The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 36

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CHAPTER 36

Bao-chai visits Green Delights and hears strange words from
a sleeper
Bao-yu visits Pear-tree Court and learns hard facts from
a performer

WHEN Grandmother Jia got back to her own apartment after lunching with Lady Wang, she was naturally very pleased to have seen Bao-yu making such rapid progress; but her pleasure soon gave way to worry when she began wondering what would happen when he was well enough for Jia Zheng to start asking for him again. To guard against that contin?gency she had Jia Zheng’s Head Boy brought before her to receive instructions direct from her own mouth.
‘In future,’ she told him, ‘whenever the Master is entertain?ing guests or seeing anybody and asks for Bao-yu, you are to say, straight away, without needing to see me about it, first of all that Master Bao was very seriously injured by his beating and will need several months’ complete rest before he can walk properly; and secondly that he has just made an offering to his star-guardian because of an unlucky conjunction in his horo?scope and isn’t allowed to see outsiders or go outside the inner gate until the beginning of the eighth month.’
She called Nannie Li and Aroma to her as soon as the Head Boy had gone and instructed them to tell Bao-yu this, so that no worries should retard the progress of his recovery.
Bao-yu had always hated meeting or making conversation with senior males of the scholar-official class and detested all occasions which involved dressing up, such as visits of congratulation and condolence and the various other formal ex?changes to which members of that class devote so great a part of their time. His grandmother’s dispensation was therefore particularly gratifying to him, and he used it as an excuse for cutting himself off from all contact with visiting relations and friends. He even pleased himself about whether or not he made the customary morning and evening duty-calls on the senior members of the household. Each day was spent playing or resting in the Garden, and during the whole of the day, except for the brief period in the early morning when he went outside to visit his mother and grandmother, he was the will?ing captive of his maids and did for them whatever little ser?vices it pleased them to command. In such enjoyable indolence several weeks slipped agreeably by. From time to time, as opportunity presented itself, someone like Bao-chai would attempt to remonstrate with him; but her remonstrances would be indignantly rejected.
‘Why should a pure, sweet girl like you want to go imitating that ghastly crew of thievish, place-hunting career worms,’ he would say, ‘bothering her head about “fame” and “reputa?tion” and all that sort of rubbish? All these notions you are parroting were dreamed up by meddlesome old men in days gone by for the express purpose of leading astray the whis?kered idiots who came after them. I really think it’s too bad that I should have to live in an age when the minds of nice, sensible girls are contaminated by such idiocies. It’s a tank abuse of the intellectual gifts that you were born with!’
Hearing him talk so wildly, the remonstrators concluded that he was slightly mad, and eventually gave up trying to be serious with him. The exception was Dai-yu, who, ever since they were little children together, had never once spoken to him about the need to ‘get on in the world’ or ‘make a name for oneself’. This was one of the reasons why he so much respected her.

*

But to return to our narrative.
Some time after Golden’s death, Xi-feng began receiving presents and courtesy calls from various senior members of the domestic staff. Though she could not for the moment guess what lay behind these flattering attentions, her sus?picions were aroused, and one day, in the course of which she had once more received presents from these people, she laugh?ingly questioned Patience on the subject when they were alone together in the evening.
‘I’m surprised you haven’t guessed that!’ said Patience a little scornfully. ‘I think, if you were to look into it, you’d find that all of these people had daughters working for Her Lady?ship. There are four senior maids on Her Ladyship’s establish?ment who each get one tael a month, the rest only get a few hundred cash each; and now that Golden’s dead, one of the tael-a-month places is vacant. I expect these people are trying to get it for their own daughters.’
‘Of course!’ said Xi-feng, much amused. ‘Of course! I’m sure you are right. Well, I do think it rather greedy of them. They earn quite good money as it is, they don’t have any really hard work to do, and they’ve got daughters to bring them in a little extra income. I think for them to want to get this plum for themselves as well is really a bit too much. I wouldn’t have thought they could afford to keep sending me presents like this. Still, that’s their concern! If they want to go on giving me presents, I shall go on taking them. But I shall still do what I was going to do anyway. It won’t make any difference to me.’
In pursuance of this policy she kept the servants waiting for a decision and watched the presents accumulate; then, when no more seemed to be forthcoming, she availed herself of the first opportunity to raise the matter with Lady Wang. This occurred one day about noon when Aunt Xue, Bao-chai and Dai-yu were in Lady Wang’s apartment sharing a water-melon with her. Xi-feng tackled Lady Wang while they sat eating the melon.
‘You’ve been short of a maid, Aunt, since Silver’s sister died,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Have you anyone in mind to replace her with? You might let us know if you have, so that we know what to do with next month’s allowance.’
Lady Wang thought for a bit.
‘Do I have to have four maids or five maids or whatever it is?’ she asked. ‘It seems to me that if the maids I’ve got are adequate, I might as well do without the other one.’
Xi-feng smiled.
‘In principle, of course, you are right, Aunt; but we have got fixed rules about these things, and when some people at the bottom of the scale are making a great fuss about keeping their number up, it wouldn’t do to have you cutting yours down. In any case, the saving would only be one tael a month: it would hardly be worth making.’
Lady Wang again reflected for some moments.
‘Very well,’ she said at last, you can go on paying the allowance as before, but you needn’t find me another maid. Silver shall have it. Her sister gave me a lot of service before she was so unfortunate, poor child. I don’t think it would be excessive to give Silver a double allowance, for her sister’s sake.’
After promising to see that this was done, Xi-feng turned smilingly to Silver and congratulated her. Silver hurried for?ward and kotowed in gratitude to Lady Wang.
‘That reminds me,’ said Lady Wang: ‘what allowance do Aunt Zhao and Aunt Zhou get each month?’
‘The fixed amount is two taels each a month,’ said Xi-feng, but Aunt Zhao gets an additional two taels for Huan, so she really gets four taels. Then on top of that they each get two strings of cash a month for their maids.’
‘Do they get the full amount every month?’ said Lady Wang.
Xi-feng was somewhat taken aback.
‘Of course. Why not?’ she replied, a trifle sharply.
‘It’s just that I thought I heard someone the other day com?plaining that they were a string of cash short,’ said Lady Wang. ‘I wonder how that could have happened?’
Xi-feng smiled disarmingly.
‘The allowance for Aunt Zhao’s and Aunt Zhou’s maids used to be one string each a month, but last year Accounts reduced it by a half to five hundred cash. Aunt Zhao and Aunt Zhou are allowed two maids each, so that means they now get one string a month less than they used to. This is something completely outside my control. I’d be only too happy to pay them more if I could, but the cut was made by Accounts, and all I can do is to hand out what I am given. It’s not my de?cision. In fact, I’ve raised the matter once or twice with them and told them they ought to go back to the original payment, but all they’ll say is that that’s what’s been decided and nothing can be done about it. Actually, now that I do the paying, people do at least get their allowances on time. In the old days, when Accounts made the payments direct, we were always having trouble. Never a month went by without some one getting into debt because they hadn’t been paid on time.’ Another silence followed in which Lady Wang was evi?dently thinking.
‘How many of Lady Jia’s maids get one tael a month?’ she asked eventually.
‘Seven—well, eight really, if you count Aroma.’
‘Yes, I see,’ said Lady Wang. ‘Bao-yu wouldn’t have any tael-a-month maids of his own, of course. Aroma still counts as one of Lady Jia’s maids.’
‘Oh yes. Aroma is still Grandma’s maid,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Grandma lets Bao-yu employ her, but her pay still comes out of Grandma’s allowance. It would be quite out of the question to cut her pay simply because she’s working for Bao-yu. If you wanted to do that, you’d first have to find another maid for Grandma. And even then, of course, if you wanted her to be paid as a member of Bao-yu’s establishment, to make it fair you’d really need to give Huan another maid, too. Incidentally, the fact that Bao-yu’s senior maids like Skybright and Musk get a string of cash a month and the juniors like Melilot five hundred is due to Grandma’s own personal instructions; so I don’t think anyone is really in a position to make a fuss about that.’
Aunt Xue laughed.
‘Listening to Feng is like listening to a load of walnuts being emptied out of a cart – all those facts and figures! And everything accounted for — everything just and fair!’
‘I trust none of the facts and figures were wrong, Aunt,’ said Xi-feng.
‘No, no, nothing wrong with the facts and figures,’ said Aunt Xue pleasantly. ‘It’s just that you would save yourself some energy by taking them a little more slowly.’
Xi-feng seemed about to laugh, but checked herself to hear what her other aunt had to say. Lady Wang, however, de?liberated for some little while longer before making her pro?nouncement.
‘Find someone to wait on Lady Jia in place of Aroma,’ she said eventually, ‘and stop paying Aroma out of Lady Jia’s allowance. Instead you can pay her two taels and a string of cash a month out of my personal allowance of twenty taels. And in future, whatever arrangements are made about Aunt Zhao’s and Aunt Zhou’s allowances, I want you to pay Aroma at exactly the same rate only whatever it is, it’s all to come out of my personal allowance. I don’t want Accounts getting mixed up in this.’
Having promised to carry out these instructions, Xi-feng turned to Aunt Xue and nudged her playfully.
‘There you are! What did I tell you? It’s turned out exactly as I said.’
‘And so it should,’ said Aunt Xue warmly. ‘It should have been done long ago. She’s a lovely girl — and it isn’t only her looks I’m referring to, either. She has such a generous, open way of doing things, and she is so polite and friendly to talk to. There’s a strong little will there, though — plenty of deter?mination underneath it all. Oh, I think she’s a real treasure.’
‘She is a dear, good child,’ said Lady Wang. ‘I don’t think the rest of you realize just how good she is. Ten times better than my Bao-yu, that’s quite certain. If Bao-yu can keep her with him always, he’ll he a very lucky boy.’
‘If you think that, Aunt,’ said Xi-feng, ‘why not have her plucked and painted and make her his chamber-wife openly?’
‘No, it wouldn’t do,’ said Lady Wang. ‘First of all he is too young; secondly Sir Zheng would never agree to it; and in the third place, even if we allow a certain amount of freedom between them, as long as he still thinks of her as his maid, there is some chance that he will listen to what she says, but once we make her his chamber-wife, she will feel less free to tell him what she thinks of him when he is being silly. No, I think for the moment at any rate we should leave it a little vague. We can make a more definite arrangement in two or three years’ time.’
After pausing long enough to ascertain that Lady Wang had nothing more to say, Xi-feng turned and went. A group of stewards’ wives were waiting for her under the eaves in the narrow alley-way at the back to report to her on various household matters. They smiled at her as she emerged, and one of them chaffed her about the length of her visit.
‘You’ve been a long time today, Madam. What can you have been talking about to keep you so long? I hope you haven’t overheated yourself with so much talking!’
Xi-feng stood in the doorway in a very unladylike attitude, one foot on the threshold, rolling her sleeves back and smiling at no one in particular.
‘There’s a nice little draught out here. I think I’ll stand here for a bit and cool off.’
She turned to the women.
‘Did you say I’ve been a long time? It’s hardly surprising. Today Her Ladyship has been asking about just about every?thing that’s happened here during the past two hundred years.’ Her voice lost its jocular tone and became suddenly harsher. ‘From now on if I ever feel like doing something really spite?ful, I shall do it. Let her complain to Her Ladyship if she has a mind to, I don’t care. Stupid woman! Stupid, chicken-witted, evil-tongued, snivelling, misbegotten whore! She ought to wake up. One of these days they’ll make a dean sweep and take the whole lot away — then she’ll have something to shout about! Complain about me, would she, because her maid’s allowance has been cut? Who the Holy Name does she think she is? She’s only a bit of bought goods herself. What’s the likes of her doing with maids to wait on her any way?’
Leaving the stewardesses to make what they would of this explosion, she strode off to look for someone suitable to take a message in to Grandmother Jia.
At which point we leave her.

*

After Aunt Xue and the two girls had finished their water?melon, they sat talking for a few minutes longer with Lady Wang before leaving, Aunt Xue to return to her own apart?ment, Bao-chai and Dai-yu to go back into the Garden. Bao?-chai invited Dai-yu to accompany her to the Lotus Pavilion to pay a call on Xi-chun, but Dai-yu said she was going to have a bath, and presently parted company with Bao-chai, leaving her to continue on her way there alone. Bao-chai’s route took her past the House of Green Delights, and as she drew near it, she thought she would call in to chat for a while with Bao-yu and help him to dispel the sleepiness of the early afternoon.
The courtyard was silent as she entered it. Not a bird’s cheep was to be heard. Even the storks were asleep, hunched up in the shadow of the plantains. Keeping to the relative cool?ness of the covered walk, she made her way round to the house. In the outer room maids were lying about in all directions asleep. Slipping behind the tall mirror and through the elaborately carved partition, she passed into the inner room where Bao-yu lay inside his protective summer ‘cabinet’ of net. He, too, was fast asleep. Aroma sat at his bedside sewing, a white horse-hair fly-whisk with a handle of white rhinoceros-horn at her side. Bao-chai entered the ‘cabinet’ and laughed softly at Aroma.
‘Aren’t you being rather over-cautious?’ she whispered. ‘What’s the fly-whisk for? Surely no flies or mosquitoes can get in here?’
Aroma looked up, startled, hurriedly put down her sewing, and rose to her feet.
‘Oh, it’s Miss Bao! I wasn’t expecting you,’ she whispered. ‘You gave me quite a shock – no, we don’t get any flies or mosquitoes in here, but there’s a little tiny insect that finds its way through the holes in the netting. They’re so small, you don’t notice them; but when you’re asleep they can give you a nasty bite – a bit like an ant-bite.’
‘That’s not surprising,’ said Bao-chai. ‘You’ve got water behind you here, you see; you’ve also got a lot of sweet?-smelling flowers outside; and indoors is perfumed as well. This kind of insect breeds in the insides of flowers and is attracted towards anything fragrant. That’s why you get them inside the house.’
While she was speaking, her eye fell on the sewing that Aroma had just put down. It was a pinafore of the kind children wear, with bib and apron in one. It was of white satin lined with red silk, and the pattern Aroma was em?broidering on it was one of mandarin ducks disporting themselves in a background of lotuses. The ducks were in rainbow colours, and the lotuses had red flowers and green leaves.
‘Goodness, how beautiful!’ she exclaimed. ‘Who’s it for? It must be someone very special, to deserve work as fine as this.’
Aroma turned her head and shot her lips out in the direction of the figure sleeping on the bed.
‘Him? He’s too big to wear that sort of thing, surely?’
‘He wouldn’t wear them to start with. That’s why I try to make them so nicely—so that when he sees them he can’t resist putting them on. I try to get him to wear them in this hot weather, so that if he uncovers himself in his sleep, there’s no risk of his getting chilled. If you think there’s a1ot of work in this one, you ought to see the one he’s wearing!’
‘I wonder you can have the patience,’ said Bao-chai.
‘I’ve done such a lot of work on it today,’ said Aroma, ‘my neck is quite stiff from bending over.’ She smiled at Bao-chai entreatingly: ‘Do us a favour, Miss: sit here a bit in my place, will you, while I go off and stretch my legs? I’ll be back directly.’
Saying this, she slipped quietly out, not waiting for a reply. So intent was Bao-chai on the embroidery that she sank down almost without realizing what she was doing into the place that Aroma had just vacated. It really was a most beauti?ful piece of work; in fact, she found it irresistible, and taking up the needle, began sewing it where Aroma had left off.
Meanwhile Dai-yu, on her way back to have a bath, had run into Xiang-yun and agreed to the latter’s proposal that they should together call on Aroma to congratulate her on her promotion. They arrived in the courtyard of Green Delights to find everything plunged in silence. Xiang-yun went round to the side to see if Aroma was in any of the maids’ rooms. Dai-yu went up to the main building and peeped through the gauze window into Bao-yu’s bedroom. She saw Bao-yu, clothed in little else but a thin, rose-coloured shirt, sprawled out asleep on the bed and Bao-chai sitting beside him sewing, with a fly-whisk in readiness at her side.
For some moments she goggled incredulously at this touch?ing domestic scene, then, fearful of disturbing it, she tore herself away to stifle her mounting giggles. When she had some?what subdued them, she beckoned to Xiang-yun to come over and look. Wondering what extraordinary spectacle could have put her in such a state, Xiang-yun hurried over for a peep. She, too, found the scene inside a comical one and would have burst out laughing; but in her case it was the consideration that Bao-chai had always been so kind to her that caused her to control her mirth. And knowing how merciless Dai-yu could be with her witticisms, she took her by the hand and dragged her away, explaining as she did so that she had just remembered that Aroma had said something about going at noon to wash some clothes in the lake.
‘I’m sure that’s where she will be,’ she said to Dai-yu. ‘Let’s go and look for her there.’
Dai-yu was not in the least deceived, and showed as much by her sardonic laugh. But she followed her nonetheless.
Bao-chai meanwhile continued her sewing undisturbed. She had just completed her second, or maybe it was her third petal, when Bao-yu, who appeared to be dreaming, cried out angrily in his sleep.
‘Why should I believe what those old monks and Taoists say? I don’t believe in the marriage of gold and jade. I believe in the marriage of stone and flower.’
The words astounded her. She had still not recovered from the shock of hearing them when Aroma returned.
‘What, isn’t he awake yet?’
Bao-chai shook her head.
‘I just now ran into Miss Lin and Miss Shi,’ said Aroma. ‘I suppose they didn’t come in here, did they?’
‘Not that I know of,’ said Bao-chai. She glanced up at Aroma with a sly smile: ‘Did they tell you anything?’
Aroma coloured.
‘Oh, a lot of nonsense – as usual! They were only joking, though.’
‘They weren’t joking,’ said Bao-chai, ‘- not this time. I was going to tell you myself, but you went rushing off before I had a chance to.’
Just at that moment a maid arrived from Xi-feng summon?ing Aroma to go and see her.
‘There you are!’ said Bao-chai. ‘That’ll be what she wants to see you about.’
Aroma had to arouse two of the sleeping maids to take her place in the inner room; then she and Bao-chai left Green Delights together. They parted company outside, and Aroma went off to Xi-feng’s place on her own. When she got there she was, as Bao-chai had predicted, formally acquainted with the new arrangements concerning her pay and status that had just been made for her by Lady Wang. She was told that she should go over to Lady Wang’s to kotow her thanks, but that there was no need for her to see Grandmother Jia.
She found this interview with Xi-feng acutely embarrassing. By the time she got back from Lady Wang’s, Bao-yu was already awake. She answered him evasively when he asked her where she had been and waited for the silence and darkness of the night to tell him of her unofficial promotion to his bed. Bao-yu was delighted.
‘I hope there’ll be no more talk of leaving me now!’ he said, smiling broadly at her. ‘Do you remember the time when you got back from visiting your family and tried to frighten me with all that talk about your brother wanting to buy you out of service and how there was no future for you here and no point in your staying permanently, and all those other heartless, unkind things you said? I’d like to see anyone trying to take you away from me now!’
‘Huh!’ Aroma sniffed scornfully. ‘That’s not at all the way it is. I belong to Her Ladyship now. Now if I want to leave you, I don’t have to talk to you about it at all. All I have to do is have a word with Her Ladyship, and off I go!’
Bao-yu laughed.
‘Suppose I were at fault and you told Her Ladyship and asked her to let you go; don’t you think you’d feel just a tiny bit uncomfortable afterwards when it got about that you had left me because I wasn’t good enough for you?
‘Why ever should I?’ said Aroma. ‘Of course, I wouldn’t go if it meant marrying a thief or a murderer. There’s always another way out. I could always take my own life. We all have to die some time or other; it’s just a question of when. All you’ve got to do is stop breathing, that’s all. After that you hear nothing, see nothing – it’s all over!’
‘Stop it, now! Stop it!’ said Bao-yu, covering her mouth with his hand. ‘You don’t have to say things like that.’
All too familiar with the peculiarities of this master who condemned flattering ‘auspicious’ talk as false and hollow, but was upset and morose if you told him the truth, Aroma regret?ted her blunder in having too openly spoken her mind. Smil?ingly she turned the conversation on to topics which experience taught her were agreeable to him: the beauties of Nature, the beauties of girls, girls. But somehow from there the conversation imperceptibly found its way round to the subject of girls dying. Suddenly realizing this, Aroma — it was she who was talking at the time — broke off in alarm. Bao-yu, who up to that point had been listening to her enthralled, laughed at her sudden silence.
‘We all have to die, as you said yourself just now. The prob?lem is how to die well. Those whiskered idiots who take quite literally the old saw that “a scholar dies protesting and a soldier dies fighting” and get themselves killed off on the assumption that those are the only two ways in which a man of spirit can die gloriously, would do better to die in their beds. For when you come to think of it, the only real occasion for protesting is when one’s ruler is misguided, and the only real occasion for fighting is when one’s country is at war. If the scholar is so greedy for martyrdom that he throws away his life at the earliest opportunity, what is to become of the poor misguided ruler in the absence of good advisers? And if the soldier so hankers for a hero’s death that he gets himself killed off in the first encounter, what is to become of his country without soldiers to fight its battles—?’
‘But surely,’ Aroma interrupted, ‘those famous men in the olden days laid their lives down because they had to?’
‘Nonsense!’ said Bao-yu. ‘The soldiers among them lacked generalship; as a consequence, they had nothing but their physical courage to rely on. They threw their lives away out of sheer incompetence. Do you call that dying because they had to? And the scholars were even worse. On the strength of having read a couple of books and got up a text or two by heart, they began to cry stinking fish as soon as they found the smallest thing at Court not as they thought it should be, in the hope of winning themselves an imperishable reputation for honesty; then, if the Court didn’t immediately change its policy, they would work themselves into a passion and promptly get themselves killed. You won’t, surely, say that they died because they had to? What you have to remember is that Emperors hold their power from Heaven, and it’s un?thinkable that Heaven should lay the huge responsibility of empire on any but the worthiest shoulders. So you can see that all those death-with-honour characters you have so high an opinion of were thinking only of their own personal fame and glory. They weren’t really thinking of their loyal duty to their sovereign at all.
‘Now my idea of a glorious death would be to die now, while you are all around me; then your tears could combine to make a great river that my corpse could float away on, far, far away to some remote place that no bird has ever flown to, and gently decompose there until the wind had picked my bones clean, and after that never, never to be reborn again as a human being—that would be a really good death.’
‘I’m sleepy,’ said Aroma, unwilling to reply, for she had observed that his mad fit was on him again. And Bao-yu at once closed his eyes and fell fast asleep.
By next morning the subject appeared to have been quite forgotten.

*

A day arrived when Bao-yu seemed to have exhausted the Garden’s possibilities, and its charms were beginning to weary him. The Return of the Soul was very much on his mind at this time. He had read it through twice without in any way abating his appetite for more. Having recently been told that the best singer among the twelve little actresses of Pear Tree Court was the soubrette called Charmante, he resolved, for a change of scene, to go over there and look her up, so that he could ask her to sing him some of the arias from it.
The only girls he recognized when he arrived there were Tresor and Topaze, who greeted him with smiles and invited him to be seated. When he asked where Charmante was, the girls all answered him in chorus:
‘In her room.’
Bao-yu at once went to the room indicated. Charmante was in there on her own. She was lying stretched out on her bed, but made no attempt to get up when she saw him enter. Nothing daunted, he sat himself down beside her and, in the familiar way he habitually adopted with girls, smilingly re?quested her to sing the section from the Return that begins with the words

In these quiet courts the floating gossamer…

But Charmante did not respond in the expected manner. She rose up quickly and drew away from him when he sat down beside her; and in answer to his request to sing, she informed him, with a cold, unsmiling expression, that she was ‘not invoice’.
‘I strained my voice the other day at a command perform?ance for Her Grace,’ she said. ‘I am still resting it.’
She was sitting opposite him as she said this, so that he had a full view of her face. He remembered now, as he studied it, where he had seen that face before. She was the girl he had seen scratching QIANS on the ground that day under the rose pergola.
And now here she was behaving as if his very presence was distasteful to her. Never in his life before had he experienced such instant rejection. Reduced to mumbling incoherence by his embarrassment, he coloured, and — since there was ob?viously no point in staying — left the room.
Surprised to see him come out again so soon, the others asked him the reason. Trésor laughed when he told her what had happened.
‘Wait until Mr Qiang gets back,’ she said. ‘If he asks her to, she’ll sing for you.’
Bao-yu did not know quite what to make of this.
‘Qiang?’ he said. ‘Where is he, anyway?’
‘He went out only a few minutes ago,’ said Trésor. ‘I expect Charmante said she wanted something and he’s gone out to try and get it for her.’
Bao-yu seemed to find this of enormous interest and decided to stay a little longer and see what happened. Sure enough, Jia Qiang presently returned from his expedition. He was carry?ing a bird-cage with a bird inside. The cage had a miniature stage fastened to the top of it. Jia Qiang was on his way inside to look for Charmante, obviously feeling very pleased with himself, when he caught sight of Bao-yu and halted.
‘What’s that bird you’ve got there?’ Bao-yu asked him.
‘It’s a whitecap,’ said Jia Qiang, smiling proudly. ‘It can hold a flag in its beak and do a little turn on the stage.’
‘How much did you pay for it?’
‘One tael and sixteen pennyweights of silver.’
He invited Bao-yu to be seated while he went into Charmante’s room to show off his purchase; but Bao-yu, whose desire to hear Charmante sing was now quite forgotten in his eagerness to find out exactly how things lay between her and Jia Qiang, joined the girls as they clustered round the door-way to watch.
‘Look! Look what I’ve brought for you,’ said Jia Qiang, full of smiles.
‘What is it?’
Charmante had been lying down again, but sat up when he entered.
‘I’ve got a little bird to keep you company, to stop you get?ting so depressed. You watch! I’ll make him perform for you.’
He took a few grains from his pocket and coaxed the bird out on to the stage, where it picked up a diminutive mask and flag and hopped and pirouetted about like an actor playing the warrior’s part in a play. The girls all laughed delightedly and said it was ‘sweet’. All except Charmante. She merely gave a scornful ‘huh!’ or two and lay back on the bed again in dis?gust.
Jia Qiang smiled — almost beseechingly.
‘How do you like it?’
‘You and your family!’ said Charmante bitterly. ‘It isn’t enough to take decent girls from their homes and shut them up in this prison to learn beastly opera all day. Now you have to bring a bird along to do it as well. I suppose it’s to keep me reminded of my misery. And you have the audacity to ask me “do I like it?”!’
Her words appeared to make Jia Qiang quite frantic, for he uttered a string of the most violent and passionate oaths in reply.
‘I’m a stupid fool and I should have known better,’ he said. ‘I spent all that money on the thing because I thought it might cheer you up. It never occurred to me that you might take it like this. Well, let the thing go then! It’s an “act of merit” to free living creatures, so at least you’ll get some good from it. Either it will help you in the next life or free you from sickness in this one.’
With that he released the bird, which promptly flew away, and stamped on the cage until it was smashed to pieces.
‘Maybe birds aren’t as important as human beings,’ said Charmante, ‘but they have mothers and fathers just the same. Can’t you see how cruel it is to take them away from their nests and make them perform for people’s amusement? I coughed up two mouthfuls of blood today. Her Ladyship sent someone to look for you. She wanted you to get me a doctor so that we could find out what to do, but instead of a doctor you bring this thing back with you, to make a mock of me. It’s just my luck to fall ill when I’ve got no one to care for me or take any notice.’
She began to cry.
‘But I asked the doctor about you yesterday evening and he said it wasn’t serious,’ Jia Qiang protested. ‘He said you were to take a couple of doses of that medicine and he’d come and look at you again in two days’ time. I’d no idea that you’d been spitting blood. Well, I’d better go and get him straight away.’
He began to go, but Charmante called him back.
‘Stay where you are! Don’t go rushing off in this burning heat. You’re only going to fetch him because you’re in a temper, anyway. I wouldn’t see him now if he came!’
Hearing her say this, Jia Qiang halted.
Bao-yu had been watching this scene with open-mouthed fascination. At last he understood the real meaning of all those QIANGS. There was obviously no place for him here, so he slipped away. Jia Qiang was so absorbed in his concern for Charmante that he did not even notice him go and it was left to the little actresses to see him out.
It was a reflective, self-critical Bao-yu who made his way back to Green Delights, so bemused that he scarcely noticed where he was going. When he arrived, Dai-yu and Aroma were sitting in conversation together. He looked at Aroma and sighed heavily.
‘What I told you the other night was wrong,’ he said. ‘I’m not surprised that Father tells me I have a “small capacity but a great self-conceit”. I mean, that stuff about all of you making a river of tears for me when I die: I realize now that it’s not possible. I realize now that we each have our own allotted share of tears and must be content with what we’ve got.’
Aroma was surprised to hear him bring this up again. She had assumed that what he said that night was in jest and must long since have been forgotten. She laughed.
‘You know, sometimes I think you really are a bit touched!’
Bao-yu was silent.
From the curious way in which he was behaving Dai-yu could see that something had got into him, but judged it not her business to inquire what. To change the subject she asked him about something of a more practical nature.
‘When I was with your Mother just now she told me that it is Mrs Xue’s birthday tomorrow. She told me to ask you whether you intend going or not. When you’ve decided, she’d like you to send someone round and let her know.’
‘Well, I didn’t go last time, when it was Uncle She’s birth?day,’ said Bao-yu. ‘It will be a bit awkward if I go this time and run into someone from Uncle She’s. I think I’d better stop going to birthdays altogether. In any case, it’s terribly hot, and I should have to dress up for it. And I don’t think Auntie would really mind if I didn’t go.’
‘That’s no way to talk!’ said Aroma. ‘There’s no compari?son whatever between Sir She and your Aunt Xue. You’re no distance away from her, for a start. And she is your Mother’s sister. I’m sure if you didn’t go she’d wonder what was the matter. If you’re afraid of the heat, why don’t you go first thing in the morning, when it’s still cool? All you need do is make your kotow and drink a cup of tea, and then you can come back again. Surely that would be more civil?’
‘Of course you must go!’ said Dai-yu, before he had time to reply. ‘Surely you owe a visit to the person who saved you from the mosquitoes?’
‘What mosquitoes?’ said Bao-yu, mystified. ‘What are you talking about?’
Aroma proceeded to tell him how Bao-chai had sat at his bedside with a fly-whisk beside her while he slept.
‘How frightful!’ Bao-yu was most upset. ‘However did I come to be asleep when she was there? And I’d got hardly anything on. How disgusting of me!’
After that there was no further question, of course. He would definitely be going over for his Aunt Xue’s birthday on the morrow.
While the three of them were talking, Xiang-yun came in wearing her going-out clothes and looking very dressed-up. Her uncle the Marquis’s people had arrived to fetch her, and she had come to say good-bye. Bao-yu and Dai-yu both rose and invited her to be seated, but she could not stay, so the two of them accompanied her through to the front.
Xiang-yun was struggling to hold back her tears, for she dared not show her distress openly in front of her uncle’s people. The arrival a few moments later of her dear Bao-chai, who had hurried over specially to see her off, made going back seem even more unbearable. Fortunately Bao-chai, always more perceptive than the others, realized that things would become even more difficult for Xiang-yun if the servants who had come to collect her were to tell her aunt when they got back that she had made a fuss, so she did all she could to hasten her departure.
The two girls and Bao-yu saw Xiang-yun as far as the inner gate. Bao-yu would have gone further, but Xiang-yun re?strained him. Nevertheless, when she had gone a little way towards her carriage, she changed her mind and, turning back, called him to her so that she could whisper a parting request in his ear.
‘Remind Her Old Ladyship of me from time to time, will you, in case she forgets? Then perhaps she’ll send someone to invite me over again.’
Bao-yu gave vigorous assurances that he would do this for her, then, when they had seen her get into her carriage, they all turned and went in again.
As to what followed, that must be looked for in the follow?ing chapter.

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