A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 92

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Chapter 92

Comments on the Lives of Worthy Women

of Old Fill Qiaojie with Admiration

Jia Zheng, Toying with a Mother Pearl, Discourses

on the Rise and Fall of Great Houses

Baoyu, as soon as he had left Bamboo Lodge, asked Qiuwen, “What does my father want me for?”

“He doesn’t want you,” she chuckled. “Sister Xiren sent me to fetch you, and for fear you wouldn’t come I made that up.”

In relief he cried, “It’s all very well to fetch me, but why give me such a fright?”

Back in Happy Red Court, Xiren wanted to know where he had been all this time.

“With Miss Lin. We got talking about Cousin Baochai; that’s what kept me there so long.”

“What were you discussing?”

He told her then about his catechism.

“You two have no sense,” scolded Xiren. “It’s all right to chat about family affairs or discuss certain lines of poetry; but why go in for Bud­dhist cant? It’s not as if you were a monk.”

“You don’t understand. We have our own esoteric talk which no one else can join in.

“If your esoteric repartee leads to squabbles, we shall have to try to guess your riddles too,” she answered teasingly.

“In the past I was young and she was childish too, so if I spoke tact­lessly she used to flare up. Now that I’m more careful she never takes offence. But recently she’s stopped coming here so often, and I have to go to school. That’s why, when we do happen to meet, we feel rather like strangers.”

“That’s how it should be,” approved Xiren. “Now that you’re both several years older, how can you go on behaving as if you were chil­dren?”

He nodded. “I know. Never mind about that now. Tell me: Has the old lady sent any message for me?” “No, none.”

“She must have forgotten. Tomorrow’s the first of the eleventh month, isn’t it? It used to be her rule every year to hold a ‘cold-dispelling party’ that day, getting everybody together to drink and have fun. Today I asked for leave from school. As no message has come, shall I go tomorrow or not? If I do, I’ll have asked for leave all for nothing. If I don’t, and my father knows, he’ll call me an idler.”

“I think you’d better go,” she said. “You’re just beginning to study seriously, yet here you are wanting to rest. My advice to you is to work harder. Yesterday I heard your mother praise Master Lan for really con­centrating on his books. Every evening after he comes back from school, he reads and writes essays on his own, not sleeping till nearly dawn. You’re much older than he is, and his uncle too. If you lag behind him the old lady will be angry. So you’d better go to school tomorrow morning.”

Sheyue objected, “It’s so cold, and he’s already asked leave. If he goes, the tutor will want to know why he asked for leave in the first place. It’ll look as if he fibbed so as to play truant. Let him have a day off, I say. Even if the old lady’s forgotten, can’t we have our own cold-dispelling party here? Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“If you take that line,” complained Xiren, “he’ll be even less willing to go.

“Well, I like a day’s fun whenever I can get it. How can I compare with you, working so hard to keep your good reputation for the sake of two extra ounces of silver a month?”

“Little bitch!” swore Xiren. “We were speaking seriously, but you go talking such nonsense.

“This isn’t nonsense. It’s you I’m thinking of.”

“What do you mean?”

“If Master Bao goes to school, you’ll wait glumly longing for his return to cheer us all up again. It’s no use your playing the innocent. I know you!”

Before Xiren could answer back, one of the Lady Dowager’s maids arrived.

“The old lady says Master Bao needn’t go to school tomorrow,” she announced. “She has asked Aunt Xue to come over to help pass the time, and most likely all our young ladies will come too. Miss Xiangyun, Miss Xiuyan and Madam Zhu’s cousins have been invited as well to this ‘cold—dispelling party’…

Before she could finish Baoyu cried excitedly, “You see? The old lady always enjoyed this party. So it’s on the level, my cutting school tomor­row.

Xiren could say nothing to this, and the maid went back.

After a spell of hard study Baoyu had been counting on having good fun the next day. And the news that Aunt Xue would be coming made him assume that Baochai would be present too.

He said cheerfully, “Let’s turn in now, so that we can get up early tomorrow morning.”

That night passed without incident.

The next day, sure enough, he went over early to pay his respects to the Lady Dowager and then to his parents. When he reported that his grandmother had exempted him from attending school today, Jia Zheng raised no objections, and Baoyu slowly withdrew. Once outside, he ran like the wind to the old lady’s quarters. None of the others had yet ar­rived except the nurse bringing Xifeng’s daughter Qiaojie, attended by several young maids.

Qiaojie paid her respects to the old lady then said, “Mama told me to come on ahead, to greet you and keep you company, great-grandmama. She’ll be coming presently.”

“Good child!” said the Lady Dowager with a fond smile. “I got up early and all this time I’ve been waiting, but so far only your Uncle Bao has come.

“Pay your respects to your uncle, miss,” prompted the nurse.

Qiaojie curtseyed to Baoyu, who returned her greeting.

“Last night,” prattled Qiaojie, “I heard mama say she wants to invite you over for a talk, uncle.”

“To talk about what?”

“Mama says Nanny Li has been teaching me to read for several years, but she doubts if I really know many characters. I told her, ‘I can read all right. Let me show you. ‘ She thought I was making it up, though, and didn’t believe me, saying I couldn’t possibly have learned because I play around the whole day long. I told her I don’t find learning characters hard. Even the Book of Filial Women is easy to read. But mama says I’m trying to fool her. She wants you to test me, uncle, when you have time.”

“There’s a good child!” exclaimed the old lady, laughing. “It’s be­cause your mother can’t read that she thought you were fooling her. Get your uncle to test you tomorrow, and that’ 11 convince her.”

“How many characters do you know?” asked Baoyu.

“More than three thousand. I’ve read the Book of Filial Women, and a fortnight ago I started on the Lives of Chaste Martyrs.”

“Can you understand them?” he asked. “If not, I can explain them to you.”

“Yes, as her uncle you should do that for your niece,” the old lady approved.

“We can pass over King Wen’s queen,” began Baoyu. “Other virtu­ous and able queens were Queen Jiang who took off her trinkets and blames herself for the king’s indolence, and Queen Wuyan who was plain but able to pacify the state of Qi. As for talented women, there were Cao Dagu, Ban Jieyu, Cai Wenji and Xie Daoyun.

“Meng Guang who wore a thorn hairpin and cloth skirt; Bao Xuan’s wife who fetched water herself with a pitcher; Tao Kan’s mother who cut off her hair and sold it to buy wine to entertain a guest; and Ouyang Xiu’s mother who used a grass stalk to write characters on the ground to teach her son to read and write, all could put up with poverty.

“There were others who had a hard time like Princess Lechang who kept a broken mirror and was finally reunited with her husband, and Su Hui who wove a brocade with a palindrome on it to send to her husband and moved him. While as for such dutiful daughters as Mulan who went to war in her father’s place and Cao E who plunged into the river to recover her father’s body, they are past counting.

“Then there were many chaste ladies such as Caoshi, who cut off her own nose rather than remarry; that’s a story of the Wei State.

“There were such famous beauties as Wang Qiang, Xi Shi, Fan Su, Xiaoman and Jiang Xian. There were also jealous wives such as Ren Gui’s wife who burned up two concubines’ hair, and Liu Baiyu’s wife who jumped into the Luo River and died after hearing him praise the charming Goddess of the River Luo. Of course Zhuo Wenjun and the girl with the red whisk1 were known for their….”

“That’s enough,” put in the old lady. “No need to go on. If you list too many, how can she remember them all?”

“I’ve read about some of those Uncle Bao named, but not all of them,” said Qiaojie. “What he says about those I’ve read about helps me understand them better.”

“As you obviously know how to real, there’s no need to test you on that,” he observed. “Besides, I’ll have to go to school myself tomor­row.

“I heard mama say too that our maid Hongyu used to work for you, Uncle Bao; and after mama took her she’s never sent you another girl instead. Now mama wants to send you one called Wuer from the Liu family, but she doesn’t know whether you’ll have her or not.”

“Just listen to her!” exclaimed Baoyu in delight. “Your mother can send anyone she likes. Why ask me if I’ll have her?” He turned to say laughingly to his grandmother, “Judging by my niece’s looks and intelli­gence, she should outdo even Cousin Xifeng in future. Especially as she can read as well.”

“It’s good when girls can read,” agreed the old lady. “But needle­work is more important for them.”

“I’m learning that too from Nanny Liu,” said Qiaojie. “Appliqué work, chain-stitch and so on. I’m not much good at it, but I’m learning some different stitches.”

“In a family like ours,” said the old lady, “of course we don’t have to do such chores ourselves, but still it’s best to know how to, so as not to have to depend on others in future.

“Yes, great-grandmama.”

Qiaojie would have liked Baoyu to explain the Lives of Chaste Mar­tyrs to her, but he looked so preoccupied that she refrained from making this request.

Do you know what was preoccupying Baoyu? It was the thought of Wuer. When first she was to have come to Happy Red Court, she had been prevented by illness; then when Lady Wang dismissed Qingwen, they dared not choose any maids who were good-looking. Later Baoyu had visited Qingwen in Wu Gui’s house and seen Wuer and her mother take things to her, and on that occasion he had thought Wuer charming. How lucky that Xifeng had remembered her and was sending her to replace Hongyu! So the foolish youth lost himself in rapturous day-dreams.

The old lady, grown tired of waiting, now sent maids to fetch her other visitors and presently Li Wan and her girl cousins arrived, as well as Tanchun, Xichun, Xiangyun and Daiyu. Having paid their respects to the Lady Dowager they greeted each other. Only Aunt Xue was still miss­ing. Maids were sent to invite her, and she brought Baoqin with her. Baoyu paid his respects to Aunt Xue and greeted Baoqin but looked in vain for Baochai and Xiuyan.

“Why hasn’t Cousin Baochai come?” asked Daiyu.

Aunt Xue gave the excuse that she was unwell and Xing Xiuyan had naturally not come because her future in-laws were present. Baoyu was disappointed by Baochai’s absence, but as he had Daiyu’s com­pany he dismissed her from his mind.

Soon Lady Xing and Lady Wang arrived too. When Xifeng heard of this, as it would be remiss for her to lag behind Their Ladyships she sent Pinger to excuse her, saying that she had a temperature but would come a little later.

“If she’s not well, she needn’t come,” said the old lady. “It’s time now for our meal.”

Maids moved back the brazier and set out two tables in front of the old lady’s couch. This done, the party sat down in due order. After din­ner, they chatted around the fire, but there is no need to record their conversation.

Now what had kept Xifeng away? In the beginning it was embarrass­ment at going later than Lady Xing and Lady Wang. And then Lai Wang’s wife had arrived.

“Miss Yingchun has sent someone with her regards,” she announced. “And the woman says she’s not called on Their Ladyships but come straight here.”

Not knowing what to make of this, Xifeng called the messenger in.

“Is your mistress well?” she asked.

“No, it wasn’t Miss Yingchun who sent me,” was the answer. “The fact is, Siqi’s mother has begged me to come to ask you a favour, madam.”

“Siqi has already been dismissed, so what can I do to help?”

“After Siqi left here she kept weeping all day long. Then, the other day, that cousin of hers turned up. At sight of him, her mother was furious — she accused him of ruining her daughter’s life and grabbed hold of him to beat him. Not a word did the young fellow say in self-defence. Siqi hearing this came running out, bold as brass.

“‘It’s because of him that I was dismissed,’ she told her mother. ‘I hate him too for his heartlessness. If you want to beat him now that he’s come, you’d better strangle me first!

“Her mother swore, ‘Shameless slut! What do you want to do?”’

“Siqi said, ‘A woman can only marry once. I slipped up and let him take advantage of me, so now I belong to him, and I’ll never, never marry anyone else. But what makes me angry is his lack of guts. A man should be responsible for his actions. Why run away? If he’d never shown up, I’d have stayed single all my life. If you’d tried to marry me to someone else, ma, I should have killed myself. Now that he’s here, ask him what his intentions are. If he hasn’t had a change of heart, I’ll kowtow farewell to you, ma, and you can count me as dead, for wher­ever he goes I’ll go too, content even if we have to beg for food.

“Her mother wept with rage and swore, ‘You’re my daughter. I won’t let you marry him! How dare you defy me?’

“Then the silly girl smashed her head against the wall so that her brains spilled out, and she died in a pool of blood. Her mother wept, but as it was too late to save her she wanted her nephew to pay with his own life.

“That nephew of hers was an odd fellow too. He said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve made some money outside, and I came back because of her — I was true to her. If you don’t believe me, look here. ‘ He took from his pocket a case of jewelry.

“Her mother relented then and asked, ‘If that was what you wanted, why didn’t you say so?’

“He told her, ‘Most women are fickle. If I’d said I had money, it might have tempted her. Now I can see she was truly one in a thousand. I’ll leave you these jewels and go and buy a coffin for her.

“Siqi’s mother took the jewels and let him go, not carrying on any more about her daughter. Who could have imagined, though, that he got people to carry back two coffins.

“‘What do you want two coffins for?’ she asked.

“He said with a smile, ‘One’s not enough. We need two.

“The fact that he wasn’t weeping made her think he was stupefied with grief. But after laying Siqi in one coffin — without so much as a whimper — before anyone could see what he was doing he whipped out a small knife and cut his own throat! Siqi’s mother sobbed bitterly then with remorse. And now the whole neighbourhood knows of this and they want to report it to the authorities. She’s frantic, that’s why she’s sent me to beg you to help. She’ll be coming later to kowtow her thanks.”

“What a silly girl!” exclaimed Xifeng in amazement. “And up against such a simpleton too it’s too bad! No wonder she took it so calmly when they found those things during the search that day. I’d no idea she was such a strong character! Actually I’ve no time to mind other people’s business, but what you’ve told me really makes my heart bleed. All right then, go and tell Siqi’s mother that I’ll get my husband to send Lai Wang to straighten things out for her.”

Only when Xifeng had sent this woman away did she go over to the old lady’s place.

To return to Jia Zheng. He was playing draughts one day with Zhan Guang, and both still had about the same number of pieces; but in one corner the issue was not yet decided and each was trying to enclose that sector.

A gateman came in to announce, “Mr. Feng is waiting outside to see you, sir.”

“Show him in,” ordered Jia Zheng.

The man withdrew to do so, and as Feng Ziying entered Jia Zheng rose to welcome him. Having taken a seat in the study, Feng saw that they had been playing draughts.

“Please go on with your game,” he urged them. “I’d like to watch.”

“My game isn’t worth watching,” said Zhan Guang with a smile.

“Don’t be so modest,” replied Feng. “Please carry on.”

“Have you come on business?” Jia Zheng wanted to know.

“Nothing of any importance. Please go on with your game, uncle, and I can learn by watching.”

Jia Zheng told Zhan, “Master Feng is a good friend of ours. As he’s in no hurry, let’s finish this game and then we can have a chat. You can watch from the side, Master Feng.”

“Are you playing for stakes?”

“Yes, we are,” said Zhan.

“In that case I mustn’t interfere.”

“It doesn’t matter if you do,” joked Jia Zheng. “He’s lost over ten taels already, but he never pays up. I shall have to make him stand us a meal some day instead.”

“That’s all right,” chuckled Zhan.

“Do you gentlemen both play from scratch?” asked Feng.

“We used to.” Jia Zheng smiled. “But he kept losing. Now I’m handi­capped by giving him two pieces at the start, yet he still loses. From time to time he revokes too, and if I challenge him he gets worked up.

“That’s not true!” protested Zhan Guang laughingly.

“Just wait and see,” said Jia Zheng.

They played as they chatted, and when the game was finished they counted their pieces. After deducting the one with which he had opened, Zhan had lost by seven pieces.

Feng remarked, “You lost out trying to enclose uncle’s pieces. And so, being less vulnerable, he got the upper hand.”

“Excuse us for ignoring you,” Jia Zheng apologized. “Now we can talk.”

“I haven’t seen you for some time, uncle, so I called in the first place to pay my respects,” said Feng. “Another reason is that the vice-prefect of Guangxi has come to the capital with four novelties from the south or overseas, all fit to present to the court. One is a carved ebony screen with twenty-four leaves. They’re inlaid not with jade but with the finest marble carved with landscapes, figures, pavilions, flowers and birds. On each leaf are fifty to sixty girls in palace costume, so the screen is called ‘Spring Dawn in the Han Palace.’ All the girls’ features, their hands and the draperies are most delicately carved. The embellishments and designs are excellent too. It seems to me just the thing for the main hall of your honourable Grand View Garden.

“Then there’s a clock more than three feet high in the form of a boy holding a time-piece, which announces each hour in turn, while inside some clock-work figures play musical chimes. As both these are heavy objects, I didn’t bring them. But the two things I have with me are quite intriguing too.”

With that he produced a brocade box swathed in white silk floss and, having removed some padding, showed them a glass case in which was a gold stand mounted on red crepe. On the stand lay a dazzling bright pearl, as large as a dried longan.

“This is called a mother pearl,” Feng told them, then asked for a plate.

Zhan Guang at once passed him a black lacquer tea-tray.

“Will this do?”

“Yes, that’s fine.”

Feng took a silk pouch from his pocket and emptied all the pearls in it on to the tray, then placed the mother pearl in the middle and set the tray on the table. At once, all the small pearls rolled over and over until they were close to the big one, propping it up, all without exception nestling against the big pearl.

“Fantastic!” exclaimed Zhan.

“I’ve heard of this,” said Jia Zheng. “This is how it came by its name as the mother of pearls.”

Now Feng turned to the page who had accompanied him.

“Where is that box?” he called.

The page at once brought over a rosewood box. When opened it dis­closed, on a lining of striped silk, some folded blue gauze.

“What is this?” asked Zhan.

“A curtain of mermaid-gauze.”

When Feng took it out of the box, the curtain — each fold less than five inches long — was less than half an inch thick. He unfolded it layer by layer. And by the time he had unfolded some ten layers, it was already too big for the table.

“See, there are two more folds,” he said. “It can only be hung in a room with a high ceiling. This is woven of mermaid-silk. In the heat of summer, hung in the hall, it will keep out all flies and mosquitoes. It is light and transparent too.”

“Don’t spread it all out,” interposed Jia Zheng, “or you’ll have trouble folding it up again.”

Then Zhan helped Feng refold the curtain.

“The price for these four things isn’t exorbitant,” Feng said. “He’s willing to sell them for twenty thousand taels: ten thousand for the mother pearl, five thousand for the curtain, and five thousand for the screen and the clock combined.”

“We can’t afford that!” exclaimed Jia Zheng.

“You are related to the Imperial House,” said Feng. “Couldn’t they use things of this sort in the Palace?”

“There are plenty of things they could use, but where is so much money to come from?” Jia Zheng retorted. “Wait, though, till I’ve sent these inside to show the old lady.”

“Certainly,” Feng agreed.

Jia Zheng ordered a servant to ask Jia Lian to take the pearl and curtain to the old lady; and Lady Xing, Lady Wang and Xifeng were invited over to see them. They examined each in turn.

“He has two other novelties: a screen and a musical clock,” Jia Lian informed them. “He’s asking twenty thousand taels for all four.”

“Of course they’re good,” said Xifeng. “But we haven’t so much spare money. And we’re not like those provincial governors who have to send tribute to court. In fact, for years I’ve been thinking that a family like ours should invest in some real estate — sacrificial land, manor houses or burial sites. Then in future, if things go badly for our descendants, they’ll have something to fall back on and won’t be bankrupted. This is my idea, but I don’t know whether the old lady and the masters and mistresses agree or not. If the gentlemen want to buy these — that’s up to them.”

The old lady and the rest agreed with her.

“Then I’ll take them back,” said Jia Lian. “It was Lord Zheng who told me to bring these to show the old lady, thinking they could be pre­sented to the Palace — no one spoke of buying them to keep ourselves. But before the old lady says a word you come out with all that ill-omened talk!”

He took the things away, simply telling Jia Zheng that the old lady did not want them.

Then Jia Zheng told Feng, “These are excellent things, but we haven’t got the money. I’ll keep my eyes open, though, and if I find someone who wants them I’ll let you know.

Feng had to put pearl and curtain away and sit down again to make polite conversation, but feeling disheartened he soon rose to take his leave.

“Do stay and have dinner with us,” urged Jia Zheng.

“I don’t want to put you to too much trouble, uncle.”

“It’s no trouble at all.”

Just at this point, a servant announced Lord She even as he walked in, and there was the usual exchange of civilities.

Presently wine and dishes were brought in and the gentlemen started drinking. After four or five cups, mention was made again of the novel­ties from the south.

“Such things are hard to dispose of,” remarked Feng. “Apart from distinguished families like yours, who else can afford to buy them?”

“That’s not necessarily so,” Jia Zheng demurred.

Jia She added, “Our family isn’t what it was — we’re simply keep­ing up appearances.”

“How is Master Zhen of the East Mansion?” Feng inquired. “Last time I met him, in the course of conversation he mentioned that his son’s second wife can’t compare with his first from the Qin family. I forgot to ask which family the new young mistress comes from.”

“She’s from a noble family too,” said Jia Zheng. “She’s the daughter of old Mr. Hu, who was Governor of the Metropolitan Circuit.”

“I know Mr. Hu,” replied Feng. “His household isn’t too well regu­lated. Still, that doesn’t matter if the girl herself is good.”

Jia Lian changed the subject by saying, “I’ve heard from someone in the cabinet that Yucun is to be promoted again.”

“Good,” said Jia Zheng. “But is this news reliable, I wonder?”

“There must be something in it,” insisted ha Lian.

“I was at the Ministry of Civil Affairs earlier on, and I heard the same talk,” confirmed Feng. “Is respected Master Yucun a member of your honourable clan?”

“Yes, he is,” said Jia Zheng.

“A close relation or a distant connection?”

“It’s a long story. He’s a native of Huzhou Prefecture in Zhejiang, who moved to Suzhou and didn’t make out too well there; but a certain Zhen Shiyin befriended him and helped him out. Then he passed the pal­ace examination and was appointed a magistrate, after which he married one of the Zhen family’s maids — his present wife is his second. Then Zhen Shiyin lost all his money and seems to have disappeared. At the time when Yucun was dismissed from his post, he didn’t know our fam­ily. My brother-in-law Lin Ruhai, who was Salt Commissioner of Yangzhou then, engaged him as a tutor for his daughter. When word came that he might be reinstated, he decided to return to the capital; and as my niece happened to be coming to visit us, her father asked Yucun to escort her here and wrote a letter recommending him to me. Since he made a fairly good impression on me; we saw quite a bit of each other. The strange thing was that Yucun knew our whole family history from the start — all about our Rong and Ning Mansions, the inmates of each, and different happenings here. So we were soon on a familiar footing.” He added with a smile, “He very soon learned how to climb the official ladder, getting himself promoted from the post of a prefect to that of a censor and then, in another few years, becoming Vice-Minister of Civil Affairs and Minis­ter of War. After that, for some reason, he was demoted three ranks. Now it seems he is going up again.”

“Prosperity and ruin,” observed Feng, “are as unpredictable as suc­cess or failure in one’s official career.

“Yucun counts as one who has got off lightly,” rejoined Jia Zheng. “There are other families much like ours, the Zhen family for instance, who had the same achievements to their credit, the same hereditary honours, the same way of life, with whom we were very close. A few years ago when they came to the capital, they would send people to call on us and they cut quite a dash. Before long, though, their property was confiscated and no more has been heard of them ever since. We don’t know what’s become of the family and can’t help worrying about them. Don’t you think this must strike fear into officials?”

“Well, our family should be safe,” ha She observed.

“Of course, your honourable family has nothing to fear,” Feng as­sured him. “You have Her Highness in the Palace to watch over you, and a host of good friends and kinsmen. Besides, not one of your family from the old lady down to your young masters is grasping or niggardly.”

“That may be so,” said Jia Zheng. “But they have no virtue or ability either. How long can they go on just living on their capital?”

“Don’t talk that,” protested Jia She. “Let’s have some more drinks.”

They drank a few more cups, then rice was served. After they had finished the meal and drunk some tea, Feng’s page came over to whisper something to him, and he asked permission to leave.

Jia She asked the page what he had said.

“It’s snowing outside, sir, and the first watch has sounded.”

Jia Zheng sent a servant to look, who reported that more than one inch of snow had fallen.

“Have you put those valuables away?” Jia Zheng asked.

“Yes, uncle,” said Feng. “If your honourable family has any use for them, we can of course negotiate the price.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

“I’ll wait to hear from you. It’s cold; please don’t see me out.”

Jia Zheng and Jia She told Jia Lian to see him out. If you wish to know the sequel, read the next chapter.

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