The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 83

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CHAPTER 83

An Indisposition in the Imperial Bedchamber
calls for a Family Visitation
While insubordination in the inner apartments
reveals Bao-chai’s long-suffering nature

It was told in our last chapter how Dai-yu’s visitors, who were on the point of leaving, heard a voice outside the window crying:
‘What’s a little trouble-maker like you doing here in the garden anyway? You’re nothing but a nuisance!’
Dai-yu immediately let out a great cry:
‘I can’t stay here any longer!’
She rolled her eyes and gestured with one hand in the direction of the window.
The truth is that after all this time, despite Grand-mother Jia’s constant love and protection, Dai-yu still suf?fered from an acute sense of insecurity, of being an ‘out?sider in the Garden’. On this occasion, incredible though it may seem, she had instinctively taken herself to be the target of the old woman’s abuse (for the voice was that of an old serving-woman), and had immediately set about re?constructing the ‘plot’ in her mind: someone, taking advantage of the fact that she was an orphan, had sent this woman to insult her in public. She was being persecuted! The sense of injury, the unfairness of it, were more than she could bear. Another fit of sobbing left her uncon?scious.
‘What’s the matter, Miss?’ Nightingale was in tears her?self. ‘Please wake up!’
Tan-chun also called out in an effort to rouse her, and eventually Dai-yu came round. She could not speak, and her only explanation was another gesture towards the window. Tan-chun understood. She opened the door and went outside, to discover the old woman, with a stick in her hand, chasing a scruffy little maid.
‘I’m trying to get on with my gardening,’ she was grumbling. ‘You’ve no business to be here. Just wait till we get home and I get my hands on you! I’ll learn you!’
The little girl merely cocked her head, stuck a finger in her mouth and stared at the old woman with a cheeky grin.
‘Have you both taken leave of your senses?’ exclaimed Tan-chun severely. ‘How dare you use language like that here?’
When the old woman saw who it was, she pulled herself up smartly and answered with her most ingratiating smile:
‘It’s my daughter’s girl here, Miss Tan-chun. She would follow me over you see, and I knew she’d only be a nui?sance so I was shooing her along home. Dearie me, if I’d stopped to think where I was I’d never have dared raise my voice I’m sure.’
‘That’s quite enough,’ said Tan-chun. ‘Off you go both of you. Miss Lin is not feeling very well today – so hurry up and go!’
‘Yes Miss! Straightaway Miss!’ The old girl bustled off and her granddaughter went running after her.
Returning indoors, Tan-chun found Xiang-yun holding Dai-yu’s hand and crying helplessly, while Nightingale was supporting her mistress with one hand and using her free hand to rub her chest. Slowly the life returned to Dai-?yu’s eyes and she looked up. Tan-chun smiled kindly:
‘Did you take offence at what that old woman said?’
Dai-yu answered with a feeble shake of the head.
‘It was her own granddaughter she was shouting at,’ Tan-chun went on to explain. ‘She told me all about it. People like her are the end. They never know when to hold their tongue.’
Dai-yu sighed and held Tan-chun’s hand.
‘Oh Tan…’ she cried feebly, but could say no more.
‘There, you mustn’t start worrying,’ said Tan-chun. ‘We’re cousins and cousins should stick by one another. That’s why I came to see you. Besides, I know you’re a bit short of help. Listen, all you have to do is take your medicine like a good girl and look on the bright side a bit, and you’ll soon start to build up your strength. And then we can start having meetings of our poetry club again, and everything will be fine.’
‘Tan’s right,’ echoed Xiang-yun. ‘Won’t that be fun!’
‘Oh, if only you knew!’ sobbed Dai-yu. ‘I feel so weak. I don’t think I’ll ever pull through.’
‘That’s no way to talk,’ said Tan-chun. ‘We all fall ill, we all have our troubles. There’s no cause for you to be so pessimistic. Be sensible and have a good rest now. Yun and I had better go over to Grannie’s. We’ll come and see you again later. If there’s anything you need, tell Night?ingale and I’ll send it over for you.’
‘Tan, when you see Grannie, you won’t say I’m very ill, will you? Please!’ Tears were streaming down Dai-yu’s face as she spoke. ‘Just curtsey for me and say I’m not feeling very well but it’s nothing serious and she’s not to worry.
‘Of course. Now don’t fuss. Just rest and get better.’ Tan-chun and Xiang-yun went on their way.

When they had gone, Nightingale settled Dai-yu down once more. She left all the fetching and carrying to Snowgoose, and herself stayed constantly at Dai-yu’s side, trying her best not to betray her own distress by shedding any more tears. Dai-yu closed her eyes and lay still for a while. But sleep would not come. The garden outside, which had always been such a haven of quiet and solitude, now seemed alive with sounds – the wind, insects buzz?ing, birds chattering, the fall of human footsteps, child?ren crying faintly in the distance – all of which drifted in through the window and set her nerves on edge. She told Nightingale to let down the curtains around her bed.
Presently Snowgoose appeared, carrying before her in both hands a bowl of Bird’s Nest Soup, which she gave to Nightingale, who whispered through the curtains:
‘Would you like some soup, Miss?’
A faint ‘yes’ was heard from inside, and handing the soup back to Snowgoose for the moment, Nightingale climbed up and helped Dai-yu into a comfortable sitting position. Turning to take the bowl again, she first tasted the contents herself, then held it carefully to Dai-yu’s lips, while supporting her firmly round the shoulder with one arm. Dai-yu opened her eyes feebly, took a couple of sips, then showed by a shake of her head that she could not manage any more. Nightingale handed the bowl back to Snowgoose and gently settled her down again.
For a few minutes all was quiet and Dai-yu seemed more peaceful. Then a whisper was heard from outside the window:
‘Is Nightingale in?’
Snowgoose hurried out. It was Aroma.
‘Come in,’ she whispered.
‘How’s Miss Lin?’ asked Aroma.
They walked together towards the doorway and Aroma listened aghast as Snowgoose described what had hap?pened that morning and the preceding night.
‘No wonder!’ she exclaimed. ‘Kingfisher said something of the sort just now and had Master Bao so worried that he sent me straight round to find out how she is.’
As they were talking, Nightingale lifted the portiere and beckoned to Aroma, who tiptoed into the room:
‘Is Miss Lin asleep?’
Nightingale nodded. ‘Has Snowgoose told you?’ she added.
Aroma nodded, then frowned and said:
‘This is dreadful! Master Bao had me worried to death last night too!’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Nightingale. Aroma explained:
‘When he went to sleep in the evening he seemed perfectly all right. But in the middle of the night he started screaming his head off, first about a pain in his heart, and then about being stabbed by a knife – he was quite deli?rious, and didn’t quieten down till after the dawn watch. Wouldn’t you have been scared? He’s not allowed to go to school today, and the doctor has been sent for to pre?scribe something for him.’
While they were talking, Dai-yu could be heard coughing again from inside the bed-curtains, and Nightin?gale hurried over to hold up the spittoon. Dai-yu opened her eyes feebly:
‘Who’s that you’re talking to?’
‘It’s Aroma, Miss. She’s come to ask how you are.
Aroma was already standing close by the bed. Dai-yu told Nightingale to help her up and gestured to Aroma to sit down on the bed. Aroma perched on the edge and said in her best bedside manner:
‘Are you sure you ought to be sitting up like this, Miss?’
‘Why not?’ replied Dai-yu. ‘Stop behaving as if it’s the end of the world, will you? Who was that you mentioned just now, with a pain in the heart during the night?’
‘Oh that wasn’t real!’ said Aroma. ‘That was just a nightmare Master Bao had.’
‘It’s very thoughtful of Aroma,’ thought Dai-yu to herself. ‘I know she’s only trying to stop me from wor?rying. But I must know!’ She tried again, more insistently this time:
‘What sort of a nightmare? What did he say?’
‘Oh, he didn’t say anything,’ lied Aroma.
Dai-yu nodded pensively and fell silent for a minute or two. Then she sighed again and said:
‘You’re none of you to mention my illness to Master Bao. It might affect his work and cause trouble with Sir Zheng.’
‘Of course we won’t, Miss,’ Aroma reassured her. ‘Now you lie down and rest.’
Dai-yu nodded and asked Nightingale to settle her down again. Aroma stayed a little longer by her bedside, said a few more comforting words and then left. When she arrived back at Green Delights she reported that Dai-yu was feeling a little uncomfortable but that her condition was not a serious one, and thereby succeeded in setting Bao-yu’s mind at rest.

Tan-chun and Xiang-yun, on leaving the Naiad’s House, made their way together to Grandmother Jia’s apartment. As they went, Tan-chun warned Xiang-yun:
‘When we see Grandmother, please be more careful what you say, will you?’
Xiang-yun nodded:
‘I will. I’m afraid just now I was too shocked by Dai’s state to think what I was doing.’
They arrived at Grandmother Jia’s and Tan-chun men?tioned Dai-yu’s illness. As she had predicted, the old lady was somewhat ruffled:
‘Dear oh dear! How illness and misfortune seem to pick on those two! Ever since Dai-yu was a little girl, it’s been one thing after another. Now that she’s grown up, it is time she learned to take better care of her health. She’s too highly strung, that’s her trouble.’
No one dared say anything. She turned to Faithful:
‘The doctor’s coming in the morning to see Bao-yu. Tell them he’s to look in at Miss Lin’s afterwards.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’
Faithful went out to tell the serving-women, who passed on the instructions. Tan-chun and Xiang-yun stayed on at Grandmother Jia’s for dinner, and then re?turned to the Garden together.

Next day the doctor came to see Bao-yu. He pronounced that a dietary imbalance had brought on a slight chill, which would soon be put right by a mild dispersant. Lady Wang and Xi-feng sent the prescription over for Grand?mother Jia to inspect, and at the same time sent someone ahead to the Naiad’s House to let them know the doctor was on his way. Nightingale tucked Dai-yu up in her quilt and let down the bed-curtains, while Snowgoose quickly tidied the room.
Presently Jia Lian arrived with the doctor, announcing that as it was their regular practitioner there was no need for the maids to disappear. An old serving-woman raised the portiere, Jia Lian ushered the doctor into Dai-yu’s room and the two men sat down. Jia Lian began:
‘Nightingale dear, please tell Doctor Wang what you can about your mistress’s illness.’
‘Excuse me,’ interposed the doctor. ‘Please allow me to take her pulses and reach my own diagnosis first. Then the young ladies may judge for themselves and correct me if anything I say conflicts with what they already know of her condition’
Nightingale arranged Dai-yu so that one of her hands was showing through the bed-curtains and resting on the diagnostic arm-rest, and gently slid back her bracelet and sleeve so as not to obstruct the pulse. The doctor sat for a long while feeling the pulses first of one hand, then of the other. When he had finished, he withdrew with Jia Lian to the outer room, where they both sat down.
‘The six pulses have an extremely taut quality,’ said the doctor, ‘and indicate an advanced morbid obstruction.’
As he spoke, Nightingale appeared in the doorway. He turned towards her and said:
‘This condition should manifest itself in the following ways: dizzy spells, loss of appetite, frequent dreams, and fitful sleeping in the early hours; during the daytime a tendency to take offence for no reason and a generally nervous and apprehensive attitude towards other people. Some might attribute all these to a peculiarity of tempera?ment, but they would be mistaken. They are organically related to a deficiency of Yin in the liver, with a concom?itant diminution of cardiac vitality. Does my diagnosis accord with what you have observed?’
Nightingale nodded, and turning to Jia Lian said: ‘That is exactly how Miss Lin has been, sir.
‘Good,’ said Doctor Wang, rising from his chair. ‘We may proceed.’
Jia Lian escorted him out of the Garden and across to his study, where his pages had already laid out the re?quisite pink prescription form in readiness. Tea was served, then Doctor Wang took up the brush and wrote:

DIAGNOSIS
The six pulses are slow and taut. Prolonged morbid obstruction of the humoral flow.
Left distal pulse weak. Diminution of cardiac vitality.
Left median pulse strong and irregular. Hyperactivity of the liver (Wood).
The hepatic humour, unable to disperse naturally, has en?croached upwards on the spleen (Earth), with consequent loss of appetite. The extreme distemper has also caused a reversal of the elemental sequence, and the lungs (Metal) have certainly been damaged.
Since humour cannot circulate, it has congealed into phlegm. Upsurge and expectoration of blood.

TREATMENT
1. Sedation of liver.
2. Restoration of lungs.
3. Fortification of both heart and spleen.
The usual tonics are too violent in their action. For the present, I suggest my own Black Ethereal Essence, to be taken with Elixir Pneumoferriferum. Prescriptions for both humbly appended for esteemed approval.

The doctor wrote out a prescription of seven items and an adjuvant to go with it. Jia Lian took the paper and glanced down the list.
‘I see you include Hare’s Ear in your prescription,’ he said. ‘Forgive me if I am wrong, but I thought that was ruled out in haematic eruptions?’
‘You must be thinking,’ replied Doctor Wang with a knowledgeable smile, ‘of its emetic properties, which, as is well known, contra-indicate this particular herb in cases of haemoptysis or epistaxis. But allow me to inform you that in preparation with Turtle’s Blood (as in my prescription), Hare’s Ear constitutes the only effective remedy we have for draining the humour of the Lesser Yang periphery of the gall-bladder. You see, the judicious admixture of Tur?tle’s Blood has the remarkable effect of inhibiting the eme?tic properties of Hare’s Ear, while enabling it to restore the hepatic Yin and check the phlogistic disturbance. In the words of the Ars Medicandi; “Obstructa obstruit, aperitque aperta.” And the – at first sight – paradoxical in?clusion of Hare’s Ear is none other than the classic stra?tagem of the loyal counsellor befriending the usurper…’
‘I see,’ said Jia Lian, nodding appreciatively. ‘Thank you for enlightening me, Doctor Wang.’
The doctor continued:
‘I should like the young lady to take two doses of the decoction, and then we shall see whether to alter the pre?scription, or perhaps try a new one altogether. I have another appointment, so I hope you’ll excuse me. I shall call again another day.’
As Jia Lian saw him out, he asked:
‘And what have you prescribed for my cousin?’
‘Oh there’s very little the matter with him. Another dose of the dispersant I have prescribed should put him right.’
With these words Doctor Wang stepped into his carriage.
Jia Lian dispatched a servant to purchase the various drugs needed and went in to inform Xi-feng of Dai-yu’s diagnosis. They had not been talking long when Zhou Rui’s wife arrived to consult Xi-feng about a few trivial details of domestic management. After listening for a while, Jia Lian rose to leave.
‘Carry on, Mrs Zhou, I must be going.’
With Jia Lian out of the room, and all remaining household business soon disposed of, Zhou Rui’s wife was able to come to the real purpose of her visit.
‘I’ve just come from Miss Lin’s, ma’am. I don’t like the look of it at all! There’s not a spot of colour left in her cheeks, and to touch her she’s nothing but skin and bones. I tried asking her what the matter was, but she wouldn’t speak, just sat there crying. Before I left, Nightingale asked if you could advance them a couple of months’ allow?ance. She said that with Miss Lin so ill, and her so proud anyway about not being beholden to a soul for anything, she’d made bold to ask about it herself. The medicine Miss Lin is taking goes on the general account of course, but she said they might be needing some extra money for in?cidental expenses. I said I’d mention it to you, ma’am.’
Xi-feng lowered her head for a moment, then replied:
‘Oh very well, I’ll send her a few taels to be going on with. There’s no need to tell Miss Lin though. I’m against advances on principle. If one person starts we’ll never hear the end of it. Do you remember the scene Mrs Zhao and Miss Tan-chun had about this very question? Besides, as you know, with so many expenses and so little coming in to pay for them, things are extremely tight at present.’
After a pause, she continued:
‘Some people are under the illusion that it’s all caused by bad management on my part. Some even have the nerve to suggest that I am lining the Wang nest at the Jia family’s expense. But you know better, my dear Mrs Zhou. You’ve seen far too much of what really goes on to pay any attention to such gossip.’
‘Why I never heard such downright wicked lies in all my days, ma’am,’ said Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘Bless my soul! Where would this great rambling household be now, I should like to know, without you to keep everything run?ning smoothly the way you do? I’d like to see any other lady try to take it on. Why, a grown man with six arms and three heads would crumple under the strain of what you have to bear, for certain sure! There’s no justice left in this world!’
Suddenly she broke into a cackle of laughter.
‘Mind you, Mrs Lian, the things people will say! The other day when Mr Zhou came home from town, he told me how people are all talking about us, trying to guess just how rich the family is. Take this for example: “The Jias have got rooms piled high with silver and gold! Every stick of furniture in the house is inlaid with gold and stud?ded with precious stones!” Or sometimes they gossip about Her Grace: “That daughter of theirs at Court,” they’ll say, “you can bet your last buckle she’s managed to smug?gle home half the Emperor’s things. That time she went on that grand visitation, we saw it with our own eyes – cartloads of gold and silver she brought along with her, had the old home twinkling away like a fairy palace…And when the family laid on that big do at the Temple (which must have cost them a fortune), they didn’t bat an eyelid! Those lions outside the main gate are solid jade, and they’ve a golden kylin in the garden – used to be two, till one was stolen! You’d expect the ladies to be grand of course: but in that set-up the maids are quite as genteel and ladylike as the ladies themselves! They never do a hand’s turn, just lounge around drinking wine, playing music or perhaps a little chess, or doing a spot of leisurely painting now and then… There’s never any shortage of others to do their work. All they need fuss about is which silk gown to slip into next. If you could see the delicacies they eat or the clothes they wear, you wouldn’t believe your eyes. And the children! So pampered, if they were to ask for a moonbeam someone would be off to fetch it down for the pretty little darlings to play with!” There’s even a song about us:

Moneybags Ning
And Rolling Rong
Treat their cash
Like piles of dung.
It seems so fine, But please beware! If you look too…’

Mrs Zhou broke off in mid flow. The last two lines of her song were in fact:

If you look too close, The cupboard’s bare!

She had been so carried away with her rendition that she only stopped in the nick of time. Xi-feng could tell that the song carried a sting in its tail.
‘I know the sort of thing,’ she remarked casually. ‘But what could have given rise to that story about the golden kylin?’
‘They must mean the little one old Abbot Zhang gave Master Bao at the Temple,’ replied Mrs Zhou. ‘He lost it and then several days later young Miss Shi found it for him. A little thing like that is quite enough for those townfolk to spin one of their yarns around! They’re so ridiculous, aren’t they, Mrs Lian? The only thing one can do is laugh.’
‘I can’t say I find it particularly funny,’ replied Xi-feng. ‘It’s actually rather frightening. The trouble is that behind our magnificent facade things are going from bad to worse. There’s a popular saying:

Fattest pigs make choicest bacon;
Famous men are for the taking.

And our fame has been won under false pretences any?way. Sometimes I worry a great deal where all this will lead to.’
‘I understand your concern, ma’am,’ said Mrs Zhou. ‘But talk like that has been going round town for over a year, in the teahouses and wineshops, in every alley-way. It’s too late to stop it now, isn’t it?’
Xi-feng nodded. She told Patience to weigh out a few taels of silver and gave them to Mrs Zhou.
‘Take these to Nightingale. Say it’s just a little extra from me to help out. If she needs to make any purchases out of common funds, she mustn’t be afraid to say so. No more talk of advances, though. I know Nightingale is a bright girl and will understand what I mean. Tell her that when I’ve a free moment I’ll be over to see Miss Lin.’
Zhou Rui’s wife took the money and departed to carry out these instructions.
*
No sooner had Jia Lian left Xi-feng closeted with Zhou Rui’s wife than he was accosted by a page-boy with an ur?gent summons from his father, and was obliged to go straight over to Jia She’s apartment.
‘I’ve just got wind of the fact that someone at Court is ill,’ Jia She explained. ‘A senior consultant and two orderlies from the College of Physicians have been summoned to the palace, which indicates an illness in His Majesty’s im?mediate entourage. Tell me, have we had any news of Her Grace the past few days?’
‘None,’ replied Lian.
‘Go and ask your uncle, and check with Cousin Zhen,’ said Jia She. ‘See if they know any more about it. If not, then send someone to inquire at the College. We must find out what is going on.’
‘Yes, father.’
Jia Lian pursued both lines of inquiry simultaneously, dispatching one of his men to the College, while he him-self set off in haste to find Jia Zheng.
‘Where did you hear of this?’ asked Jia Zheng, after listening to Lian’s account of the story.
‘From father, just a minute ago.’
‘Well, you and Cousin Zhen had better go straight to the Palace and see what information you can glean there.’
‘I have already sent someone to the College,’ replied Lian, ‘to see if there is any news. I’ll go to the Ning side and fetch Cousin Zhen.’
He had no need to go as far as Ning-guo House, however, since Cousin Zhen was already on his way over.
‘Yes, I’d heard the same rumour myself,’ remarked Zhen, as Lian told him the story and the two of them walked together towards Jia Zheng’s study. ‘I was just on my way to consult your father and Uncle Zheng about it.’
By the time they arrived, Jia Zheng’s attitude had be?come somewhat more philosophical.
‘If it is Her Grace,’ he advised them, ‘we are sure to be informed sooner or later.’
Meanwhile Jia She had joined the gathering.
At noon, the four of them were still waiting for Jia Lian’s messenger to return with news from the College, when one of the janitors came in to report the arrival of two Palace Eunuchs, with an Imperial Communication for Sir She and Sir Zheng.
‘Show them in,’ ordered Jia She, and he and his brother went out to greet them at the inner gate. They knelt Manchu-style and did homage as ‘Her Grace’s most Hum?ble Servants’, before ushering the Imperial delegation through the gateway and across the courtyard to the main reception-hall, where they begged them both to be seated. One of the eunuchs rose to his feet and said:
‘Your daughter, Her Grace the Imperial Concubine, having been somewhat indisposed of late, it is His Maj?esty’s Pleasure that four ladies of her family should visit the Imperial Bedchamber tomorrow. Each lady is to be per?mitted a single maidservant in attendance. Male relatives are to proceed as far as the Inner Gate and present their cards. They may not proceed any further but are to do homage and await any further instructions outside the gate. Appointed time of arrival is nine a. m., departure to be completed by five p.m.’
Jia Zheng and Jia She and all the others present received this edict standing. When it was concluded, they sat down once more and offered the eunuchs tea, after which the Imperial party took its leave. The two senior brothers saw them out as far as the main gate, and then went in to re?port to Grandmother Jia.
‘Four?’ queried the old lady. ‘Your two ladies and my?self makes three. Who can the fourth place be for?’
There was a momentary pause. No one dared make a suggestion, and after a moment’s reflection Grandmother Jia continued: ‘It must be meant for Feng. She knows how to cope with any situation. Well, you menfolk go off and make your arrangements.’
Leaving promptly, Jia She and Jia Zheng gave instruct?ions that apart from Lian and Rong whose job it would be to stay and look after the two mansions, a full turn-out of junior and senior clan-members was expected. Next the servants were told to fit out four of the family’s best green court-sedans, and a dozen carriages with blue canopies, and have them lined up before first light in the morning. The servants hurried about their business, while the two Masters returned for a final consultation with Lady Jia.
‘We have to be there at nine o’clock, and leave at five, Mother. It seems advisable to retire rather earlier than usual tonight if we are to make a prompt start in the morning. We need to allow ourselves ample time to pre?pare for court.’
‘Very well,’ replied Grandmother Jia. ‘You can go now.
The brothers withdrew, leaving Grandmother Jia with her two daughters-in-law and Xi-feng. They talked for a while about Yuan-chun’s illness, and then after a little more desultory chat, retired for the night.
Next morning, before dawn, maids lit the lamps in every apartment, and the ladies sat down to their toilet. At five o’clock, when the ladies were ready and the gentle?men had put the finishing touches to their ceremonial outfits, Steward Lin and Lai Da came to the Inner Gate to report that the chairs and carriages were all ready as ordered and had been drawn up outside. Jia She and Lady Xing arrived, and the party was complete. After breakfast, which they all took together, Lady Jia led them out, lean?ing on Xi-feng’s arm, and the household gathered round as the four ladies, each accompanied by a single maid, walked slowly out. An advance party, consisting of Li Gui and one other senior boy, went on horseback to make preliminary arrangements at the Outer Gate of the Palace. Three generations of Jias stepped into their carriages or mounted their horses. The procession fell into line and, with retainers swelling the train, set off through the streets. Jia Lian and Jia Rong remained behind to look after the two mansions.
The procession came to a halt under Westwall Gate, one of the outer gates of the Forbidden City, and shortly afterwards two eunuchs emerged to announce:
‘By Imperial Dispensation! The ladies of the Jia family will now enter the Palace for their Personal Visitation. The gentlemen may also proceed but may not enter the Palace precincts. They will halt at the Inner Gate and do their homage from there.’
There was a cry of ‘Forward!’ from the men on the gate, and a junior eunuch guided the four ladies’ chairs onward, while the gentlemen followed on foot at a stately pace, leaving their servants at the Outer Gate. As they approached the Inner Gate, they could see several elderly eunuchs sitting there, who rose to their feet as the proces?sion arrived and announced:
‘Gentlemen of the Jia family! Halt here!’
Jia She and Jia Zheng lined their men up outside the Gate in order of senioritv, while the ladies passed through in their chairs, halted under the Gate and dismounted. A new escort of junior eunuchs now presented itself, and the Jia ladies, each leaning on a maid’s arm, continued on foot through the inner precincts of the Palace, until they saw before them the lavishly ornamented facade and brilliantly glazed roof-tiles of the Imperial Concubine’s Bedchamber.
Two young ladies-in-waiting stepped forward to inform them that the only formality required would be a curtsey. Expressing their humble appreciation for this favour, the visitors approached the bed and curtseyed in turn. Yuan?chun bade them be seated, which they did after a polite show of reluctance. She spoke first to Grandmother Jia:
‘Have you been keeping well?’
Leaning on her maid, the old lady rose shakily to her feet and replied:
‘Thanks to Your Grace’s beneficent aura I am still in good health.’
Yuan-chun went on to speak to Lady Wang and Lady Xing, who both rose to answer in similar fashion. Then she turned to Xi-feng:
‘How are things at home?’
Xi-feng rose to her feet.
‘We manage to get by, Your Grace,’ she replied, and sat down.
‘I appreciate,’ said Yuan-chun, ‘that it has not been easy for you these past few years.’
Xi-feng was about to rise again and reply when a lady-in-waiting entered with a lot of official cards for Her Grace’s inspection. As she recognized the familiar names, Yuan-chun felt a bitter pang of grief and tears began to flow down her cheeks. The lady-in-waiting proferred a silk handkerchief, which she used to wipe away her tears, saying:
‘I am a little better today, please tell them. And bid them wait outside.’
The Jia ladies were once more on their feet and express?ing their gratitude. Yuan-chun’s eyes were still wet with tears.
‘Humble families are so much luckier than we are! At least they can be together!’
Lady Jia and the others were also on the brink of tears.
‘We beseech Your Grace not to be sad. Your exalted blessings have already made themselves felt a thousandfold at home.’
‘How is Bao-yu coming along?’ asked Yuan-chun.
‘He is taking his studies more seriously now,’ replied Lady Jia. ‘His father has been extremely strict with him, and he is turning into quite a little scholar.’
‘I am so glad to hear that.’
Yuan-chun gave orders for their luncheon to be served in the outer reception-hall, and two ladies-in-waiting, assisted by four junior eunuchs, escorted them out. The seating had been arranged in accordance with Jia family precedence, and the ladies sat down to an immaculately presented meal, details of which our narrative omits.
When luncheon was over, the four ladies returned to give thanks. After further desultory chat, they saw that it was nearly five o’clock, and anxious not to overstep their limit, took their leave. Yuan-chun sent one of her ladies?in-waiting to accompany them as far as the Inner Gate, where the same four eunuchs were waiting to guide them out. Lady Jia and company stepped into their chairs and were carried to the Outer Gate, where they were joined by Jia She and the menfolk. The whole family returned in procession together.
The Visitation was repeated the following day and the day after, and as the arrangements made were identical to the last detail, we need not elaborate any further here.

Meanwhile, in the Xue household, things were going from bad to worse. Ever since Xue Pan’s disappearance, Jin-gui had felt the lack of a sparring partner. Caltrop (Lily) had moved out to live with Bao-chai, and the only person left within range was Moonbeam. But since her promotion to the Master’s bed, Moonbeam had acquired a new self?assurance, and Jin-gui soon observed that her stratagem in giving Moonbeam to Pan had misfired. Her maid had in?deed become her strongest rival. ‘Very well,’ she thought to herself one day, when she had been drinking heavily and was lying on her kang in a maudlin frame of mind, let’s see what she’s worth…’ A round or two with Moonbeam might be just the seltzer she needed.
‘Come on!’ she taunted her. ‘Where’s our precious Lord and Master disappeared to, eh? Where’s he hiding? You do know, of course, don’t you?’
‘I’ve not the least idea,’ replied Moonbeam coolly. ‘If he wouldn’t tell you, Mrs Pan, no one else is likely to know.’
‘Spare me the “Mrs”, will you!’ said Jin-gui with a malicious smile. ‘You and that Lily think you run the place, don’t you? I can’t get near that little Miss Un?molestable, with all her friends in high places to take care of her – all right! I won’t stick my neck out in that direc?tion! But you’re still my maid, I don’t have to take cheek from you! If you’re so sure of yourself, why not get on with it and strangle me? Then you and Lily can have the field to yourselves. I’m just in your way – go on, say it!’
Moonbeam wasn’t taking this lying down. She looked Jin-gui straight in the eye:
‘Mrs Pan, you have no right to accuse me like that! When have I ever said a word against you? Just because you can’t do anything to her, there’s no need to take it Out on me! You’re just being a bully! You know what the real trouble is, so why pretend you don’t?’
She burst into floods of tears and Jin-gui, who was now back in her element, clambered fuming down from the kang and went after her. Moonbeam had learned a thing or two in the Xia household and fought back every inch of the way. Jin-gui, ignoring her cries and protestations of innocence, attacked her with whatever she could lay hands on, and chairs, tables, cups and bowls were soon flying in every direction.
Aunt Xue happened to be in Bao-chai’s room and heard the terrible racket they were making.
‘Caltrop,’ she ordered without thinking, ‘go over and see what’s going on, will you? Try and get them to quieten down.’
‘You can’t possibly send Caltrop,’ Bao-chai reminded her. ‘That would only make things worse.
‘Very well then, I shall go myself,’ declared Aunt Xue.
‘I don’t think you should, Mama,’ advised Bao-chai. ‘We shall have to let them fight it out. There’s nothing we can do, I’m afraid.’
‘What an intolerable state of affairs!’ cried Aunt Xue, and leaning on one of her maids she set off in the direction of Jin-gui’s apartment. Bao-chai followed reluctantly giving Caltrop strict intructions to stay behind. As they approached Jin-gui’s apartment, they could hear the storm continuing unabated inside.
‘What’s the meaning of this?’ cried Aunt Xue. ‘Look at the state things are in! What a disgraceful way to behave! Other people can hear what goes on, you know. Aren’t you ashamed of what our relatives will think? Aren’t you afraid of being made a laughing-stock?’
‘Me a laughing-stock – that’s rich!’ Jin-gui yelled from inside. ‘It’s this topsy-turvy family of yours that’s a laughing-stock.There’s no respect, no proper order, not a single thing right in this godforsaken dump! I was brought up differently, I can tell you! In my home people knew their place. I’ve had as much from you family as I can take!”
‘Sister-in-law;’ pleaded Bao-chai, ‘Mother only came because she heard the two of you fighting. If she seemed to be blaming you, and didn’t distinguish between you and Moonbeam, it’s only because she was upset. I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it. Wouldn’t it be better to explain whatever it is that’s troubling you, and all of us try to get along peaceably together? Poor Mother, we’re worrying her to death.’
‘Yes,’ added Aunt Xue, ‘before you start accusing me, kindly explain what the trouble is.’
‘You’re such a saint, aren’t you!’ said Jin-gui, address?ing herself to Bao-chai. ‘I’m sure a fine lady like you will marry a gentleman and live in a nice home – not like me, stranded here, trampled under foot, taken advantage of by all and sundry! I might as well be a widow! What a fool I am! Don’t judge me too harshly. I’m only. a poor father-less creature that’s never been taught any better. And I’m sure you’d rather I spared you the sordid details of what goes on in here between my husband and his various womenfolk!’
Only the thought of what her mother must be suffering enabled Bao-chai to contain her intense anger and shame at these words.
‘Sister-in-law,’ she pleaded, ‘please don’t say any more. No one is judging you, no one is taking advantage of you – we never did with Lily and of course we don’t with you.’
At this Jin-gui started whacking the side of the kang and shrieked at the top of her voice:
‘Lily! How could I ever compare with her? I’m not worth the ground she treads on, am I? She’s been here longer than I have, she understands you and knows how to butter you up, and I don’t, I’m just a newcomer! I know! There’s no need to remind me of it! But remember we can’t all be Imperial Concubines; you’d better watch’ your step and make sure you don’t end up like me, mar?ried to a great half-baked booby, left in the lurch for all the world to mock at!’
Aunt Xue could contain herself no longer and rose to her feet:
‘I am not just defending her because she is my daughter; she has tried her best to make peace with you but you seem quite determined to provoke her. Whatever your trouble is, leave the poor girl alone! If you have to punish someone, why not strangle me instead?’
‘Please don’t you get angry too, Mama,’ begged Bao?chai. ‘We only came to try and help. If all we’re going to do is make things worse, I honestly think we should go. Let’s give her time to think it all over. And don’t you go causing any more trouble either!’ This last remark was addressed to Moonbeam.
And so the two of them left and returned to their own apartment. As they crossed the courtyard, they saw one of Lady Jia’s personal maids coming out to greet them with Caltrop.
‘Which way did you come?’ asked Aunt Xue, adding: ‘I hope Lady Jia is well.’
‘Very well, thank you ma’am,’ replied the maid. ‘Her Old Ladyship asked me to send you her best regards, to thank you for the lychees you sent the other day, and to congratulate Miss Qin on her engagement.’
‘How long have you been here?’ asked Bao-chai. ‘Quite a time,’ was her reply. The colour rose in Aunt Xue’s cheeks when she realized how much the maid must have overheard.
‘I’m afraid we’ve been having some dreadful scenes here recently,’ she said. ‘We must be a laughing-stock over on your side.’
‘Oh ma’am, it’s nothing serious,’ said the maid. ‘Every family has its little troubles. That’s as natural as plates clinking in a picnic-hamper. You’re worrying too much.’
She went inside with them and sat for a while before re?turning to Grandmother Jia’s.
A moment or two later, Bao-chai was busy giving Cal?trop some instructions when suddenly Aunt Xue cried out:
‘Ai! My chest!’
She lay down on the kang, sending Bao-chai and Cal?trop into a great state of panic. But if you wish to know the outcome, you must turn to the next chapter.

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