The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 63

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CHAPTER 63


Flower maidens combine for

nocturnal birthday revels

And a grass widow copes with funeral arrangements

single-handed

The first thing Bao-yu did when he got back to Green Delights was to wash his hands. While doing so, he discussed with Aroma the drinking-party that they were planning to have that evening.

‘I want everyone to enjoy themselves,’ he said. ‘I want you to let yourselves go for once. Let’s decide now what we are going to eat, so that they have plenty of time to get it ready.’

‘You don’t have to worry about that,’ said Aroma, smiling. ‘I’ve already made a collection for tonight and given the money to Mrs Liu: ten pennyweights of silver each from Skybright, Musk, Ripple and me – that’s two taels – and six each from Parfumée, Emerald, Swallow and Number Four (I didn’t collect anything from the ones who are taking the evening off) making three taels four pennyweights altogether. With that money she’s going to do us forty little dishes of different things to eat. I’ve also had a word with Patience about the drink and she’s had a two-gallon jar of Shaoxing wine carried over for us. It’s hidden away over there, ready for the evening. The party will be our birthday present to you from the eight of us.’

‘How did the younger ones manage to give so much?’ said Bao-yu, pleased but a little concerned. ‘I think it would have been better if you hadn’t taken contributions from them.’

‘What about us then?’ said Skybright. ‘We’re not exactly rich. This is something they wanted to do for you. I think you ought to accept it in the spirit in which it was offered and not bother too much about where the money came from. Suppose they stole it: what does that matter to you?’

‘You’re right,’ said Bao-yu, laughing.

‘If you were to go for one single day without feeling the rough side of her tongue,’ said Aroma, ‘I think you would feel deprived!’

‘Aroma is getting quite expert in the art of stirring up trouble between other people,’ said Skybright. ‘I wonder who she picked it up from.’

While the others were still laughing at these exchanges, Bao-yu gave orders for them to close the courtyard gate.

‘I don’t wonder the young ladies call you “Busybody”,’ said Aroma. ‘If we shut the gate now, we shall be simply inviting suspicion. Much better wait a bit.’

Bao-yu nodded.

‘I have to go outside now for a moment. Have some water ready when I get back, will you, Number Four? Swallow, you can come with me.’

When they were outside and he had first made sure that no one else was about, he asked Swallow what Cook Liu had said about Fivey.

‘Mrs Liu was very pleased when I told her,’ said Swallow, ‘but she said that because of all the worry and the harsh treatment she suffered the other night Fivey has had a relapse; so it’s out of the question for her to begin working with us now. She said it will just have to wait until she’s better.’

Judging from the long sigh he gave when he heard this, Bao-yu appeared to be very much distressed.

‘Tell me,’ he asked, ‘does Aroma know about this?’

‘I haven’t told her myself,’ said Swallow. ‘I suppose Parfumée might have done.’

‘Anyway, I haven’t told her yet,’ he said. ‘Hmn. Perhaps I’d better.’

Going back inside, he was careful to wash his hands to avert suspicion.

It was already lighting-up time. A party of women could be heard entering the courtyard gate. The inmates of Green Delights crowded to the windows to peep out. It was Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife, accompanied by a number of the stewardesses. A woman holding a big lantern in her hand was leading the way.

‘They’ve come to inspect the watch,’ said Skybright. ‘When they go out again we shall be able to shut the gate.’

Sure enough, the women on night-duty at Green Delights now trooped out into the courtyard to be inspected.

‘Now, no gambling and no drinking!’ said Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife, when she had ascertained that they were all there. ‘And no lying down and going to sleep until daylight, or I shall be after you!’

‘None of us is that stupid,’ said the women, laughing. ‘We wouldn’t dare.’

‘Is Master Bao in bed yet?’ Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife asked them.

The women said they didn’t know. Aroma gave Bao-yu a prod and he shuffled to the doorway in his slippers and smiled amiably at the assembled matrons outside.

‘I haven’t gone to bed yet. Come inside and sit down.’ He turned to Aroma inside. ‘Aroma, some tea for Mrs Lin!’

Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife required no pressing.

‘Not in bed yet?’ she exclaimed, stepping nimbly into the room. ‘Now that the days are so long, you need to go to bed early so that you can get up early in the morning. If you get up late, people will laugh at you. “That’s no way for an educated, well-brought-up young gentleman to behave,” they’ll say. “More like an ignorant, uneducated coolie.”‘

The comparison seemed to please her, for she laughed very complacently after making it. Bao-yu laughed too.

‘You’re quite right, Mrs Lin. As a matter of fact, I do go to bed early most nights. Generally when you make your rounds I don’t know you’ve been here because I’m already in bed when you come. The reason I’ve stayed up today is be?cause I’ve had such a lot of noodles to eat. I was afraid that if I went to bed now I’d get indigestion.’

Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife transferred her smiling attention to Aroma.

‘You want to give him some good, strong Pu-er tea to drink.’

Aroma and Skybright answered her together.

‘We made him a big pot of herbal tea – wutong-tips. He’s already had two cupfuls of it. It’s still quite fresh. Would you like to try some?’

Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife rose to receive the cup that Skybright poured for her.

‘I hear that Master Bao has taken to calling you senior girls by your names,’ she said. ‘Now that’s not very respectful. Though you work here, you are still Their Ladyships’ girls, don’t forget. I don’t say but what he mightn’t sometimes, just once in a while, let one of your names drop out by accident, and no harm done. But if he makes a habit of it, the other young gentlemen will soon be copying him, and we shall get ourselves laughed at as a family in which the young folk have no respect for their elders.’

‘You are quite right,’ said Bao-yu. ‘But in fact it is only once in a while and quite unintentionally.’

Aroma and Skybright hastened to corroborate this.

‘Oh yes, Mrs Lin. It would be quite unfair to say that he makes a habit of it. Normally he is most respectful. It’s only once or twice in this apartment when we’ve been joking together and never in front of other people.’

Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife was all smiles.

‘Well, that’s all right then. Respectable is what an educated young gentleman ought to be. The more you respect others, I say, the more others will respect you. And I don’t only mean older people who have served three or four generations of the family, I mean anyone who comes to you from Their Ladyships. Even Their Ladyships’ cat and Their Ladyships’ dog is to be respected, if you want people to think of you as an edu?cated, well-brought-up young gentleman.’

She finished her tea.

‘Well, good night young master, I must be going.’

‘Won’t you stay a little longer?’ said Bao-yu.

But Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife was already on her way and leading her troops off to inspect another apartment. Skybright barred the gate after her as soon as she was gone. She was laughing as she came in afterwards.

‘I think the old girl’s had a bit too much to drink. That’s why we were treated to the lecture.’

‘She means well,’ said Musk. ‘We need someone to remind us once in a while, just to keep us on the straight and narrow.’

She began laying the table while she said this; but Aroma stopped her.

‘Let’s not sit up at the big table. We can put the round pear-wood table on the kang. It will be much more relaxed and comfortable on the kang.’

While other maids lifted the pear-wood table onto the kang, Musk and Number Four went off to collect the dishes that Cook Liu had been preparing for them. Though each carried the largest tea-tray she could find, it took four or five trips to carry them all over. Meanwhile two old nannies squatted on the verandah outside, tending the stove on which the wine was heating.

‘It’s so hot,’ Bao-yu said to the maids. ‘Let’s take our outer clothes off.’

‘You can take yours off if you like,’ said the girls, ‘but we want to drink a health with you before we start, so we shall have to stay respectable a bit longer.’

‘If you’re going to begin that sort of nonsense, we shan’t get started until morning!’ said Bao-yu. ‘You know how I hate that kind of thing. It’s bad enough at parties outside when I have to do it; but to make me do it here in my own room it’s as though you were deliberately trying to annoy me.’

‘All right, all right!’ they said. ‘Anything you say!’

And so, before taking their places on the kang, they went off to remove their hair-ornaments and make themselves more comfortable. They returned wearing only tunics and trousers, with their unadorned hair loosely knotted or coiled. Bao-yu himself was wearing a dark-red cotton tunic tied at the waist with a sash, and trousers in a black-and-green-patterned lined silk gauze, unconfined at the ankles. The girls found him already ensconced on the kang. He was leaning back, one elbow resting on a newly-made turquoise-coloured pouffe stuffed with rose and peony petals, playing guess-fingers with Parfumée. Parfumée was shouting excitedly as she played. She was wearing a very short, close-fitting tunic with a harlequin pattern of turquoise, deep purple and reddish-brown lozen?ges, a willow-green sash, and flower-sprigged pale red trousers, which, like Bao-yu’s, were unconfined at the ankles. Her hair was done up in a number of little plaits which had been drawn back to join one great plait, as thick as a goose’s egg at the nape of her neck. She had a tiny jade stud no bigger than a grain of rice in her right ear; from her left ear hung a pendant made of ruby-glass and gold, the size of a ginkgo-fruit. Never had the moonlike pallor of her face, the limpid brightness of her eyes shown to greater advantage.

‘Look at that now!’ said the maids admiringly. ‘Wouldn’t you take the two of them for a pair of twins?’

‘Wait a bit,’ said Aroma, who had begun pouring wine. ‘You can play that later. Even though you won’t let us drink healths with you, at least do us the honour of drinking from our hands.’

She held her wine-cup to his lips and he took a sip from it. After that each of the seven others came up to him in turn, holding their full cups out to him, and he took a sip from each one. This little ceremony over, they proceeded to arrange themselves round the table. As there was insufficient room for Swallow and Number Four on the side nearest the edge of the kang, they brought a couple of felt-covered porcelain ‘tabouret’ stools up and sat at it on the floor below. The forty dishes, all of white Ding-ware and each no larger than a tea-saucer, contained every conceivable kind of sweet, savoury, fresh, dried, pickled, salted, smoked, baked, fried or sauteed delicacy designed to assist the absorption of rice-wine by the human frame.

‘Let’s play a drinking game,’ said Bao-yu.

‘Yes, but let it be a nice, quiet game this time,’ said Aroma. ‘We don’t want too much shouting, or people will hear us. Something not too learned, though. Don’t forget that some of us here can’t read or write.’

‘Get out the dice and let’s play Fours then,’ said Musk.

‘No, that’s a boring game,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Let’s play Choos?ing the Flower.’

‘Oh yes, do let’s!’ said Skybright. ‘I’ve been wanting to play that for ages.’

‘It’s a good game,’ said Aroma, ‘but you really need more people playing it to make it interesting.’

‘If you ask me, I think we should slip over and ask Miss Bao and Miss Yun and Miss Lin to come and join us,’ said Swallow. ‘There’d be no harm in their staying here till about ten o’clock, surely?’

‘But think of all the opening and closing of gates,’ said Aroma. And suppose you ran into the watch and they started asking -’

‘It’ll be all right,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Ask Miss Tan too; she’s fond of drinking. And if she’s one of the party, they won’t be able to say anything even if they do find out. And what about Miss Qin?’

‘No, not Miss Qin,’ said the girls. ‘She’s staying in Mrs Zhu’s room. Routing her out from there would be simply asking for trouble.’

‘It’ll be all right,’ said Bao-yu, ‘you see. Just ask her.’

Swallow and Number Four needed no second bidding. Choosing a few of the junior maids to go with them, they ordered the old women to open the gate for them and set off, one in the direction of Dai-yu’s place and one in the direction of Bao-chai’s.

The senior maids, Aroma, Musk and Skybright, doubted whether, particularly in the case of Dai-yu and Bao-chai, such insubstantial deputies would be successful and decided that they had better go themselves and add their own weight to the invitation. Ordering a couple of the older women with lanterns to accompany them, they went off in the wake of the other two to see what they could achieve.

It was as they had suspected. Bao-chai ‘thought it was rather late’; Dai-yu ‘didn’t feel quite up to it’. It was only when Aroma and Skybright had appealed to them by pointing out that the maids were the hosts and would very much appreciate the honour that they changed their minds and finally consented to come.

Swallow and Number Four had had no such difficulty with Tan-chun. She had seemed delighted by the invitation, even suggesting that they should invite Li Wan as well since it would be embarrassing if she were not invited and were to find out about the party afterwards – and sending her own maid Ebony to help Swallow persuade Li Wan that she and Bao-qin should come.

One by one the new guests started to arrive. Caltrop came, too, in addition to the ones already mentioned. Refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer, Aroma had taken her firmly by the hand and dragged her off forcibly from All-spice Court. To accommodate the greater numbers, Aroma and the other girls put another table alongside the one already on the kang and a row of chairs facing them on the floor below. Bao-yu and the other guests arranged themselves on the kang, while the seven maids and Parfumée, as hosts, sat on the row of chairs below, within reach of one or other of the tables.

‘Cousin Lin can sit there, against the partition,’ said Bao-yu, while the guests were still arranging themselves on the kang. ‘She’ll be better able to keep warm there.’

He made her a little nest of pillows there, into which, though it was somewhat inconveniently distant from the table, she settled herself very comfortably. From this cosy vantage-point she looked across at Li Wan, Bao-chai and Tan-chun with a teasing smile.

‘You are always grumbling about the gambling and drinking of the servants, yet here are we proposing to do precisely the same thing ourselves. How will you have the face to tell them off for this sort of thing in future?’

‘This doesn’t count,’ said Li Wan, smiling back at her. ‘There’s all the difference in the world between doing this once in a while on a birthday or a holiday and doing it every night of one’s life.’

Skybright now produced a cylindrical bamboo box containing a set of ivory drinking-cards, each with a different kind of flower painted on it. After giving it a good shake, she put it down in the middle of one of the tables. Then she took four dice, put them inside a dice-box, shook it, opened it, and looked inside. The pips on the faces uppermost made a total of five. Counting herself as ‘one’, the fifth along in an anti-clockwise direction was Bao-chai.

‘I draw first then,’ said Bao-chai, smiling. ‘I wonder what it will be.’

She gave the cylinder another shake and pulled out a card. The others craned over to look. It had a picture of a peony on it with the caption ‘Empress of the Garden’ in large red characters. This was followed by a line of smaller black characters from a poem by the Tang poet Luo Yin:

Yourself lack passion, yet can others move.

On the other side of the picture were directions for the person drawing the card and for the other drinkers:

All present are to drink a cup in your honour. Also,

because you have preeminence over all the other flowers,

you are entitled to ask anyone present to recite a poem

or tell a joke or sing a song for your entertainment.

The others laughed delightedly.

‘The peony suits you perfectly. What a splendid choice!’

When they had all drunk the cupful, Bao-chai drank a little wine herself and said that she would like Parfumée to sing her a song. Parfumée began:

‘The sumptuous birthday feast begins -’

‘Stop! Stop!’ said the others. ‘We don’t want birthday odes at this time of night. Sing us something nice.’

Parfumée began again, this time putting all she had into the performance:

‘With my little phoenix-feather broom

I stand at heaven’s door

To sweep away the fallen flowers

That lie on heaven’s floor;

And when, by yonder cloud-bank,

The wind begins to rise,

It stirs the pearly dust up:

Round and round it flies.

O, sweeping heaven’s floor

Is like any earthly chore! …’

Meanwhile Bao-yu, who had taken temporary possession of the card, continued to turn it this way and that between his fingers, muttering to himself the line of verse that was inscribed on it:

Yourself lack passion, yet can others move.

When Parfumée had finished, he gazed at her fixedly, saying nothing. Xiang-yun snatched the card from him rather im?patiently and handed it back to Bao-chai. Bao-chai threw the dice. Sixteen. This time the count went right round both tables, ending at Tan-chun, who was sitting next to her.

‘I wonder what I shall be,’ said Tan-chun, and reached out to draw a card. But she blushed when she had looked at it and threw it on the table with an embarrassed laugh.

‘I don’t think we ought to play this game,’ she said. ‘It’s really a game for men to play, outside. There are all sorts of objectionable things in the directions.’

The others were puzzled, until Aroma picked the card up and held it out for them to see. The picture was of a spray of almond blossom with the caption ‘Spirit of the Afterglow’. The line of verse which followed it was by Gao Chan:

Apricot-trees make the sun’s red-petalled floor.

Then came the part which had made Tan-chun feel embarrassed:

You are destined to make a noble marriage. Congratulations! Those present must

offer you a cup of wine and drink a cup in your honour.

The reading of these words was greeted with general laughter.

‘So that’s what upset you? Well, it’s true there are a few like this which are amusing at the expense of us girls, but there’s no real harm in them. Anyway, what’s wrong with the prognostication? We’ve already got one royal consort in the family, why shouldn’t we have another? Congratulations!’

They raised their cups and drank a toast to the marriage. Tan-chun herself refused to drink, but Xiang-yun, Caltrop and Li Wan seized hold of her and forced the wine down her throat. Even then she continued to insist that they ought to abandon the game and play something else. Xiang-yun had to take hold of her hand, clamp her fingers to the dice-box, and force her to throw the dice. The number thrown in this way was nineteen. This time the count was more than the number of players and ended, the second time round, at Li Wan. Li Wan shook the cylinder and drew out a card. She smiled when she saw what she had got.

‘Very good! Look at this, all of you! This is rather a nice one.’

The picture was of a winter-flowering plum with the rubric ‘Beauty of the Snow’. The verse that followed was by Wang Qi:

Content by cottage fence to bloom unseen.

The instructions given on this card were:

You are to drink a cup of wine. The next player after you is to throw the dice.

‘There, isn’t that nice!’ said Li Wan. ‘You have to throw the dice for me and I just sit back enjoying myself and let the world go by!’

She sipped her wine and passed the dice-box to Dai-yu. The eighteen which Dai-yu threw brought the count round to Xiang-yun.

‘Ha ha!’ said Xiang-yun, rolling up her sleeves. She stretched her arm out and drew a card. The others looked at what she had drawn. It was a picture of crab-apple blossom with the caption ‘Sweet Drunken Dreamer’. The quotation following was a line from Su Dong-po:

Fear that the flowers at dead of night should sleep.

‘For “at dead of night” read “on a stone bench”,’ said Dai-yu.

The others laughed, remembering Xiang-yun’s inebriation earlier in the day; but Xiang-yun smiled unconcernedly and pointed to the self-propelling toy boat on Bao-yu’s shelf.

‘Just get on that boat and go home, will you? You have too much to say for yourself, my girl!’

Amidst further laughter they looked at the instructions:

In view of the sweet drunken dreaming you are not to drink anything yourself,

but the players sitting to right and left of you are each to drink a cupful.

‘Holy name!’ said Xiang-yun, clapping her hands delight?edly. ‘What a kind, thoughtful card!’

Xiang-yun’s neighbours, it so happened, were Dai-yu and Bao-yu. Others filled their cups for them in readiness. Bao-yu drank half of his and gave the rest to Parfumee, who threw her head back and emptied it at a gulp; Dai-yu, under cover of talking to someone, emptied the whole of hers into a spittoon. Xiang-yun picked up the dice. The total this time was nine, which meant that Musk was to draw. The card she drew portrayed a rose under the caption ‘Summer’s Crowning Glory’. The black-letter verse was another line from Wang Qi:

After sweet Rose there is no more blooming.

And the instructions:

All present drink three cups to commemorate the passing of the flowers.

‘What does it say?’ Musk asked.

Bao-yu frowned and quickly hid the card.

‘We are all to drink something,’ he said.

As a compromise they drank three sips each instead of the three cupfuls prescribed.

Musk threw nineteen with the dice, which made it Caltrop’s turn to draw. The flower she drew was a purple skullcap with the caption ‘Three Springs’ Harbinger’. The line of verse was by Zhu Shu-zhen:

Even as the twy-stemmed blossoms break in bloom.

And the comment:

This flower is a luck-bringer. Congratulations! Those present are to offer

you three cups of wine and are each to drink a cup of wine to your health.

Caltrop threw six. Dai-yu to draw.

‘I wonder if there are any nice ones left,’ Dai-yu thought as she reached out to draw a card. ‘I hope I shall pick one of them if there are.’

She looked at the card she had taken. It was a hibiscus flower. ‘Mourner of the Autumn Mere’ the caption said, and the line of verse was by Ou-yang Xiu:

Your own self, not the East Wind, is your undoing.

The instructions said:

You are to drink a cup of wine yourself, and Peony is to take a cup with you.

The others laughed.

‘Isn’t that good! It’s exactly the right flower for her.’

Dai-yu too seemed pleased. When she and Bao-chai had drunk, she threw the dice. Twenty. That meant that Aroma was to draw. Aroma reached out and took a card. The picture on it was of a spray of peach-blossom with the caption ‘Fisherman’s Lost Paradise’ and the verse, from Xie Fang-de:

Peach-trees in pink and another spring is here.

The instructions said:

Almond is to drink a cup of wine with you, so is anyone who is the same age as you,

anyone whose birthday is on the same day, and anyone who has the same surname.

‘This one sounds interesting,’ said the others, laughing, and at once began working out which of them belonged to these categories. Caltrop, Skybright and Bao-chai were all the same age as Aroma; Dai-yu’s birthday was on the same day; but there appeared to be no one present with the same surname – until Parfumée pointed out that her surname, like Aroma’s, was ‘Hua’ and claimed the right to drink a cup as well.

While the others were pouring out the wine, Dai-yu looked mischievously at Tan-chun:

‘As both Almond and someone who is destined to marry royalty, you had better begin.’

‘What’s that?’ said Tan-chun. She turned to Li Wan. ‘Oblige me by leaning over and giving that girl a back-hander, would you?’

‘Oh, that seems rather hard!’ said Li Wan. ‘She’s not getting a royal husband and now she is to be beaten as well!’

Aroma was about to throw the dice when they heard someone calling outside the gate. One of the old women hurried out to see who it was and came back to tell them that it was some people from Aunt Xue’s come to collect Dai-yu.

‘What time is it?’ they asked the old woman.

‘Long past second watch,’ she said. ‘It struck eleven some time ago.’

Bao-yu, refusing to believe that it could be so late, asked to see his watch. He found on inspecting it, however, that it was in fact five and twenty minutes past eleven. Dai-yu rose to her feet.

‘I can’t, in any case, keep going much longer,’ she said. ‘And I have to take my medicine when I get back.’

‘Perhaps we’d all better break off now,’ said the others.

Aroma and Bao-yu tried to dissuade them, but Li Wan and Tan-chun were insistent.

‘It’s terribly late. We’ve already broken enough rules for one day.’

‘Very well,’ said Aroma. ‘All of you lust drink one more cup of wine then, and we’ll let you go.’

Skybright, assisted by one of the junior maids, was already filling their cups. The others drank up and called for their lanterns to be lit. When they were ready, Aroma and the rest of the maids accompanied them all the way to the far side of Drenched Blossoms Bridge before returning to Green Delights. There, having once more barred the gate, they continued for a while with the game. Aroma filled some extra large cups with wine and put a selection of the delicacies on the little dishes on to a large plate to give to the old women who had been all this time on duty.

Everyone was by now beginning to be a little drunk. Soon they were playing guess-fingers and singing solos. By two o’clock the old women, who had been supplementing what the maids, in their kindness, had given them by surreptitiously helping themselves, had made such formidable inroads into the wine-supply that the two-gallon jar was suddenly found to be empty. On hearing that there was no more wine, the maids began to clear the things away and to wash and prepare themselves for bed.

Parfumée, who had drunk so much that her cheeks were flushed and her eyes glittered with an unnatural brightness, was incapable of moving. She leaned inertly against Aroma’s shoulder, murmuring plaintively in her ear.

‘Oh, Aroma! My heart is beating so!’

Aroma laughed.

‘You shouldn’t have drunk so much!’

Swallow and Number Four had long since succumbed and were lying asleep on the kang. Skybright tried unsuccessfully to wake them; but Bao-yu stopped her:

‘Leave them alone. It doesn’t matter if we all sleep here for once.’

He followed their example by pillowing his head on the petal-stuffed damask cushion, turning over on his side, and promptly dropping off to sleep.

Aroma could see that Parfumée was extremely drunk. Fearing that any but the slightest movement might make her sick, she lifted her up, very, very gently, and laid her down beside Bao-yu on the kang. She herself lay down on the couch opposite. A gentle oblivion then descended upon all of them and they slept like tops until morning.

It was already broad daylight when Aroma opened her eyes.

‘Oh, it’s late!’ she said.

She raised her head up to look at the kang opposite. Parfumée was still fast asleep, her head resting on the raised edge of the kang. Aroma hurriedly got up and went across to wake her. Her calling aroused Bao-yu, who sat up, looked around him cheerfully, commented ‘It’s late!’, and gave Parfumée a prod. Then Parfumée, too, sat up, rubbing her eyes and still only half awake.

‘Shame on you!’ said Aroma, laughing at her. ‘Look where you spent last night! You must have been very drunk, not to have chosen your place more carefully!’

Parfumée looked around her and saw that she had spent the night at Bao-yu’s side. She slipped off the kang hurriedly, with an embarrassed laugh.

‘How did I …?’

‘I don’t know either,’ said Bao-yu, laughing. ‘If I had known, I should have rubbed some ink on your face!’

Maids now came in carrying the basin and other things for his toilet.

‘Thank you all very much for last night’s party,’ said Bao-yu. ‘We’ll have another one tonight and this time you shall all be my guests.’

‘Oh, no!’ said Aroma. ‘Not again! If we make another rumpus tonight, people will start complaining.’

‘That’s all right,’ said Bao-yu. ‘It’s only twice. Anyway, we’re all seasoned drinkers. Just think, we got through a whole two-gallon jar of wine last night! Just as it was beginning to get interesting, we found that we’d run out.’

‘That’s how it should be,’ said Aroma. ‘It’s much better to end a party when the fun is at its height than to go on until everyone is exhausted. I must say, everyone was in very good form last night. Skybright was being quite abandoned. She even sang a song, if I remember rightly!’

‘But don’t you remember?’ said Number Four. ‘You sang one too. We all did.’

A fit of uncontrollable giggles possessed the maids as they remembered, and they hid their blushing faces in their hands. While they were still giggling, a smiling Patience arrived. She had come to invite her hosts of the previous day to a return party.

‘No excuses!’ she said. ‘I shall expect every one of you to be there.’

They made her sit down and somebody fetched her some tea.

‘What a pity we didn’t have her with us last night!’ Skybright commented.

Patience pricked up her ears.

‘Why, what were you doing last night?’

‘I don’t know whether I ought to tell you,’ said Aroma. ‘We had a high old time, I can tell you that. Even the high jinks Her Old Ladyship gets up to with the young ladies and Master Bao are nothing compared to last night. We got through a whole two-gallon jar of wine. We drank so much that we forgot our shame, singing songs until after two o’clock, then lying around with our clothes on and sleeping where we lay until morning.’

‘Charming!’ said Patience with pretended indignation. ‘You come and ask me for wine, you don’t invite me to your party, and now you have the nerve to tell me what a wonderful time you had. I feel really angry!’

‘He’s giving a return party tonight,’ said Skybright. ‘He’s sure to ask you to that. I expect he’ll be going over himself shortly to invite you.’

‘“He” is who? Who is “he”?’ said Patience.

‘Oh, sharp-ears!’ Skybright coloured and pretended to strike her. ‘Trust you to pick on a little thing like that!’

‘Well, I can’t stay here talking, I’ve got something to attend to,’ said Patience. ‘I’ll be sending someone over later to tell you when it’s ready. Mind you all come now, or I’ll have the troops out to come and get you!’

Bao-yu and the maids tried to detain her, but she was already on her way.

Bao-yu now completed his interrupted toilet and took his early morning tea. While he sat sipping it, his eye chanced to light on a sheet of paper underneath the inkstone.

‘I wish you girls wouldn’t use my inkstone as a paper?weight,’ he said.

Aroma and Skybright were immediately on the defensive.

‘Oh dear! Who’s at fault this time?’

Bao-yu pointed towards the offending paper.

‘Look. Under the inkstone. Someone’s pattern, I expect, that she forgot to put away.’

Skybright lifted the inkstone and picked up the paper from underneath. It was not an embroidery-pattern but some kind of writing. She handed it to Bao-yu. It was a sheet of pink, patterned letter-paper. A single column of characters ran down the centre of it:

From Adamantina, the Dweller Beyond the Threshold: Respect?ful Anniversary Greetings.

‘Who took delivery of this note?’ he asked, jumping up excitedly.

Assuming, from the degree of agitation, that the note must be from a person of some consequence, Aroma and Skybright took up the question. In response to their shouted inquiry, a smiling Number Four came running into the room.

‘I did. From Adamantina. She didn’t bring it herself, she sent one of the old women with it. I put it down somewhere in here. I meant to tell you about it, but with all that drinking last night I forgot.’

‘So that’s who it’s from,’ said the other maids. ‘What a fuss about nothing!’

But Bao-yu evidently did not think so.

‘Fetch me some paper,’ he said, still in some agitation, and himself began grinding the ink. But when the ink was ground and he sat with moistened brush poised in readiness over the virgin paper, he found that he did not know how to begin. What was the correct response to ‘Dweller Beyond the Threshold’? For a long time he sat thinking, but no inspira?tion was forthcoming.

‘It’s no good asking Bao-chai,’ he thought. ‘She’d only say something critical about Adamantina being too “fanciful”. I’d better ask Dai-yu.’

Slipping Adamantina’s note into his sleeve, he set off in the direction of the Naiad’s House. He was just stepping off the Drenched Blossoms bridge when he caught sight of Xing Xiu-yan bustling along in a very purposeful manner from the opposite direction.

‘Where are you going?’ he asked her.

‘I want to have a talk with Adamantina.’

Bao-yu was surprised.

‘Adamantina is such a strange, contrary person. There are very few people she can get on with. If she thinks highly of you, it proves that you must be made of finer stuff than the rest of us.’

‘I don’t know whether she thinks particularly highly of me,’ said Xiu-yan, ‘but we were neighbours for ten years. When she was serving her novitiate at the Coiled Incense Temple, there was only a party wall separating her from the place where my family lived. My family was too poor to own a house and for ten years lived in rented accommodation in her temple. Whenever I had nothing else to do, I used to go inside the nuns’ courtyard and spend my time with Adamantina. It was she who taught me to read and write. In fact, everything I know, practically, I owe to her. So you see, she’s not only my “hard times friend”; she is also in a sense my teacher. When my parents finally came here to throw themselves on the generosity of your family, we learned that Ada?mantina, too, had found a home here. She had evidently found this a place where her eccentricities would be tolerated and where she would be safe from molestation by those having the power to persecute her. It seemed as if our destinies must be linked. And I was glad to find, when I went to look her up here, that her friendship for me was unaltered. In fact, I think that if anything she is even nicer to me now than she was before.’

As if by a flash of lightning, the mystery of Xiu-yan’s utter alienness from her appalling parents was revealed.

‘I see!’ he said. ‘That ethereal, crane-in-the-clouds quality one notices in everything you do or say-I see now where you get it from. As a matter of fact it’s something to do with Adamantina that has brought me out. Something she wrote has been puzzling me and I was on my way to ask someone else’s advice about it when I ran into you. It’s an extraordinary bit of luck that I did, because you are obviously much better qualified to advise me than the person I had been intending to ask.’

He took the piece of paper from his sleeve and showed it to her. Xiu-yan ran her eye over it and laughed.

‘She’ll never change. The same whimsical, preposterous Adamantina as always! Who but Adamantina would use her nom-de-plume in a birthday greeting? Talk about “a monk no monk and a maid no maid”! What sort of etiquette is that?’

‘I don’t agree,’ said Bao-yu, smiling. ‘Adamantina is above etiquette. She doesn’t subscribe to the conventions of our mundane world. Her writing to me in this way shows that she must credit me with some intelligence. Unfortunately I haven’t the faintest idea in what terms I ought to reply. I was on my way to ask Cousin Lin’s advice when I was fortunate enough to bump into you.’

For some moments Xiu-yan ran her eyes up and down Bao-yu appraisingly. Finally she broke into a laugh.

‘“The sight of it exceedeth the report thereof.” I see now what they mean. I’m not surprised she sent you this. And I’m not surprised she gave you all that plum-blossom last year. Well, if even Adamantina has succumbed, I suppose I shall have to do my little bit by explaining what this means.

‘Adamantina is fond of saying that out of all the poems by all the poets of the Han, Jin, North-and-South, Tang and Song dynasties, a couple of lines in Fan Cheng-da’s “Walk in the Cemetery” are the only decent verses ever written:

Though you hide behind a threshold of indestructible iron,

The mound shaped like a wheat-cake will claim you for its own.

That’s why she calls herself “The Dweller Beyond the Threshold”. Her favourite prose-writer is Zhuang-zi, so sometimes she calls herself “The Outsider”, after Zhuang-zi’s “outsider … wandering beyond the realm”. The way to please her is to refer to yourself modestly as someone still trapped in the toils of the wicked world while she is floating freely somewhere above them. If she’d called herself “The Outsider” in this note she’s sent you, the right response would have been to call yourself “The Worldling” in your reply. As she’s called herself “The Dweller Beyond the Threshold”, you should refer to yourself in answering as “The Dweller Behind the Threshold”, to indicate that you have understood the reference to Fan Cheng-da.’

The scriptures tell us that the revelation of the Buddha-truth comes ‘like ghee poured upon the head’. Bao-yu must have had some such feeling as he listened to Xiu-yan, for he first of all gave a gasp of discovery and then laughed out loud.

‘I see! That’s why our family temple is called the “Temple of the Iron Threshold”! Thank you very much. Now I can go and write my reply.’

Xiu-yan continued on her way to Green Bower Hermitage and Bao-yu went back to write his note. He wrote:

From Bao-yu, Dweller Behind the Threshold, Devout and Humble Thanks.

He carried the note to the Hermitage himself and posted it through the crack between the double doors.

By the time he got back to Green Delights, Parfumee had just completed her toilet. She had gone back to the elaborate feminine coiffure which she normally favoured, complete with kingfisher-feather hair-ornaments; but Bao-yu said he would prefer to see her permanently got up like a boy. He had her fringe and side-pieces cut off and the remaining short bits shaved away from her forehead round to the back of her neck, so that only the long hair growing from the crown of her head remained.

‘We’ll get you a big fur cap with ear-flaps to wear in the winter,’ he said, ‘and big tiger-boots for your feet, or white socks and thick-soled, stitch-patterned padded shoes, to go with loose-bottomed trousers. And we’d better change your name. “Parfumée” won’t do for a boy. What about “Honey Boy”? We can call you “Honey” for short.’

Parfumée was delighted.

‘Now you’ll be able to take me with you when you go outside,’ she said. ‘If anyone asks about me, you can tell them that I’m one of your pages, like Tealeaf.’

Bao-yu smiled at the idea, but seemed rather doubtful.

‘I think sooner or later they’d be able to tell that you weren’t.’

‘You have no imagination!’ said Parfumée ‘Tell them I’m a foreign page. Your family’s got several foreign pages.* Anyway a pigtail suits me; everyone says it does. What about it? Don’t you think it’s a brilliant idea?’

Bao-yu was quite won over.

* Stone’s Note to Reader:

Both the Rong and Ning branches of the Jia family did in fact employ a number of foreign captives taken by previous members of the family in their various military campaigns and later graciously bestowed on them as bond-slaves by His Imperial Majesty. They were invariably employed as grooms, being useless for any other kind of work. Parfumee transvestism was by no means a novelty in the household. The tomboyish Shi Xiang-yun had long since shown a passion for dressing up in military uniform and was frequently to be seen wearing a cavalryman’s belt and tight-sleeved riding habit. When Bao-yu put Parfumee into boy’s clothing, she was quick to follow suit by dressing her own Althee in a page’s costume. As a ‘painted face’ Althee was already in the habit of shaving off the short hair above her forehead and round her ears to facilitate making-up and had acquired a certain masculinity of movement and gesture from the roles she played, so the transformation was in her case a less drastic one. Li Wan and Tan-chun were so taken with the result that they decided to dress Bao-qin’s Cardamome up as a little page as well. Her hair was done up in two knots like horns, one on each side of her head. Dressed in trousers and a short smock and with a pair of red shoes on her feet she looked – except for the make-up – exactly like the scholar’ page, Lute Boy, in the play. Xiang-yun changed Althee’s name to ‘Valiant’ because she thought it suited her. Cardamome was the youngest, liveliest and most mischievous of the little ex-actresses and the majority of the Garden’s inhabitants had already taken to calling her by less flattering sobriquets long before her transformation into a page. After the transformation had been made, Bao-qin rejected ‘Lute Boy’ as too obvious; and since she liked ‘Cardamome’ and thought it a pretty name, she resolved to retain at any rate the middle part of it by calling the new page ‘Damon’.

Stone

‘It’s a very good idea. I’ve often seen officials with little foreign servants – mostly Tartars or Tibetans captured in the wars. People like to have them as grooms because they are good at handling horses and don’t mind waiting about in the cold. We’ll have to give you a foreign name then. What about “Yelü Hunni” ? “Yelü” is an old Kitan Surname and “Hunni” is what the Xiong-nu used to call themselves.’

Parfumée was very satisfied with this, so it was agreed that in future she would always be referred to as Yel Parfumée Hunni.

After lunch Patience’s messenger arrived to say that, as the summerhouse in the Peony Garden was thought to be too hot, her return party had been laid out in the Shady Elm rooms. You-shi came over well in advance, bringing two of Cousin Zhen’s little concubines, Lovey and Dove, with her from Ning-guo House. They were very young and wild and had seldom been taken to the neighbouring mansion before. Today, meeting such lively members of the Garden’s society as Caltrop, Xiang-yun, Parfumée and étamine for the first time, they were in their element, quickly proving the truth of the old saying about ‘birds of a feather’ by chattering nineteen to the dozen with their new-found friends and dashing off with them on an exploratory tour of the Garden. You-shi was left to the company of her own maids.

Presently, when they were visiting Green Delights, Caltrop, Lovey and Dove were very much amused to hear Bao-yu addressing Parfumée as ‘Yelü Hunni’. Having elicited from her how she came to have acquired so extraordinary a name, they began to try using it themselves; but in their unpractised mouths the foreign sounds soon degenerated into ‘Yellow Honey’; and even this was soon abandoned in favour of ‘Yellow Belly’. The maids, hearing them call her this, were all in stitches. Bao-yu feared that Parfumée would be wounded by their hilarity and proposed yet another change of name.

‘There is a land in the West called “Fran-see-ya” where they make a kind of golden glitter-glass called “aventurin”. You are such a bright and glittering person yourself: I think the name Aventurin would suit you very well.’

Parfumée was delighted with it. But it was still no good: the others found ‘Aventurin’ too difficult; and having established that it was the name of some kind of foreign glass, soon took to calling her ‘Glassy’ or ‘Glass-eyes’ instead.

But we digress.

The party in the Shady Elm rooms had now begun. Once more wine was made an excuse for much unrestrained hilarity. The blind ballad-singers were asked to drum for them and Patience broke off a spray of peonies to play ‘passing the branch’ with. There must have been near enough twenty people taking part in the game. Just as the fun was at its height, it was announced that two women had arrived delivering things from the Zhen family in Nanking and Tan-chun, Li Wan and You-shi had to go off to the jobs room to receive them. The others decided to make a little break in the party while they did so, in which those who wanted to could take some exercise outside. Lovey and Dove decided to have a swing.

‘You get up as well,’ Bao-yu said to Lovey, who was pushing. ‘I’ll push you both.’

‘Oh no you don’t!’ said Lovey. ‘I know your kind of pushing! Yellow-belly can push us.’

‘Please,’ said Bao-yu exasperatedly, ‘don’t call her by that horrible name! You’ll have all the others calling her by it as well.’

Dove was giggling helplessly on the swing.

‘Stop it, you two! I can’t work this thing properly if you make me laugh. I shall fall off, if you’re not careful, and knock all the gravy out of you!’

While they were in the midst of their diversions, a group of servants from the Ning-guo mansion came rushing up in a state of great agitation.

‘Sir Jing is dead!’

‘Dead?’ Everyone hearing them was incredulous. ‘But he hadn’t been ill. How can he have died so suddenly?’

‘He spent all his time looking for the secret of immortality.’ said one of the servants. ‘Perhaps he found it and went off to heaven.’

You-shi heard the news with dismay. There would be so much to do, and with Cousin Zhen, Jia Rong and Jia Lian all three away, no dependable male around to help her. The first thing she did, of course, was to remove all her jewellery and the ornaments from her hair. Then, having ordered some of the household to go on ahead and put all the Taoists there under lock and key pending her husband’s return, she got into her carriage and drove with all speed to the Dark Truth Monastery outside the city, accompanied by the Chief Steward Lai Sheng’s wife and several of the senior stewardesses. Meanwhile other servants were dispatched to various members of the faculty requesting their attendance at the monastery.

The physicians duly arrived. As the patient was already dead, there was little scope for their customary methods of diagnosis; but they knew that Sir Jing had gone in for breath-control and various other kinds of Taoist hocus-pocus, some of which, like the worship of the Seven Stars, the keeping of ‘ghost-worm’ vigils and the swallowing of mercuric ‘elixirs’, must have gravely weakened his constitution and may well have hastened his death; and when they saw the purple face and cracked and shrivelled lips of the corpse and felt the iron-hard abdomen, they had little difficulty in forming their collective opinion, which their spokesman delivered forthwith to the waiting women: ‘That death was due to edema and corrosion following ingestion by the deceased of some toxic metallic substance in pursuance of his Taoist researches.’

‘It wasn’t toxic,’ protested the Taoists, alarmed for their own safety. ‘It was an infallible secret formula, but it needed to be taken in the right conditions. We told him he wasn’t ready for it, but he wouldn’t believe us. He must have taken it during the vigil last night, when he was meditating on his own and there was nobody around to stop him. He will have gone straight to heaven, of course: such faith is sure to be rewarded. We must rejoice that he has cast off the corrupt gar?ment of flesh and left this sea of misery behind him.’

But You-shi had no intention of getting drawn into an argument. Her only reply was to give orders that they should all be locked up again and remain so until Cousin Zhen could deal with them when he got back. Riders were dispatched post-haste to inform him of his father’s death.

You-shi could see at a glance that the monastery’s accommodation was far too cramped for the lying-in-state; on the other hand there could be no question of her taking the corpse back with her into the city. She therefore had it wrapped up and carried in a curtained chair to the Temple of the Iron Threshold. And as she calculated that it would probably be at least half a month before Cousin Zhen got back, by which time, as this was the hottest part of the year, the process of decomposition would already be well advanced, she decided, acting on her own initiative, to consult an astrologer and find out the earliest date on which the body could be encoffined. The coffin was conveniently to hand, having been deposited in the Temple of the Iron Threshold when it was purchased some years previously. The formal going into mourning and its attendant ceremonies were scheduled to take place three days later. Staging was put up in readiness for the Taoists and Buddhists, but their requiems were to be deferred until Cousin Zhen should have returned.

While You-shi and the already depleted staff were attending to these matters outside the city, no one with authority was left in the two mansions able to deal with callers from outside. On the Rong-guo side Xi-feng was still unable to see people because of her illness, Li Wan was fully occupied in looking after the young people, and Bao-yu was too lacking in savoir-faire to be trusted. It was necessary to call in a number of obscure junior clansmen who had done occasional odd-jobs for the family in the past: Jia Bin, Jia Guang, Jia Heng(Ⅰ), Jia Chang and Jia Ling. On the Ning-guo side even the internal running of the household was a problem, since You-shi was for the time being unable to get back at all. She had to call on her step-mother, old Mrs You, to keep an eye on things for her. As Mrs You had two young unmarried daughters by a previous marriage, the most sensible arrangement seemed to be to bring the girls with her and install herself in temporary residence at Ning-guo House.

At this point our story moves elsewhere. As soon as the news reached him of his father’s death, Cousin Zhen made an urgent application for leave of absence to the Board of Rites. He included Jia Rong’s name in the petition, since Jia Rong was, nominally at any rate, the holder of a commis?sion. The officials of the Board of Rites, bearing in mind His Imperial Majesty’s devotion to the Late Emperor and determination to give fullest expression to it in these obsequies of the Late Emperor’s favourite Consort, dared not grant leave of absence on their own initiative and referred the matter to the Emperor himself in a memorial. But the Son of Heaven, with that godlike compassion that is so typical of him, far from making his own bereavement an objection, saw it as all the more reason for sympathizing with the bereavement of a subject – particularly one whose ancestor had performed such great and signal services for the Crown. His immediate reac?tion on reading the memorial was to ask for particulars of Jia Jing’s official rank. The Board of Rites memorialized back as follows:

Jia Jing: Palace Graduate, Second Class. His hereditary office and emoluments were passed on during his lifetime to his son Jia Zhen. Owing to age and ill-health, he had for some years past been living in religious seclusion at the Dark Truth Monastery, where he was resident at the time of his death. Jia Zhen and his son Jia Rong are in attendance here at the mausoleum for the obsequies of Her Late Highness and are Your Imperial Majesty’s petitioners for leave to absent themselves in order to attend to the funeral arrangements.

On receipt of this memorial His Imperial Majesty was graciously pleased to issue the following Rescript:

Although Jia Jing’s own life appears to have been undistin?guished by service to the state, nevertheless in recognition of the distinguished record of loyal service to the Crown of his grandfather the Duke of Ning-guo it is Our pleasure that a Court appointment carrying the honours and entitlements of an officer of the Fifth Rank should be bestowed upon him posthumously, and that his son and grandson should be authorized to convey his remains into the Capital, entering by way of the Lower North Gate, and to display them there in their private residence in the customary manner; and thereafter, having duly carried out all rites and ceremonies that are lawful to be performed, to convey them thence to the deceased’s registered place of origin for interment. And furthermore it is Our pleasure that Our treasury at the Imperial Victuallers should disburse to the said son and grandson a sum being the equivalent of one portion of funeral offerings of the First Grade towards the defrayment of the said Jia Jing’s funeral expenses; and that it should he lawful and permitted for holders of Court appointments up to and including the rank of Prince and Duke to make offerings and condolences.

When the contents of this Rescript were made known, it was not only the members of the Jia family who expressed their gratitude: all the great officers of the Court were loud in their praises of this extraordinary example of Imperial magnani?mity.

Cousin Zhen and Jia Rong at once set off on horseback, determined to ride both night and day until they reached their destination. About half way along their road they came upon a group of horsemen riding hell-for-leather towards them who turned out to be Jia Bin and Jia Guang at the head of a party of Jia family domestics. They threw themselves from their saddles as soon as they recognized Cousin Zhen and touched knee and hand to the ground in the Manchu salute.

‘Why have you come?’ Cousin Zhen asked them.

‘Mrs Zhen was worried that when you and Rong left there would be no one to escort Her Old Ladyship,’ Jia Bin replied, ‘so she sent us to take your place.’

Cousin Zhen expressed his approval of his wife’s thoughtfulness.

‘And what about things at home?’ he asked. ‘How have you been managing?’

Jia Bin told him how You-shi had had the Taoists put under arrest, how she had had Jia Jing’s body moved to the family temple, and how, in order that there might be someone at home to keep an eye on things during her absence, she had persuaded her step-mother and two step-sisters to move into temporary residence at Ning-guo House. At mention of the two step-sisters the face of Jia Rong, who had dismounted when the others did, was observed to break into a grin. For his part Cousin Zhen merely nodded, observed several times over that these arrangements were ‘very sensible’, and, touching the riding-whip to his horse’s flanks, was on his way once more.

Cousin Zhen and Jia Rong rode on then through daylight and darkness, stopping at post-houses along the way only long enough to obtain a change of mount. It was night-time when they approached the outskirts of the Capital and well after two in the morning when they reached the Temple of the Iron Threshold. Those keeping watch had to rouse the others up to meet them. Cousin Zhen and Jia Rong dismounted and lifted up their voices in loud wailing. Still wailing, they crawled on their knees all the way from the Outer gate of the temple to the lying-in-state room inside. There, at the foot of the coffin, they knocked their heads repeatedly on the floor and wept with abandon until daylight, by which time they had all but lost their voices.

After a brief intermission during which Cousin Zhen was greeted by You-shi and the rest (for he had not, till that moment, had an opportunity of speaking to them) he and Jia Rong changed into the appropriate hempen mourning-garments before returning to bow once more at the foot of the coffin.

Cousin Zhen found it impossible to achieve quite that state of self-absorbed grief – ‘oblivious to all around’ – which books of etiquette require of the bereaved son: there were too many things that needed attending to. For example, friends and relations had to be informed about the Gracious Rescript permitting a lying-in-state at the mansion and the receiving of offerings and condolences there. Jia Rong was ordered back home to make all preparations necessary for receiving the coffin.

Jia Rong was pleased with his commission. Hurrying to horse, he rode briskly into the city. As soon as he got back, he ordered the servants to begin clearing the furniture from the front reception hall at Ning-guo House and making a shrine for the coffin there out of screens and hangings. He also told them to put up awnings for the funeral bands outside the doorway, and a cloth and cane archway which should later be covered with funerary inscriptions. When he was satis?fied that all this work was well in hand, he hurried into the inner apartments to meet his grandmother and two young aunts.

The Hon. Mrs You (the late Mr You – You-shi’s father – had been a mandarin of the sixth rank) was an elderly lady much given to taking naps. She was in fact recumbent upon the kang and refreshing herself with sleep at the moment when Jia Rong entered. It was the two daughters, sewing amidst their maids, who welcomed him.

‘I’m glad you’ve come, Auntie,’ said Jia Rong, grinning broadly at the elder of them. (Her name was Er-jie.) ‘Father has been longing to see you.’

Er-jie turned red.

‘Now look here, young Rong,’ she said, ‘you behave yourself! I suppose you are one of those people who, if they don’t get a good telling-off every once in a while, don’t feel comfortable. You are supposed to be a well-bred, educated young gentleman, yet a coolie would have better manners.’

She picked up the nearest object to hand, which happened to be a flat-iron, and made as if to aim it at his head. Jia Rong ducked in alarm, clasping his head in his arms; he ducked not away from her, however, but towards her, and ended up on her bosom, laughing and begging for mercy. At this the younger sister, San-jie, came over and tried to fasten her nails upon his mouth.

‘We’ll tell our sister about you when she gets back.’

Jia Rong knelt between them on the kang, entreating them not to, whereupon the two sisters collapsed in laughter.

He noticed that Erjie was eating cardamums and made a grab at them intending to take some for himself. As he did so, Er-jie spat a chewed-up mouthful of them in his face. Quite unperturbedly, he began licking off the particles that he could reach with his tongue and nibbling them. This was more than even the maids could stomach.

‘Look at you, freshly in mourning and your old grannie lying there right under your nose!’ they said. ‘These are your aunts, after all, even though they are so young: you ought to have more respect for your mother than to treat her family like this. Wait till we tell the Master when he gets back: he’ll give you what for!’

Temporarily abandoning his aunts, Jia Rong went over to the maids, put his arms around two of them and began kissing them.

‘My darlings, you are so right! I shan’t interfere with them any more.’

The maids pushed him off indignantly.

‘Pig!’ The maid who said this spoke with feeling. ‘You have a wife and maids of your own; what do you need to come bothering us for? An understanding person would realize that this was only fun, but what about someone who didn’t know? There are plenty of dirty-minded, gossiping busy?bodies who would be only too pleased to go tattling about this sort of thing to the other mansion, and before you know where you are the gossips there will be passing round the most terrible stories about us.’

‘Their household is completely separate from ours,’ said Jia Rong, ‘why should they bother about what we do here? Anyway, they’ve got scandal enough of their own to keep them busy! Every family history has got a few scandals in it. Look at the stories they tell about the rulers of the Han and Tang dynasties: “Filthy Tang and stinking Han” they say, don’t they? If even the families of emperors were like that, you can hardly expect ours to be any different. As for the household next door: look how strict Great-uncle She is, yet Uncle Lian still manages to get up to a few tricks with that little chamber-wife; and look what a tough nut Aung Feng is, yet that didn’t stop Uncle Rui thinking he could settle her business. Do you imagine I don’t know what they get up to over there -?’

He seemed to be warming to the subject and would doubtless have treated them to other even less edifying examples of Rong-guo depravity, had not the old lady suddenly woken up at that point, necessitating an abrupt change of manner. At once he dropped down on his knee and began inquiring solicitously about her health.

‘It is so good of you to have gone to all this trouble for us, Grandma,’ he said, ‘and for Auntie Er and Auntie San to put up with so much inconvenience on our behalf. Father and I don’t know how to thank you. I expect after this business is over we shall all be coming round to your place and making you a kotow.’

‘Bless the boy, what eloquence!’ said the old lady, nodding appreciatively. ‘For our own kin, though: it’s the least we could do. And how is your father?’ she asked him. ‘When did he hear the news? When did you get back?’

‘We’ve only just got back,’ said Jia Rong. ‘Father sent me on to see you immediately. He was particularly anxious that I should persuade you to stay here until everything is over.’

He winked at the two young aunts while he was saying this. Er-jie pretended to grind her teeth angrily, though she was trying not to laugh.

‘Glib-tongued little ape!’ she said. ‘We’re to be kept around here as second strings for your father, I suppose?’

‘Don’t you worry!’ said Jia Rong, his eye on the old lady. ‘My father has your interests very much at heart. He’s been looking for years now for a couple of well-placed, rich, handsome young husbands for my two aunties. Now he’s found one at last – someone he met the other day on the journey.’

He was only joking, but the old lady took it all as gospel truth and asked him what the name was of this prospective son-in-law. Er-jie, laughing, laid down her sewing and ran across to strike him.

‘Don’t believe a word he says, Ma! He’s a wicked liar!’

Even the maids were outraged.

‘If the Lord in Heaven can hear you, you’d better watch out for the lightning!’ said one of them.

Just then a servant entered:

‘We’ve finished all the things you told us to do, Master Rong. Will you go back now and tell the Master it’s all ready?’

Off went Jia Rong then, smiling all over his face.

But what happened after that will be told in the following chapter.

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