A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 54


Chapter 54

The Lady Dowager Debunks Trite Stories

Xifeng Clowns to Amuse Her Elders

When Jia Zhen and Jia Lian heard the call for largesse they made their pages scatter the coins which they had prepared in advance, and the clink and jingle of money on the stage delighted the old lady. Then, as both men rose from their seats, a page brought Jia Lian a silver pot of freshly-heated wine which he carried himself as he followed Jia Zhen inside. First Jia Zhen bowed to Aunt Li and, taking her cup, turned round so that Jia Lian might fill it. He then bowed to Aunt Xue and filled her cup as well.

The two ladies rose protesting laughingly, ‘Please take seats, gentle­men. Why be so formal?’

All but Lady Xing and Lady Wang had risen from their seats and were standing by them, with their hands at their sides, to show respect. Now Jia Zhen and Jia Lian went up to the Lady Dowager’s couch and, as it was low, knelt down, Jia Zhen holding her cup and Jia Lian, behind him, the wine-pot. Although only the two of them were proposing toasts, ha Huan and the other young men had trooped in behind them, and when these two knelt the rest fell on their knees too. Baoyu made haste to follow suit.

‘Why should you join in?’ whispered Xiangyun, nudging him. ‘Bet­ter offer a toast yourself.’

‘I will later on,’ he replied softly. Only when his cousins had risen after pouring out the wine, did he rise to his feet.

After this toast, Jia Zhen and Jia Lian got up to pour wine for Lady Xing and Lady Wang.

‘How about our cousins?’ asked Jia Zhen then.

‘Get along now and leave them in peace,’ answered the ladies.

Then Jia Zhen and the other young men withdrew.

It was not yet the second watch. Eight scenes from Eight Gallants at the Lantern Festival were being performed, and the climax had just been reached when Baoyu rose to go out.

‘Where are you off to?’ asked his grandmother. ‘Watch out for the fireworks outside, or you may get burnt by some of the sparks raining down.’

‘I’m not going far,’ he replied. ‘I’ll be back soon.

She ordered some attendants to escort him, and he went out followed only by Sheyue, Qiuwen and a few young maids.

‘Where’s Xiren?’ asked the Lady Dowager. ‘She must be getting above herself if she only sends the younger girls out.’

Lady Wang rose to explain, ‘She couldn’t very well come, madam, because she’s newly in mourning for her mother.’

The old lady nodded but commented, ‘A girl in service can’t really afford the niceties of filial piety. If she were still waiting on me, she’d hardly absent herself at this time, would she? This all comes of our leniency. Having enough servants we don’t insist on these things, so this seems to be the rule now.

‘Even if she weren’t in mourning, we need someone in the Garden this evening to keep an eye on the fireworks and prevent accidents,’ put in Xifeng quickly. ‘Whenever we have operas here all the other maids from the Garden sneak out to watch, but Xiren can be relied on to see to things. Besides, this means that when Baoyu goes back presently to sleep he’ll find everything ready for him. If she’d come too, the others are so thoughtless that he’d find his bedding cold on his return, no tea made and everything at sixes and sevens. That’s why I told her to stay there to look after the house and see that everything’s ready for his return. Then we here needn’t worry, while she can observe the proprieties. Isn’t that better all round? But if our Old Ancestress wants her, I’ll send for her.’

‘You’re quite right,’ said the Lady Dowager. ‘Trust you to have thought it all out. Don’t send for her. But when did her mother die? How is it I didn’t know?’

‘Have you forgotten, madam?’ Xifeng smiled. ‘The other day she came herself to report to you.

The old lady thought back and chuckled.

‘So she did. What a memory I have!’

‘How can Your Ladyship remember every little thing?’ remarked the others laughingly.

‘She was only a child when she came to wait on me,’ recalled the old lady with a sigh. ‘Then she waited on Xiangyun for a time, until finally I gave her to our young demon king, and what a dance her’s led her all these years! It’s not as if her parents had been our slaves or received any special kindness from us. After her mother died I meant to give her some silver for the funeral, but somehow it slipped my mind.’

‘The other day the mistress gave her forty taels, and that should have been enough,’ interposed Xifeng.

The Lady Dowager nodded.

‘That’s all right then. As it happens, Yuanyang’s mother has just died too; but because her home’s in the south I didn’t send her back for the funeral. Now they can keep each other company.’ She ordered a serving-woman to take them some refreshments.

‘Yuanyang’s gone without waiting to be told,’ put in Hupo with a smile.

They went on with their feast then, still watching the opera.

Meanwhile Baoyu had gone straight back to the Garden. And seeing that he was going to his own quarters, the nurses did not follow him but sat down by the stove in the Garden gatehouse to drink and gamble with the women in charge of making tea there.

Baoyu found his compound brightly lit but strangely silent.

‘Can they all be in bed?’ wondered Sheyue. ‘Let’s go in quietly and give them a fright.’

Tiptoeing past the full-length looking-glass, they saw Xiren lying oppo­site someone on the kang, with two or three old serving-women dozing on the other side.

Baoyu thought they were asleep. He was on the point of going in when he heard Yuanyang say with a sigh:

‘There’s no telling what will happen in this life. You were on your own here while your parents lived outside and were for ever travelling east and west, so no one would have expected that you’d be able to attend their death-beds. Yet this year your mother died at home and you were able to go to her funeral.’

‘Yes,’ said Xiren. ‘I never thought I’d be able to be there when she breathed her last. And the mistress gave me forty taels too, which was a very handsome reward to her for having brought me up, and more than I dared hope for.’

Baoyu turned to whisper to Sheyue, ‘I didn’t know Yuanyang was here too. If I go in, she’ll leave again in a huff. We’d better go back and leave them to chat in peace. I’m glad she came, Xiren was lonely all on her own.’

So they slipped out quietly. Then Baoyu, stepping behind some rocks, lifted his gown.

Sheyue and Qiuwen had stopped and averted their faces.

‘Don’t undo your pants till you’ve squatted down,’ they cried, ‘or you may catch a chill on your stomach!’

When the two younger maids behind knew what he was up to, they hurried to the room where tea was made to get hot water.

As Baoyu was about to rejoin the others, two of the servants’ wives approached.

‘Who’s that?’ they called.

‘It’s Baoyu,’ replied Qiuwen. ‘Don’t shout like that or you may startle him.’

‘Sorry, we didn’t know,’ said the women with a smile. ‘So we’ve caused you trouble on this festival. You must all be very busy, miss, these days.’

As they had drawn level now, Sheyue asked them what they were carrying.

‘Some cakes and fruit from the old lady for Miss Jin and Miss Hua.’

‘They’re playing The Eight Gallants over there, not The Magic Box,’ quipped Qiuwen. ‘So where does this Goddess Jinhua come from?’1

Baoyu made Qiuwen and Sheyue open the hampers, and as they did so the two women squatted down. Seeing some of the choicest fruits, sweetmeats, cakes and dishes from the feast there, he nodded and moved on. The two girls hastily closed the hampers and followed.

‘Those are friendly, tactful women,’ remarked Baoyu cheerfully. ‘They’ll be tired out themselves these days, but they said how busy you must be. They’re not boastful show-offs.’

‘Those two are all right,’ rejoined Sheyue. ‘Some of the others re­ally have no manners.

‘You’re intelligent girls,’ he said. ‘You should make allowances for those poor coarse creatures.’

By now he had approached the Garden gate. The nurses, who had been looking out for him while drinking and gaming, tagged after him as soon as he reappeared and followed him to the corridor behind the feast­ing hall in the small garden. There the two young maids had been waiting for some time, one holding a basin, the other a towel and a small flask of ointment.

Qiuwen dipped her fingers in the basin.

‘How careless you’re growing,’ she scolded. ‘Fancy bringing such cold water!’

‘It’s the fault of the weather, miss,’ explained the girl. ‘I took boiling water for fear it might get cold; but it’s cooled off all the same.’

Just then, as luck would have it, up came a nurse with a kettle of boiling water.

‘Please give me some of that, granny,’ begged the girl.

‘This is to make tea for the old lady,’ retorted the nurse. ‘Fetch some for yourself, lass. It won’t hurt you to walk a few steps.’

‘Never mind who it’s for,’ put in Qiuwen. ‘If you won’t give us any, I’ll pour water from the old lady’s teapot to wash in.

When the woman saw it was Qiuwen, she hastily poured them some water.

‘That’s enough,’ said Qiuwen. ‘At your age you should have more sense. As if we didn’t know this was for the old lady! But why do you think we asked?’

The nurse smiled and apologized, ‘My eyes are so dim I didn’t see who it was, miss.’

When Baoyu had washed his hands, the girl with the flask poured some ointment over them which he rubbed in. Then Qiuwen and Sheyue, having rinsed their hands in the hot water and rubbed on ointment too, escorted him back to the hail.

Baoyu now called for a pot of warm wine to toast Aunt Li and Aunt Xue, who both begged him to be seated.

‘Let the boy fill your cups,’ said the Lady Dowager. ‘And mind you empty them.’

She drained her own cup then. And when Lady Xing and Lady Wang followed suit, Aunt Xue and Aunt Li had to drink up too.

‘Fill your cousins’ cups,’ the old lady told Baoyu. ‘See that you do it properly and make them all drink up.’

Baoyu assented and filled every cup in turn. When he came to Daiyu she refused to drink but held the cup up to his lips, thanking him with a smile when he tossed it off. He poured her another cup.

‘Don’t drink cold wine, Baoyu,’ warned Xifeng. ‘If you do, your hands will tremble too much to write or draw your bow later on.

‘I haven’t drunk any cold wine,’ he protested.

‘I know. I’m just warning you.’

Having filled all the cups except that of Jia Rong’s wife, whose cup was filled by a maid, he went out to the corridor to toast Jia Zhen and the other men and kept them company for a while before returning to his seat inside.

Presently soup was served, followed by New-Year dumplings.

‘Tell the actresses to rest now,’ said the Lady Dowager. ‘Those poor children must have some hot soup and hot food before they go on.’ She ordered sweetmeats of every kind to be taken to the actresses.

Now that the performance had stopped, one of the matrons brought in two women story-tellers who often visited the house, putting stools for them at one side. They were told to sit down and handed a fiddle and a lute. Then the Lady Dowager asked Aunt Li and Aunt Xue what they would like to hear.

‘Anything will do,’ they answered.

She asked the two women what new stories they had.

‘One about the end of the Tang Dynasty and the Five dynasties,’ they replied.

‘What is its name?’

‘The Phoenix Seeks Its Mate.’

‘ ‘That’s a good title,’ she remarked. ‘Why is it called that? Let’s hear what it’s about, and if it sounds good you can tell it.’

‘It’s about a country gentleman named Wang Zhong at the end of the Tang Dynasty,’ said one of the women. ‘His family came from Jinling. After serving as a minister under two emperors, he retired in his old age. He had an only son called Wang Xifeng.’

The whole party laughed at that.

‘The same name as our minx Xifeng,’ chuckled the old lady. Some serving-women nudged the story-tellers.

‘That’s our Second Mistress’ name. Be careful,’ they warned.

‘Never mind. Go on,’ said the Lady Dowager.

The story-tellers rose to apologize.

‘We deserve to drop dead. We didn’t know it was Her Ladyship’s honourable name.’2

‘What does that matter?’ asked Xifeng cheerfully. ‘Plenty of people have the same name. Go on.’

Then one of the women continued, ‘One year, old Mr. Wang sent his son to take the examination in the capital. Running into heavy rain on the way he took shelter in a village where, as it happened, there lived a gentle­man named Li, an old family friend of Mr. Wang’s, who put the young man up in his study. This Mr. Li had no son, only one daughter Chuluan3 who was thoroughly accomplished in lyre-playing, chess, calligraphy and painting.

‘I understand the title now,’ interposed the old lady. ‘You needn’t go on. I can guess the rest. Naturally Wang Xifeng wants to marry this Miss Chuluan.’

‘So you’ve heard this story before, Old Ancestress.’ The story-teller smiled.

The others explained, ‘The old lady can guess the ending, even if she hasn’t heard the story before.’

‘There’s a sameness about all these tales,’ complained the old lady. ‘And they’re so stereotyped all about talented scholars and lovely ladies. Fancy describing girls who behave so badly as fine young ladies! Why, they’re nothing of the sort. They’re always introduced as girls from cultured families whose fathers are invariably high officials or prime ministers. In that case, an only daughter would be treasured and brought up as a real fine young lady, well-versed in literature and a model of propriety; yet her first glimpse of a handsome man, whether a relative or family friend, sets her thoughts running on marriage. She forgets her parents then and gets up to all sorts of devilry, behaving quite unlike a fine lady. If she carries on like that she’s surely no lady, no matter how her head is crammed with learning. If a man whose head is crammed with learning becomes a thief, does the court spare him on account of his talents? So these story-tellers contradict themselves.

‘Besides, not only would the daughter of a good scholar-official fam­ily be well-educated and a model of propriety so would her mother. And even if her father had retired, a big family like that would have plenty of nurses and maids to look after the girl. How is it that in all these stories, when such things happen, no one has any inkling of it except the girl herself and one trusted maid? What are all the others doing, I’d like to know? Isn’t that contradictory?’

Everyone laughed.

‘The old lady’s shown up their lies!’

‘There’s a reason for this,’ she continued. ‘Either the people who spin these tales envy the rank and riches of other families, or ask for help which isn’t granted, and so they make up these stories to discredit them. Or else they’re so bewitched by reading such tales that they wish they could get a fine young lady themselves, and so they invent these things for their own amusement.

‘But what do they know about the ways of scholar-official families? Let’s not talk about those great families in their stories even in a middle-rank family like ours such things couldn’t possibly happen. They’re talking utter nonsense! That’s why we never allow such stories here, and our girls have never heard any. Now that I’m growing old and the girls’ apartments are some distance away, I may listen to a tale or two to pass the time; but as soon as the girls come I put a stop to it.’

‘That’s the rule for a good family, madam,’ approved Aunt Li and Aunt Xue. ‘Even in our homes we don’t let the children hear such frivo­lous nonsense.’

Xifeng stepped forward then to pour more wine.

‘That’s enough,’ she cried. ‘The wine’s cold but you’d better take a sip, Old Ancestress, to wet your gullet before debunking their lies. This is a story called Debunking Lies which is happening in this reign, here and now, in this year, month, day and hour. Our Old Ancestress, with only one mouth, can hardly speak for two families at once. As two blooms grow on separate boughs, let’s deal with one first. Never mind whether true or false, let’s go back to enjoying the lanterns and opera.4 Just allow these two relatives to have a cup of wine and enjoy two more scenes of the show. After that you can go on debunking stories, starting with those of the very first dynasty down to the present one ‘ how about it?’

She had filled everyone’s cup, chuckling as she spoke, and by now the whole company was prostrate with laughter. The two story-tellers as well were in fits of mirth.

‘What a tongue Her Ladyship has!’ they cried. ‘If she started telling stories she’s soon do us out of a job.’

‘Don’t get too carried away,’ cautioned Aunt Xue. ‘The gentlemen are outside, this isn’t like ordinary times.’

‘There’s only cousin Zhen,’ retorted Xifeng. ‘We’ve been like brother and sister since we were small and played naughty tricks to­gether. Since my marriage, of course, I’ve behaved much more cor­rectly. But even if we hadn’t played together as children and were only in-laws, isn’t there a story in The Twenty-four Acts of Filial Piety ~ about someone dressing in motley and clowning to amuse his parents? 6 They can’t come and amuse our Old Ancestress, so if I manage to make her laugh and eat a little more, keeping everybody happy, you should all thank me instead of laughing at me.’

‘It’s true that I haven’t had a good laugh for the last couple of days,’ said the Lady Dowager. ‘Now that she’s raised my spirits by her antics I’ll have another cup of wine.’ sipping her drink, she told Baoyu to offer Xifeng a toast.

‘I don’t need him,’ declared Xifeng laughingly. ‘I’ll cash in on some of your good fortune, madam.’

She took the old lady’s cup and drank what was left, then handed the cup to a maid and took another from a basin of hot water. All the cups on the tables were changed then for fresh ones from the basin, and when more wine had been poured they resumed their seats.

‘If our Old Ancestress doesn’t want to hear this story, shall we play a tune?’ asked one of the story-tellers.

‘Yes, play The General’s Command,’ ordered the old lady.

The two women tuned their instruments and played until the Lady Dowager asked the time. On being told that it was the third watch, she observed:

‘No wonder it’s growing so chilly.’

Some young maids had already brought warmer clothes.

Now Lady Wang rose to ask, ‘Why not move to the lobby with the heated floor, madam? Our two relatives needn’t be treated like outsid­ers. We’ll keep them company for you.’

‘In that case why don’t we all move inside?’ countered the old lady. ‘That would be cosier.’

‘There may not be room for us all,’ demurred Lady Wang.

‘I know what. Instead of using all these tables, we’ll just join two or three together so that we can sit side by side, cosy and snug.’

They all liked this idea and rose from their seats. The servants hastily cleared the feast away, put three large tables together in the lobby, and brought in more refreshments.

‘Don’t stand on ceremony, anyone,’ said the old lady when all was ready. ‘Just sit where I tell you.

She made Aunt Xue and Aunt Li take the seats of honour on the north side and took an east seat herself with Baoqin, Daiyu and Xiangyun be­side her. Baoyu, told to sit by his mother, found a place between her and Lady Xing. Baochai and the other girls sat on the west side, Madam Lou and her son Jia Jun came next, then Jia Lan between Madam You and Li Wan, and Jia Rong’s wife on the south side.

The Lady Dowager now sent word to ha Zhen, ‘You can take your brothers away, I shall soon be retiring.’

At once all the men came in to take their leave.

‘Go along,’ said the old lady. ‘No need to come in. We’ve just sat down and don’t want to stand up again. Go and rest now; tomorrow will be a busy day.’

‘Very good, madam,’ replied Jia Zhen. ‘But at least let us leave Jung here to serve you wine.’

‘That’s right,’ she agreed. ‘I’d forgotten him.’

With a word of assent Jia Zhen turned to lead ha Lian and the others out and, having told servants to see ha Cong and Jia Huang home, the two of them went off cheerfully to enjoy the company of some singsong girls. But no more of this.

Meanwhile the Lady Dowager remarked with a smile, ‘I was just thinking that to make our pleasure complete we ought to have a married couple here. I’d forgotten Rong. Now with him here we’ve nothing missing. Sit next to your wife, Rong, and we shall have a married pair.’

Some matrons announced that another opera was starting.

‘We women folk are just having a pleasant chat,’ said the old lady. ‘We don’t want any more noise. It’s so late, those child-actresses must be freezing. Let them rest a while. Go and fetch our girl-actresses here to put on a couple of items on this stage. The troupe from outside can watch.’

The women hurried off to send a messenger to Grand View Garden with instructions for the pages at the inner gate. These boys went straight to the changing room to escort all the grown people in the company out, leaving only the young performers. Then the instructor from Pear Fra­grance Court brought Wenguan and the eleven other girl actresses out through the side gate of the corridor, accompanied by some women car­rying bundles. Since there was no time to bring all their stage properties, they had chosen only the costumes for a few operas which they judged the old lady might like. The women led the actresses inside, and when they had paid their respects they stood there at respectful attention.

‘It’s the first month of the year, why didn’t your instructor let you out to enjoy yourselves?’ asked the old lady. ‘What have you been rehears­ing lately? The eight scenes from The Eight Gallants were so noisy that they’ve made my head ache. Let’s have something quieter. Look, Madam Xue and Madam Li here both have opera troupes at home; they’ve seen countless good performances, and their young ladies have watched better operas and heard better singing than ours. These young actresses we’ve hired today are from troupes trained by well-known families of opera connoisseurs, better than many older companies, for all that they’re only children. We mustn’t make a poor showing today, so let’s try something new. Fangguan shall sing us ‘Seeking the Dream’7 with no accompaniment but a two-string fiddle and a flute.’

‘Very good,’ replied Wenguan with a smile. ‘Our performance can’t possibly measure up to the standard to which these ladies are accus­tomed. They can only judge of our delivery and voices.’

‘That’s it,’ said the old lady.

‘What a clever child!’ exclaimed Aunt Li and Aunt Xue. ‘You’re helping the old lady to make fun of us.’

‘We just put on shows for fun here, we’re not professionals; that’s why you won’t find us following the usual fashion,’ said the Lady Dowa­ger. She then told Kuiguan, ‘Sing that aria ‘Huiming Delivers a Letter’8 and don’t trouble to make up. Just sing a couple of scenes to amuse these ladies with our amateur style. But mind you do your best.’

Wenguan and the others assented and withdrew to change their clothes. First they staged ‘Seeking the Dream,’ then ‘The Letter Is Delivered.’ All listened in absolute silence.

‘It isn’t easy for her. I’ve seen truly hundreds of companies per­form, but never heard an accompaniment of only flutes,’ observed Aunt Xue presently.

‘There have been cases,’ the Lady Dowager told her. ‘For instance that melody in The Western Tower ‘Longing by the Chu River’ is often sung to a flute accompaniment by the young male actor. It is rare, though, to have a whole scene like this. It just depends on one’s taste. This is nothing unusual.’ Pointing at Xiangyun she added, ‘When I was her age, her grandfather had an opera troupe in which someone performed real lyre music when they played ‘Listening to the Lyre’ from The Western Chamber ‘Seduction by the Lyre’ in The Romance of the Jade Hair-pin and ‘Eighteen Songs to the Hunnish Pipe’ in The Lute Player’s Return.’0 What do you think of that?’

All admitted that such a thing was even rarer. Then the old lady told servants to order Wenguan and her troupe to play with lute and flute Full Moon at the Lantern Festival, and they went off to carry out her in­structions.

At this point ha Rong and his wife offered toasts all round. The Lady Dowager was now in such high spirits that Xifeng suggested, ‘While the story-tellers are here, why don’t we get them to drum for us while we pass round a spray of plum-blossom and play ‘Spring Lights Up the Eye-brows’.’

‘That’s a fine drinking-game, and this is just the time for it,’ ap­proved the old lady.

She sent for a black lacquered drum with copper tuds which was kept for drinking-games, asked the story-tellers to beat it, and took a spray of red plum-blossom from the table.

‘Whoever has the blossom when the drum stops must drink a cup and say something,’ she decreed.

‘The rest of us aren’t so smart as our Old Ancestress,’ objected Xifeng. ‘If we get stuck, it won’t be any fun. Let’s find something that highbrows and lowbrows alike can enjoy. Suppose the one caught with the blossom tells a joke?’

As Xifeng was noted for her jokes and endless fund of original quips, this met with the approval of all the feasters as well as the maid-servants there, both old and young. The young maids hurried out to urge their friends:

‘Come quick! The Second Mistress it going to tell a joke.’

In no time at all the room was crowded with maids.

As soon as the performance ended, the old lady had refreshments sent to Wenguan and the other actresses. Then she ordered the drum­ming to start. The story-tellers, being old hands at this, varied the tempo and the plum was passed from hand to hand to its rhythm. First slow as the dripping of water from a clepsydra, the drumming soon gathered speed like the patter of peas being poured into a bowl. Then, after a rapid tattoo like a horse stampeding or sudden flashes of lightning, the sound abruptly broke off just as the plum-blossom reached the old lady’s hand. A roar of laughter went up, and Jia Rong at once stepped forward to fill her cup.

‘Naturally the old lady’s face should light up first,’ cried the others. ‘‘Then we shall be able to share in her happiness.’

‘I don’t mind drinking a cup,’ she rejoined. ‘But I can’t think of a joke.’

‘Why, your Ladyship knows even more and better jokes than Xifeng,’ they expostulated. ‘Do tell us a good one, madam.’

‘I’ve no new jokes, but I’ll just have to brazen it out. So here goes,’ said the old lady. ‘Well, a family had ten sons and ten daughters-in-law. The tenth daughter-in-law was the cleverest, so smart and so well-spo­ken that she was the favourite of her father and mother-in-law, who kept finding fault with the nine others. This seemed so unfair that the others put their heads together.

‘‘We’ve been dutiful daughters-in-law,’ they said. ‘We’re just not as smooth-spoken as that bitch, which is why the old couple keep on singing her praises. Who can we complain to about this injustice?’

‘The eldest one suggested, ‘Let’s go tomorrow to the Temple of the King of Hell to offer incense and complain to him. We’ll ask why, since we’ve all been born human, that bitch alone was given the gift of the gab while the rest of us are so dumb?’

‘The other eight approved of this idea. They all went the nest day to the temple and offered incense, then slept there at the foot of the altar while their spirits waited for the King of Hell to appear. They waited for a long time but nothing happened, and they were growing impatient when they saw Monkey King come somersaulting down through the clouds. At sight of these nine spirits, he raised his magic staff and threatened to beat them. The nine spirits knelt down fearfully to beg for mercy. Then Mon­key asked what brought them there, and they told him the whole story. He stamped his foot.

‘‘So that’s the reason!’’ he sighed, ‘It’s a good thing you met me. If you’d waited for the King of Hell, he wouldn’t have known.

‘The nine spirits pleaded, ‘Have pity and tell us, Great Sage. Theat’s all we ask.

‘‘That’s easy,’ answered Monkey with a smile. ‘The day you ten girls were born, I’d gone to visit the King of Hell and happened to piss on the ground. Your youngest sister-in-law lapped it up. If you want the gift of the gab, I’ve plenty more piss you can drink if you like.’’

The whole company burst out laughing.

‘Fine!’ cried Xifeng. ‘It’s lucky we’re all so dumb here. Otherwise people might say we’d drunk monkey’s piss.’

Madam You and Madam Lou joked to Li Wan, ‘The one who’s drunk monkey’s piss is playing innocent!’

Aunt Xue remarked with a chuckle, ‘Topical jokes are always the funniest.’

The drums started up again then, and some young maids who just wanted to hear Xifeng’s jokes softly told the story-tellers that they would cough when it was time to stop. The plum-blossom went round twice and had just reached Xifeng when they coughed, and silence fell.

‘Now we’ve caught her!’ the others exulted. ‘Drink up quickly and let us have a good one. Just don’t make us split our sides laughing.’

Xifeng drained her cup and thought for a second.

‘In the middle of the first month,’ she began, ‘during the Lantern Festival a family was having a fine lively time, enjoying lanterns and drinking together. There were the great-grand-mother, grandmother, mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, grand-daughters-in-law, great-grand-daughters-in-law, grandsons, grand-nephews and a pack of great-great-grandsons, as well as grand-daughters and grand-nieces on the paternal and maternal sides, and grand-nieces on the brothers’ and sisters’ sides… Aiya, it was really lively….’

Already laughing they cried, ‘Listen to the way she runs on. Who else is she going to put in?’

‘If you drag me in I’ll pinch your lips,’ warned Madam You.

Xifeng sprang to her feet to protest, ‘Here am I hard at work, yet you keep butting in. All right, I won’t say any more.

‘Go on,’ urged the old lady. ‘What happened?’

Xifeng reflected before answering, ‘They sat up together feasting all night, and then the party broke up.’

Having said this gravely with a straight face she stopped. The others waited in some mystification for her to go on, but all that followed was an icy silence.

Xiangyun stared at Xifeng until she said with a smile, ‘Here’s an­other about the Lantern Festival. A man carried a fire-cracker as large as a house out of town to let it off, and thousands of people followed to watch. One fellow was so impatient that he set light to it on the sly with a stick of incense. Then — Whizz! Bang! – the crowd roared with laughter and dispersed. But the man carrying the fire-cracker complained:

‘‘What a sloppy job the cracker-maker did! How could it burst apart before being lit?’’

‘Surely he’d heard the bang?’ objected Xiangyun.

‘The man was deaf,’ Xifeng told her.

When this had sunk in, everybody burst out laughing.

Then reverting to the unfinished joke they asked: ‘What happened afterwards in your first story? Do finish that one too.’

‘What a question to ask!’ cried Xifeng, banging the table. ‘The next day would have been the sixteenth, when the festival would be over and I suppose everyone would be busy clearing up. In that flurry who’d know what happened afterwards?’

At this they laughed again.

‘The fourth watch has sounded outside,’ announced Xifeng. ‘I think our Old Ancestress is tired, and it’s time for us to whizz off too like that deaf man’s fire-cracker.’

All the rest were rocking with laughter, their handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. Madam You wagged a finger at Xifeng.

‘How this creature does rattle on!’ she spluttered.

‘The minx is growing perter all the time,’ chuckled the Lady Dowa­ger. ‘She mentioned fire-crackers. We’ll let off some fireworks, too, to sober ourselves up.’

Jia Rong promptly went out to get pages to set up screens and stands in the courtyard on which to place or hang the fireworks. These had come as tribute from different parts of the country, and although not very large they were most ingeniously made in different colours, ornamented with scenes from stories and fitted with all kinds of fire-crackers.

As Daiyu was too delicate to stand much noise, her grandmother help her close to her while Aunt Xue put her arms around Xiangyun, who declared with a smile that she was not afraid.

‘She likes nothing better than letting off big fire-crackers herself,’ explained Baochai. ‘Why should she be scared of these?’

Lady Wang had taken Baoyu on her lap.

‘No one cares for poor little me!’ Xifeng complained.

‘I do,’ chuckled Madam You. ‘Come and sit on my knee and don’t be afraid. You’re behaving like a spoilt brat again. The sound of fire­works has sent you off your head, just as if you’d eaten bees’ wax.’

‘When this party’s over let’s go and let off fireworks in the Garden,’ proposed Xifeng gaily. ‘I’m better at that than those page boys.’

Meanwhile a pyrotechnical display was going on outside, including sparklers like ‘A Skyful of Stars,’ ‘Nine Dragons Soar to the Clouds,’ ‘A Bolt from the Blue,’ and ‘Ten Peals in the Air.’

After this they ordered the young actresses to perform Lotus Flow­ers Fall, largesse was scattered all over the stage and the little girls scampered round gaily to snatch up the coins.

By the time soup was served the Lady Dowager remarked, ‘It’s been a long night and I feel rather hungry.’

‘We’ve prepared some duck congee,’ Xifeng told her. ‘I’d prefer something less greasy,’ was the reply.

‘There’s date congee too for the ladies observing a fast.’

‘One’s too greasy, the other too sweet,’ complained the old lady. ‘We’ve almond gruel as well. Only I’m afraid that’s sweet too.’ ‘That will do for me.’

Then the tables were cleared, fresh delicacies served, and after a small collation they rinsed their mouths with tea and the party broke up.

In the morning of the seventeenth they went to the Ning Mansion’s Ancestral Temple to sacrifice once more, after which the temple gates were closed, the ancestral portraits put away, and everybody went home.

That day Aunt Xue asked the others over to a New-Year feast. Other feasts were given by the stewards on the eighteenth by Lai Da, on the nineteenth by Lai Sheng of the Ning Mansion, on the twentieth by Lin Zhixiao, on the twenty-first by Shan Taliang, and on the twenty-second by Wu Xinteng. The Lady Dowager went to some of these only, staying on till the end if she was in a good mood, otherwise leaving after a short time.

As for relatives and friends who came in person to invite the Jias to a feast or to enjoy a feast given by them, she declined to meet all, making Lady Wang, Lady Xing and Xifeng entertain the callers for her. And Baoyu, claiming that his grandmother needed him to amuse her, went nowhere but to Wang Ziteng’s house. So the old lady attended only those stewards’ family parties where she could relax and enjoy herself. But enough of this.

Soon the festival was over. To know what happened afterwards, read the next chapter.

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