Purely by Accident – Chapter 17
I miss her like mad.
I’d once dismissed phrases like that as nothing more than the exaggerations of petty scribblers with too much time on their hands. To miss someone, I used to think, must be an exquisite sensation indeed. One would sit under the setting sun, with a gentle breeze in the air. Then one would warm a pot of yellow wine, play a song upon the qin, and silently trace the countenance of the longed-for person in one’s mind. A tender melancholy would settle over one. And that, I’d thought, must offer a certain pensive happiness all of its own.
Now that I’d spent the last few days in thrall to the single dominating idea of I miss her, I miss her, I miss her, however, my idea of what it meant to long for someone had undergone a sea change. An exquisite sensation? A pensive happiness? All that was poppycock! What missing the princess actually felt like was thousands and thousands of ants gnawing at my heart, an unbearable itch that made me want to claw my skin off and tear my hair out. The sensation was everywhere, and yet nowhere I could get at; the only thing that could relieve it was seeing the princess again. I was finally forced to concede that it was indeed possible to miss someone like mad.
As for the sunsets and gentle breezes of my imagination, not to mention the warmed wine and the tune picked out on the qin — well. I gazed into the nearest bronze mirror, stroked my chin, and reflected, not without a certain degree of smug self-satisfaction, that my past self had certainly been an exemplar par excellence of a literary youth.
But — and here I patted my cheeks, which had become visibly more gaunt — if I went on pining for the princess in this obsessive fashion, the literary youth of yesteryear was almost certainly going to ‘evolve’ into an outstandingly embittered wife!
When lines such as ‘the lake’s clear waters ruffled by / a sudden rising breeze’ and verses from sundry other boudoir laments began jostling for space in my mind, I gave myself a decisive slap on the thigh. It was time I found something to do.
This was how I ended up sitting in the main hall of my new home. The servants were lined up in front of me with their hands held respectfully at their sides. The marble floor was polished to such a high shine that I could see their reflections in it. On the table beside me was a cup of scented tea; steam curled gracefully from it. Lifting the lid from the cup, I used it to prod at the tea leaves that had floated to the surface. I nudged them first to one side, then the other.
‘Come, everyone. Tell me what you used to do when you were in service at the princess’ manor. Even though this isn’t her main residence, it should still be run in a smooth and orderly fashion, and everyone should be assigned a specific place within the household.’ I sipped my tea and carried on amiably, ‘Back in my hometown, I used to hold a leadership position of some importance, so there’s no need to worry. My specialty lies in appointing the right person to the right job; meritocracy is my watchword. So’ — I took another sip of tea — ‘let’s go from left to right, one by one. Now, what were you before you came here?’
The servants were clearly far less enthusiastic about this exercise than I was. One by one, they proclaimed woodenly:
By the time the fifth chef revealed himself, my patience finally snapped. ‘Stop!’ I cried. As I wiped the sweat from my brow, it finally dawned on me why all the meals I’d been served at my new home were well-nigh inedible: all these unqualified chefs were gathered together, no doubt competing to see who could produce the worst-tasting food!
I thought the matter over for a moment, then put down my cup and said, ‘Anyone here who wasn’t a chef, step forward so that I can see you.’
A few women stepped out from the far end of the line.
This was a good sign; at least not every servant in this room was a chef. I smiled benevolently upon them. ‘Come, tell me what you used to be.’
This time the answer came quickly, as all the women chorused, ‘A cook.’
My smile froze. Inwardly, tears streamed down my face. My dear princess, what do you have against the culinary profession?
There was nothing for it. I cleared my throat. ‘The old saying is right. A country cannot be without its ruler, a household cannot be without its head, and chefs cannot be without their… er… head chef.’ I cleared my throat again. ‘Now, who would like to put themselves forward for the position of head chef… plus household steward?’
The servants stared blankly at each other. After some considerable time, a solitary hand rose slowly and falteringly from the crowd.
The hand in question was a clean and rather shapely one. Its fingers were long and tapered, and each joint was well-defined. Against the dark heads of the gathered crowd, it shone with an unusual, almost supernatural light.
This was not a hand that belonged on a chef. Its owner was was a young man with exceptionally delicate features and bright, limpid eyes. He certainly didn’t seem like someone who spent his days amid vats of vinegar and jars of oil.
This whetted my interest, so I gestured for him to come closer. ‘Were you also a chef?’ I asked, squinting at him.
‘And why were you banished here?’
His pale, perceptive face reddened slightly. He seemed to be at a loss for words, and it was some time before he was finally able to stammer out, ‘My… my fingers were too quick…’
What sort of offence was that? Wasn’t dexterity a quality to be prized in a servant? I compared him to myself, and couldn’t help a sudden surge of fellow feeling. In life, one must always be careful not to appear too outstanding. Otherwise, one risked being brought low by the envious.
I reached out and patted him on the shoulder. ‘Being quick and nimble is no bad thing. I’m sure you must have been falsely accused of some offence to end up here. Don’t worry — I know the princess quite well, and if I have the chance, I’ll intercede with her on your behalf. I’ll see to it that you get justice.’
Just as I was swelling up with a sense of heroic righteousness, the young man held up that clean, shapely hand. Nestled in it was an exquisite jade pendant. Against his palm, it shone with an unusual, almost supernatural light.
It was the pendant the princess had given me! My hand went to my waist, where it usually hung — and, as expected, found nothing there. My mouth fell open. So that was what he’d meant when he’d said his fingers were too quick. No wonder there seemed to be something unusual about his hand. That limb was no mere protrusion of mortal flesh — it was a veritable wealth extraction machine! This young man truly had a gift.
Propping my chin up on one hand, I declared, ‘The job is yours! By the way my lad, could you return that jade pendant to me…’
The rest of the servants dispersed.
I stroked the jade pendant which had just been restored to me. I really shouldn’t carry this around with me when I’m out of the house, I thought. I’d better find somewhere safe to put it. ‘What’s your name, my good man?’ I asked the young man in front of me.
He seemed to still be recovering from the joy of his sudden promotion. It was a long moment before he finally said, ‘Zheng… Zheng Hao.’
Zheng Hao? ‘Just right’? I crooked a finger at him. ‘Come, let’s go into town!’
Zheng Hao said nothing, though questions were written all over his face.
‘Yes!’ I nodded vigorously. ‘Let’s do some carousing!’
That’s what you get for dumping me here and not coming to see me even once! The princess, my obsessive longing for her, all that could go to the devil — or rather, could be put out of my mind for the time being.
It was warm and sunny outside, and the air was clear and fresh. Pedestrians thronged the streets, and the outdoor markets were bustling with activity. How wonderful this all is, I thought blissfully. I waved the fan I’d brought with me as I walked along — it was after all a necessary accoutrement for every elegant young man. Sunshine, exercise, the complete and utter absence of any obsessive yearnings… This is what a healthy lifestyle looks like.
Zheng Hao followed closely in my wake.
A sudden thought struck me. I stopped, shut the fan and shook my head, trying to rid myself of it. Finally, however (unable to help myself), I turned to Zheng Hao and asked, ‘Xiao Hao, you used to be in service at the princess’ manor, didn’t you?’
Alarm flashed in Zheng Hao’s guileless eyes. It made me feel exactly as though I was swindling some naive youth.
Rubbing my temples, I went on playing the part of the amiable swindler. ‘Then you must know the way to the princess’ manor?’
The naive youth nodded.
I flicked the fan open again; the crisp snap it made couldn’t drown out my sudden chortle. ‘Then take me there!’
We made our way down flower-lined paths and willow-lined roads, along the riverbank and across the bridge, through the twists and turns of various streets and alleys, until finally we arrived at—
I looked up at the building before us. The words ‘Chunyi House’, written in a hand that somehow contrived to seem louche, adorned the sign that hung above its entrance. ‘What godforsaken place is this?’ I demanded.
Zheng Hao looked as though I had wronged him deeply. After long interval of head-scratching and hand-wringing, he finally managed to force out, ‘I… I speak very slowly, but you… you walk very quickly, young master… You kept turning corners where… where you shouldn’t have…’
He might be quick-fingered, but he was definitely slow-tongued. I let out a long, inward sigh. It seemed heaven was fair, after all.
Just as I was turning to go, a hand gorgeously bedecked with rings caught hold of me by the wrist. Strong perfume assaulted my nostrils. ‘Greetings, young masters,’ said the full-figured woman to whom the hand belonged — no doubt the madam of the establishment we’d found ourselves standing in front of. ‘Since you’re already here, why not come in? All the young ladies at Chunyi House are first-rate.’
So it was a brothel after all — a brothel! I looked over at the red-faced Zheng Hao, whose wrist was caught firmly in the woman’s other hand. He looked like a lamb being led to slaughter. Resigned, I turned back towards the madam, rubbing my nose ruefully. Her eyes lit up.
She looked me up and down, then up and down again. ‘What an outstandingly handsome man you are, young master.’
I chuckled awkwardly and tried to fling her hand off with some force, but to no avail. ‘I, er, I don’t have any money on me today. Perhaps some other time, eh?’
The madam only tightened her grip around my wrist. The smile on her face grew so wide that it threatened to engulf even her broad face. ‘Don’t worry about that. It won’t cost you anything just to come in and have a little tête-à-tête with our young ladies.’
Ah. So she was the persistent type. There was nothing for it: I was going to have to break out my secret weapon.
Back at the stronghold, Xu Ziqi had developed a clever trick for turning down the attentions of besotted young women. I’d had many opportunities to witness it in action. Now, I put on the same sorrowful expression I’d seen him assume. ‘To tell you the truth, I have no interest in young ladies.’ At this, the madam’s eyes widened. Secretly, I patted myself on the back. ‘You may well laugh,’ I went on, ‘but I’ — and here I lowered my voice — ‘am actually a cut-sleeve.’
Beside me, Zheng Hao gave a sudden shiver. He looked as pitiful as a willow catkin fluttering helplessly in the wind.
The madam’s face was all aglow with delight. ‘What a coincidence! We also have many lovely young men here at Chunyi House. What type do you fancy, young master? Just let me know. I don’t want to boast, but however wild your wildest fantasies are, we can cater to them!’
With an almighty heave, she dragged both of us across the threshold. The front door banged shut behind us, and the madam finally freed us from her vice-like grip.
I gave her a wan smile as I rubbed my wrists. Then I roared, ‘Xiao Hao, let’s make a run for it!’
In our panic, there was no time to plan out a route; instead, we rushed through the building like a pair of headless chickens. We dashed up the stairs, turned a corner and raced down a corridor. From the rooms on either side came suspicious panting noises. Cursing inwardly, I went on running. Finally, we happened across a room that seemed quiet and therefore likely to be unoccupied. I shoved the door open and ducked inside, dragging Zheng Hao with me. Nimbly, he bolted the door shut behind us.
I was bending over slightly, trying to catch my breath, when Zheng Hao tugged at my sleeve. I saw that he was pointing at something deeper inside the room. My eyes followed his finger, and fell upon — oh, what a dazzlingly beautiful woman!
Her brows were as graceful as the curve of a weeping willow tree, and her eyes were as dark as ink. Her brilliant red lips were slightly parted, revealing her pearly white teeth. She was as lovely as a flower, as exquisite as if she had stepped out of a painting. She was looking directly at me, with one eyebrow arched. A corner of her lip curled; there was a hint of slyness in her expression.
I stared at her in stunned silence for a few moments — and, once I’d managed to recover, gave myself a sharp smack on the head. Why were you staring at that woman? Fine, so she’s attractive, but what’s that got to do with you? Fine, so you like women, but — that’s it! The princess is the one you love, so what are you staring at some other woman for? How could she possibly be more beautiful than the princess?
I shook my head, then cleared my throat and cupped my hands together in a gesture of respect. ‘Please don’t take offence, miss. We’ve stumbled in here completely by accident — we were in too much of a hurry to look where we were going. I hope you can forgive us.’
She tilted her head as if thinking the matter over, then suddenly smiled. ‘”Miss”?’
Oh, right. Since she was here, she must be what people called a lady of the night. Was ‘miss’ an inappropriate form of address for someone in her profession? I wasn’t sure. Out of nowhere, I felt a sudden stab of pity. How had such a charming young woman ended up in a place like this?
She stepped closer to me, her smile even brighter than before. ‘And here I thought you must be one of Chunyi House’s new male courtesans. What a waste of those good looks.’
My face practically burst into flames. So she wasn’t a working girl after all, but a patron. How permissive the mores of the capital were! Every other man was a philanderer, every other woman a libertine.
I bowed hastily to her then stepped out of the room, dragging Zheng Hao with me. Behind us, the woman gave a low, musical laugh.
We managed to find a convenient window, and from there we were able to leap down onto the street below. Zheng Hao’s little face was completely ashen; he seemed to be thoroughly traumatised by our encounter with the beautiful woman. He was holding something in one trembling hand. When he thrust it at me, I saw that it was a handkerchief of piercingly bright red silk. A white feather had been embroidered on one corner. It looked positively dazzling against the red fabric.
‘Where did this come from?’ I asked.
Zheng Hao said nothing, but pointed a shaky finger at the building we’d just escaped from.
‘From the woman we just ran into?’
‘Why did you lift it off her? Do you fancy her or something?’
Zheng Hao’s hitherto ashen face suddenly flushed crimson. ‘F-f-force of habit.’
I looked down at the handkerchief, then called to mind its owner’s face. For no reason I could name, it struck me that there was something familiar about her. The thought left me momentarily puzzled.
- In Chinese, 黄酒. A traditional Chinese alcoholic beverage made by fermenting grains such as rice, glutinous rice or millet. One of the best-known yellow wines is Shaoxing wine (绍兴酒), which is often used for cooking. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 琴. A traditional seven-string musical instrument favoured by scholars and literati and considered highly refined. [return to text]
- In the original text, 风乍起, 吹皱一池春水. This is the first line from a ci poem by Feng Yansi (冯延巳, also known as Feng Yanji 冯延己), a poet and politician who lived during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (五代十国) period. It is set to the tune of ‘At the Golden Gate’ (谒金门). The poem describes a young noblewoman missing her husband in the springtime. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 闺怨 (see footnote 11 to Chapter 8). [return to text]
- In the original text, 国不可一日无君, 家不可一日无主. It means that neither a country nor a household can go a day without a leader. The saying may originate from The Water Margin (水浒传, also known as Outlaws of the Marsh), one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. The authorship of the novel is traditionally attributed to Shi Nai’an (施耐庵), a writer from the Yuan and early Ming dynasties, about whom little is known. [return to text]
- In the original text, 黑白分明, literally ‘the black parts (of the eyes) are clearly distinguished from the white parts’. This is regarded as an attractive quality. [return to text]
- In Chinese, the name ‘Zheng Hao’ (郑好) sounds exactly like ‘just right’ (正好). [return to text]
- In the original text, 人中龙凤, literally ‘a dragon or phoenix among humans’. [return to text]
- In the original text, 无头苍蝇, literally ‘headless flies’. [return to text]
- In the original text, the chengyu 般般入画, literally ‘fit to be painted into a painting’. [return to text]
- In the original text, 作揖. A traditional gesture of greeting or farewell in which one bows while cupping one hand over the other in front of one’s chest. [return to text]