The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 15

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CHAPTER 15

At Water-moon Priory Xi-feng finds how much profit may
procured by the abuse of power
And Qin Zhong discovers the pleasures that are to
be had under the cover of darkness

Looking up, Bao-yu saw that Shui Rong’s princely headgear was embellished by way of mourning with white bands, a white hatpin, and filigree silver ‘wings’. As a further token of mourning his robe, though heavily bordered with a ‘tooth and wave’ design of rainbow-coloured stripes and gold-emblazoned with the royal five-clawed dragon, was of a white material. It was confined at the waist by a red leather belt, studded with green jade. The splendid costume, the luminous eyes, the finely chiselled features really did make him an arrestingly handsome young man. Bao-yu started forward impulsively to make his salutation, but the prince extended an arm from the palanquin and prevented him from kneeling.
Bao-yu was wearing a little silver coronet on the top of his head and a silver headband round his brow in the form of two dragons emerging from the sea. He had on a narrow-sleeved, full-skirted robe of white material and a silver belt inlaid with pearls. After studying these and admiring the flowerlike face and coal-black eyes, the prince’s face broke into a smile.
‘If “Bao-yu” means “precious jade”, you are appropriately named,’ he said. ‘But where is the famous stone you were born with?’
Bao-yu hurriedly extracted the jade from inside his clothing and taking it off, handed it to the prince, who scrutinized it carefully, reciting the words of the inscription as he deciphered them.
‘And does it really have these powers?’ he asked.
‘It is only alleged to,’ Jia Zheng put in hastily. ‘We have never put them to the test.’
The prince pronounced the stone a great wonder and with his own hands refastened its plaited silken cord round Bao-yu’s neck. Then, taking one of Bao-yu’s hands in his own, he asked him how old he was, what books he was studying, and other such questions, to all of which Bao-yu gave prompt replies.
Delighted that everything Bao-yu said was so clear and to the point, the prince observed to Jia Zheng that ‘the young phoenix was worthy of his sire.
‘I trust I shall not offend you by saying so to your face,’ he said, ‘but I venture to prophesy that this fledgling of yours will one day “sing sweeter than the parent bird”.’
Jia Zheng smiled politely.
‘My son is doubtless unworthy of the compliment Your Highness is good enough to pay him. If; thanks to your en?couragement, he turns out as you say, we shall count ourselves truly fortunate.’
‘There is only one drawback in possessing such charm,’ said the prince. ‘I am sure it must make his grandmother dote upon him; and, unfortunately, being the object of too much affection is very bad for people of our years. It leads us to neglect our studies. This used at one time to be the case with me, and I suspect is now the case with your son. If he does find difficulty in working at home, he would be very welcome to come round to my palace. I do not pretend to be a gifted person myself; but I am fortunate in counting distinguished writers from all over the empire among my acquaintances, and my palace is a rendezvous for them when they are in the capital, so that I never want for intellectual company. By constantly mixing and conversing with such people at my palace, your son could do much to improve his education.’
‘Yes.’ Jia Zheng bowed deferentially.
The Prince of Bei-jing removed a rosary from his wrist and handed it to Bao-yu.
‘Today is our first meeting, but as it was an unforeseen one, I have not come prepared with a suitable gift. All I can offer you is this rosary made of the aromatic seeds of some Indian plant. It was given me by his Imperial Majesty. I hope you will accept it as a little token of my esteem.’
Bao-yu took the rosary and turning back offered it respect?fully to Jia Zheng, who made his son join him in formally thanking the prince for his gift.
At this point Jia She and Cousin Zhen knelt before the prince and invited him to return.
‘The Departed is now in paradise,’ said the prince. ‘Though I enjoy imperial favour and princely rank, I would not presume to go past her carriage. Heavenly honours take precedence over earthly ones!’
When they saw that the prince was adamant, Jia She and the rest bowed their thanks, then, having ordered the musicians to vail their instruments and march by in silence, they caused the front part of the procession and the hearse to pass over the junction. As soon as the hearse had gone over, the prince and his retinue crossed in the other direction, after which the rear part of the procession moved forward and caught up with the rest.

*

The liveliness which attended the procession during the whole of its progress through the city reached a climax as it ap?proached the city gate, for it was along this last stretch that the colleagues and office juniors of Jia She, Jia Zheng and Cousin Zhen had arranged their bowers, and it was necessary to stop and thank each one of them as they made their offerings to the passing hearse. They did at last succeed in getting out of the city gate, however, after which a clear road lay ahead all the way to the Temple of the Iron Threshold. Cousin Zhen went round with Jia Rong to the senior men among the mourners and invited them to proceed from there onwards by the transport provided. The upshot was that those of Jia She’s generation got into carriages and sedans, while Cousin Zhen and the younger men mounted on horseback.
Xi-feng was worried about Bao-yu. Out in the country, she thought, he was liable to become wild and disobedient. She felt sure that he would get up to some kind of mischief now that he was removed from Jia Zheng’s restraint. Accordingly she sent one of her pages to summon him, and presently he rode up to her carriage.
‘Bao dear,’ said Xi-feng, ‘a person of your refinement belongs here with us. You don’t want to go clomping around the countryside like apes on horseback with those horrid men! Why not get in with me? The two of us will keep each other company.’
Bao-yu at once dismounted and climbed up into the carriage, and the two of them drove on, laughing and chattering as they went. They had not been driving very long when two horse?men galloped up beside them, dismounted, and leaning into the carriage, informed Xi-feng that they were now near her stopping-place, in case she wished to get out and ‘stretch her legs’. Xi-feng sent them on ahead to ask Lady Xing and Lady Wang for instructions. The latter sent back word that they had no desire to stop, themselves, but that Xi-feng was wel?come to do so if she wished. Xi-feng accordingly gave orders for a short halt. At once the pages led the horses out of the main stream of traffic and headed northwards down a small side-road.
Bao-yu hurriedly sent someone off to fetch Qin Zhong, who was riding along behind his father’s sedan. As the page came hurrying up and asked him to stop with Bao-yu for a little refreshment, he turned round and saw Bao-yu’s horse in the distance, jogging along in a northerly direction with an empty saddle on its back behind Xi-feng’s carriage, and he realized that Bao-yu must be inside the carriage with Xi-feng. Turning his horse’s head about, he hurried after, and followed them into the gateway of a farm.
Apart from the barns and outhouses, the farmhouse con?sisted of little more than a single large room, so that there was nowhere the farmer’s womenfolk could go to be out of the way of the visitors. The sudden appearance in their midst of Xi-feng, Bao-yu and Qin Zhong with their fashionable clothes and delicate city faces seemed to these simple countrywomen more like a celestial visitation than a human one.
As soon as they were inside the thatched central building, Xi-feng asked the boys to amuse themselves outside. Bao-yu realized that she needed to be alone, and conducted Qin Zhong and the pages on a tour of the farmyard. He had never in his life seen any of the farming implements before, and was very curious. One of his pages who had some experience of country matters was able to name each implement for him and explain its functions. Bao-yu was impressed.
‘Now I can understand the words of the old poet,’ he said:

‘Each grain of rice we ever ate
Cost someone else a drop of sweat.’

At that moment they came to an outhouse in which was a kang with a spinning-wheel on it. Bao-yu was even more intrigued.
‘That’s for spinning yarn with to make cloth out of,’ said the pages.
Bao-yu at once got up on the kang and had just started to turn it when a country lass of seventeen or eighteen summers came running up:
‘Don’t! You’ll spoil it!’
She was shouted at fiercely by the pages, but Bao-yu had already stayed his hand.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve never seen one before. I was just turning it for fun, to see how it works.’
‘You don’t know how to turn it properly,’ said the girl. Let me show you how ‘tis done.’
Qin Zhong gave Bao-yu a sly tug:
‘A comely damosel, thinkest thou nottest?’
‘Shut up, or I’ll clout you!’ said Bao-yu, pushing him.
During this muttered exchange the girl had begun spinning. She did, indeed, make a charming picture as she bent over her work. Suddenly an old woman’s voice called out from the other side of the yard:
‘Ertie! Come here at once my gal.’
The girl jumped up from her spinning and hurried over. Bao-yu’s spirits were quite dashed by her abrupt departure.
But just then someone came from Xi-feng inviting the boys indoors. They found her washed and changed. She asked them if they wanted to ‘change’ too, but Bao-yu replied that they did not. Then a variety of cakes and sweets were brought in by the servants, and fragrant tea was poured for them to drink. When the three had taken their fill of these refreshments and everything had been cleared away and re?packed by the servants, they rose up and got back into their carriage.
Outside in the yard Brightie handed the farmer’s family their payment, which he had brought with him ready-wrapped in coloured paper, and the womenfolk hurried up to the carriage to express their thanks. Bao-yu scanned their faces carefully, but could not see his spinning-girl amongst them. They had not driven far, however, when he caught sight of her at the end of the village. She was standing watching for him beside the road, a baby brother in her arms and two little girls at her side. Bao-yu could not repress a strong emotion on seeing her, but sitting there in the carriage there was not much he could do but gaze back at her soulfully; and soon, as the carriage bowled along at a smarter pace, Ertie was lost to sight for ever.
With talk and laughter to beguile them, the journey passed quickly. Soon they had caught up with the main procession; soon the sound of drums and cymbals was heard and they could see ahead of them the banners and umbrellas of the monks from the Temple of the Iron Threshold who had come out in procession and lined either side of the road to welcome them; and soon they were inside the temple, where further ceremonies awaited them, a new staging having been erected for this purpose. The coffin was installed in one of the side-chapels leading off the inner hall, and Jewel arranged her sleeping-quarters near by to continue her watch over it.
In the outer hall Cousin Zhen was busy attending to his guests, some of whom were staying on, while others wished to leave immediately. To each he tendered formal thanks for their trouble in coming. They left in order of seniority; duke’s kin going first, then those of marquises, then those of earls, then those of viscounts, then those of barons, and so on down?wards. It was three o’clock by the time the last of them had gone.
Xi-feng received the lady guests inside. They, too, left in order of precedence and had not finally dispersed until around two o’clock. Only members of the clan and a few very close friends stayed behind to see the ceremonies through to their conclusion two days later.
Lady Xing and Lady Wang were among those who left. They could see that Xi-feng would be unable to return that day and wanted to take Bao-yu back with them into town. But Bao-yu, after his first taste of the countryside, was extremely loth to return and begged to stay with Xi-feng; so Lady Wang went without him, leaving him in Xi-feng’s charge.
The Temple of the Iron Threshold was a private foundation of the Dukes of Ning-guo and Rong-guo which still had some land of its own in which members of the clan who died in the capital could be given temporary burial. The thoughtful Dukes had provided accommodation not only for the dead but also for the living, in the form of guest-rooms in which mourners might temporarily reside until their funereal busi?ness was over What the old gentlemen had not foreseen was that their multitudinous progeny would come in time to exhibit differences of wealth and temperament so extreme as often to render their possessors mutually intolerable and that, whereas the more hard-up members of the clan gladly occupied the accommodation provided, the more affluent or preten?tious found it ‘inconvenient’ to stay there and preferred to seek alternative accommodation in the farmsteads and convents round about.
Xi-feng was among those who found the Iron Threshold accommodation ‘inconvenient’. Some time previously she had sent someone to Wheat-cake Priory to make arrangements on her behalf with the prioress Euergesia, and the old nun had turned out several rooms in readiness for her arrival. ‘Wheat-cake Priory’ (so-called because of the excellent steamed wheat bread made in its kitchens) was the popular name for Water-moon Priory, an offshoot of Water-moon Abbey situated at no great distance from the Temple of the Iron Threshold.
Presently, when the monks had finished their service and the evening offering of tea had been made, Cousin Zhen sent Jia Rong in to Xi-feng with a message inviting her to retire. Having first glanced round to ascertain that a sufficient number of Jia ladies were present to look after the still remaining guests, Xi-feng bade the company good night and left for Wheat-cake Priory with Bao-yu and Qin Zhong. Qin Zhong had attached himself to the other two when his father Qin Bang-ye, unable by reason of his age and frail state of health to risk a night away from home, had gone back to the city, leav?ing him to await the conclusion of the requiem services on his own.
They soon arrived at the priory and were met by Euergesia, who had brought her two little disciples Benevolentia and Sapientia to welcome them. As soon as the first greetings were over, Xi-feng retired to her room to wash and change. Emerg?ing refreshed, she observed how much taller Sapientia had grown and how radiantly good-looking, and inquired of Euergesia why she and her two charges had lately not been into town to see them.
‘It is on account of Mr. Hu’s good lady,’ said the old nun. ‘She has lately been brought to bed of a boy, and sent us ten taels of silver for a three-day recital of the Lake of Blood sutra by some of the sisters to purge the stain of childbirth. We have been so busy with the arrangements that we haven’t had time to call.’
Let us leave Xi-feng in conversation with the prioress and turn to the other two.
Qin Zhong and Bao-yu were amusing themselves in the main hall of the priory when Sapientia happened to pass through.
‘Here’s Sappy,’ said Bao-yu with a meaningful smile.
‘Well, what about it?’ said Qin Zhong.
‘Now, now, stop play-acting!’ said Bao-yu. ‘I saw you holding her that day at Grandma’s when you thought nobody else was about. You needn’t think you can fool me after that!’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘All right then. Never mind whether you know what I’m talking about or not. Just ask her to pour me out a cup of tea, will you, and then we’ll let the subject drop.’
‘What sort of joke is this? Why can’t you ask her yourself? She’d pour it out just the same for you. Why ask me to tell her?’
‘I couldn’t do it with the same feeling as you. There’ll be much more feeling in it if you ask her.’
He finally prevailed upon Qin Zhong to make the request.
‘Oh, all right! – Sappy, pour us a cup of tea, will you?’
Sapientia had been a regular visitor at the Rong-guo mansion ever since she was a little girl and was familiar with all its inmates. The innocence of her childish rompings with Bao-yu and Qin Zhong had latterly, however—now that she had reached adolescence—given way to a more mature emotion. She had fallen in love with Qin Zhong, whose every feature and lineament now inspired her with romantic feelings; and Qin Zhong, captivated by her developing charms, had responded by loving her back. Although nothing serious had as yet passed between them, in their inclinations and affections they were already united.
Sapientia hurried out and returned with a cup of tea.
‘Give it to me, Sappy!’ said Qin Zhong.
‘No, give it to me, Sappy I’ said Bao-yu.
She stood between them, pouting prettily, and gave a little laugh:
‘Surely you’re not going to fight over a cup of tea? I must have honey on my hands I’
Bao-yu snatched the cup before Qin Zhong could do so and began drinking. He was about to say something when Benevo?lentia came in and fetched Sapientia away to help her lay the table. She was back again presently to invite the two boys to tea and cakes; but neither of them felt much enthusiasm for such feminine repasts, and after sitting a short while for the sake of politeness, were soon off to amuse themselves else?where.
Xi-feng, too, soon left, and retired to her private room to rest, Euergesia accompanying her. By this time the older servants, seeing that there was nothing further for them to do, had one by one drifted off to bed, leaving only a few personal maids, all of whom were in Xi-feng’s confidence, in attend?ance. The old nun deemed it safe to broach a private matter in their hearing.
‘There is something I have been meaning to call at your house and ask Her Ladyship about, but I should like to have your opinion on it first before I see her.’
‘What do you want to ask her?’ said Xi-feng.
‘Bless his Holy Name!’ the prioress began piously. ‘When I was a nun at the Treasures in Heaven Convent in Chang-an, one of the convent’s benefactors was a very wealthy man called Zhang, who had a daughter called Jin-ge. A certain young Mr. Li, who is brother-in-law to the Governor of Chang-an, met her once when she was making an incense? offering in our temple and took a violent liking to her. He at once sent someone to the parents to ask for her hand in marriage, but unfortunately she was already betrothed to the son of a captain in the Chang-an garrison and the betrothal-presents had already been accepted. The Zhangs would have liked to cancel the betrothal but were afraid that the captain would object, so they told Li’s matchmaker that the girl was already engaged. But oh dear! young Mr. Li wouldn’t take no for an answer, and the Zhangs were quite at their wit’s end, being now in trouble with both parties. You see, when the captain got to hear of these goings-on he was most unreason?able. He came rushing along in a great rage and made a most terrible scene. ‘Just how many young men is this girl be?trothed to?” he said, and so on and so forth. He refused out?fight to take back the betrothal-gifts and straightway began an action for breach of promise. By now the Zhangs were really upset and sent to the capital for some moral support — for they are now quite determined to break off their daughter’s en?gagement, seeing that the captain has been so unreasonable.
‘Well, it occurred to me that the Area Commander for Chang-an, General Yun, is on very good terms with your husband’s family, and I thought I might try to find some way of persuading Her Ladyship to talk to Sir Zheng about this and get him to write a letter to General Yun and ask him to have a word with this captain. It is hardly likely that he would refuse to obey his commanding officer. The Zhangs would gladly pay anything—even if it meant bankrupting themselves —in return for this kindness.’
Xi-feng laughed.
‘It doesn’t sound very difficult. The only difficulty is that Lady Wang doesn’t touch this kind of thing any more.’
‘If Her Ladyship won’t, what about you, Mrs Lian?’
Xi-feng laughed again.
‘I’m not short of money; and besides, I don’t touch that sort of thing either.’
Euergesia’s face assumed an expression of great benignity. After sitting for a while in silence she sighed.
‘It’s a pity I let the Zhangs know that I was going to talk to you about this,’ she said. ‘Now if you don’t do this favour for them, they will never believe that it is because you haven’t the time or don’t want the money; they will take it as a sign that you are not able.’
This put Xi-feng on her mettle.
‘You’ve known me a long time,’ she said. ‘You know that I’ve never believed all that talk about hell and damnation. If I decide that I want to do something I do it, no matter what it is. Tell them that if they are prepared to pay out three thousand taels of silver, I will undertake to relieve them of their trouble.’
The prioress was delighted.
‘They will! They will! No doubt about it!’
‘Mind you,’ said Xi-feng, ‘I’m not one of your money-grubbing run-of-the-mill go-betweens. I’m not doing this for the money. Every bit of this three thousand taels will go into the pockets of my boys or towards their expenses. I shan’t touch a penny of it. If it was money I wanted, I could lay my hands on thirty thousand taels at this very moment.’
‘Well, that’s nicely settled!’ said the prioress. ‘So can we lo6k forward to your kind help in this matter tomorrow? We may as well get it over and done with.’
‘You can see how busy I am and how impossible it is for me to get away,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I’ve told you I’ll do it, and so I will — in my own time. Surely that is enough for you?’
‘A little thing like this might seem a great deal of trouble to some people;’ said the old nun artfully, ‘but even if it involved more than it does, it would still be nothing to a capable person like you, Mrs Lian. You know what they say: “The able man gets little leisure” that’s why Her Ladyship leaves everything to you. She knows how capable you are. Of course, you have to be careful that you don’t overtax yourself. Your health is precious!’
Soothed by such flatteries, Xi-feng forgot her weariness, and the conversation continued with animation.
Meanwhile Qin Zhong had taken advantage of the darkness and the fact that there was no one much about to prosecute his designs on Sapientia. He found her on her own in one of the rooms at the back of the priory washing up tea-things. Throwing his arms around her from behind, he gave her a kiss. Sapientia stamped with vexation:
‘What are you doing? Stop it!’
She was about to call out, but Qin Zhong spoke entreat?ingly:
‘Darling Sappy! I want you so desperately! If you won’t let me, I’ll just lie down and die!’
‘If you want me,’ said Sapientia, ‘you must first get me out of this hole and away from these people. Then you can do what you like.’
‘That’s easy,’ said Qin Zhong. ‘But “distant water is no cure for a present thirst” …’
And with that he blew out the light, plunging the room into inky darkness, and carried Sapientia on to the kang. She struggled hard to get up—though still not daring to call out; but soon, almost before she knew it, her breech-clout was off and the ship was in the harbour.
Suddenly, in less time than it takes to tell, a third person bore down on them from above and held them fast. The intruder made no sound, and for some moments the other two lay underneath his weight, half dead with fright. Then there was a splutter of suppressed laughter and they knew that it was Bao-yu.
‘What do you think you’re playing at?’ said Qin Zhong crossly, as he scrambled to his feet.
‘If you won’t let me, darling,’ Bao-yu mimicked, ‘I’ll call Out!’
Poor Sapientia was so overcome with shame that she slipped away in the dark. Bao-yu hauled Qin Zhong from the room.
‘Now,’ he said: ‘are you still going to pretend that Sappy means nothing to you?’
‘Look, be a good chap! I’ll do anything you say as long as you promise not to shout.’
‘We won’t say any more about it just now,’ said Bao-yu genially. ‘Wait until we are both in bed and I’ll settle accounts with you then.’
Bedtime soon came and they partially undressed and settled down for the night, Xi-feng in an inner room and Bao-yu and Qin Zhong in an outer room adjoining it. As there were numerous old women on night duty lying about everywhere on the floor wrapped up in their bedding, Xi-feng was afraid that the ‘Magic Jade’ might disappear in the course of the night; so as soon as Bao-yu was in bed she sent someone to fetch it from him, and put it under her own pillow for safety.
As for the ‘settling of accounts’ that Bao-yu had proposed to Qin Zhong, we have been unable to ascertain exactly what form this took; and as we would not for the world be guilty of a fabrication, we must allow the matter to remain a mystery.
Next day someone arrived from Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang to see how Bao-yu was getting on. He was coun?selled to dress up well against the cold and to come back home if there was nothing further to do. Bao-yu was most unwilling to return on his own account, and his unwillingness was re?inforced by the promptings of Qin Zhong, who was anxious to see more of Sapientia and urged him to ask Xi-feng for another day.
Xi-feng reflected a little. The main business of the funeral was now over, but a sufficient number of minor matters still remained to be done to justify their staying on another day if they wanted to. Three arguments in favour of staying presented themselves to her mind:
1.It would be a gesture of considerateness to Cousin Zhen which would increase his indebtedness to her.
2.It would give her a breathing-space in which to get Euergesia’s business attended to.
3.It would make Bao-yu happy, which would put her in good odour with Grandmother Jia.
Having now made her mind up, Xi-feng acceded to Bao-yu’s request in the following terms:
‘My own business here is all finished now, but if you want to amuse yourselves a bit longer, I suppose I must resign myself to staying. However, we definitely must go back tomorrow.’
When Bao-yu heard this it was all ‘dearest Feng’ this and ‘darling Feng’ that, and he promised faithfully to return on the morrow without demur. Accordingly it was settled that they should stay for one more night.
Xi-feng immediately sent someone in great secrecy to explain Euergesia’s business to Brightie. Brightie grasped the situation at once, hurried into town, sought out a public letter-writer, had a letter written in Jia Lian’s name to the captain’s commanding officer, and set off for Chang-an over?night bearing the spurious missive with him.
Chang-an is only thirty or 50 miles from the capital, so that Brightie could finish his business and be back again within a couple of days. The general’s name was Yun Guang. He was indebted to the Jia family for a number of past kindnesses and was only too ‘pleased to be of service to them in a matter of such trifling importance. He said as much in the letter of reply which he gave Brightie to carry back with him. But that part of his mission is omitted from our story.
When their second day at the priory was over, Xi-feng and the boys took leave of Euergesia, and as she said good-bye, Xi-feng told the prioress to call at the Rong-guo mansion m two days’ time to hear the news from Chang-an.
This parting was an unbearably painful one for Sapientia and Qin Zhong, and all sorts of secret vows were exchanged and whispered contracts made before they could tear them?selves apart. We omit all details of that harrowing scene.
Xi-feng called in at the Temple of the Iron Threshold on the way back to see that everything was in order. jewel, it seemed, refused absolutely to go back home, and Cousin Zhen was obliged to leave a woman or two at the temple to keep her company.
Their return, and the events which followed it, will be dealt with in the following chapter.

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