Authors: Pauline A. Chen
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2012 by Pauline A. Chen
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Chen, Pauline A., [date]
The red chamber / Pauline A. Chen. — 1st ed.
“This is a Borzoi book.”
1. Women—China—History—18th century—Fiction. 2. Female friendship—Fiction. 3. Beijing (China)—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3603.H4553R43 2012 813′.6—dc23 2012005050
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental
Spring Dream in the Still of the Palace
, by Jiang Guofang
V. S. Naipaul,
The Enigma of Arrival
Jia Family Tree
A Note on the Text
A Note About the Author
Reader’s Group Guide
The Red Chamber
is inspired by Cao Xueqin’s
Dream of the Red Chamber
, the eighteenth-century novel widely considered the most important work of fiction in the Chinese literary tradition. However, Cao’s masterpiece is largely unknown to western audiences, perhaps due to its daunting length (2,500 pages) and complex cast of characters (more than 400). My book,
The Red Chamber
, makes little attempt to remain faithful to the original plot, but is a reimagining of the inner lives and motivations of the three major female characters. In a world where women lacked power and were pitted against one another by the system of concubinage, these characters are strong and unforgettable, forging bonds with each other that far transcend sexual rivalry. In addition, like many readers, I was haunted by a sense of incompletion: Cao’s original ending has been lost, and a new ending was written by another hand after his death. What follows is my attempt to finish the story for myself, while paying homage to this beloved masterpiece and sharing it with a wider audience.
LIN DAIYU, the daughter of an official in Suzhou
JIA MIN, her mother
LIN RUHAI, her father
JIA BAOYU, pampered heir of the Jia family in the Capital, cousin of Daiyu
JIA ZHENG, his father
LADY JIA, his grandmother
JIA ZHU, Baoyu’s older brother, dead at the beginning of the novel
JIA LIAN, Baoyu’s cousin
JIA HUAN, Baoyu’s half brother
WANG XIFENG (pronounced “Shee-feng”), Jia Lian’s wife
PING’ER, Wang Xifeng’s body servant
“THE TWO SPRINGS”: JIA TANCHUN, Baoyu’s half sister, and JIA XICHUN (pronounced “Shee-chun”), Baoyu’s cousin
JIA YUCUN, a rising official and distant relative of the Jia family
MRS. XUE (pronounced “Shreh”), a widowed sister-in-law of Jia Zheng’s, living with the Jias
XUE BAOCHAI, her daugher
XUE PAN, her profligate son
XIA JINGUI (pronounced “Shah Jin-gway”), wife of Xue Pan
SNOWGOOSE, Lady Jia’s body servant
ZHEN SHIYIN, her brother, a blacksmith
In the Garden of the Five Senses
Let Delight know no bounds.
Lin Daiyu crushes apricot kernels and black sesame seeds in a marble mortar. She scrapes the medicine into a bowl of stewed bird’s nests and stirs it with a porcelain spoon. She brings the bowl to her mother’s bed near the window. Propped against her bolsters, Daiyu’s mother sips the dose, grimacing a little. Daiyu watches every mouthful, as if by her vigilance she can somehow will the medicine to work.
Mrs. Lin lies back, exhausted even by the act of drinking. “Daiyu,” she says, her voice a reedy thread.
“I want to show you something.”
“What is it?”
“Go and look in the bottom of my old trunk.”
Daiyu kneels before the wardrobe and opens the battered chest where the family keeps their winter clothes. She rummages beneath the piles of bulky padded trousers and quilted jackets, and finds a flat bundle in a crimson brocade wrapping cloth.
“Yes, that’s it. Bring it here.”
Her mother’s thin fingers struggle with the knot, and Daiyu leans over to help. Inside are two flat boxes. Mrs. Lin opens one to reveal a necklace of reddish gold in the form of a coiling dragon. In the other is a tiara of flying golden phoenixes, a string of pearls arching from each beak.
“These are from your dowry, aren’t they?”
Mrs. Lin does not seem to hear the question. “Help me up,” she says.
Daiyu climbs onto the bed and adjusts the pillows so that her mother is sitting upright. Her mother places the tiara on her uncombed hair. “Bring me a mirror.”
Reluctantly, Daiyu gets the one on the dressing table. Leaning against the cushions, her mother tilts the tiny bronze hand-mirror back and forth, catching little glimpses of herself on the polished surface. “What a fine young lady I was back then, looking down my nose at everything. Why, I’d never even touched, let alone worn, silks like these, made by
common weavers.” Her fingers pluck at the worn honey-colored material of her robe. “Everything we wore was made in the Palace by the Imperial Weavers. Even our maids didn’t wear such stuff!”
Daiyu’s mother laughs a little, as if marveling at her younger self.
“I was fond of fine things in those days, and my parents spoiled me by giving me anything I wanted. My eldest brother, Jing, didn’t mind, but my second brother, Zheng, was always jealous.”
Daiyu sits by her mother’s feet, watching the play of expression on her face.
“I remember one New Year’s, when our grandfather—the first Duke of Rongguo—was still alive. He asked us to write lantern riddles in verse. When he read what the three of us had written, he said it was a pity I hadn’t been born a boy, for I would have been sure to win the Jias glory if I had been allowed to take the Civil Service Exams.”
Daiyu nods. Her mother loved poetry, and had taught Daiyu the rules of meter and rhyme as soon as she could read.
“As it was, Zheng had to take the Exams I don’t know how many times until he passed. Your father passed the first time, of course. But in the end, Zheng did pretty well for himself.” To Daiyu, her mother’s voice sounds slightly grudging. “Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Works. Zheng always was a hard worker.”
“What about your eldest brother?”
“Jing never did pass. All he did was fritter away my father’s money on concubines and gambling.” The reminiscent smile fades from Mrs. Lin’s face, and her expression grows somber. She hands Daiyu the mirror and plucks the tiara off her hair. “And now Zheng is the only one of us who is still alive, and living at Rongguo Mansion with my mother.”
“Do I have any cousins there?” Daiyu says.
“Well, there’s the famous Baoyu, of course.”
“Why is he famous?”
“Haven’t I told you about him?” Her mother’s delicate eyebrows arch in surprise. “He’s Zheng’s son. He was the one born with the jade in his mouth. That’s why your grandmother named him ‘Baoyu,’ ‘Precious Jade.’ ”
“How could a person be born with a jade in his mouth?”
“Who knows?” Mrs. Lin shrugs. “All I know is that my mother—your grandmother—thinks it’s a miracle, and spoils him to death. His own mother died when he was barely twelve or thirteen, and from all I’ve heard he’s turned into a rare handful. He skips school every other day,
and runs around with his girl cousins in the Women’s Quarters instead of studying.”
“How old is he?” Daiyu asks.
“Eighteen—more than old enough to take the Exams. Your other male cousin, Lian, is more than twenty-five, but they gave up on his passing years ago. He’s Jing’s son. Like father, like son, I suppose. I don’t know how the Jias are going to keep up their prestige if they don’t have more sons entering the Civil Service. If Baoyu doesn’t pass—” Mrs. Lin pauses, coughing, then leans back against the pillows with her eyes shut, trying to catch her breath.
“Help me lie down.”
Daiyu climbs onto the bed and eases her mother into a lying position. She wipes her mother’s lips.
After Mrs. Lin’s breath has slowed, she says, still with her eyes closed, “You’ll have to go live with them, you know, after I die.”
“You won’t die,” Daiyu says quickly, but even to her own ears her voice lacks conviction.
“Yes, I will. And when I do, you’ll have to go to the Jias.”
“I’ll stay with Father.”
“I want you to go to the Capital.”
“Why?” Daiyu starts to cry.
“You’ll be able to make a good match there—someone from one of the big families. The Jias will see to that.”
“What does that matter?” Daiyu cries. “You didn’t have a match like that.” Though her father comes from an old and educated family, he had been the sole offspring of an only child; and now only distant members of the clan, whom she has never met, are still alive. “Why can’t I stay here?”
Her mother lies silent for a long time, staring at the ceiling. At last she says, “When I was young, I didn’t think anything mattered as long as I was with your father. Now, since I’ve gotten sick, I’ve realized how hard it is to be without any family.” Her eyes turn to Daiyu, and Daiyu sees they are full of tears. “I’m worried about what will happen to you when I’m gone. I don’t want you to have to struggle like I did …”
Her words fill Daiyu with something akin to panic. “But—but you’ve been happy with Father, haven’t you?”
Mrs. Lin doesn’t answer. Her eyes move past Daiyu to the phoenix tiara on the dressing table. “We should never have raised you like this.”
“Keeping so much to ourselves. You’ve never met people of your own age and background.” She looks back at Daiyu and her eyes are almost challenging. “Well, you’ll have to learn how to get along with other people at Rongguo. You’ll need to learn to think before you speak.” She puts out her hand, and Daiyu takes it, feeling how cool her fingers are. “Still, you mustn’t let them cow you. You’re strong enough to stand up to them.”
Daiyu wants to ask more questions, but her mother starts to cough again. This time she coughs so long and hard that Daiyu rushes to get a spittoon. Mrs. Lin spits out a mouthful of phlegm scarlet with fresh blood. When her mother finally stops coughing, Daiyu does not say anything more, just climbs into bed beside her. She feels how small and frail her mother has grown over the last six months, her limbs like twigs against her own strong, warm body; yet her mind shrinks from picturing a future without her. She nestles her face deeper in the crook of her mother’s neck, and sniffs for the last lingering scent of her skin not yet obscured by medicine and sickness.
Towards the end of the Forty-Nine Days mourning, a strange man appears at the temple where Daiyu and her father are keeping vigil beside her mother’s coffin. Like them, he wears mourning robes of undyed hemp. Daiyu’s father stares at the man unrecognizingly. Then he starts to his feet with a cry of surprise.
“Why, it’s Zheng, isn’t it?”
“Ruhai, old fellow. It’s been a long time!”
Daiyu scrambles from the floor, startled by her uncle’s unexpected arrival. She searches his careworn face and stocky figure for something of her mother. The only resemblance she can find is about the eyes: there is a little thickness to the eyelids, giving her uncle the same dreamy, slightly sleepy look as her mother, and as Daiyu herself.
Daiyu’s father tries to kowtow, but his brother-in-law catches him by the elbows. “I set out as soon as I got her letter,” Jia Zheng says. “When did she die?”
“More than a month ago.”
Jia Zheng’s eyes begin to water. “That’s probably just after she sent the letter. Did she suffer at the end?”
“Not too much. It was quicker than we expected.”
Daiyu turns away to hide her tears. Her father manages to control himself. He clasps her uncle’s hand. “I’m glad you’ve come. Will you stay the rest of mourning?”
“I’m afraid I can’t. I have some business in Nanjing. My barge is waiting for me at the dock.”
“You’ll come for dinner at least?”
“Yes, of course.”
For the rest of the day, Jia Zheng stays at the temple with them, kneeling before the spirit tablet. For the past six weeks, Daiyu and her father have come to the temple every morning, the mourning rituals and funeral arrangements drawing them together and organizing their days. Now, the presence of her uncle disrupts their silent rapport, making her self-conscious. She watches him mopping his streaming eyes, finding it odd that a stranger is sharing their grief.
Before dinner, her father accompanies Jia Zheng to his barge. Back in the kitchen at Bottle-Gourd Street, Daiyu distracts herself with her daily tasks. She makes up the fire, washes the rice, and chops the vegetables. The wooden handle of the cleaver, smoothed by years of use, fits effortlessly in her hand, and her eyes are soothed by the familiarity of the room: the blue and white dishes, the faded picture of the Kitchen God on the wall, the sound of neighbors’ voices through the open window. She sees that the bucket is almost empty and goes to the well to draw water. It had rained earlier in the afternoon, one of those late summer showers, and the stone bridges and canals are dark and slick. The air is so heavy that it feels as if the least disturbance would bring on the rain again. The byways are nearly empty at this time of day, but on the other side of the canal a woman stoops beside the water with a basket of winter clothes. The hollow sound of the woman pounding the laundry with a wooden block reminds Daiyu that, despite the heat, summer is drawing to a close.
As she slips back into the kitchen, she hears voices in the front room.
“Daiyu, is that you?” her father calls.
She is surprised to see two tall, elegantly dressed women standing near the front door. She remembers her mother’s words about how even the maids at Rongguo didn’t wear ordinary silks.
“I want to introduce you to Nanny Li and Nanny Ma,” Uncle Zheng says, rising from his chair. “They’ll be taking care of you on our trip north.”
“North?” Daiyu shakes her head. She backs away from the women instinctively. “I’m not going north.”
“Min wrote that you were coming. Everyone at Rongguo is making preparations for your arrival.” Uncle Zheng smiles at her, stooping his head and rubbing his hands together. “You’ll like it there. You’ll have many cousins to play with. There’s another girl staying with us, too, Xue Baochai. She’s the daughter of my wife’s sister. She’s eighteen, just one year older than you.”
“I don’t ‘play,’ ” Daiyu says, irritated that he is speaking to her like a child.
Ignoring her interruption, he continues, “And Wang Xifeng, your cousin Lian’s wife, will take good care of you. She’s only twenty-three, but runs the household like a little general.”
She looks towards her father for support, but to her amazement, he is nodding as if in agreement with her uncle.
“I’m not going!”
With a muttered apology to Uncle Zheng, her father leads her out through the kitchen to the back stoop so they can speak privately.
“I can’t leave you here alone,” she says.
“Before she died, your mother made me promise that you would go north to stay with her family.”
She feels a surge of outrage, as if her parents have been colluding against her. “But what about you? You can’t stay here on your own.” The picture of her father eating alone every evening pierces through her own grief.
“Of course I can. I’ll have ‘Granny’ Liu down the street cook and clean for me. I’ll be fine.”
“You must go. It’s what your mother wanted.”
She can hear the finality in his voice. She looks at him in the light filtering through the paper panes of the kitchen window. His face looks tired, and a little irritated. He is too exhausted to argue with her.
“It’s just a visit,” he says.
“How long do I have to go for?”
“Just a few months. You can come back in time for New Year’s.”
She calculates quickly. It is now the Seventh Month. To be back for the New Year she will have to leave the Capital by the end of the Eleventh Month.
Thus it was decided that she would go north to her mother’s family.
Wang Xifeng opens her eyes. The gray light of dawn is already filtering through the windows, and she can hear the twitter of a thrush somewhere in the courtyard. She lies there, listening. Only now, in the early morning, when Rongguo Mansion is silent, is it possible for her to hear the noise of the street all the way here in the Women’s Quarters. Dimly she catches the rumble of traffic, the braying of donkeys and the raucous crowing of cocks, all the exciting sounds of the city she so rarely gets to see, cooped up here in the Inner Quarters with the other women of the Jia family.
Lian is still snoring beside her, a trickle of saliva running from the corner of his open mouth to make a damp, darker patch on the crimson pillow. Gingerly, she raises his arm flung carelessly over her bare breasts, and eases herself from beneath its weight. She rolls off the
and feels for her slippers with her bare feet, aware of the slight tackiness of Lian’s semen between her legs. Her slippers aren’t there. Balancing with one foot on the cold floor, she reaches for a robe. She pads out to the front room. Ping’er is already up, squatting before the stove to blow on the fire.
“Get me some warm water,” Xifeng says. She gestures at the area between her legs with a grimace. “And find me my slippers, will you?”
The maid nods, an expression of sympathetic comprehension overspreading her pink-cheeked face. She pours a jet of steaming water from the kettle into a basin, uses a hollow gourd to scoop in cold well water from the bucket, and brings the basin over to Xifeng. She fetches Xifeng a washcloth and soap, but looks away as Xifeng squats over the basin and sponges herself off. After Xifeng dries herself, Ping’er hands her the clothes that Xifeng laid out the night before: underclothes of silk so fine that it clings to her damp skin, her turquoise underskirt of imported silk crepe embroidered with flowers. She buttons up the frogs on the fitted bodice of her red brocade gown, patterned with butterflies in raised gold thread. Even though she has worn clothes like this every day of her life, she still feels a shiver of pleasure at the weight of the heavy damask against her skin.
Then she seats herself before her dressing table, and Ping’er, as she has done since both were little girls at the Wang mansion in Chang’an, begins to do her hair. When she was betrothed to Jia Lian more than three years ago, her mother, worried at how far away she would live, sent four maids to accompany her to the Capital. Of the four, only Ping’er remained. One had gotten sick and died; Xifeng had married the other two off when they were twenty. Like Xifeng herself, Ping’er is twenty-three, but Xifeng would sooner cut off one of her own arms than give her up.
Ping’er loosens Xifeng’s hair from the “lazy knot” that Xifeng has slept in. Then she gathers Xifeng’s hair like a skein of silk and begins to comb it, catching it in her hand between each stroke. When at last the comb slides through Xifeng’s hair without the least resistance, Ping’er scoops up a handful of hairpins.
“Allowances are due today. Did you remember?” Xifeng asks, looking at Ping’er in the large West Ocean glass mirror mounted on the dressing table. Ever since her mother-in-law, Lady Xing, died three years ago, Xifeng has run the household.
“Mmm,” Ping’er grunts. She has put the hairpins in her mouth, and plucks them out, one by one, as she coils Xifeng’s hair into a knot. She jerks her chin at the cloth-wrapped packets lined up neatly on a side table, and Xifeng counts them to make sure they are all there: two large ones for Baoyu’s and Lady Jia’s apartments; two small ones for the Two Springs; and then three even smaller ones: one for Uncle Zheng’s concubine Auntie Zhao, and two for Baochai and her mother, Mrs. Xue. Mrs. Xue is, of course, more than rich enough to pay the salaries of both her own and her daughter Baochai’s maids. The allowances they receive are purely symbolic, meant to indicate that they remain at Rongguo as honored guests, and are thus considered part of the household.
“See that the allowances are delivered this morning,” Xifeng says. “And did you hear? A messenger from Uncle Zheng came last night. Their boat is only twenty
from the Capital. He and Miss Lin Daiyu should be here by this evening. Have a room prepared.”
“How about that little room behind Granny Jia’s?”
Xifeng sits back and looks at herself in the mirror. She catches up a loose tendril with a turquoise-blue kingfisher pin, and then reaches for her carved ivory box of face cream. With practiced fingers she smooths it over her face, working it over her eyelids and into the creases beside
her nostrils, before dusting her whole face with a fine layer of jasmine-scented powder. Then she pulls the outer corner of her eyelid taut with her left index finger, and begins to line her eyes with sure, confident strokes. It is the shape of her eyes more than any other feature, she knows, that distinguishes her face, giving her the reputation for beauty. They are rounded at the inner corner, but long and tapered near her temples, like a teardrop, or a tadpole: “phoenix eyes,” they are called. Now that she has become a matron and it is permissible to wear heavy makeup, she always exaggerates their shape by lining them boldly with kohl and extending their outer corners into long points reaching nearly to her temples.
Ping’er reappears at her elbow. She holds a steaming cup of the medicine Dr. Wang had prescribed to help Xifeng conceive.
“But it’s been barely a week since my period.”
“It can’t hurt to start taking it early, especially since you and he … you know … last night.”
“Oh, all right.” Xifeng begins to sip it. When she is halfway through, the West Ocean clock on the wall bongs six times. Breakfast is served at seven, but if the table is not set by the time Granny Jia emerges from her bedroom, Xifeng will be blamed. She gulps the rest of the bitter-tasting brew down, and hurries towards the door.
“Wait. Have a few mouthfuls,” says Ping’er, intercepting her with a small bowl of rice porridge. “It isn’t too hot.”
“I don’t have time.” Xifeng waves it aside.
Ping’er blocks her path. “Dr. Wang said you have to take better care of yourself. You can’t stand for hours on an empty stomach. No wonder you miscarried last time—”
To stop Ping’er from saying more, Xifeng takes the bowl. There is a sleepy shout from the bedroom. Lian must be waking up.
“I’ll go see what he wants,” Ping’er offers, hurrying down the hallway.
After Xifeng has eaten half the bowl, she notices that there is no sound from the bedroom. Even though she knows she should go to Lady Jia’s, she slips down the hallway and pushes aside the door curtain. Ping’er is standing next to where Lian is still lying near the edge of the
. He is smiling and reaching up a sinewy brown arm to grasp her by the hand, as if to pull her down to the bed. Ping’er blushes and pulls away, giggling. Xifeng is suddenly struck by how pretty Ping’er is, the tail of hair hanging down her back glossy and black, her fair skin set off by her apricot gown.
“Excuse me for disturbing you,” she says in a brittle voice she can hardly recognize as her own.
Lian and Ping’er jerk apart, Ping’er turning a stricken face to her mistress.
“What dirty business you get up to while I’m not here is none of my affair,” she tells Ping’er. “But you’d better watch out, or he’ll give you some nasty disease he’s picked up at a whorehouse.”
“Be quiet!” Lian says threateningly, but of course, he can’t think of a retort. What could he say? What she says is true, after all. He started staying out all night within three months of their wedding.
He gets up out of the bed, raising his hand. Though he has never hit her, she moves instinctively towards the door. Then he lets his arm drop, looking sullen and defeated. “It’s not like that—” he begins.
“I don’t want to hear it,” she says, and turns on her heel to go to Lady Jia’s.
“What do you think?” Oriole asks.
Xue Baochai looks at her reflection in the West Ocean mirror, trying to hide her disappointment. Oriole had promised that doing Baochai’s hair in the newest style would be far more becoming, but the two heavy buns on either side of her head make her face look broader and flatter than ever. Her small, single-lidded eyes, lacking in any expressivity, stare back at her in the mirror. She turns away from her reflection.
“Don’t you like it?” the maid says. “Or, I can do it with the front combed up and—”
“Do it the usual way. I’m in a hurry. My mother had a headache last night and I have to go see how she is,” Baochai says curtly. She waits impatiently as Oriole re-dresses her hair. It is always the same each time she tries a new gown or hairstyle. The promised transformation never occurs, and she is forced yet again to confront the disappointment of her appearance: the plain uninflected expanse of her face, the solid, almost matronly figure, even though she is not yet nineteen.
After Oriole is done, Baochai hurries from her apartments across the Garden to see her mother. Like Baoyu and her unmarried female cousins at Rongguo, Baochai lives in one of the apartments clustered around the lake in the Garden, while the matrons—her mother, Granny, Xifeng—live in more imposing and formal apartments in the front part of the Inner Quarters. Skirting the lower end of the lake, she makes her way to her mother’s apartments and goes straight to the bedroom. She finds Mrs. Xue sitting before the dressing table while her maid Sunset combs her hair. There are heavy bags under her mother’s eyes.
“You don’t feel any better?” she asks.
Mrs. Xue shakes her head, putting a hand to her temple. “I had a bad night. I can’t find my pills. Do you know where I put them?”
“Perhaps you left them at Granny’s last night at dinner. Why don’t I go check?”
She hurries to the principal apartment of the Inner Quarters, occupied by Lady Jia. As she passes through the small reception hall into the
large courtyard, she sees Jia Huan using a straw to tease a cockatiel in one of the cages hanging along the verandah. She tries to slip by unnoticed. Jia Huan is Baoyu’s half brother, born to Uncle Zheng by his concubine Auntie Zhao. Though almost seventeen, he has not outgrown his fondness for tormenting his sister and cousins.
He catches sight of her. “What are you doing here so early?”
“I came to look for my mother’s pills. Why don’t you help me?”
He follows her into Granny’s front room, empty at this hour. She climbs onto the
, rummaging beneath pillows and bolsters.
A moment later he holds up an embroidered drawstring purse from the other side of the
. “Is this it?”
“Yes,” she says, relieved. She crawls towards him, putting out her hand. “Thank you.”
He puts it behind his back. “What will you give me for it?”
She hates how he always tries to take advantage of another person’s weakness. She looks at his receding chin, his rodent-like eyes, so unlike Baoyu’s. Her temper rises, but she says pleasantly, “Please, Huan. My mother has a headache.”
“All the more reason you should be willing to give me something for it.”
“Come on, Huan,” she says, more sharply. She usually makes a special effort to be kind to him, to show that she does not hold his birth against him, but today she has no patience for his teasing.
Baoyu comes in, with his light step. Huan tries to conceal the purse in his sleeve.
Seeing the situation at a glance, Baoyu puts out his hand. “Give it to me, Huan.”
“Why should I?”
“Because I’ll make you if you don’t.” Baoyu probably outweighs Huan by six or seven
, and is as graceful as Huan is awkward.
After a moment, Huan flings the purse at Baoyu and slinks out of the room.
She tries to hide her rush of pleasure at being alone with Baoyu. She notices that, unlike Huan, he is wearing stay-at-home clothes, a slightly worn blue gown, and thick-soled red slippers instead of boots. “Aren’t you going to school today?”
“I asked Granny to let me stay home so I could greet our new cousin.”
“Huan is going.”
He gives her a look, which clearly says that if Huan is too stupid to get
out of going to school, it isn’t his fault. He climbs onto the
to give her the purse.
“Thank you.” She reaches out her hand, but just as she is about to take the purse, he puts it behind his back.
She laughs. “Now don’t you start!”
His brilliant black eyes are alight with mischief.
She lunges at him. Quickly, he transfers the purse to the other hand. She tries to grab it from the other side, and he switches it back. As she tussles with him for possession of it, sometimes her hand or shoulder brushes against his chest. This kind of contact, even between cousins, is highly improper. She glances nervously towards the door to make sure no one is coming. She lunges again, laughing and out of breath, more and more wildly. Finally, rather than dodging her, he lets her crash full into his chest, and puts his arms around her.
She cannot breathe. She feels a hot blush rising to her face, and lowers her eyes. She feels his arms around her, his chest against hers. She knows she should push him away. She has known him ever since she and her mother would visit from Nanjing when she was a little girl. But when she and her mother moved to the Capital for good last year, he was no longer the naughty bright-eyed little boy she remembered. He had grown so handsome and poised that it made her catch her breath.
“Let me go,” she says, but he only holds her tighter. “Give me the purse.” She glances shyly up at him. His face, with its bold, laughing eyes, is only inches from hers.
“What will you give me for it?” he whispers.
“You’re as bad as Huan!”
“What will you give me for it?” he repeats.
“Nothing,” she whispers back.
He holds her tighter, lowers his head. Is he going to kiss her?
There is the scuffle of feet on the verandah outside the door curtain. They jump apart.
Xifeng comes in, and Baochai can tell from the mockery in her brilliant eyes that she has guessed, if not seen, what was going on.
“Now, Baoyu, what have you been doing to make your cousin blush like that?” Xifeng says, stooping to unlock the heavy
in the corner. She begins to take out the silver ladles and bundles of ivory chopsticks for serving breakfast. Baochai has always feared Xifeng’s sharp tongue, for which she is notorious in the household. Today she detects an added note of malice.
Baoyu gives Baochai the purse. Not daring to glance at him in Xifeng’s presence, Baochai hurries out. She is halfway to her mother’s rooms before she recovers her complexion. Beneath her shame at being caught in such a predicament by Xifeng, of all people, she feels an unfamiliar euphoria. Baoyu has always been good-natured and charming to her, but this was the first time he had ever shown that he might regard her with more than cousinly affection. She feels herself blushing again at the thought of how he had held her and looked at her. When Baochai was a baby, Mrs. Xue had joked with her sister, Baoyu’s mother, that they should make a match between Baochai and Baoyu, just six months younger. Whenever Baochai heard this story, she was secretly pleased, and hoped that it would come to pass. However, while she is aware that her birth and fortune make her an excellent match, she has never dared to hope that she could attract Baoyu’s attention.
When she enters her mother’s room with the pills, she is pulled up short by the sight of her older brother, Xue Pan, slouched on the edge of the
. “What is it?” she asks, her eyes going swiftly from her mother, whose hair is still only half done, to her brother, who looks shamefaced.
Her mother waves the pills away, looking at Pan. “Go ahead. Tell your sister the mess that you’ve gotten us into this time.”
“Don’t, Mama. It isn’t that bad—” Pan protests.
Baochai cuts him off. “Let Mama take one of her pills before we talk any further.” As Mrs. Xue swallows her medicine, Baochai steels herself. “Now, why don’t you tell me what happened, Pan?”
“Two days ago I bought a beautiful girl, barely sixteen years old, at the slave market. I paid three hundred
, and had her sent to my place that afternoon,” Pan begins in an aggrieved tone. “Barely an hour later a man called Zhang Hua turned up claiming that
had already bought her, and had not taken her home because he was arranging a wedding for the following day. A fight broke out.” Avoiding Baochai’s eyes, Pan admits that Zhang had been beaten pretty badly. “And then, early this morning, Zhang’s family went to the magistrate to ask about bringing charges for assault and battery.”
“How badly did you hurt him?”
“I told you it wasn’t me. It was the pages.”
“But still, they were under your orders. How badly was he hurt?”
Pan looks down. “Two of his teeth were knocked out, and I think he may have broken his arm—”
Her composure breaks. “A broken arm! How can you stand there telling
me—” She cuts herself off, drawing a deep breath. “You must send the girl to Zhang’s house—”
“What would he want with her? He’s injured. I haven’t even had a chance to touch her—”
“All the better. Don’t you understand you must show you are sorry for what happened?”
“But I don’t want to give her up.”
“You can find another girl easily enough! It’s not worth all this trouble to keep this one.”
“I’ll keep the girl and give him some money.”
“It’s too late for that. They have already gone to the magistrate. If they bring a charge, you could be clapped into jail at any moment!”
Pan looks stricken, as if this has not occurred to him. “All right,” he says sulkily.
“And then,” she continues, “you must send money, saying that it is for Zhang’s medical expenses. What sort of man is he, anyway?”
“He’s the son of a small landowner, I think.”
Pan speaks dismissively, but Baochai is alarmed. As a landowner, Zhang is probably both literate and possessed of significant financial resources.
“If they are educated, we can’t try to fob them off with some token amount, and expect them to be satisfied.” She looks at her mother, biting her lip. “How much should we send, then? Three hundred?”
Her mother thinks for a moment, then nods. “We can’t afford not to be generous.”
“Let’s make it four hundred, to be safe.” Baochai turns back to her brother. “Now go home and attend to this right away. I don’t want to see you until you have returned the girl and sent over the money.”
Pan looks chastened and a little frightened, as if the severity of the matter has at last sunk in. After he leaves, Baochai feels her mother’s gaze on her, but neither of them speaks. They are all too familiar with Pan’s impulsiveness and ungovernable temper. Thrown out of school when he was ten for fighting, he had since been educated by a tutor at home. He had been so backward that despite all her father’s beatings, there had never been any hope of his passing the Exams. Seven years later, when Mr. Xue died and Pan inherited his position as Imperial Court Purveyor, he had taken to drinking and cockfighting, gambling and chasing women, without any thought of the future. It was, in fact, Pan’s wildness that had forced the Xues to leave Nanjing a year and a half ago and come
north to take refuge with the Jias, who were after all only relatives by marriage. Nevertheless, Baochai has thought of her brother as foolish and lacking in self-control, never as violent.
Her mother, breaking the silence, seems to put Baochai’s thoughts into words. “Somehow, I never thought that Pan would ever really hurt anyone.”
It suddenly strikes Baochai how old her mother looks. “Maybe he got carried away.” She tries to make light of the affair.
“He always gets carried away. But maybe even he feels that he went too far this time, and will finally learn a lesson.”
Mrs. Xue breaks off, as Lady Jia’s body servant Snowgoose comes in.
“Lady Jia sent me to tell you that breakfast is about to be served.”
“Oh, yes. We’ll be right over.” Baochai helps her mother to her feet, smiling brightly to conceal her anxiety that Snowgoose has overheard their conversation.
Even before Daiyu steps off the barge onto the dock of the Grand Canal, the hot wind hits her: dry and dusty, full of grit and sand from the Gobi desert more than a hundred
north of the Capital. The sun even has a different look here in the Capital, glaring and yellow, its light undiffused by shade or greenery. Squinting, she sees a dozen servants with sedan chairs and a wagon waiting on the dock for their arrival. She wonders how long they have been waiting there in the hot afternoon sun. She cranes her neck and sees the Capital in the distance, its gatehouses and towers piercing the sky, its walls stretching as far as she can see. All above the city hangs a faint black cloud, like a smudge in the sky.
She has barely taken her seat beside Uncle Zheng when the bearers heave the sedan chair to their shoulders and set off at a brisk trot. She clutches the windowsill, pressing her nose to the gauze window. There is nothing to see here, just a few large buildings that look like storehouses and a jumble of ramshackle houses along the canal banks. However, as the sedan crosses the dusty, empty stretch before the city walls, she becomes aware of an unfamiliar stench, compounded of coal smoke, cooking oil, manure, and rotting garbage, all stewing together in the late summer heat. They pass through a massive gatehouse, flanked by a few dozen uniformed guards, the walls more than five paces thick.
Then they are in the city, the sedan surrounded by a jostling throng of human and animal traffic. There are palanquins, ox carts and donkey carts, peddlers balancing their wares from wooden yokes across their shoulders. The wide avenues, so different from Suzhou, are laid out at right angles, like a chessboard. Her ears are filled with the spine-tingling shriek of a knife sharpener’s whetstone, the clang and hiss of cooking pots, the scrape of wheels and the jangling of harnesses, and above all the clamor of a hundred voices raised in argument and bargaining and gossip. The northern dialect, with its harsh, barking gutturals, grates on her ears. Like a child learning to speak, she silently mouths the new sounds, her teeth and tongue trying out the unfamiliar positions.
As the sedan slows to get out of the way of a richly dressed man clattering
by on horseback, Daiyu looks down the side street towards a lively marketplace. There is a butcher in a bloody apron, cages of squawking fowl, pyramids of peaches and apricots. At the edge of the crowd she notices a woman holding the hand of a little girl, standing as if mesmerized before a pile of gooseneck gourds. The woman, with her sloping shoulders and silky black hair, reminds her of her mother, and as the sedan pulls away she turns and watches the woman as long as she can.
After about five minutes, she feels the sedan bearers slow to a walk. Uncle Zheng, who has been dozing in the corner of the sedan, opens his eyes. “There’s Rongguo Mansion.”
She presses her nose against the window in time to see a towering triple gate with crimson pillars, flanked by two massive stone lions. The huge central gate is shut, but the smaller ones on either side are open. Above the central gate hangs a tablet reading:
She makes out the inscription before they sweep through the left gate. They shoot through a narrow corridor enclosed by high, whitewashed walls, the bearers’ feet jogging in perfect unison on the stone pavement.
“It’s a strange household,” Uncle Zheng says.
Daiyu turns away from the window to look at him curiously. All through the long barge journey up the Grand Canal, he had seemed distant and preoccupied, his head buried in stacks of official documents. “What do you mean?”
He gives a short laugh. “Most people think that Granny Jia runs Rongguo Mansion, but it’s your cousin Baoyu that rules the roost here.” He does not look at her, continuing to gaze out the window, although there is nothing to be seen but high blank walls. “It’s all on account of that jade of his.”
“He couldn’t help being born with it.”
“Maybe not. But the way he chooses to flaunt it, the way that he uses it to lord over gullible people …”
Even though she can tell that her uncle does not relish the topic, she cannot help asking, “Will I get to see him? Will I get to see the jade?”
“See him? You won’t be able to move without tripping over him. He lives in the Women’s Quarters!”
Given how strict her uncle appears to be about matters of propriety,
it surprises her that a boy, almost a grown-up, is allowed to live among unmarried girls.
Now he is staring out the window again. “Things would be different if Zhu were still alive.”
“My eldest son. He died seven years ago, right after passing the Exams.”
She is about to ask more when she feels the sedan being lowered to the ground. The sedan bearers disappear, and in their place appear four handsome young page boys, only fifteen or sixteen years old. They must be entering the Women’s Quarters, where no full-grown male servants are permitted. The pages carry the sedan through a gatehouse with a hump-backed roof of half-cylinder tiles. As they pass beyond the latticework gates she sees a green mountain springing steeply out of the ground before her, covered with flowering shrubs and mossy crags. It is so tall that she cannot even see its peak. “How can there be a mountain like this right in the middle of a city?”
“That?” Uncle Zheng says, his gravity momentarily lightened by amusement at her surprise. “We had that built ten years ago for the Imperial Visitation.”
“How can you build a mountain? And what’s an Imperial Visitation?”
“We had the dirt and rocks and plants carted here, basket by basket. Your great-aunt—may she rest in peace—was an Imperial Concubine. One year His Highness decreed that all the Palace Ladies might pay a visit to their families at New Year’s. We built the Garden for her.”
Something about the way her uncle says “the Garden” strikes her, as if it were something known to everyone, like “the Great Wall” or “the Emperor.”
“What’s the Garden?”
Uncle Zheng shouts out the window to the bearers. “Go the long way around the mountain, so Miss Lin can see the Garden!”
The sedan veers onto a path lined with low trees. She catches glimpses of ripening plums amid glossy dark leaves, and hears the rush of water. She looks up to see a small waterfall foaming down a wet black rock face. On her other side is a lake, purplish in the setting sun, with a nine-angled bridge leading to a pavilion. Near a grove of spotted bamboo, a snowy egret balances on one spindly leg and dips its beak into the water. “It’s beautiful, like a fairy kingdom!” she cries.
Uncle Zheng points to a terra-cotta roof amid pine trees along the
shore of the lake. “That’s Baochai’s place. That one near the arched bridge is Tanchun’s—”
“My cousins live here?”
“The Imperial Concubine decreed after her Visitation that the girls be allowed to live here so it wouldn’t lie empty. The girls and Baoyu, of course.” His mouth twists wryly. He looks at Daiyu kindly. “Who knows? Perhaps you’ll get to stay here as well. Wouldn’t you like that?”
She does not answer. Her initial amazement is giving way to a sense of the strangeness of the place. She has visited the famous gardens in Suzhou: exquisite spaces, in which mounds of rock suggest mountains, mossy pools represent lakes, by their art evoking the broader sweep of nature. But this garden, in its attempt to duplicate natural wonders in their true scale, seems incongruous, as if a child’s toy has been enlarged to human size.
Now the bearers lower the sedan again. This time her uncle steps out and leads her to a small gate with a roof curving upwards at the corners like water buffalo horns. Following him around a white marble screen, she passes into a spacious courtyard. At the far end is a large five-frame building with enameled red pillars. Her attention is caught by the birds. They hang in tiny bamboo cages along all four sides of the courtyard, dozens of them: parrots in every tropical color, cockatoos, “painted eyebrows,” thrushes, and finches. Some sit on perches, others cling to the bars of their cages. She wants to stop and look at them, but her uncle is already hurrying ahead.
As they cross the courtyard towards the main apartment, a young woman darts out of a side door and intercepts them.
“Here you are at last! We’ve been expecting you for the last hour. Welcome home, Uncle!” The young woman clasps her hands and bends the upper half of her body in a kowtow, but with a roguish smile, as if no one could seriously expect such formality from her.
Daiyu stares at her. She has never in her life seen a person so exquisitely dressed, in silks as delicate and fluttering as a butterfly’s wings. She turns to Daiyu, her rouged lips parting in a smile.
“And here’s my new little cousin.” She puts a beringed hand on Daiyu’s hair. “I’m Wang Xifeng. I’m married to your cousin Lian.” She pulls Daiyu up the steps into the main apartment. “Come in. Everyone is dying to see you.”
Daiyu’s first impression is of a large, opulently furnished room filled with people, some of them sitting on the
, some of them standing
along the walls, all of them as beautifully dressed as Wang Xifeng. She is wearing her rose-sprigged gown, the last thing her mother made for her before she fell ill. It is her favorite gown, but now she is conscious of how rumpled and stained it is from her journey.
Her eyes fall first on a boy, about her own age, standing before the
while an elderly woman adjusts the set of a magnificent cape on his shoulders. The cape is of a type she has never seen before, woven of some sort of silky black feather, shot through with gleams of bronzy green iridescence. The boy’s head, with its sleek braid and brilliant black eyes, rises like the crest of some exotic bird from the collar encrusted with golden embroidery. Three girls on the
are looking critically at him. The oldest one is holding up a basin-sized West Ocean mirror, and the boy is craning his neck to see his reflection.
“What do you think?” he says.
“Very elegant,” the old woman approves.
The oldest girl puts down the mirror and climbs down from the
to rub the fabric between her fingers. “It will keep him warm and dry, at any rate.”
But the youngest girl, who looks to be about fourteen, pipes up. “I think boys look perfectly silly in feathers. Better something simple in red camlet or fur-lined felt,
“That shows how much you know, young lady,” the old woman retorts sharply. “This is the best quality ‘peacock gold,’ given to the Prince of Nan’an by the Russian ambassador. It’s what fine gentlemen there wear in the winter. This cape is worth a thousand
if it’s worth a penny. It’s far more valuable than camlet or fur.”