The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 103

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CHAPTER 103


Jin-gui dies by her own hand, caught
in a web of her own weaving
Yu-cun encounters an old friend in vain, blind
to the higher truths of Zen

Jia Lian gave Lady Wang a full account of Jia Zheng’s misfortune. The next day he paid another call at the Board of Civil Office, and on his return reported once more to Lady Wang, assuring her that he had done his utmost to put in a word for Jia Zheng in the right quarters.
‘So you’re sure the news is genuine?’ she asked. ‘Well, I dare say your Uncle Zheng will be none too displeased. In fact it will come as something of a relief to us all. He was never really suited to a provincial posting, and if he had not come home now I’m afraid those rascals would one day have ruined him altogether!’
‘How is it that you are so well informed in this matter?’ asked Jia Lian.
‘Ever since your uncle Zheng has been at this post,’ replied Lady Wang, ‘not a penny has been remitted. On the contrary, he has been secretly sending here for considerable sums. You have only to look at the way the servants’ wives are already decking themselves out in all sorts of fancy gold and silver ornaments to know what’s been going on. It’s obvious that their husbands have been making money behind your uncle Zheng’s back. He just lets them get away with it. If it had gone any further, not only would he have lost his job but the inherited family rank might have been forfeited as well!’
‘You’re quite right, Aunt,’ said Jia Lian. ‘I confess that I was very shocked when I first heard the news. But now that I know the full facts of the case I feel considerably easier about it. It will be much better for Uncle Zheng this way. He will be able to work here in the capital in peace and quiet for a few years, without endangering his reputation any further. I think even Grandmother will be quite relieved when she hears the whole story. But I feel you should break it gently to her all the same.’
‘I will,’ said Lady Wang. ‘You had better go now and see what else you can find out.’
Jia Lian was on his way out when one of Aunt Xue’s old serving-women came running past in a great lather. She went directly into Lady Wang’s apartment and without any preliminary courtesies burst straight out with: ‘Our Madam says I’m to tell Your Ladyship there’s terrible trouble at home again! Things have come to a pretty pass this time and no mistake!’
‘What sort of trouble?’ asked Lady Wang.
‘Oh, something terrible! Just terrible!’
‘You stupid old creature!’ exclaimed Lady Wang with a snort of exasperation. ‘If something serious has happened, for goodness’ sake try to tell me what it is!’
‘Master Ke’s away and we haven’t got a man in the house! It’s a crisis and we just don’t know what to do! Please will Your Ladyship send one or two of the Masters over to sort it out for us!’
Lady Wang still had not the slightest idea what she was talking about.
‘Sort out what in heaven’s name?’ she asked impatiently.
‘It’s Mrs Pan! She’s dead!’ blurted out the old woman at last.
‘Pfui!’ exclaimed Lady Wang when she heard this. ‘So that baggage is dead! Is that what all the fuss is about?’
‘But it wasn’t reg’lar, Your Ladyship. I mean, the way she died. Such a to-do! Please, Your Ladyship, send someone over right away!’
She set off back to the Xue compound. Lady Wang was both annoyed and amused:
‘Honestly, what a hopeless old woman! Lian, go and have a look will you? It’s a complete waste of time trying to make head or tail of anything that old creature says.’
The first part, about ‘going and having a look’, failed to reach the old woman’s ears. She only caught the words ‘a complete waste of time’ and went running home in a great huff to Aunt Xue, who was anxiously awaiting her return:
‘Well, who is Lady Wang going to send?’
The old woman sighed demonstratively:
‘Fat lot of use family are at a time of crisis, I must say! Her Ladyship wouldn’t lift a finger for us! All she did was call me a stupid creature!’
This seemed to make Aunt Xue angry, and she became rather flustered:
‘If Her Ladyship wouldn’t help, what about our own Mrs Bao?’
‘I didn’t even bother to tell her,’ replied the old woman. ‘How could she be expected to stand up for us if Her Ladyship wouldn’t?’
Aunt Xue spat at her, and cried indignantly:
‘Are you out of your mind? Her Ladyship is one of the Jias; but Bao-chai is my own child. She wouldn’t let me down!’
The distinction suddenly seemed to dawn on the old woman.
‘Lawks! I’d better go back and find her right away!’
As they were speaking, Jia Lian came in. He paid his respects to Aunt Xue, and after expressing his condolences went on to explain to her:
‘When Aunt Wang heard that Mrs Pan was dead, she questioned your serving-woman but was unable to extract any sense from her at all. Aunt was very worried and sent me to find out what was going on and to give you a hand. If anything needs doing, Aunt Xue, just let me know and I’ll do what I can.’
Aunt Xue had been working herself into a state of great indig?nation with the old woman, and had become so distraught she could do nothing but weep. On hearing Jia Lian’s words she became articulate once more:
‘I’m most obliged to you, Lian. I was sure my sister would stand by me. I’m afraid this old woman completely misunderstood you, and gave me a totally misleading impression. Now, please sit down and let me tell you the whole story.’
After a slight pause she continued: ‘How shall I put it…? Well, in a nutshell, my daughter-in-law did not die a natural death.’
‘I suppose it was suicide?’ ventured Jia Lian. ‘Was it despondency at Cousin Pan’s imprisonment that drove her to take her own life?’
‘If only it had been! Alas, no. Let me explain. For several months she’d been rampaging about the whole time, barefoot and with her hair in a terrible state. When she heard that Pan was facing a death sentence, after an initial fit of weeping she began painting herself up dreadfully with rouge and powder. Any remonstrations on my part would only have led to more atrocious scenes, so I tried to turn a blind eye. Then suddenly one day, for some reason unknown to me, she came and asked me if she could have Caltrop to keep her com?pany. I said to her: “You’ve already got Moonbeam. Do you really need Caltrop as well? You’ve never liked her, so why go asking for trouble?’ But she insisted, and I had no choice but to send Caltrop over to her room. The poor girl didn’t dare disobey my orders and she went, ill though she was.
‘Funnily enough, my daughter-in-law treated her very well. I was delighted; and although Chai suspected some ulterior motive, I was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, a few days ago, Caltrop fell ill again, and Jin-gui cooked her some soup. She even made a point of serving it to her with her own hands. Poor Caltrop! There was the most unfortunate accident. Jin-gui dropped the soup just as she was coming up to the bedside, scalded herself and broke the bowl as well. I would have expected her to have blamed Caltrop; but no, she wasn’t in the least angry, just went off at once to fetch a broom, swept up the pieces and gave the floor a good clean. Afterwards the two of them still seemed on friendly terms.
‘Then yesterday evening she told Moonbeam to go and make two bowls of soup, which she said she would drink with Caltrop. It was a little later that we heard this terrific hullabaloo coming from her apartment. First Moonbeam started screaming her head off, then Caltrop screamed too and staggered out, leaning on the wall for support and calling for help. I went in at once and found Jin-gui writhing on the floor, with blood streaming from her nose and eyes; she was clutching feverishly at her stomach with both hands, and kicking both feet in the air. I was scared out of my wits. I asked her to tell me what had happened, but she was too far gone to answer, and after a few more minutes of agony she died. It looked very much like a case of poisoning to me.
‘Then Moonbeam started wailing again and laid hold of Caltrop, claiming that it was her doing. But I hardly think Caltrop is that sort of person. Besides, she was almost too ill to get out of bed; how could she have had the strength to do such a thing? Moonbeam insisted, however, and still insists, that Caltrop is the culprit. My dear Lian! What was I to do? In the circumstances I had no choice but to tell the old women to bind Caltrop, to hand her over to Moonbeam and to lock them both in the room. Bao-qin and I have been up all night keeping watch, and we sent word to you the moment the gates were opened this morning. Lian, you know about such things. What’s the proper course of action for me to take?’
‘Do Jin-gui’s family know yet?’ asked Jia Lian.
‘I thought it better to try to disentangle the whole affair ourselves before letting anyone know.’
‘I would advise you to report what’s happened to the authorities first and let them reach their own conclusions. It’s only natural that we should suspect Moonbeam, but they might ask what Moonbeam would have stood to gain by poisoning her own mistress. And in a way it might almost seem more plausible to them that Caltrop should have done it.’
As they were speaking, some serving-women from Rong-guo House came in to announce the arrival of Bao-chai. Jia Lian decided that, although strictly speaking she was his younger cousin’s wife, he need not withdraw; after all, she was also his cousin and he had known her from childhood. She greeted her mother and Jia Lian, and went in to sit with Bao-qin in the inner room. Aunt Xue joined her there and told her the story.
‘Surely, by binding Caltrop we are virtually admitting her guilt?’ was Bao-chai’s immediate response. ‘If Moonbeam made the soup, then she should be bound. And we must let the Xia family know, and report the death to the authorities.’
This seemed logical enough to Aunt Xue. She asked Jia Lian for his opinion:
‘Chai is absolutely right. I’d better go and have a word with someone at the Board of Punishment, to make sure there’s no trouble at the inquest. But I think it will be a bit hard to justify releasing Caltrop if we then bind Moonbeam instead.’
‘I never wanted to bind Caltrop in the first place,’ said Aunt Xue, ‘but I was afraid that this unjust accusation, coming on top of her illness, might drive her to desperate measures. She might try to commit suicide, and then we’d have another death on our hands. It was for her own safety that I tied her up and handed her over to Moonbeam.’
‘Quite,’ said Jia Lian. ‘But still, we have rather played into Moonbeam’s hands. I think our principle now must be that, if one of them is bound, both must be bound; if one is set free, both must be set free. They were both present at the time of Jin-gui’s death. Meanwhile we must send someone to comfort Caltrop.’
Aunt Xue told her serving-woman to open the door of Jin-gui’s apartment and go in, while Bao-chai ordered some of her own women to accompany them and help them tie up Moonbeam. When they arrived they found Caltrop sobbing her heart out and Moonbeam gloating over her. Moonbeam fought back tooth and nail when they laid hands on her, but the women were too strong. After much shouting from Moonbeam they tied her up, and left the door open so that the two suspects could be more conveniently watched over.
Word had already been sent to Jin-gui’s family. The Xias had originally lived outside the capital, but recently their circumstances had become much reduced, and partly for this reason, partly to be near Jin-gui, they had moved into town. Jin-gui’s father was already dead, and the only surviving members of her family were her mother and her newly adopted brother, Xia San, a ne’er-do-well who had succeeded in squandering what remained of the family’s resources. Now that they were living in town, he became a frequent visitor at the Xue household. Jin-gui was a fickle creature, little suited to the role of the faithful, pining wife. Her failure to entrap Xue Ke had left her ravenous for the slightest morsel, and now even this adopted brother of hers seemed an acceptable means of assuaging her desire. Xia San, however, was a trifle on the slow side, and although he sensed her intentions soon enough, held back from steering his craft directly into her capacious harbour. Jin-gui paid more and more frequent visits to her family, taking with her presents of money to pave the way for Xia San’s eventual capitulation.
On the day in question, the day after Jin-gui’s sudden death, he was eagerly awaiting one of these visits, and when the Xue servants arrived, he assumed that they had been sent by his sister to deliver one of her little parcels. When they told him instead that she was dead, and that it was, by all accounts, a case of poisoning, he flew into a storm and began ranting and raving at them. Mrs Xia, when she heard the news, wept volubly:
‘She was doing quite nicely for herself there! What could she possibly want to go and take poison for? It must have been one of them that did it!’
Still weeping and protesting loudly, she called Xia San to accompany her, and set off at once on foot, without waiting to send for a carriage. The Xias were originally business-people with little breeding, and now that they were poor had no residual concern for appearances. Xia San went ahead, and his adoptive mother followed him out of the gate, weeping and wailing all the while, accompanied by a lame old serving-woman. She eventually hailed a rickety old cart that was passing in the street, and it carried them at full speed to the Xue compound, where she went in without a word of greeting, sobbing, ‘My child! My darling!’
Jia Lian had gone to enlist support at the Board of Punishment, and Aunt Xue, Bao-chai and Bao-qin were holding the fort on their own. Mrs Xia’s dramatic entry quite nonplussed them, and at first they were too frightened to say anything. Bao-chai and Bao-qin withdrew to the inner room. When Aunt Xue tried to reason with the intruders, Mrs Xia completely ignored her.
‘What good has my daughter ever had from this family of yours?’ she cried. ‘Day and night she’s had to put up with beatings and abuse. In the end you decided to separate her from her husband come what may, and even managed to get my son-in-law locked up in prison. You and your daughter were comfortable enough, thanks to all those important relatives of yours, but my daughter’s very existence was still a thorn in your flesh, so you wanted to get rid of her for good and finally found someone to poison her. Poisoned herself indeed!’
She lunged at Aunt Xue, who backed out of her way, exclaiming:
‘Mrs Xia! Kindly go and examine your daughter for yourself and speak to Moonbeam first, before making such wild accusations!’
As Xia San was still there in the room, lurking in the back?ground, Bao-chai and Bao-qin were unable to come to Aunt Xue’s defence and could only remain anxiously closeted in the inner room. By a fortunate coincidence, however, Lady Wang had just sent Zhou Rui’s wife over to see how things were. When she came in and saw this elderly woman abusing and threatening Aunt Xue, she deduced that it must be Jin-gui’s mother and approached her at once:
‘Would you be Mrs Xia, ma’am? I suppose you know that Mrs Pan took poison? That’s how she died, and it has nothing whatever to do with Mrs Xue. There is really no call for you to slander her in this way!’
‘And who might you be?’ asked Jin-gui’s mother.
Aunt Xue, her confidence a little restored by the arrival of rein?forcements, answered for Mrs Zhou:
‘This good woman works for our relations the Jias.’
‘Oh! Does she now?’ sneered Mrs Xia. ‘We all know about your wonderful relations! No doubt it’s thanks to them that you managed to get your own son locked up in gaol. And now I suppose you are hoping to get away scot-free with the murder of my daughter too!’
She seized Aunt Xue.
‘Out with it!’ she cried. ‘How did you do it? Let me see the body.’
Zhou Rui’s wife attempted to pacify her:
‘By all means. Go and have a look. But kindly take your hands off Mrs Xue!’
She finally succeeded in puffing Mrs Xia away from Aunt Xue. Xia San now emerged from the shadows to leap to his mother’s rescue:
‘Think you can attack my mother like this and get away with it just because you’re one of their servants?’
He threw a chair at Mrs Zhou, which luckily missed. The servants who were with Bao-chai in the inner room heard this rumpus break out and came hurrying in to see what was happening. Fearing that Mrs Zhou might come off worst in the fray, they all surged forward and tried to calm the combatants down. Their threats and cajolements were in vain: mother and son merely grew more strident in their protestations and more desperate in their actions.
‘We don’t need reminding how powerful your Rong-guo relations are! What do we care! Now that Jin-gui’s gone, we might as well fight it out to the death!’
Mrs Xia charged at Aunt Xue again with all her might. Despite their numbers, the servants could not withstand her. As the saying goes:

If a man stakes all on his attack,
Ten thousand men won’t hold him back.

It was at this moment of crisis that Jia Lian returned, accompanied by seven or eight servants. Seeing how things stood, he ordered his men to drag Xia San outside, and told the ladies to stop fighting at once:
‘Surely you can settle your differences in a more civilized fashion? Now, tidy the place up. The officers from the Board of Punishments will be here any minute to conduct the inquest.’
Mrs Xia had been in full spate when Jia Lian made his entrance. She was somewhat overawed by this strange gentleman with his retinue of servants, some of whom were already barking orders while others stood respectfully to attention, and she wondered which member of the Jia family it could be. Then she saw her adopted son taken away, and heard that the Board of Punishments had been informed and would shortly be holding an inquest, which ruined all her plans. She had originally intended to inspect her daughter’s corpse, create a terrific fuss and go crying for justice; but now they had beaten her to it, and the wind was quite taken out of her sails. Aunt Xue for her part was too frightened to do anything. It was Mrs Zhou who said to Jia Lian:
‘These people barged in, and without so much as a look at Mrs Pan this lady began to slander Mrs Xue. We tried to talk some sense into her, but then this ruffian butted in, and started using the most dreadful language in front of the young ladies. What a shocking way to carry on!’
‘There’s no point arguing with him now,’ replied Jia Lian. ‘It would only be a waste of time. When they question him under torture, he’ll remember soon enough that the inner apartments are strictly reserved for women and that he has no right to be in here. His mother could surely have come to inspect her daughter’s corpse by herself. It will look extremely suspicious to the authorities, very much as if he had come to rob the place.’
Jia Lian’s men managed by one means or another to keep Xia San under control outside, while Mrs Zhou, emboldened by the presence of so many Jia supporters, began denouncing Mrs Xia in earnest:
‘Really, madam, you should know better. You should have found out the facts when you arrived. Your daughter must have poisoned herself. The only other person it could have been is Moonbeam. Why go slandering without bothering to find out the truth and without so much as seeing the corpse for yourself? Do you think ours is the kind of family to stand by and let a daughter-in-law die without discovering the cause of her death?
‘Moonbeam and Caltrop have both been bound. Your daughter had asked for Caltrop to move into her room earlier, because she said she wanted to keep an eye on her illness. That’s why Caltrop was also there at the time of Mrs Pan’s death. We were hoping that you could be present at the inquest and hear the officer establish the truth of the matter.’
Jin-gui’s mother knew that she was beaten, and she followed Zhou Rui’s wife into Jin-gui’s apartment. She saw her daughter’s corpse lying stiff on the kang, the face caked in dry blood, and at once broke down and began sobbing. Moonbeam, seeing someone from ‘her side’, cried out:
‘Madam was so kind to Caltrop! She even shared her own room with her! But Caltrop grabbed the first chance that came along of poisoning her!’
The Xue family and servants raised a cry of protest:
‘Nonsense! Who was it cooked the soup that Mrs Pan drank before she died? You!’
‘I cooked it and served it,’ said Moonbeam, ‘but then I had to go out on an errand. Caltrop must have got up and put poison in the soup while I was out.’
Before Moonbeam could finish speaking Jin-gui’s mother lunged at Caltrop and could only be restrained by the concerted efforts of the servants. Aunt Xue spoke next:
‘This looks very much like a case of arsenic poisoning to me. We certainly don’t keep any arsenic in the house. Whoever it was that did this must have commissioned someone else to buy the poison in town. The truth will come out at the inquest. Well, we’d best tidy her up and lay her out properly now in readiness for the officer from the Board of Punishments.’
The old serving-women came forward, lifted Jin-gui up and laid her out.
‘With so many men about,’ said Bao-chai, ‘you had better clear away all those women’s knick-knacks.’
As they were tidying up, a little crumpled paper package came to light beneath the mattress on the kang. Jin-gui’s mother spotted it and picked it up to inspect it more closely. It was empty and she threw it down again. Moonbeam saw it, however, and cried out:
‘Look! There’s evidence! I recognize that package. A few days ago we were having a lot of trouble with mice, and when Mrs Pan went on one of her trips home, she asked her brother to buy some poison. It was in that package. I remember her putting it away in one of her jewellery boxes when she got back. Caltrop must have seen it there and used it to poison Mrs Pan. If you don’t believe me, have a look in the jewellery box and see if there’s any left.’
Jin-gui’s mother did this. She opened the jewellery box, which was empty save for a few silver hairpins.
‘What has become of all her jewellery?’ said Aunt Xue in surprise.
Bao-chai told the servants to open the trunks and cupboards. All were empty.
‘Who could have taken all these things?’ she asked. ‘We had better question Moonbeam.’
Jin-gui’s mother seemed to become very apprehensive all of a sudden.
‘Why should Moonbeam know about my daughter’s things?’ she protested.
‘Come, ma’am,’ put in Zhou Rui’s wife, ‘that’s hardly a very sen?sible question. Miss Moonbeam was with Mrs Pan all the time. Of course she’d know.’
Moonbeam could see she was cornered, and would have to tell the truth:
‘Madam used to take things with her whenever she went home. There was nothing I could do about it.’
A roar of indignation burst from the Xue camp:
‘So that’s it! Really, Mrs Xia! A fine mother you are! You talk your daughter into stealing our things; and then when the supply runs out, you force her to commit suicide so that you can blackmail us! They’ll be very interested to hear that at the inquest!’
‘Go outside,’ said Bao-chai, ‘and tell Mr Lian that the Xias must on no account be allowed to leave.’
Jin-gui’s mother was now in a state of extreme trepidation, and cursed Moonbeam roundly:
‘You little hussy! You scandal-monger! When did my daughter ever steal any of their things?’
‘Stealing’s nothing,’ retorted Moonbeam coolly, ‘compared to murder; and I don’t mean to let myself be called a murderer in order to cover up for a thief.’
‘If we can find the missing things, we’ll know who the murderer is,’ said Bao-qin. ‘Someone quickly go and find Lian. He can ask that Xia fellow about the buying of the arsenic. They’ll want to know about that at the inquest.’
Jin-gui’s mother began to panic:
‘Moonbeam must be possessed to speak such nonsense! When did my daughter ever buy arsenic? If you ask me, it was Moonbeam herself!’
‘That’s going too far!’ cried Moonbeam wildly. ‘I’m not taking that – not from you! Why, it was the two of you who were always telling Mrs Pan to stand up for her rights! It was you who advised her to make life unbearable for Mr Pan’s family, and then, when they were ruined, to walk off with every last button in the house and find herself a decent husband! Do you deny that?’
Before Jin-gui’s mother could reply, Zhou Rui’s wife cried with glee:
‘Denounced by one of your own servants! Well, what have you got to say for yourself now?’
Jin-gui’s mother cursed Moonbeam again, and gnashing her teeth said bitterly:
‘Haven’t I treated you well? Are you trying to drive me to the grave? At the inquest, I shall testify that it was you who did it!’
Moonbeam glared at her angrily and then turned to Mrs Xue:
‘Please release Caltrop, ma’am. There’s no sense in harming an innocent person like this. I shall tell the whole truth at the inquest.’
Bao-chai immediately instructed the servants to release Moonbeam instead, and said:
‘Come on, Moonbeam, you’ve always been a straightforward girl. Don’t let yourself get involved in underhand dealings. You’ll only suffer for it. If you’ve something to say, then go ahead and say it. Tell us the truth, and the whole affair can be cleared up once and for all.’
Moonbeam was terrified of being tortured at the inquest, and finally gave in:
‘Every day Mrs Pan used to complain about the way life had treated her. “Why was I born to such a stupid mother?” she’d say. “Instead of showing me some sense and marrying me to Master Ke, she went and chose his half-baked booby of a cousin! I’d gladly die if I could only spend one day with Master Ke!” And then she’d always say how she hated Caltrop. I didn’t pay much attention at first, and later when I began to notice how friendly she was being to Caltrop I supposed that Caltrop must have somehow earned her way back into her good books. I thought Mrs Pan made the soup for her as a kind gesture. Then I discovered that she had something quite different in mind! Something horrible!’
‘That makes no sense at all!’ interrupted Jin-gui’s mother. ‘If you are implying that she intended to do away with Caltrop, then how do you account for the fact that she ended up swallowing the poison herself?’
Bao-chai turned to Caltrop:
‘You tell us what happened yesterday, Caltrop. Did you drink any of the soup?’
‘A few days ago,’ began Caltrop, ‘when I was so ill that I could hardly lift my head, Mrs Pan offered to bring me some soup. I didn’t dare refuse, and I was struggling to sit up when she had an accident on the way and spilt the soup all over the floor. It was a lot of trouble for her, cleaning it all up, and I felt very bad to have been the cause of it. Then yesterday she offered me some soup again, and though I didn’t think I’d ever be able to swallow any of it, I decided I ought to try. I was just getting ready to drink some when I started feeling dizzy. I vaguely remember seeing Moonbeam clear the soup away, and thinking to myself what a relief it was not to have to drink any. But then, just as I was dozing off again, Mrs Pan came over and asked me to try some after all. She was drinking a bowl herself. I tried my hardest and managed to swallow a few mouthfuls.’
‘There you are!’ cried Moonbeam, hardly giving Caltrop time to finish. ‘Now let me complete the picture for you. Yesterday Mrs Pan told me to make two bowls of soup, one for her and one for Caltrop. I was pretty fed up, that Caltrop should be thought important enough for me to have to wait on her. So I deliberately put an extra dollop of salt in one of the bowls, and made a secret mark on the side, intending to give that bowl to Caltrop. As soon as I had brought the soup in, Mrs Pan told me to go and send the boys for a carriage, as she was planning to go home on a visit. I went out, and when I’d done my errand I came back to find Mrs Pan sitting with the salty bowl in front of her. I was afraid that if she tasted how salty it was she would be very cross with me. I was wondering what to do, when luckily Mrs Pan left the room for a moment to relieve herself, and I was able to change the bowls round. It must have been fated that I should do so. When Mrs Pan came back, she took the salty soup to Caltrop’s bedside and begged her to try some, drinking some from her own bowl (the one originally intended by her for Caltrop) at the same time. Caltrop didn’t seem to notice the salt, and they both finished their bowls. I was laughing to myself, thinking what a rough palate Caltrop must have. I didn’t realize then that Mrs Pan had plotted to poison Caltrop and had sprinkled arsenic in her soup while I was out of the room. And then later while she was outside, I changed the bowls round. And she never noticed. As the saying goes:

It all fell out as Providence planned;
The sinner died by her own hand!’

They pondered the details of Moonbeam’s story, and it impressed them as both plausible and consistent. Caltrop was duly released, and they helped her back into bed.
Jin-gui’s mother, meanwhile, growing more and more fearful with every minute, was racking her brains for some way of rebutting Moonbeam’s accusations. After a good deal of discussion Aunt Xue and the other members of the family concluded that under the circum?stances Xia San was the one who should be held responsible, as Jin?-gui’s accomplice. They were still debating heatedly how to deal with the matter when they heard Jia Lian call from outside:
‘No more chatter! Get the place looking decent. The officer from the Board is on his way.’
Mrs Xia and her son were frantic. It seemed inevitable that they would come out badly at the inquest. At last Mrs Xia begged Aunt Xue:
‘Please accept my humble apologies. It seems my daughter was misguided in her ways, and that she has met the end she deserved. If there is an inquest, it will look bad for your family too. I beg you to let the matter drop!’
‘That is out of the question!’ objected Bao-chai. ‘It has already been reported. We can’t let it drop now.’
Mrs Zhou offered her services as a mediator: –
‘The only way the matter could be dropped would be if Mrs Xia herself were to go forward and ask them to dispense with the inquest. In that case we wouldn’t raise any objections.’
Xia San, who was being held outside, agreed after a certain amount of intimidation from Jia Lian to intercept the officer and make a written request for suspension of the inquest. The others all approved this course of action. Aunt Xue gave orders for a coffin to be pur?chased and for all the other funeral arrangements to be seen to. But at this point our narrative turns elsewhere.

*

Jia Yu-cun had recently been promoted to the post of Mayor of the Metropolitan Prefecture, with additional duties as Collector of Taxes. He went out one day on a tour of inspection of the agricultural area newly brought under cultivation, and his route took him through the shire of Innsite. When he came to the riverside hamlet of Rushford Hythe, he halted his sedan at the water’s edge and waited for his servants to catch up with him, when they would all take the ferry to the other side. He noticed a small broken-down temple on the out?skirts of the village, with a few gnarled old pine-trees poking their branches up through the ruins. Stepping down from his sedan, he wandered over at a leisurely pace and strolled into the temple. The gilt was peeling from the statues, and the courtyard was in a state of extreme dilapidation. At one side stood a broken stone tablet with a worn and barely legible inscription. Yu-cun was crossing the rear courtyard towards the back hall of the temple when he saw, in the shade of a cypress tree, a lean-to shed with a thatched roof, and inside the shed a Taoist monk, seated with his eyes closed, deep in meditation. Going closer and gazing into the man’s face, Yu-cun was struck by a strange familiarity, a feeling of having seen him some?where before – though where he could not for the moment recall. His attendants were about to wake the Taoist rudely from his meditations, but Yu-cun stopped them and, advancing respectfully, addressed him with the words:
‘Venerable Master!’
The Taoist opened both eyes a slit and gave a faint smile.
‘What brings you here, sir?’
‘A tour of inspection has led me to these parts,’ replied Yu-cun. ‘Seeing your reverence so rapt in meditation, and deducing from this the profundity of your spiritual attainments, I most humbly crave from you some words of truth.’
‘There is ever a whence, and always a whither.’
Yu-cun sensed something very mysterious about the old man. Making a deep bow, he enquired:
‘From which monastery does your reverence hail? What is the name of this temple where you have made your hermitage? How many live here? If it is a life of pure contemplation that you seek, surely one of the sacred mountains would be a more conducive dwelling place? And if it is good works that you wish to perform, would not the busy thoroughfare be more appropriate?’
‘A bottle-gourd is ample for my needs,’ replied the Taoist. ‘Why build my hut on some famous mountain? As for this temple, only a crumbling tablet of stone remains to point to its long-forgotten origins. And why should I strive to do good works, when body and shadow suffice? I am no “jewel in the casket” biding “till one should come to buy”, no “jade-pin in the drawer hid, waiting its time to fly”.’
Yu-cun had always been a smart fellow. The reference to ‘the bottle-gourd’ and to his own couplet (written when he had been a poor lodger at the Bottle-gourd Temple in Soochow) at once brought to mind his neighbour from days gone by, old Zhen Shi-yin. Scru?tinizing the Taoist again, he recognized him and saw that his old benefactor’s face had not changed. He dismissed his attendants.
‘Tell me the truth, sir,’ he enquired confidentially, when they were alone. ‘Are you not old Mr Zhen?’
A faint smile crossed the old man’s face.
‘What is truth, and what fiction? You must understand that truth is fiction, and fiction truth.’
Yu-cun’s certainty was increased by the fact that the old man’s words contained a pun on their names, Zhen being homophonous with ‘truth’, and Jia with ‘fiction’. He bowed afresh and said:
‘When your great generosity enabled me to travel to the capital, I enjoyed good fortune, and thanks to your blessing obtained the highest distinction in my examinations and was appointed to the very district to which you yourself had moved. That was where I first learned that you had achieved enlightenment and had renounced the world, to soar in the realm of the immortals. Although I sought anxiously to trace your whereabouts, in the end I came to the con?clusion that a common layman such as myself, soiled with the dust of this mortal world, would never be granted another chance to behold your holy face. How blessed I am indeed to have encountered you again! I beg you, holy sir, to relieve my benighted ignorance. If you deign to accede to my request, allow me to provide for you and accommodate you in my humble abode close by in the capital, that I may derive daily benefit from your wisdom.’
The Taoist rose to his feet and returned the bow.
‘Beyond my prayer-mat,’ he replied, ‘I know nothing. Of what Your Honour has just spoken I have understood not a single word.’
He resumed his sitting position. Yu-cun began to have misgivings.
‘But surely,’ he thought to himself, ‘it must be him? The face, the voice are so familiar! After these nineteen years his complexion is quite unchanged. It must be that he has achieved a high degree of spiritual cultivation, and is therefore reluctant to reveal his former identity. He considers himself a new man. But he is my benefactor. Now that I have found him again, I must think of some way to show my gratitude. If material things cannot move him, still less I suppose will any mention of his wife and child.’
After reflecting thus, Yu-cun spoke:
‘Venerable Sir, I understand that you are reluctant to reveal your former condition. But can you not vouchsafe your disciple some sign of recognition?’
He was about to prostrate himself when his attendants came to announce that it was getting late and he should cross the river at once. Yu-cun was hesitating, when the Taoist spoke to him again:
‘Cross with all speed to the other side, Your Honour. We will meet again. Delay now, and a storm may arise. If you really deign to come again, I look forward to seeing you here by the ford another day.’
He closed his eyes and was lost once more in his meditations. Yu?-cun, with some reluctance, bade him farewell and made his way out of the temple. He had reached the bank of the river and was preparing to board the ferry and make the crossing, when he saw a man running towards him at full pelt.
To learn who it was, please turn to the next chapter.

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