The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 43

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CHAPTER 43

An old woman’s whim is the occasion of a birthday collection
And a young man’s remorse finds solace in a simple ceremony

Our story recommences in Lady Wang’s apartment next day. On the previous evening’s visit she had found Grandmother Jia almost completely recovered after only two doses of the medicine prescribed for her that same morning by the doctor. Satisfied that it was only a mild chill, contracted during her day in Prospect Garden, and not anything more serious that the old lady had been suffering from, and deeming it unneces?sary to make an early call again this morning, Lady Wang summoned Wang Xi-feng to her own apartment to discuss the getting together of some things to send to her husband, Jia Zheng. A summons from Grandmother Jia arrived neverthe?less, and Lady Wang hurried over, taking Xi-feng with her, to see what was the matter.
‘Are you still feeling better today, Mother?’ she asked her when they arrived.
‘I’m quite recovered now, thank you,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘I’ve had a sip or two of the pheasant stew you sent me. It was very tasty I ate some of the meat in it and enjoyed it very much.’
You have Feng to thank for that,’ said Lady Wang with a smile. ‘See how dutiful she is to you! It shows that your kind?ness is not wasted on her.’
Grandmother Jia returned the smile and nodded affably.
‘It was good of her to think of me. If there’s any of the meat still left, I’d rather like a few pieces of it fried. It has a pleasant, salty tang that goes well with the rice-gruel I am taking The stew is very nice, but stew and gruel don’t go very well to?gether.’
Xi-feng at once sent orders to the main kitchen to have the pheasant-meat prepared.
‘Well, it wasn’t really my diet that I wanted to talk about,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘The reason I’ve sent for you is because the second of the ninth month is Feng’s birthday. In previous years, though I’ve always meant to do something about it, something or other has always cropped up which has pre?vented me from celebrating it properly. As we’re all of us here together this year and it doesn’t look as if there are likely to be any distractions, I propose that we should get together and make a day of it.’
‘I was thinking just the same thing,’ said Lady Wang. ‘Since you feel in such good spirits, Mother, why not settle now what we should do?
‘Well now, this is what I have been thinking,’ said Grand?mother Jia. ‘In other years, no matter whose birthday it’s been, we’ve each of us given our individual presents. Now that’s so dull, and what’s more, I think it’s a rather unsociable way of celebrating a birthday. I’ve thought of a new way which will be much more sociable and also lots of fun.’
‘Whatever it is, I’m sure that’s what we ought to do,’ said Lady Wang.
‘I think we ought to imitate what they do in poorer fami?lies,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Everyone subscribes something towards a common pool, then, when it’s all been collected, you spend it all on some treat or other, depending on how much you have. What do you think of the idea?’
‘It sounds a very good one,’ said Lady Wang. ‘But how do we go about collecting the subscriptions ?’
At this Grandmother Jia became still more animated. Let Aunt Xue and Lady Xing be invited without delay, she told them. Let Bao-yu and the girls be sent for. And You-shi from the other mansion. And why not Lai Da’s wife and some of the more respected older members of the female staff? In?fected by her enthusiasm, the maids and older women-servants went scurrying off in all directions to summon or invite.
In less time than it would take to eat a meal, all those invited, young and old, mistress and servant, had been assembled, and the room was packed. Aunt Xue and Grandmother Jia sat on their own facing the multitude, Lady Xing and Lady Wang on chairs at the opposite side of the room beside the door. Bao-chai, Dai-yu, Xiang-yun and the Three Springs sat in a row at the back of the kang behind Grandmother Jia and Aunt Xue. Bao-yu half reclined in his grandmother’s lap. All the rest stood, shoulder to shoulder, on the floor below.
As soon as she saw that they were all assembled, Grand?mother Jia gave orders for stools to be brought so that Lai Da’s mother and various other of the more aged and respected servants present might sit down. It was customary in the Jia household to treat the older generation of servants those who had served the parents of the present masters—with even greater respect than the younger generation of masters, so that in this instance it was not thought at all surprising that You-shi, Xi-feng and Li Wan should remain standing while old Mrs Lai and three or four other old nannies (though not without first apologizing for the liberty) seated themselves on the stools.
Grandmother Jia now smilingly announced the proposal that she had already outlined to Lady Wang. All present, it need hardly be said, were willing to fall in with it—some because they were on good terms with Xi-feng and were genuinely happy to give her pleasure, some because they were afraid of her and welcomed this as an opportunity of getting themselves into her good books, and all because in any case they could afford to do so. Accordingly, as soon as Grandmother Jia had finished speaking, they all enthusiastically and with one voice agreed.
Grandmother Jia opened the list with her own subscription:
‘I’ll give twenty taels.’
‘I’ll follow Lady Jia,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘Twenty taels.’
Lady Xing and Lady Wang called next:
‘We obviously can’t put ourselves on a level with Lady Jia. Sixteen taels.’
You-shi and Li Wan, decreasing their call by a like amount, came next:
‘Twelve taels.’
‘We can’t have you paying out that sort of money,’ Grand?mother Jia said to Li Wan, ‘—a young widow with no mean of her own. I’ll pay yours for you.’
‘Now don’t get carried away, Grandma! ‘said xi-feng. ‘You ought to do your sums first before you start interfering. Don’t forget you’ve already got two of the young folk, Bao-yu and Cousin Lin, to pay for besides your own contribution. It’s all very well promising to pay these additional twelve taels for Li Wan in the heat of the moment, but later on you’ll be wish?ing you hadn’t. You’ll probably end up by saying that it was all because of that wretched Feng that you had to pay out so much money and think of some trick for getting it back from me three or four times over. I know. Don’t tell me I’m imagin?ing this.’
This made everyone laugh.
‘All right,’ said Grandmother Jia, laughing herself. ‘Then what do you propose?’
‘Well now, it isn’t even my birthday yet, but already I’m feeling uncomfortable because so much is being done for me,’ said Xi-feng. ‘It seems unlucky—so many people being put to so much expense on my account while I don’t pay a penny myself. Pd feel a lot easier if you’d let me pay this contribution for Li Wan; then, when the day comes, I shall be able to eat and drink as much as I like without any fear of spoiling my luck.’
Grandmother Jia hesitated, but consented when Lady Xing and Lady Wang both insisted that this was the best solution.
‘I’ve got another suggestion to make,’ said xi-feng. ‘Your own contribution Is twenty taels, Grandma, and on top of that you’re going to be paying contributions for Bao-chai and Cousin Lin. It’s true that Aunt Xue will be paying Cousin Chai’s contribution on top of her twenty taels, but that doesn’t seem quite so unfair. What does seem unfair to me is that Mother and Aunt Wang should be paying only sixteen taels each for themselves, yet paying no extras at all for any of the young people. I think you’re getting the worst of this arrange?ment, Grannie.’
‘See what a good girl my Feng is to me!’ said Grandmother Jia delightedly. ‘You’re quite right, my dear. If you hadn’t mentioned it, I should have let them get away with it—as usual!’
‘All you need do, Grannie, is to make the two young people their responsibility. Let each pay for one of them.’
‘That’s fair,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Yes, that’s what I’ll do.’
Lai Da’s old mother rose up from her stool in mock indig?nation.
‘But this is rank mutiny! It makes me feel really angry on Their Ladyships’ behalf. What, side with Her Old Ladyship against your husband’s mother and your own father’s sister? That’s a arrant breach of the laws o’ consanguinity!’
This sally was greeted with a burst of laughter from Grand?mother Jia and all the others present. Old Mrs Lai remained standing until it had subsided and then made her own offer.
‘If Mrs Zhu and Mrs Lian are each contributing twelve taels, I suppose we’d better go a step lower?’
‘Oh no, that won’t do at all!’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘You may be a step below them in rank, but you’re all wealthy women. I know you’ve got lots more money than they have. You can’t give more, of course, but at least you should give as much.’
The old women, led by Mrs Lai, willingly agreed.
‘The girls’ contribution will be only for form’s sake, any?way,’ said Grandmother Jia in reference to the row of figures sitting silently behind her on the kang. ‘I should think about the equivalent of a month’s allowance would be the right amount?
She turned to Faithful.
‘Come on, now I We’re not leaving you out! Go and get some of the other girls together and decide how much you are going to give.’
Faithful slipped out and presently returned with Patience, Aroma, Suncloud and one or two other of the senior maids. Some said they would give one tael, others two. Grandmother Jia noticed that Patience was one of them.
‘Surely you’ll be doing something for your mistress at home?’ she said. ‘You don’t need to contribute to this fund as well.’
‘Yes, ma’am, I shall be doing something at home,’ said Patience, ‘but that’s private. This is a public thing, so I shall contribute to this along with the rest.’
Grandmother Jia smiled at her graciously and commended her public spirit.
‘Well,’ said Xi-feng genially, ‘now just about everyone seems to have been roped in except Aunt Zhou and Aunt Zhao. Wouldn’t it be a politeness to ask them if they would like to contribute as well? They might take it as a slight if we left them out.’
‘Of course,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Whatever made me forget about them? They probably won’t be free to come over, though. One of the maids had better go and ask them.’
One of the maids had gone off on this mission almost before she had finished speaking. She returned, after a long interval, to say that the concubines would contribute two taels each.
‘Good!’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Now take a brush and ink, someone, and calculate how much we shall have altogether.’
In the interval thus created, You-shi addressed Xi-feng in a scornful whisper.
‘What a mean, grasping young woman you are! Your aunt and your mother-in-law and all these other people forking out for your birthday, yet you still have to go squeezing more out of two poor, dried-up old gourds like Zhou and Zhao!’
Xi-feng laughed silently.
‘Don’t talk nonsense!’ she whispered back. ‘I’ll settle accounts with you presently, when we get out of here. Any?way, what do you mean, “poor”? Whenever they’ve got any money they only pass it straight on to other people. We might just as well intercept it before it gets into the hands of their creditors and get a bit of pleasure out of it!’
By the time this whispered exchange was over, the calcula?tions had been completed and it was announced that the amounts promised totalled a round sum of one hundred and fifty taels with a few taels left over.
‘That’s more than we could possibly spend on plays and wine in one day,’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘As we’re not inviting anyone from outside,’ said You-shi, ‘it won’t be a very big party, either. There should be enough for two or three days. The big saving, of course, is that now you’ve got your own troupe of players, you can have first-class entertainment for nothing.’
‘Feng shall have whatever troupe she prefers,’ said Grand?mother Jia. ‘That’s for her to decide.’
‘We’ve heard our own troupe so often,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I think we should spend a bit of money and get in a troupe from outside.’
‘Well, I propose to leave all the arrangements for this in the hands of Cousin Zhen’s wife,’ said Grandmother Jia, then Feng will have nothing at all to worry about – except how to get the greatest possible enjoyment out of her birthday!’
You-shi agreed to be organizer, after which she and the others stayed charting for a few minutes with Grandmother Jia. Then, realizing that the old lady’s stock of energy was ex?hausted, they gradually dispersed.
After the three younger women had seen Lady Xing and Lady Wang a part of their way home, You-shi accompanied Xi-feng to the latter’s apartment to discuss with her what arrangements she should make for the party.
‘Don’t ask me,’ said Xi-feng when You-shi questioned her. ‘You want to study Grandmother and just do whatever seems to please her.’
‘You really are the limit, you know,’ said You-shi. ‘For?tune’s darling! I thought just now that I was being called over about something serious, but it turned out to be just for this! And then, if you please, quite apart from being asked to pay out money, I am to have all the worry of arranging everything for you as well. What are you going to do in return for all this, to show me your gratitude?’
‘What am I going to do in return?’ said Xi-feng. ‘You must be joking. I didn’t call you over. If you’re afraid of the trouble, you’d better go back to Grandmother and tell her to give the job to somebody else.’
‘Just look at her I’ said You-shi. ‘Really full of yourself today, aren’t you? I should hold it in a bit, if I were you, my dear, or it might start running overt’
The two of them conversed for some minutes longer before finally separating.

*

When the first contributions arrived at Ning-guo House next morning, You-shi had only just got up and was about to begin her toilet. She asked who had brought the money, and on being informed that it was Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife, sent the maid back to fetch her in from the servants’ quarters, where she was waiting. When she arrived, You-shi asked for a stool to be brought so that the old woman could sit and talk to her while she continued with her toilet.
‘How many of the contributions have you got in this packet?’ You-shi asked her.
‘These are the ones from us servants,’ said Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife. ‘As they were all ready, I thought I might as well bring them over straight away. The contributions from Her Old Ladyship and the other ladies are still to come.’
Just then one of the maids came in to announce another arrival
‘The subscriptions from Mrs Xue and Lady Xing have arrived, ma’am.’
‘Subscriptions!’ said You-shi scornfully. ‘How eagerly you fasten on the ridiculous word! It was only a passing fancy of Her Old Ladyship’s yesterday that we should imitate what they do in poorer households. She used the word then as a joke; but now, I suppose, we shall have every witless maid solemnly talking about “subscriptions” all the time! Well, go and get the money and bring it in then. And see that who?ever it is has some tea before they go.’
The girl went out and returned with the two packets of money that the messenger had brought, one from Aunt Xue, including a contribution for Bao-chai, and one, including Dai-yu’s contribution, from Lady Xing.
‘Who does that leave now?’ said You-shi.
‘That leaves Her Old Ladyship, Her Ladyship, the young ladies and the maids,’ said Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife.
‘What about Mrs Zhu’s?’ said You-shi.
Mrs Lian will be paying Out the money for all the others,’ said Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife, ‘so you’ll be able to get Mrs Zhu’s from her too when you see her about the rest.’
You-shi, having completed her toilet, now called for her carriage. As soon as it was ready, she drove round to the Rong-guo mansion and went straight in to see Xi-feng. She found her with the money already packeted and on the point of bringing it round to her.
‘Is it all here?’ You-shi asked her.
‘All there,’ said Xi-feng gaily. ‘Hurry up and take it away. I don’t want to he responsible for it if it gets lost.’
‘I don’t think I altogether trust you,’ said You-shi, return?ing her smile. ‘I think I’d like to check it first in your presence.’
She opened up the packet and counted the money contained in it. The contribution for Li Wan appeared to be missing.
‘I thought you were up to something,’ she said. ‘Why isn’t the money for Wan here?’
Xi-feng smiled disarmingly.
‘Isn’t what you’ve already got there enough? Surely her little bit isn’t going to make all that much difference? Why not wait and see what you need? If you find you haven’t got enough, I’ll give the money for Wan to you later.’
‘I’m not letting you get away with this,’ said You-shi, ‘—playing the Lady Bountiful yesterday in front of all those others and then going back on it now, when the two of us are alone together. I shall have to go and ask Lady Jia for the money.’
‘You’re a hard woman!’ said Xi-feng. ‘One of these days when I have you at a disadvantage, you mustn’t complain if you find me just as much of a stickler.’
‘Threats?’ said You-shi. ‘I think you are the one who should feel afraid. Do you think if it weren’t for the things you have done for me in the past I would let you off now? Here, Patience!’—She took Patience’s contribution from the pile and held it out to her ‘Take this back. If later on I find that I need it, I’ll make it good with my own money.’
Patience immediately understood what she was getting at and answered in the same vein.
‘No, Mrs Zhen, you keep it. If you find you have any left over, you can give it back to me afterwards.’
‘Take it,’ said You-shi. ‘Is your mistress the only one who’s allowed to break the rules? Mayn’t I do favours too, if I want to?’
Patience was obliged to take the money from her.
‘Seeing your mistress so tight-fisted,’ said You-shi, ‘I often wonder what she’s going to do with all this money she saves. Take it with her in her coffin?’
With that parting shot she went off to see Grandmother Jia. After greeting the old lady and exchanging a few generalities, she went into Faithful’s room for a more serious discussion of arrangements for the birthday party. The ‘discussion’ con?sisted quite simply in finding out what would give Grand?mother Jia most pleasure and deciding that that was what they should do. When all had been settled between them and You?-shi was rising to go, she took out the two taels that Faithful had contributed and handed them back to her.
‘Here you are. We shan’t be needing this.’
From Grandmother Jia’s apartment she went over to have a few words with Lady Wang. When Lady Wang presently left her to go into her Buddhist chapel, You-shi took advant?age of her absence to return Suncloud’s contribution; then, since xi-feng was safely out of the way, she offered Aunt Zhou and Aunt Zhao their contributions as well. But the con?cubines were too scared to take them.
‘Go on I’ said You-shi encouragingly. ‘I know how hard-up you are. You can’t afford to give away money like this. If Feng finds Out, I shall take full responsibility myself.’
They took the money then, voluble in their gratitude.

*

In a twinkling the second of the ninth was upon them. The denizens of the Garden had been informed that You-shi was planning an impressive variety of entertainment: not only the customary plays, but also juggling, acrobatics, story-telling by blind ballad-singers—in short, everything one could possibly think of that might contribute to the success of the occasion and the pleasure of the participants.
Li Wan reminded the cousins that the second of the month was also one of the regular meeting-days of the poetry club. Xi-chun was, of course, excused.
‘But why hasn’t Bao-yu turned up?’ she asked. ‘I suppose he’s so intent on enjoying the film that he has forgotten his former enthusiasm for these more civilized amusements!—Go and see what he’s doing,’ she said to one of the maids, ‘and tell him to come here immediately.’
The maid was a long time gone.
‘Miss Aroma says he went out first thing this morning,’ she reported when she eventually returned.
The others were incredulous.
‘That’s ridiculous. How could he possibly have gone out? The girl must have got the message wrong.’
They sent Ebony over to ask again; but Ebony only confirmed what the first maid had said.
‘Yes, lie really has gone out. It seems that one of his friends has died and he’s had to go out to condole.’
‘That’s absolutely absurd,’ said Tan-chun. ‘Whatever the reason, he can’t possibly have gone out today. Fetch Aroma here and I’ll speak to her myself.’
As if anticipating a summons, Aroma herself walked in while she was saying this. Li Wan tackled her at once.
‘There’s absolutely no justification for his going out today, whatever the reason,’ she said. ‘In the first place it’s Mrs Lian’s birthday and Her Old Ladyship was particularly anxious that we should all join in celebrating it this year: it’s monstrous that he should go off on his own like this when everyone else from both houses is here for the celebration. And in the second place this is the first regular meeting of our poetry club and he hasn’t even asked leave to stay away.’
Aroma sighed miserably.
‘Last night he told me that he had some important business to attend to first thing this morning. He said he had to go to the Prince of Beijing’s palace, but that he would be back again as soon as possible. I told him not to go, but he insisted. When he got up first thing this morning, he asked for a suit of mourning to wear. It looks as if some important person in the Prince of Beijing’s household must have died.’
‘If that’s really so,’ said Li Wan, ‘then he ought to have gone. But then, on the other hand, he ought to have got back by now.’
After a brief discussion the cousins decided to proceed without him and to punish him in some way when he returned. Before they could begin, however, a summons arrived from Grandmother Jia to join her in the mansion. As soon as they had done so, Aroma reported Bao-yu’s absence. The old lady was displeased and sent someone to fetch him back.
Bao-yu, evidently with some secret business on his mind, had spoken the day before to Tealeaf about this excursion,
‘I have to go out first thing tomorrow,’ he told him. ‘I want you to be waiting for me outside the back gate with two horses ready saddled. No one else is to accompany me but you. Tell Li Gui that I am going to the Prince of Beijing’s, and that he must stop anyone going out to look for me. He can tell them that the Prince is detaining me and that I shall come back as soon as I can get away.’
Though somewhat mystified by these orders, Tealeaf felt he had no choice but to follow them out, and before dawn next morning was waiting with two horses ready saddled outside the tear gate of the Garden. As soon as it was light, Bao-yu, dressed in heavy mourning, emerged from the postern, leaped onto one of the waiting horses, and crouching down over the reins, set off at a brisk trot down the street—all without utter?ing a single word.
Tealeaf leaped onto the second horse, gave it the whip, and did his best to catch up with Bao-yu, at the same time shouting after him to inquire where they were going.
‘Where does this road lead to?’ Bao-yu asked him.
‘This is the main road to the North Gate,’ said Tealeaf. Outside the city it’s pretty deserted in that direction. You won’t find much to amuse you there.’
Good,’ said Bao-yu. The more deserted the better.’
And by applying the whip he made his horse shoot on ahead, and presently, after a couple of turns, had left the city gate behind him.
Tealeaf, more mystified than ever, followed him as closely as he could. When they had galloped without stopping for two or three miles, in the course of which the signs of human habitation had gradually grown more and more sparse, Bao-yu finally reined to a halt and turned back to ask Tealeaf if there was anywhere where they could purchase some incense.
‘I dare say we could find somewhere,’ said Tealeaf without much conviction. ‘It depends what kind of incense you want.’
Bao-yu reflected for some moments.
‘Honeybush, sandal and lakawood,’ he said. ‘It has to be those three.’
‘I doubt if you’ll be able to get them,’ said Tealeaf, smiling at the na?veté of one who could expect to make such purchases in such a place. But when he saw that Bao-yu was genuinely distressed, he added: What’s it for? I’ve noticed that you often carry powdered incense in that sachet you wear. Why not see if you’ve got any in that?’
Bao-yu, glad to be reminded, extracted the silk purse that he wore suspended from his neck underneath the front fold of his gown, felt inside it with his fingers, and was delighted to find that there was still a pinch or two of powdered agalloch in the bottom.
‘Seems a bit lacking in respect to use this though,’ he thought.
‘Still, it’s more respectful to use something I’ve carried all the way here myself than it would be to use something I’d just bought in a shop.’
Having decided that the powdered incense would do, he asked Tealeaf where he could get hold of an incense-burner and some fire.
‘Now those we can’t get,’ said Tealeaf. ‘Where could we, out here in the middle of the wilds? If you knew you were going to need them, why didn’t you tell me beforehand, and we could have brought them with us?’
‘Stupid idiot I’ said Bao-yu. ‘Do you honestly think we could have ridden out at this break-neck pace if we’d been carrying an incense-burner full of hot coals with us?’
Tealeaf, after some moments of reflection, smiled uncertainly:
‘I know what we could do, Master, though I don’t know what you’ll think of the idea. There’s little enough hope of our getting the things you’ve just asked for round here, and the chances are that even if we could, you’d only start thinking of something else you needed that was even harder to get. Now if we were to go on for about another two thirds of a mile in this direction, we should come to the Temple of the Water Spirit Bao-yu pricked up his ears.
‘The Temple of the Water Spirit? Is that near here? Good. That will do even better. Let’s go there then.’
With a touch of the whip he was away once more, still talk?ing to Tealeaf over his shoulder as he rode ahead.
‘The nun at the Water Spirit is one of our regular callers. If I see her when we get there and tell her we want to use one of her burners, she’s sure to let us.’
‘Even if this wasn’t one of the temples we subscribe to,’ said Tealeaf, ‘I’m sure they wouldn’t dare refuse if you asked them. But why is it that today you are so willing to go to the Temple of the Water Spirit when normally you can scarcely abide to hear it mentioned?’
‘The reason I normally feel that way about it,’ said Bao-yu, ‘is because I hate the silly, senseless way in which vulgar people offer worship and build temples to gods they know nothing about. Ignorant old men and women with too much money to spend hear the name of some god or other—they’ve no idea who it is, but the mere fact that they’ve heard it from the lips of some ballad-singer or story-teller seems to them incontrovertible proof of the god’s existence—and go found?ing temples in which these fictitious deities can he worshipped.
‘Take this Temple of the Water Spirit. The reason it’s called that is because the divinity worshipped in it is supposed to be the goddess of the river Luo. Now in point of fact no Goddess of the Luo ever existed. She was an invention of the poet Cao Zhi. But that didn’t stop a lot of people making an image of her and worshipping it.
‘The only reason I feel differently about this temple today is because the idea of a water-goddess just happens to fit in with the thing that is at the moment uppermost in my mind; so I’m glad to make use of it for my own purpose.’
By this time they had reached the gate of the temple. The old nun who kept it, hardly less surprised to hear of Bao-yu’s arrival than she would have been if she had been told that a dragon had just fallen, alive and kicking, out of the sky, hur?ried out to greet him, and ordered the old temple-servant who did duty as a porter to take care of the horses.
Bao-yu went on inside. Instead of bowing down before the image, however, he stood and contemplated it appraisingly. Though the goddess was only a thing of wood and plaster and paint, the sculptor who made her had succeeded in capturing some of the spirit of Cao Zhi’s famous description. To Bao?-yu’s gazing eyes she did indeed appear as the poet portrayed her:

Fluttering like the wing-beats of a startled swan,
Swaying with the lissome curves of a water-dragon…

Cao Zhi’s beautiful images came crowding into his mind:

Like a lotus flower emerging from the green water,
Like the morning sun rising above the mist-bank…

And as he gazed and remembered, the tears coursed down his cheeks.
The old nun now appeared with some tea. While he sipped it, Bao-yu took the opportunity of asking her if he might borrow an incense-burner. At this she disappeared once more, to reappear, after considerable delay, carrying not only a burner but also a whole portion of incense and a set of garishly printed ‘picture-offerings’. Refusing all but the burner, Bao-yu made Tealeaf carry it outside into the rear courtyard of the temple, where he set about choosing a suitably dean spot on
which to make his offering. Nowhere would do, however, until Tealeaf suggested placing the burner on the stone plat?form of the well. To this suggestion Bao-yu assented with a nod, and when Tealeaf had set down the burner and retired to a respectful distance, he took out his pinch of agalloch and dropped it on the burning charcoal; then, with tears in his eyes, he knelt down and made, not a kotow, but the sort of half-obeisance one makes to the spirit of a junior or a servant.
Having concluded his little ceremony, Bao-yu got up and ordered Tealeaf to take the burner back into the temple. But Tealeaf, though saying that he would, did nothing of the kind. Instead he threw himself on his knees, kotowed several times, and began praying aloud in the direction of the well
‘O spirit, in all the years I have served Master Bao this is the first time he has ever kept anything from me. But though I don’t know who you are, O spirit, and don’t like to ask, one thing I do know, and that is that you are sure to be some won?drously beautiful, clever, refined young female. And since Master Bao isn’t able to tell you Out loud what he wants of you, I, Tealeaf, am praying to you on his behalf.
‘I beseech you, if you still have feelings as you used to when you were on earth, watch over my master from time to time, O spirit. I know you belong to a different world now, but being as it’s for a special friend of yours that I’m asking this, please do it if you can, spirit, for old time’s sake.
‘And please use what influence you can to see that Master Bao is reborn in his next life as a girl, so that he can spend all his time with you; and don’t let him be reborn as one of those horrible Whiskered Males he is always on about.’
At this point he knocked his head several more times on the ground. Bao-yu, who had been listening, could no longer hold back his laughter. Observing that Tealeaf had raised him?self once more on all fours and appeared to be about to go on, he kicked him and told him to get up.
‘Stop this nonsense! If anyone hears you, I shall become a laughing-stock.’
Tealeaf scrambled to his feet, picked up the burner and fol?lowed Bao-yu inside.
‘I’ve already spoken to the nun about getting you some food,’ he told Bao-yu as they were going in together. ‘I told her you hadn’t eaten yet. You ought to get something inside you. I realize that you came out here because there’s a big party and lots of racket at home today and you wanted some?where peaceful where you could do this. But I think just stay?ing out here in the quiet all day is showing all the respect you need to this person you’ve just made the offering to. You don’t need to fast all day as well. That’s out of the question.’
‘That seems reasonable,’ said Bao-yu. ‘As I’m missing the patty all the time that I’m here, I am in a way abstaining al?ready; so I suppose there can be no harm in my taking a bit of vegetarian stuff.’
‘I’m glad to hear you say so,’ said Tealeaf. ‘Of course, there is another way of looking at it. Your going off like this is sure to cause others at home to worry. Now if no one at home was likely to worry, there’d be no harm in our not going back until evening. But since they are going to worry, I really think you ought to be getting back soon. For one thing it will set Their Ladyships’ minds at rest, and for another, it will, in the long run, be more respectful to this person you’ve just made the offering to. Because if you go home, even if you drink and watch plays, it won’t be because you want to, but out of duty to Their Ladyships. Whereas if you stay out here thinking only about the spirit and not caring how worried you make Their Ladyships, you’ll in fact be making the spirit herself uneasy to think of all the anxiety that’s being caused on her behalf. Think it over, Master Bao, and see if you don’t agree with me.’
‘I can see what’s on your mind without much difficulty,’ said Bao-yu, laughing. ‘You’re afraid that as you are the only one who came out here with me, you will bear all the blame for this outing when we get back. That’s the real reason why I’m being treated to all this high-minded advice, isn’t it? Well, don’t worry! It was all along my intention to go back to the party when I had made the offering. I never said anything about staying out here all day. I’ve discharged my vow. If I hurry home now so that the others aren’t too worried, it seems to me that my obligations to the dead and the living swill both be met.’
Tealeaf expressed his relief. Still talking, they made their way to the old nun’s parlour, or hall of meditation’, where they found she had set out a very presentable (though, of course, vegetarian) repast for them. After briefly sampling it, the two of them mounted and set off again along the road by which they had come Bao-yu at such a pace that Tealeaf was obliged to call out after him to slacken it.
‘Go easy on that horse, Master Bad! He hasn’t been ridden very much; you need to keep a pretty tight rein on him.’
Soon they had entered the city gate, and not long after-wards might have been seen slipping into the back gate of the Garden. Bao-yu hurried straight to Green Delights, which he found deserted except for a few old nannies left behind as care-takers.
‘Holy Name!’ they said, their old faces lighting up with pleasure when they saw who it was. ‘You’ve come at last! You’ve had Miss Aroma nigh out of her mind with worry. They’re sitting at table in the front now, Master. Better hurry up and join them.’
Bao-yu quickly took off his mourning clothes and went off to look for something more colourful to change into.
‘Where is the party?’ he asked the old women as soon as he had dressed.
‘In the new reception room.’
He hurried, by the shortest route, towards the faint sounds of fluting and singing that could soon be heard coming from the so-called ‘new’ reception hall that the old women had referred to. As he approached the gallery through which he must pass to reach it, he came upon Silver, sitting under the eaves of the covered way and crying. She left off hurriedly when she saw him coming.
‘Here comes the phoenix at last!’ she said sarcastically. ‘Hurry up and go inside. If you stay away much longer, there’ll be a riot!’
Bao-yu smiled at her sympathetically.
‘Guess where I’ve been.’
She ignored his question and turned away from him to wipe her eyes. He hurried on, dejected because of his inability to comfort her. When he entered the hall were the others were assembled and went up to greet his grandmother and his mother, it really was as if a phoenix had appeared. Hurriedly he made his birthday kotow to Xi-feng.
‘What do you mean by going off on your own like that?’ Grandmother Jia grumbled. ‘I never heard of such a thing. If this happens again, I shall tell your father when he comes back and get him to give you another beating.’
Bao-yu’s pages came in next for her censure.
‘Why do they listen to him – rushing off like that whenever he tells them to? They should tell us first. Where have you been, anyway?’ she asked him. ‘Have you had anything to eat? Has anything happened to give you a fright?’
‘The Prince of Beijing’s favourite concubine died yester?day,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I went to condole with him. He was in such a state when I got there that I didn’t like to leave im?mediately. That’s why I’ve been so long.’
‘If you sneak out again without first telling us,’ said Grand?mother Jia, ‘I really shall tell your Pa to beat you.’
Though Bao-yu promised to obey, she still wanted to have his pages whipped; but the others all begged for a reprieve:
‘Don’t take it to heart, Grandmother! He’s already said he won’t do it again. And anyway, he’s back now, so we can for?get our worries and concentrate on enjoying ourselves’
Grandmother Jia had in fact been extremely worried and her anxiety had made her vengeful. Now that Bao-yu was back and she was no longer worried, her vengeful feelings evapor?ated and the subject of beatings was quickly dropped. Her concern now was lest Bao-yu should have been unduly dis?tressed by his visit, or have failed to eat enough while he was away, or have been involved in some accident on the way there or back. While she continued to fuss over him, Aroma took her place at his side to wait upon him, and the rest of the company resumed the play-watching which his arrival had interrupted.
The play being performed on this occasion was The Wooden Hairpin. Grandmother Jia and the other ladies found it greatly affecting, shedding copious teats in the course of it and sighing or cursing in the appropriate places.
The events that ensued will be told in the following chapter.

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