A Dream of Red Mansions- Chapter 9


A Dream of Red Mansions009

Chapter 9

Devoted Friends Join the Clan School

Mud-Slinging Boys Brawl

in the Classroom

Qin Ye and his son did not have long to wait for a message from the Jia family telling them the date on which to start school, for Baoyu was so eager to be with Qin Zhong he could think of nothing else. He sent a servant with a note asking his friend to come to his house in two days’ time, in the morning, to go to school together.

On the day appointed, while Baoyu was still asleep, Xiren made a neat package of his books and writing materials, then sat down dejectedly on the edge of the kang. When he woke, she helped him with his toilet.

“Why are you looking so unhappy, dear sister?” he asked gently. “Are you upset because you’ll all feel lonely while I’m at school?”

“What an idea!” She smiled. “There’s nothing like study, if you don’t want to be a failure in life and get nowhere. Just remember to keep your mind on your books in class, and out of class to think of the people at home. Don’t get into mischief with the other boys. It would be no joke if you were caught by the master. I know they say you should give your whole heart to study, but don’t overdo it or you’ll bite off more than you can chew and your health will suffer. At least that’s my idea. Do think it over.”

Baoyu agreed with all she said.

“I’ve packed your fur coats and given them to the pages,” Xiren continued. “If you find the school cold, mind you put more on, because we shan’t be there to look after you. I’ve given them charcoal for your hand-stove and foot-stove too. Mind those lazy scamps keep them filled. If you don’t keep them up to scratch they won’t lift a finger but leave you to freeze.”

“Don’t worry,” Baoyu assured her. “I know how to take care of myself outside. And you mustn’t stay here moping either, but drop in from time to time to chat with cousin Daiyu.”

By now he was dressed and she urged him to pay his respects to his grandmother and parents. After some brief instructions to Qingwen and Sheyue, he took his leave of the Lady Dowager, who naturally had some advice for him too. He went next to his mother and then to his father’s study.

Jia Zheng happened to have come home early today. He was talking with some secretaries and protégés when Baoyu went in to pay his re­spects and announce his departure to school.

“Don’t make me die of shame with this talk about school.” His fa­ther laughed scornfully. “All you’re fit for, in my opinion, is to go on fooling about. Your presence here contaminates this place and contami­nates my door.”

“Your Lordship is too hard on him,” protested his companions, who had risen. “A few years at school and your worthy son is sure to show his mettle and make a name. He’s not a child any more. It’s nearly time for breakfast, he should be off.” With that, two of the older men led Baoyu out.

Jia Zheng asked who was accompanying his son, and three or four sturdy fellows who had been waiting outside came in and fell on one knee to pay their respects.

Recognizing Li Gui, the son of Baoyu’s old wet-nurse, Jia Zheng de­manded, “What has he learned all the time you’ve attended him at his lessons? Nothing but a pack of nonsense and some clever tricks. As soon as I have leisure I’ll flay you alive and then settle accounts with that young reprobate.”

In consternation Li Gui fell on both knees, snatched off his cap and thumped his head on the ground submissively.

“I wouldn’t dare tell a lie, sir,” he exclaimed. “The young master has studied three volumes of the Book of Songs, down to ‘yu-yu cry the deer, lotus leaves and duckweed.’ ”

This unintentional travesty of the original line set the whole room in a roar of laughter. Even Jia Zheng himself could not help smiling.

“Even if he studied another thirty volumes, it would just be fooling people,” he retorted. “Give my compliments to the school principal, and tell him from me that such works as the Book of Songs and classical essays are a waste of time. He’d far better expound the Four Books and make his pupils learn them by heart.”

Li Gui promised to do this and then withdrew, seeing that his master had no further orders.

All this time Baoyu had been waiting with bated breath in the court­yard. He hurried away as soon as he saw them emerging from the house.

Li Gui and the others, dusting off their clothes, asked, “Did you hear that? He’s going to flay us alive. Other people’s slaves get some re­flected credit from their masters. All we get for waiting on you is beat­ings and abuse. Do have a little pity on us in future.”

“Cheer up, good brothers,” replied Baoyu with a smile. “I’ll give you a treat tomorrow.”

“Who are we to expect treats, little ancestor? Just listen to our ad­vice once in a while.”

By now they were back at the Lady Dowager’s quarters. She was chatting with Qin Zhong, who had been there for some time. The two boys exchanged greetings, then took their leave of her.

Baoyu, remembering that he had not said goodbye to Daiyu, hurried to her room. She was sitting before her mirror by the window and smiled when he told her that he was off to school.

“Good,” she said. “So you’re going to ‘pluck fragrant osmanthus in the palace of the moon.’ I’m sorry I can’t see you off.”

“Don’t have supper till I’m back, dear cousin,” he begged. “And wait for me to mix your rouge.

After chatting for a while he turned to leave.

“Aren’t you going to say goodbye to Baochai?” Daiyu called after him.

With no answer but a smile he left with Qin Zhong.

Now this Jia family school, which was only a li away, had been set up several generations earlier so that members of the clan who could not afford to engage a tutor would have somewhere to educate their sons. It was supported by those with official positions, who contributed according to the size of their stipends, and an elderly man of good reputation in the clan was elected to take charge of the boys’ instruction.

When Baoyu and Qin Zhong had been introduced to the other stu­dents, they embarked on their studies. From this day onward the two of them became inseparable, going to school and leaving it together. And thanks to the Lady Dowager’s partiality, Qin Zhong often stayed for a few days with the Jia family. Indeed, she treated him like one of her own grandsons, giving him clothes, shoes and other necessities when she saw that his family was hard up. In less than a month he was on good terms with everyone in the Rong Mansion.

Since Baoyu always followed his own bent regardless of what was due to his position, in his usual unconventional way he privately urged Qin Zhong: “We’re the same age, and schoolmates too. Let’s forget that we’re uncle and nephew and just be brothers and friends.”

At first Qin Zhong would not agree to this, but since Baoyu kept call­ing him “brother” or using his courtesy name, he started doing the same.

Now although all the pupils in this school were members of the Jia clan or relations by marriage, as the proverb so aptly says, “A dragon begets nine offspring, each one different.” And inevitably among so many boys there were low types too, snakes mixed up with dragons.

These two new arrivals were both remarkably handsome. Qin Zhong was bashful and gentle, so shy that he blushed like a girl before he spoke, while Baoyu was naturally self effacing and modest, considerate to oth­ers and pleasant in his speech. And they were on such intimate terms, it was no wonder that their schoolmates suspected the worst. They began to talk about the pair behind their backs, spreading ugly rumours inside the school and out.

Now Xue Pan had not been long in the Rong Mansion before he learned of this school, and the thought of all the boys there appealed to his baser instincts. So he enrolled as a student. But he was like the fisherman who fishes for three days and then suns his net for two. The fee he paid Jia Dairu was thrown away, for he had no intention of really studying, his sole aim being to find some ‘sweet-hearts’ there. In fact, tempted by his money and other gifts several boys did fall into his clutches, but we need not dwell on this.

Chief among these were two amorous youths whose real names have not been ascertained, nor the branches of the family to which they be­longed. But on account of their good looks and charm they were nicknamed Sweetie and Lovely. Although the object of general admiration, so that others also had designs on them, they were left unmolested for fear of Xue Pan.

Baoyu and Qin Zhong were naturally attracted by these boys too, but knowing them to be Xue Pan’s friends they did not venture to make any overtures. Sweetie and Lovely were equally drawn to them. But not one of the four spoke of what was in his heart. Every day from four different seats four pairs of eyes kept meeting, and while trying to escape detec­tion they contrived by hints and allusions to reveal their thoughts. How­ever, some sly rascals discovered their secret and began to raise their eyebrows, wink, and cough or clear their throats behind their backs.

This had been going on for some time when one day, as luck would have it, Jia Dairu went home early on business, giving the boys a seven-character line to be matched with another and promising them a new lesson in the classics the next day. He left his eldest grandson Jia Rui in charge. Qin Zhong took advantage of the fact that nowadays Xue Pan had virtually stopped coming even to roll-call to make eyes at Sweetie and secretly signal to him. Having asked to be excused, they went out to the back courtyard for a quiet chat.

“Do your parents mind what friends you make?” asked Qin Zhong.

The words were barely out of his mouth when a cough behind them made both boys look round in dismay. It was their schoolmate Jin Rong. Sweetie was a hot-tempered lad. In embarrassment and annoyance he demanded:

“What are you coughing for? Can’t we talk if we want to?”

“If you can talk, why can’t I cough?” Jin Rong sniggered. “But why not talk openly instead of in this hole-and-corner fashion? I’ve caught you at last. There’s no use denying it. Let me have a go first, and I’ll keep quiet about it. Otherwise I’ll rouse the whole school.”

Flushing crimson the two boys demanded indignantly, “What have you caught us at?”

“I’ve caught you red-handed!” Clapping and grinning, he yelled, “Fine pancakes for sale. Come on, fellows, and buy one.

The two friends rushed furiously in to complain to Jia Rui of Jin Rong’s uncalled-for insult.

Now Jia Rui was an unscrupulous, grasping scoundrel who used his position in the school to fleece the boys. In return for money and good meals from Xue Pan, he had not checked his disgraceful behaviour but actually abetted him in order to curry favour.

But Xue Pan was as fickle as water-weed which drifts east today, west tomorrow. Having recently acquired new friends he had dropped Sweetie and Lovely, to say nothing of Jin Rong whom they had replaced; and now that they were discarded, Jia Rui had nobody to put in a good word for him. Instead of blaming Xue Pan’s fickleness, he bore his favourites a grudge for this. And because he, Jin Rong and the rest all had this grievance against the two boys, when Qin Zhong and Sweetie came in with their complaint it only increased his annoyance. Not daring to reprove Qin Zhong he made a scapegoat of Sweetie, abusing him roundly for being a trouble-maker.

After this rebuff, Sweetie and Qin Zhong returned sullenly to their seats while Jin Rong triumphantly wagged his head and smacked his lips as he poured out more abuse. This was too much for Lovely, and they started bickering from their respective places.

“I saw them just now as plain as day in the back yard,” insisted Jin Rong. “They were discussing where and how to meet.”

He held forth wildly regardless of who might hear, although one of his listeners was already enraged. And who do you think this was? It was Jia Qiang, a direct descendant of the Duke of Ningguo, who had been brought up by Jia Zhen after the untimely death of his own parents. He was now sixteen and even more handsome and engaging than Jia Rong, from whom he was virtually inseparable.

Now “the more people, the more talk,” and the disgruntled servants in the Ning Mansion were good for nothing but slandering their masters. When their dirty talk reached Jia Zhen’s ears, to avoid coming under suspicion himself he had given Jia Qiang his own establishment outside the Ning Mansion and told him to live on his own.

Jia Qiang was as intelligent as he was handsome, but he attended the school only as a blind for his visits to cock-fights, dog-races and brothels. None of his clansmen dared to cross him, however, because he was a favourite with Jia Zhen and had Jia Rong to stand by him. Naturally, intimate as he was with them, he was not going to let anyone bully Qin Zhong with impunity! His first impulse was to take his side openly, but on second thought he decided, “Jin Rong, Jia Rui and that lot are thick with Uncle Xue, who has always been on good terms with me. If I side against them and they tell Old Xue, that will spoil our friendly relations. If I do nothing, though, they’ll just spread these tiresome rumours. I must find some way of stopping their mouths without any loss of face.”

He left the room on the customary excuse and quietly got hold of Mingyan, one of Baoyu’s pages, to work on his feelings with his account of the matter.

Mingyan was Baoyu’s most serviceable page but he was young and inexperienced. Jia Qiang told him that the insults to Qin Zhong reflected on his master, and if Jin Rong were allowed to get away with this he would take even greater liberties the next time.

Mingyan always liked to throw his weight about, and with this encour­agement from Jia Qiang he rushed in to beard Jin Rong. Not addressing him as a servant should, he cried, “Hey, you fellow Jin! Who do you think you are?”

At this point Jia Qiang stamped the dust off his boots, straightened his clothes and looking at the height of the sun remarked, “It’s time I was off.” He asked Jia Rui’s permission to leave early to deal with some business, and Jia Rui dared not stop him.

By now Mingyan had grabbed hold of un Rong.” What we do is no business of yours,” he yelled. “If you’ve any guts, come and take on your Master Ming.”

The whole roomful of boys was dumbfounded.

“How dare you, Mingyan!” bellowed Jia Rui.

Livid with anger Jin Rong bawled, “The rebel! How dare a slave run wild like this? I’ll have a word with your master.” Tearing himself loose he rounded on Baoyu and Qin Zhong.

Wham! A square inkstone hurled by some unknown assailant whizzed past Jin Rong’s head to crash on to the next desk, one occupied by Jia Lan and Jia Jun.

Jia Jun was a great-great-grandson of the Duck of Rongguo, and the only son of his mother who had been widowed early. He sat at the same

desk as Jia Lan because they were firm friends. This hot-tempered, fear­less little scamp had watched indifferently while one of Jin Rong’s friends hurled an inkstone at Mingyan; but when the stone landed smack in front of him, smashing his water-bottle and spattering his books with ink, this was more than he could stand.

“You gaolbirds!” he swore. “If you want a fight, you can have it.” He grabbed his own inkstone ready to let it fly.

Timid Jia Lan intervened, saying this was none of their business. But Jia Jun paid no attention. Since his inkstone was pinned down he caught up his satchel and hurled it at the offender. Being small and weak, he missed his target. The satchel landed with a tremendous crash in front of Baoyu and Qin Zhong, scattering books, paper, brushes and ink over their desk and smashing Baoyu’s teacup so that tea poured all over it too.

Jia Jun launched himself at the boy who had thrown the inkstone, while Jin Rong caught up a bamboo pole and played havoc with it in that narrow crowded room.

Mingyan was the first to be hit. “What are you waiting for?” he roared to Baoyu’s other pages Chuyao, Saohong and Moyu, all of whom were ready for mischief.

“Sons of bitches!” they shouted. “They’re using weapons now.”

In they charged, Moyu armed with a door bar, the other two brandish­ing whips.

Jia Rui tried desperately to hold back or persuade the contendants in turn. But no one listened to him, the place was a bedlam. Some boys threw themselves eagerly into the scrimmage, punching those who could not hit back, the more timid shrank aside, others stood on their desks clapping and laughing wildly as they urged the combatants on. The school was like a seething cauldron.

Li Gui and the servants outside hearing this uproar hurried in to stop the fight. When they asked how it had started, everyone answered at once, each blaming another. With an oath Li Gui drove Mingyan and the pages out.

Qin Zhong had been hit on the head and bruised by Jin Rong’s pole, and Baoyu was rubbing the place with his coat lapel. Now that order had been restored he told Li Gui:

“Collect my books and bring round my horse. I’m going to report this to the principal. They insulted us gratuitously, but when we complained quite properly to Mr. Jia Rui he laid the blame on us. He let them abuse us and actually encouraged them to beat us. Mingyan seeing us bullied natu­rally took our side, but then they ganged up to beat him. They’ve even broken open Qin Zhong’s head. How can we go on studying here after this?”

Li Gui begged him not to be hasty. “It would look very inconsiderate to disturb the principal over such a little thing when he’s busy. Trouble should be settled on the spot, I say. There’s no need to go and disturb the old gentleman. It’s Mr. Jia Rui who’s to blame. You’re in charge here, sir, in the old gentleman’s absence. If anyone misbehaves, you should punish him. How could you let them get so out of hand?”

“I did tell them to stop,” said Jia Rui. “But no one paid any attention.”

“You mustn’t mind if I speak frankly, sir,” rejoined Li Gui. “It’s be­cause your own conduct leaves much to be desired that these boys don’t obey you. So if this business comes to the principal’s ears, it will go hard with you. Hurry up and think of a way to hush it up.”

“I won’t have it hushed up,” declared Baoyu. “I’m going to report it.”

“I’m not coming here any more,” sobbed Qin Zhong, “if Jin Rong is allowed to stay.”

“What an idea!” cried Baoyu. “Why should we have to keep away because they come? I’m going to tell everyone and have him expelled.” He asked Li Gui to which branch of the family Jin Rong was related.

Li Gui thought for a moment, then said, “Better not ask. If I tell you, it will only cause bad feeling among relatives.”

“He’s the nephew of Mrs. Jia Huang of the East Lane,” called Mingyan through the window. “I don’t know how he had the nerve to beard us. Mrs. Jia Huang is his aunt on the father’s side. She’s a sponger who sucks up to people and goes down on her knees to Madam Lian for things to pawn. How can we respect a ‘mistress’ like that?”

“Shut up, you dirty bugger. Don’t talk such rot,” roared Li Gui.

“So that’s who he is!” said Baoyu scornfully. “Cousin Jia Huang’s nephew. I shall go and see her about this.”

He ordered Mingyan to come in and wrap up his books.

The page did so, saying exultantly, “Why go yourself, sir? Let me go and tell her the old lady wants her. I’ll hire a carriage to bring her, and you can question her in the Lady Dowager’s presence. Wouldn’t that save trouble?”

“Do you want to die?” shouted Li Gui. “Just wait, I’ll give you such a thrashing when we get back. Then I’ll tell our master and mistress that you were the one who put Baoyu up to this. I’ve had trouble enough getting him halfway calmed down, and here you go again. You started this rumpus, but instead of trying to smooth things over you’re adding fuel to the fire.”

Mingyan dared say no more then. And Jia Rui, afraid of being incrimi­nated if this went any further, had to pocket his grievance and ask Qin Zhong and Baoyu to forget it.

After holding out for some time Baoyu said, “All right, I won’t tell if un Rong apologizes.”

At first Jin Rong refused. But Jia Rui put pressure on him, and Li Gui and the others joined in.

“You started this,” Li Gui pointed out. “It’s up to you to end it.”

Under pressure from all sides, Jin Rong bowed to Qin Zhong. But Baoyu would not be satisfied with anything less than a full kowtow.

Jia Rui, anxious to smooth things over, urged Jin Rong softly, “Re­member the proverb ‘A murderer can only lose his head.’ Since you began this you must humble yourself a little. Once you’ve kowtowed, that will be the end of it.”

So at last un Rong stepped forward and kowtowed to Qin Zhong.

To know what followed, read the next chapter.

Next articleA Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 8
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