The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 80

0
191

CHAPTER 80

Unfortunate Caltrop is battered by
a philandering husband
And One Plaster Wang prescribes for
an insufferable wife

Jin-gui reacted to Caltrop’s defence of Bao-chai’s intelli?gence with a toss of the head, a scornful curl of the lip and a couple of loud, contemptuous sniffs.
‘The flowers that girls are named after are supposed to be beautiful, sweet-smelling ones. What is there beautiful or sweet-smelling about a caltrop-flower? If you’re going to call caltrop-flowers sweet-smelling, then what are you going to say of the flowers that are really fragrant? It’s a ridiculous choice for a name.’
‘But caltrop-flowers are sweet-smelling,’ said Caltrop. ‘A lot of water-plants are. Even lotus-leaves and lotus-pods have a certain fragrance – not to be compared with the scent of flowers, perhaps; but in very still weather, especially very early in the morning or very late at night, they have a delicious, cool fragrance that is in some ways superior to that of flowers. Even caltrops themselves and cock’s heads and the roots and leaves of reed-grass have a lovely fresh scent after dew or rain; it makes you feel good just to smell it;’
‘To hear you speak,’ said Jin-gui, ‘anyone would think that orchid and cassia were not particularly fragrant.’
Caltrop, warming to the argument, momentarily forgot Jin-gui’s taboo.
‘Ah now, orchid and cassia are quite different,’ she began; but before she could get any further, Moonbeam was pointing a finger in her face and crowing over her in malicious triumph:
‘You’ll catch it now! That’s the mistress’s name you’ve just said.’
Caltrop was overcome with confusion and hurriedly apologized for her lapse.
‘I’m truly sorry, madam. It was a slip of the tongue. I hope you won’t hold it against me.’
Jin-gui smiled magnanimously.
‘Oh, that doesn’t matter. You don’t need to worry about that. About this name of yours, though: I really don’t think that “Caltrop” is very appropriate. I should like to change it, but I don’t know whether you would be willing to let me.’
‘Oh, madam, what a thing to say!’ said Caltrop, smiling. ‘I am your chattel, to do with exactly as you wish; who am I to be willing or unwilling? If you wish to change my name, my name already is whatever you wish to change it to!’
Jin-gui smiled, somewhat unpleasantly.
‘You may say that, but I fear your Miss Bao may be rather less happy about it.
‘Ah no, madam. You see, when I was bought by the family, I used first to work for Mrs Xue: that’s how Miss Bao came to give me my name, not because I was Miss Bao’s own maid. Then after that I served the master. Miss Bao has nothing to do with me – especially now you are here. In any case, she’s a very sensible young lady – not at all the sort of person to make a fuss about a little thing like this.’
‘Very well,’ said Jin-gui: ‘in that case, since a water-lily is a much more appropriate flower to name someone after than a caltrop, I think we ought to call you “Lily”.’
‘Very good, madam, let that be my name then,’ said Caltrop, smiling.
“Lily” she became then from that moment. Bao-chai, when she heard about it, appeared totally unconcerned.
Xue Pan was in some respects like the general of old in whom ‘conquest did but breed appetite for further conquest’, for when, after his marriage to Jin-gui, he discovered that she had an attractive, rather coquettish maid called Moon?beam, he was continually calling to her to bring him things – cups of tea and the like – so as to have an opportunity of flirting with her. Moonbeam perfectly well understood what he was up to but had to behave circumspectly from fear of Jin-gui, whom she studied carefully for some sign which would indicate how she wanted her to respond.
Jin-gui had indeed noticed Xue Pan’s interest in her maid and reasoned within herself as follows.
‘I’ve been wanting to deal with Caltrop, but so far haven’t found a way of getting at her. Since he’s already taken a fancy to Moonbeam, I might just as well let him have Moon?beam, because he’s sure to grow cooler towards Caltrop as a consequence and I shall be able to take advantage of that in order to get rid of Caltrop; and with Caltrop out of the way, settling Moonbeam’s hash ought to be easy, because Moonbeam is my own servant.’
Having decided on a strategy, she had only to await a suitable opportunity of putting it into practice. Such an opportunity occurred one evening when Xue Pan, having drunk himself into a state of cheerful inebriation, called as was his wont to Moonbeam to bring him some tea. While Moonbeam was handing him the cup, he deliberately gave her fingers a squeeze; Moonbeam, with a very unnatural affectation of modesty, drew back her hand; and since neither of them had their minds on what they were doing, the cup crashed to the floor, splashing hot tea over Moonbeam’s skirt and everything else round about. Xue Pan tried to cover up his embarrassment by pretending that Moonbeam had not handed him the cup properly, while Moonbeam for her part said that the master had not ‘taken a proper hold’.
Jin-gui hooted at them contemptuously.
‘You two really are a comedy! You must think I’m an idiot.’
Xue Pan hung his head and laughed sheepishly and Moonbeam fled blushing from the room when, not long after this, it was time to go to bed, Jin-gui tried to turn Xue Pan out of the bedroom and make him sleep elsewhere. She said she was tired of seeing him go around all the time looking as if he was wasting away with passion. Xue Pan smiled foolishly and said nothing.
‘If you want to do something, why don’t you tell me?’ she said. ‘All this groping in corners will get you nowhere.’
Encouraged by her words and fortified by what he had drunk against any feeling of shame, he knelt down on the bed-covers beside her and seized her hand.
‘Listen, lover,’ he said: ‘if you will let me have your Moonbeam, I’ll give you anything you ask for – anything at all. If it’s human brains you want, I shall see that you have them.’
‘What nonsense you talk!’ said Jin-gui. ‘What do I care who you go to bed with? Just don’t make a fool of yourself by carrying on in front of the others, that’s all I ask.’
Xue Pan was so pleased and grateful that it seemed he would never stop thanking her. That night he performed his conjugal duties with exemplary thoroughness. Every sinew was strained to give Jin-gui pleasure. He did not go out next morning, but hung around at home, waiting for an opportunity of exploiting his new-found licence.
A little after midday Jin-gui rather pointedly went out in order to leave the coast clear. Xue Pan lost no time in setting to work on Moonbeam, who, since she now had a pretty good idea of her mistress’s intentions, put up only a token resistance to his advances. Carnal congress seemed imminent. But Jin-gui had been waiting for this moment only in order to frustrate it.
Jin-gui had a maid called Orfie who had been with her in her mother’s house since she was a child. Orfie had lost both her patents when she was little and had no one else to look after her, so when she first entered service with the Xias, she was invariably referred to as ‘the little orphan’. Her name ‘Orfie’ was simply a convenient contraction of this. Orfie’s duties were normally of a rough and menial kind, but on this occasion she was employed by her mistress on a task requiring some finesse.
‘Orfie,’ said Jin-gui, ‘do you think you could tell Lily to fetch my handkerchief from my room and bring it to me? You needn’t let her know that it was I who sent you.’
Orfie went off to look for Caltrop.
‘Miss Lily,’ she said when she had found her, ‘the mistress has left her handkerchief in her room. Why don’t you go and get it for her?’
Caltrop had recently been puzzled by Jin-gui’s hostility, and, in her efforts to overcome it, was constantly thinking of things that she could do to please her. Since Orfie’s suggestion seemed to offer a means of winning favour, she sped off without a second thought to do the errand, bursting into the room at the very moment when Xue Pan and Moonbeam were in the interesting situation we have just described. She turned back, blushing to the tips of her ears, but not in time to escape the notice of the other two.
Xue Pan himself was fairly unconcerned. Jin-gui was the only person he feared, and as Jin-gui had given her consent, he cared nothing about what anyone else might think. He had not even bothered to shut the door. But Moonbeam minded very much. Being by nature a disputatious, somewhat self-righteous young woman, she found it peculiarly galling that Caltrop of all people should have seen her at such a moment. Pushing Xue Pan away from her, she ran out of the room, protesting, with cries of angry complaint, that he had been attempting to rape her.
The effect of this upon Xue Pan was that all the excitement generated by his tussling with Moonbeam was transformed into animosity against Caltrop. He rushed outside and spat at her.
‘Little harlot! What do you man by it, wandering around the place like a damned disembodied ghost?’
He might have done her an injury, but Caltrop, sensing that she was in mortal danger, ran as fast as her legs would carry her and managed to get away. Abandoning the chase, he went back to look for Moonbeam but could find no trace of her. This increased his anger against Caltrop, whom he cursed once more in her absence. After dinner that evening, when he had once again drunk himself merry, he decided to take a bath. On testing the water with his foot and finding it to be too hot, he insisted that Caltrop had done it deliberately, intending to harm him, ran after her, stark naked as he was, and gave her a couple of kicks. Caltrop had long grown unused to such savage treatment; but things had now reached such a pass that she dared not complain and ran off to weep alone and nurse her injuries in silence.
Meanwhile Jin-gui had secretly instructed Moonbeam to place herself at Xue Pan’s disposal that very night in Caltrop’s bedroom. She ordered Caltrop to move in with her, and when she refused, said she supposed that it was because she found her room dirty or was too lazy to wait on her at night. She pretended to think that it was Xue Pan who had inspired her refusal.
‘That master of yours is such a barbarian,’ she said. ‘He has only to look at a girl to want her for himself. Now he’s taken my maid away, yet he won’t let me have you in her place. What’s his idea, I wonder? Does he want to drive me to my death?’
Xue Pan, for whose ears this was, of course, intended, became apprehensive that the difficulties Caltrop was making might once more prevent him from enjoying Moonbeam, and he came rushing into Caltrop’s room to rebuke her.
‘Don’t you realize, this is an honour your mistress is doing you? You do as you’e told and sleep with her, or I’ll give you a beating!’
Caltrop had now no choice but to roll up her bedding and carry it into Jin-gui’s room. Jin-gui told her to make her bed up on the floor. This order too she had to obey. As soon as she had settled down for the night, Jin-gui called to her for some tea. Caltrop brought her the tea and lay down again. A little after that Jin-gui called to her to come and massage her legs. And so it went on, seven or eight times in the course of the night, so that it was impossible for Caltrop to get right off to sleep or even to rest properly.
Now that Xue Pan had got Moonbeam, he was like a man who has come into possession of a priceless jewel. He forsook all other interests for her. This secretly enraged Jin-gui, who could not forbear some jealous mutterings when she was on her own.
‘Enjoy yourself while you can, my friend,’ she would say. ‘I shall get round to you in the end. And when I do, you had better not complain!’
For the time being, however, she refrained from outbursts and set about laying a trap for Caltrop. About a fortnight after Caltrop moved into her room she suddenly pretended to be ill. She complained of agonizing pains in the heart and appeared unable to move her limbs. Nothing they did for her seemed to bring relief. The servants said it must have been brought on by something Caltrop had done to upset her.
A couple of days later, as one of the maids was shaking out Jin-gui’s pillow, a cut-out paper mannikin fell out of it. It had the eight symbols of her nativity written on it and five needles sticking into it, one in the heart and one in each of the limbs. This item of news was thought sufficiently inter?esting to be reported to Aunt Xue, instantly throwing that poor lady into a highly inflammable state of nervous com?motion. The effect the news had upon Xue Pan was even more violent. He was for having all the servants flogged immediately until one of them confessed to having planted the paper figure; but Jin-gui prevented him.
‘Why make the innocent suffer?’ she said. ‘I expect it’s Moonbeam who did it, to get me out of the way.’
‘That’s most unfair,’ said Xue Pan. ‘When, during this past week or two, has Moonbeam had the time to go inside your room?’
‘Who else could it have been then?’ said Jin-gui. ‘I suppose you don’t think I’d do it to myself? Moonbeam is the only one who’d dare go in my room.’
‘But Lily’s been in here with you all the time,’ said Xue Pan. ‘She must know, if anyone does. She’s the one to flog if we want to find out.’
‘What’s the good of flogging anyone?’ said Jin-gui. ‘They’ll never confess anything. If you ask me, you’d much better pretend you haven’t heard about it and let the matter drop. When all’s said and done, it doesn’t much matter if I die. You can always find yourself a better wife when you feel like it. If we’re going to be honest, the fact of the matter is, you all three hate me, don’t you ?’
She began crying bitterly. Xue Pan was so enraged that he snatched up a door-bar and rushed off in search of Caltrop straight away. He began hitting her with it as soon as he found her, on the head, on the face, on the body, shouting accusations at her but giving her no chance to deny them. Aunt Xue came running out in answer to Caltrop’s anguished cries and shouted to him to stop.
‘How can you beat the girl like that without first making an attempt to find out what has happened? She’s given us years of faithful service: it’s unthinkable that she’d do a thing like that. Time enough to start laying about you after you’ve made a serious attempt to get to the bottom of it.’
When Jin-gui heard her mother-in-law saying this, she was afraid that Xue Pan might weaken. Her crying rose in pitch into a sort of plaintive yell.
‘You have monopolized Moonbeam now for over a fortnight and refused to let anyone but Lily sleep with me. You rush to Moonbeam’s defence when I say you ought to flog her, and now you get in a temper and start beating Lily. I don’t know why you don’t stop all this play-acting and get rid of me; then you will be free to pick a really rich, good-looking girl to marry.’
Her words had the intended effect of further inflaming Xue Pan. Aunt Xue could see that her son was being manipu?lated and was thoroughly disgusted by the unscrupulous way in which Jin-gui maintained her hold on him. But what could she do? She knew the weakness of her son’s character and realized that his subservience to Jin-gui had already become a habit. Evidently he had seduced Jin-gui’s maid, that much was clear; yet Jin-gui was one moment accusing him of forcibly ‘monopolizing’ the girl, while the next moment she seemed to claim credit for deferring like a good wife to his wishes. And who could be responsible for the black magic? The proverb says that even the wisest judge will hesi?tate to pronounce on household matters. Adapting it to the present circumstances, it might be said that even a parent finds it difficult to pronounce on the marital problems of his offspring. Aunt Xue, certainly, felt quite helpless when con?fronted with those of her son. She could only shout at him in exasperation.
‘Worthless creature!Even a dog would behave in a more seemly manner than you do! Now, it seems, you have got your muddy paws onto your wife’s own maid that she brought with her from her home. You’ve heard her yourself accusing you of taking the girl away from her. How are you going to show your face anywhere when other people get to hear about it? And this other business: Heaven only knows who is responsible; yet here you go, lashing out at this poor child here before making the slightest effort to find out what really happened. We all know what a fickle creature you are, but really! What a return for the years of loyal service she has given you! I don’t care how dissatisfied you are with her, you ought not to beat her. I’ll get a dealer here right away and have her sold; that’s the only way to settle this. Then you won’t be troubled by her any more. Come, girl!’ she said to caltrop, ‘get your things together and come with me.’ She turned to the other servants. ‘Quickly now, go and get the dealer! It doesn’t matter what we sell her for; just let’s get rid of this – this thorn in the flesh, and perhaps we shall have a bit of peace again in this household!’
Xue Pan, seeing that his mother was really angry, stood with bowed head throughout this tirade and made no attempt to reply. It was Jin-gui’s strident wail from inside the window that answered her.
‘Whether you want to sell the girl or not, Mrs Xue, I think you might leave me out of it. Are you implying that I’m such a vinegar-wife that I can’t tolerate an inferior? And what do you mean, “thorn in the flesh”? Thorn in whose flesh? Even if I did hate her so much, I wouldn’t let him have my own maid to replace her with.’
‘What sort of manners are these?’ Aunt Xue was trembling all over and her voice was choking. ‘Since when did it become acceptable for a young woman to shout at her mother?-in-law through the window? I was under the impression that you had been brought up in an educated household. All this shouting and screaming – I can’t make out what you are trying to say.’
Xue Pan stamped his foot and shouted at Jin-gui despair?ingly.
‘Oh stop, stop! You’ll have everyone laughing at us.’
Jin-gui, thinking, no doubt, that having gone so far she might as well go all the way, only shouted the louder.
‘Why should I care if people laugh at us? Your darling chamber-wife has been trying to do me in. Is this a time to start worrying about whether people are laughing at us or not? Why don’t you keep her and sell me instead? Everyone knows how rich the Xues are and how they make use of their money in order to trample on other people. And everyone knows about their fine relations who will always step in and slap anyone down for them who is giving them trouble. What are you waiting for? I don’t know why you married me in the first place if you find me so unsatisfactory. I’m sure I didn’t ask you to come running round to our house, begging and entreating my mother to let you have me as your wife.’
She rolled about on the bed, weeping and screaming and beating her bosom. Xue Pan was beside himself. Whether he rebuked her, reasoned with her, beat her, or begged her to be silent, it seemed unlikely that anything he did would have much effect. He could only stump in and out of the room, sighing and groaning inarticulately, and concluded by exclaim?ing, with great bitterness, that he was ‘a very unlucky man’.
Meanwhile Bao-chai had persuaded her mother to come indoors. Aunt Xue continued to insist that Caltrop must be sold. Bao-chai smilingly expostulated.
‘People like us don’t sell servants, Mamma, we only buy them. I think anger is interfering with your judgement. What would people think if they heard that we were planning to sell a servant? They would laugh us to scorn. If Pan and his wife are dissatisfied with Caltrop, let her stay here and work for me. I could do with another maid.’
‘If we keep her, it will seem to them like a provocation,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘Much better send her away and be done with it.
‘I can’t see that it makes any difference,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Provided she never goes into the front part of the house, then as far as they are concerned, it will be just as if she had been sold.’
Caltrop was already at Aunt Xue’s feet begging to be allowed to stay and protesting her willingness to serve Bao-chai as a maid. Aunt Xue was obliged to relent.
From now on Caltrop spent all her time with Bao-chai and stopped going into the front part of the house altogether. She had at least security now; but for all that she was not entirely happy. Sometimes on fine, clear nights she would gaze wet-checked at the moon; at other times she might be heard unaccountably sighing to herself while she trimmed a lamp.
The fact was that although she had lived with Xue Pan for several years, she had never borne him a child. Some defect in the blood had made her unable to conceive. And now she was ill too. The effect of all the emotional and physical outrage to which she had recently been subjected was that a flood of fiery humour was released into her liver, leading eventually to a drying up of the menstrual fluid. She became very thin, yet had lost all interest in food. The doctor was called in and medicines were prescribed, but they seemed to do her no good.
Meanwhile Jin-gui had had several more scenes with her husband. Sometimes, when drink had made him bold, Xue Pan would try to assert himself. Once or twice he went for her with a cudgel or a knife; but Jin-gui only offered him her body to belabour, or stretched her neck out and defied him to do his worst; and of course he could not; he could only bluster. This soon became the established pattern of their quarrels. The only result of it was that Jin-gui’s power over her husband grew all the stronger.
At this point Jin-gui began directing her attention on Moonbeam, picking on her and finding fault with her. But Moonbeam was made of more inflammable stuff than Caltrop. Up to now she and Xue Pan had got on together so swimmingly that she had all but dismissed Jin-gui from her mind. Finding herself now under attack from that quarter, she was unwilling to yield an inch and gave back as good as she got. When, after a few slanging-matches, Jin-gui grew really angry and began not only to curse her but to lay hands on her as well, she did not quite dare to return blow for blow, but she put on a fine display of hysteria, shrieking, rolling about on the floor and threshing about with her limbs. Thereafter she was constantly threatening suicide, and at any hour of the day or night they might have to snatch knives or scissors from her grasp or take down the noose which she had fastened for herself over a beam. Between the two of them Xue Pan was driven half distracted. He could only look on help?lessly while they quarrelled, until finally the rumpus got too much for him and he would slip out of the house and take refuge elsewhere.
Sometimes in the intervals between quarrelling, if she was feeling cheerful, Jin-gui would gather a few people together to play at dice or cards. She was inordinately fond of gnawing bones, especially the bones of fowls. To satisfy this craving she had ducks and chickens killed every day. The meat she gave to other people; it was only the bones, crisp-fried in boiling fat, that she kept for herself, to nibble with her wine. Sometimes, if the bone she was gnawing was giving her trouble and she grew impatient, she would swear like a trooper.
‘That ponce and his poxy strumpet seem to enjoy themselves,’ she would say self-pityingly. ‘Why can’t I get any enjoyment?’
Aunt Xue and Bao-chai no longer attempted to intervene. Now they could only sit in their own room and weep in silence while they listened to the profanities next door. Xue Pan was helpless. He bitterly regretted the brief madness which had led him to chain himself to this demon wife. Soon everyone in the two mansions, both masters and ser?vants, had heard about the Xues’ predicament and all felt sorry for them.
*
By this time Bao-yu’s hundred days of convalescence had ended and he was allowed to go out. One of the first things he did was to call on Jin-gui. There was nothing exceptionable in her behaviour or appearance on the occasion when he saw her: she seemed to be just the same sort of delicate, flowerlike creature as all the other girls. How did so beautiful a person come to have so appalling a character? It was a mystery which continued to occupy him for some time after the visit.
When, a few days later, he called in to wish his mother good morning, his visit happened to coincide with that of Ying-chun’s nurse. She brought distressing news about Sun Shao-zu’s behaviour.
‘Whenever she is on her own, the young mistress does nothing but cry,’ said the woman. ‘She’s longing for you to send for her so that she can enjoy a day or two of freedom.’
‘I’ve been meaning for some days to send for her,’ said Lady Wang, ‘but so many disagreeable things have been happening lately that I keep forgetting. Bao-yu spoke to me about this when he got back from his visit the other day. Tomorrow is a good day, according to the calendar. We will send for her tomorrow.’
Just then a servant arrived from Grandmother Jia’s with a message for Bao-yu. He was to go first thing next morning to the Tian Qi Temple to burn incense in payment of a vow she had made for his recovery. Eager for outings after his long confinement, he was hardly able to sleep that night for excitement.
Next day he rose at dawn, and as soon as he had washed and dressed, set off by carriage, accompanied by two or three old nannies, and drove through the West Gate of the city to the Tian Qi Temple outside the walls.
The Taoists of the temple had spent the previous day preparing the place for his arrival. Because of his nervous disposition he did not care to get too close to the hideous guardian deities and other horror-inspiring images for which this temple was famous. As soon as he had presented the paper figures, spirit money, food and so forth which constituted the offering, he withdrew to the residential part of the temple and, alter taking lunch there, set off on a sight-seeing tour of the temple and its precincts, accompanied by the old nannies and by Li Gui and the other grooms. But the sight-seeing soon fatigued him and he withdrew to the monks’ quarters again for a rest. The old nannies considered that it would be bad for him to sleep so soon after eating and called in the Taoist priest-in-charge, Father Wang, to sit and talk with him.
This Father Wang had knocked about the world in his time as an itinerant vendor of panaceas and even now had his name-plate hung up outside the temple with an impressive list of the pills, powders, plasters and potions that he was prepared, for a consideration, to dispense. He was a frequent visitor at the Ning and Rong mansions and was known to everyone there – as to everyone else outside – as ‘One Plaster Wang’ from his habit of always concluding the patter with which he recommended his medicaments with the same formula: ‘One plaster will suffice, ladies and gentlemen; one single plaster will suffice.’
When One Plaster Wang arrived, Bao-yu was reclining on the kang looking half-asleep and Li Gui and the others were doing their best to keep him awake.
‘Ah, Father Wang!’ they said as he entered. ‘You’ve come just in time. Everyone’s always saying how good you are at telling funny stories. Won’t you tell one now for our young master?’
‘I think I had better,’ said One Plaster Wang, smiling. ‘We don’t want him sleeping after his lunch. The batter he’s lust eaten might start battering his insides.’
This was not a bad beginning. At least it made them all laugh. Bao-yu, laughing with the others, got up and straightened out his clothes. One Plaster Wang ordered one of his acolytes to ‘make some good, strong tea’.
‘Master Bao doesn’t want any of your tea,’ said Tealeaf. ‘Your room stinks of medicine.’
‘O fie!’ said One Plaster Wang in comic outrage. ‘O monstrous imputation! Never has medicine of any kind found its way into this room. Moreover, for the past three or four days, ever since I heard your master was coming here, I have been burning incense to sweeten it.’
‘I’m always hearing about your plasters,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Tell me, what sort of things are they good for?’
‘My plasters?’ said the old Taoist. ‘Ah, now you’ve started something! It’s impossible to do them justice in a few words. To begin with, there are one hundred and twenty different ingredients in the ointment I use on them. Some of them domi?nate over the others like a prince over his subjects, some of them combine with each other in equal strength; some generate heat, some coolness; some of them are cheap and some expensive. Internally they stabilize and fortify the humours, enrich the blood, stimulate the appetite, tranquillize the spirits, banish excessive heat and cold, aid digestion and loosen phlegm; externally they regularize the pulses, relax the muscles, draw out the old, corrupt flesh, promote new growth, expel rheums and neutralize poisons. Their efficacy is miraculous, as you yourself may see if you ever have occasion to use one.’
‘I can hardly believe that a single plaster can do so many things,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I wonder if the trouble I am thinking of could be cured by one.’
‘My plasters will cure any illness you like to mention,’ said the old Taoist. ‘If they don’t give you instant relief, you are at liberty to pluck me by the beard, slap my old face, and pull my temple down! What is the illness you have in mind?’
‘Try and guess,’ said Bao-yu. ‘If you can guess right, I shall believe in the efficacy of your plasters.’
One Plaster Wang thought for a bit.
‘Hmn, difficult.’ He smiled slily. ‘Of course, there are some things that it’s not very convenient to use plasters for.’
Bao-yu told all the servants but Tealeaf to go out of the room.
‘This room is too small for so many people,’ he said. ‘The air in it is becoming foul.’
Tealeaf lit a stick of Sweet Dreams incense and Bao-yu made him sit close to him, with the lighted incense in his hand, so that he could lean on him for support. Watching this little pantomime, the cunning old Taoist had a sudden inspiration. His face broke into a broad grin. Coming up closer to Bao-yu, he bent down and spoke softly into his ear.
‘I think I’ve guessed. Could it be that you have started bedchamber exercises already and are looking for a little something to help things along?’
Almost before he had finished, Tealeaf was shouting at him indignantly.
‘Get away with you! Dirty old man!’
Bao-yu had not understood.
‘What’s that?’ he asked Tealeaf, puzzled. ‘What did he say?’
‘Never mind what he said,’ said Tealeaf. ‘Silly rubbish!’
‘You’d better tell me yourself what it is, Master Bao,’ said One Plaster Wang, unwilling to risk another guess.
‘The thing I want to know about is jealousy,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Could one of your plasters cure a woman of being jealous?’
One Plaster Wang clapped his hands and laughed.
‘Now there you have me! Neither my plasters nor anyone else’s could do that!’
‘They are not such great shakes after all then,’ said Bao-yu, smiling.
‘I said plasters couldn’t,’ said One Plaster Wang. ‘I know of an infusion that might. The only thing is, it would take rather a long time. There’s no lightning cure for jealousy.’
‘What is this infusion called?’ said Bao-yu. ‘How do you make it?’
‘It’s called Pirum saccharinum,’ said One Plaster Wang. ‘You take one very good autumn pear, two drams of crystal sugar, one dram of bitter-peel and three cups of water and simmer them all together until the pear is soft. If the suf?ferer can be made to eat one such pear, together with its juices, first thing every morning, she will, eventually, be cured.’
‘I don’t think much of that,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I can’t see that working.’
‘If it doesn’t work the first time, perhaps it will by the tenth,’ said the old Taoist. ‘If one year’s treatment is insufficient, she must persevere for a second. And so on. At all events, these are wholesome ingredients. A pear prepared in this way is soothing to the lungs and stomach, innocuous to the health, sweet to the palate, lenitive for a cough and in every way agreeable. Sooner or later the woman will die; and as there is no jealousy (that I know of) after death, it could be said that by that time she had been cured.’
This set Bao-yu and Tealeaf off into fits of laughter. ‘Oily-tongued old ox’ they called him.
‘Well, what’s the harm?’ said One Plaster Wang. ‘It’s only a bit of nonsense to stop you sleeping in the middle of the day. Making you laugh is worth much more than any medicine. Even my plasters are only tomfoolery. Do you think if I really had a magic formula I’d be sitting here talking to you now? I’d have taken it myself long ago and gone off to join the immortals.’
The hour of sacrifice had now arrived and Bao-yu was invited to offer his libation and set fire to his paper hecatomb. What remained of the more substantial part of the offering -the foodstuffs and the wine – was shared out among the Taoists and the others present. Having completed what he came out for, he drove back into the city.
By the time he got home Ying-chun had already been back an hour or more. The servants who brought her were being entertained to dinner before returning to the Sun household. Ying-chun meanwhile was in Lady Wang’s room giving her and the cousins a tearful account of her matrimonial troubles.
‘Sun Shao-zu is an out-and-out libertine. Gambling, drinking and chasing after women are the only things he cares about. He has corrupted practically every maid and young woman in the house. I have protested to him about it more than once, but he only swears at me. He calls me a “jealous little whore”. He says that Father borrowed five thousand taels from him and spent it all, and that though he has been round time and again to ask for it, Father re?fuses to pay it back. Then he points his finger at me and shouts: “Don’t put on the lady wife act with me, my girl! You’re no better than a bought slave – payment in kind for the five thousand taels your old man owes me – and if you’re not very careful I shall give you a good beating and send you to sleep with the maids.” He says it was Great-grandfather who took the Initiative in making the alliance between our families because theirs was so rich and influential, so that by rights he ought to be Father’s equal. He says he was a fool to marry me, because that makes Father his senior; and besides, he says, it has given people the impression that he needed our help, whereas in fact quite the reverse is true.’
Ying-chun sobbed bittely while she told them this and the others wept as they listened. Lady Wang did her best to comfort her.
‘He’s obviously an unreasonable man,’ she said; ‘but now that you’re married to him, there’s really nothing to be done. I remember your Uncle Zheng speaking very strongly against the marriage to your father, but your father was so set on it, he wouldn’t listen. It’s a bad business. My poor child! I’m afraid it must be your fate.’
Ying-chun wept.
‘I can’t believe that it was my fate to be so unhappy. After losing my mother as a tiny child, it seemed such bliss when you brought me here to live with Cousin Wan and the girls. And now, after just a few years of blessedness, I am to end like this!’
Lady Wang tried once more to comfort her. She suggested that Ying-chun herself should decide where she wished to sleep.
‘Since the very first moment I left I have been longing every minute of the day and night to be back here with the girls,’ said Ying-chun. ‘And next to them I have missed my beloved Amaryllis Eyot. If only I might spend another four or five days in the Garden, I think I could die content. Who knows if I shall ever be allowed to come and stay here again?’
‘Now, now, that’s a foolish way to talk!’ said Lady Wang. ‘A little jangling between newly married couples is the commonest thing in the world. There is no cause at all to be so tragic about it.’
She gave orders for the rooms on Amaryllis Eyot to be made ready as quickly as possible, and told the cousins to keep Ying-chun company and do their best to distract her from her troubles. She particularly impressed upon Bao-yu that no word of this was to reach the ears of Grandmother Jia.
‘If I find that Grandmother has got to hear of this,’ she warned him, ‘I shall hold you alone responsible.’
Bao-yu had to promise that he would say nothing.
That evening saw Ying-chun installed once more in her old apartment, with everyone round her, cousins and ser?vants alike, doing their utmost to make her feel cherished. Three days she spent in her old apartment in the Garden; after that she had to go and stay with Lady Xing. Before doing so she called on Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang to say good-bye. Her leave-taking with the cousins which followed was extremely painful. It was all that Aunt Xue and Lady Wang could do to calm the young people in their grief.
Ying-chun stayed two days with Lady Xing and it was to Lady Xing’s place that the Sun family servants came to collect her. Needless to say, she felt little inclined to go with them; but fear of her husband’s evil temper made her conceal her reluctance and hurry over her leave-taking. Lady Xing had never been much interested in her daughter’s welfare – during the two days that Ying-chun was with her she never once inquired whether her relations with her husband were harmonious and the duties required of her in her new house?hold not too onerous – and such expressions of maternal sentiment as she may have indulged in at her departure were of only the most perfunctory and superficial kind.
As to what followed her departure: to know that, dear reader, you will have to look into another volume.

Previous articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 61
Next articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 79
Discover the wonders of China through studying abroad - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your horizons, immerse yourself in a rich and diverse culture, and gain a world-class education.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here