The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 35

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CHAPTER 35


Sulky Silver tastes some lotus-leaf soup
And Golden Oriole knots a flower-patterned fringe

BAO-CHAI heard Dai-yu’s sarcasm quite clearly, but her mind was too taken up with her own family affairs to pay much attention, and she continued on her way without looking back.
As Dai-yu gazed towards the House of Green Delights, which was at some distance from the flowering tree in whose shade she was standing, she presently observed Li Wan, Ying-?chun, Tan-chun and Xi-chun, attended by numerous maids, going into the gate of its courtyard. Then, as she continued to watch, she saw them one by one come out again and go their separate ways. It struck her that Xi-feng had not been with them, and she wondered why.
‘It’s not like her not to visit him,’ she thought. ‘Even if she’s otherwise engaged, you’d expect her to find some means of getting over and doing her little turn, if only to keep in with Grandma and Auntie Wang. There must be some very press?ing reason to keep her away.’
She lowered her head to reflect. Raising it again and looking once more in the direction of Green Delights, she observed a colourful throng of females just about to enter, and when she looked a little harder, she could make out Wang Xi-feng with Grandmother Jia leaning on her arm. Lady Wang and Lady Xing walked behind them, followed by Aunt Zhou and a large bevy of maids and women servants. As the last of these disappeared inside the gate, Dai-yu nodded wistfully, thinking how good it must be to have a family, and soon her face was once more wet with tears. Presently she saw Aunt Xue and Bao-chai arrive. Not long after she had watched them enter the gate, Nightingale suddenly walked up behind her.
‘Come and have your medicine, Miss,’ she said. ‘It’s cool enough to drink now.’
‘What’s the matter with you?’ said Dai-yu. ‘Always fussing! What does it matter to you whether I take my medicine or not?’
Nightingale laughed good-humouredly.
‘Your cough’s only just beginning to get better, and already you want to stop taking your medicine! It may be the fifth month and the weather may be hot, but all the same, you still need to be careful. Come on, you’ve been standing quite long enough in this early morning damp. You ought to come in now and rest a bit.’
Now that Nightingale’s words had recalled her attention to herself, Dai-yu became aware that her legs were in fact rather tired. For a moment or two she appeared rather bewildered, then, taking Nightingale’s arm, she slowly made her way back to the Naiad’s House.
As they entered the courtyard, the chequered shadows of the bamboos and the dew-pearled moss reminded her of two lines she had read in The Western Chamber:

A place remote, where footsteps seldom pass,
And dew still glistens on the untrodden grass.

‘It’s all very well,’ she thought, as she reflected oh the heroine of that play, ‘Ying-ying may have been unfortunate, but at least she had a widowed mother and a little brother. I have no one.’
She was about to shed tears once more; but just then her parrot, which had been perched aloft under the verandah eaves, seeing that his mistress had returned, flew down with a sudden squawk that made her jump.
‘Wicked Polly!’ she said. ‘You’ve shaken dust all over my head!’
The parrot flew on to its perch.
‘Snowgoose!’ it called. ‘Raise the blind! Miss Lin is back!’
Dai-yu stooped in front of it and tapped its perch.
‘Did they remember your food and water, Polly?’
The parrot heaved a long sigh, uncannily like the ones that Dai-yu was wont to utter, and recited, in its parroty voice:

Let others laugh flower-burial to see:
Another year who will be burying me?’

Dai-yu and Nightingale both burst out laughing.
‘It’s what you’re always reciting yourself, Miss,’ said Nightingale. ‘Fancy Polly being able to remember it!’
Dai-yu made her take the perch down and hang it up outside the round ‘moon-window’ of her study.
Going indoors she sat down by the moon-window to take her medicine. Light reflected from the bamboos outside passed through the gauze of the window to make a green gloom within, lending a cold, aquarian look to the floor and the surfaces of the furniture. To keep her spirits up in these somewhat cheerless surroundings she spoke teasingly to the parrot hanging on the other side of the gauze until he jumped and squawked on his perch, after which she taught him a few snatches of her favourite poems.
At this point our narrative leaves her and returns to Bao-?chai.

*

When Bao-chai arrived at her mother’s apartment that morn?ing, she found her mother still doing her hair. Aunt Xue greeted her daughter with a smile of surprise.
‘You’re very early this morning, my dear.’
‘I wanted to know how you were, Mamma. Did he come in again and give any more trouble after I had left you last night?’
She sat down beside her mother and, in spite of herself, began to cry.
Aunt Xue, seeing her daughter’s tears, could not forbear shedding a few herself, though she did her best to comfort her.
‘There, there, my child! Don’t be upset! I’ll deal with that wicked brother of yours, you see if I don’t. I don’t want any?thing to happen to my girlie, do I? If anything were to happen to her, I should have no one to turn to.’
Xue Pan, who had overheard, came running into the room at this point. Clasping his hands together, he pumped them up and down, at the same time making sweeping bows to right and left of him, in token of his contrition.
‘Forgive me, sis,’ he said. ‘I’d had too much to drink last night. I met a friend on my way home. It was already quite late when I bumped into him, and I still hadn’t sobered up properly when I got back here. I don’t know myself what it was I said, but I know I must have talked a lot of silly non?sense. I’m not surprised you were angry with me.’
The clumsiness of his apology rapidly turned Bao-chai’s weeping into laughter. Lifting her face up from the handker?chief in which it had been buried, she made a little grimace of derision.
‘There’s no need for you to put on this act,’ she said ‘I understand what your real motive is perfectly well. You don’t like having us womenfolk around you and you are looking for a means of getting rid of us, so that you can have the place here to yourself.’
Xue Pan laughed deprecatingly.
‘I don’t know where you got that idea from, sis,’ he said. ‘It’s very unlike you to make a snide remark like that.’
‘Snide remark?’ said Aunt Xue indignantly. ‘If that’s a “snide remark”, I don’t know what sort of remarks you were making to your sister last night. I think you must have taken leave of your senses!’
‘Now Mamma, don’t be angry,’ said Xue Pan, ‘and don’t you be upset, sis. Suppose I were to tell you that from now on I’m going to give up drinking with the others altogether, eh? What would you say to that?’
‘I’d say that you had come to your senses at last,’ said Bao?-chai.
‘And I’d say that the Heavenly Dragon had laid an egg,’ said Aunt Xue, ‘if you really had the will-power to do it.’
‘All right then,’ said Xue Pan. ‘If you ever hear that I’ve been drinking with those others again, sis, you can spit at me and you can call me a beast and a — and a — worthless louse! Dammit, it’s too bad that the two of you should be worried all the time because of me! It’s bad enough that I should make you angry, Mamma; but to have poor little sis, too, worrying her heart out — oh, I really am a louse! I ought to be extra good to you, Mamma, now that Father’s dead, and extra kind to sis; but instead I make my own dear Mother angry and little sis upset. I’m not a beast, I’m worse than a beast!’
And the great booby began to cry.
At this Aunt Xue, who had not been crying when he started, was herself becoming upset, and Bao-chai was obliged to intervene with a brisk cheerfulness that she was very far from feeling.
‘Haven’t you caused enough trouble already without making Mamma cry again?’
‘Who says I’ve been making Mamma cry?’ said Xue Pan, restraining his tears and grinning back at her. ‘All right then, all right. Let’s drop the whole subject and say no more about it. We’ll have Caltrop in and get her to pour you a nice cup of tea.’
‘I don t want any tea, thank you,’ said Bao-chai. ‘As soon as Mamma has washed, I shall be going back into the Garden with her.’
‘Let me look at that-locket of yours,’ said Xue Pan. ‘I think it needs dipping again.’
‘Whatever for?’ said Bao-chai. ‘The gilding’s as bright as new.’
‘Isn’t it time you had a few more clothes?’ said Xue Pan.
‘Let me know what colours and what sort of patterns you want.’
‘I wouldn’t know what to do with them,’ said Bao-chai. ‘I haven’t yet worn all the things I’ve got.’
Shortly after this exchange Aunt Xue re-emerged from changing her clothes and, taking Bao-chai by the hand, went through into the Garden with her, leaving Xue Pan to go off on his own.
Once in the Garden, Aunt Xue and Bao-chai made their way straight to Green Delights. From the large number of maids and older women they found when they got there waiting out?side on the verandah or in the ante-room inside, they knew that Grandmother Jia and the other ladies must have arrived there before them. They exchanged greetings with the latter on entering, after which they went over to the couch on which Bao-yu lay, to inquire if he was feeling any better. Seeing Aunt Xue, he attempted to raise himself a little.
‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘I am a little better. But what a lot of trouble I am causing! I feel ashamed that you should have come over just to see me.’
Aunt Xue made him lie down again.
‘If there’s anything you want,’ she said, ‘do please let me know.’
‘I certainly shall,’ he said, ‘if I can think of anything.’
‘Is there anything you fancy to eat?’ said Lady Wang. ‘We can order it for you when we go back presently.’
‘I can’t think of anything,’ said Bao-yu, ‘unless I did quite like that soup we had once with the little lotus-leaves and lotus-pods in it.’
Xi-feng, who was standing by listening, gave a crow of laughter.
‘Listen to that, now! What low tastes the boy has! Whatever makes you want to eat that leathery old stuff?’
‘Have it made, have it made!’ said Grandmother Jia vehemently. ‘Let the boy have it by all means.’
‘Don’t be in such a hurry, Grannie!’ said Xi-feng laughing. ‘I’m trying to think who’s got the moulds that they need for making the little shapes with.’
She turned and ordered one of the old women in attendance to go and ask the chief cook; but though the old woman was a long time gone, she came back empty-handed.
‘Cook says the four moulds for the soup-shapes were handed in some time ago on your instructions.’
Xi-feng thought for a bit.
‘Yes, I remember now: I did get them back from her. But I can’t remember who I gave them to. I should think the likeliest place for them to be is the tea-room.’
She sent someone to the tea-room stewardess; but she hadn’t got them either. In the end they turned out to be with the plate stewardess, who looked after the gold and silver. Aunt Xue was the first to examine them when they arrived.
There were four moulds fitted into a single box. They were made of silver, a foot or so long and about an inch wide. Along the face of each mould were rows of very finely cut dies, each about the size of a bean, thirty or forty on each mould. On one of the moulds the dies were in the shape of chrysanthemums, on another of plum-flowers, on the third of lotus pods and leaves, and on the remaining one of caltrops. Aunt Xue turned to Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang with amusement.
‘You people really do think of everything! All these patterns for a bowl of soup! If you hadn’t told me, I should never have guessed what these things were for.’
Xi-feng answered her before either of the older ladies could reply.
‘You wouldn’t know about these anyway, Aunt. It’s some?thing they thought up last year for Her Grace’s visit. They cut shapes with these things out of some special dough — I’m not sure exactly what it’s made of — and put them in a clear soup. There’s supposed to be a suggestion of autumn lotuses in the flavour, but it doesn’t taste very much really. It’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d want to eat very often. In fact, I think the only time we ever had it was when they made some for the visit. I’m surprised he can still remember.’
She handed the moulds to an attendant woman-servant.
‘Tell the kitchen to take as many chickens and other in?gredients as they’ll need to make ten bowlfuls with. Say it’s wanted immediately.’
‘Why so much?’ said Lady Wang.
‘I have my reason,’ said Xi-feng. ‘This isn’t the sort of thing one eats every day, and now that Cousin Bao has men?tioned it, it seems silly to make it just for him and not let you and Grandma and Auntie Xue taste it as well. So while we are about it, we might just as well do enough of it for everyone.’ She smiled mischievously. ‘I might even have a taste of it myself.’
Grandmother Jia laughed.
‘Little monkey! We spoil you! Spending public money on private entertainment, that’s what this is!’
The others all laughed. Xi-feng, quite unconcerned, joined in.
‘That’s no problem,’ she said. ‘I’m sure I can afford a little treat like this.’ She turned to the waiting woman: ‘Tell the kitchen to use plenty of everything and charge it all up to my account.’
The woman murmured a reply and went off to see about the order.
Bao-chai had been following these exchanges with amuse?ment.
‘Cousin Feng may be very artful,’ she said, ‘but I don’t believe that in all the years I’ve been here I have ever seen her get the better of Lady Jia.’
‘I’m an old woman, my dear,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘What use would I have for artfulness at my time of life? Mind you, when I was the age that Feng is now, I could have taught her a thing or two. Still, though she may not be as sharp as I was then, she doesn’t do so badly! A deal better than your Aunt Wang here, that’s certain. She can’t talk to save her life, poor soul, no more than a woman of wood! She could never get round me the way your Cousin Feng does. Fengie has the gift of a good tongue, my dear. That’s why your old grannie is so fond of her.’
Bao-yu laughed.
‘From what you say, Grandma, it sounds as if the good talkers are the only ones you can be fond of.’
‘Oh no,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘The silent ones have their merits, just as the good talkers have theirs. Good talkers can be very tiresome at times and then I prefer the silent ones.’
‘That’s all right then,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I was going to say: my sister-in-law certainly isn’t much of talker, yet I’m sure you are as fond of her as you are of Feng. If being a good talker were the only thing that mattered, I should have thought that Cousin Feng and Cousin Lin would be the only two in the family you would really care about.’
‘Well now, if we’re going to start comparing,’ said Grand?mother Jia, ‘I hope your Aunt Xue won’t think I am only saying this because she is here, but really and truly I do think that of all the girls in this family her Bao-chai is the one that I like the best.’
Aunt Xue laughingly demurred.
‘You mustn’t say that. I’m sure you can’t really mean it.’
‘No, no, I’m sure she does,’ Lady Wang hurriedly interposed. ‘I’ve often heard Mother speak well of Bao-chai when you weren’t around.’
Bao-yu’s contribution to the conversation had been made with the intention of encouraging Grandmother Jia to say something nice about Dai-yu. It came to him as a surprise when she started praising Bao-chai instead. He looked at Bao?-chai and grinned; but she turned quickly away and began talk?ing to Aroma.
Just then a servant came to say that lunch over at the man?sion was ready, and Grandmother Jia rose to go. Having first exhorted Bao-yu to ‘hurry up and get better’ and then ad?monished his maids, she began to move out of the room not without a polite attempt to make Aunt Xue go out ahead of her – leaning on Xi-feng’s arm.
‘Is that soup ready yet?’ she inquired when they were out of the room. Then, turning to Aunt Xue, she asked her if there was anything she particularly fancied for her lunch.
‘Mind you let me know if there is,’ she said. ‘I have the power to make Fengie treat us to it.’
Aunt Xue laughed.
‘You shouldn’t tease the poor girl! She’s always getting nice things for you. But you’re not much of an eater at the best of times.’
‘Don’t you believe it, Aunt!’ said Xi-feng. ‘Grannie knows how to tuck in. She’d have eaten me by now if she weren’t afraid that she’d find me a bit too vinegary.’
This set them all off laughing. Even Bao-yu, in the inner room, had to join in, though it hurt him to do so. Aroma, standing beside him, was helpless with mirth.
‘Mrs Lian really is a caution!’
Bao-yu took her hand and drew her down beside him.
‘Come!’ he said. ‘You must be tired. You’ve been on your feet for hours.’
‘Hey, you’ve forgotten!’ said Aroma. ‘While Miss Bao’s still in the courtyard, you ought to ask her if she’ll let Oriole come over to do that knotting for you.’
‘Yes,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I’m glad you reminded me.’ He raised his head and shouted towards the window.
‘Cousin Bao! If you can spare her, after you’ve had your lunch, would you mind sending Oriole here to do some knotting for me?’
‘Yes, certainly,’ said Bao-chai, turning back to reply. ‘I’ll send her over presently.’
Grandmother Jia and the others had stopped to listen. Not having heard properly, the old lady asked what it was, Bao?-chai explained.
‘Oh do, my dear!’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Do let him have her to do the knotting I If you need someone in her place, I have plenty of free hands in my apartment. Just pick whichever of my maids you like to wait on you.’
Aunt Xue and Bao-chai were amused.
‘Let her go to him by all means,’ said Aunt Xue, ‘but there certainly won’t be any need of a stand-in. She has little enough to do but get up to mischief as it is.’
They had been walking on as they talked and presently came upon Xiang-yun, Patience and Caltrop picking balsams beside an artificial ‘mountain’ of rock. Seeing Grandmother Jia and the rest coming, they left off their flower gathering and came forward to join them.
Soon the little party emerged from the Garden. Fearing that Grandmother Jia might be fatigued, Lady Wang proposed that she should stop on the way back and sit down for a while in her apartment. The old lady’s feet were indeed beginning to trouble her and she nodded in consent. Lady Wang sent a maid on ahead to prepare for her arrival.
Aunt Zhao was prudently avoiding Lady Wang for the time being by feigning sick, so of the two concubines it was only Aunt Zhou who came out with the old women-servants and maids of the apartment to welcome Grandmother Jia, holding up the door blind for her to enter and arranging the pillows and back-rest for her on the kang.
Moving up to it on Xi-feng’s arm, the old lady installed herself on the right-hand side at the back with Aunt Xue in the guest’s position beside her. Bao-chai and Xiang-yun sat nearer the edge of the kang on either side. Lady Wang served Grand?mother Jia with tea, holding the cup ceremoniously in both her hands, and Li Wan in like manner offered tea to Aunt Xue.
‘Let the younger women wait on us,’ said Grandmother Jia to Lady Wang. ‘You sit down over there so that we can talk to you.’
Lady Wang obediently took a seat on a stool-chair beside the kang. She instructed Xi-feng to be her deputy.
‘You can tell them to serve Grandmother’s lunch in here,’ she said to Xi-feng. ‘You had better get them to add a dish or two.’
Having said that she would, Xi-feng went outside and in?structed a servant to take word round to Grandmother Jia’s apartment. The old women there passed on the message in their turn, and soon a reinforcement of maids were hurrying on their way to Lady Wang’s.
Lady Wang next gave instructions that the rest of the girls should be invited; but after a long wait only Tan-chun and Xi-chun turned up. Ying-chun was unwell and did not feel like eating. Dai-yu abstained so frequently — eating perhaps no more than five meals in every ten — that her absence on this occasion was scarcely noticed.
Soon lunch arrived and the servants brought up a low table and set it down on the kang. Xi-feng stood on the floor below, a bundle of ivory chopsticks wrapped up in a tea-towel in her hand.
‘Now, Grannie and Auntie,’ she said, ‘I hope you are going to do as you’re told and not stand on ceremony!’
Grandmother Jia looked at Aunt Xue and smiled.
‘Shall we do as she says and stay put?’
‘Yes, certainly,’ said Aunt Xue, smiling back, whereupon Xi-feng proceeded to lay for them where they sat: two pairs of chopsticks on the far side for Grandmother Jia and Aunt Xue, one pair at either end for Bao-chai and Xiang-yun. Lady Wang and Li Wan stood on the floor below and supervised the serv?ing of the dishes, while Xi-feng called for a set of clean things for one more person and went, chopsticks in hand, from dish to dish, making a selection from them for Bao-yu.
A few minutes later the lotus-leaf soup arrived and was presented to Grandmother Jia for her inspection. Lady Wang, glancing quickly round her, noticed Silver standing near at hand and ordered her to carry a bowl of it to Bao-yu together with the other things that Xi-feng had just put out for him; but Xi-feng objected that there was too much for one person to carry. Just then Oriole and Providence chanced to enter, and Bao-chai, knowing that they had already had their lunch, suggested that Oriole should help with the carrying.
‘Master Bao has been asking if you could go over there to do some knotting for him,’ she told Oriole, ‘You might as well go with her and do it now.’
‘Yes, Miss,’ said Oriole, and went off with Silver, carrying her share of the bowls.
‘They’re terribly hot,’ she said, when they were alone together. ‘How are we going to carry them so far?’
‘Don’t worry!’ said Silver, ‘I know just the answer.’
She made one of the old women fetch a covered lacquer carrying-box. The bowls of soup, rice and so forth fitted into it easily. She told the old woman to follow them. She and Oriole then sauntered along empty-handed in the direction of Green Delights, while the old woman trotted along behind them carrying everything. When they reached the gate of the courtyard, Silver took the box from her and the two girls went on into the house alone.
They found Aroma, Musk and Ripple in the inner room, enjoying a joke with Bao-yu. The three of them got up, still laughing, when they saw Silver and Oriole enter, and Aroma, supposing that they had come from their respective apart?ments, remarked, as she relieved Silver of the box, on the coincidence of their arriving simultaneously. Having handed over the box, Silver plumped herself down on a stool-chair; but Oriole was less bold; and even when Aroma offered her a foot-stool to sit on, she still refused to be seated.
Bao-yu was naturally very pleased to see Oriole; but the sight of Silver, reminding him, with a pang of mingled shame and sorrow, of her sister Golden, impelled him to ignore Oriole and concentrate his attention on the other girl. Aroma noticed this neglect and was afraid that Oriole might be offended. Partly for this reason and partly because Oriole looked so uncomfortable standing up, but was evidently determined not to sit down in Bao-yu’s presence, she took her by the hand and drew her into the adjoining room for a cup of tea and a chat.
Meanwhile in the inner room Musk and Ripple had laid out the bowls and chopsticks and were waiting in readiness to serve Bao-yu his lunch; but Bao-yu was still occupied with Silver and seemed in no hurry to begin.
‘How is your mother?’ he asked her.
The girl sat silent, with a sullen, angry look on her face. When, with a muttered ‘all right’, she did at last answer him, she averted her eyes and would not look at him. Bao-yu was very much put out, but did his best to be pleasant.
‘Who told you to bring this for me?’
‘Her Ladyship and Mrs Lian. Who do you think?’
Bao-yu could see the misery in her face and knew that it was because of Golden that she looked like that. He wished he could humble himself before her, but the presence of the other maids inhibited him. He had to think of some way of getting rid of them. Having succeeded at last in doing so, he began, as soon as they were out of the room, to exercise all his charm upon Silver. At first she tried to ignore the questions with which he plied her; but he was so patient and persistent, meet?ing her unyielding stiffness with such warmth and gentleness, that in the end her heart misgave her and a faintly pleased expression began to steal over her face. Bao-yu judged the time ripe to entreat her smilingly for his lunch.
‘Fetch me that soup will you, there’s a dear. I’d like to try it now.’
‘I can’t feed other people,’ said Silver. ‘I never could. You’ll have to wait till the others come back.’
‘I’m not asking you to feed me,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I’m just asking you to get it for me because I can’t walk. Once you’ve done that you can go back and tell them you’ve finished your errand and get on with your own lunch. I don’t want to keep you from your food: you’re probably starving. However, if you don’t even feel up to passing me a bowl of soup, I’ll just have to put up with the pain and get it myself.’
He tried to rise from his bed, but the effort cost him a cry of pain. Unable to hold out any longer when she saw the state he was in, Silver jumped to her feet.
‘All right. Lie down, lie down!’ she said. ‘ “Past sin, present suffering.” You’ve got your retribution without having to wait for it, so you needn’t expect me to feel sorry for you!’
She broke into a sudden peal of laughter and fetched him the soup.
‘Silver dear,’ said Bao-yu, ‘if you still feel angry with me, get it over with now. Try to look pleasanter when you are with Their Ladyships. You mustn’t look angry all the time when you are with them, or you’ll be getting yourself into trouble.’
‘Go on, get on with your soup!’ said Silver. ‘Keep the sugary stuff for other people. I know all about it!’
Bao-yu drank a couple of mouthfuls of the soup at her in?sistence, but artfully pretended not to like it.
‘It doesn’t taste nice.’
‘Doesn’t taste nice?’ said Silver with an expression of extreme disgust. ‘Holy Name! if that doesn’t taste nice, I’d like to know what does!’
‘It’s got no flavour,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Taste it yourself, if you don’t believe me.’
Silver to prove him wrong indignantly raised the spoon to her lips and tasted.
Bao-yu laughed.
‘Ah, now it’ll taste all right!’
Silver realized that he had deliberately tricked her into drinking from the same bowl.
‘You wouldn’t drink it a moment ago,’ she said, ‘so now you shan’t have any even if you say you want it.’
And though Bao-yu laughingly begged and pleaded, she refused to let him have it back and called in the other maids to give him the rest of his meal no sooner had they come in, however, than it was announced that ‘two old nannies from Mr Fu’s’ had arrived ‘to call on Master Bao’.
Bao-yu knew that the ‘Mr Fu’ referred to must be one Fu Shi, an Assistant Sub-Prefect who had started life as one of Jia Zheng’s protégé’s and made his way up in the world largely by trading on Jia Zheng’s reputation. Jia Zheng thought highly of him, regarding him as the brightest of the various young fellows he had patronized, and Fu Shi for his part was assiduous in sending message and compliments to the man?sion in order to keep up the connection.
Now if there were two sorts of people Bao-yu could not at any rice abide they were stupid old women and pushing young men. It may therefore seem strange that these two old nannies sent by the egregious Fu Shi should have been ac?corded instant admission to his sickroom. The reason was that Bao-yu’ had heard that Fu Shi had a younger sister called Fu Qiu-fang, who, though

a virgin-pearl, still chambered from men’s sight,

was commonly said to be both beautiful and talented. Bao-yu had not actually seen her; hut he had formed a picture of her in his imagination and worshipped her from afar. And since to have refused entry to the two old women would have been in his eyes tantamount to offering Qiu-fang an affront, he at once gave orders for them to be admitted.
Qiu-fang was, as a matter of fact, a girl of passable good looks and more than average intelligence. Her brother had entertained hopes of trading on these assets in order to ally himself matrimonially with some powerful or aristocratic family — an ambition which had hitherto led him to look frowningly on lesser offers, with the result that, at the relatively great age of twenty-two, Qiu-fang remained unbetrothed. For the fact of the matter was that the powerful and aristocratic families with whom he sought alliance looked on Fu Shi as an impoverished pen-pusher deficient in both breeding and refinement and showed not the slightest inclination to want his sister as a daughter-in-law. However, Fu Shi went on cultivating his intimacy with the Jia family and was still not without hopes of realizing his ambition in that direction.
It so happened that the two old nannies sent to see Bao-yu on this occasion were exceptionally ignorant old women. Hearing that they were to be admitted, they came into the room, delivered themselves of the sentence or two it took to inquire after his health, and thereafter lapsed into a stupid silence.
With the arrival of strangers, Silver had been obliged to drop the bantering tone she had begun to adopt with Bao-yu and stood, holding the soup-bowl in both her hands, listening in silence. It was left to Bao-yu to make what conversation he could with the women as he continued to eat his lunch. While so engaged, he reached out a hand for the soup, and Silver reciprocated mechanically; but as both of them had their eyes on the visitors, their uncoordinated movements resulted in a brief collision. The bowl was upset and hot soup spilled over Bao-yu’s hand. Silver, startled, though herself unhurt, gave a nervous laugh.
‘Now look what you’ve done!’
The other maids rushed forward to retrieve the bowl. Bao-yu, insensitive to his own pain, inquired anxiously after Silver.
‘Where did you scald yourself? Does it hurt?’
Silver and the rest all laughed.
‘You’re the one who’s been scalded,’ said Silver. ‘Why ask me?’
Only then did Bao-yu become conscious that his own hand had been burned. The maids hurriedly mopped up. Not wishing to continue his meal after this, he washed his hands, drank some tea, and spoke a little longer with the old women, who then took their leave and were seen through the Garden as far as the bridge by Skybright and some of the other maids.
When they found themselves alone, ‘the two old women began discussing the visit with each other as they went along.
‘Well, I’ve heard people say that this Bao-yu is like a bad fruit – good to look at but rotten inside,’ said one of them, ‘and I must say I’m not surprised. He certainly does seem a bit simple. Fancy scalding his own hand and then asking someone else where it hurt! He must be a simpleton! Heh! heh! heh!’
‘He really and truly is a bit simple,’ said the other one. ‘A number of them told me about it when I came here last. Once when he was out in the pouring rain and himself as wet as a drowned chicken, he says to someone, “It’s raining,” he says, “run inside and get out of the rain.” What a laugh! Heh! heh! heh! And he often cries or laughs when no one else is by. They say that when he sees a swallow he talks to the swallow, and when he sees a fish in the river he talks to the fish, and when he sees the stars or the moon, he sighs and groans and mutters away to himself like a crazy thing. And he’s as soft as a baby. Even the little maids can do what they like with him. If he’s in the mood for saving, he’ll make a fuss over a piece of thread; but other times they an smash things worth a fortune and he won’t mind a bit.’
Still talking, they passed out of the gate of the Garden, at which point our narrative leaves them.
*

Back at Green Delights, Aroma, seeing that the others had now gone, led Oriole into Bao-yu’s room to ask what it was that he wanted done. Bao-yu gave Oriole a smile.
‘I’m sorry, I was busy talking just now,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid I neglected you. The reason I’ve dragged you here is because I want you to do some knotting for me.’
‘What’s it for?’ said Oriole.
‘Never mind that,’ said Bao-yu airily. ‘Do me some of every kind.’
Oriole clapped her hands and laughed.
‘Goodness me! That would take me about ten year!’
‘My dear young lady,’ said Bao-yu pleasantly, ‘you have all the time in the world at your disposal. I’m sure you could manage in less time than that.’
‘Not in one sitting, at all events,’ said Aroma. ‘Better choose two or three of the main types and let her do one of each.’
‘If you’re talking about types,’ said Oriole, ‘there are really only three: fan tassels, rosary-nets and net-and-tassel fringes for sashes.’
‘All right,’ said Bao-yu, ‘a sash-fringe.’
‘What colour’s the sash?’ said Oriole.
‘Crimson.’
‘Black or navy-blue would go well with crimson,’ said Oriole. ‘With anything lighter the crimson would be too overpowering.’
‘What goes with viridian?’ said Bao-yu.
‘Peach pink.’
‘Mm. That sounds very colourful, certainly. What about something colourful but a bit more on the quiet side?’
‘What about leek-green and greenish-yellow?’ said Oriole. ‘That’s a very tasteful combination.’
‘All right, you make me those three then one black, one peach-pink and one leek-green.’
‘What pattern do you want for the netting?’ said Oriole.
‘What patterns are there?’ said Bao-yu.
‘There’s stick-pattern, ladder-pattern, diamond, double diamond, linked rings, flower-pattern, willow-leaf…’
‘What was the pattern of that netting you did the other day for Tan-chun?’
‘Ah, that was a flower-pattern with filled-in centres.’
‘I’d like it in that pattern.’
Aroma had meanwhile left them to fetch the silks. As she came back with them, an old woman called through the win?dow to say that her lunch was ready.
‘Off with you then,’ said Bao-yu, ‘and come back as soon as you have finished.’
‘How can I possibly leave with a guest here in the room said Aroma.
‘Don’t be ridiculous! ’ said Oriole. ‘You go and have your lunch.’
Aroma smiled at that and tripped off, leaving the two of them alone together, except for two very junior maids who were to remain at hand in case they were wanted.
Bao-yu lay and watched Oriole knotting, chatting to her in a desultory way as he watched.
‘How old are you?’ he asked her.
Oriole replied without raising her head from her work.
‘Fourteen.’
‘What’s your surname?’
‘Huang.’
‘Huang? That means “yellow”. It goes well with your name. They say “yellow oriole”, don’t they? — “yellow oriole”, “golden oriole”.’
‘My name was “Golden Oriole” originally,’ said Oriole, ‘but Miss Bao found it too much of a mouthful, so she called me just “Oriole” for short, and now everyone else does.’
‘Miss Bao must be very fond of you,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I expect later on when she gets married she’ll want to take you with her.’
Oriole pulled a face and laughed.
‘I’ve often said to Aroma,’ Bao-yu went on, ‘whoever gets you and your mistress will be a lucky man.’
‘She’s a good person, is our Miss Bao,’ said Oriole, ‘much more than you realize. There are things about her you don’t find in many people in this world — more important things than good looks — though she’s good-looking too, of course.’
Oriole’s mellifluous, lilting voice and the simple, artless way in which she talked and laughed had powerfully affected Bao-yu. It increased his pleasure to hear her speaking in this way now about her mistress.
‘What things?’ he asked her eagerly. ‘Tell me about them.’
‘If I do,’ said Oriole, ‘you mustn’t let her know that I to you.’
‘Of course not.’
They were interrupted at this point by a voice from the outer room.
‘You’re very quiet in there!’
As the two of them simultaneously turned to look, it was Bao-chai herself who stepped into the room. Bao-yu at once invited her to take a seat. When she had done so, she inquired what Oriole was making and leaned forward to inspect it. The first of the three sash-ends was already half completed.
‘What do you want to make a thing like that for?’ she asked. ‘Why don’t you make him a necklet to wear with his jade?’
Bao-yu clapped his hands delightedly. He had intended to ask Oriole to do this for him in the first place, but had for?gotten.
‘Clever coz! What a good thing you mentioned it! I’d quite forgotten. But what would be the right colour for it?’
‘Let’s see,’ said Bao-chai. ‘The brighter colours definitely wouldn’t do. Crimson would clash. Yellow wouldn’t be a sufficient contrast. Black would be too heavy. I’ll tell you what. If you were to take a gold thread and a very fine black bugle-thread and twist them together — that would look nice.’
Bao-yu was delighted with the suggestion, and shouted several times for Aroma to fetch the gold thread. She came in while he was still shouting for her, carrying two plates of food and looking puzzled.
‘I can’t understand it,’ she said. ‘Someone’s just brought me these from Her Ladyship.’
‘Oh, I expect they had more than they wanted there, so she’s sent you this to share with the others,’ said Bao-yu.
‘No,’ said Aroma. ‘They said it was for me personally; but I’m not to go over and kotow for it. I don’t know what to make of it.’
Bao-chai laughed.
‘If it’s for you to eat, I should go ahead and eat it! Never mind the whys and wherefores!’
‘But it never happened before,’ said Aroma. ‘I feel so embarrassed.’
Bao-chai’s lips puckered up mockingly.
‘Embarrassed? Before very long you’re going to have much more than this to feel embarrassed about!’
Aroma sensed something behind this remark. She knew Bao-chai too well to suppose that any such remark of hers would be made triflingly. Remembering what Lady Wang had seemed to hint at in her interview of the previous day, she dropped the subject.
‘I’ll have these now then,’ she said, holding the dishes out for Bao-yu to inspect, ‘and as soon as I’ve washed, I shall bring you your gold thread.’
With that she hurried out again.
When she returned later, after having lunched and washed her hands, bringing the gold thread for Oriole’s knotting, Bao-chai was no longer there, since she had been called away by Xue Pan’s messenger.
Bao-yu once more lay back and watched Oriole knotting; but soon they were interrupted once more, this time by a couple of maids from Lady Xing’s. They brought two sorts of fruit and a message for him from their mistress.
‘Her Ladyship says are you able to walk? She says if you are, she’d like you to come over some time and amuse your?self. She says tell him I’m thinking of him.’
‘Tell her,’ Bao-yu replied politely, ‘that as soon as I can walk, I shall certainly be round to pay my respects. Tell her that the pain is a little better than it was and that she is not to worry.’
Asking the two girls to be seated, he called Ripple to him and asked her to take half of the fruit they had brought and offer it to Dai-yu; but just as she was about to go, Dai-yu could be heard talking in the courtyard. He told Ripple to hurry outside and invite her in.
For further details, please consult the following chapter.

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