A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 93


Chapter 93

A Servant of the Zhen Family Offers

His Services to the Jias

A Scandal in Water Moon Convent

Is Exposed

After Feng Ziying had gone, Jia Zheng summoned the gateman.

“Today the Duke of Linan sent invitations to a banquet,” he said. “Do you know what the occasion is?”

“I asked, sir,” replied the gateman. “It’s no special celebration, but a company of young actors — a company with a fine reputation has come to the Prince of Nanan’s Mansion; and the duke is so pleased with them that he’s putting on two days’ performances for his friends’ en­joyment. It should be very lively. There’s probably no need to send pre­sents.”

Jia She came over at this point to ask Jia Zheng if he would be going the next day.

“I suppose we’ll have to,” was the reply, “to show our apprecia­tion.”

Just then the gateman came back to report, “The secretary from your yamen has come to ask you to go there tomorrow, sir, as the minister has some business and will need you earlier than usual.” “Very well.”

Then two of the family’s bailiffs came in and paid their respects. After kowtowing they stood there at attention.

“Are you two from Hao Village?” Jia Zheng asked. “Yes, sir.”

Instead of inquiring their business, -he chatted with Jia She till the latter rose to go and was escorted home by servants with lanterns.

Jia Lian then asked the bailiffs, “Well, what have you come for?”

“We collected the rent in kind for the tenth month,” they reported. “It should have arrived here tomorrow, but outside the city our carts were commandeered and, when we protested, all the things on them were dumped on the ground. We told them these weren’t merchants’ carts but were delivering rent to your mansions. Still they paid no attention. When we told the carters to drive on, some runners beat them up and made off with our .two carts. So we’ve come to report this, sir, and ask you to send to the yamen to get them back. Those lawless runners should be punished too. You’ve no idea, sir, how hard it is on merchants. All their goods are unloaded, regardless, and their carts are driven away. If the carters so much as murmur, they get their heads smashed in.”

“Outrageous!” swore Jia Lian.

He there and then wrote a note and told the servants, “Take this to the local yamen and demand the return of the carts as well as the pro­duce. We won’t stand for it if one single thing is missing! And send Zhou Rui here at once!”

But Zhou Rui was absent. And when they looked for Lai Wang, they found he had gone out after lunch and not yet returned.

“Not one of the bastards is here!” swore Jia Lian. “They do not work

—just gorge themselves all the year round.” He ordered his pages, “Go and find them, quick!” Then he went home to sleep.

The next day the Duke of Linan sent over again to invite them.

Jia Zheng told Jia She, “I have business in my yamen. And Lian can’t go either, he has to stay in to deal with this commandeering of our carts. For politeness’ sake, you’d better take Baoyu over for the day.”

Jia She nodded. “That’s all right.”

Then Jia Zheng sent for Baoyu. “You’re to go with Lord She to the opera in the Duke of Linan’s place,” he told him.

Baoyu, only too delighted, changed his clothes and went off with Beiming, Saohong and Chuyao to present himself to Jia She and pay his respects. They drove to the duke’s mansion, where the gateman an­nounced their arrival then ushered them in. Jia She led Baoyu into the courtyard in which a lively party had assembled. After they had paid their respects to the duke and greeted the other guests, everyone sat down to talk. Then the manager of the company stepped forward with an ivory tablet and a compendium of their repertoire. Falling on one knee he said:

“Please make your choice, gentlemen.”

In order of seniority they selected operas. And when it came to Jia She’s turn, the manager caught sight of Baoyu. He hurried straight over to him and saluted.

“Please choose a couple of scenes, Master Bao,” he said.

This man with his clear complexion and red lips was fresh as lotus taken from the water, graceful as a jade tree in the breeze. Baoyu recog­nized him at one glance as Jiang Yuhan. He had heard not long before that Jiang had brought a company of young actors to the capital, but his old friend had failed to come to see him. He could hardly stand up in this company to greet him.

“When did you come back?” he asked him with a smile.

Jiang pointing at himself murmured, “Surely you know, Second Mas­ter.”

As they could not very well converse in public, Baoyu just picked one item at random. After Jiang Yuhan had moved on, there was some specu­lation about him.

“Who is he?” someone asked.

“He used to play young ladies,” another man answered. “Now that he’s too old for that, he acts as manager instead and sometimes takes young men’s roles. He’s put aside a tidy sum of money and owns a couple of shops, but he won’t give up his profession and goes on manag­ing an opera company.

“1 suppose he must have married,” one guest remarked.

“No, he’s not engaged yet. He’s got this idea fixed that marriage is for keeps, affecting one’s whole life, not something to enter into casu­ally; so his wife, regardless of her social status, must measure up to his talent. That’s why he’s still unmarried.”

Baoyu wondered who the lucky girl would be to marry a man of his ability.

Then the performance started. And very lively it was too, with Kunqu, Yiqiang, Gaoqiang and Ban Zi operas.1 At noon tables were set out for the feast, and when they had watched a little longer Jia She rose to leave.

“It’s still early,” said the duke, coming over to press him to stay. “And I’ve heard that Jiang Yuhan is going to play in their best item — a scene from The Oil-Vendor and the Courtesan.”

Baoyu hearing this was most eager to stay, and so Jia She resumed his seat. Then, sure enough, Jiang Yuhan came on in the role of the oil-vendor Qin, and gave an excellent performance of how the young man cared for the courtesan when she was drunk, after which the two of them drank and sang together in affectionate intimacy.

Baoyu was not interested in the heroine, having eyes only for the young hero. And he was quite enraptured by his singing, for Jiang Yuhan had a resonant voice, clear enunciation and good sense of rhythm. By the time this scene ended he was firmly convinced that Jiang was a romantic, completely unique. He thought, “The Book of Music rightly says, ‘Stirred feelings find expression in sound, and when the sound follows a pattern we call it music.’ So sounds, notes and music take some understanding, and a study has to be made of their origin. Poetry can convey emotions, but it can’t thrill us to the marrow. In future I really must make a study of music.”

His reverie was interrupted by Jia She rising to leave. As their host could not prevail on him to stay, Baoyu had no choice but to go back with him.

On their return Jia She went home. And Baoyu, paying his duty call on his father, found him just back from the ministry questioning ha Lian about the seizure of their carts.

Jia Lian said, “I sent servants there today with my card, but the mag­istrate was out. His factotum said, ‘His Excellency knew nothing about this, and gave no orders for the requisition of carts. It’s all the fault of those trouble-making scoundrels who take unfair advantage of people outside. As these are His Lordship’s carts, I’ll send at once to investi­gate and guarantee to return them as well as the things tomorrow. If there is any delay, I shall report it to His Excellency and have them se­verely punished. But since he is away now, I hope His Lordship will be understanding, as it would be better not to trouble my master.

“Without some official order, who would dare do such a thing?” de­manded Jia Zheng.

“You don’t understand, sir,” said.Jia Lian. “It’s like this everywhere outside the city. I’m sure they’ll return our property tomorrow.” With that he withdrew.

Then Baoyu paid his respects to his father, who questioned him briefly before sending him to call on his grandmother.

As the stewards had been out the day before when Jia Lian sent for them, he had summoned them all and now they were ready waiting. Hav­ing cursed them roundly he told the chief steward Lai Da, “Bring me the roster of servants and check their names; then write an announcement for them all to read. If anyone sneaks off without asking leave and isn’t on hand when called, holding up our business, you’re to beat him for me and drive him out forthwith!”

“Yes, sir! Yes, sir!”

Lai Da went out to pass on this warning, and thereafter the servants were more circumspect.

Soon after this, a man came to the gate wearing a felt cap, blue cotton clothes and slippers with cloth soles and leather uppers. He saluted the servants on duty, who looked him over from head to foot before asking where he came from.

“From the Zhen family in the south,” he answered. “I’ve a letter from my master which I’d like to trouble you gentlemen to take in to His Lordship.”

When they heard this they stood up and offered him a seat.

“You must be tired. Sit down,” they urged. “We’ll see to it for you.”

One gateman went in and reported this, handing Jia Zheng the letter which he opened and read:

… Our families have been long-standing friends sharing similar tastes, and I have the greatest admiration for you. My criminal incompetence deserved punishment by a thousand deaths, but instead the court with gracious clemency sent me to this border region. Now our fortunes have declined and our family is scattered. Our servant’s son Bao Yong, who used to serve me, though he has no outstanding ability is quite honest. If you would take him on, enabling him to support himself, I should be infinitely grateful for your kindness. This is my letter’s sole purpose. I shall write more fully later.

After reading this Jia Zheng smiled.

“We were thinking that our staff is too large,” he said. “However, we can’t turn away someone recommended by the Zhen family.” He told the gateman, “Bring him here. We’ll keep him and find him some appro­priate work.”

So the gateman fetched Bao Yong, who kowtowed three times to Jia Zheng. Getting up again he said, “My master sends his respects, sir. Then he went down on one knee in salute, saying, “Bao Yong pays his respects, sir.”

Jia Zheng asked after Mr. Zhen’s health and scrutinized Bao Yong as he stood there in an attitude of respect. Just over five feet and broad-shouldered, he had thick eyebrows, protuberant eyes and a low forehead. His face was bearded and swarthy.

“Have you always been in the Zhen family or only worked there for a few years?” Jia Zheng asked.

“I have always been their man, sir.”

“Then why do you want to leave them now?”

“I didn’t want to, but my master insisted. He said, ‘You wouldn’t agree to going anywhere else, but serving the Jia family will be like serv­ing us.’ So I came, sir.”

“Your master should never have got into such trouble, reducing him to these straits.”

“If I may make bold to say so, it’s because my master’s too good. He always treats people honestly, and that landed him in trouble.”

“Surely it’s good to be honest.”

“But because he was too honest, sir, nobody liked him and he of­fended some people.”

“Well, in that case Heaven will give him his due deserts,” Jia Zheng laughed. Before Bao Yong could reply he went on to ask, “Is it true, as I heard, that your younger master’s name is also Baoyu?” “Yes, sir.”

“Is he doing well?”

“As for our Master Bao, sir, that’s a strange story. He’s like his father —too honest. As a child, what he liked best was playing about with girls, and though his parents gave him several good beatings he wouldn’t mend his ways. That year our mistress came to the capital, Master Bao fell very ill. He lost consciousness for so long that his father was frantic and had all the funeral preparations made. Then, luckily, he came round. But he started raving that he’d met a girl by an archway who took him into a temple, inside which were many cabinets filled with albums. Then going into a room he saw countless girls who’d all turned into ghosts or skel­etons. That set him screaming with fright. As soon as our master saw that he’d come to he gave him good medical treatment, and gradually he recovered. After that, when our master sent him off to amuse himself with the girls, as he always used to, we discovered that he’d changed— he no longer enjoyed his old pleasures but much preferred to study. Even when they tried to coax him away from his books, he took no interest at all. So now, little by little, he’s learning to help his father manage the household.”

Jia Zheng digested this in thoughtful silence.

“Go off and rest now,” he said presently. “When a task comes up that you can do, of course we’ll assign you some duties.”

Bao Yong thanked him and withdrew, going out with the gateman to rest. But no more of this.

One morning, Jia Zheng rose early and was setting off to his yamen when he noticed the servants at the gate whispering and muttering among themselves as if they had some news for him which they dared not report outright. He called them over.

“What is this hole-and-corner business’?” he demanded.

“We hardly dare tell you, sir,” one of them answered.

“Why not? Out with it!”

“This morning when we got up and opened the gate, we found a sheet of paper pasted on it, covered with scurrilous writing.”

“The idea!” exclaimed Jia Zheng. “What was it?”

“Dirty talk about Water Moon Convent, sir.”

“Bring me the paper,” he ordered.

“We tried to take it down, but it was glued on too firmly; so we copied it out, then soaked the .paper to get it off. Just now Li De brought another sheet to show us — the same as the one on the gate. We dare not hide it from you, sir.”

They presented the paper, and he read:

Jia Qin, a young supervisor,

To Water Moon Convent came.

One male among so many females,

He’s free to drink, whore and game.

This worthless young master set in charge

Is giving the Rong Mansion a bad name!

So enraged by this that his mind reeled, Jia Zheng ordered the ser­vants to say nothing about it but to make a quiet search of the walls of the alleys in the vicinity. He then sent for Jia Lian, who came hurrying over.

Without any preliminaries Jia Zheng asked him, “Have you ever checked up on those novices in Water Moon Convent?”

“No,” said ha Lian. “Qin’s always been in charge of them.”

“Do you think him capable of such a trust?”

“Since you ask, sir, I suppose he must have fallen down on the job.”

Jia Zheng sighed. “Look what’s written on this poster!”

Jia Lian read it and exclaimed, “Could this be true?”

Just then along came Jia Rong with an envelope marked “Confiden­tial” addressed to Jia Zheng. When they opened it, they found another copy of the same anonymous lampoon as that pasted on the gate.

Jia Zheng said, “Tell Lai Da to go at once with three or four carriages to the convent, to bring back all those novices. Don’t let word of this get out. Just tell them that they’re wanted in the Palace.”

Lai Da went off to carry out these orders.

Now the young Buddhist and Taoist novices when first they went to the convent had been in the charge of an old abbess who daily taught them litanies and invocations. But because the Imperial Consort never sent for them, they gradually became lax in their devotions; and as they grew older they began to take an interest in men. Jia Qin was a romantic. In his view, it had simply been a childish whim which made these ac­tresses enter a convent, and accordingly he went to daily with them. As Fangguan, genuinely devout, was deaf to his enticements, he turned his attention to the other girls. Among these were a Buddhist named Qinxiang and a Taoist named Hexian, both of whom had seductive charm. So Jia Qin became their lover and whenever they had the time they would get together and learn how to sing and play the fiddle.

Since this was the middle of the tenth month and Jia Qin had just brought the monthly allowance for the convent, he hit on an idea.

“I’ve brought your allowance,” he told the girls. “But as I can’t get back to town today, I’ll have to spend the night here. It’s very cold, isn’t it? So suppose we sit up together to enjoy these sweetmeats and wine that I’ve brought with me?”

The novices, very pleased, set tables ready and invited the older nuns too. Fangguan was the only one who declined to join them. After a few cups Jia Qin proposed playing some drinking games.

“We don’t know how to,” said Qinxiang and the others. “Let’s just play the guessing-fingers game, and whoever loses must drink. Wouldn’t that be simpler?”

The older nuns objected, “It’s only just after noon, and it wouldn’t look right to have a rowdy party. Let’s drink a few cups, then those who like can leave first. Those who want to keep Master Qin company can drink all they please this evening, and we won’t interfere.”

Just then a serving-woman hurried in.

“Break this up, this minute!” she cried. “Here’s Mr. Lai from the Jia Mansion!”

The novices hastily set about clearing the tables and urged Jia Qin to hide.

But emboldened by a few cups of wine he blustered, “I came to bring the monthly allowance. I’m not afraid!”

While he was still speaking, in came Lai Da. The sight that met his eyes enraged him. But as Jia Zheng had enjoined strict secrecy, he forced himself to smile.

“So you are here too, Master Qin,” he said.

“What brings you here, Mr. Lai?” asked Jia Qin who had risen to his feet.

“I’m glad you’re here, sir. Tell these novices to get ready at once to drive to town. They’re wanted in the Palace.”

This puzzled them all, but before they could question him the steward continued, “Time presses. Be quick about it, or we may be shut out.”

The novices had to mount the carriages then. And Lai Da, riding a big mule, escorted them back to the city.

Meanwhile Jia Zheng, too angry to go to his yamen, sat alone in his study sighing over this scandal, and Jia Lian felt constrained to stay with him.

Then a gateman came in to announce, “His Lordship Zhang who should be on duty in the yamen this evening is ill, sir, and they would like you to take over for him.”

Jia Zheng was waiting for Lai Da’s return to deal with Jia Qin. Exas­perated at having to go back on duty now, he made no answer. Jia Lian stepped up to him.

“Lai Da left after lunch, and the convent is some twenty ii from town; so even if he hurries he can’t get back till the second watch,” he said. “If you are needed at the yamen, sir, you can go with an easy mind. When Lai Da gets back. I’ll tell him to detain the novices and keep the matter quiet. You can deal with them when you come home tomorrow. If Jia Qin comes, we needn’t tell him anything either, but see how he ac­counts for himself to you tomorrow.”

Jia Zheng seeing reason in this went off to his yamen, finally giving Jia Lian a chance to go home. He made his way slowly back, inwardly blam­ing Xifeng for recommending Jia Qin; but as she was ill he knew he would have to wait before reproaching her.

However, through the servants’ gossiping word of this-had already reached the inner chambers. Pinger, who heard it first, at once told Xifeng. After a bad night Xifeng was in low spirits, worried over the trouble .at Iron-Threshold Temple. The news that an anonymous lampoon had been put up outside alarmed her.

“What does it say?” she asked quickly.

Here Pinger slipped up, “It’s nothing important,” she said casually. “Something to do with Steamed-Bread Convent.”

Xifeng with her guilty conscience was so consternated by this that she could not speak. She came over dizzy and after a fit of coughing spat out a mouthful of blood.

In a fluster Pinger corrected herself. “It’s only some problem over those Buddhist and Taoist novices in Water Moon Convent. Why should that upset you so, madam?”

“Ai! You fool!” exclaimed Xifeng in her relief. “Was it Water Moon Convent or Steamed-Bread Convent? Make up your mind!”

“I misheard it the first time, then discovered that it was Water Moon Convent, not Steamed-Bread Convent. Just now, by a slip of the tongue, I gave you the wrong name.

“I knew it must be Water Moon Convent. What have I to do with Steamed-Bread Convent? I did put Qin in charge of that convent. Prob­ably he’s been helping himself to their monthly allowance.”

“I didn’t hear talk of that but of some scandal.”

“Well, I care even less about that. Where is Master Lian?”

“They say Lord Zheng is so angry that he can’t very well leave him. When I learned there was trouble I told the maids they mustn’t blab about it; but who knows whether Their Ladyships have heard this talk or not. It seems the master ordered Lai Da to fetch those girls back. I’ve sent to find out what’s up. As you’re unwell, madam, I don’t think you need bother about their affairs.”

Just then Jia Lian came in. Xifeng wanted to question him, but his scowling face made her pretend to know nothing about this business.

While Jia Lian was having supper Lai Wang came in to report, “They’re asking for you outside, sir. Lai Da is back.”

“Is Qin with him?” asked Jia Lian.

‘‘Yes, he’s come too.”

“Go and tell Lai Da that the master has gone to his yamen. The girls are to stay in the Garden for the time being. Tomorrow, when the master comes back, they’ll be sent to the Palace. Tell Qin to wait for me in the inner study.”

Then Lai Wang went off.

When ha Qin went to the study, the way the servants pointed at him and nudged each other made him doubt this talk about a summons to the Palace. He asked what was afoot, but no one would tell him. He was puzzling over this when Jia Lian came in and, having paid his respects, Jia Qin stood at attention.

“We don’t know what Her Highness wants these girls for,” he said. “I brought them as fast as I could. Luckily I took them their allowance today and was still there, so I came back with Lai Da. I suppose you know all this, uncle.

“What do I know? You’re the one in the know,” Jia Lian rapped out.

Jia Qin, though mystified, dared not ask his meaning.

“Fine goings-on!” Jia Lian fumed. “The master is furious!”

“I’ve done nothing wrong, uncle. I take them their allowance every month, and the girls keep up their devotions.”

Jia Lian saw that he was in the dark, and as they had been playmates together he sighed.

“Shut up! Take a look at this.”

He drew the lampoon from his boot and tossed it to him. Jia Qin picked it up and read it.

“Who’s behind this?” he faltered, pale with fright. “I haven’t of­fended anyone — why go for me like this? I only go there once a month to take them the money. These charges are sheer lies. But if the master comes back and has me beaten up, I shall die of the injustice! Worse still, if my mother hears of it she’ll have me beaten to death!” As they were alone he went down on his knees to plead, “Have a heart, uncle! Save me!” He then kowtowed repeatedly, tears streaming from his eyes.

Jia Lian reflected, “This is the sort of thing the master abominates. If investigation proves that it’s true, there will be a fearful scene. If the scandal gets out, our reputation will suffer and that lampoonist will be­come even bolder. Then we’ll have a lot more trouble later on. It would be better, while the master’s on duty, to fix up some way with Lai Da to hush it up so as to avoid further trouble. So far no evidence has been produced.”

His mind made up he said, “Don’t try to fool me. Do you think I don’t know the devilry you’ve been up to? If the master beats you to make you confess, your only way out is to refuse to admit it. Get up now, you shameless creature!”

Soon after this Lai Da joined them, and Jia Lian discussed his plan with him.

“Master Qin has really behaved outrageously,” said Lai Da. “When I went to the convent just now they were drinking! The charges in that lampoon must be true.”

“Hear that, Qin?” said Jia Lian. “Lai Da wouldn’t make that up, would he?”

Jia Qin blushed and dared not say a word.

Then Jia Lian urged Lai Da, “Just say that you found Master Qin at home and so you brought him along, but you haven’t seen me. Tomorrow you must try to persuade the master not to question those girls, but in­stead to fetch a broker to take them away and sell them. If Her -Highness asks for them, we can buy some others.”

Thinking this over, Lai Da realized that a scandal would do no good but would further damage the family’s reputation. Accordingly he agreed.

Then Jia Lian said to Jia Qin, “Go with Mr. Lai and do whatever he tells you.” Jia Qin kowtowed his thanks and went off with the steward, to whom he kowtowed again when they came to a quiet spot.

“You’re really gone too far, Master Qin,” declared Lai Da. “I don’t know whom you offended to land yourself in this mess. Just think, what enemies have you?”

Jia Qin racked his brains and suddenly thought of one.

To know who it was, read the next chapter.

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