The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 73



A half-witted servant-girl picks up a
highly embarrassing object
And an easy-going young mistress refuses
to inquire into a theft

As we were saying at the end of the last chapter, Aunt Zhao and Jia Zheng were interrupted in the midst of their dis?cussion by a sudden crash. The maids, when questioned, said that it had been caused by an outer casement of one of the windows falling. It could not have been properly fastened and must have slipped its catch. After first roundly cursing them, Aunt Zhao went outside with them to supervise its replacement. When she came in again, she helped Jia Zheng to settle down for the night. And so we leave them.
Meanwhile, over at Green Delights, Bao-yu had just gone to bed. The maids were themselves on the point of doing so when a sudden knocking was heard at the courtyard gate. The old woman who opened it recognized the caller as a maid of Aunt Zhao’s called Magpie, and asked her what she wanted; but instead of answering, the girl pushed past her and rushed straight inside. She found Bao-yu already lying down, but engaged in bantering conversation with Skybright and a couple of other maids who were sitting on the edge of his bed.
‘What’s the matter?’ they asked when they saw who their visitor was. ‘What brings you out at this hour?’
‘I’ve come to warn you,’ said Magpie, addressing herself in an urgent whisper to Bao-yu. ‘I heard my mistress just now jabbering to Sir Zheng about something, and though I couldn’t make out what they were talking about, I heard him say “Bao-yu” a couple of times. I thought I’d better put you on your guard in case he asks to see you tomorrow about anything.’
She turned and hurried out again as soon as she had finished speaking. Aroma told someone to run after her and ask her to stay for a cup of tea, but she was afraid of being shut inside the Garden when they closed the gate, and insisted on going back immediately.
Bao-yu knew that in Aunt Zhao’s twisted imagination he was regarded as an enemy, and though he did not know what she had said, the mere fact that she had been talking about him was enough to make him feel uncomfortable all over, much as Monkey did when he heard Tripitaka reciting the spell for tightening the iron band round his head. After giving the matter some thought, he concluded that the only practical way in which he could prepare himself for the morrow would be by revising his texts. Should his father take it into his head to test him, he reasoned, then if only he could be word-perfect in his texts, it would not be so difficult to bluff his way through whatever else he might ask him. Having made the decision, he hurriedly threw a gown over his shoulders and prepared to begin some revision, bitterly regretting that Jia Zheng’s silence on the subject of lessons since his last return from duty had lulled him into a false sense of security.
‘I ought to have had more sense,’ he told himself. ‘One really ought to do a little bit every day, to keep in practice.’
He began to reckon up how much he could still recite from memory. He found that there was little more than The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean and the two halves of the Analects that he could be absolutely sure of. The first half of Mencius he knew reasonably well, but certainly not well enough to be able to carry on from any sentence given him at random. The second half was virtually terra incognita. Of the Five Classics he was fairly familiar with the Poetry Classic because he was frequently having to read bits of it in connection with his own versifying. Though far from word-perfect, he probably knew it well enough to scrape through a test. He could not remember any of the other classics at all; but fortunately his father had so far never asked him to study them, so probably it would not matter. When it came to Old Style Prose, the case was rather different. Over the past few years he had read extracts from the Zuo, Gong-yang and Gu-liang commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals and various Han and Tang pieces, but he had only dipped into them as the fancy took him; he had not done any serious work on them. There was certainly no question of his being able to remember them. There was even less likelihood of his being able to pass muster on the Examination Essay. He had always detested this style of writing in any case. The Sage himself didn’t write that way, he argued, so how could one hope to expound the inner meaning of his teachings through such a medium? It was no more than a device used by vulgar fortune-seekers for starting themselves off on the golden road to success. Before he left, Jia Zheng had selected a hundred of these essays for him to read; but Bao-yu had only glanced at them occasionally, reading a paragraph here and a paragraph there as some particularly felicitous expression or the extrava?gance, humour or melancholy of the writer happened to catch his attention. He had never settled down to the serious analytical examination of even a single essay.
He began to revise; but the trouble was that whatever he revised now, he was sure to be asked about something else next day, and the whole night would not be long enough to revise everything. It soon became apparent that all he was succeeding in doing was getting himself into an even worse state of nerves than he had been in to begin with and, while studying to no purpose himself, preventing a whole roomful of girls from sleeping as well.
Aroma and the other senior maids could at least occupy themselves by trimming his lamp, pouring him cups of tea and so forth; but the younger ones could neither go to bed nor find any employment to keep themselves awake, and sat about the place, drooping and nodding in various attitudes of fatigue. Skybright became indignant.
‘Lazy little wretches! You sleep all day as it is. Just for once in your lives you are asked to stay up late, and look at you! If you don’t liven yourselves up a bit, I shall come and stick pins in you all!’
As she said this, there was a loud bang from the outer room. It turned out to have been caused by a little maid who had dozed off while sitting on the kang and in doing so had bumped her head against the partition. Waking with a start just as Skybright was uttering this threat, she assumed that the bump on the head she had just received must have been dealt her by Skybright. To the great amusement of the other girls she began tearfully begging her for mercy.
‘Oh no! Please, Skybright! I promise I won’t do it again!’
‘Don’t punish her,’ Bao-yu called out. ‘You ought to allow those younger ones to go to bed. And you older ones too – you don’t all need to stay up. You should be taking it in turns to get some sleep.’
‘Little ancestor!’ said Aroma exasperatedly. ‘You get on with your work! Just for this one night try to concentrate all your energies on studying. Once you’ve got over this hurdle; you can make what other arrangements you like!’
She sounded so earnest that for the next few minutes Bao-yu did in fact concentrate on his revision. Musk handed him a cup of tea to moisten his lips with while he recited. In taking it from her he noticed that she had only a short tunic on over her pantaloons.
‘It gets very cold at this time of night,’ he said. ‘You really ought to put something else on.’
Musk smiled grimly and pointed at his book.
‘Just forget about me for a while, could you? Get your mind fastened on this!’
Hardly had she finished saying this than Parfumée – or Aventurin’ as Bao-yu now called her – came running in from outside in a panic.
‘Oh God! A man’s just jumped down from the wall!’
‘Where? Where?’ cried the others, and began shouting for the older servants to go and look.
To Skybright this scare came as a blessing in disguise. Observing what heavy weather Bao-yu was making of his revision and foreseeing that if he wore himself out by staying up all night he would be in no condition for facing his ordeal in the morning, she had been casting about desperately for some means of rescuing him from it altogether. This panic about an intruder gave her an idea.
‘Why don’t you take advantage of this to get off tomorrow?’ she asked him. ‘Tell them that the shock has made you ill.’
This was a suggestion after Bao-yu’s own heart. He had the watch called and ordered them to light their lanterns and make a thorough search. But no intruder could be found.
‘I expect one of you young ladies had to go out for something in the dark and being still half-asleep, took the bough of a tree moving in the wind for a man,’ they said.
‘Nonsense!’ said Skybright. ‘You only say that as an excuse, because you haven’t been keeping watch properly and you’re afraid of getting into trouble. It wasn’t only one of us who saw him; a whole lot of us did; and Bao-yu was with us. The shock of it has made him quite ill. His face looks terrible and he’s burning hot all over. I shall be going over to Her Ladyship’s presently to get him a sedative. She’s sure to ask me what has upset him. What am I supposed to tell her? That he took fright from looking at a tree?’
This seemed to scare the women, for they made no reply but hurried off again to continue their search. Meanwhile Skybright and Aventurin went off to ask for some pills, deliberately making as big a fuss as possible to make sure that everyone knew that Bao-yu had been taken ill as a result of seeing something alarming in the Garden. Lady Wang sent someone to fetch the medicine for the two girls and gave orders for the members of the watch to make a full investigation. She was particularly anxious that the pages from the inner gate who did night duty at the point nearest to the Garden should be subjected to careful questioning. As a result of these orders there was a general hubbub in the Garden throughout all the rest of that night: lanterns and torches bobbing about and people scurrying to and fro in all directions. At four o’clock in the morning the stewards and stewardesses were summoned from their quarters and ordered to investigate all those servants of either sex who had been on night duty in the mansion.
When Grandmother Jia learned that Bao-yu was suffering from shock, she wanted to know why. The others were obliged to tell her.
‘I didn’t expect a thing like this to happen,’ she said. ‘It would be bad enough if the people who are supposed to be keeping us safe at night were merely being careless. What worries me is the thought that some of them may be criminals themselves!’
Lady Xing and You-shi had not long since arrived for their morning duty, and Li Wan, Xi-feng and the girls were also there in attendance. None of them dared say anything. In the end it was Tan-chun who, smiling, stepped forwards and broke the silence.
‘It’s because Cousin Feng hasn’t been very well during these last few months,’ she said. ‘The servants in the Garden have got much more careless than they used to be. At first it was only once in a while: three or four doing night duty on the same shift getting together for a little game of dice or cards to keep themselves awake. But gradually they became more reckless, until now there are regular little card-schools with their own bankers and forty or fifty strings of cash changing hands at a sitting. A fortnight ago it even reached a point where a fight broke out over the cards.’
‘If you knew this at the time, why didn’t you tell anyone?’ said Grandmother Jia with some asperity.
‘I didn’t tell Mother because I knew she was busy and not feeling very well,’ said Tan-chun. ‘I did tell sister-in-law though, and the stewardesses and the women were given several warnings. As a matter of fact, I think they have been a bit more careful since then.’
‘You’re only a child,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘You don’t know how serious this is. You think that gambling is a trifling matter and that the only thing to be feared from it is an occasional quarrel. But where there is gambling, there is probably drinking as well; and if there is drinking, probably gates are being left unlocked so that people can slip out to buy things; and when that happens, before you know where you are they will be letting thieves in – the easiest thing in the world when it is dark and there are so few people about. And then – Heaven help us! – with only you girls living there and the maids and women who wait on you – some of them no better than they should be, I dare say – anything could happen. There are things worse than burglary, the mere suspicion of which could have the direst consequences for all of you. No, this is not a matter to be dismissed so airily!’
After such a snub, Tan-chun could only sit down again in silence.
Xi-feng was still far from well and her usual ebullience was very much in abeyance, but she managed to summon up some energy when she saw how seriously the old lady was displeased. She made a point of observing how unfortunate it was that such things ‘had to happen’ when she was ill, then, sending for Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife and three of the other principal stewardesses, she subjected them to a thorough dressing-down in Grandmother Jia’s and everyone else’s presence. When Xi-feng had finished with them, Grandmother Jia ordered them to find out who the chief organizers were and all the others who had been taking part in the gambling. She em?powered them to offer rewards for information and to punish those who withheld it.
Seeing Grandmother Jia so angry, the stewardesses dared not attempt to cover up for their own kinswomen and friends, of whom there were several among the older women of the watch. Going at once into the Garden, they summoned all the women together and proceeded to grill them, one by one, without distinction of persons. They met at first with a certain amount of resistance, but in the end, as will almost invariably happen when the questioning is sufficiently patient and persistent, the waters subsided and the rocks began to appear. By the time they had finished their interrogations it was established that there were three principal organizers, eight subsidiary ones, and a score or more gamblers who had availed themselves of their services. All of these were taken at once to Grandmother Jia’s place, and were soon to be observed kneeling down in rows in her courtyard, knocking their heads upon the pavement and begging for mercy.
Grandmother Jia began by asking for the names of the three principal organizers and the amounts of money in their ‘banks’. Of the three it turned out that one was a cousin on the mother’s side of Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife, one a younger sister of Cook Liu, and the other one Ying-chun’s nurse. The other eight organizers, who had operated on a smaller scale, were also named, but their identities need not concern us. Grandmother Jia ordered all the dice and playing-cards to be collected together and burnt. The money from the banks she ordered to be confiscated and divided up among the other servants. She sentenced the principal offenders to receive forty strokes of the heavy bamboo, to be dismissed, and never to be employed by the family again. The others were to receive twenty strokes, lose three months’ pay, and in future be employed in cleaning out the latrines. After passing these sentences, she formally reprimanded Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife for having permitted such things to happen.
Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife, let down by her own relation and twice rebuked in public, was not the only person present to feel humiliated. Ying-chun, sitting among the other cousins next to Grandmother Jia, felt equally humiliated when it was revealed that her own nurse was one of the principal offenders. Dai-yu, Bao-chai and Tan-chun felt sorry for her and rose to intercede for the old woman.
‘Couldn’t you, for Ying-chun’s sake, let her off this once?’ they pleaded. ‘She isn’t an habitual gambler. It’s just that once in a while she gets carried away.
‘You none of you know what you are talking about,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘These old nannies are all the same. They think that because they suckled you when you were babies it entitles them to special treatment now. They’re worse trouble than all the other servants put together, because whenever they have done wrong they think they can always get you to cover up for them. I know. I have had a lot of experience of these people. I need to make an example of one of them, and this one will do very well. You leave this to me. I know what I am doing.’
The three girls were obliged to let the matter drop.
Soon it was time for the old lady’s siesta and all of those present withdrew. But because they knew she was angry, they did not all go back to their own apartments. Some of them waited around so as to be on hand when she had finished resting. You-shi called in at Xi-feng’s place to chat, but finding Xi-feng too much out of sorts for conversation, went into the Garden to talk to Li Wan and the girls. Lady Xing, too, after sitting for a while at Lady Wang’s place, went off to take a walk in the Garden. She had got no farther than the Garden gate, however, when one of the junior maids from Grandmother Jia’s apartment, a girl called Simple, almost bumped into her. The girl was walking along chuckling delightedly to herself, intent on some brightly coloured object. Because she was so intent on what she was holding, she had not seen Lady Xing coming towards her and only looked up and checked herself when she was almost upon her.
‘Well now, Simple,’ said Lady Xing, ‘you seem very pleased with yourself. What marvellous thing have you got there? Let me have a look.’
Simple, just turned fourteen, had only recently been selected to help with the rough work in Grandmother Jia’s apartment. She had a hefty body, a broad face and an enormous pair of feet. A willing and effective worker in the heavier sort of jobs requiring no intelligence, she was nevertheless so stupid as to be almost half-witted and as ignorant and innocent almost as the day she was born. Much of what she said was uninten?tionally amusing. Grandmother Jia was endlessly diverted by her and always allowed her mistakes to go unreproved. It was she who had given her the name ‘Simple’. When Simple had no work to do, she would often go into the Garden to play. On this occasion she had gone into the Garden to look for crickets behind the rocks of the artificial mountain just inside the gate, and in doing so, had come upon a beautifully embroidered purse. The design embroidered on it consisted not of the usual birds and flowers, but on one side of a pair of naked human figures locked together in an embrace and on the other of some writing. Simple was too innocent to under?stand what the naked couple were up to. After giving the matter some thought, she had decided that they must be either two demons fighting or two people wrestling, but could not make up her mind which of these was the correct interpretation. She was on her way, chuckling delightedly over her find, to ask Grandmother Jia’s opinion on the matter when she nearly ran into Lady Xing.
‘I think you’ve said the right word, Your Ladyship,’ said Simple. ‘It is a marvellous thing. You just look!’
Lady Xing took the proffered bag. She examined the picture on it with a start.
‘Where did you find this?’ she asked, seizing Simple roughly by the arm.
‘I found it behind the rocks,’ said Simple, ‘when I was looking for crickets.’
‘Don’t tell anyone else about this,’ said Lady Xing. ‘This is a bad thing, Simple. If you weren’t such a simpleton, they would give you a beating just for touching it. Don’t ever say a word about it to anyone else!’
Simple turned pale with fright.
‘No, no, I won’t.’
She made Lady Xing a kotow and went off, round-eyed, with her mouth gaping foolishly open.
Lady Xing looked around her. There were only maids in sight, and she obviously could not give the embroidered purse to one of them, so she stuffed it up her sleeve. She was very puzzled to think where it could have come from; but no trace of what she felt was allowed to show itself on her face as she made her way through the Garden towards Ying-chun’s apartment.
Ying-chun was still brooding disconsolately over her nurse’s guilt when her mother’s arrival was announced. She hurried out to welcome her. As soon as Lady Xing was seated and had been given tea, she began laying into her.
‘You’re not a child now. If you knew your nurse was doing this sort of thing, for Heaven’s sake why couldn’t you have spoken to her about it? Other people’s nurses don’t seem to get into trouble, why does it have to be yours? I don’t understand you!’
Ying-chun hung her head and fiddled with her sash. It was some time before she answered.
‘I did speak to her about it, on two occasions, but she wouldn’t listen to me. What could I do? She’s my nurse. She’s supposed to tell me what to do, not the other way round.’
‘Rubbish!’ said Lady Xing. ‘She’s entitled to tell you off if you’ve done something wrong, but in a case like this where she was the guilty one, it was up to you to behave towards her like a mistress. Then, if she still wouldn’t obey you, you ought to have come and told me. As it is, you have let things slide until everyone knows about it and all the rest of us are involved in the disgrace. I just don’t know what you think you are at. Incidentally, if she was banker to a card-school, she must have had to get money from somewhere to start it with. I shouldn’t be a bit surprised to find that she’d talked you into lending her clothes or jewellery that she could pawn in order to raise her capital. You’re such a soft, flabby creature, you’d be just as likely as not to lend them to her. Well all I can say is, if she has and you don’t get them back from her, it’s no good coming to me for the money, for I’ve none to give you; so what you will do when festival time comes and you need your things I can’t imagine.’
Ying-chun continued to hang her head and say nothing. Lady Xing found her unresponsiveness provoking.
‘Your mother was one of Sir She’s chamber-wives,’ she said, ‘and your Cousin Tan’s mother was a chamber-wife as well, so you and she had the same sort of start in life. As a matter of fact your mother was ten times better than that Zhao woman, so you ought by rights to be better than your Cousin Tan. But you’re not. You’re not her equal in any single respect. I don’t know, I’d have been better off without any children at all. Those I have only make me look ridiculous.’
‘Mrs Lian is here,’ one of the servants announced.
‘Huh!’ said Lady Xing scornfully; and then again, ‘Huh!’
‘Tell her to go back home and take care of her illness,’ she said to the waiting servant. ‘Tell her I have no need of her services.’
As that servant went out, another one, who had been sent to Grandmother Jia’s place to act as a look-out, came in to report that the old lady was now awake. Lady Xing got up to go. Ying-chun saw her out as far as the courtyard gate.
‘There you are!’ said Tangerine when Ying-chun got back. ‘When I told you the other day that that pearl-and-gold phoenix had disappeared, you wouldn’t even ask about it. I told you that Nannie had probably nicked it to pawn, but you wouldn’t believe me. You said, “I expect Chess is looking after it.” Well, I asked Chess, because although she is in, she is still perfectly clear in her mind, and she said, “No, I haven’t touched it. It ought still to be in the casket on the bookshelf, ready for wearing at the Mid-Autumn festival.” Now why don’t you send someone to Nannie right away and ask her what she’s done with it?’
‘There’s no need to ask,’ said Ying-chun. ‘It’s perfectly obvious that she took it because she was temporarily out of cash and needed the money from it to tide her over. She quietly removed it when no one was looking, and I assumed that after a few days had gone by, when she was in funds again, she would redeem it and quietly slip it back again. I expect she forgot. In any case, there’s not much point in asking her after what has happened today.’
‘She never forgot!’ said Tangerine. ‘She knew from past experience that you’d never do anything, that’s why she didn’t put it back. I think I know what to do, though. I’ll go and tell Mrs Lian about it, and either she’ll ask Nannie about it herself, or better still, she’ll send someone with a few strings of cash round to the pawnshop and get it back for you straight away.’
‘You’ll do no such thing!’ said Ying-chun. ‘Much better leave well alone. I’d rather do without the thing than stir up a lot more trouble.’
‘Why are you so feeble?’ said Tangerine exasperatedly. ‘All this “saving trouble”! One of these days they’ll carry you off with the loot! I’m going, anyway.’
She began to do so. Ying-chun said nothing and made no attempt to prevent her. Unknown to them both, however, Zhu-er’s wife – the daughter-in-law of the old nurse they were talking about – had all this time been listening outside the door. She had come intending to ask Ying-chun to put in a plea for her mother-in-law, but held back when she heard Ying-chun and Tangerine discussing the pearl-and-gold phoenix.
Because Ying-chun was so weak and unassertive, Zhu-er’s wife would not normally have regarded the discovery by her of one of her mother-in-law’s depredations as a matter of very much consequence; but when she heard Tangerine insisting that Xi-feng should be informed, she could see that unless something were done to prevent this, the consequences could be very serious indeed. At this point, therefore, she hurried in to try and stop her.
‘Now, now, Miss Tangerine,’ she said, smiling rather unnaturally, ‘don’t go making trouble! Our old missus was a bit silly about that pearl-and-gold phoenix, I will admit. She’d lost a bit at the cards and couldn’t recoup, so she took it as a loan. Naturally she never expected that all this trouble would break out before she’d had a chance to put it back. But be that as it may, it’s the mistress’s property, and we’ve no intention of forgetting about it. Sooner or later we fully intend to redeem it for her. I’d hardly be here now if we didn’t, would I? I’ve come to ask the mistress, for the sake of the milk she sucked from her as a baby, to go to Her Old Ladyship and plead with her for our old missus.’
‘My dear good woman,’ said Ying-chun, ‘if that is what you are hoping for, then the sooner you disabuse yourself of that hope the better. I am not going to plead for your mother?in-law. You can wait from now until this time next year if you like, but I will still not do it. Miss Bao and Miss Lin and the others have tried already and Her Old Ladyship refused to listen to them. She’s even less likely to listen to me on my own. I have already put up with enough humiliation for one day; I have no intention of going to look for more.’
‘Whether or not you return that phoenix is one thing and whether or not the mistress goes to plead for your mother-in-law is another,’ said Tangerine. ‘Don’t try to confuse the issue. I hope you’re not suggesting that if the mistress doesn’t do what you ask for your mother-in-law, you won’t redeem the phoenix? I think you ought to redeem the phoenix first and start talking about that other matter after you have brought it back.’
Ying-chun’s refusal and Tangerine’s sharp rebuke put Zhu?-er’s wife out of countenance and left her momentarily at a loss for words, but she quickly found her tongue again and, as if openly contemptuous of Ying-chun’s easy-going nature, began taking noisy issue with Tangerine in her mistress’s presence.
‘Don’t be so high and mighty, Miss Tangerine! If you look around at the other apartments in this household, you’ll find that there isn’t a single one in which the nannies don’t take some advantage of their position to get a few perks. I don’t see why only in our case you should be so pernickety. If you are a bit light-fingered, of course, that’s another matter! Ever since Miss Xing came to live with us, Lady Xing has insisted on a tad a month being stopped out of her allowance to help pay for her mother. That means that though we now have two mistresses here in the place of one – with all the extra expenses that that entails – we are having to manage on less money a month instead of more. It’s hardly surprising that the mistresses are always running short. And when they do, who is it that steps in and pays? We do. One way and another, we must have paid out at least thirty taels by now, and from what I can see, it was money down the drain.’
‘Thirty taels?’ said Tangerine indignantly. ‘How do you make that out? Just tell me one or two of the things the mistress is supposed to have asked you for.’
Ying-chun had been made uneasy by the open reference to her mother’s meanness.
‘Now that’s enough!’ she told the woman. ‘If you can’t give the phoenix back, you can’t. There’s no need to go dragging all these other matters into it and shouting them around for everyone else to hear. I don’t want the thing, anyway. If mother asks me about it, I shall tell her I’ve lost it. At least you won’t have anything to worry about, so you might just as well go away and rest. What’s the point of making all this fuss?’
She told Tangerine to pour her some tea. Tangerine was both angry and alarmed.
It’s all very well for you to take that way out, miss, but what about us? Not content with depriving you of your gold phoenix, this woman is now pretending that you’ve been spending their money and proposing to write off the phoenix to offset what they’re supposed to have given you. If Lady Xing hears that and asks how you came to be spending so much, it’s we servants who will take the blame. It isn’t fair!’
She burst into tears. Chess, who, as she lay ill in bed, had been listening with growing impatience to what the others were saying, could now contain herself no longer. Getting out of bed, she dragged herself over to take Tangerine’s part in the argument. Ying-chun, finding that her single attempt at ending it had failed, picked up a volume of Tai-shang’s Heavenly Rewards and Punishments and began to read.
While Zhu-er’s wife and the two maids were still at it hammer and tongs, Bao-chai, Dai-yu, Bao-qin and Tan-chun arrived. Concerned that Ying-chun might still be feeling distressed about her nurse, they had met together by prearrangement and come over to try and cheer her up. Sounds of the wrangling going on inside were distinctly audible as they entered her courtyard. Tan-chun walked over and, peeping through the window, saw Ying-chun half-reclining on the day-bed reading a book, oblivious to the noisy argu?ment that was going on only a few feet away from her. She laughed. Just at that moment two junior maids raised the portiere for the visitors and announced their arrival.
At once Ying-chun put her book down and rose to welcome them. The sight of these newcomers – particularly as Tan-chun was one of them – caused the woman to stop of her own accord and she took the opportunity of slipping quietly outside.
‘Who was that talking in here just now?’ said Tan-chun as she took a seat. ‘It sounded as if someone was having an argument.’
‘Oh, nothing,’ said Ying-chun, pleasantly. ‘Probably only the servants making their usual fuss about nothing. Certainly not anything worth inquiring about.’
‘I’m sure I heard something about a “golden phoenix” just now,’ said Tan-chun. ‘I distinctly heard someone say, “When she’s short of money, she always asks us servants for some.” When who’s short of money? Not you, Ying, surely? You don’t ask the servants for money, do you?’
‘You’re absolutely right, miss, she most certainly does not,’ said Chess and Tangerine indignantly.
Tan-chun smiled.
‘Well, Ying, if it wasn’t you the woman I heard was talking about, perhaps it was me? You’d better call her inside again and let me ask her.’
‘Now you’re being ridiculous,’ said Ying-chun, laughing. ‘Why be like this? It has absolutely nothing to do with you.’
‘There you are wrong,’ said Tan-chun. ‘You and I are in the same boat. Our circumstances are very similar. What she says affects me as much as it does you. It would be just the same if you were to hear someone at my place complaining about me. You would feel almost as though you were being criticized yourself. As mistresses, you and I are above talking to servants about the petty cash. We may ask them for things sometimes, as and when we require them, but that is another matter. Tell me, though: how did a “pearl-and-gold phoenix” come to be mixed up in this discussion?’
Zhu-er’s wife, terrified lest Tangerine should seize this opportunity to denounce her, came rushing in at this point and tried to put Tan-chun off the scent with her own ex?tremely garbled account of what had happened. But Tan-chun showed that she had a better understanding of the case than the woman supposed.
‘I think you are being very stupid,’ she said smilingly. ‘What you ought to do, now that your mother-in-law has already got herself into trouble, is to go to Mrs Lian before the money confiscated has been divided up and ask if you can have some of it back to redeem this jewellery with. Ideally, of course, it would have been better if you could have redeemed it before all this trouble broke out and saved yourselves a bit of face. But now that you have no face left to save, you’d much better make a clean breast of it and get the money. After all, your mother-in-law has already been found guilty. However many crimes she’s committed, they can only cut her head off once. You take my advice. Go round to Mrs Lian’s place as soon as possible and make a clean breast of it. Standing around here shouting is not going to get you anywhere!’
The woman was forced to admit that Tan-chun’s reading of the situation was correct. But she was too scared to go to Xi-feng and confess.
‘If I hadn’t heard you talking about this, it would have been none of my business,’ said Tan-chun. ‘But now that I have heard, I think you had better let me take over and do the explaining for you.’
Unknown to the others, Tan-chun had tipped Scribe the wink a minute or two previously and Scribe had slipped outside to summon help. It was no surprise to Tan-chun, therefore, that Patience should have walked in just as she was saying this; but to the others her appearance at that moment was little short of miraculous. Bao-qin clapped her hands delightedly.
‘I always knew Cousin Tan was a witch. Now here comes her familiar spirit!’
‘It’s not witchcraft, it’s generalship,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Don’t you remember what it says in The Art of War?
A shy maiden in defence, but swift as a hare in the attack.
In good generalship surprise is of the essence.’
A look from Bao-chai caused the two girls to drop their bantering and talk of something else while Tan-chun addressed herself to the new arrival.
‘Is your mistress any better yet?’ she asked Patience. ‘She seems to have completely lost her grip on things since she had this illness. It’s very unfortunate for people like me who have to put up with the consequences.
‘Oh?’ said Patience in some surprise. ‘Has someone been giving you trouble, miss? If you will let me know what I can do, I am at your disposal.’
Zhu-er’s wife was now in a panic. She bounded up to Patience and was all over her before Tan-chun could get a word in.
‘Sit down while I tell you, Miss Patience. I can explain it all.’
Patience gave her a long, hard look.
‘Miss Tan and I are talking. What right have you to come butting in like this? If you had any manners at all, you wouldn’t even be in this room, you’d be waiting respectfully outside. Whoever heard of an outside servant going into one of the young mistresses’ apartments without being asked?’
‘Manners?’ said Tangerine. ‘You won’t find many around here. People barge in and out of this apartment as they please.’
‘It’s your fault then if they do,’ said Patience sharply. ‘If Miss Ying is too gentle to do so, you ought to throw them out yourselves and then go and report them to Her Ladyship.’
Zhu-er’s wife reddened at Patience’s rebuke and took herself outside.
‘Now I can answer your question,’ Tan-chun said to Patience. ‘This is not actually my affair. If it were, perhaps I shouldn’t have minded quite so much. What happened is that this woman’s mother-in-law, trading on the fact that she used to be Miss Ying’s wet-nurse when she was a baby and taking advantage of Miss Ying’s easy-going nature, took some of her jewellery without telling her in order to raise money for her gambling. As if that wasn’t enough, this woman had the gall to pretend that Miss Ying owed them money in order that she could blackmail her into interceding for her mother-in-law. I found her and these two maids shouting at each other in Miss Ying’s bedroom while Miss Ying sat by helpless. Now that you are here, I should like to ask you this question. Is this woman really so thick-witted that she doesn’t know any better, or has someone else put her up to this? I mean, is there some plan to undermine Miss Ying first and then, when she is safely out of the way, to get to work on me and on Miss Xi?’
‘Oh miss!’ said Patience, endeavouring to treat the question as a joke, ‘how could you? Mrs Lian is not as bad as that!’
‘I’m sure I don’t know,’ said Tan-chun coldly. ‘You know the saying: “Like grieves for like; for when the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold.” When I saw what was happening to Miss Ying, I couldn’t help feeling nervous.’
Patience turned to Ying-chun questioningly.
‘It would be easy enough to deal with this matter if it weren’t that this woman is the wife of your foster-brother. It’s really up to you, miss.’
Ying-chun had all this time been sitting shoulder to shoulder with Bao-chai, reading one of the stories in Rewards-and-Punishments. She had not even heard what Tan-chun had been saying and had only the haziest idea what was required of her when she suddenly found herself being addressed. She smiled back, however, and did her best to oblige.
‘Don’t ask me!’ she said. ‘There’s absolutely nothing that I can do about it. If they will go getting themselves into trouble, they must face the consequences. All I can say is that I can’t do anything to get their punishment reduced and I won’t do anything to increase it. As for that object they took from me without telling me, if they do bring it back I shall be happy to receive it; if they don’t bring it back I shall not ask them for it. If either of Their Ladyships should ask me about it, I shall keep the facts hidden from them if I can do so honourably, in which case these people may consider themselves lucky; but if I can’t, I shall just have to tell them the truth. It is quite out of the question that I should deliberately deceive Their Ladyships in order to cover up for them. You say I am too easy-going and indecisive: if you know of a better way of dealing with this matter that is both fool-proof and will not upset Their Ladyships, by all means go ahead with it; I shall certainly not interfere.’
The others were much amused by this answer.
‘Ying-chun makes me think of that monk who went on discussing theological matters while wolves and tigers prowled outside in his courtyard,’ said Dai-yu laughing. ‘How on earth would she have controlled a great household like ours if she had been a man?’
‘That’s begging the question,’ said Ying-chun, smiling. ‘There are plenty of men who live off the fat of the land but who, in a crisis, are no better at dealing with things than I. Anyway, Tai-shang says that of all works of merit helping people when they are in trouble is the greatest. I may not be able to help anyone, but at least I am not going out of my way to make things worse for them. What is the point of gratuitously making enemies or exerting oneself for ends from which no one will benefit?’
Before she had finished, another visitor was heard arriving in the courtyard. Who this was will be revealed in the following chapter.

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