The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 58

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CHAPTER 58

In which the cock-bird who mourns his mate
Is found to be a hen
And a true heart is able to sympathize
with a strange kind of love

Our last chapter concluded with Tan-chun’s and Xi-chun’s arrival at the Naiad’s House, which put a sudden stop to the discussion of Xiu-yan’s affairs by the other three. Conversation was renewed after the new arrivals had inquired about Dai-yu’s health, but of a general, unserious nature, and shortly afterwards all four visitors took their leave and went their separate ways.
*

The Dowager Consort of the late Emperor whose illness we referred to in an earlier chapter had now passed away and all noblewomen and wives of officials resident in the capital had to put on the mourning appropriate to their rank and present themselves at the Palace. A Special Edict was published prohibiting the holding of musical or dramatic entertainments by persons of rank for a period of one year and banning the celebration of marriages between commoners for a period of three months. Every day Grandmother Jia together with Lady Xing, Lady Wang, You-shi and Jia Rong’s wife Hu-shi had to go to the Palace to take part in the ceremonies of mourning, seldom returning until well after two o’clock in the afternoon.
These ceremonies, which took place in one of the side halls of the Palace, were due to last for twenty-one days, at the end of which time the body of the Consort was to be conveyed to the late Emperor’s mausoleum in Goodson prefecture, a distance of some ten days’ journey from the capital. On reaching there, the coffin was to lie in state for several more days while further ceremonies were performed preliminary to its final interment in the mausoleum. The whole expedition, from start to finish, would take about a month. Cousin Then and You-shi were both supposed to take part in it, which would mean that throughout that period both the Ning-guo and Rong-guo mansions would be left masterless. A family council was held and it was decided, in order that one person at least should be left in charge of the two mansions, to petition for You-shi’s exemption on the grounds that she was enceinte.
At the same time Aunt Xue’s help was enlisted to keep an eye on the young people. For this purpose it was essential that she should move into the Garden; but it was something of a prQblem to know in which of its buildings she should stay. Bao-chai already had Xiang-yun and Caltrop living with her; Li Wan was having to accommodate Bao-qin, whom Grandmother Jia had placed temporarily in her care, and though Mrs Li and her girls were still at their uncle’s place in the city, they too were constantly dropping in on her and staying for three or four nights; Ying-chun was sharing with Xu-yan; Tan-chun was fully occupied with household business, and in any case the noisy bickering of Aunt Zhao and Jia Huan, who were constantly coming round to pester her, would have made her apartment a highly unsuitable place for Aunt Xue to live in; and Xi-chun’s place was too small. That left only the Naiad’s House for her to move into.
Aunt Xue did so the more readily because, in discussing these arrangements with her, Grandmother Jia had impressed upon her that Dai-yu was the young person most particularly in need of her care. And besides, Aunt Xue had always had a very great affection for Dai-yu. Now that they shared the same apartment she was able to give her undivided attention to Dai-yu’s welfare – to seeing that she had good food and enough of it, and that she took her medicines at the proper times. Never before had Dai-yu been so well looked after. She responded with a gratitude deeper than words, though it was by words that it was most often expressed: Aunt Xue was now her kind ‘Mamma’, and when Bao-chai and Bao-?qin were present, she addressed them and referred to them exactly as if they were her elder and younger sisters. Grandmother Jia, who had been worried at the prospect of being separated, even for a month, from her orphaned granddaughter, was both relieved and happy to observe this new development.
Aunt Xue, now that she was in the Garden, concerned herself only with the welfare of the cousins and disciplining of their maids; in other domestic matters, however important, she was unwilling to intervene. You-shi, too, although she visited the Rong-guo mansion daily, did little more than hear the roll-call and was most unwilling to exercise any real authority. As the only responsible person left in it she already had her hands full with the affairs of the other mansion and was kept extremely busy seeing that the temporary lodg?ings near the Palace which Grandmother Jia and the other ladies retired to in between ceremonies were kept regularly supplied with food and bedding and so forth.
While the senior members of the Ning-guo and Rong-guo mansions were so busy, the stewards and stewardesses of the two mansions were no less occupied, some of them in accompanying their mistresses each day to and from the Palace, some in attending to the provisioning and maintenance of the temporary lodgings, and some as an advanced party who staffed the lodgings in readiness for their mistresses’ arrival.
Lacking the discipline normally imposed by these officers, the domestics of both mansions who remained behind grew slovenly in their duties or took advantage of the exceptional circumstances to ally themselves with those placed temporarily in charge as a means of scoring off fellow-servants. Of the male staff at Rong-guo House only Lai Da and one or two others remained. Nearly all Lal Da’s most trusted lieutenants had gone. Owing to their inexperience he was finding the replacements he had made extremely unserviceable -and so stupid: their peculations were so transparently gross, their reports so patently unreliable, their recommendations so obviously biased; he would have had difficulty in enu?merating all the defects he found in them or the troubles they caused him.
At this time all the great families which kept troupes of actors or actresses in their households were beginning to disband them. Hearing this, You-shi, after discussing the matter with other members of the family, approached Lady Wang with the suggestion that their own troupe of actresses should be disbanded. The method by which she proposed to do this was economical.
‘We have, of course, bought these girls,’ she said. ‘Although they can’t keep up their music, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t use them as maids. It’s only really the instructors that we need to get rid of.’
‘No,’ said Lady Wang firmly. ‘We cannot treat them like servants. These are daughters of free men, sold into their profession because their parents could not afford to keep them. They have given us a year or two of good entertainment. Now that this opportunity of releasing them has arisen, we ought to give them each a few taels and let them go. That was cer?tainly what our ancestors would have done; and I do not believe that we have become quite so degenerate or so un?generous that we cannot, in this matter at least, follow the ancestors’ example. It’s true that we have a few members of an earlier troupe still living with us; but there was a special reason for their staying. They didn’t want to go, so we gave them employment and found husbands among the staff for them when they were old enough to marry.’
‘Very well, we shall ask them,’ said You-shi. ‘If they want to go, we can send for their parents to come and fetch them and give the money to their parents. That will be safest. Otherwise we shall have all sorts of dubious characters turning up here to collect them and selling them when they get them outside, and our kindness in freeing them will be wasted. Of course, any of them who don’t want to go can stay with us.’
Lady Wang agreed and You-shi sent someone to Xi-feng to explain what had been decided. She also instructed the clerks in the counting-house to pay eight taels to each of the in?structors and tell them that they were free to go where they liked. The costumes, theatrical properties and other movables in Pear Tree Court were carefully checked against the inventories and stored away and a caretaker was put in charge of the buildings.
As for the little actresses, on interviewing them individually, You-shi found that hardly any of them wanted to go. Some said that their parents were alive but did not care for them and would only sell them again if they went back to them; others that they had no parents and had been sold by uncles or brothers; others that they had no relations at all that they could go to; others that they had become attached to the Jia family and did not want to leave. In the end all but three of them elected to stay. After what she had said, Lady Wang could scarcely refuse to have them.
The three who were leaving were taken away by their foster-mothers to stay with them for the time being until their real parents could come to fetch them. Those who had chosen to stay were assigned to different apartments – mostly in the Garden – as servants. Elegante, the leader of the troupe1 was reserved for Grandmother Jia; the ‘leading lady’, Parfumee, went to Bao-yu; Etarnine, the soubrette, to Bao-chai; the ‘principal boy’, Nenuphar, to Dai-yu; Althee, the leading ‘painted face’, to Xiang-yun; Cardamome, the second ‘painted face’, to Bao-qin; Artemisie, who specialized in old men’s parts, to Tan-chun; and You-shi asked if she might keep Aubergine, who specialized in old women’s parts, for herself.
The little actresses, though nominally in service, did nothing all day but wander about happily in the Garden, like uncaged birds rejoicing in their new freedom. Nobody made much effort to discourage them, as it was understood that they were wholly unaccustomed to waiting on other people and were none of them able to sew. It is true that one or two of them had the good sense to see that the future would be bleak for them without a craft, now that their theatrical training had been discontinued, and who applied themselves to learning domestic skills like sewing and spinning; but they were the exception.
An important day in the obsequies of the late Consort arrived when it was necessary for Grandmother Jia and the other ladies to start out for their temporary lodgings near the Palace at four o’clock in the morning. After recruiting themselves there with a small collation, they proceeded to the Palace to attend the ghostly breakfast of the Deceased. When that was over, they went back to their lodgings and had lunch. Then, after a brief rest, they returned to the Palace and remained there for both the None and Vesper offerings. Then back to their lodgings again for dinner before finally return?ing home.
The temporary lodgings were in the family temple of a high official in which perpetual devotions were maintained by a sisterhood of Buddhist nuns. The nuns occupied the two courtyards to east and west of the shrine-hall, but there were a great many spare rooms in these courtyards, all of them kept scrupulously clean by the nuns. The Rong-guo ladies had rented the rooms in the east courtyard and the Prince of Bei-jing’s ladies those in the west one. As they had to leave for the Palace and return from it at the same times, the two lots of ladies had plenty of opportunities of meeting each other, and many courtesies were exchanged between them. But it is not with these outside matters that we are concerned.
Back, then, to the Garden. With Grandmother Jia and Lady Jia away for so much of the day and the prospect of their being away altogether during the month it would take them to travel to and from the mausoleum, there were a great many maids and womenservants with nothing much to do but wander about in it enjoying themselves. Their numbers were augmented by the women from Pear Tree Court, who were now attached to different apartments in the Garden. Suddenly there seemed to be dozens more people about in it than there ever had been before.
The girl-actresses were arrogant little creatures, imperious and tyrannical towards the servants, demanding and fastidious about their food and clothing, sharp and disputatious with their tongues – in a word, thoroughly difficult characters to deal with. The Pear Tree Court women all hated them, but had not hitherto dared to quarrel with them openly. To these women the closing of the drama school was a great relief. Some of them, in their gladness to be free of it, were willing to let bygones be bygones. Others, less magnanimous, still nursed their rancour but, the diaspora having separated them from their former charges, dared not carry warfare against them into another’s territory.
It was the day of the Spring Cleaning festival and Jia Lian, having prepared the usual offerings, had gone with Jia Huan, Jia Cong and Jia Lan to the Temple of the Iron Threshold outside the city to clean the family graves. Jia Rong, accompanied by a party of clansmen from the Ning-guo side of the family, had set out separately for the same destination. Of the young male members of the family only Bao-yu, having not yet wholly recovered from his illness, was unable to go. After lunch Aroma noticed that he was showing a disposition to sleep.
‘It’s such a fine day,’ she said, ‘why don’t you take a stroll in the Garden? If you lie down as soon as you’ve eaten, you won’t digest your food.’
Bao-yu stepped somewhat reluctantly into a pair of slippers and, supporting himself with a walking-stick, shuffled off through the courtyard and out into the Garden.
Care of the Garden and its produce had lately been put into the hands of female experts and, this being the busy tune of year for gardeners, they were t6 be observed on every hand, trimming the bamboos, pruning trees and bushes, bedding plants Out, planting bulbs and sowing seeds. Other women were moving over the surface of the lake in punts, dredging up mud from the bottom and planting lotus-roots. On a miniature mountain of rock overlooking the lake an appreciative audience consisting of Xiang-yun, Caltrop, Bao-qin and some of the maids sat watching them. As Bao-yu slowly made his way up to them, Xiang-yun cried out in mock alarm:
‘Quick, send the boats away! They’ve come to take Cousin Lin!’
Bao-yu blushed and laughed sheepishly.
‘People can’t help what they do when they’re ill. You shouldn’t make fun.’
‘It’s your fault for being so comical,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘Why do you always have to be so different? Even your illnesses are different from everyone else’s.’
Bao-yu sat down with them for a while and watched the women working.
‘It’s a bit windy here,’ said Xiang-yun presently, ‘and the rock is rather cold to sit on. Don’t you think you ought to go indoors?’
Bao-yu had already decided that he would like to go and see Dai-yu, so, hauling himself up with his walking-stick, he took his leave of the girls and walked off, over Drenched Blossoms Bridge and along the embankment on the other side.
New growth hung from the weeping willows in strings of gold and the blossom-buds of the peach-trees had burst into a vermilion haze; but the big apricot-tree behind the rockery, its flowering past, was already in full leaf and covered with tiny apricots, each no bigger than a pea.
‘What a shame!’ he thought. ‘Just those few days in bed and I missed the apricot blossom.

And in among the green leaves now
The young fruit hangs from every bough.

He stood and gazed at the tree. They were Du Mu’s lines, written on his last visit to Hu-zhou, when he met the beautiful young dancer of a dozen years before and found that she was now a married woman with a brood of children. How did it go?

The spring-time blossoms, white and red,
Before the thieving wind have fled;
And in among the green leaves now
The young fruit hangs from every bough.

He thought of Xing Xiu-yan’s betrothal. It would only be a year or two now before she married, and soon she too, like the girl that Du Mu wrote about, would be a mother with a brood of young children about her. People had to marry, of course: they had to reproduce their kind. But what a way for a lovely young girl to end!

The spring-time blossoms, white and red…

Not so many years from now her jet-black tresses would turn to silver and her rosy cheeks become wrinkled and colourless. The thought of it made him feel sad and an involuntary sigh escaped from him. Then, as he continued to gaze at the tree, a little bird flew up, and perching on one of its branches, began to sing away for all it was worth. Bao-yu’s day-dreaming took another turn.
‘That bird must have come here when the tree was in blossom,’ he told himself. ‘What he’s singing is a lament at finding the blossoms gone. You can tell it’s a lament by the sound. Pity Gong-ye Chang, who understood the language of birds, isn’t around! I could have asked him what it was saying. I wonder if it will remember to come here next year when the apricot-tree is in flower again?’
His reverie was interrupted by a sudden burst of flame beyond the rockery which caused the bird to fly off in alarm. Bao-yu was almost as startled as the bird. The brief crackle of flames was followed by an outburst of angry shouting.
‘Nenuphar, you little wretch, how dare you burn paper offerings here in the Garden! I’m going straight off to report you. You’re in for a whipping, my girl.’
Wondering what on earth could be happening, Bao-yu hurried round to the other side of the rockery to investigate. A tear-stained Nenuphar crouched on the ground, holding the chafing-dish with which the recent blaze had been kindled, and gazing with a sorrowful expression at the charred, still smouldering remains of a pile of gold paper ‘spirit money’.
‘Who’s it for?’ he asked her. ‘You really shouldn’t burn it here, you know. I suppose it must be for one of your parents -or is it for a brother, perhaps? Tell me the person’s name and I’ll get my boys to go out and buy a proper baofu for you and write the name on it.’
When she saw that it was Bao-yu, Nenuphar closed her lips tightly and no amount of questioning would elicit an answer from her. Just then the woman he had heard shouting came hurrying back, an evil expression of triumph on her face, and seized hold of the girl.
‘Well, I’ve reported you to the young mistresses,’ she said, ‘and they’re very, very angry.’
Nenuphar was still only a child. Terrified of the humiliation that awaited her, she now made a childish attempt to resist going.
‘I said all along you were getting above yourselves,’ said the woman. ‘You can’t do as you please in here like you could outside. It’s different here. We like to have a bit of law and order.’ She pointed to Bao-yu. ‘Even Master Bao has to abide by the rules. I don’t know what sort of a young madam you think you are to come along here and start breaking them. Come on! It’s too late to start being afraid now. You’ll have to come along and see them.’
‘That’s not spirit money,’ said Bao-yu hurriedly. ‘It’s waste paper she’s been burning for Miss Lin. You should have looked more carefully before you reported her.’
To Nenuphar in her desperation Bao-yu’s appearance on the scene had been an added terror. She could hardly believe her ears when she heard him covering up for her. Her fear gave way to a surprised delight and she plucked up courage to defend herself.
‘Yes, what makes you so sure it was spirit money? That was used writing-paper of Miss Lin’s.’
But the woman was unimpressed. Stooping down, she picked out one or two of the unconsumed fragments from the ashes.
‘Don’t argue with me! Here’s evidence! You’ll have to come with me to the jobs room and explain yourself to them there.’
She took hold of Nenuphar by the sleeve and begun dragging her off; but Bao-yu held her by the other sleeve and struck at the woman’s hand with his walking-stick until she let go.
‘Take those bits of paper to them if you must,’ he said. ‘I suppose I shall have to tell you. Last night I dreamed that the Spirit of the Apricot-tree came to me and said that if I wanted to get better quickly, I must have an offering of spirit money made to her. She said it had to be made by a stranger, not by anyone from my own room, and no one else must know about it. And now, after I’ve been to the trouble of getting the stuff and finding this girl to make the offering for me, it’s all wasted, because you saw her doing it. This is the first day I’ve been up since my illness. If I get ill again now, it will be your fault. Do you still want to take her? Nenuphar, go with her and see them. Tell them exactly what I have just said. And when my grandmother gets back I shall tell her what happened. I shall tell her that this woman interrupted you deliberately.’
Nenuphar was by now thoroughly cock-a-hoop. Now it was she who was tugging at the woman. The woman threw the bits of paper to the ground and addressed herself beseechingly to Bao-yu, a sickly smile on her face:
I didn’t know, really I didn’t. If you tell Her Old Ladyship that, it will be all up with me.’
‘Don’t report back then, and I won’t tell her.’
‘But when I reported just now, they said I was to bring her,’ said the woman. ‘I’d better tell them she’s been called away by Miss Lin.’
Bao-yu thought for a bit and then nodded. The woman went off to do as she had said. When she had gone, Bao-yu resumed his questioning.
‘Who was it for then? I’m sure it wasn’t for anyone in your family. Is it a secret?’
Nenuphar was grateful to Bao-yu for having protected her. Knowing now that he was a kindred spirit and to be trusted, she could hardly refuse him any longer. There were tears in her eyes when she answered:
‘Besides myself there are only two other people in the world who know about this: Parfumee in your room and Etamine in Miss Bao’s. After what happened today, I think I shall have to let you be a third; but you must promise never to speak about it to anyone else.’
She began to cry.
‘It’s no good,’ she said. ‘I can’t say it to your face. After you’ve got back, when there’s no one else around, you can get Parfumee to tell you.’
She slipped away then, leaving him full of curiosity.
Continuing his walk to the Naiad’s House, he found Dai-yu looking thinner than ever but feeling, she assured him, very much better than she had been a few days earlier. She noticed how much thinner be had become, and the recollection of what had caused them both to look so haggard provoked the shedding of a few tears. They had not been speaking for more than a few minutes when, mindful that he was still convales?cent, she urged him to go back and rest and he felt obliged to obey her.
When he got back, he was anxious to ask Parfumee about Nenuphar’s secret, but Xiang-yun and Caltrop had just arrived and were engaged in lively conversation with her and Aroma in the adjoining room. Fearing that if he called her to him the others might ask questions, he resolved to be patient.
After a while Parfumee went off with her foster-mother to have her hair washed. Her foster-mother had already let her own daughter wash her hair in the water. When Parfumee noticed this, she was loud in protest.
What, give me the water your daughter’s washed in? Considering you take the whole of my monthly allowance, I think I deserve better than left-overs!’
Angry – the more so because she was in the wrong – the woman shouted back at her.
‘Ungrateful little wretch! I’m not surprised they say players are hard folk to handle. However good a person may be to start with, once they get into that profession, they’re ruined. You’d never think a scrubby little creature like this could have so many airs and graces. Nothing but the best for young madam! Sixes or aces, nothing else! And such a spiteful, sharp little tongue if she doesn’t get what she wants! Worse than a biting mule!’
The two of them began to go at it then, hammer and tongs. Aroma Sent someone outside to quieten them:
‘A little less shouting, you two! Just because Her Old Ladyship isn’t here, nobody seems able to say anything without hollering at the tops of their voices!’
‘It’s that Parfumee making trouble,’ said Skybright. ‘I don’t know what makes her think she’s so wonderful. Just because she knows a few plays, you’d think she’d won the war or something!’
‘It takes two to make an argument,’ said Aroma. ‘The older one shouldn’t be so unjust and the younger one shouldn’t be so unpleasant.’
‘You can’t blame Parfumee,’ said Bao-yu. “‘Any departure from the straight or even causes things to give voice.” A famous philosopher wrote that. She’s here without parents or anyone to look after her. This woman takes her money and then doesn’t treat her properly. If that’s not a departure from the straight and even, I don’t know what is. You can hardly blame her for giving voice about it! How much does she get a month, anyway?’ he asked Aroma. ‘Wouldn’t it save a lot of trouble if you took the money and looked after her yourself?’
‘I don’t mind looking after her,’ said Aroma, ‘but if I do, it certainly won’t be for the money. It wouldn’t be worth making enemies over.’
She got up as she said this and, going into the other room, took a little bottle of Oil of Flowers, some hen’s eggs, some soap and a hair-string and told one of the old women to convey them to Parfumee outside.
‘Tell her to stop quarrelling. Tell her she can get some more water and wash her own hair with these.’
Unfortunately the foster-mother chose to regard this as a public humiliation for her and grew even angrier.
‘You wicked child,’ she said to Parfumee’, ‘pretending that I keep back your money!’
She dealt her a couple of slaps, whereupon Parfumee burst out crying. Bao-yu was about to rush outside, but Aroma restrained him.
‘What are you doing? I’ll speak to her.’
But Skybright had already darted outside and was pointing at the woman angrily:
‘You ought to know better, at your age! If we give her the things to wash her hair with that you wouldn’t give her yourself, you ought to feel ashamed. I don’t know how you can have the face to hit her. You wouldn’t have dared hit her if she’d been in the school still, carrying on with her training.’
‘I hit her for trying to show me up in public,’ said the woman. ‘I’m her foster-mother. I’ve a right to.’
‘Musk,’ said Aroma, ‘I’m no good at arguing with people and Skybright is too excitable. You’ll have to go and deal with her.’
Musk hurried over.
‘All right, all right. There’s no need to shout. Let me just ask you this one question. When have you ever seen anyone punishing their daughter in the master’s or mistress’s presence – I don’t lust mean here, I mean anywhere in the whole Garden? Even in the case of a real daughter, not just a foster-daughter, once she’s left home and gone into service it’s for her master or mistress to punish her or the senior maids. We can’t have parents chipping in all the time – otherwise how should we ever manage to train a girl? I don’t know! You people, the older you get, the worse you seem to behave! It’s not so long ago that we had Trinket’s mother in here making a scene. I suppose she must be your model. But don’t worry. During these last few days what with this one ill and that one ill and Her Old Ladyship busy all the time with other matters we haven’t had a chance to report anything. But give us a few more days. We shall find an opportunity. We’ll tell her everything. Then perhaps we shall see some of you high?handed people taken down a peg. And another thing. There’s Bao-yu in there only just beginning to get better – even we daren’t raise our voices above a whisper – yet here are you hitting a girl outside his room and making her cry like a howling wolf or a banshee. The top people only have to be away from the house for a day or two and already you are behaving as if you were above the law. No one is safe from you. A few more days and you’ll be hitting us, I shouldn’t wonder! If you ask me, you’re the sort of foster-mother the girl could do without. If you think the plant will only flourish with your tender care, you’re very much mistaken!’
Bao-yu was so angry that he banged on the threshold with his stick.
‘These old women have hearts of stone. It’s bad enough that they can’t look alter the girls, but to go maltreating them as well …!

Almighty earth and heaven, what’s to do?’

‘What’s to do?’ said Skybright. ‘Send the lot of them packing, useless baggages!’
The woman, shamed into silence by Musk’s tirade, made no reply.
Musk looked at Parfumee, in her crabflower-red padded tunic and patterned green silk trousers unbound at the ankles, her glossy black hair hanging down her back, crying as if her heart would break. It was a spectacle so different from her more familiar stage appearances that Musk could not help laughing at its incongruousness:
‘I must say, you don’t look much like Cui Ying-ying at the moment. Reddie after her beating, though: now that’s a part you could play without having to make up for it!’
Skybright led Parfumee away and washed her hair for her. When she had towelled it dry, she did it up for her in a ‘lazy knot’ and told her to go back to Bao-yu’s room when she had finished dressing.
Shortly after, a woman arrived from the kitchen to say that the food was ready, should they send it over yet? One of the junior maids went inside to ask Aroma.
‘What does the clock say?’ Aroma asked. ‘With all that rumpus going on outside, I didn’t hear it strike.’
‘It didn’t,’ said Skybright. ‘The wretched thing needs repairing again, I don’t know why.’
She fetched a watch from somewhere and inspected it.
‘It’s about half a cup of tea off dinner-time,’ she said. ‘Tell them we’ll be ready directly.’
The girl went off to relay this message.
‘Come to think of it,’ said Musk, smiling, ‘that Parfumee deserved a slap or two for being so mischievous. She was the one who made the clock stop by playing about with the pendulum yesterday.’
She began getting things out and laying them in readiness for the meal. Presently junior maids carrying food-boxes came into the room and stood there while Skybright and Musk removed the covers and inspected the contents: a bowl of soup and the now familiar rice-gruel flanked by four different kinds of pickle.
‘But he’s better now,’ said Skybright. ‘How much longer has he got to go on eating gruel and vegetables in brine? Why can’t they send him some proper food for a change?’
Musk had finished laying now. Taking the large bowl of soup (ham and bamboo-shoots) from the food-box, she put it on the table for Bao-yu to try. He bent down over the bowl and slurped up a mouthful.
‘Ow, hot!’
Aroma laughed.
‘Holy Buddha! You’re not all that starved for meat, surely? I’m not surprised you burn yourself if you go at it so greedily.’
She picked up the bowl and gently blew on it, then, as Parfumee happened to be standing by, she handed it to her:
‘Here, you can do it. You may as well make yourself useful, instead of mooning around all day doing nothing. But blow on it gently: we don’t want you spitting in it.’
Parfumee began blowing as instructed. She seemed to be managing very nicely, but the foster-mother, who was standing outside the partition doorway whither she had insisted on coming ‘to help’ and who, in her ignorance of the Garden’s etiquette, saw this as an opportunity of making up to the maids, came hurrying officiously into the room and tried to take the bowl from her.
‘She’s too inexperienced. She might drop it. Let me blow.’
Skybright shouted at her angrily:
‘Get out of here at once! Whether she breaks the bowl or not is our affair: we don’t need you blowing on it, at all events. Who said you could come inside the partition, any?way?’
Her anger transferred itself to the junior maids:
‘Young idiots! She probably doesn’t know about these things. You ought to have told her.’
‘We tried to keep her out,’ the maids protested. ‘We tried to tell her, but she wouldn’t believe us. Now do you believe us?’ they asked the woman. ‘Even the places we’re allowed into you’re only allowed into about half of’ but you seemed to think you could go bursting in even where we aren’t allowed to go – and you were shouting and waving your hands at us when we tried to stop you.’
They hustled her from the outer room, into which she had retreated, onto the verandah outside. The old women waiting in the courtyard below to take back the food-boxes and empty bowls laughed at her when she emerged.
‘You should ‘a taken a look at yourself in the mirror before you went inside, missus!’
The woman, angry and ashamed, had to bear their taunts in silence.
Parfumee was still blowing away at the soup. Bao-yu smiled at her:
‘Don’t destroy your lungs with all that blowing! Why don’t you try it now, to see if it’s all right?’
Parfumee thought he must be joking and smiled timidly at Aroma and the rest.
‘Go ahead, taste it!’ said Aroma. ‘Why not?’
‘Watch me taste it,’ said Skybright, and took a sip from the bowl.
Encouraged by her example, Parfumee took a sip too.
‘It’s all right,’ she said, and handed Bao-yu the bowl.
Bao-yu drank about half the soup, ate a few pieces of bamboo-shoot, consumed half a bowlful of the gruel, and declared himself satisfied. The servants cleared away. A little maid came in with a wash-bowl. After he had washed his hands and rinsed his mouth out, it was Aroma’s and the other senior maids’ turn to have their dinner.
Bao-yu signalled to Parfumee with his eyes. A sharp-witted child – one, moreover, who had spent several years of young life in a school of drama – Parfumee responded like an old trouper. She had a stomach-ache, she told them. She didn’t feel like any dinner.
‘Oh well, if you’re not eating,’ said Aroma, ‘you may as well stay and keep him company. We’ll leave the gruel here. If you get hungry, you can eat some of that.’
She and the other maids then left.
Bao-yu was now able to tell Parfumee about his encounter with Nenuphar – how he had lied to protect her and how, feeling unable to answer his question herself, she had referred him to Parfumee for an explanation.
‘So who was she making the offering for?’
Parfumee’s eyes reddened slightly and she sighed.
‘Oh, Nenuphar is crazy.’
‘Why?’ said Bao-yu. ‘What do you mean?’
‘It was for Pivoine,’ said Parfumee, ‘the girl in our troupe who died.’
‘There’s nothing crazy about that,’ said Bao-yu, ‘if they were friends.’
‘Friends!’ said Partumee. ‘They were more than that. It was Nenuphar’s soppy ideas that started it all. You see, Nenuphar is our Principal Boy and Pivoine always played opposite her as Principal Girl. They became so accustomed to acting the part of lovers on the stage, that gradually it came to seem real to them and Nenuphar began carrying on as if they were really lovers. When Pivoine died, Nenuphar cried herself into fits, and even now she still thinks about her. That’s why she makes offerings to her on feast-days. When Etamine took over the roles that Pivoine used to play, Nenuphar became just the same towards her. We even teased her about it: “Have you forgotten your old love then, now that you’ve got yourself a new one?” But she said, “No, I haven’t forgotten. It’s like when a man loses his wife and remarries. He can still be faithful to the first wife, as long as he keeps her memory green.” Did you ever hear anything so soppy in your life?’
‘Soppy’ or whatever it was, there was a strain in Bao-yu’s own nature which responded to it with a powerful mixture of emotions: pleasure, sorrow, and an unbounded admiration for the little actress. He took Parfumee’s hands in his own and told her with great earnestness what she must say to Nenuphar.
‘Tell her never, never to use that paper stuff again. “Spirit money” is a superstitious invention of modern times: you’ll find nothing about it in the teachings of Confucius. All she needs to do when feast-days come round is to light a little incense in a burner. Provided that it’s done with reverence, that’s all that’s needed for conveying one’s feelings to the dead. It’s the sincerity with which we make the offering, not the offering itself that counts. You see that burner on the table over there? Whenever I want to remember someone dear to me – it doesn’t necessarily have to be on a feast-day or any particular day, by the way – I light some incense in it and put out a cup of fresh tea or water, or sometimes some flowers or fruit if I have any. You can even use “unclean foods”- as long as they’re devoutly offered: that’s the important thing. Tell her not to go burning that paper stuff any more.’
Parfumee promised. After that she finished off the gruel. Then someone came in to say that Grandmother Jia had got back.
Of that you shall hear more in the next chapter.

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