The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 46

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CHAPTER 46


An awkward person is given an awkward mission
And a faithful maid vows faithfulness unto death

IT was not, we observed in the last chapter, until nearly three o’clock in the morning that Dai-yu finally dropped off to sleep. We leave her at this point in our narrative and return to Xi-feng, who, it will be remembered, had been summoned on business of an unspecified nature by Lady Xing.
When the others had left, Xi-feng hurriedly changed into her going out apparel, got into her carriage, and drove round to the establishment next door.
The air of mystery surrounding this summons persisted after her arrival. Lady Xing dismissed the others who had been present and addressed her daughter-in-law conspiratorially.
‘The reason I have sent for you is that Sir She has entrusted me with a matter of some delicacy which I hardly know how to go about and I thought I had better discuss it first with you. He has taken a fancy to Lady Jia’s maid Faithful and wants her for his concubine; and he has given me the job of asking Lady Jia for her. As I see it, there is nothing very unusual in such a request, but I am rather afraid that Lady Jia may refuse and wondered if you had any bright ideas on how one ought to go about this business.’
Xi-feng put on what she hoped was a disarming smile.
‘I don’t think it’s worth trying. I think it would be merely asking for trouble. Without Faithful, Grandma would be completely lost; she’d never consent to give her up. In any case, she’s often remarked, in private conversation about Father, that she can’t understand why at his age he continues to sur?round himself with young girls—“wasting their young lives” she calls it. She says it’s not good for his health, and that he ought to save up his energies for his job and not fritter them away on “drinking all day with his fancy women”. You wouldn’t derive much pleasure from hearing this sort of thing said to your face, Mother, and I am very sure that Father wouldn’t. Yet if you insist on approaching Grandma about this, I’m afraid that that’s what will happen. It will be like poking a straw up a tiger’s nostril. I hope you won’t be offended, but I’m afraid I daren’t approach her about this. I should only be demonstrating my own powerlessness to help and making a lot of unpleasantness for myself into the bargain. Father is inclined to be a bit ga-ga at times nowadays. It’s up to you to talk him out of it, Mother. This sort of thing is all very well in a younger man, but in someone of Father’s years, with children and grandchildren of his own, it is really too shaming I’
Lady Xing sniffed.
‘Lots of men in well-to-do families like ours have troops of concubines. Why should it be so shameful only in our case? Anyway, I don’t know what makes you think he’d listen to me, even if I did try to talk him out of it. And even if Lady Jia is so attached to Faithful, she may not find it all that easy to refuse when the person asking is an eldest son with a grey beard who has held a position in the Government. Incident?ally, I only asked you over here for your opinion. I don’t see why you should have to start reading me a lecture. There was never any question of asking you to approach Lady Jia for me: I shall naturally undertake that task myself. And as for com?plaining that I haven’t tried talking Father out of this obviously you have no conception of what his temper can be like. I did try to dissuade him, but he started hollering at me almost before the words were out of my mouth.’
Xi-feng knew that her mother-in-law was a weak and silly woman, always willing, for the sake of a quiet life, to fall in with her husband’s wishes. Apart from pleasing her husband, her principal aim in life was to see how much she could squeeze out of the domestic economy and diver? into her personal savings. Decisions both great and small she left to him; but all household monies passed through her hands, and she saw to it that they suffered a considerable diminution in the process. The reason she gave for this pillage was Jia She’s extravagance. ‘I have to economize,’ she would say, ‘to make up for what Sir She wastes.’ Among the children and servants of the household there was not one whom she trusted or whose advice she would listen to. From the tone of what she had just heard, Xi-feng knew that her mother-in-law’s obstinate streak had been aroused and that it would now be quite useless to reason with her. She therefore smiled even more disarmingly and promptly changed her tack.
‘Of course. You are right, Mother. I haven’t had enough experience to be able to judge these matters. But now I come to think of it, it’s only natural that a mother should give what she treasures to her own son. Who else would Grandma give her favourite maid—or any other precious thing—to if not to Father? One shouldn’t believe everything that people say about other people behind their backs. No, I can see that now. I have been too credulous. One has only to think how you and Father are with Lian. Many a time when Lian has done some?thing he shouldn’t have done, you and Father have spoken as if you could hardly wait to lay your hands on him, but when he eventually turned up, you have forgiven everything and ended up by giving him some treasured possession. I’ve no doubt that in this case it will turn out in exactly the same sort of way with Grandma and Father. As a matter of fact, Grandma is in rather a good mood today, so if you are going to ask her, it would probably be best to do so straight away. Let me go over first to keep her sweet for you. I’ll find some excuse for leaving and taking the others with me when you arrive. That will give you a good opportunity for raising this matter. If she says yes, that will, of course, be splendid. But even if she doesn’t, no great harm will have been done, be?cause no one else will know about it.’
Hearing what she wanted to hear, Lady Xing’s good humour returned and she proceeded to tell Xi-feng what she had already decided to do.
‘Actually my idea is not to mention this to Lady Jia at first. I think I shall begin by having a quiet word with Faithful her?self. Though she may be bashful, as long as she doesn’t say anything against it when I’ve explained it all to her, I shall
know that as far as she is concerned it is all right. If I talk to Lady Jia then, though she may be unwilling to part with her, she won’t be able to get over the fact that Faithful herself is willing to leave. “There’s no holding someone who has a mind to go,” as they say. I think there should be no difficulty.’
‘Trust you for sound planning, Mother!’ said Xi-feng. ‘That way sounds fool-proof. After all, every one of these girls is ambitious—they all want to improve their position and get on in the world—and it’s unthinkable that she should throw away this chance of becoming almost a mistress in order to remain a maid and end up marrying one of the grooms.
‘Exactly!’ said Lady Xing. ‘That’s exactly what I thought. Any of these senior maids would give her ears for a chance like this. Anyway, you go over now—only don’t breathe a word of this to anyone else!—and I’ll follow later on, when I’ve had my dinner.’
Xi-feng reflected.
‘Faithful’s no fool,’ she thought. ‘Whatever Mother says, it’s far from certain that she’ll accept. Suppose I do go first and Mother follows later. If Faithful says yes, all well and good; but if she doesn’t, Mother has such a suspicious nature that she’s sure to think it’s because I’ve blabbed and been encouraging the girl to play hard to get. It will be humiliating for her to discover that my prediction was right, and that will make her angry; and then she’ll take it out on me—which won’t be very amusing. It would be better if we went over together; then, whether Faithful accepts or not, no suspicion can possibly fall on me.’
‘Just now as I was on the point of coming over,’ she said, bringing these reflections to a rapid conclusion, ‘two crates of quails arrived from my aunt’s. I told the servants to fry them, intending to send them over later for your dinner. Then, on my way in through your gate, I met some of the boys from here with your carriage. They said it had something wrong with it and they were taking it outside to be mended. Why not make use of my carriage instead? We can go over together in it now, and you can dine at my place afterwards on the quails.’
Finding this proposal acceptable, Lady Xing called in her maids to help her change; then, supported by her ever-solicitous daughter-in-law, she got into the latter’s carriage and drove with her to the establishment next door. On their way Xi-feng pointed out that if they arrived at Grandmother Jia’s place together, the old lady might notice her outdoor clothes and ask her where she had been.
‘It would be better if you went in there alone, while I slip back to my own place to change,’ she said. ‘I’ll join you later, as soon as I’ve got into my everyday clothes.’
Lady Xing thought that this sounded reasonable and went in on her own to see Grandmother Jia. After chatting with her for a few minutes about nothing in particular, she left on the pretext of visiting Lady Wang. This meant that she went out through the rear of the apartment, so that her way took her past Faithful’s room and she was able to look in casually in passing to see if she was there.
Faithful was sitting in her room sewing, but stood up as Lady Xing entered.
‘What’s that you’re embroidering?’ Lady Xing asked her. ‘Let me look.’
She took the embroidery from her hand and inspected it.
‘You are getting very good,’ she said, laying it down again, and proceeded to scrutinize the girl carefully, from head to foot.
Faithful had on an almost new lilac-coloured dress of silk damask over which she wore a dag-edged sleeveless black satin jacket. Her skirt was a pale eau de Nil. Lady Xing observed the slender waist and elegantly sloping shoulders, the oval face, the lustrous, raven-black hair, the slightly aquiline nose, the cheeks slightly spotted with a few tiny moles. Faithful grew embarrassed and apprehensive beneath this scrutiny.
‘What brings Your Ladyship here at this hour?’ she asked. ‘You don’t often come over in the afternoon.’
Lady Xing made a sign to the maids who had accompanied her to leave the room, then, seating herself in Faithful’s place, she took the maid by the hand and smiled at her graciously.
‘I’ve come to wish you joy, my dear.’
Hearing this, Faithful was able to guess, more or less, what her visitor had come about. She coloured and hung her head in silence while Lady Xing continued.
‘You see, Sir She has no one nowadays he feels he can really rely on. He was thinking of buying someone; but you know, you can never trust those girls you get from the dealers. You don’t know how clean they are, and often you don’t find out what the snags are until it is too late. They seem all right when you buy them, but two or three days later you find them get?ting up to the most frightful antics. Well, then he thought he’d pick someone from among our house-born servants, but he lust couldn’t seem to find anyone good enough. Either they weren’t good-looking enough, or their looks were all right hut their characters wouldn’t do, or whatever it was there was always something wrong with them. Anyway—to cut a long story short—after half a year’s careful study, he has finally decided that you are the cream of the cream. In looks, in character, in behaviour he finds you perfect: gentle, reliable—in fact, all the things he is looking for in a girl. So he’s decided to ask Lady Jia if he can have you for his concubine. Of course, you would get much better treatment than a newly bought girl from outside could expect. In your case we should put your hair back straight away and treat you as a proper chamber-wife. You would be ‘Auntie’ to the children and ‘Mrs’ to the maids. In fact, you would have practically the status of a mistress. Now I know you are an ambitious young woman. You know what they say: “True gold will find its price.” In your case it’s proved by the fact that Sir She has taken this fancy to you. Here is a chance of doing all those things you ever set your heart on doing. And if you have any enemies, you will be in a position now to make them look very silly. Now—come along with me and tell Her Old Ladyship all about it.,
She took Faithful’s hand and made as if to go, but Faithful reddened and snatched her hand away. Lady Xing assumed that she did so from bashfulness.
‘Come,’ she said, ‘there’s no need to be bashful. You don’t have to say anything yourself if you don’t want to. just come with me and let me do the talking.’
But Faithful still hung her head and did not move.
‘Surely,’ said Lady Xing, when it became evident that Faithful was determined not to accompany her, ‘surely you can’t mean to refuse this offer? I must say, you’ll be a very silly girl if you do. What, throw away the chance of becoming a lady in order to go on being a maid? if you do, then in two or three years time when they marry you off, it will only be to one of the boys, you know. You’ll still be a slave just the same. Whereas if you come to live with us—well, you know my nature: I’m not a difficult person to get on with; and Sir She always treats his girls very nicely. And after you’ve been with him for a year or two, if you can bear him a child, you’ll be on the same level as me: everyone in the household will have to jump to it when you give them orders. If you throw away an opportunity like this, you’ll certainly live to regret it.”
Faithful continued to hang her head and say nothing.
‘You’re such a lively person as a rule,’ said Lady Xing.
‘What’s got hold of your tongue? is there any particular thing about this arrangement that doesn’t suit you? Please let me know if there is, and I promise that it shall be altered.’
But Faithful still said nothing.
‘Oh, I know what it is,’ said Lady Xing. ‘I expect you’ve got parents and don’t like to say anything until you’ve heard from them. Why yes, very right and proper. I shall get in touch with your parents and no doubt you will be hearing from them in due course. Then anything you want to say, you will be able to say to them.’
With that she left, and went round to Xi-feng’s apartment. Xi-feng had long since changed back into her ordinary clothes. As no one else was about, she had taken the oppor?tunity of telling Patience about her interview with Lady Xing. Patience was amused, but shook her head doubtfully at Lady Xing’s optimism.
‘If you ask me, I think it’s very uncertain. From the way she’s always spoken in the past when we’ve been alone together, I should think she’ll-refuse. Anyway, we’ll just have to wait and see.’
‘Lady Xing is sure to come here afterwards to talk about what happened,’ said Xi-feng. ‘If Faithful has accepted, it will be all right; but if Faithful hasn’t accepted, she’s not going to be in a very good mood, and it would embarrass her to have you here while she was telling me about it. You’d better order them to prepare some of those quails and a few other dishes to go with them so that I can offer her dinner when she arrives; but after you’ve done that, you’d better take yourself off for a bit and don’t come hack until you think she’s gone.’
Patience gave Xi-feng’s instructions to the cook and then went off to enjoy herself in the Garden.

*

When Lady Xing left, Faithful felt sure that she would go straight to Xi-feng’s for consultation and that soon after that someone else would arrive and put the same question to her again. it seemed to her that the best way of avoiding this would be to decamp. She sought out Amber in order to give some cover to her exit.
‘If Her Old Ladyship should ask for me, tell her that I’m not feeling well and couldn’t eat any lunch today. Say I’ve gone to walk in the Garden for a bit and shall be back again shortly.’
Amber agreed to do this and Faithful went off to wander about in the Garden. While she -was doing so, she came by coincidence upon Patience doing exactly the same thing.
Seeing no one else but the two of them around, Patience felt no compunction in revealing her newly acquired knowledge.
‘Look who’s here! she called out teasingly. Mrs Faithful!’
Faithful blushed bright red.
‘I suppose you’re in the plot against me too. Well, never mind. I’ll be having it out with your mistress presently.’
Patience could see that Faithful was really angry, and regret?ted her foolish jibe. Taking her by the hand, she led her to some rocks beneath a stand of maple trees where they could sit down together, and proceeded to tell her all that Xi-feng had a few minutes earlier told her.
‘Thank you,’ said Faithful when she had finished. ‘You and I at least are still friends. When I think of our set how many were we?—Aroma, Amber, Candida, Nightingale, Suncloud, Silver, Musk, Ebony, Kingfisher—she left to go with Miss Shi—Charmer and Golden—they both died—Snowpink that was dismissed—you and me—there must have been a dozen of us altogether: when we were young we always told each other everything and shared everything together; but now that we are older, the others all seem to go their different ways and just aren’t interested. Not me, though: I haven’t changed. I’m just the same as I always was. I don’t have any secrets from any of you. Now listen: I’m telling you this now for you to remember—only don’t go passing it on to your Mrs Lian. It’s not just a question of not wanting to be his concubine. I wouldn’t go to Sir She, not if Lady Xing had died and he sent matchmakers and witnesses and asked me to be his proper wife!’
Patience was about to answer when there was a laugh from behind the rocks on which they were sitting and a voice called out.
‘What’s this shameless boasting I hear? It’s enough to set one’s teeth on edge!’
Startled, the two of them rose to their feet and went to look behind the rockery to find out who it was. Aroma emerged, laughing, as they did so.
‘What’s all this about? Tell me about it too.
The three of them sat down on the rocks together and Patience retold all that she had just told Faithful.
‘Well!’ said Aroma when Patience had finished. ‘I suppose it’s not for someone in my place to say so, but what a nasty old man! Unless they’re downright misshapen, just about no one is safe from him.’
‘I can tell you a way out of this if you want to refuse,’ said Patience.
‘What?’ said Faithful.
‘Have a word with Her Old Ladyship and get her to tell him that she’s already given you to Mr Lian. That’ll cool his ardour.’
‘You too now?’ said Faithful angrily. ‘You’re a nice lot, I must say! It was your mistress who suggested that the other day. I thought we hadn’t heard the last of that.’
‘If you don’t want either of them,’ said Aroma, ‘then if you ask me I think your best plan would be to get her to tell him that she’s promised you to Master Bao. That would put him off right away!’
Both embarrassed and-exasperated by these taunts, Faithful rounded on her tormentors with some heat.
‘You’re rotten, both of you, and I hope you both come to bad ends! I thought you were decent sorts who might try to comfort me in my trouble. But even if you don’t care, you might at least refrain from treating it as a joke. I suppose you think you don’t have to worry about me because your own futures are assured and each of you will end up as chamber wife to the person of your choice. Well, as I see it, things in this world don’t always turn out the way you want them to. I wouldn’t be quite so cock-a-hoop if I were you. You might be in for some nasty shocks yourselves.’
The others saw that they had really rattled her and laughingly did their best to calm her down.
‘Now, now, Faithful, don’t take it so much to heart. We three have been like sisters ever since we were little girls. We were only teasing you a bit because there’s no one else around. Tell us what plan you’ve decided on, so that we shan’t be so worried about you;’
‘Plan?’ said Faithful. ‘I’ve got no plan. I just shan’t go to him and that’ll be the end of it.’
Patience shook her head.
‘I very much doubt if it will. You know what Sir She’s temper is like. It’s true that he can’t touch you as long as you’re with Her Old Ladyship; but you’re not going to be with her all your life, are you? You’ll have to leave in the end, and if you fall into his clutches then, you’ll be in real trouble.’
Faithful smiled grimly.
‘As long as Her Old Ladyship lives, I shall stay with Her Old Ladyship. And when all’s said and done, even when the old dear goes to her rest, there are still the years of mourning. There would be no question of his taking a concubine with his mother just dead. And by the time the period of mourning is over—well, anything might have happened. I’ll just have to wait and see. If I get really desperate, I can -always shave my hair off and become a nun; or failing that, there’s always suicide. I don’t mind going through life without a man. Glad to keep myself clean?
The other two tittered protestingly.
‘The things you say, Faithful! Have you no shame?’
‘There’s not much room left for shame when things have come to this pass,’ said Faithful. ‘Anyway, if you don’t believe me, just wait and see. Lady Xing said just now that she was going to see my parents about this. I wonder if she will. She’ll have to go all the way to Nanking if she does!’
‘Your parents are looking after the house in Nanking and can’t be fetched,’ said Patience, ‘but they can be got in touch with eventually. And in any case, your elder brother and his wife are here. It’s a pity you’re a house-born servant and not on your own here like me and Aroma.’
‘It makes no odds,’ said Faithful. ‘ “You can take an ox to the water, but you can’t make him drink.” Just because I refuse him, he’s not going to kill my parents!’
While she was talking, her sister-in-law appeared some distance from where they were sitting, walking in their direction.
‘There you are!’ said Aroma. ‘They’ve evidently found that they can’t get in touch with your parents, so they’ve already had a word with your sister-in-law.’
‘That cow!’ said Faithful. ‘She’s a regular camel-dealer, that one. She’d just jump at a thing like this!’
The ‘cow’ was already upon them, smiling all over her face.
‘Ah, here you are, miss! I’ve looked for you everywhere. Come with me. I’ve got something to tell you.’
Patience and Aroma fussed round her, inviting her to sit with them on the rock.
‘No, you young ladies sit down;’ said the woman. ‘I’ve got to have a word with our Faithful.’
‘Is it really very urgent?’ they asked her innocently. ‘We’ve been playing “I spy”. Can’t it wait until we’ve finished guessing?’
‘What is it?’ said Faithful. ‘Why not just tell me?’
‘Come with me,’ said her sister-in-law. ‘I’ll tell you over there. It’s good news, anyway.’
‘Oh, is it by any chance the thing Lady Xing was talking about?’ said Faithful.
‘There!’ said her sister-in-law. ‘You knew about it all the time! What were you having me on for? Now come on, hurry, and I’ll tell you all the details. It’s a wonderful, wonderful piece of news!’
Faithful stood up and spat hard and deliberately in her sister-in-law’s face.
‘Why don’t you take your bloody trap out of here?’ she shouted, pointing at her angrily. ‘ “Wonderful news” indeed! I suppose you’ve been studying the way families of maids who’ve become concubines can throw their weight about, so you just can’t wait to push me into that fire. If I find favour, then of course you’ll be the great lady and be able -to put on airs and throw your weight about too. If I don’t, if I’m a failure—oh, you’ll just draw your tortoise-head back into your tortoise-shell and leave me to get on with it. Whether I live or die, it will be all the same to you.
She began crying hysterically and had to be restrained and comforted by Patience and Aroma.
‘Huh!’ said her sister-in-law in an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve her ruffled dignity. ‘Whether you’re willing or not, you might at least be civil. Anyway, I don’t see why you need drag other people into it. “One doesn’t discuss short legs in front of a dwarf,” they say. I make no comment on the nasty things you said about me, but what about these young ladies? They’ve done nothing to provoke you. This talk about concu?bines is not very nice for them.’
‘Oh no!’ said the two young ladies in question. ‘She wasn’t referring to us when she said -that. It’s you who are dragging in other people. What makes you think that either of us has been chosen as a concubine? By whom? Even if we had been, neither of us has any family in this household to throw their weight about, so she can say what she likes on the subject:
there’s no occasion for us to get worked up about it.’
‘It’s because I made her look silly,’ said Faithful. ‘She’s trying to cover up by setting you two against me. Fortunately you are too intelligent to be taken in. I lost my temper just now and I’m afraid I didn’t choose my words very carefully. She evidently thought she could take advantage of that.’
Faithful’s sister-in-law was by now finding her situation so disagreeable that she removed herself from it by walking away in a huff. Faithful herself was still extremely angry and for some time continued to hurl invectives at her retreating back; but Patience and Aroma reasoned with her, and gradually she began to calm down.
‘Why were you hiding there just now?’ Patience asked Aroma when Faithful’s composure had been restored. ‘It’s funny that we didn’t see you.’
‘I’d been over to Miss Xi-chun’s to see Master Bao,’ said Aroma, ‘but I got there a moment too late. They said he had just that minute left for home. I couldn’t understand why in that case I hadn’t run into him on the way, so I thought per?haps he might have gone to Miss Lin’s; but just as I was going there to look for him, I met one of Miss Lin’s people who said that he wasn’t with her, so I began wondering if he might have gone out of the Garden altogether. Then just at that moment you came along from the direction I was looking in, so I slipped behind a tree and hid. When Faithful came, I slipped out from behind my tree and hid behind this rock. I could see you both sitting there talking, but your two pairs of eyes couldn’t see me.
‘And your three pairs of eyes couldn’t see me!’ said a mock?ing voice behind them.
The three girls jumped in surprise. When they turned to look, it was Bao-yu himself who walked out from behind the rock.
Aroma was the first to recover her voice.
You led me a nice dance!’ she said. ‘Where have you been all this time?’
‘As I came out of Xi-chun’s place, I could see you coming towards me,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I knew it must be me you had come for, so I hid myself to give you a surprise. I watched you as you walked by with your head in the air. Then I watched you go into Xi-chun’s courtyard. Then I saw you come out again. Then I saw you stop and ask someone something. It was terribly funny. I was hoping that you would eventually come by the place where I was hiding, so that I could pop out and make you jump. But then you started dodging around, and I could see that you were hiding from someone else and evidently planning to play the same trick on them. So I peeped out to see who it was and found that it was these two. Then I began gradually working my way round behind you, and when you stepped out and showed yourself, I slipped forward and hid in the place where you had been biding.’
‘We’d better go behind and have another look,’ said Patience. ‘We’ll probably find two more people hidden back there!’
‘No, I think there really are no more now,-’ said Bao-yu.
When she realized that Bao-yu must have heard everything that had been said, Faithful lay face downwards on the rock and pretended to be asleep. Bao-yu laughed at her and gave her a little prod.
‘It’s damp on that stone. Much better come indoors if you want to lie down.’
He tried to pull her up, at the same time inviting Patience to accompany them back home for some tea. When Patience and Aroma added their own coaxing to his, Faithful finally rose to her feet and the four of them went together to Green Delights.
Bao-yu had, indeed, heard everything from his hiding-place, and his concern for Faithful made him very unhappy. When they were back, he lay back silent on his bed worrying about it while the three girls laughed and chattered in the adjoining room.

*

When Lady Xing asked Xi-feng about Faithful’s parents, she learned that her father’s name was Jin Cai and that he and her mother lived as caretakers at the Jia family mansion in Nanking and seldom came up to the capital.
‘But she has an elder brother Jin Wen-xiang, who is one of Grandmother’s buyers,’ said Xi-feng, ‘and her sister-in-law is Grandmother’s chief laundress.’
The laundress was duly summoned and Lady Xing carefully explained what was required of her. The woman was naturally delighted and went off in a great bustle of self-importance to look for Faithful, confident that she had only to state her mission for the matter to be successfully concluded. Ill pre?pared, therefore, for Faithful’s acrimonious rebuff or the strictures of Patience and Aroma which followed it, she re-turned to Lady Xing to make her report in a state of angry mortification.
‘It’s no good, I’m afraid. She just swore at me.’ Since Xi-feng was present, the woman dared not mention Patience, ‘That Aroma was there, too, helping her. Some of the things she said to me—well, I wouldn’t offend Your Ladyship’s ears by repeating them. I think you and Sir She would be well advised to buy a girl elsewhere. That little fool Faithful evi?dently wasn’t meant for such great fortune—nor we to share it, seemingly.’
‘Whatever has this got to do with Aroma?’ said Lady Xing. ‘I wonder how she got to know about it.’ She paused for a moment. ‘Was there anyone else there?’
‘Miss Patience was there,’ said the woman.
‘I wish you’d given her a box on the ears then and told her to come home,’ Xi-feng put in hurriedly. ‘She went oft wandering somewhere or other as soon as I left the house and there wasn’t a sign of her when I got back. If she was there, she’ll have put in her pennyworth too, I suppose.’
‘Well, she wasn’t exactly there,’ said the woman, ‘she was quite a way off. I couldn’t see her very clearly. Maybe it wasn’t her, I could have been mistaken.’
‘Go and find her at once,’ Xi-feng said to the servants. ‘Tell her I’m back and Lady Xing is here and she is to come home immediately.’
Felicity hurried forward to report:
‘Miss Lin sent round three to four times to ask if Patience would go over to her place, -so Patience went to see what she wanted. I went there to call her back when you came in just now, but Miss Lin said would I please tell you that she wants Patience a bit longer to do something for her.’
‘She’s always asking Patience to do things for her,’ said Xi-feng, with pretended annoyance. ‘I wonder what it is this time.
Resourceless, now that her plan had misfired, Lady Xing returned home as soon as she had eaten dinner and in the evening informed Jia She of what had happened. After reflecting for some moments, Jia She ordered Jia Lian to be summoned immediately.
‘Jin Cai and his wife aren’t the only couple looking after our Nanking property,’ he began as soon as Jia Lian arrived. ‘Have him recalled immediately.’
‘Last time we had a letter from Nanking,’ said Jia Lian, ‘it said that Jin Cai was in a delirium and they’d already issued the money to buy his coffin. He may well be dead by now; and even if he isn’t, he’s probably unconscious and wouldn’t be much use to us back here. And his old woman is as deaf as a post.
‘Villain! Parricide!’ Jia She shouted, in instant fury. ‘Trust you to know that! Get out of my sight!’
Startled by his father’s unaccountable anger, Jia Lian retreated in a hurry. Shortly after he had done so, Jin Wen-xiang was sent for.
Jia Lian, not daring either to go back home or to go in again to his father, stayed near at hand in his outer study, waiting to see what happened. After a while Jin Wen-xiang arrived, and Jia Lian watched him being conducted through the inner gate by the pages. After a lapse of time in which he could comfort?ably (had he been so minded) have eaten four or five meals, he saw Jin Wen-xiang come out again, but was still too scared to make inquiries. He did not do so until be had allowed what he thought was a safe interval to elapse after Jin Wen-xiang’s departure, and was then informed that his father had gone to bed. Only then did he dare to go back home; and it was not until Xi-feng informed him that night that he understood what it was all about.

*

That night Faithful was unable to sleep. Her brother came next morning to ask Grandmother Jia if he could take his sister back home for the day. His request was granted, and Grandmother Jia ordered Faithful to get ready. Faithful did not want to go, but overcame her reluctance because she did not want the old lady to suspect that anything was amiss.
When they were -home, her brother told her all that Jia She had said, promising that if she accepted, her position would be an honoured one: she would become ‘Mrs Jin’, and all the household would look up to her. But no matter what he said, Faithful set her face firmly against it all and obstinately con?tinued to say ‘no’. In the end her brother had no alternative but to go back to Jia She and tell him that his sister was un?willing. Jia She was greatly incensed.
‘Now look here,’ he said, ‘you go back and get your wife to tell her this: Sir She says:

The moon ever loved a young man.

He knows all about that saying. No doubt she thinks him too old for her and has set her heart on one of the younger ones Bao-yu, probably, or my son Lian. Tell her, if she has, the sooner she abandons hope in that direction the better, because if I can’t have her, she may be very sure that no one else in this family will dare to. That’s one thing. And here’s another. She may think that because she’s Lady Jia’s favourite, she can look forward to marrying outside one day and becoming someone’s regular wife. Well if so, just let her get this firmly into her mind: whoever or wherever she marries, she needn’t think she will ever escape me. If she dies or is prepared to live all her life an old maid, I might admit myself beaten; but otherwise, never. So unless she proposes to choose one of those alternatives, she’d better hurry up and change her mind. It will be a great deal easier for her if she does.’
Each sentence of the above had been punctuated by a nervous ‘Yessir’ from Jin Wen-xiang. Jia She continued.
‘Now don’t think you can fool me over this in the hope of getting better terms. Tomorrow I shall send Lady Xing over to have a word with Faithful herself. If Faithful still refuses after your wife has spoken to her, then that is no fault of yours and I shan’t hold it against you. But woe betide you if when Lady Xing talks to her she finds that she is willing!’
After a good many more ‘Yessirs’ Jin Wen-xiang withdrew and went back home. When he got back, he did not even wait to transmit Jia She’s message through his wife, but went straight in and told it all to Faithful himself It made Faithful so angry that for some time afterwards she was unable to speak. Finally, after some inward calculation, she answered him as follows.
‘Even if I am willing, you’ll have to take me back first, so that I can have a word about it with Her Old Ladyship.’
Supposing this to mean that she had changed her mind, her brother and his wife were overjoyed, and the latter at once undertook to go with her to see Grandmother Jia.
It so happened that when they arrived, Lady Wang, Aunt Xue, Li Wan, Xi-feng, Bao-yu and the girls, and some of the senior stewardesses from outside were all – there with the old lady sharing a joke. Faithful led her sister-in-law through their midst, knelt down at her mistress’s feet, and with tears stream?ing down her face, proceeded to tell her what Lady Xing had said to her the day before, what her sister-in-law had said to her in the Garden, and what her elder brother had told her that morning.
‘When I refused, Sir She said it was because I fancied Master Bao, or else because I was saving myself to marry someone outside. He said that even if I were to fly to the world’s end, I should never as long as I live escape out of his clutches: sooner or later he’d have his revenge. But I’ve made my mind up, and I’m telling Your Ladyship here, in front of all these witnesses. I don’t care whether it’s Master Bao or Prince Bao or the Emperor Bao, I don’t ever want to marry anyone. Even if Your Ladyship herself were to try and force me to, I’d rather cut my own throat than marry. I’ll serve Your Ladyship until you leave this world for the next one; and when that day comes, I shan’t go back to my brother and his wife; I shall either take my own life or I shall cut my hair off arid become a nun. And in case anyone should think I don’t really mean this and am only saying it to get myself out of a corner, I call on heaven and earth and all the gods and the sun and moon to be my witness: if I don’t honestly and sincerely mean every word I say, may I be struck with a quinsy this very moment and matter burst out of my mouth!’
She had hidden a pair of scissors up her sleeve before she came, and as she uttered this oath, she undid her hair with her left hand and began hacking away at it with the scissors in her tight. The servants rushed forward to stop her, but before they could lay hands on her, she had already cut off a large hank. It was fortunate that her hair was so thick and strong. Observing with relief that she had not succeeded in cutting through all of it, the servants wound up what remained and refastened it on her head.
By the time Faithful had finished speaking, Grandmother Jia was trembling all over with rage.
‘I have only this one girl left that I can rely on,’ she said, speaking half to herself, ‘and now they are plotting to take her away from me.’
As she looked at those standing around her, her eye fastened upon Lady Wang.
‘You deceive me, all of you. You who are outwardly so dutiful: you are secretly plotting against me like all the rest. Whenever I have any good thing you come and ask me for it. All my best people you take away from me. Now I have only this one poor girl left to me; and because you see that I am nice to her, it infuriates you—you can’t bear it! And now you’ve found this means of getting her away from me, so that you can have me at your mercy.’
Lady Wang had risen to her feet as soon as Grandmother Jia addressed her, but dared not defend herself; Aunt Xue could not very well intervene when the object of these stric?tures was her elder sister; and Li Wan had hustled her young charges from the room at the first hint of impropriety when Faithful began her complaint.
Tan-chun, always one of the more thoughtful members of the family, realized that however unjust the accusation, Lady Wang was in no position to answer back. She realized that Aunt Xue could not speak up for her own sister or Bao-chai say anything when her mother was silent and that Li Wan, Xi-feng and Bao-yu were even more disqualified from coming to the rescue. This was exactly the sort of situation in which a young unmarried granddaughter could be useful. And since Ying-chun was too docile and Xi-chun too childish, Tan-chun herself, after listening for a while at the window, boldly stepped into the room and faced her grandmother with an intrepid smile.
‘How can this matter have anything to do with Mother, Grandma? Can you think of any reason why a younger brother’s wife should be consulted about her brother-in-law’s private business?’
Grandmother Jia was at once all smiles.
‘Of course not, my dear. I am a silly old woman! Mrs Xue, you must try not to laugh at me. Your sister is a most dutiful daughter-in-law: not like She’s wife, who is so scared of her husband that she has no time for me – beyond what she does for form’s sake. I have done your sister a very grave injustice.’
Aunt Xue murmured something in reply, afterwards adding as a politeness:
‘The younger son’s wife is often the more favoured one. Perhaps you are biased, Lady Jia.’
‘No,’ said Grandmother Jia firmly, ‘I am not biased. Bao-yu,’ she said, turning to her grandson, ‘why didn’t you speak up when I falsely accused your mother? How could you stand by like that and watch her being treated unjustly?’
‘How could I take Mother’s side against Uncle and Aunt?’ said Bao-yu. ‘Obviously someone was to blame; but if it wasn’t Mother, who was I to say that it was? I could hardly have said that it was me. Somehow I don’t think you would have believed me!’
Grandmother Jia laughed.
‘Yes, I suppose you are right. Go and kneel down to your mother, then, Bao-yu. Tell her that I’m getting old and that she is not to be upset by what I said to her. Ask her to forgive me for your sake.’
Bao-yu quickly went over and knelt before Lady Wang. But before he could relay his grandmother’s message, his mother had laughingly prevented him.
‘Get up at once and don’t be ridiculous, Bao-yu I How can you possibly apologize for Grandma to me ?’
Bao-yu hurriedly got up to his feet.
‘What about you, Feng?’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Why didn’t you try to stop me?’
‘I’ve been trying to restrain myself from blaming you for what’s happened,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I don’t know why you should pick on me.’
Grandmother Jia’s laughter was echoed by the others present.
‘Oh? Now this is interesting. I should like to know why you think I’m to blame for what has happened.’
‘You shouldn’t be so good at training your girls,’ said Xi-feng. ‘When you’ve brought up a beautiful young bulrush like Faithful, can you blame other people for wanting her? It’s a good job I’m only your granddaughter-in-law. If I’d been your grandson, I should have asked you for her for myself a long time ago. I shouldn’t have waited till now, I can tell you!’
‘Oh,’ said Grandmother Jia, laughing.’ So it’s all my fault, is it?’
‘Of course it’s your fault,’ said Xi-feng.
‘In that case I won’t try to keep her,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘You can take her back with you.’
‘Not just now;’ said Xi-feng. ‘In my next life, perhaps. If a good girl in this life, I might be reborn as a man, and I can ask you for her then!’
‘Go on, take her with you!’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘You can give her to your Lian. See if that shameless father-in-law of yours still wants her then!’
‘Lian doesn’t deserve her,’ said Xi-feng. ‘All he’s fit for is a couple of sad old dumplings like me and Patience!’
This set everyone laughing.
A maid came in to announce someone.
‘Lady Xing, ma’am.’
Lady Wang hurried out to meet her.
What followed will be revealed in the next chapter.

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