The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 101

0
176

CHAPTER 101


In Prospect Garden a moonlit apparition
repeats an ancient warning
And at Scattered Flowers Convent
the fortune-sticks provide a strange omen

Xi-feng returned to her apartment and, seeing that Jia Lian had not yet come home, began supervising the preparation of Tan-chun’s baggage and trousseau.
Later that evening, as dusk was giving way to night, she suddenly conceived the idea of going to visit Tan-chun. She told Felicity and a couple of other maids to accompany her, and sent one of them on ahead with a lantern. As they walked out, a brilliant moon had already risen, and Xi-feng told the maid carrying the lantern that she would not be needed and could go home. Then, as they passed the window of the tea-room frequented by the domestics, she heard the sound of chattering coming from within. An animated discussion of some sort seemed to be in progress, punctuated by an occasional sob or burst of laughter. It must be some of the older serving-women gathered for a gossip, thought Xi-feng; curious, and not a little apprehensive, she told Crimson to go in and mingle with them.
‘Listen carefully,’ she said. ‘Lead them on, and find out what it is they’re talking about.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ said Crimson, and went on her errand.
Xi-feng continued towards the Garden, accompanied now only by Felicity. The gate had been left ajar and mistress and maid were able to push it lightly open and walk in. Within the Garden the moonlight seemed even brighter, and the trees cast deep pools of shadow. The intense silence created an atmosphere of extreme solitude and de?solation. They were about to take the path to Autumn Studio when a gust of wind blew through the trees, releasing a shower of falling leaves and soughing through the branches with a doleful sound that startled the crows and other nesting birds into flight. Xi-feng had drunk a little wine earlier in the evening, and the wind, when it blew upon her, set her trembling.
‘How cold it is!’ said Felicity from behind, huddling up to try to keep warm. The cold was even too much for Xi-feng.
‘You’d better go home straight away and fetch me my ermine?lined sleeveless jacket. I shall wait for you at Miss Tan’s.’
Felicity was glad of a chance to put on some warmer clothes herself, and needed no second bidding.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ she replied, turning about at once and heading for home at a run.
Xi-feng had not walked much further when she thought she heard something behind her, a strange sound, like that of an animal snuf?fling. Her hair stood on end, and looking back she caught sight of something black and shiny, a nose, pointed, sniffing in her direction, and two eyes that glowed like lanterns. She was beside herself with terror and gave a cry of alarm, only to see the creature – for it was now recognizable as some sort of large dog – pad away from her, trailing a bushy tail. It went bounding up to the top of a mound of earth, stood stock-still, and then turned back towards her, raising its front paws in the air in a grotesque salutation.
Xi-feng – now in a state of abject panic and shaking hysterically -hurried on as fast as she could towards Autumn Studio. She had almost reached her destination and was turning past a large rock when she caught a fleeting glimpse of a figure in the shadows ahead of her. After a moment’s hesitation she guessed it to be a maid from one of the apartments in the Garden, and called out:
‘Who’s there?’
Xi-feng repeated the question, but no one came forward. She was already beginning to feel quite faint, and in her confusion she thought she heard a voice behind her murmuring:
‘Auntie, don’t you even recognize me?’
She spun round and saw the figure of a lady standing there before her. There was something strangely familiar about her, the beauty of her features, the elegance of her attire; and yet some?how Xi-feng could not think for the moment whose young wife it could be.
‘Auntie,’ the lady continued, ‘I see that the enjoyment of splendour and wealth is still your only concern, and that my warning to you years ago, to “plan for the hard times to come”, has gone completely unheeded.’
Xi-feng lowered her head to try to think for a moment, but still could recall neither the person’s identity, nor the occasion to which she was referring. The lady gave a rueful laugh.
‘How you loved me once! Has all memory of me been utterly erased from your mind?’
Suddenly Xi-feng knew. It was Jia Rong’s first wife, Qin Ke-qing,
‘Aiyo!’ she cried. ‘But you died long ago! What are you doing here?’
She spat at the ghost and fled. But as she did so she tripped on a stone, and the shock of the fall gave her senses a jolt, as if waking them from a dream. Although her whole body had broken out in a sweat and she was still shivering with fright, she now felt alert and clear-headed and could distinguish the forms of Crimson and Felicity walking in her direction. Anxious lest her disarray provoke un?favourable comment, she hurriedly raised herself from the ground.
‘What have you two been doing?’ she scolded them. ‘You’ve been an age. Hurry up and bring me my jacket.’
Felicity came forward and helped her into the jacket, while Crimson supported her, ready to walk on to Autumn Studio.
‘I’ve already been there,’ said Xi-feng untruthfully. ‘They are all asleep. Let’s go home now.’
She set off in great haste with the two maids. She arrived to find Jia Lian already at home, and could tell from the expression on his face that he was in a worse humour than usual. Although she wanted to ask what the matter was, she reflected that she would only be scolded for her pains, and so went straight to bed.
Next morning Jia Lian rose at dawn, intending to pay an early call on Qiu Shi-an, Eunuch Superintendent of the Inner Palace, to seek his help in connection with some personal matter. He had a little time to spare before setting off, and began glancing through the copies of the Gazette that had been delivered the day before and were lying on his table. The first item he happened to read was a routine report from the Board of Civil Office, in which the Board requested an expedited appointment to the vacant position of Senior Secretary, and received imperial authorization to proceed according to prece?dent. The next report was from the Board of Punishments, and communicated a memorial from the Governor of Yunnan Province, Wang Zhong, concerning the arrest of a gang engaged in smugg?ling firearms and gunpowder. There were eighteen members of the gang in all, the ringleader being one Bao Yin, a domestic in the employment of Grand Preceptor Jia Hua, Duke of Zhen-guo. Jia Lian paused and appeared to be turning this last item of news over in his mind for a moment. Then he read on to the next item, an impeachment brought by Li Xiao, the magistrate of Soochow. The charge in this case was that a certain mandarin had indulged his household servants and allowed them to abuse their position in the maltreatment of soldiers and civilians. It referred in particular to the attempted rape and subsequent murder of an innocent married woman, and two other members of her family, committed by one Shi Fu, who claimed to be a servant in the household of Jia Fan, hereditary noble of the third degree.
Jia Lian seemed especially troubled by this last report. He would have liked to read the sequel, but was anxious not to miss his appoint?ment with the eunuch. Changing into formal attire and dispensing with breakfast (though he did find time to take a couple of sips of the tea that Patience had just brought him), he left the house, mounted his horse and set off.
Patience put away his clothes and went in to wait on Xi-feng, who was still in bed.
‘I heard you tossing and turning last night, ma’am. You can hardly have slept a wink. Why don’t I give you a rub, and then maybe you’ll be able to have a little nap?’
Xi-feng made no reply, and Patience, interpreting this as consent, climbed up onto the kang, sat down next to her and started to administer a gentle massage. Xi-feng was on the point of falling asleep when she heard Qiao-jie crying in the next room and opened her eyes again. Patience called out:
‘Nannie Li, what are you doing? Qiao-jie’s crying. Go and pat her on the back, you lazy old so-and-so!’
Nannie Li was rudely awakened from her slumbers, and vented her ill humour on Qiao-jie by giving her a few hefty spanks, mut?tering to herself:
‘Confound you, you wretched little brat! You’ve not long to live anyway- so just shut up and go to sleep, instead of carrying on as if your mother was dead, bawling at this ungodly hour!’
She gnashed her teeth and gave the child a pinch for good measure. Qiao-jie began bawling again at once.
‘For heaven’s sake! Just listen to that!’ exclaimed Xi-feng. ‘She’s torturing my little girl! You go and give her the thrashing of her life, the evil old strumpet! And bring Qiao-jie in here to me.’
‘Don’t be too cross, ma’am,’ said Patience with a placatory smile. ‘Nannie Li would never dream of doing Qiao-jie any harm. It must have been an accident. If we beat her, there will be no end to the gossip. I can just hear it: “Beating the servants before the day’s even dawned!”‘
After a long silence, Xi-feng heaved a deep sigh:
‘See what they get up to while I’m still alive and kicking! When I die – which won’t be long now – I dread to think what will become of my poor Qiao-jie!’
‘How can you speak like that, ma’am?’ said Patience, trying to smile again. ‘Don’t start the day off on such a gloomy note!’
Xi-feng smiled bitterly:
‘What makes you so optimistic? I won’t last much longer. I’ve known it for some time. When I look back over my twenty-five years, I really can’t complain. I’ve seen things and tasted things most people have never so much as set eyes on. I’ve had more than my share of comfort and luxury. I’ve been able to indulge my every whim, no one’s ever managed to get the better of me in anything. If I am fated to die young, why, that’s something I shall simply have to accept.’
Tears were welling in Patience’s eyes. Xi-feng laughed:
‘Don’t pretend to feel sorry for me! You’ll be only too pleased to have me dead and out of the way. Then you’ll all be able to lead happy and peaceful lives, rid of this “thorn in your flesh”. There is only one thing I beg of you: whatever else happens, don’t forget my little girl!’
Patience was by now in floods of tears. Xi-feng laughed again:
‘Pull yourself together, for heaven’s sake! I’m not going to die for a little while yet. It’s too soon to start crying. Unless you want to send me to my grave before time?’
Patience dried her tears:
‘I just found what you were saying so upsetting, ma’am.’
She carried on rubbing her back, and eventually Xi-feng dozed off.
Patience had no sooner climbed down from the kang than she heard footsteps outside. It was Jia Lian. He had ended up late for his appointment, and by the time he arrived Eunuch Qiu had already left for court. So he had been obliged to return home without having achieved anything, and was clearly in the blackest of moods. His first words when he saw Patience were:
‘Aren’t the others up yet?’
‘No, sir.’
He flung aside the portiere and walked into the inner room, ex?claiming sarcastically:
‘Marvellous! Still in bed at this hour! Feet up and twiddling their thumbs at a time of family crisis!’
He called impatiently for tea and Patience hastened to pour him a cup. Earlier that morning, after Jia Lian’s departure, the maids and serving-women had all gone back to sleep, and as none of them had expected him back so early the household was still in a state of complete disorder. There was no fresh tea, and the best Patience could produce was a cup of cold tea warmed up. When Jia Lian discovered this, he was furious and hurled his cup to the ground. The sound of smashing china woke Xi-feng again, and she sat up in a cold sweat, crying out in alarm and staring wide-eyed around her. She saw her husband sitting beside the kang in a fuming rage, and Patience stooping to retrieve the fragments of broken cup.
‘Why are you back so soon?’ she asked. After a long interval in which no answer was forthcoming, she repeated the question, and finally he shouted at her:
‘Would you rather I hadn’t come back at all? Do you wish I’d dropped down dead somewhere?’
‘That’s a little unnecessary, isn’t it?’ said Xi-feng, smiling uneasily. ‘I just wondered why you were back so early today, that’s all. It’s nothing to lose your temper about.’
‘I failed to see the man again, so there was nothing to be gained by not coming home.’ His voice was still raised.
‘In that case,’ said Xi-feng, still attempting a wan smile, ‘you’ll just have to be patient and wait till tomorrow. Go a bit earlier next time, and you’ll be sure to see him.’
‘Here I am,’ shouted Jia Lian, ‘up to my eyes in work of my own, with no one to lend me a hand, and I have to waste my time like this chasing another man’s game! I’ve been tearing around days on end, and heaven alone knows why, when the person really involved is sitting at home and having a good time! He doesn’t seem the least bit bothered. On the contrary, he’s even had the nerve to throw a birthday party, with plays and all sorts of fun and games – while I’m still running around in circles trying to sort out his mess!’
He spat on the ground, and then proceeded to give Patience a thorough ticking-off for good measure. Xi-feng was choking with indignation. Her first impulse was to argue it out with him. But after a moment’s reflection she thought it advisable to contain herself and still struggled to keep a smile on her face:
‘But why work yourself up into such a rage about it? And why come ranting at me at this hour of the day? Did I ever say you had to do anyone this favour? If you’ve promised to, then be patient and go through with it for their sake. Anyway, it’s inconceivable that someone in serious trouble could feel in the mood for parties and plays.’
Jia Lian: ‘Precisely! Perhaps you’d like to go and ask him about it yourself tomorrow!’
Xi-feng (surprised): ‘Ask whom?’
Jia Lian: ‘Your brother.’
Xi-feng: ‘Him?’
Jia Lian: ‘Of course! Who else?’
Xi-feng (concerned): ‘But why does he need your help?’
Jia Lian: ‘You’re so well informed, you might as well be stuck at the bottom of a pickle-jar!’
Xi-feng: ‘But I had no idea he was in any kind of trouble! How extraordinary!’
Jia Lian: ‘Of course you didn’t. Even Aunt Wang and Aunt Xue don’t know about it. I didn’t want to worry them. And you’re always telling me how ill you are, so I decided to try to keep the whole thing from you as well. The very mention of it is enough to put me in a rage. Even today I wouldn’t have told you, if you hadn’t pressed me. No doubt you think that brother of yours is a marvellous fellow! But do you know what people call him?’
Xi-feng: ‘What?’
Jia Lian: ‘Wang Ren.’
Xi-feng let out a puzzled little laugh.
‘Well, that’s his name, isn’t it?’
Jia Lian: ‘That’s what you think. It’s not that “Wang Ren”; it’s the one meaning “Blind to all forms of human decency”!’
Xi-feng: ‘Why, that’s an insult! Who’d ever say such a thing?’
Jia Lian: ‘It’s no less than he deserves! I may as well tell you the truth, so that you can see for yourself what sort of a brother you really have. What about this birthday party he’s giving for Uncle Zi?sheng?’
Xi-feng thought for a moment, then exclaimed:
‘Aiyo! Why yes, now that you mention it, that’s something I meant to ask you about: surely Uncle Zi-sheng’s birthday falls during the winter? Bao-yu used to go every year. How strange! I remember quite clearly. When Uncle Zheng was promoted and Uncle Zi-sheng sent those players over, I made a mental note to myself. It seemed so out of character for him to do a thing like that. Uncle Zi-sheng has always been the mean one, not at all like Uncle Zi-teng. In fact the two brothers were always at daggers drawn. You only have to look at the casual way Uncle Zi-sheng behaved when Uncle Zi-teng died. You’d never have thought they were even related.
‘I remember saying that when his next birthday came round we should be sure to send him some players as a return gesture, so as not to be beholden to him. But surely it’s much too early in the year for him to be celebrating his birthday now? What’s going on?’
Jia Lian: ‘You still haven’t got the faintest idea, have you? The very first thing your precious brother Ren did when he got back to the capital was to profit from Uncle Zi-teng’s death by holding a memorial service. He was afraid we’d try to put a stop to it so he never told us. The funeral donations brought him in several thousand taels, I can tell you. Uncle Zi-sheng was furious with him afterwards for cornering the market. This put your brother in a bit of a spot. So for his next little project he picked Uncle Zi-sheng’s birthday, the perfect opportunity to make some more money for himself, and placate old Zi-sheng into the bargain. He wasn’t going to be held back by what the family or friends might say, or by the paltry fact that Uncle Zi-sheng doesn’t really have a birthday until next winter. Let people think what they like, he doesn’t care! He doesn’t know the meaning of the word “pride”!
‘Now, on top of all this, let me tell you why I got up so early this morning. Recently there’s been a memorial from the Censorate. It’s in some way connected with the recent disturbances on the coast. The wording refers to “the deficit left by Wang Zi-teng after his term of office” and asks that this deficit be “made good by his younger brother Wang Zi-sheng and by his nephew Wang Ren”. The two of them got the wind up and asked me to try to pull a few strings for them. I agreed to do it for them. They seemed so pathetic and scared, and anyway I was afraid it might eventually affect you and Aunt Wang. I hoped old Qiu in the Inner Palace might see to it for me, perhaps get Uncle Zi-teng’s successor to cook the books somehow. But I was late, damn it, he’d already left for court. So there I was, up at dawn, tearing around for nothing, while they put on plays and hold a party! If that isn’t enough to make a man’s blood boil, tell me what is!’
Xi-feng still felt she must put some sort of a case for her brother, partly out of her constitutional need never to admit defeat, and partly out of loyalty to her own family:
‘However badly he may have behaved, he’s still your brother-in-law. If you help him, you’ll be doing a good turn for both of my uncles, for the living and the dead. Our family honour is at stake; so I implore you to help. Otherwise you know what will happen: I shall be held responsible for your wrath, and they’ll blacken my name for ever.’
Xi-feng burst into tears. Sitting up in bed, she began to comb her hair, and to throw on some clothes.
‘There’s no need for you to react like that,’ said Jia Lian. ‘It’s your brother who’s behaved so abominably; I’ve said nothing against you. And the servants– when I had to go out this morning, I knew you were not well, so I didn’t disturb you. But they just went on sleeping. Our parents never tolerated such behaviour. You’ve grown too slack. You want to please everybody, that’s your trouble. And the moment I say anything critical, you start hauling yourself out of bed in protest. If I give the servants a piece of my mind, I suppose you’ll stick up for them next. It’s too absurd!’
Xi-feng dried her eyes.
‘It’s late,’ she said. ‘I ought to be getting up anyway.’ After a pause, she continued: ‘Even if that’s how you feel, please try to do what you can for my family, for my sake. And you know how grateful Aunt Wang will be.’
‘All right, all right,’ grumbled Jia Lian. ‘Stop teaching your grand?mother to suck eggs.’
‘Why are you getting up, ma’am?’ put in Patience. ‘It’s too early yet. And I don’t see what you have to work yourself into such a terrible temper for, sir! Why take it all out on us? Hasn’t Mrs Lian gone to enough trouble for you in the past? The number of times she’s borne the brunt on your behalf! Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but in view of all that she’s done for you, it doesn’t seem very fair to make such a big fuss about this one favour, especially when you think how many other people are involved. Do you have no con?sideration for her feelings? Why should she take all the blame anyway? We were late getting up, and you’re entitled to be angry with us- we’re only servants after all. But when you think how she has worked herself into the ground and ruined her health, it seems so unkind of you to pick a quarrel with her now!’
Patience’s eyes filled with tears. Jia Lian’s original ill humour, strong though it had undoubtedly been, could not withstand the combined opposition of both his womenfolk- at once so appealing and so sharp-tongued.
‘All right, forget it,’ he said, with a bitter smile. ‘She’s hard enough to cope with on her own, without you leaping to her defence. I know I’m just an outsider here anyway, and you’re both itching to have me dead and out of the way.’
‘Don’t speak like that,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Who knows what will happen to any of us? Very probably I shall die before you. The sooner I do, the sooner my heart will be at rest.’
She began to weep again, and Patience tried to comfort her. It was now broad daylight, and the sun was shining in at the window. Jia Lian, who saw little prospect of steering the conversation out of this impasse, took his leave.
Xi-feng was about to finish her toilet when one of Lady Wang’s junior maids came in:
‘Her Ladyship says, will you be visiting your uncle today, ma’am, and if so would you take Mrs Bao with you?’
Xi-feng had found the recent scene thoroughly depressing. It was deeply mortifying that her own family should let her down so badly, on top of which she was still suffering from the shock of her en?counter in the Garden the previous evening, and felt in no mood for an excursion.
‘Tell Her Ladyship that I still have one or two things to see to, and won’t be able to go today. Anyway the party they’re holding is not what I would call a genuine occasion. If Mrs Bao wants to go, she can go on her own.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’
The maid returned with this message to Lady Wang’s apartment.
When she had completed her toilet and dressed herself, Xi-feng reflected that even if she didn’t attend the party, she ought at least to send a note. Besides, Bao-chai had not been married long, and would probably feel rather nervous about going by herself. She decided she should visit her, if only to offer moral support, and after a brief call on Lady Wang she excused herself on some pretext and made her way to Bao-yu’s apartment. He was reclining fully dressed on the kang, staring in a trance-like manner at Bao-chai, who was busy combing her hair. Xi-feng stood in the doorway for a while watching them. Bao-chai presently turned round and seeing her standing there promptly rose to her feet and asked her to be seated. Bao-yu also climbed down from the kang, as Xi-feng seated herself, with a playful smile on her face. Bao-chai scolded Musk:
‘Why didn’t you say that Mrs Lian was here?’
Musk laughed: ‘When Mrs Lian came in, she gave us a sign to be silent.’
Xi-feng turned to Bao-yu:
‘Well, what are you waiting for? Off you go! Honestly, I’ve never set eyes on such a great big baby. A lady wants to do her toilet in private, and you have to climb up beside her and sit there staring! Heavens above, you’re man and wife now, you’ve all day to gawp at her. And what about the maids? Don’t you care if they make fun of you?’
Xi-feng giggled and eyed Bao-yu, clicking her tongue in mock-disapproval. Her words seemed to have little effect on him other than making him feel rather uncomfortable. Bao-chai, however, blushed a fierce crimson, ashamed at having to listen but too embar?rassed to reply. Aroma came in with some tea and Bao-chai endea?voured to conceal her embarrassment by offering Xi-feng a pipe of tobacco. Xi-feng rose to her feet and smilingly accepted.
‘Cousin Chai, take no notice of us. Hadn’t you better hurry and get dressed?’
Bao-yu meanwhile had begun shambling around, searching for something one moment, fiddling with something else the next.
‘Off with you then!’ said Xi-feng. ‘Who ever heard of a husband waiting for his wife to go out?’
‘These clothes aren’t right,’ said Bao-yu. ‘That peacock cape Grannie gave me to wear last time I went to Uncle Zi-sheng’s was so much nicer.’
‘Well, go ahead and wear it this time then,’ said Xi-feng teasingly.
‘How can I? It’s too early in the year.
Xi-feng realized that she had inadvertently drawn attention to the incorrect ‘timing’ (and therefore fraudulent nature) of her uncle’s party. It didn’t matter so much about Bao-chai, who was herself related to the Wangs. But she felt embarrassed to have thus risked discrediting her own family in front of the maids. Aroma, whose mind was running along very different lines, hastened to add her explanation of Bao-yu’s words:
‘I don’t think you understand, ma’am. He wouldn’t wear that cape even if it were the right season.’
‘Why ever not?’ asked Xi-feng.
‘I should explain, ma’am,’ replied Aroma. ‘Mr Bao’s ways are sometimes so very strange. Her Old Ladyship gave him the cape to wear to his uncle Wang’s party two years ago. He had an accident and burnt a hole in it. My mother was seriously ill at the time and I was at home looking after her. Skybright was still with us then, though she was already ill, and I was told when I got back that she had stayed up all night darning the cape for him. The mend was so neat that Her Old Ladyship didn’t even notice it the next day. One day last year, when it was particularly cold, I told Tealeaf to take the cape to school in case Bao-yu needed something warmer to put on. But the sight of it reminded Bao-yu of Skybright and he said he never wanted to wear it again. He told me to put it away for good.’
‘Poor Skybright!’ put in Xi-feng before Aroma had finished speaking. ‘Such a pretty girl! And so clever with her hands! If only she hadn’t been quite so quick-tongued. Someone must have gone gossiping to Lady Wang, or she would never have dealt with the poor girl so harshly and driven her to such an early death.
‘Which reminds me. Not so very long ago I saw Cook Liu’s daughter – Fivey I think her name is – and couldn’t help noticing that she’s the spitting image of Skybright. I thought of bringing her in to work for me, and her mother seemed agreeable to the idea. Then I thought what a good replacement she’d make for Crimson in Bao-yu’s apartment. But Patience told me it was Lady Wang’s policy not to take on any more pretty maids like Skybright for Bao-yu. So I dropped the idea. Now that he’s married I’m sure there can be no objection. I’ll tell Fivey to start work here straight away. How would that be, Bao? Then if you ever find yourself missing Skybright, all you need to do is look at Fivey instead.’
Bao-yu had been about to leave the room, but at Xi-feng’s mention of Fivey had stood there bemused. Aroma spoke for him:
‘Of course he’d be pleased. He’s wanted her as a maid for a long while, but knew that Her Ladyship was against the idea.’
‘Very well then, I’ll tell her to come tomorrow,’ said Xi-feng. ‘And I’ll square your mother myself.’
Bao-yu’s delight knew no bounds and he set off in high spirits for Grandmother Jia’s apartment, leaving Bao-chai to finish her toilet.
Xi-feng had found the contrast between the way in which Bao-yu and Bao-chai clung to each other, and her own recent conflict with Jia Lian, somewhat depressing, and she was now anxious to leave. She rose and said to Bao-chai with a smile:
‘Shall we go and see Aunt Wang now?’
Still smiling she walked out of the room, and Bao-chai accom?panied her. They went first to Grandmother Jia’s apartment, where they found Bao-yu informing the old lady of the proposed expedition to Uncle Wang Zi-sheng’s. Grandmother Jia nodded:
‘Off you go then. But don’t drink too much, and be sure to come home early. Don’t forget you’re only just beginning to get well again.’
‘Yes, Grannie,’ said Bao-yu.
He had no sooner reached the courtyard than he turned round and re-entered the room, walking over to Bao-chai and whispering some?thing in her ear. She smiled:
‘Yes of course. Now be off with you!’
She hurried him on his way once more.
Grandmother Jia, Xi-feng and Bao-chai settled down to a con?versation, but had barely exchanged three sentences when Ripple appeared:
‘The Young Master has sent Tealeaf back with a message for Mrs Bao.’
Bao-chai: ‘What’s he forgotten now?’
Ripple: ‘I told one of the junior maids to ask Tealeaf. The message is this: “The Young Master forgot to tell Mrs Bao something. She should not be too long if she is coming; and if she isn’t, then she should take care not to stand in a draught”.’
Grandmother Jia, Xi-feng and the entire assembly of old serving-women and maidservants burst out laughing. Bao-chai blushed fiercely and said to Ripple with a scornful ‘pfui’:
‘Silly creature! Is that worth running back in such a fluster for?’
Ripple giggled and sent a junior maid to scold Tealeaf, who raced back to Bao-yu, calling to the maid over his shoulder:
‘The Young Master insisted on my dismounting to go on this fool’s errand. If I hadn’t delivered his message I’d have been in trouble with him, and now that I have I get it in the neck from them!’
The maid laughed and went running back to repeat this to the ladies. Grandmother Jia turned to Bao-chai:
‘You’d better go, my dear, or he’ll never stop fretting.’
What with this and Xi-feng’s merciless teasing, Bao-chai felt too embarrassed to stay any longer.

*

When Bao-chai had taken her leave, Perfecta, one of the nuns from the Convent of the Scattered Flowers, came to call on Grandmother Jia. She greeted Xi-feng also, and sat down to take tea.
‘Why haven’t you been to see us for such a long while?’ asked Grandmother Jia.
‘These past few days we have had so many services at the Convent,’ replied Perfecta, ‘and so many grand ladies coming to make their devotions; I just haven’t had a moment to call my own. Today I have a special reason for visiting Your Old Ladyship. We have a private service tomorrow which I thought you might possibly be interested in attending.’
‘What kind of service is it?’ asked Grandmother Jia.
‘Last month,’ replied Perfecta, ‘the household of the late Excellency Wang was afflicted with a possession of spirits. Her Ladyship even saw her husband’s departed spirit during the night. She came to tell me about it yesterday at the Convent, and pledged herself to an act of devotion at the shrine of our Bodhisattva of the Scattered Flowers. It’s to be a forty-nine-day Solemn Mass for Purification of All Souls on Land and Sea, for the Preservation and Peace of All Members of the Family, for the Ascension into the Celestial Regions of All Departed Souls, and for the Well-Being in This Life of All the Living. I’ve been extremely busy with the preparations, and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to come and pay my respects.’
Xi-feng had always scorned all forms of superstition. But her encounter with Qin Ke-qing’s spirit the night before had begun to undermine her scepticism, and Perfecta’s words now struck a new chord in her. She could almost feel herself being converted to a belief in the efficacy of such rituals.
‘Who is this Bodnisattva of the Scattered Flowers?’ she asked the nun. ‘How is it that he has the power to avert misfortune and keep evil spirits at bay?’
Perfecta could sense that a seed had been sown.
‘Since you have asked, dear lady,’ she replied, ‘allow me to tell you a little about this Saint of ours. His story is an ancient and well-attested one, full of miraculous events. Born in the Land of Giant Trees in the Western Paradise, of humble parents who hewed wood for a living, the Bodhisattva came into the world with three horns on his head and four eyes in his forehead. He was three feet tall at birth, with arms so long that his hands reached the ground. His parents thought him to be the incarnation of some monstrous spirit, and abandoned him on an icy mountainside. But, unbeknown to them, this mountain was the haunt of a magic monkey, who used to come there hunting for food. On one of his excursions he discovered the child and noticed that from the tip of his head there emanated a white aura that streamed up towards Heaven, causing tigers and wolves to keep their distance.
‘The monkey realized that this was someone very special indeed, and he carried the Bodhisattva-child home to his cave and reared him. The boy, so the monkey soon discovered, was endowed with prodigious innate powers of Perception, and with an intuitive ability to expound the Mysteries of Zen. He would engage the monkey in daily philosophical discussions and the two of them would practise meditation together. So wonderful were his words that at the sound of them the sky would be filled with an abundance of scattered flowers. After a thousand years had passed, he ascended into Heaven. The spot where he expounded the sutras, the Precinct of the Scattered Flowers, as it is called, can be seen on the hillside to this very day. Every prayer uttered there has proved efficacious. Many a miracle has been performed, many a soul delivered from its afflictions. In due time men built a temple there, and fashioned a statue of the Saint, before which they make offerings.’
‘But what proof is there that any of this is true?’ asked Xi-feng.
‘Still sceptical, ma’am? What proof of that sort can there be, of a Living Buddha? But consider: if it were all a mere fabrication, it might have fooled one or two, but it could hardly have fooled the multitudes of intelligent men and women who have put their faith in him over the ages. The unbroken incense-offerings of believers, and the miracles wrought, testify to the enduring power of our religion and serve continually to inspire our faith.’
Xi-feng was almost convinced.
‘In that case I shall visit you tomorrow and test it for myself. Do you have fortune-sticks at the temple? I should like to consult them. If they give me a plausible answer to my question, I shall embrace your faith.’
‘Our fortune-sticks are particularly efficacious, ma’am,’ said Per?fecta. ‘Try them tomorrow and see for yourself.’
‘Why not wait until the day after?’ put in Grandmother Jia. ‘That will be the first of the month. Better to try then.’
Perfecta drank her tea and went on to visit Lady Wang, before returning to her Convent.
Xi-feng managed to struggle through the rest of that day and the next, and early in the morning of the first of the month she had her carriage made ready, and set out for the Convent of the Scattered Flowers, accompanied by Patience and a bevy of serving-women. Perfecta and the other nuns welcomed her, ushered her in and offered her tea, and then after she had washed her hands they all proceeded to the main hall of worship to burn incense. Xi-feng would not look up at the statues, but otherwise conducted herself like a devout believer, kowtowing and taking the tube of fortune-sticks from the altar. She prayed in silence, describing her encounter with the spirit and her chronic state of ill health, then shook the tube three times. There was a ‘whoosh!’ and one of the bamboo sticks shot out of the tube. Xi-feng kowtowed again and picked it up. It bore the inscrip?tion: ‘No.33. Supreme Good Fortune.’ Perfecta promptly consulted the Divination Book and found under entry No.33 the following line of verse, which she read aloud:

‘Wang Xi-feng comes home to rest, in finery arrayed.’

Xi-feng was astounded to hear her own name, and asked the nun:
‘Is there some historical person by the name of Wang Xi-feng?’
‘Surely, ma’am,’ replied Perfecta, ‘a lady of your wide knowledge has encountered the story of Wang Xi-feng of the Later Han dynasty and what befell him on his way to the examination?’
Zhou Rui’s wife was standing at Xi-feng’s side and added with a smile:
‘Why, that was the story the lady storyteller told at the Lantern Festival a couple of years ago. We asked her not to use your name as it was impolite.’
Of course,’ said Xi-feng with a laugh. ‘I forgot.’
She went on to read the rest of the text:

‘When twenty years away from home have passed,
In silks the wanderer returns at last.
The bee culls nectar from a hundred flowers;
Honey for some, but for himself a thankless task.
A traveller arrives.
News is delayed.
In litigation, success.
In matrimony, reconsideration.’

Xi-feng could not make much sense of it, and Perfecta hastened to expound:
‘My congratulations, ma’am! What an uncannily apt response on the part of the oracle! Since you have grown up here in the capital, you have never had a chance to visit your old home in Nanking. But now that Sir Zheng has received this provincial posting, he may well send for his family to join him and then, surely, you will “come home to rest, in finery arrayed”!’
As she spoke Perfecta copied down the text and gave it to one of the maids. Xi-feng was still only half-convinced by her interpretation. Perfecta set a vegetarian meal before her guest, but Xi-feng seemed loath to eat, and after a mouthful put down her chopsticks and rose to leave. She gave Perfecta a contribution ‘for incense’, and the nun, realizing that she could not persuade her to stay any longer, saw her out of the Convent.
When Xi-feng returned home, Grandmother Jia, Lady Wang and the others insisted on having a full report. She told one of the maids to recite the words of the divination, complete with the interpreta?tion. The ladies were delighted:
‘Perhaps Sir Zheng is planning to send for us all! What a nice trip that would be!’
Any doubts Xi-feng still harboured about the favourable reading of the omen were dispelled by their unanimous acceptance of it.

*
Our story now turns to Bao-yu. On the day in question, after waking from his midday nap, he noticed that Bao-chai was out and was beginning to wonder where she might be, when he saw her come back into the room.
‘Where have you been?’ he asked. ‘You’ve been out a long time.’
‘I’ve been looking at Cousin Feng’s divination.’
Bao-yu was keen to hear the whole story. Bao-chai obliged; and when she had finished reciting the divination verse for him, she commented:
‘Everyone else says it’s a lucky omen, but personally I think there’s more to the words than meets the eye. “Comes home to rest, in finery arrayed.” Hm … We shall have to wait and see.’
‘There you go, sceptical as ever,’ quipped Bao-yu. ‘Forever seeking strange meanings. It must be a lucky saying; anyone can tell that. You would have some pet theory of your own. So what do you think it means?’
Bao-chai was about to elaborate, when a maid arrived to inform her that her presence was required at Lady Wang’s. To learn the reason for this summons, please read the next chapter.

Previous articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 102
Next articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 100
Discover the wonders of China through studying abroad - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your horizons, immerse yourself in a rich and diverse culture, and gain a world-class education.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here