The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 94

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CHAPTER 94

Grandmother Jia gives a crab-blossom party:
a celebration of the ominous
Bao-yu loses his Magic Jade: a strange disappearance
of the numinous

Lai Da led Jia Qin off, to await the Master’s return in the morning.
The little novices were thrilled to be back in the Garden and were eager to. revisit their favourite haunts, imagining that the next day would be taken up with preparations for their visit to the Palace. Imagine their dismay when they found themselves prisoners: Lai Da’s instructions to the old women and pages on duty were to feed them in their rooms and keep them in close confinement. The girls. had no idea why they were being treated in this way and spent the night sitting up in suspense. Although the maids in the Garden’s various residences knew by now of their arrival, they had only been given the official story and knew nothing of the real facts of the case.
Early next day Jia Zheng, having completed his night duty, was about to leave the Board when another urgent file was passed down to him: the City Wall Repairs Esti?mates and Accounts for two of the Provincial Capitals, for Immediate Audit. He foresaw a considerable delay, and sent a message home to Jia Lian, authorizing him to go ahead and question Lai Da when he returned from the Temple, and to deal with the case as he saw fit.
Jia Lian received these instructions with relief, mainly on young Qin’s behalf, as he would now be spared the Master’s wrath. On further reflection, however, it occur?red to him that he might attract Jia Zheng’s suspicion if he were to brush the entire affair under the carpet. It would be wiser to consult Lady Wang. Then if he incurred the Master’s displeasure, at least he would not be solely responsible.
Having decided on this course of action, Jia Lian :went to see Lady Wang and told her what had happened, con?cluding:
‘Uncle Zheng was extremely angry about the anony?mous poster and gave orders for Lai Da to bring young Qin and all the girls here for questioning. Today Uncle is too busy to deal with this sordid matter himself, and has asked me to consult you about it. What do you think we should do, Aunt?’
‘I never heard of such a disgraceful business!’ exclaimed Lady Wang in horror. ‘If young Qin really has behaved in this degrading fashion, the family should have nothing more to do with him. Mind you, it’s a despicable way to carry on, to go putting posters up about people… Do you suppose there is any truth in it? Have you asked Qin about it yet? What has he to say for himself?’
‘I’ve questioned him,’ replied Lian. ‘Only a few mo?ments ago, as a matter of fact. Of course he denied the whole thing. But consider, Aunt; supposing he really had done it, do you think he would admit to it? Personally I don’t think he did. He knows that the girls are liable to be called to Court at short notice, and would be too scared of a scandal. We could find out the truth easily enough. But what then? What do you suggest?’
‘Where are the girls now?’ asked Lady Wang.
‘They are locked up in the Garden,’ replied Jia Lian.
‘Do the others know that they are there?’
‘They probably all know by now. But so far as they are concerned the girls are on their way to the Palace. That is what everyone has been told.’
‘Good,’ said Lady Wang. ‘We must get rid of these crea?tures immediately, once and for all. I never wanted to keep them on in the first place it was all your idea and Xi-feng’s. Didn’t I say it would end in trouble? You’d better tell Lai Da to go through them one by one and find out if they’ve any relatives left at home. Find their con?tracts and authorize whatever money is necessary to hire a boat for them – twenty or thirty taels should be enough. Put someone dependable in charge and have them all taken home to wherever they came from in the first place. They can take their contracts with them, and that will be the end of that. Even if one or two of them have been up to some mischief, I don’t think it would be fair to punish them in?discriminately, by making them all return to lay-life. And if we hand them over to the official broker who usually finds husbands for orphan girls, even though we don’t want the body price, someone is sure to try and make money out of them, and no one will think of their wel?fare. Who knows what might happen to them? As for Qin, I want you to tell him in no uncertain manner exact?ly what we think of him. He is never to come here again except for a clan sacrifice or some other big celebration. He had better keep well out of Sir Zheng’s way too, unless he wants a taste of real trouble. And don’t forget to tell the accounts people to cancel the relevant entry.
‘Send someone to the Temple,’ concluded Lady Wang, ‘with strict instructions from Sir Zheng that none of the male members of the clan is to be allowed in there, except for the specific purpose of burning paper-money at the grave-site. And if there is any more nonsense, we will have all the Sisters removed too.’
Jia Lian took this all in and went to give Lai Da his orders.
‘That is what Her Ladyship says you are to do,’ he said. ‘Report to me when you’ve finished, and I shall report back to Her Ladyship. Look smart. When Sir Zheng comes in, all you need do is repeat Her Ladyship’s instructions.’
‘It’s very charitable of Her Ladyship to deal so gener?ously with these worthless people,’ commented Lai Da. ‘I’ll make sure I pick a good ‘un to take them all home, carrying on Her Ladyship’s good work, so to speak. And I’ll bring young Master Qin in here, sir, for you to deal with. As for that anonymous bill-sticker, I’ll track him down, and when I lay my hands on him I’ll teach him a lesson he won’t forget in a hurry.’
Jia Lian nodded.
‘Good.’
Jia Qin was summoned and disposed of, and Lai Da dealt with the girls in accordance with Lady Wang’s in?structions.
When Jia Zheng came home that evening, Jia Lian and Lai Da both went in to report. Jia Zheng was not a man to look for unnecessary trouble, and was content to consider the matter closed. The news that the Jia household had dismissed twenty-four girl novices soon spread, and every young rake in town fancied the idea of getting hold of one of them for himself. What did happen to the girls in the end, and whether or not they ever reached home, our story does not relate, and it would be idle to speculate.
*

Let us return instead to the Naiad’s House. With the slight improvement in Dai-yu’s health, Nightingale was less busy than usual. Hearing of the arrival of the novices, and curious about the event that called for their presence at Court, she decided to pay a visit to Grandmother Jia’s apartment, in the hope of finding out more from one of the maids there. She arrived just as Faithful was coming off duty and the two of them were able to sit down for a chat. Nightingale mentioned the novices. Their presence in the Garden came as a complete surprise to Faithful who exclaimed:
‘That’s the first I’ve heard of it! I’ll ask Mrs Lian about it later on, she’ll be sure to know.’
At that moment two old women from Mr Fu Shi’s establishment came to call on Grandmother Jia, and Faith?ful went to take them through. Grandmother Jia had just retired for her midday nap, however, so the women ex?changed a few words with Faithful and went on their way again.
‘Where are those two from?’ asked Nightingale.
‘They’re a tiresome pair,’ replied Faithful. ‘They’re always calling on Her Old Ladyship and telling her how wonderful their Miss Fu is – so sweet-natured, beautiful, well-mannered, softly spoken, a perfect needlewoman, deft with her writing-brush, nimble with her abacus, a para?gon of daughterly obedience, kind and ladylike towards the servants, and so on and so forth… Every time they come they treat Her Old Ladyship to the same recital. I can’t bear that sort of thing, but Her Old Ladyship seems to love it. And the strange thing is that Bao-yu, who normal?ly finds old women like that most irritating, makes an ex?ception of these two. A few days ago, when they were here last, they said that Mr Fu wouldn’t look at any of his sis?ter’s suitors (and there are plenty of them), but had set his heart on her marrying into a family like ours. They sung her praises all over again. Somehow they always seem to say just the thing to please the old lady.’
Nightingale looked thoughtful for a moment. Then she asked with affected nonchalance:
‘If Her Old Ladyship is so pleased with what they say, why doesn’t she marry Bao-yu to the young lady?’
Faithful was on the very point of explaining to Night?ingale the real reason, when she heard a call from inside:
‘Her Old Ladyship is awake!’
She hurried in, leaving Nightingale to make her own way home.
As Nightingale reached the Garden and began to walk towards the Naiad’s House, she thought to herself:
‘Anyone would suppose Bao-yu to be the only boy in the world, from the amount of time we all spend thinking about him! My poor mistress lust seems to get more and more besotted with him. Whenever I see her sinking into one of her depressions, I can tell it’s because of him. That’s what has been making her fall ill all the time too. What with all the uncertainty about the bond of gold and jade, and now this Miss Fu – I don’t know! I always thought Bao-yu loved Miss Lin, but from what Faithful said it seems he just flits from one girl to the next. My poor mistress! All your heartache is wasted on him!’
Nightingale had begun by feeling sad on Dai-yu’s account, but the more she thought about it the more wretched and confused she began to feel herself. She would have liked to advise Dai-yu not to wear her heart out in such a futile affair, but was too afraid of incurring her displeasure. And yet how could she just stand by and watch her suffer?
Presently, as she turned the problem over and over in her mind, her compassion gave way to a sudden feeling of annoyance and she chided herself:
‘Why should I worry about them anyway? Supposing Miss Lin does marry Bao-yu – she’ll still be as difficult to please as ever. And Bao-yu may be friendly enough, but I know how fickle he is too. I tell others not to wear their hearts out in vain, and then do so myself! N9, from now on I shall concentrate on doing my duty and not allow myself to get involved.’
In this new spirit of detachment she continued on her way to the Naiad’s House, and arrived to find Dai-yu sit?ting alone on the kang, going over some of her old poems and other writings. As she entered the room Dai-yu looked up and asked:
‘Where have you been?’
‘Oh, I just went out for a chat with one of the other maids,’ replied Nightingale.
‘Was it Aroma?’
‘What should I want to see her for?’
The off-hand manner of her reply came as a shock to Dai-yu, who felt most put out and said curtly:
‘Do as you please, it’s all the same to me. Bring me a cup of tea.’
Nightingale smiled inwardly at the outcome of her ex?periment and went to pour the tea. As she did so she heard a confused hubbub in the Garden, but could not tell what was going on. She began pouring the tea and sent a junior maid out to investigate the disturbance. The maid returned in a short while to report:
‘It’s the crab-trees at Green Delights. Earlier this year some of them were struck with the blight, and no one bothered to water them. Yesterday Bao-yu went to have a look at them and thought he could see buds on some of the branches. No one believed him or paid any attention to his story at the time. But today there’s ho doubt about it, they’ve come out in the most beautiful blossom! It has caused quite a stir and everyone is hurrying over there to have a look. Even Her Old Ladyship and Her Ladyship have been caught up in the excitement and are going along to see the blossom. So Mrs Zhu has given orders for all the paths to be cleared of leaves – that’s what all the shout?ing was about.’
Dai-yu heard that Grandmother Jia was coming, she got up to change and sent Snowgoose on ahead, telling her to report back the moment Her Old Ladyship arrived. She soon came running back.
‘Her Old Ladyship and Her Ladyship and a lot of the other ladies have all arrived! Hurry, Miss!’
Dai-yu took a brief look in the mirror, passed a comb quickly through her hair and set off with Nightingale in the direction of Green Delights. She arrived to find Grandmother Jia installed on Bao-yu’s day-couch, and after greeting her and Lady Xing and Lady Wang went on to say hello to Li Wan, Tan-chun, Xi-chun and Xing Xiu?yan. She noticed that several people were absent: Xi-feng was ill in bed, Shi Xiang-yun had gone home to see her uncle who was in the capital on transfer, while Bao-qin had stayed at home with Bao-chai, and the two Li sisters, Wen and Qi, had been taken to live elsewhere by their mother, whom recent events had convinced that Prospect Garden was a rather unsuitable environment for her daughters.
They were all chatting away, each propounding a differ?ent interpretation of the strange phenomenon of the winter-flowering crab-trees.
‘They usually flower in the third month, I know,’ Grandmother Jia was saying. ‘And we are in the eleventh month now. But then the movable terms in the calendar are rather late this year, so we could say this is more like the tenth month, which is after all sometimes called “Lit?tle Spring”. With the exceptionally warm weather we have been having, a little blossom is only to be expected.’
‘You are quite right, Mother,’ agreed Lady Wang. ‘We need someone of your experience to show us that this is really nothing out of the ordinary.’
Lady Xing however was not so easily convinced.
‘I heard that these trees had already been struck by the blight for almost a year… How do you explain the fact that half-dead trees should start flowering now, at such an odd time of the year?’
Li Wan spoke next.
‘I think you are both right,’ she said with a smile. ‘My own humble suggestion is that they have flowered special?ly to tell us of some happy event that is about to take place in Bao-yu’s life.’
Tan-chun, although she remained silent, was secretly thinking to herself:
‘This must be an ill-omen. Everything that is in har?mony with nature prospers, and things out of season, out of time, fade and die. Plants and trees obey a natural cycle. If a tree flowers out of season, it must be an ill ?omen.’
She kept all this to herself, however. It was Dai-yu who spoke next. She had been struck by Li Wan’s mention of a happy event, and said with some excitement:
‘There was once a family of farmers who had a thorn-bush. There were three sons in the family, and one day these three sons decided to leave home and go their sepa?rate ways. No sooner had they gone than the thornbush began to fade away and die. But some time later the brothers began to yearn for each other’s company, re?turned home and were reunited. And at once the thorn?bush began to flourish again. So you see plants follow closely the fortunes of the people to whom they are attached. Now Cousin Bao is devoting himself seriously to his studies, which pleases Uncle Zheng, which pleases the crab-trees, which is why they are flowering!’
This went down very well with Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang.
‘What a well-chosen story! Such an interesting idea!’
Jia She and Jia Zheng now arrived to view the flowers, accompanied by Jia Huan and Jia Lan. Jia She spoke first.
‘Cut them down. That’s what I say. There’s evil work afoot here.’
‘On the contrary,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘Leave them alone. Evil manifestations thrive on such superstition. Ignore them and they disappear.’
‘What’s all this?’ interrupted Grandmother Jia testily. ‘We’re all gathered here to witness a happy event. Why do you have to start talking about manifestations and what-have-you? When there’s good luck then enjoy it while you can. I’ll take care of any bad luck. I forbid you to utter another word of such gloomy nonsense.’
This silenced Jia Zheng, and he and Jia She effected an awkward departure. Grandmother Jia was unperturbed and determined to enjoy herself.
‘Send someone to the kitchen,’ she said. ‘We want wine and some nice things to eat. We’ll have a little party. I should like you, Bao-yu, Huan and Lan, each to write a poem to celebrate the occasion. Miss Lin has been unwell so she can be excused. If she feels up to it she can help you boys polish yours.’
Turning to Li Wan she continued:
‘You and the others come up and have some wine with me.’
‘Yes Grannie,’ said Li Wan, then turning to Tan-chun she laughed and said:
‘This is all your fault, Tan!’
‘What do you mean?’ protested Tan-chun. ‘We’ve been let off the poetry-writing – my fault for what?’
‘Aren’t you the founder of the Crab-flower Club?’ rep?lied Li Wan. ‘I know that crab was an Autumn Crab -ut can’t you see? Now the real crab-blossom wants to join in too…’
Everyone laughed at the idea.
Food and wine were now served, and they all drank and did their best to humour the old lady with light-hearted conversation. Bao-yu came up to pour himself some wine, and standing there thought up a quatrain which he then wrote out and recited for his grandmother.

I asked the crab-tree why at blossom-time it failed,
Yet now profusely bloomed so long before the spring?
The tree replied: ‘Midwinter marks the birth of light.
Glad tidings to the Mistress of this House I bring.’

It was Huan’s turn next. He wrote his out and began to recite:

Plants should put out buds in spring:
Our crab tree’s timing’s topsy-turvy.
Of all the wonders of the world
Ours is the only winter-flowering tree.

Then Jia Lan made a careful copy of his poem, in im?maculate kai-shu calligraphy, and presented it to his great-grandmother, who asked Li Wan to read it out for her.

Your mist-congealed beauty blighted in the spring,
Your frosted petals blush now in the snow.
Hail Tree of Wisdom! Whose Rebirth
Adds lustre to our Family Hearth.

When she reached the end, Grandmother Jia com?mented:
‘I don’t know much about poetry, but I should judge Lan’s good, while I should say that Huan’s was poor. Come on now, everybody come and have something to eat.’
Bao-yu was affected by her jolly mood. But then he thought to himself:
‘Last year when the crab-trees died was the year Sky-bright died. Now the crab-trees have come back to life. That’s all very well for us; but Skybright can never live again…’
This thought threw him into a sudden depression; then he remembered what Qiao-jie had recently said, that Xi?feng might be sending him pretty Fivey. Perhaps it was her imminent arrival that the strange blossoming por?tended? This prospect dispelled his gloom and he became his smiling self once more.
Grandmother Jia stayed a while longer, then returned to her apartment, leaning on Pearland escorted by Lady Wang and the others. As she was leaving, Patience came hurrying up, her face wreathed in smiles:
‘Mrs Lian heard that you were here viewing the flow?ers,’ she said, ‘and though she couldn’t come herself, she asked me to come and attend to Your Ladyships and to bring this parcel. It contains two rolls of red silk for Mas?ter Bao to decorate the trees with, and comes with Mrs Lian’s congratulations on the happy event.’
Aroma came forward to receive the parcel and presented it to Grandmother Jia, who beamed with delight.
‘Trust Fengie to think of the right thing! What a nice idea! So distinguished!’
Aroma gave Patience a smile.
‘Please thank Mrs Lian for Master Bao when you go back, will you?’ she said. ‘The happy event she is referring to is one that will make all of us happy, I’m sure…’
When Aroma said this, it dawned on Grandmother Jia that Xi-feng was thinking of Bao-yu’s marriage, and her face lit up.
‘Aiyo!’ she exclaimed. ‘Of course! It never occurred to me! Fengie may be laid up in bed, but she’s still the cleverest of us all. What a perfect thing to send!’
As she said this, she was already walking away from Green Delights, followed by her entourage. Patience whispered to Aroma:
‘Actually Mrs Lian says this flowering is an ill-omen, and you’re to cut strips of this red silk and hang them on the trees; that will help turn the bad luck into good. And in future you’re to avoid any superstitious chat about it.’
Aroma nodded and saw Patience out.
*

Earlier that day, Bao-yu had been lounging around in?doors, casually dressed in a fur-lined gown with slits at the sides. When he caught sight of the flowering crab-trees through the window, he went out to look at them. The more he gazed at the blossom the more lovely and poig?nant it seemed, the more strangely it seemed to reflect the mysterious vagaries of destiny, the joy and pathos of life. It was the embodiment of his own thoughts and feelings. Then, when he heard that Grandmother Jia was coming over, he hurried in to change into more formal attire, choosing a pale fox-lined robe with cut-away archer’s sleeves and a darker jacket, also fox-lined, to go with it. He emerged again properly dressed to receive his grand?mother, and in his hurry quite forgot to put on his Magic Jade.
When Grandmother Jia left he went on again to change back into his comfortable clothes, and it was then that Aroma detected the absence of the jade and asked him where it was.
‘I was in such a rush when I came in to change,’ he re?plied. ‘I took it off and left it on the kang-table. Then I forgot to put it on again.’
Aroma looked but it was not on the table. She searched everywhere but could see no sign of it. She began to feel frightened, and broke into a cold sweat.
‘Please don’t worry,’ Bao-yu begged her. ‘It must be somewhere in the room. It’s bound to turn up. Ask the others – they might know.’
It occurred to Aroma that Musk or one of the other maids might have hidden it somewhere as a practical joke and she bore down on them with an expression of playful accusation:
‘You mean lot! Can’t you think of a better way of amusing yourselves? Come on, where have you hidden it? Don’t take this too far! If it really did get lost we’d be in real trouble, all of us!’
But Musk replied with a straight face:
‘What on earth do you mean? We’d know better than to play a trick like that. We’re not that silly. You’re the one who should stop and think a minute. Try to remember where you put it, instead of laying the blame on us!’
Aroma could tell that Musk was in earnest and cried out in alarm:
‘Heaven save us then! Oh little ancestor, where can you have put it? You must try to remember!’
‘I do,’ replied Bao-yu, ‘I remember quite clearly putting it on the kang-table. Have another look for it.’
The maids were too scared to tell anyone else, and joined together in a furtive search. This went on for most of the day but there was still no sign of the jade. They emptied every box, and rummaged in every trunk, until there simply was nowhere left to look and they began to wonder if perhaps one of the visitors might have picked it up earlier in the day.
‘How would anyone dare do such a thing?’ said Aroma. ‘Everyone knows how important it is, and that Master Bao’s very life hinges on it. Ask about it, but be very dis?creet. If you find out that one of the maids has taken it and is playing a trick on us, kotow to her and beg for it back. If it’s a junior maid who’s stolen it, don’t tell a soul, just do whatever is necessary to get it back. Give her whatever you like in exchange. This is very serious. It would be terrible if we lost the jade, worse even than losing Master Bao himself!’
Musk and Ripple set off on this mission. Aroma hurried out after them with a few final words of instruction:
‘On second thoughts, leave the people who were here at lunch-time till last. If it turns out to be someone else, we don’t want to offend them and cause a lot of ill-feeling to no purpose.’
The two maids split up to make their inquiries, but everywhere they went it was the same story. Nobody knew anything about it. Everybody was equally taken aback by the news. They hurried back to report their lack of success, and stared at one another in despondent sil?ence. Bao-yu himself was now beginning to look rather stunned, and Aroma was so desperate that she could only weep helplessly. What could they do? There was nowhere left to look. They were too scared to tell any of the elder members of the family. The entire establishment at Green Delights was immobilized with fear and resembled a group of wooden statues or clay dolls.
One by one the others who had heard the news began to arrive, among them Tan-chun, who immediately gave orders for the Garden gate to be shut and sent an old serv?ing-woman and two maids on another comprehensive search, announcing to everyone present. that there would be a substantial reward for the recovery of the jade. They were all keen to establish their own innocence, and this, with the added incentive of winning the reward, now led to a flurry of indiscriminate searching. Every nook and cranny of the Garden was explored, not excluding the lavatories, but to no avail. It was as hopeless as hunting for an embroidery needle, and as evening drew on there was still no trace of the missing jade. Li Wan now sensed the urgency of the situation and said:
‘I have a suggestion to make. It’s not the sort of thing I would usually like to suggest but in the present circum?stances I feel I must…’
They all gave her their attention.
‘Things are so desperate that I think we have to try any?thing. Now apart from Bao-yu, all the residents of the Garden are girls. I should like you all to ask your maids to remove their dresses, so that we can search everyone properly. If that produces no results, then we should send them to search the older serving-women and cleaners. Do you all agree?’
The consensus of opinion was that she was right. With so many people involved, and such confusion, this seemed the only way of establishing anyone’s innocence. Tan-chun was the only one to abstain from making any comment.
The maids were eager. to clear themselves, and Patience was the first to volunteer. One by one they all undid their dresses and filed past, while Li Wan supervised the exam?ination. Tan-chun could contain herself no longer.
‘My dear Wan, can’t you see what a futile waste of time this all is? Supposing someone has stolen it; do you really think he or she would be foolish enough to carry it around? Anyway, why should anyone want to steal it? It means a lot to us, but outside this household it’s quite valueless. If you ask me, someone’s doing this out of spite.’
They all knew immediately whom she was referring to. Jia Huan had been in and out of Green Delights many times that day. No one was prepared to mention his name, however, and she was obliged to be more specific herself:
‘It must be Huan. Who else would play such a nasty trick? Send someone secretly oVer to his room and bring him here. Get him on his own and talk him into produc?ing the jade, then threaten to expose him unless he keeps his mouth shut, and there’s our mystery solved.’
Amid much nodding of heads, Li Wan turned to Patience and said:
‘ You’d better go. This will require all your tact.’
‘ Yes ma’am,’ replied Patience, and hurried off.
A few minutes later, when she returned with Jia Huan, the others pretended hardly to notice his arrival. One of them made him a pot of tea and placed it on a table in the inner rom. Then they all shuffled out and left the scene clear for Patience. She gave him an ingenuous smile.
‘Master Bao’s jade has gone missing.. .1 don’t suppose you’ve seen it anywhere have you?’
Jia Huan’s face instantly flushed to an ugly shade of purple. He glowered at her.
‘Just because somebody’s lost something, does that mean that I automatically become the suspect and get call?ed in for interrogation? Have I got a criminal record or something?’
Patience decided to change tack, and said with a smile:
‘Of course no one would dream of suggesting you stole it! They just thought that perhaps you might have hidden it somewhere as a practical joke, and that by asking you if you’d seen it I might be able to get a few clues as to where they should look for it.’
‘It’s his jade, isn’t it?’ replied Jia Huan indignantly. ‘He’s the one that wears the thing – ask him, not me! You’re all so keen to please him, that’s your trouble! If something’s found I never get to hear of it! But the moment anything’s lost, it’s me that gets the blame!’
He got up and stomped out of the room. The maids stepped back to let him through.
All this only served to exasperate Bao-yu.
‘The amount of trouble that wretched thing has caused!’ he said. ‘I’ve no desire for it and I wish you would all forget about it. Now look what we’ve done. Huan will go and tell everybody and we’ll never hear the end of it.’
‘Little ancestor, please. ..’ came tearfully from where Aroma stood in the throng of distraught maids. ‘It’s all very well for you to say “forget about it”! But what you seem to have forgotten is that if their Ladyships get to hear, the likes of us will be torn to shreds and ground to powder!’
This was followed by prolonged wailing. It soon became clear to them all that things could not be hushed up for much longer. They would have to agree on a story to tell Grandmother Jia and the other ladies.
‘That’s easy,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Just tell them I smashed it myself.’
‘No no! That’s no good!’ said Patience. ‘Can’t you see? They’ll want to know why you smashed it, and then things will look just as black for Aroma and the others. And besides, what if they want to see the pieces?’
‘Well then, say I lost it on a trip to town.’
There was a moment’s silence as they all pondered this suggestion.
‘We might possibly have got away with that,’ said someone at last. ‘But during the past few days you haven’t been to school, and you haven’t been out anywhere either.’
‘Yes I have,’ Bao-yu corrected them. ‘A few days ago I went to the Earl of Lin-an’s to watch the plays. You can say I lost it then.’
‘No, that won’t do,’ said Tan-chun. ‘If you lost it as long ago as that, they’ll want to know why it hasn’t been reported till now.’
They were still busy discussing the relative merits of these various fictions when suddenly they heard the voice of Aunt Zhao, cursing and wailing her way towards them.
‘If you lose something, why can’t you look for it yourselves, instead of sneaking up and blaming my boy? Well, here he is! Take him! Sacrifice him if you think it will do you any good! Kill him! Hack him to pieces! Do what you like with him!’
She propelled Jia Huan into the room, crying:
‘Thief! Hurry up and confess your crime!’
This brought loud and angry protestations from Huan. Li Wan was just bracing herself to intervene and make the peace when a maid came rushing in and announced:
‘Her Ladyship is here!’
Aroma and the maids could see that a confrontation was now inevitable. Bao-yu and the girls went out at once to receive Lady Wang. Aunt Zhao’s wrath subsided for a moment and she followed them out. From the startled look on their faces Lady Wang could see that what she had heard must be true.
‘Is it really lost?’ she cried.
No one dared reply. Lady Wang walked in, sat down and called Aroma forward. Aroma fell trembling to her knees. In a choked voice she murmured ‘Yes.’
‘Well, get up!’ said Lady Wang. ‘We must have a thorough search made. Come on, this helpless attitude will never do.’
Aroma was sobbing and could not say a word. Bao-yu finally spoke up, fearful that she might blurt out the truth.
‘Mother, this has nothing to do with Aroma. I lost it the other day on my way back from seeing the plays at the Earl of Lin-an’s.’
‘Then why didn’t you look for it at the time?’
‘I didn’t want anyone to know. I just told Tealeaf to look for it everywhere along the street.’
‘Nonsense! You know perfectly well that Aroma or one of your other maids would have noticed. That’s their job. They are always with you when you change. Whenever you come in from a party or any kind of excursion, if one of your handkerchiefs is missing, or a little purse, they’re bound to ask you where it’s gone do you really think that they would allow something as irreplaceable as your jade to disappear, and not say a word?’
Bao-yu was stumped for an answer. Aunt Zhao, who was gloating over his discomfiture, hastened to put in:
‘If you’re so sure you lost it outside, why try to pin the blame on Huan?’
‘That’s enough from you!’ said Lady Wang sharply. ‘You keep out of this!’
Aunt Zhao was reduced to silence. It was left to Li Wan and Tan-chun to give the true story, which brought tears to Lady Wang’s eyes. In her agitation she was for telling Grandmother Jia and going over to Lady Xing’s apart?ment to question the members of her household who had been to Green Delights earlier in the day.
The news had meanwhile reached Xi-feng on her sick?bed. When she heard that Lady Wang had arrived at Green Delights she felt obliged to put in an appearance and, leaning on Felicity’s arm, made her way towards the Garden. She arrived just as Lady Wang was about to leave.
‘Good evening, Aunt.’
Xi-feng’s voice trembled slightly as she spoke. Bao-yu and the others came up to greet her.
‘So you’ve heard the news too!’ said Lady Wang to Xi?feng. ‘Most extraordinary! It vanished just like that, and can’t be found anywhere. Think for a moment: of all the maids, including all of Lady Jia’s and even your own Patience, which would you say showed thieving tenden?cies, or had a malicious disposition? I intend to tell Lady Jia, and to order a thorough search. Until we find it, Bao?yu’s life hangs in the balance!’
‘Ours is such a large household,’ said Xi-feng, ‘and, as the saying goes, you can know a man’s face, but never his heart. With all the commotion of a search, everyone is bound to hear, and the thief will be so scared of the con?sequences that rather than be caught, he could well panic and destroy the evidence – the jade itself – and then where would we be? No, my advice, for what it is worth, is that we should let it be known that Bao-yu threw it away in disgust and that it really doesn’t matter. Everyone must be very discreet so as to keep Her Old Ladyship and Sir Zheng from knowing. Meanwhile we can search every?where in secret, and if we’re clever we should end up with both the jade and the thief. Does that make sense to you, Aunt?’
After a long pause Lady Wang replied:
‘It’s all very well, but will we ever succeed in keeping this from Sir Zheng?’
She called Jia Huan to her.
‘It was very silly of you to go shouting your head off about Bao-yu’s jade, just because they asked you about it. If the thief has heard and destroys the jade, you will pay for it with your life!’
‘I promise never to mention it again!’ wailed Jia Huan in terror. This time Aunt Zhao held her tongue.
‘There must be some places left where you haven’t looked,’ Lady Wang continued, addressing the assem?bled maids. ‘It must be somewhere here. It’s hardly going to fly away, is it? But when you look, be as quiet as possi?ble. Aroma, I give you three days to find it. If we still haven’t found it by then, we shan’t be able to keep it from Her Old Ladyship and Sir Zheng any longer. And everyone knows what that will mean!’
Bidding Xi-feng accompany her, Lady Wang set off for Lady Xing’s apartment, for further consultations on how to apprehend the thief.
Li Wan and the others continued to debate what to do. They sent for the various domestics in charge of the Gar?den and gave orders for the gates to be securely locked. Steward Lin’s wife was also summoned and given confiden?tial instructions.
‘Tell the servants on both gates that absolutely no one is to be allowed out of the Garden for the next three days. We can allow freedom of movement within the Garden, but no one must leave. Say that something has been lost and that no one can go out until it’s found.’
‘Yes, Mrs Zhu,’ said Lin’s wife. ‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ she went on, ‘but we lost something at home the other day – nothing of any value of course, but my husband was determined to find it, and he went and consulted one of those word-diviners that set themselves up at street cor?ners. Iron Mouth Liu I think this one’s name was. His reading was very clear. My husband followed his instruc?tions, and found the missing item straight away.’
When Aroma heard this she begged her to help them.
‘Oh, Mrs Lin! Please go and ask your husband to con?sult this man for us!’
‘Indeed I will. Straight away.
Lin’s wife bustled off. Xing Xiu-yan now had a sugges?tion to make.
‘If you ask me, those word-diviners and fortune-tellers you find on street corners are all charlatans. But when I knew Adamantina, in the South, before she came to live here, I heard of her gift for the planchette. Why don’t we ask her to hold a séance for us? Didn’t .Bao-yu’s jade have a mysterious origin anyway? It would surely lend itself to that sort of approach.’
The others seemed greatly surprised to hear this, and re?flected that in all the time they had known her, Adamant?ma had never once mentioned such a gift. Musk earnestly beseeched Xiu-yan:
‘Oh, Miss! I don’t think she would agree to do it for anyone but you! Please, please, will you ask her for us? I’ll kotow to you – if she finds the answer, I’ll be indebted to you for a lifetime!’
She was about to perform a kotow, but Xiu-yan raised her from the ground. Dai-yu and the others added their entreaties to Musk’s, and Xiu-yan left with all speed for Green Bower Hermitage.
No sooner had she gone, than Steward Lin’s wife returned from her mission.
‘Ladies!’ she announced with great jubilation. ‘I bring good news! My husband has been to see the man~ and he says the jade is sure to turn up. Someone will definitely bring it back.’
She had yet to convince her audience however – except for Aroma and Musk, who were ready to grasp at the slightest hope. Tan-chun asked:
‘What word came up, and what was the reading?’
‘He said a lot,’ replied Lin’s wife, ‘and some of it I couldn’t understand. But I know the word was shang (1) meaning ‘(to reward”. Iron Mouth Liu took one look at it and said, “You’ve lost something, haven’t you?”!’
‘Goodness! He sounds pretty good!’ exclaimed Li Wan.
Lin’s wife continued:
‘Then he went on to say that as shang was made up of xiao (2) meaning “small” on top, with kou (3) meaning “mouth” in the middle, the lost object was small enough to fit inside the mouth. It must be some jewel or precious stone.’
Amid cries of ‘Miraculous!’ and ‘Go on!’, Lin’s wife continued:
‘Then he said that we should be careful to notice that the radical element was bei (4) meaning “a cowry shell” and not the similar radical jian (5) meaning “to appear”, hence the object’s disappearance. . . And the top element of the word taken as a whole was very like dang (6) meaning “to pawn”, so we should go straight to the pawnshop. Then he pointed out that by adding a ren (7) “man” to the left-hand side, the compound chang (8) meaning “to re?deem” was formed. Find the man in the pawnshop, pay the price, and the lost object will be redeemed…’
‘What are we waiting for?’ cried the girls. ‘Search the neighbourhood! If we work our way through the pawn-shops, we’re sure to find the right one sooner or later. And once we’ve found the jade, it will be easy enough to find the thief.’
‘Find the jade and we needn’t even bother who the thief is,’ said Li Wan. Turning to Steward Lin’s wife she con?tinued: ‘Go and tell Mrs Lian what you have just told us. Then she can tell Her Ladyship and set her mind at rest. And ask Mrs Lian to send someone out to search the pawnshops.’
Lin’s wife set off at once.
Things seemed more hopeful now, and relative calm was restored. They were waiting in a somewhat bemused state for Xiu-yan to return when they saw Tealeaf beckon?ing from the gateway to one of the junior maids. She ran out and he said:
‘Quick! Go in and tell Master Bao and their Ladyships and the ladies and young misses that I’ve got the most wonderful piece of news!’
‘Well come on!’ burst out the maid. ‘What is it? Out with it!’
Tealeaf started laughing and clapping his hands.
‘All right, I’ll tell you. And then you can go in and tell them, and we can split the reward between us. Guess what? The most reliable information has reached me as to the whereabouts of the Missing Jade!’
The outcome of all this excitement will be related in the next chapter.

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