The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 57

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CHAPTER 57

Nightingale tests Jade Boy with a startling message
And Aunt Xue comforts Frowner with
words of loving kindness

Obedient to the summons, Bao-yu hurried from the Garden and over to his mother’s apartment. It appeared that she was about to pay a call on Lady Zhen and wanted to take him with her. Bao-yu was delighted and hurried back again to get changed.
The Zhens’ town house was very much like the Ning and Rong establishments – if anything, a shade more opulent. In answer to Bao-yu’s questioning, Lady Zhen assured him that there was indeed a Bao-yu in Nanking. She kept the two of them to dinner and they stayed there for the rest of the day. Bao-yu was at last convinced.
As soon as they got back in the evening, Lady Wang made arrangements for entertaining Lady Zhen. A first-class dinner was ordered, a well-known troupe of adult players engaged, and Lady Zhen and her daughter were invited to come over next day. The day after that mother and daughter left town. They had no time for farewells: Sir Zhen had been ordered back to his post.
It was on the day of their departure that Bao-yu, after visiting Xiang-yun and finding that she was distinctly on the mend, went over to see how Dai-yu was getting on, only to be told that she was taking her afternoon nap. Nightingale chanced to be sitting outside in the covered walk doing some sewing, so, not wishing to disturb Dai-yu, he went over to talk to Nightingale instead.
‘How was she last night? Is her cough any better?’
‘Yes, a bit better,’ said Nightingale.
‘Thank the Lord for that!’ said Bao-yu fervently. ‘If only she could shake it off altogether!’
Nightingale looked up at him with amusement:
‘It’s not often we hear you calling on the Lord.’
Bao-yu returned her smile:
‘Any doctor will do in an emergency.’
His eye took in her costume as he said this: a cotton-padded dress of thin black-and-white material with only a lined black satin waistcoat over the top of it. He reached out his hand to feel it.
‘What you’re wearing is much too thin for this time of year. You’re sitting in a draught here as well. If you go sick too, things here will be in a pretty pickle!’
‘Look,’ said Nightingale sharply, ‘let’s just talk to each other in future, shall we, without any of this pawing about? Now that we’re all beginning to grow up, it creates such a bad impression. However much that horrible lot over there say things about you behind your back, you still carry on the same as when you were little. It won’t do. Miss Lin has warned us time and again about getting into conversations with you. Look at the way she behaves towards you herself nowadays: she can’t keep far enough away from you.’
She rose to her feet as she said this and moved, with her sewing, into the house.
The effect of this rebuff on Bao-yu’s feelings was as if a bowl of icy water had been emptied over him. For some moments he was stunned and stood gazing stupidly at the clump of bamboos that were growing in front of him; then, as he became gradually aware that Mamma Zhu, to whose expert care they had been entrusted, was rooting about in their midst, he took himself off, but still in a daze, and scarcely aware what he was doing. Presently he sat down on a rock somewhere to think. Tears rolled down his cheeks, but he did not feel them. For an hour or more he continued to sit there motionless, turning the same question, ‘What am I to do?’, over and over in his mind, but never reaching a con?clusion.
Snowgoose, sent on an errand to fetch ginseng from Lady Wang’s, passed by him on her way back. As she glanced sideways from the path, she saw a figure sitting motionless on a rock underneath a peach-tree, chin cupped in hand and evidently lost in thought, which she recognized, with some surprise, as Bao-yu.
‘It’s ever so cold,’ she thought: ‘what can he be doing, all on his own out here? They say that sickly people are specially liable to catch things in spring. Perhaps he’s gone mental.’
She went over to where he was sitting and, squatting down in front of him, peered smilingly into his face.
‘What are you doing out here?’
Bao-yu noticed her with a start.
‘Why do you come up to me like this? You’re a girl, aren’t you? She’s told you all not to have anything to do with me, for fear of creating a scandal; so why do you still come up to me? If we’re seen here talking together) there’ll only be more gossip. Go back home!’
Snowgoose assumed that Dai-yu had been upsetting him and continued on her way. When she got back to the Naiad’s House, Dai-yu was still asleep, so she gave the ginseng to Nightingale.
‘What was Her Ladyship doing?’ Nightingale asked her.
‘She was having an afternoon nap, too. That’s why I was so long. I’ll tell you something that will make you laugh, Night. While I was sitting in the servants’ room talking to Silver and waiting for Her Ladyship to get up, who should look in but Mrs Zhao, and beckoned me over to her. And do you know what she wanted? They’re burying her brother tomorrow and she’s got leave from Her Ladyship to go there for the wake. Young Fortune’s going with her, and she said Fortune hasn’t got anything to wear, would I please lend her my pale-blue dress? Well, I thought to myself, Fortune’s got just as many dresses as I have; the only reason she wants to borrow some?one else’s is because she’s too mean to let her wear her own there and risk getting it dirtied. I wouldn’t mind lending it to her – even if she dirtied it, it wouldn’t matter all that much – but what has she ever done for us? So I said, “Miss Lin told me to hand all my clothes and jewellery to Nightingale to look after. I should have to see Nightingale about it first, and I should have to tell Miss Lin. It might take rather a long time. I might not be able to get it to you before you go,” I said. “Perhaps it would be safer to borrow someone else’s.”‘
Nightingale laughed.
‘You’re an artful little minx, aren’t you? You don’t wantto lend her your dress, but you take very good care that it’s me and Miss Lin that get blamed for refusing it, and not you. Is Mrs Zhao going now, then, or first thing tomorrow?’
‘Now,’ said Snowgoose. ‘She’s probably already left.’
Nightingale nodded.
‘It looks as if Miss Lin’s still asleep,’ said Snowgoose. ‘If it wasn’t her, I wonder who it was that made Bao-yu so upset. He was sitting Out there in the Garden crying.’
‘Oh?’ said Nightingale sharply. ‘Where?’
‘Under that peach-tree behind Drenched Blossoms Pavi?lion.’
Nightingale hurriedly put down her sewing and stood up. ‘You take over in case she calls. If she wants me, tell her I’ll be back directly.’
She sped off to look for Bao-yu. There was a reassuring smile on her face as she came up to him.
‘That was only a harmless little remark I made, and it was only for your own and everyone else’s good. Why did you need to get in such a passion and go rushing off to sit in the wind here and cry? Suppose you were to get ill as a result of this.’
Immediately Bao-yu was his smiling self once more:
‘I wasn’t in a passion. I thought what you said was very reasonable. What upset me was the thought that if you felt that way, then other people must feel that way too, in which case soon everyone would stop having anything to do with me.’
Nightingale sat down companionably at his side.
‘A short while ago you moved away from me when I was standing opposite you,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Now, apparently, it is all right to sit close beside me.’
‘I suppose you’ve forgotten the time when you and Miss Lin were talking together and Mrs Zhao burst in on you,’ said Nightingale. ‘That was what made me careful. Now I’ve just heard that she’s away, so it’s quite safe. Incidentally, there’s something about that occasion I’ve always wanted to ask you. You were about to say something about bird’s nest when she came in but didn’t have a chance to finish; and you’ve never referred to it since.’
‘Oh, it was nothing important,’ said Bao-yu. ‘It’s just that once you start taking bird’s nest, you’ve got to keep it up, and it seemed to me that as Cousin Bao is really here as our guest, it would be rather boorish to keep asking her for more; on the other hand it would be rather awkward to have to ask Lady Wang for it; so I dropped a hint to Grandma, and I rather think that she had a word on the subject with Feng. That’s all I was going to tell Dai when we were interrupted. I’ve since heard that you’re getting an ounce a day regularly, so there hasn’t seemed any need to mention it.
‘Oh, so it was you who told her about it,’ said Nightingale. ‘In that case we owe you our thanks. We couldn’t think what it was that could have suddenly put it into her head.’
‘She should take it regularly, every day,’ said Bao-yu. ‘If she can keep it up for two or three years, she should get completely better.’
‘It’s easy enough now,’ said Nightingale, ‘but where will she find the money for it next year, when she goes home?’
Bao-yu was startled.
‘When who goes home? What home?’
‘When your Cousin Dai goes back to Soochow.’
Bao-yu laughed:
‘You’re joking. Soochow is where her father came from, I know. But the reason we brought her here in the first place was because when my Aunt Lin died there was no one to look after her. There wouldn’t be anyone in Soochow for her to go to. You must be lying.’
‘How arrogant you are I’ said Nightingale scornfully. ‘I suppose you think yours is the only big family in the world. According to you, I suppose, other people only have fathers and mothers: they couldn’t possibly have uncles and aunts on their father’s side like you do. As a matter of fact, when Miss Lin came here it wasn’t because there weren’t any relations of her father’s that she could have gone to; it was because Her Old Ladyship was afraid that being so little she might not be as happy with them as she would with her mother’s folk. But it was only ever her intention to keep her here for a few years. As soon as she’s old enough to be married, she’ll have to go back to the Lin family. You could hardly expect a Lin family girl to spend the rest of her days among Jias, now could you? The Lins may be too poor to afford a square meal, but they are people of education. They’d never sink so low as to hand over responsibility for one of their own number to their marriage-kin. Next year – next spring at the earliest, but certainly not later than next autumn – either your family will send her back to them or the Lins themselves will come here to fetch her. Miss Lin was talking to me about it only the other night. She said I was to ask you to get together all the little presents she’s ever given you and send them back to her, and she’ll do the same with yours.’
To Bao-yu these words were like a thunderclap exploding immediately overhead. Nightingale waited to see how he would reply, but he made no sound. Growing at last im?patient, she was about to speak to him again when Skybright appeared. She had been looking for him everywhere, she said. He was wanted by his grandmother.
‘He’s been here all this time talking about Miss Lin’s ill-ness,’ said Nightingale. ‘I keep telling him how she is, but he won’t believe me. If you want him to go with you, you’ll have to take hold of him and make him go.’
She left then, without waiting to see more.
Skybright noticed Bao-yu’s vacant expression. His forehead was beaded with sweat and there was a red, inflamed look about his face. She seized him by the hand and hurried him back to Green Delights.
Aroma was naturally alarmed to see Bao-yu come back in such a state, but attributed it to the weather: it was an in-clement spring and he had gone out while overheated and exposed himself to the wind. But it soon became ap?parent that feverishness was the least serious of his symp?toms. His eyes had a fixed and glassy stare, a little trickle of saliva ran from each corner of his mouth, and he seemed to have lost all consciousness of what he was doing: when they brought him a pillow he lay down; when they pulled him by the hand he sat up again; when they handed him a cup of tea he drank it; but all with the mechanical movements of an automaton. The maids, when they saw this, were in a panic; but not daring to report yet to Grandmother Jia, they first sent for Nannie Li to tell them what was wrong.
Nannie Li came promptly. Before she did anything else, she spent a good long while simply observing him. Then she asked him a few questions, but he made no reply. Then she took his wrist in her hand and felt his pulse. Finally, taking the raphe of his lip between her thumb and finger, she pinched it a couple of times, so hard that a deep imprint was made by her nails: yet he seemed to feel nothing.
‘Lord a mercy!’ cried the old woman in a pathetic voice, and clinging to his body, she set up a howl and wept. Aroma, beside herself with anxiety, tugged imploringly at her sleeve:
‘Nannie, Nannie, have another look at him and tell us how serious it is, so that we know what to say to Their Ladyships. Don’t just cry!’
Nannie Li hammered the bed with her fists:
‘It’s all up with him, I tell you. All the heartache I’ve had on account of him was wasted.’
Aroma and the girls who, whatever else they might think of Nannie Li, respected her age and experience, assumed that she must know what she was talking about and all began crying too.
Skybright now told Aroma the circumstances in which she had found Bao-yu. Without a moment’s hesitation Aroma flew over to the Naiad’s House, arriving just as Nightingale was giving Dai-yu her medicine. Wasting no time on civility, she stalked straight up to Nightingale and confronted her there and then.
‘What did you say just now to our Bao-yu? Just go and take a look at him, will you, then go and tell Her Old Lady ship, because I won’t be responsible.’
She concluded by sitting down rudely in a chair.
The sight of Aroma, with her angry, tear-stained face, behaving in a way that was so utterly uncharacteristic of her, filled Dai-yu with alarm.
‘What is it?’
Aroma made an effort to control herself and answered tearfully:
‘I don’t know what Her Ladyship here can have said to him, but that simpleton of ours just stares into space without speaking, his hands and feet are icy-cold, and when Nannie Li pinches him, he doesn’t seem to feel anything. He looked half dead when I left. Even Nannie Li said it was all up with him. She’s over there wailing for him now. He may be already dead for all I know.’
To Dai-yu, as to the girls, Nannie Li, for all her failings, was an old woman whose words carried the weight of experience. If she said it was all up with Bao-yu, it must be all up with him. There was a horrible sickening sound as she vomited up the medicine she had just taken, followed by a dreadful paroxysm of silent coughing that seemed to rack every nerve and fibre of her body. She coughed until her face was scarlet and her hair was in disorder, until her eyes bulged and the veins stood out on her forehead, coughed until she was so breathless that she was unable to lift her face up from the bed. Nightingale at once began thumping her, but Dai-yu raised herself with an effort from the pillow and, after struggling for some moments to regain her breath, pushed her away:
‘Don’t do that. Get a rope and strangle me – that would be kinder!’
‘But I didn’t say anything,’ Nightingale protested. ‘I was only joking. He must have taken me seriously.’
‘Surely you know better by now than to joke with him?’ said Aroma. ‘He’s such a fool, he always takes everything seriously.’
‘Whatever it was you said to him,’ said Dai-yu, ‘you’d better go over there straight away and unsay it. That might bring him back to his senses.’
Nightingale climbed hurriedly off the bed and accompanied Aroma to Green Delights. Unfortunately Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang were also there when they arrived. At the sight of Nightingale, Grandmother Jia’s eyes flashed angrily.
‘Wicked creature! What did you say to him?’
‘I didn’t say anything,’ said Nightingale. ‘I was only pulling his leg.’
There was a sudden ‘Aiya!’ from the bed. It was Bao-yu, who had just caught sight of Nightingale and who now, to everyone’s relief, burst into tears.
Grandmother Jia seized hold of Nightingale and thrust her towards him. She supposed that Nightingale had offended Bao-yu in some way and that he would find relief in beating her. To her surprise, instead of doing any such thing, he clung to her imploringly:
‘If you’re going, take me with you!’
No one could make head or tall of this until Nightingale had been questioned and explained to them the nature of her hoax.
‘So that’s all it was!’ said Grandmother Jia in tears. ‘And I was thinking it must be something serious!’ She chided Nightingale, but less unkindly now: ‘You’re normally such a sensible girl. Surely you know he’s inclined to be a bit simple at times? What on earth possessed you to tease him like that?’
Aunt Xue urged a less serious view of Bao-yu’s derangement:
‘It’s true that he is a simple-hearted child; but his Cousin Lin came here when they were both little and they have grown up together and are closer to each other than any of the other children. I think you would expect him to be upset, suddenly out of the blue like that being told that she was going away. Never mind a simple-hearted child, I should think even a sophisticated grown-up would be! This isn’t a serious illness, Lady Jia. I’m sure you and my sister have no reason to feel worried. A dose or two of medicine and he’ll be perfectly all right again.’
Just at that moment the wives of Lin Zhi-xiab and Lai Da were announced, ‘come to see how the young master was’.
‘How thoughtful of them!’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Tell them to come in.
But at the sound of the name ‘Lin’ Bao-yu began threshing about wildly on the bed, calling out that the Lins had come to fetch Dai-yu and insisting that they should be sent away.
‘Yes, send them away,’ said Grandmother Jia, while at the same time she did her best to soothe him: ‘There, there, there. That wasn’t anyone from the Lin family. The Lins all died out long ago. There aren’t any of them left to fetch her. Don’t worry!’
‘I don’t care who it was,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I don’t want any Lins here, apart from Cousin Lin.’
‘There aren’t any Lins here,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘All the Lins in this place have been sent away.’
She turned to the servants:
‘In future Lin Zhi-xlao’s wife is not to be allowed inside the Garden. And I don’t want the word “Lin” to pass your lips even. Is that clearly understood, everyone?’
‘Yes, madam,’ the servants replied in chorus, not daring to laugh.
Presently Bao-yu’s eye chanced to light on a little metal self-propelling boat – a West Ocean toy – which stood on one of the alcove shelves in the carved partition. Immediately he became excited again.
‘Look!’ he said, pointing, ‘the ship that’s come to fetch her – that’s where they’ve docked it, over there.’
At a hurried order from his grandmother, Aroma took it down from the shelf. He held his hand out to receive it, and as soon as it was in his possession, hid it under the quilt, chuckling with satisfaction as he did so:
‘They won’t get away now!’
All this time he continued to hold tightly on to Nightingale with his other hand.
The doctor’s arrival was announced and Grandmother Jia gave orders that he should be brought in immediately. Lady Wang, Aunt Xue and the girls withdrew into the inner room. Grandmother Jia herself continued to sit beside Bao-yu on the edge of the bed. As her attendants also remained, there were a good many people in the room when the doctor entered. It was Dr Wang. He paid his respects to the old lady before proceeding to take Bao-yu’s pulse, mystified by the presence of a shame-faced Nightingale, who, unable to leave Bao-yu’s side, could only stand there and hang her head.
After feeling the pulse for a while, Dr Wang rose to his feet.
‘The young gentleman is suffering from a delirium caused by a phlegmatic occlusion of the cardiac orifices. The ancients recognized three main types of this form of dementia: in the first type the delirium is associated with an anaemic deficiency, when the body is failing to absorb its nourishment; in the second, it is brought on by some violent emotional disturbance, such as anger; in the third, the occlusion occurs as a result of shock. This is a delirium of the third type. In this type, fortunately, the occlusion is only a temporary one, so it is less serious than the other two.’
‘Just tell us whether it’s dangerous or not,’ said Grand mother Jia. ‘We’re not asking you for a treatise on medicine.’
Dr Wang laughed deprecatingly and bowed:
‘He’ll be all right.’
‘Will he really be all right?’
‘Unquestionably,’ said the doctor. ‘I give you my word for it.
‘Very well,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Then perhaps you will go outside now and write your prescription. If he recovers, I promise you a handsome reward, and Bao-yu himself shall bring it to you and kotow to you when he brings it. But if he doesn’t get better, I shall have the main hall of the College of Physicians pulled down about your ears!’
‘How kind! How kind!’ The doctor, bowing and smiling at the prospect of a ‘handsome reward’ and Bao-yu kotowing at his feet, could not have heard the threat which followed, for he continued to say ‘How kind!’ after it had been uttered and left the room pursued by a wave of laughter.
The medicine he prescribed was soon concocted and Bao-yu did, after taking it, become a good deal calmer. But he would not release Nightingale.
‘If she goes,’ he said, ‘I shall know that they are leaving for Soochow.’
Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang saw that there was nothing for it but to let Nightingale stay with him. Amber was sent to look after Dai-yu in her place. Dai-yu’s other maid, Snowgoose, was kept busy running to and fro for news of Bao-yu’s condition. By evening this was sufficiently improved for Grandmother Jia and the other visitors to feel that they could return to their own apartments. They continued to inquire after him by messenger, however, throughout the course of the night.
Nannie Li came again, bringing Mamma Song and several other old nannies to help watch over him. Nightingale, Aroma, Skybright and Musk kept up a constant vigil at his bedside throughout the night. From time to time Bao-yu would drop off, but invariably he would wake up with a start from some dream and tearfully announce to them either that Dai-yu had already gone or that people had come to take her away. Each time this happened Nightingale was the only one who could calm him. Grandmother Jia had sent over various nostrums -pills and powders she had heard recommended as sovereign specifics in cases of mental disorder – and they used these to dose him with when he woke up.
Next day, after another dose of Dr Wang’s medicine, Bao-yu was distinctly better. His mind was clear now, but because he did not wish to lose Nightingale yet, he pretended that it was still affected. Nightingale regretted what she had done and bore the antics of this pseudo-madman and the weariness of waiting on him both night and day with uncomplaining fortitude.
‘It’s only right that you should have to nurse him, seeing that you were the one who set him off,’ said Aroma, relieved that Bao-yu was only play-acting. ‘You should have known better. He’s a case, this young master of ours. Tell him the wind’s blowing on a fine day, and next minute he can hear the rain! Heighho! What he’ll be like when he’s grown up doesn’t bear thinking of!’
But she did not pursue the subject.

*

Xiang-yun had by now recovered completely and could drop in daily to see how Bao-yu was progressing. As soon as he seemed normal, she treated them all to an imitation of his madness. Her mimicry was so droll that even Bao-yu had to laugh, shamefacedly, into his pillow. He had no recollection of what he had been like when it all started and now, when they told him, he did not believe them.
Once, when no one was about, he took Nightingale’s hand in his own and drew her to him.
‘Why did you scare me like that?’
‘I was pulling your leg,’ said Nightingale. ‘It was only a joke, but you took it seriously.’
‘That was no joke,’ said Bao-yu. ‘It was too well-reasoned.’
Nightingale laughed.
‘I made it all up. There’s no Lin family – leastways, if there is, they’re very, very distant relations, and not in Soochow, either, but scattered all over the place, in different provinces. And even if one of them did come to take her away, Her Old Ladyship would never let her go.’
‘I wouldn’t, even if she did,’ said Bao-yu.
‘I wonder,’ said Nightingale. ‘I think you’re only saying that. You’re not a child any longer now. You’re already betrothed. Another two or three years, when you’re married, you won’t have time for anyone else.’
Bao-yu heard her with astonishment.
‘Betrothed? To whom?’
Just before New Year I heard Her Old Ladyship say that she was betrothing you to Miss Qin. That’s why she makes so much of her, isn’t it?’
Bao-yu burst out laughing.
‘Everyone calls me a simpleton, but you’re an even bigger simpleton than I am. That was only a joke. Qin’s already betrothed to Academician Mei’s son. Do you think I would have taken it so calmly if I had been betrothed to her? Don’t you remember the scene we had last time, when I swore all those oaths and tried to break this beastly thing’ – he pointed to his jade – ‘and you had such a job trying to stop me? What are you trying to do? Start me off again?’
He ground his teeth.
‘If only I could die this minute and my heart burst out of my body so that you could see how true it is! After that I shouldn’t care if all of me – flesh, blood and bones – was burned to ashes, and the ashes turned to smoke, and the smoke blown by the winds into every corner of the earth!’
Big tears rolled down his cheeks. Nightingale covered his mouth up in alarm; then, as she wiped his eyes for him, she spoke to him soothingly as to a child:
‘There, there. There’s no need to get so worked up about it. I’m the one who needs to worry. That’s why I said those things: to test you.’
‘You?’ said Bao-yu in surprise. ‘What have you got to be worried about?’
‘You know I never belonged to the Lin family, don’t you,’ said Nightingale. ‘I was originally one of Her Old Ladyship’s servants, like Faithful and your Aroma. I was transferred to Miss Lin, but as it turned out I got on very well with her -ten times better, as a matter of fact, than the maid she brought with her from Yangchow – and since then we’ve become inseparable. Lately I’ve been worried by the thought that she might have to leave here – in which case, of course, I should want to go with her. But all my family is here. If I didn’t go with her, it would seem like a betrayal after what we’ve been to each other all these years. On the other hand if I did go, it would mean leaving my family behind. I wasn’t sure about how serious you were in wanting her to stay. That’s why I made those things up. I wanted to test you. I never imagined you were going to make such an uproar, or I wouldn’t have said them.’
‘So that’s what was worrying you!’ said Bao-yu, smiling. ‘Well, you are a simpleton. Please don’t worry about that any more. Let me try to put it for you in a nutshell. In life we shall live together; in death we shall mingle our dust. How will that do?’
Nightingale said nothing, but appeared to be thinking. One of the old women came in to announce that Jia Huan and Jia Lan had come to inquire after Bao-yu’s health.
‘Tell them it’s very kind of them,’ said Bao-yu, ‘but not to come in here, because I’ve only just gone to sleep.’
‘Very good,’ said the old woman, and went off to relay the message.
‘Now that you’re better,’ said Nightingale, ‘you ought to let me go back to see how my other invalid is getting on.’
‘Yes, you’re right,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I was meaning to tell you last night that you could go back, but I forgot. I am completely better now. You can go back straight away.
Nightingale began tying up her bedding and getting her toilet things together.
‘I notice you’ve got several mirrors in your vanity box,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Why don’t you give me that little one with the pattern of caltrops on it as a keepsake? I can keep it by my pillow to use when I’m in bed, and it will be handy to take with me when I go out.’
Nightingale gave him the mirror, then, having first arranged for someone to carry over her things, took leave of the other maids and returned on her own to the Naiad’s House.
During the past few days Dai-yu’s anxiety for Bao-yu had led to a relapse and had been the occasion of several fits of weeping. On inquiring nervously why Nightingale had returned, she was relieved to hear that it was because Bao-yu was better. As Amber’s services were now no longer needed, she sent her back to Grandmother Jia.
That night, when all the others had gone to bed and she had undressed and was lying not far off from her mistress, Nightingale addressed her, in guarded undertone, on the subject of Bao-yu’s intentions.
‘Bao-yu really is a simple soul. Do you know what made him ill? It was because he heard that we were going away.’
Dai-yu said nothing. After waiting in vain for a reply, Nightingale went on as if speaking to herself.
‘Much better stay where we are. You couldn’t ask for a better family than this. And the two of you have grown up together and know each other’s likes and dislikes. Where else would you find someone who understood you so well?’
Dai-yu snorted at her disgustedly.
‘Aren’t you tired after all your exertions during these last few days? I can’t understand why, instead of chattering away to yourself, you don’t take this opportunity to get a bit of rest.’
‘It isn’t lust chatter,’ said Nightingale. ‘I’m concerned about your future, Miss. It’s been worrying me for years. You’ve no father or mother or brothers: there’s no one else who will concern themselves about it. The important thing is to get it all properly settled while Her Old Ladyship is still well and in her right mind. You know what they say: “Good health in the old is like warm weather in winter: you can’t depend on it.” If anything were suddenly to happen to her, the chance of getting someone you really liked would have passed you by. No doubt they would do their best to marry you to some?one of good family, but look how many of these young aristocrats keep concubines, and how changeable they are in their affections. Some of them if they were married to the Queen of Heaven would tire of her in a week. And neglect is not the worst part of it; often there are hard words and harsh treatment to follow. When that happens, if the wife has a powerful family to stick up for her, it isn’t so bad; but what about someone in your position? As long as Her Old Ladyship is alive you’ll be all right, but once she’s gone, you’ll be at everyone’s mercy. That’s why I say we’ve got to make our minds up.

Easier a golden hoard to win
Than find one understanding heart.

You’re a clever young lady. I’m sure you must know that saying.’
‘This girl’s gone out of her mind,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Just these few days away and she’s come back completely altered. I shall have to tell Her Old Ladyship about this tomorrow and get her to take you back. I’m afraid you can’t stay with me any longer.’
‘I meant no harm,’ said Nightingale. ‘I’ve only told you to think about it; I haven’t asked you to do anything wicked. Why should you tell Her Old Ladyship? It’ll only get me into trouble, and what good will that do you?’
She said no more, and presently went to sleep.
Not so Dai-yu. However she might have concealed the fact from Nightingale, she was deeply affected by what the maid had said, and while Nightingale slept beside her, she lay awake weeping through the greater part of the night. The darkness was beginning to lighten when she finally dropped off to sleep. Washing that morning required an effort. Not long after she had finished her bird’s nest syrup, Grandmother Jia came in person to see her and waxed eloquent on the importance of getting well.

*

It was Aunt Xue’s birthday and everyone from Grandmother Jia downwards sent her a present. Dai-yu looked out two little articles of her own embroidering to send her. Aunt Xue hired a troupe of child actors and threw a birthday party which everyone except Bao-yu and Dai-yu attended. Grandmother Jia took everyone to call on them both on her way hack from it.
Next day there was another party for the employees of the Xue family at which Xue Ke acted as host on his aunt’s behalf. There were more festivities on the day which followed. Altogether three or four days were spent just in celebrating the one birthday.
Aunt Xue was very impressed with what she had seen of Xing Xiu-yan. She was such a refined, serious girl, in spite of her unfortunate upbringing: the very model of ‘virtue in homespun and a wooden hairpin’. Aunt Xue had thought of her as a possible daughter-in-law, but when she reflected on the lawless nature of her son, it seemed a pity that so nice a girl should be thrown away on him. She was still trying to make her mind up about this when suddenly it occurred to her that Xue Ke was not yet betrothed and that he and Xiu?-yan would make an ideal couple. She decided to ask Xi-feng for her advice. Xi-feng was enthusiastic.
‘But you know how difficult Lady Xing can be,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you leave it to me, Auntie? Let me deal with it in my own time.’
She found her opportunity of broaching the subject when Grandmother Jia next came to call on her.
‘There’s something my Aunt Xue wants you to do for her, Grannie, but she’s a little bit shy of asking.’
‘Oh? What’s that?’ said Grandmother Jia.
She laughed when Xi-feng explained.
‘Good gracious, that’s nothing to be shy about! It’s a splendid idea. Let me have a talk with your mother-in-law about this. She won’t refuse, I promise you.’
As soon as she was back in her own apartment, she summoned Lady Xing and proposed the match to her, urging its suitability in forceful terms.
Lady Xing did some rapid thinking: the Xue family were of respectable origins; they were immensely rich; Xue Ke was a good-looking boy; and Grandmother Jia was making herself responsible for the match. Confident that she would be able to turn it to her own advantage, she assented, to Grandmother Jia’s intense satisfaction, without more ado. The presence of Aunt Xue was now requested and the self-abasing civilities customary on these occasions exchanged between her and Lady Xing. When these had somewhat abated, Lady Xing sent someone to inform Xing Xiu-yan’s parents, Xing De-?quan and his wife, of the Xue family’s proposal. Living as they now did on Lady Xing’s charity, they were scarcely in a position to refuse even if they wanted to, and the messenger was soon back again reporting their prompt and enthusiastic acceptance.
‘I love meddling in other people’s affairs,’ said Grandmother Jia jovially. ‘I seem to have meddled successfully in this one. I hope I am going to be paid something for my services.’
‘Of course,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘The only difficulty will be knowing how much to give you. What shall we say? Ten thousand taels? Probably you would regard that as too little! What we really need is a sponsor to settle these matters for us.’
‘We may be short of manpower in this family,’ said Grandmother Jia, ‘but I dare say we could rustle up a couple of cripples for you!’
She sent someone to fetch You-shi and her daughter-in-law from Ning-guo House. As soon as they arrived, she explained why she had invited them, whereupon they turned to the other two ladies and offered them their congratulations.
‘Now,’ said Grandmother Jia when they had finished, ‘you know our way of doing things in this family, don’t you – you know we never haggle about bride-prices and “face” and that sort of thing? We want you to act as a third party and settle this for us. What we want is a settlement that is not too lavish and yet not too economical: something between the two. And when you’ve worked out what each of the parties should contribute, come and tell me what you have decided.’
You-shi promptly agreed to do this. Aunt Xue, delighted that everything had gone off so well, hurried home and at once had a formal invitation to act as marriage-sponsor drawn up and sent over to Ning-guo House to confirm the arrangement.
You-shi knew Lady Xing too well to want to be mixed up in any affairs – particularly one of a pecuniary nature – to which she was a party. She had agreed in this instance only because Grandmother Jia had asked her to and she could not very well refuse. In the event she simply arranged matters in the way she thought would best please Lady Xing. Aunt Xue was a very accommodating person and could be relied on to fall in with almost any terms. But it is not with details such as these that our narrative is concerned.
Aunt Xue’s betrothal of her nephew to Xing Xiu-yan was soon common knowledge throughout the household. At first Lady Xing wanted to segregate the girl by moving her in with herself, but Grandmother Jia objected.
‘Surely she can stay where she is? She can’t see anything of the boy, of course, but surely there’s no harm in her con?tinuing to see Mrs Xue and Bao-chai and little Qin? They’re all females, after all. It will be cosier if they get to know each other better.’
Lady Xing did not renew her offer.
And what of the parties themselves? Xue Ke and Xing Xiu-yan had met briefly on the journey to the capital and there was no reason to suppose that they were not extremely pleased with the betrothal. Inevitably Xiu-yan became a little more withdrawn after it, spending rather less of her time in Bao-chai’s and Bao-qin’s company and speaking, when she was in it, rather more sparingly. But this was partly because Shi Xiang-yun was such a tease. Fortunately she was far too intelligent and well-bred to indulge in any of that false modesty, so common among girls in her position, which shows itself in affected simpering and ridiculous grimaces.
Ever since the day they first met, Bao-chai had felt sorry for Xiu-yan. First of all she was so poor. And then there was her father. Unlike most of the fathers that Bao-chai knew about – grave gentlemen who had gained wisdom with their years – Xiu-yan’s father was a drunken sot who took little interest in his daughter’s welfare. As for Lady Xing, Bao-chai could see that the affection she showed her niece was simu?lated and that really she did not care for her in the least. And Ying-chun, whose apartment she shared, was too docile to assert herself even on her own behalf, let alone anyone else’s.
Since Xiu-yan was too proud to ask for things, this meant that whenever anything was lacking, even one of the simple necessities of life, she had simply to go with out it. Knowing this, Bao-chai did all she could to anticipate her wants; but she gave by stealth, careful lest Lady Xing, who was sensitive to gossip, if to nothing else; should get to hear of it.
Xiu-yan had learned to cherish Bao-chai as a special friend long before this magnificent betrothal so wildly beyond her own and everyone else’s expectations and, after it, continued from time to time to confide in her. Bao-chai for her part continued to treat her as an intimate friend and would use none of the formalities that are customary between prospective sisters-in-law.
One day, when Bao-chai was on her way to visit Dai-yu, she caught sight of Xiu-yan, who, as it happened, was also on her way there. Bao-chai smiled and beckoned and waited for Xiu-yan to catch up with her. The two girls then walked on together until they came to the rear side of a miniature moun?tain of rock. There, where no prying eyes could see them, Bao-chai stopped again.
‘The weather is still really cold. Why have you changed Out of your winter clothes already and put on single linings?’
Xiu-yan hung her head and said nothing. Ba-chai guessed at once that she had been forced to pawn them.
‘It must be because you haven’t had this month’s allowance yet,’ she said. ‘How could Cousin Feng be so thoughtless?’
‘No,’ said Xiu-yan. ‘She didn’t forget. She paid the allow?ance on time. But Aunt Xing sent someone to tell me that she thought I didn’t really need two taels a month and that I ought to contribute one of them towards my parents’ upkeep. She said that if there ever was anything I needed, I could always hent it from Cousin Ying’s things’ – suppressed emotion was causing her to lapse into her native dialect -‘But I ask you, coz, how could I? Cousin Ying wouldn’t mind – she is so meek – and she probably wouldn’t notice, any road. But though she wouldn’t say anything, you can be quite sure that the servants would. The nannies and maids in that apart?ment are such a prickly lot and so spiteful with their tongues. Although I am living there, I dare not ask them to do very much for me, and even for what little they do I am expected to find money to buy them drinks and other little treats with every four or five days. Even when I was getting two taels it wasn’t enough, and now it’s only one. The only way of raising money I could think of was by pawning my winter clothes. I got someone to slip out and do it for me the other day.’
Bao-chai sighed.
‘It’s a pity all the Mei family areaway just now. Academician Mei isn’t due back from his posting until the year after next. if they were here in town, Bao-qin could get married straight away and then we could go ahead with your affair and get you out of this mess. But as things are, your Prospective will never consent to get married before his sister, so the difficulty remains. I shall have to have a word with Mamma about this. Obviously you can’t go on as you are. Another year or two like this and I am afraid you will go into a decline.
‘In future, if those people are nasty to you, you must learn to put up with it. You mustn’t make yourself ill trying to please them. Perhaps you had better hand over the whole of your remaining tad to them when it comes: see if that will keep them quiet. But don’t go treating them any more, whatever you do. Never mind the spiteful things they say to you. If it gets too bad, you can always walk away. And if you are short of anything, don’t behave like a little frightened mouse; ask me straight out for it, without delay. I say this not because we are future sisters-in-law but because we are friends. We are friends, aren’t we, and have been ever since you came? If you are afraid of gossip, don’t come yourself when you want something, send your maid for it, then no one will know.’
Xiu-yan hung her head and the reply she made was scarcely audible. In order to change the subject, Bao-chai pointed to a green jade girdle-ring that was hanging from her waist.
‘Who gave you that?’
‘Cousin Tan,’ said Xiu-yan.
Bao-chai nodded.
‘She must have noticed that all the other girls were wearing one of these things and wanted to spare you the embarrass?ment of being the only one without. It is typical of her to be so thoughtful. However, I think you ought to realize that these sort of gewgaws are really for the daughters of mandarins and noblemen. Look at me: you don’t see any jewellery on me. A few years ago, it’s true, I would have been smothered with it; but I know now that we are less well off than we used to be, and have given up wearing it as a means of economizing. No doubt when you marry you will be provided with a whole trunkful of this stuff, In the meantime, though, we don’t need to compete with the others in finery, you and I. As long as we are honest and remain true to ourselves, it doesn’t matter that we cannot equal them in appearance.’
Xiu-yan smiled.
‘In that case, I shall go back and take it off,’ she said.
‘Don’t be so precipitate,’ said Bao-chai. ‘She meant it as a kindness. If she sees you not wearing it, she will wonder why. I spoke only in general terms, for your future guidance.’
Xiu-yan murmured her assent.
‘Where are you going now, coz?’ she asked Bao-chai.
‘To the Naiad’s House,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Why don’t you go back now and get your maid to bring me that pawn ticket? I’ll send someone out on the quiet to redeem the things for you and get them round to you in the evening without anyone knowing, so that you can begin wearing them again as soon as possible. We don’t want you catching cold in this wind, do we? Oh, there’s just one other thing: where did you pawn them?’
‘I think it’s called the “Reliant”,’ said Xiu-yan. ‘It’s in Drum Tower Street West.’
Bao-chai laughed.
‘Well, at least they’ve stayed in the family. If the assistants realized where they had come from, they must have thought they were receiving an advance instalment of your trousseau!’
Xiu-yan coloured, realizing that the ‘Reliant’ must be one of the Xue family’s businesses. She did not say anything, however, but with a little laugh hurried back to look for the pawn ticket.
Bao-chai continued on her way to the Naiad’s House. She arrived to find her mother already ensconced and in the midst of conversation with Dai-yu.
‘Mamma, what a surprise! When did you arrive?’
‘I’ve been so busy during these last few days that I haven’t had time to see her or Bao-yu. Today I decided to see both of them, but both of them seem to be better.’
Dai-yu urged Bao-chai to be seated.
‘The world’s affairs are very mysterious,’ she said, by way of bringing her into the conversation. ‘Who would ever have thought that your mother and Aunt Xing would end up as commeres?’
‘My child,’ said Aunt Xue, ‘you are too young to understand these things. Old folk talk about “the unseen thread that binds”. They say that marriages are decided by an Old Man Under the Moon who joins future couples together by tying them round the ankles with a scarlet thread, and that once he’s done that, it doesn’t matter how far apart they are, even if there are oceans between them, sooner or later something will happen to bring them together and they will end up husband and wife. These things are quite unpredictable. Sometimes there will be two young people whose parents on both sides are favourable to their union, who have lived years together in the same place, and who take it as a foregone conclusion that they are going to marry, yet if the Old Man Under the Moon hasn’t tied them with his scarlet thread, then in spite of everything, they never will. Take you two girls, now: we don’t know whether at this moment the two young men you will marry are right here under our noses or somewhere “south of the mountains and north of the sea”!’
‘Mamma!’ said Bao-chai, burying her head in her mother’s dress, ‘how you do always drag one in when you get talking!’
‘Look at her!’ said Dai-yu, mockingly. ‘What a great baby! She’s ever so poised and grown-up when you aren’t here, Auntie. It’s only when she’s with you that she puts on this little girl act.’
Aunt Xue stroked the recumbent head, still buried in her lap, and sighed indulgently.
‘I suppose it’s a bit like Cousin Feng and your grandmother. Chai can be perfectly serious with me when things need dis?cussing, but at the same time she knows the little ways of cheering me up – she knows that when she becomes my little girl again, it helps me forget my troubles.’
It was Dai-yu’s turn to sigh now. A tear rolled down each cheek.
‘I don’t know why she has to do it here though unless she wants to rub in the fact that I haven’t got a mother.’
‘Oh Mamma, just listen to that!’ said Bao-chai. ‘Who’s putting on a little girl act now?’
‘You mustn’t blame her for being upset,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘Poor child! She has no one.’
She stroked Dai-yu’s hair and tried to comfort her.
‘Don’t cry, my dear. You mustn’t be upset because I make a fuss of your cousin. I’m as fond of you, you know- perhaps even more so. Although Chai has no father, she has got me and Pan so you see I know that you have the greater need. She knows how fond I am of you, because I am always telling her. The only reason I don’t show it more is because there are a lot of people in this household who are always ready to put a false construction on things. If they saw me being nice to you, they would say that I did it not for the very obvious reason that everything about you cries out to be loved and that one can hardly help loving you, but because I saw how much your grandmother loves you and wanted to curry favour with her.’
‘You say you love me as much as Chai,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Let me be your god-daughter then. Don’t refuse, Auntie, or I shall think you don’t really mean it.
‘If you will have me for your godmother, I should like nothing better.’
‘Out of the question,’ said Bao-chai flatly.
‘But why?’ said Dai-yu.
Bao-chai smiled mischievously:
‘Tell me, why do you think Cousin Xing was betrothed to my Cousin Ke? Why wasn’t she betrothed to my brother, who is Cousin Ke’s senior and who still hasn’t got a be?trothed?’
‘I suppose because your brother is away,’ said Dai-yu, ‘or perhaps their horoscopes are incompatible.’
‘No,’ said Bao-chai, ‘that’s not the reason. It’s because someone has already been chosen for my brother. We are only waiting for him to come home to make it public. I don’t need to name names. If I tell you that you can’t possibly become Mamma’s god-daughter, you ought to be able to work it out for yourself.’
She winked at her mother and broke into a laugh.
This time it was Dai-yu who buried her face in Aunt Xue’s bosom.
‘Beat her, Auntie, beat her – I insist!’
Aunt Xue hugged her niece, laughing:
‘You mustn’t believe what she says. She’s only teasing.’
‘No, seriously, Mamma,’ said Bao-chai, ‘why don’t you ask Lady Jia some time if you can have Cousin Lin for your daughter-in-law? You will never find a better one elsewhere.’
Dai-yu threw herself on Bao-chai and made as if to scratch her:
‘Have you gone quite mad?’
Aunt Xue laughingly held them apart.
‘If I thought that your brother was not good enough for Xiu-yan – which is why I betrothed her to your cousin Ke -I certainly wouldn’t inflict him on this child here. Not so long ago Lady Jia was asking me about Bao-qin as a possible match for Bao-yu, but I had to tell her that Bao-qin was already betrothed – not that otherwise it wouldn’t have been a very good match. The other day, when we’d finished discussing Ke and Xiu-yan’s betrothal, she began teasing me about it. “Last time, when I wanted one of her girls,” she said, “I couldn’t have her; and now here she is snapping up one of ours!” She was only joking, of course, but I could see that she was thinking about Bao-yu still and half inviting me to make a suggestion. I rather wish now that I had. She is so concerned about him, and he is such a peculiar boy. You can’t see him getting on with some girl chosen for him from outside. I think much the most satisfactory arrangement would be to betroth him to your Cousin Lin here.’
Dai-yu, who up to this moment had been listening open-mouthed, turned scarlet at the mention of her own name and with a cry of rage threw herself again on Bao-chai.
‘I’ll kill you! You deliberately led Auntie up to this.’
‘How ridiculous!’ said Bao-chai, laughing. ‘It’s Mamma who said it, not I. What are you hitting me for?’
Already Nightingale had darted forward:
‘If that’s what you think, Mrs Xue, why don’t you talk to Her Old Ladyship about it?’
‘Goodness, child, you are impatient!’ said Aunt Xue, laughing, ‘I suppose if you are in such a hurry to get your mistress married, you must be thinking of a little husband for yourself!’
‘Mrs Xue!’ said Nightingale, crimson-faced. ‘You ought to know better at your age!’
She turned and fled.
Dai-yu who, when Nightingale intervened, had angrily bidden her to mind her own business, now gloated over her discomfiture:
‘Holy Name, it serves you right! You would poke your nose in, wouldn’t you, and now you’ve got smut on it!’
There was a burst of laughter in which the maids and serving-women joined. They were still laughing when Xiang- yun ran into the room, brandishing a piece of paper.
‘What sort of bill is this?’
Dai-yu examined the paper but could make nothing of it. The women below had recognized it, however, and tittered with amusement.
‘That’s a nice thing for a young lady to be carrying! they said. ‘If you want to know what that is, Miss, you’ll have to pay for the lesson!’
Bao-chai snatched the paper from Xiang-yun’s hand and looked. It was Xiu-yan’s pawn ticket. She hurriedly folded it away.
‘It looks like a pawn ticket that one of the women must have dropped,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘Whoever it is will be worried when she misses it. Where did you pick it up?’
‘What’s a pawn ticket?’ Xiang-yun asked her.
The women laughed:
‘What a simpleton! Fancy not knowing what a pawn ticket is!’
‘It’s hardly surprising,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘She’s had a very aristocratic upbringing, don’t forget, and in any case she is still very young. How could she know about pawn tickets? What occasion would she ever have of seeing one? In the household she comes from even if one of the servants had such a thing, they would take very good care that she didn’t see it. You shouldn’t call her a simpleton. I doubt very much whether any of your own young ladies would know a pawn ticket if she saw one.’
‘That’s true,’ said the women, smiling. ‘Miss Lin here didn’t know, so you can be quite sure the others wouldn’t. Even Bao-yu, although he goes outside quite a lot, has probably never seen one.’
Aunt Xue now explained what a pawn ticket was. Xiang?yun and Dai-yu laughed incredulously.
‘The things people do for money! Is that what they do in your pawnshops, Aunt?’
‘That’s a funny question!’ said the women, laughing. ‘All crows are black, you know.’
‘Where did you find this?’ Aunt Xue asked again.
But before Xiang-yun could reply, Bao-chai interrupted:
‘It’s an old ticket, Mamma; it was cancelled years ago. Caltrop has been using it to fool them with.’
Aunt Xue believed her and did not pursue the matter.
Shortly after that a messenger arrived from the Ning-guo mansion to say that You-shi would ‘like a word when convenient with Mrs Xue’ and Aunt Xue got up and left them. As soon as she had gone, Bao-chai asked Xiang-yun where she had found the ticket.
‘I saw Xiu-yan’s maid Signet handing it, very furtively, to Oriole and Oriole slip it between the pages of a book. They thought I hadn’t noticed. I had a peep when they’d gone, but I couldn’t make out what it was, and as I knew you were both here, I thought I would come over and see if either of you could make anything of it.’
‘But why should Cousin Xing be pawning her clothes?’ said Dai-yu, puzzled. ‘And why, having pawned them, should she want you, Chai, to have the ticket?’
Bao-chai saw that Xiu-yan’s circumstances could no longer be concealed and explained to them both what had happened. Dai-yu, feeling ‘the fox’s sympathy for the hunted hare’, was much distressed, but Xiang-yun’s reaction was one of anger.
‘I’m going straight over to see Ying-chun about this,’ she said. ‘You’ll feel better, both of you, when I’ve given those beastly servants a piece of my mind.’
She would have gone, too, had not Bao-chai restrained her.
‘Are you out of your mind? Sit down and stay where you are.’
‘If you were a man,’ said Dai-yu, laughing, ‘you could go around like a knight-errant putting the world to rights; but a Jing Ke in skirts is just plain ridiculous!’
‘All right then,’ said Xiang-yun, ‘if you won’t let me talk to Cousin Ying about it, let’s simply have Xiu-yan over to live with us.’
‘We’ll talk about that tomorrow,’ said Bao-chai. A servant put her head round the door to make an announce?ment:
‘Miss Tan and Miss Xi have called.’
Hearing of their arrival, the three in the room fell silent.
For further details of the visit our reader is referred to the next chapter.

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