A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 79

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Chapter 79

Xue Pan Marries a Fierce Lioness

and Repents Too Late

Yingchun Is Wrongly Wedded

to an Ungrateful Wolf

Baoyu, after sacrificing to Qingwen, was startled to hear a voice from the shade of the flowers. Stepping forward to investigate, he found it was no other than Daiyu.

“What an original funeral ode!” she teased, smiling all over her face. “It deserves to be passed down with that epitaph commemorating Cao E,1 the filial daughter.”

Baoyu blushed.

“The usual run of funeral odes seem to me so stereotyped,” he ex­plained, “I tried to use a new form. It was just for fun; I never thought you’d hear it. If it won’t do, why don’t you suggest some improve­ments?”

“Where is your draft? I must read it carefully. I didn’t hear the whole long piece, only the two lines:

The young lordling behind red gauze curtains is filled with longing

For the ill-fated maid in her mound of yellow earth.

That’s a felicitous couplet, except that ‘red gauze curtains’ is rather trite. There are real-life images ready at hand — why not use one of those?”

He hastily asked what she meant.

“We all have rosy-cloud gauze pasted on latticed windows nowa­days,” she replied. “Why not say ‘Under madder-gauze window, a young lording filled with longing’ ?“

Baoyu stamped his foot in approval.

“Excellent! Just the thing!” he exclaimed. “Trust you to think up such a phrase. It shows there are plenty of good ready-made scenes and images from olden days down to the present, but stupid fools can’t trot

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them out or recall them. Still, though this is a marvellous change you’ve made, it describes the place where you live — it’s too good for me.” He disclaimed over and over, “I am unworthy!”

Daiyu laughed.

“What does it matter? My window can be your window. Why must you draw such distinctions as if we were strangers? In ancient times, even strangers sometimes shared the same horse and fur coat without worrying if they got spoilt; and look how much closer we are.”

“Among friends one shouldn’t be stingy even with gold and jade, to say nothing of horses and furs,” he agreed. “Still, disrespect to a lady is quite out of the question. So I’ll tell you what, I may as well change the ‘lordling’ and ‘maid’ and make it your lament for her — that would be better. Besides, you used to be very good to her too. I’d rather scrap the whole thing than give up this new ‘madder-gauze’ image. So suppose we change it to:

Below the madder-gauze window, a young lady filled with longing;

Under the yellow mound, her ill-fated maid.

Though this new version has nothing to do with me, I’m just as satisfied with it.”

“But she wasn’t my maid, so how can you say that? Besides, ‘young lady’ and ‘maid’ lack elegance. Wait till my Zijuan dies, it won’t be too late for me to use that phrase then.”

Baoyu laughed.

“Why bring bad luck on her with such talk?”

“It was your idea, not mine.

“I know what. Here’s a more appropriate change. Let’s say:

Below the madder-gauze window, I have no good fortune;

Under the yellow mound, how ill-fated you are!”

Daiyu abruptly turned pale, filled with misgivings by these ominous words. But instead of disclosing this she smiled and nodded.

“That really is a change for the better. Don’t make any more alter­ations, but go quickly now to see to your proper business. Just now your mother sent word that first thing tomorrow you’re to go to your Aunt

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Xing’s place. Your Second Sister’s been chosen by some family; so probably they want you to go over when those people call to make a formal request for her hand.”

“What’s the hurry? I’m not feeling too well, I may not be up to going over tomorrow,” he said, clapping his hands.

“There you go again! Take my advice and stop being so wayward. You’re not a child any more….

As she spoke, she started coughing.

“The wind’s cold here,” he put in hastily. “It’s silly to stay standing here. Do hurry back.”

“I’m going home to rest. See you tomorrow.”

With that Daiyu started back, and Baoyu was turning back listlessly too when it occurred to him that Daiyu had no one to escort her; so he hastily told the young maid to see her home. When he reached Happy Red Court, sure enough Lady Wang had sent a nanny to tell him to go to Jia She’s place the next morning, as Daiyu had just told him.

Jia She had promised Yingchun to a family named Sun from Datong Prefecture, one of whose ancestors, a military officer, had been taken as a pupil by the Jias; thus both families could be considered as friends of long standing. The only Sun now in the capital was a police commissioner named Sun Shaozu, not yet thirty. A big man with a powerful physique, he was a good archer and horseman and well versed in the ways of society. His family was rich, and he was now waiting for some better appointment when some vacancy should occur in the Ministry of War. As he was not yet married and the Suns were old friends, and as more­over his appearance and estate were suitable, Jia She approved of him and had chosen him to be his son-in-law.

When he reported this to the Lady Dowager, she was not too pleased. However, she felt that if she raised objections he might not listen, and that young people’s marriages were decreed by Heaven; besides, as this was Yingchun’s own father’s decision, why should she be officious?

So she just said, “I see,” with no further comment.

Jia Zheng, however, had a deep aversion to the Suns, for although their families had long been connected this was simply because Sun’s grandfather, wanting to make use of the Jias’ influence to settle some

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private troubles, had formally acknowledged them as his teachers. They were not a family of well known literati. Hence Jia Zheng advised against the match once or twice, but desisted when Jia She paid no attention.

Baoyu had never set eyes on this Sun Shaozu, so the next day he had to go over for courtesy’s sake to meet him. When he heard that the wedding would soon be taking place, that Yingchun would be going to her new home within the year and that Lady Xing and others had asked the old lady’s permission to take her out of the Garden, he grew more and more dismayed. Often lost in thought, he did not know what to do. And now the news that Yingchun would be taking four maids with her when she married made him stamp his feet.

“That’ll be five less clean people in the world!” he sighed.

He took to going every day to wander around Purple Caltrop Isle. He found the lodge there quiet and deserted, with only a few old women in charge of the place at night. Even the reeds and smartweed on the bank and the caltrops and water-weeds in the pool had a disconsolate look, as if longing for their old friends, not flaunting their autumn splendour as before. Struck by this scene of desolation, he could not contain his feel­ings but then and there made up a song which he chanted as follows:

“A pool at night; the chilly autumn wind

The red-jade shadows of caltrop apart has tossed;

Smartweed and caltrop are overcome by grief,

Their slender stems weighed down by dew and frost.

No more the chess-men clatter all day long,

The board by swallow droppings is defiled.

The men of old longed for departed friends,

Much more so I — your kinsman since a child.”

Baoyu had just declaimed this when he heard a laughing voice behind him call:

“Are your wits wandering again?”

Looking over his shoulder he saw that it was Xiangling. He turned with a smile to ask her:

“What are you doing here, sister? You haven’t come to the Garden to stroll for days.”

Xiangling clapped her hands.

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“It’s not that I didn’t want to,” she cried gaily. “But now that your Cousin Pan is back, I’m no longer free to do whatever I please. Just now our mistress sent to find your Cousin Xifeng; but she wasn’t at home and they said she’d come to the Garden. When I heard that, I asked for this errand and came to look for her. One of her maids whom I met told me she’s in Paddy-Sweet Cottage, so I was on my way there when I came across you. Tell me: Is Sister Xiren keeping well these days? What car­ried off Sister Qingwen so suddenly? Just what illness did she have? And why did Miss Yingchun move out so quickly? See how empty this place has become!”

Baoyu answered her queries as quickly as he could, then invited her to Happy Red Court for some tea.

“I’ve no time just now,” said Xiangling. “I’ll come after I’ve found Madam Lian and delivered my message.

“What business is this that’s so urgent?”

“It’s to do with your Cousin Pan’s wedding, that’s why it’s urgent.”

“Tell me, which family is she from after all? They’ve been debating it for half a year: one day it was to be the Zhangs, next the Lis, then the Wangs. What wrong have the girls in those families done to deserve so much talk about them?”

“Well, it’s settled now,” Xiangling told him. “No other families need be dragged in.”

“Which family has been settled on?”

“Last time your cousin went on a business trip, he called on some relatives on the way. They’ve been related to us since way back and are also registered in the Board of Revenue as purchasing agents for the court — they’re one of the wealthiest families around. When the mis­tresses were chatting the other day, it turned out that your two mansions know this family too. The whole capital, from nobles down to tradesmen, all call that family the Osmanthus Xias.”

“How did they get that name?”

“Well, their surname is Xia, and they are rolling in wealth. Apart from other landed property, they have several hundred acres growing nothing but osmanthus trees. They own all the shops in the capital selling osmanthus, and they supply the Palace too with all those needed for display. That’s

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how they came by this name. Now old Mr. Xia is dead; his widow lives with her daughter and there are no sons — it’s too bad that their male branch has died out.”

“Never mind that,” said Baoyu. “What’s the girl like? How did he come to take a fancy to her?”

“It’s partly fate, and partly a case of ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ In the old days the two families were on close terms and as children they played together. Since they rank as cousins, they didn’t have to avoid each other according to the rules of propriety. And though they hadn’t met for so many years, as soon as he visited her family old Mrs. Xia, having no son herself, sturck by your cousin’s good looks shed tears of joy, more delighted than if he had been her own son. She pre­sented the two young people to each other. Well, the girl who’d grown up as pretty as a flower was taught to read and write at home; so your cousin made up his mind then and there. The Xia family entertained him for three or four days, and those old pawnshop assistants of his as well, pressing them to stay even longer, and only letting them leave when they absolutely insisted.

“As soon as your cousin got home, he pestered our mistress to ask for the girl’s hand. As she had seen the girl and the two families were well matched, she agreed. She talked it over with your mother and Madam Lian, then sent someone to propose the marriage, and it was immediately settled. Only there’s so little time left before the wedding that we’re rushed off our feet. The sooner she comes the better, I say. Then we shall have one extra poetess!”

Baoyu smiled wanly.

“Still, I’m rather worried for you.”

Xiangling flushed.

“What a thing to say! We’ve always treated each other with respect, but now you’re suddenly talking like this — the idea! No wonder every­one says it’s no good being too familiar with you.”

She turned then and went off.

Baoyu was very much put out. He stood there in a daze for a while, his thoughts wandering, shedding tears, then returned dejectedly to Happy Red Court.

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He passed an uneasy night. In his dreams he called for Qingwen or had frightening nightmares which gave him no peace. The next day he had no appetite and ran a fever, all because of the recent happenings —the search of the Garden, the dismissal of Siqi, the departure of Yingchun and the death of Qingwen — which had filled him with mortification, dread and grief. And on top of that he had caught cold, so now he fell ill and was confined to his bed.

When the Lady Dowager heard this, she came daily in person to see him. Lady Wang regretted having scolded him too sharply on Qingwen’s account, but she gave no outward sign of her remorse, simply ordering the nurses to look after him well and sending doctors twice a day to examine him and prescribe medicine.

Not until a month had passed did Baoyu begin to recover. He was told to convalesce for a hundred days, touch no greasy food and not stir out of his rooms. During this whole period he was not even allowed to go to the gate of his court, but only to amuse himself indoors. After forty of fifty days spent in this way he felt ready to burst from boredom — how could he put up with this? But plead as he might, the old lady and Lady Wang were adamant, and he simply had to accept the situation. So he fooled about with the maids in every conceivable way.

One day he heard that Xue Pan was giving a feast and opera show to celebrate his wedding, and the party was uncommonly lively. Told that this young lady from the Xia family was a beauty with literary accom­plishments too, he longed to go over then and there to see her.

Some days later he heard that Yingchun’s marriage had taken place and grieved deeply that he had been unable to see her off, reflecting that he and his girl cousins had always been together, but were they to meet again after this separation they could not be as intimate as before. He found it thoroughly exasperating being unable to go and see them now. However, he had to be patient and amuse himself with his maids.

At least he was spared his father’s constant reproofs and admoni­tions to study. So during these hundred days he and his maids rampaged as they pleased, getting up to mischief never heard of before and stop­ping short only of pulling down Happy Red Court. We can draw a veil over the details.

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Xiangling after scolding Baoyu that day decided that he had been deliberately rude to her.

She thought, “No wonder Miss Baochai dared not get too close to him. I lacked her foresight. And no wonder Miss Lin keeps quarrelling with him and crying for rage. He must keep teasing her too. I’d better steer clear of him.”

So after that she seldom went into the Garden. Xue Pan’s marriage kept her busy every day. She imagined his new wife would protect her and share her responsibilities, enabling her to lead a quieter life. And having heard that this young lady was talented as well as beautiful, she assumed she must be refined and gentle too. She was therefore ten times more eager even than Xue Pan for her arrival. Finally the day came when the bride arrived, and she began waiting hand and foot on her new mistress.

Now this Miss Xia, who had just turned seventeen, was quite good-looking and had some education. As regards ability and craftiness, she took after Xifeng. In one respect only had she been unlucky. Because her father had died when she was a child, and she had no brothers either, her widowed mother had spoilt this only daughter, doting on her and fall­ing in with all her whims. Inevitably, this over-indulgence had made her like the brigand Dao Zhi of old: she had as high an opinion of herself as if she were a goddess, and treated others like dirt. In appearance pretty as a flower, at heart she was a termagant. At home she had vented her temper on her maids, for ever cursing them or beating them. Now that she was married, she felt it incumbent on her to behave as the mistress of the house, not with the gentle shyness befitting a girl — she must show her authority to keep others under her thumb.

In view, moreover, of Xue Pan’s pig-headed pride and extravagance, she decided she must strike while the iron was hot and tame him com­pletely, or she would never be able to have her own way. Moreover, the presence of such a charming and talented concubine as Xiangling had filled her with the same resolve as the First Emperor of Song2 when he decided to wipe out the Prince of Southern Tang, demanding,3 “How can I let another sleep alongside my bed?”

As her family owned so many osmanthus trees, she had been given

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the pet name Jingui Golden Osmanthus; so she forebade the whole household to use these two words. Any maid careless enough to slip up and do so was severely beaten and punished. Then, realizing the impossi­bility of banning any reference to osmanthus, she decided to give the flower a new name; and recalling the story of the osmanthus and the Moon Goddess,4 she changed the name of the flower to ‘moon-goddess flower’ to add to her own dignity in this way.

Now Xue Pan was a man who would discard the old as soon as he had something new, and one who looked tough but lacked stamina. Pleased with his new wife at the start, he humoured her. And Xia Jingui observing this tried to control him more strictly step by step. For the first month they were on equal terms; after two months Xue Pan began to give ground. One day after drinking he consulted her on something he wished to do and, when she would not hear of it, losing his temper he made an angry retort then went ahead and did it. Then Jingui cried as if she were de­mented, refused all food and pretended to be ill.

The doctor summoned to see her said:

“She has anger in her blood and should take some tranquillizing medi­cine.”

Aunt Xue berated her son.

“You’re a married man now and will soon have a son of your own, yet you’re still such a fool!” she fumed. “She was brought up like a young phoenix, a daughter as delicate as a flower; and her family agreed

• to let you have her, thinking you a gentleman. Yet instead of keeping yourself in check, behaving yourself and living peacefully, you act like an oaf and bully her in your cups. You’ll have to suffer for it and spend money now on medicine.”

Xue Pan, filled with remorse by these reproaches, went in to comfort his wife. But Jingui, delighted to have her mother-in-law take her side, behaved still more arrogantly in her gratification at this and out-manoeu­vred him by simply ignoring him. Not knowing what to do, he had to lump it. And it took him nearly a fortnight to mollify her.

After that Xue Pan took greater pains not to provoke her, and inevita­bly this humbled him still more. Seeing that her husband was lowering his colours and her mother-in-law was good-natured, Jingui pressed her at-

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tack by degress. At first she simply kept Xue Pan under her thumb; later she tried artfully to control Aunt Xue as well, and Baochai too. Baochai had long recognized her impropriety and knew how to cope with it, giving her hints not to over-reach herself. When Jingui saw that she was not to be bullied, she tried to pick fault with her in various ways; but being unable to find any chinks in her armour, she finally had to come to terms with her.

One day Jingui, at a loose end, started chatting with Xiangling and asked about her home district and her parents. When Xiangling said she could not remember them, Jingui flared up and accused her of deliber­ately hiding things from her. She then asked who had given her the name “Xiangling,” and on being told that it was Baochai she gave a scornful smile.

“Everyone says she’s learned,” she scoffed, “but this name doesn’t make sense.

Xiangling answered with a conciliatory smile, “A iya, madam! You may not know, but even her uncle is always praising her for her scholar­ship.”

To know what Jingui’s answer was, read the next chapter.

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