The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 61

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CHAPTER 61

Bao-yu owns up to a crime he
did not commit
And Patience bends authority in order that
the innocent may be spared

Cook Liu was trying to get back into the Garden, but the bantering page-boy delayed her.
‘You don’t live in this direction. Naughty old Auntie! What have you been up to?’
“‘Auntie” is it?’ said Cook Liu, laughing. ‘Cheeky little monkey! If your “auntie” has got herself a fancy man, that means you have a new uncle, so what are you worrying about? You open that gate quickly, my lad, and let me in, or I’ll take hold of you by that little po-cover of yours and pull your hair out!’
‘If I let you in, promise you’ll pinch a few apricots for me,’ said the boy, ‘to make up for having kept me waiting so long. Mind you don’t forget, now, or next time you want to nip out in the middle of the night for a bottle of wine or some oil, I’ll not open for you. I’ll just let you stand there shouting and not even answer you.’
‘You must be mad!’ said the cook. ‘We can’t do that sort of thing any more now. Nowadays it’s all divided up among the garden-women; and there isn’t one of them, either, that wouldn’t just as soon scratch your eyes out as look at you. You only have to walk under one of the fruit-trees and they’re watching you like hawks. Fat chance I should have of picking any of the fruit for you! Only yester?day I was walking underneath a plum-tree and raised my hand to drive a bee away that was buzzing in front of my face. One of your old aunties happened to see me, but as she was quite a long way off, she couldn’t quite make out what I was doing. She thought I was picking the plums. Oh, you should have heard her shout! “Don’t take them! We haven’t offered the first-fruits yet. No one must have any of those plums until Their Ladyships have got back and made the offerings. You’ll get your share in time.” I suppose she thought I had a craving and couldn’t wait! I’m afraid I wasn’t very polite. I gave her a piece of my mind. You ask one of your old aunties if you want some fruit, my boy, it’s no good asking me. You asking me for fruit is like the granary rat asking the crow for corn: Have asking Have-not!’
‘Oh dear, oh dear!’ said the boy sarcastically. ‘If you can’t get me any, you can’t; there’s no need to go on about it so. I suppose you think you won’t be needing my services any more; but you will. When your Fivey gets her job inside, you’re going to need my services more than ever.’
‘Whatever rubbish will the boy come out with next?’ said the cook. ‘What job are you talking about?’
‘It’s no good pretending,’ the boy crowed. ‘I know. You needn’t think you’re the only one with contacts inside. I’ve got my contacts too. I may be all the time working here outside, but I’ve got two girl cousins inside who keep me informed. There’s nothing much going on inside there that I don’t know about.’
At that point in their exchange they were interrupted by an old woman’s voice from within:
‘Come on, you little monkey, you let Mrs Liu in this minute! If she doesn’t come in directly, they won’t get their dinners in time.’
‘Don’t worry, I’m coming!’
Cook Liu brushed past the boy and, pushing the gate open for herself, went hurrying back to the kitchen. Several of her assistants were waiting there already. They had been standing about doing nothing, none of them having dared to take the initiative without her.
‘Where’s Fivey gone?’ she asked them.
‘She just this minute went off to look for her cousins in the tea-room,’ they said.
Cook Liu put the packet of Lycoperdon Snow somewhere to give to her daughter later and began making up the food-boxes for the different apartments. While she was engaged in this work, Ying-chun’s little maid Lotus arrived with a message from Chess.
‘Chess says for dinner tonight she wants a bowl of egg-custard, lightly done.’
‘That’s a bit of a luxury just now,’ said the cook. ‘I don’t know why it is, but for some reason hen’s eggs seem to be in very short supply this year. Ten cash each they’re charging for them at the moment, and even then you’re lucky if you can find any. The other day, when they were making up a present for one of Her Ladyship’s relations that had just had a baby, there were four or five of our buyers out scouring the markets for eggs. They had no end of a job getting together two thousand. So you can imagine what it must be like for me. Tell her to ask for eggs some other time.’
‘The other day when she wanted bean-curd, you gave me some that was rancid,’ said Lotus, ‘and I got a telling-off for it. Now she wants eggs and you say you haven’t got any. I bet I could find some here if I looked.’
She stepped over to the food-container and took the lid off. Among the other things revealed was a little cache of some ten or a dozen eggs.
‘There you are, what are they then?’ she said. ‘Aren’t you terrible? The food we eat is all paid for, I don’t know why you’re so grudging with it. It isn’t as if you’d laid the eggs yourself!’
‘I’ll give you laying eggs, my girl! If anyone lays eggs around here, it’ll be your mother! Those are the only eggs I’ve got left and I’ve been saving them up to use as garnishing on other dishes. Even then I’ll only use them if the young mistresses ask for them specially. I need to have a few eggs by me in case of emergency. What am I going to do if one of the mistresses asks for some eggs and you lot have already eaten them all? “What?” she’ll say. “No eggs? Not even any eggs?” You people lead such soft, sheltered lives. All you’ve got to do is stretch your hands out for washing-water and your mouths open for food. You think eggs are the commonest things in the world, you don’t realize there can be such things as shortages. Never mind eggs, the day may yet come when there’s not even a corn-stalk to be had. My advice to you girls is to try and make do with what you’re given. After all, you get the best quality white rice, and chicken and duck to eat every day. It’s too much pampering that causes this passion for variety: eggs one day, bean-curd the next, fried pickled turnips in gluten batter … It’s all very well saying you want something different, but I’m afraid it won’t do. If each lot wants something different, that’s ten different dishes I’ve got to prepare. I might just as well stop catering for the young mistresses altogether and do nothing but cook for you girls!’
Lotus went red and shouted angrily back at her.
‘It’s not true that we’re always asking for something different. This rigmarole of yours is quite uncalled for. Anyway, it’s your job to give us what we want. If that isn’t your job, I’d like to know what is. You were obliging enough to Swallow the other day, when she came to say that Skybright wanted a dish of artemisia shoots. “With pork or with chicken?” you asked her. And when Swallow said Skybright didn’t eat meat, she’d have it with wheat gluten, only not too much oil, “Oh,” you said, “how stupid of me! I’d quite forgotten she was a vegetarian.” You scurried off to wash your hands first before you cooked it, and when you’d cooked it, you carried it all the way there for her your?self, just like a little dog that runs wagging its tall to its master. Why you should pick on me to make an example of in front of all these people, I do not know.’
‘Holy name!’ said Cook Liu. ‘These people here will be my witness. Whenever anyone from one of the other apartments, whether mistress or maid, asks me for a special order -and I’m not just talking about that occasion you mentioned, I’m talking about ever since this kitchen here first started -they invariably offer me something to cover the extra cost. Whether I have to buy anything extra or not, it’s a nice gesture and I appreciate it. Some people think that as I only have the young ladies to cater for, I must make a lot out of it; but if anyone took the trouble to sit down and work it out, they’d get a shock. Between forty and fifty people I have to cater for, counting both mistresses and maids. And do you know what my daily allowance is? Two chickens, two ducks, ten catties of pork and a thousand cash worth of vegetables. You try managing on that! I can barely make it stretch to two meals a day provided everyone sticks to the regu?lar menu; but if I’m going to have one person ordering one thing and one person ordering another, turning down the food I’ve bought for them and expecting me to buy other materials to make up their orders, my allowance simply won’t stretch to it. If that’s the way you want it, you’ll just have to ask Her Ladyship to give you all bigger allowances; then we can do what they do in the main kitchen for Her Old Ladyship’s meals: have a blackboard with the names of all the dishes under the sun chalked up on it and work through them one by one, having a different dish every day. Then you could settle with me for what you’d eaten at the end of each month. A week or two ago Miss Tan and Miss Bao suddenly thought they’d fancy a dish of salted bean-sprouts and Miss Tan sent one of the girls over with five hundred cash to ask me if I would prepare it for them. I laughed. “They’d never eat five hundred cash worth,” I said, “not if they had bellies like the Laughing Buddha. Twenty or thirty cash would be ample.” I sent the money back to her, but she wouldn’t take it – said I should keep it to buy myself a drink with. “Now that the kitchen’s inside,” she said, “I expect you often have people coming round and asking you for favours.” She said, “I know it’s hard for you to refuse them, but even salt and soy sauce cost something, and we don’t want you to end up out of pocket. Let’s call this a payment to make up for some of the extras that other people have had out of you.” Now there’s a kind, understanding young lady! I praise the Lord in my heart for a young lady like that! Too bad that Mrs Zhao got to hear about it. She was furious, of course: thought I was doing far too well out of it. And sure enough she sent one of her little maids round less than ten days later asking for this and asking for that. I couldn’t help laughing. You’re just the same. I suppose you’ve taken a leaf out of her book. Well, it’s no good. My allowance just won’t stretch to it.’
Just then another messenger arrived from Chess to find out what had become of Lotus.
‘What’s the matter?’ the messenger asked her. ‘Have you taken root or something? Why don’t you come back?’
Lotus flounced off angrily after the messenger. The report that she gave when she got back was so highly embellished that Chess could hardly fail to be incensed by it. She was unable to do anything about it for the time being, because she was in the middle of serving Ying-chun her dinner; but as soon as Ying-chun’s meal was over, she hurried off to the kitchen, taking several of the junior maids with her.
She arrived as the kitchen staff were having their own dinner. The women, to whom it was obvious that some kind of mischief was imminent, rose to their feet with nervous smiles on their faces and invited her to sit with them. Ignor?ing the women, she issued a brusque command to her minions:
‘Right! Boxes, bins, cupboards – wherever the food’s kept – throw it all out! Better the dogs eat it than these swindlers have it all!’
The young maids, needing no second bidding, threw themselves with great gusto into the work of ransacking the kitchen, while the women made vain efforts to restrain them and pleaded with Chess to call them off.
‘You don’t want to believe everything those young girls tell you, miss. Mrs Liu would never dare offend you, she knows it’s more than her job is worth. She did say that eggs are hard to come by lately, it’s true; but we told her that it was silly of her to take that line, and that if you say you want something, it’s up to her to find some means of getting it for you, whatever it is. That’s what we told her. She’d already admitted that she was in the wrong and put a basin of eggs in the steamer before you arrived. Look on the stove, if you don’t believe us.’
Chess’s anger subsided somewhat under these blandishments and the young maids were persuaded, albeit reluct?antly, to discontinue their pillage. Chess continued to grumble for a bit and make unflattering remarks about the cook, but was eventually persuaded to return, while Cook Liu, with much banging of pots and pans and indignant muttering, set about making her a custard. When this was in due course delivered to her, Chess promptly emptied it on the ground, but the woman who had taken it prudently refrained from reporting this fact on her return for fear of provoking further unpleasantness.
When Fivey returned to the kitchen, her mother gave her some soup and a half a bowlful of congee and told her about the Lycoperdon Snow. Fivey, resolving to share the latter with her friend and benefactress Parfumée, wrapped half of it up m a separate sheet of paper and, having waited until it was dusk, when there were not many people about, made her way to Green Delights, keeping to the trees as much as possible, so that no one should see her. She managed to get as far as the gate of the courtyard without being stopped by anyone, but, not daring to go inside, retreated to the cover of some rose bushes and lurked there until someone should come out.
Fortunately she did not have long to wait. After about the time it would take to drink a cup of tea Swallow came out of the gate and Fivey stepped out of the bushes and called to her to stop. Swallow could not at first make out who it was and had to go up close and scrutinize her before asking what she wanted.
‘Will you tell Parfumee to come out for a minute, please?’ said Fivey. ‘I want to have a word with her.’
Swallow laughed softly.
‘You’re too impatient. Your business is sure to be settled within the next ten days, whatever you do. It’s silly to keep on asking. Anyway, she’s just gone out to the front, so you’ll have to wait a bit. But perhaps it would be better if you gave me a message to pass on to her. If you wait till she comes back, you might find yourself inside still when they shut the gate.’
Fivey handed her the packet.
‘This stuff is Lycoperdon Snow …’
She went on to explain what its properties were and how it was to be taken.
‘I’ve just been given some and I want to share it with her. Would you mind giving it to her for me, please?’
Leaving the packet in Swallow’s hands, she turned and began swiftly making her way back again. She had just got as far as the part of the Garden bordering Flowery Harbour when she saw Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife at the head of a party of stewardesses coming towards her from the opposite direction. Concealment was impossible; there was nothing for it but to walk straight up to them and greet them.
‘What are you doing, running around like this?’ said Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife. ‘I thought you were supposed to be ill.’
Fivey forced herself to smile.
‘I’ve been a bit better this last day or two, so Mother brought me into the Garden with her for a change of air. I’ve just been to Green Delights for her, to deliver something.’
‘That can’t be right,’ said Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife. ‘I saw your mother go out of the Garden just now; that’s why I shut the gate. If she’d really sent you to Green Delights, why didn’t she tell me you were still inside? Why did she go out and let me lock the gate without saying anything? You must be lying.’
Fivey was momentarily at a loss for a reply.
‘Actually she told me this morning but I forgot,’ she stammered. ‘I only just now remembered. Probably she didn’t say anything about my being in here because she thought I’d already gone home.’
Observing her confusion and the halting nature of her reply, Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife remembered that Silver had lately reported some things missing from Lady Wang’s apartment which none of the other maids would admit to having taken and wondered if Fivey might be the thief. It was unfortunate for Fivey that Ciggy and Lotus, together with a number of older servants, should have arrived on the scene at that moment and helped to confirm her suspicion.
‘Give her a good grilling, Mrs Lin!’ said one of these new arrivals. ‘She’s been sneaking to and fro all over the place this last day or two. I don’t know what she’s been up to, but she’s certainly been up to something.’
‘Yes,’ said Ciggy, ‘and Silver told me yesterday that when they opened that cupboard in Her Ladyship’s side room the other day they found a whole lot of things missing. They noticed there was a bottle short when Mrs Lian sent Patience over for some Essence of Roses, otherwise they’d never have thought of looking.’
‘Oh?’ said Lotus with a pleased-looking smirk. ‘I didn’t know about that. As a matter of fact I’ve seen a bottle of Essence of Roses somewhere today.’
‘Where?’ Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife asked eagerly. Ever since the bottle from Lady Wang’s cupboard had been found missing, Xi-feng had been sending Patience round daily to inquire about the progress of her investigations and she was under great pressure to discover the thief.
‘In her mother’s kitchen,’ said Lotus.
Lanterns were lit and the little party hurried off to investigate, Fivey protesting anxiously as they went:
‘But that little bottle came from Master Bao’s room. It was given to me by Parfumée.’
‘Parfumy!’ said Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife contemptuously. ‘If we find the evidence in the kitchen, I shall have to report it, and that’s that. It will be up to you to explain yourself to the mistresses if you can.’
By now they had reached the kitchen and some of them, led by Lotus, went inside to look. They came out almost immediately with the bottle. Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife, thinking that there might be other stolen articles in the kitchen, ordered a thorough search, in the course of which the packet of lycoperdon was discovered. Taking this and the rose essence as evidence, they now led Fivey off to face Li Wan and Tan-chun.
But Li Wan would not see them. Jia Lan was ill, and she was too busy looking after him to have time for household business. They should see Miss Tan about it, she said.
Tan-chun was not in the office, having already returned to her own apartment. Off they all trooped then to Tan-chun’s place, where one of their number went inside to announce their business. The maids were all in the courtyard enjoying the cool evening air. Tan-chun was inside, washing her hair, they said. Scribe went indoors to report. It seemed an age before she re-emerged.
‘I told Miss Tan. She said you’d better find Patience and ask her to see Mrs Lian about it.’
So off they went once more, this time to Wang Xi-feng’s place, where they told their business to Patience. Patience, on going inside to report, found that her mistress had just gone to bed. Xi-feng heard her through, after which she gave judgement summarily as follows:
‘Give the mother forty strokes, turn her out of the Garden, and make sure that she is never employed inside the Inner Gate again. Give Fivey forty strokes too and pack her off to the grange. They can either sell her or marry her to one of the hands.’
Patience relayed this verdict, word for word, to Lin Zhi?xiao’s wife and the others waiting outside. Fivey, shocked and weeping, threw herself on her knees at Patience’s feet and explained to her how Parfumee had given her the rose essence as a present.
‘We can clear that up easily enough,’ said Patience. ‘All we’ve got to do is wait until we can ask Parfumée tomorrow to find out whether she gave it to you or not. But what about this lycoperdon stuff? That was brought here as a present for Their Ladyships. No one had the right to touch that before Their Ladyships had seen it.’
Fivey explained that the packet of powder came not from Lady Wang’s store but from her uncle’s share of the surplus that had been given as a douceur to the gate-people.
‘That puts you in the clear then,’ said Patience, smiling. ‘It’s beginning to look as if you are wearing the hat for someone else.’ She turned to Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife. ‘It’s too late to do anything about this now. Mrs Lian has just taken her medicine and gone to bed; I can’t go pestering her about a little thing like this at this time of night. You’d better hand her over to the night watch and tell them to look after her until the morning. I’ll explain it all to Mrs Lian tomorrow, and we’ll see what we can do.’
Lacking the confidence to dispute this countermanding by Patience of her mistress’s orders, Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife conducted Fivey outside and handed her into the custody of the watch before continuing about her own business.
Though still unbound, Fivey was unable to move freely and was obliged to stay where she was put and listen to the ill-natured comments of the old women. Some of them, assum?ing as a matter of course that she was guilty, rebuked her for her misconduct; others complained of the trouble that she was causing them.
‘As if we haven’t got work enough already, they have to give us this thief to mind,’ they grumbled. ‘If she does herself an injury or gives us the slip while we’re not looking, we shall get into trouble!’
And those who in the past had got on badly with her mother rejoiced in the daughter’s discomfiture and lost no opportunity of taunting and abusing her.
Poor Fivey! Her heart was full of the injustice of it, but there was no one to pour out her troubles to. The hardships of that night were doubly distressing to a person of her weak and ailing constitution: no one to give her tea or even a cup of water when she was thirsty, no pillow or bedding for her to lie on – even if she had felt like sleeping. The wretched girl spent the whole night in almost continuous weeping.
The enemies of Fivey and her mother, disappointed that the sentence could not be carried out on them immediately and fearful that the morrow might bring some remission, rose up next morning at crack of dawn and went secretly to Patience, hoping, by means of bribes and flattery, to buy her over. They extolled her resoluteness and drew her attention to various past misdemeanours of Cook Liu in order to strengthen the evidence against her. Patience accepted their presents, listened politely to their advice, and as soon as they had gone, slipped quietly over to Green Delights and asked Aroma whether Parfumée had in fact given some Essence of Roses to Fivey.
‘I certainly gave some to Parfumée,’ said Aroma, ‘but whether or not she passed it on to someone else, I couldn’t say.’
She called in Parfumée to ask her. Parfumée, in some alarm, at once confirmed that she had given the bottle to Fivey and went off to tell Bao-yu what had happened. Bao?yu was as shocked as she was.
‘The Essence of Roses is no problem,’ he said; ‘but what about the Lycoperdon Snow? I’m sure what she told them about it was the truth, but if it gets known that her uncle took it while on duty, then he’s going to get into trouble -which seems a rather poor exchange for his kindness.’
He thought he had better see Patience himself and point this out to her.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘the Essence of Roses can be accounted for easily enough, but that Lycoperdon Snow business still looks a bit fishy. Why don’t you be a nice, kind girl, Patience, and tell them that the Lycoperdon Snow was given to her by Parfumee as well? Then that disposes of the whole affair.’
‘That’s all very well,’ said Patience, smiling, ‘but she told everyone last night that her uncle gave it to her. How can she now make out that she got it from you? And apart from that, don’t forget that the bottle of Essence of Roses from Her Ladyship’s room has still to be accounted for. If this isn’t it, where are they going to look for it? It’s not very likely that anyone else will own up to having taken it.’
Skybright stepped over at this point to join in the discussion.
‘The Essence of Roses from Her Ladyship’s place must have been stolen by Sunset to give to young Huan. It’s as plain as the nose on your face. I don’t understand why you’re all making such a mystery of it.’
‘I know that as well as you do,’ said Patience, ‘but it’s not so simple. Silver, who was so worried about finding that bottle missing that she was in tears, did go, very quietly and nicely, and ask Sunset if she had taken it, and if Sunset had had the grace to say ‘yes’, Silver herself would have done nothing, and I’m quite sure that no one else would have made an issue of it. Who’s going to stir up trouble about a little thing like that? But unfortunately not only would Sunset not admit to having taken it, but she even had the gall to accuse Silver of taking it herself. The two of them made such a hullabaloo between them that soon everyone in the household had heard about it. By that stage I couldn’t ignore the matter any longer, even if I’d wanted to. I had to investigate it. And the first thing I found, of course, was that the one doing all the accusing was actually the thief. But without any evidence, there was nothing much I could do.’
‘I can take responsibility for that too,’ said Bao-yu. ‘You can tell them I stole the bottle from Her Ladyship’s room to give the girls a scare. Now everything is accounted for.’
‘No doubt it’s an act of merit to clear someone else of suspicion,’ said Aroma, ‘but Her Ladyship won’t be very pleased when she hears. She’ll say you’ve been up to your old childish tricks again.’
‘Oh, that’s of no consequence,’ said Patience. ‘We could of course clear this matter up quite easily by looking for the stolen bottle in Mrs Zhao’s room. The only reason I hesitate to do that is because I’m afraid it would make things difficult for a certain person whose feelings I do care about very much. I know she would be distressed, and the last thing I want to do is “damage the jade vase while trying to hit the mouse”.’
She held three fingers up as she said this to indicate that it was Tan-chun she was referring to. Aroma and the rest nodded in agreement.
‘That’s true. Perhaps it would be better if Bao-yu took all the blame.’
‘Yes,’ said Patience, ‘but at the same time I think we ought to call Sunset and Silver here and get this matter properly sorted out. We don’t want whoever it is to think she can get away with it. If we do nothing, she’s sure to think it’s be?cause we haven’t the wit to find out rather than that it’s for the reason I’ve just said, and she’ll think she can go on stealing things with impunity.’
This being agreed on, Patience sent someone to call them over.
‘Well, you can stop worrying now, you two,’ she said when they had arrived. ‘They think they’ve found the thief.’
‘Where is she?’ said Silver.
‘At the moment she’s in Mrs Lian’s room being questioned,’ said Patience. ‘She’s admitted taking everything they’ve asked her about. I happen to know myself that she didn’t take them and is only confessing because she’s frightened. Master Bao can’t bear the idea of an innocent person suffering and has already agreed to take responsibility for some of them. As regards the rest, I could tell them who the real thief is, but there are certain difficulties. One is that the real thief is a very good friend of mine. The other is that the receiver of stolen goods, who is a pretty poor specimen, is closely related to a very nice person who would be very much upset if all of this were to come into the open. It looks as if I shall have to ask Master Bao to take responsibility for the whole lot, so that everyone is clear of suspicion. Before I do that, however, there’s something I should like to be clear about first. Can I be sure, if I do ask him to do us this favour, that everyone is going to be a bit more careful in future? Because if not, then rather than stand by and see an innocent person suffer, I shall have to tell all I know to Mrs Lian.’
A blush had overspread Sunset’s face while Patience was saying this. Her natural decency suddenly getting the better of her compelled her now to speak.
‘Don’t worry, Patience. There’s no need for any innocent person to suffer and there’s no need for that other person you mentioned to be upset. I stole those things. It was because Mrs Zhao kept on at me to take them. I stole them to give to Huan. Even when Her Ladyship was here I often used to steal things for him, so that he could give them away to his friends. I thought that the fuss made when they found out that things were missing would die down in a day or two. I can’t stand by and let an innocent person take the blame. You’ll have to take me with you to Mrs Lian and let me make a clean breast of it.’
Her courage took all of them by surprise.
‘You’re a good sort, Sunset, I always knew you were,’ said Bao-yu admiringly, ‘but there’s really no need for you to tell her. All I’ve got to do is say that I stole those things for a lark, to give you all a scare, and that now there’s been all this fuss about them, I feel I ought to own up. There’s only one thing, though. I really must ask you girls to be more careful in future, for all our sakes.’
‘I did it,’ said Sunset, ‘it’s up to me to face the music.’
Patience and Aroma disagreed.
‘That’s not the way to look at it at all. If you confess, they’re sure to worm something out about Mrs Zhao, and that will upset Miss Tan again when she gets to hear about it. You’d much better let Master Bao accept responsibility, so that everyone is cleared. Nobody except the few of us here knows the truth, so it’s terribly easy for him to do this. But as Master Bao says, you really will have to be more careful in future. If you must take anything, at least wait until Her Ladyship is here. When she is back, you can give the whole room away if you like, because then we shan’t be involved!’
Sunset hung her head and pondered for some moments before finally agreeing to go along with this.
When it was settled exactly what they should do, Patience went with Parfumee and the two maids from Lady Wang’s apartment to the watch-room, called out Fivey, and quietly instructed her to say that the Lycoperdon Snow as well as the Essence of Roses had been given to her by Parfumée. Fivey was deeply grateful. Patience next took Fivey with her to Wang Xi-feng’s place, where Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife and her helpers had already been waiting for some time with Fivey’s mother in their custody.
‘I brought her here first thing,’ Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife told Patience in reference to her prisoner. ‘As that left no one to get the lunch ready, I put Qin Xian’s wife temporarily in charge, so that the young ladies should get their meal on time.’
‘Who is Qin Xian’s wife?’ said Patience. ‘I don’t think I know her.’
‘She does night duty in the south corner of the Garden. She doesn’t do anything in the daytime: that’s probably why you don’t know her. Very high cheek-bones and big round eyes. She’s a very clean, lively little body.’
‘Yes, of course you know her, Patience,’ said Silver. ‘She’s the auntie of Miss Ying’s maid, Chess. Chess’s father works for Sir She, but her uncle and auntie work on this side of the mansion with us.’
Patience remembered with a laugh.
‘Oh, that’s who you’ve chosen! If you’d told me that, I should have known who you meant.’ She laughed again. ‘You’ve been a bit too quick with your appointment. It’s all cleared up now, this business. The waters have gone down and we can see the rocks. We know now who the real thief was who stole that stuff from Her Ladyship’s room. It was Bao-yu. He went round to Her Ladyship’s apartment some days ago and asked Silver and Sunset for something and just for a tease the silly girls said he couldn’t have it, because they couldn’t give him anything while Her Ladyship was away. So he simply slipped in later on when they weren’t there and helped himself. When these two found the things missing, they were scared out of their wits. But as soon as Bao-yu heard that someone else had been accused of taking the things, he told me everything. He even brought them round to show me, so that I could see they exactly corresponded with what the girls had told me was missing. As regards the Lycoperdon Snow, that was something that Bao-yu had got from outside. He’s been giving it away to all kinds of people – not only in the Garden: one or two of the old nannies begged some off him to give to their relations outside and they have given it to other people as presents; and Aroma gave some of hers to Parfumee and that lot and they’ve been passing the stuff to and fro between them?selves. So you see, it’s all over the place. The two baskets that were left in the jobs room the other day for Their Ladyships are still untouched. The seals on them haven’t been broken. So as far as that’s concerned, there are no grounds for a charge either. If you’ll wait here a few moments longer, I’m just going in to tell Mrs Lian about this and we’ll see what she says.’
Patience then went into the bedroom and repeated almost verbatim to Xi-feng what she had just been telling Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife.
‘That’s as may be,’ said Xi-feng when she had finished; ‘but we all know how ready Bao-yu is to cover up for other people. Someone only has to go to him with a hard-luck story – especially if there’s a bit of flattery thrown in with it – and he’ll own up to anything in order to get them off. If we believe him now, how are we going to deal with more serious cases later on? I think this needs going into more carefully. I think you ought to get hold of those girls from Her Ladyship’s apartment and – well, I wouldn’t say torture them exactly, but you could get them to kneel in the sun on broken china all day without anything to eat or drink. If one day doesn’t make them confess, just go on day after day until they do. They’re sure to give in sooner or later, even if they’re made of iron.’
‘And as for that Liu woman,’ she went on, ‘you know what they say. When flies gather on an egg, it’s generally a sign that there’s a crack in it. She may not have stolen anything in this instance, but I suspect she’s no better than she should be for all these people to be complaining about her. We’ll let her off the flogging, of course, but I still think we ought to dismiss her. Even in the Emperor’s court people get punished for what they call “guilt by association”, so she can’t complain if we sack her merely on suspicion.’
‘Yes, but why bother?’ said Patience. ‘They say that where mercy is possible, mercy should be shown. What better opportunity than this could you have of showing yourself merciful for once? Look at all the trouble you give your?self on account of these people, and they aren’t even your own household: it’s Lady Xing’s household that you really belong to. And where does it all get you, at the end of the day? All you do is build up a lot of resentment against yourself and turn a lot of nasty, spiteful people into your enemies. A person in your delicate health can’t afford to make enemies. Think of all the time it took you to conceive a man-child – and then to lose it after carrying it inside you for six or seven months! How do we know that that wasn’t brought on by too much worrying about this sort of thing? I think you ought to start straight away taking things a bit easier. Close your eyes to things a bit oftener. “What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve”!’
Patience’s little homily quickly won Xi-feng to a better humour.
‘All right,’ she said, laughing. ‘Do as you wish. I’m not going to get myself worked up about it.’
‘Now you’re talking sensibly,’ said Patience happily, and going out of the bedroom, proceeded to dispose of the business outside in the way she had all along intended to.
But more of that in the next chapter.

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