A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 69


Chapter 69

Crafty Xifeng Kills Her Rival

by Proxy

And Second Sister Swallows Gold

and Dies

Unable to express all her gratitude, Second Sister went off with Xifeng. And propriety required Madam You to accompany them to report to the old lady.

‘You needn’t say anything.’ Xifeng assured her, ‘Leave all the talk­ing to me.’

‘Of course,’ agreed Madam You. ‘If there’s any blame we’ll let you take it.’

They went first to the Lady Dowager’s room where she was chat­ting and laughing with the girls from the Garden. At sight of the pretty young woman Xifeng had brought in, the old lady looked at her search­ingly. ‘Whose child is this?’ she asked. ‘So charming!’

Xifeng stepped forward and said with a smile, ‘Take a good look, Old Ancestress. Isn’t she sweet?’ Pulling Second Sister forward too, she told her, ‘This is grandmother-in-law. Hurry up and kowtow to her.’

At once Second Sister prostrated herself to pay her respects. Then Xifeng introduced the girls to her one by one.

‘Now you know them,’ she said. ‘After the old lady’s through with inspecting you, you can pay your respects to each other.’

Second Sister pretended that this was the first time she had met them, then stood there with lowered head while the Lady Dowager looked her up and down.

‘What is your name?’ she inquired. ‘How old are you?’

‘Never mind about that, Old Ancestress,’ Xifeng chuckled. ‘Just say, is she prettier than me?’

The old lady put on her spectacles, telling Yuanyang and Hupo, ‘Bring the child closer. I want to look at her skin.’

Amid suppressed laughter, Second Sister was pushed forward and subjected to a carefully scrutiny. Then the Lady Dowager made Hupo hold out her hands for inspection. Yuanyang lifted Second Sister’s skirt as well to show her feet. Her examination at an end, the old lady took off her spectacles.

‘Perfect!’ she pronounced. ‘She’s even prettier than you.’

Smiling. Xifeng promptly knelt down to relate in detail the story she had made up in Madam You’s room. ‘Do take pity on her, Old Ances­tress,’ she pleaded. ‘Let her move in now, and after a year they can be formally married.’

‘That’s quite in order,’ the old lady conceded. ‘I’m glad your’re so understanding and tolerant. But she mustn’t live with Lian for a year.

Xifeng kowtowed, then got up and requested that two maids be sent to present Second Sister to Lady Xing and Lady Wang and tell them this was the old lady’s decision. The Lady Dowager agreed and this was done. Lady Wang had been worried because of Xifeng’s bad name. Now that she was taking in a second wife for her husband, she was naturally pleased. So from now on Second Sister could come into the open, and she moved to Xifeng’s side rooms.

Xifeng meanwhile sent a messenger in secret to urge Zhang Hua to insist on claiming his bride, promising that in addition to a generous dowry he would be given money to set up house. For Zhang Hua himself was too spineless to dare sue the Jia family.

Then Jia Rong sent a man to court to contend, ‘It was Zhang Hua who first gave up the engagement. Being related to the You family we did, it is true, invite her to stay in our house; but there was no talk of marriage. Because Zhang Hua owed us money and could not pay it, he trumped up this charge against our master.’

As the judges were all connected with the Jia and Wang families and had in addition accepted bribes from them, they condemned Zhang Hua as a rascal whom poverty had driven to blackmail. His plea rejected, he was beaten and thrown out of court. But Qinger outside had fixed it with the runners not to beat him severely.

And now Qinger told Zhang Hua, ‘As you were engaged to the girl first, if you demand her the court will have to give her to you.’

Thereupon Zhang Hua brought a new suit; but again Wang Xin took a message to the judge, and the court’s verdict was: ‘Zhang Hua’s debt to the Jia family must be repaid in full by a specified date. As for his be­trothed, he can marry her when he has the means.’

Zhang Hua’s father, summoned to court to hear this verdict after having been told the situation by Qinger, exulted that now he would get both the money and the girl. He went to the Jia mansion to fetch Second Sister.

Xifeng with a great show of alarm reported this to the Lady Dowager.

‘This muddle is all my sister-in-law Zhen’s fault!’ she complained. ‘Apparently the engagement was never really cancelled. That’s why the Zhangs took the case to court, and now this decision’s been made.’

The old lady sent at once for Madam You.

‘Because your sister was promised from childhood to the Zhang family, and they never broke the engagement, they’ve brought this charge against us now,’ she scolded.

‘But they took the money,’ protested Madam You. ‘How can they still claim her?’

Xifeng put in, ‘According to Zhang Hua, he never saw any money, and no one contacted him. According to his father, Second Sister’s mother did make such an offer but they turned it down; and after her mother died you took her in as a secondary wife. As we’ve no proof to the contrary, he can talk any nonsense he pleases. It’s lucky Second Master Lian isn’t at home and they haven’t been formally married. Still, as she’s already here, how can we send her back? Wouldn’t that make us lose face?’

The old lady said, ‘They’re not married yet, and it wouldn’t look good to seize someone promised to another man. That would damage our reputation. We’d better send her back. It’ll be easy enough to find some other nice girl.’

When Second Sister heard this she exclaimed, ‘My mother really did give them ten taels of silver to cancel the engagement. Now in despera­tion because he’s poor, he denies it. My sister did nothing wrong.

‘That shows how troublesome such rascals are,’ said the Lady Dowa­ger. ‘Well, I leave it to you, Xifeng to sort this out.’

Xifeng had to comply. On her return she sent for Jia Rong, who knew perfectly what she was aiming at. He realized what a great loss of face it would be if Second Sister were to be reclaimed by the Zhangs, so he reported this to Jia Zhen and secretly sent Zhang Hua the message: Now that you’ve got so much money, why must you have the girl back? If you insist, the gentlemen may get angry and find a way to kill you where no one will bury you. With money, you can go home and find a good bride. If you do that, we’ll help with your travelling expenses.

Zhang Hua on reflection thought this a good idea. He discussed it with his father, and they reckoned they were now the richer by about a hun­dred taels. So the next day at dawn, father and son started home.

When Jia Rong heard this he told the Lady Dowager and Xifeng, ‘Zhang Hua and his father have fled for fear of being punished for bring­ing a false charge. The court knows of this but has decided to let the matter drop. The whole business is over!’

Xifeng reflected, ‘If I make Zhang Hua reclaim Second Sister, Lian on his return will most likely offer more money to get her back, and Zhang Hua’s bound to agree. So I’d better keep her here with me until I’ve made other plans. The only snag is we don’t know where Zhang Hua will go, and whether he’ll spread this story or come back later to reopen this case. If he does, I’ll have cut my own throat! I should never have given other people this handle against me.’ She bitterly regretted what she had done.

Then she hit on another plan. She quietly ordered Lai Wang to send men to find Zhang Hua, then either hale him to court on a charge of theft and have him done to death, or send assassins to kill him secretly. In this way the root of the trouble would be removed and her reputation as­sured.

Lai Wang went home and thought over these instructions.

‘Since the man’s gone and the matter’s dropped, why do anything so drastic?’ he asked himself. ‘Taking someone’s life is a serious crime, no joke. I’ll fool her into thinking it’s done instead.’

He lay low outside for a few days, then returned to report that Zhang Hua, traveling with a fair amount of silver had been beaten and killed at dawn one day by some highwaymen in the Jingkou district, and his father had died of fright in the inn. A post-mortem had been held there and the bodies buried.

Xifeng did not believe him.

‘If I find you’ve been lying, I’ll knock out your teeth!’ she threat­ened. But there the matter rested.

Meanwhile Xifeng and Second Sister were on the best of terms, to all appearances closer even than sisters.

When Jia Lian finally came home after completing his business, he went straight to the new house. But it was locked up and deserted, with only an old caretaker there who told him all that had happened. Jia Lian stamped his foot in the stirrup, then went to report on his mission to his parents. ha She, very pleased, praised his competence and rewarded him with a hundred taels of silver as well as a new concubine ‘ a seven­teen-year-old maid of his named Qiutong. Jia Lian kowtowed his thanks and left in high spirits. Having paid his respects to the Lady Dowager and other members of the family he went home somewhat sheepishly to see Xifeng, but found her less stern than usual. She came out with Second Sister to welcome him and ask after his health. Then Jia Lian, telling her of his father’s gift, could not help looking pleased and proud. Xifeng immediately sent two servingwomen to fetch Qiutong by carriage. Be­fore she had rid herself of one thorn in her side, here out of the blue was another! However, she had to watch her tongue and hide her anger by a show of complaisance, ordering a feast of welcome, then taking Qiutong to present her to the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang, much to her husband’s amazement.

On the Double Twelfth, ha Zhen rose early to sacrifice to the ances­tors, then took his leave of the Lady Dowager and other ladies of the family. Most of the men saw him off to the Pavilion of Tearful Parting, only Jia Lian and ha Rong accompanying him all the way to the temple and back, a trip taking three days and three nights. On the road, Jia Zhen admonished them on the need to run their households well, and they gave him the appropriate assurances ‘ there is no need to dwell on their conversation.

To return to Xifeng at home. Outwardly, it goes without saying, she treated Second Sister well; but inwardly she plotted to destroy her.

When the two of them were alone she told Second Sister, ‘You have such a bad name, sister, even the old lady and the mistresses have heard about it. They say that while still a girl you were unchaste and intimate with your brother-in-law. ‘You’ve picked someone nobody else wanted,’ they scold me. ‘Why not get rid of her and choose someone better.’ Talk like that makes me furious. I’ve tried to find out who started this, but I can’t. If this goes on, how are we to hold up our heads in front of these slaves? I seem to have landed myself in a foul mess.’ Having said this a couple of times, she pretended to fall ill with anger, refusing to eat or drink.

All the maids and servants, with the exception of Pinger, kept gossip­ing, making sarcastic remarks, and casting aspersions at Second Sister. As for Qiutong, having been given to Jia Lian by his father, she felt supe­rior to everyone else including even Xifeng and Pinger, not to say a dis­carded wanton who had been Jia Lian’s mistress before she became his wife. ‘How can she take precedence of me!’ she thought. So she treated her with contempt. Xifeng was secretly pleased at this, and Seccond Sister had to swallow her indignation.

As Xifeng was shamming sickness she stopped having her meals with Second Sister, just ordering the servants to take food to her room every day ‘ and the rice and dishes were always of the worst. Pinger took pity on her. She would spend her own money on extra dishes for her, or take her sometimes for a stroll in the Garden, getting special soups made for her in the kitchen there. No one else dared report this to Xifeng; but Qiutong, happening to find out, went to tell her.

‘Pinger’s spoiling your reputation, madam,’ she said. ‘The good dishes we have here are wasted on her ‘ she won’t eat them. Instead, she scrounges food in the Garden.’

Xifeng swore at Pinger, ‘Other people’s cats catch mice for them, but mine just steals my chickens!’

Pinger did not venture to talk back. After that she had to keep at a distance from Second Sister, and she bore Qiutong a grudge but could not speak out.

Li Wan, Yingchun and Xichun in the Garden thought Xifeng was un­commonly good to Second Sister. Others like Baoyu and Daiyu were worried for her, but did not like to meddle in their affairs. Second Sister looked so pathetic when she called that they sympathized with her, and when they were talking alone she would shed tears, but she never breathed a word against Xifeng who had shown her nothing of her vicious side.

When Jia Lian came home and observed Xifeng’s irreproachable behaviour to Second Sister, he did not give the matter a second thought. Besides, he had long had designs on many of his father’s concubines and young maids, including Qiutong, who for their part were disgusted be­cause their senile old master, still lecherous, was virtually impotent. Why, then, should he keep them all there? So apart from a few with some sense of propriety, the rest played about with the pages at the inner gate or even made eyes at Jia Lian, who was only too ready to flirt with them but for fear of his father dared go no further than that.

Although Qiutong had been interested in Jia Lian, they had never had an affair. Now that as luck would have it she had being given to him, it was truly like throwing a dry faggot on a blazing fire. They clung to each other like glue, Jia Lian so enamoured of his new concubine that he never left her side. Little by little his affection for Second Sister lessened. Qiutong was the only one he cared for.

Xifeng, though hating Qiutong, was eager to use her first to rid herself of Second Sister by ‘Killing with a borrowed sword’ and ‘Watching from a hilltop while two tigers fought.’ For once Qiutong had killed Sec­ond Sister, she could do this new concubine in. Her mind made up, when they were alone she often advised Qiutong:

‘You’re young and inexperienced. She’s now the second mistress, your master’s favourite. Even I have to yield to her to some extent, yet you keep provoking her. You’re just looking for trouble.’

Inflamed by such talk. Qiutong took to cursing and storming every day, ‘The mistress is too soft and weak; I haven’t that kind of forbear­ance. What’s happened to her? She used to be such a terror. Well, the mistress may be broad-minded, but I’m not going to put up with a mote in my eye. Just let me have it out with that bitch ‘ then she’ll see!’

Xifeng in her room pretended to be too frightened to say a word.

Second Sister in her room wept for rage and could not eat, but she dared not tell Jia Lian. And the next day when the Lady Dowager asked why her eyes were so red and swollen. She dared not explain.

Qiutong seized every chance to score off her. She secretly told the old lady and Lady Wang, ‘She keeps making trouble, complaining and whin­ing all day for no reason at all, besides cursing madam and me behind our backs. She hopes we’ll both die early, so that she can live with Second Master and do just as she pleases.’

‘Imagine!’ exclaimed the old lady. ‘When a girl’s too pretty, she is bound to be jealous. Xifeng’s been kind to her all along, yet she repays her by treating her like a rival! This shows she’s a worthless creature.’

Little by little she took a dislike to Second Sister. And when the others saw that she had lost favour with the old lady, they naturally bullied her too. Second Sister was in such a miserable dilemma, she could neither die nor live. Pinger was the only one who tried, behind Xifeng’s back, to help her and divert her mind from her troubles.

How could Second Sister, fragile as snow, delicate as a flower, stand up to such cruel treatment? After suppressing her anger for just a month, she fall ill and lost her appetite. Too listless to move, she grew daily thin­ner and paler. One night when she closed her eyes, she saw her younger sister approaching, the duck-and-drake swords in her hands.

‘You’ve always been too naive and soft-hearted,’ Third Sister told her, ‘That’s why you’re in trouble now. Don’t trust that shrew’s hon­eyed talk or her show of being such a virtuous wife ‘ at heart she’s crafty and cruel. She’s made up her mind to kill you. If I’d been alive, I’d never have let you move into their house; even if you had, I’d not let her treat you like this. Still, we brought this on ourselves by our worthless lives and wanton ways, corrupting men and upsetting family relations. So this is just retribution. Now take my advice and kill that shrew with this sword, then go together to the Goddess of Disenchantment for her to decide the case. Otherwise you will die in vain and no one will pity you.’

Second Sister sobbed, ‘I’ve already got a bad name, sister. As I de­serve my present fate, why should I add to my crimes by killing her? Let me just put up with it. If Heaven takes pity on me, I may recover. Wouldn’t that be better?’

‘Still so naive, sister?’ the other scoffed. ‘No one, since time imme­morial, has escaped Heaven’s far-flung net. The Way of Providence is retribution. Although you’ve repented and mended your ways, you’ve already made father, son and cousins guilty of incest; so how can Provi­dence allow you to live at peace?’

‘If I can’t live at peace, that’s only just,’ said Second Sister tear­fully. ‘I bear no resentment.’

Hearing this, Third Sister heaved a long sigh and withdrew. Second Sister woke with a start to find it was only a dream.

When Jia Lian came to see her, as no one else was about she told him with tears, ‘I shan’t get over this illness. I’ve been with you for half a year and I’m with child, but don’t know whether it will be a boy or a girl. If Heaven has pity and the child is born, well and good. Otherwise, I shan’t be able to save myself, let alone the child.’

‘Don’t you worry,’ Jia Lian, in tears himself, reassured her. ‘I’ll get a good doctor for you.’

He immediately went out to send for the doctor. However, Doctor Wang was busy maneuvering to get a post in the army in order to acquire a noble title for his offspring. In his absence the servants fetched Doctor Hu Junrong. His diagnosis was that her menstruation was irregular and some tonic would set her right. When Jia Lian told him that she had missed three periods and was often sick, so it looked like a pregnancy, Hu Junrong asked the serving-women to show him the lady’s hand, and Sec­ond Sister stretched our her hand from behind the curtains. After feeling the pulse for some time he declared:

‘If it were a pregnancy, the liver humour should be strong. But the wood is in the ascendant, and that engenders the fire element which causes irregular menstruation. May I make so bold as to ask to have a glimpse of the lady’s face, so that I can see how she looks before ventur­ing to make out a prescription.’

Jia Lian had to order the curtain to be raised. But the sight of Second Sister robbed Hu Junrong of his senses. He was too dazed to know what he was doing. Then the curtain was lowered and Jia Lian escorted him out. Asked what the trouble was he said:

‘It’s not a pregnancy, just congestion of the blood. To make her periods normal, we must get rid of the congestion.’ He then wrote a prescription and took his leave.

Jia Lian ordered servants to send over the doctor’s fee and buy and prepare the medicine for the patient.

In the middle of the night, Second Sister had such a pain in her stom­ach that she miscarried ‘ the foetus was male ‘ and bled so copiously that she fainted. Jia Lian hearing this cursed Hu Junrong and had another doctor fetched at once. He also sent men to go and beat up Hu; but the latter heard of this in time to bundle together his things and run away.

The newly summoned doctor said, ‘She had a weak constitution to begin with, and after conceiving she seems to have been bottling up some resentment. That other gentleman made the mistake of using potent drugs which have undermined the lady’s health completely. We cannot look for a speedy recovery. She will have to take both potions and pills, and must pay no attention to any malicious gossip; then we can only hope she may get well.’ This said, he left.

In a frenzy, Jia Lian asked who it was that had fetched that fellow Hu and had the man beaten within an inch of his life.

Xifeng showing ten times more anxiety exclaimed, ‘We seem fated to have no son! After going to such trouble to beget one, we come up against this bungling quack.’ She offered incense and kowtowed to Heaven and Earth, praying earnestly, ‘Let me fall ill if only Sister You can recover, conceive again and give birth to a boy. Then I’ll gladly fast and chant sutras for the rest of my life.’

Jia Lian and the others, seeing this, could not but praise her.

While Jia Lian stayed with Qiutong, Xifeng prepared soup and broth for the invalid.

She also berated Pinger, ‘You’re just as luckless as me with my ill­ness, because you’re not ill, just barren! It must be our bad luck that’s brought the Second Mistress to this pass ‘ or may be someone’s horo­scope clashes with hers.’

Thereupon she sent out to consult fortune-tellers, who returned the reply that the trouble had been caused by a woman born in the year of the rabbit. They checked, and as Qiutong was the only one in their household born in that year they laid the blame at her door.

Qiutong’s jealousy had already been aroused by the care Jia Lian lavished on Second Sister, fetching doctors, giving her medicine, and hav­ing the servant who had blundered beater. Now she was told that she was the one to blame, and Xifeng advised her to move out for a few months and make herself scarce.

Qiutong wept and stormed, ‘What’s all this senseless talk from that blind rascal? I kept clear of her as well water and river water. How could my horoscope clash with hers? She had all sorts of contacts out­side, the slut. Why does the jinx have to be found here? Which of all those fine fellows she knew got her with child? It’s only this credulous master of ours who’s taken in by her. Even if she had a child, we wouldn’t know whether its name should be Zhang or Wang. You may treasure her bastard, madam, but not I! Who can’t have a child? If 1 have one a year or so from now, at least there’ll be no doubt who fathered it.’

The maids were amused by this tirade but dared not laugh outright. And just then Lady Xing called.

Qiutong told her, ‘The Second Master and Second Mistress want to throw me out. I’ve nowhere to go. Please take pity on me, madam!’

Lady Xing first scolded Xifeng, then said sternly to Jia Lian:

‘You ungrateful cur! Whatever her faults, she was given you by your father. How can you throw her out for the sake of a woman you brought in from outside? Have you no respect for your father? If you want to get rid of her, you can at least return her to him.’ She then left in a temper.

Emboldened by this, Qiutong went to Second Sister’s window to scream abuse at her, making her feel even more wretched.

Jia Lian spent that night in Qiutong’s room. And after Xifeng had gone to bed Pinger slipped in to see Second Sister and comfort her, advis­ing her to rest well and not trouble about that bitch.

Second Sister took her hand and said through tears, ‘How good you’ve been to me, sister, since I came here! You’ve suffered a lot too on my account.

If I come out of this alive, I’ll repay your kindness. I’m afraid I’m done for, though, and can only pay you back in my next life.’

Pinger was reduced to tears too.

‘It was all my fault,’ she confessed. ‘I was too naive. I never kept anything from her, so when I heard of your marriage outside I felt I had to tell her. I had no idea such trouble would come of it.’

‘No, you’re wrong,’ protested Second Sister. ‘If you hadn’t told, she’d have found out anyway. You just happened to tell her first. At any rate, I wanted to move in for appearances’ sake. So you’re in no way to blame.’

They both wept again and presently, after a few more words of ad­vice, Pinger saw that it was late and went back to rest.

Left to herself Second Sister thought, ‘I’m so ill, and getting worse every day, I see no hope of recovery. And now that I’ve miscarried and haven’t the child to worry about, why should I go on putting up with such taunts? Better die and be done with it! They say swallowing gold will kill you. Wouldn’t that be a cleaner death than hanging myself or cutting my own throat?’

She struggled out of bed and opened her case, from which she took a piece of gold of a fair size. Weeping and cursing her fate, she put it in her mouth and after several desperate attempts succeeded in swallowing it. Then she hastily dressed herself neatly and put on her trinkets, after which she lay down on the kang. Not a soul had any suspicion of what she had done.

The next morning when she failed to call for her maids, they attended cheerfully to their own toilets while Xifeng and Qiutong went off to pay their respects to the senior mistresses.

Pinger was shocked by this and scolded the maids, ‘Don’t be so heartless! You only obey harsh people who beat or curse you ‘ and that’s the treatment you deserve. Have you no pity at all for someone so ill? You might at least behave decently, instead of taking advantage of her good nature and kicking her when she’s down.’

The maids opened Second Sister’s door then. At sight of her lying neatly dressed ‘ dead on her bed, they screamed with fright. Pinger running in wept bitterly when she saw this. And the maids, remembering now how gentle Second Sister had been and how much kinder to them than Xifeng, shed tears over her death as well, but took care to hide their grief from their dreaded mistress.

The news spread at once through the whole mansion. Jia Lian came in, clasped the corpse and wept without stop.

Xifeng put on a show of sobbing, ‘How cruel of you, sister, to leave me alone like this! What a poor return for my kindness!’

Madam You and Jia Rong also came to mourn and console Jia Lian. Then he reported the matter to Lady Wang, and obtained permission to leave the corpse for five days in Pear Fragrance Court before its re­moval to Iron Threshold Temple. Hasty orders were given to have the court gate opened and the three main rooms cleared for the coffin’s resting place. Since it would be unbecoming to carry the bier through the back gate, Jia Lian had a new gate leading to the street made through the main wall facing Pear Fragrance Court; booths were set up on either side of this and an altar was erected for Buddhist masses. And there Second Sister was carried on a soft couch with a silken mattress and a coverlet shrouding her body. Eight pages and a few matrons escorted the bier from the inner wall to Pear Fragrance Court, where they had an astrolo­ger waiting.

When Jia Lian lifted the coverlet and saw Second Sister lying there as if alive, yet even lovelier than in life, he threw his arms around her.

‘Wife, your death is a mystery,’ he wailed. ‘But I brought it on you.’

Jia Rong hastily stepped forward to console him.

‘Don’t give way to such grief, uncle. This aunt of mine was ill-starred.’ As he spoke he pointed south at the wall of Grand View Gar­den.

Jia Lian caught his meaning and softly stamped his foot.

‘Yes, I know. I shall get to the bottom of it and avenge you!’

The astrologer reported that as the lady had died at five in the morning she could not be carried to the temple on the fifth, but the third or the seventh would be appropriate, and the body should be coffined at three the next morning an auspicious hour.

‘The third won’t do,’ said Jia Lian. ‘We’ll make it the seventh. As my uncle and cousin are away, we mustn’t leave her here too long as this is a minor funeral. After the coffin has been placed in the temple for five weeks, we’ll have a big mass and then close the mourning shrine. Next year it can be taken south for burial.’

The astrologer approved this and left after writing out the obituary. Baoyu had already come to mourn, and now other members of the clan arrived. Jia Lian hurried back then to ask Xifeng for money for the coffin and funeral rites.

Meanwhile, after seeing the body carried away, Xifeng had shammed illness again and claimed that Their Ladyships would not let her attend any ceremonies while unwell. She did not put on mourning either. Going instead to the Garden, past the rockeries to the wall at the north end, she eavesdropped on her husband outside, then came back to report the few remarks she had caught to the Lady Dowager.

‘Don’t listen to his nonsense,’ said the old lady, ‘Girls who die of consumption are cremated, aren’t they, and their ashes scattered? Why should she have a formal funeral and burial? Still, as she was a secondary wife, let her body be kept for five weeks in the temple before being carried out to be burnt or buried in some common graveyard.’

Xifeng smiled.

‘That’s exactly what I think, but I dare not urge him to do that.’

A maid came then to ask Xifeng to go back as Jia Lian had gone home to get some money from her, and so she had to return.

‘What money do we have?’ she asked him. ‘Don’t you know how tight things have been here recently? We couldn’t distribute each month’s allowance on time. It’s been like hens eating up next year’s grain. Yes­terday I pawned a gold necklace for three hundred taels, and that may have given you ideas; but now only about two dozen taels are left. If you want that you can have it.’

She told Pinger to fetch this and gave it to Jia Lian, then went off again on the excuse that the old lady wanted her.

Jia Lian swallowing his resentment had to resort to opening Second Sister’s cases to look for any savings; but all he found were some broken trinkets, soiled artificial flowers and some of her half worn silk clothes, the sight of which reduced him to tears again. He wrapped them up in a cloth and, not asking the maids or pages to carry the bundle, started out to burn it himself. Pinger, both touched and amused, filched a packet of loose silver ‘ about two hundred taels ‘ and going to the eastern rooms gave him this, warning him to keep it a secret.

‘If you must cry, can’t you cry as much as you want outside?’ she scolded him. ‘Why do it here, attracting attention?

‘You’re right,’ said Jia Lian as he took the silver. He then gave a skirt to Pinger saying, ‘This is one she was fond of wearing. Keep it for me as a memento.’

Pinger accepted it and put it away.

Having taken the silver, Jia Lian came out with some others and or­dered men to buy wood for the coffin. The best timber was expensive, but nothing inferior would satisfy him; so he mounted his horse and went to make the choice himself. By evening some good timber had been de­livered ‘ as it cost five hundred taels, he had to buy it on credit. He had the coffin made immediately, at the same time assigning mourners to keep vigil, and he did not go home that night, but watched by the coffin.

What happened later is recorded in the next chapter.

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