A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 107

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Chapter 107


The Lady Dowager Impartially

Shares Out Her Savings

Jia Zheng’s Hereditary Title Is

Restored by Imperial Favour

Jia Zheng found the whole Privy Council as well as the princes as­sembled in the Palace.

The Prince of Beijing announced, ‘~We have summoned you today on His Majesty’s orders for an interrogation.”

Jia Zheng at once fell on his knees.

‘~Your elder brother connived with provincial officials to oppress the weak, and allowed his son to organize gambling parties and abduct an­other man’s wife, who took her own life rather than submit. Were you cognizant of these facts?” the ministers asked him.

“After my term of office as Chief Examiner by His Majesty’s favour, I inspected famine relie{” replied ha Zheng. “I returned home at the end of winter the year before last and was sent to inspect some works, after which I served as Grain Commissioner of Jiangxi until I was impeached and came back to the capital to my old post in the Ministry of Works. Never, day or night, did I neglect my duties. But in my folly I paid insuf­ficient attention to household affairs and failed to train my sons and neph­ews correctly. I have proved unworthy of the Imperial favour and beg His Majesty for severe punishment.”

The Prince of Beijing reported this to the Emperor, who soon issued an edict which the prince proclaimed:

We have ordered a strict investigation of Jia She, who has been im­peached by the censors for conniving with locM officials to oppress the weak and, in league with the prefect of Pingan, subverting the law. Jia She admits that he and the prefect were connected by marriage hut denies intervening in a lawsuit, and the censors have no evidence of this. It is true that he took advantage of his power to extort antique fans from the Stone Idiot; but fans are mere trifles and this offence is less serious than

robbery with violence. Though the Stone Idiot conntnitted suicide, it was because he was deranged, not because he was hounded to death. ha She is to be shown lenity and sent to the frontier to expiate his crime.

As for the charge that Jia Zhen abducted another man’s wife and she killed herself rather than be his concubine, a study of the censorate’s original report reveals that Second Sister You was betrothed to Zhang Rua but he, being poor, consented to break the engagement, and her mother agreed to marry her to Jia Zhen’s younger cousin as his concu­bine. This was not a case of abduction. Regarding the charge that Third Sister You’s suicide and burial were not reported to the authorities, it transpires that she was the sister of Jia Zhen’s wife and they engaged her to a man who demanded the betrothal gifts back because of talk of her loose morals. She killed herself for shame; Jia Zhen did not hound her to death.

However, Jia Zhen deserves harsh punishment because, although he inherited a title, he flouted the law by a clandestine burial; but in view of his descent from a meritorious minister we will forbear from inflicting punishment and in our clemency will revoke his hereditary title and send him to serve at the coast to expiate his crime. Jia Rong, being young and not involved, is to be released. Since Jia Zheng has undeniably worked diligently and prudently for many years outside ffie capital, his reprehen­sible mismanagement of his household is condoned.

Jia Zheng, moved to tears of gratitude, had kowtowed repeatedly while listening to this edict. He now begged the Prince of Beijing to peti­tion the Emperor for him.

“You should kowtow your thanks for the Imperial favour,” replied the prince. “What other petition have you?”

“Although I am guilty, His Majesty in His great favour has not pun­ished me severely and my property has been returned to me. Overwhelmed with shame as I am, I would like to make over to the state my ancestral estate, emoluments and savings.”

“His Majesty, ever merciful to His subjects, disciplines them with Perspicacity, meting out unerring rewards and punishments,” replied the Prince. “Since you have been shown such clemency and had your prop­erty restored, it would be inappropriate to present any further petition.”

The other ministers also dissuaded him. Then Jia Zheng kowtowed his gratitud~ and having thanked Their Highnesses withdrew, hurrying

home to reassure his mother.

All the men and women, high and low, in the Rong Mansion had been wondering what this summons to the Palace meant and had sent out for news. Jia Zheng’s return relieved them but none dared question him. He hastened to the old lady’s side to explain to her all the details of his pardon; but although this set her mind ar rest, she could not help grieving over the loss of the two hereditary titles and the banishment of Jia She and Jia Zhen to such distant regions. As for Lady Xing and Madam You, this news reduced them to tears.

“Don’t worry, madam,” said Jia Zheng, hoping to comfort his mother. “Though Elder Brother is going to serve at the frontier, he will be work­ing for the government too and isn’t likely to undergo any hardships. Provided he handles matters well, he may be reinstated. Zhen is young, it is only right for him to work hard; otherwise he won’t be able for long to enjoy the fortune left us by our ancestors.

The old lady had never been too fond of Jia She, while Jia Zhen being of the East Mansion was not one of her descendants. Only Lady Xing and Madam You were sobbing as if they would never stop.

Lady Xing was thinking. “We’ve lost everything and my husband is going so far away in his old age. Though I still have my son Lian, he always listens to his Second Uncle, and now that we have to live on him naturally Lian and his wife will take their side. What’s to become of me left all on my own?”

Madam You had been in sole charge of household affairs in the Ning Mansion, second only to Jia Zhen, and they were a well-matched couple. Now he was to be banished in disgrace, all their property had been con­fiscated, and she would have to live in the Rong Mansion where, though the old lady was fond of her, she would be a poor dependent saddled with Peifeng and Xieluan into the bargain; for her son Rong and his wife were in no position to restore the family’s fortunes.

She thought, “Lian was the one to blame for my two sisters’ deaths; yet he’s in no trouble now, not parted from his own wife, while we’re left stranded. How are we to cope?” These reflections made her sob.

The old lady’s heart ached for them. She asked Jia Zheng, “Can’t your elder brother and Zhen come home now that they’ve been sen-

tenced? And as Rong is not involved, shouldn’t he be released as well?”

‘According to the rules, elder brother can’t come home,” he told her. ‘~But I’ve asked people to put in a word so that he and Zhen can come back to get their luggage together, and the ministry has agreed. I expect Rong will return with his grand-uncle and father. Please don’t worry, madam. I shall see to this.”

“These years I’ve grown so old and useless that I haven’t checked up on our family affairs,” she said. “Now the East Mansion has been confiscated. Not only the house either, but your elder brother and Lian have lost all their property too. Do you know how much is left in our West Mansion’s treasury? And how much land in our eastern estates? You must give them a few thousand taels for their journeys.”

Jia Zheng was in a dilemma. He reflected, “If I tell her the truth she may be very worried; but if I don’t, how am I to manage now to say nothing of the future?”

Accordingly he answered, “If you hadn’t questioned me, madam, I wouldn’t have ventured to report this. But since you ask and Lian is here too I must tell you that yesterday I investigated. Our treasury is empty. Not only is all the silver gone but we have debts outside too. Now that elder brother is in this predicament, if we don’t bribe people to help, then in spite of His Majesty’s kindness they may be hard put to it. But I can’t think where the money is to come from. We’ve already used up next year’s rent from our eastern estates, so can’t raise any sums there for the time being. We shall just have to sell those clothes and trinkets which thanks to Imperial favour weren’t confiscated, to cover the trav­elling expenses of elder brother and Zhen. As to what to live on our­selves, we can worry about that later.”

The old lady shed tears in her consternation.

“Is our family reduced to this?” she exclaimed. “I didn’t see it for myself, but in the old days my family was ten times richer than this one, yet after a few years of keeping up appearances – though we were never raided like this – it went downhill and in less than two years was done for! Do you mean to say we shan’t be able to manage even for a couple of years?”

“If we’d kept those two hereditary stipends we could still manoeu­

vre outside. But whom can we expect to help us now?” In tears he continued, “All those relatives whom we helped before are poor, and the others we didn’t help won’t be willing to come to our rescue. I didn’t investigate too carefully yesterday, but simply looked at the register of our servants. Quite apart from the fact that we can’t meet our own expenses, we can’t afford to feed such a large staff.”

The old lady was distraught with anxiety when Jia She, Jia Zhen and Jia Rong came in together to pay their respects to her. At sight of them she clasped Jia She with one hand, Jia Zhen with the other, and sobbed. Her grief made them blush for shame and fall to their knees.

“We are reprobates who have forfeited the honours accorded to our ancestors and brought you grief, madam,” they said tearfully. “We don’t even deserve a piece of ground in which to bury our bones after death!”

All present seeing this gave way to weeping.

Jia Zheng interposed, “The first thing to do is make ready for their journey. The authorities will probably not agree to their staying at home for more than a couple of days.”

Holding back her tears the old lady dismissed Jia She and Jia Zhen to see their wives. Then she told Jia Zheng, “There’s no time to be lost! I’m afraid it’s no use trying to raise money outside, and it will be bad if they fail to leave by the appointed time. So I had better settle this for you. But the household is topsy-turvy – this won’t do!” She sent Yuanyang off to restore order.

After Jia She and Jia Zhen had withdrawn with Jia Zheng, weeping again they deplored their past excesses and spoke of their grief at part­ing. Then they went to lament with their wives. Jia She being old did not mind leaving Lady Xing; but Jia Zhen and Madam You could not bear to be parted, and Jia Lian and Jia Rong wept beside their fathers. For though their banishment was less harsh than service in the army, the exiles might never again see their families. However, since things had come to such a pass they had to make the best of the situation.

The old lady made Lady Xing, Lady Wang, Yuanyang and the others open up her cases and take out all the things she had stored away since coming here as a bride. Then she summoned Jia She, Jia Zheng and Jia

Zhen to share out her belongings.

Jia She received three thousand taels of silver with the instructions, “Take two thousand for your journey and leave your wife one thousand.”

“This three thousand is for Zhen,” the old lady continued. “You are only to take one thousand, leaving your wife two thousand. She and your concubines can go on as before, sharing the same house but eating sepa­rately; and I shall see to Xichun’s marriage in future. Poor Xifeng had put herself out for us all these years yet now she has nothing left; so I shall give her three thousand too, on condition that she keeps it herself and doesn’t let Lian use it. As she’s still only half-conscious, tell Pinger to come and take it. And here are clothes left by your grandfather and costumes and trinkets I wore when I was young, which I have no further use for. The Elder Master, Zhen, Lian and Rong can divide his clothes between them; the rest are to be shared out by the Elder Mistress, Zhen’s wife and Xifeng. This five hundred taels of silver is for Li an, for when he takes Daiyu’s coffin back south next year.

Having made this apportionment she told Jia Zheng, “You spoke of debts outside; well, they must be cleared. Take this gold to settle them. It’s the others’ fault that I have to part with all my possessions like this; but you’re my son too, and I can’t show favouritism. Baoyu is already married. The gold, silver and other things which I have left must be worth a few thousand taels, and that will go to him. Zhu’s wife has always been dutiful to me, and Lan’s a good lad, so I’ll give them some­thing too. This is all that I can do.”

Impressed by her sound judgement and fair treatment, Jia Zheng and the rest knelt down and said with tears, “You are so advanced in years, Old Ancestress, and your sons and grandsons have failed in their duty to you. Your goodness to us makes us doubly ashamed!”

“Stop talking nonsense,” she answered. “If not for this trouble I’d have kept everything to myself. But o~r household is too large now, with only the Second Master holding a post, so we can manage with just a few servants. Tell the stewards to summon them all and make the necessary retrenchment. Provided each house had someone, that’s enough. What should we have done, anyway, if they’d all been sequestrated? The maids should be re-assigned too, and some of them married off, some given

their freedom. And though this mansion of ours wasn’t taken over by the authorities, you should at least give up the Garden. As for our other estates, let Lian investigate to see which should be sold and which kept up. We must stop putting on an empty show. I can speak bluntly: the Zhen family down south still has some money in the Elder Mistress’ keep­ing, which she should send back. Because if any other trouble should happen to us in future, wouldn’t they be ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire?'”

Jia Zheng had no head for family affairs and readily agreed to all her proposals. “The old lady certainly is a good manager!” he reflected. “It’s her worthless sons who have ruined the family.” Then, as his mother looked tired, he urged her to go and rest.

“I haven’t much else,” she continued. “What there is can be spent on my funeral, and anything left over can go to my maids.”

Distressed to hear her talk like this, Jia Zheng and the others knelt down again and pleaded, “Don’t take it so hard, madam! Sharing in your good fortune, we can hope later on for more marks of Imperial favour; and then we shall exert our selves to set our house in order, and atone for our faults by caring for you until you are a hundred.”

“I certainly hope it turns out like that, so that I can face our ancestors after death. But you mustn’t imagine I’m someone who enjoys riches and rank and can’t endure poverty. These last few years you seemed to be doing fine, so I didn’t interfere, content to laugh and chat and nurse my health, never dreaming that our family was doomed to ruin like this! I knew all along that we were putting on an empty show, but everyone in the household was so used to luxury that we couldn’t cut down expenses all of a sudden. Well, here’s a good chance to retrench, to keep the family going, if we don’t want to become a laughing-stock. You expected me to be worried to death on hearing that we’re bankrupt. But in fact I was upset because, recalling the honours conferred on our ancestors for their splendid services to the state, I kept wishing that you might do even better, or at least manage to keep what you’d inherited. Who knows what dirty business they got up to, uncle and nephew!”

As she was haranguing them like this, a flustered Fenger ran in to tell Lady Wang, “This morning our mistress cried and cried when she learned

about our trouble. Now she’s at her last gasp. Pinger sent me to report this to you, madam.”

Before she could finish the old lady asked, “Just how is she?”

“Not too well, they say,” Lady Wang replied for Fenger, “Ah!” exclaimed the old lady rising to her feet. “These wretched

children won’t give me a moment’s peace!” She told maids to help her over to see Xifeng, but Jia Zheng barred the way.

“Madam, you’ve been so upset and attended to so much business, you ought to rest now. If your grandson’s wife is unwell, your daughter-in-law can go and see to her; there’s no need to go yourself. If you were to be upset again and fall ill, how could your sons bear it?”

“You’re all to leave now and come back presently – I’ve more to say to you.

Not venturing to raise any further objections, Jia Zheng went to help prepare for his brother’s and nephew’s journeys, instructing Jia Lian to choose servants to accompany them.

Meanwhile the old lady made Yuanyang and the others go over with her to see Xifeng, taking her gifts for her. Xifeng’s breath was coming in gasps, and Pinger’s eyes and cheeks were red from weeping. When Their Lady ships were announced, Pinger hurried out to meet them.

“How is she now?”asked the old lady.

Not wanting to alarm her Pinger said, “She’s a little better; Since you’re here, madam, please step in and see for yourself.”

She followed them inside, then darted over and quietly raised the bed-curtains. Xifeng, opening her eyes, was overcome with shame at sight of the old lady, for she had assumed that the Lady Dowager must be angry with her erstwhile favourite and would leave her to die – she had never expected this visit. Relief eased her choking sensation and she struggled to sit up; but the old lady made Pinger hold her down.

“Don’t move,” she said. “Are you feeling a bit better?”

“Yes, madam,” answered Xifeng with tears in her eyes. “Since I came here as a girl, Your Ladyships have been so good to me! But it was my misfortune to be driven out of my mind by evil spirits so that I couldn’t serve you dutifully and win my father- and mother-in-law’s approval. You treated me so well, letting me help run the household; and after

turning everything upside-down how can I look you in the face again?” Here she broke down and sobbed, “Now Your Ladyships have come in person to see me, quite overwhelming me! Even if I had another three days to live, I deserve to have two days docked!”

‘~That trouble started outside,” said the old lady. “It had nothing to do with you. And even though you were robbed it doesn’t matter. I’ve brought you a whole lot of things, to do just as you like with.” She told the maids to show Xifeng her gifts.

Xifeng was insatiably acquisitive. The loss of all her possessions had naturally cut her to the quick, in addition to which she had dreaded being held to blame and felt life was not worth living. Now it seemed she was still in the old lady’s good books, and Lady Wang instead of reproaching her had come to comfort her, while she knew that Jia Lian had kept out of trouble too. In relief she kowtowed to the old lady from her pillow.

‘Please don~t worry, madam,” she said. “If I recover thanks to your good fortune, I’ll gladly be your menial and serve Your Ladyships with all my heart!~

Her obvious distress made the Lady Dowager give way to tears. Baoyu was accustomed to comfort and enjoyment, and had never known genuine anxiety. This was his first experience of disaster. Now that sobbing and wailing assailed him wherever he turned, his mind became more unhinged and when others wept he joined in.

All of them seemed so upset that Xifeng raised her head from the pillow and made an effort to comfort the old lady. “Please go back, Your Ladyships,” she urged. “When I’m a bit better I’ll come to kowtow my thanks.”

The old lady told Pinger, “Mind you look after her well. If you’re short of anything, come to me for it.”

On her way back with Lady Wang, they heard weeping in several apartments. Once home, unable to check her grief any longer, the old lady dismissed Lady Wang and sent Baoyu to see off his uncle and cousin. She then lay down on her couch and burst into tears. Luckily Yuanyang and the other maids finally succeeded in consoling her, so that she fell asleep.

Jia She and Jia Zhen were by no means the only ones to be distressed

at leaving. None of the servants escorting them wanted to go. Simmering with resentment they cursed their fate, for separation in life is harder to bear than separation by death, and saddest of all were the people seeing them off. The once splendid Rong Mansion resounded with lamentations.

Jia Zheng, a model of propriety with a strong sense of moral obliga­tion, clasped his brother’s hand in farewell then rode ahead out of the city to offer them wine at the Pavilion of Parting and wish them a good journey. He reminded them of the government’s concern for meritorious ministers, and exhorted them to work hard to repay this compassion. Shedding tears then, Jia She and Jia Zhen went their different ways.

When Jia Zheng returned with Baoyu, they found messengers out­side their gate clamouring that an Imperial edict had just been issued bestowing the title of Duke of Rongguo on Jia Zheng. These men wanted largesse for bringing such good tidings.

The gatemen argued, “This is a hereditary title which our master already possesses; so how can you claim to be bringing us good tidings?”

The messengers retorted, “Hereditary titles are a great honour, harder to come by than an official appointment. Your Elder Master has lost his and will never get it back. But now His Sagacious Majesty has shown kindness greater than Heaven and restored this title to your Second Mas­ter such a thing only happens once in a thousand years. So why don’t you tip us for bringing the good news?”

Jia Zheng arrived in the middle of this dispute. When the gatemen reported the news to him he was pleased, although this reminded him of his brother’s offence. Shedding tears of gratitude he hurried in to report this to the old lady. She was naturally delighted and, taking him by the hand, urged him to work diligently to repay the Emperor’s kindness. Lady Wang, arrtving just then to comfort the old lady, rejoiced too at this news. Lady Xing and Madam You, the only ones sick at heart, had to hide their feelings.

Those relatives and friends outside who had fawned on the Jias when they Were powerful had steered clear of them since hearing of their dis­grace. Now that Jia Zheng had inherited the title and apparently still en­joyed the Emperor’s favour, they hurried over to offer congratulations.

To their surprise, Jia Zheng felt genuine embarrassment at inheriting his brother’s title, despite his gratitude to the Emperor. The next day he went to court to offer thanks, and asked permission to make over to the state the houses and Garden which had been returned to him. When an edict declared this petition unwarranted, he went home in relief and con­tinued to work steadily at his post.

But the family was now impoverished, its income falling short of its expenditure, and Jia Zheng was unable to take advantage of his social connections. The servants knew that though he was a worthy man, while Xifeng was too ill to run the household Jia Lian was piling up debts from day to day which forced him to mortgage houses and sell land. The wealthier of the stewards were afraid Jia Lian might appeal to them for help, and therefore made a pretence of poverty or kept out of his way. Some even asked for leave and did not return, for each was looking around for a new master.

The sole exception was Bao Yong, who had only recently come to the Rong Mansion just as disaster struck it. This honest fellow was filled with indignation by the way the rest cheated their masters; but being a newcomer his words carried no weight, so in anger he just went to sleep after supper each day. The other servants resented his lack of compli­ance, and slandered him to Jia Zheng as a drunken trouble-maker and a slacker.

“Let him be,” said Jia Zheng. “He was recommended by the Zhen family; we can hardly send him away. We may be in difficulties, but feeding one extra mouth won’t make any difference.”

As he would not dismiss Bao Yong, the servants complained about him to Jia Lian; but the latter no longer dared act high handedly and took no action either.

One day, feeling disgruntled, Bao Yong had a few drinks then strolled out to the road outside the Rong Mansion, where he saw two fellows talking.

“See there!” said one. “That fine mansion was raided the other day. I wonder what’s become of its owners.”

“How could a family like theirs be ruined?” the other said. “I heard that one of their daughters was an Imperial Consort, and even though

she’s dead they should be well entrenched. I’ve seen them hobnobbing with princes and nobles too, so they must have plenty of backing. Why, even the present prefect, the last War Minister, is related to them. Couldn’t these people have protected them?”

“You live here but don’t know the first thing about it! The others weren’t so bad, but that Prefect Jia was the limit! I’ve often seen him calling on both mansions, and after the censors impeached them the Emperor ordered him to investigate before any decision was made. What do you think he did? Because he’d been helped by both mansions, for fear of being accused of shielding them he gave them a vicious kick -that’s why they were raided. Friendship doesn’t mean a thing nowa­days.”

Bao Yong beside them overheard this idle gossip. “Are there such people in the world with no sense of gratitude?” he thought. “I wonder what relation he is to our master. If I meet the scoundrel I’ll knock him off– and to hell with the consequences!”

He was letting his drunken fancy run wild when he heard runners shouting, “Clear the way!” Although some distance off, he stood still and heard one fellow whisper, “It’s Prefect Jia coming.”

Bao Yong was furious. Emboldened by drink he yelled, “Heartless slave! How could you forget our Jia family’s goodness to you?”

Jia Yucun peered out from his chair at the sound of the name Jia, but seeing a drunkard he ignored him and went on.

Bao Yong, being drunk and reckless, swaggered back to the house to question his fellow servants, who confirmed that Jia Yucun owed his promotion to the ha family.

“Instead of remembering their kindness, he kicked them down,” Bao Yong fumed. “When I cursed him just now he dared not answer back.”

The servants in the Rong Mansion had always disliked Bao Yong, but their masters would not take any action against him. Now that he had made this row outside, they seized the chance when Jia Zheng was free to report that Bao Yong had been drunk and disorderly. This news an­gered Jia Zheng, who was afraid of fresh trouble. He summoned Bao Yong and reprimanded him; but not liking to punish him ordered him to keep watch in the Garden and not to leave the place. Bao Yong was a

loyal, straightforward fellow who safeguarded his master’s interests. Jia Zheng had berated him on the basis of hearsay, but not venturing to justify himself he packed up his things and moved into the Garden to keep watch there and water the plants.

To know what happened later, read the next chapter.

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