The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 11



Ning-guo House celebrates the birthday
of an absent member
And Jia Rui conceives an illicit passion
for his attractive cousin

Jia Jing’s birthday had now arrived. Cousin Zhen packed sixteen lacquer gift-boxes with the rarest and choicest deli?cacies and instructed Jia Rong to take a number of domestics with him and deliver them to Jia Jing. He was to observe carefully whether or not his grandfather was pleased, and having made his kotow, was to deliver the following message:
‘Because of your request, Father has not ventured to visit you himself. Instead he will place himself at the head of the entire family and lead them in prostrating themselves in your direction.’
Having received his father’s instructions, Jia Rong mus?tered his band of servants and set out.
Back at home visitors gradually began to arrive. Jia Lian and Jia Qiang were the first. Having inspected the various seating arrangements, they inquired whether there was to be entertainment of some kind.
‘The Master had originally been reckoning on old Sir Jing coming here today,’ said one of the servants, ‘so he didn’t arrange for any entertainment. But the day before yesterday he learned that Sir Jing would not be coming, so he asked us to find a troupe of actors and a band. They are at present on the stage in the garden getting ready for the performance.’
Lady Xing, Lady Wang, Wang Xi-feng and Bao-yu arrived next and were welcomed and conducted inside by Cousin Zhen and You-shi. You-shi’s mother was already there. She was introduced to the new arrivals, who were then invited to sit down and were served by Cousin Zhen and You-shi with tea.
‘We realize,’ said Cousin Zhen, ‘that Lady Jia is a generation older than Father. Father is only her nephew, of course, and strictly speaking it wasn’t correct form to invite a person of her age at all. Nevertheless, since the weather is so fresh and nice just now and the chrysanthemums in the garden at their best, we had rather hoped that she might enjoy coming over for a bit and having all her children and grandchildren around her. That was our only motive in asking her. I’m sorry she decided not to honour us.’
‘Up to yesterday,’ Xi-feng put in hurriedly, not waiting for Lady Wang to reply, ‘Grandmother had been intending to come. Then yesterday evening she saw Bao-yu eating some peaches and the greedy old thing couldn’t resist trying one herself. She only ate about two thirds of a peach, but she had to get up twice running in the early hours, and this morning she still felt rather poorly and told me to tell you that she definitely wouldn’t be able to come. But she said that if you have any specially nice things to eat she would like one or two kinds to try; only they must be soft and easy to digest.’
Cousin Zhen smiled with pleasure.
‘Well, that’s all right then. Knowing how much Grandma enjoys a bit of fun, I thought it didn’t seem like her not to come today unless she had some good reason for not coming.’
‘The other day Xi-chun was telling us that Rong’s wife is not very well,’ said Lady Wang. ‘What exactly is wrong with her?’
‘It’s a very puzzling illness,’ You-shi replied. ‘At Mid-Autumn last month, when she got back from playing cards half the night with you and Lady Jia, she seemed perfectly all right. But from the twentieth onwards she seemed to get more and more tired and listless every day—too tired even to eat. She’s been like that for more than a fortnight now, and it is two months since she had a period.’
‘Couldn’t she be expecting?’ said Lady Xing.
They were interrupted by a servant from outside:
‘Sir She and Sir Zheng and all the other gentlemen have arrived, sir. They are in the main reception room.’
Cousin Zhen hurried out.
‘To begin with that’s what some of the doctors told us,’ said You-shi, resuming the conversation; ‘but yesterday Feng Zi-ying introduced a doctor friend of his to us who is terribly good, someone he went to school with, and he said that she wasn’t expecting at all. He said she was suffering from a serious illness. He wrote a prescription for her yesterday and she has already had one dose of the medicine. Today her giddiness is a bit better, but everything else is still pretty much the same.’
‘There!’ said Xi-feng. ‘I thought it must be something quite serious to keep her away, especially on a day like this. I know she would have forced herself to come if she could have done.’
‘You remember you saw her here on the third,’ said You-shi. ‘She had a terrible struggle to keep going on that occasion. It was only because the two of you have always been so close and she didn’t want to miss you that she made the effort.’
Xi-feng’s eyes became moist and for a moment she was too overcome to speak.
‘I know “the weather and human life are both unpredic?table”,’ she said at last, ‘but she’s only a child still. If anything should happen to her as a result of this illness, I think all the fun would go out of life!’
While she was speaking Jia Rong came in, and having greeted in turn first Lady Xing, then Lady Wang, and then Xi-feng, he turned to his mother:
‘I’ve just delivered the food to Grandfather, and I told him that Father was entertaining all the men of the family at home and had not presumed to visit him because of what he said. Grandfather was very pleased. He said “That is exactly as it should be.” He said I was to tell you and Father to see that my great-uncles and great-aunts are properly looked after, and he told me that I was to look after my uncles and aunts and cousins. He also said he wanted the blocks for Divine Rewards to be cut as quickly as possible and ten thousand copies printed for free distribution. I’ve already given this message to Father. Now I’ve got to hurry off again to look after the gentlemen while they have their dinner.’
‘Rong, just a moment!’ said Xi-feng as he was going. ‘How is it really with your wife?’
Jia Rong’s brows contracted in a worried frown.
‘She’s not at all well, Auntie. You’ll know what I mean when you see her presently.’
He left without saying any more.
‘Well, ladies!’ said You-shi. ‘Will you have dinner in here, or shall we eat in the garden? There are some actors in the garden preparing an entertainment.’
‘In here would be all right, wouldn’t it?’ said Lady Wang with a glance in Lady Xing’s direction.
You-shi at once gave orders to her women to serve. There was an answering cry from outside the door and a great flurry of domestics each bustling about her own contribution to the meal. In no time at all the table was laid and dinner ready. You-shi made Lady Xing and Lady Wang sit at the head with her mother, while she, Xi-feng and Bao-yu sat at the two sides.
Lady Xing and Lady Wang politely protested that they had come to offer birthday felicitations, not to eat a birthday feast.
‘Yes,’ said Xi-feng. ‘After all these years of spiritual self-improvement, Uncle must by now be practically an Immortal. And with Immortals, as we all know, “it’s the thought that counts and not the ceremony”.’
The others all laughed.
You-shi’s mother, Lady Xing, Lady Wang and Xi-feng, having finished their meal, rinsed out their mouths and washed their hands, had just announced their intention of going into the garden, when Jia Rong came in with a message for his mother.
‘My great-uncles and all the other gentlemen have just finished their dinner. Great-uncle She says he has business at home, and Great-uncle Zheng doesn’t like plays because he says he can’t stand the noise; but all the others have gone with Uncle Lian and Cousin Qiang to watch the players.
‘People have come with cards and birthday presents from the Prince of An-nan, the Prince of Dong-ping, the Prince of Xi-ning, the Prince of Bei-jing, the Duke of Zhen-guo and five others of the Niu clan and the Marquis of Zhong-jing and seven others of the Shi clan. The presents have all been received at the counting-house. They have been entered in the gift-book, and the people who brought them have been issued with thank-you cards. They have also been tipped the usual amounts and given a meal before leaving.
‘And Father says will you please bring the great-aunts and Grandmother You and Auntie Feng to the garden now.’
‘Yes, we’ve finished too,’ said You-shi. We were about to come over when you arrived.’
‘Aunt Wang,’ said Xi-feng, ‘may I go and see Rong’s wife first? I can go on to the garden from there.’
‘Certainly. You ought to go,’ said Lady Wang. ‘In fact, we should all like to go with you, but I am afraid it would be too much excitement for her. Please give her our love.’
‘My dear,’ said You-shi, ‘I know she will always do any-thing you ask her to. See if you can talk her into a more cheerful frame of mind. It would be such a relief to me if you could. But join us in the garden as soon as you can!’
Bao-yu asked if he could go with Xi-feng to see Qin-shi.
‘Yes,’ said Lady Wang. ‘She is your nephew’s wife. I think you should. Just look in for a moment, though, and then join the rest of us.’
Thereupon You-shi invited Lady Wang, Lady Xing and old Mrs You to accompany her to the All-scents Garden, while Xi-feng and Bao-yu accompanied Jia Rong to Qin-shi’s room.
Entering the door of the apartment, they tiptoed softly into the inner room. As soon as she saw them, Qin-shi attempted to rise, but Xi-feng would not let her.
‘No, no, don’t get up!’ she said. ‘You will make yourself giddy.’
In two rapid strides she was at her side and holding her by the hand.
‘My dearest child! It’s only a few days since last I saw you, but look how thin you have grown!’
She sat down beside her on the quilt on which she sat propped. Bao-yu, after greeting her, sat in a chair opposite.
‘Pour out some tea,’ said Jia Rong. ‘Auntie Feng and Uncle Bao didn’t get any after their dinner.’
Qin-shi grasped Xi-feng’s hand and forced a smile to her wan face.
‘It looks as though I wasn’t meant to be happy, Auntie!’ she said. ‘This is such a lovely family to have married into. Rong’s parents treat me as if I were their own daughter. Rong may be young, but he respects me, and I respect him; there has never been a cross word between us. You, it goes without saying—but not only you, all the older members of the family—have always been goodness itself to me. I did so want to he worthy of all this kindness. But now this wretched illness has come along and taken away the chance. Now I shall never be able to be a good daughter to Rong’s parents; and however badly I want to, I shall never be able to repay any of the love you have shown me. I have a feeling inside me, Auntie: I don’t think I am going to last the year out.’
Bao-yu had been studying the ‘Spring Slumber’ painting on Qin-shi’s wall all this time and re-reading the couplet by Qin Guan on the scrolls at each side of it:

The coldness of spring has imprisoned the soft buds in a wintry dream;
The fragrance of wine has intoxicated the beholder with imagined flower-scents.

As he did so, the memory returned of that earlier afternoon when he had slept in that very same room and dreamed about the Land of Illusion. He was musing on the contents of that dream when he suddenly became aware of the words that Qin-shi was saying. They pierced his heart like the points of a thousand arrows. Great tears welled up in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. Xi-feng, seeing him, was herself deeply affected; but fearing that the sight of his grief might make Qin-shi even more distressed, whereas the declared purpose of their visit had been to cheer her up, she rallied him lightly on his tears.
‘Don’t be such a baby, Bao-yu! It’s not really that serious: sick people always say things like that. Besides, she’s still young, and when you are young you can shake an illness off in no time at all. — You mustn’t let yourself think such stupid things,’ she said, turning to Qin-shi. ‘You’ll make yourself worse.’
‘If only she could get a bit of food inside her.’ said Jia Rong. ‘That’s her real trouble: she won’t eat anything.’
‘Bao,’ said Xi-feng, ‘your mother told you not to stay long. If you’re going to be like this, you will only upset her, and in any case I expect your mother is beginning to wonder about you—You go on ahead with Uncle Bao,’ she said to Jia Rong. ‘I am going to sit a little longer with your wife.’
Jia Rong at once led Bao-yu away to join the others in the All-scents Garden, while Xi-feng addressed some words of encouragement to Qin-shi, after which, dropping her voice to a murmur, she engaged in a long and intimate conversation with her, ignoring two or three messages from You-shi urging her to join the party. At last she felt unable to stay any longer.
‘Look after yourself!’ she said. ‘I shall come again. I feel sure that you are meant to get better. It can’t have been an accident that they found that doctor the other day; and now that you’ve got him, there’s really nothing to worry about.’
Qin-shi smiled.
‘Even if he’s a miracle-man, Auntie, “death’s a sickness none can cure”, and I know that it’s just a question of time now.’
‘If you will go on talking like that, how can you possibly get better?’ said Xi-feng. ‘If only you would try to look on the bright side. Remember what the doctor said. He said that if you weren’t being properly treated, next spring would be dangerous for you. If this were a household which couldn’t afford things like ginseng for your treatment, you might have something to worry about. But now they know that you can be cured, there’s nothing Rong’s parents wouldn’t do and nothing they couldn’t afford to do for you. Never mind two drams of ginseng a day; if you needed two pounds a day, they would get it for you gladly. So do try and get better! I must go over to the garden now.’
‘Forgive me for not being able to see you out, Auntie,’ said Qin-shi. ‘Please come again when you are free. We’ll have a nice talk together, just the two of us.’
There were tears in Xi-feng’s eyes as she promised to come often, whenever she was free. Then, followed by the women who had accompanied her from the Rong mansion and a number of female domestics belonging to the Ning household, she made her way round to one of the side gates leading into the gardens.
Golden chrysanthemums covered the open spaces;
Silvery willow-trees bordered the water’s margins.
The little bridge arched its span over a storied stream;
The winding path made its way into a fairy hill.
Crystal rills tinkled amidst the rocks.
A quickset hedge recalled preautumnal fragrances.
Crimson leaves fluttered upon the boughs.
A wintry copse described calligraphic traceries.
In the cold wind’s more insistent blast
The oriole’s cry could still be heard.
In the late sun’s more infrequent warmth
The cricket’s chirp a while revived.
At the far south-east end
Pavilions nestled in artificial mountains.
On the near north-west side
Verandahs brooded on circumjacent waters.
Music of little organs playing in the summer-house
Increased the melancholy in the air.
Glimpses of women’s dresses flitting through the little wood
Enhanced the delicacy of the scene.

Xi-feng was making her way through the garden, admiring the view as she went, when a figure suddenly stepped out from behind an artificial hill of rock and made its way towards her:
‘How are you, cousin?’
Xi-feng gave a start of surprise and retreated a step.
‘Isn’t it Cousin Rui?’
‘Don’t you even know who I am, cousin?’
‘It isn’t that I don’t know you,’ said Xi-feng, ‘but you did come up rather suddenly and I wasn’t expecting to see you here.’
‘We must have been fated to meet, cousin,’ said Jia Rui. ‘I had just slipped away from the party to take a little stroll in these peaceful surroundings. I never expected to meet my fair cousin here, but lo! So there must be a bond.’
He ogled her as he spoke with a fixed and meaningful stare.
Xi-feng’s sharp intelligence enabled her to penetrate without much difficulty the little game he was playing, and feigning an interest she did not feel, she answered him with a smile.
‘I can see why Lian is always speaking so highly of you. From seeing you today and just hearing you speak those few words I can tell at once that you are an intelligent, good-natured sort of person. At the moment I’m on my way to join my aunts, and I’m afraid that I can’t stay and talk to you. Perhaps we could meet some other time when we are both free?’
‘I should like to call on you when you are at home,’ said Jia Rui, ‘but I suppose a young person like your good self is not in a position to receive visitors of the other sex.’
Xi-feng feigned a laugh.
‘We’re all one family—all one flesh and blood. I don’t see that age comes into it.’
Jia Rui was secretly delighted by this encouragement.
‘I never dreamed today would bring a chance like this my way,’ he thought, and the goatish eagerness of his expression grew even more repellent.
‘You had better hurry back to the party,’ said Xi-feng. ‘If they catch you playing truant, you will find yourself being sconced!’
Jia Rui was by now scarcely in command of his own person. Slowly, very slowly he walked away, frequently turning back to gaze at Xi-feng as he did so. Xi-feng mischievously pro?voked him by deliberately slowing down the pace of her own progress through the garden.
‘What an odious creature!’ she thought to herself when there was some distance between them. ‘Appearances certainly are deceptive! Who would have guessed he was that sort of person? Well, if he is, he had better look out! One of these days I’ll settle his hash for him; then perhaps he will realize what sort of person he is up against!’
Xi-feng had resumed a normal pace and had just skirted the foot of a little hill, when she saw two or three old serving-women hurrying towards her in a state of great agitation.
‘Oh, Mrs Lian,’ said one of the old women with a smile, when they caught sight of her, ‘our mistress has been getting into such a state because you didn’t come! She’s sent us to fetch you.’
‘Just like your mistress!’ said Xi-feng. ‘Always in a lather about something or other!’ and she sauntered on quite un?concernedly, talking to the old woman as she went.
‘How many pieces have they done so far?’
‘Eight or nine,’ the old woman replied.
By this time they had arrived at the rear entrance of the two-storey Celestial Fragrance Pavilion, where they found Bao-yu playing with a group of maids.
‘Mind you don’t make a nuisance of yourself, Bao,’ said Xi-feng.
‘Lady Xing and Lady Wang are sitting upstairs watching,’ said one of the maids. ‘You can get up there from this side, madam.’
Lifting up her skirts, Xi-feng climbed slowly up the stairs. She found You-shi standing at the top waiting for her.
‘You are an affectionate pair!’ said You-shi with a smile. ‘Once the two of you meet, there’s no separating you. Tomorrow you had better move in with her and set up house together! Come on, sit down! I’m going to drink a cup of wine with you!’
Xi-feng asked her two aunts for permission to sit. When she had done so You-shi held out the playbill and invited her to make a choice.
‘It’s not for me to choose when Mother and Aunt Wang are here,’ said Xi-feng.
‘Go ahead and choose!’ said Lady Xing. ‘Mrs You and your aunt and I have already chosen a number of plays. Now you pick out one or two good ones for us!’
Xi-feng politely rose to thank her, and taking the playbill from You-shi, scanned it through and picked out two of the items listed: one a scene from The Return of the Soul and the other ‘Gai-nian Plays His Guitar’ from The Palace of Eternal Youth.
‘If they do these two after they have finished singing this scene from Faithful Bi-lian,’ she said, handing the playbill back to You-shi, ‘I think that will be just about enough for the day.’
‘I’m sure it will,’ said Lady Wang. ‘We ought in any case to break up early, so that our hosts can get a good night’s rest. They have had a lot on their minds lately.’
‘It isn’t often that you both come to see us,’ said You-shi.
‘Please stay as long as you can. It will be so much more fun. It’s really quite early yet.’
‘Where have all the gentlemen gone to?’ inquired Xi-feng, who had got up from her seat and was peering down into the lower storey.
‘They have gone off to the Frozen Sunlight Gallery to drink,’ said one of the old women in attendance. ‘They left only a moment ago. They’ve taken the band with them.’
‘What was wrong with this place?’ said Xi-feng, ‘Heaven knows what they can be getting up to behind our backs!’
‘We can’t all be as strait-laced as you are,’ said You-shi with a laugh.
As they laughed and chattered together, the actors even?tually finished performing the second of the two pieces Xi?-feng had selected, whereupon the wine was removed from the tables and rice served. When they had finished their meal, the company retired to the main reception room indoors and took tea there, after which carriages were called for and the other ladies took their leave of old Mrs You. You-shi stood at the head of all the concubines and female domestics of the Ning household to see them outside, while Cousin Zhen at the head of the junior male members of his family stood beside the waiting carriages.
‘You must come again tomorrow, ladies,’ said Cousin Zhen to Lady Xing and Lady Wang as they emerged from the house.
‘I think not,’ said Lady Wang. ‘We have sat here the whole day being entertained and we are all rather tired now. I think tomorrow we should like a rest.’
Jia Rui was staring fixedly at Xi-feng throughout this exchange.
After Cousin Zhen had gone indoors again, Li Gui led out a horse and Bao-yu mounted on its back and rode off behind Lady Wang’s carriage. Cousin Zhen and the other males then sat down to supper and, when it was over, the party broke up. Next day there was another day of feasting for the members of the clan, particulars of which, however, we omit from our record. We shall confine ourselves to observing that from that day on Xi-feng paid frequent calls on Qin-shi. Sometimes her illness seemed slightly better for a day or two, sometimes it seemed slightly worse. Cousin Zhen, You-shi and Jia Rong were acutely worried.

Jia Rui made several visits to the Rong mansion, but all his calls seemed to coincide with Xi-feng’s visits to the Ning mansion to see Qin-shi.
The thirtieth day of the eleventh month, the day of the winter solstice, arrived. It was the turn of the season, and for several days before it Grandmother Jia, Lady Wang and Xi-?feng had been sending messengers daily to inquire after Qin shi. Each time the report they brought back was the same:
‘She hasn’t got any worse these last few days, but she doesn’t seem to be very much better.’
‘At this time of year,’ said Lady Wang, ‘it’s a hopeful sign if an illness like hers doesn’t get any worse.’
‘Oh I do hope so!’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘That sweet child! If anything should happen to her, it would break my heart.’
A wave of bitterness passed over her.
‘You and she have always been good friends,’ she said turning to Xi-feng. ‘Tomorrow is the “First of the Last”. Go and see her again some time after tomorrow. Have a very careful look and try to find out exactly how she is. If she seems a bit better, come and tell me when you get back. And if there is anything the dear child has ever fancied eating in the past, see that she is kept constantly supplied with it.’
Xi-feng promised to do as she had said, and on the second day of the next month she went over to the Ning-guo man?sion as soon as she had finished her breakfast. Qin-shi’s sickness appeared to be no worse than previously, but the flesh on her face and body was pitifully wasted. Xi-feng sat for a long time chatting with her, and once more urged her to take a more optimistic view of her illness.
‘We shall know the worst when the spring comes,’ said Qin-shi. ‘At least I’ve got past the solstice without anything happening, so perhaps I shall get better. Give Grandma and Auntie Wang my regards, won’t you. I’ve eaten one or two bits of that yam-cake with the date stuff inside that Grand?ma sent me yesterday. I found it quite easy to digest.’
‘I’ll send you some more tomorrow,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Now I must go and see your mother-in-law, and after that I have to hurry back and give my report on you to Grandma.’
‘Give Grandma and Auntie Wang my love, Auntie.’
‘I will,’ said Xi-feng, and left her.
She went into You-shi’s reception room and sat down.
‘Tell me honestly,’ said You-shi. ‘What did you think of her?’
Xi-feng sat silent for some time with lowered head.
‘There’s no hope, is there? You’ll have to start getting things ready for the end. Of course, it’s always possible that doing so may break the bad luck.’
‘I’ve already been quietly making a few preparations on the side,’ said You-shi. ‘The only thing we haven’t yet got is the right timber {or the you know what. But we’re looking round all the time.
Xi-feng had some tea and chatted a while longer with You-shi. Then she said:
‘I must hurry back to report to Grandma.’
‘Break it to her gently,’ said You-shi. ‘You don’t want to give her a shock, at her age.’
‘Of course,’ said Xi-feng, and rising to her feet went straight back home and called on Grandmother Jia.
‘Rong’s wife asked me to give you her regards, Grandma. She sends you a kotow and she says she feels somewhat better. She begs you not to worry about her. And she says that when she’s made a bit more progress she’s going to come over to see you and make you a kotow in person.’
‘How did you think she seemed?’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘For the time being there doesn’t seem to be anything much to worry about,’ said Xi-feng. ‘She seems to be in quite good spirits.’
For a long time the old lady brooded in silence. Then, remembering Xi-feng, she told her to change her clothes and rest a while.
Xi-feng said yes, she would, and after calling on Lady Wang, went back to her own apartment, where Patience had warmed her everyday clothes for her to change into. When she had changed, she sat down and asked Patience if anything had happened during her absence.
‘Nothing, really,’ said Patience, handing her some tea. ‘Brightie’s wife came with the interest on the three hundred taels of silver and I received it for you. Oh, and Mr Rui sent someone to ask if you were in. He wants to pay you a call and talk about something.’
Xi-feng snorted.
‘Horrible creature! he seems to be looking for trouble. Just let him come, then!’
‘What does Mr Rui want?’ asked Patience. ‘Why does he keep coming like this?’
In reply Xi-feng gave her a full account of her encounter with him in the garden of the Ning-guo mansion and of the things he had said to her on that occasion,
‘What a nasty, disgusting man!’ said Patience. ‘A case of “the toad on the ground wanting to eat the goose in the sky”. He’ll come to no good end, getting ideas like that!’
‘Just wait till he comes! ‘ said Xi-feng. ‘I know how to deal with him.’
But if you wish to know the outcome of Jia Rui’s visit, you will have to read the next chapter.

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