The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 67

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CHAPTER 67

Frowner sees something that
makes her homesick
And Xi-feng hears something that
rouses her suspicions

The grief occasioned in old Mrs You, Er-jie, Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian by San-jie’s suicide can be imagined. It long outlasted her burial outside the city walls, which took place shortly after the encoffining. As for Liu Xiang-lian, the human repinings felt by that somewhat cold young man when he realized the value of what he had lost were brought to an abrupt end (as we have shown) by the even colder words of the Taoist, which, by breaking through the Barrier of Confusion and opening his eyes to the vanity of human affections, caused him to renounce the world by symbolically severing his hair and following the mad holy man in his wanderings. The direction these took them in is unknown, as we stated in the previous chapter. Let us leave them and see how others were affected by these events.
Aunt Xue had been delighted by the news of Xiang-lian’s betrothal to You San-jie. The wedding would give her an opportunity of demonstrating her gratitude to him for saving her son’s life. She was excitedly planning for this event – discussing the purchase of a house and furniture, selecting a date, making arrangements for the ceremony and so forth – when one of the household boys came in with the appalling news that San-jie had cut her throat and Xiang-lian decided to become a Taoist. She was still puzzling over the incomprehensible nature of this disaster when Bao-chai came over from the Garden.
‘Child, have you heard the news?’ Aunt Xue asked her. ‘Mrs Zhen’s younger sister, San-jie – the one that was engaged to marry Pan’s new “brother” Liu Xiang-lian – has cut her throat. I’ve no idea why. And Xiang-lian has renounced the world and just disappeared. Isn’t it terrible? I don’t know what to make of it.’
Bao-chai heard her without emotion.
‘It is as the proverb says, Mamma: “The weather and human life are unpredictable.” This was probably preordained because of something they did in their past lives. The other day you were planning to do everything you could for him because of what he did for Pan. Now she is dead and he has disappeared. I think the best thing you can do is just forget about them. There is no point in upsetting yourself on their account; there are other things to worry about. It is more than a fortnight now since Pan got back from the South and the goods he brought with him must all have been disposed of by now. Surely you ought to have a word with him about entertaining the people who went with him on the journey? They had a good deal of hardship to put up with during their months of travel. It will seem very uncouth of us if we do not find some way of showing our appreciation.’
While Bao-chai and her mother were talking, Xue Pan came in from outside. His eyes were still wet from recent weeping.
‘Mamma,’ he said, ‘have you heard about Xiang-lian and San-jie ?’
‘They told me only a few minutes ago,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘Your sister and I were talking about it when you came in.’
‘You heard that Xiang-lian had gone off with some Taoist then,’ said Xue Pan.
‘Yes,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘That’s what’s so extraordinary. Why should an intelligent young man like that suddenly take leave of his senses to go wandering off with a Taoist? As he had no parents or brothers, I think it’s up to you as his best friend to find him. They say the Taoist is both mad and lame, so they cannot have got very far – probably no farther than one of the temples or monasteries in this vicinity.’
‘That’s exactly what I thought, Mamma,’ said Xue Pan. ‘As soon as I heard the news, I went around looking for him with the boys, but we couldn’t find a trace of him anywhere, and none of the people we talked to seemed to have seen him.’
‘Well, if you’ve already looked for him and he can’t be found, you’ve done as much as a friend could do,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘Some good might yet come of it, you never know. What you’ve got to do now is start getting your business back into shape. And for another thing, it’s time you started thinking about your own marriage and making a few prepa?rations. We’ve got no other man in the family but you and you’re not as bright as you might be. You know what they say about baby birds learning to fly. The sillier the bird, the sooner it must begin. If you start getting ready well in advance, there will be less danger of making yourself ridiculous when the time comes by finding that there are all sorts of things you have forgotten. And there’s something else I want to talk to you about. Your sister has just been pointing out to me, it’s more than a fortnight since you came back and the goods you brought hack with you must all have been sold off by now. You ought to give a little party for those of our employees who went with you on the journey – just a little gesture to show them that you appreciate their services. After all, it was a long journey. What would it be? A thousand miles there and back? Pretty nearly. You were four or five months away, at all events. And don’t forget, they underwent some very alarming experiences on your behalf.’
‘You’re absolutely right, Mamma,’ said Xue Pan. ‘And sis, she always thinks of everything. I had thought about it myself, but during these last few days, what with running around everywhere disposing of the stock until my head feels’ as if it will burst and running around getting things ready for Xiang?-lian’s wedding (fat lot of good that was, now that it’s all come to nothing!) I somehow didn’t get round to it. Still, it’s not too late. We can fix a time for tomorrow or the day after and send the invitations out straight away.’
‘I leave all that to you,’ said his mother.
The words were scarcely out of her mouth when one of the pages came in from outside to report.
‘There are some men here from the shop with two cases of stuff for you and a message from Mr Zhang. He says these are the things you bought for yourself, that aren’t on the stock-list. He would have sent them round earlier, but there were a lot of other cases on top of them and he couldn’t get them out. He says they didn’t finish selling the stock off until yesterday, so this is the first time he has been able to get at them.’
Two other pages carried the two cases in, one after the other, while he was speaking. They were large coir trunks, protectively crated between pairs of roped-together boards.
‘Aiyo!’ said Xue Pan. ‘How stupid of me! I brought these things back specially for you and sis, Mamma, but I completely forgot to bring them home with me. Fancy the boys in the shop having to remember them for me!’
‘It’s a good thing you “brought them back specially”, said Bao-chai. ‘Now we’re only getting them a fortnight late. If you hadn’t “brought them back specially”, we should probably have had to wait until the end of the year! It’s the same with everything you do. You are so thoughtless.’
Xue Pan laughed.
‘I think it’s because of that scare we had on the journey. It scared the wits out of me and they haven’t got back into the right holes yet.’
The others laughed. He turned to the boy who had come in with the message.
‘All right. Tell the men outside we’ve got the stuff now and they can go back to the shop.’
Aunt Xue and Bao-chai were curious.
‘Well, what is it you’ve got all crated and corded up so carefully?’
Xue Pan told the pages to untie the ropes, remove the protecting boards and undo the fastenings of the trunks. The first one contained mostly materials – silks, satins, brocades and so forth – and various foreign articles of domestic use.
‘The other trunk is stuff I got specially for you, sis,’ said Xue Pan.
He undid the fastenings of it himself. Besides writing?brushes, ink-sticks, inkstones, different sorts of fancy stationery, purses, rosaries, fans, fan-cases, face-powder, rouge and other feminine articles, it contained a whole lot of novelties from Hu-qiu-shan: little mercury-filled automata who turned somersaults when you put them down on the floor or a table, automata with sand-filled cylindrical bodies whose arms, legs and heads moved when you set the sand running, and lots and lots of scenes from drama made up of tiny figures moulded in coloured clay in cases of transparent green gauze. Most fascinating of all was a tiny made-to-order figure of Xue Pan himself, looking exactly like the original in every detail. Bao- chai had no eyes for anything but this. Picking the tiny replica up in her hand to examine it, she looked from it to the original and burst out laughing. She had the other things put back into the trunk and ordered two of the older servants to carry it to All-spice Court for her under Oriole’s supervision while she herself stayed chatting a little longer with her mother and brother. Then she too went back into the Garden.
After she had gone, Aunt Xue proceeded to go over the contents of the other trunk with Providence, taking them out, putting them into separate piles, and explaining which pile was to be given to Grandmother Jia, which to Lady Wang, and so forth.
Xue Pan for his part began there and then to make preparations for a party. The invitations to his employees were dispatched with great urgency, for he was determined that the party should be on the very next day. As a number of people were invited, it took some time for all of them to assemble and there was much talk about trading, accountancy and the disposal of stock before the last of the guests had arrived. When they were all present, Xue Pan invited them to take their places at table and went round himself with the wine-kettle to fill their cups. Aunt Xue sent someone in to thank them on the family’s behalf for their loyal service. Thereupon drinking began and conversation of a more general kind among the guests. Presently one of them observed that a good friend was missing from their company whose presence might have been expected.
‘Oh?’ said the others. ‘Who’s that?’
‘Mr Liu,’ the man said, ‘that saved all our lives and became a blood-brother to the master.’
This started a good deal of speculation among the guests and finally one of them asked Xue Pan outright why he had not invited him. Xue Pan frowned and sighed.
‘Don’t ask me about him,’ he said. ‘It’s a very funny business. It isn’t “Mr Liu” now any longer. It’s “Father Liu”.’
The others expressed surprise.
‘How can that be?’
Xue Pan related the whole story to them. They were even more surprised when they heard.
‘Now I understand what they were shouting about yesterday outside the shop,’ said one of them. ‘It was something about a man having been converted by only two or three words spoken to him by a Taoist. Someone else said the two of them had vanished into thin air. They didn’t say who the man was. We were all busy selling stock at the time, so we couldn’t go outside to find out and we’ve been wondering ever since whether to believe the story or not. We never imagined it was Mr Liu they were talking about. If we’d known, we’d have gone after him and tried to reason with him. I’m sure we’d have found some way of stopping him.’
‘I’ve got a different theory about what happened,’ said one of them.
‘Oh? What’s that?’ the others asked him.
‘Well,’ said the man with the theory, ‘it doesn’t seem very likely that a clever young chap like Mr Liu would suddenly go off to become the disciple of an old Taoist. We know how strong he is and how good at martial arts. Perhaps he’d found out that this Taoist was really a wicked magician and just pretended to become his disciple so that when he’d got him to some quiet, out-of-the-way place he could do him in.’
‘If that’s what it is, that’s very good,’ said Xue Pan. ‘There are too many of these fellows going around leading people astray with their silly nonsense. It needs a person like Xiang-?lian to put a few of them down.’
‘But didn’t you look for Mr Liu yourself when you heard about this?’ his guests asked him.
‘Of course I did,’ said Xue Pan. ‘Inside and outside the city. And I don’t mind telling you – you can laugh at me if you like – I had a good old cry when I couldn’t find him.’
He sighed several times and looked very despondent. His customary cheerfulness seemed to have deserted him altogether since this loss. Seeing him so downcast, his employees did not venture to stay long, but drank the wine up, finished up the food, and dispersed. We, too, shall leave him at this point and continue our interrupted narrative of the previous day.
*
When Bao-chai got back from her mother’s to her own room in All-spice Court, she went over the toys that Xue Pan had given her, deciding which of her cousins each one of them should go to and retaining only a very few of them for herself. When she had finished doing that, she proceeded to portion out the other things as well. For some of the cousins there were writing-brushes, paper, inkstones and ink; for others, purses, fans and rosaries; some were to have hair-oil, powder and rouge; for some there were to be only toys. She made the little piles as equal as possible, except in the case of Dai-yu, for whom she selected twice as much as for anyone else. Having explained very carefully to Oriole who each of the piles was for, she sent her off, with an old woman acting as portress, to go round to all the apartments and deliver them.
With one exception, the cousins, on receiving their presents, tipped the bearers and said that they would thank Bao-chai in person when they next saw her. Dai-yu alone reacted some?what differently. The sight of the Hu-qiu toys, manufactured only a few miles from her native Soochow, brought on a severe attack of nostalgia. Once more she was reminded of her position: an orphan and an outsider, with no kind brother in her case to bring back things for her from the South. Already she was beginning to be upset. Nightingale knew at once what was the matter, but judged it more politic to remonstrate than to let her mistress know that she understood.
‘Look at all the illness you’ve had, miss. You hardly ever stop taking medicine. It’s only just recently that you’ve begun to look a bit better. Though even now I think it’s more a case of being in better spirits than being properly cured. You can see from the fact that Miss Bao has sent you all these things that she must think a lot of you. That ought to make you happy, not upset you. Whatever is Miss Bao going to think if she gets to hear that the things she has sent you have made you feel miserable? That’s not going to he very nice for her, is it? And there’s another thing. Look how concerned Her Old Ladyship and Her Ladyship always are about your health, how they get the best doctors and the best medicines to try and cure you. And now, just as you are beginning to be a little bit better, here you go, crying and making yourself miserable. It’s as if you wanted to get ill again, just to give them something more to worry about! It was too much fretting that brought on your illness in the first place. You ought to have a bit more consideration for yourself.’
While Nightingale was admonishing her mistress, a voice from the courtyard was heard announcing ‘Master Bao’. Nightingale called to him to come inside.
‘Sit down,’ said Dai-yu..
Bao-yu noticed that she had been crying.
‘Hullo, what’s the matter?’ he asked. ‘Who’s been upsetting you?’
Dai-yu forced a smile.
‘I’m not upset.’
Nightingale shot her lips out and gestured towards the table behind Dai-yu’s bed. His eyes followed her gesture to the pile of presents on the table. He realized she could only just have received them from Bao-chai.
‘Why, what a lot of things you’ve got there!’ he said. ‘Are you planning to set up a shop?’
Dai-yu made no reply.
‘Don’t talk about them!’ said Nightingale. ‘They’re from Miss Bao. As soon as Miss Lin set eyes on them, she burst into tears. I was just trying to talk some sense into her when you came in. Perhaps, now you’re here, you’ll be able to do it for me.’
Bao-yu knew what Dai-yu’s trouble was as well as Nightin?gale, but was no more willing than Nightingale to show her that he knew. He merely laughed, therefore, and answered Nightingale with a jest.
‘Oh, I know what’s upset your mistress. She’s cross because Miss Bao didn’t send her more. Never mind, coz,’ he said, turning to Dai-yu, ‘one of these days I’ll he visiting Kiangnan myself, and when I do, I promise to bring you back two whole boatloads of these things. That should dry your eyes for you!’
Dai-yu, aware that she was being ‘cheered up’, could not rebuff the clumsy attempt too impatiently; nor, on the other hand, did she feel inclined to let it pass unreproved.
‘I may be very stupid and ill-bred, but not quite to the extent of getting into a passion because I have not been given enough toys. I am not a three-year-old. You make me out to be even more petty-minded than I am. I have my own reasons for what I feel. What do you know about them?’
As she said this, the tears began once more to flow. Bao-yu moved over from his seat and sat down beside her on the bed. He began picking the articles on the table up one by one, turning them this way and that to examine them, and asking her all sorts of questions about them. What was this? What did you call it? Wasn’t this one clever? What was it made of? And this one, what was it for? He also made various suggestions as to where she should put them. This one he thought would be nice to keep by her on her desk; that one would look well with the vases and other ornaments on the wall-table; and so on and so on until Dai-yu felt that, however well-intentioned this might be, she could stand no more.
‘Come on, you’re being a nuisance,’ she said. ‘Let’s go and see Bao-chai.’
This was precisely what Bao-yu had been hoping for. If he could get her to go out, the distraction of doing something else might cause her to forget her sadness.
‘Good!’ he said. ‘We ought to go, anyway, to thank her for the things.’
‘I wasn’t thinking of that,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Between cousins there is no need for such formality. I was thinking that, having just got back from the South, Cousin Pan must have told her a lot about the places there he visited, and hearing about them from Chai would be the next best thing to taking a trip back there myself.’
Her eyes began to redden, and for a moment it seemed in doubt if she would go out after all; but as Bao-yu was already on his feet waiting for her, she was more or less obliged to follow him.
‘After all the trouble Cousin Pan went to in getting them to you,’ Bao-yu told Bao-chai when they were in her room, ‘you ought to have kept those things for yourself, not given them all away to other people.’
‘There’s nothing very special about them,’ said Bao-chai. ‘They are all inexpensive objects made by local craftsmen which just happen to have come from a long way away. I thought the rest of you might find them amusing.’
‘When I was little, these things were so familiar to me that I thought nothing of them,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Now, after all these years, they have become novelties again.’
“‘The farther from home, the more precious the object” as the saying goes,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Not that these are precious, of course.’
Bao-yu feared that Bao-chai was moving onto dangerous ground and intervened to change the subject.
‘Be sure to make Pan go again next year, Chai, and bring us back a lot more.’
Dai-yu stared.
‘If you want to make such a request, that’s your business, but kindly leave others out of it!’ She turned to Bao-chai. ‘He has not come here to thank you, you observe, but to put in an order for next year.’
Bao-chai and Bao-yu both laughed.
As the three of them chattered on, the conversation presently turned to the subject of Dai-yu’s illness.
‘When you are out of sorts,’ Bao-chai suggested, ‘you want to force yourself to go out of doors: walk around, visit people, look at things – anything to take your mind off yourself. You’ll find it is much better for you than sitting cooped up indoors feeling miserable. I wasn’t feeling very well recently. I felt exhausted all day long and hot all over and wanted to do nothing but lie down. This is a bad time of the year for me, and I was afraid of becoming seriously ill. So I started deliberately looking for things to do and forcing myself to do them; and do you know, during the last day or two I really have begun to feel better.’
‘I am sure you are right,’ said Dai-yu. ‘I have in fact come to the same conclusion myself.’
*
The person most gratified by Bao-chai’s presents was Aunt Zhao.
‘I’m not surprised they all say what a nice girl that Bao-chai is,” she said to herself when the consignment of toys arrived for Jia Huan. ‘You can see from this how kind and generous she is. Her brother can’t have brought all that much back for her from his travels, yet every single person has been remembered. No one’s been left out because they aren’t impor?tant, even the unlucky ones like us that no one else ever bothers about. Now if it had been that Lin girl, it would have been a very different story. She can scarcely even bring herself to look you straight in the face. You wouldn’t catch her sending us things like this!’
As these thoughts passed through her mind, she was turning the things over and over in her hands and arranging them this way and that upon the kang. Presently the thought occurred to her that Bao-chai was close kin to Lady Wang. Why should she not take advantage of that fact to ingratiate herself with Lady Wang? Gathering the articles up in her arms, she went off, full of fuss and self-importance, to Lady Wang’s room and took up a position at her elbow.
‘Look!’ she said, putting on a very affected smile. ‘Look what Bao-chai has just sent our Huan! Such thoughtfulness in one so young! She’s a real little lady, Bao-chai. She has class. And so generous. You can’t help admiring her. I don’t wonder you and Her Old Ladyship are so fond of her and always speaking so highly of her. I didn’t like to keep these things without your permission, that’s why I’ve brought them. And I thought it might amuse you to look at them.’
Lady Wang had guessed what the motive for her visit must be long before she had finished. The clumsy attempt to ingratiate was by no means pleasing to her, but she could not ignore it altogether.
‘Certainly you should keep them,’ she said. ‘Let Huan have them to play with.’
She had merely glanced at the toys in saying this and then turned away again.
So Aunt Zhao, who had been so cock-a-hoop when she came, had got nothing for her pains but a smutty nose. Angry, but not daring to show it, she returned crestfallen to her room and threw the things into a corner, muttering crossly to herself as she did so.
‘Hfn! What do you make of that then?’
And she sat on her own there on the kang, continuing to mutter to herself as she brooded angrily on her wrongs.
*
Oriole and the old woman had by this time finished delivering presents and went hack to give their mistress an account of the messages of thanks sent back by the recipients and the various tips they had received. As soon as the old woman had gone out, Oriole moved closer to where Bao-chai was sitting and spoke softly into her ear.
‘When we were delivering at Mrs Lian’s just now, Mrs Lian looked absolutely furious about something. I had a word with Crimson on my way out and she said that when Mrs Lian came back from Her Old Ladyship’s a little before we arrived she was looking very grim – not at all her usual smiling self. She called for Patience as soon as she got back and they were talking earnestly together about something, but she couldn’t hear what they were saying. It looks as though something really serious must have happened. Did you hear about anything while you were at Her Old Ladyship’s today, miss?’
Bao-chai wondered what could have made Xi-feng so angry, but could think of nothing.
‘Every household has its own troubles,’ she told Oriole. ‘It isn’t our business to inquire. Go and pour me some tea.’
So Oriole went out to pour tea and nothing more on that subject was said.
*
After seeing Dai-yu to her gate, Bao-yu continued on his way to Green Delights. While he did so, he was thinking how hard it must be to be an orphan and feeling more and more sorry for her. He resolved to have a word with Aroma about it when he got back, but when he got back, only Musk and Ripple were in his room.
‘Where’s Aroma?’ he asked them.
‘Must he in one or other of the courtyards hereabouts,’ said Musk. ‘She can’t be lost. Why the sudden urge to see her?’
Bao-yu smiled.
‘I didn’t imagine she was lost. The reason I asked is because I’ve just got back from seeing Miss Lin. She seemed to be rather upset about something, and when I asked her what it was, she said the things that Miss Bao sent her were made quite near her old home and the sight of them had upset her. I was going to ask Aroma if she’d mind going over and having a word with her.’
‘Oh dear! Who’s in for it this time?’
It was Skybright who said this. She had come in at that moment and overheard only the last few words he had spoken. He repeated for her benefit the whole of what he had just been saying to Musk.
‘Aroma went out a few minutes ago,’ said Skybright. ‘I think she was going to call on Mrs Lian. It’s quite possible that she may drop in at Miss Lin’s place on her way back.’
Bao-yu made no reply. Ripple poured him a cup of tea. He took it from her absent-mindedly, rinsed his mouth with some of it, handed the rest to one of the junior maids, and stretched himself out on his bed, looking thoroughly miserable.
*
After Bao-yu went off to visit Dai-yu, Aroma had at first occupied herself with some sewing. While she was doing this, it suddenly occurred to her that it was some time since she had been to call on Xi-feng and ask about her illness. Now seemed as good a time as any to visit her, because she knew that Jia Lian was not there so that she would be able to converse with her more freely. When she had changed her clothes and, with the aid of a hand-mirror, made a few adjustments to her appearance, she went in again to tell Skybright of her decision.
‘I’m off to Mrs Lian’s now. Stay in the room while I’m gone, will you? We don’t want Master Bao calling out and finding nobody there.’
‘Aiyo!’ said Skybright sarcastically. ‘You are the only one who ever thinks about him, of course. The rest of us just sit around all day doing nothing.’
Aroma merely laughed and went off without replying. As she came within sight of the water near Drenched Blossoms Bridge, she saw that the lotuses were all dead and ragged-looking; but the hibiscus-bushes along the banks were just coming into flower, the pink budding clusters making a brilliant contrast with the bright green of the leaves. She lingered on her way along the embankment so that she could get a better view of them. Looking up suddenly from her contemplation of the hibiscus bushes, she became aware that on the other side of the path a little ahead of her someone was standing under the grape-vine waving a feather-duster about, apparently dusting something. When she got a little nearer, she could see that it was that indefatigable gardener, Mamma Zhu. Recognizing Aroma, the old woman beamed and came up to greet her.
‘It’s not often you find time to go out walking, miss?’
‘No, indeed,’ said Aroma. ‘I’m on my way to see Mrs Lian. What are you doing?’
‘I’m trying to keep these wasps off the grapes,’ said the old woman. ‘There was very little rain in the dog-days this year, consequently it’s brought the pests out onto all the fruit. It gets riddled all over with bites and a lot of it is dropping before it’s ripe. These wasps are terrible things. You’d never credit it. They’ll go for just two or three grapes in a bunch, but the juice drips from them onto the rest, and then the whole bunch is spoiled. Look at that, miss! A whole lot more of them have settled just in the time we have been talk?ing.’
‘Even if you keep at it non-stop with that duster of yours, you’re not going to keep off more than a few of them,’ said Aroma. ‘Why don’t you ask one of the buyers to get a lot of muslin bags made for you, to tie over the bunches? They will keep off the birds and wasps while still allowing the air to get at them.’
‘I certainly will,’ said the old woman. ‘What a clever idea! I’ve never heard of that one before – but then this is the first year I’ve had the job, you see.’ She smiled. ‘Look, miss, although so many of the grapes are spoiled, they still taste good. Let me pick you some to try.’
Aroma looked serious.
‘No, no. I don’t think they’re ripe enough to eat yet, in any case; but even if they were, I couldn’t possibly eat any before the first-fruits have been offered to the ancestors. Surely a person who has worked as many years for the family as you have must know that rule?’
‘Of course, miss. You are quite right,’ said the old woman hurriedly. ‘It was being so pleased that put it for the moment from my mind. I am a foolish old woman.’
‘It doesn’t really matter,’ said Aroma. ‘But you older servants ought not to set us younger ones a bad example.’
She continued on her way then, out of the Garden and round to Xi-feng’s place. As she entered the courtyard, she could hear the sound of Xi-feng’s raised voice coming from inside the house.
‘It’s monstrous! Treating me like a criminal, after all I’ve had to put up with in this place!’
Whatever the background of this remark might be, it was obvious to Aroma that this would be an extremely inopportune moment to go in; and yet it was already too late for her to turn back. The best she could do was to advertise her presence. She deliberately made a heavier noise with her feet and called out to Patience through the window. Patience came hurrying out to welcome her.
‘Is Mrs Lian in?’ Aroma asked her. ‘Is she quite better yet?’
By now she was inside the house; but Xi-feng had already had time to get up on the couch and pretend that she had been lying down. She rose to her feet as Aroma entered.
‘Yes, I am a little better, thank you. It is kind of you to remember me. It seems quite a time since you last came round here.’
‘Knowing you weren’t well, I ought by rights to have been coming every day,’ said Aroma. ‘On the other hand, when you arc poorly, you need lots of peace and quiet for resting, and I was afraid that if I came too often it might disturb you.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind the disturbance,’ said Xi-feng smiling.
‘But I realize that it isn’t easy for you to get away from Master Bao. Although he has so many girls to wait on him, you are the one he really relies on. Patience tells me you are always asking her how I am; so you see, even though you can’t get over here, I know that you are concerned about me.’
She asked Patience to bring a stool over and put it down beside the couch she was reclining on for Aroma to sit on. Felicity came in with some tea. Aroma inclined herself politely as she accepted it and murmured something about Felicity troubling herself.
While she was talking to Xi-feng, she noticed a junior maid go up to Patience in the outer room and quietly announce that Brightie had arrived and was waiting at the inner gate. She heard Patience answer the girl in the same guarded undertone:
‘Good. Tell him to go away for a few minutes and come back later. Tell him not to hang about outside this courtyard.’
Aroma knew from this that Xi-feng must have business of some kind, so after sitting for a minute or two longer, she got up to go. Xi-feng made no attempt to stop her.
‘Come again when you can,’ she said. ‘It does me good to talk to you.’
She summoned Patience to see Aroma out. As Aroma followed Patience through the outer room, she saw two or three junior maids waiting there, obviously scared out of their wits and looking as if they scarcely dared to breathe. Aroma passed through the courtyard gate and continued on her way back alone, wondering what could be the matter.
As soon as she had finished seeing off Aroma, Patience went in again to report to Xi-feng.
‘Brightie came, but because Aroma was here, I said he was to go and wait in the front. Shall I have him called in now straight away, or shall I let him wait a bit? What do you want me to do?’
‘Call him in,’ said Xi-feng.
‘Tell me,’ said Xi-feng in the interval while they were waiting for him to arrive, ‘what exactly was it you heard?’
‘It was that girl I sent out just now who actually heard it,” said Patience. ‘She said that while she was waiting at the inner gate, she heard two of the pages talking to each other on the other side of it. One of them said, “The new mistress is even prettier than the old one and ever so much better-tempered.” Then she heard someone else – she thought it might have been Brightie – telling the other two off. “What’s this ‘new mistress’ ‘old mistress’ you’re talking about? You’d better keep your voices down. If anyone inside gets to hear about this, you’ll have your tongues cut out!”’
At this point one of the junior maids came in.
‘Brightie’s waiting outside, ma’am.’
A chilling little laugh from Xi-feng.
‘Tell him to come in.’
The little maid went outside again.
‘The mistress says you are to come in.’
‘Hei!’
Brightie stepped smartly inside, dropped his knee to the ground, and ended up standing stiffly to attention in the doorway leading to the inner room.
‘Come here,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I want to talk to you.’
Brightie came into the room and stood in front of his mistress, a little to one side.
‘Your master’s got himself a woman outside,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Did you know?’
Brightie dropped his knee to the ground once more.
‘I spend all my time on call at the inner gate, madam. I’ve no means of knowing what the master does outside.’
Xi-feng’s smile was full of malice.
‘Of course you wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t stop other people talking about if you did, would you?’
Brightie realized from this that the words he had recently been saying to the other pages must have been overheard and that it would be impossible now to deceive her. He fell on his knees to reply.
‘I really don’t know, madam. I just happened to hear Joker and Happy talking a lot of nonsense, so I shouted to them to be quiet; but I really couldn’t tell you the exact circumstances they were talking about; I should only be making it up if I tried. You want to ask Joker, madam. When the master’s here, he spends most of his time with him outside.’
Xi-feng spat with great force.
‘Black-hearted, worthless scum the lot of you! You are all in league against me, do you think I don’t know? Go out and find that little pimp Joker and bring him here. And don’t go away when you’ve done that, either. Wait here. I’ll have a few questions to ask you when I’ve finished with him. – Wonderful!’ she commented to herself. ‘This is my trusted servant whom I employ on all my most confidential business!’
‘Yes, madam. Very good, madam.’
Brightie knocked his head upon the floor, then scrambled to his feet and went off to look for Joker.
Joker was in the counting-house fooling about with some of the other pages when word came to him that he was ‘wanted by Mrs Lian’. Startled, but never for a moment imagining that his master’s secret had been blown, he hurried off after Brightie to Xi-feng’s apartment to find out why he was wanted. When they got there, Brightie went in first.
‘Joker is here, madam.’
‘Bring him in!’
Even before he had seen her, the mere sound of that strident summons was enough to throw Joker’s thoughts into confusion. But there was nothing for it: he had to screw up his courage and follow Brightie into the inner room.
‘Well, my little man,’ said Xi-feng as he entered, ‘this is a fine thing you and your master have been up to! I think you had better tell me all about it.
Joker heard the words, he saw the anger in Xi-feng’s face and the terrified looks of the maids who stood motionless to left and right of her, and his legs became so weak that he sank involuntarily to his knees and began kotowing.
‘I’ve been told that this business has really nothing to do with you,’ she said. ‘Your only fault is in not having come to me and reported it. I am willing to overlook that if you tell me the truth. But woe betide you if you tell me a single word that is false! If you had a dozen heads, I should have each one of them!’
Joker rose up, trembling, to his knees:
‘What is it the master and I have done wrong that you want to know about, madam?’
It was as though the fire that smouldered in Xi-feng had suddenly burst into flame.
‘Strike the mouth that said that!’ she shouted, beside herself.
Brightie advanced, with hand upraised, to do her bidding.
‘Not you, idiot!’ Xi-feng shouted. ‘I am asking him to strike himself. Don’t worry, I shall have you striking your own mouth too before we are finished!’
Joker, still kneeling, began opening his arms to left and right of him and bringing them forcibly together, so as to slap his hands simultaneously upon his face. Xi-feng allowed him to do this a dozen or more times before shouting to him to stop.
‘Now,’ she said, ‘what’s all this about the “new mistress” your master has married? I suppose you are going to tell me you know nothing about it?’
Joker, gathering from this that the whole story was out, became quite desperate. Plucking his hat off he began bumping his head on the floor in a frenzy of self-abasement.
‘Only spare my life, madam! I swear that every word I tell you shall be the truth.’
‘Get on with it, then!’
Joker knelt stiffly upright in order to do so.
‘I didn’t know about this business at the beginning, madam. I think it started during the time when Sir Jing’s body was still lying at the temple. Yu Lu went out there one day to ask Mr Zhen for some money and when Master Rong came back into the city to see about it, the master came with him. On their way they got talking about Mrs Zhen’s two sisters, and the master said how much he admired the new mistress – er, the other Mrs Lian, and Master Rong, he said, joking-like -,
Xi-feng spat.
‘Turtle’s egg! What “other Mrs Lian”?’
‘Beg pardon, ma’am!’ said Joker hurriedly, and kotowed again.
When he had risen once more on his knees, he fixed his eyes miserably on the ceiling, unable to go on.
‘Well?’ said Xi-feng. ‘Is that all? Why don’t you go on?’
‘You’ll have to bear with me, madam,’ said the wretched Joker, ‘otherwise I daren’t.’
‘Bear with you?’ said Xi-feng. ‘Bear with your mother’s arsehole! I advise you to get on with your story: it will be very much better for you if you do!’
‘Master Rong said he could arrange for the master to marry her. The master was very pleased. Then – well, I don’t know how exactly, but he did.’
The very faintest of smiles hovered briefly over Xi-feng’s face.
‘I don’t suppose you do know. No doubt if you did, it would make a very complicated story. All right, go on. What happened after that?’
‘After that Master Rong found the master a house.’
‘Oh?’ said Xi-feng sharply. ‘Where is it?’
‘A few streets behind our place,’ said Joker. ‘Not very far.’
‘So!’ Xi-feng turned and looked hard at Patience. ‘You heard that? You and I are both dead, Patience. We don’t exist any more!’
Patience dared not reply.
Joker continued his story.
‘Mr Zhen gave a lot of money to the Zhangs so that they wouldn’t object to the wedding.’
‘Now we have a Zhang family in the story,’ said Xi-feng. ‘This is getting rather complicated.’
‘Ah yes, you see, madam, the other Mrs Lian -’
Joker suddenly realized what he had said and dealt himself a slap across the mouth. Xi-feng laughed in spite of herself and the maids to right and left of her puckered up their faces and giggled. Joker thought for a bit.
‘The elder of Mrs Zhen’s two sisters – ’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Get on with it! What about her?’
‘The elder of Mrs Zhen’s two sisters was engaged when she was little to someone called Zhang. I think his name is Zhang Hua. Nowadays he and his family are very poor beggars, almost. Mr Zhen promised them some money in return for breaking off the engagement.’
Xi-feng nodded, then turned to look at the maids: ‘You hear this, all of you? This is the little monster who was telling us a few minutes ago that he didn’t know anything!’
Joker continued:
‘After that Mr Lian had the new house redecorated and she came there for the wedding.’
‘Where from?’ said Xi-feng.
‘From her mother’s place,’ said Joker.
‘Hm, I see. Was she escorted by anyone?’
‘Only Master Rong and a few maids and nannies. No one else.’
‘What about Mrs Zhen?’
‘She came along a couple of days later with some presents.’
Xi-feng laughed and turned to address Patience behind her.
‘There you are! Don’t you remember there were a couple of days when he hardly stopped praising Mrs Zhen and telling us what a wonderful person she was?’
The smile on her face quickly vanished as she turned back again.
‘And who waits on them there? – You, of course.’
Joker hurriedly kotowed but did not attempt to reply.
‘Come to think of it,’ said Xi-feng, ‘I suppose all those times he told me he had to be away because he had business to do for our Ning-guo cousins, it was really this that he was up to.’
‘Sometimes he really was doing things for them, sometimes he was at the new house,’ said Joker.
‘Who’s living with her there?’ said Xi-feng.
‘Her mother and her younger sister – leastways, the younger sister was living with her, but the day before yesterday she cut her throat.’
‘Why did she do that?’ said Xi-feng.
Joker told her the whole story of San-jie and Liu Xiang-lian.
‘He was a lucky man,’ said Xi-feng when he had finished telling it. ‘I’ve no doubt that if he’d married her she would have made him a most notorious cuckold. – Have you anything else to tell me?’
‘I’ve told you all I know, madam, and every word I’ve told you is true. You can ask other people. If you find a word of a lie in what I’ve told you, you can beat me to death and I shan’t complain.’
Xi-feng bowed her head for some moments, reflecting. Eventually she looked up again and pointed her finger at him.
‘You are a wicked little wretch and I ought by rights to kill you for imagining that you could deceive me. I suppose you thought that by deceiving me you would do that stupid master of yours a favour and your new mistress would love you for it. If it weren’t that I thought you were too frightened just now to have lied to me, I should have broken both your legs.’ Her voice rose to a shout. ‘Get up!’
Joker kotowed several times, scrambled to his feet, and retreated as far as the threshold of the outer room, not daring to leave altogether.
‘Come back!’ said Xi-feng. ‘I haven’t finished with you yet.’
Joker turned and advanced some steps and stood with his arms held stiffly at his sides and his body inclined forwards in a respectful attitude of attention.
‘What’s the hurry?’ said Xi-feng. ‘Is your new mistress waiting to give you something?’
Joker dared not look up.
‘From now on you are not to go there any more,’ said Xi-feng. ‘From now on, if I call for you at any time of any day, I shall expect you to be there straight away – and I warn you, you’d better see to it that I’m not kept waiting! All right. Be off!’
Again he withdrew. This time he got as far as the steps outside the door.
‘Joker!’
‘Madam?’ He turned back once more.
‘Off to tell the master all about it, aren’t you?’
‘Oh no, madam! I wouldn’t dare.’
‘All right, go then; but if you breathe a word of this outside, I’ll have you flayed!’
‘Yes, madam. Very good, madam.’
Joker now made his final exit.
‘Brightie!’ Xi-feng called.
‘Yes’m!’ Brightie came bounding forward.
Xi-feng opened her eyes very wide and stared at him for the length of time it would take to say two or three sentences; then finally she spoke.
‘So, Brightie. Very good. Excellent. Now go. And if anyone outside breathes a word about this, I shall hold you responsible.’
‘Yes’m.’
Brightie withdrew very slowly from her presence; but in his case there was no recall.
‘Pour the tea,’ said Xi-feng.
This was taken by the junior maids as a signal for them to withdraw, which they did immediately, leaving Xi-feng alone with Patience.
‘You heard all that?’ said Xi-feng. ‘That’s good.’
Patience smiled, but dared not say anything.
Xi-feng appeared to be thinking, and to be growing angrier and angrier the more she thought. She lay back with her head on the pillow and gave herself up wholly to her thoughts. Presently she frowned as if an idea had just occurred to her.
‘Patience, come here.’
‘Madam?’
‘I’ve thought what to do,’ said Xi-feng. And she proceeded to tell Patience what she had planned.
But in order to know what that was, you must wait for the following chapter.

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