A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 39


Chapter 39

An Old Village Woman Tells

Tall Stories

A Romantic Youth Insists on

Following Them Up

On Pinger’s return she was asked, “What’s your mistress doing? Why hasn’t she come back?”

“She’s too busy,” replied Pinger, smiling. “As she didn’t get a chance to eat properly and can’t come, she’s sent me to ask whether there are any crabs left. If so, I’m to take a few back for her to eat.”

“There are plenty left,” Xiangyun assured her.

She promptly ordered ten of the largest crabs to be brought.

“Mostly female ones if you please!” added Pinger.

They tried to make her take a seat, but she refused.

“We insist!” cried Li Wan laughingly.

She forced her on to the seat beside her own, filled a cup with wine and held it to her lips. But after one hurried sip Pinger rose to go.

“Oh no, you don’t,” said Li Wan. “I can see the only one who counts for you is Xifeng. You won’t listen to what I say.”

She ordered some matrons to deliver the hamper of crabs and tell Xifeng that she was keeping Pinger there.

Presently a matron returned with the empty hamper.

“Madam Lian says you and the young ladies mustn’t laugh at her greediness, madam,” she reported. “In this hamper are some caltrop cakes and chicken-fat rolls sent by Aunt Wang for you, madam, and the young ladies.” She then turned to Pinger. “She says she knew, once she sent you here, you’d stay to amuse yourself; but you mustn’t drink too much.”

“And what if I do?” retorted Pinger, as she went on helping herself to wine and crab.

“Such a lovely girl!” cried Li Wan, taking her arm. “What a pity she’s fated to wait on other people. Anyone not in the know would take you for the mistress of the house.”

Pinger, eating and drinking with Baochai and Xiangyun, turned her head to protest with a smile, “Don’t tickle me, madam.”

“My, what are these hard things?” asked Li Wan.

“Keys,” was the answer.

“Why, what valuables are you afraid of people stealing that you carry these keys about on you? It’s as I always say: When Monk Tripitaka1 was searching for Buddhist scriptures, a white horse turned up to carry him; when Liu Zhiyuan2 was fighting for the empire, a melon spirit ap­peared to give him armour. In the same way, Xifeng has you. You’re her master-key. What does she want these keys for?”

Pinger laughed.

“Now you’re making fun of me in your cups, madam.”

“It’s true all the same,” said Baochai. “When we’ve nothing to do but gossip, we always agree that each single one of you girls is one in a hundred. And the wonderful thing is that each one of you has her own good qualities.”

“Providence orders all things, great and small,” chimed in Li Wan. “For instance, what would the old lady do without Yuanyang? Nobody else, not eyen Lady Wang, dares contradict the old lady; but when Yuanyang does, the old lady listens to her. Nobody else can remember all the clothes and trinkets the old lady has, but Yuanyang remembers. If not for her being in charge, goodness knows how many things would have been swindled out of them. Even so, the girl’s broad-minded and instead of throwing her weight about she often puts in a good word for others.”

“Only yesterday,” remarked Xichun with a smile, “the old lady was saying she’s better than any of us.”

“She’s really fine,” agreed Pinger. “We others can’t compare with her.”

“Caixia in my mother’s apartments is an honest girl too,” put in Baoyu.

“Yes, she appears simple,” said Tanchun, “yet she’s smart. Her Ladyship is as unworldly as a Buddha, but if she overlooks anything Caixia sees to it for her. She keeps an eye on everything down to the least details of our father’s affairs at home and outside. So if her mistress forgets anything she quietly reminds her.”

“True enough,” said Li Wan. She pointed at Baoyu, “And think what would happen in this young gentleman’s rooms, if not for Xiren’s good judgement. As for Xifeng, why, even if she had the strength of the Con­queror of Chu who could lift a tripod weighing a thousand catties, how could she handle everything without Pinger here?”

“Four of us came with our mistress at the time of her marriage,” said Pinger. “But the others have either died or gone, so that now I’m the only one left.”

“So much the better for you as well as for Xifeng,” commented Li Wan. “When your Master Zhu was alive we had two maids too, and I’m not the jealous type, am I? But they bickered so much every day that after his death I married them both off while they were still young. If there’d been just one worth keeping, I’d have someone to help me now.” Tears ran down her cheeks.

“Why let this upset you?” said the others. “You’re better off without them.”

So saying they washed their hands and went to pay their respects to the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang. While the other maids swept the pavilion and cleared away the cups and dishes, Xiren took Pinger back with her to her room. And once seated there she asked her:

“Why has no one received the allowance for this month yet?”

“It’ll be coming in a couple of days,” Pinger whispered. “My mis­tress got this month’s allowance some time ago but has loaned it out. She’ll distribute it as soon as she’s collected the interest. But mind you don’t pass this on.”

“I can’t believe she’s short of money. Why should she put herself to all that trouble?”

Pinger smiled.

“These last few years she’s been lending out this money for the monthly allowances together with her own. The interest she gets on these loans comes to more than a thousand taels of silver a year.

“So the two of you, mistress and maid, have been using our money to get interest and kept us waiting like regular fools!” said Xiren with a smile.

“There you go again, talking in that heartless way! You’re not short,

are you?”

“No, I’m not. I’ve nothing to spend money on, but I need a reserve for him.”

“If you need money urgently, I still have a few taels you can be going on with. I’ll deduct it later from your allowance.”

“I don’t need any at the moment, but if we run out I’ll send some­body to fetch it.”

Pinger, having agreed to this, left the Garden and returned to her own quarters.

Xifeng was out when she got back. But seated in her room, accompa­nied by the wives of Zhang Cai and Zhou Rui, were Granny Liu and Baner who had called before to ask for help. A few maids were empty­ing on to the floor some sacks of dates, pumpkins and other farm pro­duce. They stood up when Pinger came in.

Granny Liu, who knew Pinger’s status from her last visit, scrambled off the kang to greet her.

“All at home send their compliments,” she said. “We’d have come before this to pay our respects to the mistress and to you, miss, but we’ve been very busy on the farm. This year we managed to get in a couple of piculs more of grain and a good crop of pumpkins, fruit and vegetables. These here are our first pickings. We didn’t like to sell them but kept the best for you to taste. You young ladies must be tired of the delicacies you eat every day, and you may care to try our country fare. This is just our poor way of showing our gratitude.”

Pinger thanked her for her trouble and asked her to take a seat. Hav­ing sat down herself she urged Mrs. Zhang and Mrs. Zhou to be seated too, then told a maid to bring tea.

“You’re rather flushed today, miss,” remarked the stewards’ wives. “Why, even your eyes are red.”

“I know,” replied Pinger. “I really can’t drink, but Madam Li Wan and the young ladies simply forced me. I had to swallow one or two cups, which made my face red.”

“I wouldn’t mind a drink myself, but nobody treats me,” joked Mrs. Zhang. “Next time you get an invitation, miss, I hope you’ll take me along.”

Everybody laughed.

“I saw those crabs this morning,” remarked Mrs. Zhou. “I reckon two or three of them must weigh a catty. Three big crates like those must have weighed nearly eighty catties.” She added, “Still, I don’t suppose there were enough for everyone, high and low.”

“Of course not,” said Pinger. “Only people of some consequence had a couple. Of the others, some were lucky and some weren’t.”

“Crabs that size cost five silver cents a catty this year,” put in Granny Liu. “That’s fifty cents for ten catties. Five times fifty makes two taels fifty; three times five makes fifteen. Together with the wine and eat­ables, that adds up to more than twenty taels of silver. Gracious Buddha! That’s enough to keep us country folk for a whole year.”

“Have you seen our mistress yet?” Pinger asked her.

“Yes,” replied Granny Liu. “She told us to wait.” Looking out of the window at the sky she added, “It’s getting late. We ought to be going. If we found the city gate closed we’d be in a fine fix.”

“True,” said Mrs. Zhou. “I’ll go and see what she’s doing.”

She went out and reappeared after some time, beaming.

“Luck must be with you today, granny,” she announced. “The two ladies have taken quite a fancy to you.”

Pinger and the others asked her what she meant.

“Madam Lian was with the old lady,” replied Mrs. Zhou. “I told her quietly, ‘Granny Lin wants to leave, so as to reach the city gate before it’s closed.’ She said, ‘She’s come all that way with a load of things; let her spend the night here and go back tomorrow.’ Doesn’t that show she’s taken a fancy to you?

“That’s not all either. The old lady happened to overhear us and asked, ‘Who’s this Granny Liu?’ When that was explained by Madam Lian she said, ‘I’ve been wanting to have a chat with some experienced old soul. Ask her over to see me.’ Who could have imagined such a stroke of luck?”

She urged Granny Liu to go at once to the Lady Dowager.

“I’m not fit to be seen,” objected Granny Liu. “Good sister, just tell her I’ve left.”

“Go on, don’t worry about that,” said Pinger. “Our old lady is good ness itself to the old and needy. She’s not haughty and high-handed like some people. If you’re shy, Mrs. Zhou and I can come with you.

So she and Zhou Rui’s wife set out with Granny Lin for the Lady Dowager’s quarters.

When the pages on duty at the inner gate saw Pinger, they all stood at attention. Then two of them ran over to her, calling out a respectful greet­ing.

“Now what is it?” she asked.

“It’s late, miss,” said one boy, smiling. “My mother’s ill and wants me to go for a doctor. Can I have a few hours off, please?”

“A fine lot you are,” cried Pinger. “Ganging up to ask for leave in turn every day, and not reporting to the mistress either but pestering me instead. After Zhuer went the other day, Master Lian happened to call for him; and when he wasn’t to be found I was blamed for giving him leave. Now you’re trying it on.

“It’s quite true that his mother is ill,” Mrs. Zhou confirmed. “Do let him go, miss.”

“Come back early tomorrow then,” stipulated Pinger. “And listen, I’ve an errand for you, so don’t wait till the sun bakes your behind be­fore coming back. And take a message for me on your way to Lai Wang. Tell him from the mistress that if he doesn’t bring in the rest of that interest tomorrow, she doesn’t want it — he can keep it for himself.”

The boy assented and made off in high spirits.

Pinger and the two others proceeded then to the Lady Dowager’s apartments where all the girls from the Graden were assembled. Granny Liu had no idea who all these beauties decked out with pearls and emer­alds could be; but she saw an old lady on a couch with a pretty silk-clad girl massaging her legs while Xifeng stood chatting to her. Concluding that this was the Lady Dowager, the old woman stepped forward, smil­ing, and curtseyed to her.

“Greetings, Goddess of Long Life!” she cried.

The Lady Dowager raised herself to greet her in return and ordered Mrs. Zhou to fetch a chair for her. Baner, of course, was still too shy to pay his respects.

“How old are you, venerable kinswoman?” asked the Lady Dowa­ger.

Granny Liu rose to answer, “Seventy-five.”

“So old, yet so hale and hearty! Why, you’re older than I am by several years. If I live to your age, I doubt whether I shall be so spry.

“We’re born to put up with hardships, madam, and you to enjoy good fortune,” replied Granny Liu with a smile. “If we were all like you, who’d do the farming?”

“And your eyes and teeth, are they still good?”

“I can’t complain. But this year one of my back teeth on the left side has come loose.”

“I’m old and useless now,” rejoined the Lady Dowager. “My sight’s failing, I’m hard of hearing, and my memory’s going. I can’t even re­member all our old relatives. When they call I don’t see them for fear they’ll laugh at me, I’ve become so helpless. All I can do is eat pap, sleep, or amuse myself for a while with these grandchildren when I’m bored.”

Granny Liu smiled.

“That’s your good fortune, madam. We couldn’t manage it even if we wanted to.”

“Good fortune? I’m nothing but a useless old thing.”

Everyone laughed at that.

“Just now Xifeng told me you’ve brought us a lot of pumpkins and vegetables,” the Lady Dowager went on. “I’ve asked to have them cooked at once. I’ve been longing for some freshly picked things of this kind. Those we buy outside aren’t as good as yours, straight from the fields.”

“This is rough country fare but at least it’s fresh,” Granny Liu an­swered. “We’d rather eat meat and fish ourselves, only we can’t afford it.”

“Now that we relatives have met, you mustn’t leave with nothing to show for your visit. If you don’t dislike our place, do stay for a couple of days. We have a garden too with fruit in it. Tomorrow you must try some and take some home, to show you’ve visited your relatives here.”

Xifeng also pressed Granny Lin to stay, seeing what a liking the old lady had taken to her.

“Though our place here isn’t as large as your farm we have a couple of empty rooms,” she said. “Do stay for a day or two, and tell our old lady some of your village news and stories.”

“You’re not to make fun of her, you baggage,” warned the Lady Dowager. “She’s an honest village woman, how can she stand up to your teasing?”

She told the maids to offer Baner some fruit, but with so many people about the boy dared not eat. So she ordered them to give him some cash and sent him off to play with the pages outside. Then Granny Liu, after sipping a cup of tea, regaled the Lady Dowager with some village gossip which quite delighted her.

Granny Liu was still holding forth when Xifeng told a maid to invite her to dinner, and the Lady Dowager sent her some of her own dishes. Knowing how pleased the old lady was with her, Xifeng sent Granny Liu back again after her meal; and Yuanyang deputed an old nurse to take her to have a bath while she picked a simple change of clothing for her. Granny Lin, who was having the time of her life, changed quickly. Then, seated in front of the Lady Dowager’s couch, she found some more gossip to tell her. Baoyu and the girls were there too and never having heard such talk before they found it more diverting than the ballads of blind folk-singers.

Now Granny Lin though a countrywoman was no fool. Besides, being old and experienced she could see how delighted the old lady was and how eagerly the young people were listening. So when she ran out of gossip she drew on her imagination.

“In our village we grow grain and vegetables year in, year out,” she said. “Spring, summer, autumn and winter, in wind and rain, what time have we to sit idle? We just knock off for a rest each day in the fields, and I can assure you we see all kinds of queer doings.

“Last winter, for example, the snow fell for several days on end and piled up on the ground three of four feet deep. I got up early one day and hadn’t yet left the house when I heard a noise from the woodpile. I peeped through the window, thinking it must be someone filching our firewood. But it wasn’t anybody from our village.”

“I suppose it was some passer-by who felt cold,” put in the Lady Dowager. “Seeing fuel ready at hand he took some to make a fire. That might well be.”

“It wasn’t a passer-by either,” Granny Liu chortled. “That’s what was so strange. Who d’you think it was, my lady? A slip of a girl of seventeen or eighteen, pretty as a picture, with hair as glossy as oil, wearing a red tunic and a white silk skirt….

Just then a sudden commotion broke out outside.

“It’s not serious,” someone shouted. “Don’t alarm the old lady.”

At once they asked what had happened. A maid explained that a fire had broken out in the stables in the south court, but there was no danger as it was now under control.

The Lady Dowager, being very easily frightened, got up quickly and made them help her out to the verandah. At sight of flames in the south­east part of the grounds she invoked Buddha in her terror, then ordered incense to be burned to the God of Fire. Lady Wang and the others hur­ried over to the Lady Dowager’s apartments to comfort her.

“It’ll soon be put out,” they assured her. “Do go back inside, madam.”

But the old lady waited till all the flames had died down before leading the whole company indoors again. At once Baoyu asked Granny Liu:

“Why was that girl taking firewood when the snow lay so deep? Did she catch cold?”

“It was this talk about firewood that caused the fire,” put in his grand­mother. “Yet you still keep on asking about it. Don’t mention it any more. Let’s talk about something else.”

Much against his will Baoyu had to drop the subject, and Granny Liu thought up another tale.

“To the east of our village,” she said, “there lives an old woman who’s over ninety this year. She fasts and prays to Buddha every day. And would you believe it, this so moved the Goddess of Mercy that she appeared to her one night in a dream. ‘You were fated to have no de­scendants,’ she said. ‘But I’ve told the Jade Emperor how devout you are, and he’s going to give you a grandson.’

“The fact is, this old woman had only one son. This son, too, had just the one son; but they only managed to bring him up to the age of seven­teen or eighteen when he died, nearly breaking their hearts. In due time, sure enough, another son was born to them. He’s just fourteen now, as plump and white as a snowball and the sharpest lad you ever set eyes on. This shows, doesn’t it, that there really are gods and spirits?”

This story was just the kind that appealed to the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang, hence even the latter listened with close attention. Baoyu, however, was still trying go imagine what could have become of the girl who took the firewood, when he was addressed by Tanchun.

“Yesterday Xiangyun treated us,” she said. “When we go back let’s talk over our next meeting and how to ask her back. Suppose we invite the old lady to come and look at the chrysanthemums?”

“The old lady says she means to give a party herself in return for Xiangyun’s, and we’ll be invited too,” replied Baoyu. “So we’d better wait till after that.”

“If we wait until it’s cold, though, the old lady may not like it.”

“Why not? She enjoys rain and snow. Better wait for the first fall of snow and then ask her to a snow party. We’ll have more fun ourselves too, writing poems in the snow.

“Writing poems in the snow?” put in Daiyu mockingly. “I don’t think that would be half as much fun as building a woodpile and having a camp­fire in the snow.”

Baochai and the others laughed, while Baoyu flashed a glance at Daiyu but said nothing.

As soon as the party broke up, he quietly took Granny Liu aside to ask her who the girl in her story was. This forced the old woman to improvise again.

“In the fields just north of our village there stands a small shrine,” she said. “It wasn’t built for any god or Buddha, but there was once a gentle­man ….” She stopped to think of a name.

“Never mind,” said Baoyu. “Names don’t matter, just tell me the story.”

“This gentleman had no son, only one daughter called Mingyu,” con­tinued Granny Liu. “She could read and write and was her parent’s most precious treasure, but when she reached the age of seventeen the poor girl fell ill and died….”

Baoyu stamped his foot and sighed.

“What happened afterwards?” he asked.

“Her parents were so heartbroken that they built this shrine, had an effigy made of the girl, and kept someone there to burn incense and keep the lamp burning. That was many years ago. Those people are dead now, the temple is in ruins, and a spirit has taken possession of the effigy.”

“It’s not that a spirit’s taken possession of it,” he retorted quickly. “The rule is that people of this kind are immortal.”

“You don’t say! Gracious Buddha! If you hadn’t told me, I’d have sworn it was magic. She often takes human form to roam about through the villages, farmsteads and highways, and it was she who took that firewood. In our village they’re talking of smashing up this image and razing the shrine to the ground.”

“Don’t let them do that!” urged Baoyu hastily. “It would be a great sin to destroy that shrine.”

“I’m glad you told me, sir,” said Granny Liu. “When I go back to­morrow I’ll stop them.”

“My grandmother and my mother are both charitable people. In fact, our whole family, old and young, like to do good deeds and give alms; and they take the greatest delight in building temples and having images made. So tomorrow I’ll draw up a subscription notice to collect donations for you. When enough contributions have come in, you can take charge of repairing the shrine and restoring the image, and every month I’ll give you money for incense. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”

“If you do that I’ll have a few cash to spend too, all thanks to this young lady!”

Baoyu then asked her the name of the district and village, how far it was there and back, and just where the shrine stood. She made up an­swers at random but he believed her, and on his return to his room he spent the whole night thinking the matter over.

The next morning, as soon as it was light, he sent Mingyan with sev­eral hundred cash to find the place described by Granny Liu and bring him back a clear report so that he could make further plans.

Baoyu waited hour after hour for Mingyan’s return, as frantic as an ant on a hot pan. He waited and waited till sunset, when his page came back looking very pleased with himself.

“Did you find it?” demanded Baoyu eagerly.

“You must have got it wrong, Master Bao. You led me a fine dance,” replied Mingyan, smiling. “It’s not where you said, and the name’s different too. So it took me a whole day to track it down. Then I found a tumbledown temple in the fields to the northeast.”

Baoyu beamed with joy.

“Granny Liu’s old,” he said. “Her memory probably plays tricks with her. Well, what did you find? Go on!”

“The temple gate faces south all right, and the place is tumbling down. I was fed up with hunting for it, and as soon as I saw it I said to myself, ‘At last!’ I marched straight in. One look at the image, though, made me take to my heels – it’s so fearfully lifelike!”

“She can take human form, so naturally she looks lifelike,” replied Baoyu cheerfully.

“But it isn’t a girl.” Mingyan clapped his hands together. “It’s blue-faced and red-haired — the God of Plague!”

“You useless fool,” swore Baoyu in disgust. “You can’t handle the least little job.”

“I don’t know what books you’ve been reading, Master Bao, or what nonsensical talk you’ve been swallowing, to send me on a wild-goose chase of this sort. And now you say I’m useless.”

“Don’t get so worked up,” rejoined Baoyu soothingly. “You must try again some other day when you’ve time. If she was having me on, of course there’s no such place; but if there is, you’ll be doing a good deed and you can be sure I’ll reward you handsomely.”

Just then a page from the inner gate announced, “Some girls from the old lady’s apartments are waiting for you, Master Bao, at the inner gate.”

If you want to know what this meant, read the next chapter.

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