A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 103


Chapter 103

Jingui Plots Murder and Destroys Herself

Jia Yucun, Blind to the Truth,

Meets an Old Friend in Vain

Jia Lian went to tell Lady Wang all that had happened. The next day he returned to the Ministry of Civil Affairs for fuller information, then reported back to her.

“Is this news reliable?” she asked. “If so, the master will be pleased and our minds will be set at rest too. Those provincial posts are too risky. If he hadn’t been recalled like this, those scoundrels might have been the death of him!”

“How did you know that, madam?” he inquired.

“Since your Second Uncle went to this provincial post, instead of sending home a single cent he’s spent a whole lot of the family’s money. And look at those men who went with him: They hadn’t been gone long before their wives started dolling themselves up with gold and silver trin­kets. Obviously they’ve been raking in money outside without the master knowing. And he’s let them get away with such goings-on. If there’d been a scandal, not only would he be dismissed — our ancestors might even be deprived of their titles!”

“You’re quite right, madam. When I first heard he’d been impeached I had the fright of my life, but after I got the facts clear I felt relieved. I hope he’ll pass some years quietly as an official in the capital, keeping his good reputation as long as he lives. Even if the old lady hears this she needn’t worry, provided you reassure her.”

“I know what to say. But go and see what more you can find out.”

Jia Lian assented and was on the point of leaving when in hurried one of Aunt Xue’s old serving-women in a fluster. Not stopping to pay her respects she blurted out:

“Our mistress has sent me, madam, to tell you that another dreadful thing has happened in our family!”

“What is it?”

“Something too awful for words!”

“You silly creature!” scolded Lady Wang. “If it’s so serious, tell me properly.”

“Master Ke is away, we’ve no man in the house; so how are we to cope? She wants you, madam, to send some gentlemen over to help us out.”

“But what do you want them for?” asked Lady Wang impatiently, having no idea what she was talking about.

“Madam Pan is dead!”

“Pah! Good riddance to bad rubbish! Why get so worked up?”

“It wasn’t a natural death – there’s been foul play. Please, madam, send someone over at once to cope!” With that she turned to go back.

Both angry and amused Lady Wang exclaimed, “What a fool this old woman is! You’d better go and see what’s happened, Lian. Pay no at­tention to that stupid creature.”

Not catching the instruction to him to go over, all the old woman heard was “pay no attention.” She hurried off in a huff.

Aunt Xue was waiting anxiously for her return. When at last the ser­vant came back she asked her, “Well, whom is she sending?”

“It’s no use!” The old woman sighed. “When you’re in a fix, the kindest of kin will do nothing. Her Ladyship not only refuses to help us, she swore I was a fool!”

“If she won’t help,” cried Aunt Xue in exasperation, “What did the young mistress say?”

“If Her Ladyship won’t lift a finger, how can her daughter-in-law do anything? I didn’t go to tell her.”

“Her Ladyship isn’t one of our family, but how can the daughter whom I brought up ignore me?” demanded Aunt Xue irately.

“Of course!” exclaimed the old woman, catching on. “Well then, I’ll go again.”

But just then ha Lian arrived. Having paid his respects to Aunt Xue and offered his condolences he said, “My aunt has heard that Pan’s wife is dead, but she couldn’t get any sense out of your servant and so she’s very worried. She’s sent me to find out what’s happened and told me to help. What can I do for you, aunt?”

Aunt Xue had been sobbing with rage, but on hearing this she said quickly, “I’m sorry to put you out, Master Lian. I know how good my sister is to me, but this old creature can’t give a message clearly and nearly held matters up. Please take a seat and I’ll tell you all about it. The thing is – she didn’t die a natural death.”

“Did she kill herself in a pique because of Pan’s trouble?”

“I only wish she had! These last few months she made scenes every day, going barefoot with tousled hair like a crazy creature. Although at the news of Pan’s death sentence she did cry, she soon started making up again with rouge and powder; and had I protested she would have made a big row, so I ignored her. Then one day, for some reason, she came and asked to have Xiangling to keep her company. I told her, ‘You have Baochan, so what do you want Xiangling for? It’s not as if you liked her; why let her provoke you?’ As she insisted, however, I had to tell Xiangling to move in with her. The poor girl dared not disobey me and, had as her health was, she went there. I was pleasantly surprised when Jingui treated her very well, but when Baochai knew she said, ‘Do you suppose Jingui is plotting something?’ I paid no attention, though.

“A few days ago Xiangling fell ill, and Jingui made some soup for her herself. But Xiangling was out of luck: as Jingui took it to her she scalded her own hand and the bowl was smashed. I’d have expected her to blame it on Xiangling, but instead of losing her temper she swept up the pieces herself then mopped the floor, and they remained on good terms.

“Last night, she told Baochan to make two more bowls of soup for her to drink with Xiangling. After a while, I heard a great commotion in her room: first Baochan was screaming like mad, then Xiangling joined in and staggered out, leaning against the wall, to call for help.

“I hurried in and found my daughter-in-law thrashing about on the floor. Blood was gushing from her nose and eyes, and she was clawing with both hands at her stomach. I was frightened to death! When I asked what had happened she couldn’t speak, and presently she died in agony. It looked to me as if she had taken poison.

“Then Baochan tearfully seized hold of Xi angling, accusing her of Poisoning her mistress. I don’t believe Xiangling would do such a thing. In any case, confined to her bed, how could she? But Baochan insisted

she’d done it. So what could I do, Lian? I had to harden my heart to tell the matrons to tie Xiangling up and leave her in Baochan’s charge. Then we locked them into the room, and I sat up all night with your cousin Baoqin waiting for your gate to open so that we could send you word. You have good sense, Lian. Tell me, how should we handle this?”

“Does the Xia family know about it?” he asked.

“No. We must clear up the business before we tell them.”

“I think we’ll have to go through official channels to get the matter settled. Naturally it’s Baochan whom we suspect, but other people will ask what reason she had to poison her own mistress. To them, Xiangling would seem more likely to do it.”

As they were talking, maids from the Rong Mansion came in to an­nounce their young mistress. Although Jia Lian was Baochai’s elder cousin-in-law, as they had known each other since childhood he did not withdraw when she entered. Baochai paid her respects to her mother and him, then went into the inner room to sit with Baoqin. Aunt Xue followed her in and told her what had happened.

Baochai pointed out, “If we have Xiangling bound, it will look as if we too believe she was the poisoner. You say the soup was prepared by Baochan, mother. In that case, you should tie her up and question her, at the same time sending to tell the Xia family and to report this to the authorities.”

Aunt Xue thought this reasonable and consulted Jia Lian.

“Baochai is quite right,” he agreed. “When we have reported this, I must also go and ask some men in the Board of Punishments to help see to things at the inquest and interrogation. But I think it may make things awkward if we tie up Baochan and set Xiangling loose.”

“I didn’t want to tie up Xiangling,” Aunt Xue told him. “But I was afraid that, ill as she is, this false accusation might make her so desperate she’d try to kill herself — then we’d have another death on our hands. That’s why I decided to have her tied up and put in Baochan’s charge.”

“Still, this is strengthening Baochan’s case,” he objected. “They should either both be set free or both bound up, as the three of them were to­gether. Well, just get somebody to comfort Xiangling.”

Aunt Xue ordered the door to be opened and went in, while Baochai

sent the maids she had brought with her to help tie up Baochan, who had been gloating over the sight of Xiangling crying her heart out. When Baochan saw them coming with ropes to bind her she screamed, but the maids from the Rong Mansion silenced her and trussed her up. The door was left open with people on watch outside.

By then they had sent to inform the Xia family which had only re­cently moved to the capital, as in the last few years they had gone bank­rupt and Mrs. Xia, a widow, missed her daughter. She had an adopted son, a scoundrel who had squandered all their money and who often called on the Xue family. Jingui was too amorous to live without a man and had long been hankering after Xue Ke, but hers was a case of “beg­gars can’t be choosers.” However, this foster-brother of hers was dense. Though he knew pretty well what she wanted he had not yet made love to her; and so Jingui, on her frequent visits home, would help him out with money. Today he was looking forward to a visit from her, when the ar­rival of a Xue family servant convinced him that here was another gift for him. At the news that she had died of poison, he set up an angry outcry. His mother raised an even bigger uproar.

“My daughter was doing all right there!” she screamed. “Why should she poison herself?”

Weeping and wailing, she set off on foot with her son without waiting for a carriage, for the Xias being bankrupt tradesmen did not trouble to keep up appearances. The son walked on ahead while his mother, ac­companied by an old slattern, sobbed and snivelled in the street as she hired a carriage. As soon as she entered the Xues’ gate, without greet­ing anyone she started loudly bewailing her “darling daughter,” and clamouring for revenge.

Jia Lian had gone to the Board of Punishments to enlist help, leaving only Aunt Xue, Baochai and Baoqin at home. They had never seen such goings-on before and were too frightened to speak. Indeed, even had they reasoned with her, Mrs. Xia would not have listened.

“What good treatment did my daughter ever get in your family?” she ranted. “Her husband beat and cursed her all the time; then you wouldn’t let the young couple stay together. You plotted to have my son-in-law imprisoned, so that she’d never set eyes on him again. Mother and daughter, you enjoy yourselves with your fine relatives’ backing, but you still couldn’t bear the sight of Jingui and got someone to poison her, then accused her of killing herself! Why should she take poison?”

She charged at Aunt Xue, who fell back protesting, “Madam! First go and look at your daughter and question Baochan, before making such allegations.”

As Mrs. Xia’s adopted son was there, Baochai and Baoqin were unable to come to Aunt Xue’s rescue. They could only wring their hands in the inner room.

Then, as luck would have it, Lady Wang sent Zhou Rui’s wife to help out. She came in to see an old woman wagging a finger at Aunt Xue and screaming at her. She knew this must be Jingul’s mother.

“Are you Mrs. Xia, madam?” asked Mrs. Zhou stepping forward. “The young mistress has poisoned herself. It wasn’t Madam Xue’s do­ing. How can you abuse her like this?”

“And who may you be?” Mrs. Xia retorted.

This reinforcement emboldened Aunt Xue to say, “She is one of the household of our Jia relatives.”

“We all know you have powerful relatives,” sneered Mrs. Xia. “That’s why you can keep my son-in-law in jail. But does that mean that my child’s death can go unavenged?” Seizing hold of Aunt Xue she de­manded, “Just how did you murder my daughter anyway? Show me!”

Mrs. Zhou interposed, “Just go and see for yourself. Stop tugging at other people.” She gave her a shove.

The adopted son ran over to protest, “Are you banking on your mas­ters’ power to beat up my mother?” He threw a chair at Mrs. Zhou, but missed her.

Baochai’s maids inside on hearing this commotion hurried out, afraid Mrs. Zhou might get hurt. They crowded forward to intervene, expostu­lating and warning the fellow off. But that only made Mrs. Xia and her son set up a still greater clamour.

“We know how powerful your Rong Mansion is!” they yelled. “Now Our girl has been killed, you may as well kill us too!”

Again they charged Aunt Xue. The maids, for all there were so many of them, were powerless to stop them for as the saying goes, “Ten thou­sand men are no match for one desperado.”

Things had just taken this ugly turn when Jia Lian arrived with seven or eight men-servants. Sizing up the situation, he ordered his men to drag Mrs. Xia’s son away.

“Stop this brawling and talk reasonably,” he said. “This place must be straightened up at once. Officers from the Board of Punishments are corning to hold an inquest.”

The arrival of this gentleman with attendants before him to clear the way made all the servants present stand at attention, and Jingui’s mother realized that this must be one of the Jia family. Then her son was seized and she heard there was to be an official inquest. She had been meaning to raise a great ballyhoo over her daughter’s corpse, then appeal to the court for justice, little thinking that the others would inform the authorities first. This took the wind out of her sails. Aunt Xue was still too stunned to speak, and it was Mrs. Zhou who reported to Jia Lian:

“This woman came here not to look at her daughter but to abuse Madam Xue. We were remonstrating with her when a wild man burst in to raise pandemonium. In the presence of ladies too — it was simply outrageous!”

“We needn’t argue with them now,” said Jia Lian. “Later we can have him beaten and interrogated. Men should keep to themselves and not intrude on ladies. His mother could surely have seen her daughter by herself. Why should he rush in if not to loot the place?”

Meanwhile his servants had secured the young man.

“What a way to behave, Mrs. Xia!” cried Zhou Rui’s wife now that she had more support. “Since you came, you should have asked the facts of the matter. Either your daughter committed suicide, or Baochan poi­soned her. Why try to blackmail people before finding out the facts and seeing the corpse? Would Madam Xue let her daughter-in-law die and do nothing about it? We’ve tied Baochan up. Because your daughter was always making trouble, she asked Xiangling to keep her company and they slept in the same room. That’s why both she and Baochan are under guard there. We were waiting for you to come and attend the inquest, at which we’ll find out just what happened.”

Aware that her position was weak, Mrs. Xia had to go with Zhou Rui’s wife to her daughter’s room. The sight of Jingui lying stark on the kang, her face covered with clotted blood, set her wailing aloud.

When Baochan saw Mrs. Xia she sobbed, “Our young lady was kind to xiangling, getting her to move in with her, yet Xiangling seized this chance to poison her!”

By now the whole Xue household had gathered there. “Nonsense!” they protested. “She died after drinking that soup yesterday. Weren’t you the one who prepared it?”

“Yes, I was. But after bringing it in I went out to see to something else. Then Xiangling must have put some poison in it.”

Before she had finished speaking, Jingui’s mother dashed towards Xiangling, but the others barred her way.

Aunt Xue said, “It looks as if she was poisoned by arsenic. We cer­tainly have none here. No matter whether it was Xiangling or Baochan, someone must have bought it for her. After investigation the authorities are sure to find out. The culprit can’t get away. Now let’s lay her out properly ready for the inquest.”

As the women-servants set about doing this, Baochai proposed, “You should clear away those feminine articles – there will be men coming in.

Then, under the mattress on the kang, they discovered a crumpled paper packet. Jingui’s mother pounced on this and opened it, but finding nothing in it threw it away.

“There’s the evidence all right!” exclaimed Baochan. “I recognize this packet. A few days ago, when we were plagued by rats, my mistress went to ask her brother for some arsenic and on her return put it in her jewel case. XiangLing must have seen it and used it to poison her. If you don’t believe me, look in the jewel case.

Jingui’s mother did so, but found nothing there except a few silver hairpins.

“Where have all her trinkets gone to?” wondered Aunt Xue.

Baochai made servants open the cases and cabinets, but all were empty.

“Who took my sister-in-law’s things?” she asked. “Baochan must answer for this.”

“How should she know?” asked Jingui’s mother uneasily.

“Don’t say that, madam,” put in Mrs. Zhou. “I know Baochan was with her all the time. Of course she must know.”

Under such pressure, Baochan could not deny it and had to confess, “My mistress always took something each time she went home. How could I stop her?”

“A fine mother you are!” the rest jeered at Mrs. Xia. “Squeezing your daughter till she had nothing left, then making her kill herself so that you could blackmail us! Very well, we’ll report this at the inquest.”

Baochai ordered a maid, “Go and ask Master Lian outside not to let any of the Xia household get away. In the inner room Mrs. Xia was on pins and needles.

“You bitch!” she swore at Baochan. “Stop blabbing! When did my daughter ever take things home?”

“The things don’t matter,” countered Baochan. “What’s important is to find out who murdered her.”

“Once we’ve found those things, we shall know who murdered her,” Baoqin declared. “Hurry up and ask Cousin Lian to check up on the arsenic her son bought, then report it to the authorities.”

“This Baochan must have lost her mind, talking such rubbish,” pro­tested Jingui’s mother frantically. “My daughter never bought any ar­senic. If Baochan says this, she must have poisoned her!”

In desperation Baochan started shouting, “Other people may accuse me falsely, but how can you? Many’s the time I heard you tell your daughter not to take things lying down but to raise a rumpus and ruin their family, then move out bag and baggage and marry a better man. Did you tell her that or not?”

Before Mrs. Xia could speak Zhou Rui’s wife chimed in, “When one of your own servants bears witness against you, how can you deny it?”

Gnashing her teeth Mrs. Xia swore at Baochan, “I never treated you badly! Do you want to be the death of me talking that way? When the officers come, I’ll tell them you were the one who poisoned my daugh­ter!”

Baochan’s eyes nearly started out of her head for fury. “Madam,” she begged Aunt Xue, “please let Xiangling go. We shouldn’t wrong innocent people. I know what to say when I’m interrogated.”

Hearing this, Baochai told them to untie Baochan instead. “An easy­going girl like you, why get yourself involved needlessly?” she asked. “If you know something, speak out and be done with it so that we can get this straight.”

Afraid that if it came to an interrogation she might be tortured, Baochan told them, “My mistress was forever complaining, ‘With my looks, why did I have to have such a senseless mother, who instead of marrying me to Master Ke gave me to that stupid ruffian! If I could spend a day with Master Ke, I’d die content!’ That’s what made her hate Xiangling. At first I didn’t realize this, and later when she was good to Xiangling I supposed it was because Xiangling had won her round. I thought she ordered that soup out of kindness….

“This is even greater nonsense!” fumed Jingui’s mother. “If she wanted to poison Xiangling, why should she get poisoned herself?”

Baochai asked, “Xiangling, did you drink that soup yesterday?”

“A few days ago I was too ill even to raise my head,” Xiangling replied. “When the mistress told me to drink I dared not refuse; but be­fore I could struggle up the soup was spilt and she had to clean up the mess — I felt very bad about it. Yesterday, again, she told me to drink some soup. I didn’t want to, but I had to. Before I could start on it, though, I came over dizzy and to my relief Sister Baochan took the bowl away. I was dozing off when the mistress drank her own soup and told me to try mine, so I forced myself to take a couple of sips….”

Baochan broke in, “That’s it! I’ll tell you the truth. Yesterday the mistress told me to make two bowls of soup for her to drink with Xiangling. I was furious! I thought: Who is Xiangling that I should make soup for her? So, on purpose, I put an extra handful of salt in one of the bowls and marked it secretly, meaning that one for Xiangling. But as I carried it in the mistress stopped me and sent me to tell a page to order a carriage, as she wanted to go home. When I came back from this errand, I saw the bowl I’d marked in front of the mistress. I was afraid she’d scold me for over-salting it, and didn’t know what to do; but then she moved to the hack of the room, and while she wasn’t looking I changed the bowls round. Well, it served her right! She came back and carried the soup to Xiangling’s bed, saying while she drank her bowl, ‘You must at least taste this.’ Xiangling didn’t seem to find it too salty, and they both fin­ished their bowls while I laughed up my sleeve at Xiangling for not notic­ing the salt. How was I to know that my devilish mistress wanted to poison her? She must have put in the arsenic while I was out, then didn’t know that I’d changed the bowls around. Truly, ‘Heaven is just, and each reaps as he has sown.

The others thought over the sequence of events and could find no flaw in her story. They untied Xiangling too and made her lie down in bed.

But in spite of these incriminating facts Jingui’s mother went on pro­testing, whereupon Aunt Xue and the others, all talking together, insisted that her son must pay with his life for the murder.

Jia Lian called from outside, “There’s no need to argue. Get every­thing cleared up quickly. The officers from the Board of Punishments are coming.”

This flustered Mrs. Xia and her son, who foresaw dire consequences.

“It’s all the fault of my dead daughter,” Mrs. Xia had to plead with Aunt Xue. “She brought this on herself. If we let them hold an inquest, it will reflect badly on your family too. Do hush the business up, madam!”

“That’s impossible,” said Baochai. “We’ve already reported it; how can it be hushed up?”

Zhou Rui’s wife intervened, “The only way to hush the matter up is for Mrs. Xia herself to call off the inquest, in which case we shall say no more about it.”

Jia Lian outside had also intimidated the son so that he was only too willing to go to the Board of Punishments to sign a statement that no inquest was needed as the cause of death was clear and to promise not to bring any suit later on. And to this the others agreed. Aunt Xue sent to buy a coffin for Jingui — but no more of this.

Let us return to Jia Yucun, who had now been promoted to be prefect of the capital in charge of taxation. One day he went out of the city to check on the acreage of arable land, and passing through the County of Esoteric Understanding he reached the ford in the Stream of Rapid Re­versal. He made his chair-bearers stop there to wait for his retinue. And seeing a small temple by the village, its crumbling walls revealing some hoary pines, he sauntered towards it. The gold had flaked off the images inside, and the hall was rickety. On one side was a broken tablet, but he could not decipher the half-obliterated inscription on it.

He decided to stroll to the back. In the shade of a green cypress there he saw a thatched hut in which a Taoist priest was sitting cross-legged, his eyes closed in meditation. As Yucun went closer, the man’s face struck him as familiar and he suspected that they had met before, though he could not remember where. His attendants wanted to rouse the priest by shouting, but he stopped them. Walking slowly towards him he called out a greeting.

The Taoist opened his eyes a crack and asked with a smile, “What brings you here, Your Honour?”

“I have come from the capital on a tour of inspection, and happened to pass this way. Seeing you meditating so tranquilly, I felt sure you must have a profound understanding of the Way and would therefore like to make so bold as to ask for your instructions.”

“Our coming and our going — each has its predestined place,” was the Taoist’s reply.

Sensing that this was no ordinary priest, Yucun bowed low and asked, “Where have you been practising virtue, venerable master? And why are you staying here? What is the name of this temple? How many in­mates has it? Are there not holy mountains where you could cultivate Truth? Or if you want to do virtuous deeds, why not choose somewhere more accessible?”

The Taoist replied, “A gourd is shelter enough for me, I need no holy mountains. The name of this temple has long been lost, but the broken tablet remains; and since the shadow follows the form, why should I ask for alms to have the temple repaired? ‘The jade in the box hopes to fetch a good price; the pin in the casket longs to soar on high’ — that doesn’t apply to me.”

Yucun was quick-witted. The mention of “gourd,” ‘lade” and “pin” at once reminded him of Zhen Shiyin, and looking more intently at the Taoist he recognized him.

“Aren’t you old Mr. Zhen, sir?” he asked, after motioning his atten­dants to withdraw.

With a faint smile the Taoist answered, “Why talk about zhen (true) and jia (false)? They are the same.”

The word jia, a homonym for Yucun’s surname, confirmed his con­jecture. He bowed again and said, “Since you generously helped me to go to the capital, I was lucky enough to pass the examination and was assigned to your honourable district. Only then did I learn that you, vener­able sir, had left the dusty world and become an immortal. Although I longed to trace you, I feared that as a mundane, vulgar official I would never see your saintly countenance again. I am overjoyed at this encoun­ter here! I beg you, venerable saint, to instruct the ignorant. If you do not spurn me, my house in the capital is near at hand and I would count it an honour to entertain you there so that I can hear your instructions every day.”

The Taoist rose to return his bow and replied, “I know of nothing in this world but my hassock. What Your Honour just said completely passes this poor priest’s understanding.” With that he sat down again.

Yucun thought dubiously, “If he isn’t Zhen Shiyin how is it that he looks and talks just like him? We haven’t met for nineteen years, yet he appears unchanged. It must be because he has achieved immortality that he’s unwilling to disclose his past. But now that I have found my bene­factor, I can’t let slip this opportunity. Evidently he’s not to be tempted by wealth or rank, much less by mention of his wife and daughter.”

“How can I bear it, saintly teacher,” he said, “if you draw a veil over your past?”

He was about to bow again when one of his servants came to report, “It is growing dark, sir, high time to cross the ford.”

As Yucun hesitated the Taoist said, “Pray lose no time in crossing, Your Honour. We shall meet again. If you delay, a storm may spring up. If you really wish to see me, I shall wait for you some other day at he ford.” With that he sat down again and closed his eyes.

Jia Yucun had no choice but to say goodbye to the priest and leave the temple. He was about to cross the ford when someone came rushing towards him. If you want to know who it was, read the next chapter.

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