A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 80

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Chapter 80

Lovely Xiangling Is Unjustly Thrashed

by Her Lecherous Husband

The Taoist Priest Wang Prascribes a Cure

for a Shrew

Jingui turned away her head, pursed her lips and snorted. Striking the palms of both hands together she sneered:

“What scent has the caltrop, pray? If caltrops count as fragrant, how can we describe those truly fragrant flowers? This name is certainly senseless!”

“Not only the caltrop, but even lotus leaves and lotus seed pods have a subtle scent,” Xiangling assured her. “But of course it can’t compare with the fragrance of flowers. On a quiet day or night, or at dawn or midnight, if you inhale that scent carefully it smells even better than flow­ers. In the breeze or dew, caltrops, euryale seeds, reeds and rushes too, have a subtle fragrance which is very refreshing.”

“Do you mean to say you dislike the fragrance of orchids and osmanthus?” demanded Jingui.

Xiangling, in the heat of argument, completely forgot the taboo as she answered quickly:

“The fragrance of orchids and osmanthus is unique….”

Before she could finish, Jingui’s maid Baochan wagged a warning finger at her.

“Do you want to die? Mentioning the mistress’ name!”

“I slipped up,” apologized Xiangling, embarrassed by her gaffe. “Please don’t be offended, madam.”

Jingui laughed.

“It doesn’t matter. You’re over-scrupulous. Still, I don’t think that Xiang for sweetness in your name is right, I’d like to change it for another word, if you agree.”

“What a thing to say, madam!” cried Xiangling gaily. “I belong to you completely, so why consult me about changing my name? This is doing me too much honour. Just use whatever word you think best, madam.”

“You may agree, but suppose my sister-in-law takes offence? She may not like the name I choose and say, ‘She’s only been here a few days, but already she’s refuting me.

“Let me tell you how it is, madam. When I was bought, it was to serve the old lady; that’s why Miss Baochai gave me this name. Later, when I started waiting on our master, that had nothing to do with her. And now that I’m serving you, Miss Baochai has even less to do with me. Besides, she’s such an understanding young lady, how could she take offence?”

“In that case, let’s substitute the Qiu meaning autumn for Xiang. The caltrop flourishes and flowers in autumn, so that is surely more appropri­ate.”

“Just as you say, madam,” agreed Xiangling cheerfully.

Thereafter her name was changed to Qiuling, and Baochai raised no objection.

Now Xue Pan was a living example of the saying “To cover the land of Shu after getting the region of Long.” After marrying Jingui, he was struck by her maid Baochan’s charms. As she seemed approachable as well as alluring, he often flirted with her when asking her to fetch him tea or water. Baochan knew what he wanted, but dared not encourage him until she knew how her mistress felt about it. Jingui was well aware of what was happening.

“It’s Xiangling I want to trap, but I can’t find any pretext,” she re­flected. “As he’s keen on Baochan now, I may as well let him have her and he’s bound to lose interest in Xiangling. Then I can settle her hash. Since Baochan is my maid, she’ll be easy to handle later.”

Her mind made up, she waited for her chance.

One evening after drinking, Xue Pan ordered Baochan to bring him some tea. Before taking the cup he squeezed her hand; and Baochan, pretending to shrink away, let the cup fall with a clatter to her ground, splashing her clothes as well as the floor with tea. To cover his confusion, Xue Pan accused the maid of carelessness.

She retorted, “You didn’t take it properly sir.”

Jingui smiled sarcastically.

“You’re both pretty obvious. Do you take me for a fool?”

Xue Pan lowered his head with a sheepish smile and said nothing as Baochan left the room, blushing.

Later, at bedtime, Jingui deliberately urged her husband to sleep else­where.

“I don’t want to see you eating your heart out,” she said.

He simply grinned.

“If you want something, tell me,” she continued. “Acting on the sly is no good.”

Emboldened by wine, Xue Pan knelt on the quilt and nuzzled her.

“Good sister, just give me Baochan and I’ll do whatever you say! If you want someone’s brains, I’ll get them for you!”

“What senseless talk!” she retorted. “If you’ve taken a fancy to someone, say so outright, and we can make her your concubine to avoid any hint of scandal. Why should I care?”

Xue Pan was so delighted with this assurance that he thanked her most profusely and did his best to pleasure her as a husband should that night.

The next day he stayed indoors killing time at home, feeling increas­ingly randy. After lunch, Jingui deliberately went out to clear the coast for them both, and Xue Pan started making advances to Baochan. Well aware of what he wanted, she only made a show of resisting. And he was about to have his way with her when Jingui who had waited till she reckoned that they would be locked together, called for young Sheer, a maid she had brought from her home. Being an orphan with no one to care for her, this girl had been given the name She meaning “waif’ and assigned rough jobs to do. Now, according to her plan, Jingui summoned her.

“Go and get Qiuling to fetch my handkerchief from my room,” she ordered. “No need to tell her that these are my instructions.”

Sheer went straight to find Xiangling.

“Miss Qiuling, our mistress has left her handkerchief in her room, she said. “Wouldn’t you like to fetch it and take it to her?”

Now Xiangling, upset by all Jingui’s recent unkindness to her, had been trying in every way to placate her; so on hearing this she hurried to her mistress’ room. All unwittingly she burst in just as the two of them were setting to work. Flushing crimson up to her ears, she promptly fled. As Xue Pan felt he had cleared himself with his wife, and apart from her there was no one he need be afraid of, he had not even bothered to bolt the door. Thus when Xiangling burst in, although a little put out he did not much care.

Baochan, however, had a sharp tongue and a strong sense of self­-importance. Xiangling’s sudden intrusion made her wish the earth would swallow her up. At once she pushed Xue Pan away and rushed out of the room crying rape.

Xue Pan had been to great pains getting hold of Baochan. Now his frustration, owing to Xiangling, naturally turned his excitement into sav­age hatred for her.

He ran out and spat at her.

“You damn bitch!” he swore. “Why come barging in here now?”

Xiangling, knowing that she was in trouble, darted away. Then Xue Pan looked for Baochan and, failing to find her, loosed off more abuse at Xiangling.

After dinner that evening, befuddled with wine, he happened to scald his feet because the bath water was rather hot. Blaming this on Xiangling he ran out, stark naked as he was, to kick and beat her. The poor girl had never been treated so badly before, but there was nothing she could do except to slip away nursing her grievance.

By now Jingui had told Baochan in confidence to spend the night with Xue Pan in Xiangling’s room and become his concubine. When Xiangling, ordered to sleep with her, demurred, she accused her of thinking her bed too dirty or of being too lazy to wait on her mistress at night.

“That oaf of a master of yours falls for every girl he sees,” she swore. “He’s grabbed my maid, yet doesn’t send you to attend me. What’s his idea? Is he trying to hound me to death?”

Xue Pan, hearing this, feared he might be thwarted again and there­fore joined in too.

“You ungrateful bitch!” he roared at Xiangling. “Go on at once, or I’ll beat you!”

Xiangling had no choice but to carry her bedding over. And when Jingui ordered her to sleep on the floor, again she had to comply. But no sooner had she lain down than Jingui called for tea, then presently told her to massage her legs, rousing her seven or eight times altogether, so that there was no sleep for Xiangling that night.

Now that Xue Pan had got possession of Baochan whom he prized as a great treasure, he had no attention to spare for anyone else, much to Jingui’s disgust.

“I’ll let you enjoy yourself for a few days,” she thought spitefully. “But don’t blame me when by and by I get my own back!”

Meanwhile, hiding her resentment, she went on tormenting Xiangling. After a fortnight she suddenly shammed ill, complaining of an unbearable pain in her heart and the loss of the use of her limbs. The doctors sum­moned were unable to cure her, and the household ascribed this illness to her anger caused by Xiangling.

Then one day, from Jingui’s pillow-case there fell out a paper effigy inscribed with the date of her birth and her horoscope. Five needles had been thrust through it: one through the heart and one through each of the limbs. This discovery caused a commotion among the maids who reported it at once to Aunt Xue, making her consternated at first. Xue Pan, even more worked up, wanted to beat all the servants to extort a confes­sion from them.

“That wouldn’t be fair,” said Jingui. “This black magic is most likely Baochan’s doing.”

“It couldn’t be,” he objected. “She’s not been in your room recently. Why accuse an innocent person?”

Jingui smiled sarcastically.

“Who else could it be? Do you imagine I did it myself? Who else dares enter my room?”

“Xiangling should know — she’s spent all her time with you lately. Let’s beat her first, to get the truth out of her.”

“Whomever you beat, no one’s going to confess,” scoffed Jingui. “Take my advice and pretend you know nothing about it. Just let the matter drop. Anyway, if I’m done to death what does it matter? Wouldn’t you love to marry a better wife? I know very well that the three of you all want me out of the way!” By now she was sobbing.

Goaded by these taunts, Xue Pan grabbed hold of a doorbar and rushed to find Xiangling. Without giving her a chance to speak he started beating her, insisting that she was the one who had worked this witchcraft. As Xiangling protested her innocence Aunt Xue came running over to stop her son.

“How can you beat her without first investigating?” she scolded. “The girl has served you all these years and always been very dutiful. How could she do a wicked thing like this? You must find out the truth before you start laying about you.

At this, Jingui was afraid that Xue Pan might be over-ruled by his mother. She started bawling again.

“For over a fortnight,” she wailed, “you’ve monopolized my Baochan and won’t let her come to my room, leaving me only Qiuling to sleep with me. When I want to cross-examine Baochan, you shield her. Now you’re working off your temper by beating Qiuling. Why not murder me and have done with it? Then you can choose a beautiful wife from some rich and noble family. Why play all these silly tricks?”

This tirade made Xue Pan still more frantic.

Aunt Xue was furious at Jingui’s outrageous, overbearing ways and the pressure she was putting on Xue Pan who, unfortunately, was so spineless that he was used to giving in to her; and now his affair with Baochan enabled her to pose as a reasonable, complaisant wife whose maid he had seized. Aunt Xue, moreover, had no means of knowing who was responsible for the black magic. Just as “Not even good officials can settle family troubles,” so “Not even parents can settle disputes be­tween son and wife.” Being at a loss, she could do nothing except berate Xue Pan.

“You degenerate wretch!” she fumed. “Even a cur in heat is less shameless than you! So you couldn’t even keep your paws off your wife’s maid but had to grab her too — giving your wife a handle to accuse you of monopolizing her maid. How can you face people after this? We don’t know who put that spell on her, but instead of finding out the facts you start beating your concubine. I know you: off with the old love and on with the new — a poor return for all I’ve done for you! Even if Xiangling did wrong, you’ve no right to beat her. I shall send for a broker at once and sell her off to set your mind at rest.”

She told Xiangling, “Get your things together. Come on.”

She then ordered the servants, “Fetch a broker at once. We’ll sell her for whatever she’ll fetch, to rid ourselves of this pest, this thorn in the flesh. Only then can we have any peace.

Xue Pan hung his head throughout this diatribe, but Jingui who had been eavesdropping called through the window:

“You can sell anyone you want, but why drag in other people? Am I such a jealous shrew that I can’t tolerate a flesh? Who finds her a pest? Who thinks her a thorn in the flesh? If I were the jealous kind, I wouldn’t have allowed him to have my maid.”

Aunt Xue nearly choked, trembling with anger.

“What manners are these?” she spluttered. “When the mother-in-law is talking, how dare her daughter-in-law wrangle with her through the window? Imagine the daughter of a respectable family raising such a row! Outrageous, I call it!”

Xue Pan stamped his foot frantically.

“Do be quiet! Think how people will laugh if they hear us!”

Determined to go the whole hog, Jingui went on ranting more wildly.

“I’m not afraid if people laugh!” she shrieked. “Why should I be, when your concubine is trying to do me in? You’d better keep her and sell me instead. Everyone knows that you Xues have pots of money for bribes, as well as powerful relatives who’ll shut people’s mouths. So go ahead! What are you waiting for? If you think I’m no good, what blinded you before? Why keep running to our home to beg for my hand? Now you’ve got me as well as all the gold and silver in my dowry. And my maid, who’s not bad-looking, you’ve even grabbed her too. So it’s time to get rid of me!”

Screaming, she slapped herself and rolled on the ground.

Xue Pan was too frantic to know what to do — remonstrate, reason and plead with her, or beat her. He stumped in and out of the room, sighing and fuming, cursing his own bad luck.

Meanwhile Baochai had persuaded her mother to go back to her own room, but she insisted that Xiangling must be sold.

“Our family only buys maids, never sells any,” Baochai pointed out. “Your anger’s making you talk foolishly, mother. If outsiders come to hear of this, how they’ll laugh! If my brother and sister-in-law dislike her, why not keep her to wait on me? I need another maid.”

“If she’s kept it’ll cause more trouble. Far simpler to throw her out.”

“If she’s with me that will be the same anyway. I won’t let her go to their quarters in the front, so she’ll be entirely cut off from them, just as if she’d been sold.”

Xiangling had already run up to Aunt Xue and tearfully begged her not to drive her away but to let her wait on Miss Baochai. So finally Aunt Xue relented.

After that, Xiangling moved into Baochai’s quarters and had no more to do with the young couple; still, she could not help bewailing her fate to the moon and sighing before the lamp. Though she had lived with Xue Pan for several years, because of irregular menses she had never con­ceived a child. Now anger and grief further undermined her health, and these upsets aggravated her anaemia. She fell into a consumption and lost her appetite. Doctors were called in, but their medicines failed to cure her.

Meanwhile Jingui continued to make scenes, upsetting Aunt Xue and Baochai; but all they could do was to shed tears in secret as they la­mented their fate. Two or three times Xue Pan, emboldened by wine, stormed at his wife and threatened her with a stick, but Jingui simply dared him to beat her. When he threatened her with a knife, she stretched out her neck and challenged him to kill her. Then, unable to bring himself to it, he could only rage for a while. When this had happened several times, Jingui became even more over-bearing and Xue Pan even more spineless.

With Xiangling still in the house, Jingui could never be fully at ease; however, she let her be for the time being, as she was no longer an annoyance to her.

It was now with Baochan that she started finding fault. But Baochan, unlike Xiangling, had a fiery temper and as she was on good terms with Xue Pan she felt she could afford to ignore her mistress. When Jingui tried to bully her, she refused to give ground. At first they simply wrangled. Then Jingui, when in a temper, would curse and beat her. Though Baochan could not strike back she would throw a tantrum, roll on the ground and threaten to kill herself, searching for knives or Xue Pan, unable to cope with the two of them, could only pace to and fro between both women, watching. If they became too rowdy, he would go out and keep away from the house.

When Jingui happened to be in a good mood, she would gather a party together to play cards, dice and make merry. All her life she had loved gnawing bones, so she had chickens or ducks killed every day and the meat given to others while she herself chewed the fried bones to go with her wine. When she tired of this, or when anything offended her, she would flare up and begin scolding again.

“If ponces and strumpets can enjoy themselves, why shouldn’t I?” she would clamour.

Aunt Xue and Baochai paid no attention to her. And by now Xue Pan too was helpless, only regretting day and night that he had married this monster. They were all at their wits’ end. High and low in the Ning and Rong Mansions knew of this, and none of them but deplored it.

By this time Baoyu’s hundred days’ confinement was up and he was allowed out of doors. Coming over to call on Jingui, he found nothing outrageous in her looks or behaviour — she seemed just as lovely as the other girls — so he was mystified and amazed by her bad reputation.

One day when he went to pay his respects to his mother, he found Yingchun’s nanny there too, telling Lady Wang what a reprobate Sun Shaozu was.

“All our young lady can do is to cry in secret,” she said. “She’s longing to be fetched home, to have a few days’ respite.”

“The last couple of days I’ve been thinking of sending for her,” an­swered Lady Wang. “But so many troubles cropped up that it slipped my mind. The other day Baoyu called there, and when he came back he made the same suggestion. Well, tomorrow’s an auspicious day; we’ll send to fetch her.”

Just then a servant arrived from the Lady Dowager to tell Baoyu to go first thing the next day to Tianqi Temple, in order to offer thanks for his recovery. As Baoyu was only too eager for any outing, these instructions so delighted him that he could hardly close his eyes all night as he waited for day to break.

The next morning after he had washed and dressed, accompanied by two or three old nurses he went by carriage out of the West Gate to burn incense and offer thanks in Tianqi Temple, where all the preparations for this had been made the previous day. Baoyu, being naturally timid, kept away from the fierce-looking images of gods and demons there. For this magnificent temple had been built in an earlier dynasty but then neglected for so many years that all the clay sculptures there struck him as mon­strous and left him aghast.

After hastily burning the sacrificial paper, Baoyu retired to a quiet room to rest. When he had been served a meal, the old nurses, Li Gui and others strolled with him through the temple grounds till he was tired, when they took him back inside for another rest. Not wanting him to go to sleep, the nurses fetched Old Wang, the Taoist priest in charge of the temple, to divert him.

This old Taoist, formerly an itinerant vendor of medicine, had made a considerable profit out of his nostrums; and outside the temple hung a notice to the effect that pills, salves, plasters and powders of every kind were obtainable here. This priest also frequented the Ning and Rong Mansions, where he had come to be known as One-Plaster Wang; for he claimed that his plasters were so efficacious that each could cure all manner of different ailments.

When One-Plaster Wang entered the room, Baoyu was lying drows­ily on the kang while Li Gui and the others were urging him not to sleep.

At sight of the priest they cried, “You’ve come just at the right time, father! You’re so good at spinning yarns, won’t you tell our young mas­ter some story?”

One-Plaster Wang laughed.

“Quite right. You mustn’t fall asleep after eating the gluten in that vegetarian meal, or it’ll play tricks in your belly!”’

The whole room laughed, Baoyu too, as he got up and straightened his clothes. Then One-Plaster Wang ordered his acolytes to make them some good, strong tea.

Mingyan interposed, “Our master won’t drink your tea. Even sitting in this room he’s half choked by the smell of your plasters.”

“We never keep plasters in here,” said the priest with a grin. “A few days ago, when I learned that Master Bao would be coming today, I scented this room with incense again and again.”

“I’m always hearing how good your plasters are,” remarked Baoyu. “Just what diseases do they cure?”

“It would take too long to tell you that in full. I use one hundred and twenty different ingredients which complement each other just as do a prince and his ministers, and co-operate with each other just as do a host and his guests. Some of them are heating, some cooling, some costly, some cheap. Inwardly, they fortify the humours, build up the patient’s strength, improve the appetite, increase resistance, tranquillize the nerves, expel cold and heat, and eliminate indigestion and phlegm. Outwardly, they regulate the blood, relax the muscles, remove dead tissues and help new ones to grow, cure chills and act as an antidote to poison. They are marvellously effective, as you’d know, sir, if you’d tried one.”

“I can hardly believe that one plaster cures so many different ail­ments,” Baoyu answered. “I’d like to know if it’s any good for a malady I have in mind.”

“It cures all diseases,” One-Plaster Wang asserted. “If it does you no good, you can tweak my beard, slap my old face and pull down my temple — how’s that? Just tell me the symptoms of this malady.”

“Have a guess. If you guess right, I’ll believe in your medicine.”

One-Plaster Wang thought for a while.

“This is quite a poser,” he said at last with a smile. “I’m afraid my plaster may not work in this case.

Then Baoyu told Li Gui and the other servants, “Go out and have a stroll. There are too many people in here, it’s getting stuffy.”

The servants withdrew, leaving only Mingyan in attendance. After he had lighted a stick of Sweet-Dream Incense, Baoyu told him to sit down beside him so that he could lean against him. At this point, One-Plaster Wang had a sudden idea. Smiling all over his face, he drew closer to whisper:

“I’ve guessed it! Now that the young gentleman is growing up, I suppose he wants some drug to increase his virility — right?”

Cutting him short, Mingyan snapped, “Shut up, you idiot!”

“What did he say?” asked Baoyu in bewilderment.

“Never mind. He was talking rot.”

One-Plaster Wang was appalled and dared not ask any more ques­tions.

“Better tell me outright, sir,” he said.

“What I wanted to know was this: have you a prescription to cure a jealous shrew?”

The priest clapped his hands and laughed.

“I give up! Not only have I no such prescription, I’ve never even heard of one either.”

“In that case,” Baoyu teased, “your plaster doesn’t amount to much.”

“Though I’ve no plaster to cure a shrew, there is a potion which might. Only it takes time it doesn’t work overnight.”

“What potion is that? And how should it be taken?”

“It’s called Cure for Jealousy. Take one top-quality pear, one fifth of an ounce of crystal sugar, one tenth of orange peel and three bowls of water. Boil these till the pear is soft, and let the shrew take one does first thing each day. Then in due course she’ll be cured.”

“That wouldn’t cost much, but I doubt whether it would work.”

“If one dose doesn’t do the trick, give ten. If she’s not cured today, repeat the treatment tomorrow. If it doesn’t work this year, go on with it next year. At any rate, these ingredients aren’t injurious but good for the lungs and digestion. This sweet potion cures coughs and tastes delicious too. If she takes it for a hundred years she’ll die in any case, and once dead how can she go on being jealous? So in the end it will prove efficacious.”

By now Baoyu and Mingyan were roaring with laughter.

“You oily-mouthed ox!” they cried.

“What does it matter?” chuckled One-Plaster Wang. “I was just whil­ing away the time to stop you from felling sleepy. It’s worth money, making you laugh. To tell you the truth, even my plasters are bogus. If I had some really good medicine, I’d take it myself so as to become an immortal instead of coming here to fool around.”

By this time it was the hour for the sacrifice, and they asked Baoyu to go out to burn sacrificial paper, pour a libation of wine and distribute alms. The sacrifice ended, he went back to the city.

By now Yingchun had already been home for some time. When the women from the Sun family who had come with her had been enter­tained to dinner and sent home, Yingchun, shedding tears in Lady Wang’s room, described her wretchedness.

“Sun Shaozu cares for nothing but women, gambling and drinking,” she sobbed. “He’s had affairs with practically all our maids and young servants’ wives. When I demonstrated mildly two or three times, he cursed me for being jealous, saying I must have been steeped in vinegar. He also says he put five thousand taels in father’s safe-keeping and he shouldn’t have spent it. He’s come here several times to ask for it back, and when he fails to get it he points at me and scolds, ‘Don’t put on those ladified airs with me! Your old man has spent five thousand taels of mine; so he’s sold you to me. If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll beat you up and send you to sleep with the servants. When your grandfather was alive, seeing how rich and influential our family was, he went to great trouble to get connected with us. Actually, I belong to your father’s generation. It was a mistake my marrying you because that’s made me step down one generation, as if I were the one chasing after power and profit.”’

She wept as she spoke, and Lady Wang and all the girls shed tears too.

Lady Wang said soothingly, “You’ve already married this oaf, so it can’t be helped. Your uncle did advise your father against it, but he wouldn’t listen — he’d set his heart on this match. And now it’s turned out badly. Well, child, this is fate.”

“I can’t believe I was fated to suffer like this,” sobbed Yingchun. “I lost my mother when I was a child, and was lucky to have a few peaceful years here with you, auntie. But now see what’s become of me!”

Lady Wang, trying to console her, asked where she would like to stay.

“Being snatched away so suddenly from my cousins, I dream of them all the time,” Yingchun replied. “I long for my old rooms too. If I can spend a few more days in my old quarters in the Garden, then I shall die content. Who knows if I’ll ever have such a chance again.”

“Don’t talk so wildly,” interposed Lady Wang. “Little squabbles be­tween young couples are quite common. Why speak in that ill-omened way?”

She ordered the house at Purple Caltrop Isle to be made ready at once, and told the girls to keep Yingchun company and cheer her up.

To Baoyu she said, “Mind you don’t breathe a word about this to the old lady! If she gets to hear of it, I’ll hold you to blame.”

Baoyu promised to keep quiet.

That evening Yingchun stayed in her old quarters, and her girl cousins and the maids lavished affection on her. After three days, however, she had to go to stay with Lady Xing. First she took her leave of the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang. When it came to saying goodbye to the girls, she was prostrated by grief. It was Lady Wang and Aunt Xue who soothed her and finally persuaded her to stop weeping and go over to the other mansion, where she spent a couple of days with Lady Xing. Then Sun Shaozu sent to fetch her back and, though Yingchun dreaded returning, for fear of her cruel husband she had to hold back her grief and take her leave.

As for Lady Xing, she was so callous that she had not even asked Yingchun how she got on with her husband, or whether her household was difficult to manage, simply entertaining her in the most perfunctory manner.

To know what the outcome was, read the next chapter.

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