A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 14

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A Dream of Red Mansions014

Chapter 14

Lin Ruhai Dies in Yangzhou

Baoyu Meets the Prince of Beijing
on the Road

When the news that Xifeng was to take charge reached Lai Sheng, chief steward of the Ning Mansion, he summoned all his colleagues.

“Madam Jia Lian of the West Mansion is coming to supervise our household,” he told them. “When she asks for things or gives orders, we must be extra careful. Better turn up earlier and leave later everyday, working hard this month and resting afterwards, in order not to lose face. You know what a tenor she is, sour-faced, hard-hearted and no respecter of persons once she’s angry.~~

They agreed and one remarked with a laugh, “Actually we need her to get this place into shape. Things are too out of hand.”

Along came Lai Wang’s wife just then with a tally and a receipt for the amount required, to fetch sacrificial paper and paper for supplications and prayers. They made her take a seat and have some tea while some­one went for the amount required and carried it for her to the inner gate, where he handed it over to her to take inside.

Then Xifeng ordered Caiming to prepare a register and sent for Lai Sheng’s wife to bring her a list of the staff. She announced that all the men-servants’ wives were to come to her early the next morning for instructions. After checking quickly through the list and asking Lai Sheng ‘5 wife a couple of questions, she went home in her carriage.

She was back at half past six the next morning to find all the old serving­women and stewards’ wives assembled. They did not venture into the ante­chamber when they saw that she and Lai Sheng’s wife were busy assigning tasks, but from outside the window they heard her tell the latter:

“Since I’ve been put in charge here I daresay I shall make myself unpopular. I’m not as easy-going as your own mistress who lets you do as you please; so don’t tell me how things used to be managed here, but just do as I say. The least disobedience will be dealt with publicly, no matter how much face the offender may have.”

She made Caiming call the roll and the servants entered one by one for inspection. After this she ordered:

“These twenty, divided into two shifts often, will be solely responsible for serving tea to the guests on their arrival and before their departure. They will have no other duties. These twenty, also in two shifts of ten, will see to the family’s meals and tea every day. They will have no other duties either. These forty, divided into two shifts, will have the job of burning incense, keeping the lamps filled with oil, hanging up curtains, watching by the coffin, offering sacrificial rice and tea, and mourning with the mourners. Nothing else.

‘These four will be responsible for the cups, plates and tea things in the pantry, and will have to replace anything that is missing. These four will take charge of the dinner-sets and wine vessels, and likewise make good any loss. These eight will receive the presents of sacrificial offerings.

“These eight will look after the distribution of lamps, oil, candles and sacrificial paper to various places according to a list which I shall issue. These thirty will take night duty in turns, seeing that the gates are locked and keeping a look-out for fires, as well as sweeping the grounds.

“The rest of you will be assigned to different apartments and must stick to your posts. You will be responsible for everything there, from furniture and antiques to spittoons and dusters and each blade of grass —and will have to make good any loss or damage.

“Lai Sheng’s wife will make a general inspection every day and re­port to me instantly any slackness, gambling, drinking, fighting or quarrel­ling. If I find you being too soft, I shall make no allowances for you, even though your family has been in service here for three or four generations.

“Now you all have your duties, and if anything goes wrong I shall deal with the group concerned. My own servants have clocks and watches, because everything large or small must be done on time. Well, at least you have clocks here in your master’s rooms. I shall call the roll at half past six, you will have your meal at ten, and applications for stores or reports should be handed in punctually before half past eleven. At seven in the evening, after the burning of sacrificial paper, I shall make a tour of inspection, then issue those on night duty with their keys. I shall be back again at half past six the next morning. I needn’t remind you that we must all do our best during this period. When it’s over, no doubt your master will reward you.”

She then ordered the distribution of supplies of tea, oil, candles, feather whisks, brooms and so forth, and had tablecloths, antimacassars, cush­ions, rugs, spittoons, stools and other furnishings issued. While this was being done, the servants in charge of each place and the articles taken by each were carefully recorded.

Now that all the servants had their respective duties, they were no longer able to pick the easy jobs and leave the hard ones undone. Nor were things mislaid any more on account of confusion. However many guests came and went, everything ran smoothly, unlike the previous dis­order when a maid serving tea had to fetch in rice as well, or one accom­panying the mourners was sent to welcome new arrivals. That day saw the end, too, of disorder, negligence and pilfering. And Xifeng was thor­oughly gratified by the authority she now wielded.

As Madam You was ill and grief had made Jia Zhen lose his appetite, Xifeng every day sent over from the other mansion some fine congee and delicacies she had prepared especially for them. And Jia Zhen also ordered the best food to be served for her alone in her annex every day.

Xifeng was not afraid of hard work. She came over punctually every morning at half past six to call the roll and see to any business, sitting alone in her annex and not even joining the other young wives to greet lady guests.

On the thirty-third day Buddhist monks performed the rites to cleave the earth asunder, break open Hell and light the dead down with lanterns to pay homage to the King of Hell; to arrest evil demons; to invoke Prince Ksitigarbha under the ground to raise up the Golden Bridge and lead the way with streamers. Taoists offered prayers and invocations, worship­ping the Three Pure Ones and the Jade Emperor. Bonzes chanting sutras burned incense, sacrificed to the hungry ghosts and intoned the Water Penitential while thirteen young nuns in red slippers and embroidered robes recited incantations before the coffin to lead the soul on its way. All was bustle and noise.

Knowing that many guests could be expected, Xifeng told Pinger to wake her up at four that day. By the time she had finished her toilet, sipped some milk and sweetened rice congee and rinsed her mouth, it was half past six and Lai Wang’s wife was already waiting with the other servants. Xifeng left the hail and mounted her carriage, in front of which were two brilliant horn lanterns inscribed with the large charac­ters: “The Rong Mansion.”

As she slowly approached the Ning Mansion the lanterns above its main gate and the lamps on both sides shed a light bright as day on the two rows of attendants there in white mourning. At the main entrance her pages withdrew and maid-servants raised the curtain of the carriage. Xifeng was helped out by Fenger and escorted in by two serving-women with hand-lanterns. All the stewards’ wives of the Ning Mansion ad­vanced to greet her.

Xifeng walked slowly through the Garden of Concentrated Fragrance to the Pavilion of Attained Immortality, where at the sight of the coffin her tears fell like pearls from a broken string. Pages were waiting re­spectfully in the court for the burning of the sacrificial paper and now she ordered this to be done and an offering of tea presented. After one beat on the gong the music started. A large arm-chair had been set in front of the shrine and seating herself she gave way to loud lamentations. At once all the others, both men and women, high and low, joined in, until Jia Zhen and Madam You sent to persuade her to restrain her grief.

Then Lai Wang’s wife brought her tea to rinse her mouth, and Xifeng rose to take her leave of her kinsmen and proceed to the annex.

All the women-servants were present at the roll-call except for one usher. She came when summoned in great fear and trembling.

“So you’re the one.” Xifeng smiled scornfully. “You must consider yourself above the rest to disobey me like this.”

“I’ve been on time every day before,” said the woman. “But when I woke today it was still early, so I went back to sleep. That’s why I was a few minutes late. Please overlook it, madam, this once!”

Just then Wang Xing’s wife from the other mansion peeped in. With­out dismissing the usher, Xifeng asked her what she wanted.

Eager to have her business attended to first, Wang Xing’s wife came forward and presented a request for silk thread to make tassels for the carriages and sedan-chairs. On Xifeng’s instructions Caiming read out the number of strings of beads and tassels needed for two palanquins and four sedan-chairs as well as four carriages. Finding the figures correct, Xifeng told Caiming to register them and gave a Rong Mansion tally to Wang Xing’s wife, who left.

Before Xifeng could deal with the offender in came four stewards from the Rong Mansion with indents for stores. Xifeng had their orders read out and pointed at two of the four items.

“These figures are wrong. Come back when you’ve worked them out correctly.”

The two stewards whose indents she tossed back withdrew very sheepishly.

Then she noticed Zhang Cai’s wife and asked her business. The woman handed her an order form, saying, “The covers for the carriages and sedan-chairs are finished, and I’ve come for the money for the tai­lor.”

Xifeng told Caiming to enter this, and when Wang Xing’s wife had returned the tally and fetched the accountant’s receipt for the right sum Zhang Cai’s wife was sent to get the money. Another order for wall­paper to paper Baoyu’s outer study was read out and registered. After Zhang Cai’s wife had finished her business and returned the tally, the other was sent with it to get wall-paper.

Then at last Xifeng turned to deal with the usher.

“If you’re late today and I’m late tomorrow, there will soon be no­body here,” she said. “I should have liked to let you off, but if I overlook the first offence the others will get out of hand. I shall be obliged to make an example of you.”

With a stern look she ordered the woman to be taken out and given twenty strokes with the bamboo. She then threw down the Ning Mansion tally and gave orders that Lai Sheng should dock this usher of a month’s wages.

When the others heard this and saw Xifeng’s angry frown, they dared not show slackness in carrying out her orders. Some hastily dragged out the woman; others passed on the order to Lai Sheng. After the usher had been given twenty strokes she had to return to kowtow to Xifeng.

Xifeng warned the servants, “Anyone late again tomorrow will get forty strokes, and sixty the day after that. So those who want a beating, just come late.” With that she dismissed them.

The people outside the window, hearing this, went off to attend to their tasks. Then a steady stream of domestics from both mansions kept coming to hand in or apply for indents, while the woman who had been beaten also left shamefacedly. After this demonstration of Xifeng’s se­verity, the servants of the Ning Mansion worked hard and, to be on the safe side, dared not neglect their duties. But no more of this.

Let us return to Baoyu. There were so many visitors about that day that, fearing Qin Zhong might be slighted, he urged him to go with him to see Xifeng.

Qin Zhong objected that she would be too busy to welcome visitors and might think them a nuisance.

“Us, a nuisance?” retorted Baoyu. “Not a bit of it. Come on.”

He took Qin Zhong to the annex where Xifeng was having a meal. At sight of them she smiled. “You do have long legs, don’t you? Come and join me.”

“We’ve eaten already,” Baoyu told her.

“Here? Or over in the other house?”

“Why should we eat here with these dolts? We had a meal over there with the old lady.” He and Qin Zhong sat down.

As soon as the meal was finished, a woman from the Ning Mansion arrived with an indent for incense and lamps.

“I knew it was time for you to come today but thought you’d forgot­ten,” observed Xifeng, smiling. “If you had, you’d have had to pay for them yourself. And so much the better for me.

“It quite slipped my mind,” replied the maid cheerfully. “I only re­membered a moment ago and hurried here just in time.”

She took the tally and went off. Soon the tally was returned and the amount entered.

“You use the same tallies in both your mansions,” remarked Qin Zhong with a smile. “What if someone faked one and ran off with your money?”

“Do you think us such a lawless lot?” Xifeng asked, laughing.

“How is it that no one has come from our house to ask for things?” put in Baoyu.

“When they came you were still fast asleep. But tell me, when are you two going to start your evening lessons?”

“We’d like to start right away. Only we can’t because they’re so slow getting the study ready.”

“If you’ll treat me, I’ll speed things up.”

“How can you? They’re doing it in their own good time.”

“They need materials for the job. They can’t do a thing if I withhold the tally.”

Baoyu cuddled up to her at that and coaxed, “Dear cousin, do give them the tally so that they can get what they need.”

“I’m so tired, my bones are aching,” protested Xifeng. “Must you jostle me like that? Don’t worry, they’ve just taken the wall-paper for your study. You must be crazy if you think they need telling when to ask.”

When Baoyu refused to believe this she made Caiming show him the record. Just then someone announced that Zhaoer was back from Suzhou and Xifeng promptly ordered him to be brought in. Zhaoer fell on one knee to greet her.

“Why have you come back?” she asked.

“The master sent me, madam. Lord Lin died on the third of the ninth month, at nine in the morning. The master and Miss Lin are escorting his coffin to Suzhou and should be home about the end of the year. He sent me to bring the news with his greetings and to ask for the old lady’s instructions. I was to see, too, if you were well at home, madam, and to take back some of his fur-lined gowns.”

“Have you reported to the other ladies?”

“Yes, madam. Everyone.” With that he withdrew.

Xifeng turned to Baoyu with a smile. “Now your cousin Daiyu can stay with us a good long time.”

“Poor thing!” exclaimed Baoyu. “Think how much she must have been crying the last few days.” He knit his brows and sighed.

Xifeng was anxious for news of her husband but had not liked to question Zhaoer too closely in the presence of others. Tempted to go home but kept by unfinished business and afraid of making herself look ridiculous, she had to restrain her impatience until the evening, when she summoned Zhaoer to give her all the particulars of their journey. That same night she got Pinger to help her select some fur-lined clothes and carefully thought out what else her husband might need. Having packed these things together she handed them to Zhaoer and cautioned him:

“Mind you look after your master properly outside and don’t make him angry. Try to keep him from drinking too much, and don’t pander to him by finding him loose women — if you do, I’ll break your legs when you get back.”

By then it was well after the fourth watch and though she went to bed she had lost all desire to sleep. Soon it was dawn. She made a hasty toilet and went over to the Ning Mansion.

Now that the day for the funeral was approaching, ha Zhen drove in person with a geomancer to Iron Threshold Temple to inspect the reposi­tory for the coffin and enjoin on Abbot Sekong, who was in charge, the need for the finest furnishings and the help of the most noted monks for the coffin’s reception.

Sekong hastily prepared supper, but Jia Zhen had no interest in food. Since it was too late to return to town, however, he put up that night in the guest room, starting back first thing in the morning to arrange for the funeral procession. He sent men ahead to the temple to spend that night in redecorating the repository and in seeing to refreshments and the re­ception of the funeral party.

Meanwhile Xifeng too had made careful preparations, choosing the servants, carriages and sedan-chairs of the Rong Mansion that would accompany Lady Wang to the funeral, and a place in which to stay her­self for the occasion.

As the Duke of Shanguo’s wife had just died, Lady Xing and Lady Wang had to send sacrificial gifts and attend her funeral. Then birthday presents had to be sent to the consort of the Prince of Xian. Then a first son was born to the Duke of Zhenguo and congratulatory gifts had to be sent. Then Xifeng had to write a letter home and prepare gifts for her brother Wang Ren to take when he returned south with his family. Then Yingchun fell ill and every day they had to call in doctors, study their diagnoses, discuss the cause of the illness and decide on prescriptions….

As the day of the funeral approached, a thousand and one affairs kept Xifeng so busy that she had no time to eat and was hardly able to have a moment’s rest. When she went to the Ning Mansion, servants from the Rong Mansion followed her there; when she returned to the Rong Man­sion, servants from the Ning Mansion would come after her. Yet busy as she was, her spirits were high. She shirked not a single task, determined to give no one any grounds for complaint. Indeed, she worked so hard day and night and handled everything so well that not one of the house­hold, high or low, but was impressed.

Now the time had come for the wake. The family’s two troupes of actors and some musicians, dancers and acrobats were to perform a long programme of items, and the place was thronged with relatives and friends. As Madam You was still keeping to her bed Xifeng had to look after them single-handed; for all the other married women in the family were either tongue-tied, flighty, shy of strangers or awed by nobles and officials. None of them could compare with Xifeng with her charm, ready tongue and elegance. Having no fear of anyone, she gave whatever orders she pleased and did as she liked, regardless of anyone else.

That night was all brilliance and bustle, needless to say, with the lan­terns and torches of the officials and guests coming and going.

When the auspicious hour arrived at dawn, sixty-four bearers in blue bore out the coffin. It was preceded by a great funeral banner bearing the inscription in large characters:

Spiritual Abode of Lady Qin of the Jia Family, Consort of the Imperial Guard and Defender of the Palace Roads of the Inner Court of the Forbidden City, and Eldest Great-Great-Grandson of the Duke of Ningguo Enfeoffed with the First Rank by the Heaven-Sent, Splendidly Established, Long-Enduring Dynasty.

The brand-new funeral paraphernalia was a dazzling sight. And Baozhu, observing the rites for an unmarried daughter, dashed an earthen basin to pieces when the coffin was lifted to be carried away and lamented bit­terly before it.

Among the officials attending the funeral were: Niu Jizong, hereditary earl of the first rank, grandson of Niu Qing, Duke of Zhenguo; Liu Fang, hereditary viscount of the first rank, grandson of Liu Biao, Duke of Liguo; Chen Ruiwen, hereditary general of the third rank, grandson of Chen Yi, Duke of Qiguo; Ma Shang, hereditary general of the third rank, grandson of Ma Kui, Duke of Zhiguo; and Hou Xiaokang, hereditary viscount of the first rank, grandson of Hou Xiaoming, Duke of Xiuguo. Since the Duke of Shanguo’s wife had died, his grandson Shi Guangzhu was in mourning and unable to come. These six families, with those of Ning and Rong, were known as the “Eight Ducal Households.”

The other mourners included: the grandson of the Prince of Nanan; the grandson of the prince of Xining; Shi Ding, Marquis of Zhongjing; hang Zining, hereditary baron of the second rank, grandson of the Mar­quis of Pingyuan; Xie Qiong, hereditary baron of the second rank, captain of the Metropolitan Garrison, grandson of the Marquis of Dingcheng; Qi Jianhui, hereditary baron of the second rank, grandson of the Marquis of Xiangyang; Qiu Liang, garrison commander of five cities, grandson of the Marquis of Jingtian.

Also present were Han Qi, son of the Earl of Jinxiang; Feng Ziying, son of the General of Divine Valour; Chen Yejun, Wei Ruolan and count­less other sons of nobles.

There were also over a dozen palanquins and thirty to forty sedan-chairs for lady guests. These together with the carriages and sedan-chairs of the Jia family numbered well over a hundred. With the elaborate equi­page in front and the performances given on the way, the procession extended a good three or four li.

Before long they reached stands with coloured silk awnings by the roadside where music was played and sacrificial offerings had been set out by different families. The first four belonged to the houses of the Prince of Dongping, the Prince of Nanan, the Prince of Xining, and the Prince of Beijing.

The original Prince of Beijing had won the highest distinction of these four princes, and therefore his descendants had inherited his title. The present holder of the title, Shui Rong, was a charming and modest young man of less than twenty with remarkable good looks. When he heard that the eldest great-great-grandson of the Duke of Ningguo had lost his wife, the thought of their forefathers’ friendship, shared dangers and glory as if of one family had made him lay aside all considerations of rank and go in person to express his condolences. Now he had set up a funeral booth by the roadside to offer a libation. He made some of his officers wait there while he went to court at dawn. The audience over, he changed into mourning clothes and came here by palanquin, preceded by sounding gongs and ceremonial umbrellas. He halted his palanquin at the stand and his officers ranged themselves on either side, forbidding soldiers and ci­vilians to pass.

Presently, from the north, the Ning Mansion’s magnificent funeral procession bore down on them like a great silver landslide. The runners sent ahead to clear the way had reported the prince’s arrival to Jia Zhen, who now ordered the procession to halt while he, ha She and ha Zheng went to greet the prince according to state ceremonial. The prince bowed affably in return from his palanquin, treating them as old family friends without any affectation.

Jia Zhen said, “We are overwhelmed by the favour done us by Your Highness in honouring my daughter-in-law’s funeral with your presence.”

“That is no way for good friends to talk,” protested the prince.

Then he turned and ordered his chief steward to preside at the sacri­fice for him and pour a libation. Jia She and the others, having bowed in return, stepped forward to express their gratitude.

The Prince of Beijing was completely unassuming. He asked Jia Zheng, “Which is the young gentleman born with a piece of jade in his mouth? I have long wanted to meet him but have never had the time. I am sure he must be here today. Won’t you present him?”

Jia Zheng withdrew at once to fetch Baoyu. He made him change out of mourning, then took him to meet the prince.

Baoyu had heard from his family and friends of the Prince of Beijing’s fine qualities, his talent, good looks, refinement and unconventionality. He had often wanted to meet him, but his father kept him under such strict control that hitherto he had never had a chance. Of course he was de­lighted to be sent for. Walking forward, he was struck by the dignity with which the prince was sitting in his palanquin.

To know the sequel, read the chapter which follows.

Previous articleA Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 15
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