The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 59

0
173

By Willow Walk the conservers of property
resort to violence and abuse
And at Green Delights the defenders of law and order
invoke a higher authority

Hearing that his grandmother and the other ladies were back, Bao-yu put on an extra garment and shuffled off, walking-stick in hand, to greet them. He found them tired out by the taxing routine of the past few days and anxious to retire to bed as soon as possible. Nothing of interest happened during that night. The ladies were up again at four o’clock next morning and off once more to the Palace.
The date of their departure for the mausoleum was fast approaching. Faithful, Amber, Parrot and Pearl busied themselves getting together the things that Grandmother Jia would need on the journey, while Silver, Suncloud and Sunset did the same for Lady Wang. When all was ready, they went over everything, item by item, with the most senior of the servants who were accompanying their mistresses. There were altogether sixteen of these: six maids and ten older women. The male servants, who are not included in that number, were meanwhile preparing the mule-litters that their mistresses would ride in and getting the harness and other gear into good order. Faithful and Silver were not among the sixteen. They were to stay behind and look after their mistresses’ apartments while they were away.
Some days before the funeral cortege was due to set out, the maids packed up the covers and hangings of their mistresses’ travelling-beds. These were collected by a party of four or five women, who, with the aid of some men?servants, took them by cart through the back streets to the lodgings where their mistresses were to spend the night be?fore their departure and put them up ready for them to sleep in.
The Jia ladies and their retinue left the mansion the day before the cortege was due to start. Grandmother Jia and Jia Rong’s wife shared the first litter; Lady Wang followed on her own in the second; Cousin Zhen and the menservants provided them with a mounted escort. Then followed several large covered carts in which the maids and womenservants were travelling. The carts also carried a large number of bundles containing changes of clothing for the ladies. The other members of the family, led by Aunt Xue and You-shi, accompanied the little procession as far as the outer threshold of the main gate to see the old lady off.
While the column was reforming itself in the street, Jia Lian appeared on horseback at the head of a small party of mounted grooms. He shepherded his parent’s litters into place between those of Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang, then, fearful of the possible consequences of leaving the baggage train with its female freight unguarded, trotted back to a position behind the carts and, with his mounted followers, brought up the rear.
Inside the mansion Lai Da greatly increased the numbers of the watch and ordered the entrances to the two main courtyards to be kept permanently closed. Anyone wanting to go in or out of the mansion now had to do so through the small side gate on the west corner. The ornamental gate dividing the outer from the inner part of the mansion was closed at sundown. So, too, were the main and side gates of the Garden. The gate which the cousins normally used for getting into or out of the rear part of Lady Wang’s quarters and the gate on the east side which gave access to the corner gate of Aunt Xue’s courtyard were left open. Since they affected only the intercommunication of the already sealed-off inner parts of the mansion, it did not seem necessary to close them. Faithful and Silver shut up the living-rooms normally occupied by their mistresses and went to sleep with the other maids in the servants’ quarters at the back. Each day at sundown Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife conducted a party of ten or so senior women into the Garden to police it during the night. The number of pages employed in the gallery outside for the purpose of sounding the night-watches was increased. Everything was done, in short, to ensure that the security of the mansion was maintained.
*

Waking one fine, fresh morning from vernal slumbers, Bao- chai, on raising the bed-curtain and stepping down into the room, became sensible of a very slight chilliness in the air, the reason for which was apparent when she opened the door and looked out. A little shower, falling in the last watch before dawn, had refreshed the earth and turned the mosses everywhere a more brilliant shade of green. She went in again and called to the others to get up.
While they were washing, Xiang-yun complained of an irritation in her cheeks which she feared might herald an outbreak of the mild eczema she sometimes suffered from and asked Bao-chai for some rose-root orris to put on them.
‘I gave the last of it to Qin a few days ago,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Frowner has a lot. I had been meaning to ask her for some, but as I haven’t had any trouble with my own cheeks this year, I forgot about it.’
She ordered Oriole to go and get some. As Oriole was about to leave, Etamine said that she would like to go with her because she wanted to talk to Nenuphar. The two girls set off from All-spice Court, chattering and laughing as they went.
At Willow Walk they followed the line of the embankment. The trailing golden strings of the weeping willows were already flecked with emerald.
‘Do you know how to weave things with these?’ Oriole smilingly asked her companion.
‘What sort of things?’ said Etamine.
‘Oh, things to look at, things to use – all sorts. Just wait while I break off a few and I’ll weave a little basket out of them. I’ll leave the leaves on, then, if we fill it with different kinds of flowers, it will look ever so pretty.’
Temporarily forgetting about the orris-powder, she reached up and broke off some of the tender willow-twigs. She got Etamine to hold them for her; then, as they walked along together, she plaited them into a little basket. From time to time she stopped to pick a flower or two that grew beside the way. The finished basket was a pretty little open-work one with a handle, bursting all over with the greenery which she had been careful not to pull off. When it was filled up and stuck all over with flowers, it looked really charming. Etamine was enraptured:
‘Oh, Oriole, do let me have it!’
‘We’ll give this one to Miss Lin,’ said Oriole. ‘We can pick some more twigs on the way back and I’ll make baskets like this for you all.’
By this time the two girls had arrived at the Naiad’s House. Dai-yu had not yet completed her toilet. She was very much taken with Oriole’s handiwork.
‘Ah, a living basket! Who made it?’
‘I did,’ said Oriole. ‘It’s for you, miss.’
‘Oh, but it’s charming!’ said Dai-yu, taking it. ‘No wonder they’re always saying how clever you are with your hands.’
After admiring it a little longer, she told Nightingale to hang it up where she could see it
Oriole first inquired politely after Aunt Xue and then asked Dai-yu about the rose-orris. Dai-yu told Nightingale to wrap some up for her.
‘I’m better now,’ she told Oriole as she handed her the packet. ‘I feel like going out today for some exercise. Tell Chai that there’s no need for her to pay her call on Mamma today or to visit me. As soon as I’ve done my hair, Mamma and I will be coming over to her place. We can have our lunch there. We shall be quite a little family party!’
Oriole promised to relay the message and went into Nightingale’s room to collect Etamine; but Etamine and Nenuphar had just reached the most interesting part of their conver?sation and were most unwilling to be separated. Oriole pro?posed a solution to Nightingale.
‘Your mistress is going over to our place presently. Why not let Nenuphar come with us now and wait for her there?’
‘By all means,’ said Nightingale. ‘She gets up to so much mischief, we shall be glad to have her off our hands for a bit!’
She got out Dai-yu’s spoon and chopsticks, wrapped them up in a napkin of West Ocean linen, and held them out for Nenuphar.
‘Here you are: you can take these for her. May as well make yourself useful.’
Nenuphar took the things from her and set off, smiling happily, with the other two. They made their way to Willow Walk again and Oriole broke off a lot more twigs and, sit?ting down on a nearby rock, began straightway plaiting them to make into another basket. She told Etamine to go ahead with the rose-orris and come back for her presently when she had delivered it; but both girls were fascinated by Oriole’s skilful weaving and could not tear themselves away. Oriole threatened to suspend work on the basket if Etamine did not do as she was told.
‘Come on,’ said Nenuphar. ‘I’ll go with you. We can hurry back in no time.’
After they had gone, while Oriole sat plaiting on her own, Mamma He’s daughter Swallow walked up and smilingly asked her what she was making. Oriole was still talking to her when the other two got back. Swallow looked at Nenu?phar curiously.
‘Tell me, what was that paper you were burning the other day when my Aunt Xia caught you? She was going to report you, but Bao-yu made out that it was she who was in the wrong, so she couldn’t go through with it. She was ever so angry. She came and told my mother all about it. What on earth did you do during all that time you were living out?side together to make such an enemy of her?’
Nenuphar sniffed.
‘I didn’t do anything. It’s because she’s so greedy. She can’t squeeze as much out of me as she used to be able to. To mention nothing else, look at all the food she and the others used to take home with them when they were working with us outside. You know they did.’
Swallow laughed.
‘She’s my own aunt. I can’t very well criticize her in front of other people. I must admit, though, it does seem to be as Bao-yu once said. “A girl before she marries is like a price?less pearl, but once she marries the pearl loses its lustre and develops all sorts of disagreeable flaws, and by the time she’s an old woman, she’s no longer like a pearl at all, more like a boiled fish’s eye.” He said, “How can the same person, at different times in her life, seem like three completely different people?” – Of course, I knew at the time he was only talking his usual nonsense; but really there does seem to be some truth in it. I don’t know about other people’s families, but it’s certainly true of my mother and my aunt. The older they get, the more they seem to care about nothing else but money. When we were all living together at home, they used to com?plain that there weren’t any job for us that would bring in a bit of income. Then this Garden was built and I was lucky enough to be among those who were chosen to work in it -doubly lucky, in fact, because I was assigned to Green Delights. That meant that quite apart from the fact that they didn’t have to find my keep any more, they were getting an additional four or five hundred cash each month that I managed to save out of my wages. You’d have thought they’d have been satisfied with that, but oh no! Then they got jobs themselves, looking after these player-girls in Pear Tree Court. My Aunt Xia had Nenuphar for foster-daughter and my mother had Parfumee. So for this last year or two they’ve been really comfortably off. Now that you’ve all moved inside, of course, it’s rather out of their hands; but they won’t give up. It really makes you laugh. First my aunt having that row with Nenuphar, and then my mother having that row with Parfumee. That was over the shampoo. Parfumee had asked my mother I don’t know how many times to shampoo her hair for her. Then Parfumee’s monthly allowance came in and my mother had no excuse for putting her off any longer, so she bought the shampoo, but when she’d bought it, she told me to wash my hair with it first. Well, I didn’t like to do that. I mean, I’ve got money of my own, and even if I hadn’t, I could always get the stuff for washing my hair with from Aroma or Skybright or Musk without any trouble by simply asking for it. So I said no, I wouldn’t. So then she got hold of my younger sister and washed her hair first. Needless to say, when she called Parfumee after that there was a quarrel. Oh, and then she wanted to go and blow on Bao-yu’s soup. Oh dear, I could have died! I told her about the rule as soon as I saw her going in, but she wouldn’t believe me. Oh no, Mother knows best! So of course she made a fool of herself. It’s a good job there are so many of us working in the Garden and no one can ever remember who is related to who, otherwise they might get the impression that the people in my family do nothing but quarrel all the time.’
‘Incidentally, this place where you’ve chosen to do your basket-making is on the territory of another of my aunts – my father’s sister. Ever since she was put in charge of it, she’s treated it as if it were her own property. She slaves away on it from morning to night. What’s more, she makes me come and watch over it for her: she’s so terrified of any of it getting spoiled. It’s got so that I can hardly do my own job properly. And now that Mother’s moved into the Garden, she keeps an eye on it too. The pair of them watch over it like hawks. No one else is allowed to touch a blade of grass here. I don’t mind telling you, if they come along this way and find you’ve been picking their flowers and breaking their young willow-twigs, they won’t be at all pleased!’
‘In anyone else’s case, perhaps not,’ said Oriole; ‘but my case is different. When the Garden was divided up, it was agreed that daily supplies of stuff from it were to be sent to all the apartments. That included, apart from things to eat, flowers for everyone’s hair and flowers to put in the vases. Now my mistress, it so happens, was the only one who said she didn’t want a daily supply of flowers. She said she would let them know whenever she wanted any, but up to now she never has. So you see, in my case they are hardly likely to object even if they do find out that I’ve been picking some.’
These words were scarcely out of her mouth when who should appear, hobbling along on her stick, but this same aunt that Swallow had been talking about. Oriole and Swallow invited her to come and sit down on the rock. The old woman felt a pang of displeasure as her eye travelled from the little heap of broken willow-twigs to the freshly-picked flowers that Nenuphar and Etamine were holding, but since it was Oriole who appeared to be responsible, she forbore to complain of the vandalism and found something to grumble at her own niece about instead.
‘When I tell you to come here and keep an eye on things, you prefer to stay at home and play. Then when the others ask you to do something for them, you pretend that you can’t because you’re already working for me. You use me like a magic charm, so that you can do a disappearing act when?ever there’s a job of work to be done!’
‘First you tell me to come here, then you’re afraid the others will want me so you tell me off for being here,’ Swallow protested. ‘I can’t be in two places at once, aunt!’
‘Don’t you believe her, missus!’ said Oriole teasingly. ‘She’s the one who picked all these things and pestered me to weave them for her. I tried to get rid of her, but she wouldn’t leave me alone.’
‘For goodness sake!’ said Swallow agitatedly. ‘Don’t make jokes like that. She’ll take you seriously.’
Alas, it was all too true! This aunt of Swallow’s was a stupid old woman whose senile infatuation with money was such that beside it all human ties had long since ceased to count. At Oriole’s words the pent-up anguish with which she viewed this hateful spoliation of her domain found relief in action: she raised her stick and, with the presumptuous tyranny of old age, struck Swallow several times with it across the back.
‘Little baggage!’ she said. ‘How dare you answer me back! Your own mother hates you so much she’s itching to get her teeth in you. Don’t you go raising your voice at me!’
‘Oriole was only joking,’ said Swallow, weeping – partly from the pain and partly from the humiliation of being beaten in front of the others. ‘Why should my mother hate me? I haven’t burnt the washing-up water! What am I supposed to have done?’
Dismayed that her words should have had such an effect, Oriole stepped hurriedly between them and seized the aunt’s upraised arm.
‘I was only joking, missus. Is it to shame me that you are beating her?’
‘I’ll thank you not to meddle in what doesn’t concern you, miss,’ said the old woman. ‘Do you think I should not be allowed to discipline my own niece just because you are here?’
The crassness of this reply caused Oriole to flush with anger.
‘You can discipline her any time you like, but I don’t see why you should choose to do it when I make a joke,’ she said scornfully. ‘All right, go ahead and discipline her, then.’
And releasing the old woman’s arm, she sat down on the rock again and got on with her weaving.
The next thing that happened was that Swallow’s mother appeared on the scene, looking for her daughter.
‘What are you doing there?’ she shouted as she caught sight of her. ‘I thought I told you to go and fetch some water.’
‘Come over and see what she’s been doing,’ the old aunt shouted back at her. ‘I’ve no hold over her any more than you now, it seems. She’s being very impertinent to me.’
‘Oh, what’s she been doing this time, sister-in-law?’ said the woman, coming up to them. ‘She’s got no use for her own mother any more, I knew that; but I thought she might have a bit of respect left for you still.’
Recognizing the newcomer as Swallow’s mother, Oriole wanted to explain; but the aunt did not give her a chance.
‘Look at that!’ she said, pointing to the willow-twigs on the rock. ‘A great girl like her – you’d think she’d know better! And not content with that, leading other people on to ruin me as well!’
Swallow’s mother was still smarting from her unsuccessful quarrel with Parfumee and was angry with Swallow for not having taken her side.
‘Little strumpet!’ she shouted, bearing down on her wrathfully and slapping her across the head. ‘How long now have you been working with those young madams? – it hasn’t taken you very long to pick up their airs and graces! But don’t you go thinking I can’t lay my hands on you any more. A foster-daughter’s one thing, but you are my own flesh and blood. I can still look after you when I feel like it. Little painted whores, telling me I can’t go inside where you can go! I wish you’d go inside and stay there: perhaps if you stayed inside long enough, you might find a customer!’ She grabbed hold of the little half-made willow basket and waved it in Swallow’s face.
‘And what’s this supposed to be? What’s the bloody meaning of this?’
‘I made that,’ said Oriole. ‘Don’t curse the mulberry tree when you mean the locust. If it’s me you’re angry with, why not say so and leave her out of it?’
Swallow’s mother was intensely jealous of these senior maids like Oriole and Aroma and Skybright, for she knew that their status and authority were greatly superior to her own. She feared them and deferred to them, but doing so cost her a good deal of angry resentment which she vented on the junior maids. On this occasion her anger was further exacerbated by the presence of her sister’s enemy, Nenuphar.
Swallow was now making her way tearfully towards Green Delights. Her mother was afraid that if they asked her there why she was crying and she told them, there would be further insults to put up with from Skybright, so she hurried after her to try and stop her.
‘You come back I’ she shouted. ‘You’ll go when I say you can.’
But Swallow refused to stop, and her mother, greatly incensed, rushed forward, intending to lay hands on her. Swallow happened to turn and see her coming, however, and got away by running even faster. Her mother, continuing the pursuit, slipped on the moss and fell over, to the great delight of Oriole and the other two.
Oriole was by now so disgusted with the whole affair that she threw everything – basket, twigs and flowers – into the water and went off home, leaving the old aunt blessing her?self in pious horror at the waste.
‘Wicked creature!’ she called out after her. ‘You ought to be struck by lightning, throwing away good flowers like that!’
She set about picking some herself then, to deliver to the various apartments.
As for Swallow, she went on running until she came to Green Delights. There, just inside the courtyard, she ran full tilt into Aroma, who was just at that moment setting out to pay a call on Dai-yu. Swallow clung to her imploringly.
‘Save me, miss! My mother’s going to beat me again.’
At the sight of the mother, arriving now in hot pursuit, Aroma could no longer contain her annoyance.
‘That’s twice in three days: first your foster-daughter and now your own daughter. Is it to show off the size of your family that you do this, or do you really not know any better?’
Being a relative newcomer to the Garden, Swallow’s mother had as yet formed no very clear impression of Aroma beyond that she spoke very little and was probably a fairly harmless sort of person.
‘I should mind your own business, if I was you, miss,’ she said rudely. ‘You know nothing about these matters. It’s because you’re all so soft with the girl that she’s got so out of hand.’
She darted after Swallow again, her hand upraised to strike her. Aroma was so angry that she turned round and began marching back to the house. On her way she passed Musk, who was hanging some handkerchiefs out to dry under the crab-apple tree. Musk looked over her shoulder to see what all the shouting was about.
‘I should leave them to it, if I were you,’ she advised Aroma. ‘Just let them get on with it and see what happens.’
She signalled to Swallow with her eyes as she said this. Swallow’ understood her immediately and dashed inside the house to take refuge with Bao-yu. The other servants smiled at each other in pleasurable anticipation.
‘Now there’ll be trouble,’ they said. ‘Now we shall really see something!’
‘Why don’t you calm down a bit?’ Musk said to the woman. ‘Surely you’re not going to set yourself up against the whole apartment?’
The woman saw her daughter go up to Bao-yu inside the house and Bao-yu take her by the hand.
‘Don’t worry,’ Bao-yu said to the girl. ‘I’ll look after you.’ Swallow, still crying, told him the whole story of Oriole and the willow-wigs. Bao-yu was deeply shocked, but, for form’s sake, pretended to blame Swallow for what had hap?pened.
‘It’s bad enough having rows in here; what do you want to go upsetting your aunt outside for?’
‘What this good woman said just now is right,’ Musk said to the other servants. Perhaps we are too slack. Perhaps we don’t know enough about these matters to deal with them properly ourselves. What we need is someone whose opinion she will listen to, someone who really knows what’s what.’
She turned to a little maid standing near by.
‘Go and fetch Patience. If Patience can’t come, fetch Mrs Lin.’
As the little maid ran off on her errand, the other women in the compound drew round Swallow’s mother with inter?ested smiles.
‘Better ask them to call that child back,’ they advised her. ‘You don’t want Miss Patience coming here.’
‘If she’s “Miss Patience”, she’ll just have to be patient and listen to reason,’ said the woman defiantly. ‘I never yet heard of a mother being disciplined for trying to discipline her own daughter.’
The others smiled at her ignorance.
‘You don’t know who Miss Patience is, though. Miss Patience is Mrs Lian’s Number One. If she’s in a good mood, you might get away with a telling-off; but if she’s not my goodness, you’re in for a packet of trouble!’
Just then the little maid came back with a message.
‘Miss Patience was busy, but she asked me why I’d come and when I told her she said, “Tell her she’s dismissed and get Mrs Lin on the corner gate to give her forty strokes of the bamboo.”‘
It was now the mother’s turn for tears and entreaties.
‘It wasn’t easy for me to get this job,’ she said. ‘I shan’t get another like it. And I’m a widow, too: I’ve no one else at home. From your point of view that’s an advantage, because I can give all my attention to serving you. But it means that it’s my only livelihood: if you turn me out, I don’t know how I’m going to keep alive.’
Aroma began to relent.
‘But if you want to stay here,’ she said, ‘you really must learn to behave yourself and do what you are told. You really can’t go around hitting people all the time. What are we to do with a person like you? This daily shouting and quarrelling is giving our place a bad name.’
‘Take no notice of her,’ said Skybright. ‘Send her packing. Who’s got time to stand around arguing with people like her?’
Swallow’s mother appealed to the other maids:
‘I admit I was in the wrong; but if you tell me what to do, I’m willing to learn. Give me another chance, young ladies, you won’t regret it. It’s a “work of merit”, don’t forget, to help another person mend their ways.’
She appealed to Swallow:
‘It was on account of beating you that I got into this tr6uble. And I didn’t beat you very hard. Put in a word for me, there’s a good child!’
Bao-yu himself now felt sorry for the woman and told her that she could stay.
‘But no more trouble, mind! Any more trouble from you, and you’ll be out like a shot – and you’ll be given the beating!’
The woman thanked first Bao-yu and then all the others in turn. She had already left when Patience looked in to see what the trouble was.
‘Forget about it!’ said Aroma. ‘It’s all over.’
‘Well, they say “where mercy is possible, mercy should be shown”,’ Patience observed. ‘If you can see your way to letting her off, it certainly saves us some trouble. I can’t understand it, though. It’s only a few days since Their Ladyships left, yet already the whole place seems to be in a state of mutiny. Before I’ve finished dealing with trouble in one place, it crops up in another. I scarcely know which way to turn.’
‘I thought we were the only ones,’ said Aroma. ‘I didn’t realize there were others.’
‘Oh, this is nothing!’ said Patience. ‘There have been seven or eight outbreaks just during these last three or four days. Compared with the others, this trouble of yours is a very minor affair. We’ve had something much more upsetting – and more ridiculous – than this to contend with.’
Aroma was curious to know what it was. But as to whether Patience told her or not, that will be revealed in the chapter which follows.

Previous articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 60
Next articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 58
Discover the wonders of China through studying abroad - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your horizons, immerse yourself in a rich and diverse culture, and gain a world-class education.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here