go running after her to talk about things like this! Tomorrow I have to go to Xing-yi, by the way. I have to get back on the same day — but perhaps you’d better wait until the day after tomorrow before coming round again. In fact, you’d better wait until the evening of the day after tomorrow – some time after the beginning of the first watch. Any time before that I shall be busy.’
He terminated the interview by going into the inner room to change his clothes.
Jia Yun went out of the Rong-guo mansion and set off for home, ruminating as he went. A plan at last formed in his mind. Instead of returning home, he struck off for the house of his maternal uncle.
His uncle’s name was Bu Shi-ren. He was the proprietor of a perfumery, and when Jia Yun arrived had only just got back from the shop. Seeing his nephew enter, he asked him what he had come about.
‘I’m on to something which needs your help,’ said Jia Yun. ‘Please Uncle, could you possibly let me have four ounces of Barus camphor and four ounces of musk on credit? I promise faithfully that you shall have the money by Autumn Quarter-day.’
Bu Shi-ren ‘humph-ed’ scornfully:
‘Don’t talk to me about credit! A while ago we let one of the assistants have several taels’ worth of goods on credit for one of his relations, and we haven’t seen the money for it yet. We had to share the loss between us. We’ve got a written agreement now that in future if any of us gives credit to a friend or relation, he is liable to a fine of twenty taels of silver to be shared out among the rest.
‘In any case, we’re short of stock on those two items. I doubt we’ve got that much in the shop, even if you could pay cash down for it. We’d have to try to raise it for you else?where.
‘And for another thing: what do you want it for, anyway? I don’t expect it’s for any serious purpose. Even if I let you have it on credit, I expect it would only get thrown away on some foolishness or other.
‘And don’t you go saying that your Uncle’s always on at you when you come to see him! You young people just don’t know what’s good for you. If only you could pull yourself together and earn a bit of money, no one would be happier for you than I should.’
Jia Yun smiled:
‘What you say is no doubt perfectly true, Uncle. But when Father died I was too little to understand what was going on, and according to what Mother has since told me, it was you who stepped in and took care of everything. Now you know as well as I do that it wasn’t I who spent all the money that came from selling off our little bit of property, and I don’t see what I am supposed to do without any capital. Even the cleverest housewife can’t make bread without flour! You’re lucky you’ve only got me to contend with. Anyone else in my position would be pestering the life out of you. They’d be round here scrounging all the time: a pound of rice one day, a quart of beans the next. Then you would have something to grumble about!’
‘My dear boy,’ said Bu Shi-ren, ‘if I had it to give, you should have it and welcome! Your trouble is, though, as I’m always telling your Aunt, you won’t think ahead. If only you’d pull yourself together and go and have a word with your Father’s folk at the big house – or if you can’t get to see them, put your pride in your pocket and make yourself agreeable to some of the stewards there — get yourself a job of some kind! When I was on my way out of the city the other day, I ran into that cousin of yours from North Street riding on a donkey with four or five carriages behind him and fifty or sixty nuns on his way to your family temple out in the country. Now that’s a shrewd young fellow! You can’t tell me he got that job by doing nothing!’
Exasperated by his uncle’s nagging, Jia Yun got up to go. ‘What’s the hurry?’ said Bu Shi-ren. ‘You can have something to eat before you go -’
‘Are you crazy?’ his wife’s voice cut in from the kitchen. ‘I told you we haven’t got any rice in the house. I’ve just bought this half a pound of noodles that I’m cooking for you now. I don’t know what you’re acting so lordly about, asking people to dinner. The boy’ll only go hungry if he stays!’
‘Buy another half a pound, woman, and put it in with the rest!’ said Bu Shi-ren.
‘Goldie!’ Mrs Bu shouted to her daughter. ‘Go over to Mrs Wang’s house across the road and ask if she can lend us a few cash. Tell her we can pay her back tomorrow!’
But before she had finished, Jia Yun, with a muttered ‘Don’t bother!’ had slipped quietly away.
Angrily leaving his uncle’s house behind him, he was on his way back home, eyes fixed on the ground as he brooded miserably on his affairs, when he walked head-on into drunkard. The man seized hold of him with a curse:
‘You sodding blind, bumping into me like that?’
The voice was a familiar one. Looking closer he saw that it was his neighbour Ni Er, a racketeer who made most of his money from high-interest loans supplemented by what he took off other players in the gambling dens. He drank too much and was always getting into fights. At this particular moment he was on his way back from paying a little ‘call’ on one of his debtors — evidently a lucrative one, for he was already half-seas-over. He did not take kindly to being bumped into, and it would have gone badly with Jia Yun if he had not immediately identified himself:
‘Ni, old chap, don’t strike! It’s me! I wasn’t looking where I was going.’
Hearing the voice, Ni Er opened his bleary eyes a little wider, saw that it was Jia Yun, released him – lurching heavily as he did so — and gave a crapulous laugh:
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘young Mist’ Jia. Parm me. Wherra you jus’ come from?’
‘Don’t ask me!’ said Jia Yun bitterly. ‘I’ve just been given the bird!’
‘Nemmind!’ said Ni Er. ‘Anyone been bothering you, Mist’ Jia, jus’ tell me and I’ll settle accounts with him for you! You know me. Ni Er. The Drunken Diamond. Old Dime’ll look after you. Anyone this part of the town troubling neighbour of Dime’s, don’t care who he is, guarantee put him out of business.’
‘Look, Diamond, if you’ll promise not to get angry, I’ll tell you what happened,’ said Jia Yun, and proceeded to give him an account of his interview with Bu Shi-ren. Ni Er was hugely incensed:
‘Damn fella! Give the damn fella piece of my mind if he wasn’t a relation of yours. Make my blood boil. Damn fella! Nemmind. Dome be downhearted. Got a few taels of silver here. If you can use it, help yourself! Good neighbour of Dime’s. Here y’are. Interest-free loan.’
‘This man’s a racketeer,’ Jia Yun thought to himself, ‘but he’s been known to do a good turn before now — in fact, he’s got quite a reputation in some quarters as a champion of the poor. If I don’t accept his offer, he may turn nasty and I shall be in trouble. Better accept the money and pay back double the amount when I can.’
Having made the decision, he thanked Ni Er with a smile:
‘You’re a real sport, Diamond! Since you’ve been kind enough to make the offer then, I won’t refuse. I’ll make you out a proper IOU for it when I get home.’
Ni Er roared with laughter:
‘There’s only fifteen taels and six pennyweights of silver here. If you’re going to go writing IOUs, I won’t lend it to you!’
Jia Yun laughed too and took the money from him:
‘All right, Diamond, anything you say! Let’s not fall out about it!’
‘That’s more like it!’ said Ni Er. ‘Getting dark now. Won’t keep you for a drink. Still got a little business to do. You go on home. Like you to give a message to my old woman, be so kind. Not going home tonight. If there’s anything to tell me about, she can send my daughter round first thing tomorrow. Find me at Bandy Wang, the horse-dealer’s.’
With these words he went on his way, lurching horribly.
The encounter left Jia Yun somewhat bemused.
‘That Ni Er’s certainly a character!’ he thought. ‘The trouble is, it may only have been the drink that made him generous. Perhaps when he’s sobered up tomorrow he’ll want his money back with a hundred per cent interest. What am I going to do then?’
Then he suddenly remembered what the money would enable him to do:
‘Of course! It doesn’t matter! If I get the job, I can pay back the loan and a hundred per cent interest easily.’
With that thought uppermost in his mind he went into a money-changer’s to have the silver weighed. To his great delight it turned out to be exactly the amount Ni Er had said, not a pennyweight less. Then he went home, calling at Ni Er’s house on the way to give the message to his wife. En?tering his own house he found his mother on the kang spin?ning. She looked up as he entered:
‘Where have you been all day?’
He did not like to mention that he had been to see her brother in case she was angry. He only said:
‘Been at Rong-guo House waiting for Uncle Lian. Have you had supper yet?’
‘Yes, I’ve had mine. I put something aside for you.’
She called to their little slavey to fetch it for him. Except for her work-lamp it was already dark indoors, so after finishing his supper he got himself ready for the night, unrolled his bedding, and settled down to sleep.
Rising early next morning, he went off as soon as he had washed to the shops in Central Street outside the south gate of the Inner City and bought camphor and musk at a perfu?mer’s. From there he went to Rong-guo House, and having first ascertained at the gate that Jia Lian was out for the day, he made his way to the Lians’ apartment at the back. Outside the gateway leading to their courtyard a number of page boys were sweeping the ground with long-handled brooms. Sud?denly Zhou Rui’s wife came out and addressed them:
‘Stop sweeping now! The Mistress is coming.’
Jia Yun hurried up to her with a smile of greeting:
‘Where is Aunt Lian off to, then?’
‘Her Old Ladyship wants her,’ said Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘I think it’s to see about some tailoring.’
As she spoke, the subject of his inquiry emerged from the gateway, surrounded by a bevy of attendants. Jia Yun was well aware that she had a weakness for flattery and the showier forms of deference. Bringing his hands together in an exag?gerated salute and stepping briskly forward, he made her a tremendous bow and wished her in good health.
Xi-feng continued to walk on and, without actually looking at him or turning her head, inquired after his mother’s health and asked why she never came to visit.
‘She’s not been very well, Auntie. She’s always thinking about you and meaning to pay a call, but when it’s come to it, she just hasn’t been able to get out.’
‘You’re a wonderful liar!’ said Xi-feng with a laugh. ‘I don’t suppose she’s ever thought about me until this moment!’
‘I’m too much afraid of lightning to lie to my superiors,’ said Jia Yun. ‘Mother was talking about you only last night, as a matter of fact. She said, “Your Auntie Lian is only a single weak woman, yet she has all those responsibilities. It’s a good thing she has the will-power to keep everything running so smoothly, because if that should go, she’d be worn out in no tine.”‘
Xi-feng was now all smiles, and halted in spite of herself to hear more.
‘And why should you and your mother be chewing over my affairs behind my back, pray?’
‘That’s a long story,’ said Jia Yun. ‘A very good friend of mine who runs a perfumery and had quite a bit put by in savings decided to invest his money in a government post and bought himself the place of an Assistant Sub-Prefect. Well, a few days ago his posting came and it turns out to be for somewhere down in Yunnan. He’s taking his family with him, so of course he won’t be able to keep on the shop, and he’s been going over all his stock deciding what to give away and what to put in his clearance sale. He decided to give the more valuable stuff to friends and relations. My share was a whole quarter of a pound of Borneo camphor and another quarter of musk, and I was discussing with Mother last night what we ought to do with it. We don’t know anyone who could afford to buy it; and it seems a shame to sell it at less than the price; and even if we gave it away, we couldn’t think of anyone who would want so much. But then I suddenly thought of you and the packets of money you’ve spent on this kind of thing in years past, and I thought to myself that this year, what with Her Grace in the Palace and the Double Fifth already not far off, you’re sure to be using ten or twelve times the usual amount. So, to cut a long story short, we decided to make a present of it to you. There you are, Auntie – a little token of my esteem!’
As he spoke, he took out a small brocade-covered box and respectfully raised it in both hands to offer her.
Now Xi-feng was just beginning to think about the problem of purchasing aromatics for the Double Fifth festival, and it pleased her very much to be relieved of the trouble of doing so — especially when it was in so agreeable a manner. She smiled at him graciously before turning to her maid:
‘Felicity, take my nephew’s present and give it to Patience to take care of!’
The smile was directed once more on Jia Yun:
‘You are very thoughtful. I’m not surprised your Uncle speaks so highly of you. He’s often told me what a well-spoken, sensible young man you are.’
They seemed to be sailing into harbour. Jia Yun took a step closer:
‘Has Uncle been talking to you about me then?’ — The tone in which he asked the question was deliberately meaningful.
Xi-feng was on the point of telling him that he would get the tree-planting job when she reflected that by doing so she would be cheapening herself in his estimation. He would almost certainly suppose that she was promising it in return for the perfume. In replying to his question she therefore confined herself to a few insipid civilities, avoiding all mention of jobs and trees, and presently continued on her way to Grandmother Jia’s.
Obviously Jia Yun was in no position to raise the subject if his aunt was not willing, so he was obliged to return in the same uncertainty in which he had come. Back home he remembered Bao-yu’s invitation of the previous day, and as soon as he had finished his meal, he returned once more to Rong-guo House and made his way to Sunset Studio outside the gateway leading to Lady Jia’s quarters. He found the pages Tealeaf and Ploughboy sitting over a game of chess and arguing about a piece that one of them had just taken. Other pages — Trickles, Sweeper, Cloudy and Storky — were up on the roof looking for fledgelings. Jia Yun entered the court?yard and stamped his foot:
‘Come on, you young rapscallions! Can’t you see you’ve got a visitor?’
The pages, except Tealeaf, melted away. Jia Yun went into the study and sat down in a chair.
‘Has Master Bao been here yet?’
‘He hasn’t been here yet today,’ said Tealeaf. ‘If you want to talk to him, I’ll have a look and see if he’s about.’
With that he, too, vanished.
For about the time it would take to eat a meal, Jia Yun gazed at the paintings, calligraphic scrolls and antiques which adorned the room. At the end of that time, as there was still no sign of Tealeaf, he took a look outside to see if there were any other pages whom he could ask to take a message; but they had all gone off to play elsewhere. Dejectedly he went back once more to wait.
‘Tealeaf!’
A soft and thrilling voice was calling from outside. Craning out to look he saw a fifteen-or sixteen-year-old maid standing near the entrance to the study. She was a neat, pleasant-looking girl with a pair of limpid, intelligent eyes. Seeing a strange man in the room, she quickly shrank back out of his line of vision. At that very moment Tealeaf walked back into the courtyard.
‘Ah, good!’ he said, catching sight of the maid. ‘I was beginning to wonder how I’d ever get a message to him.’
Jia Yun ran out to question him:
‘Well?’
‘Waited for ages,’ said Tealeaf, ‘but no one came by. She’s from his room, though.’ – he indicated the soft-voiced maid – ‘Listen, dear,’ he said addressing her. ‘Can you take a message for us? Tell him that Mr Jia from West Lane is here.’
On learning that the visitor was a member of the clan, the maid became less concerned about concealment and engaged the limpid eyes in bolder scrutiny of his features. The object of her scrutiny now addressed her:
‘Don’t bother about the “West Lane” stuff! Just say that “Yun” has called!’
The girl reflected for some moments, then, with a half-smile, she said:
‘If I were you, Mr Jia, I’d go home now and come again tomorrow. I’ll try to get a message through to him this evening if I get the chance.’
‘What’s the idea?’ said Tealeaf.
‘He didn’t have his nap today,’ said the maid. ‘That means he’ll be having dinner early. Then suppose he doesn’t go out after dinner: are you going to let Mr Jia wait here all day without eating? It would be much better if he went home now and came again tomorrow. Even if I succeed in getting word through to him as soon as I get back, he’ll probably only send an answer to the message. I don’t expect he’ll actually come over.’
Her words were sensible and to the point and were spoken in the same thrilling tone that had first attracted him. Jia Yun would have liked to ask her name, but etiquette forbade that he should do so now that he knew she was one of Bao-yu’s maids. He just said:
‘I’m sure you’re right. I’ll come again tomorrow, then.’
He turned to go.
‘I’ll get some tea for you, Mr Jia,’ said Tealeaf. ‘Have a cup of tea before you go.’
‘No thanks,’ said Jia Yun, looking back over his shoulder but continuing to go. ‘I’ve got other business.’
The words were for Tealeaf, but the look which accom?panied them was directed at the soft-voiced maid, who was still standing there.
Jia Yun went back home and returned next day as she had advised. On his way in he ran into Xi-feng outside the main gate. She was about to visit Jia Lian’s parents next door and had just got into her carriage. Seeing Jia Yun, she made her attendants call to him to stop.
‘Yun!’ She smiled at him through the window of the carriage. ‘You’ve got a nerve, my lad, playing a trick like that on me! I see now why you gave me that present. It’s a job you were after. Your Uncle told me yesterday. Apparently you’ve been on to him about it already.’
Jia Yun smiled back ruefully:
‘I’d rather we didn’t go into my dealings with Uncle, if you don’t mind! I’m beginning to wish I’d never spoken to him about it. If I’d realized earlier what the situation was, I should have gone straight to you in the first place. I’m sure if I had, it would all have been settled long ago. I’m afraid Uncle has let me down.’
‘Humph!’ said Xi-feng. ‘So that’s why you came to me yesterday, is it? You’d had no success with the husband so you thought you’d try your luck with the wife!’
‘That’s most unfair, Auntie!’ Jia Yun protested. ‘It was a purely disinterested present. I wasn’t thinking at all about a job when I gave it to you. If I had been, why do you suppose I didn’t take the opportunity of asking you about it at the time? However, since you do now know that I’m looking for one, I’d like to forget about Uncle and throw myself on your kindness instead.’
‘You have a very devious way of going about things,’ said Xi-feng with a hint of malice in her smile. ‘Why couldn’t you have spoken up sooner? A little thing like this is hardly worth so much delay. We still need some more trees and shrubs planted in the garden, and I’ve been trying to think of someone to do the job. If you’d spoken up earlier, it could all have been done by now.’
‘You can set me to work tomorrow, Auntie. I’ll be ready.’
Xi-feng thought for a while.
‘I don’t know that it’s a very suitable job for you. Perhaps we’d better wait until next New Year and put you in charge of lanterns and fireworks. That’s a much bigger job.’
‘Look, Auntie: you give me this planting job now, then; if you’re satisfied with the way I do it, you can give me the other job later on.’
Xi-feng laughed:
‘You certainly know how to fish with a long line! — All right, then! It’s not really my affair, but I suppose as your Uncle has mentioned it to me — I’m only going next door now and I shall be back again after lunch. Come round a little after midday to get the money and you shall start your planting the day after tomorrow.’
She told the servants to harness the carriage and drove off to make her call.
Beside himself with joy, Jia Yun now continued on his way to Sunset Studio to look for Bao-yu. In point of fact Bao-yu had gone off first thing that morning to call on the Prince of Bei-jing; but no one seemed to know about this, and Jia Yun sat waiting expectantly throughout the whole of the morning. Having waited until noon, he inquired whether Xi-feng was back yet, and being informed that she was, he wrote out a form of receipt, took it round to the Lians’ apartment, and sent in word that he had called for his tally. Sunshine came out in response to his message and asked him for the receipt, which he took indoors. Presently he reappeared and handed it back to Jia Yun with the date and amount filled in in the blanks he had left for this purpose, together with the precious tally which would enable him to draw the money. Glancing at the receipt as he took it from him, Jia Yun was delighted to observe that the figures entered were for a payment of two hundred taels of silver. He hurried off to the counting-house to collect it, then home once more to share the joyful news with his mother.
Next day he was off long before daylight to look up Ni Er and pay him back the loan. That done, he took another fifty taels of the silver with him and called on a nurseryman outside the West Gate called Fang Chun, from whom he bought a large number of trees.
At this point our narrative abandons Jia Yun’s affairs and returns to Bao-yu.
When Bao-yu, in the course of his meeting with Jia Yun, had invited Jia Yun to drop in and spend the following day with him, the invitation was of the careless, half-serious kind that is unfortunately typical of young gentlemen of his class. As he had made no real effort to remember it at the time, it naturally slipped his memory the following day. Returning now, two evenings later, from the palace of the Prince of Bei-jing where he had been all day, he called first on his grandmother and his mother and then returned to his own rooms in the garden and changed back into his everyday clothes.
He decided to take a bath; and since Aroma was out, having been ‘borrowed’ by Bao-chai to make braid buttons on a dress, Ripple and Emerald had gone off to see about the water. Of the other senior maids, Skybright had been fetched home for her cousin’s birthday and Musk was away ill; and the few heavy-work maids left in attendance had all assumed that their services would not be required and had gone off in search of their gossips. For a quarter of an hour Bao-yu was left entirely on his own. It chanced that precisely at this mo?ment he wanted someone to get him some tea. He had already called a couple of times without response and at his third call two or three old charwomen came hurrying in to see what was the matter.
‘No, no: I don’t need you!’ – he waved them away im?patiently. The old women retired, baffled.
Since there were no maids, Bao-yu saw that he would have to serve himself. He found himself a cup and was about to take up the pot to pour himself some tea when a voice started speaking right behind him:
‘Let me, Master Bao! You might scald yourself.’
Bao-yu jumped. The owner of the voice hurriedly relieved him of the cup.
‘Where have you been all this time?’ he said. ‘You gave me quite a start, coming up suddenly like that!’
She handed him his tea with a smile:
‘I was in the back courtyard. I came in through the courtyard door at the back. Didn’t you hear me coming?’
Bao-yu sipped his tea and observed her carefully. Her dress, though not shabby, was far from new. By contrast she had a magnificent head of raven-black hair which was done up in a simple bun. The face was rather long and thin; the build slender; the overall impression that of a tidy, clean, graceful person.
‘Do you belong here then?’ he asked her.
‘Yes.’ She seemed amused.
‘If you do, how is it that I’ve never seen you before?’
She replied with some bitterness:
‘There are quite a few of us you’ve never seen. I’m not the only one, by any means. How could you have seen me? I’ve never been allowed to wait on you or show myself in your presence.’
‘Why not?’
‘I don’t think it’s for me to say. — Oh, there’s something I do have to tell you, though. Yesterday a gentleman calling himself “Yun” came to see you. I thought you probably wouldn’t be able to see him at the time, so I told Tealeaf to ask him round this morning. Unfortunately by the time he came, you’d already gone off to see the Prince—’
Their conversation was interrupted by the giggles of Ripple and Emerald who had just entered the courtyard with a large bucket of water. Each of them held the bucket by one hand and lifted her skirts up with the other. They were staggering under the unaccustomed weight and slopping a good deal of the water about as they went. The maid hurried out to relieve them. By now the giggles had given way to recriminations:
‘Look, you’ve soaked my dress!’
‘You trod on my toe!’
They stopped to look at this person who had just issued from the young Master’s room and saw with some surprise that it was Crimson. Putting down the water, they hurried indoors to look. Bao-yu was there on his own. The girls were indignant. As soon as they had prepared the bath and seen him undressed, they shut the door after them and hurried to the other side of the building to find Crimson.
‘What were you doing in his room just now?’ they asked her accusingly.
‘I wasn’t doing anything,’ said Crimson. ‘I couldn’t find my handkerchief, so I went to look for it round the back. He was calling for some tea and none of you happened to be about, so I ran in and poured it out for him. And just at that moment you came back.’
Ripple spat in her face:
‘Nasty, shameless little slut! When we asked you to fetch the water for us you said you were busy and made us go ourselves. You didn’t waste much time, having got him to yourself, did you? You think you’re on the way up, don’t you? Step by step. Well, we can catch up with you, my fine lady! Why don’t you take a look at yourself in the mirror and then ask yourself if you’re a fit person to go serving tea to the Masters?’
‘We’d better warn the others that when he asks for tea or anything in future they must stay where they are and let her go and get it!’
‘In that case,’ said Ripple, ‘the rest of us may as well clear off and let her have him all to herself!’
They were still at their antiphonal taunting when an old woman arrived with a message from Xi-feng:
‘Someone is bringing some workmen in tomorrow to plant trees, so you have all got to be extra careful. No hanging clothes out to dry all over the place! There will be screens put up along the line of the embankment and you are not to go running around outside.’
‘Who’s the person in charge of the workmen?’ asked Ripple.
‘A young chap called “Yun” from up the Lane,’ said the old woman.
The name meant nothing to Ripple and Emerald, who went on to ask about other matters; but Crimson knew it must be the young man she had met the day before in the outer study.
Crimson’s surname was ‘Lin’. Her family had been retainers in the Jia family for generations. Nowadays her father worked as a farm-bailiff on the family’s estates. She was sixteen. Along with many other servants, she had originally entered the Prospect Garden to carry out caretaking duties in the period when it was still unoccupied. The part of it she was assigned to was the House of Green Delights. She found it a very beautiful place to live in — very quiet and secluded. But this had changed when Bao-yu and the girls were commanded to move in and Bao-yu had chosen the House of Green Delights as his own residence.
Although Crimson was a very inexperienced maid, she had a measure of good looks and a determination to better herself. She was therefore constantly on the look-out for an opportunity of making herself known to Bao-yu and showing off her ability to serve him. Unfortunately the little group of body-servants who had accompanied him into the garden guarded their privileges with tooth and claw and were careful to allow no toehold to an ambitious outsider. Today she had at last found an opening, only to have her hopes immediately dashed by Ripple’s malice. She felt very discouraged.
Still smarting with resentment, she heard the old woman say that Jia Yun was coming next day into the garden. The name provoked a momentary flutter in her breast; but she returned to her room with the same feeling of resentment bottled up inside her and went to bed to ponder moodily on the events of the day. As the thoughts pursued themselves round and round in her mind without object or conclusion, she suddenly heard her name being called very softly outside her window:
‘Crimson! Crim! I’ve found your handkerchief!’ She quickly got up and went outside to look. To her sur?prise it was Jia Yun. A maidenly confusion mantled her comely cheek.
‘Where did you find it?’ she asked timidly.
Jia Yun laughed:
‘Come over here and I’ll show you!’
He took hold of her dress to pull her to him. Overcome with shame, she turned and fled, but her foot caught on the thresh?old and she fell on her face.
The conclusion of this adventure will be revealed in the following chapter.

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