The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 6



Jia Bao-yu conducts his first experiment
in the Art of Love
And Grannie Liu makes her first entry into the
Rong-guo mansion

Qin-shi was surprised to hear Bao-yu call out her childhood name in his sleep, but did not like to pursue the matter. As she stood wondering, Bao-yu, who was still bemused after his dream and not yet in full possession of his faculties, got out of bed and began to stretch himself and to adjust his clothes, assisted by Aroma. As she was doing up his trousers, her hand, chancing to stray over his thigh, came into contact with some-thing cold and sticky which caused her to draw it back in alarm and ask him if he was all right. Instead of answering, he merely reddened and gave the hand a squeeze.
Aroma had always been an intelligent girl. She was, in any case, a year or two older than Bao-yu and had recently begun to have some understanding of the facts of life. Observing the condition that Bao-yu was in, she therefore had more than an inkling of what had happened. Abandoning her question, she busied herself with his clothes, her cheeks suffused by a crimson blush of embarrassment. When he was properly dressed, they went to rejoin Grandmother Jia and the rest. There they bolted a hurried supper and then slipped back to the other house, where Aroma profited from the absence of the nurses and the other maids to take out a clean under?garment for Bao-yu to change into.
‘Please, Aroma,’ Bao-yu shamefacedly entreated as she helped him change, ‘please don’t tell anyone !’
Equally ill at ease, Aroma giggled softly.
‘Why did you… ?’ she began to ask. Then, after glancing cautiously around, began again.
‘Where did that stuff come from?’
Bao-yu blushed furiously and said nothing. Aroma stared at him curiously and continued to giggle. After much hesitation he proceeded to give her a detailed account of his dream. But when he came to the part of it in which he made love to Two-in-one, Aroma threw herself forward with a shriek of laughter and buried her face in her hands.
Bao-yu had long been attracted by Aroma’s somewhat coquettish charms and tugged at her purposefully, anxious to share with her the lesson he had learned from Disenchant?ment. Aroma knew that when Grandmother Jia gave her to Bao-yu she had intended her to belong to him in the fullest possible sense, and so, having no good reason for refusing him, she allowed him, after a certain amount of coy resistance, to have his way with her.
From then on Bao-yu treated Aroma with even greater consideration than before, whilst Aroma for her part re?doubled the devotion with which she served him. But of this, for the time being, no more.


The inhabitants of the Rong mansion, if we include all of them from the highest to the humblest in our total, numbered more than three hundred souls, who produced between them a dozen or more incidents in a single day. Faced with so ex?uberant an abundance of material, what principle should your chronicler adopt to guide him in his selection of incidents to record? As we pondered the problem where to begin, it was suddenly solved for us by the appearance as it were out of nowhere of someone from a very humble, very insignificant household who, on the strength of a very tenuous, very remote family connection with the Jias, turned up at the Rong mansion on the very day of which we are about to write.
Their name was Wang and they were natives of these parts. A grandfather had held some very small official post in the capital and had there become acquainted with Wang Xi-feng’s grandfather, the father of Lady Wang. Conceiving an ad?miration for the power and prestige of this greater namesake, he had sought to link his family with the latter’s clan by becoming his adoptive nephew. Only Lady Wang and her elder brother—Wang Xi-feng’s father—who chanced at that time to be staying with their parent on his tour of duty at the capital, knew anything about this. The other members of the clan were unaware that any such relationship existed.
The grandfather had long since died, leaving an only son called Wang Cheng who, having fallen on hard times, had moved back into the countryside somewhere outside the capital. Wang Cheng in his turn had died leaving a son called Gou-er, who had married a girl from a family called Liu and now had two children, a son called Ban-er and a daughter called Qing-er. The four of them depended on agriculture for their living, and since, with Gou-er himself busy most of the day on the land and his wife busy about the farm drawing water, pounding grain, and the like, there was no one to look after Qing-er and her little brother, Gou-er invited his mother-?in-law, old Grannie Liu, to come and live with them.
This Grannie Liu was an ancient widow-woman, rich in experience of the world, who, having no son or daughter-in-law to cherish her, eked out her solitary existence by scratching a livelihood from a miserable half-acre of land. She therefore embraced her son-in-law’s invitation with alacrity and threw herself enthusiastically into the business of helping the young couple to make a living.
The season was now at the turn between autumn and winter. The cold weather was beginning, but none of the preparations for winter had yet been made. By drinking to allay his anxiety, Gou-er merely put himself more out of temper. He returned home to vent some of his spleen on his long-suffering wife. Grannie Liu could eventually stomach no more of his wife-baiting and intervened on her daughter’s behalf.
‘Now look here, son-in-law: probably you will think me an interfering old woman; but we country folk have to be grate?ful for what is in the pot and cut down our appetites to the same measure. When you were little your Ma and Pa could afford to indulge you; so now you’re grown-up you spend all your money as soon as you’ve got any, without stopping to count the cost; then, when it’s all gone, you start making a fuss. But what sort of way is that for a grown man to behave?
‘Now where we live may be out in the country, but it’s still “in the Emperor’s shadow”, as they say. Over there in the city the streets are paved with money just waiting for someone to go and pick it up. What’s the sense in rampaging around here at home when you could go out and help your?self?’
‘It’s easy for you to sit on your backside and talk,’ said Gou-er rudely, ‘but what do you expect me to do? Go out and rob?’
‘No one’s asking you to rob,’ said Grannie Liu. ‘But can’t we all sit down peaceably and think of a way? Because if we don’t, the money isn’t going to come walking in the door of its own accord.’
Gou-er snorted sarcastically. ‘If there were a way, do you suppose I should have waited till now before trying it out? There are no tax-collectors in my family and no mandarins among my friends. What way could there be of laying my hands on some money? Even if I did have rich friends or relations, I’m not so sure they would want to be bothered with the likes of us.’
‘I wouldn’t say that,’ said Grannie Liu. ‘Man proposes, God disposes. It’s up to us to think of something. We must leave it to the good Lord to decide whether He’ll help us or not. Who knows, He might give us the opportunity we are looking for.
‘Now I can think of a chance you might try. Your family used to be connected with the Wang clan of Nanking. Twenty years ago the Nanking Wangs used to be very good to you folk. It’s only because of late years you have been too stiff-necked to approach them that they have become more distant with you.
‘I can remember going to their house once with my daughter. The elder Miss Wang was a very straightforward young lady, very easy to get on with, and not at all high and mighty. She’s now the wife of the younger of the two Sir Jias in the Rong mansion. They say that now she’s getting on in years she’s grown even more charitable and given to good works than she was as a girl. Her brother has been promoted; but I shouldn’t be surprised if she at least didn’t still remember us. Why don’t you try your luck with her? You never know, she might do something for you for the sake of old times. She only has to feel well disposed and a hair off her arm would be thicker than a man’s waist to poor folks like us’,
‘That’s all very well, Mother,’ put in Gou-er’s wife, ‘but just take a look at us! What sort of state are we in to go calling on great folks like them? I doubt the people at the door would bother to tell them we were there. Who’s going to all that trouble just to make a fool of themselves?’
Gou-er’s cupidity, however, had been aroused by the words of his mother-in-law, and his reaction to them was less dis?couraging than his wife’s.
‘Well, if it’s as you say, Grannie, and being as you’ve al?ready seen this lady, why not go there yourself and spy out the land for us?’
‘Bless us and save us!’ said Grannie Lin. ‘You know what they say: “A prince’s door is like the deep sea.” What sort of creature do you take me for? The servants there don’t know me; it would be a journey wasted.’
‘That’s no problem,’ said Gou-er. ‘I’ll tell you what to do. You take young Ban-er with you and ask for Old Zhou that stayed in service with your lady after she married. If you tell them you’ve come to see him, it will give you an excuse for the visit Old Zhou once entrusted a bit of business to my father. He used to be very friendly with us at one time.’
‘I knew all about that,’ said Grannie Liu. ‘But it’s a long time since you had anything to do with him and hard to say how he may prove after all these years. Howsomever. Being a man, you naturally can’t go in your present pickle; and a young married woman like my daughter can’t go gallivanting around the countryside showing herself to everybody. But as my old face is tough enough to stand a slap or two, it’s up to me to go. So be it, then. If any good does come of the visit, we shall all of us benefit.’
And so, that very evening, the matter was settled.
Next day Grannie Liu was up before dawn. As soon as she had washed and done her hair, she set about teaching Ban-er a few words to say to the ladies at the great house—an exercise to which he submitted cheerfully enough, as would any little boy of four or five who had been promised an outing to the great city. That done, she set off on her journey, and in due course made her way to Two Dukes Street. There, at each side of the stone lions which flanked the gates of the Rong Mansion, she saw a cluster of horses and palanquins. Not daring to go straight up, she first dusted down her clothes and rehearsed Ban-er’s little repertoire of phrases before sidling up to one of the side entrances.
A number of important-looking gentlemen sat in the gate?way sunning their bellies and discoursing with animated gestures on a wide variety of topics. Grannie Liu waddled up to them and offered a respectful salutation. After looking her up and down for a moment or two, they asked her her business. Grannie Liu smiled ingratiatingly.
‘I’ve come to see Old Zhou that used to be in service with Her Ladyship before she married. Could I trouble one of you gentlemen to fetch him out for me?’
The gentlemen ignored her request and returned to their discussion. After she had waited there for some considerable time one of them said, ‘If you stand at that gate along there on the corner, someone from inside the house should be coming out presently.’
But a more elderly man among them protested that it was ‘a shame to send her on a fool’s errand’, and turning to Grannie Liu he said, ‘Old Zhou is away in the South at the moment, but his missus is still at home. She lives round at the back. You’ll have to go from here round to the back gate in the other street and ask for her there.’
Grannie Liu thanked him and trotted off with little Ban-er all the way round to the rear entrance. There she found a number of sweetmeat vendors and toy-sellers who had set their wares down outside the gate and were being besieged by a crowd of some twenty or thirty noisy, yelling children. She grabbed a small urchin from their midst and drew him towards her.
‘Tell me, sonny, is there a Mrs Zhou living here?’
The urchin stared back at her impudently.
‘Which Mrs Zhou? There are several Mrs Zhous here. What’s her job?’
‘She’s the Mrs Zhou that came here with Her Ladyship when she was married.’
‘That’s easy,’ said the urchin. ‘Follow me!’
He led Grannie Lin into a rear courtyard. ‘That’s where she lives,’ he said, pointing in the direction of a side wall. Then, bawling over the wall, ‘Mrs Zhou, there’s an old woman come to see you!’
Zhou Rui’s wife came hurrying out and asked who it was.
‘How are you, my dear?’ said Grannie Liu, advancing with a smile. Zhou Rui’s wife scrutinized her questioningly for some moments before finally recognizing her.
‘Why, it’s Grannie Liu! How are you? It’s so many years since I saw you last, I’d forgotten all about you! Come in and sit down!’
Grannie Liu followed her cackling.
‘You know what they say: “Important people have short memories.” I wouldn’t expect you to remember the likes of us!’
When they were indoors, Zhou Rui’s wife ordered her little hired help to pour out some tea.
‘And hasn’t Ban-er grown a big boy!’ said Zhou Rui’s wife; then, after a few inquiries about the various things that had happened since they last met, she asked Grannie Liu about her visit.
‘Were you just passing by, or have you come specially?’
‘Well, of course, first and foremost we came to see you, replied Grannie Liu mendaciously, ‘but we were also hoping to pay our respects to Her Ladyship. If you could take us to see her, that would be very nice; but if that’s not possible, perhaps we could trouble you just to give her our regards.’
From the tone of this reply Zhou Rui’s wife was already able to make a pretty good guess as to the real purpose of the old woman’s visit; but because some years previously her husband had received a lot of help from Gou-er’s father in a dispute over the purchase of some land, she could not very well reject Grannie Iiu now, when she came to her as a suppliant. She was, in any case, anxious to demonstrate her own importance in the Jia household; and so the answer she gave her was a gracious one.
‘Don’t you worry, Grannie! After you’ve made such a long pilgrimage, we won’t let you go home without seeing a real Buddha! By rights, of course, Callers and Visitors has nothing to do with me. You see, we each have our own jobs here. My man’s is collecting the half-yearly rents in the spring and autumn; and when he’s not doing that, he takes the young masters out when they go on visits. That’s all he ever does. Now my job is to attend to their ladyships and the young mistresses when they go out. But being as how you are a relation of Her ladyship, and since you’ve put your confidence in me and turned to me to help you, I don’t mind breaking the rules for once and taking in a message.
‘There’s only one thing, though. I don’t expect you know, but things here are very different from what they were five years ago. Nowadays Her Ladyship doesn’t run things here any longer. It’s Master Lian’s wife who does all the managing—You’ll never guess who that is: Her Ladyship’s niece Wang Xi-feng. You know, Her Ladyship’s eldest brothers daughter, that we used to call “Feng-ge” when she was a child’
‘Bless you, my dear, for being such a help!’ said Grannie Liu.
‘Oh Grannie, how can you say such a thing?’ said Zhou Rui’s wife demurely. ‘You know what the old saying is, “He who helps others helps himself.” It’s only a question of saying a few words. No trouble at all.’
So saying, she instructed the little maid to slip quietly round to the back of old Lady Jia’s quarters and ask if they were serving lunch yet. The little maid departed on her errand and the two women resumed their conversation.
‘This Mrs Lian,’ said Grannie Liu: ‘she can’t be more than eighteen or nineteen years old. She must be a very capable young woman. Fancy her being able to run a great household like this!’
‘Oh Grannie, you have no idea!’ said Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘Mrs Lian may be young, but when it comes to doing things, she’s got an older head on her shoulders than any I’ve ever come across. She’s grown up to be a real beauty too, has Mrs Lian. But sharp! Well, if it ever comes to a slanging match, she can talk down ten grown men any day of the week! Wait till you meet her, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s only one thing, though. She’s a bit too strict with those beneath her.’
As she was speaking, the little maid came back, her errand completed.
‘They’ve finished serving lunch at Her Old Ladyship’s. Mrs Lian is still there.’
Thou Rui’s wife hurriedly rose to her feet and urged Grannie Liu to do likewise.
‘Quick! After she comes out from there she’ll be free for a few minutes while she has her meal. We must try and catch her then. If we delay a moment longer, people will start coming in with messages and we shan’t have a chance to speak to her. And once she goes off for her afternoon nap, we’ve really lost her!’
Grannie Liu got off the kang, adjusted her clothing, con?ducted Ban-er through a rapid revision of his little stock of phrases and followed Thou Rui’s wife through various twists and turns to Jia Lian’s quarters. Just before they reached them, Zhou Rui’s wife planted them both in a covered passage-way while she went on ahead round the screen wall and into the gate of the courtyard. First ascertaining that Wang Xi-feng had not yet left Lady Jia’s, she sought out Xi-feng’s chambermaid and principal confidante, Patience, and primed her with a full account of Grannie Liu’s antecedents.
‘She has come all this way today to pay her respects,’ she concluded. ‘At one time Her Ladyship used to see quite a lot of her, which is why I thought it would be in order for me to bring her in. I thought I would wait for the young mistress to come back and explain it all to her. I hope she won’t be angry with me for pushing myself forward.’
Patience at once made up her mind what to do.
‘Let them come in here. They can sit here while they are waiting.’
Zhou Rui’s wife went off again to fetch her charges. As they ascended the steps to the main reception room, a little maid lifted up the red carpet which served as a portère for them to enter. A strange, delicious fragrance seemed to reach forward and enfold them as they entered, producing in Grannie Liu the momentary sensation that she had been transported bodily to one of the celestial paradises. Their eyes, too, were dazzled by the bright and glittering things that filled the room. Temporarily speechless with wonder, Grannie Liu stood wagging her head, alternating clicks of admiration with pious ejaculations.
From the glittering reception room they passed to a room on the east side of it in which Jia Lian’s baby daughter slept. Patience, who was standing by the edge of the kang, made a rapid assessment of Grannie Liu and judged it sufficient to greet her with a civil ‘how-do-you-do’ and an invitation to be seated.
Grannie Liu looked at the silks and satins in which Patience was dressed, the gold and silver ornaments in her hair, her beauty of feature which in every respect corresponded with what she had been told of Wang Xi-feng, and taking the maid for the mistress, was on the point of greeting her as ‘Gou-er’s aunt, when Zhou Rui’s wife introduced her as ‘Miss Patience. Then, when Patience shortly afterwards addressed Zhou Rui’s wife as ‘Mrs Zhou’, she knew that this was no mistress but a very high-class maid. So Grannie Liu and Ban-er got up on the kang at one side, while Patience and Zhou Rui’s wife sat near the edge of it on the other, and a little maid came in and poured them all some tea.
Grannie Liu’s attention was distracted by a persistent tock tock tock tock not unlike the sound made by a flour-bolting machine, and she could not forbear glancing round her from time to time to see where it came from. Presently she caught sight of a sort of boxlike object fastened to one of the central pillars of the room, and a thing like the weight of a steelyard hanging down from it, which swung to and fro in ceaseless motion and appeared to be the source of the noise which had distracted her.
‘I wonder what that can be,’ she thought to herself, ‘and what it can be used for?’
As she studied the strange box, it suddenly gave forth a loud dong! like the sound of a bronze bell or a copper chime, which so startled the old lady that her eyes nearly popped out of her head. The dong! was followed in rapid succession by eight or nine others, and Grannie Liu was on the point of asking what it meant, when all the maids in the house began scurrying about shouting, ‘The mistress! The mistress! She’ll be coming out now!’ and Patience and Zhou Rui’s wife hurriedly rose to their feet.
‘Just stay here, Grannie,’ they said. ‘When it is time for you to see her, we shall come in and fetch you’; and they went off with the other servants to greet their mistress.
As Grannie Liu sat in silence, waiting with bated breath and head cocked to one side for her summons, she heard a far-off sound of laughter, followed presently by a sound of rustling dresses as between ten and twenty women entered the reception room and passed from it into the room beyond. Then two or three women bearing large red lacquer boxes took up their positions on the side nearest the room in which she sat and stood there waiting to be called. A voice in the far room called out, ‘Serve now, please!’ at which, to judge from the noises, most of the women scuttled off, leaving only the few who were waiting at table. A long silence ensued in which not so much as a cheep could be heard; then two women came in bearing a small, low table which they set down on the kang. It was covered with bowls and dishes containing all kinds of meat and fish, only one or two of which appeared to have been touched. At the sight of it Ban-er set up a clamour for some meat and was silenced by Grannie Liu with a resounding slap.
Just at that moment Zhou Rui’s wife appeared, her face all wreathed in smiles, and advanced towards Grannie Liu beckoning. Grannie Liu slipped off the kang, lifted down Ban-er, and exchanged a few hurried whispers with her in the reception room before waddling into the room beyond.
A dark-red patterned curtain hung from brass hooks over the doorway. Inside, under the window in the south wall, there was a kang covered with a dark-red carpet. At the east end of the kang, up against the wooden partition wall, were a back?rest and bolster, both covered in gold brocade, and a large flat cushion for sitting on, also glittering with gold thread. Beside them stood a silver spittoon.
Wang Xi-feng had on a little cap of red sable, which she wore about the house for warmth, fastened on with a pearl ?studded bandeau. She was dressed in a sprigged peach-pink gown, with an ermine-lined skirt of dark-red foreign crepe underneath it, and a cloak of slate-blue silk with woven coloured insets and lining of grey squirrel around her shoul?ders. Her face was exquisitely made-up. She was sitting on the edge of the kang, her back straight as a ramrod, with a dimin?utive pair of tongs in her hand, removing the spent charcoal from a portable hand-warmer. Patience stood beside her carrying a covered teacup on a tiny inlaid lacquer tray. Xi-feng appeared not to have noticed her, for she neither reached out for the cup nor raised her head, but continued picking ab?sorbedly at her hand-warmer. At last she spoke:
‘Why not ask them in, then?’
As she did so, she raised her head and saw Zhou Rui’s wife with her two charges already standing in front of her. She made a confused movement as if to rise to her feet, welcomed the old lady with a look of unutterable benevolence, and almost in the same breath said rather crossly to Zhou Rui’s wife, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
By this time Grannie Liu was already down on her knees and had touched her head several times to the floor in reverence to her ‘Aunt Feng’.
‘Stop her, Zhou dear!’ said Xi-feng in alarm. ‘She mustn’t do that, I am much too young! In any case, I don’t know her very well. I don’t know what sort of relations we are and what I should call her.’
‘This is the Grannie Liu I was just telling you about,’ said Zhou Rui’s wife.
Xi-feng nodded, and Grannie Liu sat herself down on the edge of the kang Ban-er at once hid himself behind her back and neither threats nor blandishments would induce him to come out and make a bow to his ‘Auntie’.
‘Relations don’t come to see us much nowadays,’ said Xi-feng affably. ‘We’re getting to be quite strangers with everybody. People who know us realize that it is because you are tired of us that you don’t visit us oftener; but some spiteful people who don’t know us so well think it’s our fault, because we have grown too proud.’
Grannie Liu invoked the Lord Buddha in pious disavowal of so shocking a view.
‘It’s hard times that keeps us away. We can’t afford to visit. We are afraid that if we came to see you looking the way we are, you would disown us; and even the people at the gate might think we were tramps!’
‘Now you are really being too hard on us! What if Grand?father did make a little bit of a name for himself and we do hold some miserable little appointment? What does it all amount to? It’s all empty show, really. You know what they say: “Even the Emperor has poor relations.” It would be strange indeed if we didn’t have a few!’
She turned to Thou Rui’s wife.
‘Have you told Her Ladyship yet?’
‘No, ma’am. I was waiting for your instructions.’
‘Go and have a look, then. If she has anyone with her, you had better leave it; but if she is free, tell her about their visit and see what she says.’
Zhou Rui’s wife departed on her errand.
Xi-feng told one of the servants to give Ban-er a handful of sweets, and had just begun a desultory conversation with Grannie Liu when a number of domestics and underlings of either sex arrived to report on their duties.
‘I am entertaining a guest,’ said Xi-feng to Patience when she came in to announce their arrival. ‘Let them leave it until this evening. But if anyone has important business, bring them in and I will deal with it now.’
Patience went out and returned a minute later to say that she had asked them and no one had any business of special importance, so she had sent them all away. Xi-feng nodded.
At this point Zhou Rui’s wife returned with a message for Xi-feng.
‘Her Ladyship says she isn’t free today, but that if you will entertain them for her, it will be just the same as if she were to receive them herself. She says please thank them very much for coming. And she says if it’s just an ordinary visit she has nothing more to add; but if they have anything particular to say, she says tell them that they can say it to you instead.’
‘I hadn’t anything particular in mind,’ said Grannie Liu.
‘Only to look in on Her Ladyship and your mistress. Just a visit to relations.’
‘Well all right then, if you are sure you have nothing to say. But if you have got anything to say, you really ought to tell the mistress. It will be just the same as if you were to say it to Her Ladyship.’ Zhou Rui’s wife darted a meaningful look at Grannie Liu as she said this.
Grannie Liu perfectly well understood the significance of this look, and a blush of shame overspread her face. Yet if she did not speak up now, what would have been the purpose of her visit? She forced herself to say something.
‘By rights I ought not to mention it today, seeing that this is our first meeting: but as I have come such a long way to see you, it seems silly not to speak…’
She had got no further when the pages from the outer gate announced the arrival of ‘the young master from the Ning mansion’ and Xi-feng gestured to her to stop.
‘It’s all right. There is no need to tell me.’ She turned to the pages. ‘Where is Master Rong, then ?’
A man’s footstep sounded outside and a fresh-faced, willowy youth of seventeen or eighteen in elegant and expensive-looking winter dress came into the room.
Grannie Liu, acutely embarrassed in this male presence, did not know whether to sit or stand, and looked round her in vain for somewhere to hide herself. Xi-feng laughed at her discomfiture.
‘Don’t mind him; just stay where you are! It’s only ray nephew.’
With a good deal of girlish simpering Grannie Liu sat down again, perching herself obliquely on the extreme edge of the kang.
Jia Rong saluted his aunt Manchu fashion.
‘My father is entertaining an important visitor tomorrow and he wondered if he might borrow the little glass screen that your Uncle Wang’s wife gave you, to put on our kang while he is there. We can let you have it back again as soon as he has gone.’
‘You are too late,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I lent it yesterday to someone else.
Jia Rong flashed a winning smile at her and half-knelt on the side of the kang.
‘If you won’t lend it, my father will say that I didn’t ask properly and I shall get a beating. Come on, Auntie, be a sport! Just for my sake!’
Xi-feng smiled maliciously.
‘I don’t know what’s so special about my family’s things. Heaven knows, you have enough stuff of your own over there; yet you have only to set eyes on anything of ours, and you want it for yourselves.’
Jia Rong’s smile flashed again.
‘Please, Auntie! Be merciful!’
‘If it’s the tiniest bit chipped,’ said Xi-feng, ‘I’ll have the hide off you!’
She ordered Patience to take the key of the upstairs room and get some reliable servants to carry it over. Delighted with his good luck, Jia Rong hurriedly forestalled her.
‘I’ll get some of my own people to carry it. Don’t put yours to a lot of trouble!’ and he hurried out.
Xi-feng suddenly seemed to remember something, and called to him through the window, ‘Rong, come back! ‘
Servants in the yard outside dutifully took up the cry, ‘Master Rong, you’re wanted back again!’
Jia Rong came hurrying back, wreathed in smiles, and looked at Xi-feng with eyebrows arched inquiringly.
Xi-feng, however, sipped very intently from her teacup and mused for a while, saying nothing. Suddenly her face flushed and she gave a little laugh:
‘It doesn’t matter. Come back again after supper. I’ve got company now, and besides, I don’t feel in the mood to tell you.’
‘Yes, Aunt,’ said Jia Rong, and pursing his lips up in a complacent smile he sauntered slowly out of the room.
Having all this while had time to collect herself, Grannie Liu began her speech again:
‘The real reason I have brought your little nephew here today is because his Pa and Ma haven’t anything in the house to eat, and the weather is getting colder, and—and—I thought I’d bring him here to see you …’ She gave Ban-er a despairing push. ‘What did your Pa tell you to say when we got here? What was it he sent us for? Look at you! All you can do is sit there eating sweets!’
It was abundantly clear to Xi-feng that the old lady was too embarrassed to go on, and she put her out of her misery with a gracious smile.
‘It’s quite all right. There is no need to tell me. I quite understand.’ She turned to Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘I wonder if Grannie has eaten yet today ?’
‘We were on our way first thing this morning,’ Grannie Liu chimed in. ‘There was no time to think about eating.’
Xi-feng gave orders for a meal to be brought in, and Zhou Rui’s wife went out and presently reappeared with a guest’s portion of various choice dishes on a little table, which she set down in the east wing, and to which she then conducted Grannie Liu and Ban-er for their meal.
‘Zhou, dear,’ said Xi-feng, ‘will you keep them company and see that they have enough to eat? I shan’t be able to sit with them myself.’ Then calling her aside for a moment she asked, ‘What did Her Ladyship say when you went to report about them just now?’
‘She said they don’t really belong to the family but were adopted into the clan years ago when your grandfather and theirs were working in the same office. She said they haven’t been round much of late years, but in the old days when they used to visit us we never sent them back empty-handed. She said it was nice of them to come and see us today and we should be careful to treat them considerately. And she said if they appear to want anything, she would leave it to you to decide what we should do for them.’
‘No wonder!’ exclaimed Xi-feng when she had heard this account. ‘I couldn’t understand how they could be really related to us if I had never even heard of them.’
While they were talking, Grannie Liu came back from the other room having already finished eating, smacking her lips and sucking her teeth appreciatively, and voicing her thanks for the repast.
‘Sit down,’ said Xi-feng with a smile. ‘I have something to say to you. I quite understand what you were trying to tell me just now. As we are relations, we ought by rights not to wait for you to come to our door before helping you when you are in trouble; but there are so many things to attend to in this family, and now that Her Ladyship is getting on a bit she doesn’t always remember them all. And since I took over the management of the household, I find there are quite a lot of relations that I don’t even know about. And then again, of course, though we may look thriving enough from the out?side, people don’t realize that being a big establishment like ours carries its own difficulties. They won’t believe it if you tell them, but it’s true. However, since you have come such a long way, and since this is the first time you have ever said a word about needing help, we obviously can’t let you go back empty-handed. Fortunately it so happens that I still haven’t touched any of the twenty taels of silver that Her Ladyship gave me the other day to make clothes for the maids with. If you don’t mind it being so little, you are very welcome to take it.’
When Grannie Liu heard Xi-feng talk about ‘difficulties’ she concluded that there was no hope. Her delight and the way in which her face lit up with pleasure when she heard that she was, after all, to be given twenty taels of sliver can be imagined.
‘We knew you had your troubles,’ she said, ‘but as the saying goes, “A starved camel is bigger than a fat horse.” Say what you like, a hair plucked from your arm is thicker than a man’s waist to folks like us!’
Horrified by the crudity of these expressions, Zhou Rui’s wife, who was standing by, was meanwhile signaling fran?tically to the old lady to stop. But Xi-feng laughed quite unconcernedly and told Patience to wrap up the silver and also to fetch a string of cash to go with it. The money was set down in front of Grannie Liu.
‘Here is the twenty taels of silver,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Take this for the time being to make some winter clothes for the children with. Some time later on, when you have nothing better to do, look in on us for a day or two for kinship’s sake. It’s late now, so I won’t try to keep you. Give our regards to everybody who ought to be remembered when you get back!’
She rose to her feet, and Grannie Liu, with heartfelt ex?pressions of gratitude, picked up the money and followed Zhou Rui’s wife out of the room.
‘My dear good woman,’ said the latter when they were out of earshot, ‘whatever came over you? First, when you met her, you couldn’t get a word out; then, when you did start talking, it was all “your nephew” this and “your nephew” that! I hope you won’t mind my saying so, but even if the child was a real nephew you would still need to go a bit easy on the familiarities. Now Master Rong, he is her real nephew. That’s the sort of person a lady like that calls “nephew”. Where she would come by a nephew like this one, I just do not know!’
‘My dear,’ replied Grannie Liu with a laugh, ‘when I saw the pretty little darling sitting there, I took such a liking to her that my heart was too full to speak.’
Back in Zhou Rui’s quarters the two women sat talking for a while. Grannie Liu wanted to leave a piece of silver to buy something for the Zhou children with, but Zhou Rui’s wife said she wouldn’t hear of it and refused absolutely to accept anything. And so, with many expressions of gratitude, the old lady took her leave and set out once more through the back gate of the mansion.
And if you want to know what happened after she had left, you will have to read the next chapter.

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