A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 15

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A Dream of Red Mansions015

Chapter 15

Xifeng Abuses Her Power at

Iron Threshold Temple

Qin Zhong Amuses Himself in

Steamed-Bread Convent

Looking up, Baoyu saw that the Prince of Beijing had on a princely silver-winged cap with white tassels, a white robe embroidered with zig­zag wave patterns and five-clawed dragons, and a red leather belt stud­ded with green jade. With his face fair as jade, his eyes bright as stars, he was truly a handsome figure.

Baoyu started forward to make his obeisance. As the prince from his palanquin raised him up, he noticed that Baoyu was wearing a sliver chaplet in the form of two dragons rising from the sea, an archer’s coat embroidered with white serpents, and a silver belt set with pearls. His face seemed a flower in spring, his eyes black as lacquer.

“You live up to your name,” remarked the prince. “You are really like precious jade. But where is that gem with which you came into the world?”

Baoyu hastily took the jade from inside his garments and handed it to the prince, who examined it carefully and read the inscription.

“Does it actually have magic powers?” he asked.

“So they say,” answered Jia Zheng. “But it has never yet been put to the test.”

The prince was very struck by the jade and, smoothing its silken cord, with his own hands he put it round Baoyu’s neck. Then taking the boy’s hand he asked him his age and what he was studying.

The clarity and fluency of Baoyu’s answers made the prince turn to observe to Jia Zheng, “Your son is truly a dragon’s colt or young phoe­nix. May I venture to predict that in time to come this young phoenix may even surpass the old one?”

“My worthless son does not deserve such high praise,” rejoined Jia Zheng hurriedly with a courteous smile. “If thanks to the grace of Your Highness such proves the case, that will be our good fortune.”

“There is one thing, however,” cautioned the prince. “Because your son is so talented his grandmother and mother must have doted on him; but over-indulgence is very bad for young people like ourselves as it makes us neglect our studies. I went astray in this way myself and suspect your honourable son may do the same. If he finds it difficult to study at home, he is very welcome to come as often as he likes to my humble house. For although untalented myself, I am honoured by visits from scholars of note from all parts of the empire when they come to the capital. Hence my poor abode is frequented by eminent men, and conversation with them should improve his knowledge.”

Jia Zheng bowed and assented to this without hesitation.

The prince now took a string of beads from his wrist and gave it to Baoyu saying, “This first meeting of ours is so hurried that I have brought no gift to show my respect, but please accept this string of beads made of the aromatic seeds of some plant which His Majesty gave me the other day.”

Baoyu took it and turned to present it to his father, who together with his son offered formal thanks.

Then Jia She and Jia Zhen stepped forward and begged the prince to return, but he demurred: “The deceased has become an immortal and left our dusty world. Although by the favour of the Son of Heaven I have succeeded to this title, how can I precede the carriage of an immortal?”

Seeing that he was adamant, Jia She and the others thanked him and withdrew to stop the music, so as to let the long procession pass on. And thereupon the prince went back. But no more of this.

The whole road hummed with excitement as the great procession passed. By the city gate friends and colleagues of Jia She, Jia Zheng and Jia Zhen had set up sacrificial tents and not until each had been thanked in turn did the cortege leave the city and proceed along the highway towards Iron Threshold Temple.

Now Jia Zhen and Jia Rong urged their elders to mount their chairs or horses. All of Jia She’s generation mounted carriages or chairs while Jia Zhen’s contemporaries rode on horseback.

Xifeng was afraid that Baoyu, unchecked by his father, might come to some harm through reckless riding in the open country, for he would not

listen to anyone else in the household. And if there were any mishap it would be hard to account for it to the old lady. Accordingly she ordered a page to summon him to her carriage, and when perforce he came she told him with a smile:

“Dear cousin, you have your dignity and are as delicate as any girl. Don’t copy those apes on horseback. Wouldn’t it be better to come and share my carriage?”

Baoyu hurriedly dismounted to join her. They drove on laughing and chatting until two horsemen galloped up and alighted by the carriage to report, “We have reached a halting place, madam. Will you stop for a rest?”

Having asked to know the wishes of Lady Xing and Lady Wang, Xifeng was told, “Their Ladyships are not stopping, but they want you to suit your convenience.”

Thereupon Xifeng ordered a halt. Attendants led their carriage north­wards away from the cortege and at Baoyu’s orders went to invite Qin Zhong, who was riding behind his father’s chair, to join them. When Baoyu’s page brought him this invitation and he saw his friend’s rider­less horse following Xifeng’s carriage north, Qin Zhong knew that Baoyu must be with her. He promptly overtook them and together they entered the gateway of a farm.

The menfolk here had long since been packed off, but the farmhouse had so few rooms that the womenfolk had nowhere to go to keep out of the way. The sudden appearance in their midst of Xifeng, Baoyu and Qin Zhong with their gorgeous clothes and refined looks and manners made these village women stare with admiration.

Once in the thatched house Xifeng suggested to Baoyu that he should amuse himself outside. Taking the hint, he led Qin Zhong and the pages off to look around. He had never seen farm implements before and was thoroughly intrigued by the spades, picks, hoes and ploughs, although quite ignorant of their names and uses. When a page who knew informed him he nodded and remarked with a sigh:

“Now I understand the words of the old poet:

Who knows that each grain of rice we eat

Is the fruit of intensive toil?”

Strolling into an outhouse, he was still more intrigued by a spinning-wheel on the kang. His pages told him this was used to weave yarn. He had just climbed up on the kang to turn the wheel for fun when in came a peasant girl of seventeen or eighteen. She ran over crying:

“Don’t! You’ll break it!”

She was shouted at by his pages, but Baoyu had already let go of the wheel.

“I’ve never seen one before,” he explained with a smile. “I just wanted to have a try.”

“How could you people know how?” said the girl. “Get out of my way and I’ll show you.~~

Qin Zhong plucked at Baoyu’s sleeve and whispered, “Isn’t she fun?”

Baoyu gave him a shove. “You rascal. If you talk any more nonsense I’ll clout you.

Meanwhile the girl had started spinning. Baoyu was just about to speak to her when an old woman called, “Come here, quick, Second Daugh­ter!”

At that she went off, much to his disappointment.

Then a messenger summoned them back to Xifeng, who had washed and changed to remove the dust of the journey. She urged the two boys to change, but Baoyu declined. Their attendants now produced the tea-ser­vice and hamper which they had brought for the journey, and after some refreshments they smartened up and mounted their carriage again.

Once outside, Lai Wang presented a packaged gratuity to the peasant family, whose womenfolk came to thank them. Xifeng, however, took no notice of them, while Baoyu looked eagerly for the spinning-girl. But she was not in the group. They had not gone far, though, when he saw her, her little brother in her arms, approaching laughing and chatting with some smaller girls. Baoyu longed to alight and go with her, but knowing that the others would not agree he could only follow her with his eyes as their carriage drove swiftly off. Soon she was out of sight.

Before very long, they overtook the procession. Ahead of them were temple drums and cymbals, pennants and umbrellas, while monks from Iron Threshold Temple lined the road. Soon they entered the temple, where

again Buddhist rites were performed and incense burned, after which the coffin was installed in one of the side-chambers of the inner hall and Baozhu prepared to keep vigil there that night.

In the outer apartments Jia Zhen entertained their male friends and relatives, some of whom stayed for a meal while others took their leave immediately. He tendered them thanks one by one for coming. Then the guests began to take their leave from dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts and barons downwards, and by three o’clock all had dispersed.

The ladies were entertained in the inner apartments by Xifeng. They, too, left in order of precedence, and by about two o’clock all had gone except a few close relatives who would remain for the three day’s requi­ems for the dead.

Knowing that Xifeng could not return with them, Lady Xing and Lady Wang proposed to take Baoyu back with them to the city. But as this was his first visit to the country and he insisted on staying behind with Xifeng, his mother had to leave him in her charge.

Now this Iron Threshold Temple had been built in the days of the Dukes of Rongguo and Ningguo and still had enough land of its own to provide for incense and lamps and repositories for the coffins of clans­men. Since there was accommodation for both the dead and the living, the mourners escorting coffins had somewhere to stay. However, now that the family had grown the views of the rich members differed from those of the poor. Whereas the latter were content to stay here, those who were wealthy and fond of display maintained that the place was inconvenient and preferred to find accommodation in some nearby vil­lage or convent to retire to at the end of the ceremonies.

On this occasion of Qin Keqing’s funeral most members of the clan stayed at Iron Threshold Temple. Only Xifeng, deciding that it would not suit her, had sent a servant to ask Abbess Jingxu of Steamed-Bread Con­vent to clear a few rooms for her. Steamed-Bread Convent was the popular name for Water Moon Convent because of the good steamed bread made here. It stood not far from Iron Threshold Temple.

As soon as the monks had completed their devotions and the evening offering of tea had been made, Jia Zhen sent Jia Rong to urge Xifeng to rest. Then leaving her sisters-in-law to look after the women guests she took Baoyu and Qin Zhong off to Steamed-Bread Convent. Qin Zhong’s father, too old and frail to remain himself, had told his son to attend the requiems, and so the boy stayed with Xifeng and Baoyu.

They were met at the convent gate by Abbess Jingxu and two nov­ices, Zhishan and Zhineng. After an exchange of greetings Xifeng retired to a rest room. While she was changing she noticed how tall and pretty Zhineng had grown.

“Why haven’t you and your abbess been to see us lately?” she asked.

“A few days ago a son was born to Mr. Hu,” explained the abbess. “His good lady sent us ten taels of silver to get some of our sisters to chant the Nativity sutra for three days, so we’ve been too busy to come and pay our respects.”

But let us return to Baoyu and Qin Zhong, who were fooling about in the hall when Zhineng came in.

“Look who’s here,” said Baoyu with a smile.

“What about it?” retorted Qin Zhong.

“It’s no use play-acting. What were you doing with her on your lap that day in my grandmother’s room, when no one else was about? Stop trying to fool me.”

“You’re just making that up!” protested Qin Zhong.

“Well, never mind. Tell her to pour me some tea and I’ll let you off.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Could she refuse if you ask her yourself? Why should I ask for you?”

“For you she would do it for love, but not for me.”

Then Qin Zhong said, “Bring me some tea, Zhineng, will you?”

This young novice had been in and out of the Rong Mansion since childhood. She knew everyone there and had often romped with Baoyu and Qin Zhong; and now that she was old enough to know the meaning of love she had taken a fancy to handsome young Qin Zhong, who was attracted in turn by her pretty looks. Although nothing had passed be­tween them, they already had a secret understanding. So now with a radiant glance at him she complied. Soon she was back again with a cup of tea.

“Give it to me!” urged Qin Zhong with a smile.

“No, to me!” cried Baoyu.

Zhineng laughed mockingly. “Do I have honey on my hands that you squabble even over a cup of tea?”

Baoyu grabbed hold of the cup and started drinking, and before he could speak again Zhishan came to fetch Zhineng to lay the table. Pres­ently she returned to invite them to have some refreshments, but the tea and cakes served in the convent did not tempt them. They sat a while, then escaped as soon as they could to amuse themselves elsewhere.

Xifeng retired presently, too, to the rest room accompanied by the abbess. When the older maid-servants saw there was nothing to do they went off to bed themselves, leaving only a few trusted younger maids in attendance.

The abbess seized this chance to say, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to go and ask Her Ladyship, but I’d like to have your advice on it first, madam.”

“What is it?” asked Xifeng.

“Amida Buddha!” sighed the abbess. “When I became a nun in Shancai Convent in the county of Changan, one of our benefactors was a very wealthy man called Zhang, whose daughter Jinge often came to our temple to offer incense. A young Mr. Li, who is brother-in-law to the prefect of Changan, met her there. He fell in love at first sight and sent to ask for her hand; but she was already engaged to the son of the former inspector of Changan. The Zhangs would have liked to cancel the en­gagement but were afraid the inspector might object, so they explained to the Lis that she was betrothed. Still young Mr. Li insisted on having her, making things very difficult for the Zhangs.

“When word of this reached the inspector’s family, without even finding out the truth of the matter they came and stormed, ‘How many more men will you engage your daughter to?’ They refused to take back the betrothal gifts and took the matter to court.

“The girl’s family are desperate. They’ve sent to the capital to enlist help and are quite determined to return the gifts.

“Well, I understand that General Yun the Military Governor of Changan is on friendly terms with your family. If Lady Wang would get His Lord­ship to write to General Yun, asking him to have a word with the inspec­tor, I’m sure he’d drop the suit. And the Zhangs would gladly give any-

thing — even their whole fortune — in return for this favour.”

“There shouldn’t be any great difficulty about this,” rejoined Xifeng. ‘‘But Her Ladyship doesn’t trouble herself with such matters.~~

“In that case, madam, could you attend to it?”

“I’m neither short of money nor do I meddle with affairs of this sort.”

The abbess’ face fell. After a short pause she observed with a sigh, “Well, the Zhangs know that I’m appealing to your family. If you do nothing, they won’t realize that you can’t be troubled and don’t want the money — it would look as if you can’t even handle such a trifling business.”

This put Xifeng on her mettle. “You know me,” she replied. “I’ve never believed all that talk about Hell and retribution. I do what I please and am always as good as my word. Let them bring me three thousand taels and I’ll see to this for them.”

“Very good!” cried the abbess, overjoyed. “That’s easy.

“I’m not one of your go-betweens just out for money,” said Xifeng.

“These three thousand taels will just cover the expenses of the servants

I send out and reward them for their trouble. I myself don’t want a cent.

I could lay my hands any moment on thirty thousand.”

“Of course, madam. Will you do us this favour, then, tomorrow?”

“Can’t you see how busy I am, needed right and left? But since I’ve told you I’ll do it, of course I’ll settle it for you speedily.”

“A little thing like this might throw other people into a fearful flurry, but I know you’d have no trouble handling bigger things than this, madam. As the proverb says, ‘The abler a man, the busier he gets.’ It’s because you’re so capable that Her Ladyship leaves everything to you. But you mustn’t wear yourself out.”

This flattery made Xifeng forget her exhaustion and start chatting more cheerfully.

Meanwhile Qin Zhong had taken advantage of the darkness and the fact that nobody was about to go in search of Zhineng. Having found her alone in a back room washing up the tea things, he threw his arms around her and kissed her.

“What are you doing?” The novice stamped her foot in desperation and threatened to call out.

“Darling,” he pleaded, “I’m dying of longing for you. If you refuse me again this evening, I’ll die here on the spot.”

“What are you thinking of? At least wait till I’m clear of this prison and these people?”

“That’s easy to manage, but ‘distant water can’t quench a present thirst.

With that he blew out the lamp, plunging the room into pitch darkness, and carried her to the kang. Zhineng struggled in vain to free herself but did not like to scream, so she had to let him have his way with her.

He was just getting down to work when someone slipped in and pinned the pair of them down. Since no word was said, they did not know who it was. The two of them were frightened out of their wits until a chuckle revealed that it was Baoyu.

Qin Zhong sprang up swearing, “What are you playing at?”

“Will you do as I say or shall I raise the alarm?”

Zhineng fled, blushing, under cover of the dark and Baoyu pulled his friend out.

“Well, do you still deny it?” he demanded.

“Be a good fellow! I’ll do whatever you say as long as you don’t shout.”

“We’ll say no more about it just now. I’ll settle with you after we go to bed.”

Soon it was time to sleep. Xifeng had the inner room, the two boys the outer, while the maids slept on the floor or sat up to keep watch. For fear lest the precious jade might disappear while Baoyu was asleep, Xifeng had it fetched and put it under her own pillow.

As for how Baoyu settled scores with Qin Zhong, what the eye does not see can only be surmised, and far be it from us to speculate.

The next morning the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang sent to urge Baoyu to dress more warmly and to go home if there was nothing to keep him. This was the last thing he wanted. And Qin Zhong, infatuated as he was with Zhineng, made him beg Xifeng to stay a little longer.

Though the obsequies were over there remained certain trifles to at­tend to, so Xifeng decided she could spare one more day. In the first place, this would satisfy Jia Zhen; in the second, she could attend to the abbess’ business; in the third, the Lady Dowager would be pleased to know that Baoyu was enjoying himself.

“My own business here is finished,” she told him with these consider­ations in mind. “If you want to amuse yourself here a little longer, I sup­pose I’ll have to put up with it. But we must leave tomorrow at the latest.”

“Just one day, dear, kind cousin. We’ll leave tomorrow.”

So they arranged to spend another night there.

Xifeng sent someone secretly to explain the abbess’ business to Lai Wang. He grasped at once what was wanted and hurried into town to get the chief secretary to write a letter in Jia Lian’s name, and set off with it that same night for Changan County. Since Changan was only a hundred li away, within two days the matter was settled. Military Governor Yun Guang had long wanted to please the Jia family and was only too glad to agree to this trifling request. Lai Wang brought back a letter from him to this effect.

Meanwhile Xifeng, after one more day in the convent, had said goodbye to the abbess, telling her to come for news in three day’s time.

Qin Zhong and Zhineng could hardly bear to part and bid each other a sad farewell after arranging to meet again in secret.

Xifeng went to take a last look at Iron Threshold Temple, where Baozhu insisted on remaining. Jia Zhen later was obliged to send maids there to keep her company.

To know the sequel, read the next chapter.

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