A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 96

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Chapter 96

Xifeng Withholds Information and

Lays a Cunning Plan

Disclosure of a Secret

Deranges Daiyu

Jia Lian stormed to the study with the counterfeit jade, and when the man there saw how angry he looked his heart misgave him. He hastily rose to greet him, but before he could speak Jia Lian laughed scornfully.

“Of all the gall!” he swore. “You scoundrel! What place is this that you dare play such devilish tricks here?”

He called for servants. Those outside answered his summons with a shout like thunder.

“Get ropes and tie him up,” ordered Jia Lian. “We’ll report this to the master on his return and send this rogue to the yamen.”

“Very good, sir!” chorused the servants, but made no move.

Nearly paralyzed with fright by this show of power, the fellow knew that there was no escape and dropping to his knees kowtowed to Jia Lian.

“Don’t be angry, Your Lordship!” he begged. “It’s because I was driven to it by poverty that I thought up this shameless scheme. I bor­rowed money to get that jade made, but I won’t venture to ask for it back

I’ll give it as a plaything to your young masters.” He kowtowed again and again.

“You stupid fool!” Jia Lian spat out. “Who in this mansion wants your trash?”

At this point Lai Da came in. With a smile he urged Jia Lian, “Don’t be angry, sir. This wretc4i isn’t worth it. Let him off and send him pack­ing.”

“It’s disgraceful!“ Jia Lian fumed.

So Lai Da took a soft line, Jia Lian a hard one, until the servants outside called, “You stupid cur! Hurry up and kowtow to the master and Mr. Lai, then clear off. Are you waiting to be kicked out?”

Then he hastily kowtowed twice and slunk away. But this counter­feiting of Baoyu’s jade became the talk of the town.

When Jia Zheng returned that day from his round of calls, as the matter was done with and they were afraid to enrage him during the Lantern Festival, no one reported it to him. Yuanchun’s funeral had kept them busy for some time and now, with Baoyu ill, although there were the usual family feasts the whole household was in low spirits and nothing noteworthy happened.

By the seventeenth of the first month Lady Wang was looking for­ward to her brother Wang Ziteng’s arrival when Xifeng came in with bad news.

“Today the Second Master heard outside that uncle was travelling here posthaste, and was only two hundred li or so away when he died on the road!” she cried. “Did you here this, madam?”

“Not I!” exclaimed Lady Wang in consternation. “The master said nothing about it last night either. Where did this news come from?”

“The house of Chancellor Zhang.”

Lady Wang was speechless, in tears.

Presently, wiping her eyes, she said, “Get Lian to check up on it and let me know.”

Xifeng went off to do this.

Lady Wang had been reduced to weeping in secret as she mourned her daughter and worried over Baoyu, and now this third misfortune in swift succession was more than she could bear — she came down with colic. Moreover, Jia Lian confirmed that the news was true.

“Uncle was worn out by travelling so fast and he caught a chill,” he told her. “When he reached Shilitun a doctor was sent for, but unfortu­nately that place has no good doctors. The wrong medicine was pre­scribed and one dose killed him. We don’t know whether his family has arrived there or not.”

Lady Wang’s heart ached at this news, aggravating her pains. Un­able to remain seated, she made Caiyun and others help her on to the kang, then speaking with an effort told Jia Lian to report this to Jia Zheng.

“Make ready to go there at once to help see to things,” she said.

“Then come straight back to let us know about it, to set your wife’s mind at rest.”

Unable to refuse, Jia Lian had to take his leave of Jia Zheng and set off.

Jia Zheng, who had heard the news earlier, was thoroughly discon­certed, knowing also that Baoyu since losing his jade had grown feeble­minded and no medicine would cure him, while now Lady Wang was ill too.

That year the records of officials in the capital were examined, and the Ministry of Works ranked Jia Zheng as first class. In the second month, the Minister of Civil Affairs took him to an audience at court and the Emperor, in recognition of his frugality and circumspection, appointed him Grain Commissioner of Jiangxi. That same day, giving thanks for this favour, he reported to the throne the date of his departure. Kinsmen and friends came to offer congratulations, but disturbed as he was by his domestic problems Jia Zheng was in no mood to-entertain them. Still he dared not postpone his journey.

He was in a quandary when he received a summons from the old lady and, hastening to her room, found his wife there too in spite of her illness. He paid his respects to his mother, who told him to take a seat.

“You will soon be going to your new post,” she said tearfully. “There is much I want to say to you, but will you listen?”

Jia Zheng promptly rose to his feet.

“Just give me your orders, madam. How dare your son disobey them?”

“I’m eighty-one this year, yet you’re going to post in the provinces,” she sobbed. “You can’t ask for compassionate leave either, as you have an elder brother at home to take care of me. Once you’re gone, there’ll be only Baoyu here that I care for, but the poor boy’s losing his mind and we don’t know what will become of him! Yesterday I sent Lai Sheng’s wife to get someone to tell Baoyu’s fortune. She found a very clever fortune-teller who said, ‘He must marry a bride with gold in her stars to help counteract his bad luck; otherwise there’ll probably be no saving him.’ I know you don’t believe in such things, so I’ve asked you here to consult you. Your wife is here too, so the two of you can talk it over. Should we try to save Baoyu? Or let things take their course?”

Jia Zheng answered submissively, “You were so good to your son, madam, do you think I don’t love my son too? It’s only because Baoyu made so little progress that I was often exasperated with him — just a case of wanting to ‘turn iron into steel.’ If you wish him to take a wife, as is right and proper, how could I disobey you and show no concern for him? I am worried too by his illness. Since you kept him away from me I dared not object; but can I not see for myself just how ill he is?”

Lady Wang saw that the rims of his eyes had reddened and knew how distressed he was. She therefore told Xiren to bring Baoyu in. When the boy saw his father, prompted by Xiren he paid his respects; but with his emaciated face and his lack-lustre eyes he looked like a moron. Jia Zheng told them to take him back.

He reflected, “I’m nearing sixty, and now I’m posted to the prov­inces with no knowing when I shall come back. If this child really doesn’t recover, I shall be left heirless in my old age; for my grandson, after all, is another generation removed. Besides, Baoyu is the old lady’s favourite:

if anything happens to him, I shall be guilty of a greater crime.” He saw from his wife’s tears how this must affect her too.

Rising to his feet he said, “Old as you are, madam, you show such concern for your grandson, how can I, your son, disobey you? I shall fall in with whatever you think best. But will Aunt Xue agree to this, I won­der?”

“She gave her consent some time ago,” Lady Wang told him. “We haven’t spoken of it yet simply because Pan’t business still isn’t settled.”

“This is the first problem.” he answered. “With her brother in jail, how can his sister get married? In the second place, although an Imperial Consort’s death does not preclude marriages, Baoyu should mourn for nine months for a married sister, and this is hardly the time for him to take a wife. Furthermore, the date of my departure has already been reported to the throne, and I cannot postpone it. How are we to arrange a wedding in these few days?”

The old lady thought, “He’s right. But if we wait till these are no longer problems, Baoyu’s father will be gone, and what shall we do if his illness gets steadily worse? We shall just have to disregard certain rules of etiquette.”

Her mind made up she said, “If you’re willing, I know of a way to get round these obstacles. I shall go myself with your wife to ask Aunt Xue ‘s consent. As for Pan, I’ll get Ke to tell him that we have to do this to save Baoyu’s life, and then he’s bound to agree. Of course it wouldn’t do to have a real marriage while in mourning, and Baoyu is too ill for that anyway — we just want a happy event to ward off evil. As both our families agree and there was that prediction about the young people’s ‘gold’ and ‘jade,’ there’s no need to compare their horoscopes; we’ll just select a good date to exchange gifts according to our family status. Then we’ll choose a day for the wedding, not engaging musicians but following the example of-the Palace, fetching the bride over in a sedan-chair with eight bearers and twelve pairs of lanterns. They can bow to each other as is done in the south, then sit down on the bed and let down the curtains, and won’t that count as a wedding?

“Baochai’s so intelligent, we don’t have to worry. Besides, he has Xiren in his chambers as well, and so much the better, as she’s another reliable, sensible girl who knows how to reason with him. She and Baochai get on well too.

“Another thing. Aunt Xue once told me, ‘A monk said that Baochai with her golden locket is destined to marry someone with jade.’ So for all we know, once she marries into our household her gold locket may bring the jade back. Then he should get steadily better, and wouldn’t that be a blessing for us all?

“All that needs to be done straight away is to get their rooms ready and furnished — it’s for you to assign them a place. We won’t give any feasts, but wait till Baoyu’s better and out of mourning before inviting relatives and friends. In this way we can manage everything in time, and you can leave with an easy mind, having seen the young couple settled.”

Jia Zheng though averse to this could not gainsay his mother. Forcing a smile he said, “You have thought it out well and that would be most fitting, madam. We must order the servants, though, not to noise this abroad or we should be censured for it. I’m only afraid Aunt Xue’s family may not agree. If they really do, we must manage it your way.”

“Just leave Aunt Xue to me,” she said, then dismissed him.

Jia Zheng withdrew feeling thoroughly uneasy. He had so much to do before going to his post, what with fetching credentials from the ministry, receiving relatives and friends who came with recommendations and entertaining a host of other people, that he left the arrangements for Baoyu’s wedding to his mother, wife and Xifeng. All he did was to assign his son a side-court with more than twenty rooms in it, adjacent to Lady Wang’s house behind the Hall of Glorious Felicity. When the old lady sent him word of some decision, he simply replied, “Very good.” But this is anticipating.

After Baoyu had seen his father, Xiren helped him back to the kang in the inner room. Since Jia Zheng was outside, no one ventured to speak to Baoyu, who dozed off and thus heard nothing of the conversation in the outer room. However, Xiren, keeping quiet, heard it clearly. Talk of this had reached her before, though only as hearsay, yet she tended to believe it in view of the fact that Baochai’s visits had stopped. This con­firmation today delighted her.

“The mistresses certainly have good judgement,” she thought. “This is just the match for him. And what luck for me too! If she comes, my load will be ever so much lighter. But he’s set his heart on Miss Lin, so it’s a blessing that he didn’t hear this. If he had, Heaven knows how wildly he’d carry on!” This set her worrying.

“What shall I do?” she wondered. “Their Ladyships have no idea of their feelings for each other. They may be so pleased that they tell him, in the hope of curing him. Then suppose he acts the way he did when he first met Miss Lin and tried to smash his jade; or that summer in the Garden, when he mistook me for her and poured out his love; or when Zijuan teased him later, and he nearly cried himself to death? If they tell him now that he’-s to have not Miss Lin but Miss Baochai, it may not matter if his wits are wandering; but if-he’s fairly lucid, far from curing his madness it may hasten his death. Unless I explain this to them I may ruin three lives!”

Having reached this resolve she waited till Jia Zheng had gone, then leaving Baoyu in the care of Qiuwen she slipped out and quietly asked Lady Wang to go with her to the back room. The Lady Dowager paid little attention, assuming that there was something Baoyu wanted, and went on considering the gifts and arrangements for the wedding.

Once in the back room with Lady Wang, Xiren threw herself on her knees and burst into tears.

Lady Wang pulled her up and asked in surprise, “What’s come over you? What’s the trouble? Get up and tell me.”

“This is something a slave shouldn’t say, but I see no other way out!”

“Well, take your time and tell me.

“Your Ladyships have decided to marry Miss Baochai to Baoyu, and of course nothing could be better. All I’m wondering, madam, is this: which of the two, Miss Baochai and Miss Lin, do you think Baoyu pre­fers?”

“As he and Miss Lin were together as children, he’s slightly fonder of her.”

“Not just ‘slightly fonder,”’ Xiren demurred, going on to cite ex­amples of their behaviour. “Except for the avowal he made that summer, which I’ve never dared tell anyone, you saw the other instances your­self, madam,” she concluded.

Holding Xiren’s hand Lady Wang answered, “I did have some inkling from what I saw. Now you’ve clinched it. But he must have heard what the master said just now. Did you notice his reaction?”

“Nowadays w-hen people talk to him he smiles; if no one talks to him he goes to sleep. So-he didn’t hear what was said.”

“Then what’s to be done?”

“I’ve made bold to tell you this, madam. It’s for you to tell the old lady and think of some really safe plan.”

“In that case, get back to your work. I won’t mention it now there are too many people there. I’ll wait for a chance to tell her later on, and then we shall see.”

She rejoined the Lady Dowager who was discussing Baoyu’s mar­riage with Xifeng.

“What did Xiren want that she looked so secretive?” the old lady asked.

Lady Wang took this opening to give her a detailed account of Baoyu’s feeling for Daiyu. For a while the old lady said nothing, and Lady Wang and Xifeng kept silent too.

“Nothing else really matters,” the old lady sighed at last. “We needn’t worry about Daiyu. But if Baoyu is really so infatuated, it’s going to be difficult!”

“Not too difficult,” said Xifeng after some thought. “I’ve an idea, but don’t know whether Aunt Xue will agree to it or not.”

“If you have a plan, tell the old lady,” said Lady Wang. “We can discuss it together.”

“To my mind,” said Xifeng, “the only way is to ‘palm off a dummy’ on him.”

“Palm off what dummy?” the old lady asked.

“Never mind whether Baoyu is in his right mind or not, we must all drum it into his head that on the master’s orders he is to marry Miss Lin, and see how he takes it. If he doesn’t care either way, we needn’t trick him. If he’s pleased, we’ll have to do things more deviously.”

“Well, assuming he’s pleased, what then?” asked Lady Wang.

Xifeng went over to whisper something into her ear, at which she nodded and smiled.

“That should work,” she said.

“Tell me what you two are plotting,” urged the old lady.

In order not to give away -the secret, Xifeng whispered in her ear too. As she had anticipated, the old lady did not understand at first and Xifeng, smiling, had to explain more fully.

“That’s all right,” agreed the old lady. “Rather hard on Baochai, though. And if word gets out, what about Daiyu?”

“We’ll just tell Baoyu and forbid any mention of this outside, then how could she hear?”

At this point a maid announced Jia Lian’s return. Not wanting the old lady to question him, Lady Wang signaled to Xifeng who went out to meet him, signing to him to go with her to Lady Wang’s place. By the time they were joined by Lady Wang, Xifeng’s eyes were red from weep­ing. Jia Lian, when he had paid his respects, described his trip to Shilitun to help arrange for Wang Ziteng’s funeral.

“An Imperial decree has conferred on him the rank of Grand Secre­tary and the posthumous title of Duke Wenqin,” he announced. “The family has been ordered to take the coffin back to his native district, and officials along the way are to render assistance. They set off on the journey back south yesterday. My aunt told me to convey her respects and say how sorry she is to have been unable to come to the capital —there was so much she wanted to tell you. When she heard that Xifeng’s brother was on his way to the capital too, she promised if she met him on the road to send him here to give us all her news.

Lady Wang was naturally so upset by this account that Xifeng had to comfort her.

“Please have a rest now, madam,” she urged. “This evening we’ll come back to discuss Baoyu’s business.”

Going home with Jia Lian she told him what had happened, and asked him to send servants to prepare the bridal chambers.

One morning after breakfast, Daiyu set off to call on her grandmother to pay her respects and also by way of diversion. They had not gone far from Bamboo Lodge when she found that she had forgotten her hand­kerchief. She told Zijuan to go back for one then catch her up she would be walking on slowly. She had passed Seeping Fragrance Bridge and reached the rocks behind which she and Baoyu had buried blossom, when she suddenly heard sobbing. She stopped to listen, but could not tell who was lamenting there or hear what she was saying. Very puzzled, she strolled over and found that the one crying there was an under-maid with thick eyebrows and big eyes.

Daiyu had expected to see one of the upper-maids come here to vent some grief which she could not confide to others. But when she saw this girl she thought with amusement, “A stupid creature like this can’t have been crossed in love. She’s one of those doing rough work who must have got scolded by the senior maids.” She looked hard at the girl but could not recognize her.

When Daiyu appeared, the maid dared not go on crying but stood up and wiped her eyes.

“Why are you weeping here? What’s come over you?” Daiyu asked.

That set the maid off again. “Judge for yourself, Miss Lin!” she sobbed. “They knew something, but I wasn’t in on it; so even if I made a slip of the tongue, sister had no call to slap me.”

Daiyu could not make head or tail of this.

“Which sister do you mean?” she asked with a smile.

“Sister Zhenzhu.”

Knowing from this that she worked for the old lady, Daiyu asked again, “What’s your name?”

“They call me Numskull.”

“Why did she slap you? What did you say wrong?”

“Why? Just because of the marriage of our Master Bao to Miss Baochai.”

Daiyu felt thunderstruck. Her heart beat wildly. Composing herself a little she said. “Come with me.”

Numskull accompanied her to the quiet spot where she had buried the peach-blossom. Then Daiyu asked, “Why should she slap you because Master Bao is marrying Miss Baochai?”

“Their Ladyships have settled it with Madam Lian. Because His Lordship’s going to leave so soon, they’re fixing up hurriedly with Aunt Xue to have Miss Baochai brought over before he goes. This will counter Master Bao’s bad luck with good. And after that… “ she beamed at Daiyu — “after his wedding they’ll fix up a match for you, miss.”

Daiyu listened, half stupefied, as the maid rattled on, “I don’t know how they settled this, but they won’t let anybody talk about it for fear of embarrassing Miss Baochai if she heard. All I did was to remark to sister Xiren— the one who works for Master Bao, ‘Things are going to be livelier here with Miss Baochai becoming Second Mistress Bao how ought we to address her?’ Tell me, Miss Lin, why should that annoy Sister Zhenzhu? Yet she marched over and slapped my face, saying I was talking nonsense and should be thrown out for not obeying orders! How was I to know the mistresses didn’t want this talked about? They never tell me anything, yet slap me!” She started sobbing again.

Daiyu felt as if her heart were filled with a mixture of oil, soy, sugar and vinegar — so sweet, bitter, painful and sharp that she could not put her sensations into words.

After a pause, in a trembling voice she said, “Don’t talk such non­sense. If they heard, they’d give you another slapping. Be off with you now.

She turned to go back to Bamboo Lodge. But there seemed to be a mill-stone round her neck and her legs were as limp, her steps as falter­ing, as if treading on cotton-wool. It seemed a long way to Seeping Fra­grance Bridge, she was walking so slowly and so shakily; and moreover she added two bowshots to the distance by wandering about at random in a daze. When as last she reached the bridge, she inadvertently started back along the dyke.

When Zijuan brought the handkerchief Daiyu had gone. Looking round for her, she saw her white-faced, her eyes fixed in a vacant stare, wan­dering unsteadily this way and that. She also glimpsed a maid walking off in front, but too far away to make out which it was. In shocked surprise she ran over.

“Why are you going back, miss?” she asked gently. “Where do you want to go?”

Hearing her as if in a dream, Daiyu answered without thinking, “To ask Baoyu what this means.”

Zijuan, nonplussed as she was, had to help her to the Lady Dowager’s quarters. When Daiyu reached the door, her mind seemed to clear. Turn­ing to her maid who was supporting her, she stopped to ask:

“Why have you come?”

“To bring your handkerchief,” was the smiling answer. “Just now I saw you by the bridge, but when I accosted you, you paid no attention.”

“I thought you’d come to see Master Bao,” Daiyu laughed. “Why else should you come this way?”

Zijuan saw that her wits were wandering, and knew that she must have heard something from that maid. She could only nod and smile. However, this visit to Baoyu unnerved her, for he was already demented and now Daiyu was bemused too — what if they said something im­proper?

But for all this, she had to do as she was told and help her young mistress inside.

Strange to say, Daiyu was no longer as limp as before. Lifting the portiere herself instead of waiting for Zijuan, she stepped in. All was quiet, for the old lady was having a nap, and her maids had either slipped out to play or were nodding drowsily or attending her. The clack of the portiere alerted Xiren, who came out from the inner room.

“Please come in and take a seat, miss,” she invited when she saw who it was.

“Is Master Bao in?” Daiyu asked with a smile.

Xiren, being in the dark, was about to answer when Zijuan signaled to her from behind Daiyu and, pointing at her young mistress, waved her hand warningly. Xiren was too puzzled by this to say any more. Daiyu, disregarding her, went on into the inner room where Baoyu was sitting. Instead of rising to offer her a seat, he simply stared at her with a foolish grin. Daiyu sat down and gazed back at him with a smile. They exchanged neither greetings nor civilities, just simpered at each other without a word.

Xiren, at a complete loss, did not know what to do.

“Baoyu,” said Daiyu abruptly. “Why are you ill?”

“Because of Miss Lin,” he answered with a smirk.

Xiren and Zijuan turned pale with fright and at once tried to change the subject; but the other two ignored them, still smiling foolishly. It dawned on Xiren that Daiyu was now deranged too, exactly like Baoyu.

She whispered to Zijuan, “Your young lady’s just over her illness. I’ll get Sister Qiuwen to help you take her back to rest.” She turned to tell Qiuwen, “Go with Sister Zijuan to see Miss Lin back. Mind you don’t say anything foolish.”

Qiuwen complied readily. In silence she and Zijuan helped Daiyu to her feet. She kept her eyes on Baoyu, smiling and nodding.

“Go home and rest, miss,” Zijuan urged her.

“Of course!” said Daiyu. “It’s time for me to go now.

She turned and went out, still smiling, without their assistance and walking much faster than usual. The two maids hurried after her as once out of her grandmother’s compound she forged straight ahead.

“This way, miss!” cried Zijuan, catching hold of her arm.

Daiyu allowed herself to be led back and soon they approached the gate of Bamboo Lodge.

“Gracious Buddha!” sighed Zijuan in relief. “Home at last!”

But the words were still on her lips when Daiyu staggered and fell, vomiting blood. To know what became of her, read the next chapter.

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