A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 113

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Chapter 113

Repenting Her Sins Xifeng Seeks Help

from a Village Woman

Relinquishing Her Resentment ZUuan Is

Touched by Her Besotted Master

Concubine Zhao, throwing a fit in the temple, babbled even more wildly once the main party had left, to the consternation of the few who re­mained there. When two serving-women tried to lift her up she insisted on kneeling, raving and weeping by turns. Then, grovelling, she begged for mercy.

“You’re beating me to death, Master Red Beard!” she cried. “I shall never dare do such a thing again!”

Presently, wringing her hands, she shrieked with pain, her eyes nearly starting from her head, blood trickling from her mouth, her hair dishev­elled. The attendants were afraid to go near her.

By nightfall her voice was so hoarse that she sounded like a ghost wailing. The women, not daring to stay with her, called in a few bold men to keep her company. Sometimes she fainted away then after a while came round, keeping up a commotion all night. The next day she was speechless but with her face contorted kept tearing her clothes and bar­ing her breasts, as if someone were stripping her. Though unable to utter a sound, the poor creature’s agony was painful to witness.

At this critical juncture a doctor arrived. He dared not go near her to feel her pulse but warned them to prepare for the funeral.

As he rose to leave, the steward who had brought him pleaded, “Please examine her pulse, sir, so that I can report it to our master.”

When the doctor complied the pulse had already stopped beating. Jia Huan hearing this burst out howling, and the others turned all their atten­tion to him, ignoring Concubine Zhao as she lay there dead. Only kindly Concubine Zhou thought to herself, “So this is the end of a concubine! Though she at least had a son. Heaven knows what it will be like when I die!” This reflection pained her.

The steward hurried back to inform Jia Zheng, who sent people to attend to Concubine Zhao’s funeral and keep Huan company there for three days before bringing him back. After the steward’s return the news spread like wildfire that Concubine Zhao had been tortured to death by the King of Hell because she had plotted murder.

Some predicted, “Madam Lian must be done for too, if Concubine Zhao said it was she who denounced her.”

This talk reached Pinger’s ears, increasing her worry, for she saw that Xifeng’s illness really looked fatal. And Jia Lian had recently lost his affection for her busy as he was, he might at least have shown some concern for her health. Pinger tried to comfort her mistress; but Their Ladyships, though they had been back several days now, merely sent servants to ask after her instead of coming themselves, adding to Xifeng’s wretchedness. And ha Lian, when he came home, never had a kind word for her.

By now Xifeng’s sole wish was to die and be done with it, and in this state of mind she was assailed by spectres – she saw Second Sister You walking over from the back of the room towards her kang.

“How long it’s been since last I saw you, Sister!” said Second Sister You. “I missed you badly but was unable to see you. Now that you’ve worn yourself out by all your scheming, my chance has come at last. Our husband’s too foolish to feel obliged to you and blames you instead for stinginess and for ruining his career, so that now he can’t hold up his head. This is so unfair that my heart bleeds for you!”

In a daze Xifeng replied, “And I’m sorry now that I was so narrow-minded. Yet instead of bearing a grudge you come to see me!”

Pinger beside her heard this and asked, “What’s that you’re saying, madam?”

Then Xifeng woke up and remembered that Second Sister You was dead and must have come to demand her life. She felt afraid but, not liking to disclose this, forced herself to say, “My mind was wandering. I must have been talking in my sleep. Massage my back for me.”

As Pinger was doing this a young maid came in to announce the ar-rival of Granny Liu, whom a serving-woman had brought to pay her re-

spects.

Pinger immediately left the kang asking, “Where is she?”

“She won’t presume to come in unless madam sends for her.”

Pinger nodded. Thinking Xifeng too ill to receive visitors she said, “Madam is resting. Tell her to wait outside. Did you ask her business?”

‘~The others did,” answered the maid. “She’s not here for anything special. She says she only heard the other day about the old lady’s death, or she’d have come earlier.”

Xifeng overhearing them called, “Pinger, come here! Since she’s kind enough to call we mustn’t cold-shoulder her. Go and ask Granny Liu in. I want to chat with her.”

While Pinger went off on this errand Xifeng was about to close her eyes when she saw a man and a woman approaching as if they meant to get on to her kang. At once she called out to Pinger, “Where has this man burst in from?”

She called twice, and Fenger and Hongyu came running in.

“Do you want something, madam?” they inquired.

Opening her eyes she saw no strangers there and realized what had happened, though unwilling to admit it.

She asked Fenger, “Where is Pinger?”

“Didn’t you tell her to go and fetch Granny Liu, madam?”

Xifeng forced herself to keep calm and said nothing as Pinger and Granny Liu came in with a little girl.

“Where is Madam Lian?” asked the old woman. And when Pinger led her to the kang she announced, “I’ve come to pay my respects, madam.”

Xifeng opened her eyes and felt a pang of distress. “How are you, granny?” she responded. “Why haven’t you been to see us for so long? How big your grand~daughter’s grown!”

Granny Liu was grieved to see how wasted Xifeng had become, and how unclear in her mind. “Madam!” she exclaimed. “It’s only a few months since last I saw you, and now you look so ill! It was very bad of me not to call earlier to pay my respects.”

She told Qinger to curtsey, but she simply giggled. Xifeng took a fancy to the little girl and handed her over to the charge of Hongyu.

“We villagers don’t fall ill,” said Granny Liu. “When we feel poorly we just pray and make pledges to the gods – we never take medicine. I daresay, madam, this illness of yours was brought on by evil spirits.”

At this tactless remark Pinger nudged her secretly. Granny Liu took the hint and said no more; however, this coineLded with Xifeng’s own view.

~Granny,” she said with an effort. “You’re old and experienced. What you said is quite true. Did you hear of the death of Concubine Zhao whom you met here?”

‘Amida Buddha!” exclaimed Granny Liu in surprise. “She was in good health – what did she die of? I remember she had a young son. What will happen to him?”

“He’ll be all right,” said Pinger. “The master and mistress will take care of him.”

‘Well, miss, you never know. However bad your child may be, he’s your own flesh and blood; it’s different if he’s a stepson!”

This touched Xifeng on the raw and set her sobbing. They all tried to comfort her. Qiaojie came to the kang when she heard her mother weep­ing and took her hand, shedding tears too.

‘~Have you greeted granny?” sobbed Xifeng.

“Not yet,” said the child.

“She’s the one who gave you your name, so she’s your godmother in a way. You should pay your respects to her.”

Qiaojie went over to do this but the old woman hastily stopped her.

“Amida Buddha!” she cried. “You mustn’t do that to the likes of me! I haven’t been here for over a year, Miss Qiaojie. Do you still remember me?”

“Of course I do. When I saw you that year in the Garden I was still small. The year before that when you came, I asked you for some green crickets but you didn’t bring me any. You must have forgotten.”

“Ah, miss, I’m in my dotage. If it’s green crickets you want, our village is swarming with them, but you never go there. If you did, you could easily get a whole cartful.”

Xifeng suggested, “Well, take her back with you.”

Granny Liu chuckled, “A delicate young lady dressed in silks and

brought up on the fat of the land, how could I amuse her in our place? And what could I give her to eat? Do you want to ruin me?” Laughing at the idea she went on, “I know what: I can arrange a match for her. Though we live in the country, we have big money-bags there too who own thousands of acres of land and hundreds of cattle, not to mention pots of silver. They just don’t have gold and jade knick-knacks like yours. Of course, madam, you look down on such families. But to us farming folk they seem to be living in heaven!”

‘Go and fix a match then,” said Xifeng. “I’ll agree to it.”

‘You must be joking! Why, a lady like you would most likely turn down even big official families; how could you agree to marry her to country folk? Even if you did, the mistresses wouldn’t agree.”

Qiaojie, not liking this talk, went off to chat with Qinger. Finding each other’s company congenial, they soon became good friends.

Fearful that Granny Lin might tire Xifeng out with her loquacity, Pinger tugged at her sleeve and said, “You mentioned Her Ladyship whom you haven’t seen yet. I’ll go and find someone to take you there, to make your trip here more worthwhile.”

As the old woman rose to leave. Xifeng asked, “What’s the hurry? Sit down. Let me ask you: how are you making out these days?”

Her heart brimming over with gratitude Granny Liu answered, “If not for you, madam… “She pointed at her granddaughter then went on, “Her dad and mum would have starved. Now, though life on a farm is hard, we’ve bought quite a few mu of land and sunk a well. We grow vegetables and fruit too, and make enough from them to feed ourselves. The last couple of years, besides, you’ve given us clothes and material from time to time so that in our village we count as quite well-off. Amida Buddha! The other day when her dad came to town and heard that your family here had been raided, I nearly died of fright! Luckily others told me it wasn’t this house, and that set my mind at rest. We learned later that the master had been promoted, and I was so pleased I wanted to come to offer congratulations, but what with all the field work I couldn’t get away.

“Then yesterday we heard that the old lady had passed away. I was getting in beans when they brought me word, and it shocked me too much

to go on. I broke down there in the field and cried my heart out! I told my son-in-law, ‘I shall have to leave you to your own devices. Whether it’s true or not, I must go to town to have a look.’ My daughter and son-in-law aren’t lacking in gratitude either. They both cried over the news, and this morning before dawn they sped me on my way. I didn’t know any­one in town to ask, so came straight to your back gate and saw that even the door gods were pasted over. That gave me another fright! When I came in and looked for Zhou Rui’s wife she was nowhere to be found, and a little girl told me she’d been driven out for doing something wrong. I had to wait around till I met someone who knew me before I could get in. I’d no idea that you were so ill too, madam.” By now she was shed­ding tears.

Pinger, concerned for her mistress, pulled Granny Liu to her feet be­fore she could finish.

“After talking so long you must be parched,” she said. “Let’s go and have some tea.” She took her to the maids’ quarters leaving Qinger with Qiaojie.

“I don’t need any tea,” Granny Lin assured her. “But please, miss, get someone to take me to pay my respects to Her Ladyship and to weep at the old lady’s shrine.”

“There’s no hurry,” Pinger replied. “You can’t leave town today anyway. Just now I was afraid you might say something tactless and set our mistress weeping again: that’s why I hustled you out. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Amida Buddha! I know how thoughtful you are, miss. But what’s to be done about madam’s illness?”

“Does it look serious to you?”

“Maybe it’s wrong to say so, but it does.”

Just then they heard Xifeng calling, yet when Pinger went to her bed-

· side she remained silent. As Pinger was questioning Fenger, Jia Lian came in. After a cursory glance at the kang he entered the inner room without a word and plumped himself down, glowering. Qiutong alone went in to serve him tea and wait on him, but the others could not hear what they were saying. Then Jia Lian called for Pinger.

“Isn’t your mistress taking medicine?” he asked.

“What if she isn’t?”

“How should I know?” he retorted. “Bring me the key of the chest.”

As he was in a temper she did not venture to question him but went out and whispered something to Xifeng. When the latter said nothing, Pinger brought in a casket and put it before Jia Lian, then turned to go.

“What the devil’s your hurry?” he demanded. “Who’s going to give me the key?”

Suppressing her annoyance she took it out of the casket and opened the chest. “What do you want taken out?” she asked.

‘~What is there?”

‘Say plainly what you want,” she sobbed angrily. “Then we can die content!”

“What is there to say? You were the ones who brought all the trouble on us. Now we’re four or five thousand taels short for the old lady’s funeral, and the master told me to raise some money from the title-deeds of the family land but what is there left? Do you want us to default? I should never have taken on this job! All I can do is sell the things the old lady left me. Are you against that?”

Pinger was sulkily turning out the chest when Hongyn darted in.

“Quick, sister!” she cried. “Madam’s in a bad way!”

Ignoring Jia Lian, Pinger burned out to discover Xifeng clawing the air with both hands. Restraining her, she wept and cried for help. Jia Lian coming out to have a look stamped his foot.

“Now this!” he groaned with tears. “I’m finished!”

Just then Fenger announced, “They’re asking for you outside, sir.” And Jia Lian had to leave.

Xifeng was now so delirious that her maids set up a great wailing which drew Qiaojie to the room. Granny Liu also hastened to the kang, to invoke Buddha and mutter incantations till Xifeng grew slightly calmer. Then Lady Wang arrived, alerted by one of the maids, and was relieved

· to find Xifeng quieter. Greeting Granny Liu, she asked when she had come; but after paying her respects the old woman could talk of nothing except Xifeng’s illness.

Then Caiyun came in to report, “The master wants you, madam.” So after giving Pinger a few instructions Lady Wang went away.

Xifeng had come to her senses now. At the sight of Granny Liu, whose prayers she had faith in, she sent her maids away and asked the old woman to sit beside her. Told of her qualms and the ghosts she had seen, Granny Liu assured her that the Buddhist deities in her village temple could work miracles.

‘Please offer prayers for me!” begged Xifeng. “If you need money for a sacrifice, I have some.” She slipped off a golden bracelet and held it out to her.

‘There’s no call for this, madam. When we villagers recover after making pledges, we just spend a few hundred coppers. What need is there for all this? I shall pray for you and make some pledge, and once you’re better you can spend as much as you like.”

Aware that she was in earnest, Xifeng could not insist. “Granny, my life is in your hands!” she said. “And my little Qiaojie is always ailing too; I entrust her to you as well.”

Granny Liu assented readily and proposed, “In this case, as it’s still early, I’ll go back now. When you recover, madam, you can go to thank the gods.”

Haunted by the ghosts of those she had wronged, Xifeng in her terror was eager for her to set off. “If you’ll do this for me so that I can have a good night’s sleep, I’ll be very grateful,” she said. “You can leave your grand-daughter here.”

“She’s a country girl with no manners, and may make trouble. I’d better take her back with me.”

“Don’t worry about that. We’re all one family, so what does it mat­ter? Though we’re poor now, one extra mouth to feed is nothing.”

Seeing that Xifeng meant this, Granny Liu wanted to leave Qinger for a few days to save them food at home; but she did not know whether the child would be willing. She decided to sound her out and questioned her. Qinger was now on such good terms with Qiaojie that they were reluc-tan? to part; so Granny Liu, having given her some instructions, said goodbye to Pinger and went with all speed out of town. Enough of this.

Now Green Lattice Nunnery belonged to the Jia family but had been inco~orated into the Garden built for the Imperial Consort’s visit home.

Ilowever, it had its own income and needed no allowance from the Jia Mansion. After the nuns had notified the police of Miaoyu’s abduction, they did not like to leave until the thieves were arrested and they knew what had happened to their mistress. They simply reported the business to the Jia Mansion.

But though the Jia family stewards all knew of the kidnapping, they thought it too trifling a matter with which to trouble Jia Zheng now that he was in mourning and disturbed in his mind. Xichun was the only one who fretted day and night because of this. Before long, however, the news reached Baoyu’s ears and it was insinuated that, tempted by desire, Miaoyu had run off with some man. “She must have been kidnapped,” he told himself. “As it wasn’t in her nature to submit, she must have died resisting.” In the absence of news of Miaoyu he kept brooding.

“She used to call herself the ‘one outside the threshold.’ How could a chaste girl like that come to such an end?” he wondered. “How lively we were in the old days in the Garden! After my second sister’s mar­riage, though, all the girls died or were married off. I thought she at least, unsullied by dust, would stay here; yet this sudden storm carried her off even more unexpectedly than Cousin Lin.” His thoughts wandering, he recalled Zhuang Zi’s saying about the illusory nature of life and felt that men were born to drift with the wind and scatter like clouds. He burst out weeping. Xiren and the rest thought he was deranged again and tried in every way to comfort him.

At first Baochai reasoned with him too, not understanding his distress. But Baoyu went on moping, his mind wandering. In her perplexity she made inquiries, and when she heard that Miaoyu had been kidnapped and vanished without a trace that upset her too. Still, to counteract Baoyu’s depression she lectured him, “Though Lan hasn’t gone back to school I hear he’s studying hard day and night. He’s the old lady’s greatgrandson. The old lady always hoped that you, her grandson, would do well; and the master worries about you all the time. If because of some whimsy you ruin your health, what’s to become of us all?”

Baoyu did not know how to answer. After a while he said, “Why should I worry about other people? What upsets me is the decline in our family fortune.”

“There you are!” she cried. “Your parents want you to do well so as to carry on the family line. If you stick to your silly ways what good will come of it?”

Put out by this, Baoyu laid his head on his desk as if to sleep. Ignoring his sulkiness, Baochai told Sheyue and the other maids to keep an eye on him while she went to bed.

When he was alone in the room it occurred to Baoyu, “I’ve never had a heart-to-heart talk with Zijuan since she came here and feel bad the way I’ve cold-shouldered her, especially as she’s not like Sheyue and Qiuwen whom I can keep in their place. I remember how she kept me company all that time while I was ill, and I still have that little mirror of hers she was really good to me then. But now for some reason or other she’s treating me coldly. It can hardly be because of Baochai, who was good friends with Cousin Lin and who isn’t bad to Zijuan either. When I’m out, Zijuan chats quite happily with her; but as soon as I come in she goes away. I suppose it must be because after Cousin Lin died I got married. Ah, Zijuan, Zijuan! Can’t an intelligent girl like you under­stand how wretched I am?”It struck him then, “They’re sleeping or doing needlework this evening: here’s my chance to go and find her. I’ll sound her out. If I’ve offended her I’ll beg her pardon.” His mind made up, he slipped out to look for Zijuan.

Zij nan’s room was on the west side of the courtyard. Tiptoeing up to her window, Baoyu saw that there was still a light inside. He licked the window~paper and, peeping through the hole made in this way, saw Zijuan sitting all alone in the lamplight. She was doing nothing, lost in thought.

“Sister Zijuan,” he called softly. “Aren’t you asleep yet?”

Zijuan gave a start then sat as if stunned. ‘Who is it?” she finally asked.

“It’s me.”

“Is it Master Bao?” she asked, recognizing his voice.

“Yes,” he answered softly.

“What do you want?”

“I’ve something to tell you in private. Please let me in.”

After a pause she replied, “If you’ve something to tell me, young master, please wait until tomorrow. It’s late now; you’d better go back.”

This sent a chill down Baoyu’s spine. He knew Zijuan was unlikely to let him in, yet if he were to go back now he would feel even worse after her rebuff.

“I haven’t much to say,” he faltered. “I just want to ask you one question.”

“Well then, out with it.”

But for a long time he said nothing.

When he remained silent, Zijuan inside was afraid that by snubbing him she had unhinged him again. She stood up and listened carefully, then asked, “Have you gone or are you standing stupidly there? If you’ve something to say, fire away. You’ve already goaded one to death; is it my turn now? Isn’t this futile?”

She peeped through the hole he had made in the window-paper and saw Baoyu standing there woodenly listening. In silence then she turned to trim the lamp.

Baoyu sighed, “Sister Zijuan! You used not to be so hard-hearted. How is it that nowadays you won’t even say a single kind word to me? Of course I’m a lout, beneath your notice; but I do wish you’d tell me what I’ve done wrong so that even if you ignore me from now on I shall at least die knowing why.”

“Is that all, young master?” she asked sarcastically. “Have you noth­ing else to say? If this is all, I tired of hearing it when my young lady was alive. If we do anything wrong, I was sent here by Her Ladyship and you can report me to her. What are we bondmaids anyway but slaves?” She broke off, choking, here and blew her nose.

Baoyu outside realized that she was weeping and stamped in des­peration. “How can you say such things!” he cried. “After all these months here, surely you understand me? If no one else will tell you how I feel, won’t you let me explain? Do you want me to die of frustration?” He started sobbing too.

As Baoyu was blubbering, someone behind him remarked, “Who do you want to tell her for you? Whose slaves are we anyway? If you’ve offended her, it’s up to you to apologize. Whether she’ll accept your apologies or not is up to her. Why shift the blame to people like us who aren’t involved?”

The two of them, one inside one outside, started. It was Sheyue. Her intervention embarrassed Baoyu.

~Well, what’s going on?” Sheyue continued. “Here’s one making apologies and one ignoring him. Hurry up and plead with her! Ai! Our sister Zijuan is too cruel. It’s freezing outside, and he’s begged you so long, yet you show no sign of relenting.” Then she told Baoyu, ‘Just now our mistress remarked that it’s rather late and she wondered where you were. Why are you standing here all alone under the eaves?”

“Yes, what’s the idea?” called Zijuan from her room. “I asked the young master to go back. If he has something to say it can wait till tomor­row. This is so pointless!”

Baoyu still wanted to speak, but not in front of Sheyue. So he had to go back with her, telling himsel{ “Confound it! I shall never as long as I live be able to bare my heart. Only Old Man Heaven understands me!” His tears fell like rain.

“Take my advice, young master, and give up,” Sheyue said. “You’re crying for nothing.”

Baoyu did not answer but went into his room where he saw that Baochai was pretending to be asleep.

Xiren however scolded, “If you have something to say, can’t you wait till tomorrow? Why rush there to make such a scene? What if…

She left this sentence unfinished. Presently she asked, “Are you feeling all right?”

When Baoyu said nothing and simply shook his head, she helped him to bed. But naturally he passed a sleepless night.

After being provoked and further upset by Baoyu, Zijuan wept the whole night long. She thought, “It’s common knowledge that Baoyu got married when he was out of his mind, and they tricked him into it. Later he came to his senses but then fell ill again and often wept with long­ing it’s not as if he were heartless. The feeling he showed today was really touching. What a pity our Miss Lin didn’t have the good fortune to marry him! This shows that everybody’s fate is predestined. Right up to the end they cherish foolish fancies; then when the blow strikes and there’s no help for it, blockheads let it go at that while sensitive souls can only shed tears and lament to the breeze or moon. The dead may have no

consciousness but, alas, there is truly no end to the anguish of the living. So it seems we are worse off than rocks or plants which can rest at peace, having no knowledge or feeling.”

This reflection eased her, chilling her fevered passions, and she was getting ready to sleep when a clamour broke out in the eastern courtyard. To know its cause, read the next chapter.

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