The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 114

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CHAPTER 114


Wang Xi-feng ends her life’s illusion
and returns to Jinling
Zhen Ying-jia receives the Emperor’s favour
and is summoned to the Palace

It was the middle of the night when Bao-yu and Bao-chai were awoken and informed that Xi-feng was dying. They rose from bed at once, a maid brought a lighted candle, and they were on their way out of the courtyard, when another message came from Lady Wang:
‘Mrs Lian’s condition is critical, but she is still alive, and Mr and Mrs Bao should wait a while. There is something odd about Mrs Lian’s state; from midnight until two o’clock this morning she wouldn’t stop talking, and we couldn’t make head or tail of what she was saying. One minute she was demanding a boat, the next a sedan-chair; then she was “off to Jinling to be entered on the Register”… No one could understand a word, and she just kept on crying and wailing. There was nothing for it but for Mr Lian to go and get a paper boat and sedan made for her. He hasn’t come back with them yet, and Mrs Lian is waiting for him, gasping for breath. Her Ladyship wants you both to wait and to come after Mrs Lian has finally passed away.’
‘How extraordinary!’ exclaimed Bao-yu. ‘What does she want in Jinling?’
‘Didn’t you see some registers in a dream once?’ whispered Aroma. ‘Perhaps that’s where Mrs Lian is going.’
Bao-yu nodded:
‘Yes! If only I hadn’t forgotten what was written in them. Our lives are clearly preordained by destiny. I wonder where destiny has taken Cousin Lin? What you said just now, Aroma, about the regis?ters, has set me thinking. If I ever have a dream like that again, I must be more observant. I may see things and be able to predict the future.’
‘Hark at you!’ retorted Aroma. ‘It’s impossible to have a sensible conversation with you. You insist on taking a chance remark of mine in deadly earnest. Even supposing you could see into the future, what good would it do you anyway?’
‘It will probably never come to pass,’ replied Bao-yu. ‘But if I ever did know the future, then at least it would mean an end to all the worries that plague me on your account.’
Bao-chai came up to them:
‘What are you two talking about?’
Bao-yu was afraid of being subjected to one of her inquisitions, and merely replied:
‘We were discussing Cousin Feng.’
‘There she is dying,’ exclaimed Bao-chai, ‘and you’re discussing her! You accused me last year of being unduly gloomy and bringing her bad luck; but wasn’t my interpretation of that oracle the right one after all?’
Bao-yu thought for a moment, then clapped his hands:
‘Of course! Of course you were right! You’re obviously the prophet in the family! Well, let me consult you myself. What’s in store for me?’
‘Off you go on one of your hobbyhorses again!’ Bao-chai chided him with a smile. ‘Mine was simply an off-the-cuff explanation for the wording of the oracle. There’s really no need to take it seriously. You’re as bad as Xiu-yan. When you lost your jade, she asked Adamantina to consult the planchette, and the answer was totally unintelligible to everyone; but that didn’t stop Xiu-yan from talking to me in private about Adamantina’s amazing powers of clairvoyance, saying how enlightened and advanced she was in her Zen practice. And yet look at this calamity that’s befallen Adamantina now – why couldn’t she have predicted that? What sort of clairvoyance is that supposed to be? Just because I said something once about Cousin Feng, that doesn’t mean I ever claimed to see into her future, or into my own for that matter. Claims of that sort are fantastic and don’t deserve to be taken seriously.’
‘All right,’ said Bao-yu, ‘let’s drop the subject. Tell me about Xiu?-yan instead. We’ve been so busy that her wedding seems to have passed us by altogether. That was an important event for your family, and yet it was celebrated with so little ceremony. Didn’t you even invite any relatives and friends?’
‘You’ve missed the point again,’ replied Bao-chai. ‘My own family’s closest relatives are the Jias and the Wangs. There’s no one respectable left in the Wang family now, and the Jias weren’t invited because my mother knew we’d be too busy with Grandmother’s funeral. Lian lent a hand, and one or two other relations came – but you wouldn’t know about that, as you weren’t there. If you think about it, things were much the same for Xiu-yan as they were for me. She was formally engaged to Cousin Ke, and Mama wanted a stylish wedding. But in the first place, Pan was still in gaol, so Cousin Ke wanted to keep it simple; then there was Grandmother’s funeral; and Xiu-yan was having such a hard time at Aunt Xing’s, especially after the confiscation, when Aunt Xing became stingier than ever. Poor Xiu-yan, she could hardly bear it. I talked to Mama, and in the end she decided to go ahead and make do with a simple ceremony. Xiu-?yan seems a lot happier now and she is so good to Mama, far better than her real daughter-in-law ever was. She’s a wonderful wife to Ke, and gets on very well with Caltrop. If Ke has to be away for some reason, the two of them still manage very happily together. They are a bit hard up, but Mama is a great deal more relaxed than she used to be. She still gets upset about Pan, and he’s always writing to her from gaol and asking for more money. But luckily Cousin Ke has been able to collect some of the debts that were owing, and has sent Pan the money from that. Some of our town properties have had to be mortgaged too. We still have one house left, and that’s where Mama is planning to move now.’
‘What’s the need?’ protested Bao-yu. ‘It’s so much more convenient for you to have them living close by. If they move so far away, it will be a whole day’s expedition to visit them.’
‘Even when families are as closely related as ours,’ said Bao-chai, ‘it’s really much better in the long run to be independent. Mama can’t go on for ever living on charity.’
Bao-yu was about to expand on the reasons for their not moving when a final message came from Lady Wang, to say that Xi-feng had passed away, and all the family had now arrived in her apartment. Would Bao-yu and Bao-chai please join them there? Bao-yu stamped his foot and seemed about to burst into tears. Bao-chai too was deeply moved, but controlled herself for fear of upsetting Bao-yu any further.
‘We should keep our tears for later,’ she counselled.
They both made their way directly to Xi-feng’s room, where they found a weeping throng gathered. Bao-chai went forward to bedside, where Xi-feng’s body was already laid out, and gave a great cry of grief. Bao-yu held Jia Lian’s hand and sobbed loudly, which set Jia Lian off again. Patience, seeing that no one else was capable of offering any comfort, stepped forward, and tried to mask her own grief and urge moderation. Sounds of inconsolable weeping con?tinued to fill the room none the less.
Jia Lian was in a helpless dither. He sent for Lai Da, and told him to make whatever preparations were necessary for the funeral. He himself reported Xi-feng’s death to Jia Zheng and then went to see what other arrangements he could make. But there were simply no funds; it was an impossible task. Fond memories of Xi-feng brought tears constantly to his eyes and his distress was made still more acute by the pitiful sight of Qiao-jie, crying her heart out for her mother. The weeping continued all that night. At dawn Jia Lian sent a messenger for Xi-feng’s elder brother Wang Ren.
The death of his older uncle Wang Zi-teng had left Wang Ren free to carry on very much as he pleased. Zi-sheng, the surviving younger uncle, was too ineffective a character to control him, and Wang Ren had already by his behaviour succeeded in causing considerable discord in the family. Now, learning of the death of his younger sister, he hurried over (with a slightly ill grace) to perform his duty as a bereaved brother and mourn for her. On his arrival he observed immediately how makeshift the funeral arrangements were and voiced his indignation in no uncertain terms:
‘Years my sister toiled for you, did a fine job of it too. The least you owe her is a proper funeral. You should be ashamed of your?selves, making such a poor show of it!’
Jia Lian had never been on good terms with his brother-in-law, and, when he heard him blustering on like this, turned a deaf ear. Wang Ren next called Qiao-jie aside.
‘My girl,’ he said to her, ‘while your mother was alive, she had one shortcoming: she was too anxious to please Lady Jia, and as a result she neglected her own family. But you’re old enough now to make decisions yourself, my dear! Look at me, have I ever tried to profit from you? Now that your mother is dead, you must look to me and do as I tell you. Your great-uncle and I are your mother’s family. I know your father, he’ll go out of his way to bow and scrape to anyone, rather than take any notice of us. When that fancy woman of his, that Auntie You, died, I wasn’t in town, but I heard that a lot of money was spent on her. And now he’s scrimping on your own mother’s funeral. Don’t you think you ought to have a word with him about it, and make him see sense?’
‘Father would like nothing more than to have a nice funeral,’ said Qiao-jie. ‘But things have changed. We haven’t enough money, so of course we have to be a bit careful.’
‘What about your own things?’ pursued Wang Ren relentlessly. ‘Surely you’ve something left yourself?’
‘It all went in the raid last year,’ said Qiao-jie. ‘I’ve got nothing left at all.’
‘Are you trying me on too?’ expostulated Wang Ren. ‘I know that Lady Jia gave away all sorts of things. You ought to produce your share now.’
Qiao-jie could not bring herself to admit that her father had already taken her share and sold it, and so pretended not to understand what he was referring to.
‘I know!’ exclaimed Wang. ‘You’re keeping it for your trousseau!’
Qiao-jie refused to say another word. Wang Ren had already offended her with his remarks and she began to sob until she was almost choking with emotion.
‘If you have anything else to say, sir,’ protested Patience heatedly, ‘please wait until Mr Lian comes back. Miss Qiao-jie is much too young to understand.’
‘As for you, you’ve just been itching for my sister to die, haven’t you!’ sneered Wang Ren. ‘The lot of you! So you could step into her shoes … I’m not asking for much; just a decent funeral. Surely you don’t want to disgrace your own family?’
He sat himself down in a surly fashion.
Qiao-jie was feeling very miserable. ‘I know Father does care,’ she was thinking to herself. ‘And besides, when Mother was alive, Uncle Ren sneaked off with all sorts of stuff of hers himself, so he’s got no right to complain.’
In her eyes Wang Ren was rather a despicable sort of person. He for his part secretly reckoned to himself that Xi-feng must have kept her own private hoard, and that despite the raid there was bound to be silver somewhere in her apartment – and a fair amount of it too.
‘They probably think I’ve come to sponge, and the girl is trying to protect them. She won’t be any use to me, the little wretch!’
He began to conceive an intense dislike for his niece.
Jia Lian was far too busy trying to rustle up money for the funeral to take in all these complications. He had delegated the ‘outer’ formalities to Lai Da, but he still needed a lot of money for the ‘inner’ reception and could not see how he was going to find it. Patience was aware of his predicament.
‘You mustn’t overdo things, sir,’ she urged him. ‘You’ll only make yourself ill.’
‘Ill!’ exclaimed Jia Lian, somewhat histrionically. ‘That’s the least of my worries! We can’t even find the money to get by from day to day, let alone pay for the funeral. And to make matters worse, now I’ve got this idiot round my neck!’
‘There’s really no need to work yourself into such a state, sir,’ said Patience. ‘If you’ve no money, I’ve a few things that were not taken in the raid. Use them if you like.’
‘What a wonderful stroke of luck!’ thought Jia Lian to himself. He smiled at Patience:
‘That would be a real help. It would save me from having to race around trying to raise the money. I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.’
‘Whatever I have was given me by Mrs Lian in the first place,’ said Patience. ‘So there’s really no need to pay me back. I just want the funeral to be done properly, that’s all.’
Jia Lian accepted Patience’s offer with sincere gratitude, and pawned her belongings for the funeral expenses. From then on he made a point of discussing everything with her. Autumn was most put out, and took every opportunity to mutter complaints:
‘Now that Mrs Lian is gone, Patience thinks she can take over. The Master gave me to Mr Lian; how can Patience think to climb above me?’
Patience noticed Autumn’s disgruntled attitude, but paid no atten?tion. Jia Lian, for his part, found Autumn’s resentment (which he observed soon enough) most objectionable, and whenever anything happened to annoy him he vented his bad humour on her. Lady Xing criticized him for this, and he felt obliged to restrain himself. But of this no more.

*

In due course, after Xi-feng’s encoffined corpse had been laid out for ten days, it was escorted to the temple. Jia Zheng was still in mourning for Grandmother Jia and was confined to his study during the period of Xi-feng’s funeral. His entourage of literary gentlemer had gradually deserted him. Only Cheng Ri-xing still called regularly; On one occasion Jia Zheng was speaking to him on the genera subject of the family’s decline:
‘See how one by one we are dying off! My elder brother and young Zhen are both in exile. Our finances deteriorate daily. And who knows what has become of our country estates in the Eastern provinces. Altogether, a disastrous state of affairs!’
‘I have been here many years, sir,’ said Cheng, ‘and I have seen for myself how busy your staff are, enriching themselves at your expense. Every year sees money draining from your pockets into theirs. It is ruining you. Then there is the money needed for the families of Sir She and Mr Zhen, and the sizeable debts incurred besides, and the loss sustained as a result of the recent burglary, which I hardly think will be recovered. If you wish to put your house in order, sir, the only remedy I envisage is for you to assemble your staff, and to charge your most trustworthy steward with a comprehensive investigation of their accounts. In that way you can judge in which department retrenchment is possible. Deficits should be made good by the individual steward responsible. That way you will at leas know where you stand.
‘Then there’s the Garden. It is too large for anyone to buy. But it is a shame that a place with such potential for profit should have been so neglected. During the years that you have been away, sir, the staff there have been manufacturing all manner of frightening tales which have had the effect of deterring everyone from entering the place. All your troubles are, in short, the doing of the servants. You should make a thorough investigation, and dismiss any unsatisfactory elements among them. It is the only remedy that makes sense.’
‘My dear Cheng,’ replied Jia Zheng, nodding his head gravely ‘you do not seem to realize: I cannot even trust my own nephew, let alone the servants! And if I myself were to try to carry out an investigation such as you suggest, I could never hope to get to the root of the problem. Not that I could engage in such a thing anyway while still in mourning. Even if I did, I have never paid much attention to household details in the past, so I really have no idea what we are supposed to have and what we don’t have. I would no know where to look.’
‘You are altogether too charitable and virtuous a man, sir,’ rejoined Cheng. ‘In any other family of comparable position, even if things had reached this critical state, the masters would count on being able to stave off disaster for another five or ten years by asking their stewards for money. I understand that one of your men has even been appointed to a district magistracy …’
‘No!’ cut in Jia Zheng firmly. ‘When a man stoops to borrowing from his own servants, it is the beginning of the end. We shall simply have to draw in our belts a little. If we still own the property that is down on our books, well and good. But personally I am inclined to believe that there may be very little reality behind some of those entries.’
‘Precisely, sir,’ replied Cheng. ‘That was my very reason for suggesting an inspection of the accounts.’
‘Why, have you heard something?’ asked Jia Zheng.
‘Word has reached me of some of the iniquities perpetrated by those servants of yours,’ answered Cheng. ‘But I hardly dare mention them in your presence, sir.’
Jia Zheng realized from Cheng’s tone of voice that he was speaking the truth.
‘Alas!’ he sighed. ‘Since my grandfather’s day, we have always had a tradition in my family of being considerate and generous to our servants. We have never treated them harshly or given them cause for complaint. What is the present generation coming to! And if I were suddenly to start acting the strict master now, I hardly think I would be treated seriously.’
As they were talking, one of the janitors came in and announced that Excellency Zhen of the Nanking family had come to call.
‘What brings him to the capital?’ asked Jia Zheng.
‘I understand, sir,’ replied the servant, ‘that he has been reinstated by Imperial favour.’
‘Show him in at once,’ said Jia Zheng.
The servant went out to usher in the visitor. This Excellency Zhen was the father of Zhen Bao-yu; his full name was Zhen Ying-jia, his courtesy name You-zhong (Friend of the Loyal). The Zhens were, it will be remembered, like the Jias, an illustrious old family from Nanking, and the two families had a long-standing family connection and had always seen a good deal of each other. Zhen Ying-jia had lost his post a year or two previously for some misdemeanour, and the family property had subsequently been confiscated. Now His Majesty the Emperor had shown him a special favour as the de?scendant of a loyal and deserving subject, had restored him to his hereditary position and had summoned him to the capital for an audience. Knowing that Lady Jia had recently passed away, Zhen had prepared an offering and had chosen an auspicious day in the almanac on which to convey the offering to the temple where her remains were lying. Before so doing he called at Rong-guo House to pay his respects.
Mourning etiquette prevented Jia Zheng from going out to greet his guest, but he welcomed him at the threshold of his outer study. When Zhen Ying-jia saw him, sorrow and joy mingled in his breast. Both gentlemen refrained from any elaborate display of ceremony, and instead clasped each other simply by the hand and exchanged greetings. They sat down at either side of a table, Jia Zheng offered his guest some tea and they continued to talk for some little while.
‘When were you received by His Majesty?’ asked Jia Zheng.
‘The day before yesterday,’ replied Zhen Ying-jia.
‘His Majesty in his great kindness must surely have favoured you with some words of instruction.’
‘Yes indeed. His Majesty, whose kindness exceeds the heavens, has favoured me with a decree.’
‘May I enquire as to its import?’
‘In view of the recent outbreak of piracy on the South coast, and the unsettled conditions prevailing among the people there, His Majesty has despatched the Duke of An-guo on a mission of pacifi?cation against the rebels. Because of my familiarity with the region, he has ordered me to take part in the campaign. I shall have to leave almost immediately. When I learned yesterday that Lady Jia had passed away, I prepared a humble offering of petal-incense to burn before her coffin, as a small expression of my devotion.’
Jia Zheng kowtowed his thanks and replied:
‘I am sure this enterprise will be an opportunity for you to set His Majesty’s mind at rest, and to bring peace to the nation. I have no doubt too that it will bring you great personal glory! I only regret that I shall not be able to witness it with my own eyes, but will have to content myself with hearing the news of your victories from afar. The present commander of the Zhenhai littoral is a relation of mine, and I hope that when you meet him you will receive him favourably.’
‘How are you related to the commander?’ asked Zhen Ying-jia.
‘During my period of office as Grain Intendant in Kiangsi,’ replied Jia Zheng, ‘I betrothed my daughter to his son, and they have been married three years now. A protracted coastal disturbance and the continued concentration of pirates in the region have prevented news of them from reaching us for quite some time. I am most concerned for my daughter’s well-being, and earnestly beseech you to visit her, when your duties are completed and a convenient Opportunity pre?sents itself. In the meanwhile I shall write her a short letter, and if you would be so kind as to have it delivered for me by one of your men, I should be eternally grateful.’
‘Children are a source of concern to us all,’ rejoined Zhen. ‘I myself was on the point of asking you a similar favour. When I received my instructions from His Majesty to proceed to the capital, I decided to bring my family with me; my son is of a tender age and we have so few servants at home now. I have had to hurry on ahead, while my family are following at a more leisurely pace and should arrive here any day. I have been given my marching orders already and cannot delay here any longer. When my family arrive they are sure to call on you, and I have instructed my son to kowtow to you in the hope of benefiting from your counsel. Should a suitable offer of marriage make itself known to you, I should be most grateful if you would make representations on our behalf.’
‘But of course,’ Jia Zheng assured him. After a little more chat, Zhen Ying-jia rose to take his leave, saying:
‘I shall hope to see you tomorrow outside the city.’
Jia Zheng knew that Zhen must have many other engagements and would not be prevailed upon to stay. He saw him to the study door, where Jia Lian and Bao-yu were waiting to escort him out (in the absence of a summons from Jia Zheng they had not ventured into the study). The two younger men stepped forward to salute him. Zhen Ying-jia seemed quite stunned by the sight of Bao-yu.
‘Take away the white mourning clothes,’ he thought to himself. ‘and this young man is the very image of our own Bao-yu!’
‘It is such a long time since we last met,’ he said politely, ‘that I have quite forgotten your names.’
Jia Zheng indicated Jia Lian:
‘My elder brother She’s son, Lian.’
Then pointing to Bao-yu:
‘My own second son, Bao-yu.’
Zhen clapped his hands:
‘How extraordinary! I heard tell at home that you had a well-loved son born with a jade, and that his name was Bao-yu. I was at first greatly surprised that our sons should share the same name, but later I reflected that such coincidences must be quite frequent. Now I have seen him in the flesh, I am amazed all over again! He is the living likeness of my own son! Not only his features, his whole manner and bearing are the same!’
On being told Bao-yu’s age, he commented:
‘My son is a year younger.’
Jia Zheng went on to say that he had already gathered a little information about Zhen Bao-yu from Bao Yong, the former Zhen retainer whom Zhen Ying-jia had himself recommended to them. Zhen Ying-jia seemed too engrossed in Bao-yu to enquire after his old servant, but kept exclaiming:
‘Most extraordinary! Most extraordinary!’
He took Bao-yu by the hand and was most affable towards him. Their conversation would have been longer had it not been for the fact that the Duke of An-guo was in a hurry to leave. Zhen did not wish to delay his superior, and himself needed to make hasty preparations the long journey ahead. He therefore forced himself to say farewell and made a dignified departure, escorted by Jia Lian and Bao-yu. All way he was still plying Bao-yu with questions. At last he mounted his carriage and was gone, and Jia Lian and Bao-yu returned to report Jia Zheng. When they were dismissed Jia Lian went once more to endeavour to settle the accounts for Xi-feng’s funeral.
Bao-yu returned to his own room and told Bao-chai of his encounter with Zhen Ying-jia.
‘I never thought I’d have a chance to see that Zhen Bao-yu we are always hearing about, but now I’ve seen his father, and apparently the son will be coming any day to call on Father. Excellency Zhen called me the “living likeness of his son”, which I find hard believe. If this other Bao-yu does come, you must all be sure take a peep at him, and judge whether there really is a resemblance.’
‘Shame on you!’ exclaimed Bao-chai. ‘Honestly, you grow more and more thoughtless with every day! First you treat us to a story about some young man who’s supposed to look like you, then you want us to go and “take a peep” at him! What next!’
Bao-yu realized that he had said the wrong thing, and blushed. He tried to think of some way of rectifying his gaffe, but to learn more you will have to turn to the next chapter.

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