A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 6


A Dream of Red Mansions006

Chapter 6

Baoyu Has His First Taste of Love

Granny Liu Pays Her First Visit

to the Rong Mansion

The theme:

She knocks one day at the gate of the rich,

And the rich themselves talk of want;

Their gift is not a thousand pieces of gold

But more than her own flesh and blood could give.

Qin Keqing was amazed to hear Baoyu call her childhood name in his dream, but she could hardly question him. As for Baoyu, he felt as bemused as if he had lost his wits. Attendants promptly brought him a longan decoction and after sipping a couple of mouthfuls he got up to adjust his clothes.

As Xiren reached out to fasten his trousers for him, she touched his thigh and found it cold and sticky. She drew back in alarm and asked what was the matter. Rushing crimson, Baoyu simply squeezed her hand.

Now Xiren was an intelligent girl, and being a couple of years older than Baoyu she already knew the facts of life. She guessed from the state he was in what must have happened and blushing herself helped him to tidy his clothes without any further questions.

They went then to where the Lady Dowager was and after a hasty meal returned to his room, where in the absence of the other maids and nurses Xiren fetched him a change of clothes.

“Don’t tell anyone, please, dear sister,” begged Baoyu sheepishly.

With an embarrassed smile she asked, “What did you dream about to dirty yourself like that?”

“It’s a long story,” answered Baoyu, then told her his dream in full, con­cluding with his initiation by Disenchantment into the “sport of cloud and rain.” Xiren, hearing this, covered her face and doubled up in a fit of giggles.

Since Baoyu had long been attracted by Xiren’s gentle, coquettish ways, he urged her to carry out the instructions with him; and as she knew that the Lady Dowager had given her to Baoyu she felt this would not be an undue liberty. So they tried it out secretly together, and luckily they were not discovered. From that hour Baoyu treated Xiren with spe­cial consideration and she served him even more faithfully than before.

Now although the Rong Mansion was not unduly large, masters and servants together numbered three or four hundred. And although it had not too much business, a score of things had to be seen to every day easier to unravel a skein of tangled hemp than to recount them! Just as I was wondering with which event or person to begin, suddenly from a thousand ii away came a humble individual as insignificant as a mustard-seed, who being remotely connected with the Rong House was that day paying them a visit. Let me take her family, then, as a starting point.

Do you know the name of this family and its remote connection with the Rong Mansion? If you think this too trivial or vulgar, Gentle Readers, you had better put this book down and choose one more to your liking. If you fancy this senseless story will serve to while away the time, then let me, the stupid Stone, tell you it in detail.

The surname of these humble folk I have just mentioned was Wang. They were local people whose grandfather while a petty official in the capital had come to know Xifeng’s grandfather, Lady Wang’s father. Eager to attach himself to the powerful Wangs, he ‘joined family” with them, calling himself Wang’s nephew. At that time only Lady Wang and her elder brother, Xifeng’s father, both of whom had accompanied their father to the capital, were aware of this remote “clansman.” The rest of the Wangs knew nothing about these connections.

The grandfather had died leaving a son Wang Cheng who, since the family was then in a poor way, moved back to their native village outside the capital. Recently Wang Cheng too had fallen ill and died, leaving a son Gouer, who had married a girl from a family called Lin by whom he had a son called Baner and a daughter called Qinger. Their family of four lived on the land.

As Gouer was busy during the day and his wife had the housework to see to, there was nobody to mind the children until he fetched his mother-­in-law Granny Liu to live with them. An old widow who had been through much and was supporting herself as best she could on two mu of poor land because she had no son, she was only too glad to be taken in and cared for by her son-in-law. She did her best to make herself useful to him and her daughter.

Autumn had ended, the cold was setting in, and because they had made no provision for the winter Gouer drank a few cups to drown his cares then started venting his spleen on his family. His wife was afraid to talk back, but Granny Liu was not going to stand for this.

“You mustn’t mind me butting in, son-in-law,” she said. “We villag­ers are simple honest folk who eat according to the size of our bowl. Your trouble is that your father gave you such a soft time of it when you were young that you’re a bad manager. When you have money you never look ahead; when you’ve none you fly into a temper. That’s no way for a grown man to behave. We may be living outside the capital but we’re still at the feet of the Emperor. And ‘Changan’s streets are strewn with money’ — for those who know how to lay hands on it. What’s the use of flying into a huff at home?”

“It’s easy for you to jabber away on the kang,” Gouer retorted. “Do you want me to go out and steal? To rob someone?”

“Who’s asking you to rob anyone? But let’s put our heads together and think of something. Do you expect silver coins to come rolling in of themselves?”

“Would I have waited all this time if there was some way out?” Gouer snorted. “I’ve no relatives who live on rent, no friends in official posts what can I do? Even if I had, they’d most likely cold-shoulder us.”

“Don’t be so sure,” said Granny Liu. “Man proposes, Heaven dis­poses. Work out a plan, trust to Buddha, and something may come of it for all you know.

“As a matter of fact, I’ve thought of a chance for you. In the old days you joined families with the Wangs of Jinling, and twenty years back they treated you not badly. Since then of course you’ve been too pig­headed to go near them, so that now you’ve drifted apart.

“I recollect calling on them once with my daughter. Their second young lady was really open-handed, so pleasant and free from airs. She’s now the wife of the second Lord Jia of the Rong Mansion. I hear she’s grown even more charitable and is always setting aside rice and money to give alms to Buddhists and Taoists. Her brother has been promoted to some post at the frontier, but I’m sure this Lady Wang would remember us. Why not go and try your luck? She may do something for us for old times’ sake. If she’s at all willing to help, one hair from her body would be thicker than our waist.”

“Mother’s right,” put in her daughter. “But how could frights like us go to their gate? Most likely their gatekeepers would refuse to announce us. Why ask for a slap on the face?”

But Gouer had an eye to the main chance. Attracted by this sugges­tion, he laughed at his wife’s objection and proposed:

“Since this is your idea, mother, and you’ve called on the lady before, why not go there tomorrow and see how the wind blows?”

“Aiya! ‘The threshold of a noble house is deeper than the sea.’ And who am I? The servants there don’t know me, it’s no use my going.”

“That’s no problem. I’ll tell you what to do. Take young Baner with you and ask for their steward Zhou Rui. If you see him, we stand a chance. This Zhou Rui had dealings with my old man and used to be on the best of terms with us.”

“I know him too. But how will they receive me after all this time? Still, you’re a man and too much of a fright to go, and my daughter’s too young to make a show of herself. I’m old enough not to mind risking a snub. If I have any luck we’ll all share it. And even if I don’t bring back any silver the trip won’t be wasted — I’ll have seen a little high life.”

They all laughed at that, and that same evening the matter was settled.

The next day Granny Liu got up before dawn to wash and comb her hair and to coach Baner. Being an ignorant child of five or six, he was so delighted at the prospect of a trip to the city that he agreed to everything he was told.

In town they asked their way to Rong Ning Steet. But Granny Liu was too overawed by the crowd of sedan-chairs and horses there to venture near the stone lions which flanked the Rong Mansion’s main gate. Having dusted off her clothes and given Baner fresh instructions, she timidly approached the side entrance where some arrogant, corpu­lent servants were sunning themselves on long benches, engaged in a lively discussion.

Granny Liu edged forward and said, “Greetings, gentlemen.”

The men surveyed her from head to foot before condescending to ask where she had come from.

“I’ve come to see Mr. Zhou who came with Lady Wang when she was married,” she told them with a smile. “May I trouble one of you gentlemen to fetch him out for me?”

The men ignored her for a while, but finally one of them said, “Wait over there by that corner. One of his family may come out by and by.”

An older man interposed, “Why make a fool of her and waste her time?” He told Granny Liu, “Old Zhou has gone south but his wife is at home. His house is at the back. Go round to the back gate and ask for her there.”

Having thanked him, Granny Liu took Baner round to the back gate. Several pedlars had put down their wares there and about two dozen rowdy servant boys had crowded round those selling snacks and toys.

The old woman caught hold of one of these youngsters and asked, “Can you tell me, brother, if Mrs. Zhou is at home?”

“Which Mrs. Zhou?” he retorted. “We have three Mrs. Zhous and two Granny Zhous. What’s her job?”

“She’s the wife of Zhou Rui who came with Lady Wang.”

“That’s easy then. Come with me.

He scampered ahead of her through the back gate and pointed out a compound. “That’s where she lives.” Then he called, “Auntie Zhou! Here’s a granny asking for you.”

Mrs. Zhou hurried out to see who it was while Granny Liu hastened forward crying, “Sister Zhou! How are you?”

It took the other some time to recognize her. Then she answered with a smile, “Why, it’s Granny Liu! I declare, after all these years I hardly knew you. Come on in and sit down.”

Smiling as she walked in, Granny Liu remarked, “The higher the rank, the worse the memory. How could you remember us?”

Once indoors, Mrs. Zhou told a maid to pour tea. Then looking at Baner she exclaimed, “What a big boy he is!” After a short exchange of polite inquiries, she asked Granny Liu whether she just happened to be passing or had come with any special object.

“I came specially to see you, sister, and also to inquire after Her ladyship’s health. If you could take me to see her, that would be nice. If you can’t, I’ll just trouble you to pass on my respects.”

This gave Mrs. Zhou a shrewd idea of the reason for her visit. Since Gouer had helped her husband to purchase some land, she could hardly refuse Granny Liu’s appeal for help. Besides, she was eager to show that she was someone of consequence in this household.

“Don’t worry, granny,” she replied with a smile. “You’ve come all this way in good earnest and of course I’ll help you to see the real Bud­dha. Strictly speaking, it’s not my job to announce visitors. We all have different duties here. My husband, for instance, just sees to collecting rents in spring and autumn or escorting the young gentlemen in his spare time, while all I do is accompany the ladies on their outings. But since you’re related to Her Ladyship and have come to me for help as if I were someone, I’ll make an exception and take in a message for you.

“I must tell you, though, that things have changed here in the last five years. Her Ladyship doesn’t handle much business any more but leaves everything to the second master’s wife. And who do you think she is? My lady’s own niece, the daughter of her elder brother and the one whose childhood name was ‘Master Feng.’ ”

“You don’t say!” cried Granny Liu. “No wonder I predicted great things for her. In that case I must see her today.”

“Of course. Nowadays Her Ladyship can’t be troubled with much business, so whenever possible she leaves it to the young mistress to entertain visitors. Even if you don’t see Her Ladyship you must see her, or your visit will have been wasted.”

“Buddha be praised! I’m most grateful for you help, sister.”

“Don’t say that. ‘He who helps others helps himself.’ All I need do is say one word — no trouble at all.” She sent her little maid in to see if the Lady Dowager’s meal had been served.

“This young mistress Feng can’t be more than twenty,” remarked Granny Liu as the two of them went on chatting. “Fancy her being able to run a great household like this!”

“You don’t know the half of it, my dear granny. Young as she is, she handles things much better than anyone else. She’s grown up a beauty too. Clever isn’t the word for her! As for talking, ten eloquent men are no match for her. You’ll see for yourself by and by. If she has a fault, it’s that she’s rather hard on those below her.”

At this point the maid came back to report, “The old lady’s finished her meal. The second mistress is with Lady Wang.”

At once Mrs. Zhou urged Granny Liu to hurry. “Come on! Our chance is while she has her own meal. Let’s go and wait for her. Later on such a crowd will be going there on business, we’ll hardly get a look in. And after her nap there’ll be even less chance to see her.”

They both got down from the kang and brushed their clothes. After some last-minute instructions to her grandson, Granny Liu followed Mrs. Zhou by winding ways to Jia Lian’s quarters, then waited in a covered passageway while Mrs. Zhou went past the spirit screen into the court and, before Xifeng’s return, explained who Granny Liu was to her trusted maid Pinger, who had come here as part of Xifeng’s dowry and then become Jia Lian’s concubine.

“She’s come all this way today to pay her respects. In the old days Her Ladyship always used to see her, so I’m sure she’ll receive her: that’s why I’ve brought her in. When your mistress comes I’ll tell her the whole story. I don’t think she’ll blame me for taking too much on myself.”

Pinger decided to invite them in to sit down and accordingly Mrs. Zhou went out to fetch them. As they mounted the steps to the main reception room, a young maid raised a red wool portière and a waft of perfume greeted them as they entered. Granny Liu did not know what it was but felt she was walking on air. And she was so dazzled by every­thing in the room that her head began to swim. She could only nod, smack her lips and cry “Gracious Buddha!”

Pinger was standing by the kang in the east room, the bedroom of Jia Lian’s daughter. Casting two searching glances at Granny Liu she greeted her rather curtly and bade her be seated.

Pinger’s silk dress, her gold and silver trinkets, and her face which was pretty as a flower made Granny Liu mistake her for her mistress. But before she could greet her as “my lady” she heard the girl and Mrs. Zhou address each other as equals and realized that this was just one of the more favoured maids.

Granny Liu and Baner were given seats on the kang, while Pinger and Mrs. Zhou sat face to face on the edge. Maids brought tea and as she sipped it the old woman heard a steady tock-tock-tock like the sound made by a flour-bolting machine. Staring about her she saw a box-like object attached to one of the pillars in the room, with a weight of sorts swinging to and fro below it.

“Whatever can that be?” she wondered. “What’s it doing?”

The next instant she started at a loud dong like the sound of a bronze bell or copper chimes repeated eight or nine times. Before she could clear up this mystery, a flock of maids ran in crying:

“The mistress is coming!”

Pinger and Mrs. Zhou stood up at once, telling Granny Liu to wait till she was sent for. They left her straining her ears, with bated breath, as she waited there in silence.

In the distance laughter rang out. Ten to twenty serving women swished through the hall to another inner room, while two or three bearing lac­quered boxes came to this side to wait. When the order was given to serve the meal, all left but a few who handed round the dishes. A long silence followed. Then two women brought in a low table covered with scarcely touched dishes of fish and meat which they set down on the kang. At once Baner set up a clamour for some meat, but his grand­mother slapped him and told him to keep away.

Next Mrs. Zhou came to beckon them with a smile. Granny Liu at once lifted her grandson off the kang and led him into the hall. After some whispered advice from Mrs. Zhou she followed her slowly into Xifeng’s room.

A soft scarlet flowered portière hung from brass hooks over the door, and the kang below the south window was spread with a scarlet rug. Against the wooden partition on the east were a back-rest and bolster of brocade with chain designs next to a glossy satin mattress with a golden centre. Beside them stood a silver spittoon.

Xifeng had on the dark sable hood with a pearl-studded band which she wore at home. She was also wearing a peach-red flowered jacket, a turquoise cape lined with grey squirrel and a skirt of crimson foreign crêpe lined with snow-weasel fur. Dazzlingly rouged and powdered she sat erect, stirring the ashes of her hand-stove with a tiny brass poker. Pinger stood by the kang with a small covered cup on a little lacquered tray, but Xifeng ignored the tea and kept her head lowered as she stirred the ashes.

“Why haven’t you brought her in yet?” she finally asked.

Then, raising her head to take the tea, she saw Mrs. Zhou with her two charges before her. She made a motion as if to rise and greeted them with a radiant smile, scolding Mrs. Zhou for not speaking up before.

Granny Liu had already curtseyed several times to Xifeng, who now hastily said:

“Help her up, Sister Zhou, she mustn’t curtsey to me. Ask her to be seated. I’m too young to remember what our relationship is, so I don’t know what to call her.”

“This is the old lady I was just telling you about,” said Mrs. Zhou.

Xifeng nodded.

By now Granny Liu had seated herself on the edge of the kang, and Baner took refuge behind her. Coaxed to come forward and bow, he would not budge.

“When relatives don’t call on each other they drift apart,” observed Xifeng with a smile. “People who know us would say you’re neglecting us. Petty-minded people who don’t know us so well might imagine we look down on everyone else.”

“Gracious Buddha!” exclaimed Granny Liu. “We’re too hard up to gad about. And even if Your Ladyship didn’t slap our faces for coming, your stewards might take us for tramps.”

“That’s no way to talk!” Xifeng laughed. “We’re simply poor offi­cials trying to live up to our grandfather’s reputation. This household is nothing but an empty husk left over from the past. As the saying goes: ‘The Emperor himself has poor relations.’ How much more so in our case?”

She asked Mrs. Zhou if she had notified Lady Wang.

“I was waiting for madam’s instructions,” was the reply.

“Go and see how busy she is. If she has visitors, never mind. But if she’s free, let her know and see what she says.”

After Mrs. Zhou left on this errand, Xifeng told the maids to give Baner some sweetmeats. She was asking Granny Liu questions when Pinger announced the arrival of a number of servants to report on affairs in their charge.

“I have a guest. They can come back this evening,” said Xifeng. “Only bring in anyone whose business won’t wait.”

Pinger went out, reappearing to say, “They’ve nothing pressing so I sent them away.

As Xifeng nodded, Mrs. Zhou came back.

“Her Ladyship isn’t free today,” she said. “She hopes you’ll enter­tain them and thank them for coming. If they just dropped in for a call, well and good. If they have any business they should tell you, madam.”

“I’ve no special business,” put in Granny Liu. “I just came to call on Her Ladyship and Madam Lian, seeing as how we’re related.”

“If you’ve nothing special, all right,” said Mrs. Zhou. “If you have, telling our second mistress is just the same as telling Her Ladyship.”

She winked at Granny Liu, who took the hint. Although her face burned with shame, she forced herself to pocket her pride and explain her reason for coming.

“By rights, I shouldn’t bring this up at our first meeting, madam. But as I’ve come all this way to ask your help, I’d better speak up. .

Just then pages by the second gate called out, “The young master from the East Mansion is here.”

Cutting Granny Liu short Xifeng asked, “Where is Master Rong?” Booted footsteps sounded and in walked a handsome youth of seven­teen or eighteen. Slender and graceful in light furs, he wore a jewelled girdle, fine clothes and a gorgeous hat. Granny Liu didn’t know whether to sit or stand and longed for some hiding-place.

“Sit down,” said Xifeng with a twinkle. “It’s only my nephew.”

Granny Liu perched gingerly on the edge of the kang.

Jia Rong announced cheerfully, “My father’s sent me to ask a favour, aunt. He’s expecting an important guest tomorrow, and he’d like to bor­row that glass screen for the kang that our Grand-Aunt Wang gave you. He’ll return it promptly.”

“You’re too late,” replied Xifeng. “I gave it to somebody only yester­day.”

Chuckling, Jia Rong half knelt by the foot of the kang. “If you won’t lend it, aunt, I’ll be given another sound thrashing for not asking properly. Have pity on your nephew!”

“You seem to imagine all the Wangs’ things are special. Haven’t you plenty of stuff of your own over there?”

“Nothing half as good.” He laughed. “Please, aunt, be kind!”

“Then look out for your skin if you chip it!”

She ordered Pinger to fetch the keys to the upstairs rooms and find trustworthy people to deliver the screen.

“I’ve brought men to carry it.” Jia Rong’s face lit up, his eyes twinkled. “I’ll see that they’re careful.”

He had barely left when she suddenly called him back.

Servants outside echoed, “Master Rong, you’re asked to go back.”

The young man hurried in again and stood at attention to hear his aunt’s instructions. Xifeng sipped her tea slowly and thoughtfully for a while, then said with a laugh:

“Never mind. Come back again after supper. I’ve company now and don’t feel in the mood to tell you at the moment.”

So Jia Rong slowly withdrew.

Granny Liu felt easy enough at last to say, “The reason I brought your nephew here today is that his parents haven’t a bite to eat. And winter’s coming on, making things worse. So I brought your nephew here to ask for your help.” She nudged Baner. “Well, what did your dad tell you? What did he send us here for? Was it just to eat sweets?”

Xifeng smiled at this blunt way of talking. “Don’t say any more. I understand.” She asked Mrs. Zhou, “Has granny eaten yet?”

“We set out first thing in such a rush, we’d no time to eat anything,” said Granny Liu.

At once Xifeng ordered a meal for the visitors. Mrs. Zhou passed on the order and a table was set for them in the east room.

“Sister Zhou, see that they have all they want,” said Xifeng. “I can’t keep them company.

When Mrs. Zhou had taken them to the east room, Xifeng called her back to hear what Lady Wang had said.

“Her ladyship says they don’t really belong to our family,” Mrs. Zhou told her. “They joined families because they have the same surname and their grandfather was an official in the same place as our old master. We haven’t seen much of them these last few years, but whenever they came we didn’t let them go away empty-handed. Since they mean well, coming to see us, we shouldn’t slight them. If they need help, madam should use her own discretion.”

“I was thinking, if we were really relatives it was funny I didn’t know the first thing about them.”

As Xifeng was speaking Granny Liu came back from her meal with Baner, loud in her thanks.

“Sit down now and listen to me, dear old lady,” said Xifeng cheerfully. “I know what you were hinting at just now. We shouldn’t wait for rela­tives to come to our door before we take care of them. But we’ve plenty of troublesome business here, and now that Her Ladyship’s growing old she sometimes forgets things. Besides, when I took charge recently I didn’t really know all our family connections. Then again, although we look prosperous you must realize that a big household has big difficulties of its own, though few may believe it. But since you’ve come so far today and this is the first time you’ve asked me for help, I can’t send you away empty-handed. Luckily Her Ladyship gave me twenty taels of sil­ver yesterday to make clothes for the maids, and I haven’t yet touched it. If you don’t think it too little, take that to be going on with.”

Talk of difficulties had dashed all Granny Liu’s hopes and set her heart palpitating. The promise of twenty taels put her in a flutter of joy.

“Ah,” she cried, “I know what difficulties are. But ‘A starved camel is bigger than a horse.’ No matter how, ‘A hair from your body is thicker than our waist.”’

Mrs. Zhou kept signalling to her not to talk in the crude way, but Xifeng merely laughed and seemed not to mind. She sent Pinger for the package of silver and a string of cash and presented these to the old woman.

“Here’s twenty taels to make the child some winter clothes. If you refuse it, I shall think you’re offended. With the cash you can hire a cart. When you’ve time, drop in again as relatives should. It’s growing late, I won’t keep you for no purpose. Give my compliments to everyone at home to whom I should be remembered.”

She stood up and Granny Liu, having thanked her profusely, took the silver and cash and followed Mrs. Zhou towards the servants’ quarters.

“Gracious me!” exclaimed Mrs. Zhou. “What possessed you when you saw her to keep on about ‘your nephew’? At the risk of offending you I must say this: Even if he were a real nephew you should have glossed it over. Master Rong, now, he’s her honest-to-goodness nephew — where would she get a nephew like Baner?”

“My dear sister!” Granny Liu beamed. “I was struck all of a heap at sight of her and didn’t know what I was saying.”

Chatting together they reached Zhou Rui’s house and sat down for a few moments. Granny Liu wanted to leave a piece of silver to buy sweets for Mrs. Zhou’s children, but this Mrs. Zhou most resolutely declined — such small sums meant nothing to her. Then with boundless thanks Granny Liu left by the back gate.

To know what followed, you must read the next chapter.


In affluence, charity is freely dispensed,

One deeply grateful is better than kinsmen or friends.

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