Her dusky arched eyebrows were knitted and yet not frowning, her speaking eyes held both merriment and sorrow; her very frailty had charm.
Her eyes sparkled with tears, her breath was soft and faint. In repose she was like a lovely flower mirrored in the water; in motion, a pliant willow swaying in the wind. She looked more sensitive than Bi Gan, more delicate than Xi Shi.
Her lips needed no rouge, her blue-black eyebrows no brush; her face seemed a silver disk, her eyes almonds swimming in water. Some might think her reticence a cloak for stupidity; but circumspect as she was she prided herself on her simplicity.
His face was as radiant as the mid-autumn moon, his complexion fresh as spring flowers at down. The hair above his temples was as sharply outlined as if cut with a knife. His eyebrows were as black as if painted with ink, his cheeks as red as peach-blossom, his eyes bright as autumn ripples. Even when angry he seemed to smile, and there was warmth in his glance even when he frowned.
She had the almond-shaped eyes of a phoenix, slanting eyebrows as long and drooping as willow leaves. Her figure was slender and her manner vivacious. The springtime charm of her powdered face gave no hint of her latent formidability. And before her crimson lips parted, her laughter rang out.
Just then a servant outside announced, “Miss Lin is here.” And in came Daiyu.
“Ah!” she exclaimed at sight of Baoyu. “I’ve chosen a bad time to come.”
Baoyu rose with a smile to offer her a seat while Baochai asked cheerfully, “What do you mean?”
“If I’d known he was here, I wouldn’t have come.”
“That’s more puzzling than ever,” said Baochai.
“Either everybody comes at once or no one comes,” explained Daiyu mischievously. “If he came one day and I the next, spacing out our visits, you’d have callers every day and would find it neither too lonely nor too distracting. What’s so puzzling about that, cousin?”
Daiyu had been smiling rather cryptically as she cracked melon-seeds.
“Who told you to bring this?”demanded Daiyu. “Many thanks. Think I was freezing to death here?”
“Zijuan was afraid you might be cold, miss, so she asked me to bring it over.”
Nursing the stove in her arms Daiyu retorted, “So you do whatever she asks, but let whatever I say go in one ear and out the other. You jump to obey her instructions faster than if they were an Imperial edict.”
Although Baoyu knew these remarks were aimed at him, his only reply was to chuckle. And Baochai, aware that this was Daiyu’s way, paid no attention either.
Amused yet vexed, Nanny Li expostulated, “Really, every word Miss Lin says cuts sharper than a knife. How can you suggest such a thing?”
Even Baochai couldn’t suppress a smile. She pinched Daiyu’s cheek and cried, “What a tongue the girl has! One doesn’t know whether to be cross or laugh.”
Xifeng had on the dark sable hood with a pearl-studded band which she wore at home. She was also wearing a peach-red flowered jacket, a turquoise cape lined with grey squirrel and a skirt of crimson foreign crêpe lined with snow-weasel fur. Dazzlingly rouged and powdered she sat erect, stirring the ashes of her hand-stove with a tiny brass poker.
Xifeng ignored the tea and kept her head lowered as she stirred the ashes. “Why haven’t you brought her in yet?” she finally asked.
Then, raising her head to take the tea, she saw Mrs. Zhou with her two charges before her.
She made a motion as if to rise and greeted them with a radiant smile, scolding Mrs. Zhou for not speaking up before.
Granny Liu had already curtseyed several times to Xifeng.
“When relatives don’t call on each other they drift apart,” observed Xifeng with a smile. “People who know us would say you’re neglecting us. Petty-minded people who don’t know us so well might imagine we look down on everyone else.”
“Gracious Buddha!” exclaimed Granny Liu. “We’re too hard up to gad about. And even if Your Ladyship didn’t slap our faces for coming, your stewards might take us for tramps.”
“That’s no way to talk!” Xifeng laughed. “We’re simply poor officials trying to live up to our grandfather’s reputation. This household is nothing but an empty husk left over from the past. As the saying goes: ‘The Emperor himself has poor relations.’ How much more so in our case?”