A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 81


Chapter 81

Four Beauties Fish in the Pond

to Try Their Luck

Baoyu’s Father Orders Him Back

to the Family School

After Yingchun’s departure, Lady Xing behaved just as if nothing had happened. Lady Wang, however, who had brought Yingchun up, was bitterly distressed. She was sighing to herself in her room when Baoyu came in to pay his respects. Noticing the tear-stains on her cheeks he did not venture to take a seat, simply standing on one side till she urged him to mount the kang and sit beside her.

His mother saw from the dazed look on his face that he had some­thing on his mind.

“What’s worrying you now?” she asked.

“It’s nothing really. But after hearing yesterday what poor Yingchun has to put up with, I feel it’s truly too much for her to bear! I didn’t dare tell grandmother, but it kept me from sleeping all night. How can girls from a family like ours stand such cruel treatment? Yingchun especially, who’s always been too timid to answer anyone back. Yet now she of all people is up against such an inhuman monster, who has no idea how sensitive a girl is.” As he spoke his eyes brimmed with tears.

“There’s no help for it,” Lady Wang answered. “As the saying goes, ‘A married daughter —spilt water.’ So what can I do about it?”

“Last night I had an idea. Suppose we talk grandmother into having Cousin Yingchun fetched back? Then she can go on staying in Purple Caltrop Isle, eating and playing with us just like in the old days, instead of being bullied by that scoundrel Sun. When he sends to fetch her back we won’t let her go, not even if he sends a hundred times! We’ll just tell him this is the old lady’s decision. Don’t you think that’s a good plan?”

Both amused and exasperated, his mother exclaimed, “There you go again talking nonsense! Sooner or later a girl has to leave home, and once she’s married off what can her mother’s family do for her? If she happens to get a good husband, fine; if not, there’s no help for it —that’s fate. Surely you know the saying, ‘Many a cock and follow the cock; many a dog and follow the dog’? How can every girl be like your eldest sister, chosen as an Imperial Consort? Besides, Yingchun’s newly married; her husband’s still young. People’s temperaments differ, and just at the start she’s bound to feel a bit awkward. A few years from now, when they know each other better and have a child or two, things should work out all right.

“Mind you don’t breathe a word about this to the old lady. If I find you have, you’ll catch it! Go and see to your own affairs now. Don’t stay here talking nonsense.”

Baoyu sat there a little longer in subdued silence, then listlessly took his leave. Thoroughly depressed and not knowing how to work off his feelings, he went back to the Garden, straight to Bamboo Lodge. Once inside, he burst out crying.

Daiyu, who had just finished dressing, was most alarmed to see the state he was in.

“What’s happened?” she asked. “Who’s been annoying you?”

Although she repeated her questions several times, Baoyu just went on sobbing, his head bent over the table, unable to speak. She sat on a chair in bewilderment to watch him.

“Has someone else provoked you? Or have I offended you?” she asked presently.

“No, neither! “he blurted out with a sweep of one hand.

“Well, what’s upset you then?”

“I can’t help thinking that the sooner we all die the better! Life is really so meaningless.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked, more puzzled than ever. “Have you taken leave of your senses?”

“No, I haven’t. If I tell you, it will upset you too. You saw how wretched Yingchun looked yesterday, and heard all that she said. Why must a girl get married when she grows up? That’s what I’d like to know. Why put up with such bad treatment from her husband? I still remember what fun we had when we started our Begonia Club, making up poems and acting as host in turn. Now Cousin Baochai has gone home, even Xiangling can’t come here any more; and on top of that, Yingchun has left us to get married. With these congenial spirits gone, what’s to become of us? I wanted to ask grandmother to have Yingchun fetched back, but mother won’t hear of it. She called me silly, said I was talking nonsense, and I dared not argue with her. Such a short time, and just see how the Garden has changed! If this goes on a few years more, goodness knows what it will be like. The more I think about it, the sadder I feel.”

Daiyu, while he was speaking, had gradually lowered her head and withdrawn to the kang. Now, without saying a word, she heaved a sigh and lay down with her face to the wall.

Zijuan, who had just brought in tea, was puzzled to find the two of them like this. And now Xiren arrived.

“So here you are, Second Master,” she said to Baoyu. “The old lady’s been asking for you, and I guessed you’d be here.”

Daiyu rose at this to offer Xiren a seat. Baoyu noticed that her eyes were red from weeping.

“Cousin, I was only talking nonsense just now. Don’t let it upset you,” he pleaded. “Take my advice and look after your health. Have a rest now. I’ll be back when I’ve seen what the old lady wants me for.”

After he had gone, Xiren asked what had happened.

“He was upset on account of Cousin Yingchun,” Daiyu answered. “I was rubbing my eyes because they itched — that’s all.”

Xiren made no comment but hurried out after Baoyu, then went on her own way while he proceeded to his grandmother’s quarters. As she was already having her siesta, he returned to Happy Red Court.

That afternoon when Baoyu got up from his nap, feeling thoroughly bored he picked up a book at random. Xiren seeing this went out to brew him some tea. The book he had happened to take was an anthology of ancient songs, and leafing through it he came upon Cao Cao’s verse:

Facing the wine let us sing,

For life is short.

In dismay, he put it down and picked up a collection of Jin Dynasty prose. After turning a few pages only, however, he closed the book abruptly and rested his chin on his hands, lost in thought. This was how Xiren discovered him when she brought in the tea.

“Why have you stopped reading?” she asked.

Instead of answering, he merely took the bowl from her, putting it down again after one sip. Xiren stood beside him watching in mystifica­tion till he suddenly stood up.

“‘Transported beyond the earthly form’ —fine!” he muttered.

Xiren was amused but afraid to ask what he meant.

“If you don’t enjoy reading these books, why not take a stroll in the Garden?” she suggested. “Don’t make yourself unwell by moping.”

Baoyu agreed to this and walked out, still deep in thought. Soon he reached Seeping Fragrance Pavilion, but found it looking desolate and deserted. Going on to Alpinia Court, he was even more dismayed to see its plants as luxuriant as before but the doors and windows closed. Turn­ing past Scented Lotus Pavilion, he saw a few girls in the distance who were leaning over the railings at Smartweed Bank. On the ground beside them several young maids were squatting down as if to search for some­thing. He tiptoed behind a rockery to hear what they were saying.

“Let’s see whether it rises to the bait,” said one girl — it sounded like Li Wen.

“Good, it’s gone!” laughed Tanchun. “I knew it wouldn’t rise.”

“That’s right, cousin. Don’t move, just wait, and it’s bound to sur­face.”

“Here it comes!”

The last two speakers were Li Qi and Xing Xiuyan.

Baoyu could not resist picking up a stone and tossing it into the pool. The splash it made startled the four girls.

“Who’s this practical joker?” they cried. “Giving us such a fright!”

He bounded out laughingly then from behind the rockery.

“You’re having such a good time — why didn’t you let me know?

“I knew it couldn’t be anyone else,” said Tanchun. “Only Second Brother would play such a trick. All right, to make up for that you must catch us some fish. One was rising to the bait just now, but before we could hook it you frightened it away.”

“You enjoy yourselves here, leaving me out,” he chuckled. “By rights I should penalize you!”

They all laughed at that.

“Let’s all fish to try our luck,” proposed Baoyu. “Whoever catches a fish will have good luck this year. Whoever doesn’t will have bad luck. Who’ll start?”

Tanchun urged Li Wen to take the lead, but she declined.

“In that case I’ll start off.” Tanchun turned to Baoyu. “If you drive away my fish again, Second Brother, I shan’t let you off!”

“I was trying to scare you for fun just then. But you can go ahead now,” he assured her.

Tanchun cast the line and, in less time than it takes to say ten sen­tences, a minnow swallowed the bait and the float bobbed down. With a swing of the rod she landed the little fish alive and thrashing. Shishu grabbed for it on the ground, then with both hands dropped it into a small porcelain jar filled with clear water.

Tanchun passed the rod to Li Wen, who cast in turn. When the line twitched she raised the rod, but there was nothing on the hook. She cast again, but when presently the line tautened again and she pulled it in she once more drew a blank. She examined the hook then, and found it was bent inwards.

“No wonder I caught nothing,” she said with a smile, then told Suyun to adjust the hook and bait it with another worm on which a reed had been fixed. Not long after she cast, the reed submerged, and she hastily landed a tiny carp two inches long.

“Now it’s your turn, Cousin Baoyu,” she said with a smile.

“Let the other two girls try first,” he urged.

Xiuyan said nothing, but Li Qi demurred. “No, Cousin Bao, you try first.”

“Stop deferring to each other!” cried Tanchun, who had just seen a bubble on the water. “Look, the fish have all gone over to your side. Go on!”

Li Qi took the rod then and very soon made a catch. When Xiuyan had followed suit and returned the rod to Tanchun, she handed it to Baoyu.

“I’m going to fish like hang Taigong,”1 he announced as he walked down the stone steps and sat down by the pool. But his reflection fright­ened the fish away. Though he waited there a long time holding the rod, the line still did not move. And when bubbles rose from one side of the pool, he swung his rod there so fast that the fish made off quickly.

“I’m impatient but they’re slow coaches! What shall I do? Good fish, come quick to my rescue!” he exclaimed so frantically that the four girls laughed.

While Baoyu was still talking, the line twitched. In delight, he yanked so hard that the rod knocked against a rock and broke into two. The line snapped as well, so that the hook was lost. A roar of laughter went up.

“I’ve never seen anyone so clumsy!” teased Tanchun.

Just then Sheyue hurried towards them, in a great fluster.

“The old lady’s woken, Master Bao,” she cried. “She wants you to go there at once.”

This startled all five of them.

“What does she want him for?” Tanchun inquired.

“I don’t know,” the maid answered. “I heard say some scandal’s come to light and she wants to ask Baoyu about it. She’s going to ques­tion Madam Lian as well.”

Baoyu was petrified.

“Which maid is going to catch it this time?” he wondered.

“We’ve no idea what it’s all about,” said Tanchun. “You’d better go immediately, Second Brother. If there’s any news, send Sheyue to let us know.”

Then the four girls went off.

When Baoyu entered the Lady Dowager’s room, he was relieved to find her playing cards there with his mother as if nothing were amiss.

At sight of him she said, “The year before last when you fell ill you were cured by a crazy monk and a lame Taoist. When you had that fit, how did you feel?”

Baoyu cast his mind back.

“I remember standing up feeling quite all right before the fit came on. Then it seemed as if someone had clubbed my head from behind, and it hurt so badly that everything went black. Still, I saw green-faced, long­-fanged devils all over the place, who were swinging swords and clubs. When I lay down on the kang, my head felt as if clamped in a vice. I passed out from the pain. When I came round, I remember seeing a shaft of golden light in the hall which shone on to my bed. All the devils ran away from it and vanished. My head stopped aching too and my mind cleared.”

“That sounds like it,” observed the old lady to Lady Wang.

At this point Xifeng came in and paid her respects to both her seniors in turn.

“What did you want to know, Old Ancestress?” she asked.

“Do you still remember what it was like when you were seized by that fit of madness that year?”

“I can’t remember too clearly,” was Xifeng’s answer, “But I felt I couldn’t control myself, as if someone was pushing and tugging me to kill people. I tried to seize every weapon I could lay hands on and kill every­one I saw. Even when I was exhausted, I couldn’t stop.”

“And when you got better?” prompted the old lady.

“I thought I heard a voice in the air — just what it said I can’t re­member.”

“Judging by this, it was her all right,” said the Lady Dowager. “The way they felt during their fits coincides with what we’ve just heard. How could that old witch be so vicious! And to think that we chose her to be Baoyu’s godmother! It was that monk and priest — Buddha be praised!

— who saved his life, yet we never thanked them for it.”

“Why are you interested in our illnesses, madam?” Xifeng wanted to know.

“Ask your aunt. I’m too tired to tell you.

Then Lady Wang explained. “Just now the master was here. He told us that Baoyu’s godmother was actually a witch who practised black magic. Now that her secret’s out, she’s been arrested by the police and taken to prison to be put to death.

“A few days ago some fellow — Pan Sanbao I think his name was — brought evidence against her. He sold a house to the pawnshop across the street for several times what it was worth, but still wanted more. The pawnbroker naturally refused this demand. Then Pan bribed that old witch, as she was for ever calling in at the pawnshop and knew everybody there to cast a spell so that all their women fell ill and their homes were topsy­-turvy. Thereupon she went there claiming that she could cure them, and burnt paper offerings which proved efficacious. She got several dozen taels from them as well.

“But all-seeing Buddha meted out retribution. She left in such a hurry that day that she let fall a silk bundle, which the shop assistants picked up. On opening it, they found inside a whole lot of paper figures as well as four pills with a pungent smell. They were wondering what these could be when the old witch went back for them, and they caught and searched her. They found on her a box with two carved ivory naked devils inside, one male and one female, besides seven red embroidery needles. At once she was haled to the police court, where she disclosed many secret affairs of ladies in big official families. This being reported to the garri­son, a search was made of her house and a whole lot of clay devils were brought to light together with some boxes of knockout scent. In addition, in an unoccupied room behind her kang hung a seven-star lamp, and under it were straw effigies — some with iron bands round their heads, some with nails stuck in their chests, some fastened with locks. In the cupboard was a great stack of paper figures. And below were account books listing the families which had employed her and the amounts of silver due to her. She had also collected a good deal of money as dona­tions for oil and incense.”

“Yes, she must have been our jinx!” Xifeng exclaimed. “After we got well, I remember, that old witch called several times to ask Concu­bine Zhao for money. When she saw me, she changed colour and her eyes blazed. I couldn’t guess the reason at the time. Now it’s clear what they were up to! In my case, of course, running the household I’m bound to get myself hated by certain people, and it’s not to be wondered at if they try to kill me. But what reason has anyone to hate Baoyu? How could they be so vicious?”

“I suppose it’s because I prefer Baoyu to Huan,” said the old lady. “That sowed the seeds of hatred.”

“The old creature’s already been sentenced,” observed Lady Wang, “so we can hardly bring her here as a witness. But without her evidence, how are we to get Concubine Zhao to confess? And if such a scandal got out, our reputation would suffer. We’d better give her rope to hang her­self — she’s bound to give herself away one of these days.”

“You’re right,” agreed the Lady Dowager. “A case of this kind can’t be proved without a witness. But Lord Buddha is all-seeing! Haven’t Xifeng and Baoyu recovered? Never mind, Xifeng, let’s forget about the past. You and your aunt must have dinner here before you go.” She told Yuanyang and Hupo to serve the meal.

“Why trouble to order the meal yourself, Old Ancestress?” asked Xifeng with a twinkle.

Lady Wang also smiled. And as some serving-women were waiting outside for instructions, Xifeng told a young maid to order dinner, inform­ing her that they would both be dining there.

At this moment, however, Yuchuan arrived with a message for Lady Wang:

“The master wants you to find something for him, madam, after the old lady’s meal.”

“You’d better go now,” urged the Lady Dowager. “It may be impor­tant.”

Lady Wang assented. Leaving Xifeng there, she went back to her room to chat with ha Zheng and find him the things he wanted.

“Has Yingchun gone back?” he asked. “How’s she making out with the Sun family?”

“The poor child kept shedding tears and saying her husband’s a ty­rant.” She repeated what Yingchun had told her.

Jia Zheng sighed.

“I knew it wasn’t a good match,” he recalled, “but what could I do once my brother had settled on it? The pity is, Yingchun’s the one to suffer.”

“She’s newly married. We can only hope that later they’ll get on better.” This said, his wife suddenly tittered.

“What’s there to laugh at?”

“It’s Baoyu — he came here specially first thing this morning and talked like a silly boy.”

“What did he say?”

When she repeated their son’s remarks Jia Zheng started laughing too.

“Speaking of Baoyu, this reminds me,” he said. “It’s no good leaving that boy all the time in the Garden. If a daughter turns out badly, she’ll go to another family anyway; but having a bad son is serious. The other day someone recommended a tutor to me. His scholarship and moral charac­ter are excellent, and he’s a southerner too. But I feel that teachers from the south are too lenient. Our young rascals here all have enough low cunning to get away with slacking. Besides, they’re so unruly that a teacher who isn’t strong on discipline and just humours them may let them waste their time. That’s why the last generations never engaged a teacher from outside but just picked some elderly, fairly scholarly kins­man to run the family school. Uncle Dairu now, though he’s no great shakes as a scholar, knows how to keep these boys under control and isn’t soft with them. I don’t think we should let Baoyu go on idling. We’d better send him back to the family school.”

“I quite agree,” approved his wife. “While you were away at your post he often fell ill, so he hasn’t studied properly these last few years. It will be good for him to go over his lessons again in the family school.”

Jia Zheng nodded. The rest of their talk can be passed over.

The next morning when Baoyu had finished his toilet, his pages an­nounced that the master wanted him. He hastily straightened his clothes and went over to Jia Zheng’s study. Having paid his respects he stood waiting for instructions.

“What have you been studying recently?” asked his father. “Though you’ve done some calligraphy, that doesn’t amount to much. In these last few years, I can see, you’ve grown wilder than ever; and I’ve often heard that you refused to study on the pretext of poor health. But aren’t you in good health now? I’ve also heard that you spend all your time in the Garden playing about with your girl cousins and even fooling about with the maids, forgetting your studies completely. You may write a few lines of poetry but it’s not up to much, nothing to boast about. After all, when you come to take the examinations, it’s essay-writing that counts; but you’ve neglected that. Here’s what you’re to do from now on. Stop versifying and writing couplets, and concentrate on studying eight-sec­tion essays. I give you one year. If you’ve made no progress by the end of that time you can stop studying, and I shall disown you!”

He called for Li Gui then and told him, “Tomorrow morning Beiming is to accompany Baoyu to the family school, after first getting ready the books he needs and bringing them to show me.

To Baoyu he said sternly, “You may go now. Come back here tomor­row morning.”

Baoyu had nothing to say to this and went back to Happy Red Court, where Xiren was anxiously waiting. She was pleased by the news that he was to go back to school. He, however, sent word at once to his grand­mother in the hope that she would put a stop to this scheme; and on receiving his message she sent for him.

“Don’t worry,” she told him. “Go to school, or your father will be angry. Anyone who makes it difficult for you will have me to reckon with.”

As there was no more Baoyu could do, he went back.

“Call me early tomorrow morning,” he ordered his maids. “The master’s taking me to the family school.”

Xiren and the others assented, and she and Sheyue took turns keeping watch that night.

Xiren woke Baoyu early the next day and, having helped him dress, sent a young maid to tell Beiming to be ready waiting by the inner gate with his books and other school things. But she had to urge Baoyu twice before he would leave. On reaching Jia Zheng’s study, he asked whether his father had arrived or not.

The page on duty told him, “Just now one of his secretaries came to see him, but they said the master was still getting dressed and asked him to wait outside.”

Feeling slightly relieved Baoyu hurried to Jia Zheng’s apartment, ar­riving just as his father was sending for him. Baoyu went in and listened to his instructions, after which they mounted the carriage and, with Beiming carrying the books, drove to the family school. A servant had gone on ahead to announce their arrival.

Dairu stood up as Jia Zheng entered the classroom and greeted him. Taking him by the hand, the teacher asked after his health and that of the old lady. Then Baoyu went over to pay his respects, while his father waited for Dairu to take a seat before sitting down himself.

“I have brought my son here myself today because I have a request to make,” said Jia Zheng. “He’s no longer a child and it’s time for him to study for his career, so as to establish himself and win a name in future. At home nowadays he just fools around with the children. He may have a smattering of poetry, but the verses he writes are nonsensical; and even if they were good, those effusions about the wind and rain, moonlight and dew have no bearing on his life-work.”

“He looks a handsome, intelligent lad,” Dairu answered. “Why should he just play about instead of studying? Poetry is all very well, but he’ll have plenty of time to take that up after passing the official examina­tions.”

“Quite so,” agreed Jia Zheng. “All we want him to study now is the classics. He must learn how to expound them and how to write essays. If he is disobedient, I hope you will discipline him thoroughly, so that his life won’t be wasted for lack of solid learning.”

He stood up then, made a bow, and after a few more civilities took his leave. Dairu saw him to the gate and asked him to convey his respects to the Lady Dowager. Then Jia Zheng, assenting, mounted his carriage and left.

Re-entering the classroom, Dairu saw that Baoyu had a small hard­wood desk in a corner by the southwest window. On the right side of the desk he had piled two sets of old books and one slim volume of essays. Beiming, on his instructions, was arranging his writing materials in the drawers.

The teacher said, “Baoyu, I heard you were unwell some time ago. Have you recovered completely?”

Baoyu stood up to answer, “Yes, sir.”

“Well, the time has come now for you to study hard. Your father is very anxious that you should turn out well. First revise, right from the beginning, all those books you studied before. Spend every morning on that. After lunch you can practise calligraphy. In the afternoon, you’ll expound texts and read essays.”

Baoyu assented respectfully, then sat down and looked around, per­ceiving that several old classmates such as Jin Rong were missing, while the few younger boys who had joined since he left appeared a coarse, common lot. Recalling Qin Zhong, it struck him with dismay that he had no friend now with whom to exchange confidences. But not venturing to speak, he moodily started reading.

The teacher told him, “As this is your first day, I’ll let you go home early. Tomorrow I want to hear you expound a text. You’re by no means stupid. When you’ve analyzed a few passages for me tomorrow, I shall be able to see how much you’ve read recently and what standard you’ve reached.”

This set Baoyu’s heart thumping To know how he made out, read the following chapter.

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