The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 34

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CHAPTER 34

A wordless message meets with silent understanding
And a groundless imputation leads to undeserved rebukes

WHEN she saw that Grandmother Jia, Lady Wang and the rest had all gone, Aroma went and sat down at Bao-yu’s bed?side and asked him, with tears in her eyes, the reason why he had been beaten so severely.
Bao-yu sighed.
‘Oh, the usual things. Need you ask? I wish you’d take a look down below, though, and tell me if anything’s broken. It’s hurting so dreadfully down there.’
Very gently Aroma inserted her fingers into the top of his trousers and began to draw them off. She had barely started when he gritted his teeth and let out a cry, and she had to stop immediately. This happened three or four times before she finally succeeded in getting them off. The sight revealed made her grit her own teeth.
‘Mother of mine!’ she gasped, ‘he must have hit you savagely. If only you’d listened to me a bit in the past, it would never have come to this. Why, you might have been crippled for life. It doesn’t bear thinking of.’
Just then Bad-chai’s arrival was announced by one of the maids. Since putting his trousers on again was out of the question, Aroma snatched up a lightweight coverlet and hur?riedly threw it over him. Bao-chai came in carrying a large tablet of some sort of solid medicine which she instructed Aroma to pound up in wine and apply to Bao-yu’s injuries in the evening.
‘This is a decongestant,’ she said, handing it to her. ‘It will take away the inflammation by dispersing the bad blood in his bruises. After that, he should heal quite quickly.’
She turned to Bao-yu.
‘Are you feeling any better now?’
Bao-yu thanked her. Yes, he said, he was feeling a little better, and invited her to sit down beside him. Bao-chai was relieved to see him with his eyes open and talking again. She shook her head sadly.
‘If you had listened to what one said, this would never have happened. Everyone is so upset now. It isn’t only Grandmother and Lady Wang, you know. Even—’
She checked herself abruptly, regretting that she had allowed her feelings to run away with her, and lowered her head, blushing. Bao-yu had sensed hidden depths of feeling in the passionate earnestness of her tone, and when she suddenly faltered and turned red, there was something so touching about the pretty air of confusion with which she dropped her head and played with the ends of her girdle, that his spirits soared and his pain was momentarily forgotten.
‘What have I undergone but a few whacks of the bamboo?’ he thought, ‘—yet already they are so sad and concerned about me! What dear, adorable, sweet, noble girls they are! Heaven knows how they would grieve for me if I were actually to die! It would be almost worth dying, just to find out. The loss of a life’s ambitions would be a small price to pay, and I should be a peevish, ungrateful ghost if I did not feel proud and happy when such darling creatures were grieving for me.’
He was roused from this reverie by the sound of Bao-chai’s voice asking Aroma what it was that had moved his father to such violent anger against him. Aroma’s low reply, in which she merely repeated what Tealeaf had told her, was his first inkling of the part that Jia Huan had played in his misfortune. Her mention of Xue Pan’s involvement, however, made him apprehensive that Bao-chai might feel embarrassed, and he hastily interrupted Aroma to prevent her from saying more.
Old Xue would never do a thing like that,’ he said. ‘It’s silly to make these wild assertions.’
Bao-chai knew that it was out of respect for her feelings that he was silencing Aroma, and she wondered at his considerateness.
‘What delicacy of feeling!’ she thought, ‘after so terrible a beating and in spite of all the pain, to be still able to worry about the possibility of someone else’s being offended! If only you could apply some of that thoughtfulness to the more important things of life, my friend, you would make my Uncle so happy; and then perhaps these awful things would never happen. And when all’s said and done, this sensibility on my behalf is rather wasted. Do you really think I know my own brother so little that I am unaware of his unruly nature? Nothing has ever been allowed to stand in the way of Pan’s desires. Look at the terrible trouble he made for you that time over Qin Zhong. That was a long time ago, and I am sure he has got much worse since then.’
Those were her thoughts, but what she said was:
‘There’s really no need to look around for someone to blame. If you ask me, the mere fact that Cousin Bao has been willing to keep such company was in itself quite enough to make Uncle angry. And though my brother can be very tactless and may well have let something out about Cousin Bao in the course of conversation, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been deliberate trouble-making on his part. In the first place, it is, after all, true, what he is supposed to have said: Cousin Bao has been going around with that actor. And in the second place, my brother simply hasn’t got it in him to be discreet. You have lived all your life with sensitive, considerate people like Cousin Bao, my dear Aroma. You have never had to deal with a crude, forthright person like my brother someone who says whatever comes into his head with complete dis?regard for the consequences.’
When Bao-yu cut short her remarks about Xue Pan, Aroma had realized at once that she was being tactless and inwardly prayed that Bao-chai had not taken exception to them. To her, therefore, these words of Bao-chai’s were a source of tongue-tied embarrassment. Bao-yu, on the other hand, could see in them only the refusal of a frank and generous nature to admit deviousness in others and a sensibility capable of matching and responding to his own. As a consequence his spirits soared yet higher. He was about to say something, but Bao-chai rose to her feet and anticipated him.
‘I’ll come and see you again tomorrow. You must rest now and give yourself a chance to get well. I’ve given Aroma something to make a lotion with. Get her to put it on for you in the evening. I can guarantee that it will hasten your re?covery.’
She was moving towards the door as she said this. When she was outside, Aroma hurried after her to see her off and to thank her for her trouble.
‘As soon as he’s better,’ she said, ‘Master Bao will come over and thank you himself, Miss.’
‘It’s nothing at all,’ said Bao-chai, turning back to her with a smile. ‘Do tell him to rest properly, though, and not to brood. And if there’s anything at all he wants, just quietly come round to my place for it. Don’t go bothering Lady Jia or Lady Wang or any of the others, in case my uncle gets to hear of it. It probably wouldn’t matter at the time, but it might do later on, next time there is any trouble.’
With that she left, and Aroma turned back into the court?yard, her heart full of gratitude for Bao-chai’s kindness. Re?entering Bao-yu’s room, she found him lying back quietly, plunged in thought. From the look of it, he was already half asleep. Tiptoeing out again, she went off to wash her hair.
But it was difficult for Bao-yu to lie quietly for very long. The pain in his buttocks was like the stabbing and pricking of knives and needles and there was a burning sensation in them as if he were being grilled over a fire, so that the slightest movement made him cry out. Already it was growing late. Aroma appeared to have gone away, but two or three maids were still in attendance. As there was nothing that they could do for him, he told them that they might go off and prepare themselves for the night, provided that they remained within call. The maids accordingly withdrew, leaving him on his own.
He had dozed off. The shadowy form of Jiang Yu-han had come in to tell him of his capture by the Prince of Zhong?-shun’s men, followed, shortly after, by Golden, who gave him a tearful account of how she had drowned herself. In his half? dream, half-awake state he was having the greatest difficulty in attending to what they were saying, when suddenly he felt someone pushing him and became dimly aware of a sound of weeping in his ear. He gave a start. Fully awake now, he opened his eyes. It was Lin Dai-yu. Suspecting this, too, to be a dream, he raised his head to look. A pair of eyes swollen like peaches met his own, and a face that was glistening with tears. It was Dai-yu all right, no doubt about that. He would have looked longer, but the strain of raising himself was causing such excruciating pain in his nether parts, that he fell back again with a groan. The groan was followed by a sigh.
‘Now what have you come for?’ he said. ‘The sun’s not long set and the ground must still be very hot underfoot. You could still get a heat-stroke at this time of day, and that would he a fine how-do-you-do. Actually, in spite of the beating, I don’t feel very much pain. This fuss I make is put on to fool the others. I’m hoping they’ll spread the word around outside how badly I’ve been hurt, so that Father gets to hear of it. It’s all shamming, really. You mustn’t be taken in by it.’
Dai-yu’s sobbing had by this time ceased to be audible; but somehow her strangled, silent weeping was infinitely more pathetic than the most clamorous grief. At that moment volumes would have been inadequate to contain the things she wanted to say to him; yet all she could get out, after struggling for some time with her choking sobs, was
‘I suppose you’ll change now.’
Bao-yu gave a long sigh.
‘Don’t worry, I shan’t change. People like that are worth dying for. I wouldn’t change if he killed me.’
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when they heard someone outside in the courtyard saying:
‘Mrs Lian has come.’
Dai-yu had no wish to see Xi-feng, and rose to her feet hurriedly.
Bao-yu seized hold of her hand.
‘Now that’s funny. Why should you start being afraid of her all of a sudden?’
She stamped with impatience.
‘Look at the state my eyes are in I’ she said. ‘I don’t want them all making fun of me again.’
At that Bao-yu released her hand and she bounded round to the back of the bed, slipping into the rear courtyard just as Xi-feng was entering the room from the front.
‘A bit better now?’ said Xi-feng. ‘Is there anything you feel like eating yet? If there is, tell them to come round to my place and get it.’
As soon as Xi-feng had gone, Bao-yu was visited by Aunt Xue, and shortly after that by someone whom his grandmother had sent to see how he was getting on. At lighting-up time, after taking a few mouthfuls of soup, he settled down into a fitful sleep.
Just then a new group of visitors arrived, consisting of Zhou Rui’s wife, Wu Xin-deng’s wife, Zheng Hao-shi’s wife, and those other members of the mansion’s female staff who had had most to do with Bao-yu in the past and who, having heard of his beating, were anxious to see how he was. Aroma came out smiling on to the verandah to welcome them.
‘You’re just too late to see him, ladies,’ she told them in a low voice. ‘He’s just this minute dropped off.’
She ushered them into the Outer room, invited them to be seated, and served them with tea. After sitting there very quietly for several minutes, they got up to take their leave, requesting Aroma as they did so that she would inform Bao-yu when he waked that they had been round to ask about him. Aroma promised to do so and showed them out. Just as she was about to go in again, an old woman arrived from Lady Wang’s to say that ‘Her Ladyship would like to see one of Master Bao’s people.’ After reflecting for a moment, Aroma turned to the house and called softly to Skybright, Musk and Ripple inside.
‘Her Ladyship wants to see someone, so I’m going over. Stay indoors and keep an eye on things while I’m away. I shan’t be long.’
Then she followed the old woman out of the Garden and round to Lady Wang’s apartment in the central courtyard. She found Lady Wang sitting on a cane summer-bed and fanning herself with a palm leaf fan. She appeared not entirely pleased when she saw that it was Aroma.
‘You could have sent one of the others,’ she said. ‘There was no need for you to come and leave him unattended.’
Aroma smiled reassuringly.
‘Master Bao has just settled down for the night, Madam. If he should want anything, the others are nowadays quite capable of looking after him on their own. Your Ladyship has no need to worry. I thought I had better come myself and not send one of the others, in case Your Ladyship had something important to tell us. I was afraid that if I sent one of the others, they might not understand what you wanted.’
‘I have nothing in particular to tell you,’ said Lady Wang. ‘I merely wanted to ask about my son. How is the pain now?’
‘Much better since I put on some of the lotion that Miss Bao brought for him,’ said Aroma. ‘It was so bad before that he couldn’t lie still, but now he’s sleeping quite soundly, so you can tell it must be better than it was.’
‘Has he had anything to eat yet?’ said Lady Wang.
‘He had a few sips of some soup Her Old Ladyship sent,’ said Aroma, ‘but that’s all he would take. He kept complain?ing that he felt dry. He wanted me to give him plum bitters to drink, but of course that’s an astringent, and I thought to myself that as he’d just had a beating and not been allowed to cry out during it, a lot of hot blood and hot poison must have been driven inwards and still be collected round his heart, and if he were to drink some of that stuff, it might stir them up and bring on a serious illness, so I talked him out of it. After a lot of persuading, I got him to take some rose syrup instead, that I mixed up in water for him; but after only half a cup of it he said it tasted sickly and he couldn’t get it down.’
‘Oh dear, I wish you’d told me sooner,’ said Lady Wang. ‘We were sent some bottles of flavouring the other day that I could have let you have. As a matter of fact I was going to send him some of them, but then I thought that if I did they would probably only get wasted, so I didn’t. If he can’t manage the rose syrup, I can easily give you a few of them to take back with you. You need only mix a teaspoonful of essence in a cupful of water. The flavours are quite delicious.’ She called Suncloud to her. ‘Fetch me a few of those bottles of flavouring essence that were sent us the other day.’
‘Two will be enough,’ said Aroma, ‘otherwise it will only get wasted. If we run out, I can always come back for more later.’
Suncloud was gone for a considerable time. Eventually she returned with two little glass bottles, each about three inches high, which she handed to Aroma. They had screw on silver tops and yellow labels. One of them was labelled ‘Essence of Cassia Flower’ and the other one ‘Essence of Roses’.
‘What tiny little bottles!’ said Aroma. ‘They can’t hold very much. I suppose the stuff inside them must be very precious.’
‘It was made specially for the Emperor,’ said Lady Wang. ‘That’s what the yellow labels mean. Haven’t you seen labels like that before? Mind you look after them and don’t let the stuff in them get wasted.’
Aroma promised to be careful and began to go.
‘Just a minute!’ said Lady Wang. ‘I’ve thought of some-thing else that I wanted to ask you.’
Aroma returned. Lady Wang first glanced about her to make sure that no one else was in the room, then she said:
‘I think I heard someone say that Bao-yu’s beating today was because of something that Huan had said to Sir Zheng. I suppose you don’t happen to have heard anything about that?’
‘No. I haven’t heard anything about that,’ said Aroma. ‘What I heard was that it was because Master Bao had been going around with one of Prince Somebody or other’s players and the Master was told about it by someone who called.’
Lady Wang nodded her head mysteriously.
‘Yes, that was one of the reasons. But there was another reason as well.’
‘I really know nothing about any other reason, Your Lady?ship,’ said Aroma. She dropped her head and hesitated a moment before going on. ‘I wonder if I might be rather bold and say something very outspoken to Your Ladyship? Really and truly ’ She faltered.
‘Please go on.’
‘I will if Your Ladyship will promise not to he angry with me.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Lady Wang. ‘Just tell me what you have to say.’
‘Well, really and truly,’ said Aroma, ‘Master Bao needed punishing. If the Master didn’t keep an eye on him, there’s no knowing what he mightn’t get up to.’
‘My child,’ said Lady Wang with a warmth rarely seen in her, ‘those are exactly my own sentiments. How clever of you to have understood! Of course, I know perfectly well that Bao-yu is in need of discipline; and anyone who saw how strict I used to be with Mr Zhu would realize that I am capable of exercising it. But I have my reasons. A woman of fifty cannot expect to bear any more children and Bao-yu is now the only son I have. He is not a very strong boy; and his Grannie dotes on him. I daren’t risk being strict. I daren’t risk losing another son. I daren’t risk angering Her Old Ladyship and upsetting the whole household. I do once in a while have it out with him but though I have argued and pleaded and wept, it doesn’t do any good. He seems all right at the time, but he’ll be just the same again a short while afterwards and I always know that I have failed to reach him. Jam afraid he has to suffer before he can learn but suppose it’s too much for him? – suppose he doesn’t get over this beating? What will become of me?’
She began to cry.
Seeing her mistress so distressed, Aroma herself was affected and began to cry too.
‘I can understand Your Ladyship being so upset,’ she said, ‘when he’s your own son. Even we servants that have been with him for a few years get worried about him. The most that we can ever hope for is to do our duty and get by without too much trouble but even that won’t be possible if he goes on the way he has been doing. I’m always telling him to change his ways. Every day every hour I tell him. But it’s no use; he won’t listen. Of course, if these people will make so much fuss of him, you can hardly blame him for going round with them though it does make our job more difficult. But now that Your Ladyship has spoken like this, it puts me in mind of something that’s been worrying me which I should like to have asked Your Ladyship’s advice about, only I was afraid you might take it amiss, and then not only should I have spoken to no purpose, but I should leave myself without even a grave to lie in…’
It was evident to Lady Wang that what she was struggling to get out was a matter of some consequence.
‘What is it you want to tell me, my child?’ she said kindly. ‘I’ve heard a lot of people praising you recently, and I confess that I assumed it must be because you took special pains in serving Bao-yu or in making yourself agreeable to other people — little things of that sort. But I see that I was wrong. These are not at all little things that you have been talking about. What you have said so far makes very good sense and entirely accords with my own opinion of the matter. So if you have anything to tell me, I should like to hear it. But I must ask you not to discuss it with anyone else.’
‘All I really wanted to ask,’ said Aroma, ‘was if Your Lady?ship could advise me how later on we can somehow or other contrive to get Master Bao moved back outside the Garden,’
Lady Wang looked startled and clutched Aroma’s hand in some alarm.
‘I hope Bao-yu hasn’t been doing something dreadful with one of the girls?’
‘Oh no, Your Ladyship, please don’t suspect that!’ said Aroma hurriedly. ‘That wasn’t my meaning at all. It’s just that—if you’ll allow me to say so—Master Bao and the young ladies are beginning to grow up now, and though they are all cousins, there is the difference of sex between them, which makes it very awkward sometimes when they are all living together, especially in the case of Miss Lin and Miss Bao, who aren’t even of the same clan. One can’t help feeling uneasy. Even to outsiders it looks like a very strange sort of family. They say “where nothing happens, imagination is busiest”, and I’m sure lots of unaccountable misfortunes begin when some innocent little thing we did unthinkingly gets mis?construed in someone else’s imagination and reported as something terrible. We just have to be on our guard against that sort of thing happening especially when Master Bao has such a peculiar character, as Your Ladyship knows, and spends all his time with girls. He only has to make the tiniest slip in an unguarded moment, and whether he really did anything or not, with so many people about and some of them no better than they should be there is sure to be scandal. For you know what some of these people are like, Your Ladyship. If they feel well-disposed towards you, they’ll make you out to be a saint; but if they’re not, then Heaven help you! If Master Bao lives to be spoken well of’ we can count ourselves lucky; but the way things are, it only needs someone to breathe a word of scandal and – I say nothing of what will happen to us servants—it’s of no consequence if we’re all chopped up for mincemeat—but what’s more important, Master Bao’s reputa?tion will be destroyed for life and all the care and worry Your Ladyship and Sir Zheng have had on his account will have been wasted. I know Your Ladyship is very busy and can’t be expected to think of everything, and I probably shouldn’t have thought of this myself, but once I had thought of it, it seemed to me that it would be wrong of me not to tell Your Ladyship, and it’s been preying on my mind ever since. The only reason I haven’t mentioned it before is because I was afraid Your Ladyship might be angry with me.’
What Aroma had just been saying about misconstructions and scandals so exactly fitted what had in fact happened in the case of Golden that for a moment Lady Wang was quite taken aback. But on reflection she felt nothing but love and gratitude for this humble servant-girl who had shown so much solici?tude on her behalf.
‘It is very perceptive of you, my dear, to have thought it all out so carefully,’ she said. ‘I have, of course, thought about this matter myself’ but other things have put it from my mind, and what you have just said has reminded me. It is most thoughtful of you. You are a very, very good girl — Well, you may go now. I think I now know what to do. There is just one thing before you go, though. Now that you have spoken to me like this, I am going to place Bao-yu entirely in your hands. Be very careful with him, won’t you? Remember that anything you do for him you will be doing also for me. You will find that I am not ungrateful.’
Aroma stood for a moment with bowed head, weighing the import of these words. Then she said:
‘I will do what Your Ladyship has asked me to the utmost of my ability.’
She left the apartment slowly and made her way back to Green Delights, pondering -as she went. When she arrived, Bao-yu had just woken up, so she told him about the flavourings. He was pleased and made her mix some for him straight away. It was quite delicious. He kept thinking about Dai-yu and wanted to send someone over to see her, but he was afraid that Aroma would disapprove, so, as a means of getting her out of the way, he sent her over to Bao-chai’s place to borrow a book. As soon as she had gone, he summoned Skybright.
‘I want you to go to Miss Lin’s for me,’ he said. ‘Just see what she’s doing, and if she asks about me, tell her I’m all right.’
‘I can’t go rushing in there bald-headed without a reason,’ said Skybright. ‘You’d better give me some kind of a message, just to give me an excuse for going there.’
‘I have none to give,’ said Bao-yu.
‘Well, give me something to take, then,’ said Skybright, ‘or think of something I can ask her for. Otherwise it will look so silly.’
Bao-yu thought for a bit and then, reaching out and picking up two of his old handkerchiefs, he tossed them towards her with a smile.
‘All right. Tell her I said you were to give her these.’
‘That’s an odd sort of present!’ said Skybright. ‘What’s she going to do with a pair of your old handkerchiefs? Most likely she’ll think you’re making fun of her and get upset again.’
‘No she won’t,’ said Bao-yu. ‘She’ll understand.’
Skybright deemed it pointless to argue, so she picked up the handkerchiefs and went off to the Naiad’s House. Little Deli?cate, who was hanging some towels out to dry on the verandah railings, saw her enter the courtyard and attempted to wave her away.
‘She’s gone to bed.’
Skybright ignored her and went on inside. The lamps had not been lit and the room was in almost total darkness. The voice of Dai-yu, lying awake in bed, spoke to her out of the shadows.
‘Who is it?’
‘Skybright.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Master Bao has sent me with some handkerchiefs, Miss?
Dai-yu seemed to hesitate. She found the gift puzzling and was wondering what it could mean.
‘I suppose they must be very good ones,’ she said. ‘Prob?ably someone gave them to him. Tell him to keep them and give them to some body else. I have no use for them just now myself.’
Skybright laughed.
‘They’re not new ones, Miss. They’re two of his did, everyday ones.’
This was even more puzzling. Dai-yu thought very hard for some moments. Then suddenly, in a flash, she understood.
‘Put them down. You may go now.’
Skybright did as she was bid and withdrew. All the way back to Green Delights she tried to make sense of what had happened, but it continued to mystify her.
Meanwhile the message that eluded Skybright had thrown Dai-yu into a turmoil of conflicting emotions.
‘I feel so happy,’ she thought, ‘that in the midst of his own affliction he has been able to grasp the cause of all my trouble.
‘And yet at the same time I am sad,’ she thought; ‘because how do I know that my trouble will end in the way I want it to?
‘Actually, I feel rather amused,’ she thought. ‘Fancy his sending a pair of old handkerchiefs like that! Suppose I hadn’t understood what he was getting at?
‘But I feel alarmed that he should be sending presents to me in secret.
‘Oh, and I feel so ashamed when I think how I am forever crying and quarrelling,’ she thought, ‘and all the time he has understood! …’
And her thoughts carried her this way and that, until the ferment of excitement within her cried out to be expressed. Careless of what the maids might think, she called for a lamp, sat herself down at her desk, ground some ink, softened her brush, and proceeded to compose the following quatrains, using the handkerchiefs themselves to write on:

1
Seeing my idle teats, you ask me why
These foolish drops fall from my teeming eye:
Then know, your gift, being by the merfolk made,
In merman’s currency must be repaid.

2
Jewelled drops by day in secret sorrow shed
Or, in the night-time, in my wakeful bed,
Lest sleeve or pillow they should spot or stain,
Shall on these gifts shower down their salty rain.

3
Yet silk preserves but ill the Naiad’s tears:
Each salty trace of them fast disappears.
Only the speckled bamboo stems that grow
Outside the window still her tear marks show.

She had only half-filled the second handkerchief and was pre?paring to write another quatrain, when she became aware that her whole body was burning hot all over and her cheeks were afire. Going over to the dressing table, she removed the brocade cover from the mirror and peered into it.
‘Hmn! “Brighter than the peach-flower’s hue”,’ she mur?mured complacently to the flushed face that stared out at her from the glass, and, little imagining that what she had been witnessing was the first symptom of a serious illness, went back to bed, her mind full of handkerchiefs.

*

From Dai-yu and her handkerchiefs let us return to Aroma, who, it will be remembered, bad been sent off to Bao-chai’s for a book. When she got there, she found that Bao-chai was not in the Garden, having gone round to her mother’s place outside. Not liking to return empty-handed, she waited for Bao-chai to return. It was already the beginning of the first watch when she did so.
Knowing her brother as she did, Bao-chai had already, even before hearing anything to that effect, suspected that he was in some way responsible for Bao-yu’s misfortune. What Aroma had earlier on told her had therefore been no more than con?firmation of an already existing suspicion. Yet Aroma had only been echoing what Tealeaf had told her; and what Tealeaf had told her was pure guesswork without a shred of evidence to support it. Thus what started in everyone’s mind as a sus?picion, repetition very soon compounded into a certainty. Yet the ironical fact was that he who by his past behaviour had so richly merited the reputation which had caused them to sus?pect him was totally innocent on the one occasion when every?one was most unshakeably convinced of his guilt.
The object of this misunderstanding had on this particular evening returned home having had a good deal to drink out?side. He greeted his mother and then, observing that his sister, too, was sitting there, addressed a few desultory remarks to her. Suddenly he seemed to remember something.
‘I hear young Bao-yu’s been in trouble,’ he said. ‘What was it about?’
This was too much for Aunt Xue, who had been seething inwardly and now broke out in a fury.
‘Shameless villain! How can you have the face to ask such a question? You know very well it was all your doing?
Xue Pan stared at her in astonishment.
‘What do you mean, “all my doing”?’
‘Don’t act the injured innocent with me!’ said his mother. ‘Everyone knows it was you who told.’
‘Oh, and I suppose if everyone said I’d killed somebody, you’d believe that too!’
‘Even your sister knows it was you. I suppose you’re not going to call her a liar?’
Bao-chai hurriedly intervened.
‘Don’t shout so, both of you! If you’d be a bit more -calm and collected, you might have some chance of getting at the truth.’ She turned to Xue Pan: ‘Anyway, whether it was you or wasn’t you, the damage is done now. There doesn’t seem much point in raking it over or making an issue of it. My advice to you is to keep out of mischief from now on and stop interfering in other people’s affairs. When you spend day after day fooling around outside, sooner or later something is bound to happen; and you are such a thoughtless creature, that when it does, people naturally suspect that you are the one to blame, even if you aren’t. I know I do!’
Xue Pan, for all his faults, was a forthright, outspoken sort of fellow, unused to such ostrich-like avoidance of the issue. Bao-chai’s strictures about ‘fooling around’ and his mother’s insistence that he had brought about Bao-yu’s beating by means of a deliberate indiscretion had exasperated him beyond endurance. He jumped about excitedly, protesting with the most solemn and desperate oaths that he was innocent.
‘I’d like to find the comedian who’s been making up these stories about me,’ he shouted, turning in anger upon the domestics. ‘I’ll smash his rotten face in if I do. Of course, I know what this is all about: you all want to show how con?cerned you are for poor, darling Bao-yu, so you’ve decided to do it at my expense. What is he, anyway? a Deva King? Every time his dad gives him a few whacks on the bum, the whole household is in a state of uproar about it for days on end. I remember that time Uncle Zheng beat him for doing something he shouldn’t have and old Lady Jia decided that Cousin Zhen was at the bottom of it. She had the poor so-and-so hauled up in front of her and there was hell to pay. Now, this time, you want to drag me into it. All right then I don’t care. A life for a life. I’ll go in there and kill the little blighter then you can all do what you like to me.’
In the midst of this bawling he had picked up a door bar and was evidently going off to execute his threat; but his dis?traught mother clung to him and prevented him from going.
‘You stupid creature!’ she said. ‘Who do you think you’re going to hit with that? If you’re going to hit anyone, you’d better begin with me!’
Xue Pan’s exasperation had now reached such a pitch that his eyes stood out in his head like a pair of copper bells.
‘This is rich!’ he shouted. ‘You won’t let me go and finish him off, yet you won’t stop provoking me by making up all these lies. Every day that fellow stays alive means one more day of nagging and lies for me to put up with. We’d much better die, the pair of us, and make an end of it!’
‘Have a little self-control!’ said Bao-chai, joining in her mother’s efforts to restrain him. ‘Can’t you see how upset poor Mamma is? You ought to be trying to calm her, not making things worse with this uproar.’
‘Oh yes! you can say that now,’ said Xue Pan, ‘but it was you who started all this by telling her about me, wasn’t it?’
‘It’s all very well to blame me for telling Mamma,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Why don’t you blame yourself for being so careless, you great blabber-mouth ?’
‘Me careless?’ said Xue Pan. ‘What about the way Bao-yu stirs up trouble for himself then? Let me just give you an example. Let me tell you what happened between him and Bijou the other day. I’d met Bijou ten times, near enough, and never had so much as a kind word out of him, yet Bao-yu, that didn’t even know him by sight, meets him for the first time the other day, and before you know where you are, he’s given him his sash! I hope you’re not going to say that that got about because of me?’
His mother and sister were indignant.
‘That’s a fine example, isn’t it? It’s precisely because of that that he was beaten. Now we know it must have been you who told.’
‘This is enough to drive a fellow mad!’ said Xue Pan, ‘It’s not so much the lies you keep telling about me. What really gets my goat is the almighty fuss you make about this fellow Bao-yu.’
‘Almighty fuss?’ said Bao-chai. ‘You’ve just been waving a door-bar at us, and you say that we have been making a fuss?’
Xue Pan could see that Bao-chai had reason on her side and that she was much harder to argue with than his mother. He was therefore eager to find something that would stop her mouth, so that he could say what he wanted to without contradiction. This, coupled with the fact that be was by now far too angry to weigh the seriousness of what he was saying, was responsible for the unpardonable innuendo that followed.
‘All right, sis,’ he said, ‘you don’t need to quarrel with me. I know what your trouble is. Mamma told me long ago that Mr Right would be someone with a jade to match your locket, so naturally, now you’ve seen that blasted thing that Bao-yu wears round his neck, you do all you can to stick up for him.’
Anger at first made Bao-chai speechless; then, clinging to Aunt Xue, she burst into tears.
‘Mamma, listen to what Pan is saying to me!’
Realizing, when he saw his sister’s tears, that he had gone too far, Xue Pan retired sulkily to his own room and went to bed; Bao-chai was left bursting with injury and outrage which she dared not express for fear of further upsetting her mother. She was obliged to bid the latter a tearful goodnight and go back to her own room in the Garden, where she spent the rest of the night weeping.
She was up early next morning. Too dispirited to make a proper toilet, she stopped only to tidy herself a little before setting off for her mother’s. On the way she met, of all people, Dai-yu, standing on her own beneath a flowering tree.
‘Where are you going?’ said Dai-yu.
‘To my mother’s.’ She answered without stopping.
Dai-yu noticed how dispirited she looked and saw that her eyes were swollen as if she had been weeping.
‘Don’t make yourself ill, coz,’ she called out, almost glee?fully, to the retreating back. ‘Even a cistern full of tears won’t heal the smart of a beating!’
The nature of Bao-chai’s reply will be revealed in the fol?lowing chapter.

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