A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 66

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Chapter 66

A Girl in Love Is Rejected and

Kills Herself

A Cold-Hearted Man Repents and

Thins to Religion

Bao Er’s wife slapped Xinger playfully.

‘How you do twist the truth and exaggerate!’ she teased. ‘The sense­less way you talk sounds as if you were Baoyu’s servant, not Second Master’s’.

Before Second Sister could ask any other questions, Third Sister put in, ‘By the way, what does he do, that Baoyu of yours, apart from study­ing?’

‘Don’t ask, aunt,’ Xinger chuckled. ‘1ff tell you, you won’t believe me. Big as he is, he’s unique in never having had any proper schooling. All earlier generations of our family right down to Second Master studied hard for years; he’s the only one who won’t study, and he’s the old lady’s pet. At first his father tried to discipline him, but he’s long since given that up.

‘Baoyu carries on the whole time like a lunatic, talking in a way that no one understands, and what he gets up to goodness only knows. He’s handsome and is taken for an intelligent boy, but for all he looks so smart he’s actually muddle-headed, with nothing to say for himself in company. The only good thing about him is that though he’s never been to a proper school he’s managed to learn to read. He never studies books or prac­tises military arts; and he doesn’t like meeting strangers, instead he just loves to fool about with the maids.

‘He has no sense of what’s fitting either. When he sees us, if he’s in the mood he’ll play around with us quite forgetting his station; if he’s not in the mood he’ll go off by himself, ignoring everyone else. If we’re sitting or lying about when he turns up, and we pay no attention to him, he never ticks us off. So nobody’s afraid of him; we know we can behave just as we please.’

‘When your master’s lenient you run him down; if he were strict you’d complain,’ said Third Sister with a smile. ‘That shows what a troublesome lot you are.

‘He made a good impression on us,’ remarked Second Sister. ‘We didn’t know he was like this. What a pity when he’s such a handsome boy.’

‘Don’t believe the nonsense he talks, sister,’ said Third Sister. ‘We’ve met Baoyu several times. The way he behaves and speaks does seem rather effeminate, but that’s because he spends all his time in the inner apartments. You can’t call him muddle-headed. Remember when we were in mourning, that day the monks filed round the coffin? We girls were all standing there and he stepped in front of us, standing in our way. People said he had no manners and should know better; but later didn’t he tell us in confidence, ‘You know, sisters, it’s not that I had no sense of respect, but those monks are so dirty I was afraid you’d find their stench overpowering.’

‘Then he was drinking tea, and you wanted some too. When that old woman took his bowl to pour some for you, he said at once, ‘I’ve dirtied that bowl; you must wash it first.’ From these two incidents, viewed dispassionately, I saw how obliging he is towards us girls he knows how to make himself agreeable to us. It just doesn’t seem right to outsid­ers; that’s why they can’t understand him.’

‘It sounds as if the two of you are already of one mind,’ Second Sister chuckled. ‘How would it be if we were to betroth you to him?’ Inhibited by Xinger’s presence, Third Sister just lowered her head and went on cracking melon-seeds.

‘As far as looks and behaviour go, they’d make a fine couple,’ chortled Xinger. ‘Only he’s already made his choice, although it hasn’t yet been announced. It’s bound to be Miss Lin. Nothing has been done so far, as she’s so delicate and they’re both still young; but in another two or three years, as soon as the old lady says the word it will certainly be settled.’

As they were chatting, Longer came back to report, ‘The old master has some business, something extremely important and confidential, that he’s sending Second Master to Pinganzhou to attend to. He’s to set out in a few days and the whole trip there and back will take more than a fortnight. So he can’t come back today. He hopes the old mistress and Second Aunt will see to that matter right away, so that he can make the final decision when he comes tomorrow.’ This said, he went off with Xinger.

Second Sister ordered the gate to be closed and they turned in early, but she spent most of the night questioning her sister.

The next day it was after noon before Jia Lian arrived.

‘Why be in such a hurry to come when you’ve other important busi­ness?’ Second Sister asked him. ‘You mustn’t delay your journey on my account.’

‘It’s not all that important,’ he told her. ‘The nuisance is I’ve got to make a long trip, starting early next month, and I shan’t be back for a fortnight.’

‘Well, just go with an easy mind. You needn’t worry about anything here. My sister’s not the type that keeps changing her mind. She says she’s going to turn over a new leaf, and she’ll be as good as her word. She’s already made her choice of a man. All you need do is to fall in with her wishes.’

‘Who is he?’ asked Jia Lian.

‘He’s not here now, and there’s no knowing when he’ll come back. But she’s made an intelligent choice. If he stays away for a year, she’ll wait for a year, she says. If he doesn’t return for ten years, she’ll wait for ten years. If he’s dead and never comes back, she’ll gladly shave off her hair and become a nun, fasting and chanting sutras all her life.’

‘Who can the fellow be that has won her heart so completely?’

‘It’s a long story,’ said Second Sister with a smile. ‘Five years ago, when it was our grandmother’s birthday, my mother took us there to offer congratulations. They’d invited a troupe of amateur actors, among them a certain Liu Xianglian who liked to play the young hero’s part in operas. She took such a fancy to him, she now declares he’s the only man for her. Last year we heard that he’d got into trouble and run away. We don’t know whether he has ever come back.’

‘Well, I never!’ exclaimed Jia Lian. ‘So that’s who it is. I was won­dering what sort of fellow he could be. Yes, she’s made a good choice. But you know this Second Master Liu, for all he’s so handsome, is cold and stand-offish. He has no time for most people but happens to get on splendidly with Baoyu. Last year after he beat up that fool Xue Pan he left, feeling too embarrassed to see us, and we don’t know where he’s gone. Some people say he’s returned. I suppose we can ask Baoyu’s pages to find out. If he hasn’t come back and is still drifting about, Heaven knows how many years he may stay away. Your sister may wait in vain.’

‘No, my sister’s always as good as her word,’ she assured him. ‘Just let her have her way.’

At this point Third Sister joined them.

‘Believe me, brother-in-law, I’m not one of those who don’t say what they think,’ she declared. ‘I mean what I say. If Mr. Liu comes I’ll marry him. Until then I’ll fast, chant sutras and look after my mother while waiting for him to come and marry me, even if I have to wait a hundred years. If he never comes, I’ll go and become a nun.’ Drawing a jade pin from her hair she broke it in two, exclaiming, ‘If I’ve said a single word that isn’t true, may I end up like this pin!’

This said, she went back to her room. And after that she was, indeed, most correct in her speech and behaviour.

There was nothing Jia Lian could do. Having discussed some family business with Second Sister, he went home to tell Xifeng about his trip, then sent to ask Mingyan whether Liu Xianglian had returned or not.

‘I don’t know,’ said Mingyan. ‘Probably not. Otherwise I would have heard.’

And Liu’s neighbours when questioned said he had never come back. So Jia Lian had to pass on this information to Second Sister.

As the time for his departure approached he announced that he was leaving two days early, but in fact he spent two nights in Second Sister’s place, starting his journey secretly from there. He observed that Third Sister’s behaviour had indeed changed out of all recognition, and as Sec­ond Sister was managing the house diligently and prudently he had no need to worry.

He left the city early in the morning and took the highway to Pinganzhou. He travelled all day, stopping only to refresh himself when he was hungry or thirsty, staying in inns at night, and he had been three days on the way when a caravan of pack-horses came towards him escorted by a dozen or so men on horseback. As they drew near he saw to his astonishment that among them were Xue Pan and Liu Xianglian. At once he spurred his horse forward to meet them, and after exchang­ing the usual courtesies they chose an inn in which to rest and chat.

Jia Lian said, ‘After the two of you fell out we were very eager to patch it up between you, but Brother Liu had vanished without a trace. How come you’re together today?’

‘Wonders never cease,’ said Xue Pan. ‘I and my assistants bought some goods and started back to the capital this spring. All went well till the other day when we reached Pinganzhou and a band of brigands seized everything we had. Then along came Brother Liu in the nick of time to drive the brigands away, rescue our goods and save our lives into the bargain. When he wouldn’t accept anything for his help, we became sworn brothers and have been travelling together. From now on we shall be like real blood-brothers. But we shall part company at the crossroad in front, as he has to go two hundred ii farther south to visit an aunt of his. I shall go to the capital first to finish my business, then find a house for him and a suitable wife, so that we can all settle down there.’

‘If that’s the case,’ exclaimed Jia Lian, ‘We’ve been worrying need­lessly for several days.’ As Xue Pan had spoken of finding a wife for Xianglian, he hastened to continue, ‘I’ve got the very bride for him, a splendid match for Brother Liu.’ He went on to explain how he had married Second Sister You and now wanted to find a husband for her younger sister, omitting only to add that Liu was Third Sister’s own choice. He then cautioned Xue Pan, ‘Mind you don’t tell the family. Just wait until she has a son, then of course they’ll have to know.’

Xue Pan was delighted.

‘You should have done that long ago,’ he said. ‘It serves Cousin Xifeng right.’

‘You’re talking nonsense again,’ put in Xianglian with a smile. ‘You’d better shut up.’

‘In that case,’ said Xue Pan, changing the subject, ‘we must fix up this match.’

‘It’s been my intention all along,’ Xianglian told them, ‘to marry only an outstanding beauty. But as this proposal comes from my honourable elder brothers, I shan’t insist on that. I’ll agree to whatever you suggest.’

‘Words don’t carry conviction,’ Jia Lian rejoined. ‘But once you see her, Brother Liu, you’ll realize that this sister-in-law of mine is a matchless beauty.’

Xianglian was overjoyed by this assurance.

‘If that’s so,’ he said, ‘When I’ve called on my aunt, in less than a fortnight I’ll come to the capital and we can settle everything then. How’s that?’

‘We’re both men of our word,’ replied Jia Lian. ‘But you’re such a rolling stone, always on the move, I don’t like leaving it undecided. If you drift away now and don’t come back, what’s to become of her? You’d better let me have some betrothal token.’

‘A true man never goes back on his word. I’m not rich and I’m in the middle of a journey, so where would I get a betrothal token?’

‘I’ve something suitable,’ Xue Pan cut in. ‘Just take it, Second Brother.’

‘I don’t want gold or silk,’ said Jia Lian. ‘What I have in mind is one of Brother Liu’s personal possessions; it doesn’t have to be anything valuable. I’ll just take it as a pledge.’

‘Very well, then,’ agreed Xianglian. ‘The only things I have with me, apart from this sword which I need in self-defence, are a pair of ‘duck and drake’ swords in my luggage they’re a family heirloom which I never use but always keep with me. You can take them as a pledge. However much of a wanderer I am, I’d never give up these swords.’

After that they drank a few more cups, then mounted their horses, took their leave of each other and went their different ways.

Truly:

Generals, not dismounting from their horses,

Gallop off to their destinations.

After Jia Lian reached Pinganzhou he called on the governor to settle his business, and was told to come back again before the tenth month. The very next day he hurriedly started back, and as soon as he got home went to see Second Sister.

Since his departure Second Sister had been running her household most prudently, staying in every day behind closed doors and taking no interest in outside affairs. And Third Sister had proved her iron resolu­tion: apart from waiting on her mother and sister she had kept to herself, doing her share of work every day and sleeping alone at night on her lonely pillow. Although unaccustomed to such a solitary life she avoided all company, simply longing for Liu Xianglian’s early return, so that the main affair of her life could be settled.

When Jia Lian saw how things were, he was very pleased with Sec­ond Sister’s virtuous conduct. After the usual civilities had been ex­changed, he described his encounter with Liu Xianglian on the road and taking out the pair of swords passed them to Third Sister. She looked at the dragon and serpent designs on the sheath which was studded with bright pearls and jewels, then drew out the two swords, identical in size, one engraved with the word ‘duck,’ the other ‘drake.’ The blades had the cold gleam of two autumn streams. Overjoyed, she hastily took them to her chamber to hang them on the wall over her bed. Every day she would feast her eyes on them, happy that her future was provided for.

After Jia Lian had spent two days there, he went to report on his mission to his father, then returned home to see his family. By now Xifeng was well enough to attend to affairs and get about again. When Jia Lian told Jia Zhen about Third Sister’s engagement his cousin showed little interest, as he had recently found himself a new mistress and given up calling on the You sisters. He was willing to let Jia Lian do as he pleased. But suspecting that the latter might be unable to defray all the expenses, he gave him thirty taels of silver which Jia Lian passed on to Second Sister to prepare her sister’s trousseau.

Liu Xianglian did not come to the capital till the eighth month. When he called on Aunt Xue and Xue Ke he learned that Xue Pan, being unac­customed to the rigours of travel and a different climate, had fallen ill as soon as he arrived home and was still being treated by doctors. Hearing of Xianglian’s arrival, he invited him into his bedroom.

Full of gratitude for the good turn Xianglian had done them, Aunt Xue let bygones be bygones, both she and her son thanking him most pro­fusely. They went on to speak of the wedding, all the preparations for which were complete except for the choice of an auspicious day. Xianglian, in turn, was loud in his thanks.

The next day he called on Baoyu, and meeting again they felt so at home with each other that Xianglian asked for more details about Jia Lian’s secret marriage to a second wife.

‘I only heard about it from Mingyan and the others,’ Baoyu told him. ‘And it wasn’t my business to interfere. I also heard from Mingyan that Cousin Lian was very anxious to find you I don’t know what for.’

Xianglian explained all that had happened on the road.

‘Congratulations!’ cried Baoyu. ‘You’d be hard put to it to find a lovelier girl. She’s really ravishing, just the right match for you.’

‘If she’s so lovely she ought to have lots of suitors; why should he single me out? It’s not as if the two of us were close friends or he has any special concern for me. In our brief meeting on the road he kept pressing me to agree to this engagement. Why should the girl’s family be in such a hurry? I couldn’t help having misgivings, and soon started re­gretting having given him my swords as a pledge. That’s why I thought of asking you just what’s behind this.’

‘You’re a smart fellow,’ answered Baoyu. ‘Once you’ve given your pledge how can you start having second thoughts? You always said you wanted a ravishing beauty, and now you’ve got one. Isn’t that good enough? Why be so suspicious?’

‘If you didn’t know about Jia Lian’s secret marriage, how do you know that she’s so beautiful?’

‘She’s one of the two daughters of Madam You’s step-mother, old Mrs. You, by her first marriage. I saw a lot of them for a couple of months, so of course I know. She and her sister are really a pair of beau­ties.’

Xianglian stamped his foot.

‘That’s no good then! I can’t go through with it. The only clean things in that East Mansion of yours are those two stone lions at the gate. Even the cats and dogs there are unclean. I don’t want to be a cuckold and take someone else’s leavings.’

Baoyu blushed. And Xianglian, regretting his tactlessness, made haste to bow.

‘I deserve death for talking such nonsense. But do at any rate tell me what her character’s like.’

‘If you know so much already, why ask me? I may not be clean myself either.’

‘I forgot myself just now,’ said Xianglian with a smile. ‘Please don’t make such an issue of it.’

‘Why mention it again?’ retorted Baoyu. ‘This makes it seem that you take it seriously.’

Xianglian took his leave then with a bow and left. He thought of going to see Xue Pan, but reflected that as the latter was unwell and so iras­cible at the best of times he had better go and get his pledge back instead. This decision reached, he went to find Jia Lian.

Jia Lian was in the new house. When he heard that Xianglian had come he was overjoyed and hurried out to welcome him, then ushered him into the inner room and introduced him to old Mrs. You. To his aston­ishment, instead of kneeling to her as his future mother-in-law, Xianglian simply bowed and addressed her as ‘aunt,’ referring to himself as ‘your nephew.’

And as they were sipping tea he said, ‘During my journey, as it hap­pened, I was overhasty, not knowing that my aunt had arranged a match for me in the fourth month, making it impossible for me to retract. It wouldn’t be right would it, brother, for me to accept your proposal and refuse my aunt’s. If I’d given the usual gifts of money and silk, I wouldn’t venture to ask to have them back; but those swords were left me by my grandfather, so I must beg you to return them.’

Jia Lian was very put out when he heard this.

‘A pledge is a pledge,’ he argued. ‘And a pledge is given to stop a man from going back on his word. Can you cancel an engagement so casually? Pray reconsider the matter.’

‘In spite of what you say,’ replied Xianglian, ‘I’m willing to accept any penalty, but on this matter I definitely cannot obey your order.’

Jia Lian was about to reply when Xianglian stood up.

‘Let’s discuss this outside,’ he proposed. ‘It’s not convenient her.’

Third Sister had heard all this clearly from her room. She had been waiting and waiting for Liu Xianglian’s arrival, but now he had suddenly broken the engagement. It was clear to her that he must have heard some gossip in the Jia mansions which led him to believe her a shameless wanton, not fit to be his wife. If she let the two men go out now to discuss it, she foresaw that Jia Lian would fail to win him round and she would be utterly humiliated. So as soon as Jia Lian agreed to his proposal she took down the swords, concealing the ‘duck’ behind her elbow, and went out to intercept them.

‘There’s no need for you to go out to discuss this further.’ she told them. ‘Here’s your pledge, I’m returning it.’

Her tears falling like rain, with her left hand she passed the sheath with one sword in it to Xianglian, and with her right cut her throat with the other blade. Alas!

The jade hill crumbles, never to rise again;

Peach-blossom, trampled, stains the ground with red.

Her fragrant spirit is lost in the infinite ‘None knows whither it has fled.

All present were consternated and tried in vain to revive her. Old Mrs. You sobbing with horror cursed Xianglian, while Jia Lian seized hold of him, calling servants to tie him up and drag him to court.

Second Sister dried her tears then to urge her husband, ‘Let him be! He didn’t threaten her, she took her own life. So what use would it be to take him to court? That would only cause a worse scandal. You’d better let him go, to save further trouble.’

Then Jia Lian, not knowing what else to do, let go of Xianglian and told him to get out. However, he did not move but burst into tears.

‘I never knew this intended wife of mine was so chaste, such a mag­nificent girl.’ he exclaimed.

Prostrating himself over her corpse he gave way to a storm of weep­ing. And when a coffin was brought and her body laid in it, he clasped it and lamented bitterly before finally leaving them.

Once outside the gate he did not know where to go, dazed and sunk in gloom as he recalled what had just happened. ‘So she was so lovely and chaste,’ he reflected, torn by remorse.

He wandered aimlessly on until one of Xue Pan’s pages appeared and asked him to go back. The boy took him to a magnificent bridal chamber. He heard the tinkling of pendants, and in came Third Sister, in one hand the ‘duck and drake’ swords, in the other a book. With tears she told him:

‘Your devoted handmaid waited five years for you, my lord, not know­ing you would prove so cold-hearted. I have paid with my life now for my infatuation. Today, at the order of the goddess of Disenchantment, I am going to the Illusory Land of the Great Void to register all the amorous spirits in this case. But I couldn’t bear to go away without bidding you farewell, for from this day on we shall never meet again.’ This said, she turned to leave.

Xianglian could not bear to let her go and quickly stepped forward to stop her and question her.

‘We came from the Heaven of Love and we must return there from the Earth of Love,’ she told him. ‘I was deluded by love in my last life, but as I have repented of it and awakened, from now on I shall have nothing to do with you, sir.’

As her voice died away, a fragrant wind sprang up and she vanished into thin air.

Xianglian woke with a start, wondering if he had been dreaming. When he opened his eyes and looked round, there was no sign of the Xues’ page boy or of the bridal chamber. He was in a tumble-down temple, and beside him a lame Taoist priest was sitting catching lice. Xianglian rose to his feet, then bowed to the ground.

‘Where are we, holy master?’ he asked the priest. ‘And what is your immortal name?’

The priest chuckled, ‘I myself don’t know where we are or who I am. I’m simply putting up here for the time being.’

At this Liu Xianglian shuddered with cold, as if the marrow of his bones had frozen. He drew the ‘drake’ sword and with one stroke cut off his hair, then went away with the priest, no one knows where.

To know what became of him, read the next chapter.

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