The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 52

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CHAPTER 52

Kind Patience conceals the theft of a Shrimp Whisker bracelet
And brave Skybright repairs the hole in a
Peacock Gold snowcape

‘QUITE so,’ said Grandmother Jia in answer to Xi-feng’s advocacy of the separate kitchen. ‘I would have mentioned it myself, but you have so many burdens already and I didn’t want to add to them. I know, of course, that you wouldn’t have complained, but you might easily have got the impression that I only care about the younger ones and have no con?sideration for you busy people who are responsible for run-ring the household. However, now that you have suggested it yourself, I am naturally delighted.’
It chanced that besides Aunt Xue and Mrs Li, Lady Xing and You-shi were also present on this occasion, having come over some time previously to make their morning calls and not yet gone back again. Grandmother Jia availed herself of their presence to sing Xi-feng’s praises.
‘I wouldn’t say this as a rule because I don’t want to make her conceited, and in any case the younger ones might not agree with me: but tell me now—as older married women you have all had a good deal to do with her – have you ever met anyone quite as thoughtful as Feng?’
Aunt Xue, Mrs Li and You-shi agreed that people with Xi-feng’s virtues were indeed extremely rare.
‘Other young married women put on a show of liking their husband’s relations for form’s sake,’ they observed, ‘but she really does seem to care for the young people; and she is plainly devoted to you.’
Grandmother Jia nodded and sighed.
‘I’m very fond of her, but I’m afraid she’s a bit too sharp. It doesn’t do to be too sharp.’
Xi-feng laughed.
‘Now there you are quite wrong, Grannie. The saying is that sharp-witted people don’t live long. Everyone says that and everyone believes it, but you should be the last person to agree with them. Look how long-lived and lucky you are, and yet you are ten times more sharp-witted than me. By rights I should live twice as long as you, if there is any truth in the saying. I expect to live until I am at least a thousand. At all events I shan’t die until I have seen you go to heaven!’
‘It will be a very dull sort of world when all the rest are dead and only we two old harpies are left alive,’ said Grandmother Jia.
The others laughed.
Remembering Skybright, Bao-yu left before the others and hurried back to his apartment to see how she was. The air in it reeked of medicine. Skybright, lying on the kang, her face a dusky red now with the fever, appeared to be completely on her own. He felt her forehead and found it burning to the touch. Quickly warming his hands over the stove, he slipped one of them inside the bedclothes and felt her body. That too was fiery hot.
‘I should have thought Musk and Ripple might have stayed with you, if no one else,’ he said disgustedly. ‘I call that pretty heartless, leaving you on your own like this.’
‘Ripple’s not here because I made her go and have her lunch,’ said Skybright ‘And Musk has only just this moment been called outside by Patience. They’re whispering together in the front about something or other probably about the fact that I didn’t go home to get better.’
‘Patience isn’t that sort of person,’ said Bao-yu. ‘She wouldn’t have known that you were ill in any case, so she wouldn’t have come specially about you. Probably she came to talk to Musk about something else, but happening to find you ill, pretended she had come about you out of politeness. It’s the sort of social fib that anyone might tell under the circum?stances. Even if you were in trouble for not going home, it’s got nothing to do with Patience; and as you have always been on good terms with her in the past, there’s no earthly reason why she should want to make unpleasantness between you now by interfering in something that doesn’t concern her.’
‘I expect you’re right,’ said Skybright. ‘But I don’t under-stand why she should want to hide things from me.’
‘I’ll go and find out what they’re talking about,’ said Bao-yu. ‘If I go out the back door and round the side, I shall be able to listen to them from outside the window.’
Going round to the front as he had said, he inclined his ear to the window and listened. He could hear Musk talking in a low voice to Patience inside:
‘How did you come to get it back again?’
‘It was when I was washing my hands in the Garden that day that I lost it,’ he heard Patience reply. ‘Mrs Lian made me keep quiet about it at the time, but as soon as we got back she sent word round to the nannies in the different apartments and told them to investigate. To tell the truth, we rather suspected Miss Xing’s maid. We thought being so poor and not used to seeing things like that lying around she might have been tempted. We never dreamed that it would turn out to be one of your people.
‘It was Trinket who stole it. She was seen by your Mamma Song. Fortunately, when Mamma Song came round with the bracelet to tell Mrs Lian, Mrs Lian was out, so I quickly took it from her and told her to keep quiet about it.
‘I couldn’t help thinking how considerate is to you girls and how proud of you all he is. It’s only two years since that girl Honesty stole the jade and there are some I could mention who are still gloating about it, and now here’s this girl stealing gold—not from him this time but from one of his neighbours, which is worse. I could just imagine the gloating there would be if that got around. It seemed so unjust that he, of all people, should be let down by his own girls in this way.
‘Anyway, I told Mamma Song that she was under no cir?cumstances to let Bao-yu know about this. “In fact,” I said, “you’d better not tell anyone. Just behave as if nothing had happened.” Of course, it wasn’t only Bao-yu I was thinking about. I knew that Their Ladyships would be very angry if the got to hear of it and then it would be very unpleasant for Aroma and the rest of you.
‘The story I told Mrs Lian when she got back was that I’d been to see Mrs Zhu and picked the bracelet up on the way. I told her it must have slipped off into the grass that day while I was washing and got buried under the snow, which explains why nobody could find it. When the snow melted, there it was, shining in the sun for all to see. I think she believed me.
‘The reason I’m telling you this is so that you should be on your guard about that girl. Keep an eye on her and don’t send her on any errands. When Aroma gets back, have a word with her about it and see if you can’t cook up some excuse for dis?missing her.’
‘Little wretch!’ said Musk. ‘It isn’t as if she hasn’t seen things like that before. How could she be so stupid?’
‘It wasn’t a particularly valuable bracelet,’ said Patience. ‘It’s one that Mrs Lian gave me. It’s what they call a “shrimp whisker” bracelet. I think the pearl on it might be quite valuable. That Skybright of yours is such a fire-brand that if I told her this, I’m sure she’d never be able to keep quiet about it. She’d blow up immediately and start hitting the girl or shouting at her, and then the whole thing would be out, in spite of all I had done to keep it dark. That’s why I’m telling you. I thought someone ought to be warned, so that you can keep an eye on her.’
With these words Patience took her leave.
Bao-yu had listened to what she said with conflicting emotions: pleasure at discovering that Patience understood him so well; anger that Trinket should be a thief; regret that so intelligent a person should be capable of so ugly an action. Going back to Skybright, he relayed to her everything he had just heard except what Patience had said about Skybright herself, which he emended somewhat for her benefit.
‘She said you’re such a worrier that if you were to hear this now, while you are ill, it would make you worse. She’s planning to tell you about it when you are better.’
Skybright’s reaction was as fiery as Patience had foreseen it would be. Her eyebrows flew up and her eyes became round with anger. She wanted to summon Trinket immediately.
‘Isn’t it rather a poor return for Patience’s considerateness immediately to start making an outcry about it?’ said Bao-yu, restraining her. ‘Why not accept what she has done in the spirit in which it was intended and get rid of Trinket later on?’
‘That’s all very well,’ said Skybright, ‘but I feel so angry. If I don’t get it off my chest now, I shall burst,’
‘What have you got to be angry about?’ said Bao-yu, amused. ‘You just concentrate on getting better.’
Skybright had already had one dose of her medicine. To?wards evening she was given the second infusion. But although she perspired a bit during the night, it didn’t really seem to do much good. She still had a temperature, her head still ached, her nose was still blocked, and she was still just as hoarse. In the morning Dr Wang came again, and after taking her pulses, made a few alterations in the prescription; but although the revised dosage brought down her temperature a little, her head still ached as before.
‘Fetch the snuff,’ Bao-yu commanded. ‘If sniffing it can make her give a few good sneezes, it will clear her head.’
Musk went off to do his bidding and presently returned with a little oval box made of aventurine, edged and embel?lished with gold. Bao-yu took it from her and opened it. Inside the lid, in West Ocean enamel, was a picture of a naked, yellow-haired girl with wings of flesh. The box contained snuff of the very highest quality, which foreigners call uncia,
‘Sniff some,’ he told Skybright, who had taken the box and was gazing fascinatedly at the picture inside it. ‘If you leave it open too long, it will lose its fragrance and then it won’t be so good.’
Skybright took a little of the snuff with her fingernail and sniffed it up her nose; Nothing happened, so she scooped up a really large amount and sniffed again. A tingling sensation passed through the root of her nose, right up inside her cranium and she began to sneeze: four, five, six times in suc?cession. Immediately her eyes and nose began to stream. She shut the box hurriedly with a laugh.
‘Goodness, how it burns! Give me some paper.’
At once one of the younger maids handed her a wad of tissue. Skybright used sheet after sheet of it to blow her nose on.
‘How’s that?’ said Bao-yu.
‘Much clearer,’ she said. ‘But I still have this headache in the front of my head.’
‘Now that we’ve started using foreign medicine, we may as well go the whole bog,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I expect we’ll have you better again in no time. Musk, go to Mrs Lian’s and tell her I said please could she let me have some of that Western stuff she uses to make her headache plasters with. It’s called yi-fu-na’
Musk went off, returning after a goodish while with half a tablet. She hunted out a scrap of red satin and cut out two little circles each about the size of a fingertips from it; then, having melted the yi-fu-na to an ointment-like consistency over the stove, she spread a little of it on each of them with a hair?pin. Skybright stuck them on herself, one over each temple, with the aid of a hand-mirror. Musk laughed.
‘You already looked like a banshee to start with, with your ill face and your hair all over the place. Now, with those two things on you, you really do look a sight! Funny: one hardly notices them on Mrs Lian. I suppose it’s because she wears them so often. —By the way;’ she said, turning to Bao-yu, ‘Mrs Lian asked me to tell you that tomorrow is your Uncle Wang’s birthday and Her Ladyship wants you to go. Tell me what clothes you’ll be wearing tomorrow so that I can get them ready now and not have to rush around in the morning.’
‘Oh, anything,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Whatever comes first to hand. Birthdays! It’s nothing but birthdays from one year’s end to the next.’
He got up and left the room, intending to go to Xi-chun’s place to see how she was getting on with the ‘painting; but as he came out of the courtyard gate, he saw Bao-qin little maid Periwinkle hurrying across the pathway ahead of him and hurried forward to catch up with her.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked.
‘To Miss Lin’s,’ said Periwinkle. ‘Miss Xue and Miss Bao-?qin are there already and I’m on my way to join them.’
Bao-yu changed his mind about going to see Xi-chun and accompanied Periwinkle to the Naiad’s House. He found not only Bao-chai and Bao-qin there but Xing Xiu-yan as well. Dai-yu and her three visitors were sitting on the clothes-warmer gossiping, while Nightingale sat in the closet-bed alcove by the window, sewing. The girls laughed when they saw him enter.
‘Another one? There’s nowhere for you to sit.’
‘What a charming picture!’ said Bao-yu. “‘A Bevy of Beauties Keeping Warm in Winter.” I should have come earlier. Still, your room is so warm, I shall be perfectly all right on this chair.’
He sat on the chair that Dai-yu normally occupied. On this occasion it was covered with a squirrel-skin rug. A marble jardinière in the closet-bed alcove where Nightingale was sit ring caught his eye. It was full of single-petalled ‘water nymph’ narcissi growing in clumps of four or five flowers from each bulb.
‘What beautiful flowers!’ he said. ‘The warmth of the room makes their scent even richer. How is it I didn’t notice them yesterday?’
‘They were given to Qin by your Chief Steward Lai Da’s wife,’ said Dai-yu: ‘two pots of narcissi and two of winter-sweet. Qin gave these ones to me and one of the two pots of winter-sweet to Cousin Yun. I didn’t really want them, but as she was kind enough to offer them to me, I thought it would be churlish not to accept. If you’d like them, I’d be very happy to pass them on to you.’
‘Thank you,’ said Bao-yu, ‘but I’ve got two pots of them already. Though mind you, they are not as good as these. In any case, if Cousin Qin gave them to you, you can’t possibly go handing them over to somebody else.’
‘There’s hardly a minute of the day when I haven’t got a medicine-skillet on the stove,’ said Dai-yu. ‘I seem practically to live on medicine nowadays. The smell of medicine is bad enough as it is, but this heavy flower-scent on top of it makes me feel quite faint. Besides, the smell of medicine spoils the smell of the flowers, which is a pity. Much better carry them off somewhere where they can regain their purity away from competing odours.’
‘I’ve got a sick person in my room today,’ said Bao-yu. ‘My room is full of medicine-smells too. How did you know?’
‘What an extraordinary question!’ said Dai-yu. ‘I know nothing about it. How should I know what goes on in your room? I don’t think you’ve teen attending to a word I’ve been saying. You’re like someone who comes k half-way through a story and disturbs the rest of the audience by asking questions.’
‘At least we shan’t want for a theme at our next poetry meeting,’ said Bao-yu. “‘Narcissus “and “winter-sweet” will make splendid subjects.’
‘Oh no!’ wailed Dai-yu, burying her face in her hands. ‘What’s the point of having poetry meetings? Another meet?ing only means another lot of penalties. It’s so shaming.’
‘I suppose that’s meant for me,’ said Bao-yu, ‘since I’m the one who’s always getting penalized. But if it doesn’t bother me, I don’t see what you have got to go burying your face in your hands about.’
‘I shall call the next meeting,’ said Bao-chai brightly. ‘There will be four themes for poems in Regular Verse and four for poems in other metres and everyone will have to do all eight of them. The first will be a three-hundred-line poem in pentasyllabics exhausting the rhyme “first”. It’s subject will be “On the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate”?
Bao-qin laughed.
One can see that it isn’t really poetry you’re interested in but in making things difficult for others. It could be done, of course, if one really wanted to do it—it would simply be a question of selecting bits from the Book of Changes and tortur?ing them into some sort of verse—but what would be the point?
‘When I was eight I went with my father on one of his trips to buy foreign merchandise to one of the Western sea-ports and while we were there we saw a girl from the country of Ebenash. She was just like the foreign girls you see in paint?ings: long, yellow hair done into plaits, and her head was smothered in jewels: carnelians, cat’s-eyes and emeralds. She was wearing a corslet of golden chain-mall and a dress of West Ocean brocade and she had a Japanese sword at her side covered all over with jewels and gold. Actually she was more beautiful than the foreign girls you see in paintings. They said that she had a perfect understanding of our literature and could expound the Five Classics and write poems in Chinese. My father asked her through an interpreter if she would write something for us in Chinese characters and she wrote out one of her own poems for him.’
The cousins were enthralled and Bao-yu eagerly begged her to show them the poem.
‘That’s not possible,’ said Bao-qin. ‘I left it behind in Nanking.’
Bao-yu was very disappointed.
‘Just my luck!’ he said. ‘And I was hoping to broaden my experience.’
‘Don’t be a tease!’ said Dai-yu, giving Bao-qin a tug. ‘You didn’t leave anything behind in Nanking. Look at all the lug?gage you brought with you! I think you’re making it up. The others can believe you if they like, but I don’t.’
Bao-qin blushed and hung her head. She made no reply, but a little, secret smile was faintly discernible in her features.
‘How like you to say that, Frowner!’ said Bao-chai. ‘You really are too sharp.’
‘Well, if she’s brought it with her, she ought to let us have a look and satisfy our curiosity,’ said Dai-yu.
‘She’s got such a great pile of stuff,’ said Bao-chai, ‘she simply hasn’t had time to go through it all yet. How does she know which of all those trunks and boxes she put it in? Wait until she’s had time to sort her things out: no doubt she will come across the poem and let you see it then.’ She turned to Bao-qin. ‘Or perhaps you can remember it? If so, why don’t you recite it for us now?’
‘It was in Regular Pentameter,’ said Bao-qin. ‘I can re?member that. For a foreigner it was really quite a good poem.’
‘Hold on.!’ said Bao-chai. ‘If you are going to recite it, let me first send for Yun, so that she can hear it as well.’
She gave instructions to Periwinkle.
‘Go back to my room and tell Miss Shi that we’ve got a beautiful foreigner here who can write poems in Chinese. Tell her that as she’s so crazy about poetry, we thought she’d like to meet her. And tell her to bring that other poetry maniac with her when she comes.’
Periwinkle went off laughing to deliver the message. Presently Xiang-yan’s voice, loudly inquiring ‘Where’s this beautiful foreigner?’ could be heard outside, and a moment later she and Caltrop walked into the room.
‘Ere yet the shape was seen, the voice was heard’
said the others, laughing. When xiang-yun and Caltrop were seated, Bao-qin repeated for their benefit what. she had just been telling the others. xiang-yun pressed her to recite the poem, and this she now proceeded to do:

The Land of Ebenash
Last night I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls;
Tonight beside the watery waste I sing.
The island’s cloud-cap drifts above the sea,
And mists about its mountain forests cling.
Our pasts and presents to the moon are one;
Our lives and loves beyond our reckoning.
Yet still my heart yearns for that distant South,
Where time is lost in one eternal spring.

‘Fancy a foreigner being able to write that!’ said the cousins admiringly. ‘It’s better than we Chinese could do ourselves.’
While they were still enthusing over the poem, Musk arrived to report that someone had just been round with a message for Master Bao from Lady Wang.
‘Her Ladyship says, when you go to your Uncle Wang’s first thing tomorrow, will you tell them that she’s sorry she can’t go herself, but she’s not feeling very well?’
Bao-yu stood up, out of respect for his mother, to reply. He asked Bao-chai and Bao-qin lf they would be going too. No, said Bao-chai, they had sent a present yesterday, and that was all they would be doing.
Conversation continued a little longer and then the com?pany broke up. As Bao-yu politely insisted on the others going out before him, he would have been the last to leave, but just as he was about to do so, Dai-yu called him back.
Tell me,’ she said, just how long will Aroma be away?’
‘I don’t know;’ said Bao-yu, ‘but she certainly won’t come back until after the funeral?
Dai-yu evidently had something on her mind that she wanted to say but was finding difficulty in expressing. whatever it was, she must have abandoned it, for, after reflecting for a few moments ins in silence, all she said was:
You’d better go.’
Bao-yu, too, had a feeling that there were a lot of things he ought to be asking her, but he could not for the moment recollect what any of them were. After trying unsuccessfully to remember, he left her with a cheerful ‘See you tomorrow’ and went down the steps outside, his head bent low as he con?tinued ruminating. Just as he was about to set out across the forecourt, something occurred to him and he remounted the steps and went in again.
‘The nights are getting so much longer now. How many times do you cough in the night? Do you wake up very often?’
‘I’m much better at night than I was,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Last night I only coughed twice. But I still don’t sleep very well. Last night I only slept between about two and four in the morning. After that I couldn’t get hack to sleep again.’
‘Ah, I knew there was something important I wanted to ask you about,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I’ve just remembered what it was.’ He drew closer to her ear and went on in a lower voice. ‘You know that bird’s nest that Cousin Bao sent you,—’
But before he could finish, Aunt Zhao called in to inquire lf Dai-yu was feeling better. Dai-yu knew that she had dropped in on her way back from seeing Tan-chun, and that the kind?ness, if kindness it were, was of a-somewhat tangential nature; nevertheless she begged her with eager politeness to be seated and thanked her warmly for the visit.
‘How kind of you to think of me, Mrs Zhao and to come here yourself in such bitter weather!’
She ordered tea to be poured for her visitor) simultaneously darting a look at Bao-yu which he rightly interpreted as an order to make himself scarce. It was in any case time for his dinner, so he went to his mother’s place to have it. She made him go back early, bearing in mind that he must be up betimes next morning.
When he got back to his own room, Bao-yu found that Skybright had already taken her medicine. He judged it best to let her stay where she was in the closet-bed. He himself slept on the space outside the curtain which Musk had occu?pied the previous night. This time Musk slept on the clothes-warmer. He had it moved up beside the closet-bed before they went to bed, so that she could be near at hand during the night.
The night passed by without event.

*

Next day, before it was yet light, Skybright was calling on Musk to wake up.
‘Come on, Musk! You ought to be awake by now, Haven’t you slept enough yet? You go outside and tell the others to get his morning drink ready while I try waking him up.’
Musk hurriedly drew on a garment and got out of bed.
‘We’d better-both wake him and wait till he’s dressed and the clothes-warmer has been carried back to its usual place before we let the others it’,’ she said. ‘The old women have already said that he’s not to sleep in the same room as you in case he catches your sickness. We shall never hear the end of it, if they find out that we’ve been sleeping all crowded up together like this.’
‘Yes,’ said Skybright. ‘I was thinking that too.’
The two girls began calling Bao-yu. He must in fact have been awake already, for he got out of bed and began dressing immediately. Musk called in one of the junior maids to help her move the warmer back into place and fold up the bedding. Only when all traces of the previous night’s sleeping arrange?ments had been effaced were Ripple and Emerald called in to assist Bao-yu with his toilet.
‘It’s very overcast again,’ said Musk, when Bao-yu’s toilet had been completed. ‘It looks as lf it will snow. You’d better put on your felt.’
Bao-yu nodded and changed the outer garment he had put on for a more substantial one. A junior maid came in carrying a little tea-tray on which was a covered cup containing a con?coction of red dates and Fukien lotus-seeds. Bao-yu drank a few mouthfuls, took a piece of ginger from a saucerful of crystallized shapes held out to him by Musk and put it in his mouth to nibble, addressed a few brief admonitions to Sky?bright to look after herself while he was away, and went off to see his grandmother.
She had not yet risen when he arrived at her apartment, but the servants, knowing that he was going visiting and could not wait for her to get up, admitted him at once to her bed?room. He caught a glimpse of Bao-qin lying asleep behind her, her face turned inwards to the wall. The old lady observed that her grandson was wearing, over his formal dress of lychee-brown broadcloth, a dark-red felt cape embellished with roundels of gold thread and coloured silk embroidery. Its slate-blue satin border was fringed with tassels.
‘Is it snowing?’ she asked him.
‘Not yet,’ said Bao-yu, ‘but it looks as if it will.’
Grandmother Jia turned to Faithful:
‘Give him that peacock-feather cloak we were looking at yesterday.’
Faithful murmured a reply and went out of the room, re?turning presently with a magnificent snow-cape that gleamed and glittered with gold and green and bronzy-bluish lights. It was like Bao-qin’s mallard-cape and yet somehow different.
‘This is what they call “peacock gold”,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘It is made by the Russians. They twist the barbs of peacock-feathers into a kind of yarn and weave it from that. The other day I gave your cousin Bao-qin a cape like this made out of mallard feathers. Now I am giving this one to you.’
Bao-yu kotowed and put it on. Grandmother Jia smiled.
‘Go and show your mother’
Bao-yu obediently hurried off to do so. On his way out he came upon Faithful, standing beside the kang in the outer room. She affected to be rubbing her eyes in order not to have to look at him. She had avoided speaking to him ever since the frightful scene nearly two months earlier when she had vowed never to marry, and Bao-yu was continually being made uncomfortable by her avoidance of him. Seeing her once more preparing to ignore him, he went up to her with a friendly smile in the hope of breaking her silence.
‘Faithful, see this! How do you think I look in it?’
But Faithful simply turned and fled, retreating into Grand?mother Jia’s bedroom. Obliged to give up, he continued on his way to Lady Wang’s. After his mother had seen the cape, he went into the Garden to show himself off to Musk and Sky?bright. After that he returned to his grandmother’s to report.
‘I showed it to Mother. She said it seems almost a pity to wear it and I must be very, very careful not to spoil it.’
‘That was the only one I had left,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘If you do spoil it I haven’t got another one to give you. And there would be no question of getting another one made for you – not in these parts.’
She put on her admonitions-for-the-departing-grandchild voice:
‘Now don’t drink too much. And leave early.’
‘Yes, Grandma.’
Old women from his grandmother’s apartment accom?panied him as far as the reception hall of the outer mansion. Below the steps outside it his foster brother Li Gui, together with Wang Rong, Zhang Ruo-jin, Zhao Yi-hua, Qian Sheng and Zhou Rui and the pages Tealeaf, Storky, Ploughboy and Sweeper, had been waiting a long time in readiness. The pages were carrying clothing-bundles and blankets, and two of the older men were holding a splendidly caparisoned horse by the bridle. The old women issued a few words of admonition to the men, the men, after acknowledging them with a few per?functory cries, handed Bao-yu his whip and held the stirrup for him to mount, and Bao-yu, mindful of the precious cape, got up slowly into the saddle. The little party then began to advance, Li Gui and Wang Rong, one on either side, holding the bridle-rings, Qian Sheng and Zhou Rul walking ahead, and Zhang Ruo-jin and Zhao Yi-hua following closely behind.
‘Zhou, Qian,’ Bao-yu called out from the saddle to the two in front, ‘let’s go out of the side gate, otherwise it will mean going past my father’s door and I shall have to get down.’
‘Since Sir Zheng went away, his door’s kept locked all the time,’ said Zhou Rui, turning a grinning face back to his young master. ‘You don’t need to get down.’
‘Even though it is locked, I still ought to get down,’ said Bao-yu.
‘Quite right, sir,’ said Li Gui and Qian Sheng approvingly. ‘If you was to get slack about dismounting and Mr Lai or Mr .Lin was to see you, they’d be sure to have something to say about it. Even though they couldn’t very well tell yon off, like enough they’d blame us for not teaching you manners.’
By now Zhou Rui and Qian Sheng were moving towards the side entrance. While the point of etiquette was still being discussed, they ran head on into Lai Da himself, of whom they had just been speaking. Bao-yu at once reined to a halt and made as if to dismount, but, Lai Da hurried up and prevented him by clinging to his leg. Bao-yu thereupon stood up in the stirrups and, taking him by the hand, addressed him graciously for some moments before continuing on his way. He had barely done so when thirty or forty pages armed with dustpans and brushes came trooping into the courtyard. Immediately they caught sight of Bao-yu, they lined up in a row along the wall and stood with their arms at their sides while one of their number, evidently the leader, stepped forward and, dropping to one knee in the Manchu salute, wished Bao-yu a good morning. Bao-yu did not know the page’s name, so he merely smiled and nodded. The whole troop remained motionless until the horse and its rider had passed by.
Bao-yu’s little party now issued out of the side gate, where ten horses were ready waiting for them: one for Li Gui and each of his fellows and one for each of the pages. All sprang at once into the saddle and were off down the street like a puff of smoke.
At this point our story leaves them and turns to other matters.

*

Back at Green Delights Skybright, exasperated to find, after another dose of her medicine, that the sickness still showed no disposition to depart, was holding forth loudly against the whole generation of doctors.
They’re all cheats,’ she said. ‘They take your money, but none of the medicine they give you is any good.’
‘Don’t be so impatient,’ said Musk soothingly. ‘Getting better is always a lengthy business. You know what they say “Sickness comes like an avalanche but goes like reeling silk”. This stuff isn’t the Elixir of Life. You can’t expect it to cure you in a twinkling. You’ll be all right if you take things easy for a few days. Getting yourself worked up will only give the sickness a tighter grip on you.’
Skybright’s anger changed direction and vented itself now upon the junior maids.
‘Where have you lot all sneaked off to?’ she called out to them. ‘Very bold, aren’t you, now that you seem helpless? Just you wait till I’m better: I’ll have the hide off every one of you.’
Her outcry produced a solitary response. A little girl called Steadfast came hurrying in and inquired, ‘What is it, Miss?’
‘What’s happened to the others?’ said Skybright. ‘Are they all dead? Are you the only one left alive?’
While she was speaking, Trinket, too, came in—at a some?what more ambling pace than the other girl.
‘Look at this little creature, now!’ said Skybright. ‘Why couldn’t she have come sooner? You’d have come running here fast enough if we’d been handing out monthly allowances or sharing out sweets, wouldn’t you? Then you’d have been the first to arrive. Come closer. I’m not a tiger. I won’t eat you.’
Trinket edged a few steps nearer. As she did so, Skybright suddenly raised herself from her lying position, snatched hold of her hand, and began jabbing at it violently with an enor?mous hairpin which she had been keeping concealed under her pillow.
‘What do you want this little claw for?’ she said. ‘It’s no good with a needle and thread. All it’s good for is picking and stealing. Shifty eyes and light fingers! A little claw like this can only bring you disgrace. Much better stab it!—and slab it!—and stab it! so that it can’t do any more thieving.’
Trinket was by now screaming with pain. Musk quickly dragged her away out of Skybright’s clutches and forced Skybright to lie down again in bed.
‘You’ve only just been sweating after the medicine,’ she said. ‘What’s the matter with you? Do you want to die? If you’ll just wait until you’re better, you can punish her as much as you like. Don’t start making a scene about it now!’
But Skybright insisted on calling in Mamma Song and deal?ing with the matter at once.
‘Master Bao has told me to tell you that he finds Trinket lazy,’ she said when Mamma Song arrived. ‘She answers him back and doesn’t do anything when he gives her orders, and even when Aroma tells her to do things she says rude things about her behind her back. Master Bao is most anxious that she should be dismissed immediately. He says he will speak to Her Ladyship about it himself when he sees her tomorrow.’
When Mamma Song heard this, she knew that the story of the bracelet must have leaked out.
‘That’s as may be,’ she said. ‘But oughtn’t we to wait until Miss Aroma comes back and tell her first?’
‘What I am giving you are Master Bao’s own orders,’ said Skybright. ‘He was most particular that she Should be dis?missed immediately. I don’t see that Miss Aroma—or Miss Sweetscents or Miss Smellypots for that matter—has got any?thing to do with it. I know what I’m doing. Just do as I say. Go and get someone from her family to come here immediately and take her away.’
‘You might just as well,’ said Musk. ‘She’ll have to go sooner or later. Let them take her away now and get it over with.’
So Mamma Song had to go off and summon the girl’s mother from outside. When Trinket had finished getting her belongings together, her mother went in with her to see Musk and Skybright.
‘Now what’s all this about?’ she said. ‘If the girl’s done wrong, why can’t you just punish her for it? Why do you have to dismiss her? It doesn’t leave us much face, does it, if she’s dismissed ?’
‘You’ll have to ask Bao-yu about that when he gets back,’ said Skybright. ‘It’s nothing to do with us.’ The woman sneered.
‘You know perfectly well that I wouldn’t dare. He always does what you young ladies want him to in any case. Even if I saw him and he agreed that she could stay, there’s no guaranteeing that she would if you young ladies weren’t agreeable. Take what you said just now. I know he’s not here at the moment, but even so. if I was to name his name as you did just now without a “master” or a “mister” to it, people would say I was a savage, but for you young ladies, seemingly, it’s quite all right.’
Skybright became red with anger.
‘I called him by his name, did I? Why don’t you go and report me to Their Ladyships? Tell them that I’m a savage and get me dismissed.’
‘I advise you to take that girl out of here and be on your way,’ said Musk. ‘If you have anything to say, you can say it later. You can’t stand here wrangling about it now. When have you ever seen other people bandying words with us? Even Mrs Lai and Mrs Lin show a bit of restraint when they talk to us. And as for this business of saying “Bao-yu” instead of “Master Bao”: everyone knows that it’s Her Old Ladyship’s particular wish that we should. Because he’s not strong and she’s afraid he might die young, she likes as many people as possible to use his name, to bring him luck. She even has it written in big characters and pasted up on walls outside to get people saying it. It would be funny if we couldn’t use his name when every water-carrier and dung-carrier and beggar in town can do so. As a matter of fact only yesterday Mrs Lin got told off by Her Old Ladyship for calling him “Master Bao”.
‘And for another thing, we senior maids are constantly having -to take messages to Her Old Ladyship and Her Lady-ship about him, and when we do, we always say “Bao-yu”, never “Master Bao”. Why, I should think we must each of us use his name a couple of hundred times every day. You cer?tainly chose the wrong thing to find fault with when you picked on that one! If you don’t believe me, go round one of these days when you are free to Her Old Ladyship’s or Her Ladyship’s and you will hear us openly calling him “Bao-yu” to their faces. But of course, you don’t have any important business that would bring you in contact with Their Lady-ships, do you? All your time is spent doing odd-jobs outside. One could hardly expect you to know the way things are done in here.
‘But I’m afraid we really can’t have you standing around here any longer. If you stay much longer, I’m afraid even though we don’t object someone else may come along and ask what you are doing here. If you want to appeal against the girl’s dismissal, you should get her out of here first and take it up with Mrs Lin afterwards and she will speak to Master Bao about it. With all the hundreds of people there are in this household we can’t have just anyone running in and out when?ever they feel like it. We don’t even know the names of half of them.’
By way of emphasizing her point, Musk ordered one of the junior maids to fetch a floor-cloth and begin wiping the floor. At this Trinket’s mother, unable to find a reply and fearful of being caught staying too long, swept out angrily, taking her daughter with her. But Mamma Song was not letting them get away so easily.
‘You certainly don’t have much idea of manners, my good woman. After all the time she’s been here, your daughter could at least make the young ladies a kotow before she goes. She may have no other parting gift to give them—I don’t suppose they’d set much store by it if she had— but she might at least have the decency to make – them a kotow. You can’t both just up and go.’
Trinket was obliged to come in again and kotow to the two inside. She also went round to do the same for Ripple and Emerald, but they refused to look at her. After that she de?parted with her mother, the latter indicating as they went, by many a sniff and sigh, the hatred that she dared net express more openly.
A consequence of this latest exposure to the cold and of the accompanying emotional upset was that Skybright was now feeling bad again. At lighting-up time, after tossing about feverishly all day, she was just beginning to settle down at last when Bao-yu returned in a great fret and began stamping and groaning almost as soon as -he entered the room. Musk asked him what the matter was.
‘It’s this cloak that Grandmother gave me this morning. She was so pleased about it, and now—I don’t know how it happened—I’ve gone and got a burn in it behind the lapel. Fortunately it was fairly dark just now when I came back and neither Grandmother nor Mother noticed anything.’
He took it off for Musk-to examine. It was only a little burn, about the size of a finger-print, but clearly visible.
‘It must have been caused by a- spark from your hand-warmer,’ said Musk. ‘It’s nothing to worry about. We’ll send someone out on the quiet with it immediately to find a good invisible mender and get it mended for you.’
She wrapped it up and called in one of the old nannies to take it out for them.
‘Tell them it has to be ready by daylight tomorrow. And for heaven’s sake don’t let Her Old Ladyship or Her Ladyship find out about it!’
The woman was gone a very long time. When she at last returned, she was still carrying the bundle with the peacock cloak in it.
‘I’ve tried everywhere—invisible menders, tailors, em?broiderers, seamstresses—and none of them will touch it. They all say they don’t know what the material is and don’t want to be responsible.’
‘Oh dear!’ said Musk. ‘What are we going to do now? Well, you lust can’t wear it tomorrow, that’s all.’
‘But I must,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Tomorrow is his actual birthday. Grandmother and Mother have both said I must. Today was only the first day of the celebrations, not his actual birthday. Isn’t it just my luck to burn it the very first time I put it on?’
Skybright, who had listened to all this in silence, could con?tain herself no longer and sat up immediately in bed.
‘Come on, let me have a look. If you weren’t meant to wear it, you won’t wear it. No good making all this fuss about it now.’
‘There’s something in that,’ said Bao-yu laughing, and handed it to her. He brought the lamp over so that she could examine it more closely.
‘This is made of “peacock gold”,’ said Skybright. ‘If we could get hold of some of the thread .and make a little darn with it’ I think it would probably pass.’
‘We’ve got peacock gold thread,’ said Musk. ‘The trouble is that apart from you there’s no one else here who could do the darning.’
‘I shall just have to make the effort and do it then, shan’t I?’ said Skybright.
‘No, that’s out of the question,’ said Bao-yu. ‘You’ve only just started getting better. You’re not in a fit state to do sewing yet.’
‘Oh, don’t be such an old woman!’ said Skybright. ‘I know what I’m capable of.’
So saying, she sat up again in bed, knotted up her loosely flowing hair, and drew a jacket on over her shoulders. Her body felt abnormally light and she was almost overcome with dizziness. It really did seem as if the effort would be too much for her; but knowing what a state Bao-yu would be in if the snow-cape was not repaired, she gritted her teeth, and fighting back the weakness that threatened to engulf her, told Musk to pinch the yarn and thread a needle for her while she herself took a length of it and held it against the material.
‘It’s not really a very good match,’ she said, ‘but I don’t suppose it will show very much when it’s been darned.’
‘I’m sure it will do very nicely,’ said Bao-yu. ‘At all events, we’re not going to be able to find a Russian tailor to do it for us!’
Skybright began by opening up the seam of the lining underneath the burnt patch so that she could insert a cup-sized darning mushroom from inside. Having stretched the material out over the mushroom, she scraped away the charred parts and the surrounding nap with a razor until the threads were clearly exposed, then, with her needle and thread, she worked first across in one direction and then at right-angles in the other until she had filled the hole with a criss-cross darn. Using this as a foundation, she now began to weave the thread in and out with her needle so as to Imitate the surrounding pattern. This was the most difficult and exhausting part of the work. After each couple of stitches she had to stop and examine what she had done, and after every four or five she had to lean back on the pillow and rest. Meanwhile Bao-yu fussed around her unceasingly, one moment asking her if she would like a ‘nice hot drink’, another moment suggesting that she should rest, one moment fetching a squirrel-skin cloak to put over her shoulders, the next moment a pillow for her back, until she became quite frantic and had to entreat him to leave her alone
‘My dear little grandfather—please just go to bed! If you stay up any longer, you’ll have rings under your eyes in the morning, and that will never dot’
Bao-yu could see that he was exasperating her and made a pretence of settling down in his bed; but he could not get to sleep. After he had been lying awake for some time, he heard the chiming clock strike four. Skybright had just completed the mending and was finishing off the job by carefully teasing the nap out with a little toothbrush.
‘That’s wonderful,’ said Musk. ‘If you didn’t look at it carefully, you could never tell it was a darn.’
Bao-yu asked to see.
‘It’s perfect,’ he said. ‘It looks exactly the same as the rest.’
Skybright had been coughing a good deal during the final stages of her task and it had been all she could do to conclude
it.
‘Anyway, it’s done,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t really look right, but I can’t do any more—Aiyo!’
With a cry of weariness she sank back, utterly exhausted, upon the bed.
If you wish to know the outcome, please read the chapter which follows.

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