The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 89



Our hero sees the handiwork of a departed love,
and is moved to write an ode
Frowner falls prey to hysterical fear
and resolves to starve to death

We have seen in the last chapter how Xi-feng forced her?self to get up, and was sitting brooding in her apartment, when suddenly a maid arrived with news of some fresh crisis.
‘What has happened?’ she asked in alarm.
‘I don’t know, ma’am,’ replied the maid. ‘A messenger has come from the Ministry for the Master. One of the pages on the inner gate reported to Her Ladyship, and Her Ladyship sent me here to ask for Mr Lian.’
Xi-feng became slightly calmer when she realized that it was only a Ministry affair.
‘Will you tell Her Ladyship,’ she said, ‘that Mr Lian was away last night on business and has not yet returned. She had better send round for Mr Zhen at the other man?sion.
‘Yes ma’ am.’ The maid departed.
Presently Cousin Zhen came over to Rong-guo House to receive the messenger from the Ministry. Having ascer?tained the facts, he went in to report to Lady Wang.
‘The messenger says that yesterday the President of the Yellow River Conservancy Board presented a memorial, describing the bursting of dykes throughout Honan Pro?vince and the flooding of several prefectures, departments and districts. They are allocating funds for reconstruction of city walls. This is going to mean a lot of extra admin?istrative work for the senior officials at the Ministry, and they wished to inform Sir Zheng at once.’
Having said this, Cousin Zhen withdrew. Jia Zheng was informed directly upon his return, and for most of the winter he was kept very busy and spent nearly all of his time at the Ministry. Although for Bao-yu this meant a period of less intensive studying, fear of being detected by his father still caused him to keep up his attendance at school, and inhibited him from spending much time with Dai-yu.
One morning in the middle of the tenth month, Bao-yu rose and. prepared to set off as usual for school. The weather had suddenly turned chilly, and he saw Aroma come in with a bundle of winter clothes.
‘It’s very cold today,’ she said. ‘You’ll need to wrap up well.’
She chose a garment for him to wear and wrapped up another, which she entrusted to one of the younger maids. The maid went out and gave it to Tealeaf, saying:
‘As it’s so cold today, you are to have this ready in case Master Bao wants to change.’
Tealeaf acknowledged these instructions, and followed Bao-yu to school with the felt-wrapped bundle in his arms.
On arrival, Bao-yu sat down to work. He was soon dis?tracted from his books by the sound of the paper case?ments vibrating in the wind.
‘The weather seems to have taken a turn for the worse, observed the Preceptor, opening a touch-hole in one of the windows and looking out. A great bank of dark clouds in the north-west was surging steadily across the sky. Tealeaf came into the classroom.
‘It’s getting colder, Master Bao. You had better put something warmer on.’
Bao-yu nodded, and Tealeaf walked across the room. The sight of the garment he was carrying had a most curious effect on Bao-yu, who gazed at it as if in a trance. The other boys watched with fascination.
‘Why did you have to bring this?’ asked Bao-yu. ‘Who gave it to you?’
He had recognized it at once as the Peacock Gold snow-cape, the one that Skybright had so bravely mended for him during her last illness.
‘The maids wrapped it up and told me to bring it,’ replied Tealeaf.
‘Well, I’m not feeling particularly cold,’said Bao-yu. ‘I don’t think I’ll wear it just now. You may as well wrap it up again.’
The Preceptor supposed that Bao-yu was reluctant to spoil so fine a garment, and noted with gratification this evidence of thrift.
‘Please put it on, Master Bao!’ pleaded Tealeaf. ‘For my sake! You know I’ll get the blame if you catch a cold.’
With extreme reluctance Bao-yu put it on, sat down again and stared glumly at his books. The Preceptor pre?sumed that he was concentrating once more on his studies and gave the incident no further thought.
That afternoon, when the day’s lessons were over, Bao?yu said that he felt unwell and asked to be excused from school the next day. Dai-ru had, of late, come to view his students in a more lenient light, more as compani9ns with whom to while away his old age. His own health was poor, and he was glad to lessen his burden of work by the judicious dispensation of sick-leave. Besides, he knew that Sir Zheng had more important matters on his mind, and that Grandmother Jia always indulged her favourite grandson. With a nod he indicated to Bao-yu that his request was granted.
Bao-yu went straight home. After calling briefly on his mother and grandmother, neither of whom questioned his plea of illness, he returned to the Garden. He was not at all his usual smiling talkative self, in fact he hardly said a word to Aroma and the others, but lay down dressed as he was on the kang.
‘Dinner’s ready,’ said Aroma. ‘Do you want it now, or will you wait till later?’
Bao-yu: ‘I won’t have anything to eat. I’m not feeling well. You just have yours.
Aroma: ‘Well, you might at least take off that lovely cape. You’ll crumple it and ruin it.’
Bao-yu: ‘I want to keep it on.’
Aroma: ‘It’s not just the cape that I’m worried about. Look how carefully it’s been darned. You’ll spoil the stitching.’
This touched Bao-yu to the quick. He heaved a deep sigh.
‘Oh all right! Put it away then. Wrap it up carefully. I shall never wear it again.
He stood up to take it off. Aroma came over to take it from him, but he had already begun to fold it himself
‘Why are you being so industrious today?’ she asked in surprise.
He made no reply but went on folding.
‘Where’s the wrapper?’ he asked when he had finished.
Musk handed it to him, and as he carefully wrapped the cape, she turned to give Aroma a wink. Bao-yu took no notice of them but sat down, looking thoroughly dejected. The clock on the shelf chimed, and he glanced down at his watch. It was already half-past five. Shortly afterwards a junior maid came in to light the lamps.
‘If you won’t have a proper meal, at least have a little hot congee,’ pleaded Aroma. ‘If you go to bed on an emp?ty stomach you could easily catch a fever. And then think of all the trouble we’ll have.’
He shook his head.
‘I’m not hungry. I’d only feel worse if I tried to force something down.’
‘Well in that case,’ said Aroma, ‘you should at least have an early night.’
She and Musk made his bed and Bao-yu lay down. He tossed and turned, but found it quite impossible to get to sleep. Finally, just before dawn, he dozed off, only to awake again half an hour later. Aroma and Musk were already up and about.
‘I heard you tossing and turning till the early hours,’ said Aroma. ‘I didn’t dare disturb you. Then I fell asleep my?self. Did you manage to sleep in the end?’
‘A bit. But I woke up again almost at once.
‘Have you got a pain anywhere?’ ‘No. I just feel depressed.’
‘Will you be going to school today?’
‘No. I asked for the day off yesterday. I thought I might go for a walk in the Garden to try and throw off this depression. But I think it will be too cold. Will you tell them to clear a room for me and put an incense burner and my writing things in it? I won’t need you today. I just want to sit quietly on my own for a while. Tell the others I don’t want to be disturbed.’
‘Of course no one will disturb you if you want to study quietly,’ said Musk as soon as she heard this.
‘I think it’s an excellent idea,’ said Aroma. ‘You will be able to keep warm, and a day of studying on your own will help you to feel more settled.’ She added: ‘But please, if you don’t feel like eating a proper meal, have something. What would you like? Tell me now, and I can get them to prepare it in the kitchen.’
‘Whatever’s easiest,’ replied Bao-yu. ‘Don’t go to a lot of fuss. It would be nice to have some fruit in the room, for the scent.’
‘Which room would you prefer?’ asked Aroma. ‘They are all rather cluttered, except Skybright’s old room, which has been empty for quite a while. That might be a bit cold and lonely though.’
‘That doesn’t matter,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Have the charcoal brazier moved in there.’
Aroma ~gave instructions for this to be done, and as she was speaking a maid came in carrying a tray with a bowl and a pair of ivory chopsticks, which she handed to Musk, saying:
‘Here’s the soup Miss Hua ordered from the kitchen.’
Musk took the tray and saw that the bowl contained Bird’s Nest Soup.
‘Is this what you ordered?’ she asked Aroma.
‘Yes,’ replied Aroma with a smile. ‘I thought that as Master Bao had nothing to eat last night- and as he spent most of the night tossing in bed, he’d feel rather empty this morning, so I sent the younger maids to order this specially from the kitchen.’
She told the maid to bring up a table, and Musk served Bao-yu with the soup. When he had drunk it and rinsed his mouth, Ripple came in:
‘The room’s ready,’ she said. ‘We’re waiting for the fire to get going properly and the air to clear, and then you can go in, Master Bao.’
He nodded, but was too lost in thought to reply. Short?ly afterwards a maid came in to report that his writing things had been laid out. She received a perfunctory acknowledgement from Bao-yu and was immediately fol?lowed by another maid, who announced that breakfast was ready and asked where he wanted it served.
‘Oh, just bring it in here,’ said Bao-yu. ‘There’s no need to make all this fuss.’
The maid went out and returned with his breakfast. Bao-yu laughed and turning to Musk and Aroma said:
‘I feel so depressed. I honestly don’t think I could manage this on my own. Why don’t you two join me? That might make the food taste sweeter, and then perhaps I might be able to eat more of it…’
Musk smiled.
‘That’s just a whim of yours, Master Bao. You know it wouldn’t be right for us to eat with you.’
‘I don’t agree,’ said Aroma. ‘We’ve often drunk wine together in the past. I think it can be allowed as an excep?tion, to cheer him up. Though of course as a regular prac?tice it would be quite out of the question.’
So the three of them sat down, Bao-yu at the head and the two maids at either side of the table. After breakfast, one of the junior maids brought in the ‘rinsing’ tea, and Musk and Aroma supervised the clearing of the table. The tea was served and Bao-yu sat in gloomy silence again.
‘Is the room ready yet?’ he asked eventually.
‘Ripple came in earlier on to tell you,’ said Musk. ‘What a silly question!’
After sitting there a moment longer, he made his way over to Skybright’s old room. Having lit a stick of incense and arranged – the fruit on the table, he dismissed all the maids and closed the door. Aroma and the others stood outside with bated breath.
He selected a length of pink paper with a gold-splash on it and flower patterns in the corners, said a short prayer, raised his brush and began to write:


O Sweetest and most
Inseparable friend!
Alas! that in so cruel a storm
Your life should end!
Your voice is gone, its tender
Music none can learn.
Forever eastward flows the stream,
Never to return.
Though dreams may never show
Your face to me again,
I see the Peacock Cape and feel
A haunting pain.
When he had finished writing, Bao-yu took a burning joss-stick, held the paper to it and set the ode alight. He sat in silence until the bundle of incense-sticks had burned to the end, then opened the door and walked out.
‘Why are you coming Out again so soon?’ inquired Aroma. ‘Are you feeling low again?’
He feigned a laugh.
‘I was rather depressed earlier on. I needed to be on my own for a bit in a quiet place. I feel better now. I think I shall take a stroll.’
He walked straight out into the Garden. When he reached the Naiad’s House, he called from the courtyard:
‘Is Cousin Lin at home?’
‘Who’s that?’ replied Nightingale.
She raised the door-curtain and saw him standing there.
‘Oh it’s you, Master Bao,’ she said with a smile. ‘Miss Lin is inside. Please come in and sit down.’
As Bao-yu went in with her, Dai-yu’s voice could be heard from the inner room:
‘Nightingale, please ask Master Bao to come in and wait a moment.’
Bao-yu, walking towards the inner room, stopped to admire the pair of calligraphic scrolls that hung one on either side of the doorway. The calligraphy looked recent and had been done on strips of dark purple paper, splashed with gold and decorated with a pattern of clouds and dragons. The two lines ran:

Through casement green the moon shines brightly still; In bamboo chronicles the ancients are but empty words.

Bao-yu read them with an appreciative smile and passed through into the inner room.
‘What are you doing, coz?’ he inquired with a smile.
Dai-yu stood up, took a couple of steps towards him, smiled and said:
‘Please sit down. I’m copying out part of this sutra. I only have two lines left to do. I’ll lust finish and then we can sit and chat.’
She told Snowgoose to pour him some tea.
‘Please carry on writing,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Don’t take any notice of me.’
His attention had been caught by a painting hanging on the centre wall of the room. It was a vertical scroll show?ing Chang E, the Moon Goddess, with one of her atten?dants, and another fairy, also with an attendant who was carrying what seemed to be a long bag containing clothes. Apart from the clouds that surrounded the figures, there were no background details of any kind. The linear style of the picture was reminiscent of the Song master Li Long-mian. It bore the title ‘The Contest in the Cold’, written in the antique ba-fen style.
‘Have you hung this picture of the Contest in the Cold here recently, coz?’ asked Bao-yu.
‘Yes. I remembered it yesterday while they were tidying the room, and so I brought it out and told.them to hang it up.’
‘What’s the allusion in the title?’
Dai-yu laughed.
‘Surely you know! It’s such a well-known poem… ‘I can’t quite recall it at present,’ confessed Bao-yu, smiling rather sheepishly. ‘Please tell me.’
‘Don’t you remember Li Shang-yin’s lines:

Braving the cold,
Fairy Frost and Lady Moon
Parade their rival charms…’?

‘Of course!’ exclaimed Bao-yu. ‘How exquisite! And what an unusual subject! This is the perfect time of year to have it up too.’
He continued to amble round the room, inspecting it in a leisurely fashion, and Snowgoose brought him a cup of tea. He drank his tea, and in a few minutes Dai-yu finished the section of the sutra she was copying, and stood up.
‘Forgive me,’ she said.
‘You know you don’t have to stand on ceremony with me,’ he replied with a smile.
He observed that she was wearing a little pale blue fur-lined dress embroidered with flowers, and an ermine-lined sleeveless jacket, while her hair was coiled up in her every?day style and had no flowers in it but only a flat hairpin of purest gold. Her padded underskirt was pink, and embroi?dered with flowers. How graceful she seemed, as a jade tree leaning in the wind; how gentle, as a fragrant lotus whose petals are moist with dew!
‘Have you been playing your Qin at all these last few days?’ he inquired.
‘Not for a day or two. This sutra-copying makes my hands too cold.’
‘Maybe. it’s just as well,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I know the Qin is a fine thing in its way, but I can’t see that it does any real good. I have never heard of it bringing prosperity or long life; it only seems to cause sorrow and distress. And it must be such a labour to memorize those tablatures. I think, coz, that with your delicate constitution you should avoid anything so strenuous.’
Dai-yu smiled somewhat scornfully.
‘Is that the Qin you play?’ Bao-yu went on, pointing to one hanging on the wall. ‘Isn’t it rather short?’
‘Not really,’ explained Dai-yu. ‘When I was a little girl and first started learning, I couldn’t reach on an ordinary Qin, so we had this one specially made. It’s not a collec?tor’s piece of course, made with wood ‘saved from the flames’ – but it has a Crane Fairy and a Phoenix Tail, and the Dragon’s Pool sound-hole and Goose Foot tuning-pegs are all in the correct proportions. And look at the crackling on the varnish. Doesn’t that look just like Cow Hair crackle to you? The fine workmanship gives it a beautiful tone.’
‘Have you been writing any poetry recently, coz?’ Bao?yu went on to inquire.
‘Not much, not since the last meeting of the club.’
He laughed. ‘You can’t fool me. I heard you chanting. How did it go now?

Why grieve to watch
The wheel of Karma turn?
A moonlike purity remains
My constant goal…

I found your setting very striking. You did write it didn’t you?’
Dai-yu: ‘How did you come to hear it?’
Bao-yu: ‘I heard you playing when I was walking back from Smartweed Loggia a few days ago. The music was so lovely and I didn’t want to interrupt you, so I just listened quietly for a while and then went on my way. There is one thing I’ve been meaning to ask you. I noticed that in the first part you use a level-tone rhyme, but suddenly change to an oblique tone at the end. Why is that?’
Dai-yu: ‘That is free composition. One doesn’t have to abide by any rules. One just goes wherever the inspiration takes one.’
Bao-yu: ‘I see! I’m afraid such subtleties were lost on my untrained ears.’
Dai-yu: ‘True lovers of music have always been few.’
Bao-yu realized that without meaning to he had said the wrong thing, and was afraid that he had alienated Dai-yu. He sat there for a while. There was so much he wanted to say, but he was now too nervous to open his mouth again. Dai-yu had also spoken without thinking, and on reflection she wished that she had not been so scathing, and withdrew silently into her shell. Her silence only increased Bao-yu’s own misgivings, and finally in some embarrassment he stood up and said:
‘I must be on my way to see Tan. Please don’t get up.’
‘Give her my regards when you see her, will you?’ said Dai-yu.
‘I will,’ he replied, and departed. Dai-yu saw him to the door, then returned to her chair and sat brooding to herself.
‘Bao-yu’s been so odd recently. He doesn’t seem to say what he’s thinking. He’s friendly one minute and distant the next. I wonder what it means?’
Nightingale came in. ‘Have you finished copying for today, Miss? Shall I put your writing things away now?’
‘I shan’t be doing any more,’ replied Dai-yu. ‘You can clear them away.’
Dai-yu went into the inner room and lay down on her bed, slowly turning all these things over in her mind. Nightingale came in to ask if she would like some tea.
‘No, thank you. I just want to be alone and lie down for a bit.’
‘Very well, Miss.’ Nightingale went out, to find Snowgoose standing in the doorway, staring oddly in front of her. She went up to her and said:
‘What’s the matter with you?’ Snowgoose was lost in thought, and the question gave her quite a turn.
‘Sh! Don’t say a word! I’ve heard something very strange. If I tell you, you must promise not to breathe a word to anyone.’
As she said this Snowgoose shot her lips out in the direction of Dai-yu’s bedroom, then began walking away, nodding to Nightingale to follow her. They reached the foot of the terrace and she began again in a whisper:
‘Have you heard that Bao-yu’s engaged to be married?’ Nightingale gave a start. ‘I don’t believe you! It can’t be true!’ ‘It is! Nearly everyone knows except us. ‘Who told you?’
‘Scribe. His fiancée is a prefect’s daughter. She’s very good-looking and comes from a wealthy family.’
As Snowgoose was speaking, Nightingale heard Dai-yu cough and thought she could hear her getting up again. Worried that she might come out and overhear them, she took Snowgoose by the hand and motioned to her to be silent. She looked inside, but all seemed quiet. She asked Snowgoose in a low whisper:
‘What exactly did Scribe say?’
‘Do you remember,’ replied Snowgoose, ‘a day or two ago you sent me to Miss Tan’s to thank her for some?thing? Well, she wasn’t home, but Scribe was. We started chatting, and one of us happened to mention Master Bao and his naughty ways. Scribe said: “When will Master Bao ever grow up? He doesn’t take anything seriously. And to think that he’s engaged to be married now – and still as silly as ever!” I asked her if the engagement had been set?tled, and she said that it had and that the go-between was a Mr Wang, a close relation on the Ning-guo side, so the whole thing was a foregone conclusion.’
Nightingale put her head thoughtfully to one side. ‘How very strange!’ she thought to herself.
‘Why has no one in the family mentioned it?’ she asked Snowgoose.
‘That’s Her Old Ladyship’s idea – so Scribe said. It’s in case Bao-yu finds out and is distracted from his studies. She made me promise not to tell a soul, and said she would blame me if word got around.’
Snowgoose pointed towards the house.
‘That’s why I haven’t mentioned it in front of her. But today when you asked, I thought I could tell you the truth.’
As she was speaking there was a loud squawk from the parrot:
‘Miss Lin’s back! Put the kettle on!’
The two maids had the fright of their lives and turned round expecting to see Dai-yu. But seeing no one, and realizing their mistake, they scolded the bird and went in?side. They found Dai-yu at her chair. She was out of breath and had clearly only just sat down. Nightingale asked rather awkwardly if she wanted any tea or water.
‘Where have you two been all this time?’ asked Dai-yu. ‘No one came when I called.’
She walked back to the kang and lay down once more facing the wall, telling them to let down the bed-curtains. They did so and left the room, each secretly thinking to herself that she had overheard them, but neither daring to say so.
Dai-yu, brooding on her bed, had heard them whisper?ing outside and had crept to the door to eavesdrop. De?tails of their conversation eluded her but the main sub?stance was clear. She felt as though plunged into a great ocean. The prophecy contained in her nightmare was to be fulfilled after all. Bitterness and grief overwhelmed her. There was Only one way of escape left. She must die. She must not live to see this dreaded thing take place. Without Bao-yu what would life be worth anyway? She had no par?ents of her own to turn to. Surely if she neglected herself daily from now on, in a few months she would be able to undermine her health and leave this world and all its trou?bles behind her?
Having formed this resolution, without bothering to pull up her quilt or put on any extra clothes she closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. Nightingale and Snow-goose came in several times to wait on her, but seeing no sign of movement did not dare disturb her, even for din?ner. Later, when the lamps were lit, Nightingale peeped through the curtains and saw that she had fallen asleep with her covers in a crumpled heap at her feet. Afraid she might catch cold, Nightingale gently pulled them over her. Dai-yu lay still until she had gone, then pushed them back again.
Meanwhile Nightingale questioned Snowgoose again:
‘Are you sure you weren’t making it up?’
‘Of course I wasn’t!’ replied Snowgoose rather indig?nantly.
Nightingale: ‘But how did Scribe come to know?’
Snowgoose: ‘It was Crimson that heard it first at Mrs Lian’s.’
Nightingale: ‘I think Miss Lin must have overheard us. I can tell that something has upset her greatly. We must be careful never to mention it again.’
The two maids tidied up and made themselves ready for bed. Nightingale went in to see how Dai-yu was and found the quilt in the same crumpled heap as before. She pulled it lightly back. That night passed without further event.
The next morning Dai-yu rose early without waking either of the maids, and sat up on her own; lost in thought. Nightingale awoke to find her already up and said in surprise:
‘You’re up very early this morning, Miss!’
‘I know I am,’ replied Dai-yu rather curtly. ‘It’s be-cause I went to sleep so early last night.’
Nightingale quickly dressed and woke Snowgoose, and the two of them waited on Dai-yu at her toilet. She sat staring into the mirror. Tears began to stream down her face, and her silk scarf was soon wet through. In the poet’s words:

A wasted face
reflected in the spring stream;
And pity flows
from face to mirror’d face
and back again.

Nightingale stood by, not daring to utter a single comfort?ing word, for fear that she would say the wrong thing and cause further anguish. Dai-yu sat motionless for a con?siderable while, then finally began her morning toilet, negligently, her eyes still brimming with tears. When it was done, she remained sitting where she was for a few minutes, then asked Nightingale to light some of the Tibe?tan incense.
‘But Miss,’ protested Nightingale, ‘you’ve hardly had any sleep. What do you want to go lighting incense for? You’re surely not going to start copying the sutra again are you?’
Dai-yu nodded.
‘But you woke so early, Miss. If you start writing now you’ll exhaust yourself.’
‘What does that matter? The sooner it’s finished the bet?ter. I only want to do it to keep myself occupied anyway. And in days to come you will have my writing to remem?ber me by.’
As she said this tears began to pour down her cheeks, and Nightingale was no longer able to offer consolation but burst into tears herself.
Dai-yu was resolved that from this day forward she would deliberately destroy her health. She soon lost her appetite, and gradually began to waste away. Bao-yu visited her whenever he could after school, but although there were a million things she wanted to tell him, her consciousness that they were no longer children inhibited her from showing her affection by teasing him in the old way, and rendered her powerless to express what was preying on her mind. Bao-yu for his part would have liked to talk with her sincerely and offer her some genuine comfort; but he was afraid of aggravating her illness by offending her in some way, and so when he did see her, he merely inquired politely how she was feeling and added a few words of encouragement. Theirs was a true case of estrangement in the very extremity of love.
Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang showed a motherly concern for Dai-yu, which however went no further than calling in the doctor. Not knowing the inner source of her illness, they put it down to her sickly constitution, and Nightingale and Snowgoose were much too afraid to tell them the truth. Dai-yu weakened day by day. After a fortnight her stomach had shrunk to the point where she could no longer bring herself to eat even gruel. Every con?versation she overheard during the day seemed to her to be connected in some way with Bao-yu’s marriage. Every servant she saw from Green Delights seemed to be in?volved in the preparations. When Aunt Xue came to visit her, Bao-chai’s absence confirmed her suspicions. She began to hope that no one would come to see her. She refused to take her medicine. Her only remaining wish was to be left alone, and to die as quickly as possible. In her dreams she constantly heard people addressing the new ‘Mrs Bao’, and her mind grew totally obsessed with the idea, like the proverbial drinker who, seeing a curved bow reflected in his cup, is convinced that he has swallowed a snake.
A few weeks of this self-imposed starvation and it seemed as if she must soon die. Even the thinnest of gruels was now an impossibility. Her breathing was scarcely per?ceptible. She was hanging on by the slenderest thread. To learn whether she was to survive this crisis or not, please turn to the next chapter.

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