A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 44

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Chapter 44

Xifeng, Taken by Surprise,

Gives Way to Jealousy

Pinger, Unexpectedly Gratified,

Makes Her Toilet

Baoyu was sitting with the girls as everybody watched The Tale of the Thorn Pin. When it came to the scene in which the hero sacrifices to his drowned wife, Daiyu remarked to Baochai:

‘What a fool this Wang Shipeng is! Surely he could offer a sacrifice anywhere. Why must he rush off to kneel beside the river? The proverb says: Things have their associations. But water the whole world over in the last analysis comes from the same source. He could have ladled out a bowl of water anywhere and wept over it to work off his feelings.’

Baochai refrained from answering, while Baoyu turned away to ask for some heated wine to toast Xifeng.

As this was a special occasion, the Lady Dowager was determined that Xifeng should have a whole day of unalloyed pleasure. Feeling un­equal to joining the feasters herself, she reclined on a couch in the inner room to watch the opera from there with Aunt Xue, from time to time nibbling some of her favourite titbits set out on the teapoy beside her as they chatted. The two tables of food prepared for her she made over to the maids and serving-women who had no share in the feast; with in­structions not to stand on ceremony but to sit in the verandah outside and eat and drink as much as they pleased.

Lady Wang and Lady Xing sat at the high table in the old lady’s room, the girls at tables in the outer room.

The Lady Dowager reiterated to Madam You, ‘Xifeng must take the seat of honour. And mind you play hostess well for me to show our ap­preciation of her hard work all the year round.’

‘I’ll do my best, madam,’ promised Madam You. ‘But she says she’s not used to sitting in the seat of honour. She feels out of place there and won’t drink anything.’

‘If you can’t make her drink,’ chuckled the old lady, ‘I’ll go out presently and toast her myself.’

Xifeng hurried in to protest, ‘Don’t believe her, Old Ancestress. I’ve had quite a few cups already.’

The old lady jokingly ordered Madam You, ‘Drag her out quick, and force her on to her seat, then take it in turns to toast her. If she still refuses to drink, I shall really come out.’

Madam You gaily carried out these instructions and ordered a mug to be filled.

‘From one end of the year to the other you’ve been dutifully filial to the old lady, Lady Wang and me,’ she told Xifeng. ‘I’ve no gift for you today, so I’ll offer you a mug of wine with my own hands. Drink up now like a good girl.’

‘If you really want to show appreciation you must kneel down, then I’ll drink,’ was Xifeng’s laughing retort.

‘Don’t be carried away by all the compliments paid you. I can tell you, such good luck is very rare. Who knows if a day like this will ever come again? So make the most of it, and now drink two cups.’

Xifeng had no choice but to do as she was told. Next, all the girls presented cups and she had to sip from each. Then Lai Da’s mother, seeing the Lady Dowager in such high spirits, decided to join in the fun and led some old serving-women in to toast Xifeng, who again could not refuse them. By the time Yuanyang and the younger maids came to drink her health, she had really had all she could take.

‘Good sisters, let me off,’ she begged. ‘I’ll drink with you some other time.’

‘So we have no face, is that it?’ protested Yuanyang. ‘Why, even the mistress condescends to drink with us. You usually show us more consideration, but now in front of all these people you’re putting on the airs of a mistress. Well, it’s my fault for coming. If you won’t drink, we’ll leave you.’ She turned to go.

Xifeng hastily stopped her, crying. ‘All right, good sister, I’ll drink.’

She picked up the winepot, filled her cup to the brim, and tossed it off. Then Yuanyang withdrew with a smile.

After seating herself again, Xifeng felt the effects of the wine. Her heart was beating so fast that she decided to go home for a rest. As the jugglers has just come in, she asked Madam You to see about tipping them while she went and had a wash.

Madam You nodded and, since no one else detained her, Xifeng left the table and slipped out the back way. Watchful Pinger quickly followed her and took her arm. They were just approaching the covered walk when they noticed one of their young maids standing there, but at sight of them she turned and ran. This made Xifeng suspicious. She called to her to stop. At first the girl pretended not to hear, but when Pinger called to her too she had to come back.

Xifeng, more suspicious than ever now, stepped with Pinger into the entrance hall and told the maid to join them and close the partitions. Seat­ing herself on the steps leading to the small courtyard, she made the girl kneel down.

‘Get two boys from the inner gate to bring ropes and whips,’ she sharply ordered Pinger. ‘We’ll give this impudent little bitch a good flog­ging.’

The girl, frightened out of her wits, burst into tears and knocked her head on the ground as she begged for mercy.

‘I’m not a ghost,’ snapped Xifeng. ‘Why didn’t you stand to atten­tion when you saw me? Why run away?’

‘I didn’t see you, madam,’ sobbed the maid. ‘I ran because I re­membered there was no one in our apartments.’

‘If so, why did you come here in the first place? Even if you didn’t see me, we called you at the top of our voices a dozen times, but that only made you run the faster. We weren’t far off and you’re not deaf. How dare you answer back?’

She slapped the girl so hard on the face that she staggered, then gave her another slap on the other side. At once the girl’s cheeks began to swell up and turn purple.

‘Mind you don’t hurt your hand, madam,’ urged Pinger.

‘Hit her for me then. Make her say why she ran away. If she won’t, tear her lips!’

The maid went on protesting her innocence until Xifeng threatened to brand her mouth with a red-hot iron. Then she confessed with tears:

‘The master’s home. He sent me here to watch out for you and let him know as soon as I saw you coming, madam. He didn’t think you would be back so soon.’

Xifeng guessed that there was more to it than this. ‘Why did he ask you to do that?’ she demanded. ‘Why should he be afraid of my return? There must have been a reason. If you tell me straight out, I’ll be good to you; but if you won’t talk, I’ll get a knife this instant and carve you up.’ She drew a pin from her hair as she spoke and jabbed viciously at the maid’s mouth.

Shrinking back in fright the girl sobbed, ‘I’ll tell you, madam. But please don’t let the master know that I told.’

Pinger, trying to pacify Xifeng, urged the maid to hurry up.

‘The master came home not long ago and had a short nap,’ she said. ‘After he woke up he sent someone to see what you were doing, madam. She reported that you’d just started the feast and wouldn’t be back for some time. Then the master opened a case and took out two pieces of silver, two hairpins and two bolts of satin. He told me to take them se­cretly to Bao Er’s wife and ask her to come over. She took the things and came; then the master told me to watch out for you, madam. What happened after that I don’t know.’

Trembling with rage, Xifeng sprang to her feet and hurried towards her compound. Another young maid was stationed at the gate, and at sight of Xifeng she ducked back and ran. Xifeng called her by name to stop, and this girl had more sense: seeing that there was no escape, she came running out instead.

‘I was just coming to report to you, madam,’ she said with a smile. ‘But luckily here you are.’

‘What were you coming to report?’

‘Our master’s back …’ She went on to repeat the story told by the other.

Xifeng spat in disgust. ‘And what have you been doing all this time?’ she cried. ‘You’re only trying to clear yourself because I caught you.

She dealt the maid a blow which made her stagger, then tiptoed into the courtyard and up to the window to listen.

She heard the woman inside say laughingly, ‘If only that hellish wife of yours would die!’

‘What if she did?’ replied Jia Lian. ‘I’d marry another who might be just as bad.’

‘When she dies, you can promote Pinger and make her your wife. She should be easier to handle.’

‘Nowadays she won’t even let me touch Pinger,’ said Jia Lian. ‘Pinger resents it too, but she dares not complain. What a fate, being saddled with a hell-cat like her!’

Xifeng was convulsed with fury, convinced by their praise of Pinger that the latter must have been complaining about her behind her back too. By now the wine had quite gone to her head and, not stopping to think, she rounded on Pinger and slapped her. Next she kicked open the door and burst into the room. Without a word she caught hold of Bao Er’s wife and pummelled her, then posted herself at the door to cut off Jia Lian’s retreat.

‘Dirty whore!’ she cursed. ‘You steal your mistress’ husband and plot to murder your mistress. And Pinger, you come here! You whores and bitches have ganged up against me, yet you make such a public show of trying to please me.’

With that she struck Pinger again. Having no one to whom to com­plain of this injustice, Pinger holding back her tears nearly choked with rage.

‘Can’t you wallow in the muck by yourselves without dragging me in for no reason at all?’ she stormed. She started scratching and slapping Bao Er’s wife too.

Jia Lian, coming home in high spirits after drinking, had allowed him­self to be caught off his guard so that when his wife burst in he was quite at a loss. Now that Pinger was making a scene too he flew into a drunken passion. When Xifeng beat Bao Er’s wife he could only look on furiously and sheepishly, but as soon as Pinger joined in he charged forward and kicked her.

‘You slut! Who are you to raise your hand against her?’

Pinger fearing that he would beat her promptly left off, protesting tearfully, ‘When you talk behind our backs, why drag me in?’

Pinger’s fear of Jia Lian made Xifeng angrier than ever. She rounded on her and struck her again, insisting that she go on beating Bao Er’s wife. In desperation, Pinger ran out of the room to find a knife with which to kill herself, but the serving-women and maids outside hastily stopped her and tried to dissuade her.

When Xifeng saw Pinger bent on suicide, she rammed her head against Jia Lian’s chest and screamed, ‘You’ve all ganged up to do me in, and when I find out you all try to frighten me. Strangle me and have done with it!’

In a towering rage Jia Lian snatched a sword from the wall.

‘She needn’t kill herself,’ he bellowed. ‘I’ve had all I can take. I’ll kill the lot of you and pay with my life. Make a clean sweep!’

This uproar was at its height when Madam You and some others arrived on the scene.

‘What does this mean?’ they exclaimed. ‘A moment ago all was well. What’s the row about?’

Their presence emboldened Jia Lian, half drunk as he was, to bluster even more wildly and swear to kill Xifeng. For her part’ at their arrival she had stopped storming and slipped away tearfully to enlist the support of the Lady Dowager.

By this time the opera was over. Xifeng ran to the old lady and threw herself into her arms.

‘Save me, Old Ancestress! Lian wants to kill me.’

The old lady, Lady Xing and Lady Wang immediately asked what had happened.

‘When I went home just now to change,’ Xifeng sobbed, ‘I heard him talking to someone. Not liking to intrude if he had a guest, I listened outside the window. It was Bao Er’s wife there, and the two of them were plotting to poison me because I’m a shrew and put Pinger in my place. Angry as I was, I dared not quarrel with him; I just gave Pinger a couple of slaps and asked her why she should want to murder me. He flared up then and threatened to kill me.’

The Lady Dowager and the others believed her story.

‘How monstrous!’ exclaimed the old lady. ‘Bring the wretch here.’

That same moment Jia Lian rushed in with his sword, followed by a crowd of people. Counting on the Lady Dowager’s usual indulgence and the helplessness of both his mother and aunt, he ranted and raged with a great show of bravado.

Lady Xing and Lady Wang angrily barred his way. ‘Have you gone mad, you degenerate?’ they scolded. ‘How dare you behave like this in the old lady’s presence?’

He cast them a sidelong glance. ‘It’s the old lady who’s spoiled her,’ he retorted. ‘So now she even has the nerve to swear at me.’

Lady Xing wrathfully snatched away his sword and ordered him out of the room. But he simply went on blustering and storming.

‘I know you have no respect for us,’ snapped the Lady Dowager. ‘Send someone to fetch his father, and see if he’ll go then.’

Then Jia Lian slunk off. Too angry to go home, he went to his outside study.

Meanwhile Lady Xing and Lady Wang had been remonstrating with Xifeng.

‘Don’t take it so seriously,’ said the old lady, smiling. ‘He’s only a boy and as greedy as a cat. This sort of thing can’t be helped. All young men go through such stages. It’s my fault for making Xifeng drink so much — the wine’s turned to vinegar.’

At this everybody laughed.

‘Don’t worry,’ the old lady told Xifeng. ‘Tomorrow I’ll make him come here to apologize to you. Don’t go back today to embarrass him. As for that wretch Pinger, I thought she was a good girl how could she turn out so sly?’

‘Pinger’s not to blame,’ put in Madam You soothingly. ‘Xifeng was just making a whipping-boy of her. Husband and wife couldn’t very well fight each other, so both worked off their temper on her. Pinger feels most terribly wronged. Don’t you go blaming her too, madam!’

‘So that’s how it is,’ said the Lady Dowager. ‘Yes, I never thought the child was one of those vamps. Well then, poor thing, her mistress stormed at her for no reason. Here, Hupo! Go and tell Pinger from me: I know she’s been unfairly treated and tomorrow I’ll get Xifeng to apolo­gize; but she mustn’t make a scene today because it’s her mistress’ birthday.’

Long before this Li Wan had led Pinger into Grand View Garden, but she was still sobbing too much to speak.

‘You’re an intelligent girl,’ reasoned Baochai. ‘You know how well Xifeng’s always treated you. Today she just happened to have too much to drink and whom could she vent her anger on if not you? People are laughing at her for getting drunk. If you go on taking it so much to heart, it’ll look as if all your good qualities are a pretence.’

Just then Hupo arrived with the Lady Dowager’s message which vindicated Pinger and made her feel rather better. She did not go back, however, to Xifeng’s apartments.

After resting for a while, Baochai and the others rejoined the Lady Dowager and Xifeng. Then Baoyu invited Pinger to Happy Red Court, where Xiren came out to welcome her with a smile.

‘I was going to ask you over,’ she remarked, ‘but Madam Zhu and the young ladies got in first.’

Pinger thanked her with a smile. ‘This storm sprang up out of the blue,’ she said. ‘I’d done nothing, nothing at all, to deserve such treatment.’

‘Madam Lian’s usually very good to you. Today she just happened to fly into a temper.’

‘I don’t hold it against my mistress,’ answered Pinger. ‘But that bitch had to drag me in, to amuse herself at my expense, and our fool of a master beat me instead of her.’

The thought of this injustice brought on a fresh fit of weeping.

‘Don’t be so upset, dear sister,’ urged Baoyu. ‘Let me apologize for them.

‘What has it to do with you?’ asked Pinger, smiling.

‘We’re all cousins alike, so when they offend anybody I ought to apologize.’ Then he added, ‘What a pity you’ve dirtied your new clothes too. Why don’t you change into some of Xiren’s so that yours can be sprayed with spirits and pressed? You’d better comb your hair too.’

He ordered some young maids to bring water and heat a flat-iron.

Now Pinger knew only by hearsay how attentive Baoyu was to girls. For as she was Jia Lian’s favourite concubine and Xifeng’s confidante he had always steered clear of her, much though he regretted not being able to pay her more attention. Secretly impressed today by his behaviour she told herself, ‘Yes, he lives up to his reputation. He shows real con­sideration.’

Now Xiren specially opened a case to take out some clothes she sel­dom wore to lend her, and Pinger hastily changed and washed her face.

‘Put on some rouge and powder too,’ coaxed Baoyu who was watch­ing. ‘Otherwise it will look as if you’re still angry with Xifeng. After all, today is her birthday and the old lady did send someone to comfort you.

Pinger felt the truth of this and looked round for some powder, but could not see any. At once Baoyu went to the dressing-table and opened a porcelain casket made in the Xuan De period1 containing ten sticks of four-o’clock-seed powder. He handed one to her.

‘This isn’t white lead. It’s made of the seeds of purple four-o’clock ground fine and mixed with aromatics.’

Pinger holding it on her palm found it light, pinky white and fragrant, delightful in every respect. Brushed over her cheek it was easy to spread smoothly and felt moist, having much finer grains than the usual powder which was bluish-white and sticky. The rouge too, in its small white-jade box, she observed, was not in the usual sheets but looked more like rose salve.

‘The rouge sold in the market isn’t clean, and the colour’s faint,’ explained Baoyu. ‘This is made from the essence of the very best saf­flower, which is steamed after all impurities have been extracted and attar added. You need only take a little on a pin, rub it on the palm of your hand, then dilute it with a drop of water and apply it to your lips. What’s left on your palm will be enough for your cheeks.’

Pinger carried out his instructions and did indeed find the rouge ex­traordinarily vivid and fragrant.

Then, with a pair of bamboo scissors, Baoyu cut a spray of double autumn flowering orchid that was growing in a pot for her to pin on her hair. Just then, however, Li Wan sent a maid to fetch her, and Pinger hastily left.

It distressed Baoyu that he had never shown much attention to Pinger before, though she was such an intelligent, good-looking girl, altogether superior to the common run of stupid, vulgar creatures. He had been grieving all day because this was Jinchuan’s birthday, till this chance to show Pinger some attention a chance he had never expected in a lifetime ‘ had brought him a quite unlooked-for happiness. He there­fore curled up on his bed feeling very pleased with himself.

‘Jia Lian’s only interested in sex but has no consideration for girls,’ he reflected. ‘Here’s Pinger, all alone, with no parents, brothers or sis­ters, waiting on Jia Lian and Xifeng and coping so well with his vulgarity and her vindictiveness; yet she still gets into this dreadful trouble today. How unkind fate is to her! She’s even worse off than Daiyu.’

These reflections upset him again, reducing him to tears, and as Xiren and the others had left the room he indulged in a fit of weeping. Noticing that the alcohol sprayed on Pinger’s clothes was now almost dry, he pressed the clothes with the iron and folded them neatly. He saw she had forgotten her handkerchief. As it was still stained with tears, he washed it in the basin and hung it up to dry in a mood of pleasurable melancholy. Then, growing bored, he went off to Paddy-Sweet Cottage to chat with the others until it was time to light the lanterns and part.

Pinger spent the night with Li Wan and Xifeng with the Lady Dowa­ger. Thus Jia Lian, going home that evening, found the place uncannily quiet. But since he could hardly fetch them he had to spend that night alone. The next morning, too late, he regretted the scene he had made. So when Lady Xing came over early, distressed by his drunken behaviour the previous day, he accompanied her to the old lady’s apartments. Go­ing in sheepishly, he fell on his knees before the Lady Dowager.

‘Well?’ she asked.

With an apologetic smile he said, ‘Yesterday I drank too much and disturbed you, madam. I’ve come now to be punished.’

She spat in disgust and swore, ‘You degenerate! After swigging you might at least stretch out on your bed quietly like a corpse instead of beating your wife. Xifeng’s a regular saucebox and likes to lord it over everyone, but how you frightened the poor thing yesterday! If not for me you might have killed her. What do you intend to do now?’

Jia Lian had to accept this reproach, much as it rankled, and did not venture to vindicate himself.

‘Aren’t Xifeng and Pinger both beauties? Aren’t they enough for you?’ the old lady demanded. ‘You never stop philandering, dragging every stinking bit of filth to your room. Fancy beating your own wife and concubine for a whore like that! How can the son of a good family be­have so disgracefully? If you’ve any respect for me, get up. I’ll forgive you on condition that you apologize to your wife and take her home. That’s the way to please me. Otherwise just take yourself off, I won’t have you kneeling to me.’

During this lecture Jia Lian saw Xifeng standing there, not in her usual finery but with her eyes swollen from weeping, her pale face unpainted and unpowdered, looking more pathetic and lovely than ever before. He thought, ‘I may as well apologize and make it up. That will please the old lady too.’

He therefore replied with a smile, ‘To hear is to obey, madam. But I’m afraid this will only make her more headstrong.’

‘Nonsense,’ retorted the Lady Dowager. ‘She has the strongest sense of what’s fitting, I know, and won’t burst out like this again. If she offends you in future, of course I’ll give you permission to make her submit to your authority.’

Jia Lian rose to his feet then and bowed to Xifeng.

‘It was my fault, madam,’ he said. ‘Please forgive me.’

At that the whole company laughed.

‘Don’t make a scene now, Xifeng,’ said the old lady smiling. ‘If you do, I shall be cross.’

Next she sent for Pinger and ordered Jia Lian and Xifeng to make their peace with her. This Jia Lian was very ready to do. He promptly stepped forward and said:

‘I’m the one to blame for the unjust way you were treated yesterday, miss, and because of me your mistress wronged you too. So let me apolo­gize for myself as well as for your mistress.’ With that he bowed again, making the Lady Dowager and Xifeng laugh.

Then the old lady told Xifeng it was her turn, but already Pinger had kowtowed to her mistress.

‘I deserve death, madam,’ she said, ‘for offending you on your birth­day.’

Xifeng was thoroughly ashamed of having drunk so much the previ­ous day that she had forgotten their long friendship and lost her temper, humiliating Pinger quite groundlessly just because of something a third party had said. Seeing the maid kowtow now, she hastily raised her to her feet, shedding tears of contrition and distress.

Pinger was weeping too. ‘In all the years I’ve served you, madam, you’ve never laid a finger upon me,’ she said. ‘I don’t blame you for striking me yesterday. It was all the fault of that bitch. How could you help being angry?’

The Lady Dowager ordered attendants to escort the three of them to their own apartments.

‘If anyone raises the subject again,’ she said, ‘report it to me at once. And no matter who it is, I’ll take my cane and give him a good beating.’

The three of them, having kowtowed once more to the old lady, Lady Xing and Lady Wang, were seen back by some old nurses.

As soon as they were alone Xifeng demanded, ‘Just why am I hell­ish? A hell-cat? When that bitch cursed me and wished me dead, you joined in. In a thousand and one days I must be good at least one day; yet it seems, after all this time, I’m less to you than a whore. How can I have the face to go on living now?’ By now she was weeping again.

‘What more do you want?’ cried her husband. ‘Just think a bit who was most to blame yesterday? Yet today it was I who knelt down and begged your pardon in front of all those people. You’ve got quite enough face, so stop nagging now. Do you expect me to kneel to you again? It’s no good going too far.’

This silenced Xifeng and she giggled.

‘That’s better.’ He grinned. ‘I honestly don’t know how to cope with you.’

Just then a serving-woman came in to report that Bao Er’s wife had hanged herself. They were both shocked to hear this. But after her initial fright Xifeng put on a bold face.

‘If she’s dead, she’s dead,’ she retorted. ‘What’s all the fuss about?’

Presently, however, Lin Zhixiao’s wife came in and whispered to her, ‘Bao Er’s wife has hanged herself, madam. And her people are threat­ening to sue you.’

‘That’s fine.’ Xifeng gave a scornful laugh. ‘I’ve been waiting for a chance to go to court.’

‘We’ve all been trying to talk or frighten them out of it,’ said Mrs. Lin. ‘They’re willing to drop the matter if you’ll give them a few strings of cash.’

‘I haven’t a cent, and I wouldn’t give it to them if I had. Let them go ahead and arraign me. Don’t try to talk them round or scare them away. Just let them go ahead. But if they lose their case I shall sue them for blackmail.’

Mrs. Lin was in a quandary when Jia Lian glanced at her significantly and, catching on, she withdrew to wait outside.

‘I’ll go and see what can be done,’ he told Xifeng.

‘You’re not to pay them anything,’ she warned.

He went to talk the business over with Lin Zhixiao, then sent people to negotiate and finally hushed the matter up by paying two hundred taels. To give them no chance to change their minds, however, Jia Lian also sent stewards to ask Wang Ziteng for some runners and sergeants to help with the funeral. When the dead woman’s family knew this, they dared make no further move but simply had to swallow their resentment.

Jia Lian also told Lin Zhixiao to deduct the two hundred taels from their housekeeping funds, under cover of various items in their daily ex­penditure. In addition he gave Bao Er some money too, and promised to find him a good wife later on. Bao Er raised no objection, naturally, hav­ing received both money and consideration. He continued in Jia Lian’s service as before.

As for Xifeng, although inwardly uneasy she pretended outwardly to be unconcerned. When no one else was about she took Pinger’s hand and said gently:

‘Yesterday I was drunk. You mustn’t hold it against me. Where did I hurt you? Let me have a look.’

‘It’s nothing,’ Pinger answered. ‘You didn’t hit hard.’

Then someone outside announced, ‘Madam Zhu and the young ladies have come.’

To know the reason for their visit, read on.

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