The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 91

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CHAPTER 91


In the pursuance of lust,
Moonbeam evolves an artful strata gem
In a flight of Zen,
Bao-yu makes an enigmatic confession

We saw in our last chapter how Xue Ke was startled from his troubled reflections by a sudden splutter of laughter from outside his window.
‘Moonbeam again! Or Jin-gui!’ he thought to himself. ‘I shall ignore them and see what happens.’
He listened for a while but there was no further sound. Not daring to touch the wine and sweetmeats, he closed the door and was about to undress when he heard a faint tap at the paper casement. He was already rattled by Moonbeam’s behaviour and beginning to feel out of his depth. Hearing the tapping and yet unable to detect a pre?sence outside the window, he didn’t know what to think. He did up his gown again and sat down abstractedly by the lamp. He took a sweetmeat from the table and turned it over restlessly in his hand, studying it from every angle. Suddenly something made him look round. A small peep?hole (of the lick-and-spittle variety) had appeared in the window. Going across and putting his eye to the hole, he squinted through and received a blast of air in the face that quite startled the wits out of him. It was followed by another splutter of laughter. Rushing back, he blew out the. lamp and lay down in the darkness, holding his breath.
A voice came from outside:
‘Are you going to sleep without trying the wine and sweetmeats?’
Xue Ke recognized it as Moonbeam’s voice but said nothing and lay there pretending to be asleep.
A few seconds later, in a disgruntled tone:
‘Miserable spoilsport! You don’t know what you’re missing!’
This time he could not identify the voice with any cer?tainty. It sounded like Moonbeam, but there was some?thing of Xia Jin-gui’s expression in it too. Whoever it was, there was no longer any doubt in his mind as to their in?tentions. He tossed and turned for most of that night, and it was not until after five o’clock that he finally fell asleep.
Shortly after dawn someone knocked at the door.
‘Who’s there?’ Xue Ke called out.
No answer. He got out of bed to open the door and saw Moonbeam, her hair combed simply back, wearing a tight little sleeveless jacket, its gold-striped neck-line cut in the shape of a guitar, its buttons seductively undone. She had a new-looking viridian scarf around her neck and instead of a skirt was sporting pomegranate-red lined?pantaloons of a flowery design, and a pair of smart red embroided slippers. She had come before doing her morn?ing toilet, to remove the sweetmeats before the rest of the household arose. Though rather taken aback to see her advancing into his room en négligé’, he asked politely:
‘Why are you up so early this morning?’
Moonbeam blushed in reply, piled the sweetmeats onto one plate and went out holding it in both hands. Xue Ke interpreted this as pique at her failure ~o seduce him the previous evening.
‘Oh well,’ he thought to himself, ‘it’s too bad if I’ve annoyed them. At least they’ll lose interest and leave me alone.’
He decided that he could forget about the whole busi?ness, and called for water to wash his face. It would be wise, he decided, to stay at home and take a couple pf days rest, for his own health and peace of mind, and also to avoid tile unwelcome attentions of Xue Pan’s so-called friends, who seeing the Xue family deprived of its head and observing his own youth and inexperience, had caught the scent of money in the air. Some of them would have been content to act as messengers; some professed a know?ledge of legal phraseology or claimed contacts behind the scenes and offered to deliver bribes to the officials and minions involved in the case; others advised him to make some money out of it for himself, while a few even tried scaring him with false rumours. Since he first encountered them, Xue Ke had done his utmost to avoid these un?savoury elements, but was aware that by openly rebuffing them he might create further trouble for himself. The only safe course, he concluded, was to lie low at home and await the confirmation of Pan’s sentence.
*

To return to Xia Jin-gui. She had sent Moonbeam over on the previous night with the wine and sweetmeats in order to explore Xue Ke’s susceptibility to her charms. When Moonbeam returned and described in detail what had hap?pened, Jin-gui realized that she had miscalculated and that by pursuing such a strategy she would cause herself much pointless trouble and forfeit Moonbeam’s respect. If she were to disguise her disappointment with a few words of feigned indifference, that would do nothing to relieve her own hankering after Xue Ke. Unable for the present to think of any other means of achieving her ends, she sat in moody silence.
She was unaware that Moonbeam had been thinking along exactly the same lines as herself. Moonbeam too reckoned that Xue Pan might not be back for some time and felt in dire need of a substitute. She had only been held back from procuring one by the fear of being caught at it by Jin-gui. Now that Jin-gui had made the first move, however, Moonbeam was only too glad to cruise along in her wake. She would step in first and become Xue Ke’s mistress, and Jin-gui would have no choice but to accept the fait accompli. Such was the reasoning behind her provocative behaviour.
Her first impression had been that the young master showed promise. True, he was not exactly leaping into her arms. She would have to play him slowly, which is pre?cisely what she was doing when, to her intense dis?appointment, he blew out the lamp and went to bed. She reported back to Jin-gui, anxious to see what new course of action she might suggest. As nothing was forthcoming from her mistress however but this moody silence, she helped her prepare for the night and herself went to bed.
She had a sleepless night. As she lay tossing and turn?ing, a new plan began to take shape in her mind. She would rise early and go to Xue Ke’s apartment at once to collect the tray; she would slip on a couple of the more alluring items in her wardrobe, but otherwise not bother with her morning toilet, in order to look as sleepy and seductive as possible, straight from the boudoir… She would observe what effect this had on Xue Ke, while maintaining a show of annoyance and indifference towards him. This surely would be his chance to repent of his folly. She could help him aboard and pip Jin-gui at the post.
In the event Xue Ke the morning after proved as totally incorruptible as he had been the evening before, and Moonbeam found herself obliged to go through in earnest with her charade of walking out in a huff. She did how?ever still keep her wits sufficiently about her to leave behind the wine-jug, as a pretext for one final manoeuvre.
‘Did anyone see you when you fetched the things?’Jin?g-gui asked her on her return.
‘Not a soul.’
‘What about Master Ke? Did he have anything to say?’
‘No.’
Jin-gui too had spent a sleepless night, without having thought of any alternative plan of campaign.
‘If I am to go ahead with things,’ she thought to herself, ‘I can hardly hope to keep Moonbeam in the dark much longer. I shall have to bring her in on it. I’m sure she won t say anything then. Besides I need her to act as a go-between. I can’t go myself. I’d better talk to her and see if we can’t think of a good plan between us.’
She smiled at Moonbeam and asked:
‘What do you make of Master Ke anyway?’ ‘He seems rather a fool.’
Jin-gui laughed.
‘How dare you insult one of the masters like that…’
Moonbeam laughed.
‘He’s asking for it, giving you the bird like that…’
‘And just what do you mean by that?’
‘Oh, only the way he wouldn’t touch any of the sweet?meats you sent of course… What else?’
She said this with a smirk and a meaningful look at Jin-?gui, who replied:
‘That’s quite enough of your insinuations! I sent those things to thank him for all that he’s done for Mr Pan, and I only asked you what had happened in case people had been gossiping. I have no idea what you are trying to suggest.’
‘There’s no need to worry, ma’am,’ said Moonbeam coolly. ‘I’m on your side, you can count on me. But we must be very discreet. It would be serious if word got around.’
Jin-gui felt her face burning.
‘You little whore! So you’ve fallen for him have you, and think you can use me as a cover for your goings-on, is that it?’
‘Think so if you like, ma’am. I was only trying to help. If you really fancy him, I think I have a plan.. “Every mouse will steal oil if he can.” He’s just scared of being found out, and wants to keep out of trouble. You must be patient, ma’am. Find as many little ways as you can of making yourself helpful. He is Mr Pan’s younger cousin, after all, and doesn’t have a wife. If you set your mind to it, I am sure you can get yourself into his good books, and no one will be able to say a word against you for it. In a few days he’ll be ready to show his gratitude by paying you a return visit. You lay on a little party here -I’ll help you get him drunk – and he’s yours! If he won’t play, we’ll create a scene and accuse him of making a pass that should clinch it. He’ll be too scared to say no then! If he still holds out, why then we’ll know that he’s just a sissy and not worth wasting time over anyway. What do you think?’
Jin-gui was puce in the face.
‘Why you little strumpet! I can see you’ve had a few in your time! No wonder Pan couldn’t let you out of his sight!’
Moonbeam pulled a face and laughed.
‘Is that all the thanks I get for helping to bring the two of you together?’
From now on Jin-gui’s only thought was the conquest of Xue Ke. And as she wished to accomplish this without attracting attention, the Xue compound enjoyed a brief respite from its usual alarms and excursions.
Later that same day Moonbeam went to collect the wine-jug. She was as scrupulously well-behaved as she had been in the morning, and caused Xue Ke, who watched her out of the corner of his eye, a certain amount of remorse and self-doubt.
‘Perhaps I was wrong,’ he thought to himself. ‘Perhaps I’ve been imagining the whole thing, and they really meant well. In which case my ingratitude may have offended her and who knows what trouble this may lead to. And it will all have been my own fault…’
A couple of days went by and all was quiet. Whenever he saw Moonbeam, she lowered her head and walked away without so much as a glance in his direction. Jin-gui, on the other hand, pursued him with an eagerness that made him feel most uncomfortable. But of all this more later.
*

Aunt Xue and Bao-chai noticed how quiet Jin-gui had be?come all of a sudden, and how charming she was being to everyone. The change came as a great surprise, but noth?ing could have pleased Aunt Xue more, and she reasoned to herself about it thus:
‘At the time of his marriage Pan must have crossed some unlucky star, which is what has caused all his subse?quent misfortune. Thanks to our financial resources and the efforts of the Jias we have managed to avert disaster in this court-case, and perhaps this sudden change on Jin?-gui’s part is a sign that his luck has turned for the good…’
It was in fact not far short of a miracle. One day after lunch Aunt Xue thought she would pay Jin-gui a visit, and set off supported by Prosper. She reached the court?yard in front of Jin-gui’s apartment, when she heard a man S voice engaged in conversation with Jin-gui outside. Prosper called ahead diplomatically:
‘Mrs Pan, Mrs Xue is here to see you!’
They were already in the doorway. As they advanced the figure of a man could be dimly seen escaping behind the door. Aunt Xue recoiled in alarm.
‘Do please come in and sit down, Mother,’ said Jin-gui. ‘That’s only my adopted brother Xia San. He’s from the country and not used to company. This is the first time he has been here and he has never been introduced. He was intending to call on you to pay his respects.’
‘If he is your brother, then I should be glad to meet him,’ said Aunt Xue.
Jin-gui called her brother out from his hiding-place, and he made a bow and paid his respects. Aunt Xue replied politely and sat down.
‘How long have you been in the capital?’ she asked by way of conversation.
‘I was only adopted into the family two months ago. Mother needed someone to look after household business. I arrived the day before yesterday, and came here today to see my new sister.’
Aunt Xue could see that he was rather an uncouth sort of fellow, and did not like to stay long.
‘I must be going,’ she said. ‘Don’t get up.’
Then turning to Jin-gui:
‘As this is your brother’s first visit, please invite him to stay for dinner.’
‘Yes, Mother.’
Aunt Xue took her leave.
When she was out of the room, Jin-gui turned to Xia San.
‘Sit down. I’ve kept our connection open and above board on purpose, so as to avoid suspicion from young Master Ke. I’ve some things I want you to buy for me in town, and I don’t want anyone to know about them.’
‘Of course, sis. Leave it to me. Give me the cash and I’ll guarantee to deliver the goods.’
‘Not so fast: you’d better be careful not to be swindled, or I might not accept delivery…’
After a little more banter of this kind, Jin-gui had din?ner with Xia San, after which she specified her commis?sions, gave him certain other instructions and he went on his way. From that day on he became a frequent visitor at Jin-gui’s apartment. The old janitor usually let him through without going through the proper procedure of making an announcement, knowing him to be Mrs Pan’s brother. His visits provided the wherewithal for many a plot. But we anticipate.
*

One day a letter arrived from Xue Pan. Aunt Xue opened it and sent for Bao-chai to read it to her. This is what it said:
‘Dear Mother,
I am being reasonably treated here in prison, so please set your mind at rest. I had some bad news yester?day however, from the clerk of the court. My sentence was approved at the prefectural level – I presume the fami?ly had been in touch with the prefect. But when the case came up before the circuit court, the Taotai rejected the judgement. The secretary here at the yamen has been very helpful and has sent an immediate petition in defence of the original judgement. But the Taotai has issued an of?ficial statement reprimanding the local mandarin for mal?practice. He wants .me to appear before the circuit court. If I do, I could be in trouble again. We can’t have approached the Taotai yet. Please send someone to do this as soon as my letter reaches you. And send Cousin Ke here at once. Any delay may result in my being sent under escort to the circuit court. On no account stint the money! Extremely urgent!’
This sent Aunt Xue into floods of tears. Bao-chai and Xue Ke did their best to calm her down, while at the same time impressing upon her the need to act swiftly. Once again she was obliged to part with her nephew – bags were packed, money weighed out, and Xue Ke prepared to set off that same night with one of the family shop-assistants. It was a night of feverish activity, and Bao-chai herself stayed up till the early hours, helping and making sure that nothing was overlooked by the servants. The com?bination of nervous strain and physical exhaustion proved too much for a girl of her gentle nature and refined up?bringing, and the next morning she went down with a fever and was unable to swallow water or medicine.
Oriole reported this at once to Aunt Xue, who came hurrying over. Finding Bao-chai unable to speak, her face bright red, her body burning hot to the touch, she im?mediately panicked and burst into tears. Bao-qin tried to comfort and support her aunt, while Caltrop was so affected by Bao-chai’s appearance that she could only stand by the bedside calling her name and weeping. Bao?chai was too weak to speak or move her hands. Her eyes were dry, her nose blocked. They sent for the doctor, whose prescription gradually brought her round and to the family’s intense relief the immediate crisis seemed to have been averted. The news had already reached the various inner apartments of the Rong-guo and Ning-guo mansions, and a maid soon arrived from Xi-feng’s with one of her Ten Fragrances Revivifying Pills, followed by a maid with one of Lady Wang’s Most Precious Pills. Grandmother Jia, Lady Xing, Lady Wang and all the ladies from both mansions including You-shi all sent maids to inquire how she was getting on, but all agreed that her illness should be kept a secret from Bao-yu. She went on taking various remedies for seven or eight days with no real improvement; it was only when she remem?bered her own Cold Fragrance Pills and took three of these that she began to recover. By the time Bao-yu learnt of her illness, she was already better and he did not go to visit her.
A letter arrived from Xue Ke, which Aunt Xue did not show to Bao-chai, for fear of upsetting her. She read it herself and went straight to Lady Wang to beg for her help, at the same time giving her an account of Bao-chai’s condition. After Aunt Xue had gone to bed, Lady Wang went in to plead with Jia Zheng.
‘With the higher-ranking officials a word is usually suf?ficient; but these provincials clearly need a more tangible incentive,’ he said somewhat grimly. ‘We shall have to dip into our pockets.’
Lady Wang went on to talk of Bao-chai:
‘The poor girl! I feel responsible for her: she is almost one of the family. The sooner she and Bao-yu are married the better. It is ruining her health the way things are.’
‘1 agree,’ replied Jia Zheng. ‘But her family are very dis?organized at present. And besides, it is midwinter. New Year will soon be upon us, and we shall all be busy put?ting our affairs in order. 1 propose the following time?table: the betrothal can take place sometime during the winter; early next year they can exchange presents; and the ceremony itself should be fixed for sometime after Mother’s birthday. I should like you to put this to your sister.
‘I will,’ replied Lady Wang.
The next day she told Aunt Xue, who thought the proposal a good one. After lunch the two of them went to see Grandmother Jia.
‘Have you just come over, my dear?’ inquired Grand?mother Jia of Aunt Xue, after the usual courtesies had been exchanged.
‘No, I was here yesterday,’ replied Aunt Xue. ‘But as it was rather late, I was not able to come and pay my respects.’
Lady Wang repeated Jia Zheng’s proposal to Grand?mother Jia, who seemed very happy with it. While they were talking, Bao-yu came into the room.
‘Have you had your lunch yet?’ asked his grandmother.
‘I’ve been home for lunch,’ he replied, ‘and now I’m on my way back to school. I called in. to see you, Grannie, and also I heard that Aunt Xue was here and wanted to pay my respects.’
Turning to Aunt Xue he continued:
‘Is Cousin Chai quite better now?’
Aunt Xue smiled.
‘Yes she is.’
Bao-yu noticed that his arrival had caused a sudden lull in the conversation. After sitting with them for a few min?utes, he also noticed that Aunt Xue was not being as affectionate towards him as usual, and mused to himself:
‘Even if she’s not in a good mood, I don’t see why they have to stop talking to me altogether…’
He set off for school greatly perplexed by what had happened.
That evening on his return he paid his usual evening calls and made his way to the Naiad’s House. Lifting the door-curtain, he went in and was received by Nightingale. Seeing that there was no one in the inner room, he asked Nightingale where Dai-yu had gone, and was informed that she had gone to call on Grandmother Jia.
‘Miss Lin heard that Mrs Xue was there,’ said Nightin?gale, ‘and wanted to pay her respects. Haven’t you been there this evening, Master Bao?’
‘Yes, I’ve just come from there, but I didn’t see Miss Lin.’
‘Wasn’t she there?’
‘No. Where could she have gone?’
‘I’m not sure.’
Bao-yu was about to set off again when he caught sight of the graceful figure of Dai-yu walking slowly towards the door with Snowgoose.
‘You’re back, coz!’ he exclaimed, stepping aside to let her pass, and then following her inside. She walked into the inner room.
‘Do come in and sit down,’ she said to Bao-yu. Night?ingale fetched another jacket and helped her into it. She sat down and asked him:
‘Did you see Mrs Xue at Grandmother’s?’
‘Yes, I did,’ replied Bao-yu.
‘Did she mention me at all?’
‘No. And she didn’t seem as friendly as usual towards me either. When I asked after Cousin Chai she just smiled and hardly said anything. I hope I haven’t offended her by not going over to visit Chai this last couple of days.’
Dai-yu gave a short laugh.
‘Have you been to see her?’
‘I didn’t know she was ill at first,’ protested Bao-yu, ‘I only heard a day or two ago, and I still haven’t been…’
‘Well that’s certain to be the reason…’
‘The truth is that neither Grandmother, Mother nor Father would let me go, and how could I without their permission? I used to be able to drop round and see her ten times a day if I felt like it; but now they’ve closed the little side-gate and I have to go round by the front, which is such a performance.’
‘But how’s she supposed to know all that?’
‘You know Chai: she’s sure to make allowances for me.’
‘You shouldn’t take it for granted,’ retorted Dai-yu.’Perhaps she won’t. It’s not as if it’s her mother who’s been ill: it’s Chai herself. Think of all the poetry contests, all the pleasures you’ve shared with her in the past – the flowers, the wine, the parties. Now she’s separated from us, and you know the troubles her family are having, yet when she falls seriously ill you behave with complete indifference. She’s bound to be offended.’
Bao-yu: ‘Surely you don’t mean she doesn’t like me any more?’
Dai-yu: ‘I have no idea. I can only surmise how she might reasonably be expected to feel.’
Bao-yu stared in silence. Dai-yu ignored him, told one of her maids to put some more incense on the brazier, took out a book and began reading it. After a minute or two Bao-yu frowned and stamped his foot fretfully.
‘What’s the point in my being alive? The world would be an altogether better place without this thing called “me”.’
‘Can’t you see?’ said Dai-yu. ‘It’s the illusion of “me” that creates the illusion of “others”, and a life lived under these twin illusions is bound to be beset with frustrations, fears, confusion, foolish dreams and a host of other obsta?cles and entanglements. I wasn’t speaking in earnest earlier on. Mrs Xue was just in low spirits when you saw her. There was no need for you to bring Cousin Chai into it. Mrs Xue came over because of Cousin Pan’s court-case. She was worried, and it’s hardly surprising she wasn’t in the mood to entertain you. You just allowed your imagination to run away with you and lead you astray.’
Her words brought Bao-yu a sudden sense of enlighten?ment.
‘Of course!’ he exclaimed with a laugh. ‘That’s exactly it! You’re so much more perceptive than I am! No wonder you defeated me with that koan last year, when I was so wrought up. For all my pretensions, I need you to guide me to the truth. This bumptious Buddha bows to your Single Flower!’
‘In that case,’ said Dai-yu, seeing her opportunity, ‘pre?pare yourself for another inquisition.’
Bao-yu crossed his legs, brought the palms of his hands together, closed his eyes, pursed his lips and said:
‘Pray begin.’
Dai-yu: ‘Now, let the First of my Propositions be that Cousin Chai likes you. Proposition the Second: she likes you not. The Third: she liked you a few days ago, but does no more. The Fourth: she does today, but will not do tomorrow. The Fifth: you like her, but she likes you not. The Sixth and last: she likes you, btit you like her not. Consider these Six Propositions well.’
For several minutes Bao-yu was completely silent. Then suddenly he burst out laughing and cried:
‘If all the Seas of Paradise were mine, with my simple gourd I’d be content.’
Dai-yu: ‘What if your gourd is carried away by the stream?’
Bao-yu: ‘Never! Wherever the stream flows, the gourd will always hold its own course.’
Dai-yu: ‘What if the flow comes to an end and your Pearl sinks?’
Bao-yu: ‘“Like a catkin held fast in a puddle,
This Zen Mind:
Not a partridge, gaily cavorting
In the spring wind.”’
Dai-yu: ‘The first rule of Zen is not to tell lies.’
Bao-yu: ‘But it’s the truth, so help me Buddha, the Dharma and the Holy Brotherhood.’
Dai-yu lowered her head in silence. She heard a ‘caw?caw’ outside the window, and a crow flew up into the sky, wheeling towards the south-east.
Bao-yu: ‘What sort of an omen is that?’
Dai-yu: ‘Our fates cannot be learned from the cries of birds.’
Before Bao-yu could think of a reply, Ripple came into the room and said: ‘Master Bao, please hurry! The Master sent someone to the Garden to ask if you were home from school yet, Aroma said you were, so you’d better be quick!’
Bao-yu jumped to his feet and hurried out in alarm. Dai-yu did not try to detain him. For the outcome, please read the next chapter.

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