A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 84

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Chapter 84

Baoyu’s Writing Is Tested and

His Marriage Considered

Jia Huan Visits an Invalid and

Arouses Fresh Resentment

Aunt Xue’s anger over the scene with Jingui upset her liver, bringing on a pain in her left side. Baochai, knowing the cause, did not wait for the doctor to come but first sent out to buy a little Ourouparia rbyncbopbylla and brewed a strong bowlful of this for her to drink. Then she and Xiangling massaged the patient’s legs and rubbed her chest until presently she felt better.

Aunt Xue was both angry and sad: angry with Jingui who had proved such a shrew, and sorry for Baochai who was so forbearing. Baochai soothed her till she drifted off to sleep, and her liver gradually ceased to trouble her.

“You mustn’t take these quarrels to heart, mother,” Baochai urged her. “In a few days, when you feel up to it, why not go and enjoy a chat with the old lady and Aunt Wang. After all, Xiangling and I are here to see to things at home, and I don’t suppose she’ll dare try anything.”

Aunt Xue nodded. “I’ll wait a couple of days and see.”

The Imperial Consort’s recovery restored the whole household’s good humour. Especially when, a few days later, some old eunuchs came with gifts and silver from her, announcing that Her Highness wished to ex­press her gratitude for the family’s concern, and apportioning each one’s share. Jia She and ha Zheng sent word of this to the Lady Dowager, and together they returned thanks to Her Highness. After some tea the eu­nuchs left, and Their Lordships went to the old lady’s room to chat until one of the serving-women outside reported:

“The pages say someone has come to see the Elder Master on impor­tant business.”

The old lady urged him to go, and Jia She withdrew.

Struck by a sudden thought then, she remarked cheerfully to Jia Zheng, “Her Imperial Highness is really very concerned about Baoyu. The other day she asked after him specially.”

“But the scamp has fallen short of her kind expectations,” he an­swered. “He won’t study properly.”

“Well, I put in a good word for him. I told her that recently he’d learned to write essays.

“No, he still isn’t up to that, madam.”

“You’re always sending him to write poems and essays outside, and doesn’t he do all right? He’s only a child; you have to teach him slowly. As the saying goes, ‘No one grows fat on just one mouthful.

“Quite right, madam,” he agreed at once with a smile.

“Talking of Baoyu,” she went on, “I want to consult you on some­thing. Now that he’s growing up, you should look out for some nice girl for him. After all, marriage is for life it’s very important. Whether she’s a distant relative or a close one, wealthy or poor, is immaterial. Provided we know for sure that she has a good temper and is nice-looking, that will do well enough.”

“That’s very true, madam, but I’d just like to add this: Before we find a good girl for him he must learn better ways himself. Otherwise, if he turned out a ne’er-do-well and spoilt some girl’s life, that would be de­plorable.”

This answer vexed the old lady.

“Of course,” she said, “with his father and mother at hand, why should I worry my head over this? I suppose, as Baoyu’s been with me since he was small, I may have spoilt him a bit and held up his progress. Still, he seems to me quite handsome and, what’s more, he has a good heart. How can you be so sure he’s a good-for-nothing, bound to spoil some girl’s life? Or am I prejudiced? I think he’s better anyway than Huan. What’s your opinion?”

Disconcerted by this, Jia Zheng answered with a smile, “You have so much experience of people, madam, if you approve of him and think him promising, you can’t be wrong. I was just a little too anxious for him to grow up quickly. This may be the reverse of that old saying, ‘No man recognizes his son’s good qualities.’”1

The old lady laughed at this and the others joined in.

“Now that you’re getting on in years and have an official post you’re naturally growing more diplomatic,” she chuckled. She turned to tell Lady Xing and Lady Wang, “When I think of him as a boy, with his cranky ways, he was twice as bad as Baoyu! It was only after his marriage that he began to learn a little sense. Now he’s for ever complaining about his son, but to my mind Baoyu shows a bit more understanding than he does!”

Both her daughters-in-law laughed, “You will have your little joke, madam!”

Some young maids came in then to ask Yuanyang to announce that dinner was ready.

“What are you whispering about over there?” the old lady asked. When told by Yuanyang she said, “In that case the rest of you had better all go and have dinner, leaving just Xifeng and Zhen’s wife to eat with me.

Jia Zheng and Their Ladyships agreed to this but waited none the less till the meal was served and she dismissed them again before withdraw­ing, Lady Xing returning to the other mansion.

Jia Zheng and Lady Wang went back to their own quarters, where he reverted to his mother’s proposal.

“The old lady dotes on Baoyu,” he said. “But he must have some solid learning if he’s to get an official rank in future. Then all her affec­tion for him won’t have been wasted, and he won’t ruin some girl’s life.”

“Of course you are right, sir,” agreed Lady Wang.

He sent one of the maids to Li Gui with the message: “When Baoyu gets back from school and has had his dinner, I want him to come here at once. I have something to ask him.”

“Very good,” was Li Gui’s answer.

So when Baoyu, back from school, was about to pay his duty calls, Li Gui told him, “There’s no need for that, Second Master. You’re to go to see your father after dinner. I hear he has some questions to ask you.”

Baoyu was thunder-struck. Having called on his grandmother he went back to the Garden for a hasty meal, then rinsed his mouth and hurried over to see his father, whom he found sitting in his inner study. Baoyu paid his respects, then stood there at attention.

“These days I have had other things on my mind, so there’s some­thing I forgot to ask you,” said Jia Zheng. “Earlier on, you said your teacher had told you to expound the classics for a month, after which he would start you off on essay-writing. Nearly two months have passed since then. Have you started writing essays?”

“I’ve only written three, sir. The teacher said, there was no need to tell you until I can write better. That’s why I didn’t venture to report.

“What were the subjects?”

“One was ‘At fifteen I set my mind on study, one was ‘When people do not know him he bears no resentment,’ one was ‘Then they followed the Mohists.’”2

“Do you have the drafts?”

“I copied them all out and the teacher corrected them.”

“Did you bring them home or leave them at school?”

“They are at school.”

“Have them fetched for me to see.”

Baoyu promptly sent word to Beiming that he was to fetch him quickly from the school a thin bamboo-paper copybook labelled Class Work, which was in the drawer of his desk.

Soon Beiming brought in the exercise book and gave it to Baoyu, who handed it to his father. Opening it he read the first essay entitled “At fifteen I set my mind on study.” Baoyu had started off, “Even as a child the sage had already set his mind on study.” Dairu had crossed out “child” and substituted “at fifteen.”

Jia Zheng commented, “Your use of ‘child’ doesn’t make the meaning clear, because childhood lasts until the age of sixteen. In this passage the sage explained how his learning and understanding improved with the years; that is why he specified clearly his attainments at fifteen, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty and seventy, to show different stages of development. By changing your ‘child’ to ‘at fifteen’ your teacher made it much clearer.”

Going on to read the exegesis he saw that the original, which had been crossed out, started, “Now it is common for people not to be bent on study.” He shook his head.

“Not only is this childish, it shows you have no desire to become a scholar.”

He read on, “For the sage to set his mind on it at fifteen was surely very rare.

“This is even greater nonsense!” he exclaimed.

Then he read Dairu’s correction, “Who is there who does not study? But few set their minds on it. This was why the sage had faith in himself when he was fifteen.”

“Do you understand his corrections?” he asked. “Yes, sir.”

His father then turned to the second essay on “When people do not know him he bears no resentment.” First he read the teacher’s correc­tion: “One who does not grieve because other people do not recognize his merits will remain well content.” Then strained his eyes to read what had been crossed out.

“What is this? ‘When one is not annoyed with people, he is truly a scholar. ‘ First you tackle only the idea of ‘no resentment’. Then you confuse the definition of a gentleman. Of course that had to be changed to fit the subject. Besides, to be logical, the second part should refer to what precedes it. You need to think things over more carefully.” “Yes, sir.”

Jia Zheng read on, “‘Now all men grieve if their talents go unrecog­nized, yet he was an exception. How could he have achieved this unless he was well content?”’ And Baoyu’s conclusion read, “Wasn’t he a true scholar?”

Jia Zheng commented, “This has the same fault as the opening. The correction, though a little flat, will pass muster.”

The third essay was on “Then they followed the Mohists.”

After reading the title he looked up thoughtfully to ask Baoyu, “Have you studied Mencius already?”

“The teacher said Mencius was easier to understand, so he taught me that first, sir. We finished three days ago and are on the first half of The Analects now.”

Jia Zheng saw that the opening was virtually unaltered. “It seems there was no other course to follow apart from that of Yang Zhu.”

“That’s not too bad for you,” he commented, then read on, “It is not that men wanted to follow the Mohists, but as Mozi’s teachings swayed half the world, apart from Yang Zhu who else was there to follow?”

“Did you write this?” he asked his son. “Yes, sir.”

Jia Zheng nodded. “It’s nothing very brilliant; still it’s not bad for a beginner. The other year at my post I set the subject ‘Only a knight is capable of this.’3 Those candidates had all read essays on this theme, and instead of writing something original they could only plagiarize. Have you studied that passage?” “Yes, sir.”

“I want you to introduce some ideas of your own. Don’t imitate ear­lier writers. Just broach the theme and that will be enough.”

Baoyu, forced to accept this assignment, lowered his head and cud­gelled his brains while his father, his hands clasped behind his back, also stood by the door thinking. Just then a young page came dashing towards the gate. At sight of the master he pulled up and stood respectfully with his arms at his sides.

“What are you doing?” Jia Zheng asked.

“Madam Xue has called on the old lady, and Madam Lian has told us to order dinner.”

As Jia Zheng made no comment, the page withdrew.

Now ever since Baochai had left the Garden, Baoyu had missed her acutely. On hearing that Aunt Xue had called, he assumed that Baochai must be with her. He braced himself to say:

“I’ve broached the subject, sir, but don’t know whether it will do or not.”

“Read it out.”

“Not all men in the world are knights. If one without property can remain steadfast, that is quite exemplary.”

Jia Zheng nodded. “That will do. In future when you write essays, you must first make clear the definitions and grasp the meaning and logic. Does the old lady know that you’re here?”

“Yes, sir.”

“In that case, you had better go now to her place.”

Baoyu assented. Controlling his impatience he slowly withdrew. How­ever, once past the screen by the moon-gate at the end of the corridor, he ran like the wind to the Lady Dowager’s compound, paying no attention to Beiming who called frantically after him:

“Mind you don’t fall! The master’s coming!”

As soon as he entered the gate, Baoyu heard his mother and Xifeng laughing and chatting with Tanchun and some others. At sight of him the maid who lifted the portière whispered:

“Your aunt is here.”

Baoyu hurried in to greet Aunt Xue, then paid his evening respects to the old lady.

“How is it you’re so late back from school?” she asked.

He explained that his father had been reading his essays and had made him broach a new theme. His grandmother beamed.

Then he asked the others, “Where is Cousin Baochai?”

“She didn’t come,” answered Aunt Xue with a smile. “She’s doing needlework at home with Xiangling.”

Baoyu, disappointed as he was, could hardly leave at once. As they were chatting dinner was served, and naturally the Lady Dowager and Aunt Xue took the seats of honour, with Tanchun and the others in lower seats.

“How about Baoyu?” asked Aunt Xue.

“Baoyu, come and sit with me,” said the old lady.

“When I came back from school,” he countered quickly, “Li Gui said my father wanted to see me after my meal; so I asked at once for one dish and one bowl of rice with some tea, then went over there. Please go on with your meal, ladies.”

“In that case, Xifeng can sit with me. Your mother just told me that this is one of her fast days, so she’ll be eating separately.”

Lady Wang also told Xifeng, “Go ahead and eat with the old lady and Aunt Xue. You needn’t wait for me, I’m fasting today.”

Xifeng acquiescing, a maid set a cup and chopsticks before her. She rose to take the wine-pot and fill the others’ cups before resuming her seat.

As they drank the Lady Dowager remarked, “Just now, aunt, you mentioned Xiangling. The other day I heard the maids speak of Qiuling, and had no idea whom they meant. When I asked, I discovered it was Xiangling! Why should the child change a perfectly good name?”

Aunt Xue flushed crimson and sighed.

“Don’t mention that, madam!” she said. “Since Pan married that senseless wife of his they bicker all day long, not like a proper family at all. I’ve spoken to her several times, but she’s too stubborn to listen and I haven’t the energy to wrangle with them; so I just let them do as they please. It was she who disliked the maid’s name and must needs change it.”

“Why, what was wrong with it?”

“I’m ashamed to speak of it, madam. But you over here know all that goes on in our household. Of course it wasn’t because the name was no good but because it was chosen by Baochai or so I’ve heard. That’s why she wanted to change it.”

“But why should that be?”

Aunt Xue wiped her tears with her handkerchief. Before going on she sighed.

“You’ve no idea, madam! Nowadays my daughter-in-law keeps pick­ing on Baochai. The other day when you sent someone to see me, we were in the middle of a family row.”

“Yes, the other day I heard you had liver trouble and meant to send someone to ask after you; but then I didn’t, because they said you were better. My advice to you is: Don’t take such things to heart. The young couple are newly married; they’ll get straightened out in time. Not ev­eryone can have Baochai’s sweet disposition — young as she is, she’s much better than most older folk. The other day when the maid came back to report, we all lauded her to the skies as one in a hundred, so broad-minded and sweet-tempered! I’m willing to guarantee that, once she marries, her in-laws are bound to love her and high and low in their house will look up to her.”

Baoyu, who had been listlessly waiting for an excuse to leave, sat down again now to listen carefully.

“It’s no use,” said Aunt Xue. “However good she is, she’s only a girl. And Pan’s grown up such a fool, he really causes me endless anxi­ety. I’m always afraid he’ll drink too much outside and land himself in trouble. Luckily he’s often with the gentlemen here: That makes me feel easier in my mind.”

Baoyu put in, “Don’t worry, aunty. All his friends are big merchants and respectable people. How could he get into trouble?”

Aunt Xue smiled at him. “If you’re right, then I needn’t worry.”

The meal at an end, Baoyu excused himself on the pretext that he had to study that evening. And while some maids were serving tea, Hupo came in with a whispered message for the old lady, who turned to tell Xifeng:

“You must go home at once to see to Qiaojie.”

Xifeng did not know what had happened, and the others were mysti­fied too until Hupo explained:

“Just now Pinger sent a girl to report that Qiaojie is poorly. She hopes you’ll go back at once, madam.”

“Go on,” urged the Lady Dowager. “You don’t have to stand on ceremony with your aunty.”

Xifeng promptly assented and took her leave of Aunt Xue.

“You go first,” put in Lady Wang. “I’ll be coming presently. Poor little soul! Don’t let the maids make a commotion, and tell them to keep your pet dogs and cats quiet too. A delicately nurtured child like her is bound to have these little upsets.”

Murmuring assent, Xifeng went off with her maid.

Aunt Xue asked now about Daiyu’s illness.

“She’s a good child, only too sensitive,” said the old lady. “That’s undermined her health. As far as intelligence goes, she’s a match for Baochai; but regarding consideration for other people, she hasn’t her thoughtfulness and unselfishness.”

After a little more idle talk Aunt Xue said, “You should rest now, madam, and I must get back to see how things are doing, as there are only Baochai and Xiangling at home. And from there I must go with my sister to see Qiaojie.”

“That’s right. You’ve had a great deal of experience. Tell them if you notice anything amiss, so that they’ll know what to do.”

Thereupon Aunt Xue took her leave, accompanying Lady Wang to Xifeng’s quarters.

Jia Zheng, pleased by the results of Baoyu’s test, brought the subject up when he went out to chat with his secretaries. One of them was the relative newcomer Wang Ertiao, a good chess-player whose courtesy name was Zuomei.

“We can see that Master Bao has made great progress in learning.” he observed.

“Progress? No,” said Jia Zheng. “He’s only just making a start. And it’s too early by far to talk of ‘learning.

Zhan Guang demurred, “You are too modest, sir. This is the opinion of us all, not only Mr. Wang. Master Bao is sure to distinguish himself in the examinations.”

“You are too partial to him, gentlemen.”

“I have a proposal to make, sir,” added Wang Ertiao, “If you don’t think it presumptuous.” “What is it?”

With a deferential smile Wang answered, “Some acquaintances of mine, the family of Old Mr. Zhang the former Governor of Nanshao, have a daughter who is said to be a paragon of virtue and a beauty, and she is not yet bespoken. The Zhangs have no son, and a property worth millions; but they won’t agree to a match until they can find a young man from a rich and noble house who is himself outstanding. After two months here I can see that Master Bao, with his disposition and scholarship, will go far. And your family, sir, is of course unexceptionable! If I propose the match, I can vouch for it that they will agree at once.

“Yes, Baoyu has reached the right age, and the old lady often speaks of this,” Jia Zheng answered. “But I know very little about this Old Mr. Zhang.”

“I know this family Brother Wang means,” said Zhan Guang. “The Zhangs are related to the Elder Master. You can ask him about them, sir.”

After a moment’s reflection Jia Zheng remarked, “I have never heard him speak of this connection.”

“You wouldn’t know of them, sir, because they are related to his brother-in-law Mr. Xing,” Zhan Guang explained, whereupon Jia Zheng realized that they were relatives of Lady Xing.

After sitting there for a while he went in to pass on this proposal to his wife and get her to make inquiries of Lady Xing. But his wife had gone with Aunt Xue to see Qiaojie, and she did not come back till the evening when Aunt Xue had left. Only after telling her what his secretaries had said did Jia Zheng ask:

“How is Qiaojie?”

“She seems to have had some kind of fit.”

“Is it serious?”

“It looks like epilepsy, but she hasn’t had convulsions.”

He simply coughed by way of comment, after which both of them retired for the night.

The next day, when Lady Xing came over to pay her respects, Lady Wang told her mother-in-law of this proposal and asked her sister-in-law about the Zhang family.

“Though we are relatives from way back, these last few years we’ve been out of touch,” was the answer. “I don’t know what that girl is like. But the other day Yingchun’s mother-in-law Mrs. Sun sent an old woman to ask after us and she mentioned this Zhang family, saying they wanted Mrs. Sun to find a suitable husband for their daughter. I hear she’s an only child and very pampered. She has studied a little, but being shy of company she always stays at home. Because she’s the only daughter, Old Mr. Zhang won’t hear of her leaving home to be married, for fear her in-laws are too strict with her. They want a son-in-law who will live with them and help to manage the household.”

“That would never do!” cried the old lady, not waiting for her to fin­ish. “Our Baoyu needs people to look after him: how can he manage someone else’s household?”

“Quite so, madam,” agreed Lady Xing.

The old lady turned to Lady Wang. “When you go back, tell your husband from me: This match with the Zhang family is out of the ques­tion.”

Lady Wang promised to do so.

“And how did you find Qiaojie yesterday?” the old lady asked them next. “Just now Pinger came over and said she’s in a bad way. I intend to go and see her too.”

“We know how fond you are of her, but you shouldn’t trouble, madam,” they demurred.

“No, it’s not just to see her. I need a bit of exercise to loosen my joints.”

They went off then, on her instructions, to have their meal, after which they escorted her to Xifeng’s compound. Xifeng, hurrying out to meet them, invited them in.

“How is Qiaojie?” asked the old lady.

“We’re afraid it’s epilepsy,” was the reply.

“In that case why don’t you send for a doctor at once?”

“We already have, madam.”

Their Ladyships went into the inner room where the nurse was hold­ing the child wrapped up in a peach-red silk-padded quilt. Her face was deathly pale, her forehead contorted and her nose feebly twitching. After looking at her they went back to the other room and had just sat down to have a consultation when a young maid came in.

“His Lordship has sent to ask after Qiaojie,” she announced.

“Tell him from me that we’ve sent for the doctor,” answered Xifeng. “We’ll let the master know what prescription he makes out.”

The old lady, recollecting the Zhangs’ proposal, reminded Lady Wang, “You should go and let your husband know what we decided. Otherwise the Zhangs may send a matchmaker and their request.” She asked Lady Xing, “How is it you have nothing to do with the Zhang family these days?”

“Because their stingy ways don’t suit us, madam. They’re not good enough for Baoyu!”

From this Xifeng inferred what was afoot.

“Are you talking about Brother Bao’s marriage, madam?” she asked. Lady Xing having confirmed this, the old lady explained the conclu­sion they had reached.

“Excuse my presumption, Old Ancestress,” said Xifeng with a twinkle. “But there’s an ideal match here. Why look elsewhere?” The old lady, chuckling, asked what she meant.

“One ‘precious jade’ and one ‘gold locker’ — how could you for­get that, madam?”

“Why didn’t you propose it yesterday when your aunt was here?” countered the old lady, laughing.

“In the presence of our Old Ancestress and Their Ladyships, how could we young people presume? Besides, how could I bring that up when it was our Old Ancestress aunty came to see? The way to do it is for Their Ladyships to call on her and make a formal proposal.”

The Lady Dowager smiled, as did both her daughters-in-law.

“Yes, that was stupid of me,” she conceded.

Just then the doctor was announced. The old lady remained in the outer room while Lady Xing and Lady Wang went inside. The doctor, led in by Jia Lian, paid his respects to the Lady Dowager before going into the sickroom. Returning after examining the patient, he bowed to the old lady and standing before her reported:

“The child’s trouble is half owing to hot humours, half to some exter­nal shock. First we should dose her to clear up the cold and phlegm, then give her Four-Spirit Powder, because this illness is quite serious. Nowa­days the cow bezoar sold in the market is usually counterfeit. We’ll have to find the genuine article.”

When the old lady had thanked him the doctor went out with Jia Lian to write his prescription, then left.

“We usually keep a stock of ginseng,” said Xifeng. “But I doubt if we have any cow bezoar. If we buy some outside we must make sure it’s genuine.”

“Let me send to Aunt Xue for some,” proposed Lady Wang. “Xue Pan does so much business with overseas merchants, he may have some genuine bezoar. I’ll send to ask them.”

At this point the girls of the family came to ask after Qiaojie, and after a short visit left with the old lady.

When the medicine was ready they forced it down Qiaojie’s throat and, gagging, she brought it up with some phlegm, much to her mother’s relief. And now one of Lady Wang’s young maids came in with a small red package.

“Here’s the bezoar, madam,” she said. “Her Ladyship wants you to weigh it yourself to make sure the amount is correct.”

Xifeng took it, assenting, and told Pinger to make haste and brew the pearl powder, baroos camphor and cinnabar while she herself used a small steelyard to weigh out the required amount of cow bezoar. This had just been mixed with the other ingredients, ready to dose Qiaojie when she woke up, when Jia Huan raised the portiere and came in.

“What’s the matter with Qiaojie, Second Cousin?” he asked. “My mother sent me to see her.”

“She’s better,” answered Xifeng, who had an aversion to both him and Concubine Zhao. “Go back and thank your mother for her concern.”

Jia Huan, while agreeing to this, kept staring around.

“I hear you’ve got cow bezoar here. What’s it like?” he asked. “Can I have a look?”

“Don’t be such a nuisance!” she scolded. “Qiaojie’s only just on the mend. The bezoar is being brewed.”

Jia Huan reaching out for the skillet bumped against it. It overturned with a splash, dousing the fire, and ashamed of his bungling he took to his heels.

Beside herself with fury Xifeng cursed, “Our true sworn enemy, aren’t you! Why play such dirty tricks here? Your mother tried to do me in before; now you come to do for Qiaojie! What cause have I given you to make you hate us so?”

She swore at Pinger too for not stopping him.

As she was raging a maid came in looking for Huan.

“Go and tell Concubine Zhao to stop trying so hard!” snapped Xifeng. “Qiaojie’s done for: she needn’t worry!”

Pinger was hastily brewing a fresh lot of medicine, and the maid not knowing what was amiss asked in a whisper why Madam Lian was so angry. Pinger told her how Huan had upset the skillet.

“No wonder he dared not go home!” exclaimed the maid. “He must be hiding somewhere. Goodness knows what he’ll be up to next! Let me clear up for you, sister.”

“There’s no need. Luckily there was still a bit of cow bezoar left, and it’s ready now. You’d better go.”

“I’m going back to tell Concubine Zhao,” said the maid. “This should stop her singing his praises every day.”

On her return she was as good as her word. Concubine Zhao sent angrily for her son, and the maid found him skulking in an outer room.

“You good-for-nothing!” scolded his mother. “Why spill their medi­cine, giving them a chance to curse us? I told you to call to ask after her, not to go in. But in you went, and instead of leaving at once you had to ‘catch lice on the tiger’s head. ‘ Just wait till I tell your father, and see what a thrashing he’ll give you!”

As Concubine Zhao was storming, Jia Huan in the outer room made an even more startling statement. To know what it was, read on.

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