A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 110


Chapter 110

The Lady Dowager Passes Away


Xifeng Is Powerless and

Loses Support

Sitting up the old lady said, “I’ve lived in your family sixty years and more, from girlhood to old age, and had more than my share of good fortune. Reckoning from your father down, all my sons and grandsons are good. But Baoyu whom I’ve been so fond of…” She broke off here and looked round. Lady Wang pushed Baoyu to her bedside and the old lady reaching out one hand from the quilt took his hand.

“You must make good, child!”she exhorted him.

“Yes, madam.” He felt a pang but dared not cry, simply standing there while his grandmother continued, “I shall be content if I can see another great-grandson born. Where is my Lan?”

As Li Wan pushed him forward, the old lady let go of Baoyu and took Lan’s hand.

“You must be a dutiful son,” she said. “Make your mother feel proud of you when you grow up! Where is Xifeng?”

Xifeng, standing near the bed, stepped forward saying, “Here I am.”

“You’re too clever, child; you must do more good works. I haven’t done many myself, simply letting others take advantage of me. I never went in much for fasting or chanting Buddhist scriptures, except that year when I had all those copies of the Diamond Sutra made. Have they all been distributed?”

“Not yet,” was Xifeng’s reply.

“Then hurry up and have them all given away. Our Elder Master and Zhen are enjoying themselves outside, but the most heartless one of all is that little wretch Xiangyun who still hasn’t come to see me!”

Yuanyang and those who knew the reason said nothing. Next the old lady looked at Baochai and sighed. Her face was flushed now, a sign as Jia Zheng knew that the end was near. He offered her some ginseng

broth, but already her jaws were locked and her eyes closed. She opened them, however, for a last look round the room. Lady Wang and Baochai stepped forward and gently propped her up, while Lady Xing and Xifeng changed her clothes. Meanwhile serving-women had prepared the bier and spread bedding over it. Now they heard a rattling in her throat, and a smile overspread her face as she breathed her last at the age of eighty-three. The women hastily laid her on the bier.

Jia Theng and the other men knelt down in the outer room, Lady Xing and the other ladies inside, and together they lamented. The stewards’ prepara­tions outside were complete. As soon as they heard the news, all the gates of the Rong Mansion were thrown wide open and pasted with white paper. Funeral sheds were erected as well as an archway in front of the main gate. The family and the domestics lost no time in putting on mourning.

Jia Zheng reported his mother’s death, and the Ministry of Rites pe­titioned the Emperor for leave for him. The Most High in deep compas­sion, in view of ~he Jia family’s past achievements and the fact that the old lady was the Imperial Consort’s grandmother, bestowed on Jia Zheng one thousand taels of silver and ordered the Ministry of Rites to take charge of the sacrifice. The stewards spread word of the old lady’s death and, though ihe Jia family had declined, when their relatives and friends saw the favour shown them by the Emperor they all came to offer their condolences. An auspicious day was chosen for coffining the dead and the coffin was deposited in the hall.

In the absence of ha She, Jia Zheng was the head of the house. Baoyu, Jia Huan and Jia Lan, as young descendants, had to keep watch by the coffin. Jia L~an, though a grandson too, undertook with Jia Rong’s assistance to assign the menservants’ tasks. Certain kinsmen were also invited to help out.

As for the ladies, Lady Xing, Lady Wang, Li Wan, Xifeng and Baochal were to lament by the coffin. Madam You should by rights have helped organize the household, as since Jia Zhen’s departure she had been stay­ing in the Rong Mansion; but she had never shown any initiative and had little knowledge of its management. Jia Rong’s wife, it goes without say­ing, was even less competent while young Xichun although she had grown up in the Rong Mansion knew nothing about its domestic affairs. So none

of these could take charge.

Xifeng was the only one capable of undertaking the task, and indeed with Jia Lian in charge outside it seemed appropriate to have her helping him inside. Emboldened by her previous experience of superintending Qin Keqing’s funeral, she was confident that here was another chance to display her ability; and Their Ladyships both thought her the best choice. When, therefore, she was asked to superintend, she accepted readily.

“I ran this household before and the staff here obey me,” she thought. “The servants of Lady Xing and Madam You used to be troublesome, but now they’ve gone. Though we haven’t used a tally to get money from the treasury, we have ready cash in hand for this purpose which is even better; and my husband is in charge of affairs outside. So even if my health isn’t what it was, I don’t think I’ll fall down on the job as it’s bound to be simpler than that time in the Ning Mansion.”

She decided to wait another day till the first three days had passeed, then assign the servants tasks first thing in the morning. She told Zhou Rui’s wife to announce this to the staff and to bring her the register. Looking through this she found twenty one men-servants in all and only nineteen women, not counting the maids in the various apartments. As this made a total of barely forty people, they were going to be short­handed. “We’ve fewer hands now for the old lady’s funeral than that time in the East Mansion,” she reflected. Even if she transferred a few servants from their farm, they still would not have enough.

As she was mulling this over a young maid came to report, “Sister Yuanyang would like you to go over, madam.”

Xifeng went and found Yuanyang weeping bitterly. She caught hold of Xifeng and cried, “Please sit down, madam, and let me kowtow to you. Mourners can dispense with ceremony, they say, but I must kowtow to you now!” She fell on her knees.

Xifeng hastily stopped her. “What does this mean? Just tell me what you want,” she said, pulling her up.

“All the arrangements, inside and outside, for the old lady’s funeral are being made by Msater Lian and you, madam. The silver for this was put aside by the old lady, who never squandered money in her whole life; SO now I beg you, madam, to give her a fine, handsome send-off. Just

now I heard the master quote a classical tag I didn’t understand it something like ‘In mourning, grief counts for more than appear­ances.’ I asked Madam Bao, who told me he meant that the most filial way to mourn the oLd lady is to show our grief, instead of wasting money to make a good show. But it seems to me that surely things should be done more impressively for someone like the old lady. I’m only a slave, though, so what can I say? But the old lady was so good to us both, won~t you do the thing handsomely? I know you’re an able organizer, madam; that’s why I asked you here to decide. I’ve served the old lady all my life, and now that she’s dead I mean to follow her still. If I don’t see her given a good funeral, how shall I be able to face her?”

Puzzled by this outburst Xifeng replied, ‘Don’t worry. It’s not diffi­cult to prepare a fine funeral. Though the master wants us to economize, we’ve a position to keep up. Even if we spend the whole sum on this, that’s only right.”

‘~he old lady’s last words were that anything she had left was for us. If you don’t have enough, madam, just use this to make up the deficit. Whatever the master says. he can’t go against her last wishes. Besides, he was there, wasn’t he, and heard how the old lady shared things out.”

“You’ve always been a sensible girl. Why are you carrying on like this now?” Xifeng asked.

“I can’t help worrying, because the Elder Mistress lets things slide and the master’s afraid of being ostentatious. If you share his view, madam, that for a family that’s been raided to have a splendid funeral may lead to another raid, and don~t care about the old lady, what’s to be done? I’m just a boudmaid and this doesn’t concern me; but our family’s reputation is at stake!”

“I understand. Don’t worry. I’~ see to it.”

Then Yuanyang thanked Xifeng profusely for her goodness.

Xifeng left thinking, “What an odd creature Yuanyang is! I wonder what’s on her mind? By rights the old lady should have a handsome funeral. Well, never mind her. We’ll do it according to our family tradi­tion.” She sent for Lai Wang’s wife to ask Master Lian to come in.

“What do you want me for?” inquired Jia Lian when presently he entered. “Just look after your end of things inside the house. All deci­

sions will be made anyway by the Second Master. It’s up to us to do whatever we’re told.”

‘~So you take that line too?” said Xifeng. “Apparently Yuanyang guessed right.”

‘~What did she say?”

Xifeng described how Yuanyang had asked her over and what she had said.

‘What they say doesn’t count,” scoffed ha Lian. “Just now the Sec­ond Master sent for me and said, ‘Of course we must do things in style for the old lady. People in the know are aware that she provided for her own funeral; those not in the know may think that we kept some money tucked away and are still well-off. But if this silver of hers isn’t used, who wants it? It should still all be spent on her. The old lady’s from the south, where there is a graveyard but no houses for offering sacrifices. As her coffin’s to go back to the south, we should keep some money to build houses in the ancestral graveyard and use the remainder to buy a few acres of fields to provide for sacrifices. Even if we don’t return south ourselves we can let some poor relations live there, to sacrifice to her during festivals and to see to the upkeep of the grave.’ Don’t you agree that that’s a sound idea? So how can we spend the whole sum on the funeral?”

“Have they issued the silver yet?”

‘Who’s seen any silver? All I know is that after my mother heard this she thoroughly approved, telling the Second Master and Mistress that it was a good idea. So what can I do? Now the men putting up the funeral sheds outside want several hundred taels, but no silver has been issued. When I went to draw some, they said they had the money but we should get the workmen to finish the job before settling accounts with them. Just think, all those servants with money have skedaddled. When we call the roll, some are said to be on sick leave, others 10 have gone to the farm. Those few left here, unable to leave, are just out to make money. Who’s going to advance us any?”

Xifeng was struck speechless. Eventually she asked, “Then how are We to manage?”

Just then a maid came in and said, “The Elder Mistress wants to ask

you, madam, why everything’s still topsy-turvy though today is the third day. After the sacrifice, why keep relatives waiting around? She called several times for the meal before the dishes came without any rice. What way is this to manage?”

Xifeng at once went to expedite the servants and manage to get a meal of sorts served to the guests. As ill luck would have it, many guests had come, but all the servants were so apathetic that Xifeng had to see to things herself. Then in her concern she burned out and made Lai Wang’s wife summon all the serving-women to assign them different tasks. The women accepted these but made no move.

“What time is it?” Xifeng demanded. “Why haven’t you prepared the sacrificial offerings?”

“That’s easily done,” they answered. “But first we have to be issued with supplies.”

“You stupid creatures!” fumed Xifeng. “Of course you’ll get what you need for the jobs you’re given.”

The women went off then reluctantly, while Xifeng hurried to the main apartment to ask Their Ladyships’ permission to fetch what would be needed. She could hardly do this, however, in front of so many guests. As it was nearing sunset, she had to find Yuanyang and tell her which of the old lady’s things she wanted.

“Why ask me?” replied Yuanyang. “Didn’t Master Lian pawn them that year? Has he ever redeemed them?”

“We don’t need gold or silver, just an ordinary dinner service.”

“Hasn’t that gone to Lady Xing and Madam You?”

Xifeng realized that this was so and went to Lady Wang’s quarters to find Yuchuan and Caiyun. Having got what she required from them she hastily made Caiming list these things, then handed them over to the serv­ing-women.

Xifeng had looked so flustered that Yuanyang did not like to call her back. She wondered, “Why is she bungling things like this now when she used to be such a good manager? In the last few days things have been at Sixes and sevens. The old lady’s love for her was thrown away!”

She was unaware that Lady Xing had concurred with Jia Zheng’s proposal because she had been worrying about her family’s future and

was eager to put something by. Besides, as the old lady’s funeral should have been superintended by the senior branch of the family, although Jia She was away, each time there was some decision to make punctilious Jia Zheng would say, “Ask the Elder Mistress.”

Lady Xing had always considered Xifeng extravagant and Jia Lian unreliable and would therefore not let any money out of her hands. Yuanyang, assuming that the funeral expenses had already been issued, suspected Xifeng of floundering because she did not take the business seriously. Accordingly she kept weeping and wailing before the old lady’s coffin.

When Lady Xing heard these implied reproaches, instead of blaming herself for not facilitating Xifeng’s work she said, “It’s true, Xifeng isn’t putting herself out.”

That evening Lady Wang summoned Xifeng and told her, “Though our family’s in these straits, we must keep up appearances. I’ve noticed that in the last few days our visitors haven’t been properly looked after. I suppose you didn’t give instructions for this. You must bestir yourself a bit more for us!”

Xifeng was at a loss for words. She wanted to explain that there was no silver to meet their expenses, but the silver was not her concern while this charge against her was one of negligence. Not venturing to defend herself she remained silent.

Lady Xing put in from the side, “By rights we daughters-in-law, not you young people, should see to these things. But as we can’t leave the coffin we entrusted them to you. You mustn’t trifle with your task.”

Xifeng flushed crimson and was about to answer when music struck up outside it was time for the dusk burning of sacrificial paper. As everyone had to mourn now she could say nothing; and later, when she came back to explain the real situation to them, Lady Wang urged her to go and see to things.

“We’ll hold the fort here,” she said. “Run along to make prepara­tions for tomorrow.”

Xifeng had to withdraw then, bottling up her resentment, and sum­moned all the matrons to give them instructions.

“Take pity on me, nannies!” she pleaded. “I’ve been scolded by their

Ladyships because you’ve not pulled together, making our family look ridiculous. You must try a bit harder tomorrow!”

~This isn’t the first time you’ve run things, madam,” they said. “We wouldn’t dream of disobeying you. But this time our mistresses are too pernickety! Just take the question of meals: some want to eat here, oth­ers in their own quarters; when we fetch in one lady, another refuses to come. What with all this, how can we see to everything? Do persuade those ladies’ maids, madam, not to pick so many faults.”

~The most troublesome are the old lady’s maids,” said Xifeng. “Their Ladyships’ are a difficult lot too how can I tell them off?”

‘When you took charge in the East Mansion, madam, you beat or cursed anyone you pleased,” they countered. “You were so sharp, who dared to disobey you? Can’t you control these minxes today?” Xifeng sighed, “When I was given that East Mansion job, though the mistress was there she didn’t like to find fault. Now this business concerns the others as well as ourselves, so everyone feels free to criticize. Besides, the money outside isn’t issued promptly. When something’s needed, for example, for the funeral sheds and we send out for it, it isn’t forthcoming

what can I do about it?”

“Isn’t Master Lian in charge outside?” they countered. “Can’t he attend to such things?”

“Don’t tell me he’s in charge! He’s in a fix too. In the first place, the silver isn’t in his hands and he has to put in a request for every purchase. Re has no ready money.”

“Isn’t the sum the old lady left in his hands?”

“Go and ask the stewards presently they’ll tell you.”

“No wonder then!” they said. “We’ve heard the men outside com­plain, ‘A big do like this, yet there’s nothing in it for us except hard work!’ So how can you expect people to pull together?”

“Never mind that now but concentrate on the work in hand. Any more complaints from above and I shan’t let you off!”

“How dare anyone grumble, whatever you want done, madam? But it’s really hard for us to please everyone with each of the mistresses giving different orders.”

At a loss, Xifeng pleaded, “Good nannies, at least help me out tomor­

row! We’ll talk things over again after I’ve made the ladies’ maids see sense.

Then the serving-women left.

Xifeng, seethig with resentment, brooded with mounting anger till dawn, when she wanted to discipline the maids of the various apartments, yet feared that might offend Lady Xing; and she could not complain to Lady Wang, whom Lady Xing had turned against her. When the maids saw that Their Ladyships were not backing Xifeng up, they treated her with even less respect.

Pinger alone spoke up for her, explaining, “Of course Madam Lian wants to do things in style, but the master and Their Ladyships have forbidden any extravagance, which makes her unable to satisfy every­body.” By stressing this she calmed them down a little.

Now they had Buddhists chanting sutras and Taoists saying masses, with endless mourning, sacrifices and meals for guests; but they were so niggardly that no one would buckle to and the service was slipshod. Al­though titled ladies kept arriving, Xifeng had no time to attend to them, so busy was she supervising the servants. As soon as she summoned one, another slipped away. She would first fume at them then appeal to their better nature; and in this way she managed to send off batch after batch of guests after entertaining them all anyhow. Of course Yuanyang and the others thought it disgraceful, and even Xifeng herself was mortified.

Though Lady Xing was the elder daughter-in-law, she turned a blind eye to everything else, simply displaying her fiLial piety by an appearance of overwhelming grief. Lady Wang had to follow suit, and naturally so did the rest. Li Wan, the only one to appreciate Xifeng’s dilemma, dared not speak up for her.

She just sighed to herself, “As the saying goes, though the peony is lovely it needs the support of green leaves. With Their Lady ships letting her down, who else is going to help poor Xifeng? If Tanchun were here it wouldn’t be so bad. Now she has only a few of her own servants to make shift as best they can, and they keep complaining behind her back that they’re not making a cent or getting any credit! The master harps on filial piety but doesn’t know much about management. How can a big affair like this be properly conducted without a certain outlay? Poor Xifeng!

She’s been to such pains these few years to win a reputation, and now it looks as if she’s going to lose it over this funeral!”

She made time to summon her own maids and told them, ‘Don’t follow the example of those others and start plaguing Madam Lian too. You mustn’t think you can get by by wearing mourning and keeping watch by the coffin for a few days. If you see them unable to cope, you should lend a hand. This is the affair of us all: it’s everybody’s duty to help out.”

Some of the servants who had genuine respect for Li Wan agreed, “You’re quite right, madam, and we’d never dream of making trouble. But Sister Yuanyang and the others seem to hold Madam Lian to blame.”

“I’ve spoken to Yuanyang too,” replied Li Wan. “I’ve explained to her that it’s not that Madam Lian doesn’t take the old lady’s funeral seriously, but she doesn’t control the money, and how can the smartest daughter-in-law make gruel without rice? Now that Yuanyang under­stands she’s stopped blaming her. Still, it’s extraordinary the way Yuanyang has altered. When she was the old lady’s favourite, she didn’t try to take advantage of it; now that the old lady’s gone and she has no backing, she seems to have changed for the worse. I used to worry what would become of her. Luckily the Elder Master isn’t at home now, so she’s escaped his clutches. Otherwise, what could she have done?”

At this point Jia Lan came up and said, “Mother, it’s time to go to bed. So many visitors all day long must have tired you; do have a rest now. I haven’t touched my books these days, so I’m very glad that today grand­father told me to sleep at home I must review one or two books, so as not to have forgotten everything by the time the mourning is over.

‘~Good child!” said Li Wan. “Of course it’s good to study, but today you’d better rest. Wait till after the funeral.”

“If you’re going to sleep, mother, I’ll curl up in my quilt too and think over my lessons.”

The others all approved, “There’s a good boy! Such a little lad, yet When he’s a moment to spare he thinks of his books. How different from Master Bao who’s still so childish even after his marriage. How uneasy he looks these days kneeling by his father; and the moment the master leaves he rushes offto find Madam Bao and whisper some nonsense to

her. When she ignores him he looks for Miss Baoqin, who tries to steer clear of him too. Miss Xing hardly ever talks to him either. The only ones nice to him are his cousins Xiluan and Sijie, for ever calling him ‘cousin’ this and ‘cousin’ that. We don’t believe Master Bao thinks of anything except fooling about with young ladies. He hadn’t~lived up to the old lady’s expectations. She always doted on him, yet he can’t hold a candle to our Master Lan. You won’t have~to worry about his future, madam!”

“It’s too early to say,” replied Li Wan. “And who knows what will have become of our family by the time he grows up? But what’s your opinion of young Master Huan?”

“That one’s even worse!” they exclaimed. “He has eyes like a real monkey, darting shiftily this way and that. Though he’s supposed to wail by the coffin, when the ladies come he spends all his time peeping at them round the curtain before it.”

“Actually he’s no longer a child,” she said. “The other day I heard they were thinking of finding him a wife, but now that will have to wait. Still, our family’s too big for us to sort Out everyone’s problems, so let’s not gossip about them. And there’s something else I meant to ask. The funeral procession is to be the day after tomorrow. Are carriages ready for all the different households?”

“Madam Lian seems so distracted these days that we haven’t seen her issuing instructions. Yesterday we heard from the men outside that Master Lian told Master Qiang to see to this. As our family doesn’t have enough carriages or drivers, he says we’ll have to borrow some from relatives.”

“Can carriages be borrowed?” asked Li Wan with a smile.

“You must be joking, madam! Of course they can. But that day all our relatives will be using theirs, so borrowing may be hard and we’ll prob­ably have to hire some.”

“We shall have to hire some for the servants, but how can the ladies take hired mourning carriages?”

“The Elder Mistress has no carriage now. Neither have Madam You and Master Rong’s wife from the East Mansion,” they reminded her.

“What can they do but hire some?”

Li Wan sighed, “In the old days, when female relatives called on us in

hired carriages, we all thought it scandalous. Now it’s our turn. Tell your husbands tomorrow to get our carriages and horses ready as early as possible, to avoid ajam.”

The serving-women assented and withdrew.

Since Shi Xiangyun’s husband was ill, she had called only once after the old lady’s death; but she felt she must attend the funeral which she reckoned would be held in two days’ time. In any case, her husband’s illness had proved to be consumption, so that he was in no immediate danger. She therefore came over the day before the wake, when she recalled the old lady’s goodness to her, then thought of her own wretched fate. She had only just married a talented, handsome husband with a cheerful disposition, but then he had contracted this fatal illness which might any day carry him off. In distress she wept half the night, despite the attempts of Yuanyang and the others to console her.

Baoyu, seeing this, grieved for her too but was in no position to com­fort her. He noticed that in her white mourning, her face bare of rouge and powder, she looked even lovelier than before her marriage. He turned then to eye Baoqin and the other girls in white and found them all very charming. Baochai, who was in deep mourning, had an air of greater distinction than in the coloured clothes she normally wore.

Baoyu told himsell, “The men of old said that of all flowers the plum-blossom ranks first. That must be not only because it’s the first to bloom, but because its pure white and its fine fragrance are matchless. If only Cousin Lin were here now, dressed like this, how beautiful she would be!” At this thought, he felt a pang and could not hold back his tears; and as they were mourning the Lady Dowager he did not restrain himself but sobbed aloud.

The others were trying to make Xiangyun stop crying when Baoyu suddenly burst out sobbing too. They assumed that he was upset by the memory of the old lady’s kindness to him, little knowing that he and Xiangyun were weeping for different reasons. Their storm of grief brought te~5 to the eyes of all. It was Aunt Xue and Aunt Li who finally stopped them.

The next day, the day of the wake, was still more strenuous. Xifeng

felt too exhausted to bear up, yet she had no choice but to exert herself until she was hoarse from shouting. That morning she managed to cope. By the afternoon, however, more relatives and friends arrived, entailing even more work, and she could not see to everything at once. She was frantic when a young maid ran up to her.

“So here you are, madam!” she cried. “No wonder our Elder Mis­tress says, ‘There are too many visitors for me to look after, but Madam Lian has sneaked off to take it easy.’

At this, Xifeng thought she would burst with anger. She held back her rage, but tears welled up in her eyes, everything turned dark and she tasted something sweet. Then red blood spurted from her mouth, her l::nees buckled and she collapsed. Pinger ran to support her as she went on vomiting whole mouthfuls of blood. To know what became of her, read the following chapter.

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