A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 16

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A Dream of Red Mansions016

Chapter 16

Yuanchun Is Selected as Imperial Consort

in Phoenix Palace

Qin Zhong Dying Before His Time Sets Off

for the Nether Regions

Before long Baoyu’s outer study was ready. He had agreed with Qin Zhong to start evening lessons together; but Qin Zhong had a weak con­stitution, and a cold he had caught in the country following his secret affair with Zhineng had upset him; thus on his return to town he devel­oped a cough and lost his appetite completely. Too weak to go out, he had to rest at home. Although Baoyu was very disappointed, he could do nothing but wait for his friend’s recovery.

Meanwhile Xifeng had received Yun Guang’s reply, and the abbess had informed the Zhangs that their problem was solved. So the inspector had to swallow his anger and take back the betrothal gifts.

But though Zhang and his wife were snobbish and mercenary, they had a principled and feeling daughter. When Jinge learned that her en­gagement had been broken she found a rope and quietly hanged herself; and the inspector’s son was so much in love that he drowned himself when he heard of her suicide, showing that he was worthy of his good fiancée.

Thus the Zhang and Li families were unlucky enough to lose both girl and money. Only Xifeng was the gainer by three thousand taels, quite unknown to Lady Wang and the rest of the household. This emboldened her from that time on to undertake countless similar transactions but we need not recount these here.

Now it was Jia Zheng’s birthday and both households had gathered to congratulate him. At the height of the festivities the gateman suddenly rushed in to announce:

“His Excellency Xia, Chief Eunuch of the Six Palaces, has come with a Decree from the Emperor!”

This startled Jia She, Jia Zheng and the rest, who did not know what it could mean. They at once called a halt to the theatricals and had the feast cleared away. A table was set out with incense. Then, throwing open the central gate they knelt down to receive the Decree.

Soon Xia Shouzhong the Chief Eunuch arrived on horseback, followed by a considerable retinue of eunuchs. He was not carrying an Imperial Edict, however. Having alighted in front of the main hall, he mounted the steps with a beaming smile and, facing south, announced:

“By special order of the Emperor, Jia Zheng is to present himself at once for an audience in the Hall of Respectful Approach.” This said, without even taking a sip of tea, he remounted his horse and rode off.

Jia She and the others could not guess what this portended. Jia Zheng lost no time in putting on his court robes and going to the Palace, leaving the whole family in dire suspense. The Lady Dowager sent one mounted mes­senger after another in search of news; but it was four hours before Lai Da and a few other stewards came panting through the inner gate, crying:

“Good news! His Lordship asks the old lady to go at once to the Palace with the other ladies to thank His Majesty.”

The Lady Dowager had been waiting anxiously in the corridor outside the great hail with Lady Xing, Lady Wang, Madam You, Li Wan, Xifeng and the Jia girls, as well as Aunt Xue. On hearing this, they called Lai Da over and demanded more details.

“We had to wait in the outer court,” Lai Da told them. “So we had no idea what was going on inside. But then Chief Eunuch Xia came out. He congratulated us on the promotion of our eldest young lady. She’s to be Chief Secretary of the Phoenix Palace with the title of Worthy and Virtu­ous Consort. And then His Lordship came out and confirmed this. Now he has gone to the East Palace and he begs Your Ladyship and the other ladies to go at once to offer thanks.”

They were all so relieved that their faces shone with delight as each dressed in the ceremonial robes appropriate to her rank. And presently four large sedan-chairs, with the Lady Dowager’s at the head, followed by Lady Xing’s, Lady Wang’s and Madam You’s, were making their way to the Palace. They were escorted by Jia She and Jia Zhen, also in court robes, as well as Jia Rong and Jia Qiang.

Then high and low alike in both mansions were filled with joy. Their faces radiant with pride, they broke into a tumult of talk and laughter.

Now, a few days previously, Zhineng had stolen away from Water Moon Convent and come to town to look for Qin Zhong in his home. She had been caught by his father, who drove her away and gave his son a beating. The old man’s rage had brought on an attack of his chronic disorder, and within a few days he was dead. Qin Zhong had never been strong nor had he fully recovered from his illness when he received this beating. His father’s death filled him with such remorse that his condi­tion was now serious.

All this was preying so much on Baoyu’s mind that the honour con­ferred on Yuanchun failed to raise his spirits. He alone remained utterly indifferent to the trip made by the Lady Dowager and the rest to offer thanks for the Imperial favour, the visits of congratulations paid by rela­tives and friends, the excitement which filled both mansions. The general delight left him completely unmoved, just as if these things had never happened. His apathy made everyone declare that he was growing more and more eccentric.

Luckily a messenger arrived at this time from Jia Lian to announce that he and Daiyu were on their way back and would be home the following day. A little cheered, Baoyu questioned the man and learned that Jia Yucun was also coming to the capital to pay homage. For thanks to Wang Ziteng’s recom­mendations he had been summoned to wait for a metropolitan appointment; and being a distant cousin of Jia Lian’s and Daiyu’s former tutor, he was travelling with them. Lin Ruhai had been buried in the ancestral graveyard and, his obsequies completed, Jia Lian was able to start back for the capital. Normally, the trip would have taken them till the beginning of the next month; however, the good news about Yuanchun had made Jia Lian decide to hurry back posthaste. The journey had been smooth and uneventful.

Baoyu was only eager to know that Daiyu was all right, taking no interest in the rest of this news. He could hardly contain himself until their arrival was announced just after noon the next day. But the joy of their reunion was tempered by grief. After a storm of weeping they exchanged condolences and congratulations.

Baoyu observed that Daiyu was looking even more ethereal. She had brought back a whole library of books, and lost no time in tidying her bedroom and setting out her things. She presented some brushes and stationery to Baochai, Yingchun, Baoyu and others. But when he pro­duced the precious scented beads given him by the Prince of Beijing and offered them to her. Daiyu protested:

“I don’t want them. They’ve been handled by some stinking man.

She tossed the beads back and Baoyu had to take them.

But let us return to Jia Lian. After he had greeted the rest of the family he went to his own quarters; and busy as Xifeng was, with not a moment to herself, she set everything aside to welcome her husband back from his long journey.

Once they were alone she said jokingly, “Congratulations, Your Ex­cellency, kinsman of the Imperial House! Your Excellency must have had a tiring journey. Your handmaid, hearing yesterday that your exalted car­riage would return today, prepared some watery wine by way of wel­come. Will the Imperial Kinsman deign to accept it?”

“You honour me too much,” Jia Lian replied with a chuckle. “I am quite overwhelmed.”

When Pinger and the other maids had paid their respects and served tea, Jia Lian asked his wife what had happened during his absence and thanked her for looking after things so well.

“I’m incapable of running things,” she sighed. “I’m too ignorant, blunt and tactless, always getting hold of the wrong end of the stick. And I’m so soft-hearted, anyone can get round me. Besides, lack of experi­ence makes me nervous. When Her Ladyship is the least displeased I’m too frightened to sleep a wink. Time and again I’ve begged to be relieved of such a responsibility, but instead of agreeing she accuses me of being lazy and unwilling to learn. She doesn’t realize what a cold sweat I’m in, terrified of saying one word out of turn or taking one false step.

“And you know how difficult our old stewardesses are, laughing at the least mistake and ‘accusing the elm while pointing at the mulberry tree’ if one shows the least bias. Talk about ‘sitting on a hill to watch tigers fight,’ ‘murdering with a borrowed sword,’ ‘borrowing wind to fan the fire,’ ‘watching people drown from a dry bank’ and ‘not trou­bling to right an oil bottle that’s been knocked over’ — they’re all old

hands at such tricks. On top of that, I’m too young to carry much weight; so naturally they pay no attention to me.

“As if that weren’t bad enough, when Rong’s wife suddenly died Cousin Zhen repeatedly begged Her Ladyship on his knees to let me help them out for a few days. I declined over and over again, but as she insisted I had to have a try. As usual I made a shocking mess of things —even worse than here. I’m sure Cousin Zhen is still regretting his rash­ness. When you see him tomorrow, do apologize for me. Tell him he should never have entrusted such a task to someone so young and inex­perienced.”

Just then they heard voices outside and Xifeng asked who was there. Pinger came in and said, “Madam Xue sent Xiangling over to ask me something. I’ve given her an answer and sent her back.”

“That reminds me,” said Jia Lian. “When I called on Aunt Xue just now, I ran into a very handsome young woman whom I didn’t think belonged to our household and wondered who she could be. In the course of conversation I learned she’s the girl they bought just before coming to the capital. Her name’s Xiangling. She belongs to that imbecile Xue now, and since he made her his concubine and her face has been slicked she’s grown even lovelier. She’s too good for that silly fool.”

“Well!” exclaimed Xifeng. “I should have thought you’d have seen enough of the world now that you’re back from a trip to Suzhou and Hangzhou, but you’re never satisfied. If you love her, that’s simple: I’ll exchange our Pinger for her how about that? Xue Pan is another of those greedy-guts who keep ‘one eye on the bowl and the other on the pan.’ Look how he plagued his mother for a whole year just to get hold of Xiangling. It’s because Aunt Xue saw she’s not only pretty but really well-behaved, being even gentler and quieter than most young ladies, that she went to all the trouble of inviting guests to a feast to make her his concubine in proper style. Yet in less than a fortnight he’s treating her like dirt. It’s really too bad….”

At this point a page from the inner gate reported that Jia Zheng was waiting for Jia Lian in the big library. The young man hastily straightened his clothes and went out.

Then Xifeng asked Pinger, “What on earth did Aunt Xue send Xiangling

along for just now?”

“It wasn’t Xiangling,” said Pinger, giggling. “I made that up. Really, madam, that wife of Lai Wang’s is losing all the little sense she had.” She drew nearer and lowered her voice. “She wouldn’t come earlier or later but had to choose this very moment, when the master’s just got home, to bring you the interest on that money. It’s lucky I met her in the hall or she’d have come in and blurted everything out. If our master had asked what it was, of course you’d have to tell him — you wouldn’t want to deceive him. And being what he is, ready to snatch money from a pan of scalding oil, he’d start spending even more recklessly if he knew that you had private savings. So I took it from her double-quick and gave her a piece of my mind, not knowing you’d hear. That’s why, in front of the master, I said it was Xiangling.”

Xifeng laughed. “I was wondering why Aunt Xue should suddenly send a concubine here when she knew that your master was back. So it was just one of your tricks.”

Just then Jia Lian returned. Xifeng called for wine and dishes, and husband and wife took their seats opposite each other. Although Xifeng was a good drinker she didn’t venture to drink much today. She was sipping her wine to keep him company when Jia Lian’s old wet-nurse Nanny Zhao came in. The young couple promptly invited her to join them on the kang. Nanny Zhao resolutely declined this honour. But Pinger and the others had already set a small table and stool beside the kang, and when the nurse had sat down Jia Lian gave her two dishes from their own table.

“Nanny can’t chew those, they’re too hard for her teeth,” said Xifeng. She turned to Pinger. “That bowl of fresh pork stewed with ham I remarked was so tender this morning would be just the thing for her. Take it and get them to heat it up quickly, will you?” She urged the nurse, “Nanny, try this Hui Fountain wine your boy brought back.”

“I will,” said the nurse. “But you must take a cup too. Don’t be afraid! The thing is not to drink too much. I didn’t come all this way for wine or food, though, but on some serious business. I hope you’ll lay it to heart, madam, and help me. Our Master Lian is good at making promises, but when the time comes he forgets all about them. Yes, I nursed and brought you up, and now that I’m old all I have are my two sons. If you’d do them a favour no one could say a word; yet I’ve begged you again and again and you’ve always agreed, but to this very day not a thing have you done. Now this wonderful stroke of luck has come out of the blue, you’ll be needing extra hands. So I’ve come to ask your help, madam. If I relied on our Master Lian alone, I’d probably have starved to death by now.”

Xifeng laughed. “Just leave his two foster-brothers to me, nanny,” she said. “You who nursed your boy from babyhood know what he’s like. He goes out of his way to help complete strangers, people nowhere near as deserving as his two foster-brothers. Who could possibly object if he did something for them? But he just favours outsiders. Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say that. The people we consider outsiders are ‘in’ with him, I suppose.”

That raised a general laugh. Nanny Zhao chortled as if she would never stop. “Amida Buddha!” she cackled. “So here comes an impartial judge. Our master wouldn’t be so cruel as to treat us as outsiders; but he’s so kind—hearted he can’t say ‘no’ to other people’s requests.”

“Oh yes, he’s very soft and generous to those ‘in’ with him. It’s only to us womenfolk that he’s adamant.”

“You’ve been so good, madam, and made me so happy that I’ll have another cup of that excellent wine. Now that I’ve got you to look after us, I needn’t worry any more.

Jia Lian, rather put out, smiled sheepishly. “Stop talking nonsense and let’s start on the rice,” he said. “I still have to go and see Cousin Zhen on some business.”

“Yes, we mustn’t delay you,” said his wife. “What did your uncle want you for just now?”

“It was about this Imperial visitation.”

“Has permission been granted then?” she asked eagerly.

“Not quite, but ten to one it will be.”

“What a great act of Imperial kindness!” She beamed. “I never heard of such a thing in any book or opera about the old days.”

“That’s right,” chimed in the nurse. “But I’m growing so stupid in my old age that although I’ve heard high and low talk of nothing else for days, I can’t make head or tail of it all. Just what is this Imperial visitation?”

Jia Lian explained. “Our present Emperor is concerned for all his subjects. No duty is higher than filial piety, and he knows that all, irre­spective of rank, have the same family feeling. Though he himself waits day and night upon his Imperial parents, he considers this too little to express all his filial devotion; and he realizes that the secondary consorts and ladies-in-waiting in the Palace who have been away from their par­ents for many years must naturally be longing to see them again, for it’s only right for children to miss their parents. But if the parents at home fall ill or even die of longing for their daughters, this must impair the harmony ordained by Heaven. So he requested Their Most High Majesties to al­low the female relatives of the court ladies to visit them in the Palace on the days ending in two and six each month.

“His Majesty’s parents were delighted by the Emperor’s Piety, hu­manity and manifestion of Heaven’s will on earth. In their infinite wis­dom the two venerable sages moreover decreed that, since court eti­quette might prevent the mothers of the Palace ladies from gratifying all the wishes of their hearts during such visits, they should be granted an even greater favour. Then in a special Edict it was decreed that, apart from the favour of these visits on certain days of the month, all those court ladies with adequate accommodation at home for the reception of an Imperial retinue might ask for a Palace carriage to visit their families. In this way they can show their affection and enjoy a reunion with their dear ones.

“All were so grateful for this Decree, they leapt for joy. The father of the Imperial Lady of Honour Zhou has already started building a sepa­rate court for her visit home; and Wu Tianyou, father of the Imperial Concubine Wu, is looking for a site outside the city. Doesn’t this show that the thing is practically certain?”

“Amida Buddha! So that’s it!” cried Nanny Zhao. “I suppose our family will be preparing, too, for a visit from our eldest young mistress?”

“Of course,” said Jia Lián. “What else do you think we’re all so busy about?”

“If it’s really true, I shall have a chance to see some great doings,” exulted Xifeng. “I’ve often wished that I’d been born twenty or thirty years earlier, so that the old folk wouldn’t be despising me now for hav­ing seen so little of the world. Their descriptions of how our first Emperor toured the country like the sage king Shun of old are better than anything in history, but alas! I was born too late — I missed seeing it.”

“Ah, such a thing only happens once in a thousand years,” declared Nanny Zhao. “I was just old enough then to remember things. In those days our Jia family was in charge of making ocean-going ships and re­pairing the sea-wall round Suzhou and Yangzhou. To prepare for that Imperial visit, we spent money just like pouring out sea-water….”

“Our Wang family did the same,” put in Xifeng. “At that time my grandfather was in sole charge of all the foreign tribute, and whenever envoys came from abroad to pay homage it was our family who enter­tained them. All the goods brought by foreign ships to Guangdong, Fujian, Yunnan and Zhejiang passed through our hands.”

“Who doesn’t know that!” said Nanny Zhao. “There’s still a rhyme:

When the Dragon King wants

A white jade bed,

He asks the Wangs

Of Jinling, it’s said.

That’s your family, madam. And the Zhens south of the Yangtze, oh, how rich and great they were! That family alone entertained the Em­peror four times. No one who was told such a thing, if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, could believe it. Don’t talk about silver treated like dirt, every precious thing you could name was heaped up like hills, no one bothering to check the wicked waste.”

“So my grandfather and grand-uncles often said, and of course I be­lieve it. What amazes me is how one family could have so much wealth.”

“Why, madam, the truth is they were just spending the Emperor’s money on the Emperor. Otherwise who would waste so much on empty show?”

Just then Lady Wang sent to inquire if Xifeng had finished her meal, and realizing that she was wanted she hastily ate half a bowl of rice and rinsed her mouth. She was starting out when some pages from the inner gate reported the arrival of Jia Rong and Jia Qiang, whereupon Jia Lian rinsed his mouth and Pinger brought him a basin to wash his hands. As soon as the young men came in he asked what they wanted, and Xifeng stayed to hear Jia Rong’s reply:

“My father sent me to tell you, uncle, that the old gentlemen have settled on a plan. We’ve measured the distance from the east wall through the garden of the East Mansion to the north, and it comes to three ii and a half, enough to build a separate court for the visit. Someone has been commissioned to draw a plan which should be ready tomorrow. Since you must be tired after your journey, please don’t think of coming over. If you’ve any proposals, you can make them first thing tomorrow.”

“Kindly thank your father for his consideration,” replied Jia Lian. “I shall do as he says and not call on him now. This is the best possible scheme, the easiest and the simplest to carry out. Any other site would entail more work without such good results. Tell him when you get back that I thoroughly approve, and if the old gentlemen have second thoughts I hope he will dissuade them from looking for another site. When I come tomorrow to pay my respects we can talk it over in detail.”

Jia Rong agreed at once to pass on this message.

Jia Qiang now stepped forward to announce, “My uncle has given me the job of going to Suzhou with Lai Da’s two sons and the two secretar­ies Shan Pingren and Bu Guxiu. We’re to hire instructors, buy girl ac­tresses and musical instruments and costumes there. He told me to let you know.”

Jia Lian looked quizzically at the young man and asked, “Are you sure you’re up to it? This may not be a big job, but there should be plenty of perks if you know the ropes.”

“I shall have to learn,” was Jia Qiang’s cheerful reply.

Jia Rong, standing in the shadow, quietly plucked Xifeng’s lapel. Tak­ing the hint she said to her husband, “Don’t worry. Your cousin knows best whom to send. Why should you be afraid Qiang isn’t up to it? Is everyone born capable? The boy’s grown up now. He’s old enough to have seen a pig run, even if he hasn’t yet tasted pork himself. Cousin Zhen is sending him as a supervisor, not to do all the bargaining and accounting himself. I think it’s an excellent choice.”

“Of course I wasn’t querying that,” protested Jia Lian. “I only wanted to offer some advice.” He asked Jia Qiang, “Where is the money for this

coming from?”

“We’ve just been discussing that. Old Lai sees no need to take silver with us from here. The Zhens down south have fifty thousand taels of ours. Tomorrow a draft can be written for us to take. We shall first draw thirty thousand, leaving twenty thousand to buy ornamental lanterns, candles, streamers, bamboo curtains and hangings of every kind.”

Jia Lian nodded his approval. “Very good.”

“Well, if that’s settled,” interposed Xifeng, “I have two good men you can take along to help you.”

“What a coincidence!” Jia Qiang forced a smile. “I was just going to ask you to recommend a couple of people, aunt.” He inquired their names.

Xifeng asked Nanny Zhao, who had been listening as if in a dream. When Pinger nudged her she woke up and answered quickly, “One of them is called Zhao Tianling, the other Zhao Tiandong.”

“Don’t forget,” Xifeng cautioned Jia Qiang. “Now I must get back to my duties.” With that she left.

Jia Rong slipped out after her and whispered, “If there’s anything you want, aunt, make out a list and I’ll give it to Qiang to see to.”

“Don’t talk rubbish!” Xifeng snorted. “I’ve so many things already, I’ve nowhere to put them. I don’t care for your sneaky way of doing things.” And so she went off.

Meanwhile Jia Qiang was telling Jia Lian, “If you want anything, uncle, I’ll be happy to get it for you.”

“Don’t look so pleased,” replied Jia Lian mockingly. “So this trick is the first thing you learn when you start handling business. If I need any­thing, of course I’ll write. There’s no time for it at present.”

With that he saw the young men out. Then several servants came to make reports, after which Jia Lian felt so tired that he sent orders to the inner gate to admit no one else: all business must wait until the next day. Xifeng did not get to bed until the third watch, but no more need be said about that night.

The next morning, after calling on Jia She and Jia Zheng, Jia Lian went to the Ning Mansion. With some old stewards, secretaries and friends he inspected the grounds of both mansions, drew plans for the palaces for the Imperial visit and estimated the number of workmen required.

Before long all the craftsmen and workmen were assembled, and endless loads of supplies were brought to the site: gold, silver, copper and tin, as well as earth, timber, bricks and tiles. First they pulled down the walls and pavilions of the Garden of Concentrated Fragrance in the Ning Mansion to connect it with the large eastern court of the Rong Mansion; and all the servants’ quarters there were demolished.

Formerly a small alley had separated the two houses, but since this was private property and not a public thoroughfare the grounds of both could now be thrown into one.

As a stream already ran from the northern corner of the Garden of Concentrated Fragrance, there was no need to bring in another. And though there were not enough rocks or trees, the bamboos, trees and rockeries as well as the pavilions and balustrades in the original garden of the Rong Mansion where Jia She lived were brought over. The proximity of the two mansions made amalgamation easy, in addition to saving much labour and expense. On the whole, not too many new features had to be added.

The whole was designed by an old landscape gardener known as Gardener Ye.

As Jia Zheng was unaccustomed to practical business he left it to Jia She, Jia Zhen, Jia Lian, Lai Da, Lai Sheng, Lin Zhixiao, Wu Xindeng, Zhan Guang and Cheng Rixing. Artificial mountains and lakes were made, pavilions constructed, and bamboos and flowers planted, according to the plan of the gardener. All Jia Zheng did on his return from court was to make a tour of inspection and discuss the most important problems with Jia She and the rest.

As for Jia She, he took his ease at home. If any minor points had to be settled, Jia Zhen and the others would explain them to him or send him a written report, while he passed on his instructions through Jia Lian and Lai Da.

Jia Rong’s task was to supervise the making of the gold and silver utensils. As for Jia Qiang, he had already left for Suzhou. Jia Zhen, Lai Da and the rest were in charge of the workmen, keeping a register and superintending operations. Impossible to describe in full all that bustle and commotion!

Owing to this all-engrossing business, Jia Zheng had stopped asking Baoyu about his studies and the boy was having an easy time. The only thing that worried him and spoiled his pleasure was Qin Zhong’s illness, now growing daily worse.

One morning, he had just washed and dressed and was thinking to ask his grandmother’s permission to pay another visit to his friend, when Mingyan peeped round the spirit screen by the inner gate. Baoyu hurried over to him.

“What is it?”

“Master Qin Zhong. He’s dying!”

Baoyu was staggered.

“He was clear-headed when I saw him only yesterday,” he cried. “How can he be dying?”

“I don’t know. That’s what an old fellow from his home just told me.

At once Baoyu went to tell the Lady Dowager, who instructed some trustworthy men to accompany him. “You may call to show your friend­ship for your schoolmate,” she told him. “But mind you don’t stay too long.”

Baoyu hastily changed his clothes, then paced up and down franti­cally, calling for his carriage. When at last it arrived he scrambled in and drove off, escorted by Li Gui, Mingyan and others.

Finding the gate of Qin Zhong’s house deserted, they swarmed into the inner apartments, to the consternation of Qin Zhong’s two aunts and cousins who quickly made themselves scarce.

Qin Zhong had already lost consciousness several times and been lifted on to a trestle-bed to die. At this sight Baoyu burst out sobbing.

“Don’t take on like that,” urged Li Gui. “You know how delicate Master Qin is. They’ve moved him for the time being to somewhere more comfortable than the hard kang. Going on in this way, little master, will only make him worse.”

At that Baoyu restrained himself and approached his friend. Qin Zhong lying back on his pillow was as pale as wax; his eyes were closed and his breath was coming in gasps.

“Dear brother!” Baoyu cried. “It’s me — Baoyu!”

He called several times but Qin Zhong made no reply. Still Baoyu went on calling: “Baoyu’s here!”

Qin Zhong was at his last gasp. His spirit, which had already left its body, saw that ghostly guards had come with a warrant and chains to drag him off. He was unwilling to leave, for there was no one to manage the household’s affairs and his father had left three or four thousand taels of savings. He was longing, too, for news of Zhineng. But hard as he pleaded the ghosts were adamant.

“You’re an educated young fellow,” they scoffed. “Don’t you know the saying, ‘If the King of Hell summons you at the third watch, who dares keep you till the fifth?’ We shades are strictly impartial, not like you mortals with all your soft-heartedness and favouritism.”

As they were shouting at him, Qin Zhong’s spirit heard Baoyu call.

“Have pity, divine messengers,” he begged. “Let me go back to say one word to my good friend. Then I’ll come with you.”

“What good friend is this?” asked the ghosts.

“The grandson of the Duke of Rongguo. His name is Baoyu.”

The ghost in command gave a howl of dismay, then swore at his fol­lowers. “I told you to let him go back for a while, but you wouldn’t. Now he’s produced this favourite of fortune, what are we to do?”

The ghosts, flustered by their officer’s alarm, protested, “You were thundering mad yourself just now, but the name Baoyu seems to have terrified you. Why should we shades be afraid of a mortal like him? What can he do for us?”

Their officer swore, “That’s rubbish! You know the proverb, ‘The empire’s officials control all in the empire.’ That’s how it is in the nether regions too — the same for spirits as for mortals. It’ll do no harm to show some consideration.”

Hearing this, the ghosts had to let Qin Zhong’s soul return to its body.

The dying boy gave an indistinct cry and, opening his eyes, saw Baoyu by his side.

“Why didn’t you come earlier?” he asked faintly. “If you’d left it any longer, I shouldn’t have seen you.

Baoyu clasped his friend’s hands and asked through tears, “What last message have you for me?”

“Just this. When you and I first met, we thought ourselves above the common herd. Now I know how wrong we were. You should set your mind on making a name through the examinations, on winning distinction, in future….”

With that he gave a long sigh and breathed his last.

For what followed, read the next chapter.

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