A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 7

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A Dream of Red Mansions007

Chapter 7

Madam You Invites Xifeng Alone

At a Feast in the Ning Mansion Baoyu

First Meets Qin Zhong

The theme:

Twelve maids pretty as flowers,

But who is it that loves them?

Do you ask the name of the one he meets?

It is Qin whose home is south of the Yangtze River.

After seeing off Granny Liu, Mrs. Zhou went to report to Lady Wang. On being told by her maids that their mistress had gone to chat with Aunt Xue, she made her way through the east side gate and the east courtyard to Pear Fragrance Court. On the verandah steps there, Lady Wang’s maid Jinchuan was playing with a girl who had just let her hair grow. Realizing that Mrs. Zhou had come on business, Jinchuan nodded towards the door.

Mrs. Zhou softly raised the portiere and went in. Lady Wang and her sister were having a good long gossip on domestic matters, and not want­ing to disturb them she went into the inner room where Baochai in a house dress, her hair pinned into a loose knot, was copying an embroidery pattern with her maid Yinger at the low table on the kang. She put down her brush and turned with a smile to offer the visitor a seat.

“How are you, miss?” asked Mrs. Zhou, sitting on the edge of the kang, “I haven’t seen you over on our side for several days. Did Baoyu do something to annoy you?”

“What an idea! I’ve been staying in for a couple of days because an old ailment’s been troubling me again.”

“Why, miss, what is it? Better send for a doctor at once to make out a prescription. A few doses should set you right once and for all. It’s no joke being an invalid at your age.

“Don’t talk to me about medicine!” Baochai laughed. “Goodness knows how much silver we’ve squandered on doctors and medicines to cure this illness of mine. The most famous physicians and the most fabu­lous drugs were of no use at all. In the end, luckily, there came a tonsured monk who claimed to specialize in mysterious diseases. We called him in and he diagnosed my trouble as a choleric humour I’d brought from the womb, but which thanks to my good constitution wasn’t too serious. No ordinary pills bring any relief, but he gave us an exotic prescription from across the seas, together with a packet of aromatic powder he’d pro­cured as adjuvant goodness knows where. He prescribed one pill each time an attack comes on. And strange to say that’s done me good.”

“What is this prescription from across the seas? If you’ll tell me, miss, we’ll keep it in mind and recommend it to others with the same trouble. That would be a good deed.”

“Well, better not ask. But if you must know, it’s the most troublesome prescription.” Baochai laughed. “There aren’t too many ingredients and they’re easily obtainable, but each has to be gathered at just the right time. You have to take twelve ounces of the stamens of white peonies that bloom in the spring, twelve ounces of the stamens of white lotus that blooms in the summer, twelve ounces of the stamens of white hibiscus that blooms in the autumn, and twelve ounces of the stamens of white plum that blooms in the winter. These four kinds of stamens must be dried in the sun on the following vernal equinox, then mixed well with the powder. Then you must take twelve drains of rain that fell on the day Rain Begins..

“Aiya!” broke in Mrs. Zhou. “That would take three years. And what if it doesn’t rain on the day Rain Begins?”

“Exactly. You can’t always count on it. If it doesn’t, you just have to wait. You also have to collect twelve drains of dew on the day White Dew,2 twelve drains of frost on the day Frost Falls,3 and twelve drains of snow on the day Slight Snow.4 These liquids are mixed with the other ingredients, then twelve drains of honey and twelve of white sugar are added to make pills the size of longans. These must be kept in an old porcelain jar and buried beneath the roots of flowers. When the illness comes on, this jar can be dug up and one pill taken with twelve candareens of a phellodendron concoction.”

“Gracious Buddha!” Mrs. Zhou chuckled. “How terribly chancy! You

might wait ten years without such a run of luck.”

“Well, we were lucky enough to collect all the ingredients and have them carefully made up within two years of the monk’s telling us. We brought the pills up from the south. They’re buried under one of the pear trees now.~~

“Has this medicine any name?”

“Yes, the scabby monk told us they’re called Cold Fragrance Pills.”

Mrs. Thou nodded. “What are the symponis of this illness of yours, miss?”

“Nothing serious. Slight fits of coughing and shortness of breath. But one pill clears it up.”

Before they could say more, Lady Wang asked who was there. Mrs. Zhou hurried out and seized this chance to tell her about Granny Liu. It seemed Lady Wang had no further instructions for her, and she was on the point of leaving when Aunt Xue stopped her.

“Wait a minute,” she said with a smile. “I’ve something for you to take back.”

She called for Xiangling and the portiere clacked as in came the girl who had been playing with Jinchuan.

“Did you call, madam?” she asked.

“Bring me that box of flowers,” ordered Aunt Xue.

Xiangling accordingly fetched a brocade box.

“These are twelve sprays of gauze flowers of the new sort made in the Palace, “ explained Aunt Xue. “I remembered them yesterday, and thought it a pity to leave them tucked away when the girls might like to wear them. I meant to send them over yesterday, but forgot. You may as well take them now that you’re here. Give two each to your three young ladies. Of the six left, give a couple to Miss Lin and the other four to Master Feng.”

“It’s kind of you to think of them,” remarked Lady Wang. “But why not keep them for Baochai?”

“You don’t know what an odd girl she is, sister. She dislikes wearing flowers or make-up.”

Going out with the box, Mrs. Zhou found Jinchuan still sunning herself on the steps. “Tell me,” she said, “isn’t Xiangling the girl there was all that talk about? The one bought just before they came to the capital, who

was at the bottom of that manslaughter case?”

“That’s right,” said Jinchuan.

Just then Xiangling came over, smiling. Mrs. Zhou took her hand and studied her intently, then turned to Jinchuan again:

“She’s a handsome girl. Reminds me of Master Rong’s wife in our East Mansion.”

“That’s what I say,” agreed Jinchuan.

Mrs. Zhou asked Xiangling how old she had been when sold, where her parents were, her age now and her native place. But the girl simply shook her head and said she could not remember, so that their hearts bled for her.

Then Mrs. Zhou took the flowers to the back of Lady Wang’s princi­pal apartment. Recently the Lady Dowager had found it inconvenient to have all her grand-daughters crowded together in her compound. Keep­ing just Baoyu and Daiyu for company, she had sent Yingchun, Tanchun and Xichun to live in three small suites behind Lady Wang’s quarters, under the care of Li Wan. Hence Mrs. Zhou stopped here first as it was on her way, and found a few maids waiting in the hail for when they should be wanted.

Yingchun’s maid Siqi and Tanchun’s maid Daishu raised the portiere at that moment and stepped out, each carrying a cup and saucer. This meant that their young mistresses must be together, so Mrs. Zhou went in and discovered Yingchun and Tanchun playing draughts by the window. She presented the flowers, explaining where they came from. The two girls stopped their game to bow their thanks, then ordered their maids to put the gifts away.

As Mrs. Zhou handed over the flowers she remarked, “The fourth young lady isn’t here. Is she with the old lady, I wonder?”

“Isn’t she there in the next room?” the maids said.

Mrs. Zhou walked into the adjoining room and found Xichun laughing and chatting with Zhineng, a young nun from the Water Moon Convent. Xichun asked Mrs. Zhou her business. The box was opened and the gift explained.

“I was just telling Zhineng that I’d shave my head some day and become a nun too, and now you turn up with flowers.” Xichun smiled.

“Where shall I wear them if my head is shaved?”

Amid the banter that followed, Xichun told her maid Ruhua to put the present away.

The Mrs. Zhou asked Zhineng, “When did you arrive? And where’s that bald-headed, crotchety abbess of yours?”

“We came here first thing this morning. After calling on Lady Wang the abbess went to Mr. Yu’s mansion, telling me to wait for her here.”

“Have you received the monthly allowance and donation for incense due on the fifteenth?”

Zhineng shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Xichun asked who was in charge of the monthly donations for differ­ent temples.

“Yu Xin,” was Mrs. Zhou’s answer.

“So that’s it.” Xichun giggled. “As soon as the abbess arrived, Yu Xin’s wife hurried over and whispered with her for a while. That must be why.”

After chatting for a time with the nun, Mrs. Zhou went on to Xifeng’s quarters. She walked through the passage, past Li Wan’s back window, and skirting the west wall entered Xifeng’s compound by the west side-gate. In the main hall outside the bedroom door sat Fenger, who hastily motioned her to the east room. Taking the hint, Mrs. Zhou tiptoed in and found a nurse patting Xifeng’s daughter to sleep.

“Is your mistress having a nap?” whispered Mrs. Zhou. “It’s time somebody woke her.”

As the nurse shook her head, from Xifeng’s room came the sound of laughter and Jia Lian’s voice. The door opened and out stepped Pinger with a large copper basin which she told Fenger to fill with water and take in. Then Pinger came over and asked Mrs. Zhou, “What brings you here again, auntie?”

Mrs. Zhou stood up and explained her errand, handing over the box. Pinger took out four sprays and went off with them, returning presently with two which she ordered Caiming to take to Master Rong’s wife in the Ning Mansion. After this she asked Mrs. Zhou to convey Xifeng’s thanks to Aunt Xue.

Only then did Mrs. Zhou make her way to the Lady Dowager’s corn-

pound. In the entrance hall she ran into her own daughter, dressed in her best, come from her mother-in-law’s house.

“What are you doing here?”asked Mrs. Zhou.

“Have you been keeping well, ma?” Her daughter beamed. “I waited and waited at home but you didn’t come. What’s been keeping you all this time? When I got tired of waiting I went on my own to pay my re­spects to the old lady, and I was just going to see Lady Wang. Aren’t you through yet with your business? What’s that in your hand?”

“Ai! Granny Liu would choose today to call, and I put myself out running here and there for her. Then Madam Xue spotted me and asked me to deliver these flowers to the young ladies. I’m not through with it yet. But you must want something of me, coming at this time.”

“You’ve guessed right, ma. The fact is, your son-in-law had a cup too much the other day and a row started. Someone, I don’t know why, has spread ugly rumours and says he’s got a shady past. A charge has been lodged against him at the yamen to have him sent back to his native place. I came to ask your advice. Who can we get to help us out?”

“I thought as much,” said her mother. “A fuss about nothing. You go home while I deliver these flowers to Miss Lin. Her Ladyship and Madam Lian aren’t free just now, so go back and wait for me. Why get so ex­cited?”

“Well, be as quick as you can, ma,” urged her daughter walking off.

“Of course. You young people lack experience, that’s why you’re so worked up.”

Daiyu was not in her room but Mrs. Zhou found her in Baoyu’s, trying to unravel the nine-ring puzzle with him.

Mrs. Zhou greeted her with a smile as she entered and said, “Madam Xue asked me to bring you these flowers to wear.”

“What flowers?” demanded Baoyu. “Let me see them.”

He reached for the box and, opening it, saw the two sprigs of gauze flowers from the Palace.

Daiyu glanced briefly at them in Baoyu’s hand. “Am I the only one getting these?” she asked. “Or have the other girls been given some too?”

“Each of the young ladies has some. These two are for you, miss.”

“I might have known.” Daiyu smiled bitterly. “I wouldn’t get mine till the others had taken their pick.”

Mrs. Zhou had nothing to say to this, but Baoyu put in, “What were you doing over there, Sister Zhou?”

“I had a message for Her Ladyship, who’s there. And Madam Xue asked me to bring back these flowers.~~

“What’s Baochai doing at home? Why hasn’t she been here for the last few days?”

“She’s not very well.”

At once Baoyu told his maids, “One of you go and see her. Tell her Miss Lin and I sent you to ask how our aunt and cousin are. Find out what’s wrong with her and what medicine she’s taking. I ought to go myself, but say I’m just back from school and have caught a chill as well. I’ll call some other time.”

As Qianxue offered to go, Mrs. Zhou left.

Now Mrs. Zhou’s son-in-law was none other than Jia Yucun’s good friend Leng Zixing. Finding himself involved in a lawsuit arising from the sale of some curios, he had sent his wife to ask for help. With full confi­dence in her master’s power, Mrs. Zhou did not take this to heart. In fact she settled the matter that same evening by applying to Xifeng.

When the lamps were lit and Xifeng had disrobed, she went to see Lady Wang.

“I’ve taken charge of those things the Zhens sent today,” she an­nounced. “As for our presents to them, I have sent them back by their boats which have come for the New Year provisions.”

When Lady Wang nodded, Xifeng went on, “I’ve prepared our birth­day presents for the Earl of Linan’s mother. Who should deliver them, madam?”

“Any four women you see are free. Why consult me about such trifles?”

With a smile Xifeng went on, “Today Brother Zhen’s wife invited me to spend tomorrow with them. I haven’t anything special to do that I know of.”

“Even if you had, it wouldn’t matter, She usually asks us all, which can’t be much fun for you. Since she hasn’t invited us this time, only

you, she obviously wants you to have a little fun, so don’t disappoint her. Even if you had business you ought to go.

Xifeng had just agreed when Li Wan, Yingchun, Tanchun and the other girls came in to say goodnight, after which all retired to their own rooms.

The next day after Xifeng had finished her toilet she went to tell Lady Wang that she was off. She then went to the Lady Dowager; and when Baoyu heard where she was going he insisted on going too. Xifeng had to agree and wait until he had changed. Then the two of them drove quickly to the Ning Mansion.

Jia Zhen’s wife Madam You and ha Rong’s wife Qin Keqing had gathered a troop of concubines and maids to welcome them at the cer­emonial gate. Having greeted Xifeng in her usual teasing fashion, Madam You led Baoyu to a seat in the drawing room.

When Keqing had served tea Xifeng asked, “Well, what did you invite me for today? If you’ve something good for me, hand it over quickly, I’ve other things to attend to.”

Before Madam You or Keqing could reply, a concubine retorted Laugh­ingly. “In that case you shouldn’t have come. Now that you’re here, madam, you can’t have it all your own way.

Jia Rong entered then to pay his respects, and Baoyu asked if Jia Zhen were at home.

“He’s gone out of town to inquire after his father’s health,” said Madam You. “But you must find it dull sitting here. Why not go out for a stroll?”

“As it happens,” put in Keqing, “my brother whom Uncle Bao was so eager to meet last time is here today. He’s probably in the library. Why don’t you go and have a look, uncle?”

But as Baoyu slipped down from the kang Madam You and Xifeng interposed, “Steady on. What’s the hurry?” They ordered some maids to go with him. “Don’t let him get into any trouble,” they warned. “The old lady isn’t here to keep an eye on him today.~~

“Why not ask young Master Qin in here?” suggested Xifeng. “Then I can see him too. Or am I forbidden to see him?”

“You’d much better not,” retorted Madam You. “He’s not like our

boys with their rough, rowdy ways. Other people’s sons behave in a

more civilized fashion. How could he face a terror like you? You’d be a

laughing-stock.”

“I’m the one who laughs at others.” Xifeng smiled. “How can a boy laugh at me?”

“It’s not that, aunt,” said Jia Rong. “He’s shy and hasn’t seen much of the world. You’d have no patience with him.”

“Even if he’s a monster, I insist on seeing him. Don’t talk like a fool! Fetch him in at once or I’ll give you a good slap.”

“How dare I disobey?” Jia Rong chuckled. “I’ll bring him in at once.”

With that, he fetched in a lad more slightly built that Baoyu yet even more handsome, with fine features, a fair complexion, red lips, a graceful figure and pleasing manners, but as bashful as a girl. He bowed shyly to Xifeng and inquired almost inaudibly after her health.

Xifeng nudged Baoyu delightedly and cried, “Now you must take a back seat.” She leaned forward to take the young stranger’s hand and made him sit down beside her, then began questioning him about his age and the books he was studying. She learned that his school name was Qin Zhong.

Since this was Xifeng’s first meeting with Qin Zhong but she hadn’t prepared the usual gifts, some of her maids had hurried back to consult Pinger. And Pinger, knowing how intimate her mistress was with Qin Keqing, decided that she would want to give the boy something hand­some. So she handed them a length of silk and two small gold medallions inscribed with the wish that the owner would win first place in the Palace Examination. When these were brought Xifeng protested that the gift was too poor, while Keqing and the others thanked her profusely.

After lunch Madam You, Xifeng and Keqing sat down to a game of cards, leaving the two boys to amuse themselves as they pleased.

At sight of Qin Zhong, Baoyu had felt quite eclipsed. He lapsed into a spell of stupefaction, and then gave way to foolish fancies again. “Imag­ine there being such people in the world!” he thought. “Why, compared with him I’m no better than a filthy pig or mangy dog. Why did I have to be born into this noble family? If I were the son of a poor scholar or some minor official, I might have made friends with him long ago and life would

have been worth living. Although my status is higher, I’m just a stump of rotten wood swathed in silks and satins, just a ces s-pool or gutter filled with choice wines and meats. Riches and rank are anathema to me.”

In Qin Zhong’s eyes, Baoyu’s striking appearance and ingenuous behaviour were a fine foil to his rich costume, pretty maids and hand­some pages. He for his part reflected, “No wonder everyone is so fond of Baoyu. Why did I have to be born into a poor family, unable to have him as an intimate friend? What a barrier there is between wealth and poverty. This is one of the greatest curses of this life.”

Thus both were lost in equally foolish reflections until Baoyu abruptly asked Qin Zhong what he was reading and, the latter answering frankly, they embarked on an animated conversation which soon made them feel even more drawn to each other. Then tea and refreshments were served.

“We two shan’t be drinking any wine,” said Baoyu. “Why not put a plate or two of these things on that small kang in the inner room and let us sit there where we won’t disturb you?”

So they went inside to have their tea. And Keqing, after serving Xifeng with wine and refreshments, slipped in to tell Baoyu:

“Your nephew’s young, Uncle Bao. If he says anything he shouldn’t, please overlook it for my sake. He’s a stubborn boy for all his shyness and likes to have his own way.

“Just leave us,” Baoyu laughed. “We’re all right.”

Having urged her brother to behave himself, Keqing returned to Xifeng.

Presently Xifeng and Madam You sent to remind Baoyu, if he wanted anything to eat from their room, just to ask for it. Baoyu agreed but he had no interest in food, so eager was he to learn more about how his new friend lived.

“My tutor died last year,” confided Qin Zhong. “My father’s old and unwell, with so much to keep him busy that he hasn’t had time to find me another yet. At present I’m just going over old lessons at home. In any case, in studying you need one or two congenial companions to talk things over with from time to time, to get the best out of it.”

“Just what I think,” broke in Baoyu. “We have a school for members of our clan who can’t engage a tutor, and some other relatives attend it too. My tutor went home last year, so I’m at a loose end myself for the

time being. My father wanted to send me to this school to go over the old lessons until my tutor returns next year, when I can go on studying alone at home. But my grandmother was against it, for fear so many boys would get up to mischief; and as I’ve been unwell for a few days the matter’s been dropped for a while.

“If, as you say, your worthy father is concerned over this, why not tell him about it when you go home today, and come and study in our school? I’ll be your schoolfellow, and we can help each other. What could be better?”

“The other day when my father brought up the question of a tutor he spoke highly of this free school here,” replied Qin Zhong eagerly. “He meant to come and talk it over with Lord Zhen, but didn’t like to trouble him about such a trifle when everyone here is so busy. If you think, Uncle Bao, I could grind your ink or wash the inkstone for you, let’s try to fix it as soon as possible. Then neither of us need waste our time, we’d have plenty of chances to talk, our parent’s minds would be set at rest, and we could become real friends. Wouldn’t that be fine?”

“Don’t worry,” said Baoyu. “Let’s go and tell your brother-in-law and sister, as well as Sister Xifeng. You can speak to your father when you get home, and I’ll tell my grandmother. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be arranged quickly.”

By the time this was settled, lamps were being lit and they went out to watch the game. When the score was reckoned, Keqing and Madam You had lost again and it was agreed that they should stand treat to a meal and an opera show in two days’ time. Then they chatted a while.

After dinner, because it was dark, Madam You suggested that they send two men-servants to see Qin Zhong home, and maids went out with these orders. When some time later the boy took his leave, she asked who was to accompany him.

“Jiao Da,” said the maids. “But he’s roaring drunk and using foul language again.”

“But why send him?” protested Madam You and Keqing. “We’ve all those young fellows who could go. Why pick Jiao Da?”

“I’ve always said you’re too soft with your servants,” was Xifeng’s comment. “Fancy letting them have their own way like this!”

“You know biao Da, surely?” Madam You sighed. “Not even the master can control him, let alone your Cousin Zhen. He went out with our great-grandfather on three or four expeditions when he was young, and saved his master’s life by carrying him off a battlefield heaped with corpses. He went hungry himself but stole food for his master; and after two days without water, when he got half a bowl he gave it to his master and drank horse urine himself. Because of these services, he was treated with special consideration in our great-grandfather’s time and nobody likes to interfere with him now. But since growing old he has no regard for appearances. He does nothing but drink and when he’s drunk he abuses everyone. Time and again I’ve told the stewards to write him off and not give him any jobs. Yet he’s being sent again today.”

“Of course I know Jiao Da, but you ought to be able to handle him,” scoffed Xifeng. “Pack him off to some distant farm and have done with it.” She asked if her carriage was ready.

“Ready waiting, madam,” said the attendants.

Xifeng rose to take her leave and led Baoyu out. Madam You and the others escorted them to the main hall, where by the bright light of lanterns they saw attendants waiting in the court. Because Jia Zhen was out —though he could have done nothing even if at home — Jiao Da was fairly letting himself go. Roaring drunk, he lashed out at the head steward Lai Er’s injustice, calling him a cowardly bully.

“You give all the soft jobs to others, but when it comes to seeing someone home late at night in the dark you send me. Black-hearted son of a turtle! A fine steward you are! I can lift my leg up higher than your head. Twenty years ago I’d nothing but contempt for this household, not to mention you bastards, you crew of turtle-eggs.”

He was cursing away full blast as bia Rong saw Xifeng in her carriage out, and ignored all the servant’s shouts to him to be quiet. Jia Rong could hardly let this pass. He swore at Jiao Da and told men to tie him up.

“We’ll ask him tomorrow, when he’s sobered up, what he means by this disgraceful behaviour,” he blustered.

Jiao Da had a low opinion, of course, of Jia Rong. He bore down on him bellowing still more angrily:

“Don’t try to lord it over biao Da, young Brother Rong! Not to speak

of the likes of you, not even your dad or granddad dare stand up to Jiao Da. If not for me, and me alone, you’d have no official posts, fancy titles or riches. It was your great-granddad who built up this estate, and nine times I snatched him back from the jaws of death. Now instead of show­ing yourselves properly grateful, you try to lord it over me. Shut up, and I’ll overlook it. Say one word more, and I’ll bury a white blade in you and pull it out red!”

“Why don’t you get rid of this lawless wretch?” asked Xifeng from her carriage. “He’s nothing but a source of trouble. If this came to the ears of our relatives and friends, how they’d laugh at the lack of rules and order here.”

As Jia Rong agreed to this, some servants overpowered Jiao Da and dragged him off towards the stables, for this time he had really gone too far. Then he let loose a flood of abuse in which even Jia Zhen was in­cluded.

“Let me go to the Ancestral Temple and weep for my old master,” he fumed. “Little did he expect to beget such degenerates, a houseful of rutting dogs and bitches in heat, day in and day out scratching in the ashes5 and carrying on with younger brothers-in-law. Don’t think you can fool me. I only tried to hide the broken arm in your sleeve….”

These obscenities frightened the servants half out of their wits. Hur­riedly trussing him up, they stuffed his mouth with mud and horse-dung.

Xifeng and Jia Rong pretended not to have heard, whereas Baoyu in the carriage was rather entertained by this drunken outburst.

“Did you hear that, sister?” he asked. “What’s meant by ‘scratch­ing in the ashes’?”

“Don’t talk nonsense,” snapped Xifeng, glowering. “What’s come over you? You not only listen to drunken raving but have to ask questions too. Just wait until we get back and I tell your mother — you’ll pay for this with a thrashing.”

“Dear sister,” apologized Baoyu fearfully, “I promise not to do it again.”

“That’s more like it, brother. The important thing, once we’re home, is to talk to the old lady about sending you and your nephew Qin Zhong to school.”

They were back now in the Rong Mansion. To know what followed,

turn to the next chapter.

Good looks pave the way to friendship, A mutual attraction starts boys studying.

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