A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 68

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Chapter 68

Unhappy Second Sister You Is Decoyed

into Grand View Garden

Jealous Xifeng Makes a Scene

in the Ning Mansion

When Jia Lian left on his mission, it so happened that the Governor of Pinganzhou was away for a month inspecting border areas. To get a definite reply, Jia Lian had to wait in the hostel for his return. Thus by the time the governor came back, received him and settled the matter, nearly two months had passed.

Xifeng’s plans were already laid. As soon as Jia Lian left she ordered workmen to fix up the three rooms on the eastern side, decorating and furnishing them just like her own. On the fourteenth, she reported to the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang that she wanted to go to the nunnery to offer incense the next morning, taking only Pinger, Fenger and the wives of Zhou Rui and Lai Wang. Before setting out she disclosed her true purpose to them and ordered them all to wear mourning.

Then they set off, Xinger leading the way, to the house where Second Sister You lived. He knocked at the gate, which was opened by Bao Er’s wife.

Xinger announced with a grin, ‘Tell the Second Mistress that Madam Lian is here. Quick!’

Frightened out of her wits, Bao Er’s wife flew in to report this. Sec­ond Sister You, too, was taken aback; but since Xifeng had come she had no choice but to receive her with befitting respect. She hastily straight­ened her clothes and went out to meet her as Xifeng dismounted from her carriage and stepped through the gate.

Second Sister You saw that Xifeng had nothing but silver trinkets in her hair and was wearing a pale blue satin jacket, black satin cape and white silk skirt. Under eyebrows arched like willow leaves her almond eyes were as bright as those of a phoenix; she was pretty as peach ­blossom in spring, simple and austere as chrysanthemums in autumn. As the wives of Zhou Rui and Lai Wang helped her into the courtyard, Sec­ond Sister You stepped forward with a smile to curtsey to her, addressing her as ‘elder sister.’

‘I wasn’t expecting the honour of this visit, so I didn’t come out to meet you,’ she apologized. ‘Please overlook my negligence, elder sister.’ Again she curtseyed.

Smiling, Xifeng returned her greeting and hand in hand they entered the house, where Xifeng took the seat of honour while Second Sister ordered her maid to bring a cushion, then knelt to pay her respects.

‘Your slave is young,’ she said. ‘Since coming here, I’ve left all decisions to my mother and my step-sister. Now that I’ve had the good fortune to meet you, elder sister, if you don’t consider me too far beneath you I’d like to ask for your advice and instructions. I’ll bare my heart to you, too, and wait upon you.’ She bowed low.

Xifeng left her seat to return the courtesy.

‘This all comes of my behaving like a silly woman,’ she answered, ‘for ever advising my husband to take good care of his health and keep away from brothels, to spare his parents worry. We’re both fond, foolish women. But he seems to have misunderstood me. If he’d taken a mis­tress outside and hidden it from me, that wouldn’t have signified; but now he’s taken you as his second wife, and that’s an important matter, in accordance with the rules of propriety, yet he never told me about it.

‘Actually, I’d advised him to take another wife, because if he begets a son I, too, shall have someone to rely on in future. But he seems to have thought me the jealous type, and so he took this important step in secret. That was really wronging me! And to whom can I complain but to Heaven and Earth?

‘This came to my ears about ten days ago, but for fear of vexing my husband I didn’t venture to take it up with him. Now that he happens to have gone on a long journey, I’ve come to call on you in person. I do hope you’ll understand how much I take this to heart and agree to move into our house so that we can live together as sisters, both of one mind, to advise Second Master to pay careful attention to his business and to look after his health. This is only right and proper.

‘Foolish and lowly as I am, and unworthy of your company, if we live in separate establishments like this, how do you suppose I can set my mind at rest? Besides, once outsiders know, it will reflect badly on both of our reputations. Not that gossip about us is so serious it’s Second Master’s reputation that really counts. Besides, it’s entirely up tp you to save me from getting a bad name.

I daresay you’ve heard talk about me from servants who think I run the household too strictly and most likely exaggerate behind my back. But how can someone as intelligent and broad-minded as you believe such disgruntled talk? If I were really so impossible, why have three generations of my seniors as well as all my cousins and in-laws and don’t forget that the Jias are a well-known old family ‘ put up with me all this time? Anyone else would have been angry at his marrying you in secret like this outside, but I actually consider it a blessing which shows that the gods and Buddhas of Heaven and Earth don’t want me to be defamed by those low creatures’ slander.

‘I’ve come today to beg you to move in and live with me, on the same footing, share and share alike to serve our father and mother-in-law and advise our husband together, and share the same griefs and joys like real sisters. Then those low types will be sorry they sized me up wrongly; and when Second Master comes back and sees this, he as our husband will regret his mistake. So, sister, you’ll have become my bene­factress, redeeming my reputation.

‘If you won’t agree to coming back with me, I’ll gladly move out to live with you here and wait on you like a younger sister. All I beg of you is to put in a few good words for me to Second Master, so that he’ll allow me somewhere to stay. Then I shall die content.’

With that she started sobbing and weeping, moving Second Sister to tears too.

After this exchange they resumed their seats, and now Pinger came in to pay her respects. As she was unusually welldressed and looked a cut above the other maids, Second Sister You realized who she was and hastily laid a restraining hand on her arm.

‘Don’t do that, sister!’ she exclaimed. ‘You and I are of the same rank.’

Xifeng rose with a smile to protest, ‘Don’t overrate her that would spoil what little good fortune she may have! Just let her pay her respects, sister. She’s after all our maid. There’s no need to stand on ceremony with her.’

She then ordered Zhou Rui’s wife to unwrap four rolls of fine silk and four pairs of jewelled trinkets set in gold as her gift to Second Sister You at this first meeting, and these were accepted with thanks. Then, sipping tea, they spoke of what had happened.

‘It was all my fault,’ Xifeng kept reiterating. ‘No one else is to blame. But do be good to me.

Second Sister, quite taken in by her protestations, thought it was only natural for disgruntled servants to run down their mistress. So she replied very frankly, treating Xifeng as a trusted friend. Moreover, Mrs. Zhou and the other serving women there praised Xifeng for her goodness, say­ing it was her being honest to a fault which had given rise to resentment. They announced too that the house had been made ready, as the new mistress would see for herself when she moved in. Second Sister had always thought it would be better for her to live in the Jia mansion, and hearing all this she naturally agreed.

‘I ought to accompany you, sister,’ she said. ‘But what about this household here?’

‘That’s no problem,’ Xifeng assured her. ‘Just get the servants to take over your personal belongings. The furniture here won’t be needed. You can assign anyone you think fit to stay here so as to keep an eye on it.’

‘Since I’ve met you today, elder sister, I’ll leave all the arrange­ments for the removal to you. I haven’t been here long, and never having run a house before I’m too inexperienced to make decisions. These few cases can be taken. I’ve really nothing else here of my own, the other things belong to Second Master.’

Xifeng ordered Zhou Rui’s wife to make a note of these cases and see to it that they were carried carefully to the eastern rooms. Then she urged Second Sister to put on her jewels and they went out hand in hand to mount the carriage, in which they sat side by side.

‘Our family rules are strict,’ Xifeng now told her confidentially. ‘So far the old lady knows nothing about this business. If they learned that the Second Master married you while still in mourning, they’d have him beaten to death! So we can’t present you yet to Their Ladyships. We have a very big garden where the girls of our family live, but other people hardly ever go there. Now that you’re moving over, you can stay in the Garden for a couple of days till I’ve found some way to break this news, and then it will be all right to pay your respects.’

‘Do exactly as you think best, elder sister,’ acquiesced Second Sister.

As the pages accompanying the carriage had received their orders in advance, instead of entering the main gate they went straight to the one at the back; and as soon as the ladies alighted, everyone in the neighbourhood was chased away. Then Xifeng led Second Sister through the back gate of Grand View Garden to see Li Wan.

By this time most of the inmates of the Garden had heard the news. Now that they saw Xifeng bringing Second Sister in, they flocked over to see her and she greeted each in turn. Not one but was very favourably impressed by her beauty and her charm.

‘Don’t let word of this get out,’ Xifeng warned them all. ‘If it comes to the ears of Their Ladyships, I’ll kill the lot of you!’

The matrons and maids in the Garden were all afraid of Xifeng. And as Jia Lian had taken this second wife while observing state mourning and family mourning too, they knew it was a most serious offence and took care not to speak of the matter.

Xifeng quietly asked Li Wan to put up the new arrival for a few days.

‘Once this business is straightened out.’ she said, ‘of course she’ll move over with me.’

Knowing that rooms had been made ready in Jia Lian’s quarters and that it would not be fitting to announce this marriage during the period of mourning, Li Wan agreed.

Xifeng then dismissed all Second Sister’s maids, assigning some of her own to wait on her, and ordered the women in the Garden to look after her well.

‘If she disappears or runs away, you’ll have to answer for it!’ she threatened them, after which she went off to make other secret arrange­ments.

Everyone in the household was amazed to see how benevolent Xifeng had become. As for Second Sister, now that she had found this niche and all the girls in the Garden treated her well, she was quite contented and happy, thinking her future assured.

After three days, however, Shanjie, the maid assigned to her, started showing signs of insubordination.

‘There’s no hair-oil left,’ Second Sister told her. ‘Go and ask Madam Lian for some.

‘How can you be so inconsiderate, madam?’ Shanjie retorted. ‘Madam Lian has to look after the old lady every day, as well as the mistresses of both mansions and all the young ladies. At the same time she has to give orders to several hundred men-servants and women-servants all told. Not a day goes by but she has ten or twenty important matters to attend to, besides dozens of minor ones. Outside, she has to see to sending gifts and returning the courtesies of so many noble fami­lies from Her Imperial Highness down to princess and marquises; on top of which she has to cope with countless relatives and friends, as well as receiving or sending out thousands of taels of silver every day. How can you trouble her with trifles like this? I wouldn’t be so demanding if I were you. Yours isn’t a proper marriage. She’s treating you well be­cause she’s so exceptionally kind and generous. If not for that, hearing the way you talk, she could well storm at you and kick you out. And then what could you do? You’d really be stranded.’

This harangue made Second Sister hang her head. She saw she would just have to stomach such slights. And things went from bad to worse: Shanjie even stopped fetching her meals, or served them unpunctually, bringing nothing but scraps. If Second Sister complained, the maid started screaming at her; but for fear others might scoff that she didn’t know her place, she had to put up with it. Every week or so when she happened to see Xifeng, the latter was all smiles and sweetness, for ever address­ing her as ‘my dear sister.’

‘If any servants are remiss and you can’t control them, just let me know and I’ll have them beaten,’ promised Xifeng. Then she scolded the maids and matrons, ‘I know the way you take advantage of those who are kind and fear only those who are hard on you. Once my back’s turned you’re not afraid of anyone. If I hear one word of complaint from the second mistress, I’ll have your lives for it!’

Second Sister was taken in by this show of kindness.

‘With her taking my side like this, I’d better not make any fuss,’ she reflected. ‘Some servants have no sense, that’s only natural. If I report them and get them into trouble, I’m the one people will blame.’ So she covered up for the maids instead.

Meanwhile Xifeng had sent Lai Wang out to make detailed inquiries, and had now ascertained that Second Sister had indeed been engaged before to a certain Zhang Hua now nineteen, a wastrel and loafer who spent his time gambling and whoring and had squandered his family’s money. Having been driven out by his father, he now stayed in a gambling den. And his father, without telling him, had accepted ten taels of silver from old Mrs. You for cancelling the engagement.

After Xifeng had learned all these particulars, she gave Lai Wang a packet of twenty taels of silver and secretly ordered him to get Zhang Hua to stay with him and bring a suit against Jia Lian. He was to accuse him of marrying during a period of state and family mourning, against Imperial decree and unknown to his parents; of relying on his wealth and power to force Zhang Hua to renounce his engagement; and of taking a second wife without the consent of his first.

Zhang Hua, however, only too well aware of the danger involved, dared not bring such a charge. When Lai Wang reported this to Xifeng she fumed:

‘Damn him for a mangy cur that won’t let itself be hepled over a wall! Go and explain to him that it doesn’t matter even if he accuses our family of high treason. I just want him to make a row so that everyone loses face. If big trouble comes of it, I can always smooth things over.

Lai Wang carried out her orders and explained this to Zhang Hua.

Xifeng also instructed Lai Wang, ‘Get him to implicate you, then you can confront him in court I’ll tell you just what to say and I guarantee everything will be all right.’

When Lai Wang saw that he had Xifeng’s backing, he told Zhang Hua to include his name in his charge.

‘Just accuse me of acting as the middleman and of putting Second Master up to this,’ he said.

Zhang Hua, given this cue, acted on Lai Wang’s advice and wrote out his plaint, taking it the next morning to the Court of Censors. When the judge took his seat in the court and saw that this charge against Jia Lian involved his servant Lai Wang, he had no choice but to send for the latter to answer the charge. The runners, not daring to enter the Jia mansion, meant to order a servant to deliver the summons. But Lai Wang had reckoned on their coming, and was already waiting out in the street, When he saw the runners he approached them with a smile.

‘Sorry to have put you to this trouble, brothers,’ he said, ‘I must have done wrong. All right, put the chains round my neck.’

Not venturing to do this, they replied, ‘Please just come quietly, sir, and stop joking.’

Then Lai Wang went to the court and knelt down before the judge, who showed him the charge. He pretended to read it through and then kowtowed.

‘I was in the know about this,’ he admitted. ‘My master did this all right. But this fellow Zhang Hua has a grudge against me, that’s why he’s accused me of being the middleman. Actually, it was someone else. I beg Your Honour to make investigations.’

Zhang Hua, knowtowing too, said, ‘That’s true; but it’s someone I dared not mention, that’s why I accused the servant instead.’

‘Silly fool!’ Lai Wang made a show of desperation. ‘Hurry up and come clean. This is a government court. You must name him even if he’s a gentleman.’

Then Zhang Hua named Jia Rong. And the judge had to have him served with a summons.

Xifeng had secretly sent Qinger to find out when this summons was issued. Now she promptly called for Wang Xin, explained what had hap­pened, and told him to go and bribe the judge with three hundred taels just to make a display of severity in order to frighten the culprits.

That evening Wang Xin went to the judge’s house and fixed things up. The judge, knowing the situation, accepted the bribe and the next day announced in court that Zhang Hua was a scoundrel who had trumped up this charge against innocent people because he was in debt to the Jia family. For as this judge was on good terms with Wang Ziteng, after a word in private from Wang Xin he was all for settling the matter without making trouble for the Jias. He therefore said no more, simply detained the plaintiff and the accused and summoned Jia Rong to court.

Jia Rong was seeing to some business for Jia Zhen when someone brought him word of this charge against him and urged him to think of a way out at once. He made haste to report this to Jia Zhen.

‘I was prepared for this; but that fellow certainly has a nerve!’ said Jia Zhen.

At once he sealed two hundred taels in a packet to be sent to the judge, and ordered a servant to go and answer the charge. As they were discussing their next step, the arrival of Madam Lian from the West Mansion was announced. Both men started and wanted to slip away into hiding, but it was too late ‘ Xifeng had already entered.

‘A fine elder brother you are!’ she cried. ‘A fine thing you got your younger brother to do!’

Jia Rong hastily stepped forward to pay his respects. Xifeng simply caught hold of him and went on in.

‘Entertain your aunt well,’ said Jia Zhen. ‘Order a good meal for her.’ He then called for his horse and made off.

Xifeng marched Jia Rong towards the inner rooms and Madam You came out to meet her.

‘What’s the matter?’ she asked, seeing how furious she looked. ‘Why this hurry?’

Xifeng spat in her face.

‘Couldn’t you find husbands for the girls of your You family that you had to smuggle them into the Jia family?’ she demanded. ‘Are all men of the has so wonderful? Have all the other men in the world died out? Even if you want to pawn off your sisters, there’s a proper procedure for marriage and it should be announced in a decent way. Have you taken leave of your senses? How could you send her over during a time of state and family mourning? And now that someone’s brought a charge against us, I’m all in a flurry. Even the court thinks me a jealous shrew and has summoned me to stand trial. My name will be mud! And I shall be divorced!

‘What wrong have I done you since I’ve come to this house that you treat me so cruelly? Or did Their Ladyships tip you a hint to trap me like this so as to get rid of me? Let’s go to face the judge now, both of us, to clear this up. Then we can put the case before the whole clan. If they give me a bill of divorce, I’ll leave.’

Sobbing and storming she caught hold of Madam You, insisting on going to court. Jia Rong knelt in desperation and kowtowed, begging her not to be angry.

‘May lightning blast your skull!’ she swore at him. ‘May five devils tear you apart, you heartless wretch! You fear nothing in heaven or on earth, playing such dirty tricks all the time and doing such shameless, lawless things to ruin our family. Even your dead mother’s spirit will disown you, so will all your ancestors. How dare you appeal to me?’

After this tearful tirade she raised her hand to strike him. Jia Rong thumped his head on the ground again.

‘Don’t be angry, aunt!’ he cried. ‘Don’t hurt your hand ‘ let me slap myself instead. Please don’t be angry, auntie.’

He raised his hands and slapped himself on both cheeks.

‘Will you meddle in that thoughtless way again?’ he asked himself. ‘Just listen to your uncle and not to your aunt?’

All present, repressing smiles, begged him to stop.

And now Xifeng threw herself into Madam You’s arms to weep and wail, calling on Heaven and Earth.

‘I wouldn’t mind you finding another wife for your brother in-law,’ she sobbed. ‘But why make him flout the Imperial decree and keep it secret from his parents? Why give me a bad name? We must go to find the judge before he sends police and runners to arrest me. After that we must go and see Their Ladyships and call the whole clan together to discuss this. If I’ve acted so badly, refusing to let my husband take a second wife or another concubine, just give me a bill of divorce and I’ll leave at once.

‘Actually, I’ve fetched your sister here myself, but didn’t venture to report it to Their Ladyships for fear they’d be angry. She has maids in the Garden to wait on her hand and foot, and I’ve prepared rooms for her in our place exactly like my own, where I meant to take her as soon as the old lady knew. We could all have settled down then, minding our own business, and I’d have let bygones be bygones. How was Ito know that she was engaged to another man before? How was Ito know what you’d been up to?

‘Yesterday, hearing that her betrothed had brought a charge against me, I was so desperate that I had to take five hundred taels of the mis­tress’ silver to use as a bribe; because if I were summoned to court your ha family would lose face. And my servant is still locked up by the po­lice.’

She went on storming and wailing, sobbingly invoking their ancestors and her parents, then tried to dash out her brains and kill herself. Madam You, reduced to a squelch, her clothes covered with tears and snot, could only round on Jia Rong.

‘You degenerate!’ she scolded. ‘You and your father are to blame for this. I warned you against it.’

Xifeng let out another wail, clasping Madam You’s face between both hands.

‘Were you crazy?’ she demanded. ‘Was your mouth stuffed with eggplant or with a bit and curb, that you couldn’t let me know? If you had, I wouldn’t be in such a fix, with this business so out of hand it’s been taken to court. Yet you’re still trying to shift the blame to them! As the saying goes, ‘A good wife keeps her husband out of trouble ‘ a sound woman counts for more than a sound man.’ If you were any good, how could they do such things? You’re as stupid and dumb as a gourd with its tip sawn off. All you care about, you fool, is getting a name for goodness. So they’re not afraid of you and won’t listen to what you say.’ She spat again and again in disgust.

‘That’s how it was, really,’ sobbed Madam You. ‘If you don’t be­lieve me, ask the servants. Of course I tried to stop them ‘ they just wouldn’t listen. So what could I do? I don’t blame you for being angry, sister, but I simply couldn’t help it.’

The concubines and maids kneeling fearfully round them now pleaded with Xifeng, ‘You’re so wise and understanding, madam, even if our mistress did wrong you’ve got even with her now. Usually, in front of us slaves, you’re both on the best of terms. So please leave her some face!’

They brought Xifeng some tea, but she smashed the cup. However, she stopped crying and smoothed her hair.

‘Fetch your father here!’ she ordered Jia Rong. ‘I want to ask him why, with still a fortnight to go before the mourning for the uncle was over, he let the nephew take a wife. I’ve never heard of such a thing! I must learn the rules of propriety from him so as to pass them on later to the young people.’

Still on his knees, Jia Rong kowtowed and protested, ‘This had noth­ing to do with my parents. It was I who put my uncle up to it I must have eaten some shit. My father knew nothing about it. He’s gone now to prepare for the funeral procession. If you make a scene, aunt, it will be the death of me. Whatever punishment you impose I’ll accept it, but for pity’s sake settle this court case ‘ it’s too serious for me to handle. You’re so intelligent you know the saying: ‘If your arm is broken, hide it in your sleeve.’ I was an utter fool. As I’ve done such a despicable thing, I’m just like a cat or a dog. Now that you’ve given me this lesson, auntie, do please do your best to settle this with the court. Though I’ve been so undutiful and wronged you, aunt, by causing all this trouble, what else can I do but beg you to take pity on me!’ He went on kowtowing as if he would never stop.

The behaviour of mother and son made it hard for Xifeng to go on storming at them. She had to adopt a different attitude now.

Apologizing to Madam You she said, ‘I’m too young and inexperi­enced. When I heard the case had been taken to court, I was frightened out of my wits. How could I have been so rude to you just now, sister! Still, Rong is right: ‘If your arm is broken, hide it in your sleeve.’ You must forgive me. And please ask Cousin Zhen to lose no time in settling this lawsuit.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Madam You and Jia Jung assured her.

‘Uncle won’t be involved at all,’ added Jia Rong. ‘You said just now you’d spent five hundred taels, aunt. Of course we’ll get together that sum and send it over to make it up to you. How can we make you out of pocket over us? That would be even more outrageous. But one thing, aunt, will you help see to it that no word of this reaches Their Ladyships?’

Xifeng smiled sarcastically at Madam You.

‘First you stab me in the back and now you ask me to hush it us for you! I may be a fool but I’m not all that foolish. Your cousin happens to be my husband, sister. If you were worried because he had no son, wouldn’t I be still more worried? I look on your younger sister as my own sister. When I heard about this I was too excited to sleep and made my people get ready rooms at once, to fetch her in to live with up. Actu­ally the servants had more sense: they said, ‘You’re too kind-hearted, madam. It seems to us it would be better to wait till you’ve reported this to Their Ladyships and see what they have to say.’ That made me rage at them, so they said no more.

‘But nothing worked out as I wanted. Like a slap in the face or a bolt from the blue came this suit brought by Zhang Hua. I had to beg people to find out who this Zhang Hua was, that he had such a nerve; and two days later I was told he was a rascally beggar. Being young and ignorant, I laughed and asked what he’d accused us of. The servants told me, ‘The new mistress was engaged to him. Now he’s desperate, liable to starve of freeze to death anyway, so he’s seized on this chance. Even if he dies for it, it’s a better bet than dying of hunger and cold; so how can you blame him? After all, the master acted too hastily and was guilty of two offences by marrying during state mourning and family mourning. He was wrong, too, to keep it a secret from his parents and to take a new wife without his wife’s consent. As the proverb says, ‘One who will risk being sliced to pieces dare unsaddle the Emperor.’ A man so desperately poor will go to any lengths. He’s in the right too, so why not make an indictment?’

‘So you see, sister, even if I’d been as wise as Han Xin or Zhang Liang,’ such talk would have frightened me out of my wits. Besides, with my husband away, I had no one to consult; I could only try to patch things up with money. Yet the more I gave him, the more I was at his mercy and the more he blackmailed me. But how much can he squeeze out of me? No more than from a pimple on a rat’s tail. That’s why I panicked and flew into such a rage that I came looking for you …’

Not waiting for her to finish, Madam You and her son said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll see to it.’

Jia Rong added, ‘It’s Zhang Hua’s poverty that’s made him so reckless he’s risked his life to indict us. I know what to do. Promise him some money and get him to admit that he brought a false accusation; then we can settle the business. When he comes out, we’ll give him some more silver and that will be that.’

‘What a clever boy!’ said Xifeng derisively. ‘No wonder that you did this thing with no thought of the consequences. How stupid you are! Suppose he agreed to what you proposed and got money from us after the case was settled, of course that would be that for the time being. But as such people are rascals, as soon as that silver was spent he’d start blackmailing us again. If he made further trouble what should we do? We may not be afraid of him, still it’s something to worry about. And he can always say if we hadn’t wronged him why should we give him money?’

Jia Rong had sense enough to understand this.

He said with a smile, ‘Well, I have another plan. Since I caused the trouble it’s up to me to fix it. I’ll go and sound Zhang Hua out. Does he want her back, or will he give her up and settle for money with which he can marry another girl? If he insists on having her, I’ll go and persuade my second aunt to leave here and marry him; if he wants money, we shall have to give him some.’

‘That’s all very well,’ said Xifeng hastily. ‘I certainly don’t want her to leave us, and I certainly won’t let her. If you’ve any feeling for me, nephew, just give him a bigger sum in settlement.’

Jia Rong knew very well that in spite of Xifeng’s protestations she really wanted to get rid of Second Sister and was only posing as broad-minded. He had to agree, however, to whatever she said, at which she looked delighted.

‘The problem outside is easy to handle, but what about the arrange­ment at home?’ Xifeng now asked. ‘You must come back with me to report this.’

This threw Madam You into another panic. She begged Xifeng to make up some story for her.

‘If you can’t talk your way out, why do this in the first place?’ asked Xifeng sarcastically. ‘I’ve no patience with the way you’re carrying on. But it wouldn’t be like me to refuse to find a way out for you, as I’m so soft-hearted that even when people trick me I still act like a fool. All right then, I’ll see to this. Both of you keep out of it.

‘I’ll take your sister to pay her respects to Their Ladyships, and tell them that I took a fancy to her, and because I have no son I was thinking of buying a couple of concubines. Finding your sister so charming, and as we’re relatives too, I wanted her to be Lian’s second wife. But because her parents and sister had died recently and she was finding it hard to manage, with no home of her own, how could she possibly wait till after the full hundred days’ mourning? So I decided to bring her into our house, and I’ve made the side rooms ready for her to stay in for the time being. Once the mourning is over she can live with my husband.

‘I shall brazen it out somehow in my shameless way. If anyone is blamed it won’t be you. What do you think of this plan?’

Madam You and Jia Rong responded, ‘It’s most generous and kind of you. How clever you are! Once it’s settled, we’ll certainly both come to thank you.’

Madam You ordered her maids to help Xifeng wash her face and comb her hair. Then the table was spread and she herself served the wine and food. Before long, however, Xifeng rose to go.

She went to the Garden and told Second Sister what had happened, explaining how worried she had been, how she had ascertained the facts, and what would have to be done to keep them all out of trouble. She promised to get them out of the dilemma.

To know what her plans really were, read the next chapter.

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