A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 13

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A Dream of Red Mansions013

Chapter 13

Keqing Dies and a Captain of the Imperial

Guard Is Appointed

Xifeng Helps to Manage Affairs

in the Ning Mansion

Xifeng found life excessively dull after her husband’s departure with Daiyu for Yangzhou. She passed the evenings as best she could chatting with Pinger before retiring listlessly to bed.

One evening, tired of embroidering, she sat nursing her hand-stove by the lamp and told the maid to warm her embroidered quilt early, after which they both went to bed. When the third watch sounded they were still reckoning on their fingers the stage Jia Lian must have reached on his journey. Soon after that, Pinger fell fast asleep. And Xifeng’s eyelids were drooping drowsily when to her astonishment in came Keqing.

“How you love to sleep, aunt!” cried Keqing playfully. “I’m going home today, yet you won’t even see me one stage of the way. But we’ve always been so close, I couldn’t go without coming to say goodbye. Besides, there’s something I’d like done which it’s no use my entrusting to anyone else.”

“Just leave it to me,” replied Xifeng, rather puzzled.

“You’re such an exceptional woman, aunt, that even men in official belts and caps are no match for you. Is it possible you don’t know the saying that ‘the moon waxes only to wane, water brims only to overflow,’ and ‘the higher the climb the harder the fall’? Our house has prospered for nearly a hundred years. If one day it happens that at the height of good fortune the ‘tree falls and the monkeys scatter’ as the old saying has it, then what will become of our cultured old family?”

Quick to comprehend, Xifeng was awe-struck. “Your fears are well-­founded,” she said. “But how can we prevent such a calamity?”

“Now you’re being naive, aunt,” Keqing laughed caustically. “For­tune follows calamity as disgrace follows honour. This has been so from time immemorial. How can men prevent it? The only thing one can do is to make some provision for lean years in times of plenty. All’s well at present except for two things. Take care of them and the future will be secure.

Xifeng asked what she had in mind.

“Although seasonal sacrifices are offered at the ancestral tombs there’s no fixed source of income for this, and although we have a family school there’s no definite fund for it. Of course, while we’re still prosperous, we don’t lack the wherewithal for sacrifices, but where’s it to come from once we fall on hard times?

“I’d like to suggest that while we’re still rich and noble we should invest in some farms and estates near our ancestral tombs to provide for sacrifices. The family school should be moved to the same place.

“Let the whole family, old and young alike, draw up rules whereby each branch of the family will take it in turn to manage the land, income and sacrifices for a year. Taking turns will prevent disputes and malprac­tices like mortgages or sales.

“Then even if the family property were confiscated because of some crime, the estate for ancestral worship would be exempted and in those hard times the young people could go there to study and farm. They’d have something to fall back on, and there would be no break in the sacri­fices.

“It would be very short-sighted not to take thought for the future in the belief that our present good fortune will last for ever. Before long something marvelous is going to happen which will really ‘pour oil on the flames and add flowers to brocade.’ But it will simply be a flash in the pan, a brief moment of bliss. Whatever happens don’t forget the prov­erb, ‘Even the grandest feast must have an end.’ Take thought for the future before it is too late.”

“What marvelous thing is going to happen?” asked Xifeng.

“Heaven’s secrets mustn’t be divulged. But because of the love be­tween us let me give you some parting advice, and do remember it, aunt!” With that she declaimed:

“After the three months of the spring, all flowers will fade And each will have to find his own way out.”

Before Xifeng could ask more she was woken with a start by four blows on the chime-bar at the second gate. And a servant announced, “Madam Jia Rong of the East Mansion has passed away.”

Xifeng broke into a cold sweat. When she had recovered from her stupefaction, she dressed quickly and hurried over to Lady Wang.

By that time the whole household was lamenting, distressed by this shocking news. The old people recalled Keqing’s filial behaviour, the young people her affectionate ways and the children her kindness; while not one of the servants but wept for grief recollecting her compassion for the poor and humble and her loving goodness to old and young alike.

But let us return to Baoyu, who was so desolate after Daiyu’s depar­ture that he had given up playing with his companions and went disconso­late to bed each night. Roused from sleep by the announcement of Keqing’s death, he sprang suddenly from his bed. At once he felt a stab of pain in his heart, and with a cry spat out a mouthful of blood.

Xiren and his other maids rushed up to help him back to bed, asking anxiously what was the matter. Should they get the Lady Dowager to send for a doctor?

“There’s no need, it’s nothing,” he said. “A hot humour seized on my heart and stopped the normal flow of blood.” He got up again and demanded to be dressed so that he could go to his grandmother and then to the other mansion.

Anxious though Xiren was, she dared not stop him when he was in this mood.

The Lady Dowager however protested, “Just after a death their house is unclean. Besides, at night the wind is high. You may just as well go tomorrow.”

When Baoyu insisted, she ordered a carriage and plenty of attendants for him. They found the gates of the Ning Mansion wide open and brilliantly lit with lanterns on either side. There was an excited coming and going of people and the air was rent by the vociferous wailing from inside the house.

Alighting from his carriage Baoyu hurried to the room in which Keqing lay and having wept there went in to see Madam You, who happened to be laid up with another bout of dyspepsia. He then paid his respects to Jia Zhen.

By now Jia Dairu had arrived with Jia Daixiu, Jia Chi, Jia Xiao, Jia Dun, Jia She, Jia Zheng, Jia Cong, Jia Bin, Jia Heng, Jia Guang, Jia Chen, Jia Qiong, Jia Lin, Jia Qiang, Jia Chang, Jia Ling, Jia Yun, Jia Qin, Jia Zhen, Jia Ping, Jia Zao, Jia Heng, Jia Fen, Jia Fang, Jia Lan, Jia Jun and Jia Zhi.

Bathed in tears, Jia Zhen was telling Jia Dairu and the others, “Every­one in the family, old and young, distant kin or close friends, knows that my daughter-in-law was infinitely superior to my son. Now that she has gone, my branch of the family is fated to die out.” With that he broke down again.

The men present tried to console him: “Since she has departed this world it is useless to weep. The main thing now is to decide what must be done.”

“What must be done?” Jia Zhen clapped his hands. “I’m ready to dispose of all in my possession.”

He was interrupted by the arrival of Qin Ye, Qin Zhong and some relatives of Madam You as well as her younger sisters. Leaving Jia Qiong, Jia Cen, Jia Lin and Jia Qiang to keep the guests company, Jia Zhen sent to invite someone from the Department of Astrology to choose auspi­cious days.

It was decided that the body should remain in the house for seven times seven or forty-nine days, and mourning should start the third day after her death with the issue of obituary notices. During the forty-nine days a hundred and eight Buddhist monks were to perform the Litany of Great Compassion in the main hail to release the souls of those passed away before and after her and win remission for the sins of the de­ceased. At an altar erected in the Heavenly Fragrance Pavilion, ninety-nine Taoists of the Perfect Truth Sect should pray for forty-nine days for absolution. The coffin would then be taken to the Garden of Concen­trated Fragrance, where another fifty high bonzes and fifty high Taoists would sacrifice before it once every seventh day during the forty-nine days.

Jia Jing alone was untouched by the death of his eldest grandson’s wife. Expecting to attain immortality shortly himself, how could he go home to be soiled by mundane dust and squander all the merit he had acquired? So he left all the funeral arrangements to his son.

His father’s indifference gave Jia Zhen a free hand to indulge his extravagance. He decided that the cedar-boards he had seen would not do for the coffin and was searching for something better when Xue Pan called to offer condolences.

“In our timber-yard is some qiang wood from the Iron-Net Mountain across the sea,” said the young man. “A coffin made of this would last for ten thousand years. My father bought this timber for Prince Yi Zhong, but after his disgrace the prince didn’t take it. It’s still stored with us because no one has ventured to buy it. If you like, I’ll have it sent over.”

Overjoyed by this news, Jia Zhen had the timber fetched without de­lay. Everyone gathered round and exclaimed in wonder, for the planks for the sides and the base were eight inches thick with a grain like that of the areca palm and the perfume of sandalwood or musk. When tapped they gave off a clear ringing sound like metal or jade.

Jia Zhen, his face radiant, inquired the price.

“You couldn’t buy this for a thousand taels,” replied Xue Pan with a smile. “Don’t worry about the price. All you need pay for is having it made up.”

After copious thanks Jia Zhen lost no time in giving directions for the wood to be sawn and varnished.

Jia Zheng objected, “This seems too sumptuous for ordinary people. The best quality cedar-boards would be quite adequate.”

But Jia Zhen, who would gladly have died in Keqing’s place, would not listen to this suggestion.

Word was brought that after Keqing’s death one of her maids, Ruizhu, had dashed out her own brains against a pillar. The whole clan praised this act of rare loyalty and Jia Zhen ordered that she be buried with the rites befitting a grandchild, her coffin resting in the Pavilion of Attained Immortality in the Garden of Concentrated Fragrance.

Another maid, Baozhu, offered to act as Keqing’s god-daughter and take the chief mourner’s part, since her mistress had no child. This pleased Jia Zhen so much that he directed that henceforward Baozhu should be addressed as “miss”, as if she were a daughter of the house.

Then Baozhu mourned like an unmarried daughter, weeping by the coffin as if her heart would break, while all the clansmen and servants observed the etiquette traditionally prescribed for such occasions with unimpeachable propriety.

What distressed Jia Zhen now was the fact that his son was only a state scholar. This would not look well in the inscription on the funeral banner and it meant that the retinue would have to be small.

As luck would have it , however, on the fourth day of the first week of mourning servants with sacrificial offerings arrived from the eunuch Dai Quan, chamberlain of the Palace of Great Splendour, who followed in a great palanquin with an official umbrella and gonging and drumming to offer an oblation.

Jia Zhen ushered him eagerly in and offered him tea in the Bee-Teas­ing Pavilion. He already had a scheme in mind and soon found occasion to express his wish to purchase a rank for his son.

Dai Quan rejoined with a knowing smile, “To make the funeral more sumptuous, I presume?”

“Your assumption is correct, sir.”

“By a fortunate coincidence there happens to be a good post going. There are two vacancies in the corps of three hundred officers of the Imperial Guard. Yesterday the third brother of the Marquis of Xiangyang sent me 1,500 taels and asked me for one of them; and since we are old friends, as you know, for his grandfather’s sake I made no difficulties but agreed out of hand. Who would have expected that Fatty Feng, Mili­tary Governor of Yongxing, wants to buy the other appointment for his son; but I haven’t yet had time to give him an answer. If your boy wants it, make haste and write out a statement of his antecedents.”

Jia Zhen at once sent a servant to pass on these instructions to his secretaries. The man returned presently with a sheet of red paper. After glancing at it Jia Zhen handed it to Dai Quan, who read:

Jia Rong, twenty, State Scholar of Jiangning District, Jiangning Pre­fecture, Jiangnan.

Great-grandfather: Jia Daihua, commander-in-chief of the Metropoli­tan Garrison and a hereditary general of the first class with the appella­tion Spiritual Might.

Grandfather: Jia Jing, Metropolitan Scholar of the Yi Mao year.

Father: Jia Zhen, hereditary general of the third rank with the appella­tion Mighty Intrepidity.

Dai Quan ordered one of his attendants, “Take this to Old Zhao, chief of the Board of Revenue, with my compliments. Ask him to draw up a warrant for an officer of the fifth rank in the Imperial Guard and to fill out a commission according to these particulars. Tomorrow I will weigh out the silver and send it over.”

Dai Quan then took his leave. His host, who could not detain him, saw him out. Before the eunuch mounted his palanquin Jia Zhen asked:

“Shall I take the money to the Board or to you, sir?”

“Just weigh out 1,200 taels and send it to my house. If you go to the Board, they’ll fleece you.”

Jia Zhen thanked him warmly and promised, “When the mourning is over I shall bring my worthless son to kowtow his thanks.” And so they parted.

Then runners could be heard clearing the way for the wife of Shi Ding, Marquis of Zhongjing. Lady Wang, Lady Xing and Xifeng wel­comed her into the drawing-room. Then sacrificial gifts from the Mar­quises of Jinxiang and Chuanning as well as the Earl of Shoushan were displayed before the coffin. Presently these three nobles alighted from their palanquins and Jia Zhen ushered them into the main hall.

So relatives and friends past counting came and went. Indeed, for forty-nine days the street outside the Ning Mansion was a sea of mourn­ers in white interspersed by officials in their brilliant robes.

At his father’s order Jia Rong changed into court dress the next day to collect his commission, after which the funerary ware in front of the coffin as well as the insignia for the cortege were made to befit an offi­cial of the fifth rank. The obituary tablet and notice were inscribed: “Ob­sequies of Lady Qin, Spouse of the House of ha, Granted a Rank by Imperial Decree off the Celestial Court.”

The street gate in the Garden of Concentrated Fragrance was opened, and on platforms erected at both sides groups of blue-clad musicians played at appropriate times. The retinue stood in pairs in perfect symme­try, and two large vermilion boards set up outside the gate bore the bold gilt inscriptions “Imperial Guard and Defender of the Palace Roads in the Inner Court of the Forbidden City.”

Across the road, facing each other, towered two altars for Buddhist and Taoist priests. The announcement on them read:

“Obsequies of Lady Qin of the Jia Family, Consort of the Eldest Great-Grandson of the Hereditary Duke of Ningguo, Imperial Guard and De­fender of the Palace Roads in the Inner Court of the Forbidden City.

“In this land of peace and empire ruled according to the will of Heaven, in the centre of the four continents, we, Chief Buddhist Abbot Wan Xu, Controller of the School of the Void and Asceticism, and Chief Taoist Abbot Ye Sheng, Controller of the Primordial School of the Trinity, having reverently purified ourselves raise our eyes to Heaven and kowtow to Buddha. We humbly invoke all divinities to show their divine compassion and display their spiritual majesty afar in these forty-nine days of grand sacrifice, that the departed may be delivered from sins and absolved from retribution….” There was more in the same vein.

Now all that still troubled Jia Zhen was the fact that his wife was ill in bed again, unable to see to things. If any breach of etiquette occurred while so many nobles were calling, the family would be laughed at.

Baoyu noticed his preoccupation and asked: “Why do you look so anxious, cousin, now that everything’s settled so satisfactorily?” When told the reason he said cheerfully, “That’s no problem. I’ll recommend someone to take charge for you. Let her see to things this month and I guarantee that everything will go smoothly.”

“Who do you mean?”

Since there were many friends and relatives present, Baoyu drew closer and whispered into his ear.

“Excellent!” Jia Zhen sprang to his feet, overjoyed. “I must see to it at once.” Taking leave of the others he hurried off with Baoyu to the drawing-room.

As this was not one of the major days on which masses were said, only a few ladies who were close relatives had come. They were being entertained by Lady Xing, Lady Wang, Xifeng and other women of the household when Jia Zhen was announced. The ladies uttered cries of astonishment and hurriedly tried to slip into the inner room. Only Xifeng stood up composedly.

Jia Zhen was not in good health himself at this time and, being weighed down with grief, he limped in with a cane.

“You are not well,” said Lady Xing. “After all your recent exertions you ought to rest. What business brings you here?”

Still clutching his cane, Jia Zhen made an effort to kneel to greet and thank his kinswomen. Lady Xing urged Baoyu to restrain him and had a chair placed for him, but he would not take it.

Forcing a smile he announced, “Your nephew has come to ask a favour of his aunts and cousin.”

“What is it?” inquired Lady Xing.

“You know how it is, aunt. With my daughter-in-law gone and my wife ill in bed, everything is at sixes and sevens in the inner apartments. If my cousin Xifeng would condescend to take charge here for a month, that would set my mind at rest.”

“So that’s it.” Lady Xing smiled. “Xifeng is part of your Aunt Wang’s establishment, so you’ll have to ask her permission.”

“She’s young and inexperienced in these matters,” said Lady Wang. “If she handled things badly people would laugh. You’d better find some­one else.”

“I can guess your real objection, aunt,” he replied. “You’re afraid she’d find it too tiring. As for handling things badly, I know that wouldn’t be the case. And any little slip would be overlooked. Ever since she was a child at play Cousin Xifeng has known her own mind, and by managing the other house since her marriage she’s gained experience. I’ve been thinking this over for some days and there’s no one else so competent. If you won’t agree for my sake or my wife’s, aunt, do it for the one who’s dead.” His tears flowed again.

Lady Wang’s only concern had been lest Xifeng, having no experi­ence of funerals, might lay herself open to ridicule by managing badly. The earnestness of Jia Zhen’s request softened her heart and she eyed Xifeng thoughtfully.

Now Xifeng loved nothing better than displaying her administrative ability. Although she ran the household competently, as she had never been entrusted with grand affairs like weddings or funerals she was afraid others were not yet fully convinced of her efficiency and she was longing for a chance like this. Jia Zhen’s request delighted her. Seeing that his eagerness was overcoming Lady Wang’s initial reluctance, she said:

“Since my cousin is so earnest and pressing, won’t you give your consent, madam?”

“Are you sure you can cope?” whispered Lady Wang.

“I don’t see why not. Cousin Zhen has seen to all the important out­side arrangements, it’s just a question of keeping an eye on the domestic side. And in case of doubt, I can consult you.”

Since this was reasonable, Lady Wang made no further objection.

“I can’t see to everything,” Jia Zhen said to Xifeng. “I must beg you to help us, cousin. Let me express my gratitude now, and when everything’s over I shall come round to your side to thank you properly.”

He made a low bow and, before she could return it, produced the Ning Mansion tally from his sleeve and asked Baoyu to hand it to her.

“You will have a free hand, cousin,” he promised. “Just use this to requisition whatever, you want, there’s no need to consult me. I’ve only two requests to make. First, please don’t try to spare me expense, as I want everything done handsomely. And secondly, treat the servants here as you would your own, don’t be afraid they may resent it. Apart from these two provisos, nothing else worries me.”

Xifeng did not venture to take the tally but glanced at Lady Wang.

“Do as your cousin asks,” said Lady Wang. “But don’t take too much upon yourself. If there are any decisions to make, send to ask him and your sister-in-law what should be done.”

Baoyu had already taken the tally from Jia Then and forced it on Xifeng.

“Would you prefer to stay here or to come over every day?” Jia Zhen asked her. “Coming over every day might be rather tiring. Why not let me clear out an apartment for you to stay in. Wouldn’t that save you trouble?”

“There’s no need,” replied Xifeng gaily. “They can’t do without me over there. I’ll come every day.”

Jia Zhen did not insist but left them after a little further chat.

As soon as the visitors had gone Lady Wang asked Xifeng what she proposed to do now.

“Please don’t wait for me, madam. I must sort things out before I come home.”

So Lady Wang left first with Lady Xing, while Xifeng retired to a small three-roomed annex to reflect as follows:

“First, this household is such a mixed one that things may get lost. Secondly, unless duties are assigned the servants may shirk work. Thirdly, the heavy expenditure may lead to extravagance and faked receipts. Fourthly, if no distinction is made between large tasks and small ones, some will have a harder time than others. Fifthly, these servants are so out of hand that those with any pretensions may defy me, and those with none won’t do their best.”

These were indeed the’ five distinguishing features of the Ning Man­sion. To know how Xifeng coped, read the following chapter.

Truly:

Not one in ten thousand officials can rule the state,

Yet how splendidly a fair lady can run a household.

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