A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 88


Chapter 88

Baoyu, to Please His Grandmother,

Praises a Fatherless Boy

Jia Zhen, to Uphold Household Discipline,

Has Unruly Servants Whipped

As Xichun was studying the treatise on draughts, she heard Caiping’s name called in the courtyard and recognized Yuanyang’s voice. Caiping went out to usher in Yuanyang, who had brought a young maid carrying a small yellow silk bundle.

“What brings you here?” asked Xichun with a smile.

“The old lady will be eighty-one next year, miss. As that’s nine times nine, she’s going to offer sacrifices for nine days and nine nights, and she’s vowed to have three thousand six hundred and fifty-one copies of the Diamond Sutra made. This work has been given to copyists outside. But as people say this sutra, like Taoist canons, is only the shell of truth whereas the Prajnaparamitra Sutra is the kernel, this second sutra must be included as well to make the offering more meritorious. Since the Prajnaparamitra Sutra is the more important, and Guanyin is a female bodhisattva, the old lady wants some mistresses and young ladies of the family to make three hundred and sixty-five copies of it, as an act of reverence. In our family except for Madam Lian who’s too busy with household affairs and, besides, can’t write all the ladies are go­ing to write copies, some more, some less. Even Madam Zhen and the concubines of the East Mansion will be doing their share. So of course all the ladies over here must join in.”

Xichun nodded. “Other tasks may be beyond me, but I’ve every con­fidence when it comes to copying sutras. Just put your things down, and now have some tea.”

Yuanyang placed the little bundle on the table and sat down with her. Caiping brought them tea.

“Will you do some copying too?” Xichun asked Yuanyang.

“You must be joking, miss! In the past I might have managed, but these last three or four years have you ever seen me with a brush in my hand?”

“Still, it would be a meritorious deed.”

“Well, I’m doing something else. Every night after helping the old lady to bed, I pray to Buddha and set aside a grain of rice for each time I invoke his name. I’ve been doing that for more than three years, and saved the rice. When the old lady makes her sacrifice, I shall add my rice to it for alms as an offering to Buddha, to show my devotion.”

“In that case,” joked Xichun, “when the old lady becomes Guanyin you’ll be her Dragon Maid.”1

“How could I aspire to that? It’s true, though, that it’s the old lady and nobody else that I want to serve. I don’t know if this was predes­tined!”

Making ready to go, she told the little maid to unwrap the bundle and take out its contents.

“This stack of paper is for copying the sutra. And this” she held up a bundle of Tibetan incense “is for you to light while copying.”

Xichun agreed to this.

Yuanyang, leaving her, went back with the little maid to make her report to the Lady Dowager. Finding her playing shuanglu2 with Li Wan, she stood and watched. Li Wan made some lucky throws and captured several of the old lady’s pieces, at which Yuanyang inwardly chuckled.

Then in came Baoyu with two miniature cages made of thin bamboo splints, containing green crickets.

“I heard you’re not sleeping well at night, madam,” he said. “So I’ll leave you these to amuse you.

“Don’t go fooling around now your father’s away!” she warned him with a smile.

“I haven’t been fooling around.”

“If you haven’t been playing truant from school, how did you get hold of these?”

“I didn’t get them myself. This morning, our teacher set Huan and Lan some couplets to write. Huan couldn’t do them, so I secretly helped him. When he recited them the teacher was pleased and commended him. He bought these for me to show his gratitude. That’s why I’m making you a present of them.”

“Doesn’t he study every day? Why can’t he write a couplet? If he can’t, your Grandad Ru should slap his face to shame him! You’re bad enough yourself. Remember , when your father was at home, how dev­ilish scared you were every time he made you write poems. But now you’re bragging again. Of course, Huan is even worse, getting other people to do his work for him, then thinking up ways to bribe them. A child of his age up to such dirty tricks, and with no sense of shame either! What sort of creature will he grow up to be?”

Everyone in the room burst out laughing.

“What about young Lan?” the old lady asked. “Did he manage to write the couplets? Or did Huan do them for hi1n, as Lan’s smaller?”

“No,” said Baoyu with a smile. “Lan did them himself.”

“I don’t believe you. You must have been up to more monkey busi­ness. You’re getting above yourself nowadays — a camel in a flock of sheep — being the eldest and the one who can write!”

“He really wrote them himself,” insisted Baoyu, smiling. “And our teacher praised him, saying he’ll go far in future. If you don’t believe me, madam, you can send for him and test him yourself; then you’ll know.”

“Well, if that’s truly the case I’m very glad. I was just afraid you were fibbing. If he’s up to writing couplets, the boy should get some­where in future.” Her eye fell on Li Wan, reminding her of Jia Zhu. “That means your sister-in-law hasn’t brought him up in vain since your brother Zhu died. He’ll become the mainstay of the house some day in place of his father.”

She could not refrain from tears.

Li Wan was very moved too, but held back her own tears to comfort the old lady.

“This is all owing to the virtue of our Old Ancestress,” she said with a smile. “We all benefit from your good fortune. If he lives up to your expectations, madam, how lucky we shall be! You should be pleased, Old Ancestress, not sad.” She turned to tell Baoyu, “You mustn’t praise your nephew like that in future. What does a child of his age understand? I know you just meant to be kind, but he has no sense. If he gets conceited and cocky, he won’t make any progress.”

“Quite right,” the old lady agreed. “Still, he’s too small to be driven too hard. A little boy is timid. If you force him too hard his health may suffer and he won’t be able to study. Then all your efforts would be wasted.”

At this, Li Wan could no longer restrain herself. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she hastily wiped her eyes.

Jia Huan and Jia Lan now came in to pay their respects to the old lady. Lan greeted his mother too, after which he came over and stood at attention beside his great-grandmother.

“Just now,” she said, “I heard from your uncle that your teacher commended you for writing a good couplet.”

Lan said nothing, only smiled. Then Yuanyang came to announce that dinner was ready.

“Ask Aunt Xue to come over,” ordered the old lady.

Hupo sent to Lady Wang’s place to deliver this message. Baoyu and Huan withdrew then while Suyun and some young maids cleared away the dice game. Li Wan stayed to wait on the old lady, and Lan remained by his mother.

“You two had better eat with me,” said the old lady.

Li Wan assented, and the table was laid.

Then a maid came in to announce, “Her Ladyship told me to report that Madam Xue has been shuttling back and forth these days and can’t come to see you today, madam, because after lunch she went home.”

Thereupon the old lady made Lan sit beside her.

Dinner at an end, the old lady washed and rinsed her mouth, then lay down on the couch. They were chatting together when a young maid came in and whispered to Hupo. The latter reported to the Lady Dowa­ger:

“Master Zhen of the East Mansion has come to pay his respects.”

“Tell him not to trouble, and thank him. As he must be tired out with family business, he should go and rest.”

This message passed on by a maid to the serving-woman outside was relayed to Jia Zhen, who withdrew.

The next day, Jia Zhen came over to attend to certain business. Ser­vants at the gate reported on several matters, one of them announcing, “The bailiff of our farm has brought some produce.”

“Where’s the list?” demanded Jia Zhen.

The man presented it, and he saw that it comprised simply fresh fruits, vegetables, game and the like.

“Which is the steward in charge of these things?” he asked.

One of the gate-keepers replied, “Zhou Rui.”

Then Jia Zhen ordered Zhou Rui, “Check the list and take the pro­duce inside. I’ll have a copy of the list made later, to see that the ac­counts tally. Tell the kitchen to add a few dishes to the lowest-grade meal of the fellow who brought these things, and tip him according to the usual practice.

Zhou Rui assented and had the things delivered to Xifeng’s com­pound. After handing over the list and the produce he left. Before long he returned to ask Jia Zhen, “Have you checked the amounts of the things that just arrived, sir?”

“What time do I have? I gave you the list to check.”

“I have, sir. There’s nothing short, and of course nothing extra. As you’ve kept a copy, sir, please call the messenger in to ask whether this is the genuine list or faked.”

“What are you driving at? Only a little fruit, what does it matter? And I’m not doubting your word.”

Just at this point, Bao Er came in and kowtowed.

“Please, sir, let me go back to working outside,” he requested.

“What have the two of you been up to now?” demanded Jia Zhen.

“I can’t speak out here,” said Bao Er.

“Who’s asking you to speak?”

“Why should I stay here — getting in people’s way?”

Zhou Rui cut in, “I handle the rents and the income and expenditure of the farm — a matter of three to five hundred thousand a year — and the master and mistresses have never found fault, not to say over a few trifles like these. Yet, judging by Bao Er, we’ve eaten up all our masters’ farms and properties!”

It was clear to Jia Zhen that Bao Er had been making trouble and he had better dismiss him.

“Clear off, quick!” he ordered, then turned to Zhou Rui. “You needn’t say any more either. Go and attend to your business.”

Then the two men went away.

Jia Zhen was relaxing in his study when he heard a great uproar at the gate. He sent to find out what had happened and the gate-keepers re­ported:

“Bao Er is fighting with Zhou Rui’s adopted son.”

“And who may that be?” he asked.

“A rascal called He San, who gets drunk and brawls every day at home and often comes to sit at our gate. When he heard Bao Er scrap­ping with Zhou Rui he joined in.”

“Outrageous!” swore Jia Zhen. “Have Bao Er and that fellow He San tied up. Where is Zhou Rui?”

“When they started fighting, he slipped away.”

“Bring him here! This is the limit!”

The servants assented.

In the midst of this commotion Jia Lian came back and his cousin described what had happened.

“Scandalous!” exclaimed Jia Lian.

He sent more servants in search of Zhou Rui, who came, knowing he was in for it.

“Tie them all up!” Jia Zhen ordered.

Jia Lian fumed at Zhou Rui, “Your earlier dispute could have been overlooked, and the master had already dismissed you both. Why start another fight outside? The two of you fighting was bad enough, but you dragged in that bastard He San as well to make trouble. And instead of checking them, you cleared off!” He gave Zhou Rui several kicks.

“Just beating Zhou Rui is not enough,” said Jia Zhen.

He ordered his men to give Bao Er and He San fifty lashes apiece, then drive them out, after which he and Jia Lian discussed other busi­ness.

The servants, in private, aired different views about this. Some said Jia Zhen was biased, unable to settle disputes, others that he was a de­bauchee.

“Earlier on, when the You sisters were carrying on in that shameless way, wasn’t it he who persuaded Master Lian to take Bao Er on?” one pointed out. “Now it must be because he’s lost interest in Bao Er’s wife that he’s found fault with Bao Er.”

Thus they argued the matter at length.

Now Jia Zheng’s post in the Ministry of Works enabled his domestics to enrich themselves. And ha Yun, getting wind of this, hoped to procure some lucrative job himself. He approached contractors outside, and after coming to terms with them bought some fashionable embroidery with which to persuade Xifeng to secure him a commission.

Xifeng, at home, heard from the maids that Jia Zhen and her husband, angry with some of the servants, were having them beaten. She was about to send to find out what had happened, when Jia Lian came in and told her the whole story.

“It’s a small matter in itself,” was Xifeng’s comment, “but we’ll have to put a stop to such behaviour. Our family still counts as enjoying good fortune, but even so these underlings dare fight! Later on, when the younger generation takes over, they’ll get quite out of hand. The other year, in the East Mansion, I saw Jiao Da lying as drunk as a lord at the foot of the steps cursing wildly. Swearing at high and low he was, quite regardless! He may have served his first master well, but still he’s only a servant and ought to show some respect. Your Cousin Zhen’s wife — if you don’t mind my saying so — is so easy-going that all her staff are spoilt and quite above themselves. And now there’s this fellow Bao Er! I understood that he was a favourite with you and your Cousin Zhen, so why did you beat him today?”

Embarrassed by this question, Jia Lian sheepishly changed the sub­ject, then left her on the pretext that he had business.

Xiaohong came in next to report that ha Yun was outside asking to see her.

“Invite him in,” said Xifeng, wondering why he had come.

Hongyu went out and smiled at Jia Yun, who hastily stepped closer.

“Did you give her my message, miss?” he asked.

Blushing she said, “You seem to have a lot of business, sir!”

“How often have I troubled you before?” he protested. “Only once, the other year when you were in Uncle Bao’s place….”

For fear of detection she cut him short by asking, “Did you see the handkerchief I left you that time, sir?”

Jia Yun was overjoyed by this question. But before he could answer a young maid came out, and he and Hongyu hurried towards the house, walking side by side, not keeping their distance from each other.

“When I come out presently,” whispered Jia Yun, “I want you to see me out, I’ve something amusing to tell you.” Hongyu blushed and glanced at him, but did not answer. When they reached Xifeng’s room, she went in first to announce him, then came out again and raised the portiere. She beckoned him in, but said deliberately, “Madam Lian asks you to come in, Master Yun.”

Smiling, he followed her into the room and paid his respects to Xifeng.

“My mother sends her greetings,” he added.

Xifeng inquired after his mother too, then asked, “What can I do for you?”

“I’ve never forgotten your past goodness to me, aunt, and have al­ways wished I could show my gratitude. Only I was afraid you might suspect I had ulterior motives. Now I’ve brought you a little gift for the Double-Ninth Festival. Of course you lack for nothing here, but this is just to show your nephew’s respect. I only hope you’ll condescend to accept it.”

Xifeng smiled. “Sit down if you have something to say.”

Jia Yun perched on the edge of a chair, hastily placing his present on the table beside him.

“You’re not all that well off,” said Xifeng. “Why waste money on this? And I don’t need such things. So tell me honestly what you’ve come here for.”

“I didn’t have anything special in mind, just wanted to show how I appreciate your kindness to me, aunt,” he said with a smirk.

“That’s no way to talk,” she answered. “You’re badly off, I know that perfectly well; so why should you spend money on me for nothing? If you want me to accept this, you must tell me your reason clearly. If you beat about the bush like this, I won’t take it.”

Jia Yun had no choice but to come out with the truth. Standing up with an obsequious smile he said, “Well, it’s not too high-flown, what I’m hoping. The other day I heard that Lord Zheng was in charge of the construction of the Imperial Sepulchres. I have several friends who have done work of this kind and are most reliable; so please, aunt, will you recommend us to the master? If you get us a couple of contracts, I’ll be eternally grateful! And if you need me for anything at home, I’ll serve you to the best of my ability.”

“On other matters I have some say,” she replied. “But these govern­ment jobs are fixed by officials above and seen to by the secretaries and runners under them, so that other people can hardly get a look-in. Even our servants only go along to wait on the master. Your uncle Lian too only goes there in connection with family business — he can’t interfere with public works.

“As for our family affairs, as soon as one trouble’s settled another crops up. Not even Master Zhen can keep order here. So how could you, young as you are and junior in status, possibly cope with these people? Besides, those cushy government jobs are nearly finished: they’re simply spinning them out. Can’t you make do by finding other commissions at home? This is honest advice. Go back and think it over and you’ll see that. I appreciate your offer, but take these things back and return them to whomever you got them from.”

bust then in came some nannies with little Qiaojie, tricked out in em­broidered silks, her arms filled with toys. She went up to her mother, smiling, to prattle to her. At once Jia Yun sprang to his feet.

Beaming, he asked, “Is this my younger sister? Do you want some­thing nice?”

The child burst out crying, and he quickly stepped back.

“Don’t be frightened, darling,” said Xifeng, taking Qiaojie on her lap. “This is your big Cousin Yun. Why be shy?”

“What a pretty child!” he exclaimed. “She’s another who’s destined to enjoy great good fortune.”

Qiaojie turned to look at him, then started crying again.

When this had happened several times, Jia Yun saw that it was impos­sible to stay and got up to take his leave.

“Take those things with you,” Xifeng reminded him.

“They’re only trifles, aunt. Won’t you do me the honour of accepting them?”

“If you won’t take them, I’ll have them sent back to your place. Don’t behave this way, Yun. It’s not as if you were an outsider. When there’s some opening I’ll certainly send for you; but if there’s none, what can I do about it? These things are quite superfluous.”

Seeing her so adamant he reddened and said, “In that case, aunt, I’ll look for something more acceptable to show my respect.”

Xifeng told Hongyu, “Take those things and see Master Yun out.” Jia Yun left thinking to himself, “People call her a martinet, and she

certainly is one! There’s no chink in her armour — she’s as hard as nails. No wonder she’s never had a son. And this Qiaojie is even odder, treating me as if we’d been enemies in some past life. I’m really out of luck — all this trouble for nothing!”

As Jia Yun had been rebuffed, Hongyu was upset too as she followed him out. Jia Yun took the bundle from her and unwrapped it, then chose two pieces of embroidery to slip to her. But Hongyu thrust them back.

“Don’t, sir!” she said. “If the mistress knew, it would look bad for both of us.”

“Just take them. What is there to be afraid of? How could she possi­bly know? If you refuse, that means you look down on me.

Hongyu accepted them with a smile but said, “Why should I want these things of yours? What is this anyway?” She blushed crimson again.

“It’s the thought that counts,” he chuckled. “Besides, these aren’t worth much.”

They had now reached the compound gate, and Jia Yun tucked the rest of the embroidery inside his jacket while Hongyu urged him to leave.

“If there’s anything you want, just come and ask me,” she said. “Now that I’m working here it’s easy to find me.”

Jia Yun nodded. “It’s too bad your mistress is such a martinet that I can’t call too often. Anyway you must understand what I meant just now. I’ve something more to tell you when I have the chance.”

Blushing all over her face she answered, “Go now. You must call more often in future. You shouldn’t have kept at such a distance from her.”


Then Jia Yun left the compound. Hongyu stood at the gate watching till he was out of sight before finally turning back.

Xifeng in her room now ordered dinner and asked the maids if they had prepared any congee. Some went to ask, returning with the answer, “Yes, we have.”

“Get a couple of southern dishes preserved in liquor.”

“Very good, madam,” said Qiutong, and sent some young maids for these.

Pinger now stepped forward and said, “It had slipped my mind, but at noon today while you were with the old lady, the abbess of Water Moon Convent sent a nun to ask for two jars of southern pickles, madam. She wants a few months’ allowance advanced too, because she isn’t well. I asked the nun what was wrong, and she said the abbess has been unwell for four or five days. The other night some acolytes and novices refused to blow out the light when they went to bed. She scolded them several times, but they paid no attention. When she saw that the lamp was still burning after midnight, she told them to blow it out; but as they were all asleep no one answered, so she had to get up herself to put it out. When she went back to her room, she saw a man and a woman sitting on the kang. And when she asked who they were, they fastened a rope round her neck! She screamed for help. That roused the others who lit lamps and hurried over. They found her lying on the ground, foaming at the mouth. Luckily they managed to bring her round. But she still has no appetite; that’s why she asked for the pickles. As I couldn’t give her any in your absence, I told the nun you were busy with the old lady and I would tell you after you came back. Then I sent her away. bust now that talk about preserves from the south reminded me; otherwise I’d have forgotten.”

Xifeng digested this in silence.

“We still have some of those preserves from the south, don’t we?” she said. “Send her some. As for the money, tell Master Qin to come in a day or so to take it.

Then Hongyu came and reported, “Just now Master Lian sent a mes­senger to let you know that he has business to see to outside town and won’t be back tonight.”

“Very well,” said Xifeng.

bust then they heard a young maid screaming at the back and come panting to the courtyard. Pinger, going out to investigate, found several maids chattering there.

“What’s all the excitement?” Xifeng called out.

Pinger, returning, told her, “One girl who’s scary was talking about ghosts.”

“Which one?”

The girl came in and was asked, “What’s this about ghosts?”

“I went just now to the back to get a servant to put more coal on the stove, and I heard a scuffling in those three empty rooms. First I thought it was a cat chasing rats, but then I heard a sound like someone sighing. I got scared and ran back.”

“Nonsense!” Xifeng scolded. “We don’t allow talk about ghosts and spirits here. I never believe such tales. Hurry up and get out!”

At once the young maid withdrew.

Next Xifeng made Caiming check their account for that day. By the time this was done it was nearly the second watch and after sitting up for a while to chat she sent them all to bed, then retired herself.

Towards midnight, sleeping fitfully, Xifeng found herself shivering and woke with a start. Her trepidation growing as she lay there, she surprised Pinger and Qiutong by calling them over to keep her company. Qiutong had formerly often defied Xifeng, but she had become more obedient after Jia Lian began to slight her owing to her treatment of Second Sister You, and Xifeng had done her best to win her over. Still, she lacked Pinger’s devotion to their mistress, making only a show of complaisance. Now that Xifeng was unwell, she brought her some tea.

“Thank you.” Xifeng took a sip. “Go back to bed now. It’s enough if just Pinger stays here.”

To please her, however, Qiutong said, “If you can’t sleep, madam, we can take it in turns to sit with you.”

Xifeng talked with them for a while, then dozed off. By the time she was sound asleep they heard cocks crowing in the distance; so they lay down fully dressed till dawn, when they got up to help her with her toilet. Xifeng was on edge and upset after her bad night, but not wanting to

show this she forced herself to get up. She was sitting there listlessly when she heard a maid in the courtyard asking for Pinger.

“I’m in here,” Pinger called.

The girl lifted the portiere and came in, having been sent by Lady Wang to find Jia Lian.

She reported, “Someone outside has come on urgent official busi­ness. As the master has just gone out, Her Ladyship wants Master Lian to go over at once.

Xifeng was startled by this. To know what this business was, you must read the next chapter.

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