A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 64

0
164

Chapter 64

A Chaste Girl in Sad Seclusion Writes Poems

on Five Beauties

An Amorous Libertine Drops

His Nine-Dragon Pendant

Jia Rong hurried back to the temple to report to his father that all was ready at home; and that same night they assigned the various tasks and prepared all the pennons, poles and other essential paraphernalia. Five o’clock in the morning of the fourth day was fixed upon as the hour to have the coffin taken into the city, and all relatives and friends were informed of this.

When the time arrived, with its splendid funeral rites, a host of guests assembled, and tens of thousands of spectators lined the road all the way from Iron Threshold Temple to the Ning Mansion, some sighing in admi­ration, others in envy, while crabbed pedants argued that frugality in the funeral rites would have been better than such extravagance. Endless different comments were made as the cortege passed; and not till nearly three in the afternoon did it finally reach the Ning Mansion, where the coffin was deposited in the main halt. After the sacrifice and mourning ended, the relatives and friends gradually dispersed, leaving only mem­bers of the Jia clan to see to the entertaining of guests. The sole close relative to remain was Lady Xing’s elder brother.

Jia Zhen and Jia Rong, by duty bound to keep vigil by the coffin and mourn, nevertheless seized the chance once the guests had gone to fool around with old Mrs. You’s two daughters. Baoyu, wearing mourning, also went every day to the Ning Mansion, not returning to the Garden till the evening after the guests had left. Xifeng was still not well enough to stay there all the time; but when Buddhist masses were held and sutras read, or when visitors came to offer sacrifices, she made the effort to come over to help Madam You cope.

One day after the morning sacrifice, at a time when the days were stilt tong, Jia Zhen worn out after his recent exertions was dozing by the coffin and Baoyu, seeing that no guests had come, decided to go back to call on Daiyu.

He went first to Happy Red Court. As he stepped through the gate he found the court quiet and empty except for a few old women and young maids resting in the shade of the verandah, some asleep and others nodding drowsily. He did not go to disturb them, and only Sier noticed his arrival. As she hurried over to lift the portiere for him, Fangguan came dashing out, laughing, and nearly knocked full tilt into Baoyu.

At sight of him she pulled up.

‘Why are you here?’ she asked. ‘Hurry up and stop Qingwen from spanking me!’

As she was speaking they heard a clattering as if some things had fallen to the ground, and the next minute Qingwen appeared.

‘Where are you going, you bitch?’ she swore. ‘You’ve lost, yet you want to escape a spanking. With Baoyu out who’s going to come to your rescue?’

Baoyu hastily intercepted her.

‘She’s still young,’ he said with a smile. ‘If she’s offended you in some way, do let her off for my sake.’

Qingwen had never expected him back so soon. Amused by his sud­den appearance, she exclaimed, ‘Fangguan must be a fox-fairy! Why, not even a magic charm to conjure spirits could work so fast.’ She added, ‘But I’m not afraid, even if you’ve called in a god.’

She made a grab at Fangguan, who had taken refuge behind Baoyu. Holding each girl by the hand he ted them inside. On the western kang there he found Sheyue, Qiuwen, Bihen and Zixiao playing knuckle-bones for melon-seeds. Apparently Fangguan had lost to Qingwen, then re­fused to accept a spanking and run away; and Qingwen, jumping up to chase her, had scattered the knuckle-bones on her lap all over the floor.

Baoyu told them with a chuckle. ‘Now the days are so long, I was afraid you might alt be bored while I was out and go to bed after your meal, which might make you fall ill, I’m glad you found a way to amuse yourselves.’ As there was no sign of Xiren, he asked, ‘Where’s your sister Xiren?’

‘Her?’ said Qingwen. ‘She’s becoming more and more of a Confucian, sitting meditating alone with her face to the watt in the inner room. We haven’t been in for some time and don’t know what she’s up to. She hasn’t made a sound. Go on in, quick, and see if she’s attained sainthood yet.’

Laughing, Baoyu went inside and saw Xiren seated on the couch by the window, in her hand a skein of grey silk which she was netting. At sight of him she stood up. ‘What fibs has that creature Qingwen been telling about me?’ she asked. ‘1 was in a hurry to finish this net and had no time to fool around with them, so I told them, ‘You amuse yourselves. While the Second Master’s out I want to sit quietly here for a while to rest.’ Then she made up all that nonsense about me meditating and at­taining sainthood. By and by I must go and pinch her lips!’

Baoyu smiled as he sat down beside her to watch her at work.

‘The days are so long, you should rest or amuse yourself with the others,’ he advised. ‘Or else go to see Cousin Daiyu. Why work at this in such hot weather? What’s it for?’

‘I noticed that you’re still using the fan case made that year when Madam Rong of the East Mansion died. As it’s blue it should only be used while mourning in summer for one of our clan or for relatives and friends outside. It shouldn’t normally be needed more than once or twice a year. Now there’s mourning in the other house, of course you should wear it every day when you go over; so I’m hurrying to finish another for you to replace that old one. You don’t care about such things, but if the old lady were to come back and see it, she’d scold us for being too lazy to fit you out properly.’

‘It’s good of you to think of such things, but you mustn’t overwork,’ he answered. ‘We don’t want you knocked out by the heat.’

Now Fangguan brought in a cup of freshly brewed tea which had been cooled in cold water; for even in summer they dared not use ice, as Baoyu was so delicate. Instead they immersed the tea-pot in water fresh from the well, changing the water from time to time until the tea was cool. Fangguan held the cup to Baoyu’s lips and he drank half of it.

Then he told Xiren, ‘When I came, I left word with Beiming that if any important visitors come to Cousin Jia Zhen’s place he must let me know directly. If nothing urgent crops up I won’t go back.’ As he turned to go out he instructed Bihen and the others, ‘If anything happens you can find me in Miss Lin’s place. ‘ With that he set off for Bamboo Lodge to find Daiyu.

As he was crossing Seeping Fragrance Bridge he saw Xueyan ap­proaching, behind her two old women who were carrying caltrops, lotus-root, melons and other fruit.

‘Your mistress hardly ever eats cold things like these. What are you going to do with all this?’ he asked. ‘Are you inviting some of the other young ladies?’

‘If I tell you, you mustn’t let her know,’ said Xueyan. Baoyu nod­ded.

Then she told the two women, ‘Take this fruit to Sister Zijuan. If she asks for me, tell her I’ve something to do and will soon be back.’

The women assented and went on their way. ‘Our young lady’s been feeling better the last few days,’ said Xueyan when they had gone. ‘Af­ter lunch today Miss Tanchun came to ask her to go with her to see Madam Lian, but she didn’t go. And then I don’t know what she was thinking of she had a fit of depression, after which she took up her brush and wrote something ‘ whether poetry of something else I don’t know. When she sent me to fetch this fruit I also heard her tell Zijuan to clear away the things on the small lyre table and move it outside, then to put the tripod with dragon designs on the table ready for the melons and fruit. If she were going to entertain visitors, she wouldn’t bother to set out an incense-burner first; if she were going to burn incense, she’s not in the habit of scenting her clothes with it or having anything in the room except fresh flowers and fruit. Even when she does burn incense for the fragrance, it’s usually in her sitting room or bedchamber. Could it be that she has to scent the place with incense because the old serving-women have made it smelly? I really don’t know why else she’s doing this.’ Having said this she hurried away.

Baoyu involuntarily lowered his head to think this over.

‘Judging by what Xueyan said, there must be a reason,’ he thought. ‘If Daiyu were expecting one of the girls to call, she’d hardly make such elaborate preparations. Can this be the anniversary of her father’s or mother’s death? But in the past, on those days, I remember the old lady always had dishes specially prepared for her to offer as a private sacri­fice; and both those dates have passed. More likely, as the seventh month is the season for melons and fruit and every family is making an autumn sacrifice at its graves, she’s felt moved to sacrifice privately in her own quarters, according to the precept in the Book of Rites that in autumn and spring one should offer the food in season. That may be it.

‘But if I go there now and find her upset, I shall have to do my best to comfort her; then she may try to hide her unhappiness, so that it rankles. On the other hand, if I don’t go, there’ll be no one to stop her grieving too much. Either way, she may fall ill. The best thing would be to call on Xifeng first, just for a short while, then come back. If I find Daiyu still upset I can try to console her. That way, she won’t give way to grief too long, but by having a good cry she’ll have vented her feelings without injuring her health.’

Having reached this decision he left the Garden and went to Xifeng’s place. A number of serving-women were coming out after having re­ported on the business in their charge, and Xifeng, leaning against the door, was chatting with Pinger. At sight of Baoyu she smiled.

‘So you’re back,’ she said. ‘I’ve just told Lin Zhixiao’s .wife to send word to your pages that if there was nothing much to do you should take the chance to come back and rest a bit. Besides, with all that crowd there, the place is too stifling for you. Well, I’m glad you’ve come back of your own accord.’

‘Thank you for your concern,’ he answered. ‘It was because there was nothing to do today and I was wondering whether you were better, as you hadn’t been over for a couple of days, that I came back to have a look.’

‘That’s just the way it is with me,’ Xifeng told him. ‘I have my good days and my bad days. With Their Ladyships away from home, these women ‘ ai! ‘ not a single one of them behaves herself. Every day they either fight or squabble, and there’ve even been several cases of gambling and theft. Although Tanchun’s helping me see to things, she’s an unmarried girl. There are some things I can tell her, others I can’t. So I just have to bear up as best I can, and never have a moment’s peace. Don’t talk about getting better ‘ if I don’t get worse that’s good enough for me.’

‘Even so, you must take good care of your health and worry less,’ he urged her.

After a little further chat he took his leave of Xifeng and went back to the Garden.

When he entered Bamboo Lodge, he saw that the incense in the burner was nearly burnt out and the libation had already been poured. Zijuan was supervising the maids carrying the table inside and replacing the ornaments on it. Knowing that the sacrifice was over, Baoyu went in and found Daiyu reclining on the couch, her face to the wall. She looked ill and exhausted.

Zijuan announced, ‘Master Bao is here.’

Daiyu got up slowly then and with a smile invited him to sit down.

‘You seem much better recently,’ he remarked. ‘You look less flushed. But what’s upset you again?’

‘That’s no way to talk,’ she retorted. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. Why should I be upset?’

‘You’ve tear-stains on your face, why try to fool me? I just thought that being so delicate you should take things easy, not distress yourself for no purpose. If you spoil your health, I’ll be….’ He broke off here, finding it difficult to go on.

Though he and Daiyu had grown up side by side and were kindred spirits who longed to live and die together, this was simply tacitly under­stood by both but had never been put into words. Moreover Daiyu was so sensitive that his careless way of talking always offended her or even reduced her to tears. Today he had come to comfort her; but again, with­out meaning to, had spoken too hastily so that he had to break off, desper­ately afraid that Daiyu would be angry. And when he reflected that he had really meant well, he started shedding tears of distress. Daiyu had been annoyed at first by Baoyu’s immoderate language. Now, touched by the state he was in, being prone to weeping herself, she started shed­ding tears in silence too.

Zijuan, arriving with tea for them, supposed they were bickering over something again.

‘Our young lady’s just getting better, Master Bao,’ she said. ‘What

do you mean by coming to provoke her again?’ Baoyu wiped his tears and smiled.

‘I wouldn’t dream of provoking her,’ he protested, getting up to wan­der around.

He noticed a sheet of paper under the inkstone and reached out for it. At once Daiyu started up to stop him, but he had already tucked it inside his clothes.

‘Do let me see it, dear cousin,’ he begged with a smile.

‘Regardless of when you come you ransack this place.’

As Daiyu was saying this Baochai dropped in.

‘What is it that Cousin Bao wants to read?’ she asked.

As Baoyu had not yet seen what was on the paper and did not know what Daiyu’s reaction would be, he dared not answer outright. Instead, he looked at Daiyu with a smile.

Daiyu offered Baochai a seat.

‘I’ve read of many talented beauties in ancient history,’ she said, ‘whose lives were sometimes enviable, sometimes tragic. As I’d noth­ing to do today after my meal, I decided to choose a few of them and dash off some verses about them to express my feelings. Then Tanchun came to ask me to call on Xifeng with her, but I felt too lazy to go. I’d just written half a dozen poems when I felt sleepy, so I tossed them aside, not expecting the Second Master to come in and see them. Actually I don’t mind him reading them, but I don’t want him to copy them out and go showing them to other people.’

‘When have I ever done such a thing?’ asked Baoyu. ‘As for that fan, because I liked those poems about white begonia I copied them out neatly on it just for my own convenience when I have it in my hands. Of course I know that the poems and calligraphy from our inner apartments mustn’t be lightly taken outside. And remembering that time you ticked me off I’ve never taken it out of the Garden.’

‘Cousin Lin’s right to have such scruples,’ said Baichai. ‘As you’ve written our poems on your fan, you may forget and take it to your study where the secretaries may see them and ask who wrote them. If word spread, it wouldn’t look good. As the old saying goes, ‘Lack of talent in a woman is a virtue. ‘ The important thing for us is to be chaste and quiet, feminine accomplishments being secondary. As for versifying and the like, we simply do that for fun in the inner apartments; and whether we’re good or not at it doesn’t matter. Girls from families like ours don’t want to have a reputation for brilliance.’ Then she said to Daiyu with a smile, ‘Still it doesn’t matter if you show them to me, provided Cousin Bao doesn’t take them outside.’

‘In that case you needn’t see them either,’ said Daiyu. Pointing at Baoyu she added, ‘He’s already snatched them.’

At that Baoyu took the poems out of his pocket and stepped to Baochai’s side to read them with her. The poems were as follows:

XI SHI1

Gone with the foam the beauty who felled cities,

Her longing for home in Wu’s palace an empty dream,

Laugh not at the East Village girl who aped her ways,

White-haired, she still washed clothes beside the stream.

LADY YU2

Heart-broken as black steed neighing at night in the wind, In silent grief she stayed beside her lord;

The renegades Qing Bu and Peng Yue were doomed to be slaughtered;

Better, then, in Chu’s tent to fall on her own sword.

WANG ZHAOJUN3

A breath-taking beauty banished from the Han palace ‘From of old lovely girls have shared a sorry fate;

Even if the sovereign set little store by his beauties,

Why give a painter the power to arbitrate?

GREEN PEARL4

Rubble and pearls alike were cast away,

Shi Chong used this fair maid so slightingly;

Predestined he was to good fortune —

Together they died, but still lonely in death was she.

RED WHISK5

From his low bows, proud talk and air of distinction

The discerning beauty his true worth foretold;

The grand duke Yang Su was a living corpse,

How could he keep a girl so staunch and bold?

Baoyu having read these poems was loud in his praise. ‘You’ve writ­ten just five poems, cousin,’ he said. ‘So why not call the whole An Ode to Five Beauties?’ Without giving her time to object, he picked up a brush and added this title.

Baochai observed, ‘In writing poetry, no matter what the subject, the important thing is to express some original ideas. If we tread in other people’s footsteps, even if the lines are polished they’re still second-rate and can’t be considered good poetry.

‘Take, for example, the poems on Wang Zhaojun, all expressing dif­ferent opinions. Some lamented her fate, some blamed Mao Yanshou the painter, and others reproached the Han emperor for making him paint portraits of palace beauties instead of good ministers. Then Wang Anshi6 wrote:

A painting can never succeed in catching the spirit;

Unjust it was to execute Mao Yanshou.

And Ouyang Xiu7 wrote:

If the Emperor treated those in his presence like this.

How could he control tribesmen ten thousand ii away?

Both those poems were original, not mere plagiarizing. And these five Cousin Lin has written today can also be considered as fresh and original, a quite new approach to the subject.’

She would have said more, but someone came in to announce Jia Lian’s return. It had just been reported outside that he had gone to the East Mansion, and as he had now been there for some time he could be expected back soon. When Baoyu heard this he hastily got up and went to the main gate to wait for his cousin’s arrival, just as Jia Lian, having dismounted outside, came in. Baoyu knelt down and first asked after Their Ladyships’ health, then inquired after Jia Lian’s health. The two of them went hand in hand into the halt, where they found assembled Li Wan, Xifeng, Baochai, Daiyu, Yingchun, Tanchun and Xichun, and greet­ings were exchanged.

‘The old lady will be back tomorrow morning,’ said Jia Lian. ‘She’s kept very well all through the journey. Today she sent me back ahead to have a look, and I’m to go out of the city at the fifth watch tomorrow to meet her.’

Now Jia Lian had long heard of Madam You’s lovely step-sisters and longed to meet them. Recently, with Jia Jing’s coffin in the house, he had been seeing Second Sister and Third Sister every day so that he was on familiar terms with them and had designs on them too. Knowing how free and easy both girls were with Jia Zhen and Jia Rong, he tried in a hundred ways to convey his own feelings, casting arch glances at them. Third Sister only treated him coolly, however, while Second Sister ap­peared very interested; but since there were so many people about he could not make any advances. Fear of arousing Jia Zhen’s jealousy also kept him from acting too rashly. So the two of them had to be content with a secret understanding.

After the funeral, however, there were few people left in Jia Zhen’s house. The main quarters were occupied only by old Mrs. You and her two daughters attended by a few of the maids and serving-women who did the rough work, all the senior maids and concubines having gone to the temple. As for the female servants who lived outside, they simply kept watch at night and minded the gate in the daytime, and would not go inside unless they had business. So Jia Lian was eager to make good use of this chance. He spent the nights in the temple too, on the pretext of keeping Jia Zhen company; but he often slipped back to the Ning Man­sion to inveigle Second Sister, telling Jia Zhen that he was going to see to the family affairs for him.

One day the young steward Yu Lu came to report to Jia Zhen, ‘The funeral sheds, mourning clothes and blue uniforms for attendants and carriers cost a thousand taels in all, of which we’ve paid five hundred; so we’re still five hundred short, and the tradesmen have sent to ask for payment. That’s why I’ve come for your instructions, sir.’

‘Just get the money from the treasury. Why come and ask me for old lady and my other elders. Then I’ll go to your place to make sure that the servants aren’t making trouble, and call on old Mrs. You as well.’

‘I don’t like putting you to so much trouble,’ objected Jia Zhen.

‘What does it matter between cousins?’ Jia Lian answered.

So Jia Zhen told his son, ‘Go with your uncle, and mind you go too to pay your respects to the old lady, master and mistresses of the other house. Give them our regards and ask if the old lady is better now or still taking medicine.’

Jia Rong assented and went off with Jia Lian. Taking a few pages with them, they mounted their horses and rode back to the city, chatting idly on the way.

Then Jia Lian deliberately mentioned Second Sister You, praising her for her good looks and modest behaviour, her lady-like ways and gentle speech, as if she were a paragon admired and loved by all.

‘Everyone praises your Aunt Xifeng,’ he said, ‘but to my mind she can’t stand comparison with your Second Aunt.’

Jia Rong, knowing his game, rejoined, ‘If you’ve taken such a fancy to her, uncle, I’ll act as your go-between to make her your secondary wife. How about that?’

‘That would be fine!’ Jia Lian beamed. ‘I’m only afraid your Aunt Xifeng wouldn’t agree, and neither might your grandmother. Besides I heard that your Second Aunt is already engaged.’

‘That doesn’t matter,’ Jia Rong assured him. ‘My second and third aunts aren’t my grandfather’s daughters but only stepdaughters. I’ve been told that while old Mrs. You was in the other family she promised her second daughter, before the child was born, to the Zhang family who managed the Imperial Farm. Later the Zhangs were ruined by a lawsuit, and she herself married again into the You family. Now, for the last ten years or so, the two families have lost touch completely. Old Mrs. You often complains that she’d like to break off the engagement, and my father also wants to find Second Aunt a different husband. As soon as they’ve picked a suitable family, all they need do is send someone to find the Zhangs, pay them a dozen or so taels of silver, and have a deed written breaking off the betrothal. The Zhangs are so hard up that when they see the silver they’re bound to agree; on top of which they’ll know that in dealing with a family like ours they can’t do anything else. If a gentleman like you, uncle, wants her as a secondary wife, I guarantee both her mother and my father will be willing. The only problem is my Aunt Xifeng.’

At this Jia Lian was too overjoyed to speak and could only grin fool­ishly.

After a little reflection Jia Rong continued, ‘If you have the nerve to do as I say, uncle, I guarantee it wilt be all right. It will simply mean spending a little extra money.

‘What’s your plan? Out with it quick! Of course I’ll agree.’

‘Don’t let on a word about this when you go home. Wait till I’ve told my father and settled it with my grandmother; then we’ll buy a house and the furnishings for it somewhere near the back of our mansion, and install a couple of our servants and their wives there. That done, we’ll choose a day and you can get married on the sly. We’ll forbid the ser­vants to tell anyone about it. As Aunt Xifeng lives tucked away inside the big mansion, how can she possibly get to know of it? Then you’ll have two homes, uncle. After a year or so, if word does get out, at most you’ll get reprimanded by your father; but you can say that as my aunt had no son you arranged this in secret outside, in the hope of having descen­dants. When Aunt Xifeng sees that the rice is already cooked, she’ll have to put up with it; and if you ask the old lady then to put in a word for you, the whole thing will blow over.

As the old proverb says. ‘Lust befuddles the mind.’ Jia Lian was so infatuated by Second Sister’s beauty that he felt Jia Rong’s plan was foolproof, completely forgetting that he was in mourning and how inap­propriate it was to have a concubine outside when he had a stern father and jealous wife at home.

As for Jia Rong, he had ulterior motives. He was attached to both his young aunts, but his father’s presence at home cramped his style. If Jia Lian married Second Sister he would have to have a separate establish­ment outside, where Jia Rong could go to fool about in his absence.

Of course none of this occurred to Jia Lian, who thanked him saying, ‘Good nephew, if you fix this up I’ll buy you two really ravishing maids.’

By now they had reached the Ning Mansion and Jia Rong said, ‘Uncle, while you go in to get the silver from my grandmother and give it to Yu Lu, I’ll go on ahead to call on the old lady.’

Jia Lian nodded, then said with a smile, ‘Don’t tell the old lady that I’ve come with you.

‘I know.’ Jia Rong whispered then into his ear, ‘If you see Second Aunt today, don’t act too rashly. If there’s any trouble now, it will make things more difficult in future.’

‘Don’t talk rot,’ chuckled Jia Lian. ‘Go on. I’ll wait for you here.’

Jia Rong accordingly went to pay his respects to the Lady Dowager.

When Jia Lian entered the Ning Mansion, some of the stewards stepped forward with other servants to pay their respects and followed him to the hall. Jia Lian questioned them briefly for appearance’s sake, then dis­missed them and went in alone. As he and Jia Zhen were cousins and on a close footing, he was not subject to any restrictions here and did not need to wait to be announced. He went straight to the main apartment. The old woman on duty in the corridor lifted the portiere as soon as she saw him; and on entering the room he saw Second Sister sewing with two maids on the couch on the south side, but of old Mrs. You and Third Sister there was no sign. Jia Lian went forward to greet Second Sister, who asked him to take a seat, and he sat down with his back to the east partition.

After an exchange of civilities he asked, ‘Where are your mother and Third Sister? Why aren’t they here?’

‘They just went to the back for something; they’ll be here soon,’ she told him.

As the maids had gone to fetch tea and there was no one else present, Jia Lian kept darting smiling glances at Second Sister, who lowered her head to hide a smile but did not respond, and he dared not make any further advances. Seeing that she was toying with the handkerchief to which her pouch was fastened, he felt his waist as if groping for his own pouch.

‘I’ve forgotten to bring my pouch of betel-nuts,’ he said. ‘Will you let me try one of yours, sister?’

‘I have some, but I never give mine away.’

Smiling, he approached her to take one; and afraid this would look bad if someone came in, she laughingly tossed him her pouch. Having caught it he emptied it out, chose one half-eaten nut which he popped into his mouth, then pocketed all the others. He was about to return the pouch when the two maids came back with the tea. As Jia Lian sipped his tea, he surreptitiously took off a Han-Dynasty jade pendant carved with nine dragons and tied this to her handkerchief. And when both maids were looking the other way, he tossed the handkerchief back. Second Sister just let it lie and went on drinking her tea, as if she had not noticed. Then the portiere behind them swished and in came old Mrs. You and Third Sister with two young maids. With a wink Jia Lian signalled to Second Sister to pick up the handkerchief, but she simply paid no attention; and not knowing what she meant by this he felt frantic. He had to step for­ward to greet the newcomers. As he did so, he glanced back at Second Sister, who was still smiling as if nothing had happened. But looking again he noticed with relief that the handkerchief had vanished. They all sat down now and chatted for a while.

‘My sister-in-law says she gave you some silver the other day to keep for her, madam,’ said Jia Lian. ‘Today they have to settle an ac­count, so Cousin Zhen sent me to fetch it and to see if everything is all right at home.’

On hearing this old Mrs. You immediately sent Second Sister to fetch the key and get the silver.

Jia Lian went on, ‘I wanted to come anyway to pay my respects to you and see both the young ladies. It’s good of you to have come here, madam, but we’re sorry to be putting our two cousins to such trouble too.’

‘What way is that for close relatives to talk!’ she protested. ‘We’ve made ourselves at home here. The truth is, sir, that since my husband died we’ve found it hard to make ends meet, and we’ve only managed thanks to my son-in-law’s help. Now that they have their hands full, we can’t help in any other way but at least we can keep an eye on things here for them ‘ how can you talk of putting us to trouble?’

By now Second Sister had brought the silver and given it to her mother, who passed it to Jia Lian. He sent a young maid to fetch a serving-­woman.

‘Give this to Yu Lu,’ he ordered her. ‘Tell him to take it back to the other house and wait for me there.’

As the old woman assented and left, they heard Jia Rong’s voice in the courtyard; and presently in he came to pay his respects to the ladies.

‘Just now His Lordship your father was asking about you, uncle,’ he said. ‘He has some business he wants you to see to and was gong to send to the temple to fetch you, but I told him you’d be coming presently. His Lordship told me, if I met you, to ask you to hurry.’

As Jia Lian rose to leave he heard Jia Rong tell old Mrs. You, ‘The young man I told you about the other day, grandmother, the one my father has in mind for Second Aunt, has much the same features and build as this uncle of mine. How does he strike you, madam?’

As he said this he pointed slyly at Jia Lian and motioned with his lips at Second Sister. She was too embarrassed to say anything, but her sister scolded:

‘What a devilish monkey you are! Have you nothing else to talk about? Just wait, I’m going to pull out that tongue of yours.’

She ran towards him but Jia Rong had slipped out, laughing, and now Jia Lian took his leave of them with a smile. In the hall he cautioned the servants not to gamble and drink, then secretly urged Jia Rong to hurry back and take the matter up with his father. Next he took Yu Lu over to the other house to make up the sum of silver needed; and while the stew­ard went off with this he paid his respects to his father and the Lady Dowager.

To return to Jia Rong, when he saw that Yu Lu and Jia Lian had gone for the money and he had nothing to do, he went in again to fool around with his two aunts before leaving.

It was evening by the time he got back to the temple and reported to his father, ‘The money’s been given to Yu Lu. The old lady’s much better now and has stopped taking medicine.’ He then took this opportu­nity to describe how Jia Lian had told him on the road of his wish to make Second Sister You his secondary wife and set up house outside, so that Xifeng should know nothing about it.

‘This is just because he’s worried at having no son,’ Jia Rong explained. ‘And as he’s seen Second Aunt, who’s already related to our family, marrying her would be better than getting some girl from a family about which we know nothing. So uncle repeatedly begged me to pro­pose this to you, father.’ He omitted to say that this idea had originated with him.

Jia Zhen thought it over.

‘Actually, it would be just as well,’ he said finally. ‘But we don’t know whether your Second Aunt would be willing. Go and talk it over first with your old granny tomorrow. Get her to make sure your Second Aunt agress before we make any decision.’

Then, having given his son some further instructions, he went to broach the matter to his wife. Madam You, knowing that this would be improper, did her best to dissuade him; but as Jia Zhen had already made up his mind and she was in the habit of falling in with his wishes, and as Second Sister was only her step-sister and she was therefore not so responsible for her, she had to let them go ahead with this preposterous scheme.

Accordingly, the first thing the next day, Jia Rong went back to the city to see old Mrs. You and tell her his father’s proposal. In addition, he expatiated on Jia Lian’s good qualities and declared that Xifeng was mortally ill and, if they bought a house to live in outside for the time being, after a year or so when Xifeng died his Second Aunt could move in as the proper wife. He also described the betrothal presents his father would give, and the wedding ceremony Jia Lian would arrange.

‘They’ll take you in to live in comfort in your old age, madam,’ he assured her. ‘And later they’ll see to Third Aunt’s marriage too.’

He painted such a glowing picture that naturally old Mrs. You agreed. Besides, she was wholly dependent on Jia Zhen for money, and now that he had proposed this match she would not have to provide any dowry. Furthermore, Jia Lian was a young gentleman from a noble family, ten times better than the wretched Zhang family. So she went straight to discuss it with her second daughter.

Second Sister was a coquette. She had already had an affair with Jia Zhen, and it was her constant regret that her betrothal to Zhang Hua prevented her from making a better marriage. Now that Jia Lian had taken a fancy to her and her brother-in-law himself had proposed the match, of course she was only too willing. She nodded in assent, and this was at once reported to Jia Rong, who went back to inform his father.

The next day they sent to invite Jia Lian to the temple. When Jia Zhen told him that old Mrs. You had given her consent, he was so overjoyed that he could not thank Jia Zhen and Jia Rong enough. They made plans then to send stewards to find a house, have trinkets made and the bride’s trousseau prepared, as well as the bed, curtains and other furnishings for the bridal chamber.

Within a few days everything was ready. The house they bought was in Flower Spring Lane about two ii behind the Ning and Rong Street. it had over twenty rooms. They also bought two young maids. In addition, Jia Zhen installed his own servant Bao Er and his wife there to wait on Second Sister after she moved in. He then sent for Zhang Hua and his father and ordered them to write a deed cancelling the betrothal for old Mrs. You.

Now Zhang Hua’s grandfather had been in charge of the imperial Farm. After his death Zhang Hua’s father had taken his place, and as he was a good friend of old Mrs. You’s first husband, Zhang Hua and Sec­ond Sister You had been engaged to each other before they were born. Later the Zhangs became involved in a lawsuit which ruined their family, leaving them too poor to feed and clothe themselves well, to say nothing of bringing home a bride for their son. And as old Mrs. You had left her first husband’s home, the two families had lost touch for more than ten years. When the Jia family’s stewards summoned Zhang Hua and or­dered him to renounce his betrothal to Second Sister You, although un­willing he had to agree for fear of the power which Jia Zhen and the others wielded. He accordingly wrote a deed cancelling the engagement, and old Mrs. You gave him ten taels of silver, after which the matter was settled.

When Jia Lian saw that all preparations were ready, he chose the third of the next month, an auspicious day, for the wedding, of which more will be told in the next chapter.

Truly:

Because he lusted after a kinswoman,

Husband and wife fell out.

Previous articleA Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 63
Next articleA Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 65
Discover the wonders of China through studying abroad - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your horizons, immerse yourself in a rich and diverse culture, and gain a world-class education.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here