The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 110

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CHAPTER 110

Lady Jia ends her days, and returns
to the land of shades
Wang Xi-feng exhausts her strength, and
forfeits the family’s esteem

Grandmother Jia sat up in bed and began to speak:
‘I have been part of the Jia family for over sixty years. I have had a long life and enjoyed my full share of happiness. I think I can say that all my children and grandchildren from Zheng downwards have turned out well. As for Bao-yu: I have loved him so dearly and…’
Her eyes searched the room for Bao-yu, and Lady Wang pushed him towards the bed. Grandmother Jia extended one hand from beneath the bedcovers and took hold of him:
‘My boy, you must promise to do your very best for the family!’
‘Yes, Grandma,’ choked Bao-yu, his eyes brimming with tears. He struggled to contain his weeping and stood listening to her, as she continued:
‘I want to see one of my great-grandchildren, and then I think I can set my heart at rest. Where’s my little Lan?’
Li Wan pushed Lan forwards. Grandmother Jia let go of Bao-yu and took Lan by the hand.
‘You must be a good boy and always do your duty to your mother. And when you’re grown up, you must win her honour and glory! Now, where’s Fengie?’
Xi-feng was standing by the side of the bed and hurried round to face Grandmother Jia.
‘Here I am, Grandma.’
‘My child,’ said Grandmother Jia, ‘your trouble is that you’re too clever! Try to be more charitable in future and to make your peace with fate, I know I’m not much of a one to talk; the most I’ve done in my life is try to be honest and to bear my misfortunes with patience. I’ve never been the sort for fasting or prayer. The only good work I ever did was to have those copies of the Diamond Sutra made a year or so ago. I wonder if they’ve all been distributed yet?’
Xi-feng informed her that the copies had not yet been distributed.
‘The sooner that act of devotion is completed the better,’ said the old lady. ‘I know my elder son She and Cousin Zhen are detained in exile, and cannot be here: but how could that little devil Xiang-yun be so heartless? Why has she not come to see me?’
Faithful and her fellow maids knew the reason only too well, but said nothing.
Grandmother Jia looked next at Bao-chai. As she did so, she sighed and a flush began to spread across her face. Jia Zheng knew this to be a sign of imminent death. He came forward with the ginseng broth, but Grandmother Jia’s teeth were already tightly clenched. She closed her eyes, then opened them once more and gazed round the entire room. Lady Wang and Bao-chai came forward and supported her gently, while Lady Xing and Xi-feng dressed her. The old serving-woman prepared the bed where she was to be laid out, and arranged the coverlet. There was a faint rattle in her throat, a smile stole across her face, and she was gone. She was eighty-two years old. The serving-women hurried forward to lay her on the bed.
Jia Zheng and the other menfolk knelt in the outer room, Lady Xing and the womenfolk knelt by the bed; from both rose the first chorus of lamentation. The servants outside had all made their preparations, and as soon as word came from the inner quarters, every gateway was thrown open, from the main entrance to the inner gate leading to the ladies’ apartments, and white paper was pasted on every door. The funeral awning was raised over the courtyard, and a memorial archway erected outside the main entrance. Every member of the household immediately put on their mourning clothes.
Jia Zheng reported his bereavement and the commencement of his three-year period of mourning to the Board of Rites, who submitted a memorial requesting the Emperor’s instructions in the matter. His Majesty, being a person of the profoundest compassion and kind?liness, in consideration of the services rendered and distinctions obtained by previous generations of the family, and especially in view of the relationship of the deceased to the Imperial Jia Concubine, authorized a bounty of one thousand taels of silver and instructed officers from the Board of Rites to make offerings and do reverence before her coffin. Jia household servants were despatched to notify all relatives and family friends of Lady Jia’s death, and they all came to condole; for while they knew that the Jias had come down in the world, they also saw that the family continued to enjoy the Emperor’s favour. An auspicious day was chosen for the encoffinment and subsequent lying-in-state.
Since Jia She was away from home, Jia Zheng was acting head of the family. Two of Grandmother Jia’s grandsons, Bao-yu and Jia Huan, and her great-grandson Jia Lan, all of whom were too young to take part in the reception, mourned by the coffin. Her other grandson, Jia Lian, was busy organizing the servants, with the help of Jia Rong and various male and female relatives. Ladies Xing and Wang, Li Wan, Xi-feng and Bao-chai were supposed to be chief mourners and therefore in constant attendance on the coffin. Strictly speaking, one of the other ladies had to be chosen to orchestrate the reception. There were three immediate possibilities: there was You-shi, who ever since Cousin Zhen’s departure and her installation in Rong-guo House as a dependant had kept very much in the back?ground, and was anyway unfamiliar with the workings of this side of the family; there was Jia Rong’s new wife, who was even less con?fident of her abilities in this respect; and there was Xi-chun, who was still too young, and though she had grown up with the Rong-guo branch had remained totally ignorant of family practicalities. None of these was really a plausible candidate.
The Only person for the job was Xi-feng. With Jia Lian in charge of the ‘outside’, it would make good sense for her to run the ‘inside’ and look after the lady guests. She had always had great confidence in herself in the past and had assumed that Grandmother Jia’s funeral would be the culmination of her career, an opportunity for her to prove how indispensable she was. Ladies Xing and Wang re?membered how well she had coped with Qin Ke-qing’s funeral, and thought they could rely on her to repeat her success. When therefore they absolved her from her duties as a mourner and asked her to take over full responsibility as manageress once more, she could hardly refuse.
‘After all,’ she thought to herself, ‘I’ve always been in charge here. The servants are used to taking orders from me. It was Lady Xing’s servants and You-shi’s who were hard to handle before, and they’ve all gone. It will be less convenient settling bills without tallies, but I shall have cash available from Grandmother’s fund, so there should be no problem. It will help having Lian in charge of his side of the reception, too. Even though I’m not well, I think I should be able to get by without discrediting mysel£ It’s bound to be easier than Qin Ke-qing’s funeral.’
She waited until the morning after the Third Day, during which ceremonies were held welcoming back the spirit of the deceased. Then she told Zhou Rui’s wife to summon a general assembly of the staff and to bring the registers. When she scrutinized them, she found that altogether there were only twenty-one men, nineteen serving-women, and a dozen or so maids. It would not be enough.
‘Why, we have fewer servants for Lady Jia’s funeral than we had for Qin Ke-qing’s!’ she thought to herself with dismay. Even after calling in extra hands from the country estates, there would still be a serious shortage.
She was turning this problem over in her mind when one of the junior maids came in:
‘Miss Faithful would like you to go over and see her, Mrs Lian.’
Somewhat reluctantly Xi-feng went over to Grandmother Jia’s apartment, where she found Faithful in floods of tears. The moment she saw Xi-feng, she clutched hold of her and cried:
‘Please be seated, Mrs Lian, and let me kowtow to you! I know one shouldn’t do such things during a period of mourning, but I really must!’
Faithful fell to her knees, and Xi-feng held out her hands to prevent her.
‘Come on! What’s the meaning of all this? If you’ve something on your mind, then just go ahead and say it!’
Faithful insisted on kneeling, and Xi-feng continued her attempts to pull her to her feet.
‘Her Old Ladyship’s funeral has been placed entirely in your hands and Mr Lian’s,’ sobbed Faithful. ‘Her Old Ladyship left a special sum of money to pay for it. While she was alive, Her Old Ladyship never wasted a penny on herself; now that the time has come for her funeral, I beg you, ma’am, to do the right thing by her and give her a proper send-off! Just now I heard the Master talking about it “The Book of Songs this”, and “Confucius that” – I didn’t understand a word of what he said. I caught one sentence, though: “In funerals, sincere grief is of more importance than outward show.” I asked Mrs Bao to explain what he meant, and she said that the Master wants to keep the funeral a simple affair. He believes that heart-felt grief is the truest form of devotion, and that there is no need for extravagant display. But as I see it, for someone like Her Old Ladyship, things ought to be a bit grand. I know I’m only a servant, and have no right to speak in these matters, but I feel that Her Old Ladyship loved us both during her lifetime, ma’am, both you and me, and now that she’s dead we owe it to her to send her off with a bit of style! I know how good you are at that sort of thing, ma’am, and I wanted to ask for your support, so that we could decide together what’s best. I’ve been with Her Old Ladyship all my life, and death cannot part us! If I don’t see this done properly, how am I ever to look her in the face again?’
Xi-feng found Faithful’s way of talking rather odd.
‘Don’t you worry,’ she replied. ‘Of course everything will be done in proper style. Sir Zheng may talk of economy, but we have certain standards to maintain. We’ll spend every penny of the money on Lady Jia, if need be.’
‘Before she died,’ said Faithful, ‘Her Old Ladyship said that everything left over after the family distribution had been made was to be given to us. If there’s not enough money for the funeral expenses, ma’am, then take our share of Her Old Ladyship’s be?longings and pawn them. Whatever the Master may say, he can hardly go against Her Old Ladyship’s last wishes. He was here himself when she divided everything up.’
‘You’ve always been such a sensible girl,’ said Xi-feng. ‘What’s got into you today?’
‘Nothing’s got into me,’ protested Faithful. ‘I just know that Lady Xing doesn’t care, and that the Master is being too cautious. It may be that you are of the same mind as the Master, ma’am. If you’re afraid too, and think that a proper funeral will get us into trouble, then no one will dare to give Her Old Ladyship her due. That would be the most terrible thing! I’m only a maid, so of course it’s no personal concern of mine. But think what a disgrace it would be for the family!’
‘I hardly need reminding of that,’ replied Xi-feng. ‘Set your mind at rest. I shall take care of everything.’
Faithful once more entreated Xi-feng to do her utmost, and pledged her undying gratitude.
‘What a strange creature!’ thought Xi-feng to herself, as she left Grandmother Jia’s apartment. ‘I wonder what can be in her mind? Of course she’s right: Grannie’s funeral should be stylish. Oh dear! I can’t pay too much attention to Faithful’s complaints. I’d better just stick to the book and follow family precedent.’
She summoned Brightie’s wife, and sent her with a message to Jia Lian, asking him to come and see her.
‘What do you want me for?’ he asked, when he arrived shortly afterwards. ‘Just keep your end up on the “inside”. There should be no problems. If you’re in any doubt, stick to Uncle Zheng’s in?structions.
‘There you are,’ said Xi-feng. ‘What you say only bears out Faithful’s fears.’
‘What fears are they?’
Xi-feng repeated the substance of her interview with Faithful.
‘Who cares what the maids say?’ retorted Jia Lian. ‘I’ve just been in to see Uncle Zheng, and this is what he said: “We’d like to lay on something grand for Mother’s funeral, but although some people will understand that it’s her money we’re using, less well-informed observers may suspect us of secretly holding on to some of our own resources. They may think we still possess hidden wealth. Of course,” Uncle Zheng went on to say to me, “if we don’t spend all of Grand?mother’s money on the funeral, no one will want to appropriate what’s left for their own personal use. In one way or another it should still be spent on Grandmother. Now she was a Southerner, and though we have ancestral burial-land in the South, there are no buildings on it. When her coffin has been transported to the South, with any money that’s left over we can put up some buildings on the ancestral burial-ground, and buy a few hectares of land to provide for the sacrifices. If we ever return to the South ourselves, it will come in handy, and even if we don’t, we can always let some of the poorer clan members live on it. They can keep up the seasonal offerings and sweep the graves at regular intervals.” That was Uncle Zheng’s proposal. Don’t you think it a sound one? You’re surely not suggesting that we spend the entire amount on the funeral, are you?’
‘Has any of the money been issued yet?’ asked Xi-feng.
‘Not a penny of it,’ replied Jia Lian. ‘I heard that when Mother learned of this proposal of Uncle Zheng’s, she sang its praises and did her utmost to encourage both him and Aunt Wang in their efforts to economize. So what can I do? I already have several hundred taels owing for the awning and the pall-bearers’ fees, but the cash still hasn’t been issued. If I go and ask for it, they’ll all tell me the money’s there but that I must get the work finished first and reckon up afterwards. There’s no one we can borrow from: the servants with any money of their own have all disappeared. When I called a roll, some were “absent sick”, others were “in the country”, while the ones still here have stayed on only out of sheer necessity and are no use to us. They’re interested only in making a profit for themselves.’
Xi-feng was lost in thought for a moment.
‘How are we going to manage, then?’ she said finally.
As she was speaking a maid came into the room:
‘There’s a message for you from Lady Xing, ma’am. Today is the third day of the ladies’ reception, and the arrangements are still topsy-turvy. The guests should not have to be kept waiting for their food, after the funeral offering has been made! They had to ask for their meal several times before they were served. And even when the main dishes arrived, there was still no rice. Surely we can do better than that!’
Xi-feng hurried in to give the servants orders to serve lunch, and they managed to produce something passable. Unfortunately there was an unusually large crowd of guests that day and the staff were at their most sullen and apathetic. Xi-feng had to supervise them herself, then she hurried out and told Brightie’s wife to call a general meeting of all the serving-women. She gave each one clear instructions, to which they replied with a surly, ‘Yes, Mrs Lian,’ and proceeded to do nothing during the afternoon.
‘Look how late it is! Why haven’t you served the evening offering and meal yet?’ demanded Xi-feng.
‘Serving the food would be no problem, ma’am,’ came the reply, ‘if we had the necessary utensils ..’
‘Fools!’ exclaimed Xi-feng. ‘This is your job! Of course you’ll get whatever you need!’
The servants reluctantly applied themselves to their ‘impossible’ tasks, while Xi-feng went straight to the main apartment to seek Ladies Xing and Wang’s permission for the necessary utensils. But there was still such a throng of guests around them that it was impossible for her to get a word in. Evening was drawing on, and in despair she went to see Faithful and asked her for the use of Grand?mother Jia’s spare dinner service.
‘Why come asking me for it?’ exclaimed Faithful. ‘Mr Lian pawned it a couple of years ago! You’d better ask him if he ever redeemed it.’
‘I don’t want the silver or gold,’ said Xi-feng. ‘The regular service will do.’
‘What do you suppose Lady Xing and Mrs You have been using since they moved in?’ asked Faithful pointedly.
Xi-feng knew she must be telling the truth, and left at once for Lady Wang’s apartment, where she managed to talk Silver and Suncloud into lending her a service, had a quick inventory made by Sunshine, and told him to hand the things over to the servants.
Faithful saw Xi-feng in this state of disarray, and although she did not call her back to complain, she thought to herself:
‘Why is Mrs Lian, who used to be so capable, bungling things so badly this time? The past couple of days have been a disgrace. It’s poor gratitude for Her Old Ladyship’s love!’
She was not aware that Lady Xing was deliberately starving Xi-?feng of funds. Jia Zheng’s views on economy coincided neatly with Lady Xing’s own anxieties about the future, and she saw every tael saved on the funeral as a contribution not only to the family’s reserves, but also to her own financial security. Her position in this was strengthened by the fact that strictly speaking it was Grand?mother Jia’s eldest son who should have been in charge of the funeral. Jia She was not at home, but Jia Zheng was an incorrigible stickler for convention, and whenever consulted would reply: ‘Ask Lady Xing what she thinks.’ Lady Xing considered Xi-feng extrava?gant and Jia Lian untrustworthy, and consequently held tightly on to every penny of the funeral funds. Faithful however took it for granted that the money for the funeral had already been issued, and ascribing the present crisis to a lack of zeal and loyalty on Xi-feng’s part, she redoubled her wailing before the coffin of her dead mistress.
Lady Xing and Lady Wang knew only too well what Faithful was complaining about, but so far from acknowledging that the cause lay in their own refusal to equip Xi-feng properly for her task, they began criticizing Xi-feng out loud:
‘Faithful is right: Feng is letting us down badly…’
In the evening, Lady Wang summoned Xi-feng and rebuked her:
‘We may be living in somewhat straitened circumstances, but we must maintain our standards none the less. During the past two or three days I’ve noticed that the maids have not been looking after our guests properly. Clearly you have failed to give them adequate instructions. Please will you make more of an effort and show a little more family spirit.’
Xi-feng was speechless. She would have brought up the fact that she had not been issued with any money, but money was supposed to be Jia Lian’s province, whereas Lady Wang was complaining about the ‘inside’ service. She dared not answer back.
‘Strictly speaking,’ said Lady Xing, who was standing to one side, ‘your Aunt Wang and I, as Lady Jia’s daughters-in-law, should be taking care of the reception, not a member of the junior generation; but we’re very tied up with the mourning, and that is why we delegated the responsibility to you. You mustn’t think you can be slack.’
Xi-feng blushed fiercely. She was about to say something in her own defence when she heard a drum begin outside: it was time for the dusk offering of paper money. A wail rose from the assembled mourners and her chance to speak had gone. She thought she would wait till later, but after the offering Lady Wang urged her to hurry about her duties.
‘We can take care of things here. You go and see to it that everything is in order for tomorrow.’
Xi-feng did not dare utter a word, but went out, containing her chagrin and her tears as best she could. She called another meeting of the staff and reminded them once more of their duties:
‘Ladies, dears, take pity on me I beg you! I am being blamed for everything by Their Ladyships, and it’s all because you are not doing your jobs properly. You are making a laughing stock of us. I beseech you to make a special effort tomorrow.’
‘But madam,’ came the reply, ‘this isn’t the first time you’ve been in charge. You know us, we’d never dare disobey your orders. But this time the ladies are asking too much. Take this last meal: some wanted to eat here, others wanted to eat in their own rooms. We ask Lady So-and-so to come and take her meal, and then Mrs Somebody-else doesn’t turn up … How can we possibly cope? We beg you, ma’am, to have a word with the maids and ask them not to be so fussy!’
‘Her Old Ladyship’s maids are very hard to please,’ replied Xi?-feng. ‘And it’s hard for me to give orders to Their Ladyships’ maids. Who is there I can speak to?
‘But Mrs Lian! When you managed the funeral for Ning-guo House, you had people beaten, you scolded them, you took a very strong line – and everyone obeyed you. Are you going to let your authority be challenged now by these maids?’
‘On that occasion,’ sighed Xi-feng. ‘Their Ladyships were in no position to find fault with me. But this time it’s not Ning-guo House; I‘m on home territory, and open to public scrutiny. So everyone’s finding fault with me. Besides, I’m not getting money when I ask for it from accounts. If something is needed at the reception, and I send out for it and nothing happens, what can I do?’
‘But Mr Lian’s in charge of that side of things. Surely he’ll give you whatever money you need?’
‘That’s what you think!’ replied Xi-feng. ‘His hands are just as tied as mine. He has no control over the money. He has to ask for every penny himself. He’s got no cash at all.’
‘But isn’t Her Old Ladyship’s money his to use?’
‘Ask the stewards,’ said Xi-feng. ‘They’ll tell you.’
‘No wonder the menservants outside are complaining! They keep saying what a big job it is, what hard work, and that there’s no chance of making anything on the side. How can things possibly run smoothly when there’s no money?’
‘Enough talking,’ said Xi-feng. ‘All of you concentrate on your jobs and do them as best you can. If I hear any more complaints from Their Ladyships, I’ll be after you.’
‘We’ll do whatever you tell us to do, ma’am, we’ll not say a word. But with all their different ideas, it will be hard to satisfy every one of the ladies.’
Xi-feng implored them:
‘My dears! Help me out tomorrow, please! Give me a chance to talk things over properly with the maids, and we’ll discuss the matter again.’
The servants went about their business.
Xi-feng felt bitterly wronged, and the more she thought about the situation she was placed in, the more pent-up she became.
At first light, after a sleepless night, she had to report once more for duty to Ladies Xing and Wang. She would have liked to discipline the maids, but was afraid of arousing Lady Xing’s resentment; she would have liked to confide in Lady Wang, but Lady Xing had already set Lady Wang against her. The maids, seeing that Their Ladyships were not supporting Xi-feng, started to make life harder for her than ever. The only exception was Patience, who stood loyally by Xi-feng.
‘Mrs Lian would like to do things properly,’ she explained to the others, in an attempt to win them over. ‘But Sir Zheng and Their Ladyships have given orders for strict economy to he observed, and there’s nothing she can do about it.’
Buddhist sutras were read, Taoist masses were celebrated, there was an endless stream of ritual lamentations and sacrifices to the spirit of the departed; but somehow, in the prevailing climate of retrenchment, the mourners did not fully throw themselves into things, and the ritual had a rather perfunctory air about it. Each day saw the arrival of princely consorts and ladies of high rank, none of whom Xi-feng could receive in person as she was too busy trying to keep things going below-decks. She had no sooner mobilized one servant, when another was found to be missing; she lost her temper, she begged; she muddled through one session, and then had to cope with a fresh set of problems. By now Faithful was not the only one to see that things were awry. Even Xi-feng herself knew, to her great mortification, that the funeral reception was a shambles.
Though Lady Xing was wife of the elder son of the deceased, she was able to justify her own indifference towards the practical arrange?ments with the handy text: ‘Grief is the Essence of Devotion.’ Lady Wang followed suit, as did all the other ladies of the family – with the single exception of Li Wan. She saw the difficulties Xi-feng was having, and though she did not dare speak up on her behalf, she sighed to herself and thought:
‘There’s a popular saying: “The Peony owes much of its beauty to its leaves.” Mother and Aunt Xing have always relied on Xi-feng; but how can she help them, when the servants no longer obey her? If Tan were at home, she could help. But as things are, even Xi-feng’s own servants are running round in circles and muttering behind her back, complaining that there’s no profit in it for them and that they’re just making fools of themselves. Father is a great believer in filial piety; but he doesn’t understand the practicalities. In something big like a funeral, you have to spend money if you want things done properly. Poor Feng! After all these years, who would have thought she would come to grief over Grandmother’s funeral!’
When an opportunity presented itself, Li Wan spoke to her own servants:
‘Now don’t you go treating Mrs Lian disrespectfully just because everyone else is. Don’t imagine it’s enough for a funeral if people dress in mourning and keep the wake. Don’t think a few days of muddling through like that will suffice. If you see the others in difficulties, you must lend a hand. This is a family concern. Everyone should do their best to help.’
Li Wan’s trusted servants replied:
‘You are quite right, ma’am. We wouldn’t dream of going against Mrs Lian. But Faithful and the others seemed to be blaming her…’
‘I’ve already spoken to Faithful,’ said Li Wan. ‘I’ve told her that it’s not Mrs Lian’s fault, Mrs Lian is doing all she can to give Her Old Ladyship a proper funeral. But she isn’t getting the money. How can the cleverest daughter-in-law in the world make congee without rice? Faithful knows the truth now, and she doesn’t hold Mrs Lian to blame any longer. Mind you, Faithful’s behaving quite strangely, I must say, she’s not at all her usual self. While Her Old Ladyship was still alive to love and protect her, she never put on airs, but now that Her Old Ladyship is dead and her support is gone, she seems to be acting in a most peculiar fashion. I felt sorry for her before. She should thank her lucky stars that Sir She is away from home, and that she’s escaped that fate. If he were here, her future really would look grim.’
As she was speaking, Jia Lian came in.
‘It’s time you went to bed, Mama,’ he said. ‘The guests have been coming and going all day, and you must be worn out. It’s time you had a rest. I haven’t looked at my books at all these past few days. Today Grandmother said I can sleep at home. I’m so pleased, as it means I shall be able to do some work. Otherwise, by the time the mourning period is over, I shall have forgotten everything.’
‘You’re such a good boy!’ said his mother. ‘Of course you’re right to study. But today you should rest too. Wait until the procession’s over, then you can get down to your books again.’
‘If you’re going to sleep,’ replied Jia Lian, ‘I’ll go to bed too, and do some revision in bed.’
The servants were loud in his praises:
‘What a wonderful boy! So young, but so keen to make the most of the slightest opportunity to study! Not like his uncle. Mr Bao may be a married man, but he’s still as childish as ever. To see him these last few days, kneeling down in there with Sir Zheng- so awkward and wretched, itching for Sir Zheng to get up so that he could dash off to find Mrs Bao and start whispering to her about goodness knows what. Mrs Bao wouldn’t pay him any attention so he went and pestered Miss Bao-qin, and she avoided him, and Miss Xiu-yan wouldn’t talk to him either, and in the end Miss Xi-luan and Miss Si-?jie were the only ones who would. They hung on his every word. It seems Mr Bao still has only one interest in life: fooling about with the young ladies. There’s not a shred of gratitude in him for the way Her Old Ladyship loved him all those years. He’s not a patch on Master Lian! You certainly have no cause to worry for the future, Mrs Zhu!’
‘He may be a good boy,’ commented Li Wan, ‘but he’s still so young. By the time he’s grown up, who knows what will have become of the family? Tell me, how has young Master Huan been behaving?’
‘Oh, he’s a regular disgrace!’ replied one of the servants. ‘A right little rascal, forever poking his nose into other people’s affairs and sneaking around the place. Even when he is supposed to be mourn?ing, the moment one of the young ladies arrives, he starts peeping out from behind the screens.’
‘Huan’s getting quite grown up now,’ said Li Wan. ‘The other day I heard something about his being engaged. But it had to be put off because of the funeral. Now, no more gossiping: in such a big family as ours, with so much going on, we’ll never be able to set everything to rights. There was one other thing I wanted to ask you. Have carriages been arranged for the funeral procession the day after tomorrow?’
‘Mrs Lian has been so busy these past few days,’ came the reply. ‘She’s been in a terrible state. So far as we know, she hasn’t given any instructions about carriages yet. Yesterday we heard one of the men saying that Mr Lian has put Mr Qiang in charge of that. Apparently we haven’t enough carriages or drivers ourselves, and they’re planning to borrow from relations.’
Li Wan smiled sadly:
‘Are they sure our relations will agree to lend?’
‘You must be joking, ma’am! Of course they’d lend us their car?riages. The trouble is, they may all be using their own for the funeral, so it looks as if we may have to end up hiring all the same.’
‘We can hire carriages for the servants. But will we be able to find decent white funeral carriages for Their Ladyships?’ said Li Wan.
‘Lady Xing and both Mrs You and Mrs Rong from Ning-guo House are all without carriages of their own. How are they going to come if we don’t hire?’
Li Wan sighed.
‘I remember the day when we thought it a joke to see one of our relatives riding in a hired carriage! Now they’ll be laughing at us. Tomorrow you must tell your menfolk to make sure our carriages and horses are prepared well in advance. We don’t want any last-minute panics.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’
Li Wan’s servants went about their business.

*

Our story now turns to Shi Xiang-yun. Earlier, because of her hus?band’s illness, she had only been able to come once to mourn for Grandmother Jia. She calculated now that there were two days left before the funeral procession was due to set off; and since her hus?band’s condition had been positively diagnosed as a consumption, and he was therefore in no immediate danger, she decided she must call once more. She came on the day before the final wake. She recalled all Grandmother Jia’s love for her, and then her thoughts turned to her own fate, to have married such a fine husband, a man of such grace and talent, of such a gentle disposition, only to watch him being taken from her slowly and inexorably by an illness whose roots must surely lie in some previous lifetime. She wept with renewed grief for most of that night, despite the persistent efforts of Faithful and the other maids to console her.
Bao-yu was unbearably distressed by the sight of Xiang-yun’s weeping, but could hardly go to comfort her in the midst of the ceremonial lamentations. The plain mourning-clothes she was wear?ing and the absence of any make-up seemed to make her even prettier than before her marriage. He looked round at Bao-qin and the other girls; they too were plainly dressed, with a minimum of ornamenta?tion. The very simplicity lent a charm and grace to their appearance. His eyes rested on Bao-chai: how well mourning-clothes became her! She looked even more attractive than in her everyday attire.
‘The men of old,’ mused Bao-yu to himself, ‘used to say that of all flowers none could rival the splendour of plum-blossom, not for its early blooming but for the incomparable purity of its whiteness, the unsurpassable freshness and delicacy of its scent. If only Cousin Lin were here now, and dressed in a simple mourning gown, how ex?quisitely beautiful she would look!’
He felt a pang of grief, tears rolled down his cheeks, and he began sobbing loudly and unrestrainedly. It was a funeral after all, and no one would think such behaviour out of place. The ladies were already busy rallying Xiang-yun when suddenly they heard another familiar voice break out wailing on the outside of the screen. They surmised that both cousins were overwhelmed by memories of Grandmother Jia’s past love and kindness, and little guessed that Xiang-yun and Bao-yu each had private cause for grief. Their heart-felt lamentations soon brought tears to everyone’s eyes, and it fell to Aunt Xue and old Mrs Li to offer comfort and counsel moderation.
The following day was the wake proper, and therefore busier than ever. Xi-feng was utterly exhausted, but there was nothing for it, she had to struggle on and muddle her way through the morning, even though she had by now lost her voice. By the afternoon, when the number of guests reached its peak and demands were being made on her from all quarters, she had reached breaking point and was search?ing in desperation for some second wind when a young maid came running in:
‘Here you are, ma’am! No wonder Lady Xing is so cross! “So many guests,” she said. “I can’t possibly take care of them. Where is Mrs Lian? Hiding somewhere with her feet up, I’ll be bound!”’
This unmerited rebuke provoked a sudden surge of indignation within Xi-feng. She struggled to control herself, but tears started to her eyes, and all went black before her. A sickly taste rose into her mouth and she began to vomit up quantities of bright red blood. The strength ebbed from her legs and she sank to the ground. Luckily Patience was at hand and hurried over to support her mistress as she crouched there, blood gushing from her mouth in an un?staunchable stream.
To learn if she survived this crisis or not, you must turn to the next chapter.

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