A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 11

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A Dream of Red Mansions011

Chapter 11

ha Jing’s Birthday Is Celebrated

in the Ning Mansion

Jia Rui Meets and Lusts

After Xifeng

Jia Jing’s birthday had now arrived. Jia Zhen had six large hampers filled with choice delicacies and rare fruit and sent ha Rong with some servants to deliver them.

“Make sure your grandfather’s agreeable before you pay your re­spects,” he cautioned his son. “Tell him that in compliance with his wishes I’ve not ventured to go, but I am assembling the whole family here to honour him.”

After ha Rong had left the guests began to arrive. First Jia Lian and Jia Qiang. Observing the seating arrangements, they asked what enter­tainment was to be offered.

“His Lordship originally planned to invite the old master, so he didn’t prepare any theatricals,” said the servants. “But the day before yester­day, when he heard that the old gentleman wouldn’t be coming, he got us to hire some young actors and musicians. They’re getting ready now on the stage in the garden.”

Next to arrive were Lady Xing, Lady Wang, Xifeng and Baoyu. They were welcomed in by Jia Zhen and Madam You, whose mother had al­ready come. After greetings had been exchanged they were urged to be seated. Jia Zhen and his wife handed round tea.

“The Lady Dowager is our Old Ancestress,” said Jia Zhen with a smile. “My father is only her nephew, and we wouldn’t have presumed to invite her on his birthday if not for the fact that the weather is refresh­ingly cool now and all the chrysanthemums in our garden are at their best. We thought it might prove a pleasant distraction for her to watch all her children and grandchildren enjoying themselves. She hasn’t favoured us with her presence, however.”

“Up to yesterday she meant to come,” explained Xifeng before Lady Wang could get a word in. “But yesterday evening she saw Baoyu eating some peaches and she couldn’t resist eating nearly a whole peach. She had to get up twice just before dawn, which left her tired out this morning. She asked me to tell you that she couldn’t come, but she hopes you’ll send her a few delicacies if you have some that are easy to digest.”

“That explains it,” said Jia Zhen. “The old lady is so fond of lively parties, I was sure there must be some reason for her absence.”

Lady Wang remarked, “The other day Xifeng told me that Rong’s wife is indisposed. What’s wrong with her?”

“It’s a very puzzling illness,” replied Madam You. “At the Mid-Au­tumn Festival last month she enjoyed herself half the night with the old lady and you, and came home none the worse. But for a fortnight since the twentieth of last month she’s grown weaker and weaker every day and lost all her appetite. And she hasn’t had a period for two months.”

“Can she be pregnant?” asked Lady Xing.

Just then the arrival of Jia She, Jia Zheng and the other gentlemen was announced. They were in the reception hail, ha Zhen hurried out.

Madam You continued, “Some doctors thought it might mean a happy event. But yesterday she was examined by an excellent physician rec­ommended by Feng Ziying, who once studied with him, and according to him it isn’t a pregnancy but a serious illness. He made out a prescription, and today after one dose she feels less dizzy but there hasn’t been much other improvement.”

“If she weren’t quite incapable of any exertion, I know she’d have made an effort to be here today,” observed Xifeng.

“You saw her here on the third,” said Madam You. “She forced her­self to bear up for several hours, because she’s so fond of you she couldn’t bear to tear herself away.”

Xifeng’s eyes became moist. After a pause she exclaimed, “Truly, ‘Storms gather without warning in nature, and bad luck befalls men over­night.’ But life is hardly worth living if such an illness can carry off one so young!”

As she was speaking Jia Rong walked in. Having greeted the visitors he told his mother, “I’ve just taken the delicacies to my grandfather. I told him my father was waiting on Their Lordships and entertaining the young gentlemen here, and that in compliance with his orders he wouldn’t presume to go over. Grandfather was very pleased. He expressed ap­proval and told me to ask you and my father to attend to the elder genera­tion while we entertain the younger. He also wants to have ten thousand copies of his version of Rewards and Punishments printed and distrib­uted as quickly as possible. I’ve already given this message to my father. Now I must hurry and see to the food for all the grand-uncles, uncles and other gentlemen.”

“Just a minute, Master Rong,” interposed Xifeng. “Tell me, how is your wife today?”

“Not well at all.” The young man’s face clouded. “Do go and see her for yourself, aunt, on your way home.” He left without saying any more.

Madam You asked Lady Xing and Lady Wang, “Would you prefer to eat here or in the garden? The actors are preparing out there.”

“Why not eat here and then go out?” suggested Lady Wang. “That would be simple.”

Lady Xing seconded this.

So Madam You ordered the meal to be served at once. There was an answering cry in unison outside the door and the maids went to fetch the dishes. Soon the feast was ready. Madam You made Lady Xing, Lady Wang and her mother take the places of honour, while she sat at a side table with Xifeng and Baoyu.

“We came to congratulate the old gentleman on his birthday,” re­marked Lady Xing and Lady Wang. “But now it looks, doesn’t it, as if we were celebrating our own?”

“The Elder Master is fond of retirement,” said Xifeng. “He’s lived so long as an ascetic, we can already consider him an immortal. So he’ll know by divine intuition what you’ve just said.”

This set the whole company laughing. The ladies, having by now fin­ished their meal, rinsed their mouths and washed their hands. Just as they were ready to go into the garden, Jia Rong turned up to tell his mother:

“All my grand-uncles, uncles and cousins have finished their meal. Lord She has some business at home, and Lord Zheng has also left as he doesn’t care for theatricals or anything rowdy. Uncle Lian and Cousin Qiang have taken the others over to watch the performance.

“Cards and gifts have been brought from the four princes of Nanan, Dongping, Xining and Beijing, from Duke Niu of Zhenguo and five other dukes, as well as from Marquis Shi of Zhongjing and seven other mar­quises. I’ve reported this to my father, had the presents put in the count­ing-house and the catalogues of gifts placed on file, and my father’s ‘received with thanks’ cards handed to the messengers, who were given the usual tips and a meal before they left.

“Won’t you ask the ladies to go and sit in the garden now, mother?”

“We’ve just finished our meal too,” said Madam You. “We’re com­ing over.”

“I’d like to drop in and see Rong’s wife first, madam,” said Xifeng. “May I join you later?”

“A good idea,” approved Lady Wang. “We’d all go if not for fear of disturbing her. Tell her we asked after her.”

“My daughter-in-law always does as you ask her, dear sister,” said Madam You. “I’ll feel much easier in my mind if you go and cheer her up. But join us in the garden as soon as you can.”

Baoyu asked permission to go with Xifeng.

“Go if you want, but don’t be long,” said his mother. “Remember she’s your nephew’s wife.”

So Madam You took Lady Xing, Lady Wang and her own mother to the Garden of Concentrated Fragrance, while Xifeng and Baoyu went with ha Rong to see Keqing.

They entered her room quietly and when she made an effort to rise Xifeng protested, “Don’t. ft would make you dizzy.” She hurried for­ward to clasp Keqing’s hand, exclaiming, “How thin you’ve grown, my poor lady, in the few days since last I saw you!”

She sat down on her mattress, while Baoyu also asked after his niece’s health and took a chair opposite.

“Bring in tea at once,” called ha Rong. “My aunt and second uncle had none in the drawing-room.”

Holding Xifeng’s hand, Keqing forced a smile.

“Living in a family like this is more than I deserve,” she said. “My father-in-law and mother-in-law treat me as their own daughter. And although your nephew’s young, we have such a regard for each other that we’ve never quarrelled. In fact the whole family, old and young, not to mention you, dear aunt that goes without saying have been goodness itself to me and shown me nothing but kindness. But now that I’ve fallen ill all my will power’s gone, and I haven’t been able to be a good daughter-in-law. I want so much to show how I appreciate your goodness, aunt, but it’s no longer in my power now. I doubt if I shall last the year out.”

Baoyu was looking pensively at the picture Sleeping Under a Crab ­Apple Tree in Spring and Qin Guan’s couplet:

Coolness wraps her dream, for spring is chill;

A fragrance assails men, the aroma of wine.

As he raptly recalled his dream here of the Illusory Land of Great Void, Keqing’s remarks pierced his heart like ten thousand arrows and un­known to himself his tears flowed. Xifeng, distressed as she was, did not want to upset the patient even more, knowing it would be better to dis­tract and console her.

“You’re a regular old woman, Baoyu,” she scolded. “It’s not as bad as your niece would have us believe.” She turned to Keqing. “How can someone your age give way to such foolish fancies just because of a little illness? Do you want to make yourself worse?”

“She’d be all right if only she’d eat,” put in Jia Rong.

“Her Ladyship told you not to be too long,” Xifeng reminded Baoyu. “Don’t hang about here upsetting Keqing and making Her Ladyship worry.” She then turned to Jia Rong and said, “Take Uncle Bao to rejoin the others while I stay here a little longer.”

So Jia Rong led Baoyu to the Garden of Concentrated Fragrance while Xifeng soothed Keqing and whispered some well-meant advice into her ear.

When Madam You sent a servant for the third time to fetch her she said to Keqing, “Take good care of yourself. I’ll come back again to see you. The fact that this good doctor has been recommended to us is a sign that you’re going to get better. Don’t you worry.”

“Even if he were an immortal, he could cure a disease but not avert my fate,” retorted Keqing with a smile. “I know it’s only a matter of time now, auntie.

“How can you get better if you keep thinking like that? You must look on the bright side. In any case, I’m told the doctor said that even if you’re not cured there’s no danger until the spring. It’s only the middle of the ninth month now. You’ve four or five months yet, quite long enough to recover from any illness. It would be another matter if our family couldn’t afford ginseng; but your father and mother-in-law can easily give you two catties of ginseng a day, not to mention two drains. Mind you rest well. I’m off now to the garden.”

“I’m sorry I can’t go with you, dear aunt,” said Keqing. “Do come back again when you’ve time and let’s have a few more good talks.”

Xifeng’s eyes smarted again at this. “Of course I’ll come whenever I’m free,” she promised.

Accompanied by her own maids and some from the Ning Mansion, she took a winding path to the side gate of the garden. There a rare sight met her eyes.

Yellow chrysanthemums carpeted the ground;

Green willows covered the slopes;

Small bridges spanned the brooks

And winding pathways led to quiet retreats.

Clear springs welled from the rocks,

Fragrance was wafted from trellises laden with flowers,

While russet tree-tops swayed

In scattered copses lovely as a painting.

The autumn wind was chilly

And the song of golden orioles had ceased,

But crickets were still chirping in the warm sunshine.

At the far southeast end

Cottages nestled among the hills;

On the northwest side

Pavilions brooded over the lake water.

Fluting cast a subtle enchantment over men’s senses,

And silk-gowned girls strolling through the woods

Added to the charm of the scene.

Xifeng was strolling along enjoying this sight when a man appeared without warning from behind an artificial rockery and accosted her with, “Greetings, sister-in-law!”

She stepped back, startled, and asked, “Is it Master Rui?”

“Who else could it be? Don’t tell me you don’t know me.

“Of course I do, but you took me by surprise.”

“We must have been fated to meet, sister-in-law.” He was devouring her with his eyes as he spoke. “I slipped away from the banquet just now for a quiet stroll in this secluded spot. And I meet you here! What is this if not fate?”

Xifeng had sense enough to see through him. “No wonder Lian al­ways speaks so highly of you,” she rejoined with a smile, feigning pleasure. “From seeing you today and hearing you talk, I can see how clever and understanding you are. I’ve no time to spare now, I must join Her Ladyship. But perhaps we shall meet again some other day.”

“I’ve often wanted to call and pay my respects. But I thought, being young, you might not welcome me.”

“What nonsense.” She assumed another smile. “Aren’t we of the same family?”

Enraptured by this unexpected good fortune, Jia Rui looked ready to make more indecent advances. But Xifeng urged him, “You must hurry back before you’re missed, or they’ll make you drink forfeits.”

Half numbed by this tantalizing remark he walked slowly away, look­ing back at her over his shoulder. Xifeng purposely slowed down until he was out of sight.

“You can know a man’s face but not his heart,” she reflected, “I’ll show the beast! If he tries anything like that with me, I’ll sooner or later make him die at my hands, to let him know my ability.”

Then, rounding a miniature hill, she met several matrons hurrying breathlessly towards her.

“Our mistress sent us to fetch you, madam,” they cried. “She was worried because you didn’t come.”

“Your mistress is devilish impatient!”

Continuing to saunter along, she asked how many items had been

performed. The answer was: Eight or nine. They had now reached the back door of the Pavilion of Heavenly Fragrance, where Baoyu was amusing himself with some maids.

“No silly tricks now, Cousin Baoyu,” she warned him.

“The ladies are all in the gallery,” one of the girls told her. “Just up those stairs, madam.”

Xifeng gathered up her skirts to mount the stairs and found Madam You waiting for her on the landing.

“You and your niece are so thick, I thought you’d never tear yourself away,” teased Madam You. “You’d better move over tomorrow and stay with her. Sit down now and let me give you a toast.”

Xifeng asked Lady Xing and Lady Wang’s permission to be seated and exchanged a few polite remarks with Madam You’s mother, then she sat down beside her hostess to sip wine and watch the performance. Madam You sent for the list of their repertoire and asked her to choose a few items.

“How can I presume when Their Ladyships are present?” demurred Xifeng.

“Old Mrs. You has chosen several already,” replied Lady Xing and Lady Wang. “It’s your turn to pick a couple of good ones for us.”

Xifeng rose to signify obedience. Taking the list she read through it and marked The Resurrection1 and The Rhapsody2 Handing it back she observed, “When they’ve finished this Double Promotion3 there’ll be just time enough for these two.”

“Yes,” said Lady Wang. “We must let our hosts have some rest soon. Especially as this is a worrying time for them.”

“You come over so seldom,” protested Madam You, “I do hope you’ll stay a bit longer. It’s early yet.”

Xifeng stood up to look below and asked, “Where are the gentle­men?”

“They’ve gone to drink in the Pavilion of Lingering Dawn,” replied one of the matrons. “They took the musicians with them.”

“Our presence cramps their style,” remarked Xifeng. “I wonder what they’re up to behind our backs?”

“How can you expect everybody to be as proper as you?” said Madam You jokingly.

So they laughed and chatted till the plays came to an end, when the wine was taken away and rice brought in. After the meal they returned to the drawing-room for tea, then ordered their carriages and took their leave of old Mrs. You. They were seen to their carriages by Madam You, attended by all the concubines and maids, and there they found the young men waiting with Jia Zhen. The latter urged Lady Xing and Lady Wang to come back again the next day, but Lady Wang declined. “We’ve spent the whole day here and we’re tired. We shall have to rest tomorrow.”

Jia Rui kept his eyes on Xifeng as the visitors got into their carriages and drove off.

After Jia Zhen and the others had gone indoors, Li Gui led round Baoyu’s horse and the boy mounted it and followed his mother home. When Jia Zhen and all the young men had dined, the party broke up; and there is no need to describe the entertainment they offered all their kins­men the next day.

Xifeng dropped in more often now to see Keqing, who seemed slightly better on some days although in general her health did not improve, to the great dismay of her husband and his parents. And ha Rui, calling several times on Xifeng, invariably found she had gone to the Ning Mansion.

The thirtieth day of the eleventh month would be the winter solstice. As it approached, the Lady Dowager, Lady Wang and Xifeng sent daily to inquire after Keqing and were told each time that she was neither better nor worse.

“It’s a hopeful sign,” Lady Wang told the Lady Dowager, “if an illness grows no worse at a season like this.”

“Yes, of course,” replied the old lady. “If anything were to happen to the dear child, I’m sure it would break my heart.”

In her distress she sent for Xifeng and said, “You and she have always been good friends. Tomorrow’s the first of the twelfth month, but the day after that I want you to call on her and see just how she is. If she’s any better, come and tell me. That would take a great weight off my mind. And you must have the things she used to like to eat made and sent round.”

Xifeng promised to do this and after breakfast on the second she went

to the Ning Mansion to see Keqing. Although the invalid appeared no worse, she had grown very thin and wasted. Xifeng sat and chatted with her for some time, assuring her that she had no cause for alarm.

“Whether I’ll ever recover or not we’ll know when spring comes,” said Keqing. “Maybe I shall, for the winter solstice has passed and I’m no worse. Please tell the old lady and Lady Wang not to worry. Yester­day I ate two of the yam cakes stuffed with dates that the old lady sent, and I think they did me good.”

“We’ll send you some more tomorrow,” offered Xifeng. “Now I must go to see your mother-in-law before hurrying back to tell the old lady how you are.

“Please send my respects to her and Lady Wang.”

Promising to do so, Xifeng left. She went to sit with Madam You who asked, “Tell me frankly, how did you find her?”

Xifeng lowered her head for a while. “There seems to be little hope,” she said at last. “If I were you I’d make ready the things for the funeral. That may break the bad luck.”

“I’ve had them secretly prepared. But I can’t get any good wood for you know what, so I’ve let that go for the time being.”

After drinking some tea and chatting a little longer. Xifeng said she must go back to report to the Lady Dowager.

“Don’t break it to her yet,” said Madam You. “We don’t want to alarm the old lady.”

Xifeng agreed to this and took her leave. Home again, she told the Lady Dowager, “Rong’s wife sends her respects and kowtows to you. She says she’s better and you mustn’t worry. When she’s a little stron­ger, she’ll come herself to kowtow and pay her respects.”

“How did she seem?”

“For the present there’s nothing to fear. She’s in good spirits.”

The Lady Dowager thought this over, then said, “Go and change your clothes now and rest.”

Xifeng withdrew and reported to Lady Wang before going back to her room. Pinger helped her into the informal clothes she had warming by the fire. Then Xifeng, taking a seat, asked what had happened during her absence.

“Nothing much.” The maid handed her a bowl of tea. “Lai Wang’s wife came with the interest on that three hundred taels, which I put away. And Master Rui sent round again to ask if you were in, as he wanted to pay his respects.”

“That wretch! He deserves to die,” Xifeng snorted. “Just see what I do to the beast if he comes!”

“Why does he keep calling?”

Xifeng described their meeting and all he had said to her in the Ning Mansion garden during the ninth month.

“A toad hankering for a taste of swan,” scoffed Pinger. “The beast hasn’t a shred of common decency. He deserves a bad end for dreaming of such a thing.

“Let him come,” said Xifeng. “I know how to deal with him.”

What happened to Jia Rui when he came is told in the next chapter.

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