The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 56

0
196

CHAPTER 56

Resourceful Tan-chun abolishes abuses
in the interests of economy
And sapient Bao-chai shows how small concessions
can be made without loss of dignity

Having kept Xi-feng company while she ate her lunch and waited on her while she rinsed her mouth out and washed, Patience made her way back to the lobs room’. The courtyard outside it was quiet now, deserted except for the silent row of maids and womenservants waiting outside the windows until their mistresses inside the room should require them. The latter were already in the midst of a discussion. They were talking about Lai Da’s garden, which they had visited in Grandmother Jia’s company some months previously on the occasion of the party which had had such unfortunate consequences for Xue Pan. Tan-chun broke off as Patience entered and indicated a low stool for her to sit on.
‘I’ve been thinking about those two taels we get every month for hair-oil and cosmetics,’ she told Patience. ‘We already get a monthly allowance of two taels each and our maids get allowances too. It looks to me as if this is another case of duplication, like the eight taels paid to the school every year which we were dealing with earlier. I know it’s not a very important matter, and the sum involved is not very great, but it’s obvious at a glance that this is a bad arrangement, and I can’t understand why your mistress hasn’t noticed it.’
‘There is a reason,’ said Patience. ‘Obviously you young ladies need a regular fixed supply of these things, and as there wouldn’t be much sense in our constantly running out with a few coppers to make individual purchases, the cosmetic allowances for the various departments are drawn by our buyers and used to make bulk purchases with. The stewardesses collect monthly supplies from the buyers and distribute them to the different apartments, and we maids in the different apartments look after them for use by you as and when you need them. The two-tael monthly allowance you get is quite separate from the cosmetics money. It isn’t meant to be spent on cosmetics; it’s simply to keep you in money, so that if the need should ever arise to spend on something, you shouldn’t have the inconvenience of finding yourselves short and perhaps running round for some only to find that Her Ladyship or whoever is in charge at the time is out or too busy to see you. I have to admit though that about half of us do in fact seem to go outside these arrangements and buy cosmetics with our spending money; but whether it’s because the official buyers simply pocket the money and don’t deliver the goods, or because the stuff they supply us with is so inferior, I simply don’t know.’
Tan-chun and Li Wan exchanged knowing smiles.
‘You’ve noticed, too, then,’ said Tan-chun. ‘I don’t think they actually embezzle the money, but sometimes the supply is very much delayed. If you try to hurry them they produce something so awful that it is quite unusable, and in the end you are forced to buy your own. There’s only one way of doing that, too. You have to give a couple of taels to a nannie and ask her to get one of her sons or nephews to buy it for you. It’s no good trying to do it through the regular staff. If you do, you only get the same awful, unusable stuff as before, I don’t know why.’
‘It’s because if they bought you stuff of better quality, they’d be in trouble with the regular buyers,’ said Patience. ‘The regular buyers would complain that they were trying to do them out of a job. They’d rather offend you than risk offending the buyers. Of course, if you get the stuff through your nannies, there’s nothing the buyers can do about it’
‘Well, I am very uneasy about the whole arrangement,’ said Tan-chun. ‘Here we are paying the same money twice over and half the stuff that is paid for has to be wasted. It would be much better if this monthly payment to the buyers were abolished altogether. That’s one thing. Another thing is this. Last year when we went to Lai Da’s place, you went too. What did you think of that little garden of theirs? How do you think it compares with ours?’
‘It’s not half as big,’ said Patience, ‘and it has far, far fewer trees and flowers and things in it.
‘I got talking to one of the daughters while we were there,’ said Tan-chun. ‘That garden of theirs is let out annually on contract. She told me that quite apart from supplying them through the year with flowers for their hair and with all the bamboo-shoots, vegetables and fish that they eat, it brings them in an annual income of two hundred taels of silver. Ever since that day I have realized that even a broken lotus-leaf or a withered grass-root is worth something.’
Bao-chai laughed.
‘There speaks the voice of gilded youth. How typical! But even though, O delicately-nurtured one, you have no immediate experience of such matters, you can, after all, read and write. Surely you must at some time or other have read Zhuxius’s essay “On Not Throwing Away”?’
‘Yes,’ said Tan-chun, ‘but in that essay isn’t he merely urging the people, in a fairly general sort of way, to exert themselves? And isn’t it all rather empty and rhetorical? Surely he didn’t mean every word of it to be taken literally?’
‘Zhuxius empty and rhetorical?’ said Bao-chai. ‘He meant every word of it. If, after only a few days of household management, the greed for gain has already so clouded your judgement that the teachings of Zhuxius seem empty and rhetorical, I fancy that if you were to venture outside into the corrupting atmosphere of the market-place, you would soon be finding even Confucius himself too abstract for you!’
‘Since you are so learned,’ said Tan-chun, ‘I’m surprised that you should appear to be unfamiliar with the views of Fixius. Fixius once said, “Whosoever sets his foot in the market-place or takes his seat at the counting-board must forget about Yao and Shun and turn his back on the teachings of Confucius and Mencius…”‘
‘How does it go on?’ said Bao-chai.
‘I must claim the quoter’s privilege of giving only as much of the text as will suit my purpose,’ said Tan-chun. ‘If I told you how it went on, I should end up by contradicting myself!’
‘Everything in the world has some use or other,’ said Bao-?chai, ‘and if it has a use, it must have a monetary value. Surely to an intelligent person like you so obvious a truism can hardly have come as a revelation?’
‘You call people here to discuss important business,’ said Li Wan, ‘but all we have had so far is talk about books!’
‘But talk about books is important business,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Without it we should be no better than vulgar tradesmen I’
The three of them continued chaffing a little longer before Tan-chun returned to her theme:
‘Let’s say for the sake of argument that our garden is only twice as big as theirs. Doubling the income they get from theirs would mean a clear profit of four hundred taels per annum. Now of course, a family like ours couldn’t possibly put its garden under contract and turn it into a business in the way that they do it would look too mercenary. On the other hand, when you know how valuable everything is, it seems a terrible waste of natural resources not to have a few people whose special job is to look after it and just let everyone trample on it and despoil it as they please. I think we ought to pick out a few experienced trustworthy old women from among the ones who work in the Garden – women who know something about gardening already – and put the upkeep of the Garden into their hands. We needn’t ask them to pay us rent; all we need ask them for is an annual share of the produce. There would be four advantages in this arrangement. In the first place, if we have people whose sole occupation is to look after trees and flowers and so on, the condition of the garden will improve gradually year after year and there will be no more of those long periods of neglect followed by bursts of feverish activity when things have been allowed to get out of hand. Secondly there won’t be the spoiling and wastage we get at present. Thirdly the women themselves will gain a little extra to add to their incomes which will compensate them for the hard work they put in throughout the year. And fourthly, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t use the money we should otherwise have spent on nurserymen, rockery specialists, horticultural cleaners and so on for other purposes.’
“‘And after three years there shall be no more famine nor hunger in the land”,’ Bao-chai intoned. (She had wandered off in the course of Tan-chun’s exposition and was examining some calligraphy on the wall.)
‘It’s a very good idea,’ said Li Wan. ‘If we could really do this, I’m sure Lady Wang would be pleased. It’s not so much the saving of money that’s important; but if there are going to be people whose special job is to look after the Garden and they are allowed to make a little money out of it as well, then what with “the allurement of status” on the one hand and “the incentive of gain” on the other, they are sure to make a good job of it.’
‘It needed you to suggest this, miss,’ said Patience. ‘My mistress has thought of something like this in the past, but she hasn’t liked to mention it to anyone, because she thought that now all you young ladies are living in the Garden you might feel that we ought to be spending more on it rather than less and if she had people snooping around in it making economies you might feel that that really was the last straw.’
Bao-chai walked over and began feeling Patience’s face:
‘Open your mouth, Patience: I want to see what your teeth are made of. Ever since early this morning you’ve been keeping up this tune. You never give Miss Tan credit for anything. You never admit that Mrs Lian is less than perfect and that there are things she may not have thought of. Whenever Miss Tan has finished saying something, you come back at her with the same refrain: your mistress has thought of that too, only for some compelling reason or other she hasn’t been able to do anything about it. This time you tell us that she didn’t like to save money by putting the Garden under super?vision because of us living there.’
She turned to the others:
‘She’s right, of course. If you do hand this Garden over to a few of the old women to look after, they will naturally be unwilling that a single fruit or flower that they have charge over should be picked. Obviously where we are concerned they will not dare to say anything; but it is sure to prove a source of endless quarrelling with the maids. Patience is far?seeing enough to realize this and, in her own inimitable way, without fear or flattery, she gives us warning. How tactful she is! Even if we weren’t on good terms with her mistress, I think after hearing Patience we should be shamed into making our peace with her!’
‘And I was so angry this morning,’ said Tan-chun. ‘When I heard that Patience had come, I suddenly thought of her mistress and the insufferable behaviour of those henchwomen of hers – which she, no doubt, encourages and it made me even angrier. But Patience was so quiet and timid, like a poor little mouse that the cat has been after, and stood there all the time so meekly; and when she did speak, it was not to remind me of the many kindnesses that I owe her mistress, but to tell me that if I decided to make any changes, I should be doing her mistress a kindness which she was “sure she would appreciate”. It really wrung my heart when she said that. Not only did I stop feeling angry then; I felt ashamed. “Here am I,” I thought, “only a young girl, but behaving in such a way that nobody can ever like me or care what happens to me. When shall I ever be in a position to do anyone a kindness?”’
At this point her emotion got the better of her and she shed some tears. The others, moved by the sincerity with which she had spoken and remembering how Aunt Zhao was con?stantly maligning her and making things difficult for her with Lady Wang, were themselves moved to tears of sympathy; but they did their best to rally her.
‘What better return can we possibly make Lady Wang for placing her trust in us,’ said Li Wan, ‘than to take advantage of the fact that things are a little quieter now by discussing some much-needed economies? What do you want to go bringing in an unimportant matter like that for?’
‘I’ve got the gist of your plan, Miss,’ said Patience. ‘All you need do now is tell us which of the women you want to appoint and we can go straight ahead with it.’
‘That’s all very well,’ said Tan-chun, ‘but you ought to have a word with your mistress about it first. It was a bit presumptuous of us to go poking about and making these little economies in the first place – I should never have ventured to do so if I hadn’t known that your mistress was so understanding: if she’d been a stupid or touchy person, she might have suspected me of trying to shine at her expense All the same, the very least we can do is to consult her first.’
‘Very well,’ said Patience pleasantly. ‘I’ll go and tell her, then.’
She was gone for some time, but returned eventually, full of smiles:
‘I knew it wasn’t necessary to go. Of course she agrees. A good idea like this: how could she do otherwise?’
As soon as Tan-chun had received this confirmation, she and Li Wan sent for the list of women employed in the Garden. Bao-chai joined them in scrutinizing it and in making a pro?visional selection of those most likely to be suitable. These were summoned forthwith and Li Wan, addressing them in a group, outlined the scheme to them in general terms. The women were enthusiastic.
‘Let me have the bamboo,’ said one of them. ‘I’ll have double the amount growing within a year. I can keep you in bamboo-shoots for the kitchen and pay you an annual rent for it as well.’
‘Let me have that bit of rice-paddy,’ said another. ‘I’ll keep you in grain for your cage-birds so that you don’t have to spend money on feed, and I’ll pay you annual tent.’
Before Tan-chun could say anything, someone arrived with a message:
‘The doctor’s arrived. He’s waiting to come into the Garden to have a look at Miss Shi.’
‘Just a moment!’ said Patience as the women went scurry?ing off to escort the doctor. ‘There’s no point in a hundred people going if there isn’t anyone responsible to receive him.’
‘Wu xin-deng’s wife and Mrs Shan are already waiting for him at the Painted Gate on the south-west corner of the Garden,’ said the woman who had brought the message.
When Patience heard that, she made no further objection.
After the women had gone, Tan-chun looked at Bao-chai inquiringly:
‘Well?’
Bac-chal laughed:
“‘He who shows most enthusiasm in the beginning proves often to be a sluggard in the end; and he who promises the fairest is often thinking more of his profit than of his performance.”’
Tan-chun nodded in agreement and praised the aptness of the quotation. She turned to the register once more and pointed out a few more names for the other two to con?sider. Patience fetched a brush and inkstone for her to write with.
‘Mamma Zhu is a very reliable body,’ said the others of one of these. ‘Her old man used to be a bamboo specialist and her son still is; it’s in the family. She’s the one we should put in charge of all the bamboos in the Garden. And Mamma Tian comes from a farming family. The farm at Sweet-rice Village may be only a plaything and not meant for serious cultivation, but if she were in charge of all those vegetable and paddy strips and doing the things that needed doing at the proper times, we should probably get a lot more out of it.’
‘When you think of the amount of land that goes with them, it seems a pity that All-spice Court and Green Delights don’t produce anything marketable,’ said Tan-chun.
‘Oh, but they do!’ said Li Wan. ‘Especially All-spice Court. Half the aromatics sold in perfumers’ shops and on the herb stalls at markets and temple fairs come from plants like the ones grown in All-spice. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more profit to be had out of them than out of anything else that this Garden produces. And as for Green Delights: to mention nothing else, just look at all the flowers produced by that rosa rugosa during the spring and summer months! And all the rambler roses and monthly roses and rosa glabra and honeysuckle and wistaria on the pergolas: think how much you could make out of them if the flowers were dried properly and sold to tea-merchants for flavouring!’
Tan-chun nodded enthusiastically.
‘But,’ she reflected, ‘we haven’t got anyone who knows the art of flower-drying, have we?’
‘The mother of Miss Bao’s maid Oriole knows all about that sort of thing,’ said Patience. ‘Don’t you remember her drying a lot of flowers once and filling little baskets and gourds with them to make us presents?’
‘Is this the thanks I get for praising you?’ Bao-chai asked Patience.
‘What can you mean?’ said the others, in some surprise.
You can’t possibly give the job to her,’ said Bao-chai. ‘You have so many able and willing women of your own who won’t be getting any of these jobs: they are going to think very poorly of me if they know that I am responsible for bringing in an outsider. I can think of someone that you could give this job to, though: Old Mamma Ye at Green Delights – Tealeaf’s mother. She’s a very honest old woman; and what’s more, she is on very good terms with Oriole’s mother. You’d much better give the job to her. She will probably consult Oriole’s mother whenever there is anything she is not sure about in any case. She may even elect to hand over to her altogether. But that would be entirely a private matter between the two of them. The other servants might resent it, but at least they couldn’t blame us. The advantage of this arrangement is that it would look fair as well as being effective.’
Li Wan and Patience agreed. Tan-chun was more sceptical:
‘That may be; but what if cupidity proves stronger than friendship?’
‘Not likely in this case,’ said Patience. ‘Only the other day Mamma Ye was invited to become Oriole’s godmother. The three of them had a little party to celebrate. The two families are very close.’
Tan-chun dropped her objection and proceeded, with the others, to deliberate on the rest of their choices – all of them women whom the four of them had mentally noted in the past for their dependability. As each one’s selection was confirmed, she made a little circle with her writing-brush against the corresponding name in the register.
Shortly after this the women arrived back again to report that the doctor had gone and to hand in the prescription he had left. After studying it, Li Wan, Tan-chun and Bao-chai sent one of the women to obtain the drugs from outside and to supervise the making-up and administering of the medicine. Then Li Wan and Tan-chun told the women which of them were to have the cultivation of which parts of the Garden and what the conditions of their tenure were to be:
‘You will be expected to give us, in due season, a fixed amount of your crops for our own use; but apart from that it will be up to you to make whatever profit from them you can.
Accounts will be submitted and dues paid at the end of the year.’
‘I’ve been having second thoughts about that,’ said Tan?-chun. ‘If you are submitting annual accounts and paying dues, presumably it will be to the Office. But that means another lot of people with control over you and another layer skimmed off your profits. Now in thinking up this new arrangement and appointing you ourselves, we are already in a sense going above their heads, which is sure to anger them. They probably won’t dare to say anything about it now, but there will be nothing to stop them getting their own back later on when you go round to settle accounts with them at the end of the year. And there’s another thing. If they are going to be in on this, they are sure to expect a share of the produce. Whatever you agree to give us in the course of each year, they will expect the equivalent of half the amount for themselves. That’s an old, established rule. Everyone knows that. But since the new arrangement is our creation, I say let’s keep it out of their hands altogether. If there’s to be an annual settling of accounts, let it be done here, internally.’
‘If you ask me,’ said Bao-chai, I don’t think there should be any settling of accounts at all. You’d always be finding that this one had too much and that one too little. It would only be a lot of extra trouble. Why not get each of them to take over some regular item of your expenditure and pay for it out of their profits? That will keep it all inside the Garden. I’ve just been running over in my mind what your regular expenses are. They aren’t very many. There’s hair-oil, cos?metics, incense, paper: every mistress and her maids get a fixed amount of those every month. Then there are brushes, dust-pans, feather-dusters and food for the livestock (birds, rabbits, deer and so forth). That’s really all. Now suppose instead of drawing money from Accounts for all those things we gave these women the responsibility of paying for them:
how much do you reckon the saving would be?’
‘They’re small items in themselves,’ said Patience, ‘but I should think if you added them all together the total annual saving would be well over four hundred taels.’
‘There you are I’ said Bao-chai. ‘Four hundred a year, eight hundred in two years: you could buy a small house for letting with that or add half an acre of poor farm-land to your landholdings. But though there should be quite a lot left over after they have covered the expenses we are assigning to them, we want them to have a little something to spend on themselves after working hard all through the year; and though, from our point of view, the main object of these operations is economy, we don’t want to overdo it. There would be no point in saving an extra two or three hundred taels if it meant resorting to undignified methods in order to do so. What we are now proposing means that Accounts will be paying out four or five hundred taels a year less than they do now without anyone outside feeling the pinch. And as for inside, the women doing these jobs will be getting a little extra for themselves, the ones not doing them will be able to relax a bit, the Garden’s stock of trees and flowers will thrive and increase through being better cared for, and we shall he better off when we have this regular supply of the produce for our own use – all this without any loss of dignity. Whereas if we went all out to economize with no other consideration but making money in mind, no doubt we should have little difficulty in squeezing more out, but the effect of paying everything back into the common account would be wails of protest from everyone, both inside the Garden and out, and a consequent loss of dignity that in a household like yours would be quite un?acceptable.
‘Altogether there must be several dozen old women working in this Garden. If you give the money-making jobs to these few here and leave the others out in the cold, the others are going to complain that it isn’t fair. Now as I said, there’s still going to be quite a lot of money left over when they’ve finished paying these various expenses for you, and I think we should be letting them off a bit too lightly if we let them keep all of it. Why don’t we say that every year, no matter how much or how little they have made, they are to pay so many strings of cash into a common pool which will be shared out among all the other women? Although those others won’t any longer have anything to do with the upkeep of the Garden, they are responsible, day and night, for keeping an eye on the other servants; they have the responsibility of opening and closing the gates, which means that they have to get up earlier and go to bed later than everyone else; and whenever any of us go out, whatever the weather, even if it is raining or snowing heavily, they have to carry sedans, punt boats, draw sledges – in fact do any heavy work that needs to be done. Since they work so hard in the Garden from one year’s end to the next, it seems only fair that if any money is going to be made out of the Garden, they should have a share in it. And there’s another reason for this, if it doesn’t seem too petty-minded to mention it’ – Bao-chai turned to the women to explain – ‘If you think only of how much you can make out of this for yourselves and don’t let the others have a share, they are sure to feel resentful even if they don’t like to say anything and will try to make up for it by misappropriating what they can for their own use – filching a fruit here and a flower there whenever they have the opportunity. Whereas if they know in advance that they are going to get a share of whatever you make from your produce, they will be as anxious as you are that none of it is stolen and will even keep an eye on it for you when you aren’t able to watch over it yourselves.’
The women were quick to see the force of this argument – no control by the Office, no settling of accounts with Xi-feng, only a few strings of cash to pay out every year. They were all of them delighted and accepted these conditions unani?mously.
‘Better than being pushed around by Accounts,’ they said. ‘If we were paying them anything, they’d want a dash on top of it for themselves.’
Those of the women present who were not getting one of the gardening jobs, when they heard that they were going to be given money at the end of every year without having to do anything to earn it, were, if anything, even more delighted -though for politeness’ sake they pretended to demur:
‘After all the hard work they’ll be putting into it they ought to have a bit extra for themselves. Doesn’t seem right that we should sit back and collect the jackpot without having to do anything for it!’
‘Don’t refuse the offer,’ said Bao-chai, smiling. ‘It’s no less than you deserve. As long as you continue to keep a close watch on things and don’t get slack and allow people to drink and gamble. Otherwise it puts me in such an awkward position. This isn’t really my business, of course; but as you have no doubt heard, my aunt has repeatedly urged me to take over responsibility for it on the grounds that Mrs Zhu is too busy and the other young ladles are too young to attend to it. I can’t refuse her, knowing that to do so would be deliberately adding to her worries. She has such indifferent health and so many household cares and I have so little to do myself that even if she were only a neighbour and not my aunt, I could scarcely refuse to help her. It’s no good worrying that I shall make myself unpopular. If I care only about being popular and allow people to drink and gamble as much as they like, sooner or later someone who has drunk too much will start a quarrel. If an incident like that were to happen, how should I be able to look my aunt in the face? And think what it would be like for you. You would have forfeited your reputation as responsible seniors that you have taken so many years to build up. After all, the reason all these dozens of maids and the whole of this great Garden have been placed under your supervision is because you have served here under three or four generations of masters and are considered more dependable than any of the other servants. At a time when we all ought to be doing our best to keep up appearances, you will have allowed other people to drink and gamble. It will be bad enough if my aunt gets to hear of it and gives you a talking-to; but what if you are found out by the stewardesses and they decide to discipline you themselves without bothering to tell my aunt? What a disgrace, that people of your years should be punished by servants younger than yourselves. They would be within their rights, of course. As stewardesses they have power over all other members of the staff. But how much better if you conducted yourselves in such a way that you could keep your self-respect and not be in a position where they had you at their mercy! That is why I have thought of this plan for bringing you in a little extra money. I am hoping that everyone will now collaborate to make this Garden such a model of discipline and good management that those who have the power to intervene, when they see how tight a discipline you are able to keep by yourselves, will decide that there is nothing for them to worry about and will respect you and leave you alone. Then we shall feel that the trouble we have taken in planning this little extra income for you was justified. Think about it!’
The women were all smiles of pleasure:
‘You’re right, Miss Bao. Don’t worry, Mrs Zhu and young ladies both! We should be lost souls indeed if we didn’t show a bit of consideration for you after you have been so kind and thoughtful to us!’
At that moment Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife came in:
‘The Zhen family from Nanking arrived in town yesterday. Today they have gone to the Palace to offer their felicitations. Some of their people have just arrived here to pay their respects. They have brought presents with them.’
She held out the list of presents with both hands. Tan-chun took it from her and ran her eye over it:

Imperial use decorated satins and mang satins 12 lengths
Imperial use satins, various 12 lengths
Imperial use gauzes, in different shades 12 lengths
Imperial use Palace taffetas 12 lengths
Official use satins, gauzes, taffetas and damasks in various colours 24 lengths

When Li Wan too had seen the list, she told Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife to use the largest size of gratuity packet for tipping the bearers with. She also sent someone to report to Grandmother Jia, who sent word back that Li Wan, Tan-chun and Bao-chai were to come over and inspect the presents. After they had done so, Li Wan told the women in charge of the store-room to wait until Lady Wang had got back and had a look at them before putting them into store.
‘The Zhens are rather special people,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘You had better use one of the largest gratuity packets when you are tipping the bearers. And you’d better get some cloth-lengths ready: I expect we shall have some of their women arriving shortly, to pay their respects.’
The words were scarcely out of her mouth when the arrival of four women from the Zhen household was announced. Grandmother Jia at once gave orders that they should be brought in. All four were sober matrons of forty years or more and so genteelly dressed that it would have been im?possible to guess from their appearance that they were servants. When the formal salutations and the inquiries after Grand?mother Jia’s health had been completed, the old lady called for footstools to be brought for them to sit on. They acknowledged the courtesy but waited until Bao-chai and the others were seated before they would sit down themselves. When Grandmother Jia asked them when they had arrived in town, they stood up again to reply:
‘We arrived yesterday. Today Her Ladyship has had to take our young lady to the Palace, so she has sent us to offer you her respects and ask after the young ladies.’
‘It’s many years since they have been to the capital,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘It’s rather unexpected, that they should suddenly turn up like this.’
The women smiled:
‘Yes, madam. They had an Imperial Summons to come this year.’
‘Have they all come?’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘No, madam. Her Old Ladyship and the young master and our fourth and fifth young ladies and the other ladles all stayed at home. Only Her Ladyship and our third young lady have accompanied the Master on this journey.’
‘Is your third young lady betrothed yet?’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘No, madam, not yet.’
‘Your first and second young ladies both married into families on very good terms with ours,’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘Yes, madam,’ said the spokeswoman. ‘Every year when they write home they tell us how much they are beholden to you for your kind concern.’
Grandmother Jia laughed deprecatingly:
‘One could hardly call it that. Our families have known each other for so long and we are connected by marriage: it’s only right that we should take an interest in them. We are particularly fond of your second young lady. She is so unassuming, in spite of her rank. I think I could say, without offence, that we have grown quite attached to her.’
The women laughed:
‘You are too polite, madam.’
Grandmother Jia pursued her questioning:
‘Your young master lives with his grandmother, then?’
‘Yes, madam.’
‘How old is he? Has he started school yet?’
‘Thirteen this year,’ said the woman. ‘He has started school, but he is always playing truant. He has always been naughty, since he was little. He’s a good-looking boy, though, and his grandmother’s favourite, so there’s not much his father and mother can do about it.’
Grandmother Jia was greatly diverted.
‘Just like us! And what is his name?’
‘Well, because she says he is her “treasure” and because he has such a milky-white complexion, his grandmother calls him “Bao-yu”. That means “Precious Jade”, you see.’
Grandmother Jia turned to Li Wan, laughing:
‘Fancy that! He’s even called Bao-yu, too.’
Li Wan inclined politely
‘Coincidences over names have always been common, whether among contemporaries or among people of different periods.’
‘We did wonder, after he was given this name, whether there wasn’t some family of our acquaintance in the capital in which the name had already been used,’ said the woman; ‘but as it was ten or more years since we’d been there, we couldn’t remember for sure whether there was or not.’
‘It’s my grandson’s name,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Come here, someone.’
‘Hei!’ shouted the womenservants in attendance, and a few of them stepped forward.
‘Go over to the Garden and tell our Bao-yu to come here so that our visitors can have a look at him and tell us how he compares with their Bao-yu.’
The women hurried off in obedience to her order and returned after ten minutes or so with Bao-yu in their midst. When the four women from the Zhen household saw him enter, they hurriedly rose to their feet.
‘You gave us quite a turn,’ they said. ‘If we hadn’t been here and had met you in some other place, we’d have thought that our own Bao-yu must have followed after to join us!’
They took him by the hand and made much of him, plying him with all sorts of questions. Bao-yu smiled back at them and greeted them politely.
‘Well, how does he compare with yours?’ Grandmother Jia asked them.
‘It would appear that the two Bao-yus are very like each other from what they have already said,’ Li Wan remarked.
‘I doubt such a coincidence is possible,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Children of the upper classes, especially if they are reared delicately and provided they are not pock-marked or ill-favoured, are all much of a muchness as far as good looks are concerned. There would be nothing remarkable in a slight resemblance between them.’
‘In appearance he is exactly like our Bao-yu,’ said the women; ‘but though Your Ladyship was saying just now that he is mischievous, I think your Bao-yu must be better-tempered than ours.’
‘Oh?’ said Grandmother Jia, immediately interested. ‘Why do you think that?’
‘Because he let us hold his hand just now when we talked to him. If it had been our young gentleman, he would have called us “old fools”. We are not allowed to lay a finger on any of his things even, let alone take him by the hand. The only servants he will have about him are young girls.’
Before they could go on, Li Wan, Tan-chun and Bao-chai had burst out laughing. Grandmother Jia was laughing too:
‘I’m sure that if I were to send some of my women to see your Bao-yu now and they took him by the hand, he would somehow or other contrive to put up with it. Children brought up in families like ours, no matter how odd or eccentric they may be, will always conduct themselves in a courteous, well-bred manner in the presence of strangers. Otherwise their eccentricity would not be tolerated. In fact, the reason why grown-ups are so fond of them, though partly because of their good looks, is mainly because their beautiful manners – much better than many a grown-up’s – make it such a pleasure to be with them. No one meeting them can help liking them, and that makes us more tolerant of what they do on their own, when they are out of sight. But if they were to carry on in exactly the same way all the time, never allowing the grown-ups to get a word in edgeways, they would be fit for nothing but a whipping.’
‘That’s true, madam,’ said the women, smiling. ‘Although our Bao-yu is so odd and mischievous, he can at times, when he is with visitors, behave himself better than a grown-up, so that it’s a pleasure to watch him. No one who meets him can help liking him. Often they ask us what his father should want to beat him for, not realizing what a holy terror he can be inside the family. Sir Zhen and Lady Zhen are driven half distracted by him. If it were just his wilfulness, which is fairly normal in a child, it could be cured in time; so could his extravagance, which is normal in the sons of well-to-do people; and so could his hatred of study, which again is fairly normal in a young person. But this weird perverseness of his seems to be inbred: there seems to be no cure for it.’
Just then Lady Wang’s return was announced. She went straight up to Grandmother Jia on entering and saluted her, after which she received the salutations of the four visitors and exchanged a few words with them.
‘You are tired,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Go and rest’
Lady Wang served her mother-in-law with some tea before withdrawing to her own apartment. Shortly after she had gone, the four women took their leave of Grandmother Jia and went to join her. Lady Wang chatted with them for a while about family affairs before sending them on their way – suitably primed, of course, with messages and gratuities: but those are details which need not concern us.

*

Greatly tickled by what the women had told her, Grandmother Jia, for some time after their visit) would announce to anyone who came to see her:
There is another Bao-yu, you know, exactly like our Bao-yu in every particular.’
The other memhers of the family, bearing in mind that the world was a large place and instances of the same name among its innumerable upper-class families probably of not very rare occurrence, and that a grandmother who doted on her grandson was a fairly unremarkable phenomenon, were unimpressed by the coincidence and gave little thought to it. But Bao-yu, convinced, like many another young gentleman, of his own uniqueness, dismissed what the four women had said as a fabrication designed to give pleasure to his grandmother. He was taunted about it by Xiang-yun when he visited her in her sick-room in the Garden to see how she was getting on.
‘You’ll be able to get up to all sorts of mischief now,’ she said. ‘Previously it was a case of

The single strand makes not a thread Nor the single tree a wood.

We thought there was only one of you. But now you know you are a pair, there will be no stopping you. If your father beats you really badly, you can always run off to Nanking and get this other Bao-yu to stand in for you!’
‘You don’t believe that rubbish, do you?’ said Bao-yu. ‘How could there be another Bao-yu?’
‘There was a Lin Xiang-ru in the Warring States period and a Si-ma Xiang-ru under the Former Han,’ said Xiang-yun.
‘Yes, but this one’s supposed to look the same as well,’ said Bao-yu. ‘That’s not something you can find precedents for, surely?’
‘What about when the men of Kuang mistook Confucius for Yang Huo?’ said Xiang-yun.
Confucius and Yang Huo may have looked the same,’ said Bao-yu, ‘but they didn’t have the same name. Lin xiang?ru and Si-ma Xiang-ru had the same name but they didn’t look alike. We are supposed both to have the same name and to look the same. It isn’t possible.’
Xiang-yun, unable to think of a reply, took the easy way out.
‘Pleathe yourthelf. Whether it is or whether it isn’t, it’s of no concern to me.’
And she lay back on the bed and closed her eyes.
But Bao-yu’s confidence was shaken. Had he a double? When he told himself that he couldn’t possibly, he now began to feel that perhaps after all he had. On the other hand how could he be sure that he had when he had never seen him? Brooding on this uncertainty, he went back to his room and lay down on his bed to ponder it in silence. Soon he had drifted into sleep.
He was in a garden, which, he remarked with surprise, bore some resemblance to Prospect Garden. While he was still puzzling over the similarity, he became aware that some girls were coming towards him, all of them maids. Again he was surprised:
‘Strange that there should be another lot of maids here like Faithful and Aroma and Patience!’
He observed that they were laughing at him:
‘Bao-yu, what are you doing here?’
Bao-yu, naturally supposing that they meant him, smiled back at them:
‘I’ve strayed in here by accident. I think this garden must belong to some friend or other of my family. Won’t you take me with you and show me round it?’
‘It isn’t our Bao-yu after all,’ said the girls. ‘He’s not bad-looking, though, and he sounds reasonably intelligent.’
‘Tell me,’ said Bao-yu eagerly, ‘is there another Bao-yu here then?’
‘Bao-yu?’ rejoined one of the girls sharply. ‘We have Her Old Ladyship’s and Her Ladyship’s orders to use that name as much as possible as a means of bringing him luck and Bao-yu likes to hear us use it; but what business has a boy like you from some remote place outside to be making free with it? Don’t let them catch you doing that here, boy or they’ll flay your backside for you!’
‘Come, let’s be going,’ said another. ‘We don’t want Bao-yu to see him.’
‘Don’t let’s stand here talking to the nasty creature,’ said a third. ‘We shall be contaminated!’
And they hurried off.
Bao-yu was nonplussed.
‘No one has ever been as horrid as that to me before. I wonder why they are? And I wonder if there really is another person exactly like me here.’
As he mused on the unaccountable hostility of the maids, his feet were carrying him along in no particular direction and presently he found himself inside a courtyard. He looked around him in some surprise:
‘Strange! There’s even a place like Green Delights here.’
He mounted the steps of the verandah and walked inside the building. Someone was lying there on a bed. On the other side of the room were some maids, some of them sewing, some of them giggling over a game they were playing. Presently the person on the bed – it was a youth – could he heard to sigh and one of the maids laughingly inquired what he was sighing for.
‘Aren’t you asleep, Bao-yu? I suppose you are worried about your cousin’s illness again and imagining all sorts of foolish things about her.’
Bao-yu heard this with some astonishment. He listened while the youth on the bed replied:
‘I heard Grandmother say that there is another Bao-yu in the capital who is exactly like me, but I didn’t believe her. I’ve just been having a dream in which I went into a large garden and met some girls there who called me a “nasty creature” and wouldn’t have anything to do with me. I managed to find this Bao-yu’s room, but he was asleep. What I saw was only an empty shell lying there on the bed. I was wondering where the real person could have got to.’
‘I came here looking for Bao-yu. Are you Bao-yu then?’ Bao-yu could not help blurting out.
The youth leaped down from the bed and seized Bao-yu by the hands:
‘So you are Bao-yu, and this isn’t a dream after all?’
‘Of course it isn’t a dream,’ said Bao-yu. ‘It couldn’t be more real!’
Just then someone arrived with a summons:
‘The Master wants to see Bao-yu.’
For a moment the two Bao-yus were stunned; and then one Bao-yu hurried off and the other Bao-yu was left calling after him:
‘Come back, Bao-yu! Come back, Bao-yu!’
Aroma heard him calling his own name in his sleep and shook him awake.
‘Where’s Bao-yu?’ she asked him jokingly.
Though awake, Bao-yu had not yet regained consciousness of his surroundings. He pointed to the doorway:
‘He’s only just left. He can’t have got very far.’
‘You’re still dreaming,’ Aroma said, amused. ‘Rub your eyes and have another look. That’s the mirror. You’re looking at your own reflection in the mirror.’
Bao-yu leaned forward and looked the doorway he had pointed to was his dressing-mirror. He joined Aroma in laughing at himself.
Seeing him awake, maids were already at hand with a spittoon and a cup of strong tea for him to rinse his mouth with. Musk recalled Grandmother Jia’s strictures against young people having too many mirrors around them.
‘She says that when you’re young your soul isn’t fully formed yet, and if you’re reflected in mirrors too often, it can give your soul a shock which causes you to have bad dreams. Fancy putting your bed right in front of that great mirror! It’s all right as long as it’s kept covered, but sometimes when you’ve been out to the front, especially in hot weather when you’re feeling tired, they forget to cover it. That’s what must have happened just now. And you must have been looking at yourself in it before you dropped off to sleep. That would be a sure way of bringing on a bad dream. And it would explain why you were calling your own name out in your sleep. Let’s move this bed inside, away from the mirror, for goodness sake!’
Just then a message arrived for Bao-yu from Lady Wang saying that she wanted to see him.
But as to what it was she wanted to see him about: that will be revealed in the chapter which follows.

Previous articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 57
Next articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 70
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