A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 100

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Chapter 100

By Frustrating Jingui Xiangling

Makes a Worse Enemy of Her

Baoyu Grieves Over Tanchun’s Departure

to Marry Far from Home

Jia Zheng remained so long with the governor that the attendants out­side started speculating what the reason could be; and when Li Shier could get hold of no information, he remembered the ominous report in the Court Gazette and began to be really worried. At last Jia Zheng emerged, and Li escorted him back. On the way, when no one else was near, he asked:

“Was it urgent business that kept you there so long, sir?”

“Nothing of coil sequence,” replied Jia Zheng with a smile. “The gar­rison commander of Haimen is related to the governor and has written recommending me to him. For this reason, the governor paid me some compliments and said, ‘Now we are relatives too.”‘

Pleased and emboldened by this, Li urged him to agree to the garrison commander’s proposal. However, Jia Zheng was still afraid that he might be implicated in Xue Pan’s case. Being so far away, cut off from news and in no position to cope with emergencies, on his return to his office he lost no time in sending a servant to the capital to find out the situation and tell the Lady Dowager about the garrison commander’s proposal. If she agreed to it, Tanchun could be sent to him.

The servant travelled post-haste to the capital. Having made his re­port to Lady Wang, he found out from the Ministry of Civil Affairs that Jia Zheng was in no trouble – only the magistrate of Taiping County had been dismissed from his post. He sent word of this to Jia Zheng to relieve his mind, then stayed on to await further developments.

Now Aunt Xue had spent huge sums bribing the yamens dealing with Xue Pan’s case to bring in a verdict of manslaughter, not murder. She had planned to sell a pawnshop to raise the ransom for him; but now that the Board of Punishments had unexpectedly reversed the verdict, she had to spend still more on bribes, all in vain – Xue Pan remained sen­tenced to death and immured in prison pending the Major Sessions in the autumn. Aunt Xue wept day and night for rage and grief.

“Brother was born ill-fated,” Baochai kept telling her to comfort her. “Inheriting so much property, he should have lived quietly, minding his own business. Instead he carried on scandalously down south, behaving so disgracefully over Xiangling. It was only because of his powerful con­nections and money that he got away with killing that young gentleman. He should have turned over a new leaf then, and taken good care of you; but here in the capital he carried on just as before. Goodness knows how often he’s provoked you, mother, how many tears he’s made you shed.

“Then you got him a wife, and we thought we could all live in peace; but it was his fate to marry such a shrew that he left home to avoid her. As the proverb says, ‘Foes are fated to meet’ – before very long he killed a man again!

“You and Cousin Ke have done all you could for him: spending money and begging this one and that one to help. But there’s no escaping fate, and he brought this on himself. People bring up children as props for their old age, and even the son of a poor family will work to support his mother. What good is one who squanders his whole inheritance and breaks his old mother’s heart?

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but the way brother behaves he isn’t your son but your enemy. If you don’t wake up to this, you’ll keep crying from dawn till dusk, from dusk till dawn, and have more to put up with from sister-in-law as well. As for me, I can’t always be here to smooth things over, for though Baoyu’s a simpleton he won’t let me stay here. But it makes me so worried seeing you like this!

“The other day the master sent to tell us how alarmed he was after reading the Court Gazette: that’s why he sent a servant to see to things. I’m sure lots of people are anxious over this trouble brother’s made. I’m lucky to be so close to you still. If I heard this news far away, I’d worry myself to death thinking about you! So do calm down, mother, and while brother’s still alive check up on the various accounts. Get the old accountant to reckon up how much is owed to us and how much we owe, so as to see how much money there is left.

‘These days we’ve been so upset about your brother,” said Aunt Xue tearfully, “whenever you came, if you weren’t consoling me I was telling you what had happened in the yamen; so I didn’t let you know. We’ve already lost the title of Court Purveyor in the capital, and we’ve sold two of our pawnshops — the proceeds went long ago. We still have one pawnshop left, but its manager has absconded with several thousand taels, for which we’re sueing him. Your Cousin Ke outside asks every day for more money, and we must have spent tens of thousands from our funds in the capital. We can only make up the deficit by drawing silver from our clan funds down south and by selling our houses there. But only the other day we heard a rumour that our clan pawnshop in Jinling has been confiscated too, because it went bankrupt. If this is true, what’s your poor mother to live on?” She broke down and sobbed.

‘It’s no use worrying about money matters, mother,” said Baochai, in tears herself. “Cousin Ke will see to them for us. But how hateful of those assistants! When they see us come down in the world they strike out on their own; and some of them, so I’ve heard, help other people to squeeze us. This shows that all these years the only friends brother had made are wine-and-meat ones. not one of whom stands by him in time of trouble.

“If you’re fond of me, mother, take my advice and now that you’re old take better care of your health. I can’t believe you’ll ever go cold or hungry. What little clothing and furniture there is here, you’ll simply have to let sister-in-law do as she likes with. I don’t suppose the servants want to stay on, so if they ask to leave just let them go. Poor Xiangling has had a hard life; you’ll have to keep her with you. If you’re short of anything. I’ll provide it if I can — I don’t imagine Baoyu will object. Xiren is a good sort too. When she heard of our family trouble she spoke of you with tears. He’s not upset, not knowing that anything’s amiss. If he knew, he would be frantic…”

“Don’t tell him, there’s a good child,” Aunt Xue cut in. “He nearly died because of Daiyu, and he’s only just recovering. If he’s upset and anything happens to him, you’ll have more to worry about and I shall have fewer people to whom to turn.”

“That’s what I think,” answered Baochai. “That’s why I never told him.”

Just then they heard Jingui storm into the outer room.

“I want to die and be done with it!” she shrieked. “My man’s as good as dead! We may as well make a scene, all going to the execution ground for a show-down!”

She banged her head on the partition until her hair was all tousled. Aunt Xue could only glare in rage, unable to get a word out. It was Baochai who begged Jingui to be reasonable.

“Dear sister-in-law!” sneered Jingui. “You’re no longer part of this household. You’re living in comfort with that husband of yours, but I’m all on my own — I needn’t care about appearances!”

She threatened to rush out, back to her mother’s home. Fortunately there were enough of them there to restrain her and talk her round so that, eventually, she left off storming. But Baoqin was so terrified that she kept out of her way.

Whenever Xue Ke was at home, Jingui would rouge and powder her face, paint her eyebrows, deck her hair and dress up like a vamp. She kept passing his room, coughing deliberately; and though well aware that he was inside, she would make a point of asking who was there. When they met, she would ogle him and ask coyly after his health, simpering and pouting by turns. The maids who saw her hastily scurried away. But disregarding appearances, she set her whole heart on enticing Xue Ke, to carry out Baochan’s plan.

Xue Ke did his best to avoid her, but when they happened to meet he made a show of cordiality for fear that otherwise she might make a scene. And Jingui, besotted by her infatuation, indulged in the wildest fantasies which blinded her to his real attitude to her. She noticed, though, that Xue Ke left his things in Xiangling’s keeping and that she was the one who washed and made clothes for him; while if Jingui chanced to find them talking together, they hastily parted company. This made her jealous. Not liking to vent her anger on Xue Ke she focused it on Xiangling. But afraid to offend him by quarrelling openly with her, she hid her resentment.

One day Baochan came to her, smiling all over her face.

“Have you seen Master Ke, madam?” she asked.

“No,” said Jingui.

“I told you not to believe that strait-laced pose of his,” chuckled Baochan. “That time we sent him wine, he said he couldn’t drink; but just now I saw him going to see the mistress, red in the face and tipsy. If you don’t believe me, wait at our courtyard gate for him to come out. You can intercept him then and challenge him to see what he has to say.”

Provoked by this Jingui answered, “He won’t be coming out yet a while; and he’s such a cold fish, why should I challenge him?”

“That’s no way to look at it, madam. If he’s well-disposed, we’ll know what to do. If not, we’ll make other plans.”

Convinced by this, Jingui sent her off to keep watch till he came out, then opened her dressing-case and eyed herself in the mirror. Having rouged her lips and selected a flowered silk handkerchief she left her room, rather flustered, as if she had overlooked something.

She heard Baochan outside saying, “You’re in high spirits, Master Ke, today. Where have you been drinking?”

Taking her cue, Jingui lifted the portiere and stepped out.

“Today is Mr. Zhang’s birthday,” Xue Ke was telling Baochan. “They forced me to drink half a goblet. Even now my face is still burning….”

Jingui interposed, “Of course other people’s wine tastes better than ours at home!”

At this taunt, Xue Ke blushed even redder. Stepping over quickly he countered with a smile, “How can you say such a thing, sister-in-law!”

Seeing them talking together, Baochan slipped inside.

Jingui had meant to make a show of annoyance, but now his flushed cheeks, sparkling eyes and appealing expression had melted her anger away.

“You mean you were forced to drink?” she asked with a smile.

“Of course. I can’t drink,” he said.

“It’s best not to drink — much better than landing in trouble through drinking like your cousin, so that when you take a wife she becomes a lonely grass widow like me, poor thing!” She shot him a sidelong glance, blushing as she spoke.

Shocked by these improper advances, Xue Ke decided to leave her; but she forestalled him by seizing hold of him.

“Sister-in-law!” he spluttered, trembling from head to foot. “Remem­ber who you are!”

“Just come on in,” she answered brazenly. “I’ve something impor­tant to tell you.”

This clash was cut short by the announcement behind them: “Madam! xiangling is here.”

With a start Jingui turned to see Baochan watching them from under the raised portiere. She had called out this warning at sight of Xiangling. The shock made Jingui let go of Xue Ke, who took this chance to escape.

Xiangling had not noticed them until Baochan called out. Horrified by the sight of Jingui trying desperately to tug Xue Ke into her room, her heart went pit-a-pat and she wheeled away, leaving Jingui rooted to the spot in furious consternation as she stared after Xue Ke’s retreating figure. With a curse she went back to her room then in frustration, and from that day on she hated Xiangling to the marrow of her bones. Xiangling had just passed the inner gate on her way to call on Baoqin when this sight frightened her away.

That same day Baochai, in the Lady Dowager’s room, heard Lady Wang tell of Tanchun’s marriage proposal.

“It’s good that his family comes from our district,” the old lady com­mented. “But you say that boy visited our house — why didn’t your husband mention this before?”

“We didn’t know it ourselves at the time,” said Lady Wang.

“It’s a good match but too far away. Though the master is in the south now, if he gets transferred in future won’t the child be lonely there all by herself?”

“We’re both official families, with no knowing where the next post will be. Their family may be transferred to the capital. Anyway, ‘Leaves that fall return to their root in the end.’ As the master’s been posted there, and this was proposed by his superior, how can he refuse? I think he must approve, but not presuming to make the decision himself he sent the servant to ask your consent, madam.”

“It’s all right if you’re both willing. But once Tanchun’s gone who knows how long it’ll be before she can come home. Any later than two or three years and I may never see her again!” She shed tears.

“When our girls grow up we have to marry them off,” replied Lady Wang. “Even if the other family’s from our own district, we can’t be sure of always being together — unless they’re not officials. All we can hope for is that the girls will be happy. Take Yingchun: she’s married into a family near by, yet we keep hearing how her husband ill-treats her-sometimes they even give her nothing to eat. And anything we send never reaches her. Recently, they say, it’s gone from bad to worse and her in-laws won’t let her come home. When she and her husband have words, he jeers that we’re in debt to his family. Poor child, never able to hold up her head!

“The other day I was so worried about her, I sent some maids to see her. Yingchun hid herself in a side-room and wouldn’t come out. When they insisted on going in they saw that, cold as it was, she was still wear­ing thin, shabby clothes. With tears in her eyes she pleaded, ‘When you go back, don’t tell them what a wretched time I’m having; this is my fate. And don’t send me clothes or things. I wouldn’t get them. Instead, they’d accuse me of complaining and give me another beating.’ Just think, madam, because she’s close enough for us to know what’s going on, when she has a bad time we feel even worse. Not that her mother pays any attention, and her father does nothing either, so poor Yingchun’s worse off now than one of our third-grade maids.

“Though Tanchun’s not my child, since the master’s agreed to this match after seeing the boy, I feel sure it must be all right. So please give your consent, madam, then we’ll choose a good day to send her off, well escorted, to join her father. He’ll see that everything is done in style.”

“Very well, as her father approves, get everything ready and choose a day for setting off on this long journey,” said the old lady. “That will be another business settled.”

“Very good, madam.”

Baochai who had heard all this did not say a word, although inwardly she was lamenting. “Of all the girls in our family she’s the best, yet now she’s going so far away to get married — there are fewer and fewer of us here every day.”

When Lady Wang rose to leave, she went out with her. Back in her room, she did not tell Baoyu this news; but finding Xiren sewing alone she confided it to her, distressing her too.

But when word reached Concubine Zhao she started gloating. “This daughter of mine has never shown me any respect in this household. She treats me not like her mother but worse than her maids! She sucks up to those who have influence and sides with others against me. With her taking first place, Huan doesn’t stand a chance. Now that the master’s fetching her away, I’ll have a freer hand. I can’t expect her to look after me, but only hope she ends up like Yingchun – yes, that would please me.

With these thoughts in mind, she went over as fast as she could to congratulate Tanchun.

“You’re going up in the world, miss,” she said. “You’ll be better off in your husband’s home than here; so I’ve no doubt you’re agreeable to this marriage. Though I brought you up, you’ve not done me any favours. But even if I’m seven-tenths bad, I’m still three-tenths good; so don’t forget all about me once you get there.’

Tanchun went on sewing with lowered head throughout this rigma­role, not saying a word. Finding herself ignored, Concubine Zhao left in dudgeon.

Mixed anger, amusement and grief made Tanchun shed tears when she was alone again. After a while she went off in low spirits to call on Baoyu.

“Third Sister,” he said, “I heard that you were there when Cousin Lin died and that, far off in the distance, there was the sound of music. For all we know, she may have been an immortal.”

“You’re imagining things!” laughed Tanchun. “But there was some­thing strange about that evening, and it didn’t sound like any mortal mu­sic. Perhaps you’re right.”

This confirmed Baoyu’s belief. He recalled how, when he was out of his mind, an apparition had told him that Daiyu in life was no ordinary mortal, and after death no ordinary spirit. She must have been a goddess come down to earth. This reminded him of the Moon Goddess in an opera he had seen, so lovely, ethereal and charming!

After Tanchun had left, he insisted on having Zijuan to work for them

and at once despatched a maid to ask the old lady to send her.

Zijuan was unwilling to come, but she could only comply with Their Ladyships’ orders. In Baoyu’s presence, however, she did nothing but exclaim in dismay and sigh. When he quietly took her hand and softly questioned her about Daiyu. she gave him offhand answers. But Baochai did not blame her for this, secretly approving her loyalty to her young mistress.

As for Daiyu’s other maids, though Xueyan had helped out at Baoyu’s wedding that night, thinking her rather stupid he had asked Their Ladyships to send her away, and she had been married off to one of the servants. Nanny Wang had been kept on to escort Daiyu’s coffin back south later on, while Yingge and the other young maids had gone back to work for the Lady Dowager.

Baoyu’s grief for Daiyu deepened as it led him to reflect on the dis­persal of all her attendants. He brooded helplessly till the sudden recol­lection that she had died fully conscious convinced him that she had re­turned to the realm of immortal S. His spirits rose again.

Just at that moment, however, he heard Xiren and Baochai discussing Tanchun 5 marriage. With a cry of dismay he threw himself on the kang, sobbing. In alarm they helped him up and asked what was wrong, but he could not speak for tears.

Presently, when he was calmer, he blurted out, “I can’t live on like this! All my girl cousins and sisters are leaving one by one. Cousin Lin has become an immortal. First Sister’s dead — but I don’t miss her so much, as we weren’t always together. Second Sister had married a scoun­drel. Now Third Sister is going to marry far from home, so we’ll never meet again! Where Xiangyun will be going I don’t know. And Baoqin is engaged to be married too. Why shouldn’t one of them at least stay here? Why leave me all alone?”

Xiren started to reason with him, but Baochai waved her aside.

“It’s no use trying to persuade him,” she said. “Let me ask him a few questions.” Turning to Baoyu she demanded, “Do you expect all these girls to keep you company here to the end of your life, and never to get married? You may have something else in mind for some of them, but how about your own sisters? Never mind whether they leave to marry far away or not; once your father’s made the decision, what can you do? Are you the only one in the world who is fond of his cousins and sisters? If everyone were like you, I wouldn’t be able to keep you company either. People study to increase their understanding; how is it then that, with you, the more you study the more muddled you get? You talk as if Xiren and I should both go away, so that you can invite all your sisters and cousins here to stay with you.”

“I understand,” he cried, clutching hold of them both. “But why part so soon? Why not wait till I’ve turned to ashes?”

Xiren put her hand over his mouth and scolded, “You’re talking non­sense again. The last two days you’ve just taken a turn for the better, and your young lady’s eating a bit more too. If you make another rum-pus, I’ll wash my hands of you.

“I know, I know!” cried Baoyu in desperation, aware that they were right. “But my mind’s in a ferment.”

Baochai ignored him, secretly telling Xiren to give him a sedative and talk him round little by little. Xiren for her part suggested telling Tanchun not to come to take leave of him.

“Why not?” retorted Baochai. “In a few days when his mind’s clearer they should have a good talk. After all, his third sister’s very sensible, not one of those who just make a pretence of shrewdness. She’s bound to give him good advice, so that he doesn’t behave like this again.”

At this point Yuanyang arrived, sent by the old lady to say that she had heard of Baoyu’s relapse and Xiren must comfort him and talk him round

he must stop having foolish fancies. Xiren agreed to this, and not long after that Yuanyang went back.

Soon Tanchun would be setting off on her long journey and, though they did not have to give her a complete dowry, the old lady felt they should provide her with all necessities. She sent for Xifeng, told her the master’s decision, and asked her to see to things. Xifeng accepted this task. But to know how she carried it out, read the next chapter.

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