The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 117

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CHAPTER 117

Two fair damsels conspire to save the jade, and forestall
a flight from earthly bondage
An infamous rogue takes charge of the mansion, and assembles
a gang of cronies

Lady Wang sent for Bao-chai to consult with her, while Bao-yu, hearing that the monk was outside, rushed to the front courtyard on his own.
‘Where is my Master?’ he shouted.
Finally, as there was no sign of the monk there, he went outside, where he found his groom Li Gui barring the monk’s way.
‘My mother bids me invite His Reverence in,’ said Bao-yu.
Li Gui relaxed his grip, and the monk went swaggering in. Bao-yu observed at once the resemblance between this monk and the guide in his dream, and the truth began to grow clearer in his mind. He bowed:
‘Master, please forgive your disciple for being so slow in welcom?ing you.’
‘I have no desire to be entertained,’ said the monk. ‘I just want my money, and then I’ll be off.’
This was hardly the way one would have expected a man of great spiritual attainments to talk, reflected Bao-yu. But then he looked at the monk’s head, which was covered with scabs, and at his filthy, tattered robe, and thought to himself:
‘There’s an old saying: “The True Sage does not reveal himself, and he who reveals himself is no True Sage.” I must be careful not to waste this opportunity. I had better reassure him about the money, and sound him out a little.
‘Father,’ he said, ‘please be patient. My mother is preparing your money at this very moment. Please be seated and wait a while. May I venture to enquire, Father, whether you have recently returned from the Land of Illusion?’
‘Illusion, my foot!’ exclaimed the monk. ‘I come whence I come, and I go whither I go. I came here to return your jade. But let me ask you a question: where did your jade come from?’
For a minute or so Bao-yu could think of no reply. The monk laughed.
‘If you know nothing of your own provenance, why delve into mine?’
Bao-yu had always been a sensitive and intelligent child, and his recent illumination had enabled him to penetrate to a certain extent the veil of earthly vanity and illusion. But he still knew nothing of his own personal ‘history’, and the monk’s question hit him like a whack on the head.
‘I know!’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s not the money you’re after. It’s my jade. I’ll give you that back instead.’
‘And so you should!’ chuckled the monk.
Without a word, Bao-yu ran into the house. He reached his apart?ment and, finding that Bao-chai, Aroma and the others had all gone out to wait on his mother, he quickly picked up his jade from where it lay by his bed and ran back with it. As he left the room, he collided with Aroma, giving her the fright of her life.
‘Her Ladyship was just saying what a good idea it was,’ she protested, ‘for you to sit and keep the monk company, while she tried to work out a way of raising the money. What on earth have you come rushing in here for again?’
‘I want you to go back at once,’ ordered Bao-yu, ‘and tell Mother she needn’t bother about the money. I shall give him back the jade. That will settle the bill.’
Aroma seized Bao-yu at once:
‘That’s completely crazy! The jade is your very life! If he takes that away, you’ll fall ill again for sure.’
‘Not now,’ replied Bao-yu. ‘I shall never fall ill again. Now that I know my true purpose, what do I need the jade for?’
He shook Aroma off and made to leave. She hurried after him, crying:
‘Come back! There’s something else I want to tell you!’
Bao-yu glanced back at her:
‘There’s nothing more to be said.’
She pressed after him, casting aside her inhibitions and crying as she ran:
‘Don’t you remember the last time you lost it, how it was nearly the end of me? You’ve only just got it back, and if he takes it away again now it will cost you your life and me mine too! You’ll be sending me to my death.’
She caught up with him as she was speaking, and held him tightly.
‘Whether it means your death or not,’ said Bao-yu with strange vehemence, ‘I shall still give it back.’
He pushed Aroma away with all his might and tried to extricate himself from her grip. She, however, wound the ends of his sash around her hands and sank to the ground, sobbing and calling for help.
The maids in the inner apartments heard the noise and came running out, to find the two of them locked in this desperate im?passe.
‘Quickly!’ cried Aroma. ‘Go and tell Her Ladyship! Master Bao wants to give his jade back to the monk!’
The maids flew to Lady Wang with this message, while Bao-yu grew angrier than ever and tried to wrench his sash from Aroma’s hands. She held on for dear life, and Nightingale came rushing out from the inner apartment as soon as she heard what Bao-yu was contemplating. Her alarm and concern seemed if anything greater than Aroma’s, and her previous resolution to be indifferent towards Bao-yu seemed to have vanished without trace. She joined forces with Aroma, and Bao-yu, though a man against women, and though he flailed and struggled for all he was worth, could do nothing in the face of their desperate refusal to let go. Unable to set himself free, he could only sigh and say:
‘Will you fight like this to preserve a piece of jade? What would you do if I left you?’
These words produced a noisy outburst of sobbing from Aroma and Nightingale.
Things had reached this impasse when Lady Wang and Bao-chai hurried onto the scene. Now Lady Wang could verify the truth of the report with her own eyes.
‘Bao-yu!’ she cried, her voice choking with sobs. ‘Have you taken leave of your senses again?’
Bao-yu knew that with the arrival of his mother he no longer stood any chance of escape – and therefore changed his tactics.
‘There was really no need for you to alarm yourself so, Mother,’ he said, with a placatory smile. ‘They always make such a fuss about nothing. I thought the monk was being most unreasonable, insisting on being paid every penny of ten thousand taels. It made me very cross and I came in here with the idea of handing him back the jade and at the same time pretending that it was a fake and worthless to us anyway. If I could convince him that it was of no real value to us, then he would probably accept whatever reward we offered him.’
‘Goodness! I thought you were in earnest!’ exclaimed Lady Wang. ‘I must Say, you might have told them the truth–look at the state they’re all in!’
‘It may seem a good idea to do as Bao-yu suggests,’ said Bao-chai. ‘But I still think it would be risky even to go through the motions of giving it back. If you ask me, there’s something most peculiar about that monk. He could very easily do something terrible and throw the whole family into confusion all over again. We can always sell my jewellery if we need to raise the money.’
‘Yes,’ said Lady Wang. ‘Let’s try that first.’
Bao-yu made no comment. Bao-chai came up to him and took the jade from his hand.
‘There is no need for you to go,’ she said. ‘Mother and I can give him the money.’
‘Very well then, I won’t give him the jade,’ said Bao-yu. ‘But I must at least see him this once.’
Aroma and Nightingale were still loath to allow him out of their sight. In the end it was Bao-chai who ordered them to set him free:
‘He’d better go if he wants to.’
Reluctantly Aroma complied.
‘You all of you seem to value the jade more highly than its owner!’ said Bao-yu with a wry smile. ‘What if I go away with the monk and leave you with the jade? You’ll look rather silly then, won’t you?’
This revived Aroma’s anxiety, and she would have seized hold of him again had she not felt constrained by the presence of Lady Wang and Bao-chai and by the need to preserve some semblance of respect towards Bao-yu. It was too late anyway, for the moment they loosened their grip Bao-yu was gone. Aroma contented herself with despatching a junior maid to the inner gate with instructions for Tealeaf and Bao-yu’s other page-boys to keep an eye on him, as he was ‘acting rather strangely’. The maid went at once to do her bidding.
Lady Wang and Bao-chai meanwhile walked in to Bao-yu’s apart?ment and sat down. They asked Aroma exactly what had happened and she gave them a full account of all that Bao-yu had said. They were both extremely perturbed and sent another messenger with instructions that the servants were to watch Bao-yu and do their utmost to hear what the monk said. A short while later, a junior maid returned to report to Lady Wang:
‘Master Bao is acting very strangely, madam. The pages outside say that since you would not give him the jade, he now feels obliged to offer himself in its place.’
‘Gracious!’ exclaimed Lady Wang. ‘And whatever did the monk say to that?’
‘He said he wanted the jade, not the man,’ replied the maid.
‘Not the money?’ asked Bao-chai.
‘They didn’t even mention that. Afterwards the monk and Master Bao started talking and laughing together. There was a lot said that the pages couldn’t follow.’
‘The little idiots!’ complained Lady Wang. ‘Even if they couldn’t understand it themselves, they could at least repeat it to us. Go and tell them to come here.’
The maid sped to do Lady Wang’s bidding. Presently Tealeaf arrived, stood outside in the covered walk and paid his respects through the intervening window.
‘Surely,’ said Lady Wang, ‘if you couldn’t understand the meaning of what Master Bao and the monk were saying, you could at least manage to repeat the words to us.’
‘All we caught, ma’am,’ answered Tealeaf, ‘was something about a Great Fable Mountain and a Greensickness Peak. And then some?thing about a Land of Illusion and “severing earthly ties”.’
To Lady Wang this made as little sense as it had to the pages; but it seemed to have a startling effect on Bao-chai, who stared dumb?founded in front of her.
They were about to send someone to bring Bao-yu back, when in he came himself, wreathed in smiles, announcing:
‘All is well! All is well!’
Bao-chai stared at him in dismay, while Lady Wang asked:
‘What have you been raving to that monk about now?’
‘It was anything but raving. It was a very serious conversation. It turns out that he knows me, and that all he really wanted was to see me. He never wanted the money. At the most he was hoping for a friendly contribution, which would create good karma. As soon as we had reached an understanding, he got up and went. Just like that. So I think you’ll agree, all is well!’
Lady Wang could not believe this, and asked Tealeaf, who was still standing on the other side of the window, to verify Bao-yu’s story. He hurried out to question the gateman, and returned presently to report:
‘It is true. The monk really has left. As he was going he said: “Their Ladyships are not to worry themselves. I never wanted the money.” He says he only wants Master Bao-yu to call on him when?ever he can. “Let all be fulfilled in accordance with karma; a fixed purpose resides in all things.” Those were his parting words.’
‘So he was a holy man after all!’ exclaimed Lady Wang. ‘Did anyone ask him where he lived?’
‘According to the gateman, the monk said that Master Bao would know where to find him.’
Lady Wang turned to Bao-yu:
‘Well – where does he live?’
Bao-yu smiled enigmatically:
‘His abode is, well… far away and yet at the same time close at hand. It all depends how you look at it.’
‘For goodness’ sake!’ interrupted Bao-chai impatiently, before he had finished speaking. ‘Pull yourself together and stop all this non?sense! You know how Mother and Father love you! And Father has told you how important it is for you to succeed in life!’
‘Does what I am talking about not count as success?’ asked Bao-yu in a droll tone. ‘Haven’t you heard the saying: “When one son becomes a monk, the souls of seven generations of ancestors go to Heaven”?’
When she heard this Lady Wang was more distressed than ever:
‘Our family is doomed! Xi-chun talks of nothing but her nunnery, and now here’s another! Why should I bother to drag my life out any longer!’
She began sobbing hysterically. Bao-chai tried to comfort her, but Bao-yu only laughed and said:
‘I was joking! There was no need to take it so seriously, Mother.’
Lady Wang ceased her tears:
‘How can you joke about such a thing?’
At this juncture a maid came in to report the return of Jia Lian:
‘He looks very upset too, ma’am. He would like you to go over and have a word with him.’
This was another shock for Lady Wang.
‘Ask him just this once if he can come here. Mrs Bao is his cousin, so he needn’t worry about her being here too.’
Jia Lian duly came in and paid his respects to Lady Wang. Bao-chai also greeted him.
‘I have just received a letter from Father,’ said Jia Lian, ‘saying that he has fallen seriously ill. I must go to him at once, or it may be too late!’
Tears were streaming down his cheeks.
‘Did the letter say what kind of illness?’ asked Lady Wang.
‘It began as a cold but has developed into pneumonia, which has now reached a critical stage. A special messenger travelled by day and night to bring us the news, and says that if I delay my departure for even a day or two it may be too late. I must leave as soon as possible. I am concerned that with Uncle away in the South there will be no one left to take charge of things here. You will have to make do with young Qiang and Yun; whatever their shortcomings, at least they are men and can communicate with you about anything that may crop up outside. There’s nothing much to worry about in my apartment. Autumn spends her time crying and complaining and says she wants to leave, so I have told her family to come and take her away. That will make life a little more bearable for Patience at any rate. There is no one to look after Qiao-jie, I know, but Patience is not too bad with her. Qiao-jie is quite a sensible girl, but has an even more difficult temperament than her mother, so I hope you will try to offer her guidance whenever you can, Aunt.’
As he spoke, a telltale red came into his eyes and he extracted a little silk handkerchief from the betel-nut bag at his waist and dabbed them with it.
‘With her own grandmother so close at hand, what need is there for you to entrust her to me?’ asked Lady Wang.
‘If you adopt that attitude, I might as well beat myself to death!’ said Jia Lian to his aunt in a somewhat histrionic sotto voce. ‘I won’t say any more, just beg you to be kind to me and do what you can.’
He knelt at her feet.
‘Get up at once!’ exclaimed Lady Wang. Her eyes too were moist with tears. ‘What way is this for aunt and nephew to talk to one another? There is one thing we should discuss. The child is of age now. If anything untoward should happen to your father and you should be delayed, and if in the meantime a suitable family should make a proposal of marriage, do you wish me to wait for your return, or shall I let her grandmother decide in your absence?’
‘Of course you need not wait for me. As you and Mother will be here, the two of you should do whatever you think best.’
‘You had better go now,’ said Lady Wang. ‘Write your Uncle Zheng a note. Tell him that your father is in a precarious state of health, and that there are no menfolk left at home. Ask him to complete your grandmother’s burial rites and come home as quickly as possible.’
‘Very well, Aunt.’
As he was on the point of leaving, Jia Lian turned back once more and said:
‘There should be enough servants in the house. But there is no one in the Garden. The place is altogether too deserted, especially now that Bao Yong has gone back with the Zhens and Cousin Ke and Aunt Xue have moved out of their old compound next to the Garden to live in an apartment of their own. All the buildings in the Garden are empty and have been neglected. You should send someone round regularly to inspect the place. Green Bower Her?mitage is a family foundation, and now that Adamantina has dis?appeared something must be done about her various attendants. The Sister Superior does not feel she can make the decision herself, and would like someone in the family to take charge.’
‘That will have to wait,’ replied Lady Wang. ‘With our own affairs in such disarray, we are in no position to start taking on extra responsibilities. You must on no account mention this to Xi-chun. It would only encourage her in her own ideas. Oh dear, what are we coming to? A nun in the family would be the last straw!’
‘That is something I would not have brought up myself,’ said Jia Lian. ‘But since you have done so, I should perhaps offer my advice, for what it’s worth. Xi-chun belongs after all to the Ning-guo side of the family. Neither of her parents is alive, her elder brother has been sent into exile, and she and her sister-in-law are on bad terms with one another. I hear that she has threatened suicide quite a few times. If her heart is really set on being a nun and we continue to be so inflexible, she may really take her own life. And then we would lose her altogether!’
Lady Wang nodded:
‘It is too heavy a burden to lay on my shoulders! This really isn’t my responsibility. I must leave it to her sister-in-law to decide.’
Jia Lian said a few more words and took his leave. He summoned the servants and gave them their instructions. Then he wrote a letter to Jia Zheng, and packed his bags. Patience urged him at some length to take good care of himself, while Qiao-jie seemed exceed?ingly upset by her father’s departure. Jia Lian expressed his wish to entrust her to the care of her uncle Wang Ren, but she wouldn’t consider it; and when she learned that Jia Yun and Jia Qiang were to be on outside duty she also felt extremely uneasy, though she said nothing. She bade her father farewell, and resolved to lead a quiet life at home with Patience.
Felicity and Crimson had been frequently absent since Xi-feng’s death, on some Occasions asking for leave, on others pleading sickness. Patience had contemplated asking a young lady from some other branch of the Jia family to come and stay with them, partly to keep Qiao-jie company, partly to help educate her, but the only names that occurred to her were those of Xi-luan and Si-jie, Grand?mother Jia’s favourites, and of these two Xi-luan had recently married while Si-jie was engaged and due to leave home any day.
Jia Yun and Jia Qiang saw Jia Lian off and then went in to report to Ladies Xing and Wang. The two men took turns on night-duty in the outer study, and during the daytime enjoyed themselves with the servants, throwing parties and inviting a variety of friends, who took it in turns with them to act as host. There was even some serious gambling. The ladies of course had no inkling of this.
One day Lady Xing’s brother Xing De-quan and Wang Ren dropped by. Learning that Yun and Qiang were now established at Rong-guo House, and observing the good times that were being had, they began to call quite frequently, to ‘see how things were getting on’, and had soon formed a regular drinking and gambling foursome in the outer study. All the decent servants had accompanied either Jia Zheng or Jia Lian, and the only menservants left behind were the various sons and nephews of stewards Lai and Lin, who were used to the easy life their parents’ good fortune had brought them, and were quite ignorant of the principles according to which a proper household should be run. With their parents away, they were like colts let loose in the meadow. And with the two degenerate young masters to spur them on, their pleasures knew no bounds. Under this new regime, the family motto might as well have been: Anything Goes.
Jia Qiang thought of inviting Bao-yu to join them, but Jia Yun soon squashed that idea:
‘That fellow is an absolute killjoy. It would only be asking for trouble. A year or two ago I had a perfect marriage lined up for him. The girl’s father was a tax-collector in one of the provinces, the family owned several pawnshops, and the girl herself was an absolute peach. I went to a lot of trouble and wrote him a long letter about it, but I might as well have saved myself the bother. He’s an utter spoil?sport.
Yun glanced round to make sure there was no one else listening and continued:
‘The truth was, he already fancied this new missis of his! And then there was Miss Lin, you must have heard about that. She died of a broken heart, it’s common knowledge. And it was all his fault. But that’s another story. To each his fate in love, I suppose. All the same, I don’t see why he had to get so angry with me, and start cutting me dead. Perhaps he thought I was trying to get into his good books or something.’
Jia Qiang nodded and gave up the idea of inviting Bao-yu. What neither of them knew was that, ever since his meeting with the monk, Bao-yu was finally resolved to sever his ties with the world. In his mother’s presence he still tried to behave as normally as possible, but there was already a marked cooling-off in his relations with Bao-chai and Aroma. The maids were unaware of this change and continued to tease him as before, only to find themselves totally ignored. He was completely oblivious of practical household affairs; and as for his studies, whenever his mother and Bao-chai chivvied him on, he would feign diligence, but in reality his mind was filled with thoughts of the monk and his mysterious excursion to the fairy domain. Everyone around him now seemed unbearably mundane, and he began to find his own family environment less and less congenial. When he was free of other commitments, it was Xi-chun that he chose as a companion. The two of them found they had more and more in common, and their lively conversations further strength?ened his own resolution. He had little time now for Jia Huan and Jia Lan.
Jia Huan, now that his father was away from home and his mother Aunt Zhao dead, and since Lady Wang paid little attention to what he did, began to gravitate towards Jia Yun and his cronies. Suncloud, who constantly tried to dissuade him from this course, received nothing but abuse for her pains. Silver observed to herself that Bao-?yu was becoming more deranged than ever, and asked her mother if she could be taken out of service. Bao-yu and Jia Huan in their different ways succeeded in alienating the people around them. Jia Lan, by contrast, sat by his mother’s side conscientiously studying, and when he had finished a composition would take it to the family school for the Preceptor’s comments. Recently the Preceptor had been bedridden a great deal of the time, and consequently Jia Lan had been obliged to work on his own. His mother had always been fond of peace and quiet, and apart from calling on Lady Wang and Bao-chai she did not get about much but sat at home and watched Jia Lan at his work. So although life continued in Rong-guo House, everyone was very much minding his own business, which left Jia Huan, Jia Qiang and company free to indulge themselves unmolested. They were soon pawning or selling all manner of family property in order to subsidize their disgraceful activities. Jia Huan was the worst. His whoring and gambling knew no bounds.
One day Xing De-quan and Wang Ren had called and were in the outer study drinking. They were in high spirits and decided to send for some singsong girls to entertain them with a song or two and join in their carousing.
‘This is turning into a downright orgy!’ protested Jia Qiang playfully. ‘I suggest we have a drinking game to raise the tone a little.’
Everyone agreed that this was a good idea.
‘Let’s play Pass the Goblet, on the word “moon”,’ proposed Jia Qiang. ‘I shall say a line and count it out, and whoever gets the word moon” has to drink and then recite two lines – a Head and a Tail -according to my instructions. The forfeit is three big cups.’
Everyone agreed to his rules. First Jia Qiang drank a cup as MC, and then he recited Li Bo’s line:
‘“The Peacock Goblets fly, the drunken moon…”’ The ‘moon’ fell on Jia Huan.
‘For the Head, give me a line with Cassia,’ said Jia Qiang.
Jia Huan came up with a line by the Tang poet Wang Jian: “‘A cold dew silently soaks the Cassia flowers …’
‘And Fragrance for the Tail,’ concluded Jia Qiang.
Jia Huan obliged with a line by another Tang poet, Song Zhi?-wen:
‘“Beyond the clouds there wafts a heavenly Fragrance …”’
‘Boring! Boring!’ complained Xing De-quan. ‘Stop posing, Huan, me old fellow! Fat lot you know about poetry! This is no fun at all, it’s enough to make you sick! Let’s drop it and play Guess-fingers instead. Loser to drink and sing a song, a double sconce. Anyone who can’t sing can tell a joke instead. But it better be a good one.’
They all agreed to this new proposal and there was a noisy scene as they began to throw out fingers and make their calls. Wang Ren was the first loser. He drank and sang a song.
‘Bravo!’ they cried and set to again. Next to lose was one of the girls. She sang a song called ‘Little Miss Glamorous’. Then it was Xing De-quan. Everyone wanted a song from him, but he protested that he was tone-deaf:
‘I’ll tell a joke instead.’
‘If nobody laughs,’ Jia Qiang warned him, ‘you’ll have to pay another forfeit.’
Xing downed his cup and began his story:
‘Ladies and gentlemen: once upon a time, in a certain village, there were two temples – a big one, dedicated to the Great Lord of the North, and by its side a smaller one, dedicated to the Village God. The Great Lord was always inviting the Village God over for a chat. One day something was stolen from his temple, and he asked the Village God to look into the matter. “But there are no thieves in this district,” protested the lesser deity. “It must be carelessness on the part of one of your door-gods. Someone must have sneaked in past them and stolen these things.” “Nonsense!” replied the Great Lord. “You’re in charge round these parts. If there’s been a theft, then you’re responsible. What’s the meaning of this? You should be trying to catch the thief, not accusing my door-gods of being careless!” “What I meant by careless,” prevaricated the Village God, “was that your temple must have been badly sited – you know, the Dragon Lines must be at fault…” “I had no idea you could read fengshui,” commented the Great Lord in a tone of disbelief. “Allow me to take a look for you,” offered the Village God, “and see what I can see.” He walked around the temple, peering into every nook and cranny, and after a while reported: “My Lord, behind your throne there is a double-leaved red door. An unfortunate oversight. Personally I have a good solid brick wall behind my throne, so naturally I never have things stolen. You can easily remedy the present situation by having a wall built in place of the door.” This seemed plausible to the Great Lord, and he instructed his door-gods to call in builders and put up a wall. “But we can’t even afford a single candle or stick of incense in this temple!” moaned the door-gods. “How can we possibly buy bricks and mortar and hire the labour to build a wall?” The Great Lord could think of no solution. He ordered them to find one, but they were stumped too. Just then the Tortoise General, whose re?cumbent stone form lay at the Great Lord’s feet, stood up and said: “You’re a useless lot! I’ve got an idea: pull down the red door, and use my belly to block up the doorway. I’m sure that will do the job perfectly well.” “An excellent plan!” cried the door-gods in chorus. “Convenient, dependable and free!” So the Tortoise General became Rear Wall, and peace prevailed – for a while. Then things began to disappear from the temple again. The door-gods summoned the Village God and complained: “You guaranteed our security if we built a wall, but look what’s happened! We’ve got a wall and still we re losing things!” “Your wall can’t be solid enough.” “Have a look at it for yourself,” they insisted. The Village God went and did so. It certainly seemed a solid enough wall. All most puzzling. Then he felt it with his hand. “Aaah!” he exclaimed. “No wonder! I meant a properly built wall. Any old thief could push down this false wall (jia qiang).”‘
They all laughed, even Jia Qiang, whose name had provided the raw material for the joke.
‘Come on, Dumbo!’ he protested. ‘Be fair! I never called you names! Drink a forfeit, there’s a boy!’
Dumbo, who was already a sheet or so in the wind, willingly complied. They all had a few more cups, and in the general state of intoxication Dumbo let fly a few barbed remarks about his sister (Lady Xing), while Wang Ren had a go at desecrating the memory of his (Xi-feng), both of them evincing great bitterness. Their example and the wine lent Jia Huan a little courage, and he too had his fling, complaining how heartless Xi-feng had been, and how she had tried to ruin so many of their lives.
‘Yes, people ought to show a bit of common decency,’ they all agreed. ‘The way she used Lady Jia’s influence to bully everyone was dreadful. Well, she died without giving birth to an heir; she only ever had a daughter. Retribution in her own lifetime!’
Jia Yun, who remembered only too well how harsh Xi-feng had once been towards him, and how Qiao-jie had started bawling the instant she set eyes on him, allowed himself to wade into the general melee with some abuse of his own about the two of them. Jia Qiang tried to steer the party in a less vindictive direction:
‘Come on! Drink up! This gossip will get us nowhere!’
‘How old is the young lady you mentioned?’ enquired the two Singsong girls. ‘Is she pretty?’
‘Oh yes,’ replied Jia Qiang. ‘Extremely so. She’s about thirteen.’
‘What a pity, in that case, that she was born into a family like yours!’ the girls exclaimed. ‘If only she came from a more humble home, she could soon find herself in a position to bring all her family lots of jobs, and pots of money into the bargain!’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We know of a certain Mongol prince,’ replied the girls. ‘Quite a ladies’ man he is. He is looking for a concubine, and the lady who fits the bill would be able to take her whole family along with her to live in the palace. What a marvellous stroke of luck that would be for somebody!’
None of them seemed to take much notice of this, except for Wang Ren, who looked very thoughtful. For the present he said nothing and continued drinking.
A little later two young lads came in, younger sons of Stewards Lai and Lin.
‘You seem to be having a fine time of it, sirs, by the looks of things!’ they exclaimed.
Everyone rose to greet them.
‘Why have the two of you been such a long time? We’ve been expecting you for ages.’
They explained:
‘Early this morning we heard rather a disturbing rumour that out family was in some sort of official trouble again, so we hurried out to see what news we could glean at the Palace. It turned out to have nothing to do with our family after all.’
‘In that case, why didn’t you come straight here afterwards?’
‘It wasn’t exactly our family, but it was connected with us. It was that Mr Jia Yu-cun. When we were at the Palace we saw him bound in chains. They told us he was being taken to the High Court for questioning. We knew he was a frequent visitor here, and were afraid that the case might somehow involve us, so we followed them to see what happened.’
‘Good thinking, my man!’ exclaimed Jia Yun. ‘We are most obliged to you. Sit down and have a drink, and then tell us all about it.’
The two sat down after a polite show of reluctance, and as they drank continued:
‘This Mr Yu-cun is certainly an able enough fellow, and knows how to pull strings. He’d done extremely well until recently, in fact; but greed was his downfall. There were several charges brought against him, “avarice” and “extortion” being two of them. As we all know, our present August Sovereign is exceptionally wise, com?passionate and benevolent. There is one thing that stirs his wrath, however, and that is corruption, any form of tyrannical or bullying behaviour. So His Majesty decreed that the offender in this case should be arrested and brought to trial. If he is found guilty, things will look pretty grim for him; if he is acquitted, then the men who brought the charges will be in for trouble. It is certainly comforting to think what just times we live in! For those lucky enough to be officials in the first place!’
‘Like your elder brother,’ said one of the company, referring to Steward Lai’s eldest son, Lai Shang-rong. ‘He’s a county magistrate. Done very nicely for himself.’
‘True enough,’ replied young Lai. ‘But his conduct still leaves a lot to be desired, I’m afraid. He may not last long at this rate.’
‘Has he been taking squeeze himself?’
Lai nodded and drained his cup.
‘What other news did you pick up at the Palace?’ they asked them.
‘Oh, nothing much. A number of criminals from the coast have apparently been arrested, and sent to the High Court. During their trial they revealed the whereabouts of several others of their kind, lying low here in the capital, watching and waiting for fresh op?portunities for crime. Fortunately the present civil and military authorities have such a sound grip on the situation, and are so dedicated to the service of the throne, that these criminal elements will be effectively controlled.’
‘If you’ve heard of such cases, perhaps you have news of our burglary?’ asked one of the party.
‘I’m afraid not,’ came the reply. ‘I heard something about a man from one of the inland provinces who got into trouble here in town for abducting a girl and running off with her to the coast. She put up a fight and he ended by killing her. They arrested him crossing the border, and executed him on the spot.’
‘Wasn’t Sister Adamantina from Green Bower Hermitage abducted in similar circumstances?’ put in one of the others. ‘Couldn’t it have been her?’
‘Bound to have been!’ muttered Jia Huan.
‘How could you know?’ they asked him.
‘She was a sickening creature!’ said Jia Huan. ‘Always giving herself airs and graces. She had only to set eyes on Bao-yu to get a big smile all over her face. But she wouldn’t so much as acknowledge my existence! I hope it is her!’
‘Plenty of people are kidnapped all the time,’ someone commented. ‘It could easily have been someone else.’
‘I can well believe it was her,’ said Jia Yun. ‘The day before yesterday I heard that one of the sisters at the Hermitage had a dream in which she saw Adamantina being killed.’
This was greeted with derision:
‘You can’t take dreams seriously!’
‘Dream or no dream, it’s all one to me,’ protested Dumbo. ‘Let’s get on with the real business of the evening, shall we? Eat up, every?one, and we can start tonight’s Big Game.’
This met with general approval, and as soon as they had finished their meal they began gambling in earnest. They were still at it well after midnight, when suddenly they heard a great commotion coming from the inner apartments. They were eventually informed that Xi-chun had been arguing with You-shi, and the upshot of it was that she had cut all her hair off and gone running to Ladies Xing and Wang. There she kowtowed and begged them to relent and let her have her wish. If they would not, she threatened to put an end to her life there and then. The two ladies were at their wits’ end, and sent for Jia Qiang and Jia Yun to intervene. Jia Yun however knew that this was something Xi-chun had resolved to do long ago, at least since the fateful night of the burglary when she had been left in charge of the house, and to him there seemed little hope in trying to dissuade her now. He talked it over with Jia Qiang:
‘Lady Wang says she wants us to intervene, but I don’t see how we can achieve anything. It’s a heavy responsibility, and they want to off-load it onto us. We’ll have to put on a show of talking Xi-chun out of her decision, and then, when she refuses to listen, we’ll have to pass the matter back to the ladies, and meanwhile write a letter to Uncle Lian, absolving ourselves from any blame.’
They both agreed on this strategy, called on Ladies Xing and Wang, and then went through the motions of trying to dissuade Xi-?chun, who was every bit as adamant as they had predicted. If she could not take refuge in a convent outside the family mansion, then she said she would make do with a couple of quiet rooms within it, in which to recite her sutras and say her prayers. Eventually You-shi could see that the aunts were not prepared to take the responsibility; her own feat that Xi-chun might commit suicide got the better of her and she forced herself to compromise.
‘I can see I shall have to take the blame. Very well then. Let them say that it was I who could not tolerate my own husband’s sister and drove her to a nunnery! What do I care! But I cannot allow her to leave home. That is out of the question. She will have to stay here. Aunts Xing and Wang, I call you to witness my decision. Qiang, you had better write a letter informing my husband and Cousin Lian of what has happened.’
Jia Qiang acquiesced in You-shi’s decision. But to know whether Lady Xing and Lady Wang did likewise, you will have to turn to the next chapter.

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