The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 60

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CHAPTER 60

As a substitute for rose-orris
Jia Huan is given jasmine face-powder
And in return for rose essence
Cook Liu is given lycoperdon snow

Aroma, you will recall, had asked Patience what in particular it was that had been giving her so much trouble. Patience smiled mysteriously:
Something no one would ever guess. You’ll have a good laugh when I tell you. I won’t tell you for a few days yet, though, because I still haven’t quite got to the bottom of it -and I haven’t got time now, in any case.’
As if to prove that this was so, one of Li Wan’s little maids arrived at that very moment:
‘Miss Patience? Oh, there you are! Mrs Zhu’s waiting for you. Why don’t you come?’
‘I’m coming, I’m coming,’ said Patience, breaking away from the others with a laugh and hurrying after her.
Aroma and the others laughed, too.
‘She’s grown as popular as hot cakes since her mistress’s illness: everyone wants her at once!’
Patience’s business with Li Wan is no part of our story. We remain with Bao-yu and the test at Green Delights.
‘Swallow,’ said Bao-yu, ‘you and your mother had better go to Miss Bao’s place and make it up with Oriole. You can’t let her go on feeling offended.’
‘Yes,’ said Swallow, and hurried out to find her mother. Bao-yu shouted to them through the window as the two of them were crossing the courtyard:
‘Don’t say anything about it in front of Miss Bao. You don’t want Oriole to get a telling-off.’
Mother and daughter shouted back a reply and continued on their way, conversing as they went. Swallow began reproaching her mother when they were out of earshot:
‘I told you, Mother, again and again, but you wouldn’t believe me. All this trouble you’ve got yourself into – it was so unnecessary.’
‘Get along with you, little hussy!’ said her mother, laughing. ‘You know what the proverb says: “Never suffer, never learn”. I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t need any lectures from you!’
‘If only you could be content with the job you’ve got, Ma, and not be always pushing forward so,’ said Swallow gently. ‘There are all sorts of benefits to be had from working here, after you’ve been here some length of time. I’ll tell you just one of them. Bao-yu says that when the time comes, he’s going to ask Her Ladyship to give us maids – all of us, that is, not just the ones who work in his room – our freedom, so that you can marry us to whoever you like. What about that for a start?’
‘Really?’ Her mother’s delight was tempered with incredulity.
‘Why should I tell a lie?’
The pious invocations which this news evoked continued until they were almost at All-spice Court. They arrived there when Bao-chai, Dai-yu, Aunt Xue and the others were having lunch. Swallow and her mother waited until Oriole came out to make the tea, then, as she emerged, Swallow’s mother stepped forward to make her apology.
‘I’m afraid I was a bit hasty just now, miss. I said sonic things I shouldn’t have done. I hope you won’t hold it against me. Anyway, I’m very sorry.’
Oriole, all smiles, begged them both to be seated and would have given them tea; but mother and daughter said they had business to attend to and took their leave. They were already on their way back to Green Delights when Etamine came hurrying after them.
‘Just a minute, just a minute!’
She was holding a little packet which she wanted them to deliver to Parfumee for her. It was rose-orris, she explained, for the face.
‘That’s a bit unnecessary, isn’t it?’ said Swallow. ‘They must have plenty of it there they’d be only too willing to give her if she wanted any. Why go to the trouble of sending her some?’
‘What they do with theirs is their concern,’ said Etamine. ‘This is mine and I want to give it to her as a present. Please take it with you.’
Swallow could scarcely refuse.
When she and her mother got back to Green Delights, Jia Huan and Jia Cong were with Bao-yu inside, having arrived on a formal visit a few moments previously to inquire about his health. Swallow turned to her mother.
‘Now, Mother: I’ll go in alone. There’s no need for you to come in with me.’
Her mother received this without a murmur. All her former wilfulness was quite forgotten and she stood docilely outside while Swallow entered.
Bao-yu, seeing her come in, realized that it was Only to report the successful conclusion of her mission and nodded to her curtly to show that he had understood. There was therefore no need for her to say anything, and after standing silently for a few moments inside the doorway, she slipped out again, signalling with her eyes to Parfumee as she did so to follow her into the Outer room. There she handed the packet to her and told her in an undertone what Etamine had asked her to say.
Bao-yu, having nothing whatever to talk to his visitors about, had been idly following this transaction out of the corner of his eye, and when Parfumee came in again, he asked her what it was that she was holding. Parfumee told him and handed him the packet. He praised Etamine’s thoughtfulness while opening it up to have a look.
Jia Huan craned forward and smelt the powder’s cool, delicious scent. Stooping down, he fished a sheet of paper from inside his boot.
‘Give us a bit, brother!’ he said, holding the paper out for Bao-yu to pour some in.
Bao-yu would have given him some, but Parfumee was unwilling that Etamine’s gift to her should be shared.
‘No, don’t take any of that,’ she said. ‘I’ll get some more for you from outside.’
Bao-yu, divining the reason for her reluctance, quickly did the packet up again.
‘Here you are. Hurry up and get some more then.’
Parfumee took the packet, and having stored it safely away in the room where she kept her things, looked in the drawer of her vanity-case for her own supply, only to find that the box she had kept it in was empty – why she could not imagine, because she was sure there had been some left in it that morning: But when she asked the others, of course, no one knew anything about it.
‘There’s no time to bother about that now,’ said Musk. ‘Obviously it must have been someone from this room. They must have found themselves short and “borrowed” yours. Give him something else. It doesn’t matter what: he’ll never know the difference. Anything to get rid of them, so that we can get on with our lunch!’
Following this advice, Parfumee made up a little packet of jasmine-scented face-powder and took it inside to the boys. Jia Huan, grinning broadly, stretched out his hand to receive it, but she threw it contemptuously on the kang and he had to stoop down to pick it up. When he had stowed it inside the breast of his jacket, he and Jia Cong finally took their leave.
With Jia Zheng permanently away and Lady Wang and the other ladles now also absent, Jia Huan had lately taken to staying away from school for several days at a time on the pretext that he was ill; he therefore felt no compunction in entering his mother’s courtyard during the daytime. He did so now, very pleased with himself, to look for Sunset, whom he found chatting with Aunt Zhao.
‘Look, I’ve brought you something nice,’ he said, going up to her, all smiles, and holding out the packet: ‘something for your face. You know you’re always saying how good rose?-orris is for skin troubles – how much better than the silver powder you get from outside – well, have a look at this!’
Sunset opened the packet, took one look at its contents, and let out a hoot of laughter.
‘Who did you get this from?’
Jia Huan told her.
‘They’ve been having you on,’ said Sunset. ‘This stuff isn’t rose-orris, it’s jasmine face-powder.’
Jia Huan looked again. It did in fact have a slightly pinkish tinge, and when he sniffed it, he found that it had a sweet, almost sickly perfume, quite unlike the clean, fresh scent of the orris.
‘Well, anyway, it’s good stuff,’ he said. ‘Orris or this stuff; it’s all powder, isn’t it? You can keep it to use on your face. This is still better than anything you could buy from outside.’
Sunset put it away resignedly.
Aunt Zhao eyed her offspring scornfully.
‘You don’t think if they’d got anything really good they’d give it to you, do you? I’m not surprised she made a fool of you; I’m surprised you bothered to ask her for it. Take it back and throw it in her face, that’s what you ought to do. Now that the others are all either chasing around the countryside after this funeral or lying with their toes curled up in bed is just the moment for a good old row. Stir them all up a bit. Pay them back for some of the things they’ve done to us in the past. No one’s going to be bothered to dig a little thing like this up in two months’ time when they’re all back again. And even if they do, you’ve got a good excuse. Bao-yu’s your elder brother; you can’t do anything to offend him, I agree. But that doesn’t mean that you have to put up with what every little cat or dog of his chooses to do to you.’
Jia Huan hung his head.
‘It’s not worth a quarrel,’ said Sunset, defending him. ‘Much better just grin and bear it, whatever we think.’
‘Just stay out of this, will you?’ said Aunt Zhao. ‘It’s got nothing to do with you. He knows he’s in the right. It’s a golden opportunity to go and tell these little hussies exactly what he thinks of them.’ She pointed at Jia Huan scornfully. ‘Pah! Spineless creature I If ever I say a word out of place or give you the wrong thing by mistake, I get black looks from you soon enough! Oh yes, you can be very fierce with your own mother! But when some little chit of a girl makes a fool of you, you take it lying down. How can you expect the servants to respect you when you grow up if you always behave like this? Oh, you’re so useless, you make me sick!’
Shamed and angered by her words, yet still not daring to act upon them) Jia Huan made a dismissive gesture with his hand.
‘It’s all very well to talk, but you wouldn’t dare to go there any more than I would. You want me to go back there and have a row with them, don’t you? All right, suppose I do and they tell the school. I’m the one who’ll feel the pain when I get beaten, not you. You’re always stirring me up to do things; then, when I get beaten and sworn at, you just keep your head down and say nothing. This time you’re trying to stir me up to have a row with these girls. Well, if you’re not afraid of Tan-chun, why don’t you do it yourself? Then perhaps in future I might take a bit more notice of what you said.’
His words touched Aunt Zhao on the raw.
‘What?’ she screamed. ‘Me afraid of my own flesh and blood, of my own daughter that I once carried inside me? That’s a good story!’
She snatched up the packet of orris-powder from where Sunset had placed it and went rushing off in the direction of the Garden. Sunset, having found expostulation in vain, slipped off to another apartment to shelter from the storm. Jia Huan slunk off through the ornamental gate to play on his own outside.
As Aunt Zhao, still in a highly combustible state, went charging into the Garden, who should she run into but old Mamma Xia, that aunt of Swallow’s who was also the foster-mother and implacable enemy of Nenuphar. From Aunt Zhao’s livid face and bloodshot eyes it was evident to the old nannie that she was in a very nasty temper. Mamma Xia politely inquired where she was going.
‘Now even the little painted actresses who haven’t been with us more than a few days are discriminating against us. I could take it from anyone else, but to have little creatures like that putting you in your place – it’s more than flesh and blood can bear!’
As these sentiments, insofar as she could make sense of them, seemed very much in accord with her own, Mamma Xia asked her, with some interest, precisely what it was that had upset her. Aunt Zhao explained how Jia Huan had asked for rose-orris and been fobbed off with ordinary face-powder.
‘My dear Mrs Zhao,’ said Mamma Xia, ‘have you only now begun to realize what they are like? Why, what you have just told me is nothing I The other day they were even burning ghost money in here – and Bao-yu sticking up for them, if you please I If anyone else brings anything into the Garden, it’s all “unclean, unclean I” – there’s no end of a fuss. But ghost money, than which there’s nothing more unclean that I know of, that’s all right, apparently. You’re the most senior person after Her Ladyship, Mrs Zhao. I think you ought to put your foot down for once. I’m sure if you did, everyone would respect you for it. If you ask me, players is only trash anyway, so even if you upset them, there’s nothing much they can do about it. Let these two things, the powder and the ghost money, be your justification for making an example of them. I’ll support you with my evidence. Give them a taste of your authority now and you will find it that much easier to deal with other things later on. Even if the young mistresses don’t like it, they’re not going to side against you with riff-raff like these.’
Aunt Zhao’s resolve was strengthened by this encouragement.
‘I didn’t know about the ghost money,’ she said. ‘Tell me what happened.’
Mamma Xia did so, in great detail, concluding with a further incitement to action.
‘Go and have it out with them, Mrs Zhao! We’ll stand by you if there’s any trouble.’
These words were as music in Aunt Zhao’s ears. Emboldened by them, she marched off without more delay to Green Delights.
It chanced that Bao-yu was out when she arrived (he had heard that Dai-yu was visiting All-spice Court and gone off to join her there) and Parfumee was having lunch with Aroma and the other maids. The girls all rose to their feet as Aunt Zhao entered and politely invited her to join them.
‘Won’t you have some lunch, Mrs Zhao? Why are you in such a hurry?’
Ignoring the invitation, Aunt Zhao stepped forward, threw the powder she was carrying in Parfumee’s face and, with stabbing index finger for emphasis, began shouting at her abusively.
‘Little strumpet! You’re a bit of bought goods, that’s all you are. We paid down money and bought you, so that you could be trained to sing for our entertainment. Play-actors and prostitutes are the class of people you belong to; the lowest servant in this household is still a few steps above you. So what makes you think you have the right to go discriminating between one person and another? It’s no skin off your nose if Bao-yu wants to give something of his away to somebody: what business have you to try and stop him? I suppose you thought when you palmed that stuff off on Huan that he wouldn’t know the difference. Well, let me tell you: Master Huan is Bao-yu’s brother, whatever you may think of him, and that means he’s one of the masters, and there’s no cause for you to look down on him.’
Parfumee, never one to take things quietly, set up a howl of tearful protest.
‘I gave that stuff to him because I hadn’t got any orris and I was afraid if I told him I hadn’t got any he wouldn’t believe me. Anyway, it’s good powder. And suppose I have been trained as an actress, I’ve never played outside for money. I’m a little girl, not a trumpet or whatever it was you called me. And as for being “bought goods”, well, it wasn’t you who bought me. And anyway, look who’s talking! I thought all of us here were bought goods. I don’t know why you of all people would want to drag that up.’
‘Stop that at once!’ said Aroma, shocked, and tried to pull her Out of the way. But Aunt Zhao, in speechless fury, had already advanced on Parfumee and dealt her a couple of resounding slaps on the head. Aroma expostulated.
‘She’s only a child, Mrs Zhao, you don’t want to put yourself on the same level. Leave it to us to deal with her.’
Parfumee was not to he struck with impunity and reacted to the assault with a fine display of histrionics, weeping, shout?ing and throwing herself about in all directions.
‘How dare you hit me, you horrible old woman! You should look at yourself in the mirror! Go on, hit me again then, hit me again! I don’t want to go on living!’
Lowering her head, she drove it into Aunt Zhao’s midriff, continuing, as she butted into leer, to repeat her challenge. Several of the servants shouted at her and attempted to pull her off. Aroma would have done so too, but Sky-bright drew her to one side and advised her against joining them.
‘Leave them to it, Aroma Y6u and I don’t want to get mixed up in this. It’s the law of the jungle now: you hit me, I hit you. Heaven knows where it will end!’
The servants who had followed in Aunt Zhao’s wake, when they heard the rumpus inside, gave thanks to the Lord Buddha that justice was at last being done. Among them, the old women who bore grudges against the little actresses were particularly gratified to hear that Parfumee was being beaten.
The news travelled quickly. Nenuphar and Etamine, who had found a quiet corner of All-spice Court in which to be alone together, heard it when the two former ‘painted faces’ of their troupe, Xiang-yun’s Althee and Bao-qin’s Cardamome, burst in on them to enlist their support.
‘Come on, you two! If we let them bully Parfumee, we shall all of us suffer. It’s time to come out in the open and make a stand. Let’s show them a bit of spirit!’
The four of them were only children, full of righteous indig?nation for their friend. Without a moment’s reflection they rushed off in a body and went charging into Green Delights. Cardamome made first impact, and Aunt Zhao would have been swept off her feet had she not been simultaneously ringed round by the three others, who, with fists flailing, heads butting, and all emitting loud ‘boo-hoos’, pressed in upon her rear and sides. Skybright and the senior maids, though pretending concern and making half-hearted attempts to intervene, found it difficult not to laugh; but Aroma was genuinely distressed and dashed from one to another of them, dragging them away from Aunt Zhao. It was useless. As she pulled one off, another would dart in to replace her.
‘What’s the matter with you all?’ wailed Aroma. ‘If you’ve got a grievance, why can’t you discuss it like sensible human beings? You can’t go taking the law into your own hands like this. I never heard of such a thing!’
Aunt Zhao could only curse helplessly. Etamine and Nenuphar held her firmly by each arm and Althee and Cardamome had her pinned between them with their heads.
‘Kill us!’ they kept shouting, ‘Kill us all four!’
Parfumee meanwhile lay stretched out corpselike on the ground, having cried herself into a swoon.
The little actresses might have remained locked in their grapple with Aunt Zhao indefinitely, but Skybright had already sent Swallow to bear word of what was happening to Tan-chun, and You-shi, Li Wan and Tan-chun, together with Patience and a number of female domestics, now arrived upon the scene and shouted to them peremptorily to release her.
Aunt Thao was by now pop-eyed with anger and the veins stood out thickly on her forehead. They asked her how she came to be in such a predicament, but her reply, though long and voluble, was made almost incomprehensible by rage, and You-shi and Li Wan, unable to make anything of it, contented themselves with shouting some more at the act?resses. Tan-chun, though, merely sighed.
‘This isn’t really very serious. You are too easily angered, Aunt. As a matter of fact there was something I wanted to discuss with you, but the maids didn’t seem to know where you had got to. Now it appears that you were in here, work?ing yourself into a rage. Do come with us now.’
You-shi and Li Wan smilingly confirmed the invitation.
‘Yes, Mrs Zhao. Come with us to the office and we can discuss things with you there.’
Since she could scarcely object to being consulted, Aunt Zhao was constrained to go along with them, but even as she went she continued muttering angrily to herself until Tan?-chun cut her short:
‘These girls are here for our amusement,’ Tan-chun said. ‘They are like pets. You can talk to them and play with them if you feel like it, or if you don’t, you can simply ignore them. It’s the same when they are naughty. Just as, when your puppy-dog bites you or your kitten scratches you, you can either ignore it or have it punished, so with these girls. If they do something to offend you, you can either let it pass, or, if you don’t feel able to, you can call in one of the stewardesses and have them punished. There is absolutely no need to go rushing off in person, shouting and hollering at them. It’s so undignified. And besides, it sets so bad an example. Look at Aunt Zhou. She doesn’t seem to suffer any of this disrespect you complain of and she isn’t always rushing off after people to have it out with them. If I were you, Aunt, I should go back to your room now and try to calm down a bit. And don’t go listening any more to those trouble-makers. There’s no reason why you should do other people’s work for them; you get no thanks for it; they merely laugh at you for being stupid. However angry you may feel now, try to be patient for a few days until Lady Wang gets back and we’ll see what we can do to get all this sorted out then.’
This dressing-down was effective, insofar as it left Aunt Zhao without a word to say, and she returned in silence to her room. As soon as she had gone, Tan-chun burst out angrily to the others.
‘You’d think she’d know better at her age. Why can’t she do anything to make people respect her? I mean, what a ridic?ulous thing to quarrel about! And what a way to behave! She will listen to absolutely anything anyone tells her. She has absolutely no judgement of her own. And those wretched old women take advantage of the fact to use her as their cat’s-paw.’
The more Tan-chun thought about it, the angrier she became. She ended up by ordering the women to make some inquiries and find out whose incitement it was that had goaded Aunt Zhao into action. The women went off obediently to investigate, but turned to each other with shrugs and smiles as they left the building.
‘Like looking for a needle on the ocean bed!’
And though they had Aunt Zhao’s women and all the women from the Garden up in front of them for question?ing, not one of them would admit to knowing anything at all about it, and they were obliged to report back to Tan?-chun that they had failed.
‘But we shall go on making inquiries, miss,’ they said. ‘If we find anything suspicious, we shall report it to you.’
Tan-chun’s anger had by this time subsided and she would have let the matter drop; but Artemisie, the little actress who had been assigned to her apartment, came to her privately to tell her that she could identify the culprit.
‘It was Mamma Xia,’ she said. ‘She hates us and she is always trying to get us into trouble. The other day she tried to get Nenuphar into trouble for burning spirit-money, but Bao-yu had asked her to burn it, and when he owned up, Mamma Xia hadn’t a leg to stand on. Today, when I was delivering those handkerchiefs for you, I noticed her and Mrs Zhao twittering away for ever such a long time together and when they saw me coming they moved out of the way to avoid me.’
It seemed highly probable that it was Mamma Xia who had done the inciting; but these little actresses were all closely in league together, Tan-chun reflected, and all of them were exceptionally mischievous: it would be too risky to act on the evidence of what one of them had said. She thanked Artemisie for her information, but inwardly decided to do nothing.
By an unlucky chance Mamma Xia had a granddaughter who worked in Tan-chun’s apartment and did various little errands for the maids, with all of whom she was popular. Her name was Cicada, but the maids all called her ‘Ciggy’. On this particular occasion Tan-chun had gone back to the jobs room’ after lunch, leaving Ebony in charge of her apartment. Ebony now asked Ciggy to go to the Garden gatehouse and get one of the pages there to run out and buy her a sweet-cake. Ciggy objected that she had just finished sweeping the courtyard and had a backache. She told Ebony to ask some?one else.
‘There’s no one else I can ask,’ said Ebony. ‘I tell you what. If you’ll do this errand for me now, I’ll give you a piece of good advice that you can pass on to your grandma when you get there.’
And she proceeded to tell her about Artemisie’s denunciation.
‘Tell her to be on her guard.’
‘The little beast!’ said Ciggy, taking the money for the sweetcake. ‘She wants to join in too, does she? Wait till I tell my gran!’
And off she went to the back gate of the Garden.
It was a slack time now in the kitchen and the women, Mamma Xia among them, having for the time being finished with fetching and carrying; were sitting outside on the steps and gossiping. Ciggy asked one of them to go out and buy a hot fried sweetcake for her and then proceeded to give her grandmother an account, interlarded with much bad language of her own, of what Ebony had told her about Artemisie.
Mamma Xia, both angered and alarmed by what she heard, was all for going off straight away, having it out with the little actress, and protesting her innocence to Tan-chun; but Ciggy prevented her.
‘Don’t go, Gran! What can you say to them if you do go? How are you going to explain how you got to know about it? Once they start asking questions, you’ll be in the soup again. I’ve told you this to put you on your guard. You don’t have to do anything about it.’
Just then Parfumee peered in the gateway of the kitchen courtyard and called across to Mrs Liu, the cook, who was still banging about inside the kitchen.
‘Cookie, Master Bao says, for his vegetable dish this evening could he have something cold and vinegary again, please, only not so oily as last time?’
‘Very good,’ Cook Liu stood in her doorway and called back cheerfully. ‘Why should they send you about such a great, important matter? Come in and look around, if it’s not too dirty for you.’
Parfumee had barely stepped into the courtyard when the woman to whom Ciggy had entrusted the money arrived back carrying Ebony’s hot fritter on a saucer.
‘Oo, lovely hot fritter! Give us a taste!’ said Parfumee jokingly.
‘That has been ordered and paid for by someone else,’ said Ciggy primly, as she took the saucer from the woman. ‘It is not for you.’
‘Do you fancy one, miss?’ Cook Liu asked Parfumee. ‘I’ve got one in here that I bought for our Fivey you can have if you like. It hasn’t been touched yet, so it’s quite clean.’
She brought the fried cake out on a saucer and handed it to Parfumee.
‘There you are. Now you wait there a moment and I’ll heat up a nice cup of tea for you to go with it.’
She went inside again to rake the top off the fire and heat some tea up in a skillet. But instead of waiting for her, Parfumee picked the fritter up from its saucer, went over to Ciggy with it, and held it under her nose for her to inspect.
‘Look what’s that, then? Fritter. Who wants your mouldy fritter? I was only joking. I wouldn’t eat yours if you went down on your bended knees and begged me to!’
She began to crumble it up between her fingers and throw the pieces to the birds.
‘Don’t worry, Mrs Liu!’ she called out in the direction of the kitchen. ‘I’ll buy two catties of these for you presently.’
Ciggy glared at her in outrage.
‘Old Thunder up there must be blind not to strike you dead,’ she said bitterly. ‘Either that, or he must be angry with me for something. Still, I can’t compete with you, can I! I haven’t got anyone to rush out and give me things, or trot around after me like a self-adopted slave, or chip in with a good word for me when there’s an argument.’
‘All right, young ladies, that’s enough!’ said the women on the steps. ‘Can’t you even see each other without having words?’
The more discerning of them, sensing that a storm was brewing and not wanting to get involved, had already begun slipping off elsewhere. But Ciggy had no stomach for a fight and went off, muttering angrily to herself, without further argument.
When the women had all gone, Cook Liu came bustling Out of her kitchen for a private word with Parfumee.
‘That business we were talking about the other day -have you spoken to him about it yet?’
‘Yes, I have,’ said Parfumee. ‘I was going to remind him of it today, but that wretched Zhao woman came along and upset everything with her quarrelling. How’s Fivey? Did she drink any of that Essence of Roses I brought her the other day?’
‘She drank it all,’ said Cook Liu. ‘She loved it. She’d really like some more, to tell the truth, but she doesn’t like to ask.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Parfumee. ‘I can easily get her some more. I only have to ask for it.’
The object of Parfumee’s inquiry, who owed her strange name to the fact that she was the fifth of Old Liu’s granddaughters, though only the daughter of a cook, was in both looks and intelligence a match for any of the senior maids -Patience, Aroma, Faithful or Nightingale – and it was only because of a weakly constitution that she was still, in her sixteenth year, without employment. Recently, however, observing how numerous the maids were in Bao-yu’s apartment and how light their duties were, and hearing that it was his intention to give them their freedom when they had finished service with him, her mother had conceived the ambition of getting her on the staff of Green Delights. Lack of a contact there had at first made this ambition seem unrealizable; but Cook Liu had previously worked at Pear Tree Court, where her cheerful and ungrudging service had won her golden opinions with the girls. They greatly preferred her to their own foster-mothers. And so when Parfumee moved into Green Delights, the cook had easily. prevailed on her to tackle Bao-yu on her daughter’s behalf. Bao-yu had consented willingly, but the situation created by Xi-feng’s illness together with other more recent developments had so far prevented him from seeking higher approval for the appointment.
But we digress.
Bao-yu heard about the fracas created in his apartment by Aunt Zhao while he was at All-spice Court visiting the girls. Though deeply distressed on Parfumee’s behalf, he decided, after some hesitation, that intervention by him could only make matters worse, and resolved to stay where he was. He did so until word reached All-spice Court that Tan-chun had succeeded in getting Aunt Zhao out of the way. Returning then, he had formally reproved Parfumee for her belligerency and then sent her on an errand to the kitchen.
Parfumee now arrived back at Green Delights and reported on the fulfilment of her mission. She also told him that, if he still had any, Fivey would like some more of the Essence of Roses.
‘Yes, I think I’ve still got some,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Look, why don’t you give her all of it? I don’t drink it very often myself.’
He sent Aroma to fetch it. As there was not a great deal of it left, he told Parfumee that Fivey might as well keep the bottle. Parfumee went back to the kitchen again to give the bottle to Cook Liu.
When she got there, she found Fivey there as well. To give her ailing, cooped-up daughter a little treat, Cook Liu had brought her along with her that day when she went to work. The girl had just been taking a little walk in the environs of her mother’s kitchen and was now resting her feet in the kitchen and having a cup of tea. Mother and daughter, when they saw the glittering five-inch crystal bottle half-full of ruby liquid that Parfumee was carrying, assumed that it was some of Bao-yu’s West Ocean grape wine that she was bring?ing them.
‘Sit yourself down,’ said Cook Liu. ‘I’ll just fetch the mulling-pan and boil up some water to heat it in.’
Parfumee laughed.
‘That’s all there is, I’m afraid. He says you can keep the bottle.’
Fivey realized that the red liquid must be not grape wine but some more Essence of Roses, and thanked her effusively for her kindness. Parfumee asked her how she felt.
‘A bit livelier today,’ said Fivey. ‘That’s why I came in with Mother. I’ve been for a walk all around here, but there’s really not much to look at just a lot of rocks and the backs of buildings. I haven’t seen anything that you could really call a view.’
‘Why don’t you go right inside?’ said Parfumee.
‘Because I won’t let her,’ her mother chipped in. ‘None of the young ladies in there knows her. If some inquisitive person were to stop her and start asking questions, she’d have a lot of trouble explaining what she was doing. Once you’ve got her a place in there, as you so kindly promised, I’m sure there will be plenty willing to show her around. She’ll be able to look around the Garden then until she’s sick of the sight of it!’
‘You don’t want to worry,’ said Parfumee. ‘I’d look after her.’
‘I’m sure you would, bless you!’ said the cook. ‘But folks like us have to be more careful.’
She poured Parfumee a cup of tea. Parfumee accepted her hospitality to the extent of using some of this as a mouth?wash before getting up to go.
‘My hands are a bit full at the moment,’ said Cook Liu. ‘Fivey will see you out.’
The two girls went out together. Having first ascertained that there was no one else about, Fivey impulsively took Parfumee by the hand:
‘Did you really ask him about that?’
‘Of Course I did!’ said Parfumee. ‘I wouldn’t deceive you. I’ve found out that there are two vacancies that haven’t yet been filled: one of them is the place left by Crimson, for whom Mrs Lian still hasn’t found him a substitute; the other one is Trinket’s. If he asks for you, it will be only one out of those two places, so he will be perfectly within his rights. The only reason he hasn’t done so already is because Patience keeps telling Aroma that if we have any requests concerning either jobs or allowances to make, we’d be well advised to put them off for the time being. The fact is that Miss Tan is looking for someone to make an example of. She’s already made an example of Mrs Lian by turning down two or three of her requests in a row, and now she’s trying to pick on us. She hasn’t found an excuse for doing so yet, but she hasn’t given up trying. So if we go asking her about a thing like this now, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that she will say no; and once she’s turned it down, it will be very difficult to get that refusal reversed. Much better wait until the situation here has quietened down a bit – till Their Lady-ships are back again and everyone is in a good mood. If he approaches the old girl then, she’ll give him anything he asks for, no matter what it is.’
‘I know,’ said Fivey, ‘but I’m too impatient to wait that long. I want that job now. In the first place it will make my mother happy. She’ll feel that all the trouble she has had in bringing me up has not been wasted. Secondly, the pay I shall earn will make things easier for them at home. And thirdly, if only I felt a bit more cheerful, as I shall do if I get that job, I do believe that this illness of mine would get better – and that would mean a great saving for my family on doctor’s fees and medicines.’
At that point Parfumee left her and continued on her way back alone. Fivey returned to the kitchen. She and her mother spoke warmly together of Parfumee’s kindness.
‘I’d never have thought anything like this would ever come our way,’ said Cook Liu. ‘Still, though it’s so precious, you can have too much of a good thing. You don’t want to overheat your blood. I think it would be rather a nice gesture if we were to pour a little of this off to give to someone else.’
Fivey asked her who she had in mind.
‘I was thinking of taking half a cupful to your uncle’s boy,’ said Cook Liu. ‘He’s been down with a fever this last day or two, and it’s just the sort of thing he would enjoy.’
Fivey made no reply and watched in silence while her rnother decanted a small quantity of the red liquid into a teacup and then placed the bottle, after corking it up again, on a shelf of the kitchen cupboard.
‘I think if I were you I wouldn’t give him that,’ she said finally. There was a wry little smile on her face. ‘If anyone should ask you where it came from, we might find ourselves in trouble.’
‘Oh, fiddlesticks!’ said her mother. ‘Surely we don’t have to be that careful? If you work as hard as I do all the year round, you are entitled to a few perks. No one is going to say that we stole it, surely?’
She sailed off cup in hand then to her brother’s, leaving Fivey alone in the kitchen. She found her nephew in bed. He and his parents were all three delighted when they learned what she had brought them. A cupful of cool water freshly drawn from the well was mixed with a little of the essence and handed to the sick boy to drink. He finished it at one draught and immediately declared that he felt better and that his head seemed somewhat clearer. The cup containing the remainder of the essence was covered with a square of paper and set on the table beside him.
While Cook Liu was still there, some of the sick boy’s workmates from the mansion called in to visit him. Among them was a young fellow called Qian Huai, related on his mother’s side to Aunt Zhao. His father worked in Accounts. Qian Huai’s own job was to accompany Jia Huan when he went to school. A bachelor and with money to spend, he had for long been an admirer of Fivey’s and in time past his parents had, at his insistence, made several approaches to Fivey’s parents through intermediaries asking for Fivey’s hand in marriage. Her parents were by no means averse to the match, but as Fivey herself, though without actually saying anything, made it perfectly plain by her behaviour that the idea was repugnant to her, they had not dared to accept. More recently, with talk of Fivey going into service in the Garden, they had been less inclined than ever to look on Qian Huai as a possible son-in-law, for it now seemed probable that after four or five years’ service as a maid, Fivey would be at liberty to marry someone of their own choice from outside. Qian Huai’s parents, too, when they saw the way things stood, were inclined to let the matter drop.
Not so Qian Huai, however. Wounded in his amour propre by Fivey’s rejection, he made a fierce vow that he would pursue her relentlessly, with all the force and guile at his command, until he had succeeded in making her his wife.
It was a surprise to him, needless to say, to call with the other pages on his sick workmate and find Fivey’s mother at the bedside. Cook Liu was equally flustered on recognizing Qian Huai among the little group of visitors and got up to go, on the pretext of being busy.
‘Do just stay for a cup of tea,’ said her brother and sister-in-law. ‘It was so kind of you to think of him.’
‘I expect they’ll he wanting their dinner inside now,’ said Cook Liu. ‘I’ll come and see him again when I’m not so busy.’
The sister-in-law opened a drawer and took out a small paper packet from it as they were leaving. Outside, at the corner by the gate, she pressed it, smilingly, into Cook Liu’s hand.
‘This is something your brother brought back yesterday, from the gate. He was five days on duty there and not a single tip all the time. Then suddenly yesterday some high-up from Canton came here on a visit and left three little baskets of this white stuff – “Lycoperdon Snow” it’s called – two for the masters and one for the people on the gate. This here is your brother’s share of it. I opened it last night to have a look. It’s beautiful stuff – so white and fine. They say that a little of it taken every morning mixed with breast-milk is wonderful for building up the body. If you can’t get breast-milk, you can use cow’s milk, or even plain boiled water. Of course, we immediately thought of your Fivey; it would be just the thing for her. I sent our little maid round with some this morning, but she said your door was locked. She said you must have taken Fivey in with you. I would have gone in then to see her and given it to her myself; but then I thought that with the mistresses away they’re much stricter about letting people in and out now and they’d be sure to ask what business I had going inside. And besides, this last day or two we’ve heard rumours of such terrible goings-on in there, I should be afraid of getting mixed up in something. So it’s a good job you came today, sister-in-law; you’ll be able to take the packet to her yourself.’
Cook Liu thanked her and left. At the corner gate of the Garden her way was blocked by a grinning page.
‘Where have you been, missus? There have been two or three calls from inside asking for you. Me and the others have been looking for you all over the place. Where have you just come from? You don’t live out in this direction. I bet you’ve been up to something!’
‘Cheeky little monkey!’ said the cook.
The rest of their exchange is recorded in the following chapter.

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