The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 55

0
202

CHAPTER 55

A foolish concubine seeks to humiliate her own daughter
And an ill-natured stewardess tries to outwit
Her young mistress

As we were saying, the First Month festivities in the Rong?guo mansion were scarcely over when Xi-feng had a miscarriage. Confined for a month to her room by doctor’s orders and with two or three physicians in daily attendance on her, she was unable to keep up her usual management of the household’s affairs; yet so confident was she of her powers of recovery that she continued, in spite of remonstrances, to plan things from her sick-room, despatching Patience with messages to Lady Wang whenever she thought of something that needed doing.
Lady Wang for her part was like a woman who has lost a limb. Never at the best of times an energetic person, she attended to only the most important matters herself and left most of the routine business to Li Wan. Unfortunately Li Wan, though a model young woman in some respects, was not a good manager and allowed the servants to do more or less as they liked. Soon Lady Wang was obliged to call in Tan-chun as a reinforcement. It would only be for a month, she told them. If they could bold out for a month, Xi-feng would by then be better and would be able to take over once more.
But Xi-feng was not as robust as she supposed. Like many young people she had not been taking proper care of herself, and the excessive demands she had for some time past been making on her nervous energies had seriously weakened a constitution that was already far from strong. The miscarriage was in fact only a symptom of her body’s exhaustion. A month later it was followed by the beginning of a chronic small dis?charge of blood from the womb. Although she was unwilling to tell anyone about it, it was apparent to everyone from her gaunt and yellow look that something must be seriously the matter with her.
Lady Wang insisted that she should make a more serious effort to get better: she must follow the treatment prescribed for her; above all she must stop worrying about the household. Xi-feng was herself beginning to be afraid that the trouble might develop into a major illness which would leave her at the mercy of her enemies and was now willing to take time off to recuperate. But in spite of her impatience to get better, the weakness was not to be cured in a day, and it was not until well into the autumn of that year, after months of slow con?valescence, that her body recovered its strength and the dis?charge of blood finally dried up.
But we anticipate. Let us return to the time about a month after the miscarriage when Lady Wang was beginning to realize that her niece was far from better and could not be expected to relieve Li Wan and Tan-chun of their duties.
Lady Wang was worried about the Garden. There were far too many people in it: she feared that they were receiving insufficient supervision. Calling Bao-chai to her, she entrusted her with their surveillance.
‘Those older women are no good,” she told her. ‘They drink and play cards whenever they have a moment to spare. They sleep in the daytime and play cards at night, I know they do. When Feng was up and about, there was someone they were afraid of; but now that she is out of the way, I expect they do just as they please. Now my dear, I know you are a dependable person. Your cousins are too young for these matters and I am too busy. Will you please, for my sake, keep your eye on things for the next week or two? If you come across anything I have missed, point it out to me. I don’t want Lady Jia asking me about things and finding that I don’t know the answer. If you see any of the servants misbehaving, let me know. And report them if they are disobedient. Don’t wait for things to get out of hand before speaking up about them.’
Bao-chai, whatever she thought of this request, could not very well refuse it.
Spring was now at its height. Dai-yu’s seasonal cough had returned, and in All-spice Court Shi Xiang-yun lay ill in bed with some epidemic sickness that required constant medical attention. Li Wan and Tan-chun, though neighbours, were too far apart for their present circumstances, since servants had to keep going from one place to the other looking for them, so it was decided that for purposes of household management they should meet at six o’clock each morning in a little three-frame reception room on the south side of the Garden gate. They would eat their lunch there and would be available for seeing people on household business there up to the end of the morning.
This reception room had originally been intended as a place for the senior eunuchs to sit at the time of the Visitation. After the Visitation was over there was no further use for it -in the daytime, at any rate; at night it provided a convenient meeting-place for the women who made up the watch. Now that the weather was getting warmer, it did not need a great deal doing to it – beyond moving in one or two pieces of furniture – to turn it into a comfortable office for the young managers. It had a board over the doorway bearing the in?scription

SUPPORT BENEVOLENCE PROMOTE VIRTUE

but the servants always referred to it simply as ‘the jobs room’.
Thither, then, at six o’clock each morning the two sisters?-in-law repaired and sat there until noon while a stream of stewardesses and serving women trooped in and out reporting on their duties and asking for their instructions.
To begin with, when the servants heard that Li Wan would be managing the household on her own, all of them were secretly pleased. She was known to be a kind, easy-going sort of person who disliked giving punishments, and with her in command they felt sure that it would be much easier than usual to get away with things. Even the addition of Tan-chun did not materially alter these expectations. Tan-chun was young and unmarried and, so far as one could judge, a quiet and docile girl. They foresaw no trouble from that quarter and were, as a consequence, inclined to take liberties in her presence that they would not have dared to do with Xi-feng.
Within only a few days of her arrival, however, they had begun to sense, from the way in which she handled one or two of the matters that were brought to her attention, that though quieter-spoken than Xi-feng and of a much more equable disposition, she yielded nothing to her in thoroughness.
By coincidence it happened that about this time a dozen or more important events – promotions, demotions, marriages, deaths and the like – occurred in rapid succession among the group of aristocratic and official families connected by matrimonial or other ties with the Ning-guo and Rong-guo Jias, and for days on end Lady Wang’s time was taken up with visits of condolence or felicitation. Some responsible person was needed to stand in for her while she was away; so while Li Wan and Tan-chun spent all their mornings in the office, Bao-chai spent hers in Lady Wang’s apartment, only leaving it when her aunt got home from her visiting. At night the three young guardians spent whatever time could be spared from their sewing patrolling the Garden in sedans, escorted by the old women of the watch. Working together in this way they soon came to feel that they had evolved a system of supervision more careful even than Xi-feng’s – a view amply borne out by the grumbles of the domestics themselves:
‘No sooner is the Terror of the Seas put out of action than along come these three Scourges of the Mountains to take her place. Nowadays you can’t even take time off for a quiet drink of a night or a little game of cards!’
A day came when Lady Wang was due to attend a luncheon at the Marquis of Jin-xiang’s. Li Wan and Tan-chun, after an early toilet, had attended her to the gate and seen her off. They had just got back to their office and were enjoying a morning cup of tea when Wu Xin-deng’s wife came in to report:
‘Mrs Zhao’s brother, Zhao Guo-ji, died yesterday. I told Her Ladyship and she said I was to report it to you.
Having delivered this brief communiqué’, she stood in silence, her arms held stiffly at her sides, waiting for a reply. A number of stewardesses who were waiting their turn to report, pricked up their ears at this mention of Tan-chun’s natural mother and waited with interest to see what the two young deputies would decide. If their decision was a good one, they would in future treat them with respect; but if it was one in which there was the slightest possibility of picking holes, not only would they not respect them, but afterwards, when they got back outside, they would have many a good laugh at their expense.
The behaviour of Wu Xin-deng’s wife on this occasion was quite deliberate. If it had been Xi-feng that she was reporting to, she would have demonstrated her efficiency by making one or two helpful suggestions, having armed herself beforehand with some precedents for Xi-feng to choose from; but as it was only Li Wan and Tan-chun, one of whom she despised for her softness and the other for her youth, she merely stated her business and left them to flounder unaided.
Tan-chun turned questioningly to Li Wan.
‘When Aroma’s mother died recently, didn’t they give her forty taels?’ said Li Wan after thinking for a bit. ‘I suppose we’d better give her forty taels.’
‘Yes ma’am,’ said Wu Xin-deng’s wife, and taking up a tally, went hurrying off to collect the money.
‘Just a minute!’ Tan-chun called out after her.
Wu xinLdeng’s wife returned – a trifle reluctantly it could be observed.
‘Don’t collect that money yet,’ said Tan-chun. ‘There’s something I want to ask you. Of the old women in Lady Jia’s apartment who used to be chamber-wives when my grandfather was alive, some must have been home-reared and some must have been bought outside. There’s a different scale for the two kinds, isn’t there? How much do the home-reared ones get when someone in their family dies and how much do the ones from outside get? Give us one or two examples so that we have something to go on.’
Not having prepared herself for such a question, Wu Xin?deng’s wife was unable to answer it. She covered up for herself, all smiles:
‘It’s not a very important matter. Just give what you think. No one’s going to question your decision.’
Tan-chun smiled back:
‘Now you are talking nonsense. Suppose I said, “Give her a hundred taels”? No, we have to give what is right: otherwise, quite apart from the fact that you will all laugh at us, how am I going to face Mrs Lian when I next see her?’
‘Very good then, I’ll go and look up the old accounts,’ said Wu Xin-deng’s wife. ‘I can’t at the moment remember.’
‘You’ve been working here all these years and you can’t remember?’ said Tan-chun. ‘I think you are trying to make things difficult for us. I can’t believe that you have to go off and look things up when Mrs Lian asks you a question. If you do, all I can say is that she is not such a strict mistress as she is supposed to be: in fact, I should say that she was a rather indulgent one. All right, hurry up and fetch the accounts then! If this matter is delayed, it isn’t your negligence that will be blamed but our incompetence.’
Blushing to the roots of her hair, Wu Xin-deng’s wife hurried off to do as she was bidden. The other women gasped and stuck their tongues out in surprise. Reporting on other matters continued in her absence.
After a little while she returned with the account-books. On examination Tan-chun found two instances of home-reared concubines receiving twenty taels and two of ‘outsiders’ receiving forty taels. She also found an instance of an outsider receiving a hundred taels and one of an outsider receiving sixty; but in each case a note explaining special circumstances had been made against the entry: in the first case the body of a parent had had to be conveyed in its coffin for interment in another province and the extra sixty taels was to cover the cost of transport; in the second case the extra twenty taels was for the purchase of a plot of ground for burial. Tan-chun handed Li Wan the relevant account to look at, while at the same time informing Wu Xin-deng’s wife of her decision:
‘Give her twenty taels. And leave these accounts with us, so that we can have a good look at them.’
Wu Xin-deng’s wife went off once more.
The next thing that happened was that Aunt Zhao came stalking in. Li Wan and Tan-chun invited her to be seated, but Aunt Zhao was in no mood for polite preliminaries.
‘Everyone in this family tramples on me,’ she said, address?ing herself to Tan-chun. ‘Don’t you think that you at least might stick up for me?’
She began crying messily, the abundant moisture seeming to come as much from her nostrils as from her eyes.
‘Who are you complaining about?’ said Tan-chun. ‘I really don’t understand you. Who’s been trampling on you? If you would tell me, perhaps I might be able to “stick up” for you.’
‘You have, for a start,’ said Aunt Zhao. ‘That doesn’t leave me anyone to turn to, does it?’
Tan-chun leaped to her feet:
‘I shouldn’t dream of trampling on you.’
Li Wan, too, stood up and made some soothing remark or other. But Aunt Zhao was not to be placated:
‘Sit down both of you, and listen to me. I’ve given the best years of my life to this family – years and years and years. I’ve borne two children for them, you and your brother. And now, after all that, I’m not even to be treated as well as Aroma. What sort of face does that leave me with? What sort of face does it leave you with – never mind me?’
Tan-chun laughed mirthlessly:
‘Oh that’s what this is about! The simple answer to that is that I have to follow the rules.’
She sat down again, opened up the account-book and, holding it out for Aunt Zhao to see, read the relevant entries out to her.
‘These regulations were laid down by the ancestors for everyone to follow. I can’t suddenly go altering them. It isn’t just Aroma. It will be exactly the same if one day Huan has a chamber-wife from outside. If someone in her family dies, then, as an outsider, she will get exactly the same amount as Aroma did. It has nothing to do with who is more important than whom. It isn’t a matter of prestige at all. Zhao Guo-ji was Lady Wang’s bondservant. That means that he belongs to the “home-reared” class. The rules lay down a certain scale of payments for that class. All I have done is to follow the rules. I am sure that Zhao Guo-ji must approve and be grateful to the ancestors and Lady Wang for their generosity. If he doesn’t – if he thinks he is being unfairly treated – then all I can say is that he is stupid and ungrateful and one can’t really care very much what he thinks. As regards face, it makes no difference to me whether Lady Wang gives him everything she’s got or nothing at all. And I really do think that while she is away you might try to compose yourself a bit and not go working yourself up into such a state. Although Lady Wang is so good to me, I am constantly worried that you will spoil everything with your perpetual trouble-making. If I’d been a boy I should have left home long ago and done some?thing to show myself worthy of her kindness; but as I am a girl, I have to stay at home and never say a word out of turn. I believe she realizes this, and because she thinks highly of me she has entrusted me with this managing job as a means of proving myself. But before I have had a chance to do anything, you have to come along and start making things diffi?cult for me. If Lady Wang gets to hear of it, she will probably conclude that the job is too hard for me and take it away again. That would be a real loss of face – for you as well as for me.’
Tan-chun’s shoulders began to shake as she said this and she ended up by bursting into tears.
Aunt Zhao did not really have an answer to what Tan-chun had said, so she tried another tack.
‘If Lady Wang is so fond of you, you ought to use your position to give us a helping hand. The fact is, though, you are so anxious to keep in her good books that you forget about us altogether.’
‘Of course I don’t forget about you,’ said Tan-chun. ‘But what do you mean by giving you a “helping hand”? A good mistress will always be favourable to those who try hard and make themselves useful, and a good servant doesn’t need any “helping hand” in order to keep in her favour.’
Li Wan hovered between them, still trying to act the peace maker:
‘Please don’t be angry, Mrs Zhao. You mustn’t blame Tan?chun. I’m sure she’s most anxious to give you all the help she can; but you could hardly expect her to say so.’
‘Don’t talk such stuff, Wan!’ said Tan-chun impatiently. ‘Help whom, for goodness sake? Whoever heard of the young mistress in a family helping the servants? Their private interests are no concern of mine, as you perfectly well know.’
‘We’re not talking about “servants”, we’re talking about me,’ said Aunt Zhao angrily. ‘If you hadn’t been in charge now, I’d never have asked you. At this particular moment you happen to be in charge here. Very well. Your mother’s brother has just died. If you decide to give an extra twenty or thirty taels towards his funeral, Her Ladyship isn’t going to stop you, is she? Of course she isn’t. We all know what a good, kind person Her Ladyship is. It’s mean, tight-fisted people like you interfering that stop her being generous. I simply don’t know what you’re worried about. It isn’t your money you’re spending. I’d been hoping that one of these days when you grew up and got married you’d be able to do our Zhao family a bit of good. But not you! You’re in such a hurry to find a higher branch to perch on, you’ve forgotten the nest even before your feathers are full-grown!’
Tan-chun went white, and for a moment anger deprived her of her breath. When she regained it she broke into louder sobs.
‘Who is this “mother’s brother”? The only mother’s brother I know about is the one who has just been appointed Inspector-General of Armies in the Nine Provinces. I’m sure I always try to show respect where it is due, but no one ever told me that I ought to think of Zhao Guo-ji as my uncle. If so, how is it that he always stood up for Huan and walked behind him on his way to school in the mornings? Why didn’t he insist on being treated as an uncle by Huan? But what’s the point? Everyone knows it was you who bore me. Two or three months never go by without your making a scene about something or other just to give yourself an opportunity of proclaiming the fact. And you talk about face! It’s a good job I understand your little game. If I were a simple-minded person and not very sure of my position, it would have driven me distracted long ago.’
The ever more agitated attempts at peace-making by Li Wan and continuing gabble of complaint from Aunt Zhao which followed this outburst were suddenly interrupted by a call from the women outside:
‘Here’s Miss Patience with a message from Mrs Lian.’
At once Aunt Zhao fell silent. She advanced fawningly on Patience as she entered:
‘Is your mistress any better, Patience? I’ve been meaning to go round and see her, but I just haven’t had the time.’
Li Wan asked Patience what she had come for.
‘Mrs Lian heard that Mrs Zhao’s brother had died and she was afraid you might not know what to give. She said according to the rule it should be twenty taels, but in this particular case Miss Tan should feel free to add on a bit if she sees fit.’
‘Oh? On what grounds, I wonder?’ said Tan-chun, who had by this time wiped the traces of tears from her face. ‘I’m not aware that there was anything very special about this person. His mother didn’t carry him for twenty-four months before he was born. He didn’t rescue his master on the battle?field from under a heap of corpses and carry him to safety on his back. It is very ingenious of your mistress, getting me to break the rules so that she can take the credit for being generous, but if she wishes to play the Lady Bountiful by giving away other people’s money, I’m afraid she will have to wait. Tell her that I absolutely refuse to take responsibility for any change in the rules. If she wants to make a change, let her wait until she is better. Then she can add on as much as she likes!’
Patience had already had a rough idea of the situation when she arrived and by the time Tan-chun finished speaking she had sized it up completely. Observing the anger in Tan-chun’s face, she did not presume to reply in the joking, light-hearted manner she would normally have adopted with her, but stood in silence, with her arms held submissively at her sides.
It was now about the time when Bao-chai usually came over from Lady Wang’s apartment for discussion. Tan-chun and Li Wan stood up to greet her as she entered and invited her to sit with them. Before they had a chance to begin talking, however, one of the women who had been waiting outside came in to make her report.
Because Tan-chun had recently been crying, three or four maids had already been to fetch water and towels and a hand-mirror so that she could wash her face. As she was at this moment sitting cross-legged on a low wooden couch, the maid carrying the hand-basin went down on both her knees to bring it to a convenient level for her, whereupon the girls bearing the towels, hand-mirror, cosmetics and so forth also knelt down on either side. Seeing that Tan-chun’s body-servant Scribe was not present, Patience hurriedly stepped forward, rolled back Tan-chun’s sleeves for her, removed her bracelets and tucked a large towel round her neck to protect the front of her dress. As Tan-chun stretched out her hands to begin washing, the woman who had just entered began to make her report:
‘Excuse me Mrs Zhu; excuse me Miss Tan. The school want to draw this year’s allowance for Master Huan and Master Lan.’
‘What’s the hurry?’ snapped Patience. ‘Haven’t you got eyes in your head? Can’t you see that Miss Tan is washing? You ought to be waiting outside. What do you mean by bursting in like this? Would you behave like this if Mrs Lian were here? Miss Tan is a kind young lady and lets you get away with it, but if I tell Mrs Lian when I get back how little respect you show her, you’ll be in serious trouble – and don’t say I didn’t warn you!’
Thoroughly alarmed, the woman put on her broadest smile and retreated, apologizing, from the room.
Tan-chun, who had finished washing and was now making up her face, looked up at Patience with a sardonic smile:
‘It’s a pity you didn’t come a bit earlier. You missed the best part of the comedy. Wu xin-deng’s wife, who has spent a whole lifetime in service, came here without having bothered to look up the records, in the hope of making us look foolish. Fortunately I thought to ask her what the rule was; but then she had the effrontery to tell me that she had forgotten. I told her that I didn’t think she would forget things and have to go off and look them up if it was your mistress that she was dealing with.’
‘I should think not, indeed!’ said Patience. ‘If she had ever tried a trick like that on Mrs Lian, she’d have some nasty scars on her backside to show for it, I can tell you! Don’t you believe any of them, miss! They think that because Mrs Zhu is such a kind, saintly person and you are such a quiet, shy young lady they can get away with anything.’
She turned to address the women who were standing outside the door:
‘Keep it up all of you! Just carry on with these little tricks! See what happens to you when Mrs Lian is better!’
‘Now, now, you know us better than that, miss!’ said the women, laughing. “‘Let him face the summons that did the offence”. We wouldn’t pull the wool over a young mistress’s eyes. We know perfectly well that if a young unmarried lady like Miss Tan was to get really angry with us, it would be more than our lives was worth.’
‘Well, as long as you know, that’s all tight,’ said Patience drily. She turned back to Tan-chun. ‘I’m sure you must realize, miss: Mrs Lian is much too busy to think of everything and there must be quite a few things that she’s over?1ooked, They say “the bystander sees all”, and during the years that you’ve been quietly looking on as a bystander you may have noticed cases in which more or perhaps less ought to be given that Mrs Lian herself has never got around to dealing with. If you were to take this opportunity of putting them right, you’d be doing Her Ladyship a good turn and at the same time it would be a kindness to my mistress which I’m sure she would appreciate.’
Before she bad finished, Bao-chai and Li Wan were both laughing.
‘Patience, you’re wonderful! No wonder Feng is so devoted to you. The way you’ve just put it, you make us feel that even if there are no grounds for altering the rules, we ought to try and find some, just so as not to disappoint you!’
Tan-chun joined in their laughter:
‘I still feel very angry. Until she came along, I was hoping to work some of it off on her mistress, but she’s been so reasonable about it all that I hardly know what to do!’
She called in the woman whom Patience had chased out a few minutes earlier.
‘What are these allowances for Master Huan and Master Lan that the school is asking for?’
‘Eight taels each a year, miss. It’s for paper, writing-brushes and refreshments.’
‘But these expenses are already provided for in the monthly allowances,’ said Tan-chun. ‘Mrs Zhao gets two taels a month for Huan, Aroma gets two a month for Bao-yu from Her Ladyship, and Lan’s expenses are covered by Mrs Zhu’s allowance. Why should we pay an additional eight taels for each of them to the school? Is that what they go to school for, to collect the money? I think we should cancel that payment from now on. Patience, go back and tell your mistress: I insist that these payments should be discontinued.’
‘They should have been long ago,’ said Patience. ‘Mrs Lian had decided to stop them last year, but with so much going on over the New Year, she forgot about it.’
The woman who had come for the allowances had to go off empty-handed.
Women from Prospect Garden now arrived carrying food-boxes containing Li Wan’s and Tan-chun’s lunch. They were preceded by the maids Scribe and Candida who carried a little table between them which they put down in front of their mistresses. Patience busied herself by taking dishes from the food-boxes and putting them on the table; but Tan-chun stopped her:
‘If you have nothing more to say, you had better be about your own business. There is nothing for you to do here.’
‘I haven’t got any other business,’ said Patience, smiling. ‘That’s why Mrs Lian sent me here. Partly it was to bring you the message, but partly it was because she was afraid the servants here might be giving you trouble and she thought I might be able to make myself useful.’
‘Why hasn’t Miss Bao’s lunch been brought here so that she can eat with us?’ Tan-chun inquired.
At once one of the maids went outside and gave an order to the women who were waiting there under the eaves:
‘Miss Bao’s going to have her lunch here with the other young ladies. Tell them to bring it here.’
The raised voice of Tan-chun, who had overheard her, issued from behind her in reproof:
‘Who are you ordering about like that? Those are stewardesses out there and senior members of the domestic staff. You can’t make them run to and fro fetching and carrying things for you. Have you no respect for seniority? Patience is standing around here with nothing to do: why don’t you get her to go?’
Not waiting to be ordered, Patience murmured something and hurried out; but the women outside silently waylaid her and with broad smiles prevented her from going.
‘We can’t let you go, miss: that would never do! In any case, we’ve already sent someone.’
They dusted the steps with their handkerchiefs and invited her to sit down:
‘There you are, miss, sit there in the sun and rest yourself. You must be tired after standing about for so long.’
Patience was about to sit down when two women from the tea-kitchen rushed up to her with a rug:
‘That stone’s too cold to sit on. Here’s a nice clean rug. You sit on this, miss.’
Patience smiled and nodded:
‘Thank you very much.’
Another woman came out carrying a cup of tea for her on a tray.
‘Here you are, miss,’ she whispered. ‘This isn’t the tea we usually drink. This is the kind we make for the mistresses. Try some of that for a change.’
Patience bowed and took the cup, then, shaking a reproving finger at the women, she admonished them in a voice that she kept low so as not to be audible inside:
‘You’ve gone too far this time and no mistake! Miss Tan is a real little lady, but just because she is too well-bred to throw her weight about, it doesn’t mean that you can afford to take advantage of her. On the contrary, you ought to respect her all the more for it. If she were ever to get really angry, my word you would be in trouble! It wouldn’t just be a question of saying “sorry” then. If she took it into her head to throw a tantrum, even Her Ladyship would have to give in to her. Mrs Lian certainly wouldn’t stand in her way, she wouldn’t dare. So just what makes you so bold against her I do not know. You might just as well pelt a rock with eggs as set yourselves up against her!’
‘We wouldn’t dare set ourselves up against her,’ said the women. ‘This was all Mrs Zhao’s doing.’
‘Oh, come on now!’ said Patience, still speaking in a half?whisper. ‘Everyone likes to push a falling wall. We all know that Mrs Zhao isn’t the most sensible of mortals. She doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going half the time. It’s just a bit too easy to blame it all on her when things go wrong. Do you think after all the years I’ve been here I don’t know how unmanageable and how ruthless you can be? If Mrs Lian were just a shade less determined, she’d have been finished off by you lot years ago. As it is, you only need half a chance to start making things difficult for her. Many and many’s the time she’s nearly come unstuck because of your whispering. Everyone’s always saying what a holy terror she is and how you’re all afraid of her. I’m probably the only one who realizes that in her heart of hearts she’s actually afraid of you. As a matter of fact she and I were talking about this only the other day. We both agreed that if you didn’t make yourselves a bit more accommodating, there were sure to be one or two explosions. Miss Tan may be only a young girl, but you’re completely mistaken in treating her like this. Even Mrs Lian is a tiny bit scared of Miss Tan. Of all the young ladies in this household Miss Tan is the only one she feels that way about. And yet you think you can do what you like with her!’
Just then Ripple approached and the women all crowded round to greet her.
‘Better stay outside with us for a bit, miss,’ they said. ‘They’ve just laid for lunch inside. Better wait until they take the table away before going in to report anything.’
‘I’m not like you,’ said Ripple loftily. ‘I can’t wait.’
She began mounting the steps.
‘Come back at once!’ Patience called after her.
Ripple looked back and saw that it was Patience.
‘Oh, what are you doing here? Sentry duty?’
She came down again then and sat beside Patience on the rug.
‘What have you come about?’ Patience asked her in a low voice.
‘I want to ask about Bao-yu’s and our allowances for this month. We’ve been wondering when we’re going to get them.’
‘Oh that!’ said Patience. ‘That’s not very important. Go back and tell Aroma this – say I told you to tell her: no matter what it is, don’t come here asking for anything today. Anything you ask for will be refused. If you ask for a hundred things, one after the other, the answer will be “no” every time.’
‘Why’s that?’ said Ripple.
Patience and the women explained, pointing out that to go in and ask for something on Bao-yu’s behalf at the very moment when Tan-chun was looking around for someone of consequence to make an example of would be simply courting disaster.
‘There’s no sense in your going in now,’ said Patience. ‘Either way it will be awkward. If they make an example of Bao-yu they will risk offending Their Ladyships; if they don’t make an example of him You Know Who will call it favouritism and complain that they daren’t provoke anyone who has Their Ladyships behind them and only take it out on the weak ones who can’t protect themselves. You wait and see: they’ll even turn down one or two requests from Mrs Lian before they’ve finished, just to stop certain people talking.’
Ripple stuck her tongue out in a grimace.
‘It’s a good job I met you here. I should only have got smut on my nose if I’d gone inside. I’d better go back straight away then and tell the others.’
She rose and went away.
Presently Bao-chai’s lunch arrived and Patience went inside again to help serve it. By this time Aunt Zhao had already left. The three young women sat cross-legged on the wooden settle around the low lunch-table which had been placed upon it, Bao-chai facing south, towards the doorway, Tan-chun facing west and Li Wan facing east. Only their personal maids stayed inside the room to serve them; no one else dared enter. The women waited quietly on the verandah outside, dis?cussing the situation in whispers:
‘Better keep out of trouble from now on. Better not try any more funny business. Look what happened to Mrs Wu, and she’s ever so much senior to us!’
Their whispered conversation continued intermittently until lunch was over. They knew it was over when the sound of chopsticks on bowls and dishes ceased and only an occasional low cough could be heard from inside. Presently a maid appeared in the doorway and held the portiere up high to let two other maids through who were carrying out the lunch-table. Another three maids with wash-basins were already waiting outside who went in as soon as the other two had finished carrying out the table. Soon they too came out again, each carrying a wash-basin as before and also a spittoon. Then Scribe, Candida and Oriole arrived, each with a covered teacup on a tray, and went in. A little later this last trio reemerged. As they did so, Scribe stopped for a moment to admonish the junior maids who were remaining behind:
‘Now do your job properly. We’ll be back to relieve you as soon as we’ve had our lunch. No sneaking off to sit down while we’re away!’
The departure of Scribe and the other two was a signal for the women outside to begin going in, one by one, to report on their various business. They did this sedately enough, with none of the careless insolence they had been showing previously. Tan-chun’s customary good nature gradually reasserted itself and presently she turned to Patience and addressed her in a normal tone of voice:
‘There’s an important matter that I have been wanting to consult your mistress about. I’m glad I’ve remembered it now. Come back again as soon as you have finished your lunch, while Miss Bao is still here, and the four of us can discuss it together; then, when we’ve worked out all the details, we can ask your mistress whether to go forward with it or not.’
‘Yes, miss,’ said Patience, and promptly left.
When she got back, Xi-feng asked her why she had been so long and received a full account of what had happened which greatly entertained her.
‘Good! Good!’ she said. ‘Good for Tan-chun! I always said she’d make an excellent little manager. Oh, what a pity she wasn’t born in the right bed I’
‘Now you’re talking stupid, madam,’ said Patience. ‘Although she’s not Her Ladyship’s child by birth, surely no one is going to think any the worse of her because of that? Won’t she always be treated exactly the same as the rest?’
Xi-feng sighed:
‘I’m afraid it’s not quite as simple as you think. I know being a wife’s or a concubine’s child is not supposed to make any difference, and in a boy’s case perhaps it doesn’t; but I’m afraid with girls, when the time comes to start finding husbands for them, it often does. Nowadays you get a very shallow class of person who will ask about that before anything else and often, if they hear that the girl is a concubine’s child, will have nothing further to do with her. It’s silly, really, because if they did but know it, even the maids in a household like ours are better than the wife’s daughters in many another household, let alone the daughters of concu?bines. In the case of girls like Tan-chun and Ying-chun it’s hard to say. They might be unlucky and make a bad match through being discriminated against, or then again they might be lucky: someone might come along who didn’t care about these distinctions and they might make a perfectly good marriage.’
Xi-feng paused for a moment and smiled at Patience confidingly:
‘Because of all the economies I’ve introduced during these last few years there’s hardly anyone in this household who doesn’t secretly hate me. But it’s like riding a tiger: I daren’t relax my grip for a single moment for fear of being eaten. In any case, our expenditure is still far above our income. The trouble is, everything in this household from the largest down to the smallest item has to be done on a scale and according to rules that were laid down by our ancestors; but unfortu?nately the income from our property is not what it was in their days. If we do economize, the family looks ridiculous, Their Ladyships feel uncomfortable, and the servants com?plain of our harshness; yet if we don’t economize, in a very few years’ time we shall be bankrupt.’
‘I know;’ said Patience. ‘And there are three or four young ladies and two or three young masters to provide for, and Her Old Ladyship: all these big expenses are yet to come.’
‘Ah, I’ve allowed for them,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Those expenses I think we can just about manage. Bao-yu’s bride-price and Miss Lin’s dowry won’t involve us in any expense because Her Old Ladyship will pay them Out of her private savings and Miss Ying will be taken care of by Sir She. Of the girls, that only leaves Miss Tan and Miss Xi. They’re not going to cost more than seven or eight thousand each at the outside. Then there’s Huan: they’re not going to spend all that much on him: say three thousand. Even if we can’t raise all of that, we can probably get by with a little judicious pruning. As for Her Old Ladyship: the main things have been paid for already; there will only be various miscellaneous expenses. Four or five thousand will probably be ample. No, as long as we can economize a bit, we shall be able to deal with those expenses as they come along. What really worries me is the possibility of one or two large items of expenditure turning up which we hadn’t been expecting. Then I am afraid we really shall be done for!
‘But let’s not worry about these far-off things just now. You must hurry up and have your lunch so that you can get back and find out what it is they want to talk about. I’m delighted that things should be turning out in this way. It’s what I’ve. always wanted, someone to take a bit of the weight off my shoulders. There’s Bao-yu of course; but he isn’t really one of us, so even if I were to win him over, he wouldn’t be very much use. Mrs Zhu is such a Holy Buddha, she’s no good. Miss Ying’s even worse – and anyway she doesn’t properly belong to this household. Miss Xi is still childish. Lan is little more than a baby. Huan is like a singed cat in the cold, only looking for a warm stove or a corner of a kang to curl up on – How the same mother could produce two children such poles apart as him and Tan-chun I never shall under?stand I – Miss Lin and Miss Bao are both very capable girls, but unfortunately they’re not of our surname and can’t very well be expected to involve themselves in running our affairs. And in any case, one of them’s like a beautiful picture-lantern: you feel that a puff of wind would blow her out; and the other is so determined not to open her mouth about what doesn’t concern her that a shake or a nod or an “I don’t know” is about all you can ever get out of her and you feel a bit awk?ward about asking her to do anything. And that only leaves Miss Tan. She’s got a good mind; she’s good at expressing herself; she belongs to the right lineage; Her Ladyship likes her; she’s a bit unsure of herself perhaps, but that’s all the doing of that wretched Zhao woman; in other respects she’s very much like Bao-yu. She’s certainly not in the least like Huan. He really is the most objectionable child. If I had my way he’d have been sent packing long ago. No, if she’s got the determination to do this job, let’s go along with her, I say. Let’s make an ally of her, so that I don’t have to go on feeling so isolated. From a high-minded, honourable point of view, having her to help us will save us a good deal of anxiety, and in the long run Her Ladyship will benefit. But there is also a not so high-minded, rather more selfish way of looking at it. I’ve been too ruthless, I know I have. I ought to step back now and take stock of things. I can’t keep the pres?sure up any longer. People hate me so much already, there are daggers in their smiles. You and I have only two pairs of eyes between us. If I carry on as I have been doing, sooner or later they are bound to catch us off our guard and I shall be destroyed. So you see, her stepping forward and taking command just when things are at their liveliest means that the heat will be turned off me for the time being and people’s resentment against me will have a chance to cool down.
There’s something else I want to say to you. I know you are a very intelligent person, but I am afraid you may find it rather hard to transfer your allegiance, so I want to impress this on you now. Although Miss Tan may be only a girl, there are very few things that she doesn’t know about. You mustn’t be taken in by her quiet manner. In fact, being able to read and write, she’s if anything better equipped to manage things than I am. Now they always say that anyone who wants to break a gang up should begin by arresting the leader, and her immediate concern must be to make an example of someone as a means of establishing her authority. That being so, you can be quite sure that I shall be the person she’ll pick on first to make an example of. If she starts criticizing anything I have said or done, don’t try to defend it; just be very polite and say that the criticism is justified. Don’t, whatever you do, stand up to her out of a mistaken sense of loyalty to me: that’s the last thing I want you to do.’
Before she could go on, Patience laughingly interrupted her:
‘Why are you so ready to assume that other people are stupid? I’ve been taking that line with her already; I don’t need you to tell me!’
‘I was afraid you might have no time for anyone but me,’ said Xi-feng. That was my only reason for warning you. If you have been taking that line with her already, so much the better. Evidently you are cleverer than I am. By the way, aren’t you perhaps getting a little carried away – this “you”, “you”, “you” all of a sudden? What’s wrong with “madam”?’
‘I’ll say “you” if I want to,’ said Patience. ‘If you don’t like it, there’s always my face to slap. It won’t be the first time it’s enjoyed that privilege!’
‘Little beast!’ said Xi-feng. ‘How many times do you intend to go on dragging that up? Fancy provoking me with a thing like that when you know how ill I am! Come on! There aren’t any visitors about. Come over and sit here with me. We’d better get on with our lunch.’
Felicity and three or four junior maids came in at this point carrying a short-legged table between them which they set down on the kang. Xi-feng’s lunch consisted of no more than some bird’s nest soup and a couple of small, light dishes suitable for an invalid palate. Unable to eat more, she had cancelled the portion that under normal catering arrangements would have been her due. Felicity put the four dishes to which Patience was entitled on Xi-feng’s table and filled her a bowlful of rice. Patience then half sat, half stood with one foot curled underneath her on the edge of the kang and the other one resting on the floor, and in that position kept Xi-feng company while she ate her lunch. When they had both finished eating, she helped Xi-feng to wash and rinse Out her mouth, then, after a few admonitory words to Felicity, went back to rejoin Tan-chun and the others in the office.
Outside the office building the forecourt was quiet and deserted. The stewardesses who had formerly been waiting there had now all gone off about their business.
What happened when she went inside will be related in the following chapter.

Previous articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 41
Next articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 54
Discover the wonders of China through studying abroad - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your horizons, immerse yourself in a rich and diverse culture, and gain a world-class education.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here