The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 85

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CHAPTER 85

It is announced that Jia Zheng has been promoted
to the rank of Permanent Secretary
And it is discovered that Xue Pan has once more
brought upon himself the threat of exile

‘All I did was knock a skillet over and spill a bit of medi?cine!’ yelled Jia Huan before his mother could finish. ‘That measly little brat of hers is still alive, isn’t she? Any?one would think I’d done her in, the way you two are going on at me about it, slandering me and dragging my name in the mud! One day I really will finish her off! That would teach you all a lesson! You’d better tell them to look out!’
Aunt Zhao came hurtling in and clapped a hand over his mouth.
‘You’re asking for it, saying such dreadful things! They’ll have your neck first, my boy, see if they don’t!’
They kept it up like this for some time. Jia Huan slip?ped in Xi-feng’s barbed little message, which made his mother more implacable than ever. There was now no question of her sending anyone over to Xi-feng’s with an apology, and although Qiao-jie made a complete recovery a few days later, the episode had deepened the feud be?tween the two sections of the family.
*

One day Steward Lin came in to report to Jia Zheng that it was the Prince of Bei-jing’s birthday.
‘Are there any special instructions, sir?’
‘Send whatever we usually send,’ replied Jia Zheng. ‘Report to Sir She first, before delivering the presents.’
‘Very good sir,’ said Lin, and went to make the neces?sary arrangements. A little later, Jia She arrived himself, to discuss with his brother the details of the visit. They decided to take Cousin Zhen, Jia Lian and Bao-yu along with them. If for the four older men it was merely another social engagement, for Bao-yu it was an opportunity long awaited. He had been a fervent admirer of the Prince’s handsome. looks and graceful bearing ever since their memorable first encounter at the roadside halt. He changed eagerly into his smartest clothes and went to join the others.
On arrival at the Palace, Jia She and Jia Zheng pre?sented their cards and before long a Eunuch Chamberlain of the Household emerged, fingering his beads, and greeted them with a little peal of falsetto laughter:
‘I hope you are both keeping well?’
They reciprocated the inquiry and the three younger Jias came forward to make their greeting.
‘His Imperial Highness will be pleased to receive you now.’ The eunuch led the five of them in, through two further gateways and past a large state-room, to the Inner Gate of the Prince’s personal residence; Here they halted once more, while the eunuch went in to announce their arrival, leaving them to be entertained by the various junior eunuchs in attendance at the gate.
After a brief interval their original escort returned.
‘This way, please.’
They all stepped solemnly forward again. The Prince, dressed in full robe of state, had paid them the compli?ment of coming out to receive them in one of the covered walks by the entrance to the main hall. The two brothers advanced first and did homage, followed in order of seniority by Cousin Zhen, Jia Lian and Bao-yu. The Prince took Bao-yu by the hand.
‘It has been a long while since we last met. You have been much in my thoughts.’
He smiled:
‘Tell me, how fares it with that stone of yours?’
Bao-yu dropped to a half-kneeling position and with head bowed replied:
‘Your Highness’s beneficent aura has preserved us from misfortune.’
‘There is nothing very special to eat today,’ continued the Prince pleasantly. ‘But at least we shall be able to spend a little time talking together.’
Eunuchs lifted the portiere, and the Prince made a charming gesture of yielding the pas to his guests before leading the way in. The Jias followed, walking with a de?ferential stoop, and once inside Jia She was the first to offer his birthday felicitations. These the Prince accepted modestly, while Jia She sank to his knees. The others fol?lowed suit.
Once these formalities (a detailed description of which our narrative omits) were over, the Jias began discreetly to take their leave. The Prince turned to his eunuchs and gave instructions that they were to be escorted to the re?ception which was being given for his own family and a few other distinguished guests and that they were to be attended to with the utmost care. He asked Bao-yu to stay behind for a chat.
‘Do sit down,’ he began, when the others had left. Bao?yu made his kotow of thanks for this honour, and perch?ing delicately on a covered porcelain tabouret near the door, talked for a while of his studies and compositions and other things. The Prince seemed fonder than ever of his young protégé’, and offered him some tea – a still greater honour. He went on to say:
‘Excellency Governor Wu was in town yesterday for an audience with His Majesty. He told me that your father, in his last posting as Commissioner of Education, showed the most scrupulous impartiality and gained the respect of all the candidates he examined. At the audience, when H.M. inquired, Wu gave your father the highest recom?mendation. Clearly a favourable omen…’
‘You have shown us a great favour, Your Highness, and Governor Wu has done us a great kindess.’
‘You have shown us a great favour, Your Highness, and Governor Wu has done us a great kindness.’
As he was speaking, a junior eunuch returned from the reception in the front state-room to convey a message of thanks from the various Lords and Gentlemen for their banquet, and to present their cards of appreciation and midday greeting to the Prince, who glanced through them and handed them back with a gracious smile and a brief word of acknowledgement.
‘And, if it please Your Highness,’ the eunuch con?tinued, ‘the repast you ordered specially for Master Jia Bao-yu is now ready.’
The Prince gave him a few further words of instruction, and the eunuch led Bao-yu out to an exquisitely appointed suite of rooms facing a small courtyard, where he ordered another attendant to wait upon him during the meal. Afterwards, Bao-yu returned to give thanks and the Prince continued chatting in the same complimentary vein. Suddenly he laughed:
‘When I first saw that ~tone of yours, I was so taken with it, you know, that on my return I gave my jade-workers a description of it and asked them to make me one like it. I am so glad you have come today. I can give it to you to take home. It might amuse you to keep it.’
One of the junior eunuchs was ordered to bring the jade in, and the Prince. himself handed it to Bao-yu, who re?ceived it humbly in both hands, gave thanks and then took his leave. The Prince told two more junior eunuchs to accompany him out, he rejoined the other members of the family, and they all returned home.
On arrival, Jia She paid his respects to Grandmother Jia and left for his own apartment. Jia Zheng and the others also paid their respects and gave her a full account of the reception. Bao-yu communicated to his father the news he had received about Governor Wu’s sponsorial activities.
‘Governor Wu,’ commented Jia Zheng drily; ‘is an old friend, and a man after my own heart. He is also, I might add, a statesman of the highest integrity.’
After a little more chat, Grandmother Jia gave permis?sion for them all to disperse. Jia Zheng took his leave, and was followed by Cousin Zhen, Jia Lian and Bao-yu as far as the door.
With a parting injunction to the three of them to stay and keep Grandmother Jia company a little longer, Jia Zheng returned to his apartment. He had not been there long when a maid came in to announce that Steward Lin was waiting outside with something to report. She also handed him a red visiting card with Governor Wu’s name on it. Jia Zheng told her to admit Lin, and went out to speak to him on the verandah.
‘Excellency Governor Wu called to see you today, sir,’ reported Lin. ‘I informed him that you were out. And another thing, sir; I have heard that a Permanent Secre?tary’s position has become vacant in the Ministry of Works. According to various people, including officials in the Ministry, you are to be given the post as confirmation of your preseht rank.’
‘H’m. . .’ said Jia Zheng. ‘We shall see.’
Lin conferred with his master on one or two other mat?ters and then left.
*

After Jia Zheng’s departure, Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian re?turned to their separate apartments, while Bao-yu went back to Grandmother Jia’s. He was now able to tell her all about his day at the Palace. He described how kindly the Prince had treated him, and took out the jade he had been given, which was passed round and commented on with some amusement. Grandmother Jia told a maid to put it safely away.
‘And don’t whatever you do take your own off,’ she said to Bao-yu. ‘You don’t want to go getting them. mixed up.
Bao-yu promptly untied his original from around his neck.
‘But look,’ he said, ‘they’re so different, how could I ever get them mixed up? That reminds me, Grannie, of something that happened the other night, as I was going to bed. I had just taken my jade off and hung it inside the bed-curtains, when I noticed a halo around it, and the whole inside of my bed was lit up with a rosy glow.’
‘You silly boy!’ exclaimed Grandmother Jia. ‘There’s red thread in your pelmet. That must have been the lamp-light showing through.’
‘But it couldn’t have been. The lamps were all out and it was pitch-black in my room, and I still saw it glowing.’
Lady Xing and Lady Wang exchanged a meaningful smile. A certain rosy’ event had been much in the fore?front of their minds recently. Xi-feng too could not re?strain herself from remarking cryptically:
‘No doubt this heralds the Big Event…’
‘What big event?’ asked Bao-yu.
‘Nothing you would understand,’ put in Grandmother Jia promptly. ‘Now come along. It’s been a hectic day for you, and you ought to go and rest, and not waste any more time here telling tall stories.
Bao-yu stayed a minute or two longer and then re?turned to the Garden. When he was out of the room, Grandmother Jia turned to Lady Wang:
‘Well, have you been to see Mrs Xue, and put it to her yet?’
‘Yes Mother, we have,’ replied Lady Wang. ‘Feng has been so busy with little Qiao-jie the last few days, and we just haven’t had a chance to go until today. Anyway, my sister seems very happy with the idea, but she says she ‘will have to wait until Pan comes home before saying any?thing final. She must consult him first, as the eldest man in the family.’
‘Quite right,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘We shall have to bide our time until they have had a chance to talk it over. In the meantime, not a word of this to anyone.’
*
We must leave these matrimonial confabulations and accompany the unwitting subject of them, who on his arrival at Green Delights confided to Aroma:
‘Grannie and Feng were being most mysterious about something just now. I don’t know what’s going on.’
Aroma looked thoughtful for a moment.
‘I’ve no idea either,’ she finally returned, with a peculiar smile, adding (as if it were an afterthought): ‘I wonder, was Miss Lin there when they were talking?’
‘Of course not! You know she’s been ill and has to stay in.
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of Musk and Ripple having a tiff in the next room.
‘What is the matter with you two?’ Aroma called out.
‘It’s all Ripple’s fault!’ replied Musk. ‘She’s been cheat?ing at cards! She took my money fast enough when she won, but now that I’ve won she won’t let go of a penny. And now I’m cleaned right out!’
‘Oh come on!’ Bao-yu chided them with a laugh. ‘Stop being so stupid! Who, wants to quarrel over a few coins?’ They both pouted and went off in high dudgeon, leaving Aroma. to settle Bao-yu down for the night.
Now Aroma was sure that the mysterious conversation Bao-yu had referred to in some way concerned his be?trothal. She had only feigned ignorance for fear that in his present mood, mention of such a touchy subject might provoke another of his fits. She herself was most anxious to know the latest news, and while she lay, awake that night she decided to go and see Nightingale first thing in the morning. Nightingale would be sure to know, and would be able to tell her what was going on.
And so the next day she rose early, and after seeing Bao?-yu off to school, completed her own toilet and strolled through the Garden to the Naiad’s House. Night?ingale was out in the front courtyard picking flowers, and greeted her with a smile:
‘Hello, Aroma. Do come in and sit down.’
‘Thank you. Busy with your flowers, I see… How is Miss Lin?’
‘She has lust finished her toilet. She’s waiting for her medicine to be warmed up.’
Nightingale took Aroma inside. Dai-yu was reading a book, which provided Aroma with a ready-made topic of conversation. She gave an ingratiating smile:
‘It’d be a wonder if you didn’t feel tired sometimes, Miss, reading at such an early hour. If Master Bao would only follow your good example!’
Dai-yu smiled wanly and put her book down. Mean?while Snowgoose had come in with a small tray containing two cups, one of medicine and one of water. She was fol?lowed by a junior maid bearing spittoon and bowl.
Aroma’s intention in coming had been to sound them out; but somehow amid all these medical ministrations an easy opening failed to present itself, and she reckoned that it was not worth running the risk of offending the prickly Miss Lin on the offchance of obtaining the information she wanted. So, after sitting there a little longer and mak?ing a little desultory chat, she said goodbye and set off back home.
She was approaching Green Delights, when she saw to her considerable surprise two male figures standing a little way off, and thought it more discreet not to proceed any further. ‘One of them had already spotted her, however, and came running up. It turned out to be Ploughboy, one of Bao-yu’s pages.
‘What do you think you’re doing here?’ she asked him.
‘Master Yun’s lust come with a letter for Master Bao, and he’s waiting for a reply.’
‘But you know perfectly well that Master Bao goes to school every day, so what’s the point of waiting?’
‘That’s what I told’ him,’ said Ploughboy, grinning sheepishly. ‘But he just said that I was to tell you and he’d wait for your reply instead.’
A suitable retort was already on Aroma’s lips when she noticed that the other man had started slinking towards them. A closer inspection confirmed that the stealthy in?truder was indeed Jia Yun. She turned to Ploughboy and said briskly:
‘Tell him his letter will be delivered to Master Bao in due course.’
Jia Yun’s slow and sinuous progress had been designed to camouflage his true aim, which was to achieve a tête-a’?tête with the delectable Miss Aroma. His dismissal (which he heard only too clearly), when almost within reach of his goal, obliged him to abandon these plans and come to a premature standstill. Aroma turned smartly on her heel and walked on into Green Delights, leaving Ploughboy to escort the crestfallen Jia Yun from the Garden.
Aroma related the incident that evening to Bao-yu, on his return from school:
‘That Master Yun from West Lane was here today,’ she said briefly.
‘What did he want?’
‘He left a note for you.’
‘Where is it? I’d better see what it says.’
Musk went to fetch Yun’s note from the bookshelf in the inner ro6m, and handed it to Bao-yu. The envelope bore the inscription: ‘To My Honoured Uncle’.
‘Funny,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I thought I was supposed to be his father!’
‘What?’ retorted Aroma.
‘Don’t you remember, the year before last when he sent me that white Autumn Crab-blossom, he signed himself my “Dutiful and Affectionate Son”? It seems I’ve been demoted to plain Uncle…’
‘Honestly!’ exclaimed Aroma. ‘The pair of you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourselves! Fancy a grown man like him passing himself off as your son! He ought to know better! And as for you… Father Bao indeed! Why you’re not even…’
Aroma stopped short. She blushed and gave a little smile. Bao-yu knew what she meant.
‘Who knows?’ he quipped. ‘Perhaps he thought of me as his Spiritual Father, like that

celebrated celibate of yore
whose children could be numbered by the score…

I only agreed to it because I thought he was quite clever and a likeable sort of fellow; if he’s changed his mind, I really couldn’t care less.’
‘If you want to know, he gives me the creeps,’ Aroma continued, as Bao-yu opened the letter. ‘He’s for ever trying to worm his way in, and looks so shifty about it. I wouldn’t trust him an inch.’
Bao-yu was too absorbed in examining the contents of the letter to take any notice of what she was saying. She studied his face as he read. A frown, then a smile, which soon gave way to a shake of the head, and finally an ex?pression of impatience. When he seemed to have finished, she asked:
‘What’s it all about then?’
By way of response Bao-yu tore the letter into shreds. Aroma thought it wiser to change the subject.
‘Are you planning to do some work after dinner or not?’
‘What a cad!’
She smiled at this capricious reply:
‘Well, what was it about?’
‘Oh who cares! Let’s have dinner. Then I’m going straight to bed. I feel quite sick!’
He told one of the junior maids to light a fire and threw the remains of Yun’s letter into it.
Supper was soon served, but Bao-yu was in no mood for it and only sat there staring glumly in front of him.
After trying every form of pressure and persuasion Aroma finally succeeded in making him swallow a mouthful, only to see him put his bowl down once more and flop listless?ly onto his bed. Suddenly he began to cry.
Neither she nor Musk had the slightest idea what was the matter.
“Come on, you’ve got to tell us,’ protested Musk. ‘It’s all this Yun’s fault, or whatever his wretched name is. I can’t imagine what his stupid letter was all about, to have such a queer effect on you, laughing one minute, crying your heart out the next. If you carry on in this strange way much longer, you’ll worry us to death, indeed you will!’
She was on the verge of tears herself. Aroma could not help smiling:
‘Musky dear, don’t you go making things worse, please. He’s got quite enough on his mind as it is. Unless ‘of course you want people to think the letter had something to do with you…’
‘Well, that’s a stupid remark I must say!’ replied Musk. ‘You don’t know what it said, anyway. It might have been anything. Why drag me into it? Unless of course it’s got something to do’ with you…
Before Aroma could reply there was a splutter of laugh?ter from the bed and Bao-yu sat up, gave his clothes a shake and said to them both:
‘Come on, that’s’ enough. Let’s ‘go to sleep. I’ve got to work early in the morning.’ With these words he settled himself down and went to sleep.
The night passed uneventfully, and next morning, after completing his toilet, he set off for school. He had just walked 6ut of the doorway when he remembered some?thing and, calling to Tealeaf to wait, turned back.
‘Musk!’
She came hurrying out.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘If Yun comes today, tell him not to make a nuisance of himself here again or I’ll report him to Her Old Ladyship and Sir Zheng.’
‘I will.’
Bao-yu set off once more, and was on his way out when who should come bustling in but Jia Yun himself. When he saw Bao-yu he promptly saluted and said:
‘My heartiest congratulations, Uncle!’
Bao-yu took this as a reference to th,e business con?tained in the previous day’s letter and replied curtly:
‘You tactless meddling fool! It makes no difference to you if there are things people care about.
‘But Uncle!’ protested Yun with a smug smile. ‘If you don’t believe me, take a look for yourself. The crowds are outside the gate.’
‘What are you talking about?’ snapped Bao-yu, the anger rising in his voice.
At that moment a wave of shouting and cheering came wafting in from the street outside.
‘Hear that!’ exclaimed Jia Yun. ‘Now will you believe me?’
Bao-yu was more perplexed than ever. He could dis?tinguish a few words above the general din:
‘Have you people no manners? What do you mean by coming here and making this racket?’
Another voice replied:
‘The hand that raised Sir Jia has given us the privilege of bearing tidings other houses would be only too glad of re?ceiving!’
Bao-yu understood at last that his father’s promotion had been officially announced, and that the din outside the gates was coming from a crowd of professional well-wishers (their joy made the more vocal by the expectation of a tip). He was delighted and hurried on out of the Gar?den, only to be cornered again by Jia Yun.
‘Happy Uncle? Needless to say the joy would be dou?bled if we could only announce your betrothal as well…’
Bao-yu blushed fiercely and spat in Jia Yun’s face:
‘Ugh! Why don’t you clear off? You make me sick!’
Jia Yun blushed too.
‘What’s this? I can see you’re a little. .
‘A little what?’ asked Bao-yu angrily.
But Jia Yun’s nerve failed him and he left his remark unfinished.
Bao-yu hurried off to school, where Dai-ru greeted him with a smile:
‘I have just heard the good news, my boy. I must say, I am somewhat surprised to see you here at all today.’
‘I thought I should report to you first, sir, before going to offer my congratulations,’ replied Bao-yu with a polite smile.
‘I see. Well, no need to attend class today. Take a day’s grace. But please try not to fritter it away in that garden of yours. At your age, though you may not be able to take an active part in family affairs, I am sure you would benefit greatly from the company of your older cousins.’
‘Yes, sir.’
Bao-yu returned home. As he was approaching the inner gate of Grandmother Jia’s apartment, he encountered Li Gui coming in the opposite direction.
‘I’m glad you’re back,’ said Li Gui, halting by his side’ with a smile. ‘I was on my way to school to fetch you.’
‘Who told you to?’ asked Bao-yu.
‘Her Old Ladyship sent someone round to your place,’ replied Li Gui, ‘but the maids said you had already gone to school, so she sent someone with instructions for me to arrange a few days off school for you. I hear they are hav?ing players over for the festivities. Anyway, thanks, you’ve saved me a journey.’
Bao-yu went in, to find Grandmother Jia’s front court?yard overflbwing with maids and serving-women, their loyal faces beaming with pleasure and excitement:
‘You’re late, Master Bao! You’d better hurry on in and congratulate Her Old Ladyship!’
Bao-yu’s face lit up. When he entered the room, he found Grandmother Jia with Dai-yu and Xiang-yun sitting to her left and right up on the kang, while assembled down below were Ladies Xing and Wang, Tan-chun, Xi?chun, Li Wan, Xi-feng, Li Wan’s two cousins Wen and Qi, and Lady Xing’s niece Xing Xiu-yan. He noticed that Bao-chai, Bao-qin and Ying-chun were not there.
Overjoyed to see such a gathering, Bao-yu offered his congratulations first to Grandmother Jia, then to his mother and Lady Xing, and then greeted the rest of the family. He turned to Dai-yu with- a smile and said:
‘Are you quite recovered now, coz?’
‘Yes, thank you,’ replied Dai-yu, with a hint of a smile. ‘And you? I heard that you were not very well yourself.’
‘Yes, I had a sudden pain in my heart that night. It’s been better for quite a while, but I’ve been having to go to school every day, so I haven’t been able to come over and see you.
Before he had even finished speaking, Dai-yu turned away to talk to Tan-chun. Xi-feng was standing near them and observed sarcastically:
‘I thought you two were meant to be inseparable? The way you talk anyone would think you were strangers. Still, I suppose

His to honour,
Hers to obey…’

Everyone laughed. The colour flew into Dai-yu’s face and at first she was quite speechless with embarrassment. But thinking that some sort of reply was expected of her, she finally came out with:
‘Who’d expect you to understand…’
which seemed to amuse everyone even more.
After a moment’s reflection Xi-feng realized that her joke had been in rather poor taste, and she was about to introduce a fresh topic of conversation, in an attempt to clear the air a little, when Bao-yu suddenly turned to Dai?yu and said:
‘Coz, do you know what that tactless, blundering fool Yun tried to…’ But whatever it was he had been going to say, he thought better of it. There was a puzzled laugh from the others. Someone said:
‘What are you talking about?’
Dai-yu was as much in the dark as they were and smiled awkwardly. Bao-yu extricated himself by launching off at another tangent:
‘I heard just now that someone is planning to send over some players. When are they coming, does anyone know?’
They all stared at him in amazement and laughed. It was Xi-feng who replied:
‘You’re the one who’s heard. Why ask us?’
‘I’d better go and check,’ he said promptly.
‘Now don’t go getting into mischief out there,’ warned his grandmother. ‘You don’t want the crowd to make fun of you, do you? And remember, this is a very special day for your father, and if he comes home and finds you gad?ding about, there’s sure to be trouble.’
‘Yes, Grannie,’ replied Bao-yu, and effected his escape.
When he had gone, Grandmother Jia asked Xi-feng:
‘What’s all this about sending players?’
‘Uncle Wang Zi-sheng’s family,’ replied Xi-feng, ‘want to do something to congratulate you and Uncle Zheng and Auntie. They’ve hired a new troupe of young actors spe?cially, and they say that the day after tomorrow is a lucky one.
Xi-feng laughed:
‘And it is too, in more ways than one.
She looked at Dai-yu and smiled. Dai-yu smiled shyly back.
‘Of course!’ exclaimed Lady Wang. ‘It’s our niece’s birthday!’
When Grandmother Jia had taken in what they were saying she laughed out loud:
‘It just goes to show how absent-minded I’m getting in my old age! It’s a good thing I’ve Secretary Feng here to keep me organized. Well, what could be better.: they can celebrate your Uncle Zheng’s promotion, and we can cele?brate your birthday at the same time!’
This had everyone laughing, and it was proposed and carried unanimously that with such an apt way of putting things, the old lady positively had a right to enjoy such prodigious good fortune.
Bao-yu had returned in time to hear about the party and was beside himself with joy. They all sat down to lunch in an atmosphere of great excitement. After lunch, Jia Zheng returned from giving thanks at court, and having per?formed his ceremonial prostrations in the family shrine, came in to kotow before Grandmother Jia. He rose to his feet and said a few words before leaving to pay various official calls.
Over the next day or two there was constant bustle and confusion, as a stream of relatives besieged Rong-guo House. Horses and carriages thronged the main entrance, and in every corner important-looking gentlemen in starched official hats trimmed with sable sat waiting their turn. Truly:

Where flowers bloom,
Bees and butterflies abound;
Skies and oceans swell
When the moon is round.

*
Two days later, the players, on the instructions of Wang Zi-sheng and other relations, arrived early in the morning to set up their mobile stage in Grandmother Jia’s court?yard, facing the main hall. The Jia menfolk, in full dress, entertained their relatives in the open courtyard, where more than ten tables had been laid. A special glass play-viewing screen had been put up between the courtyard and the gallery overlooking it from the north side, and four tables had been laid in the enclosed space, to give the ladies a chance of seeing the plays, and particularly for Grandmother Jia’s benefit (as she was more enthusiastic about the whole venture than anyone else). Aunt Xue was installed at the head of the table of honour, with her sister Lady Wang and her niece Bao-qin, while Grandmother Jia sat at the head of the table opposite with Lady Xing and her niece Xiu-yan. The two remaining tables were still empty, and Grandmother Jia sent word for the girls to hurry up.
Presently Dai-yu arrived, ushered in by Xi-feng and a convoy of maids. She had chosen one or two of her newer things to wear, and as she came into the enclosure she looked exactly like the Goddess of the Moon descending to Earth. She greeted Grandmother Jia and her aunts with a shy smile, and Xiang-yun and the two Li sisters asked her to Sit at the head of their table. Her polite refusals were soon over-ruled by Grandmother Jia:
‘Go on, you must, dear. After all, this is your day too!’
‘Really?’ exclaimed Aunt Xue, rising to her feet. ‘Is Miss Lin celebrating something today as well?’
Grandmother Jia laughed:
‘It’s her birthday!’
‘Oh goodness, I quite forgot! How awful of me!’ Aunt Xue went up to Dai-yu: ‘I’m so sorry. I hope you’ll for?give me for being so forgetful. I must ask Bao-qin to call on you later and wish you happy returns properly.’
‘Please don’t go to such trouble on my account,’ mur?mured Dai-yu with a smile. She looked around her as they all sat down, and noticed that Bao-chai had not come.
‘I hope Cousin Chai isn’t ill or anything. Why couldn’t she come today?’
‘She was going to,’ replied Aunt Xue. ‘But we needed someone to look after things at home, so in the end she had to stay behind.’
Dai-yu flushed and said with a slightly puzzled smile:
‘Surely now that Cousin Pan’s married there’s no need for her to stay at home? She probably didn’t feel in the mood for all the noise and excitement. I’m sorry she didn’t come. I miss her such a lot.’
Aunt Xue smiled:
‘How very sweet of you, dear. She thinks of you all a great deal too. In a day or two I must tell her to come over and have a chat.’
The maids were already pouring wine and setting out dishes on the tables, while outside in the courtyard the show had begun. It opened, predictably enough, with a couple of festive pieces. The third selection, however, turned out to be something of a novelty. A chorus of Gol?den Pages and Jade Maidens came onto the stage, fairy streamers fluttering and flags aloft, to reveal in their midst a gorgeously attired lady, her head draped in black, her costume shimmering with the celestial hues of the Rain?bow Skirt and Feathered Jacket. She (or rather he, for the part was played by a female impersonator) sang a short aria and then left the stage.
None of the family could identify the piece at. all, but they overheard one of the guests saying:
‘That was “The Transfiguration”, from one of their latest productions, “The Palace of Pearls”. It tells the story of Chang E, who comes down to earth from her palace in the moon and is about to give her hand to her mortal lover when the Goddess of Mercy opens her eyes to the truth, and she dies before the marriage can take place. In that scene, she is being wafted up to the moon. Didn’t you catch the words of her aria?

‘Tis Love that rules the minds of men,
And of this Truth Eternal
Obscures all trace:
That even harvest moons must wane
And purest beauty vernal
Fade from grace.
Alas, ‘twas Mortal Love
That veiled my sight,
And all but stole me
From my Orb of Light.’

Next on the programme was ‘A Wife Eats Husks’, from ‘The Story of the Lute’, followed by ‘Bodhidharma and his Disciple Crossing the River’, from ‘The Pilgrim’s Path’. This last scene was full of the most spectacular feats of acrobatic mime and other phantasmagorical effects. The excitement had just reached its height when one of the Xue family’s servants, his face dripping with sweat, burst into the courtyard auditorium and hurried over to Xue Ke’s table:
‘Master Ke! Come home quickly! And send word in to Madam that she must come too. It’s very urgent!’
‘What’s happened?’ asked Xue Ke.
‘I’ll tell you when we get home, sir!’ panted the boy.
Without even stopping to thank his hosts, Xue Ke fol?lowed the boy out of the courtyard, sending one of the Jia maids in with a message to the ladies’ enclosure. When Aunt Xue heard the news, she went white in the face. Taking Bao-qin with her, she made a distracted farewell and went straight out to her carriage, leaving the whole assembly in a state of high alarm.
‘We had better send someone over with them,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘I am sure everyone is most anxious to learn what this is all about.’
They all agreed.

*
The players continued with their programme. But we must leave them and follow Aunt Xue, who on her arrival at home saw two yamen runners waiting in the inner gate?way. With them were some employees from the family pawnshop.
‘When Mrs Xue arrives,’ they were saying, ‘she’ll be able to explain everything.’
When the yamen runners saw this elderly lady sweeping up to the gate with her large retinue of male and female attendants, and realized the distinguished position of the. person they were dealing with, they stood to attention and let her pass. Aunt Xue went on through the reception hall and could already hear the sound of heavy wailing coming from her daughter-in-law’s apartment. She quickened her step. Bao-chai came out to meet her, her face wet with tears.
‘Have you heard, Mama? Please don’t panic! We must try to do something!’
They went inside together. Aunt Xue had already been told the main facts by one of the servants on her way in, and was still sobbing and trembling from the shock.
‘But who? Who was it?’ she asked agitatedly.
‘Madam,’ said one of the servants, ‘details like that are not going to make much difference at present. The law says “a life for a life”. So we must think what to do.’
‘Think!’ cried Aunt Xue hysterically. ‘What’s the earth?ly good of thinking at a time like this?’
‘The best thing as we see it,’ continued the servant, is this. First, send young Master Ke with some money tonight to visit Mr Pan in prison. Then, first thing tomor?row, Master Ke must get himself a good scrivener, some?one well-versed in legal terminology. He must offer him a good fee to make sure this death-sentence is quashed. Then, when that’s been done, we must ask one of the Jia gentlemen here to pull a few strings. But first of all, we must tip the yamen runners outside a few taels. Then we can get on with the rest of the plan.’
Aunt Xue was not convinced.
‘Just find the man’s family,’ she said. ‘Give them what?ever they want for funeral expenses and compensation. If they don’t press the charge, surely he’ll be let off lightly?’
Bao-chai’s voice could be heard through the door-curtain:
‘No, Mama, that will never do. The m6re money we hand out the more trouble we’ll cause in the long run. We should do as the boy says.’
‘What have I left to live for?’ sobbed Aunt Xue. ‘Let me go there and see him once! Then the two of us can die together!’
Bao-chai begged her to take heart, and at the same time called out for the boy to set off with Xue Ke at once. The maids helped Aunt Xue indoors again. Xue Ke came by on his way out.
‘Send someone home with a letter as soon as you have any news,’ Bao-chai instructed him. ‘You must stay there. We’re counting on you.’
Xue Ke promised to do his utmost and left.
While Bao-chai applied herself once more to the task of soothing her agitated mother, Xia Jin-gui took the oppor?tunity of launching an undisturbed attack on Caltrop:
‘So a murder was nothing to this family, was it?’ she screamed at her. ‘You all came straight up to town after?wards as if nothing had happened, did you? Well it looks as if you spoke once too often, Miss Swanky Panky! Be?cause this time it’s the real thing, and look at you! Where’s all your money and all your fine friends and posh relatives now? You’re all so scared you don’t know if you’re coming or going! And in a few days, when they put Pan away, then I suppose you’ll bugger off and leave me here to carry the can single-handed!’
She broke into one of her dramatic wails. Aunt Xue heard every word and was so furious that she fainted. Bao-chai was at her wits’ end. And in the midst of this pandemonium one of Lady Wang’s senior maids arrived, to ask ‘if there was any news’. This presented Bao-chai with an additional problem. She was fully aware of her delicate position since the official betrothal visit a few days previously, and knew that strictly speaking she should shun all contact with her future bridegroom’s family (including the domestic staff). However, the fact that the betrothal was still not finally settled, and the nature of the present emergency, seemed to justify a temporary waiving of the rules.
‘We don’t know the full story yet,’ she said to the maid. ‘All we’ve heard is that my brother has killed someone and that he has been arrested by the local magistrate. We don’t know exactly what kind of homicide he has been found guilty of, but Master Ke has gone to find Out. We should have more definite news in a day or two and will let Her Ladyship know straight away. Please thank her for her kind inquiry and say that at a later stage we’ll be sure to need all the support Sir She and Sir Zheng can give us.’
The maid returned with this message.
The next two days were spent by Aunt Xue and Bao?chai waiting in unbearable suspense. At last on the third day a boy came back with a letter from Xue Ke, which he gave to a maid to hand to the ladies. Bao-chai opened it, and this is what she read:
‘Pan’s case is “fatal bodily harm by mischance”, not intentional homicide”. I lodged an appeal in my own name first thing this morning and am still waiting for the magistrate’s rescript. Pan bungled his original statement, and once the appeal has been approved, we must change his plea at the rehearing. We should be able to get him off.
‘I urgently need TLs. 500. Have the pawnshop forward it without delay. Tell Aunt not to worry. The boy can tell you the rest.’
When Bao-chai had finished reading the letter aloud to her, Aunt Xue wiped her eyes and said:
‘His life hangs in the balance, doesn’t it?’
‘Before you go upsetting yourself all over again, Mama,’ said Bao-chai, ‘let’s send for the boy and ask him what he knows.’
A maid was sent to fetch the boy. When he came in, Aunt Xue told him to give them a full account of every?thing he had heard.
‘The evening we arrived,’ he began, ‘when I heard what Mr Pan told Master Ke, I nearly died of fright…
But for the rest of the account, please turn to the next chapter.

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