The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 77

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CHAPTER 77


A wronged maid takes a loving
last leave of her master
And three young actresses seek to
escape matrimony in the cloister

To Lady Wang it appeared that, with the passing of the Mid?-Autumn festival, Xi-feng’s condition had improved considerably. True, she was still far from well, but she could get about in the house now and even venture out of doors. The physician, who, notwithstanding this improvement, had on Lady Wang’s instructions been requested to continue his daily visits, was now recommending a course of pills designed to regularize her periods and make some new blood to replace the quantities she had lost. Observing that the prescription for these pills included two ounces of the best quality ginseng, Lady Wang ordered her maids to get out her own supply. After much rummaging they found a few pieces not much thicker than a large hairpin in one of the little medicine-boxes. When they showed them to Lady Wang, she thought them of too inferior a quality and ordered the maids to look again; but further searching produced only a large packet of ‘whis?kers’ broken off from the rootlets.
‘When one doesn’t need this stuff, there is always plenty of it,’ said Lady Wang testily. ‘It is only when we want some that you can’t find any. I am always telling you: you must keep a proper check on things and you must keep them together, but you won’t do as I say: you will leave things lying around all over the place, and then afterwards you never know where to look for them.’
‘I think this is all the ginseng we’ve got,’ said Suncloud. ‘That time Lady Xing came for some, I think she must have taken it all.’
‘Nonsense!’ said Lady Wang. ‘Go and look again. And look properly this time!’
Suncloud had to go off and search some more. She came back bearing several packets of herbs.
‘I don’t know what is in these, Your Ladyship. If there isn’t any ginseng in any of these, then we really haven’t got any.’
Lady Wang opened the packets. She had no recollection of what they contained and could not identify the contents, but she could tell at a glance that none of them contained any ginseng. She sent someone to Xi-feng’s room to ask if Xi-feng had got any herself. Xi-feng came over to reply.
‘I’ve only got extract of ginseng,’ she said. ‘Actually I have got a few dried leaves and whiskers, but they are not of good quality and I use them every day in my infusions.’
Lady Wang was obliged to ask Lady Xing; but she, too, was unable to oblige.
Lady Wang was now reduced to going round in person to Grandmother Jia and begging some from her. Grandmother Jia at once asked Faithful to get out whatever remained of her own supply. Fortunately there was still a large packetful. The roots were of various sizes, but mostly about the thickness of a finger. Faithful weighed out two ounces and gave them to Lady Wang, who carried them back to her own apartment and there handed them over to Zhou Rui’s wife, together with the packets of unidentified herbs, instructing her to get one of the pages to carry them to the doctor. While he was about it, she said, he could determine what the herbs were and write their names on the packets.
When Zhou Rui’s wife reappeared some time later, she was carrying not only the packets of herbs but also the ginseng.
‘He’s written the names on the packets,’ she said. ‘But this ginseng – he says it’s very high quality ginseng, but it’s too old. He says ginseng isn’t like other medicines: no matter how good it is, after a hundred years or so it turns into dust. This ginseng here hasn’t turned into dust yet, but he says it’s already dried-up, like rotten wood. It’s got no goodness in it. He told me to bring it back. He said tell Her Ladyship to try and get hold of some a bit fresher than this. It doesn’t matter about the roots being a bit on the thin side as long as it’s fresh.’
Lady Wang bowed her head and thought for some moments in silence.
‘I suppose there’s nothing else for it. We shall just have to buy two ounces. – Take this stuff away!’ she said, feeling no inclination to examine the packets. One of the maids removed them while she continued with her instructions to Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘Tell our buyer to pick out ginseng of the very best quality. He is to get it as cheaply as he can, of course, but it must be high quality ginseng. Oh, and if Lady Jia should ask any of you about this, tell her that we used the ginseng she gave us. Don’t go prattling to her about what the doctor said.’
Zhou Rui’s wife was about to go off on her errand when Bao-chai, who happened to be sitting in the room, smilingly intervened.
‘Just a minute, Aunt. There is really no good ginseng to be had in the shops nowadays. If the dealers ever get hold of a whole root, they cut it into two or three sections which they carve into shape and graft crowns and rootlets onto so that they can make more money by passing off each section as a whole root. Our firm has quite a lot to do with the ginseng suppliers. If I had a word with Mamma about this, I am sure Pan could arrange for one of our people to get two ounces of whole, uncut root from the suppliers. It might cost rather a lot, but at least you could be sure that you were getting ginseng of the very highest quality.’
‘You are so knowledgeable!’ said Lady Wang gratefully. ‘Would you do that then? I am sure it would be better for the request to come from you.’
Bao-chai left immediately and was gone for a long time.
‘He’s sent someone to see about it,’ she said when she got back. ‘We shall have a reply by this evening. That means that we ought to be able to get the stuff first thing tomorrow. That isn’t too long to wait, is it?’
Lady Wang was delighted, though her comment was a somewhat rueful one.
‘We have always kept a supply of ginseng in the past, and we have given I don’t know how much away to other people; but now that we want some ourselves, we have to run around looking for it elsewhere.’
She sighed.
‘Although ginseng is so costly, it is only a medicine,’ said Bao-chai consolingly. ‘As such it ought to be given away to others, so that its benefit may be spread as widely as possible. People in our position cannot behave like ill-bred parvenus who hoard their ginseng like an heirloom and can only under the most exceptional circumstances be induced to part with any.’
Lady Wang nodded.
‘Yes, I suppose you are right.’
A little later, after Bao-chai had gone and there was no one else with her in the room, Lady Wang called Zhou Rui’s wife over to ask about another matter.
‘When you made that search in the Garden the other day, did you find what you were looking for?’
Zhou Rui’s wife had already consulted Xi-feng about what Lady Wang should be told and Xi-feng had insisted that there should be no concealment; she therefore told her everything. Lady Wang was deeply shocked. When she had somewhat recovered from her surprise and begun thinking what to do, it occurred to her that, as Chess was Ying-chun’s maid and therefore really a member of Lady Xing’s establishment, it would first be necessary to acquaint Lady Xing with the facts before proceeding any further. Zhou Rui’s wife had her own ideas on the subject.
‘Lady Xing was so angry with Wang Shan-bao’s wife for meddling that she boxed her ears and Wang Shan-bao’s wife has kept at home ever since, pretending to be ill. She certainly won’t have spoken to Lady Xing about this matter because Chess is her own daughter’s child and it would be like slapping her own face if she did so. I expect she’s pretending to have forgotten all about it and is just waiting for the whole affair to blow over. If I report it, Lady Xing will like as not take umbrage and say that I am interfering. It would be best simply to take Chess and the things we found along to her and let her work it all out for herself. Probably she’ll give Chess a beating and have her married to one of the boys and pick another maid for Miss Ying and that will be the end of the matter. But if I just go along and tell her, without taking Chess or the things, she’ll probably think up some excuse for doing nothing. “If your mistress has found this out,” she’ll say, “why doesn’t she deal with it herself? Why do you come here asking me about it?” That way it will get put off. Then suppose when no one is looking the girl finds some means of doing away with herself? We shall have a fine to-do on our hands! She’s already been under guard now for two or three days. If we don’t do something about her soon, we shall be simply asking for trouble.’
Lady Wang reflected for some moments.
‘Yes, you are right,’ she said at last. ‘Do as you have suggested straight away then, and after that we will deal with our own young harpies.’
Now that she had her commission, Zhou Rui’s wife got together several of the other women and took them with her to Ying-chun’s apartment. Ying-chun listened with tears in her eyes while Zhou Rui’s wife explained what she had come about, and it was evident that the idea of parting with Chess distressed her; on the other hand, as she had now heard something about the raid from the other maids and knew that this matter was connected in some way with morality, she felt that however painful the parting might be, there was probably nothing she could do to prevent it. Chess was unaware of this. She had pleaded with Ying-chun the morning after the discovery and was convinced that Ying-chun could save her if she had a mind to. It could only be her habitual reluctance to speak out, her usual weak irresolution, that now kept her silent. When it became clear that her mistress was determined to say nothing and that there was to be no escape for her, Chess fell down on her knees and reproached her tearfully.
‘You have a cruel heart, miss! All through these last few days you have allowed me to go on hoping, but now, when the time comes, you won’t say a single word to help me!’
‘You surely don’t expect Miss Ying to keep you?’ said Zhou Rui’s wife indignantly. ‘Even if she did, what would all the other people in the Garden say? And how would you be able to look them in the face after what you have done? Take my advice: the best thing you can do is to pack your things up and get out of here as quickly as possible, before anyone else has had a chance of finding out what you have been up to.’
‘I know that you have done something serious,’ said Ying-?chun tearfully. ‘If I speak up for you or try to keep you, it will be all up with me too. Apart from that, look how quickly they got rid of Picture, in spite of all the years she had served Miss Xi: just “Out!” and out she went. I don’t think it will stop at you and Picture. I think they must be planning to get rid of all the older girls in the Garden. We are all going to be separated sooner or later. If you ask me, I think you and I might just as well part now as any other time.’
‘There, you see?’ said Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘Miss Ying understands. There’ll be plenty of others dismissed after you have gone, don’t you worry!’
Since there was to be no respite, Chess, struggling to hold back her tears, made a last kotow to her mistress and said good-bye to the other maids. As she was leaving, she leaned forwards and whispered in Ying-chun’s ear:
‘Try and find out what’s happening to me, miss. Put in a good word for me if you hear I’m suffering.’
‘Of course I will,’ said Ying-chun. There were tears in her own eyes as she said it.
Those were the last words spoken before Zhou Rui’s wife and the other women took Chess away. Two old women accompanied them carrying her things. They had gone no more than a few steps out of the courtyard gate when little Tangerine came running after them and handed Chess a silk purse, while with the other hand she wiped her streaming eyes.
‘This is from the mistress. She says it’s hard to lose you after all the years you and she have been together and she wants you to have this to remember her by.’
As she received the purse, Chess was unable to restrain a further outburst of tears, and for some moments she and Tangerine clung together weeping, until Zhou Rui’s wife, growing impatient, began hustling Chess on her way, forcing the two girls apart.
Chess spoke to the women imploringly:
‘For charity’s sake, couldn’t you turn a blind eye just for a few minutes while I say good-bye to the maids in the other apartments? Some of the older ones I have known so long, they have become almost like sisters to me.’
Zhou Rui’s wife and the other women all had work of their own to do which they had left unwillingly and were anxious to get back to; moreover all of them deeply resented the overbearing manner which Chess and the other senior maids had adopted towards them in the past; there was therefore little chance of their being moved by her plea.
‘If I were you I should stop all this shilly-shallying and be on your way,’ said Zhou Rui’s wife coldly. ‘We’ve got more important things to do than sit around waiting while you say your good-byes. In any case, they’re not your real sisters, so what’s the point of seeing them? It’s only playing for time. You’ve got to leave in the end, however long you delay. You might just as well get it over with now, as quickly as possible.’
She hurried on towards the rear corner gate of the Garden. The hapless Chess, not daring to say another word, had to follow her out of it.
By coincidence, just as they were coming out of the Garden, they ran into Bao-yu who was returning to it from outside. Seeing Chess in the company of this grim escort and with the two older women behind her carrying a lot of things, he realized that she must be leaving the Garden for good. He had heard something now about the raid and had noticed that Skybright’s sickness had grown more serious since her interview with his mother (though he could not induce her to say why). The realization that he was witnessing Chess’s dismissal came as all the greater shock in the light of these other happenings. He stepped forwards impetuously and barred their way.
‘Where are you going?’
Zhou Rui’s wife knew Bao-yu from of old and greatly feared that they were now to be held up indefinitely with a lot of pointless chatter.
‘It’s nothing to do with you,’ she said, smiling grimly. ‘You get back to your books!’
‘Just stop a moment, there’s a good woman,’ said Bao-yu appealingly, just long enough to hear what I’ve got to say.’
‘Her Ladyship told us we were under no circumstances to delay,’ said Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘There’s nothing to be said. We’ve got our orders from Her Ladyship, that’s all we’re concerned about.’
Chess clung to Bao-yu and wept.
‘There’s nothing they can do. If you want to save me, you’ll have to speak to Her Ladyship.’
Bao-yu was deeply upset. His eyes filled with tears.
‘I don’t know what terrible thing you are supposed to have done,’ he said, ‘but I know that something has upset Skybright and made her ill, and now you are going. What on earth is happening?’
Zhou Rui’s wife turned on Chess angrily.
‘You’re not a lady’s maid now, you know. Now if you don’t do what I tell you, I have the right to beat you, just like any other servant. You can’t play fast and loose with us now and then run to your mistress to save you from the consequences. I’ve told you a number of times to be on your way, but you take no notice. A maid holding on to a young master – whoever heard of such a thing!’
At this the other women laid violent hands on Chess and hurried her away. Bao-yu, fearing that if he said anything it would only make matters worse, glared at them in silence; but he could not resist pointing his linger at them when they had gone and – sotto voce – giving bitter vent to his feelings:
‘Strange, the way they get like this when they marry! It must be something in the male that infects them. If anything they end up even worse than the men!’
The old women on duty at the gate overheard this and could not help laughing at him.
‘In that case all girls must be good and all women must be bad,’ they said. ‘You don’t really believe that, do you?’
‘Indeed I do,’ said Bao-yu feelingly. ‘That’s precisely what I do believe.’
Just at that moment some other old women came hurrying up to them.
‘Make sure you’re all here in case Her Ladyship wants you,’ said one of them. ‘She’s in the Garden now, making an inspection. And someone go and get Skybright’s cousin and his wife, so that they’ll be ready to take her away presently.’ She chuckled. ‘Holy Name! The Lord has opened his eyes at last! With that little pest out of the way, it will be a better place for all of us!’
At the old woman’s mention of his mother’s presence, Bao?-yu, fearing that it might bode ill for Skybright, had rushed off immediately, so that he had missed the gloating remark which followed it. When he arrived at Green Delights, he found a small crowd of women waiting outside the door. His mother was sitting inside the room with anger written all over her face. She deliberately ignored him as he entered. Skybright, who had taken no nourishment of any kind for the past four or five days and was in too weak a state to get up, had been dragged from the kang and now stood facing her, propped up between two women. Her hair was in disarray and her face looked as if it needed washing.
‘Throw out the clothes she has been wearing,’ Lady Wang was saying. ‘She can take them with her. The rest can be kept here and given to more deserving maids to wear.’
Having finished with Skybright, she ordered all the other maids to be called in, from Aroma down to the most junior maid-of-all-work, to be subjected to her scrutiny. Each and every one of them was in Lady Wang’s opinion a potential corrupter of her boy.
‘Which is the one whose birthday is on the same day as Bao-yu’s?’ she asked.
Since the girl herself would not answer, one of the old women pointed her out.
‘This is the one, Your Ladyship: Citronella. She’s called “Number Four”. She’s the one whose birthday is on the same day as Bao-yu’s.’
Lady Wang examined the girl closely. Although not half as good-looking as Skybright, she had a certain gracefulness about her, and intelligence shone out in her every feature. She was moreover better dressed than the other maids. Lady Wang sniffed scornfully.
‘Another shameless young baggage! This is the one who said that those with the same birthday are destined to be husband and wife. You did say that, didn’t you? You think that because I live away from here I don’t know these things; but though I may not come here often myself, I have my eyes and ears here, watching you and listening to you all the time. Do you imagine that I would willingly allow my only son to be corrupted by creatures like you?’
Number Four reddened, hearing from Lady Wang’s own lips the words she once said to Bao-yu in private. It was useless to deny that she had said them. She hung her head and wept.
‘Tell her people to come and take her away,’ said Lady Wang. ‘She can be paired off with one of the boys.’
Exit Number Four.
Now which is the one with the foreign name?’ said Lady Wang.
Parfumée-Aventurin stepped forward.
Oh, it is you. One expects an actress to be a vampire, but one had hoped, after you turned down the opportunity to go free and insisted on staying here, that you would make some effort to behave. Instead, it seems, you have turned your attentions on my son and been encouraging him to get up to I don’t know what sorts of mischief.’
Parfumée smiled.
‘I haven’t encouraged him to get up to anything.’
Lady Wang smiled back at her.
‘You would argue with me, would you? I suppose it is hardly surprising, considering the way you treated your own foster-mother while I was away. – Call her foster-mother!’ she ordered. ‘I make her a present of this girl. She can marry her to whomever she likes. And you can give her her things to take as well.’
Having thus disposed of Parfumée, she went on to give orders that none of the remaining ex-actresses were to stay any longer in the Garden. Their foster-mothers were to be summoned to collect them and allowed to dispose of them as they wished. The delight and gratitude of these women when they received the message can be imagined. They arranged among themselves to visit Lady Wang in a body and kowtow their thanks to her before going into the Garden to collect the girls.
Lady Wang now proceeded to inspect Bao-yu’s things. Anything which looked at all unfamiliar she had put on one side. The whole lot were then wrapped up in one big bundle and carried to her own apartment.
‘Much better make a clean sweep of these things,’ she said. ‘There will be that much less for people to gossip about.’
In conclusion she admonished Aroma and the remaining maids.
‘Now be careful! From now on if I hear of anything the slightest bit untoward happening, I shall have no mercy! I can’t move you out yet, because there are still investigations in progress, but next year I shall have the whole lot of you moved back into the mansion, and then perhaps I shall be able to set my mind at rest.’
She went off at the head of her little troop of women, not even staying for a cup of tea.
When Bao-yu heard from the old woman of his mother’s visit, he had expected something unpleasant but of no great consequence: perhaps another inspection of the maids’ possessions. He was therefore quite unprepared for the raging tempest that had just passed over him. The things his mother had charged the maids with showed so uncanny a knowledge of even his most intimate conversations with them that there seemed little point in denial. He felt wretched enough to die, but it was clear that even self-immolation could achieve nothing while his mother’s anger was at its height. He therefore followed after her in silence, until he had seen her as far as Drenched Blossoms Pavilion half-way across the bridge, when she peremptorily ordered him to return.
‘Go back – and get on with your studies! Then next time your father asks you about them, you will at least be able to say that you have made a start.’
Bao-yu turned back. All the way back to Green Delights he was thinking to himself:
‘Who’s been blabbing? No one outside knows about these things. How did Mother get to hear about them?’
The question was continuing to trouble him when he entered his room. He noticed that Aroma was in tears.
‘Well, she would be if any of the senior maids was leaving,’ he thought. ‘It’s only natural.’
He flung himself down on the bed and broke into loud sobs. Aroma tried to talk him out of his despair. She knew that, whatever might become of anyone else, it was Skybright that he was chiefly concerned about.
‘Oh, do get up!’ she said. ‘What’s the use of crying? I tell you, Skybright will be better off where she is going. Back at home she will at least be able to have a few days to herself in peace and quiet. And if you really can’t bear to be without her, you have only to wait until Her Ladyship’s anger has cooled down a bit and then go and ask Her Old Ladyship to have her brought back again. It shouldn’t be difficult. Her Ladyship was acting in anger. Probably she had heard someone gossiping about her.’
‘But what heinous crime is Skybright supposed to have committed?’ said Bao-yu.
‘Maybe she isn’t,’ said Aroma. ‘Maybe Her Ladyship just thinks she is too good-looking. She probably thinks that anyone who is so good-looking must be unreliable. She knows these very beautiful young women are often trouble-makers. Probably she dislikes Skybright just for being beautiful. It’s better to be a plain, gawky person like me!’
‘Who said that beautiful women are trouble-makers?’ said Bao-yu. ‘There have always been lots and lots of beautiful women who were nothing of the kind. But never mind all that. What I can’t understand is, how did Mother get to hear about all those private jokes of ours? No one outside could have told her. It’s very, very strange.’
‘Look how careless you are,’ said Aroma. ‘Once you get a bit excited you are capable of saying anything, regardless of who else is around. Many and many’s the time I have given you a look or made some sign to warn you, but you never notice.’
‘Maybe,’ said Bao-yu, ‘but tell me this. How is it that she’d heard something damaging about every single person in this apartment except you and Musk and Ripple?’
Somewhat taken aback by this question, Aroma hung her head and pondered it for some moments, but she was unable to think of an explanation. She laughed embarrassedly.
‘I agree, it is rather strange. We three must often have made careless remarks that could have been used against us. I wonder why Her Ladyship didn’t mention any? Perhaps she’ll come back and deal with us three later.’
‘You?’ said Bao-yu, laughing incredulously. ‘The famous paragon of all the virtues? There’s little danger of her finding fault with you. Or with those other two, whom you trained and moulded in your own image. Parfumée I can understand: she is young and precocious and inclined to use her intelligence for putting other people down, so it’s hardly surprising that she should be disliked. Number Four’s unpopularity I blame myself for. It dates from that time when you and I had quarrelled about something and I allowed her to wait on me in your place. The others must have resented my giving her special treatment, and that, ultimately, must be the reason for what has happened to her today. But why Skybright? You and she started together with my grandmother when you were little girls. It’s true she is a bit better-looking than the rest of you, but she has never taken advantage of that fact: no one has ever been made to feel threatened by it. Even her forthrightness – and she could be quite sharp-tongued on occasion – has never, as far as I am aware, given serious offence. I suppose it must be as you say: her good looks have been her undoing.’
He concluded by once more bursting into tears.
Mulling over what he had just said, Aroma concluded that it could only mean that he suspected her. There seemed little point in protesting. She sighed.
‘There’s One above who knows the truth of the matter; but I don’t suppose we shall find out who it was for a while yet. At all events, crying isn’t going to help. Much better keep your spirits up and next time Her Old Ladyship is feeling cheerful, explain what has happened and ask to have Skybright back again.’
‘You only say that to humour me,’ said Bao-yu bitterly. ‘According to you I am to wait until Mother’s anger has subsided and after that wait until a favourable opportunity arises for talking to Grandmother; but what makes you think that Skybright’s illness will wait that long? Ever since she came into our family as a child she has lived comfortably. She has never had to experience a single day of real hardship. Sending her to that place now is like taking a potted orchid that has just started putting out its first tender spears of growth and setting it down in a pigsty. Apart from being physically ill, she must be in a terrible state mentally as well. And she has no kind parents to look after her, don’t forget: only that worthless cousin and his wife. I doubt she’ll last there a fortnight. I may not even be able to see her again.’
‘Curfew for the common people, but the Prefect can light a fire,’ said Aroma drily. ‘What a fuss you’d have made if I’d said anything so unlucky! How can you bear to talk so glibly about her dying?’
‘It isn’t unlucky to talk about what has already been foretold,’ said Bao-yu. ‘There was a portent of her coming death last spring.’
‘Oh?’ said Aroma in some surprise. ‘What was that?’
‘The crab-apple tree in the courtyard here: only one half of it budded this year; the other side seems to have died. I knew at the time that something awful must be going to happen; now I can see that it must have been a portent of her death.’
Aroma laughed out loud.
‘Forgive me, but I just can’t help myself. You really are an old woman! And you supposed to be so educated! How can what happens to trees and plants have anything to do with human beings?’
Bao-yu sighed.
‘What do you know about it? Not only plants and trees, but all things that live and grow have feelings. And like us, they are most responsive to those who most appreciate them. There are plenty of examples from history: the juniper tree in front of the temple of Confucius, the milfoil that grows beside his tomb, the cypress in front of Zhu-ge Liang’s shrine, the pine-tree that grows in front of Yue Fei’s grave: all those paragons of the vegetable world, mightily endowed with vital essence and able to withstand the ravages of the centuries, have withered and dried up in times of disorder, only to flourish once more when times were prosperous. In the course of a thousand or more years all of them have died and come to life again several times over. If those are not portents, what are they? On a somewhat less exalted level there are the peonies beside Yang Gui-fei’s Aloeswood Pavilion, the rhododendrons of the Duan-cheng-lou and the evergreen grass on Lady Bright’s grave. Surely you can’t deny that all these are instances of sympathy between plants and humans? I see no reason to doubt that our crab-apple tree too was reacting to a human situation.’
By the time his idiotic discourse had ended, Aroma did not know whether to laugh or groan.
‘You really make me angry,’ she said, ‘comparing Skybright with all those famous people! What sort of creature do you think she is anyway? And even if she is so wonderful, you seem to forget that I have precedence over her among your maids. If the crab-apple is connected with any of us, it ought to be me. It must mean that I am going to die.’
Bao-yu clapped his hand over her mouth.
‘Now, now, that’s enough of that! I’m already worried enough about her as it is, I don’t want to have to worry about you as well. Let’s say no more about it. Three people is quite enough to lose in one day!’
Aroma was secretly glad to hear him say this.
‘If I hadn’t said that to stop him,’ she thought, ‘heaven knows where this nonsense would have ended!’
‘There’s something else I want to discuss with you,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I’m not quite sure whether you’ll agree to this or not. Couldn’t we somehow, without letting any of the family know about it, contrive to let her have her things? Perhaps we could also send her a few strings of whatever money we have managed to save, so that she has got something to buy medicines with. Could you, for the sake of all your years together, do this for her?’
Aroma laughed.
‘Do you really think I need asking? What a mean, inhuman sort of person you must think I am! I’ve got her clothes and all her other things piled up over there, ready to send her. I can’t send them now, in broad daylight. With so many prying eyes about it would be simply asking for trouble. But as soon as it’s evening I shall get Mrs Liu to take them to her. I’ve got several strings of cash that she can take to her as well.’
Bao-yu nodded.
‘I am a paragon of all the virtues, don’t forget,’ said Aroma teasingly. ‘It’s worth spending a bit of money to keep up my reputation!’
Bao-yu smiled and said a few words to comfort her. He was afraid that she might have taken what he said earlier to heart.
That evening, when things had quietened down a bit, he slipped out on his own to the rear corner gate of the Garden and begged one of the old women there to take him to Skybright’s house. At first she refused absolutely to help. She was too scared, she said. What would become of her rice-bowl if Lady Wang got to hear of it? In the end, after he had pleaded with her very insistently and also promised her some money, she agreed to take him.
*
Skybright was in the first instance purchased, when she was barely ten years old, by the Chief Steward Lai Da as a little slave-girl for his wife, who often took Skybright with her when she went to work in Rong-guo House. It was in this way that she first came to the attention of Grandmother Jia. Grandmother Jia took a great fancy to the beautiful, intelligent little girl, and when Lai Da’s wife noticed this, she gave Skybright to the old lady as a present. It was because the old lady thought so highly of Skybright that she later on gave her as a maidservant to her beloved grandson.
Skybright had no recollection of her parents or of the place where she was born. The only relation she knew of was a cousin somewhat older than herself, said to be her father’s sister’s son, who was in bondservice elsewhere. After her instalment at the mansion she begged Lai Da’s wife to have this cousin purchased too and find him some employment with the Jias. The stewardess was touched by the gratitude and respect that Skybright continued to show her after her advancement. At her insistence Lai Da purchased the cousin, gave him a small job as a buyer, and even provided him with a wife.
Unfortunately Skybright’s cousin was a timorous, poor-spirited creature, whereas the wife Lai Da had chosen for him was a lively and rather attractive young woman. Finding her husband unable to provide her with what she wanted, she soon took to going out every day, dressed up to the nines, to exercise her charms on the other servants. She was aided in this by a highly expressive pair of eyes which seldom failed to convey their message. The men were drawn towards her irresistibly, like flies towards carrion, so that there was seldom any lack of volunteers to fill the gap left by her neglectful husband.
The couple lived in an apartment not far from the rear side gate of the Garden, and it was to this place that Skybright was taken after her dismissal. The cousin’s young wife had little stomach for nursing a sick relation, and as soon as she had eaten, was off on her customary rounds, leaving Skybright alone and untended in the outer room.
When Bao-yu arrived at the house, he told the old woman who had brought him to wait at the gate and keep a look-out while he went inside. Raising the cotton door-curtain he looked into the room. He could see Skybright at once, lying on an old rush mat on the kang (fortunately she still had her own bedding) but no one else appeared to be at home, and he wondered for a moment what he should do; then, going over to the kang, he plucked timidly at the quilt in which she was wrapped and gently called her name. His eyes were full of tears.
Skybright, who had been ill to start with, had been made even more so by the detestable things said to her by her cousin and his wife since her arrival. After coughing through most of the day, she had recently dozed off into a fitful sleep, and it was not until Bao-yu had called her name for the second time that she opened her eyes. What surprise, delight, sorrow, anguish all mixed in one when she saw who it was! She gripped his hand tightly in hers, but for a long time she could only sob. At last she managed to speak.
‘I didn’t think I should ever see you again.’
After that she coughed and coughed. Bao-yu was sobbing now himself.
‘Holy Name, it’s a good job you’ve come!’ she said. ‘Could you get me half a cup of tea? I’m so thirsty, but though I’ve called and called, no one ever comes.’
Bao-yu hurriedly wiped his eyes.
‘Where’s the tea?’
‘It’s over there on the stove,’ said Skybright.
Bao-yu looked at the brick-and-mud-built stove against the wall. There was only a sort of blackened earthenware skillet on it that bore no resemblance to a tea-pot. He found a teacup on the table whose greasy, rancid odour reached his nostrils even before he picked it up. Having located some water, he washed it twice, rinsed it twice, dried it with his handkerchief, sniffed it (it still smelt) and half filled it with a dusky, reddish liquid from the skillet. Was it tea? He tasted it dubiously. It had a bitter, acrid taste with only a slight suggestion of tea about it.
‘That’s tea,’ said Skybright, who had raised herself on the pillow. ‘Please let me have it. You can’t expect it to be as good as ours.’
Bao-yu handed it to her and she gulped it down greedily as if it were the most delicious nectar. He watched her with tears running down his cheeks, suddenly ashamed of his own fastidiousness.
‘If there’s anything you want to tell me,’ he said, ‘you’d better tell me now, while there’s nobody else about.’
‘What have I got to tell?’ said Skybright. ‘I’m living now from day to day and from hour to hour. I know I’m done for: it can’t be more than four or five days now at the most. If it weren’t for one thing, I could die content. I know I’m a bit better-looking than the others, but I’ve never tried to make up to you. Why will they insist that I am some sort of vam?pire? It’s so unfair. And now I have so little time left. I ought not to say this, but if I’d known in advance that it would be like this, I might have behaved rather differently.’
She began to cry again.
Bao-yu took her hands in his own. They felt like bundles of dried twigs, so wasted had she become. She was still wearing a pair of silver bangles on either wrist.
‘Better take these off,’ he said (he was crying himself as he spoke). ‘You can put them on again when you are better.’
He took them off for her and put them under the pillow.
‘It’s a pity about these nails,’ he said. ‘It took you such a long time to grow them. By the time you are better, I expect you’ll find that quite a lot of them will have broken off.’
She wiped her eyes, curled the third and fourth fingers of her left hand back against the side of her mouth and with a supreme effort half bit half tore off the two two-inch lengths of scallion-like nail that projected from them.
‘Here!’ She put the pieces into his hand. ‘To remind you of me.’
Then she reached down inside the bedding and managed, after a great deal of struggling, to take off the old red chemise she was wearing and hold it out to him. Because of her weakness, the effort of doing this made her pant so much that she could not speak; but Bao-yu understood what she wanted. He removed his outer garment, took off the shirt he was wearing underneath it and laid it over her, and put on the chemise she was holding out to him. He did not bother to do the buttons up, since it would be hidden anyway beneath his outer garment. While he was fastening his belt on again, he noticed that she was staring at him, trying to say some?thing.
‘Help me up!’
Even with Bao-yu’s assistance it cost her a good deal of effort to sit fully upright. Once she was sitting up, she stretched one of her arms out and tried drawing the shirt on herself. Bao-yu draped it over her shoulders and eased each of her arms in turn into the sleeves, then gently laid her down again.
‘If anyone sees that when you get back and asks you whose it is,’ said Skybright, weeping, ‘there’s no need to tell them any lies. Tell them it’s mine. Since I’ve got such a bad reputation anyway, I might as well have something to show for it when I’m gone!’
At that moment the door-curtain was lifted and the cousin’s wife came into the room, all dazzling smiles.
‘Very nice! I’ve heard all that you two have been saying.’ She directed a bold look at Bao-yu. ‘And what are you doing, a young master like you, coming to see us servants in our quarters? Bet you heard I was young and good-looking and came here to flirt with me!’
‘Please, I beg of you, don’t speak so loud!’ said Bao-yu entreatingly. ‘I shouldn’t really be here, but your cousin was with me for many years: I came here to see her because she is ill.’
The young woman smiled and nodded approvingly.
‘That’s right. They say you have a good heart.’
She took him by the hand and pulled him after her into the inner room.
‘If you don’t want me to make a noise, you can easily stop me. You have only to do one little thing.’
She got her backside up onto the kang and drawing him down on top of her, put up her legs and gripped him tightly between them. This was something totally outside Bao-yu’s experience. His heart started pounding wildly, his face turned scarlet, and his whole body began to tremble. It would have been hard to say what feeling was at that moment uppermost in his mind: embarrassment, shame, fear or annoyance. All he could manage to say was:
‘Don’t fool about, please!’
The young woman leered up at him through half-closed eyes.
‘Get away with you! From what I’ve been told, you’ve had plenty of practice with other girls. What makes you so bashful today all of a sudden?’
Bao-yu became even redder.
‘Please let me go. If you’ve got anything to talk about, let’s discuss it like reasonable human beings. There’s an old woman outside there listening. What do you think you are doing?’
‘There’s no old woman out there,’ she said. ‘I saw her when I got back and told her to wait for you at the Garden gate. Come on! I’ve waited a long time to get my hands on you. If you won’t do what I ask, I’ll call out. You’re a bold one, aren’t you, coming here! What will Her Ladyship say if she finds out? I was listening to you two outside the window for quite a while. From what I could make out, you and she have nothing between you. Well, more fool she, if that’s the case! You needn’t expect me to be so daft!’
She began to get to work on his clothing, while Bao-yu made frantic efforts to pull himself away. They were still struggling when a voice was heard outside the window asking for Skybright. The young woman gave a start and let go of Bao-yu. Bao-yu was so shaken and confused that he had not heard the voice, and Skybright, listening to what was going on in the next room, was so overcome with shame and anger that she had fainted clean away. This left only the cousin’s wife to answer the caller – or rather callers, for when she went outside to look, it turned out to be Cook Liu and Fivey with a bundle containing Skybright’s things. Cook Liu was also holding several strings of cash.
‘We’ve brought these from Miss Aroma for your young lady,’ she said. ‘Which room is she in?’
The young woman laughed.
‘This room here. Where else would we keep her?’
As Cook Liu and Fivey went into the outer room, a lurking figure dodged into the inner room at the back. Cook Liu knew something of the young wife’s reputation and assumed that it must be one of her lovers. Since Skybright appeared to be asleep, she put the things down beside her and hurried out again. But Fivey had sharper eyes than her mother and had recognized the lurking figure as Bao-yu.
‘Didn’t Miss Aroma say when we were leaving that she’d been looking for Master Bao?’ she asked her mother.
‘Goodness, I nearly forgot!’ said Cook Liu. ‘Mrs Song told me just now that she thought she’d seen him go out of the side gate. And there was someone waiting for him outside the gate too, wasn’t there? They’ll be wanting to close presently.’
She turned back and asked the young woman if she had seen him.
‘No,’ said the cousin’s wife, beginning to feel nervous. ‘What would Master Bao be doing at our house?’
Hearing her say this, Cook Liu began to go again; but Bao-yu, partly because he was afraid of being shut out of the Garden and partly because he feared that the cousin’s wife might return to the attack if he remained after the visitors had gone, threw discretion to the winds and, lifting up the door-curtain, came rushing out after them.
‘Mrs Liu! Wait for me! We’ll go back together!’
Cook Liu was mightily astonished.
‘My dear young master! Whatever has brought you to this place?’
Bao-yu sped on ahead without replying.
‘Call him back, Ma!’ said Fivey. ‘Tell him not to be in so much of a hurry. He’ll run into someone if he’s not careful and they’ll find out what he’s been up to. There’s no need for him to hurry in any case. That person we saw waiting for him will see to it that the gate’s kept open for him.’
She and her mother ran after Bao-yu to try and catch up with him. The cousin’s wife stared after them disconsolately: her beautiful young gentleman had got away.
Bao-yu did not stop running until he was inside the Garden gate. Only then did he feel safe again, though his heart was still beating wildly. Fortunately no one appeared to have noticed his absence, and when he got back to Green Delights he managed to put Aroma off by saying that he had been visiting Aunt Xue.
Shortly after this, as she was making up his bed, Aroma asked him how they should sleep.
‘Oh, anyhow,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I don’t mind.’
It should be explained that during the year or two that had elapsed since her unofficial promotion by Lady Wang, Aroma had been taking herself very seriously and no longer, either at night or when they were alone together in the daytime, permitted herself those affectionate intimacies that had been customary between her and Bao-yu in the past. A slight distance seemed to have grown up between them since their younger, more carefree days. Partly it was being so much busier that kept her from him: for although the most impor?tant matters remained outside her control, it was she who organized the sewing and other maid’s-work, took care of Bao-yu’s and the junior maids’ pocket-money for them, attended to their clothing and other equipment, and assumed responsibility for the general maintenance of the apartment. Partly it was because she had a fear of infecting him: for she still continued, though very infrequently, to cough blood.
It was mainly for this last reason that she had for some time now ceased sleeping in the same room. But Bao-yu was nervous at night and liked to have someone near at hand whom he could call to when he woke up. Because she knew that Skybright was a light sleeper, Aroma entrusted all the night-time duties, like answering him when he called, getting up and making tea for him and so forth, to her, so that it had long since been the custom for Skybright to sleep in the same room with him beside his bed. Now that Skybright was no longer with him, Aroma made her own bed up beside Bao-yu’s in Skybright’s place.
Observing the somewhat dazed manner in which Bao-yu was conducting himself that evening, Aroma urged him to go to bed early, and as soon as she had got him settled, went to bed herself. But he seemed very restless. As she lay in her own bed she could hear him sighing and muttering to himself in his. This went on until well after midnight. Only then did he fall silent and appeared to have gone to sleep. Relieved, Aroma began drifting off herself. But only for a moment. Before she had a chance to get fully off to sleep, she heard him call out:
‘Skybright!’
‘What is it?’ said Aroma, instantly alert again.
Bao-yu said that he wanted some tea, so she got up and poured him out a cup. He sighed as she handed it to him.
‘I’m so used to calling her, I forgot that it was you.’ Aroma laughed.
‘The first night she slept with you, you were calling out in your sleep for me. It took you a while then to get used to the change.’
They both lay down again. Again Bao-yu was restless and continued so for the space of about two hours. It must have been four o’clock before he finally got to sleep. Just as he was dropping off, Skybright walked into the room looking exactly as she used to do before she was ill. She came right up to the bed and spoke to him.
‘Enjoy your lives, all of you! Mine is already over.’
Immediately she had said that, she turned round and walked out again. Bao-yu called out after her. His calling awoke Aroma, who assumed that he was once more calling Skybright’s name instead of her own from force of habit. But when she went over to ask him what he wanted, she saw that he was crying.
‘Skybright’s dead,’ he said.
Aroma laughed.
‘Don’t be ridiculous! Whatever would anyone think if they heard you say such a thing?’
Nevertheless Bao-yu insisted that Skybright was dead and waited impatiently for the daylight when he could send someone to find out the circumstances of her death. But daylight brought a little maid knocking at the front corner gate of the Garden with a message from Lady Wang.
‘You must tell Bao-yu to get up immediately and come over to Her Ladyship’s as soon as he is washed and dressed. The Master is invited out to a chrysanthemum-viewing, and because he was so pleased with the poem Bao-yu made at the party the other night, he wants to take him and the other young masters with him. Have you got that message? Be as quick as you can, please. And tell him to hurry. The Master is in the main room with Her Ladyship. They are waiting for Bao-yu to come so that they can start their breakfast. Master Huan is there already, so be quick. And someone take the same message to Master Lan, please.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said the women, hurriedly buttoning up their clothing, and two of them hurried off to deliver it, one to Green Delights and the other to Sweet-rice Village.
Aroma knew that something unusual must be toward for someone to be knocking so early at the courtyard gate and called to one of the old women to go and find out what it was while she herself got up and put her clothes on. When she heard the message, she sent someone out for washing-water and roused up Bao-yu. She told him to wash himself as quickly as possible while she went to fetch him some clothes. Since it was Jia Zheng he was going out with, she chose his second best, judging his best to be too showy.
As there was now obviously no possibility of following out his original intention, Bao-yu washed and dressed and hurried over to his parents’ apartment immediately. When he got there be found Jia Zheng already sipping his wheatmeal tea and apparently in very good humour. Bao-yu made his morning salutation to his parents after which he in turn was greeted by Jia Huan and Jia Lan. Jia Zheng ordered the three of them to sit down and drink their wheatmeal tea.
‘Bao-yu is not as diligent as you two in his schoolwork,’ he told the two younger boys, ‘but he is much better than you at making up poems and couplets. No doubt all three of you will be called upon to contribute poems at this place we are going to. Bao-yu will have to help you out a bit.’
This was music indeed in the ears of Lady Wang, who had never before heard her husband praise Bao-yu in such terms. She waited until Jia Zheng and the boys had gone before getting up to make her morning call on Grandmother Jia; but before she could get away, Parfumée foster-mother and two of the other foster-mothers came in saying that there was something they wished to speak to her about.
‘Ever since Your Ladyship was good enough to let me take Parfumée home with me,’ said Parfumée’s foster-mother, ‘she’s been refusing to eat and drink and behaving like a crazy girl, and now Nénuphar and étamine are the same. The three of them have been carrying on something dreadful, threaten?ing to kill themselves and I don’t know what. All they want, they say, is to shave their hair off and become nuns. Well, I thought, they’re only children; after a day or two they’ll get over this. But not a bit of it: two days have gone by already and they’re worse than ever. Neither words nor blows have an effect on them. We’re all at our wits’ end. We’ve come to ask Your Ladyship if you will either let them have their way and go into a convent or else deal with them as you see fit and hand them over to somebody else, because we can do nothing with them.’
‘Nonsense!’ said Lady Wang impatiently. ‘It’s not for them to decide what is to become of them. The Buddhist vocation is not to be undertaken on a mere childish caprice. Give each of them a flogging and see if they misbehave then!’
It was the custom for nuns from the various temples which the Jia ladies patronized to visit the mansion over the Mid?-Autumn festival bringing the first-fruits of their offerings. Euergesia, the prioress of Water-moon Priory, who had come along with the rest, had been invited to stay on for a few days and happened to be at hand during this interview. This holy old fraud pricked her ears up when she heard of three young persons wanting to become nuns. A few young novices to wait on her and help about the priory were just what she was looking for. She set to work on Lady Wang accordingly.
‘No doubt it is because this is such a blessed household (thanks to all Your Ladyship’s good works) that these young people’s hearts have been turned towards the faith,’ she said. ‘It is true that the Buddha’s gate is not to be entered lightly; but it is also written that the Buddha’s truth is for all sorts and conditions of men. And not only men, for when the Blessed Lord made his vow, it was to work for the salvation of all sentient beings. These three young people have no parents and are far from the place where they were born. Having had a taste of luxury during their years here with you, yet being born to a lowly fate and trained in a profession that at best is vanity, they cannot but tremble when they think what the future may hold for them. I believe that is why, out of the midst of this sea of suffering, they have turned towards the light and resolved to abjure the world and its vanities and prepare themselves for the life to come. That is a noble decision, Your Ladyship. I don’t think you ought to stand in the way of it.’
Lady Wang was a good woman at heart and had only opposed the young actresses’ determination to become nuns because she thought it proceeded from mere childish waywardness and feared that when put to the test they would find the vows of celibacy and abstinence too much for them and fall into mortal sin. But what the old nun said sounded plausible; and besides, she was at this moment very much preoccupied with other matters. Lady Xing had sent someone over to say that she wanted Ying-chun to spend a few days with her so that she could be exhibited to the representatives of a family seeking her in marriage, and Lady Wang herself was facing a visit from an official match-maker who was coming to discuss the matrimonial prospects of Tan-chun. She was far too worried by these other matters to be unduly concerned about the fate of a few entertainers. The answer she gave Euergesia, therefore, was a favourable one.
‘Very well then. Would you be prepared to take them as your disciples?’
‘Now blessings be upon you!’ said the old prioress. ‘It would be a holy thing if you would let me, it would indeed. Praise his Holy Name!’
She pressed her palms together and bowed down almost to the ground.
Lady Wang turned to the three foster-mothers:
‘All right, go and ask them. If they are really serious about this, they can kotow to Mother Euergesia in my presence and formally make themselves her disciples.’
The three women went off and presently reappeared, bringing the three girls with them. Lady Wang questioned each of them closely about her decision and when she was satisfied that they were utterly resolved to go through with it, allowed them to make their kotows to the old nun. After that they kotowed to her. Now that she was convinced of their determination and saw that nothing could deflect them from it, she began to feel quite sorry for them and ordered the servants to get out various things to give them. She also gave several presents to the prioress.
Thus Parfumée, Nénuphar and étamine left the sinful world behind them and went off with Euergesia to embark on a new life at Water-moon Priory.
What followed thereafter will be related in the following chapter.

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