A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 106

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Chapter 106


Xifeng Is Conscience-Smitten

at Causing Calamity

The Lady Dowager Prays to Heaven

to Avert Disaster

The cry that the Lady Dowager was dying made Jia Zheng speed over to see her. She had in fact fainted from shock, but Lady Wang, Yuanyang and the rest had revived her and given her a sedative which had gradually restored her, though she was still crying for grief.

In the hope of soothing her he said, “Your unfilial sons have brought this trouble upon our family, alarrning you, madam. If you will take com­fort, we can still handle the situation outside; but if you fall ill our guilt will be even greater!”

“I’m four score years and more,” was her reply. “Ever since my gidhood when I married your father, thanks to our ancestors I’ve lived in the lap of luxury and never even heard tell of a nightmare like this. Now, in my old age, seeing you come to grief it’s too bad! I wish I could die and be done with worrying about you!” She broke down again.

Jia Zheng was at his wit’s end when a servant outside announced a messenger from the court. He went out at once and saw that it was the Prince of Beijing’s chamberlain.

“Good news, sir!” were the chamberlain’s first words.

Jia Zheng thanked him and offered him a seat. “What instructions has His Highness for me?” he asked.

“Our master and the Prince of Xiping reported to the Emperor your trepidation, sir, and your gratitude for His Majesty’s magnanimity. As it is not long since the Imperial Consort’s passing, His Majesty, being most merciful, cannot bring himself to condemn you. You are to retain your Post in the Ministry of Works. Regarding the family property, only Jia She’s share is to be confiscated; the rest will be restored to you and you are enjoined to work well. As for those promissory notes, our master has been ordered to examine them. All those at usurious, illegal rates of inter­

est are to be confiscated according to regulations. Those on which the standard rates are charged are to be returned to you, together with your title-deeds. Jia Lian is dismissed from his post, but will be released with-out further punishment.”

Jia Zheng rose to kowtow his thanks to the Emperor, then bowed his thanks to the prince.

~I beg you, sir, to report my gratitude now,” he said. “Tomorrow I shall go to court to express my thanks, then go to your mansion to kow­tow to His Highness.”

Soon after the chamberlain had left the Imperial edict arrived and was put into force by the officers in charge, who confiscated certain things, returning the rest. Jia Lian was released, while all ha She’s men and women bondservants were registered and sequestrated.

Unhappy Jia Lian had lost virtually all his possessions apart from some furnishings and those legitimate promissory notes which were returned to him. For though the rest of his property was not confiscated, the runners during their raid had carried it off. He had dreaded being punished and rejoiced at his release, but the loss overnight of all his savings as well as Xifeng’s money seventy or eighty thousand taels at least was naturally galling; on top of which he was afflicted by his father’s impris­onment by the Imperial Guards and Xifeng’s critical condition. And now Jia Zheng reproached him with tears in his eyes.

“Because of my official duties, I turned over the supervision of our family affairs to you and your wife,” he said. “Of course you could hardly keep a check on your father, but who is responsible for this usury? Such conduct is most unbefitting a family like ours. Now that those notes of yours have been confiscated, the financial loss is of secondary impor­tance, but think of the damage to our reputation!”

Jia Lian fell on his knees to reply, “In running the household I never presumed to act on selfish interests. All our income and expenditure were entered in the accounts by Lai Da, Wu Xindeng and Dai Liang, and you can check on them by asking them, sir. In the last few years, our expen­diture has exceeded our income; and as I haven’t made good the differ­ence there are certain deficits in the accounts. If you ask the mistress, sir, she will confirrn this. As for those loans, I myself have no idea where

the money came from. We shall have to find out from Zhou Rui and Lai Wang.”

“According to you, you don’t know even what is going on in your own apartments, to say nothing about family affairs! Well, I won’t cross-examine you now. You’ve got off lightly yourself, but shouldn’t you go to find out about the cases of your father and Cousin Zhen?”

Wronged as he felt, Jia Lian assented with tears and went away.

Heaving sigh after sigh Jia Zheng thought, “My ancestors spared no pains in his sovereign’s service, winning fame and two hereditary titles; but now that both our houses have got into trouble these titles have been lost. As far as I can see, none of our sons or nephews amounts to any­thing. Merciful Heaven! Why should our Jia family be ruined like this? Though His Gracious Majesty has shown extraordinary compassion by restoring my property, how am I alone to meet our two house­holds’ expenses? Jia Lian’s admission just now was even more shock­ing: it seems that not only is our treasury empty but there are deficits in the accounts, so we’ve made a mere show of affluence all these years, and I can only blame myself for being such a fool! If my son Zhu were alive he would have been my right hand. Baoyu, though he’s grown up, is a useless creature.” By now tears had stained his clothes, and he re­flected, “My mother is so old yet not for a single day have we, her sons, provided for her out of our own earnings. Instead of that we’ve made her faint for terror. How can I shirk the blame for all these misdeeds?”

He was sunk in self-abasement when a servant announced some relatives and friends who had called to condole with him. Jia Zheng thanked each in turn.

“I am to blame for this family disaster,” he said. “I failed to bring up my sons and nephews well.”

One of them replied, “I have long known of your brother Lord She’s unseemly conduct, and Master Zhen of that mansion was even more profligate. If they are blamed for their malpractices, it is no more than they deserve. Unfortunately, this scandal they’ve created has involved you as well, sir.”

Another said, “Plenty of others kick over the traces without being impeached by the censors. This must be because Master Zhen offended

some of his friends.”

“It’s not the censors’ fault,” put in another. “We heard that one of your servants connived with some rogues outside to raise a hue and cry against your house. Then for fear there wasn’t sufficient evidence, the censors tricked others of your men into talking. I always had the impres­sion that your family treated its servants most generously, so why should such a thing happen?”

“No slaves are any good,” someone else declared. “We’re all rela­tives and friends here and can speak frankly. Even at that post in the provinces, sir, scrupulous as you are yourself, I suspect that those grasp­ing servants of yours damaged your reputation; so you had better watch out. Though your property hasn’t been touched, if the Emperor’s suspi­cions are aroused it may be troublesome.”

In consternation Jia Zheng asked, “What talk against me have you gentlemen heard?”

“There’s no evidence of this, but it was said that when you served as Grain Commissioner you allowed your subordinates to feather their nests.”

“I swear to Heaven I never dared to think of such a thing!” Jia Zheng protested. “But if those slaves of mine fleeced and swindled people, and trouble comes of it, I shall be done for!”

“It’s no use panicking,” they said. “You must make a serious check­up of your stewards, and if you find any of them insubordinate you should crack down on them hard.”

Jia Zheng nodded. Then a gateman came in to report, “The Elder Master’s son-in-law Young Master Sun has sent word that he is too busy to call in person and so has sent a messenger instead. He says that the Elder Master owed him money and wants you to pay him back, sir.”

“Very well.” answered Jia Zheng with a sinking heart.

The others sneered, “No wonder your kinsman Sun Shaozu is said to be a scoundrel. Now that his father-in-law’s house has been raided, instead of coming to help out he loses no time in demanding his money back. This is truly fantastic!”

“Let’s not talk about him,” said Jia Zheng. “My brother should never have agreed to that match. My niece has already paid dearly for his ~stake, and now her husband has started dunning me!”

As they were talking Xue Ke brought back the news, “Commis­sioner Zhao of the Imperial Guards insists on pressing the charges made by the censors. I’m afraid things look black for the Elder Master and for Master Zhen.”

“You must go and beg the princes to intervene, sir,” Jia Zheng’s friends urged hirn. “Otherwise both your families will be ruined.”

He agreed and thanked them, after which they dispersed.

It was already time to light the lamps. Jia Zheng went inside to pay his respects to his mother and found her better. Returning to his own quarters, he brooded resentfully over the folly of Jia Lian and his wife, whose usury now that it had come to light had landed the whole family in trouble. He was most put out by this disclosure of Xifeng’s misdoings. But ~ince she was so ill and must be distraught too by the loss of all her posses~ions, he could hardly reprimand them for the time being. Thus the night passed without further incident.

The next morning Jia Zheng went to court to express his gratitude for the Imperial favour, then called on both princes to kowtow his thanks and beg them to intervene on behalf of his brother and nephew. After they had agreed to do this, he went to enlist the help of other colleagues.

Let us returil to Jia Lian. Unable to extricate his father and cousin from the straits they were in, he returned home. He found Pinger sitting weeping by Xifeng, who was being abused by Qiutong in the side-room. ha Lian walked over to Xifeng, but as she seemed at her last gasp he had to hold back his reproaches.

“What’s done is done,” sobbed Pinger. “We can’t get back what we’ve lost. But the mistress is so ill, you must send for a doctor for her.”

“Pah!” spat out Jia Lian. “My own life is still at stake; why should I care about her?”

At this Xifeng opened her eyes and, without a word, shed tears. As Soon as Jia Lia~ had left she said to Pinger, “Stop being so dense. Now that things have come to this pass, why worry about me? I only wish I could die this very minute! If you have any feeling for me, just bring up Qiaojier after my death and I shall be grateful to you in the nether re­gions!”

This only made Pinger sob more bitterly.

“You’ve sense enough to see,” Xifeng continued, “that even if they haven’t come to complain he must hold me to blame. Though the trouble was sparked off outside, if I hadn’t been greedy for money I’d have been in the clear. Now after scheming so hard arid trying all my life to get ahead, I’ve ended up worse off than anyone else! If only I hadn’t trusted the wrong people! I heard something vaguely too about Master Zhen’s trouble and how he abducted the wife of an honest citizen named Zhang to be his concubine, forcing her to kill herself rather than submit. Well, we know, don’t we, who that fellow Zhang was? If that business comes out, Master Lian will be involved too and I shall lose face completely. I’d like to die this instant, but I haven’t the courage to swallow gold or take poison. And here you are talking of getting a doctor for me! That’s not doing me a kindness but a bad turn.”

This upset Pinger even more. She was at her wit’s end. For fear that Xifeng might try to take her own life, she kept a close watch over her.

Luckily the Lady Dowager was ignorant of these developments. Now that her health was improving, she was relieved that Jia Zheng had kept out of trouble and Baoyu and Baochai stayed by her side every day. As Xifeng had been her favourite she told Yuanyang, “Give some of my things to Xifeng, and take Pinger some money so that she can look after her well. Once she’s better I’ll see what else can be done for her.” She also told Lady Wang to help Lady Xing.

Since the whole estate of the Ning Mansion had been confiscated, all its bondservants registered and taken away, the Lady Dowager sent car­riages to fetch Madam You and her daughter-in-law over. Alas for the Ning Mansion, once so grand! All that remained of it was these two ladies and the concubines Peifeng and Xieluan, without a single servant. The old lady placed at their disposal a house next to Xichun’s, sent four women-servants and two maids to wait on them, had food prepared for them by the main kitchen, and provided them with clothing and other necessities. She also allotted them the sanrie monthly allowances as were issued by the accountants’ office to members of the Rong Mansion.

As for the expenses incurred by Jia She, Jia Zhen and Jia Rong in prison, the accountants’ office was quite unable to meet them. Xifeng

had no property left; Jia Lian was heavily in debt; while Jia Zheng who had no head for affairs simply said:

“I have asked friends to see that they are looked after.”

Jia Lian in desperation thought of appealing to their relatives, but Aunt Xue’s family was bankrupt, Wang Ziteng was dead, and none of the rest was in a position to help. All he could do was send some stew­ards in secret to raise a few thousand taels by selling certain country estates to defray the prison expenses. As soon as he did this, however, the servants realized that the family was on the rocks and seized this chance for hanky-panky, filching money from the rents of the eastern manors too. But this is anticipating.

To revert to the old lady, she had not a moment’s peace of mind but kept weeping as she wondered what was to become of them all. Their hereditary titles had been abolished, one of her sons and two younger kinsmen were in jail awaiting trial, Lady Xing and Madam You were disconsolate, and Xifeng was at death’s door. Though Baoyu and Baochai kept her company to console her, they could not share her worries.

One evening, after sending Baoyu away, she struggled to sit up and told Yuanyang and the other maids to burn incense in the various shrines and then to light a censerful in her courtyard. Leaning on her cane she went out there. Hupo, knowing that she meant to worship Buddha, had placed a red felt cushion on the ground. The old lady offered incense and knelt down to kowtow and invoke Buddha several times.

She prayed to Heaven then with tears in her eyes, “Born a Shi, I married into the Jia family, and I earnestly implore holy Buddha in Heaven to have mercy on us! For generations our Jia family has never dared transgress or abuse our power. A devoted wife and mother, though un­able to do much good I have never done anything wicked. But some of the Jia descendants must have offended Heaven by their arrogance and dissipation; thus our family has been raided, its property confiscated. Now my son and grandsons are in jail and fortune is frowning on them. I alone am responsible for these misfortunes because I failed to give them the proper training. Now I entreat Heaven to save us, turning the sorrow of those in jail to joy, and curing those who are ill. Even if the whole family

has sinned, let me alone take the blame! Spare my sons and grandsons! Have pity, Heaven, on a pious woman! Grant me an early death, but spare my children and grandchildren!” Her voice faltered here from dis­tress and she burst out sobbing. Yuanyang and Zhenzhu as they helped her back inside did their best to comfort her.

Lady Wang had just brought Baoyu and Baochai to pay their evening respects. The old lady’s grief set the three of them crying too. The sad­dest of all was Baochai as she reflected that her brother was imprisoned in the provinces, with no knowing whether his death sentence would be commuted or not; and though her father-in-law was not in trouble, the Jia family was declining, while Baoyu was still deranged and showed no sign of trying to make good. Anxiety over her future made her weep still more bitterly than Their Ladyships. And her grief infected Baoyu.

He mused, “My grandmother can’t be at peace in her old age, and that naturally upsets my father and mother. All the girls have scattered like clouds before the wind, with fewer left every day. How jolly it was, I remember, when we started that poetry club in the Garden; but ever since Cousin Lin’s death I’ve felt gloomy, yet with Baochai by me I can’t cry too often. And now she’s so worried about her brother and mother, she hardly smiles all day.” The sight of her now so overcome with grief was more than he could bear. He broke down and sobbed.

At this, Yuanyang, Caiyun, Yinger and Xiren, each of whom had her own cares, started sobbing too. This moved the other maids to tears as well, and nobody restrained them. So the wailing in the room grew louder and louder till the womenservants keeping watch outside hurried off in alarm to report this to the master.

Jia Zheng was sitting gloomily in his study when this message from his mother’s servants was announced. He hurried over frantically and while still at a distance heard the whole household crying, which con­vinced him that the old lady must be dying. Running distractedly in, he was relieved to see her sitting there sobbing.

“When the old lady is upset, the rest of you should comfort her,” he chided the others. “Why are you all weeping too?”

They hastily dried their tears and stared blankly around. Jia Zheng stepped forward to console his mother, then once more briefly reprimanded

the rest, all of whom were wondering how they could have forgotten themselves and broken down when they had come meaning to soothe the old lady.

Just then a serving-woman brought in two maids from Marquis Shi’s family. They paid their respects to the Lady Dowager and the rest of the company.

‘~We’ve been sent by our master, mistress and young mistress,” they announced. “They’ve heard that your trouble here isn’t serious, nothing more than a passing alarm. For fear Your Lordship and Ladyships might be worried, they sent us to say that the Second Master here has nothing to fear. Our young mistress wanted to come herself but couldn’t be­cause soon she’ll be getting married.”

“Give them our regards when you go back,” responded the old lady, as it was inappropriate to thank these underlings. “This misfortune must have been fated. It was kind of your master and mistress to think of us, and another day we’ll go over to express our gratitude. I take it they’ve found your young lady a good husband what’s his family’s position?”

“They are not too well-off,” the maids answered. “But he’s a hand­some young man, and, from what we’ve seen of him, very easy-going. He looks rather like your Master Bao, and is said to have literary talents too.”

“That’s good,” said the old lady cheerfully. “Being southerners, though we’ve lived here so long we abide by the customs of the south, so we haven’t seen him yet. The other day I was thinking of my old family, and your young mistress is the one I love most I used to have her here for the best part of the year. When she was old enough I meant to find a suitable huaband for her, but because her uncle was away I couldn’t arrange a match. If she’s lucky enough to have found a good young man, that sets my mind at rest. I’d wanted to attend the wedding feast this month, but my heart is burning over this terrible upset here, so how can I Possibly go? When you get back, give them my best regards. All of us here send our greetings. And tell your young lady not to worry about me. 1’m more than eighty years old, and even if I die today I shall have had a good life. I just hope that she and her husband will live happily together till old age; then I’ll rest content in my grave.” By now she was weeping

again.

“Don’t grieve, madam,” said the maids. “Nine days after the wed­ding you may be sure she’ll come here with her husband to pay her respects. Then how pleased you’ll be to see them!”

The old lady nodded and the two maids left.

Others dismissed this from their minds, but Baoyu started brooding, ‘What a life, with things going from bad to worse every day! Why must a girl marry into another family when she grows up? Marriage seems to change her into a different person. Now our dear Cousin Shi is being forced by her uncle to get married, so when next she sees me she’s bound to keep at a distance. What is there to live for if everybody shuns you?” His heart ached again, but since his grandmother was just calming down he’dared not weep and simply sat brooding instead.

Presently Jia Zheng returned, as he still had misgivings about the old lady. Finding her better, he went back and sent orders to Lai Da to bring him the register of the servants in charge of the various household tasks. He checked the names. There were more than thirty families left two hundred and twelve men and women in all not counting Jia She’s hondservants who had been sequestrated.

Jia Zheng summoned the twenty-one men-servants then working in the mansion to question them about the family’s income and expenditure in the past. When the stewards in charge presented the accounts for recent years, he saw that their expenditure had exceeded their income, in addition to which there had been yearly expenses in the Palace, and there were many entries of sums borrowed from outside too. He then looked into their land rents in the east province, which of late amounted to less than half the rent delivered to their ancestors, whereas the family ex­penses had increased tenfold. This discovery made him stamp in des­peration.

“This is scandalous!” he exclaimed. “I put Lian in charge to keep a check on things; but it seems that for years we’ve been spending our rents a year in advance, yet insisted on keeping up appearances! Setting no store by our hereditary titles and emoluments, how could we fail to be ruined? Even if I retrench now it will be too late.” He paced up and down, hands clasped behind his back, unable to hit on any way out.

The stewards knew that their master was worrying to no purpose, as he had no idea how to manage the household. “Don’t worry, sir,” they said. “This happens to every family. Why, even the princes, if you work out their expenses, don’t have enough to live on. They just keep up ap­pearances and get by for as long as they can. You at least have this small property thanks to the Emperor’s favour, sir; but even if it had been confiscated too, wouldn’t you still manage somehow?”

“You’re farting!” swore Jia Zheng. “You slaves have no conscience! When your masters prosper you throw money around; when they’re done for you take off, leaving them to their fate. You say it’s good that our property hasn’t been confiscated, but with a grand reputation while unable to hold on to our capital, how can we stand your putting on airs outside, boasting and cheating people? And when trouble comes of it, you shift the blame to your masters! This charge against the Elder Master and Master Zhen is said to have come of our servant Bao Er blabbing; but this register lists no Bao Er why is that?”

“This Bao Er was not on our roster. His name used to be on the Ning Mansion register. Because Master Lian thought him an honest fellow he had him and his wife transferred here. When later his wife died, Bao Er went back to the Ning Mansion. Then when you were busy in your yamen, sir, and Their Ladyships and the young gentlemen were away mourning for the Imperial Consort, Master Zhen took over the management of the house and reinstated Bao Er. But afterwards he left. Since you haven’t run the household all these years, sir, how could you know such things? You may think this is the only name not on the roster, but actually each steward has quite a few of his relatives under him as under-servants.”

‘Disgraceful!” was Jia Zheng’s comment, and with that he dismissed them. Aware that he could not set his house in order overnight, he post­poned taking action until Jia She’s case was settled.

One day he was thinking things over in his study when one of his men rushed in. “Your Lordship, you are wanted at once at court for question­ing!” he announced.

With some trepidation Jia Zheng obeyed this summons. To know whether it boded well or not, read the next chapter.

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