The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 107

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CHAPTER 107


Impelled by family devotion, Grandmother Jia
distributes her personal possessions
Favoured with an Imperial dispensation, Jia Zheng
receives his brother’s hereditary rank

Jia Zheng arrived at the Palace, and greeted the various princes and ministers of the Privy Council assembled there to meet him.
‘His Majesty has instructed us to send for you,’ said the Prince of Bei-jing. ‘He would like us to ask you one or two questions.’
Jia Zheng fell hastily to his knees, and the inquisition proceeded:
‘Were you aware that your elder brother had connived with a provincial official for personal gain? That he had abused his influence and bullied a defenceless citizen? That he had permitted his son to indulge in gambling and loose living, and that this same son forcefully took to his bed the fiancée of an innocent person and drove her to her death when she would not gratify his desires? Were you aware of all this?’
Jia Zhen replied as best he could:
‘Upon the expiry of my term of office as Education Commis?sioner, an appointment I owed to the gracious favour of His Majesty, I was engaged at first in supervising relief measures, and then on my return home at the end of last winter I was deputed by my superiors to inspect reconstruction work and was sub?sequently appointed Grain Intendant for Kiangsi Province. From this last post I returned to the capital under impeachment, and have now resumed my former position at the Board of Works. I have truly endeavoured to be diligent in the performance of all these official duties, but I fear that I have completely neglected to keep my own household in order. For this inexcusable shortcoming on my part, for my abject failure to instruct my sons and nephews in the true principles of conduct, for my base ingratitude to the throne, I can only beg that His Majesty will punish me with fitting severity.’
The Prince of Bei-jing went in to communicate this to the Emperor, and after a short while returned with the Imperial Edict, which he declaimed to the assembled company:
‘We have received an indictment from the Censorate stating that Jia She connived with a provincial official and abused his own per?sonal influence to bully a defenceless citizen. The provincial official named by the censor was the prefect of Ping-an. Jia She, so the impeachment reads, was in communication with this prefect with a view to perverting the true course of justice. When closely inter?rogated, however, Jia She testified that the prefect was in fact a relation of his by marriage and that their connection was a purely personal one. The censor has therefore been unable to substantiate this part of the charge. Another part, however, has been verified, namely that Jia She abused his personal influence in coercing the man named Stony to part with a set of antique fans. These fans were none the less trifles, and the case must therefore be distinguished from serious cases of extortion. Stony’s subsequent suicide can also be ascribed to his own eccentricity, and he cannot be strictly con?sidered to have been “driven to his death”. We see fit to show leniency to Jia She, and hereby sentence him to penal service at a military post on the Mongolian border, where he shall redeem himself by diligent service.
‘With reference to the first charge brought against Jia Zhen, that he forcefully took to his bed the betrothed of an innocent citizen and drove her to her death when she would not gratify his desires: upon consulting the original records at the Censorate, We find that the lady in question, a certain Miss You Er-jie, was betrothed to a certain Zhang Hua when both were still in their mothers’ wombs. The marriage was never solemnized, indeed Zhang himself wished to annul it on the grounds of his own poverty. The lady’s mother was also quite willing for her daughter to be taken as a concubine, not by Jia Zhen himself but by his younger cousin. So clearly this was not a case of forceful appropriation. Then the case of Miss You San-jie: the charge here is that following her suicide she was buried secretly and the facts of her death were concealed from the authorities. On further investigation it has been found that this Miss You San-jie was the younger sister of Jia Zhen’s wife, and that it was his original intention to arrange a marriage for her. The widespread and malicious rumours circulating about her character, her own subsequent feelings of shame and remorse and the insistence of her fiancé that she should return his betrothal gifts were the cause of her suicide, not any direct maltreatment or coercion on the part of Jia Zhen. As the holder of a hereditary rank, however, Jia Zheng deserves to be severely punished for his ignorance of the law and for his failure to report the burial of a deceased person. In view of the fact that he is a descendant of a loyal and distinguished subject, We cannot bring ourselves to impose the heavy penalty strictly required by law, but choose to exercise Our discretion, hereby sentencing him to be stripped of his hereditary rank and sent to a maritime frontier region, there to redeem himself by diligent service. Jia Rong, who is too young to have been involved in these affairs, is acquitted. Jia Zheng has for many years held provincial posts in which he has served conscientiously and pru?dently, and he is absolved from the consequences of his failure to govern his household correctly.’
Jia Zheng responded to the Edict with tears of gratitude, and hastily kowtowed, first in the direction of the Imperial throne, then towards the prince, whom he begged to convey to the Emperor a humble plea of devotion.
‘A simple kowtow will suffice,’ said the prince. ‘There is no need of anything further.’
‘My gratitude to His Majesty, for so graciously absolving me of blame, and for restoring my portion of the family property, knows no bounds,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘I feel a great sense of inner remorse. Please allow me to donate to the Imperial purse all my hereditary emoluments and accumulated property.’
‘His Majesty is indeed humane and compassionate towards His subjects,’ replied the prince. ‘He is wise and discriminating in his judgements, and never errs, whether it be in recompensing virtue or in punishing vice. In having your property thus restored, you have been blessed with his exceptional favour. There is really no call for any further gesture on your part.’
The other gentlemen present concurred.
So Jia Zheng kowtowed again, first towards the Emperor and then to the prince, and left the Palace, hurrying home to hear the news to Grandmother Jia, knowing the anxious suspense in which she would be awaiting his return. The entire Jia household, menfolk and womenfolk, were waiting anxiously at the entrance of Rong-guo House to learn the outcome of his interview, and breathed a huge sigh of relief when they saw him return safely home. None dared to question him as he hurried past them and on into Grandmother Jia’s apartment. He recounted to her the details of the latest Edict; and Grandmother Jia, though pleased that some of the charges had been dropped, was understandably distressed to learn that the two titles were lost to the family and that both Jia She and Cousin Zhen were sentenced to penal servitude. Lady Xing and You-shi simply broke down when they heard the news.
‘You must not distress yourself Mother,’ pleaded Jia Zheng. ‘Although Brother She will have to work at the Mongolian frontier post, he will still be serving the nation, and will not be maltreated. If he acquits himself creditably, he may be fully reinstated. As for Zhen, he is still a young man and a bit of hard work certainly won’t do him any harm. This is a lesson we would have had to learn sooner or later. We cannot rest for ever on the laurels of our forefathers.’
He added a few more words of this kind, which comforted Grand?mother Jia. After all, she had never been particularly fond of Jia She, and Cousin Zhen was not her own grandson. But Lady Xing and You-shi were inconsolable.
‘We are ruined!’ thought Lady Xing to herself. ‘With my husband sent into exile in his old age, who can I turn to? Lian is supposed to be my son, but he has always attached himself more to his uncle Zheng than to his own father. Now that we are all dependent on Zheng, Lian and Xi-feng are bound to lean even more towards that side of the family. I shall be completely abandoned; I have nothing to look forward to but loneliness and misery for the rest of my days.’
You-shi had always been in charge of Ning-guo House, and apart from Cousin Zhen she was the only one of the family to have earned the respect of the domestic staff. She and Cousin Zhen had a happy marriage moreover. Now he was to be sent away in disgrace, everything they had was confiscated, and they would be obliged to look to the Rong-guo branch for support. Grandmother Jia loved her well enough, but still, she would be the recipient of charity, and she would have to bring Lovey and Dove along with her, not to mention young Rong and his wife, who were still too young to be independent.
‘It was really Lian’s fault that my sisters came to such a wretched end,’ she reflected. ‘And yet he and Xi-feng have survived unscathed, while we are reduced to this desperate state of affairs.’
Grandmother Jia was greatly affected by You-shi’s disconsolate sobbing, and she turned to Jia Zheng and asked him:
‘Now that their sentence has been pronounced, will your brother She and young Zhen be allowed to come home to say goodbye? Rong has been acquitted, so I assume that he will be set free.’
‘In the normal course of events such a visit would not be allowed,’ replied Jia Zheng. ‘But I have already asked if as a personal favour Brother She and Cousin Zhen could be allowed home to make preparations for their departure, and the Board of Punishments has most graciously agreed to make this concession. I assume that Rong will be set free and will accompany them. Now, please don’t you worry, Mother. I shall do all I can for them.’
‘I’m growing old and senile,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘It’s years since I last enquired about the family’s finances. The Ning-guo side has had everything confiscated, I know, and that of course includes the house itself. On our side, your brother She and Lian have had their things taken too. Now, you’d better tell me: how much money do we have left? And what are our estates in the Eastern provinces worth? When those two have to go, we must give them a few thousand taels of silver to take with them.’
Jia Zheng saw himself caught.
‘If I tell the truth,’ he thought to himself, ‘I fear it will come as a great blow. But if I conceal it, heaven alone knows how we will be able to pay for our present needs, let alone manage in the future.’
‘Had you not asked, Mother,’ he began, ‘I would never have bothered you with this. But since you have asked, and since Lian is present, I am bound to say that yesterday I examined the family accounts, and discovered the truth. Which is this: our exchequer has for a long time been completely empty- in fact, more than empty. There are substantial debts. I must somehow find money, and without delay, to mollify the officials involved in Brother She’s case. Without such intervention I fear they will both suffer, despite His Majesty’s generous concern. I am still not certain how this money can be raised. The Eastern estates cannot be depended on for anything. The rents for the forthcoming year have long been borrowed against. Our only recourse will be to sell what clothes and jewellery they are lucky enough to have left in their possession, and to let Brother She and Cousin Zhen take the proceeds of that sale with them. How we ourselves will manage afterwards is another matter altogether.’
Grandmother Jia was once more reduced to floods of tears.
‘Is it really so desperate? Can we have fallen so low? I’ve never experienced anything like this. I can remember my own family in the old days; they were ten times as grand as us, yet they managed to live beyond their means for years. And even in the end, no such calamity as this ever befell them. It was more gradual. It must have been a year or two before they were finished. But you seem to be saying that we may not even last another year!’
‘If only we still had the two hereditary state emoluments to fall back on,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘Then we might be able to procure a loan. But as things stand, no one is going to lend us a penny.’
Even his cheeks were now streaming with tears.
‘It’s certainly no use turning to our own relatives for help,’ he continued. ‘The ones that owe us a favour are penniless, and the ones that don’t are unlikely to come forward and help us now. I did not examine the accounts in any detail yesterday, but I did glance at the register of household staff. We can barely afford to keep ourselves alive, let alone such a host of servants.’
These final details in Jia Zheng’s tale of financial woe plunged Grandmother Jia in still deeper gloom. Presently Jia She, Cousin Zhen and Jia Rong arrived and paid her their respects. The sight of them somehow brought home to her the true horror of their pre?dicament. She took Jia She by one hand, Cousin Zhen by the other and burst out sobbing. The two men hung their heads in shame and, when she began weeping, fell to their knees and cried:
‘We have dishonoured the family! We have forfeited the glory won by our forefathers! We have brought you grief! We are not even worthy to be buried when we die!’
At this a chorus of wailing filled the room.
‘Come on now,’ urged Jia Zheng. ‘We must lose no time in thinking of a way to provide them with funds. They can stay with us only a day or two at the most.’
Grandmother Jia did her best to contain her grief.
‘Go now, both of you,’ she said, holding back her tears, ‘and speak with your wives.’ She turned to Jia Zheng: ‘There must be no delay, and I can see it would be futile trying to borrow. We have so little time. I shall have to do something myself. Oh dear, this is all so dreadfully confusing! Things mustn’t be allowed to go on like this!’
She called Faithful to her and sent her off with some secret in?structions.
Jia She and Cousin Zhen meanwhile left the room and conversed tearfully with Jia Zheng outside, expressing their remorse for their past waywardness and anticipating with gloom the bitter exile that lay ahead. Then they went over and lamented with their wives. Jia She was growing old, and the prospect of separation was less har?rowing for him and Lady Xing than it was for Cousin Zhen and You-shi.
Jia Lian and Jia Rong held their fathers’ hands and wept at their side. Frontier service was a less severe punishment than military exile, but it would still be a long and painful ordeal. They could only try to steel themselves to it as best they could.
Grandmother Jia told Lady Xing, Lady Wang, Faithful and a bevy of maids to look through every one of her trunks and boxes, and to take out all the personal belongings she had stored away over the years of her marriage. Then she summoned Jia She, Jia Zheng, Cousin Zhen and all the other menfolk to attend while she made a distribution. She began by giving Jia She three thousand taels of silver.
‘You are to take two thousand with you,’ she said, ‘for the journey and for any expenses afterwards, and leave one thousand here for your wife. This three thousand is for you, Zhen. You must take one thousand with you, and leave two thousand for your wife. In this way, although they will be living with us, they will still be independ?ent and able to make separate catering arrangements. I shall provide for Xi-chun’s marriage when the time comes. Now Xi-feng; I feel sorry for her, she tried so hard for so long, and has ended up with nothing. She too shall have three thousand taels, and she is to keep all of it for her own use and not give a penny to Lian. I know she is much too ill now, and in no fit state to come and receive it herself, so Patience can take it to her.
‘Here are some robes that once belonged to my husband, and some of the gowns and jewellery that I used to wear when I was young – I don’t need them any more. The men’s clothing can be divided between She, Zhen, Lian and Rong. Their wives can share the ladies’ things. This five hundred taels of silver is for Lian to pay for transporting Miss Lin’s coffin to the South next year.’
When this distribution was complete, she turned to Jia Zheng:
‘The debts you mentioned must be honoured at once. Take this gold and use it for that purpose. Their misdeeds have driven me to these drastic measures, but don’t think I have forgotten that you too are my son. In due time you will receive your fair share. Bao-yu is married and can have what is left here – gold and silver worth several thousand taels. And Li Wan: she has always been such a dutiful granddaughter-in-law to me, and little Lan is such a sweet child. Here’s some for them too. There, I’ve finished.’
Jia Zheng was moved to tears to see how clearly she had worked everything out.
‘We have failed you, Mother!’ he sobbed, falling to his knees. ‘We have not done our filial duty towards you in your old age; and yet you shower us with such bounty! How can we ever outlive our shame!’
‘Oh poppycock!’ exclaimed Grandmother Jia. ‘Don’t you worry, if it weren’t for this crisis I should certainly have kept it all for myself! But let’s be serious: our staff is much too large. You are the only one left with an official post, Zheng, so we don’t need more than a few servants. Tell the stewards to call the staff together and make the necessary arrangements. Each establishment must make do with as few servants as possible. We would have had to manage with none at all if our household had been confiscated. The same goes for the ladies’ apartments. We must find husbands for some of the maids, and give others back their freedom. And although our property has not been taken, I still think it would be best if you handed over the Garden. Lian should be given the job of sorting out the country estates. Some can be sold, some kept on, as seems most appropriate. Above all there must be no more pomp in future, no more empty show. We must be realistic. And another thing I should mention. We still have some money belonging to the Zhen family of Nanking. It’s in safe keeping with your wife, Zheng. Someone should be sent to take it back to them straight away. If anything else should happen to us, we’d only involve them in a lot more trouble, push them out of the frying-pan and into the fire.’
Jia Zheng, who was painfully aware of his own incompetence in such matters, mumbled a contrite ‘Yes, Mother’ to all of these eminently practical instructions, thinking to himself:
‘What a flair she has for organization! And what worthless bunglers we all are by comparison!’
He could see that Grandmother Jia was tired, and begged her to lie down and rest.
‘The little you see here is all I have left,’ she said. ‘When I die, you can use some of it to pay for my funeral, and give the remainder to my maids.’
They found this mention of her death greatly upsetting, and all fell to their knees once more.
‘Please set your mind at ease, Mother. In time to come, if we enioy your blessing and can once more regain His Majesty’s favour, then we shall do our utmost to atone for past errors, to restore the family fortune and to support you into your hundredth year.’
‘If you can only somehow make amends,’ said Grandmother Jia, ‘then perhaps I shall be able to face our ancestors with pride when I die. Don’t think that I know only how to enjoy a comfortable life, and that I have no stomach for poverty! That’s not it at all. It’s just that I am rather shocked by all this. During the past few years you have seemed so prosperous, and I was only too glad not to interfere; to jolly along and mind my own business. I never for one moment imagined that we were in such a precarious state. I’ve always known that we were living beyond our means, of course, but I thought somehow we’d manage to muddle through. I suppose we were “dulled by habit”; we couldn’t adjust, we were too used to things as they were. Well now we must use this opportunity to economize and set things to rights, or else our family will be the laughing-stock of the world. You may think it’s the poverty that appals me. But it’s not. What I have always cared about more than anything is our family tradition, our family honour. Every day of my life has been lived in the hope that this generation would outshine our ancestors. But I would have been content just to maintain our position as it was. I had no idea of the disgraceful jiggery-pokery those two were up to behind my back!’
Grandmother Jia was ruminating aloud in this fashion when Felicity came hurrying into the room and ran over to Lady Wang in a great fluster:
‘Oh Your Ladyship! Mrs Lian heard the news from court this morning, and she’s cried such a lot that now she seems quite faint. Patience sent me over to let you know.’
‘How is Mrs Lian?’ Grandmother Jia asked her before she’d finished speaking. ‘Not at all well today,’ replied Lady Wang on Felicity’s behalf.
‘Aii’ exclaimed the old lady, rising wearily to her feet. ‘These young people are the bane of my life! I can see they want to drive me into my grave!’
She asked her maids to assist her and announced her intention of paying Xi-feng a visit herself. Jia Zheng hastened to detain her, and endeavoured to calm her down:
‘This has all been so distressing for you, Mother. You have already exerted yourself so much in finding a solution to our problems. You really must give yourself a bit of a rest. I am sure my wife can go over and see to Xi-feng. There is no need for you to expose yourself to any further upsets. If anything serious were to happen to you, how should I ever forgive myself.’
‘You may all leave now,’ ordered Lady Jia. ‘Come back a little later. There are still a few things I want to say.’
Jia Zheng, his attempt at filial consolation having been thus peremptorily crushed, did not venture to say any more. He went out to superintend the practical arrangements for the convicts’ departure and instructed Jia Lian to choose some servants to accompany them.
Faithful assembled a group of serving-women to carry Xi-feng’s presents and to escort Grandmother Jia over to Xi-feng’s apartment. Xi-feng was very weak and almost unconscious, while Patience’s eyes were red and swollen from crying. When she heard that Lady Jia and Lady Wang, accompanied by Bao-yu and Bao-chai, were on their way, Patience hurried out anxiously to greet them.
‘How is she now?’ asked Grandmother Jia the moment she saw Patience.
Patience was afraid of frightening the old lady.
‘A little better, ma’am.’
She escorted the party inside and hurrying over to Xi-feng’s bed lightly drew aside the bed curtains. Xi-feng opened her eyes and, when she saw Grandmother Jia enter the room, was filled with shame. Earlier she had come to the conclusion that the whole family had turned against her, that no one cared for her any more, that they were all indifferent whether she lived or died. And yet now Grand?mother Jia had come to visit her personally. Her spirits were immedi?ately restored, and she even struggled to sit up; but Grandmother Jia ordered Patience to settle her down again.
‘Don’t you move, dear,’ she said to Xi-feng. ‘Are you feeling a little better now?’
‘Oh yes, Grannie, I am. A lot better,’ replied Xi-feng, holding back her tears. ‘But it grieves me when I think how you and Mother and Aunt Wang have loved me, ever since I came here as a young bride, and how little I have been able to return that love. How cruelly fate has possessed me, driving me quite out of my mind, making me fail in my duty to you and Aunt Wang, preventing me from ever winning your praise … Yet still you trusted me, still you allowed me to play my part. And all I’ve ever done is ruin things for everyone! How can I look you and Auntie in the face again? This visit is more than I deserve. I’m afraid Heaven will punish me for it, by taking away most of the few days I may have left to live…
She sobbed violently.
‘This whole nonsense was started by the men,’ Grandmother Jia consoled her. ‘It was nothing to do with you. I know some of your belongings have been taken, but don’t you worry: I’ve brought you all sorts of presents – take a look and see.’
She instructed one of the serving-women to bring the presents forward and exhibit them. Possessions had always meant a great deal to Xi-feng, and the sudden loss of all of her worldly goods had dealt a severe blow to her morale. She had also been tormenting herself with the thought that everyone in the family secretly blamed her for what had happened, and as a consequence she had all but lost her will to live. This new evidence of Grandmother Jia’s affection was a much-needed tonic; and it seemed that Lady Wang was not really so cross with her either, to judge from the fact that she had accompanied Grandmother Jia. And had Jia Lian not been acquitted, after all? Xi-?feng kowtowed to Grandmother Jia from her pillow:
‘Please don’t worry on my behalf, Grannie. If I can continue to enjoy your blessing, and if I recover my health, I’ll gladly be your lowliest maidservant and do any menial task, devote myself heart and soul for the rest of my life to serving you and Aunt Wang.’
This abject gratitude was too pitiful a sight for Grandmother Jia, and she broke down and wept. Bao-yu immediately followed suit. He had never witnessed anything resembling a family crisis. His life till recently had consisted for the most part of peaceful and pleasant pursuits, and he had been protected from too close an acquaintance with real suffering. But now wherever he turned he saw anguish and weeping. It had the effect of accentuating his imbecility; and if he saw anyone else crying, he instantly responded by doing likewise.
Seeing what low spirits her visitors were in, Xi-feng did her best to muster a few cheerful words, and then begged Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang to return to their apartments, promising to come and kowtow to them as soon as she was well enough. She raised her head feebly from the pillow as she spoke.
‘Look after her well now,’ Grandmother Jia enjoined Patience. ‘And if you’re short of anything, be sure to come and let me know.’
She took Lady Wang back with her to her own apartment. On the way, she could hear the sound of weeping coming from every quarter. It was more than she could bear. She sent Lady Wang away and told Bao-yu to bid his Uncle She and Cousin Zhen farewell and to return immediately afterwards.
Left on her own, she sank onto her couch in tears. Faithful tried every way she knew of consoling her, and finally Grandmother Jia dozed off.
Understandably Jia She and Cousin Zhen viewed the prospect of their exile with little relish. The men chosen to accompany them were equally reluctant to go, and complained bitterly of their lot. To be parted in life is in truth more painful than to be parted by death, and the witnessing of such a parting often more distressing than the parting itself. Rong-guo House, once a scene of such brilliance and distinction, now echoed with the sounds of wailing and lamentation.
Jia Zheng had always been a great stickler for formalities, and despite everything he continued to observe towards Jia She the solemn respect prescribed towards an elder brother. The two brothers shook hands at home, and Jia Zheng then rode out ahead to beyond the city walls and there waited to drink the ritual farewell cup of wine. He exhorted Jia She to remember the compassion the state had shown him on his ancestors’ account, and to prove himself worthy of it. Jia She and Cousin Zhen wiped the tears from their eyes, and set off for their different destinations.
Jia Zheng returned home with Bao-yu. As they neared the gateway of Rong-guo House they saw a crowd gathered outside and heard a confused hubbub of voices:
‘An Imperial Edict issued today! The Rong-guo hereditary rank and title to be passed on to Sir Zheng!’
The men in the crowd were demanding their statutory tip for bringing this good news, but the janitors were resisting vigorously:
‘The title belonged to the family in the first place, and was inherited by our masters. That’s not worth a tip!’
‘Come on!’ came the indignant reply. ‘Think of the glory! A title like that is the most glorious thing there is – and your Sir She could never hope to get it back, not after what he’s done. Now His Majesty, in his wisdom and mercy, greater than the sky is broad, has passed it on to Sir Zheng; why, that’s nothing less than a miracle for your family! Definitely worth a tip!’
Jia Zheng entered the house and received a full report on the matter from the janitors. His pleasure was inevitably mingled with shame that his own good fortune had been made possible only by his elder brother’s disgrace. He was momentarily overwhelmed and wept tears of emotion. Then he hurried in to convey the news to Grand?mother Jia, who took him delightedly by the hand and urged him to show himself worthy of this signal honour. Lady Wang was also present, anxious that Grandmother Jia might be souffrante and in need of consolation, and she too was delighted to hear Jia Zheng’s news. Only Lady Xing and You-shi felt their own misfortune the more keenly, an emotion they took pains to conceal.

*

The family’s sponging friends and relatives, who had kept well clear while times were hard, learned that Jia Zheng had now been given his brother’s title and – deducing from this that the Emperor must still view the Jias with a favourable eye – flocked to Rong-guo House to offer their felicitations. But Jia Zheng’s feelings were running along very different lines. He was by nature a man of such soul-searching integrity that, so far from congratulating himself on his good luck, he was greatly troubled at heart, and wondered how he would ever be able to show his gratitude sufficiently. The fol?lowing day he went to the Palace to make a formal expression of thanks, and this time went so far as to submit a memorial begging that his restored residence, together with Prospect Garden, be accepted as a gift by the Emperor. An Edict was issued in reply to this request, dismissing it as quite superfluous; and Jia Zheng, his conscience a little placated, returned home and applied himself with devotion and zeal to his official duties.
The family’s finances were still as precarious as ever. Income continued to fall far short of expenditure. Entertaining, making connections with the right people and winning favours were not Jia Zheng’s strong point. The servants knew how incorrigibly upright he was, while Xi-feng was still sick and unable to apply her experience to the solving of the present crisis. The debts Jia Lian was forced to incur were mounting daily, and it seemed almost inevitable that he would have to mortgage still more property and sell still more land. The servants could see it coming. Some of them were quite wealthy themselves and were worried that Jia Lian might come to them for money. Some tried to keep out of harm’s way by feigning poverty, some asked for leave of absence and went looking for other em?ployment.
One exception was Bao Yong. Though he was a newcomer and had arrived only a short while before the crisis, he proved to be a most industrious and loyal servant, and was appalled by the way the other servants were taking advantage of their masters. He had insufficient status among the domestic staff to dare voice his feelings to the offenders, and could only eat his evening meal and take his indignation to bed. The others disliked him for not going along with them, and complained about him to Jia Zheng, calling him an incompetent, a drunkard and a troublemaker.
‘Let him be,’ was Jia Zheng’s response. ‘He was recommended to me by the Zhens, and we cannot be too hard on him. After all, we may be poor, but we can surely afford to feed one extra mouth.’
When they failed in their attempts to have him sacked by the master, the servants turned next to Jia Lian with their complaints; but Jia Lian felt in no position to exert his authority, and in the end they had to let Bao Yong be.
One day Bao Yong was feeling particularly angry and, having drunk a few cups of wine to comfort himself, went for a stroll in the street outside the main entrance to Rong-guo House, where he happened to overhear the following conversation:
‘See that great mansion in there?’ said one of the two men, pointing to Rong-guo House. ‘Wonder how they’re managing after that raid the other day…’
‘Oh they’ll be all right!’ replied the other. ‘I’ve heard that one of their daughters was a concubine of His Majesty’s. She’s dead now, but a connection like that doesn’t die so quickly. And they’re on hob-nobbing terms with all sorts of princes, dukes, marquises and earls. They’ll never be short of friends. Take the present Mayor, who used to be Minister of War, he’s from the same family. With people like that to look after them, they’ll always be all right.’
‘Hm!’ replied the first. ‘You may live locally, but I can see you’re rather out of touch. I don’t know about their other friends, but that Mayor Jia you mentioned is a regular bounder! I’ll tell you why I say that. I’ve seen him at Rong-guo House countless times, so I know he’s had a lot to do with them in the past. When the censor brought that indictment against members of the Jia family, the Emperor asked him to look into the matter and establish the facts of the case. And what do you think he did? Because he owed both branches of the family big favours himself, and because he was afraid he’d be suspected of covering up for his own friends, he went to the other extreme. He said the most terrible things about them. That’s what led to both houses being raided. It’s shocking how people treat their friends nowadays, isn’t it!’
This casual conversation happened to fall on the ears of one who understood only too clearly what it meant.
‘That such a scoundrel should live and breathe on this earth!’ thought Bao Yong secretly to himself. ‘I wonder what relation of the Master’s he is? If I so much as set eyes on him, I’ll beat the innards out of him! To hell with the consequences!’
Wild (and somewhat befuddled) thoughts of revenge filled Bao Yong’s loyal breast. Suddenly the cry of official runners could be heard clearing the way, and from where he was standing Bao Yong heard one of the bystanders whisper to the other:
‘Why, here he comes now, the very Mayor Jia we were talking about!’
Bao Yong was seething with righteous indignation, and the wine lent him the final touch of inspiration and courage.
‘Blackguard!’ he yelled recklessly. ‘Scurvy knave! Would you forget the kindness shown you by our masters the Jias?’
From within his sedan Jia Yu-cun heard the name ‘Jia’ and leaned forward to see what was going on. Just another drunken lout in the street, not worth bothering with. His sedan moved on, and Bao Yong swaggered home feeling very pleased with himself and far too drunk to be discreet. He made a few enquiries, and his fellow-?servants confirmed that the Mayor did indeed owe his entire career to the patronage of the Jia family.
‘Well he’s an ungrateful scoundrel, and I’ve told him so!’ boasted Bao Yong. ‘After all they’ve done for him, to kick them in the teeth like that! I gave him a piece of my mind, and he didn’t dare answer me back either…
Until now, the other servants, who were united in their dislike of Bao Yong, had been unable to persuade Jia Zheng to get rid of him. This was the very pretext they had been waiting for, and they seized their chance to report him to the Master for being drunk and dis?orderly and creating a disturbance in the street. Jia Zheng was ex?tremely nervous of provoking the authorities any further, and was very angry when he heard of Bao Yong’s riotous behaviour. He summoned him and gave him a thorough dressing-down. He still felt that in view of his connection with the Zhens it would be wrong to punish him too severely, and instead transferred him to caretaking duties in the Garden, with strict instructions not to go wandering outside again.
Bao Yong was a straightforward sort of fellow. Once he worked for a man, that man was his master, to serve and protect with every ounce of loyalty he had. He was greatly dismayed that Jia Zheng should have listened to tales and been misled into scolding him in this fashion. But he did not say a word in protest. He merely packed his bags and moved into the Garden to commence his new duties.
To learn what followed, please read the next chapter.

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